Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil society (Part One)

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the theme of “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia.” The series will provide analysis and background information about how and why civil society space is being restricted all over the world, including in Cambodia. “Shrinking Civic Space in Cambodia – local manifestations of the global crackdown on civil societyis the introductory article to the blog series. Part One of the article gives an overview of the global phenomenon of shrinking civic spaces and international civil society, while Part Two offers an assessment of the legal environment and the national context of shrinking spaces for civil society in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Further articles will address various human rights topics that are of relevance in Cambodia’s current political climate and will illustrate how civil society is being threatened. Finally the series will suggest new ways forward on how to regain and create new civic space and to ensure the future of a free Cambodian civil society.

We hope the blog will inform readers and encourage members of civil society to share their experiences and best practices on the prevention of shrinking civic spaces. We are always looking for individuals and writers to contribute to the Sithi Blog and/or to the “shrinking civic spaces” blog series. You can reach us via email at

Contested and under Pressure: Space for Civil Society

Recent crackdowns on civic space across the globe have been severe and continue to violate human rights, in particular the fundamental freedoms of the right to association, the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. In Honduras, at least 120 environmental activists have been murdered since 2010.[1] In India, Greenpeace and other non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”) have been denied entry to continue their work.[2] Amnesty reports have claimed there have been disappearances of activists in Egyptian prisons, others being tortured, and thousands of documented arrests during recent opposition protests in Russia.[3] These shocking restrictions of fundamental freedoms increasingly fill up newspapers on a global scale. The space for civil society actors (“CSAs”) who raise their voices against governments, stand up for democratic values and human rights, and protest openly against social injustice, discrimination, land grabbing, environmental degradation in the name of big business and other human rights violations is shrinking drastically all over the world.[4]

Regardless of the nature of the political system or regime, governments in various countries are tightening the grip around the neck of civil society organizations (“CSOs”) and the space for civil society actions. Over the past two years, more than 60 countries have passed or drafted laws that limit the activities of non-governmental and civil society organizations. 96 countries have taken steps to inhibit NGOs from operating at full capacity.[5] Taking measures to control civil society actors is an old, familiar game played by governments that has been anxiously noted and monitored for decades. Shockingly, there now seems to be an increase in the severity and openness with which authorities are attempting to limit people’s rights.

2015 was the deadliest year for environmental activists ever recorded and the trend did not regress in 2016.[6] During this time, Forum-Asia documented 324 violations and abuses against human rights defenders (“HRDs”) in the region and hundreds of human rights activists received threats from government agencies, non-state actors or other individuals.[7]

Civil society and its role in upholding democratic values around the globe

But what does ”civil society” actually mean and why is it so important for individual states and the international community as a whole to have an active and vital civil society?

“Civil Society” is a term that is often carelessly thrown around by the media, government authorities and even civil society itself. To properly discuss civil society, its role in global and national politics and also the shrinking civic space phenomenon, it is necessary to take a closer look at the term “civil society.” Academically speaking, it has proven difficult to develop a standard definition of civil society that applies to all different settings. This is due to the complexity of civil society and the many intersections it has with the economy, the state and institutions like the family or the media.[8] In order to adequately define the meaning of ‘civil society’, important unifying criteria which shed light on this complex term and the variety of forms taken by civil society need to be examined. CSOs are self-organized, independent from state power, and have a non-profit based motivation, for example, the protection of certain norms, values and rights of the people. Civil society is not an equivalent to the more general term ‘society.’ Indeed, a society includes institutions that exceed the definition of civil society.[9] Civil society is also not coextensive with the non-profit sector, but the third sector and civil society may often overlap . It is often said that civil society does not include the economic market and its participants, although some institutions, like for example the media, while essentially based on economic rules, have significant civil society elements and therefore can not be clearly identified as one or the other.[10]

Regardless of differences in detailed definitions, politicians, academics and other experts agree that the work of civil society plays an incredibly important part in shaping the political agenda of the international community as well as the agenda of national governments. CSOs also play an important part in scrutinizing government policy. Civil society has the power to give the public, who may otherwise have been largely or completely excluded, an amplified voice at a global, national and regional level, playing a large role in protecting marginalized groups and individuals subject to discrimination. Without the courage and stamina of civil society organizations around the globe, the world would not be the same. For example, civil society played a significant role in the establishment of the international criminal justice system.[11] CSOs have successfully promoted new environmental agreements, for example the recent Paris Climate Agreement, and have greatly strengthened women’s rights and LGBTIQ rights across the globe, as well as, to give another example, lobbied for important arms control and disarmament measures.[12]

Indeed, the increased global impact of civil society can be considered one of the most significant social developments of modern history. However, even though civil society could chalk up multiple victories – and perhaps even in reaction to the growing influence of civil society groups – in recent years there has been a change in perspective on NGOs that can be noted not only from governments but also from academics and in public opinion. Questions about the effectiveness and legitimacy of many organizations have been presented by governments, funders and also citizens.[13] In particular, the question of western hegemony has recently dominated international debates. Critics observe that prevailing conceptions of poverty and development are often shaped by those who have never really experienced their challenges.[14] The voices of those who worry that global civil society is dominated by the ideas and values of relatively rich countries of the global north, purveyed by powerful international NGOs, have become louder over recent years. Many CSOs reacted to those serious accusations by changing their approaches and structures to adopt more local and regional strategies, turning away from international, “top-down” approaches.

