We must protect our civic space so that we can keep our human rights

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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From health to employment to education, Covid-19 has brought additional challenges regarding access to and enjoyment of human rights. As December 10, International Human Rights Day, draws closer, it’s time to reflect on the state of civic space in Europe, and why it desperately needs our protection. Without a thriving civic space, we are left unable to shape our own destiny. And, for youth organisations, the situation is critical.

The European Youth Forum is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe.

But let’s start with the basics: what does ‘civic space’ mean exactly? And how is it linked with youth and human rights? At the European Youth Forum, we see civic space as the space, physical or virtual, where people exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. It’s in this civic space that associations are formed, gatherings are organised, information is shared, and ideas take root. It’s where voices speak out – and are heard by others. As such, protecting civic space also means protecting fundamental freedoms and ensuring that everyone has a right to meaningfully participate in and contribute to life within their community.

A functioning civic space is one where civil society can thrive, and this means guaranteeing an environment where minority and other at-risk groups can get the visibility they deserve. This is also true for young people: protecting civic space for youth organisations is crucial for them to act as advocates for youth rights. Traditionally, youth organisations are also safe spaces where young people, including the most vulnerable, can feel empowered to engage in civic life and become active citizens.

Nevertheless, in spite of its vital role in the democratic fabric, the past few years have seen a dramatic shrinking of the civic space in Europe. This shrinking is sometimes the result of blatant restrictions by governments, such as dissolving certain civil society organisations in France, but also often of subtle obstacles placed in the way of the exercise of rights.

In countries that already suffered from a troublesome human rights record, Covid-19 has only made things worse. It’s providing authoritarian governments with a further excuse to limit rights and put democracy under quarantine. These governments used the crisis to pass emergency laws aimed not – or not only – at overcoming the virus, but also at suppressing dissident voices.

But the negative impact of Covid-19 is certainly not limited to so-called ‘endangered democracies’. Far-reaching measures to battle the virus have had a deep and potentially lasting impact on civic space across EU Member States, with many States declaring states of emergency, and imposing lockdowns and curfews. While many of these measures were undoubtedly necessary, civic participation, and youth participation, in particular, has inevitably suffered as a result.

Even before the pandemic, things were not looking good. The European Youth Forum’s study on “Safeguarding civic space for young people in Europe” showed, for instance, that more than one-fifth of youth organisations across Europe already faced difficulties in expressing themselves in public, and feared retribution as a response to their public expression. Access to civic space was already limited, with 55.6 percent of representatives of youth organisations saying they felt youth was under-represented, had only limited access to civic space, or was largely or completely marginalised. Finally, 30.5 percent of organisations, before the pandemic, already faced difficulties when trying to participate in policy deliberation and decision-making processes, with about one-tenth of them being on the verge of exclusion from those processes.

Now is the time to start reversing this trend. Seventy-two years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, and in the middle of one of the biggest crises the world has known since, it’s more important than ever to be conscious of the fact that without a solid civic space, there cannot be a healthy democratic society, nor can there be an effective protection of human rights.

In the process of rebuilding after the crisis, there’s a crucial role for young people. It’s essential that they be able to exercise their right to participation so that they can shape their own present and future. This way, the next generation of young people will, hopefully, be less vulnerable to economic and social shocks, and their rights better protected.

To make sure young people can take up this role, we must recognise the unique challenges faced by young people and youth organisations today. The European Youth Forum, therefore, calls on all public authorities, media, academia and civil society, to provide the resources, including operational funding, necessary for the basic functioning of youth organisations, to foster informal youth groups, and to engage youth in civic life in all ways possible

By empowering young people now, and by strengthening civic space in a way that is inclusive of young people, we can together prepare a future of which human rights remain the centerpiece. As it was hoped and dreamed, seventy-two years ago.

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