Protecting Civic Participation ?

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Unless the EITI does more to combat growing constraints on civic space, the fight for transparency will never be won

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) was created in 2002 to strengthen governance of the oil, gas, and mining sectors by increasing transparency over revenues. The initiative aims to identify, collect and publish key data about these sectors, and brings together governments, companies and civil society actors for constructive dialogue about how these revenues are managed. Once revenue figures and other information are widely available, people in resource-rich countries can – if conditions for civic engagement allow – press national leaders to manage those resources for the public benefit. This means EITI success depends on both good data and civic engagement.  

A core feature of the EITI is a tripartite structure that brings together governments, civil society and the private sector as equal partners in dialogue. In a sector characterised by powerful political and financial interests, corruption and opacity, allowing space for the free participation of civic leaders can be game-changing.

The EITI has helped expand civic engagement with natural resource governance, spurring dialogue on transparency and fostering public scrutiny and greater accountability over natural resource profits earned by governments in many EITI countries and beyond. In some, the EITI provides the only national arena where civil society can join government and private sector representatives to discuss extractive governance issues. This is vital not only for civil society to defend its interests, but if the EITI is to fulfil its mandate of promoting strong natural resource governance.

Civic space: the vital ingredient

The existence of an enabling environment for civil society is central to the EITI process. Without civil society input, the EITI cannot deliver the transparency it seeks to achieve.

EITI requirement 1.3 specifies that civil society must be fully, actively and effectively engaged in the EITI process. The Civil Society Protocol, incorporated into the Standard in 2015, clarifies interpretation of an “enabling environment” and reiterates that civil society participation is a cornerstone requirement for joining the Initiative1. Yet across the world, including in some EITI implementing countries, repressive laws and measures, as well as increasing attacks against activists have severely constrained civil society2.

Human rights defenders operating in the extractive sector have been particularly targeted, facing killings, torture, disappearance, arbitrary arrests and detention3. According to the CIVICUS Monitor in June 20194, 40 out of over 50 EITI implementing countries are listed as having seriously restricted civic space. Research by the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre in 2018 shows that the extractive sector5 is the most dangerous for activists, with attacks on human rights defenders working on business-related activities in over 35 EITI implementing countries in the last three years. Governments in some countries, including Azerbaijan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia and Niger, have not upheld EITI requirements and the EITI has struggled with how to respond in such situations. Often, its defense of civic participation has been slow, muted and inadequate. And the outcomes have been mixed. Equatorial Guinea was delisted from the EITI in 2010 and Azerbaijan withdrew in 2017 following its suspension by the EITI Board.

Fundamental freedoms at risk

The crackdowns on civil society witnessed in numerous EITI countries reflect a broader global trend of restricted civil liberties. This trend dramatically undermines civil society’s ability to access and use data to address corruption and poor governance. Yet the EITI is struggling to address the many challenges faced by civil society on the ground.

Despite EITI requirements and standards, a key study by MSI-Integrity in 2018 shows that the EITI process has not employed a consistent approach nor given adequate consideration to human rights when assessing civil society participation6. Countries can be assessed at three stages: during sign-up (when a country applies to the EITI), at “validation” (the periodic process used to assess and grade countries against EITI requirements to ensure continued adherence), and through ad-hoc assessments by the Rapid Response Committee in case of possible breaches between validations. Assessment at these latter two stages has been particularly inadequate, with civil society stakeholders noting the use of worryingly diluted language. Often, civil society participation is assessed against the background of a very limited scope, requiring a clear nexus between civic engagement and EITI processes, without taking into account the broader situation of fundamental freedoms in the country. The case of Myanmar illustrates the narrowing scope used by the Board to award “satisfactory progress” instead of “meaningful progress” for civil society engagement during validation7.

This situation is surprising, as the extractive sector has produced the widest range of multi-stakeholder initiatives and efforts to set standards related to human rights of any sector (rivalled only by apparel/footwear)8. It also runs counter to unprecedented global initiatives promoting human rights principles in business. The UN’s intergovernmental working group on transnational corporations and other business enterprises with respect to human rights has a mandate is to elaborate an international legally binding instrument to regulate global business activities in international human rights law. Other initiatives committed to civic freedoms include the B-Team, working with a range of progressive multinational companies who have pledged to drive social, environmental and economic benefits and have taken a stand on behalf of fundamental freedoms9. A group of major brands and investors has also recently called for protecting human rights defenders and civic freedoms and stressed that these attacks threaten sustainable and profitable business10.

The chance to safeguard participation

If activists are not fully free to pursue transparency and hold their governments to account, the EITI’s credibility is severely jeopardized. In response, the MSI-Integrity study11 makes three main recommendations for EITI reform to promote meaningful civil society participation and thereby be a catalyst for greater accountability and transparency. First, the EITI should establish national-level civil society monitors who report to a new Working Group on Civil Society Protection. This group would proactively monitor issues around civil society before they reach crisis point. Second, EITI  bodies and processes, in particular, application, validation and the Rapid Response Committee, should be improved to uphold civil society protection. Finally, a complaints mechanism should be created to address stakeholder grievances around rights violations and breaches of the Civil Society Protocol. If consistently rooted in human rights norms and principles, these reforms would enable civil society to actively, independently and meaningfully participate in the EITI, as well as to raise concerns freely without fear of reprisal.  

In a world plagued by the rise of authoritarian values, improving EITI responses over civic space is more important than ever. The EITI has the potential to demonstrate openness, participation and cooperation to achieve positive change. But if it doesn’t address threats to civic space, it will be reduced merely to a forum for sterile discussions.

Transparency does not produce accountability on its own. Independent, free and meaningful participation is the missing link. Only by standing up for fundamental freedoms in implementing countries and beyond – can the EITI ensure that extractives benefit all.

[1] “The participation of civil society is fundamental to achieving the objectives of EITI, including Principle 4 which states that ‘public understanding of government revenues and expenditure over time could help public debate and inform choice of appropriate and realistic options for sustainable development’. The active participation of civil society in the EITI process is key to ensure that the transparency created by the EITI leads to greater accountability.”

[2] Organisations working on civic space issues define it as “the place, physical, virtual, and legal, where people exercise their rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly. By forming associations, by speaking out on issues of public concern, by gathering together in online and offline fora, and by participating in public decision-making, individuals use civic space to solve problems and improve lives. A robust and protected civic space forms the cornerstone of accountable, responsive democratic governance and stable societies”, CIVICUS, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), ARTICLE 19, and the World Movement for Democracy, The Civic Space Initiative (CSI); CIVICUS, Guide to Reporting on Civic Space: Media Toolkit, page 4.

[3] CIVICUS report, Civic space under threat in extractive industries Transparency Initiative countries, August 2017.

[4] The CIVICUS Monitor rates the quality of a country’s civic space on a five-point scale from open to narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed. Out of the 51 EITI implementing countries, 2 are listed as closed, 13 as repressed, 25 as obstructed, 6 as narrowed and 5 as open.

[5] Mining, oil, gas and coal industries considered together. See this link for instance.

[6] Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity, EITI Accountability and Grievance Mechanisms: Perspectives from Civil Society and Natural Resource Governance Advocates, August 2018.

[7] At the Berlin Board meeting in 2018, the Board discussed how to apply section 8.3.c.i, which outlines penalties for non-compliance with Requirement 1.3. The Board considered whether to assess this requirement with a broad scope (i.e. specifically considering the wider environment in which civil society can operate) but lowered sanctions, versus a narrow scope with higher sanctions. The Board opted for assessing the broader civil society environment in return for applying lower sanctions. However, as the case of Myanmar’s validation shows, this is now being reinterpreted as a narrow scope and lower sanctions.

[8] Business and Human Rights Resource Center and ISHR, Shared space under pressure: businesses support for civic freedoms and human rights defenders, September 2018 and other report available here; The World Economic Forum, The Global Risks Report, 2017.

[9] The Business Case for Protecting Civic Rights has also highlighted the positive role that business can play in protecting civic freedoms, and the moral, normative, and business case for them to do so.

[10] Supporting Civic Freedoms, Human Rights Defenders and the Rule of Law, developed through the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders.

[11] Institute for Multi-Stakeholder Initiative Integrity, 2018: 6.

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