11 January 2021
What is the Health of SDG Targets on Civic Freedoms after 2020?
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A global report from the CIVICUS Monitor has found that, as of the end of 2020, more people than ever before are living in closed, repressed, or obstructed countries, due to the combination of restrictive legislation under COVID-19 and the continued rise of authoritarian governments.

The countries with the highest civic space rating can provide leadership and lessons: 9 of the 10 countries that have made the most progress on the SDGs have a civic space rating as ‘open’.

The connection between fundamental freedoms and progress on sustainable development is clear; one cannot move forward without the other.

By Emily Standfield and Matthew Reading-Smith 

The events of 2020 accelerated the decline of civic freedoms. The combination of restrictive legislation under COVID-19 and the continued rise of authoritarian governments contributed to a growth in unwarranted restrictions on free speech, the right to peacefully protest, and other fundamental rights protected in international law. A global report by the CIVICUS Monitor has found that, as of the end of 2020, more people than ever before are living in closed, repressed, or obstructed countries.

When civil society and reliable information were needed more than ever to fill gaps in the state’s provision of services, governments instead made it more difficult for journalists, activists, and organizations to operate. 

This is a setback for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than five years into the implementation of the global goals, 87% of the world’s population – 4% more than in 2019 – live in countries where authorities are willfully subverting their SDG commitments on protecting civic space. Of particular importance to our assessment is SDG target 16.10, ‘Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.’

To evaluate and rate the state of this target and other aspects of civic space across all UN Member States, the CIVICUS Monitor uses up-to-date information and indicators on three core civic freedoms:

  • Freedom of peaceful assembly
  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom of association 

Eleven countries are downgraded in the CIVICUS Monitor’s global assessment for 2020, which assigns every UN Member State a civic space rating (Open, Narrowed, Obstructed, Repressed, or Closed). Particularly concerning is the state of civic freedoms in the Americas, where Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and the US have backslid on their civic space obligations, resulting in reduced ratings. The region also accounted for over 60% of the murders of human rights defenders in 2020. In West Africa, where 2020 was a busy electoral period, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger, and Togo were all downgraded. Civic space also changed for the worse in Iraq, the Philippines, and Slovenia.

The most widely documented global violations in 2020 include detention of protesters, acts of censorship, and attacks on journalists. The detention of protesters and acts of surveillance often went beyond the interests of social distancing and contact tracing. Likewise, restrictive laws were used to silence the press and free speech. Amid COVID-19, when civil society and reliable information were needed more than ever to help fill gaps in the state’s provision of services, governments instead made it more difficult for journalists, activists, and organizations to operate.

This is a significant deviation from the values upheld in the SDGs and efforts to address the socio-economic effects of COVID-19. Dialogue between governments and their citizens is crucial during the pandemic, yet violations have only increased and intensified.

Since March 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the CIVICUS Monitor has recorded acts of censorship in over 80 countries. In Turkey, the government inspected over 6,000 social media accounts for COVID-19-related posts, detained hundreds of users, and passed a restrictive law to censor social media. China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, enacted a brutal national security law to muzzle freedom of speech, even going so far as to target overseas activism. In Pakistan, which holds the prominent UN role of ECOSOC president, authorities have attempted to silence media outlets and block online content critical of the government. The track records and examples set by the states in the most senior leadership roles at the UN are important if we are going to achieve universally shared goals, targets and obligations. 

As we seek to build back better from COVID-19, we must look to the countries who are making progress on the global goals. In the CIVICUS Monitor’s analysis, 42 countries have the highest civic space rating. This group, which includes Canada, New Zealand, and Uruguay, can provide leadership and lessons on the role of civic freedoms in sustainable development. One lesson from these countries is that civic freedoms support SDG progress. According to the 2020 Sustainable Development Report, which ranks the performance of all 193 UN Member States implementation of the SDGs, 9 of the 10 countries that have made the most progress on the SDGs have a civic space rating as ‘open.’

While there is certainly room for growth, it is important to note that in a year of crisis, these countries did not stifle free speech, repress civil society organizations, or target activists with restrictive laws. The lessons we can learn from these countries speak to the importance of partnerships and cooperation between civil society and governments. The connection between fundamental freedoms and progress on sustainable development is clear; one cannot move forward without the other.

The authors of this guest article are Emily Standfield, Data Volunteer, CIVICUS, and Matthew Reading-Smith, Communications Coordinator, CIVICUS.

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