A Brief History of Civil Society in America

What makes your society run the way it’s supposed to? How do organizations that aren’t government or business related help society? Civil society or the third sector also plays a part in what makes and operates a country.

First and foremost, the United States is broken into three different sectors. The public sector, the private sector, and the civil sector. The public sector includes the government and governmental organizations, the private sector is made up of businesses and corporations, and lastly, the civil sector includes all of the organizations that work in the public’s best interest but are not seeking a profit or are not controlled by the government.

Civil societies play a big part in the way the country operates. Many civil societies include: labor unions, non-profit organizations, churches, and many other service agencies, but the definition of civil society has changed quite a bit over the years.

In the 18th century, civil society had political ties to it that it does not have today. In its original understanding, it governed social conflict by placing rules on citizens from harming one another. The term then changed meaning towards a more modern liberal definition. It became a system of needs for citizens that was located outside of the political spectrum. Most recently, civil society has taken its place among the third sector, where its voice can be heard outside of business and politics.

According to Bruce Sievers in an article posted to Grantmakers in the Arts, today’s civil society is broken into seven key concepts.

  1. Nonprofit and voluntary institutions.

This includes nonprofit organizations as well as nongovernmental organizations. These institutions play a role in achieving social purposes. They are lead by ideals that do not require a profit to be turned or to have any influence from governmental organizations.

  1. Individual rights.

Individual rights has been classified as a distinctive characteristic of civil society. The individual rights of all citizens is at the forefront of what it means to have a civil society, and are protected as such.

  1. The common good.

Leading back to one of the original concepts of civil society, the common good is derived from society’s purpose to advance common interests among its citizens.

  1. The rule of law.

This concept is intertwined with the previous two, as it becomes the checks and balances system of protecting individual rights and promoting the common good. Without the rule of law, the rights and common good of citizens would be up for interpretation and may falter from their original intent.

  1. Philanthropy.

Closely related to promoting the common good, philanthropy is essential to civil society. Philanthropy has helped shape American civil society in the 18th and 19th centuries and continues to do so today.

  1. Free expression.

Free expression is associated with individual rights and the concept of free speech. As part of civil society and society in America, freedom of expression and the formation of public opinion is a definitive characteristic of civil society.

  1. Tolerance.

Without tolerance many of these concepts would lie flat. Groups and organizations need to be certain that their freedom of expression and their individual rights are protected. By having tolerance as a main characteristic of civil society, these groups can be rest assured that they are protected.

Civil society plays a huge part in the way countries and especially America are run. They promote equality and the inclusion of all for purposes to promote the common good among citizens. These institutions help further society by protecting individuals and promoting the advancement and well-being of citizens.

Human Rights and Civil Society In Russia

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Civil society is a necessary part of any free society and is key in ensuring the collective will of citizens is heard. Seeing civil society organizations repressed in any country is cause for alarm. This is the case today in Russia.

Russia has a poor human rights record and though Russia claims to be a free society today, it is considered by experts a country that is only somewhat free. Many believe that this is worsening as the government collapses.

The number of cases of human rights abuses in the European Court of Human Rights has steadily increased since 2002. These cases include discrimination, murder of journalists, and torture of prisoners.

Opposition to the ruling party is routinely met with intimidation, imprisonment and even murder.

Sergei Magnitsky, for example, was an accountant in Russia who attempted to expose government officials for a massive theft. He was subsequently tortured in prison over the course of a year and eventually died without ever being tried.

Most recently opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was murdered in front of the Kremlin. The official story alleges he was killed by Chechan Islamic extremists for his support of Charlie Hebdo. These official stories are incredulous after a number of high-profile journalist murders have taken place under Putin’s watch.

The problem is not with a lack of laws it is a problem with people ignoring the laws and not being punished. Torture, for example, is expressly forbidden in the Russian Constitution but some estimates put the number of prisoners whom have endured torture in interrogations at 50%.

Non-governmental organizations are not able to act freely in the country and face government oversight which effectively renders them useless. Civil society organizations are meant to be separate organizations so by requiring NGOs register as Russian organizations they can no longer represent the will of the people if its against the government. Many NGOs have been suspended from acting in the country.

Many are optimistic however and say Russia has a complicated political history and changes are not made overnight. The collapse of the ruble may threaten the Putin regime but even if he were to be replaced it would hard to completely change the corrupt system quickly.