Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Dr Fred Sekindi, Director of Research, Advocacy and Lobbying at the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI) based in Kampala, Uganda. Established in 1991, FHRI is an independent, non-governmental, non-partisan and not-for-profit human rights organisation seeking to remove impediments to democratic development and the meaningful enjoyment of fundamental freedoms through research, monitoring, legislative advocacy, strategic partnerships and the dissemination of information and best practices through training and education.
In the past few years, the incumbent government has demonstrated its resolve to hold on to power at all cost. In this quest to hold to power, ideals of democracy have increasingly been under threat. President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for over 30 years and has been declared triumphant in the six presidential elections that have been conducted since the 1995 Constitution was promulgated, amidst widespread discontent with electoral laws. Elections by themselves are not a symbol of democracy, particularly if electoral laws are not able to translate the will of the people into true democratic choice. A recently introduced and very unpopular proposal to amend the 1995 Constitution to remove age restrictions on the presidency, and the brutal force employed by state security forces against dissenters, also illustrate the state of democratic decay of Uganda. Civil society organisations (CSOs) that have criticised the proposal to amend the Constitution have had their accounts frozen and some have been threatened with closure. The government has resorted to draconian laws such as the 2013 Public Management Order Act, which prohibits public gatherings without the approval of the Inspector General of Police, to prevent public gatherings and demonstrations against the proposed constitutional amendments. Over the past few years, Uganda has also witnessed an escalation in the harassment and unlawful detention of political opponents of the government and political and human rights activists.
CSOs working in the area of service delivery continue to operate without any notable hindrances from the government, while those working on land rights, democracy, governance, anti-corruption and transparency continue to face an uphill task.
The controversial Non-Government Organisations Act, enacted in 2016, has increased government supervision and control over CSOs. The Act creates an obligation for CSOs not to engage in any act that is prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda and that is not in the interest of Ugandans. It further establishes an NGO Bureau with powers to revoke the licences of offending CSOs. Any CSO that engages in such loosely defined acts is liable to deregistration. Augmented by the Public Order Management Act, the Non-Government Organisation Act further restricts civic space - the space for civil society - for CSOs working in the areas of democracy, good governance, anti-corruption and transparency. This has come during a period of increasing impunity of state officials and when the government has embarked on unpopular constitutional amendments.
CSOs, especially those engaged in the fields of democracy and governance, are perceived by the government as political and partisan, and as agents of western governments, since their roles include monitoring government policies and actions and holding government officials accountable to the public.
In October 2017, the police raided a number of CSO offices and seized their computers and documents. The central bank froze these CSOs’ bank accounts, as well as the personal accounts of their directors. These raids were soon followed by orders from the NGO Bureau for CSOs to submit their bank account statements for the past 10 years. The police claimed that they were investigating allegations of money laundering.
Thus CSOs in Uganda continue to struggle to contribute to democratic governance in a very hostile environment shaped by a draconian regulatory framework and systematic practices of intimidation and self-censorship.
As a result of the government’s failure to ensure the fundamental rights of the people, CSOs have stepped in to fill this gap. The increasing popularity of CSOs among the populace, more so in a time of political upheaval when Ugandans need a sense of direction and strong leadership, lays a fertile ground for antagonism between the government on one hand, and CSOs and the citizenry on the other.
A Private Members’ Bill introduced by a ruling party parliamentarian to remove age restrictions on the presidency was tabled in Parliament in September 2017. This bill seeks to allow the incumbent President Museveni to run for additional terms in office.
Coincidentally, the police raided the offices of ActionAid and the Great Lakes Initiative for Strategic Studies in Kampala, and Solidarity Uganda in the Northern city of Lira, on 21 September 2017, as part of its campaign to clamp down on CSOs that, in their opinion, are working against the removal of the age limit.
As a result of the recent wave of government intimidations and restrictive legal framework, CSOs are operating in a very uncertain environment. To continue working in this hostile environment, some CSOs have resorted to self-censorship, in order to avoid deregistration. This, however, poses the risk of these CSOs becoming irrelevant, as they are not engaging with the issues that concern the citizenry the most. The other challenge is that, in an environment in which the observance of fundamental freedoms is increasingly neglected by the government, restrictions imposed on the exercise of fundamental rights are likely to carry on unabated.
The police raids have also had another two-pronged effect on CSOs: on one hand, the police seeks to deter the organisations from carrying out any activities that could prevent the incumbent president from achieving his ambition of a life presidency, by portraying them as working against the ‘public interest’ or the ‘security of the state’; on the other, it aims at tarnishing CSOs’ reputation and dissuading their donors from continuing to financially support their work.
The police has continued to use the Police Act and the Public Order Management Order Act to stifle the freedoms of peaceful assembly, expression and association, and to arrest and detain persons unlawfully. The Police Act authorises the use of ‘preventive detention’ for the protection of the detainee and to starve off the spread of communicable disease. This power has been misused to arrest human rights activists and political opponents arbitrarily and to prevent political activities and demonstrations from taking place. In turn, the Public Order Management Act requires the organiser of a public procession to submit a ‘notice of intention to carry out a public meeting’ to the police. Spontaneous meetings are exempted from the notice. However, the police has repeatedly dispersed spontaneous meetings, prevented meetings arranged by opposition parties, CSOs and political activists, and arrested demonstrators.
In sum, the government continues to employ bully tactics to harass dissenters. CSOs, opposition political activists and journalists are the main victims of these attacks.
Uganda is at a crossroads. The quest by the incumbent to hold on to power poses a risk to the relative peace the country has witnessed over the past 30 years and renders the country vulnerable to a return to the old unviable struggles for political power. The determination to hold on to power at all costs has coincided with an increase in state abuses of fundamental rights. It is within this environment that CSOs in Uganda operate. To fill the void in the promotion and protection of human rights, and to provide a sense of direction and leadership to the populace, CSOs must situate their work within the current political and human rights context.
Thus, technical and financial support from international civil society to CSOs in Uganda will be crucial in steering Uganda towards democratic governance. International partners may also lobby the Ugandan government on issues of good governance and human rights as another method of exerting influence. International CSOs could also create a fund for protecting and evacuating human rights defenders in emergency cases.
Most importantly, international CSOs have a role in supporting local CSOs in their work to build civic competences among the citizenry as well as to safeguard fundamental rights. In times when the government’s priority is the incumbent’s survival in power, issues of good governance and observance of fundamental rights have been neglected. It is for CSOs to step in and fill this void. This task would be impossible to achieve without the support of international partners.
CIVICUS conversa con Ileana Molo, Presidenta Ejecutiva de la organización Afropanameñ@ Soy e integrante de la Red de Derechos Humanos de Panamá, en cuya representación participó de la audiencia de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos sobre la situación de personas defensoras de derechos humanos en Panamá en octubre de 2017.
Uno de los temas más preocupantes que hemos denunciado es el hostigamiento y la intimidación de los líderes comunitarios y activistas de la sociedad civil por la vía jurídica y mediante agresiones económicas y psicológicas. Esta tendencia afecta desproporcionadamente a grupos movilizados por temas ambientales y en relación con el uso del suelo, cuyo activismo los pone en conflicto con grandes empresas en el área del desarrollo de infraestructura.
Estamos viendo una fuerte tendencia a la criminalización y la intimidación. Hay un entramado de normas discriminatorias, y las empresas, que tienen muchos recursos económicos y mucho poder, las están usando para demandar a los activistas de modo de intimidarlos legalmente y desalentar su labor. Entonces, si tú denuncias una mala práctica de una empresa, la empresa enseguida te demanda a ti. Muchos activistas están siendo afectados económica y psicológicamente, de manera que estamos viendo cómo podemos apoyarlos.
Tenemos un mapeo de las diferentes agresiones físicas, económicas y políticas y de las demandas que han enfrentado los defensores. Entre los casos más recientes está el de Basilio Pérez, un activista ambiental y experto forestal que fue demandado por daños y perjuicios por una empresa a la que había denunciado por violaciones a la ley general de ambiente y la contaminación de comunidades aledañas a la mina del Cerro Quema. La empresa le exige una indemnización de 40 mil dólares.
Otro caso resonado es el de Max Crowe, presidente y representante legal de la Asociación de Propietarios de Jardín Albrook, una asociación de vecinos que inició un proceso para defender la zonificación residencial ante violaciones de las normas de uso del suelo y normas urbanísticas. En este caso, el abuso judicial incluyó una demanda por 65 mil dólares contra Crowe, el secuestro arbitrario de sus bienes personales y el congelamiento de la cuenta bancaria de la organización. Su caso es similar al de María Chávez, presidenta de la Red Ciudadana Urbana de Panamá, que reúne a más de 40 comunidades. En el marco de un conflicto por violación de normas urbanísticas y de uso del suelo, Chávez fue demandada judicialmente por un diputado aparentemente vinculado con concesiones mineras con interés en la creación de un nuevo distrito en esa zona.
Otro caso muy sonado en los medios es el de la asociación de residentes de Coco del Mar, que por presentar una querella ambiental contra una empresa constructora han sido objeto de una demanda civil de daños y perjuicios por alrededor de 5 millones de dólares. Primero tuvieron una querella penal con sobreseimiento provisional en primera instancia dictado en noviembre de 2016 y ratificado por segunda instancia este año. En octubre de 2016 presentaron la demanda civil, y ahora enfrentan esta millonaria demanda.
Cabe subrayar también el caso de la compañera Larissa Duarte, joven activista ambientalista de las áreas indígenas comarcales, fundadora del Movimiento Campesino en Defensa del Río Cobre, que fue demandada por 10 millones de dólares por la empresa Hidroeléctricas Los Estrechos S.A., en el marco de un conflicto por usurpación de tierras y en defensa del agua. Si bien el reclamo de la empresa, por costos incurridos cuando el proyecto hidroeléctrico fue cancelado supuestamente como consecuencia del activismo, ha sido recientemente desestimado por la justicia, la campaña de difamación contra Larissa Duarte y su organización continúa.
Otro caso muy importante es el de la Isla Pedro González, que ha afectado a muchas familias. La empresa Pearl Island Living llegó a la isla un día diciendo que ellos eran los dueños de la tierra y que iban a desarrollar un proyecto turístico y habitacional de modo que las personas que vivía ahí se tenían que ir. En este caso, se han dado muchas situaciones de enfrentamiento entre los pobladores y la empresa. Se mantiene latente el conflicto por la legalidad de la titulaciones.
Por el momento, sin embargo, los activistas han enfrentado más acoso judicial que ataques violentos. Pero es importante mencionar el caso de Ligia Arreaga, que debió abandonar el país tras recibir amenazas de muerte. Arreaga, defensora del Humedal Laguna de Mtusagaratí y enfrentada a los proyectos de una empresa de sembrar palma aceitera en gran escala en la provincia de Darién, denunció en tres ocasiones, en 2009, 2015 y 2016, que había recibido advertencias de que la empresa AGSE Panamá S.A. la mandaría matar por sus denuncias sobre titulación de tierras. Finalmente dejó el país porque no recibió ningún respaldo policial ante las amenazas.
Efectivamente, las empresas son la principal fuente de agresiones, y de hecho tienen suficiente poder como para obstaculizar nuestro trabajo. Cuando trabajábamos en el informe sobre Barro Blanco, nos resultó bien difícil llegar hasta las comunidades afectadas para entrevistarlas, porque teníamos a la empresa todo el tiempo pisándonos los talones y nos resultaba intimidante que una persona supervisara todo lo que hacíamos. Además nos costó muchísimo llegar hasta la zona, porque había que ir en lancha, ya que todo el ensamble de la hidroeléctrica está rodeado por agua – que es precisamente lo que las comunidades alegan: que están perdiendo sus tierras, que se están inundando y ya no resultan cultivables.
El rol del Estado es, como mínimo, ambiguo. Por un lado, el Estado tiene la potestad de mediar, y nosotros le exigimos que lo haga. En el caso de la isla Pedro González, le solicitamos que se reuniera con la empresa y la comunidad, para llegar a acuerdos y que se levantaran las órdenes de detención que había contra 37 personas desde el año pasado. Esto se logró finalmente gracias al trabajo que hizo la Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia en conjunto con la Red de Derechos Humanos y organizaciones de afrodescendientes. Llegamos a un acuerdo con el fiscal para que permitiera que estas personas se presentaran voluntariamente y las órdenes de detención fueran reemplazadas por medidas cautelares; esta dinámica requirió del trabajo de numerosos abogados que de forma desinteresada brindaron sus servicios legales ya que los pobladores de la Isla son, en su mayoría, de escasos recursos.
Por el otro lado, claramente muchas instituciones estatales son utilizadas por las empresas para alcanzar sus fines. De hecho, las instancias jurídicas suelen acoger las demandas que las empresas entablan contra sus críticos, decretan la confiscación de los bienes de los acusados, y en general aunque eventualmente los absuelvan, los someten a largos procesos que son muy desgastantes. Hace pocos días, por ejemplo, acompañamos al juzgado a los residentes de Coco del Mar, que fueron voluntariamente a declarar por la demanda civil contra ellos, y una señora de la junta directiva comentaba que el caso le generaba tal incertidumbre que la estaba perjudicando física y psicológicamente y perturbando su vida personal y familiar.
En última instancia, el Estado toma partido a favor de las empresas. Recientemente hemos tenido informes de pobladores de Pedro González muy preocupados porque en las próximas semanas se iniciará la construcción del proyecto hotelero. Y francamente nuestra organización aún no ha podido ocuparse del tema de la titulación de las tierras, porque nuestro trabajo es voluntario, no tenemos capacidad suficiente, y por lo tanto hemos tenido que dividir las luchas: primero atender el tema de las personas con medidas de detención, y dejar para luego el tema de las tierras y las titulaciones. Pero el gobierno sí puede, y debería ocuparse de estos temas. El tema es que falta voluntad política; en el caso específico de Pedro González, uno de los grandes accionistas del proyecto en cuestión es Guillermo Saint Malo Eleta, pariente de la vicepresidenta de la nación. Así es que las soluciones al conflicto no avanzan porque hay fuertes intereses de por medio.
En ciertos casos, como el de Barro Blanco, la toma de partido otorga al Estado un rol más represivo. El caso de Barro Blanco es un conflicto de larga data que empezó con concesiones a empresas hidroeléctricas varios gobiernos atrás. El proyecto se impuso contra la voluntad de la población indígena de la zona, que se vio desplazada y sufrió daños irreparables en poblados, zonas de cultivos y sitios religiosos, históricos, arqueológicos y culturales. En este caso, el Estado se ve involucrado de lleno toda vez que se dan enfrentamientos. Los pobladores exigen que las empresas paren los trabajos, y en cambio el gobierno suelta a la policía antimotines y los agrede. Hay un entramado de complicidades entre las empresas y el Estado, y el tiempo que pasa corre en contra de estas poblaciones, porque los proyectos de infraestructura acaban convirtiéndose en hechos consumados.
Nosotros trabajamos en red. La organización que presido, Afropanameñ@ Soy, es parte de la Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Negras en Panamá (CONEGPA). Trabajamos todo lo relacionado con los derechos humanos de las personas afrodescendientes. También formamos parte de la Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia y de la Red de Derechos Humanos de Panamá.
La Red de Derechos Humanos tiene unos tres años de mucha actividad, y trabaja mediante una asamblea de acción ciudadana formada por unas 30 organizaciones, entre ellas sindicatos y grupos de mujeres, juventud, indígenas, grupos LGTBI y afrodescendientes. La asamblea generalmente se reúne dos veces al mes y aborda temas de actualidad nacional; la red se activa cuando se da alguna presentación de un caso específico de violación de derechos. Tenemos un grupo técnico que se encarga de hacer el relevamiento en el terreno. Nosotros asumimos todos los gastos: hacemos colectas para poder mandar a este grupo a hacer el trabajo de campo y redactamos y difundimos el informe. Tenemos ya dos informes técnicos elaborados, uno sobre Pedro González y otro sobre Barro Blanco, este último disponible en la web. Personalmente he tenido la oportunidad de participar en los dos, y en este último más intensamente porque incluyó la variable étnica, ya que las comunidades afectadas tienen una alta proporción de afrodescendientes.
Como la Red se sostiene exclusivamente en los esfuerzos de sus miembros, sin ningún otro financiamiento, es clave para nosotros recibir la colaboración de otros actores. Así, por ejemplo, cuando tenemos alguna consulta legal más técnica recibimos apoyo del Colegio de Abogados. En este momento estamos trabajando en un pequeño proyecto con la Defensoría del Pueblo, la Universidad de Panamá y otras instituciones académicas, para desarrollar un diplomado para formar expertos en levantamiento de informes en situaciones de crisis. Todavía está un poco verde, pero para nosotros esto es fundamental porque no cualquiera puede hacer una investigación y producir informes de este tipo, y necesitamos más técnicos que puedan dedicarse a estos procesos.
Nos vinculamos también con grupos de prensa alternativos que nos apoyan dando divulgación a nuestros casos. El sistema de medios de comunicación es muy poco accesible para nosotros, ya que en general está compuesto de grandes empresas muy poderosas que suelen tomar partido por las empresas que criminalizan al activismo. Nuestro trabajo de difusión recientemente resultó en una cobertura más equilibrada de la movilización que se produjo cuando los residentes de Coco del Mar se presentaron a declarar.
Y también, por supuesto, llevamos nuestros reclamos a organismos de derechos humanos como la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH).
Como Red de Derechos Humanos hemos tenido la oportunidad de participar en audiencias temáticas de la CIDH en 2014, 2015 y 2017. A ellas hemos llevado casos de violaciones de derechos humanos que están teniendo lugar en Panamá, y en particular en la última, hemos expuesto el reiterado incumplimiento del Estado a las recomendaciones de la CIDH así como a algunos fallos vinculantes de la Corte Interamericana.
En efecto, el seguimiento por parte del gobierno es totalmente inconsistente. El gobierno asume compromisos pero luego no cumple con lo acordado. Uno de los compromisos tomados en la audiencia de la CIDH en Washington, en marzo de 2017, fue el de establecer una mesa temática con reuniones periódicas en las que se irían viendo los casos. Sin embargo, dicha mesa nunca se estableció. Tras regresar a Panamá, fuimos convocados a una sola reunión en Cancillería en abril. Fue muy incómoda, porque no fue más que un monólogo y no se pudo ni siquiera definir una agenda, por no hablar de llegar a algún acuerdo. Estaban presentes todas las partes, había altos funcionarios – estuvo incluso el viceministro de la Presidencia Salvador Sánchez González, a quien siempre mandan a dar la cara a las audiencias porque antes de entrar al gobierno trabajó en temas de derechos humanos -, pero fue una pérdida de tiempo. Lo único que quedó de allí fue la idea de hacer una gira a la isla de Pedro González, que eventualmente se hizo, pero eso era parte de un compromiso ya asumido. En la reunión solo se habló de Pedro González; el caso de Barro Blanco se abordó apenas de un modo muy general.
En la última audiencia de la CIDH, realizada en Montevideo en octubre de 2017, aprovechamos para recalcarle al Estado que estamos totalmente disconformes con la forma en que están abordando, o más bien no están abordando, el tema. Nuevamente reclamamos el establecimiento de la mesa temática, desde la cual esperamos poder desarrollar un Sistema Nacional de Protección de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos, que queremos que se convierta en ley. Queremos un sistema de protección con protocolos para aplicar en determinadas situaciones y con mecanismos de alerta, prevención, monitoreo, evaluación y rendición de cuentas desarrollados e implementados con la participación de expertos de la sociedad civil. Queremos una dinámica de respuesta competente, especializada, ordenada, moderada, oportuna, e integrada no solamente por personas la sociedad civil expertas en temas de derechos humanos sino también por contrapartes estatales con capacidad de decisión, ya que queremos la seguridad de que podrá resolver las situaciones de conflicto que estamos observando.
Luego de que regresamos de Montevideo fuimos citados para una reunión en Cancillería el 23 de noviembre; esperamos antes de esa fecha poder fijar una agenda para que sea una reunión productiva. Ojalá haya voluntad del gobierno para establecer el sistema de protección que estamos reclamando.
En la Red trabajamos con las uñas, en forma voluntaria y sin más apoyo que el que nos dan las organizaciones y personas que integran la Red. El tiempo que yo le destino a la Red es no remunerado y se suma a mis actividades profesionales, de modo que me es muy difícil estar 100% en eso. La Red todavía no tiene siquiera una página web, y cuando viajamos a instancias como la CIDH lo hacemos generalmente por esfuerzo que proporcionamos los integrantes de las diversas organizaciones. Para la audiencia de Montevideo solo pude ir yo en representación de la Red.
De ahí que para nosotros sea clave fortalecer las redes de las que formamos parte. Por ejemplo, en calidad de organización afrodescendiente, Afropanameñ@ Soy es parte de redes internacionales de organizaciones afrodescendientes. Trabajamos con la Red de Mujeres Afrocostarricences, a la cual hemos puesto sobre aviso respecto de los temas que nos ocupan, sobre todo en la Isla Pedro González, y ellos a su vez nos pusieron en contacto con otras organizaciones similares en otros países. Se trata todavía de vínculos muy leves y todavía no muy concretos, pero estamos tratando por todos los medios de informar a nuestros amigos y contactos.
La labor de visibilizar los casos es titánica, y para eso necesitamos de mayores contactos con organizaciones internacionales. Se nos ha hecho muy difícil, pero estamos intentando conectarnos con organizaciones que se ocupan de temas de tierras y que puedan orientarnos y asesorarnos sobre cómo llevar los casos.
Pero para conseguir apoyos, tenemos que trabajar primero en disipar esa imagen que nuestro país emite hacia afuera de que acá no pasa nada, que somos cosmopolitas y modernos y está todo bien. De hecho muchos primero se asombran cuando leen nuestros informes y se enteran de los atropellos contra las comunidades y los casos de criminalización e intimidación de activistas. Pero esta es la realidad que estamos viviendo, y estamos tratando de hacerla visible. El hecho de que CIVICUS muestre interés en escucharnos y dar a conocer lo que aquí está pasando es sumamente valioso para nosotros.
The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisation in the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.
The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.
Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.
The political landscape is polarising. After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.
A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.
More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights.
When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country.
The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.
At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.
There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.
At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.
The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach.
It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.
At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.
What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.
CIVICUS speaks to Radhya Almutawakel, chairperson of Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, an independent Yemeni human rights organisation. Mwatana is engaged with a number of issues, including extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, women’s rights and the criminalisation of human rights defenders. It uses a variety of tools, including data collection through field visits and monitoring compliance with domestic legislation and international standards; advocacy and lobbying with domestic institutions and in international forums; legal support for victims; training of human rights activists; research and dissemination; and campaigning for public awareness.
Since the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, took control of the capital, Sana'a, on 21 September 2014, Yemen has entered a new phase of armed conflicts that escalated rapidly. On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabia-led Arab Coalition of nine countries launched a military campaign against Houthis and Saleh forces, to support the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, with the United States providing intelligence and logistical support.
Mwatana Organization has documented grave rights violations by the Saudi and Emirates-led coalition resulting in the killing of thousands of civilians, mostly women and children. This coalition has struck residential compounds, public markets, cultural and heritage sites, hospitals, schools, bridges and factories.
We have also documented extensive violations by the Ansar Allah armed group (Houthis) and their ally Saleh, especially in Taiz, including the use of landmines in different areas of the country. Furthermore, we have documented violations including extrajudicial executions by the forces of president Hadi and allied parties and armed groups.
Both parties share responsibility in the indiscriminate shelling of civilians and civilian facilities, child recruitment and denial of humanitarian access, in addition to arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, tortures, violations against the freedom of speech and the disappearance of a free press, harassment of minorities and other grave violations. Civil society had only recently started to develop in Yemen, and all the progress that had been achieved was set back in the current inhospitable environment, characterised by high political instability and a lot of violence.
Before 2011, civil society in Yemen had become fairly strong in the face of a number of violations committed by the Saleh regime. At that point the Saleh regime was the main violator of human rights, and organisations of different affiliations were able to unify against the abuses. But after the 2011 revolution and the ascent of the opposition, which became a partner in government, and because of the multiplicity of violators as well as the increasing political polarisation, the voice of these organisations was significantly diminished and they were not able to form any more alliances or even initiate any kind of joint work. It was clear that human rights organisations lacked minimal independence.
In September 2014, when they forcefully seized the capital, Sana’a, and expanded into the neighbouring provinces, Houthi armed groups and their ally, former president Saleh, tightened their grip on President Hadi and his government. President Hadi then escaped to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, and in March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition including other neighbouring countries launched a military operation in Yemen, and established armed groups to support President Hadi in the fight against the Houthis. All these political developments weakened Yemeni civil society to unprecedented levels. Rights violations against organisations and their staff increased exponentially and the scope of the work they were allowed to do dramatically decreased. Many human rights, humanitarian and development organisations were forced to reduce their activities and staff or close down altogether.
The first weapon wielded by conflicting parties against independent civil society organisations, and especially against human rights organisations, has been the orchestration of extensive incitement and smear campaigns through social media as well as their own private networks. By defaming independent human rights organisations, all conflicting parties have prejudiced the public against the work of such organisations and their employees. Mwatana Organization and its staff have been the victims of many of these campaigns launched by either Houthi- Saleh armed groups or by Saudi Arabia and the Hadi Government and their allies in Yemen.
Many activists, including members of the Mwatana team, have been threatened and detained by all conflicting parties, because of their work. Countless restrictions have been placed on human rights, humanitarian and development-related activities in the field, to the extent that long procedures and several official permits are now required to carry out a single training activity – with a good chance that even after going through all the hassle the activity might end up not being authorised at all. The same is the case with a wide variety of studies and research. Many restrictions have also been imposed by all parties on traveling to and from Yemen.
In addition, there are a number of dangers that stem from the armed conflict itself. Yemen is now ruled by a number of armed groups – the Houthi-Saleh armed groups, on one hand, and the Hadi government and the armed groups loyal to it, on the other. Armed conflict is taking place on many fronts, with an intensive airstrike campaign by the US-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to shield civil society organisations or their staff from the impact of the armed conflict; in fact, many of them have been endangered while carrying out their duties.
Violations of the freedom of expression are commonplace, and media diversity is lacking. In fact, civil society organisations lost an independent media outlet that had previously helped make their voice heard. As a result, social media have become the key outlet for many human rights and humanitarian organisations. However, conflicting parties are now trying to disable this platform as well, by using an army of trolls to defame any independent civil society work.
As for human rights work more specifically, all parties are seeking to corrupt civil society by establishing their own biased organisations and deploying funds to deform civil society work and justify various human rights violations. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made considerable efforts to prevent the United Nations’ Human Rights Council from passing a resolution to establish an international mechanism to investigate violations by all warring parties in Yemen. After three years of sustained efforts by international and local human rights organisations and allied governments, however, the process came to a successful conclusion in September 2017, when a resolution was passed and an independent international group of experts was mandated to investigate abuses.
Unfortunately, outside forces have played a destructive role in Yemen, either through direct military intervention, as in the case of Saudi Arabia and its allies, or by supporting one of the warring forces, as has been the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and France, which have supported Saudi Arabia, and of Iran, which has backed the Houthis. The declared goal of the military operation launched by Saudi Arabia was “to reinstate President Hadi” but it has destroyed the country in the process. They have indiscriminately bombarded people, homes, schools, hospitals and monuments. Although it managed to expel Houthis from the southern governorates, the state is not yet functionally back in charge of these governorates. No state institutions, including a judiciary, have been activated, and no national army has been established. In comparison, the promotion of armed groups has not ceased, and worryingly, some of these are extremist and fundamentalist religious groups.
Instead of promoting peace in Yemen, powerful nations like the United States, the United Kingdom and France have aligned to support Saudi Arabia either through considerable arms deals or through multi-faceted political support. One of the worst results of this was their lobbying against the establishment of an international mechanism for investigating violations committed by warring parties in Yemen.
As for Iranian support of the Houthis, their intervention resembles a situation in which there is a mouse running around a residential building, and the building gets destroyed when searching for the mouse, and in the end neither is the building saved nor is the mouse ever found.
After two years of war in Yemen, I can confidentially say that none of the internal or external warring parties have a clear vision of what to do next. The only undisputable fact of this war is that Yemen has become a humanitarian man-made catastrophe.
Despite all the obstacles facing civil society in Yemen, there are a number of human rights and humanitarian organisations that still struggle on the ground to play a variety of roles. A number of humanitarian organisations are working to deliver humanitarian aid and services to affected populations; human rights organisations keep working to document human rights violations; and development organisations are carrying on their educational and training programmes in territories ruled both by Saleh and Houthi armed groups and by Hadi and the armed groups that are loyal to him.
To achieve peace in Yemen, all the warring parties would need to take steps to reduce pressure on civilians and build confidence. This includes ceasing human rights violations, releasing detainees, giving more space to humanitarian, human rights and media organisations to do their work, agreeing on a mechanism to pay salaries, re-activating the Hodeidah seaport, re-opening Sana’a airport, and fulfilling a variety of urgent humanitarian requirements.
At the international level, arms deals with the warring parties must be stopped, and the priority of human rights issues must be established. Yemen also needs a new peace process with the international community playing an independent and stable role. Dialogue must bring in all parties on the ground, with no exclusions.
Civil society needs to build capacities in every aspect of their competence; it needs to ‘professionalise’ and reinforce its resource base with long-term projects. There is need of support for the construction of Yemen’s institutions, and capacity needs to be built so that institutions are able to respond to the deteriorating situation.
CIVICUS speaks to Michael Payne (left), Director of Advocacy, and Sam Jones (right), a researcher at Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB). ADHRB is an international civil society organisation of Americans and Bahrainis seeking to expand the kingdom’s rapidly closing civil society space through dialogue and reform.
1. What are the main tactics used to restrict civic space in Bahrain? What have been the most serious recent violations of civil society rights in the country?
In recent weeks and months, Bahrain’s human rights situation has dramatically deteriorated, with civil society space now all but completely restricted. Since January 2017, the Government of Bahrain has taken several unprecedented repressive measures, including allowing military courts to try civilians; re-empowering the National Security Agency, the country’s intelligence body, with domestic arrest authority; ending a de facto moratorium on the death penalty by executing three torture victims; launching two lethal raids on peaceful demonstrations in the town of Diraz, killing at least six protesters; dissolving the last major political opposition group, Wa’ad (also known as the National Democracy Action Society); closing the only independent media outlet, Al-Wasat; torturing and intimidating activists and their families, including human rights defender Ebtisam al-Saegh; and sentencing Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), to two years in prison on charges related solely to free expression.
In many respects, the current level of repression is worse even than in 2011, when the government declared a state of emergency and violently crushed the country’s pro-democracy protest movement. Many of the current restrictions on civil society space have been legislated or implemented under ‘normal’ circumstances – rather than under a state of emergency as in 2011 – leading some activists to describe the present situation as one of “de facto martial law.” Specifically, the expansion of the military courts’ jurisdiction and the restoration of the NSA’s arrest authority may, together, constitute the foundation of a parallel legal system for individuals deemed to jeopardise national security, whereby ‘enemies of the state’ like civil society activists can be more rapidly and quietly disappeared, tortured, imprisoned, or even executed by the authorities. This is a very serious threat to the re-emergence of a functioning, independent civil society in Bahrain, as well as to any prospect of sustainable political reconciliation and stability for the kingdom.
2. Why is the state restricting Bahraini civil society so severely? What are its motivations and what is at stake?
Given the opacity of a state like Bahrain – with all key positions of power occupied by members of the same Al Khalifa royal family – it is not entirely clear what is primarily motivating its current assault on civil society. Notably, at the height of the unrest in 2011, so-called ‘reformists’ in the monarchy – generally understood to be led by the king’s son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad – purportedly urged restraint and sought to secure a sustainable political resolution through dialogue with the opposition. Simultaneously, ‘hardliners’ like Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman and the Khawalid – a branch of the royal family distinct from that of the king and which is infamous for anti-Shia prejudice – pushed to securitise the unrest and crush it with force, at least implicitly working to undermine the dialogue approach. If there is a single motivation running through both camps, it is primarily the survival of the monarchy in either a constitutional or absolute form, respectively.
Throughout 2011, the king appeared to vacillate between both approaches, following the historical precedent of interchanging nominal reforms or attempted co-optation of civil society activism with brute force. These paradoxical approaches culminated in the violent destruction of the Pearl Roundabout protest encampment, on one hand, and the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), on the other.
Yet, despite the government’s acceptance of the BICI’s 26 recommendations to open civil society space and redress human rights violations, its disingenuous efforts to implement these reforms suggest that the hard-line approach has ultimately come to dominate the monarchy’s strategy. For this camp, and increasingly the monarchy as a whole, the goal appears to be simple maintenance of power, animated by a royal/familial or even sectarian chauvinism aimed at marginalising the non-royal/Shia majority. Though the monarchy is not monolithic, this securitised, anti-Shia strategy dovetails with the entire system’s more pragmatic interest in ensuring another broad-based, cross-sectarian civil society movement does not re-emerge to credibly demand basic freedoms and an end to royal kleptocracy or corruption. Notably, the hard-line leadership also effectively controls the security establishment, and it has used institutions like the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency, and the Ministry of Justice to frame the opposition – and even independent civil society at large – as a sectarian security problem to be dealt with through selective law enforcement or sheer violence.
As the government largely coalesced around this core strategy over the last several years, it became a bit easier to see the motivation behind the severity of the current restrictions on civil society. Bahrain’s history of vibrant, independent civil society movements and institutions is unique to the Gulf region, and any government strategy to fully eliminate or dominate this landscape therefore requires significant force. The government’s embrace of a wholly hard-line position on independent civil society necessarily entails the steady escalation in violence and repression that we have been witnessing recently.
Lastly, perhaps the most proximate motivator is the upcoming elections for the lower house of Bahrain’s parliament, the National Assembly’s Council of Representatives, expected in late 2018. The National Assembly, as a whole, is legislatively hamstrung and the upper house remains royally appointed, so it is largely unable or unwilling to act as an effective check on the executive. However, the government likely sees the elections as a symbolic opportunity to persuade the world it has made democratic progress while simultaneously engineering a pliant lower house with a false claim to international legitimacy. To be sure the monarchy’s core supporters – sometimes referred to as “tribal independents,”or members of families with traditional patronage ties to the Al Khalifa that remain unaligned with any organised political group – secure a large proportion of the vote, the government has been actively clearing the stage of any licensed opposition in advance of the election. Formal political parties remain illegal in Bahrain, but the authorities have dissolved all major opposition societies, which act as de facto parties, since the events of 2011: Amal in 2012, Al-Wefaq in 2016; and Wa’ad in 2017. Leading members of all three of these groups – as well as smaller opposition organisations like Al-Wahdawi – are either currently imprisoned, facing charges, or have been subjected to some other form of judicial harassment or intimidation. Moreover, the government has continued to engage in targeted gerrymandering to undermine the constituencies of not just these opposition groups but also societies traditionally allied with the monarchy, such as the Al-Minbar Muslim Brotherhood affiliate and the Al-Asala Salafi organisation. All these trends suggest that the government may intend to seize the opportunity presented by the 2018 elections to dispense with organised political groupings and establish new, reliable patronage networks of non-aligned ‘independents’ loyal to the royal family. If the government can succeed at restricting independent media coverage of the elections, as well as any effective local monitoring, it may think that it will be able to present self-serving political consolidation as evidence of genuine democratisation – at the expense of the actual opposition.
3. What roles are being played by outside government in the repression of Bahraini civil society?
Bahrain is a very small country with growing economic problems, chief among them the virtual depletion of oil. Both strategically and financially, it is extremely dependent on external allies like Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the former colonial power, the United Kingdom. The governments of all three have had a significant impact on the evolution of repression since 2011.
Saudi Arabia has played the most visible role, leading a contingent of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Peninsula Shield Force into Bahrain to support the kingdom’s final push to clear the 2011 Pearl Roundabout protests. While it is unclear if these troops have directly committed any human rights violations – the BICI found that they predominantly guarded infrastructure, freeing up additional Bahraini security forces to attack the demonstrations, but some form of the Peninsula Shield Force remains stationed in Bahrain and has faced sporadic allegations of abuse – the deployment either forced or confirmed the government’s turn towards a securitised, hard-line approach to the unrest. It is speculated that the Saudi leadership, which has rarely abided any semblance of independent civil and political society, long disapproved of Bahraini government concessions or reforms, urging it to forcefully quell all dissent. Similarly, the Saudi government, competing with Iran over regional dominance, has historically propagated or at least tolerated anti-Shia hate speech and a narrative of sectarian conflict that casts Arab Shia people as a disloyal fifth column. In recent years it has dealt violently with uprisings in its own predominantly Shia Eastern Province and has reportedly funded Bahrain’s largely pro-government Al-Asala Salafi political society (foreign funding is illegal in Bahrain, but the offence is typically alleged selectively against independent civil society or opposition groups). Altogether, Saudi influence has fallen squarely behind the hard-line approach in Bahrain, entrenching a toxic sectarian narrative and driving a securitised response to dissent.
