Subscribe Here

Lessons from Human Rights Defenders: Re-Opening Civic Spaces in Times of Covid-19

06 April 2021

In these unprecedented times, the Covid-19 pandemic is increasingly being used by many illiberal and autocratic countries as a justification to further restrict democratic space. Turkey is one of the countries where the human rights record only worsened with the government’s response to the pandemic, in already shrinking democratic space. Yet, this situation in Turkey is not unique. Human rights defenders (HRDs) around the world have faced new challenges under the often draconian and rights’-infringing measures imposed by governments under the guise of addressing the pandemic.

In light of this shared phenomenon, Hafıza Merkezi (Istanbul) and the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights (Istanbul), in collaboration with the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (The Hague), organised a series of panel discussions, entitled “Shrinking Democratic Space and International Solidarity,” inviting an HRD from Turkey to each event to share experiences and lessons learned with a counterpart from another country. The resulting discussions served as a forum where defenders discussed common obstacles, exchanged ideas, and built international solidarity.

Find out more about the whole series.

In the first event, on 8 October 2020, the concept of shrinking civic space and its relation to rising populism and authoritarianism was discussed in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic. César Rodríguez Garavito of Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (USA) and Murat Çelikkan of Hafıza Merkezi (Turkey) discussed the overall trends throughout the world in this regard, introducing relevant patterns and concepts for the remainder of the series.

(Re)watch the event:

Re-Opening Civic Spaces in Times of Covid-19

César Garavito, Colombian HRD, lawyer and sociologist, is also the editor and author of, “Rising to the Populist Challenge: A New Playbook for Human Rights,” a book which aptly introduced the topic at hand:

“The proliferation of populist governments and movements creates serious risks and challenges for human rights around the world, from India to Venezuela, from the United States to Turkey, from Hungary to Russia, and from the Philippines to Poland. However, their rise could have an unexpected positive effect: to push the human rights movement to carry out transformations in its architecture and changes in its strategy that were imperative even before the new wave of populist governments, and that are now urgent.”

During the panel discussion, Garavito underlined that the “new populist wave” ascended to the forefront of politics by the way of democratic methods, and that these movements and their leaders are elected or supported by the electorate. In that sense, these movements clearly differ from their 20th century predecessors. As Gavarito pointed out, in the previous century, for example, dictatorships and fascist governments in South America did not have electoral support like the contemporary populist movements do. Instead, today’s populist movements undermine rights and freedoms by coming to power by legitimate means or by using the opportunities of democracy.

Gavarito mentioned Hungary as one of the prime examples of “the destruction of the rule of law through law.” Since 2010, after the Fidesz Party, led  by Viktor Orbán, was  elected with a supermajority, the entire legal structure of Hungary went through major transformation. The Hungarian Constitution was one of the first legal frameworks to undergo major reform under the new government, with the new Hungarian Constitution going into effect in 2011—a conservative re-write catering to Fidesz’s political needs. The Party for instance stripped the supervisory power of the Constitutional Court, the epitome of checks and balances in the country. All of this was accomplished through instrumentalisation of the parliamentary majority of Fidesz and its overwhelming ballot box support.

Hungary is not alone, and as Garavito emphasized at the panel, Brazil, India, Turkey, the United States to name but a few, all witnessed similar instances of democratically elected governments coming to power who tried to convert political and legal structures.

Murat Çelikkan, while acknowledging the dire straits of aggressive politics, questioned whether it can also be argued that human rights movements are developing and expanding their scope of activities despite the political encirclement of their space. Environmentalist movements, feminists and LGBTI+ rights defenders are striving to be at the forefront and increasing their profiles more than ever. Gavarito concurred with Çelikkan’s view and suggested that there is no such thing as “the end of human rights.”  However, Gavarito added that human rights movements and civil society around the world are also in a profound crisis: but this is more a crisis of “the old ways.” For example, “naming and shaming” was a method that used to work in the field of human rights. Yet, as Gavarito emphasized at the panel, disclosing human rights violations no longer has the effect of creating international pressure on populist leaders and a change of attitude. The reasons for this are various, for one, populist leaders are not “ashamed.” Thus, it is not possible to embarrass them in international platforms with what they do. In addition, violations of rights and erosion of rule of law principles are now happening across the United States and the European Union. Therefore, warnings and sanctions from international institutions and EU countries cannot influence populist leaders across the globe.

When asked by Çelikkan about which tactics civil society should adopt against the “anti-elitism” tactic of populist leaders, Gavarito responded as follows:

While previous civic activity used to be waged within institutional frameworks, targeting legal changes and reforming public institutions, these tactics do not work against populist movements. It is necessary to focus on less institutional and more grassroots movements. Such spontaneous movements refute the “elite versus people” argument of the populist movements.

As Çelikkan pointed out, the Covid-19 pandemic limited interactions of civil society and increased shrinking of civic spaces. Moreover, governments around the world are using the pandemic as an opportunity to increase control over society. Nevertheless, as Gavarito underlined, there were also welcome surprises developing during this crisis period, such as partnerships between labour movements and global climate crisis activism. The panel concluded on a this hopeful note, highlighting that working together is the way forward to overcome further shrinking of spaces; increasing interaction, partnerships and solidarity.