The world is experiencing a tense political moment.
Large-scale protests sprung up all across the globe in 2019 with many spilling into 2020, bringing their relentlessness with them. In terms of civil resistance, “we are living through the most contentious time in recorded human history” rivaling the unrest of the 1960’s.
Many of these protests were sparked over specific national grievances, such as a proposed tax or law change, but they repeatedly escalated into being about much more.
It appears many of these protesters share common complaints, challenges and even tactics.
Protests erupted in 47 countries last year within both democratic countries such as France, Chile, India, Colombia and the Czech Republic, as well as authoritarian countries such as Iran, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq and Russia. On top of these, there are also the sizable climate protests like Extinction Rebellion and the Fridays for Future strikes sweeping the globe.
Each movement is undoubtedly different, but there are some themes which have become central to most including inequality, a feeling of political invisibility, and corruption.
Despite being worlds apart, these movements still managed to have some aligning root concerns and have had a lasting impact on the agenda for later movements.
The global political landscape is relevant to understanding this period of unrest. Global inequality does not operate within a vacuum. In the decade post the global financial crisis, international wages have become stagnant, austerity has become the new normal and inequality has deepened globally.
Lebanon, Haiti, and Sudan are examples where attempts to incrementally raise the cost of living resulted in infuriated demonstrations over the perceived mismanagement and corruption of their governments. In both Sudan and Lebanon, leaders were forced to resign.
The Transparency International Index has shown that in 2019, more than two-thirds of countries tackling corruption have stagnated or backslid in their efforts. This includes a number of developed nations such as the United States, Canada and France. Since 2012 Australia has also regressed on this front and simultaneously its civic freedoms rating has been downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’.
Another common motivation for marching has been because of a clear regression of democracy and civil rights as seen in the Bolivian, Venezuelan and Hong Kong protests.
In the background, since the mid-2000s, global norms surrounding the protection of civil rights have been slowly weakening and incidents of violence associated with restricting expression were highly reported throughout the many 2019 movements. CIVICUS announced 40 per cent of the world’s population now lives in countries deemed repressed, doubling the number of people from last year.
Hong Kong has been a large-scale example of anti-government resistance. In June, it is estimated millions of people peacefully marched in opposition to a proposed extradition bill. Their demonstrations have been unyielding despite some resulting in violence. The protesters have since expanded their demands and utilised more innovative tactics.
These tactics have been copied in other movements; a video of a teargas canister being extinguished was widely shared in Chile and Indonesia and in other movements similar brick roadblocks and laser techniques were adopted to evade police too.
These movements are all diverse but the frustration at the inertia from leaders is a universal feeling. It is estimated 185 countries took part in September’s Climate Strikes and during the raging fires in Australia and Brazil, across the world both countries had their embassies surrounded by protesters demanding climate action.
Extinction Rebellion, which originated from the United Kingdom, has used nonviolent civil disobedience to further their environmental message, but are now listed as an ‘extremist’ group by police for their actions.
Australia has not been immune from criticism over its handling of environmental activism either. A new Queensland anti-protest law was criticised by United Nations special rapporteurs for restricting rights to freedom of assembly.
The feeling of political invisibility is impacting young Australians, who have become more disengaged and cynical of formal politics despite still being engaged with issues, making them more inclined to protest. Dissatisfaction with democracy is becoming more prevalent and is experiencing a global all-time high.
It appears 2020 is set for further turbulence as many of the underlying causes for these frustrations require global solutions that remain unaddressed.
A key priority is to reverse the trend of declining civil rights. Inequality across the globe has been shown to be a strong theme for inspiring people to take to the streets but finding effective solutions to manage this problem has long been complicated in a world of sovereign states.
Kate Backshall is an International Economic Affairs Master’s student at the University of Bordeaux and is a recent International Relations graduate from Melbourne's Deakin University.
This article was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day series