Report on DDCSA2023 Webinar #2: “Closed or Expanded: Civic Space in Asia Today”


On 11 November 2023, JANIC hosted the second webinar of the series Defending Democracy and Civic Space in Asia (DDCSA), as a session part of the “HAPIC” conference, which is also hosted by JANIC. In this participative space, representatives from different Asian organizations sought to reflect on the state of civic space in the region and discuss opportunities for CSOs to amplify their voices and have a greater impact on the promotion of sustainable development. Leading this conversation were Jyotsna Mohan, from the Asian Development Alliance (ADA), Marc Piñol Rovira, from the Asia Centre, and Zia-Ur-Rehman, from the Pakistan Development Alliance.

Shrinking civic space has been a growing challenge for civil society during the last years, together with other pressing issues such as climate change, and tectonic geopolitical development that has confronted multilateralism and international security. Moreover, there have been records of increased violence and a lack of commitment from governments to foster inclusive partnerships. In this context, civil society organizations have had to find innovative ways to undergo challenges and find opportunities to carry out their work.

After an introduction of the general state of the region in terms of civic space and some guidelines to lead the discussion by Jyotsna Mohan, Marc Piñol Rovira and the team from the Asia Centre analyzed the Cambodian case, its political background and, more specifically, the electoral background and context of the country.

After a tumultuous post-colonial period, Cambodia managed to set up a democratic structure from 1990-1991. However, the political and electoral landscape of Cambodia ever since has had an extremely poor electoral integrity. The government has used legal and non-legal measures to target those individuals, organizations, opposition parties, human rights activists, and media outlets who try to hold the government policies and officials accountable. Although elections have high participation rates, these repressive mechanisms have led the Cambodian People’s Party, CPP, to obtain political hegemony in the country. Therefore, international indexes such as the CIVICUS’s Civicus Monitor and Freedom House’s Freedom Index have given Cambodia a poor score, indicating a compromised civic space.

Elections were held this year (2023), deciding that there will be a transfer of power from Prime Minister Hun Sen to his son, Hun Manet. This marks an entrance of dynastic politics in Cambodia, which will have an important impact on its civic space. Furthermore, the non-reaction of many of the relevant stakeholders in Cambodia’s political landscape – from international organizations, diplomatic missions, or even opposition political parties in the country – represents a missed opportunity for government and electoral accountability, which also has a negative impact for the Cambodian civic space.

However, Piñol Rovira highlighted that the aforementioned transition demarks a shift of civic space, and, in this shifting process, there are challenges but also opportunities. For example, digital technology and the Internet could be an opportunity in this context, since the Internet is giving Cambodian people even more opportunities to engage in politics. At the same time, the government is also using it, so stakeholders should be aware of both risks and challenges in these shifts.

Later, Zia-Ur-Rehman presented the Pakistan case, which is undergoing a critical time for civic space and human rights: violence and militarization in the overall society have been growing for the last five years, and, since the last change of the government in April 2022, freedom of expression, of assembly, of association, the right to access information and to dissent have been put at risk.

In this context, the Pakistan Development Alliance has developed the Pakistan Civic Space Monitor, which is the first index of this sort to be developed by a local source in the country and seeks to provide a more reliable assessment of the context in Pakistan. This survey was disseminated among 19,000 civil society organizations across the country and received responses from 431 informed civil society organizations. After the results were processed, the monitor displayed an overall score, besides the score in different categories, such as corruption, freedom of speech, and assembly, amongst others. Moreover, information about scores in the different regions in the countries can also be displayed.

Currently, Pakistan is also expecting elections in February 2024, but restrictions on freedom and speech and association are taking place. According to Zia-Ur-Rehman, the Human Rights agenda is not a priority for international donors and bilateral funding agencies and is not helping to address the challenges that the country is facing.

The webinar ended by calling international actors to engage in the defense of civic space and the protection and promotion of human rights in the region. The sustainability of human rights defenders and organizations is an important limitation, so the presenters suggested leading the direction of the flow of ODA toward these causes. Lastly, the inclusion and mainstreaming of vulnerable and marginalized communities in consultation activities related to civic space was stressed.