Despite different views about the legitimacy of many international NGOs, it is unambiguous that the steady concentration of power in the hands of only state governments, that seemed to be inevitable not so long ago, has been replaced by a system of shared power and shared responsibilities between multiple sectors and actors. At least up until now.

The Role of Governments in the Protection of Civic Space and Human Rights

CIVICUS, an organization which supports and monitors the rights of civil society worldwide, found restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association in 109 countries worldwide in 2016.[15] The question that arises when looking at the current situation for civil society all over the world is: why now? What has changed that governments feel so threatened by civil society that they create such hostile environments?

While approaches and methods vary from country to country, the reasons for state oppression remain broadly the same. First, governments have felt the power of civil society in recent years all around the world: the Arab spring, color revolutions in eastern Europe, and the rise of right wing grass roots groups. Many governments, especially in transitioning and rapidly developing countries, dread the loss of their political power and aim to maintain the status quo, hence they target civil society groups most when these two goals seem to be threatened.[16] Civil society can give or take away legitimacy on policy decisions, which may result in fear from government institutions. Instead of seeing civil society as a valuable resource to provide governments with expertise and a bridge between the government and the people, governments and economic elites have started viewing civil society as a threat that needs to be controlled and even eliminated.

Second, governments cite concerns about the interference of foreign interests in domestic affairs through civil society organizations. The keyword commonly used by governments to justify their restrictive measures is “sovereignty,” arguing that one state does not have the right to interfere with the internal affairs of another state. So once a national protest or a movement develops and starts to become forceful, it is often shut down and delegitimized by being accused of being corrupted by foreign interests, even when evidence to support such claims is scarce. Some laws regulating NGOs cut off the supply of money from international sources for civil society making the work of many NGOs nearly impossible, like for example in Russia or Israel.[17]

The third common reason for shrinking spaces is vigorous counter-terrorism policies. While fighting terrorism is a legitimate goal, the problem is that states continue to disrespect human rights in the name of security. Laws are over-inclusive, and, besides often being counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, are being misused to restrict civil society or unintentionally affect civil society’s space to act. In extreme cases, laws disguised as anti-terror measures may have the underlying purpose of silencing the political opposition and civil society by accusing them of terrorism.

In many countries a lack of awareness of the rights of civil society and their democratic functions contributes to the problem. Criticism of governments and state authorities may be perceived as unpatriotic and a threat to the political order and national security by segments of local populations. This bias is exploited by repressive governments who wish to de-legitimize the work of civil society. As a result, CSOs may be exposed to intimidation and threats within their own communities.[18] In highly polarized societies, this stigmatization can have the effect of prejudicing people with different political or personal views against HRDs.[19]

If civil society organizations are kept from holding government to account, and if NGOs and other CSOs cannot stand up for individuals and marginalized groups, many people will face major threats to their livelihoods and safety, while governments will increasingly be able to act unchecked by independent scrutiny. Part two of this article will show how Cambodian CSAs and citizens are struggling under the pressure of the shrinking civic spaces phenomenon and the particular restrictions they are facing.

Charis Uster, CCHR International Intern


[1] Global Witness, ‘Honduras: The deadliest country in the world for environmental activism in the world’ (Report, 31 January, 2017), Available at:

[2] Samanth Subramanian, ‘India’s war on greenpeace’, (The Guardian, 11 August 2015), Available at:

[3] Al Jazeera, ‘Amnesty: Hundreds abducted, tortured in Egypt’, (13 July 2016), Available at:

[4] Barbara Unmüßig, ‘Civil Society Under Pressure’ (01 January 2016). Available at:

[5] Harriet Sherwood, ‘Human rights groups face global crackdown not seen in a generation’,( The Guardian, 26 August 2016), Available at:

[6] Global Witness, ‘On dangerous ground’, (Report, 20 June 2016), Available at:

[7] John Samuel (n7)

[8] Helmut K. Anheier, ‘Civil society: measurement, evaluation, policy’ (2004).

[9] Helmut K. Anheier (n10)

[10]Lester M. Salamon & Helmut K. Anheier, ‘In search of the non-profit sector. I: The question of definitions.’, (International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 1992)

[11] Kirsty Brimelow et al., ’Shaping the Law: Civil Society Influence at International Criminal Courts’ (25 January 2016). Available at:

[12] Dr. Aisha Ghaus-Pasha, ‘Role of civil society organisations in governance’, (December 2004).

[13] Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Why is trust in NGOs falling?’ ( World Economic Forum, 21 January 2015). Available at:

[14] Hakan Seckinelgin et al. ‘Poverty and Activism: The heart of oral civil society,’ (12 May 2009). Available at:

[15] Civicus, ‘State of Civil Society Report 2016,’ (01 November 2016). Available at:

[16] Siân Herbert, ‘Restricting space for civil society’ (GSDRC, 28 August 2015). Available at:

[17] Anastasia Vladimirova, ‘Russia & Israel Are Cracking Down on Human Rights NGOs’, (Muftah, 15 February, 2016), Available at:

[18] ’ Discussion Paper, Civil society threatened all over the world – For just development, environmental protection, democracy, human rights and peace’, (21 February 2017). Available at: