As His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the late Czech President, Vaclav Havel, among others, wrote in their joint letter endorsing the Defending Civil Society report in 2009 "[d]emocracy will not flourish unless citizens can freely engage in politics and social change, and for many years civil society groups have been providing citizens with the means to do so peacefully.”

Today, many governments around the world increasingly use restrictive legal measures to constrain civil society groups and prevent them from facilitating meaningful citizen participation in areas of political and social development. To respond to this regressive trend, governments, civil society organizations, and the international community have engaged in both successful and unsuccessful advocacy efforts to reform restrictive legal measures and to prevent new ones from being enacted.

As part of these efforts, the World Movement for Democracy and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) launched the Defending Civil Society project in 2007. The project responds to requests for assistance from activists engaged in advocacy, documents the important lessons learned, compiles practical information on the issues, and identifies the tools that have been used for effective reform strategies.

Most civil society representatives recognize that properly written laws governing civil society organizations (CSOs) are fundamental for the protection of freedom of association, expression and assembly, and necessary for the development of civil society. At the same time, law can be and often is used to constrain legal space and undermine the protection of fundamental freedoms. This sometimes makes civil society activists wary of legal reform initiatives that may result in the introduction of restrictions and limitations on civic space. Instead, the laws governing civil society should “facilitate” and “enable,” rather than “control” civil society. It is therefore in the interest of civil society to participate actively in the development of the legal frameworks.

To help in this regard, this Toolkit compiles the experiences of those who have engaged in legal reform initiatives in over dozens countries worldwide. To ensure it is as relevant and practical as possible, the World Movement and ICNL asked hundreds of civil society representatives in over 40 countries to share their knowledge, experiences, and information.

Advocacy strategies and tactics vary across different political contexts (authoritarian regimes, transitional democracies, consolidating democracies), so the suggestions contained in this Toolkit should be considered carefully within the context of your own country. The idea behind the Toolkit is that sharing practical experiences and lessons learned helps build the capacity of those who seek to reform the laws governing civil society.

We hope this Toolkit will thus provide the tips, tools, and strategies that organizations and activists around the world can consider as they plan their efforts to reform legal frameworks for civil society.

Produced in several languages, this Toolkit includes the following chapters:

  • Understanding and Assessing Restrictive Environments
  • Engaging Civil Society
  • Engaging Diplomatic and Donor Communities
  • Engaging the Media
  • Building Dialogue with Government, Parliamentarians, and Other Stakeholders
  • Surviving in a Severely Restrictive Environment

Before beginning a legal reform initiative, you should:

  • Consider how open the political space is within your country. This is a key factor for determining the potential success of engaging in a reform initiative. Reform goals must be set with an awareness of political opportunities and boundaries. That said, even where political space is severely restricted, progress toward reform is possible in several concrete ways, such as building civil society’s capacity for analyzing the local legal framework, deepening its awareness of how freedom of assembly and association is under threat, or uniting civic groups in challenging a law that negatively affects civil society generally.
  • Understand and accept the risks involved. Even when seeking to avoid confrontation, it is still important to be critical of the government when monitoring the political process and engaging in reform advocacy. While you may find it necessary to compromise on particular provisions, you should guard against compromising your fundamental democratic principles.
  • Be ready for a long battle. It is not unusual for the reform process to take several years or more. In the process of amending an existing law or developing a new one, there are often numerous drafts, and the political climate and actors may change frequently and sometimes unexpectedly. It is important, therefore, for those who are involved in legal reform efforts to maintain their focus in the face of such political change.