Bogota, Colombia - International civil society bodies are growing increasingly concerned about a rising trend to undermine the ability of citizens to organise and demonstrate dissent across the world, the head of a global alliance of civil society organisations said.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the International Civil Society Week in the Colombian capital Bogota on Wednesday, CIVICUS Secretary-General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, said that there was an attempt by governments to intimidate human rights defenders across the globe.

Some 156 human rights defenders were killed in 2015, with about half of the violations taking place in Latin America. Colombia was identified as the most dangerous country for human rights defenders, Sriskandarajah said.

"We live in a century where we are told that democracy has won, we believe in human rights. Our governments have signed document guaranteeing these and other freedoms, yet we're in a world where the number of countries we're worried about are going up not down," he said.

Sriskandarajah said that the crackdown was linked in part to the "fear that many politicians in many parts of the world have about dissenting voices".

"In many countries it is the independent civil society that is the only voice that's able to be in opposition to government policy so naturally many governments are clamping down on the ability of civil society to speak out and this is not only happening in dictatorships," Sriskandarajah said.

About 900 civil society leaders and activists from more than 109 countries have descended on Bogota to discuss active citizenry and how to overcome threats faced by civil society groups during the week-long event that started on April 25.

Ali Zeddini, of the Tunisian Human Rights League, a prominent human rights activist and 2015 winner of the Nobel peace prize, was among the speakers at the event.

CIVICUS, which is based in Johannesburg, said that it was particularly concerned about government attempts to curtail foreign funding as well as increase surveillance over NGO and civil society activities.

Historic moment

The summit in Bogota comes at a crucial juncture in Colombia's history, as civil society grapples with a peace-plan to end the long-standing war between government and rebels.

In March, the Colombian government said it would hold formal peace talks with the National Liberation Army, the ELN group, as talks with Colombia's biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, continue to make headway.

The five-decade-old conflict, which started off as a peasant uprising, has cost more than 260,000 lives.

It is a topic high-up on the agenda at the summit and one that local and global civil society organisations are hoping would include citizen voices in its implementation.

"This is an event to give visibility to civil society organisations," Liliana Rodriguez Burgos, director of the Colombian NGO Confederation, said to Al Jazeera. 
 
Other priority topics on the agenda during the summit are gender equality and burgeoning dissent among young people around the globe.

With young people taking to the streets in India, South Africa, Colombia, and in other parts of the world in 2015, traditional organisations have been forced to acknowledge criticism that they need to make space for younger people within their structures.  

"We are more than 50 percent of the world's population now, we have to be involved and make sure that leaders do the right things for us," Julien Retend, a youth activist from Gabon, said. 

Marta Benavides, a civil society leader from El Salvador, told Al Jazeera that young people in Latin America have always been excluded and "justice starts with them". 

The question of youth

It is an issue global civil society has to deal with more constructively, Sriskandarajah, from CIVICUS, said.

"There is a new generation of activists today that are not interested in forming non-governmental organisations. They think of themselves as activists and radical and as spontaneous, as dipping in and out of movements and causes. They're not so interested in becoming a life-long, card-caring member of any organisation, and the challenge to us in civil society is we need to tap into that energy.

"This is a generation that has a thirst for participation that's unrivalled in human history because most of history we have thought of ourselves as subjects kow-towing to authority."

CIVICUS' findings corroborate a report released by Human Rights Watch in January in which the global watchdog said governments were using a "politics of fear" to peg back human rights.

Ken Roth, HRW executive director,  wrote at the time that authoritarian governments "fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times." 

Follow Azad Essa's coverage of International Civil Society Week on Twitter: @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera