Whenever states and corporations stifle critical voices and crackdown on political dissent – whether in the streets, on social media, or in the courtroom – they shrink civic space necessary for a democratic society based on human rights to thrive.
Overly broad “counter-terrorism” frameworks, digital surveillance targeting journalists and activists, or the increasing criminalization of solidarity with refugees are only some examples of how civil society is targeted increasingly all over the world. Such authoritarian policies and practices occur in democracies and dictatorships alike.
In the last decade, worldwide intersectional emergencies such as the climate crisis, rising far-right populism and the pandemic have posed collective challenges that impact everyone, even if unequally, no matter where in the world we live. However, civil society is constantly resisting to (re)claim its space.
ECCHR’s work is only possible through in collaboration and solidarity with civil society actors around the globe. Many of our partners – be it in Mexico, The Gambia or Italy – face varying degrees and types of pressure, restrictions and even physical attacks, intended to repress their activities, expression and ability to organize. The Shrinking spaces and authoritarianism project hopes to support them in efforts to cope, resist, and innovate new ways to strengthen progressive civic power. Through legal and discursive interventions, ECCHR will draw attention not only to how civil society space is under attack in different contexts, but also to how it is being defended and by whom.
Rescue at sea
The NGO ship Iuventa (owned and operated by German organization Jugend Rettet) has been rescuing refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, off the Libyan coast, thereby providing crucial aid to those abandoned by state-administered sea rescue. In August 2017, Italian authorities seized the Iuventa, preventing any further rescue missions. In May 2022, pre-trial proceedings against four crew members began.
Crimes against humanity
When a country is governed by an authoritarian regime, civil society is almost always placed under immense pressure. This was also the case in The Gambia from 1994 until 2017 during the rule of Yahya Jammeh. His armed security forces generated an atmosphere of fear, in which critical voices, along with civil society in general, were systematically intimidated. Journalists critical of the regime were arrested, while human rights defenders were persecuted, and LGBTQ individuals were threatened and tortured.
The systematic repression of the Belarusian population qualifies as a crime against humanity. In Germany, the Federal Public Prosecutor can act on the basis of the principle of universal jurisdiction when violations of international law have been committed.
The Munich-based companies FinFisher GmbH, FinFisher Labs GmbH and Elaman GmbH are accused of selling the surveillance software FinSpy to Turkey without the German government’s permission. When repressive states use surveillance technology, this has all too often led to imprisonment and torture. Following a criminal complaint from ECCHR and its partner organizations, the prosecutor’s office in Munich has opened investigations into the case.
The Syrian intelligence services have been collecting without cause information about political opponents, members of the opposition and human rights activists. Spying often goes hand in hand with torture. Software from Western corporations may have played a role in the surveillance. In order to address this, transnational investigations have to be initiated.