Saturday

20th Jan 2018

Focus

What sort of civil society does Europe want?

  • Protest by US climate activist group 350.org (Photo: 350.org)

A week ago, I presented ILGA-Europe’s 2016 Rainbow Europe package at the IDAHO Forum in Copenhagen, which brings together European governments and regional institutions with civil society to discuss the state of play of LGBTI equality in Europe every year.

We talked about how to advance recognition for LGBTI families and the need for greater protection of the rights of trans people. We named good practices to promote more inclusion in the workplace and in broader society.

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  • Gay rights activists in Kiev (Photo: Auco Fulcrum)

But beyond these topics, a central, recurring question was “what are the factors that make change happen for LGBTI people?” And here was the most common answer given by European and national policy-makers.

“Civil society is incredibly important.” “It plays a vital role in our lives.” “Our government recognises the need for strong civil society and we look forward to engaging with NGOs in the future.”

Given my role with ILGA-Europe, I’ve been present at many events where such pronouncements were made by government ministers or high-level representatives over the past few years.

Similar expressions of support were made at previous IDAHO Fora too and, as always, are very welcome to hear.

But while all NGOs appreciate the sentiment, I can’t help wondering if strong and empowered civil society is so central in advancing equality in our societies, then what are governments doing about it?

Firstly, if governments who are committed to the equality agenda really value the role of civil society in this work as much as they say they do, what practical steps have they taken to push back against the restrictions that we have seen emerge in some parts of Europe?

And secondly, when they say the role of civil society is important, exactly what ‘role’ are they talking about?

Human rights activists in several European countries are being targeted by restrictive measures designed to slow down their work, either directly or indirectly.

Organisations working to advance LGBTI equality have been among the NGOs affected. Whether it is the legislation in Russia that brands local NGOs in receipt of funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’, or the 2015 laws that allows so-called ‘undesirable’ international organisations to be banned on the grounds that they are deemed to be a risk to public order or national security and health.

Civil society groups in places like Slovenia and Hungary (including LGBTI equality groups) have been subjected to increased audits and raids, which have decreased the time they can spend on actual equality work, all while being discredited in the pro-government media.

More recently, we have seen freedom of assembly and expression being curtailed in Turkey.

From 1 May, charities in the UK cannot use government grants to do advocacy work with the government, a restriction that threatens to undermine the vital role that NGOs play by informing and improving policy in a healthy democracy.

I find myself constantly wondering what is being done by supportive governments to stop this?.

If governments value the contribution that civil society groups make in modern democracies, why are they not doing more to speak out against this sort of practice and to protect the space for civil society?

In addition to this, when governments talk about the role that civil society groups play, we need to define exactly what this means. What are the expectations of the political leaders who discuss the topic – do they want a proactive vibrant civil society landscape or is the existence of such groups enough?

Civil society’s value lies in its independence, its freedom to critique and suggest new ways of doing things. Activists must be free to speak truth to power and call out negative practices where they see it.

Governments must be willing to hear critical voices; otherwise their desire to have an NGO sector is only lip service. Having an active civil society network does not just mean having organisations who agree with your policies while ignoring the rest.

When I talk about the Rainbow Europe benchmarking exercise we undertake every year at ILGA-Europe, I always remind the readers of our Rainbow Map that the existence of laws and policies to protect LGBTI people’s rights is a first step.

In order for the laws to really help LGBTI people in their day-to-day lives, these laws have to be implemented correctly.

Otherwise there is a severe disconnect between words and reality.

The same sentiment is true for governments who talk about the importance of civil society - it is time for them to put these words into action, to make sure that civil society can thrive and not merely exist.

By valuing civil society’s real role and listening to their voices in a meaningful way, policymakers will enable more change to happen not only for the LGBTI movement, but for all human rights and social justice movements.

Evelyne Paradis is executive director of ILGA-Europe, the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association

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