Can civil society survive COVID-19?

By Elly Page, Senior Legal Advisor, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and Simona Ognenovska, Research and Monitoring Advisor, European Center for Not-for-Profit Law Stichting (ECNL)

As the world confronts new waves of COVID-19 cases, civil society should be wary of a parallel surge of new emergency laws and measures that restrict fundamental freedoms. According to our COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker, 146 countries enacted 385 measures in response to the pandemic that affected human rights, during the initial waves of the virus from January to September 2020. While some may have been a necessary and understandable reaction to a public health crisis, many overreached, exacerbating existing challenges to civic space. In particular, existing barriers to foreign funding for organisations have remained in place during the pandemic, limiting their ability to provide support to vulnerable populations during the crisis. The onslaught urgently requires an international response to roll back restrictions and increase support for embattled civil society.  

Our Tracker, based on information from our worldwide network of civil society partners, reflects ways that governments’ responses to COVID-19 have affected civic space, and suggests ways that OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members could respond. These suggestions are timely as the OECD-DAC takes further steps to develop a DAC policy instrument on enabling civil society.

“In the first 9 months of the pandemic, over 44 countries enacted new laws or decrees that chill speech, including many that impose criminal penalties for the dissemination of “fake news” about the pandemic.” #DevMatters

Countering COVID-inspired constraints on free speech

In the first nine months of the pandemic, over 44 countries enacted new laws or decrees that chill speech, including many that impose criminal penalties for the dissemination of “fake news” about the pandemic. In some cases, new COVID-19 regulations go beyond penalising disinformation about the virus, and punish individuals for criticising government COVID-19 responses, imposing prison sentences of up to 20 years. Elsewhere, journalists, doctors, and activists have been arrested for their reporting and information-sharing around the pandemic.

In considering steps to take to promote and protect free speech, OECD-DAC members could support efforts to counter these new restrictions, and provide assistance to independent media outlets and civil society organisations working for press freedom. They could embrace measures that encourage the free flow of accurate information about the pandemic. For instance, Portugal developed a website, mobile phone app, and mass media campaign to make information on the pandemic and government action more clear and accessible. New Zealand issued guidance to agencies and the public urging greater transparency and access to official information even while the country was under a state of emergency. Governments may also take steps to support free expression abroad and stand up for activists and others who raise concerns about government policies and practices related to COVID-19.

Upholding the right to assemble and protest

At least 126 countries enacted measures that restrict freedom of peaceful assembly. While limits on gatherings may be a legitimate means of countering a contagious disease, many assembly bans have been absolute, with no exception for socially-distanced, peaceful protests. In several cases, authorities’ adoption of assembly bans have conveniently coincided with opposition protest movements. Absolute bans on physical assemblies have closed off a vital channel for civic expression, forcing civil society to seek alternative means of engaging in civic discourse and registering dissent.

“Local organisations, which receive a small fraction of aid to the civil society sector, should be prioritised, as they are best positioned to identify and implement locally effective programming to help communities recover.” #DevMatters

By contrast, Denmark’s COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings exempted “opinion-shaping assemblies” such as demonstrations and political meetings, while encouraging participants to socially distance and follow other health guidelines. In shaping the ways that OECD-DAC members can pursue and promote the right to peaceful assembly, they could likewise promote an appropriate balancing of this right with public health interests. At the same time, they could challenge undue restrictions on assembly rights, including through bilateral diplomacy and multilateral initiatives like the Universal Periodic Review process.

Safeguarding against abuse of surveillance measures

Forty countries adopted new, far-reaching surveillance powers or instated new tracking and tracing systems in the name of fighting COVID-19. In certain countries, mandatory contact-tracing apps capture users’ movements in real time and upload them to a centralised government database. In other countries, measures have included the use of CCTV cameras to enforce quarantine measures using facial recognition, or the use of drones to police lockdown orders. It is not clear that these measures are temporary, or that the data collected will solely be used to respond to the COVID-19 emergency. Australia, by contrast, issued a voluntary tracing app with numerous safeguards, including regular deletion of the data that is collected.

As OECD-DAC members elaborate ways to protect civic space from undue surveillance measures, they could support efforts to create strong, human-rights protective norms on the responsible use of surveillance technology, both in times of emergency and non-emergency. They could also work with civil society organisations that monitor and report on state use of this technology to identify opportunities for intervention.

Protecting civil society’s role in pandemic recovery

In some countries, curfews, stay-at-home orders, and other movement restrictions have kept civil society organisations and their staff from delivering life-saving services. Strict community quarantines have halted aid groups’ maternal and newborn care programmes. By contrast, some countries have embraced civil society’s role in recovery: Tunisia launched an initiative to create a nationwide group of more than 500 civil society representatives and activists to support the national pandemic response, implemented in coordination with local authorities, including by collecting and distributing food and supplies to low-income families and at-risk groups. In the Bahamas and Belize, governments have included civil society representatives in COVID-19 policymaking committees. Municipalities in Italy have issued calls for citizen feedback on their proposed strategy to counter the virus.

OECD-DAC members have recognised the vital roles of civil society organisations in tackling COVID-19 and its consequences. They must identify viable means of enabling civil society organisations to continue to provide vital services, for instance through exemptions from movement restrictions. They could also encourage broad civil society participation in the development, oversight, and implementation of recovery plans.

Responding to global threats with global solutions

Civil society has adapted to unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, including by resisting COVID-inspired constraints on its work and navigating challenges to deliver vital services. But these activities require appropriate resources and allies; civil society will require more of both in the months and years ahead.

As the OECD-DAC continues its journey to develop a policy instrument on enabling civil society, its members should ensure that the ways in which they provide financial support also enable civil society organisations to effectively address COVID-19 and its consequences. Flexible funding for civil society partners, including through core or institutional funding, allows these partners to respond quickly to circumstances on the ground in a demand-driven way. Particularly given the emergency context, expediting funding procedures and reducing administrative burdens can increase efficiency without compromising accountability. Local organisations in partner countries, which receive a small fraction of aid to the civil society sector, should be prioritised as they are best positioned to identify and implement locally effective programming to help communities recover. Our ability to overcome COVID-19 and other global challenges that lie ahead depend on the survival of civil society and the health of civic space.