Around the world, people are taking to the streets to protest on a scale greater than ever before. Converging and overlapping factors—including crises in governance, economic volatility, rising inequality, and the accelerating impacts of climate change—are fueling social unrest and demands for change in nearly every region of the world.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), protests began to intensify in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. From 2009 and 2019, CSIS found that the average frequency of mass protests increased by over 11 percent. Researchers at the Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung similarly documented an increasing number of protests from 2006 through 2020. After a temporary lull in early 2020 due to the outbreak of Covid-19, protests surged again as anger mounted over government responses to the pandemic and systemic issues including racism and police violence. Since then, the accelerated pace of protests has continued. In 2023 alone, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Global Protest Tracker has recorded over 100 notable mass protests to date.
The right to protest is enshrined in international human rights law. But liberal and illiberal governments alike seem intent on suppressing the freedoms of assembly and expression. As protests have grown, governments have responded through force. Over the past decade, authorities around the world have adopted a common set of repressive tools and tactics to stifle protests and close civic space: As human rights movements grow in scope and power, authorities spread fear-based narratives and abuse counterterrorism and security laws to claim emergency powers, militarize their police, ban public protests, and overregulate independent media, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other civil society groups. They employ new available surveillance technologies and spyware like Pegasus to monitor, discredit, and punish activists. And they invoke broad security or public health measures to arrest and detain people for peacefully protesting, publishing satire, or expressing political views in their art.
This pattern is so discernible that the Funders Initiative for Civil Society has dubbed it the “security playbook.” But by studying this playbook, frontline activists are devising new ways to defend the fundamental rights to influence political and social structures.
Here’s how allies in the international community—governments, legislators, donors, activists, and people who still believe in protecting fundamental human rights—can help.
Understanding the Global Security Playbook
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, governments imposed alarming restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the name of public health and safety—some of which are still in place. Though seemingly well intentioned, many of these measures were quickly abused to stifle legitimate protest.
In the subsequent years, the world has witnessed more brutal crackdowns by authorities against protestors, including uprisings in Iran following the death of Jina (Mahsa) Amini, anti-war rallies in Russia, and demonstrations against draconian COVID-19 restrictions in China.
Attacks on fundamental civic freedoms are not just occurring in authoritarian states. Well-established democracies are clamping down on opposition too.
In May, the British government approved the controversial Public Order Act, which grants police unprecedented powers to restrict non-violent dissent. Human rights advocates have criticized parts of the new law, including enhanced stop-and-search provisions, that they say will disproportionately impact minority communities and exacerbate racist police violence. Recently, civic space watchdog CIVICUS downgraded the UK’s rating to “obstructed”—the same as Poland and Hungary.
Several states in Australia have implemented laws with harsh punishments, including imprisonment, for nonviolent protests that disrupt economic activity. Indigenous-led movements and climate justice protestors have been specifically targeted.
In Spain, the Citizen Security Law—the so-called “ley mordaza” or gag law—punishes critical or satirical speech, bans spontaneous protests in front of Parliament, and grants police extensive powers to punish demonstrators. Introduced following the 2013 anti-austerity protests, the law has ensnared rappers, Twitter users, and journalists since its approval in 2015. As intended, a high number of protestors have also been punished. Contentious efforts to reform the controversial law were abandoned by the Spanish parliament earlier this year.
In the wake of anti-racism demonstrations sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the United States, Republican lawmakers in the United States have introduced a litany of bills to punish public dissent. To date, 21 states have enacted legislation that restricts the right to peacefully protest, according to the International Center for Non-Profit Law. These bills range from criminalizing protests to making it easier for people to harm protesters without consequence.
How Civil Society Is Responding
All of these anti-protest measures share some key characteristics. The good news is that human rights activists have painstakingly mapped the common strategies and tactics many governments are using. Working off their findings, activists and allies can build strategies to push back and defend protest rights.
In Nigeria, for example, Spaces for Change and the Action Group on Free Civic Space—a collective of activists and lawyers—have extensively investigated and documented the tactics used by the Nigerian government to suppress free speech. The country has specifically targeted leaders of the #EndSARS protest movement, which called for disbanding a notoriously brutal unit of the Nigerian police. Activists have built a rich base of evidence that shows how the government has diverted massive financial resources, equipment, and technologies originally procured to fight terrorism to instead monitor the movement of citizens, track activities of civic actors online, intercept private communications, and limit the ability of protesters to organize.
Their contributions to understanding the security playbook have been pivotal. Advocacy by civil society, in large part based on the Action Group’s work, has led to important reforms to Nigeria’s Anti-Terrorism Act and Anti-Money Laundering Act, which had misapplied global standards to impose onerous regulations on nonprofit organizations.
In the Philippines, a team of independent researchers has exposed how former president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration used tactics from the security playbook to vilify activists and attack the right to protest. The local phenomenon of so-called red-tagging—labeling civil society actors as communists or terrorists to delegitimize them—enabled the government to mask repressive regulatory measures as necessary for national security. In their report, the researchers also explore how local activists have responded. Indigenous people–led groups have created safe spaces for deliberation on peace and security, mutual aid emerged as a powerful source of solidarity during the pandemic, and activist-led responses to cyberattacks have helped reclaim digital freedoms.
This critical research aims to reimagine the relationship between safety and security in the Philippines. The emerging strategies highlighted in the report are a potential blueprint for embattled activists in other countries, and a possible lever of change for donors and allies to support.
Earlier this year in Georgia, protesters staged massive demonstrations against a so-called foreign agents law—a common tactic in the security playbook that is used to cut off activists from funding by imposing strict regulations on critical foreign assistance and introducing intentionally broad or opaque regulatory frameworks for the government to exploit. The protests, sparked by civil society and independent media groups, moved Georgia’s parliament to formally revoke the draft bill. Other foreign agent laws are being considered in Kyrgyzstan, El Salvador, and even the European Union, where civil society groups are pushing back in hopes of a similarly successful response.
Using these collective, innovative, and community-driven strategies, human rights defenders are holding the line and protecting their right to protest—but barely. They urgently need support. So, what can their allies in the international community do to help?
Five Ways to Defend the Right to Protest
First and foremost, countries that proclaim themselves as democracies and defenders of open societies must lead by example. At the recent Summit for Democracy, governments made sweeping commitments to protect human rights defenders and keep space to protest open. Now, these states must close the gap between their rhetoric and their actions. The United States has an opportunity to step up by passing the Global Voices of Freedom Act. The European Commission can reject a planned registry for foreign-funded organizations, which more than 200 NGOs recently said would limit the bloc’s ability to support human rights abroad. Other governments can likewise demonstrate global leadership by addressing these issues at home.
Second, activists from marginalized communities must be able to access and participate in policymaking. Communities that are woefully underrepresented in the halls of power—including women, LGBTQ+ people, migrants, and racial or ethnic minorities—are often the canaries in the coal mine for human rights violations. They are among the first to be targeted, as well as the first to respond. By excluding them from high-level decision-making, governments and policymakers miss the chance to heed their early warnings. But when societies support their visions for change, it creates possibilities for more lasting and inclusive solutions.
Third, bilateral donors must commit resources to facilitate transnational alliances and coordination between civil society actors. Donor governments and private philanthropy should support civic space defenders to exchange learning and forge joint strategies with activists facing similar challenges in other countries or regions. This funding should be flexible rather than the typical project-based grants, to enable civil society groups to address threats as they emerge or change. It must be long-term, so that groups have time to tackle the underlying drivers of inequality instead of applying band-aid solutions. And it must prioritize safeguarding—long seen as an afterthought—so that activists can put in place measures to protect themselves from the intensifying backlash and persecution they face.
Fourth, the international community must not be afraid to leverage foreign policy initiatives to create openings for civic space. Integrating requirements for open civic space in the context of development aid, trade agreements, or other strategic relationships can be powerful levers—but only if states are willing to act. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a watchdog set up to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, provides an illustrative example. After governments abused its standards to target activists, FATF revised its framework and now penalizes states that misapply FATF’s policies. Policymakers must put teeth to these diplomatic tools and commitments by taking punitive action when conditions for open civic space are not met.
Finally, states should cooperate to better regulate and punish private sector companies that produce spyware used to perpetuate human rights abuses. The private surveillance industry has exploded in recent years with backing from private equity firms and lucrative deals with private and state actors, but regulations have not kept pace. The threats are so severe that the Committee to Protect Journalists and 180 other civil society groups recommend a global moratorium on the “development, export, sale, transfer, servicing, and use of spyware technologies until governments can put proper regulations in place.” There are also calls for an internationally regulated treaty that would allow sales only to governments that pledge to obey the rules of spyware use.
To further cooperation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recommends that governments, and specifically the European Union (EU), set up a list to track and sanction cybersurveillance companies that run afoul of the law. There is good precedent for sanctions. In 2021, the U.S. government blacklisted the NSO Group, the company behind the infamous Pegasus system, driving them to near bankruptcy. The United States, the EU, and other nations should use their economic leverage to restrict the use of spyware for malicious purposes and take measures to ensure legal accountability for illicit use of these products.