Civic Space Under Siege -The Future of Tourism as a Freedom Economy

Keynote at ITB 2024

Ladies and Gentlemen, esteemed guests,

Thank you for having me here at the green stage of ITB. I am very grateful to  contribute to the crucial dialogue surrounding diversity and inclusion. Today, I aim to broaden our perspective on a fundamental aspect: the opportunity for voices to be heard within the broader landscape of society.

My name is Antje Monshausen, and for over a decade, I've had the privilege of leading Tourism Watch. This role allowed me to merge my interest for human rights and justice, with my deep believe that the tourism industry can be a potential driver for sustainable development. 

Since its inception in the 1970s, Tourism Watch has been dedicated to shining a spotlight on the often-overlooked inhabitants of tourism destinations. Collaborating with fellow NGOs, our mission has been to amplify the voices of those marginalized within the global tourism industry, shedding light on their struggles and advocating for their rights.

Today, I am sharing with you a major concern — both for the future of tourism as an economic force intertwined with freedom, and for the broader concept of freedom itself, which serves as a cornerstone for individual empowerment and self-determined development  – also in tourism.

I am grateful for the opportunity to delve into the current reality of civil society here at ITB. The timing couldn't be more apt, as 2024 emerges as a pivotal year marked by national elections in over 50 countries, including some of the world's largest economies such as the United States, Mexico, Indonesia, and the European Union. Collectively, more than 3 billion people will be called upon to exercise their democratic rights.

However, let us not forget the billions of people who painfully miss this fundamental freedom in countries where democracy remains elusive.

While 2024 holds promises as a year of elections, it's essential to acknowledge a bitter reality. Although we celebrate the democratic processes, a bitter taste remains. Indeed, recent trends highlighted by scientists and think tanks reveal a concerning pattern: a global democratic recession spanning at least the past 10 years.

The results of the 2024 elections could bring about governments that are more likely to limit freedoms, hinder international cooperation, and restrict the activities of journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and unions. As a result, the space for civic engagement continues to diminish, which is a concerning trend that requires our careful consideration and proactive measures.

Please allow me to introduce to you the Civicus Monitor, a valuable tool to understand the status of civil society globally. Published by Civicus, an international alliance committed to enhancing citizen engagement and civil society worldwide, this comprehensive global report and an annually updated world map is available since five years. The monitor assesses three crucial dimensions of civic space: the right to associate, the right to peaceful protest, and the right to free expression.

Let's delve into the color-coded system that helps to understand the diverse conditions of civic space across the world. In the red category, encompassing 28 states primarily in the Middle East, and Central and East Asia, we find countries where civic space is entirely closed, characterized by fear and violence. Individuals exercising their rights face imprisonment, injury, and even death. Criticism of authorities is met with severe punishment, and media freedom is nearly non-existent, with extensive internet censorship and website blocking.

Transitioning to the orange – the largest category with 50 states, including the majority of African states as well as countries in Central America and South Asia, we encounter nations where civic space is severely restricted. Here, individuals who criticize those in power face surveillance, harassment, and imprisonment. Peaceful protestors risk encountering excessive force and mass arrests, while independent media and online platforms may face censorship and restrictions.

In the yellow category, civic space faces obstruction and is heavily contested by those in power. Countries in this category are situated in the Pacific, Southern Africa, and most of South America. Civil society organizations and independent media exist but are constantly undermined by state authorities through illegal surveillance and harassment. Even peaceful assembly, though formally allowed, often meets with excessive force and violence.

In the light green category, although the state permits individuals and civil society organizations to exercise their rights, violations of these rights persist. This is evident in most European countries, as well as individual nations worldwide such as Mongolia, Costa Rica, or Namibia.

Lastly, in the green category – predominantly comprising Scandinavian states, the Baltic countries, and Canada – we find countries where the state not only facilitates but also safeguards the enjoyment of civic space for all citizens.

Currently, 118 out of 198 countries and territories fall into the obstructed to closed categories, experiencing severe restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
Shockingly, almost a third of the world's population, totaling 2.4 billion people, live in countries with closed civic space—the highest percentage since 2018.

Conversely, less than 15% of the global population resides in countries where governments where governments allow civil society organizations to exercise their rights. Only 2 percent – however – are living in countries that actively enable and safeguard the rights to association, peaceful protest and free expression.

When we are looking more in detail in the figures, we see that particularly the civic space for women, environmental activitsts, LGBTIQ+ Activists, unionists and youth is often harmed.

So what are the consequences of this trends and observations?
Only offering trips and conducting business in green or light-green countries is not a viable option for anyone in this room, I believe –  and frankly spoken, the world would be quite small and trist if one strictly follows this strategy. However, ignoring the alarming trend of shrinking civic space is also not an option. Authoritarianism is on the rise, and the tourism industry is not immune to its effects – on the contrary: Authoritarian states utilize tourism to project a positive image to the world. Revenue from tourism finances the political power of elites in many countries. Tourism serves as both an economic and political business model in numerous red and orange countries – in some nations, even the military or the state itself operates tourist infrastructure, including airports, hotels, and convention centers.

Protests against tourist developments are brutally suppressed in these countries. Additionally, in countries categorized as yellow or orange, protests against airport construction or demands for more involvement in tourism planning can lead to severe intimidation.

I am glad that we have the chance later today to hear from Uganda, how the closed space for LGBTIQ+ engagement is harming local people from the queer communities, but also the tourism development of the country. Unfortunately Uganda is not an isolated case – a new anti-LGBTIQ bill was just published in Ghana last week and is now waiting for approval by president. 

But I am also very concerned about a deafening silence from many parts of the world. At ITB we will not hear anything from the 28 countries in the red – meaning the fully closed – category of the civicus monitor. In those countries civil society has already been silenced. Human Rights activists are in prison, in exil or even dead. By the way: 25 out of the 28 states are exhibiters here at ITB, some have a very stong and emerging engagement in tourism.

So what do we make out of it? The question for all industries including tourism is:
How to do business under this difficult circumstances. In an environment where freedom is increasingly under siege?  How can tourism businesses avoid being complicit with authoritarian and oppressive regimes? This is not just a moral imperative; it's a strategic necessity for a sector such as tourism, which is reliant more than any other sector on freedom and local acceptance.

The industry must proactively develop strategies to promote diversity and inclusion while navigating the complex terrain of governments that violate minority rights. The most central framework for such an approach are the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted by the international community in 2012. These principles serve as a basis also for new legal frameworks, particularly in the context of supply chain due diligence laws – as they were introduced in more and more countries and currently discussed at EU-level.

The UN Guiding Principles are very clear: Even if governments are unwilling or unable to safeguard human rights of their citizens and local population, companies have the responsibility to respect human rights.

This is not a passive responsibility, but the demand to proactively avoid negative consequences on human rights along their supply chain.  Central to these principles is stakeholder engagement. It's not just a buzzword; it's a fundamental aspect of good corporate governance. By engaging stakeholders, companies can better understand, prevent, mitigate, track, and remediate their impacts on people and the environment throughout their operations and business relationships.

The UN Guiding Principles underscore the necessity of meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other stakeholders. What does meaningful mean? Here, it's crucial to emphasize the definition of stakeholders, particularly (potentially) affected groups. These are individuals or communities whose human rights may be impacted by a company's operations, products, or services. In essence, they are the rights holders, and their voices must be heard and respected.

Yet, companies often gravitate towards engaging with stakeholders who have power and influence in the destination. However, a human rights due diligence approach demands specific attention to and engagement with affected groups, especially those who are vulnerable or marginalized. You remember the slide of the Civicus monitor, saying that that women, LGBTIQ+-activists, Workers´ Rights advocates, environmental defenders and youth are the groups most affected by civic space incidents.

Particularly in countries with minimal civic space, it is a responsibility of companies to invest an extra portion on trying to engage with the most vulnerable groups. Yet it is important to also taking care, that this engagement is not additionally exposing them to risks of violence and intimidation. I am glad, that this diversity and inclusion session gives stage to many experienced practitioners, sharing insights on how to navigate on this narrow edge.

Coming to the end – let me take a look at something that gives hope: Yes it is true: Many countries face a notable growth in authoritarian tendencies, populist movements, and the erosion of democratic norms – and 2024 seems not to be a year, where a turn around to the positive will take place. But: Civil society engagement and international solidarity efforts are also on the rise. Advocacy campaigns, legal interventions, and grassroots mobilization are actively pushing back against the encroachment on civic space. This trend is currently evident in Germany and other countries, where also tour operators are mobilizing against the rise of far-right ideologies.

Moreover, I am observing a significant shift within the tourism industry towards engagement with human rights issues in destination countries. More and more tour operators are now conducting human rights impact assessments, advocating for government support to protect child rights during destination workshops, and providing platforms for dialogue and criticism within destinations.While not all tourism companies have embraced this approach yet, an increasing number recognize that promoting human rights is integral to their business success. They understand that it is more beneficial to be criticized by the right stakeholder rather than receiving applause from the wrong side.

With this optimistic outlook, I would like to express again my gratitude for your attention. I am happy to provide further insights into practical challenges and solutions for stakeholder engagement in tourism, based on my experiences over the last 15 years.

Please find the ppt-presentation to the keynote here.