On the 3rd and 4th of November 2021, EU TACSO 3 project organized the P2P regional event on the topic Open Civic Space.The aim was to provide in-depth information in relation to the emerging issues and trends that affect the space for civil society work globally, in Europe and in the Western Balkans and Turkey, exchanging the best practices and methodologies of how to protect civic space.
During the introductory session, participants had the opportunity to hear for the first time from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, speaking to the audience in the Balkans. He provided insights about key trends that he has recorded concerning the intimidation of environmental defenders, counter-terrorism financing measures and the abuse of technology by states and companies. He shed light on inspiring examples from the climate movement,especially “Fridays for Future”, how civil society can mobilize and work together on the ground and on-line. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated restrictions under cover of emergency measures, but he is hopeful civil society can continue to push for change. He also invited participants to support the mandate, write to him about what is happening in their countries and invite him to issue statements or undertake country missions in the region.
During the first session,implications of measures forcounter-terrorism, money laundering onhuman rights and civic space were discussed. In the region, the governments often adopt necessary counter terrorism mechanisms against financing and money laundering. They try to implement international standards, but without considering the “other side of the coin”, which results in limitations and civic space and environment for CSO’ss. At the same time, and as showcased by speakers standards by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which are applied by governments, are sometimes intentionally misused to harm civil society. As a result, FATF started to document such cases and reform its guidance in order to better protect civic space. Two examples from Serbia and Turkey were presented, which show that civil society understands these issues and can engage in successful advocacy both domestically and internationally. However, the example of the Financial Intelligence Office from North Macedonia shows that when governments are open and appreciate the important contribution of civil society, they can develop successful risk assessment processes and findings which will support counter-terrorism efforts, also respecting open civic space.
The second session was dedicated to technology and artificial intelligence. Experts, speakers and participants discussed how digital technology has transformed the way of exercising rights and freedom. On the one hand, it is an indispensable tool for meetings, protests, participation or online campaigns. On the other hand, digital activism is already experiencing threats and restrictions, including internet shutdowns, surveillance or censorship. Session also aimed to show that even if the civil society organizations are not digital experts, they can still try to learn how they can use technology for their work, and how it can be used to impact how organizations work. Artificial intelligence, as a crucial part of surveillance in all regimes, is used often framed as positive or “protective” but also misused to pre-emptively identify threats, monitor dissent and silence dissidents. And online spaces, where individuals and civil society assemble and associate are becoming places of vulnerability. During the session participants were informed that UN and European/COE standards are developing on the use of technology that civil society can use as an opportunity to influence human rights-based systems. Also, there was a strong message that these are new trends, and CSOs need to try to learn more and exchange informationbetween themselves to be prepared for regulations that will come and prevent misuse of CSOs work.
The focus of the second day of the event was on the freedom of assembly in the digital age (in general, but also in online assemblies). The presentations and discussions emphasized that freedom of peaceful assembly is under pressure globally, both physically and online. As people take to the streets or gather online to preserve rights and create a better society, they are confronted by excessive and discriminatory use of police force as well as novel, various types of artificial intelligence and technological tools used to identify the protesters, criminalize them and deter them from taking part in future protests and human rights activities. The measures adopted in different countries to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic also impacted the practice and monitoring of the rights towards peaceful assembly. Assemblies started to be organized online and with the use of technological tools. With that, states started to use surveillance or internet shutdowns to limit such protests.
During the session, Ms Helene Tigroudja, a United Nations Human Rights Committee member, discussed the standards and safeguards in General Comment 37, focusing on the protection of digitally mediated assemblies. She explained that the UN adopted Comment 37 as part of General Comment, which is the codification of the rights on peaceful assembly and the opportunity to provide new aspects of this freedom. In detail, Ms Tigroudja explained the critical elements of the Comment Right-holders; Definition of protest, Protection of media coverage of the protests, and the issue of strong preference in favour of notification on protest versus authorization of protests by state institutions. She also lectured about the conditions to limit the freedom of assembly since it is not an absolute right: Legality, the legitimate aim and proportionality as necessary. Also, the derogation of the freedom of assembly was discussed, focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic situation . At the end of the presentation, she encouraged civil society representatives to use the General Comment in their daily work and activities as an instrument, and monitor whether the states have actually asked to derogate the rights to movement and peacefull assembly.
Monitoring the peaceful assembly was also one of the main topics. It was noted that there are three types of digital assemblies: Digitally enabled, which are physical spaces facilitated by digital technology, digitally based which is fully digital, and hybrid assembly. The digital assemblies are easy to organise. The digital assemblies can be disrupted for technical reasons but also are subject to risky disinformation. Despite the opportunities offered by the digital age, there is a wide digital divide. There are significant disparities for access to internet around the world and the way content is presented. Examples for digital monitoring assembly were presented. The first is in the process of developing with the support of European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), which can be used broadly for general monitoring, the second is already developed and practised in Moldova. From both presentations it was concluded that monitoring of online assemblies is facing several challenges. Thus, some preconditions for enabling the environment for online assembly are needed, such as: Infrastructure (access to internet, virtual space, no slowdowns or shutdowns of internet); then proper legislation that will regulate online assemblies, including the need to follow the international standards on this matter, and also free access to information, etc.
Some of the conclusions and recommendations at the end of the event were the following:
- An open civic space can only happen when a state upholds its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions. These are the three fundamental rights that civil society depends on;
- While in many countries, the space for CSOs is narrowing, positive change is possible and can serve as an inspiration. Civil society has shown solidarity, resilience and response that must be amplified across the European continent and beyond;
- Civil society needs to increase their understanding of the rules around counter-terrorism financing and avenues to engage and advocate for civic space protection. Knowledge and understanding of where restrictions come from is key, so civil society need further capacity building across the region;
- To respond to the emerging technology and artificial intelligence systems, safeguards for fundamental rights and civic freedoms needs to be streamlined into the development of functional systems or artificial intelligence devices;
- The examples from the countries also showed a few important lessons:Mapping of stakeholders is also essential to include marginalized and vulnerable communities, educate civil society, and create a common platform for discussion when artificial intelligence is in question. Civil society needs technology, but CSO’s also need to play a central role in this process;
- Since the states started to use surveillance or internet shutdowns to limit peaceful protests, civil society needs to increase their understanding of the new standards that protect such online spaces, using new methodologies to monitor whether online assemblies can take place without governments interference.