European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association

Civil society space

What do we mean when we talk about ‘shrinking space’?

In the last 10 years, human rights organisations, pro-democracy actors and wider civil society movements in many countries are facing increased restrictions when trying to carry out their work.

Governments are erecting legal and administrative barriers, making it more difficult for civil society organisations who receive foreign support and funding to operate. In many countries, human rights NGOs are restricted when they attempt to hold public gatherings, express their views or set up new organisations. In addition to this, individual human rights defenders are often subjected to intimidation and harassment.

Why has the space for civil society started to shrink?

Space can start to shrink when governments see civil society as a threat. As a result, they employ tactics to discredit and weaken them, thereby shrinking the space in which they can work.

In Russia, for example, the federal government’s so-called ‘foreign agent’ law not only tried to cut funding to NGOs but also labels them as ‘spies’. In FYR Macedonia, the government orchestrated a campaign, through its affiliate media, against LGBTI civil society. This has the knock-on effect of legitimising violent attacks against LGBTI organisations and activists.

In countries as Turkey and Azerbaijan, governments ‘create’ pro-government NGOs to support their policies while simultaneously cracking down on freedom of expression by independent civil society. In other countries, such as Hungary, governments restrict independent civil society’s participation in policy making. They do this by altering government policy priorities and funding schemes to support ‘traditional family values and national identity building/strengthening’.

The shrinking civil society space and the questioning of NGOs’ legitimacy is becoming a significant and worrying trend, both inside and outside EU borders. This trend has an aggravated impact on LGBTI organisations and activists; often they become key targets of government crack downs. In the long term, this could drive LGBTI activism underground.          

Why should we be concerned about ‘shrinking space’ for NGOs?

  • This worrying trend is not limited to the authoritarian or dictatorial regimes.
  • It is a global phenomenon that can also be observed in Europe, including within the EU’s borders.
  • The governments that limit the space for independent civil society are learning from and copying each other.
  • In countries where the space for NGOs is shrinking, LGBTI organisations and activists are affected and are often specifically targeted. 

What are the European institutions doing?

In its 2012 Council conclusions, the European Union committed to fostering a dynamic, independent environment in which civil society could grow. It also pledged to engage with civil society in a meaningful and structured way. It further committed to ‘promote stronger partnerships between authorities and local civil society organisations (CSO) and ‘address threats to NGOs’ space’ in a 2015-2019 Action Plan on Human rights and Democracy.

Within Enlargement policy, the EU adopted guidelines for support to civil society in enlargement countries, 2014-2020 which state that a country needs to ensure that “a CSO conducive environment” exists before it can join the EU.  While its external policy rhetoric is very strong, the EU’s actions against members states who close the space for independent civil society are not adequate.  

How are ILGA-Europe combatting this ‘shrinking space’ phenomenon?

In 2014, ILGA-Europe commissioned a study to explore how this trend affects our members and how we can support them in their work. Based on the findings of that study and consultations with our members, international NGOs and other stakeholders, ILGA-Europe has agreed on 3 broad strategies:

  1. Facilitate intelligence &experience sharing between different actors, in particular between affected member organisations and donors in order to gain deeper insight, find synergies and devise adequate programmatic responses.
  2. Forge strong connections with other international civil society organisations and support our members to build partnerships in their respective countries in order to better monitor and respond to the ‘shrinking space for civil society’.
  3. Frame the challenges faced by LGBTI NGOs and human rights defenders as part of democratic regress and bigger crackdown on civil society in the countries concerned and advocate for increased political and programmatic support from EU institutions, Member states and other actors for ‘enabling environment for civil society’.

These 3 strategies aim to better support our members to respond to this trend in their respective countries and mobilise broader political and programmatic support from EU institutions, member states and other actors for LGBTI civil society.


For more information, contact Björn van Roozendaal, Programmes Director