It’s time for G20 leaders to embrace civil society

The upcoming G20 summit should be viewed as an opportunity to improve the basic conditions for civil society to thrive.

Anti G20 Protesters Take To Land And Water
Protesters dressed as the G20 leaders during a demonstration against the forthcoming G20 economic summit in Hamburg [Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images]

There is a growing list of critical problems in the G20’s inbox, namely a faltering global economy, terrorist threats in a majority of G20 member states, and a patched-up climate change agreement. Solving these problems will take more than 20 heads of state and their economic ministers. The role of the private sector is widely acknowledged, but the power of civil society is often dismissed. Addressing these expensive and expansive issues requires the will and contribution of the people.

As history has repeatedly shown, it is charities, non-profits, NGOs, social movements, and individual citizens that make the critical difference when we try to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Civil society plays a critical role in securing public buy-in for government policies and helps to ensure that the right programmes get implemented at the local level. Civil society is a natural ally for the G20, yet many of its chief leaders are treating the sector as the enemy. The worldwide wave of attacks on civil society has been well documented for more than a decade and has now reached crisis levels. The restrictions on civil society are no longer confined to “authoritarian” parts of the world, but are now also prevalent in many democracies too.

In 2015, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein tried to list all of the countries currently persecuting civil society but said: “There are now too many countries on that list for me to name them here today. This is a grim indictment …” The High Commissioner’s list included several G20 members such as China, Australia and Brazil.

Since then, the crisis has only escalated.

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The latest research from the global civil society alliance CIVICUS shows that just 3 percent of people on the planet live in countries with “open” civic space and that many G20 member countries excel at attacking their critics and closing space for citizens to organise, take action and speak out on political, social, environmental and other issues.

According to the data, only meeting host Germany does well enough at  protecting civil society to merit  an “open” rating on the CIVICUS Monitor– a new research tool providing close to real-time data on the state of civil and political freedoms in 195 countries. An “open” rating indicates that the state properly protects civil society and enables citizens to form associations, conduct peaceful protests and speak freely.

A clear commitment from all G20 members to improving space for civil society would be a monumental achievement for this summit. And Chancellor Merkel can make it happen.


On the other hand, there are eight G20 member countries where conditions for civil society are categorised as “closed”, “repressed” or “obstructed”, according to the Monitor’s data. In the worst cases – G20 members Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey and Russia – it is almost impossible for citizens effectively to criticise authority or freely express an opinion on social or political issues without risking state censure, harassment, imprisonment or even extrajudicial killing.

This week, G20 leaders will gather to discuss issues as diverse as the resilience of the global financial system, global health challenges and women’s economic empowerment. These are crucial topics on which a broad coalition of civil society organisations has already made strong recommendations (pdf) though the Civil20 group. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also met with civil society representatives to listen to their concerns and take them into consideration before the G20 discussions. This is one step, but now Merkel and other G20 leaders need to take it a step further by confronting attacks on civic freedoms head on.

The G20 Summit in Germany comes at a time of global uncertainty and instability. It should be viewed as an opportunity for Merkel to exercise even more influence and impact, not just on the agenda but also on discussions related to improving the basic conditions for civil society to thrive.

Recent political shocks and crises including the ongoing conflict in Syria, the state-wide purge in Turkey and Trump’s election tell us that governments need to start listening to citizens more. But if that is to happen, civil society and space for citizens to participate must first be protected.

States must stop seeing open spaces for civil society as a “nice to have” and begin to recognise them as a way of solving crises and creating peaceful and sustainable societies.

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Merkel has the gravitas to make this case forcefully from a position of strength. Her record of ensuring that civic freedoms are protected at home gives her the moral authority to promote this agenda abroad. What is more, given the horror with which Donald Trump’s presidency has been greeted internationally, Merkel has bolstered her position as the most stable and influential leader in the western hemisphere.

As host of such an influential group, Merkel must renew her commitment to democratic values, including protecting civil and political freedoms, and speak frankly to those serial abusers of civil society.

In particular, she and other G20 leaders with a stated commitment to democratic values, such as Canada and South Korea, should call out the egregious abuses happening in other G20 states today – including the statewide purge on dissent in Turkey; the continued targeting of civil society through restrictive NGO laws and suppression of protests in Russia; imprisonment of human rights lawyers in China; and the imposition of death sentences on dozens of peaceful protesters in Saudi Arabia.

Criticism should not, however, be limited to countries from the global south, but should also include reprimanding Western countries where respect for civic freedoms is in decline. Countries including the US, the UK and France should be challenged on their restrictive laws, policies and practices which damage citizen action in their “democracies”:

In the US, under Trump’s presidency, dozens of restrictive protest laws (pdf) have been proposed or passed, while media freedom has been undermined at the highest level.

In the UK, in the wake of the Brexit referendum there was an increase in harmful and racist speech; and the government’s anti-terrorism agenda has eroded civil liberties.

And finally, in France the prolonged state of emergency has caused civic groups and activists to have their rights unduly restricted as surveillance powers have expanded.

A clear commitment from all G20 members to improving space for civil society would be a monumental achievement for this summit. And Chancellor Merkel can make it happen. 



Cathal Gilbert is the coordinator of the CIVICUS Monitor, a research platform which rates civic rights violations for 195 countries. Before joining CIVICUS, Cathal worked for almost a decade on human rights, civil society and governance projects in East and Southern Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.