Here’s how civil society can push rising hate back to the fringes

For Argentina’s feminist-led abortion rights movement, the inauguration of the country’s new president in November 2019 marked a high point in a decade-long struggle.

Following his electoral win, incoming president Alberto Fernández publicly committed himself to decriminalising abortion in Argentina. This pledge came as a result of extensive civil society campaigning, including large-scale protests as a bill went to the country’s parliament earlier in the year. These mobilisations helped highlight that the highly organised and well-funded conservative faith groups that strongly opposed abortion did not speak for many Argentinian voters. What had been an almost taboo subject just years earlier became a major talking point on the election campaign trail.

This success story comes against a backdrop of increased attacks on human rights, driven by a disturbing rise in non-state, anti-rights groups, not only in Latin America but worldwide. A newly released report by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, shows that groups that attack human rights – and the organisations that defend them – have become more prevalent, prominent and powerful. These groups position themselves within the civil society space but attack human rights. They are growing in confidence and visibility, backed by rising resources and increasing connections between groups, including across borders.

This global backlash of conservative anti-rights activism has been eroding hard-won human rights across the globe. But as in Argentina, it is being met by an impressive civil society response that is increasingly seeking to build new coalitions, reach a broader range of people and engage with those who we might not have been talking with before.

Argentina’s gender and reproductive rights movement was able to garner the support of hundreds of thousands of people, particularly women, by building stronger connections with citizens and communities and using effective, creative communication. This is just one of many responses civil society can and is taking to fight back against the anti-rights wave.

Because so many of the attacks on rights are being mounted by ultra-conservative faith groups that offer narrow and selective interpretations of religious traditions and texts, many civil society groups are now working to build bridges with more moderate faith groups, offer common fronts against extremism and make arguments for human rights from a faith position. In Latin America, a coalition is building an alliance of more progressive faith groups to argue for women’s rights. In Malaysia, civil society is engaging with Islamic organisations that participate in United Nations processes to try to get them to recognise the discrimination that LGBTQI people encounter. In Uganda, a civil society organisation has used Biblical language to win acceptance that people should have access to essential sex education and HIV/AIDS services. LGBTQI campaigners in Botswana are also now reaching out to moderate faith groups, following an historic court ruling that decriminalised same-sex relations there last year, and the backlash this provoked from ultra-conservative groups.

Civil society’s joined-up response can also seek to bring in political parties, which can be encouraged to sign up for minimum standards of respect for rights, as LGBTQI civil society in Latvia has done. And civil society is placing greater emphasis on international support networks, not least in response to the fact that anti-rights forces are increasingly sharing resources, skills and strategies internationally, as the funding of ultra-conservative forces in Botswana by US-based evangelical groups shows.

In essence, civil society’s alliances must be broad, bringing together anyone who is in support of fundamental rights and is appalled by the deliberate and calculated sowing of hatred, division and conflict seen in so many places around the world today.

Our efforts as civil society will work best when paired with mass mobilisations that demonstrate popular support for rights and defiance in the face of those who seek to deny rights, including by counter-protesting when anti-rights forces seek to claim public space and dominate public discourse. Such mobilisations were a key part of how Argentinian groups won the argument.

In Poland, attempts by hard-line church groups to further limit the country’s already restrictive abortion regime, which initially won the support of the ruling party, have continued to founder. That’s because women have held repeated, huge-scale protests to prove their power, causing the government to think again. In Ireland, abortion and same-sex marriage rights were won in the face of staunch opposition through a combination of grassroots engagement, online campaigning and mass demonstrations.

What we have seen, around the world, is that civil society is not lapsing into despair, but is committing to the struggle for fundamental rights. There are many responses available to civil society, but they all involve outreach, the making of new connections, the ability to listen and hold unusual conversations, and creative communications skills. Through such responses, as civil society we are able to prove that we are the mainstream and push the forces of hatred back to the fringes where they belong.