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Experts Warn of Shrinking Civic Space as BRICS Expands Membership

WASHINGTON — Some analysts warn that the choice of countries selected for induction into the BRICS bloc suggests the grouping as a whole may be headed on a path toward decreased tolerance for public dissent and debate.

The five-nation developing bloc, which comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, announced on August 24 the admission of six countries into its fold: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Their membership is expected to become effective in January 2024.

Of the six states, four — Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Iran — have a history of heavily clamping down on dissenting voices. Their inclusion draws them closer to Russia and China, both known as authoritarian regimes that allow little engagement by independent civil society groups.

Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at London-based Royal United Security Institute, the U.K.’s oldest defense and security policy group, told VOA the selection of these six nations from among some 40 applicants reflected the disparate interests of the existing BRICS members.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud attends a meeting during the 2023 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, Aug. 24, 2023.

“Argentina is there because of its neighbor Brazil. Russia and China also want to bring in Iran. And Egypt is there primarily because of the centrality of the hydrocarbon sector to many of the BRICS countries. And, for South Africa, it likely wanted Ethiopia because of its centrality for African diplomacy,” he said. The African Union is headquartered in Addis Ababa.

“We do see a group of countries that certainly have a democracy problem, and this is strengthening non-democratic trends in the BRICS, and a human rights problem,” Melvin said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has cited Ethiopia, Iran and China among the 10 most censored countries for journalists in the world. Like political analysts, the advocacy group wants openness on the part of BRICS leaders.

Guillen Kaiser, CPJ’s advocacy and communications director, told VOA that because BRICS makes up “a significant portion of the world’s population,” it is imperative for member states, “many of which are repressive regimes,” to accept that their people want to be informed.

“The public wants transparency and accountability. Journalists provide this every day, with reporting that moves markets and allows people to make informed decisions,” she said. “BRICS leaders must accept that ultimately, their chokehold on the flow of information isn’t grounded in reality and it is in their interest to embrace a free press.”

Iran President Ebrahim Raisi addresses the 15th BRICS Summit, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 24, 2023. The BRICS leaders announced that they would welcome Iran, Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates into the bloc.

Melvin noted that the BRICS expansion follows Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the refusal by some countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America to join the United States and most of Europe in retaliatory sanctions.

The expansion, he said, might be a signal of the bloc’s resolve to lead a new kind of Global South movement to broaden its legitimacy. “But I think this is going to be a very difficult agenda because it is relatively easy to complain about the existing [world] order.”

Melvin said if BRICS expects to offer an alternative to the West, it will have to address the challenges faced by its incoming members — an economic crisis in Argentina and massive debts faced by Ethiopia and Egypt.

“The West has been struggling with this for many years,” he said. “So, can China, Russia and the rest actually put something together? That’s the question they have put on themselves, and they’re going to have to answer that.”

Mandeep Tiwana, chief officer for evidence and engagement at CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, told VOA that many of the newly inducted BRICS members have a record of suppressing human rights and dismantling the democratic aspirations of their people.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (C) delivers the XV BRICS summit declaration flanked by from left, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi and Russia's Sergey Lavrov, in Johannesburg, Aug. 24, 2023.

“BRICS is, in a sense, trying to reframe global governance,” Tiwana said. “Because when you have governments that are totalitarian in nature, it is going to create more challenges for people around the world rather than resolve challenges or create a better life for all.”

Tiwana said with Russia and China having disproportionate influence within the bloc, it is still not clear whether democratic states like Brazil, India and South Africa can have a positive influence on the other members.

“The leaders have not openly spoken about this, and our research shows that four of the countries BRICS is admitting have serious civic space restrictions, and so it doesn’t augur well for people-centered decision-making when you practically have no independent civil society in these countries,” he said.

“Our hope is that countries with democratic traditions within the BRICS alliance can influence the others to be more open to civil society so they can involve people in their decision-making.”

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said BRICS would expand more in the future.

Source : VOA News