Russian President Vladimir Putin (second right), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left), the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma (left, in foreground) and Brazilian President Michel Temer (right, in foreground) talk during 2016's BRICS summit in Goa. Photo: AFP / Mikhail Metzel

From September 3-5, the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are gathering in Xiamen, China, for the 9th BRICS Summit. Strengthening economic partnerships, enhancing cooperation on development and seeking ways to preserve international stability will be high on their agenda.

In terms of the issues to be discussed, this BRICS meeting has similarities with the recent G20 Summit in Hamburg. But one thing will be noticeably absent: the voices of citizens. There won’t be tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Xiamen, loudly calling for BRICS leaders to listen to their demands.

Due to severe civic space restrictions in China, it’s highly unlikely that there will be any protestors at all; and civil society will have very little influence over the discussions that take place. While this might comfort BRICS leaders, the absence of citizens’ voices in fact represents a missed opportunity.  

Accounting for over 40% of the world’s population and over 20% of its GDP, BRICS countries individually and collectively exercise substantial regional and global influence.

Moreover, in a rebalancing world, BRICS countries have an opportunity to constructively re-shape the global discourse – previously skewed towards the priorities of disproportionately powerful Western countries – towards addressing the developmental needs of the “global South.”

Notably, the Goa Declaration from the last BRICS Summit in India in October 2016 makes several references to the group’s vision of a “just, equitable and democratic multi-polar international order.”

The theme of the upcoming BRICS Summit – stronger partnership for a brighter future – seeks to take “South-South cooperation to a new high, accelerate the implementation of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open up a brighter future for the economic development and social progress of all developing countries.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) and China’s President Xi Jinping meet prior to the BRICS Summit in Goa on October 16, 2016. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

If BRICS is to achieve such lofty aims in any meaningful way, the group’s leaders have to allow for robust civil society participation in agenda setting, in key discussions and in ensuring accountability for decisions taken at summits.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) contribute to sustainable development in myriad ways. They assist in service delivery activities and find innovative solutions to complex problems, while exercising a watchdog role over the disbursement of public resources.

To discharge these responsibilities effectively, CSOs need to be able to act independently and rely on the availability of resources from multiple avenues.

Fundamentally, they need an enabled civic space where core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected, protected and fulfilled.

Recent research from the CIVICUS Monitor, a collaborative new research platform, shows that civic space is worryingly “repressed” in China and Russia, “obstructed” in Brazil and India and “narrowed” in South Africa.

Behind these ratings, the deliberate targeting of human rights lawyers in China, LGBTI activists in Russia and organisations and activists receiving international funding in India have been widely documented.

The situation in host country China is particularly serious, with the government recently carrying out a sweeping crackdown against human rights lawyers and human rights defenders, introducing laws severely restricting the activities of international and internationally-funded CSOs and further tightening controls over internet access through virtual private networks (VPNs).

Recent research from the CIVICUS Monitor, a collaborative new research platform, shows that civic space is worryingly “repressed” in China and Russia, “obstructed” in Brazil and India and “narrowed” in South Africa

Alas, if BRICS’ civil society voices are silenced at the national level, they can have little positive influence over the direction of BRICS at the international level in resolving interlinked global political, social, economic and environmental crises. To disregard independent civil society input is a lost opportunity for the world’s pre-eminent powers.

As BRICS leaders sit down in Xiamen, new forms of mobilisation, organising and associational life are taking root across the planet.

BRICS countries need to open up and recognise the power and legitimacy of people’s voices if they are to achieve their stated aim of creating a just, equitable and democratic international order.

As it stands, this Summit’s focus on “people-to-people” exchanges is limited to discussions on culture, education and sports, with little space for critical conversations on the state of human rights and democratic standards across BRICS member states.

As a symbolic exercise in civil society engagement, a “Civil BRICS” meeting was held in June. It was tightly controlled by Chinese authorities, however, and the concluding declaration was pre-drafted before the meeting even took place.

It’s high time that BRICS governments expanded the scope of these exchanges to discuss avenues for citizen participation in the future direction of BRICS cooperation.

Healthy involvement of civil society can only enhance the legitimacy of the outcomes of BRICS summits in the eyes of the world. Guaranteeing respect for citizens’ fundamental freedoms at home is also essential.

If this happens, BRICS will tap into an unlimited pool of ideas to spur innovation, social cohesion and better standards of living. These are the true unexplored resources of BRICS countries.

Mandeep Tiwana is chief programmes officer for the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, CIVICUS. Cathal Gilbert is a researcher at CIVICUS.

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