Proceedings of Tokyo Democracy Forum 2022


Defending Civic Space in a time of COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on SDG16+

Following the success of the last forum in 2021, Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC), Asia Democracy Network (ADN) and Asia Development Alliance (ADA) organized Tokyo Democracy Forum (TDF) again on 14-15 February 2022 in a virtual formant, inviting 13 CSOs and researchers from across Asia. Based on the results of a survey of civic space in 10 Asian countries, presenters and participants discussed how we can secure democratic and civic space in a time of COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on SDG16+, through sessions moderated by Anselmo Lee, Regional Coordinator, Asia Civil Society Partnership for Sustainable Development (APSD).

Topic addressed at the sessions

Asian CSOs views on how civic space, human rights, and democracy have changed after the COVID-19 pandemic/ Voluntary National Review (VNR) and SDG16

a) State of the SDGs Implementation in Asia through the Voluntary National Review (VNR) with a focus on SDG16+

b) Comparison of how Asian CSOs views on civic space, human rights, and democracy have changed after the COVID-19 pandemic

c) Challenges, threats and oppressions to civil society organizations and civic space in Asia; and

d) Recommendations to the UN, Regional Organizations and Regional Development Banks, and governments in Asia for defending civic space

Opening Remarks

Jamila Asanova, Co-Vice Chair, Asia Development Alliance (ADA)

Today, as leaders in the West express concern about the rise of global authoritarianism and the global restriction of democracy, we in Asia are contesting what model of governance will best meet the needs and potential of our citizens. The center of gravity in this burgeoning competition between democracy and authoritarianism is in the Asia-Pacific region. The region is home to the world’s largest and most economically dynamic democracies. The region is changing rapidly, in part because of its relatively young population, with more than 50% of the world’s millennium population living in Asia. Moreover, as Asian countries grow wealthier, inequality becomes an increasingly critical problem. In addition, governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to place greater restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. It is time for us to stand up in solidarity across borders and utilize the various regional and global advocacy forums to make our voices heard.

Summary of Presentations (Country Report)

<3-1. Bangladesh / Abdul Awal, Campaign for Good Governance (SUPRO)>

Due to the ongoing pandemic, unemployment and poverty throughout the country have increased in Bangladesh. Foreign funding has been declining while continuing to shift to emergency needs including both COVID-19 and the Rohingya crisis. COVID-19 outbreak related restrictions and lockdown for longer period caused limiting the scope of freedom of expression and assemblies that is a legacy of authoritarian practices. This decline in funding, together with COVID-19 restrictions, caused further deterioration in CSOs’ service provision in 2020-21. CSOs’ public image also deteriorated in 2020-21 as the public criticized CSOs’ ability to respond to the pandemic and other immediate needs. CSOs should have better and effective networking within the group as well as with government agencies, and have more active role in mobilizing citizen actors for activating and expanding civic space with diverse form of actions.

<3-2. India / Harsh Jaitli, Voluntary Action Network India (VANI)>

In India, the recent period saw government and civil society collaboration in mitigation of COVID-19, along with changes in regulatory regime which caused contestations. It is commonly believed that legislative changes are targeted to undermine the independence of civil society actors, and restrict their capacity to function effectively. Renewals of taxation benefits, opening centralised bank accounts, banning sub-grants to smaller organisations that to at the time of pandemic restricted the capacity of CSOs to respond. VANI India suggests, encourages and supports organisations to work collaboratively with each other and with other stakeholders to strengthen the case of strong and vibrant civil society.

<3-3. Nepal / Arjun Bhattarai, NGO Federation of Nepal (NFN)>

Human rights and security situation in Nepal deteriorated during the COVID-19 situation. Access to justice became more difficult. Incidences of violence and abuse against women and children were particularly alarming. CSOs have also been raising concerns on procedural hassle on Establishment, Registration and Operation of CSOs. Many tend to associate the increased corruption and bribery to the COVID-19 situation. Government should assess the impact of COVID-19 in social sector, governance and service delivery and poverty. CSOs should develop strategic action plan to recover better and document the lessons learned and useful experiences from COVID-19 pandemic. CSOs’ coordinated action, lobby and advocacy for civic space/human rights/freedom and democracy, etc. need to be continued.

<3-4. Pakistan / Zia ur Rehman, AwazCDS-Pakistan/Pakistan Development Alliance>

Recent Developments in Pakistan for the betterment of civic rights, human rights and democratic rights are remarkable. For future improvement, representation of minorities must be increased in local governments, forced conversion-restriction laws need to be introduced, the practice of enforced disappearance and secret detention must be criminalized, and rightful spaces for NGOs must be created to ensure freedom of expression and association. Also, global funding agencies and bilateral donors should invest on local CSOs for more sustainable, inclusive and participatory solutions for addressing chronic issues related to freedom of expression and association, civic spaces and liberalization of conservative societies.

<3-5. Kazakhstan / Asel Kurmantayeva, Civil Society Development Association (ARGO)>

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan has seen an increase in problems caused by a lack of transparency and accountability of government. During the pandemic, high corruption risks were identified in administrative areas such as healthcare, law enforcement, and government services. In addition, the legal status of some people is vulnerable and threats to journalists, trade unions, and human rights defenders have increased. Laws regulating CSOs in Kazakhstan have been further tightened, and current legislation makes it possible to paralyze the activities of NGOs through fictitious violations that pose no threat to the state or society. Violence in all forms is also increasing. Our recommendations to CSOs are to raise public awareness to improve quality of public service delivery and to prevent corruption, as well as to facilitate development of intolerance to corruption in society. It also includes strengthening communication with society in the Kazakh language, clearly reflecting the needs of society, and ensuring that the principle of “no one left behind” is enforced.

<3-6. Uzbekistan / Shamshod Yunusov, Nationwide Movement “Yuksalish”>

COVID-19 affected to the social cohesion and activation of the civil society in Uzbekistan. State is paying more attention to NGOs in the sense of public oversight and assistance to reformations. Creating an environment where development aid, humanitarian aid and human rights can flourish, is a beneficial environment for both civil society and government as civil society can fill the gap where the government is unable to provide (especially in times of emergency – like COVID-19). Government should widely involve NGOs in drafting state priorities for social contracts through public consultations, include NGOs in discussion of local budget allocation to ensure participatory budgeting, ensure transparency and accountability of social orders and state financial support through detailed reports and public hearings.

<3-7. Mongolia / U. Mandkhaitsetsen, Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD)>

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting civic space throughout Mongolia. In order to protect civic space to strengthen human rights and democracy, CSOs need to organize and collaborate with each other to make policy recommendations and have national policies and laws enacted that create an enabling environment for CSOs. In particular, more support must be provided to CSOs in “sums” (villages/districts) so that they can protect and demand their rights. The government needs to support local and national CSOs in monitoring of the government performance for effective use of public resources, and encourage effective cooperation of CSOs with government institutions to improve the transparency in reporting on the use of donor aid.

<3-8. South Korea / Eunji Kim, The Korea Center for Sustainable Development (KCSD)>

Reviewing the situation in Korea regarding SDG 16+ after the outbreak of COVID-19, we first noted an increase in violence against minorities, as well as domestic violence. The number of information disclosures had been increasing since the enactment of the Information Disclosure Law in 1998, but by 2020 all public disclosure cases were decreasing. As far as the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is seen, transparency has improved despite COVID-19, however, it still ranks low among the OECD members and is an area for improvement. Assembly and demonstrations have been significantly decreased and restricted, but many agree with the need for restrictions due to COVID-19 on this point. For further implementation of the SDGs, international institutions are expected to financially and technically support CSO participation, governments are required to develop a comprehensive legal system, and civil society is encouraged to reach out to and network with various stakeholders at the national and local levels.

<3-9. Cambodia / Ry Sovanna, Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC)>

Civil society is a crucial actor in monitoring and implementation of SDG16, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic on democracy and civic space. In Cambodia, it was observed that there was lack of mechanism to ensure the stakeholders’ inputs, especially from CSOs, in the whole VNR report process of the government in 2019. The Cambodian government should implement the Cambodia Sustainable Development Goals (CSDGs) 16 aligning with the global SDG16. Especially, the Ministry of Planning should establish effective mechanism to ensure that inputs and recommendations from all stakeholders will be reflected properly on SDGs implementation and the VNR. CSOs should lobby the National Assembly and Senate to establish a monitoring and reviewing mechanism of CSDGs to have government more accountable on SDGs.

<3-10. Vietnam / Nguyen Phuong Linh, Management and Sustainable Development Institute (MSD)>

In Vietnam, issues exist with the lack of a legal framework (Law on Associations and Law on Philanthropy and Development Works) for CSOs to operate as independent actors. On the other hand, CSO registration, operation, and acceptance of international aid (ODA and funds from INGOs) are strictly regulated by law, and project planning and fundraising require an application to the government, which usually takes 3 to 9 months to be approved. However, COVID-19-related assistance has been approved in a short period of time because it is considered emergency assistance. The government’s open and transparent approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped create a high level of public trust in the national response. This is a prerequisite for successful disease control and ensures broad societal solidarity and mutual support. However, many of the policies associated with COVID-19 prevention and restriction have been implemented without careful consideration, civil society inclusion, and participation. In addition, since the COVID-19 outbreak, corruption has increased in the public sector, especially in sectors directly related to the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 outbreaks, and bribery between public authorities and private companies has increased though, government efforts to combat corruption have improved. Our recommendation is that the government create an environment in which CSOs can operate as independent actors and expand mechanisms for civic participation in policy decision-making processes, budgeting, and monitoring. Continuation of a strong action against corruption and promote transparent and accountable government is vital

A Summary of Presentations (Thematic Reports)

<4-1. Foreign Interference: Legislation and Rhetoric in Southeast Asia>

James Gomez, Asia Centre

There is a growing tendency to label collaboration with INGOs, international aid-agencies and diplomatic missions as ‘foreign interference’ from democratic and authoritarian governments alike. This has provided justification for ‘NGO laws’ and other related legislation being introduced in the region to contain strict provisions on ‘foreign interference’, monitoring and controlling the activities and funding of local CSOs, political parties and individuals. However, in countries without independent oversight mechanisms, such legislation often runs contrary to commonly accepted human rights standards concerning freedom of expression and freedom of association and presents a grave danger to the civic space in the region. In Southeast Asia, a comprehensive regulation against ‘foreign interference’ was first found in Singapore’s ‘Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act’ or FICA (2021). It has spurred momentum in countries in the region to similarly adopt provisions in their updated NGO laws, while some pursue their own version of FICA. Overall, this makes the future of civic space challenging for cross-border partnerships and the receipt of funds in the region. The actions that must be taken are to repeal these problematic laws. Additionally, public education is needed to clear the negative perception of genuine cross-border collaboration as foreign interference. Parliamentarians and international organisations share the burden of overseeing the Government labelling of cross-border collaboration as foreign interference. Local organisations should also become more self-sustaining through crowdfunding, relying less on third-party funding, domestic or otherwise.

<4-2. Vaccine Inequality / Rebecca Malay, Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP)>

Access to and allocation of vaccines should be based on principles grounded in the right of every human to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic, or any other social condition. Combating the current pandemic depends, above all, on the increased efforts to produce and administer vaccines, with particular attention to people in vulnerable situations, so that restrictions to individual freedoms and constraints imposed can be progressively reviewed as the population acquires greater immunity, taking into account acquired scientific knowledge. COVID-19 had not only exposed the grave inequalities within and between societies but had also exacerbated those inequalities. The fundamental problem is a lack of supply, and the reason the market cannot address it is artificial barriers, especially intellectual property. We should use all policy and legal tools available to facilitate sharing vaccine, tests and treatments technologies, know-how and intellectual property, and immediately support the proposal to temporarily waive relevant intellectual property rules. The governments should invest public funding in a rapid and massive increase in vaccine manufacturing as well as research and development (R&D) capacity to build a global distribute network capable of and governed to deliver affordable vaccines as global public goods to all nations. We should also ensure COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests are sold to governments and institutions at a price as close to the true cost as possible, provided free of charge to everyone, everywhere, and allocated according to need. Scaling up sustainable investment in public health systems is also necessary.

<4-3. Asian Outlook: Migration Dynamics & Prospects for Out of Country Voting (OCV) / Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, INHURED International>

In a globalized world, characterized by migrations, citizens should not be a priori excluded from political community exclusively because of residence and citizenship. Particularly through relatively recent changes in electoral laws, today almost three-quarter of the world’s countries have implemented some form of external voting, including for refugees. Issues of concerns are absence of political will and consensus, controversy due to citizenship and residence status, operational, financial and strategic interest, political influence, operational challenges, equal access, timeliness, proving eligibility, and perception of fraud, etc. Recommendations for action are inclusion of external migration-relevant questions in the census of all countries, conclusion of bilateral migration agreements with host countries to formulate policies on OCV, establishment of a joint regional financing facility for migration, ratification of various relevant international conventions, sharing best practices in implementation and administration of remote voting solutions, etc.

Comments and Remarks

<5-1. Masaaki Ohashi, Trustee, JANIC>

Very “old” issues such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression continue, and many civil society spaces are shrinking. Thus, we must continue to work together. At the same time, we have “new” issues like NGO capacity building on digital issues. COVID-19 also highlighted the need to consider how we can have resource mechanisms or financial mechanisms in times of such calamities. We need to have a common, large money bank with which we can share. This may sound almost like a dream, but we need to talk. Global standardized civil rights and CSOs should be established so that we can work together much more.

<5-2. Akio Takayanagi, Policy Advisor, JANIC>

What donors could do to reclaim the shrinking civic space? An important new document we could refer to is the OECD DAC Recommendation for Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance: which has three pillars: respecting, protecting and promoting civic space; supporting and engaging with civil society; and incentivising civil society effectiveness, transparency and accountability; as well as related articles. Based on this, the next steps are; CSOs’ engagement in the DAC’s development of a toolkit for implementation of the Recommendation; and CSOs’ own toolkit which collects good practices.

<5-3. Hideki Wakabayashi, Chair, ADA / Director, JANIC>

As discussed, we face critical situations; the crisis of democracy, the shrinking of civic space, and the discrepancy between the rich and the poor. For the vulnerable in particular, the situation is unfortunately deteriorating because of the pandemic. The biggest question is how we as CSOs can respond to this situation. It is not an easy task, but our biggest advantage as CSOs is that we can cooperate and learn from each other across borders, even among countries politically opposed to each other. We are united, empowering and enhancing capacity building of people. Locally led development is very important. This is the purpose of the Tokyo Democracy Forum, and ADA together with partner NGOs and other sectors in Asia will continue to do everything possible to promote democracy, human rights, and the protection of civic space.

Finally, Wakabayashi concluded the forum by encouraging the audience to be a part of these efforts in the coming months and years.

10 Recommendations for Action 

The participants adopted the followings recommendations based on the survey, research and discussions on challenges, threats and oppression to CSOs and civic space as well as opportunities and strategies for international engagement on democracy, human rights and SDGs in Asia.
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