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Author: Olga Komarova | 27. February 2020

On February 4th 2020, GFMD attended the event “From Analysis to Action: Unpacking “Shrinking Space ” in the Context of The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020- 2024″. It was hosted at Martins Brussels and organised by the European Partnership for Democracy (EPD), in cooperation with The Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) and the Human Rights and Democracy Network (HRDN).

The phenomenon of shrinking space is the situation in which individuals experience decreasing space to make their voices heard and exercise their democratic rights. This can take different forms, such as restrictions to the activity of opposition parties, authoritarian pushback, autocratisation, attacks on liberal values, or attacks on fundamental rights such as press freedom. The EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024, expected to be endorsed by EU Member States in spring 2020, will be a vital tool in the effort to address this phenomenon. The roundtable consisted of several key experts that discussed how the EU can effectively move from analysis to action, how to expand democratic spaces, and what links between different actors need to be reinforced in order to preserve a democratic space, among other topics.

NIMD Executive Director kicked off the event by welcoming the participants and emphasised the need for democracy and inclusivity when addressing climate change and defending human rights. The EU is clear in the task of helping when linking poverty reduction to democracy, but needs to better follow-up and monitoring implementation. The new Action Plan must be specific on support to the political sector and take inclusion as a basic principle.

Subsequently, NIMD Head of Knowledge Wouter Dol, presented the findings of their research titled “Thinking democratically: Recommendations for responding to the phenomenon of ‘shrinking space.’” NIMD asked local experts to conduct research in countries across Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Sub-Saharan Africa on the state of democracy and human rights, analysing the drivers and tactics employed for the closing of democratic space. Wouter Dol (NIMD) talked about the three broad tactics to close democratic space that were identified in the research:

  • Restricting civic space with various legal, administrative, extra-legal, and political measures;
  • Inhibiting political contestation by not allowing certain parties to actually come into play; and
  • Undermining the separation of powers by politicising legal processes.

He finished with some recommendations for action, such as broadening the understanding of shrinking space, responding with a multi-actor approach (supporting the collaboration of civil society, politics, and media), properly adapting the support to the nature of the shrinking space (because of its gradual regression and the slow deterioration of human rights, it is difficult to respond), and global coordination and political leadership for the EU.

Following the presentation, two panels were held involving the participation of several experts. The first panel featured Gaelle Dusepulchre (International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH), Kati Piri (S&D), Luisa Ragher (European External Action Service, EEAS), and Miguel Calix (expert on democracy and electoral reform in Honduras), and discussed the causes for closing and shifting space were discussed, such as “How can the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy address these closely interlinked areas of restrictions?” and “What actions can we identify that address the root causes to the closing of democratic space?” They reiterated that the EU is slow when taking measures when the democratic space is being harmed, and highlighted the need for the Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy to include a reference framework to measure civic freedoms and rights, with indicators and monitoring to ensure timely action by the EU.

More concretely, Piri discussed the new challenges faced. Within the EU, several countries exist with a sanction procedure because of the violation of the rule of law, while outside of the EU, the United States is facing similar challenges. She stressed the responsibility of the EU to speak out when observing challenges both abroad and within the Member States. Calix emphasised the importance of investing in young audiences in order to not repeat history and the need for dialogue, debate, and the exchange of views. He also highlighted that people demonstrate when they do not find enough democratic space, as seen in Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Therefore, we should not lose hope, since even in countries where democratic space is closing, change is still possible.

The second panel discussed preventative and creative responses for spaces in flux, such as “What can the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy do to promote proactive solutions to closing space in specific national contexts?” and “What key links between different actors need to be reinforced in order to preserve space for dialogue and competition?” The panel consisted of Samantha Chaitkin (Directorate General for International Cooperation and Development, DG DEVCO), Patrick Costello (European External Action Service, EEAS), and Htet Oo Wai (Country Director NIMD/Demo Finland Myanmar).

Chaitkin discussed how the EC implements budget and financing tools that can be used for the Action Plan since it does not have a finalised budget yet. She mentioned the Protect Defenders Program, which supports Human Rights Defenders by trainings or emergency support and the Neighbourhood Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), which is a financing instrument for external action. Lastly, she told the audience about GD DEVCO’s role to empower civic space by increasing participation, resilience, and dialogue.

Costello outlined that in addition to financing, political work is also crucial. This includes the creation of measures to facilitate dialogue with certain organisations. In this sense, the Action Plan is a provision of measures to enable countries to strengthen democracy. He also mentioned the aim of protecting freedom of expression both online and offline. In the question and answer session, he underscored the differences on implementation depending on country in spite of the existence of a follow-up plan, the issues with directing money to difficult/wrong places, and the significance of making the Action Plan “mainstream” in the political debate to encourage people out of the democracy support community to participate.

Wai discussed Myanmar’s situation, where there has been significant EU intervention for years. Myanmar has been a closed space for democracy, characterised by a militarised educational tradition, internal conflicts, and the existence of different actors not trusting one another for decades. She listed several tools like the promotion of trust and dialogue, the importance of political parties becoming more policy-based, and the education on Democracy provided by the NIMD.

The new Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy for 2020-2024 will address the closing of the democratic space, which significantly implies the restriction and inhibition of the proper functioning of media outlets. In this regard, ensuring the existence of healthy media actors, such as journalists, can play a big role to prevent the threat to freedom of expression and to guarantee democracy.


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