The US, meanwhile, has taken a complex and often contradictory position on Bahrain in recent years, with the consequent impact dependent on the administration or even branch of government in question. Bahraini-American relations are most strongly centred on the defence partnership, which is oriented around the US naval facility in Manama – one of the most important US military bases in the region and home to the US Fifth Fleet. In 2011 and its aftermath, the US largely sought to moderate the Bahraini government’s response, urging reform and restricting security assistance over human rights concerns. Privately, it appears the US failed to bring all possible pressure to bear – such as threatening to move the Fifth Fleet, something which truly rattles the Bahraini government – allowing the GCC to do what it would with Bahrain in exchange for its support for the NATO intervention in Libya. In the ensuing years, under the Obama administration, the US mostly played a rhetorically positive role, while lifting some restrictions on arms holds. The Trump administration, however, has walked remaining Obama-era restrictions back even further, approving old and new arms transfers devoid of human rights conditions. President Trump’s decision to make Saudi Arabia the destination of his first trip abroad and to meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad – promising a relationship without “strain” – cannot be separated from the kingdom’s move, just days later, to violently raid a peaceful sit-in, killing five protesters and injuring hundreds. It is not a coincidence that Bahrain’s bloodiest day since before 2011 occurred only months into the Trump administration; in fact, the current acting secretary-general of Bahrain’s fatally flawed National Institute for Human Rights – which endorsed the executions that ended Bahrain’s de facto moratorium on the death penalty – summed up the general sentiment among government officials when he tweeted hopefully after the US election: “With @realDonaldTrump as president, the curse of the Arab Spring is officially over.”
While the US influence has been mixed, the UK has more consistently and quietly played a very negative role. Having initially created many of Bahrain’s security institutions, the British government has continued to advise the authorities in their purported attempts to conduct human rights training programmes and establish human rights oversight mechanisms. These initiatives have been decided failures, if they were ever undertaken in good faith at all. While core abuses like torture, enforced disappearance, excessive force, and arbitrary detention have continued apace and, in some cases, increased, the UK has continued to help institutions like the Ministry of Interior Police Ombudsman obscure or even cover up government malfeasance. Though ostensibly created with good intentions, these oversight mechanisms are stymied by flawed mandates and a lack of political will to hold officials accountable. So many years on, rather than restrict support or forcefully rebuke the Bahraini government, the UK still backs these institutions – ultimately allowing the Bahraini authorities to pretend they are implementing reforms while the security forces continue with their primary function: violently suppressing dissent.
Lastly, though the BICI found no evidence of Iranian involvement in the country’s pro-democracy movement, Iranian posturing and its geopolitical competition with the Saudi-led GCC have had a negative impact on Bahraini civil society in a broader sense. The Government of Bahrain has strategically calibrated sectarian rhetoric and policy initiatives to frame independent civil society as solely Shia and Iranian-backed - a narrative that plays well in the GCC and in the US and the UK - and opportunistic Iranian statements often lend rhetorical credence to the otherwise baseless claims of Bahraini authorities.
4. What roles do private sector interests play in these processes?
Private sector interests have unfortunately played a negative role in many cases as well. In 2011, the domestic private sector had a directly negative influence on civil society engagement by cooperating with the government and dismissing thousands of employees on suspicion of participating in protests. The International Trade Union Confederation described the campaign as “an economic massacre following the deplorable human massacre.” Though most of these individuals were ultimately reinstated, ADHRB has received credible reports from local labour activists that many remain dismissed from their positions, and that others have been deprived full compensation and beneﬁts as aﬀorded to them under the government’s agreements with the International Labour Organization. Notably, due to the extreme sectarian hiring bias exhibited in the Bahraini public sector, members of Bahrain’s Shia majority community predominantly find employment in the private sector, and many employees – Shia or otherwise – remain wary of expressing controversial political views for fear of reprisal.
Another form of private sector involvement in Bahrain’s current human rights crisis comes during major international events like the Bahrain Formula One (F1) Grand Prix. For years, the government would increase its violent suppression of protests and gatherings near the Bahrain International Circuit in the weeks leading up to, and throughout, the annual Bahrain Grand Prix race. In response to this, ADHRB filed a complaint with F1 through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) complaint mechanism. This complaint ultimately led to arbitration, and the ultimate adoption of a human rights due diligence policy by F1.
Further evidence of detrimental roles of international business interests is found in the security sector. While arms manufacturers are not typically sympathetic when individuals are killed using the weapons they produce, Bahrain has caused controversy in the arms industry regarding their lethal misuse of non-lethal crowd control weapons. For example, Bahraini security forces have on many occasions fired long-range teargas canisters at individual protestors at close range, thus using these gas canisters as projectiles themselves. Ministry of Interior forces also often fire birdshot shotgun blasts at protesters at close range, as happened in the lethal Diraz raid in May 2017 where five protesters were killed. Industry experts have commented that the extent of Bahrain’s violation of end use agreements and abuse of teargas and other crowd control weapons was “unprecedented.” As a result, a number of countries including the US and South Korea have ceased all teargas and light arms sales to Bahrain.
5. How has Bahraini civil society responded to these restrictions?
It has been extremely difficult for Bahraini civil society to respond. The current restrictions effectively constitute an existential threat to independent civil society. Since 2011, we have consistently expressed grave concern that civil and political society space is closing – since 2016 that space has virtually closed. As reflected by the CIVICUS Monitor rating for Bahrain, nearly every independent civil society activist or organisation in the country has faced some form of attack, from judicial harassment to outright forced dissolution. Labour unions, trade associations, religious organisations, political societies and human rights groups have all come under assault. Many activists and organisations are simply unable to keep up the same pace of work, occupied instead with legal battles or avoiding reprisal. Others have left the country seeking asylum, hoping to continue their work from abroad.
Equally troubling is the consequent risk of increased violence following such complete closure of peaceful avenues for mobilisation and dissent. Fortunately, as noted by the US State Department, last year actually saw a decline in terror attacks in Bahrain; however, it is a constant concern that the government tactic of falsely equating all peaceful activism with terrorism is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will ultimately generate heightened violence and instability.
Q: What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain, and what roles could civil society play in it?
As has been observed of Iraq, the Ba’athist regime and American invasion together devastated what had once been a robust civil society, leaving those that survived the war and occupation with a vastly diminished civil society infrastructure to draw on in rebuilding the country. This left a void that all manner of negative actors could exploit for their own ends, distorting and forestalling the development of strong democratic institutions.
Bahrain is not yet at a stage that compares to post-war Iraq, but it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which such total repression or violence similarly undermines the country’s traditionally vigorous and extensive civil society networks. Fortunately, Bahrain’s mainstream civil society and opposition movements have remained steadfastly committed to nonviolent activism and international engagement, and if they can endure the government’s intensifying restrictions they will play the key role in building sustainable democratic institutions.
For this to happen, however, will require a near total reversal of the government’s current approach, and a re-empowerment of whatever ‘reformist’ strands still exist within the monarchy. The government would need to be willing to offer at least some genuine democratic reforms upfront to demonstrate that any ensuing dialogue or reconciliation process was being undertaken in good faith, rather than a stunt. Unlike countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain does have the basic parliamentary infrastructure to build on as well, so a critical, viable first concession the government could make would be to reform the National Assembly to make it a fully representative, bicameral parliament. Allowing this parliament to then select a new Prime Minister to replace Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held the post for more than 40 years, would represent a major step toward ensuring accountability and oversight for the cabinet, in addition to symbolically indicating a new era for the country.
6. What support does Bahraini civil society need from international civil society and the intergovernmental system?
Bahraini civil society has long sought the support of the international community, including international institutions and mechanisms, and from international civil society organisations.
We have worked extensively with a range of Bahraini civil society actors to empower their engagement in forums like the UN Human Rights Council, and helped to facilitate bringing their on-the-ground documentation of human rights abuses to the attention of the UN Special Procedures. Since this programme began in 2013, we have worked with our partners to document and report on hundreds of human rights violations in Bahrain. This has helped to create a growing body of documentation and reporting issued by UN human rights experts, and endorsed by the UN system.
Further advocacy campaigns with coalitions of Bahraini civil society groups, UN, European Union and other international actors have resulted in a number of victories and success stories over the years. In response to diverse international pressure, the Bahraini government has, at times, released various political prisoners or human rights defenders like Nabeel Rajab, Maryam al-Khawaja, Zeinab al-Khawaja and Ebrahim Sharif. Several years ago, Bahraini civil society, with the support and protection of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was able to carry out a series of technical missions in Bahrain, which included conferences, training seminars and consultative visits. While this level of cooperation and access has declined in recent years, Bahrain’s civil society remains very committed to international cooperation and support.
Bahrain has also enjoyed a significant amount of attention in international political forums such as the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament. Since 2011, there have been a series of five successive, multilateral, and cross-regional joint statements issued in the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Bahrain. With as many as 48 governments raising collective concern over on-going abuses in the kingdom, these statements have served as a valuable tool for maintaining important scrutiny on Bahrain’s human rights record, and provide validation and protection for the work of domestic human rights actors. In the European Union too, Bahrain has received repeated scrutiny from members of the European Parliament through repeated human rights resolutions that have addressed cases of human rights defenders, political prisoners and executions, among other systematic abuses.
Given today’s increasingly closed domestic civil society space, Bahraini human rights defenders and activists rely more and more on external protected spaces for furthering their human rights work. Access remains a key problem, both for international actors to enter Bahrain to carry out human rights work, and for Bahraini civil society to travel freely outside Bahrain without fear of arbitrary travel bans, or violent reprisals upon return. However, civil society still works to organise conferences, events and training programmes within their region and further abroad, and has relied increasingly on exiled Bahraini communities to further their work from outside the country.
ADHRB, and our Bahraini and international partners, will continue to work to support Bahrain’s human rights defenders and civil society activists in furthering their struggle for human rights, accountability, transparency and redress in Bahrain and in international forums.
CIVICUS speaks to Daniel Högsta, Network Coordinator with the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a broad, inclusive campaign focused on mobilising civil society around the world to promote the negotiation of a global nuclear weapon ban treaty. In October 2017 ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by 122 nations in July 2017.
1. Can you tell us more about the work of ICAN?
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of non-governmental organisations in one hundred countries advocating for a strong and effective treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons.
ICAN was inspired by the tremendous success of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which a decade earlier had played an instrumental role in the negotiation of the anti-personnel mine ban treaty.
Since our founding, we have worked to build a powerful global groundswell of public support for the abolition of nuclear weapons. By engaging diverse groups and working alongside the Red Cross and like-minded governments, we have reframed the debate on nuclear weapons and generated momentum for the start of treaty negotiations.
At a review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2010, all nations expressed their deep concern at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of any use of nuclear weapons – a collective statement that led to the convening of three major conferences in 2013 and 2014 focusing on the humanitarian impact of nuclear detonations. ICAN served as the civil society coordinator for these meetings, which brought together most of the world’s governments, along with international organisations and academic institutions. In 2015 we helped garner the support of 127 nations for a diplomatic pledge “to fill the legal gap” in the existing regime governing nuclear weapons.
In 2016, our campaign lobbied successfully for the UN General Assembly to establish a UN working group to examine specific proposals for advancing nuclear disarmament and then to adopt the resolution in December 2016 to launch negotiations on “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”.
The negotiations took place over four weeks in 2017 and culminated in the adoption by 122 States of a treaty that prohibits nuclear weapons. It opened for signature on 20 September 2017 and already has 53 signatories.
The importance of this initiative and our strategy looking forward was cited by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in awarding ICAN the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017.
2. What strengths do you think you gained from working as a coalition, and what strategies have you used to do so successfully?
In the field of disarmament and arms control, coalitions have achieved remarkable successes. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines was key to the achievement of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, the Cluster Munitions Coalition saw the agreement of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions and Control Arms provided momentum for the adoption of the international Arms Trade Treaty. With the successful adoption by 122 governments of the first prohibition treaty on nuclear weapons, ICAN has followed in a strong tradition of humanitarian disarmament coalitions.
All issues and coalitions are unique and we shouldn’t just simply copy past approaches expecting them to work again, but there is much evidence to suggest that working together makes us much stronger as civil society organisations.
First we’ve tried to set the terms of the debate. Too often the conversation about nuclear weapons returns to the same topics over and again, without evolving or challenging what we see as the central question about nuclear weapons: Is the catastrophic humanitarian harm that nuclear weapons pose acceptable or not? If not, then all discussions need to proceed from that starting point. Arguments that nuclear weapons confer any security benefits or that there is value in “nuclear deterrence” no longer stand up to logic, nor correspond to modern ethical and humanitarian values.
It is not always necessary to win an argument you are presented with; it can be better to reframe the problem in a way that gives you the upper hand. Legal and technical arguments can be important, but they can also be ways by which the unacceptability of the status quo gets obscured or lost sight of. The burden of proof needs to be pushed onto those that claim reform is not needed or should only be limited and piecemeal.
Secondly, and this obviously is related to the first point, we have maintained a constant focus on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. A key part of reframing the debate is to move beyond the common legal framing of balancing humanitarian and military considerations and to focus on the human suffering as unacceptable.
Third, and also related, we have sourced leadership from communities that have been directly affected by nuclear weapons. The voices of the Hibakusha (the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and of nuclear test survivors has been invaluable in bringing the issue of nuclear weapons back to what it should be about – people. It also provides many more campaigning opportunities as it broadens the spectrum of those who can speak to the issue. There is such a broad range of concerns related to nuclear weapons, we cannot simply leave the conversation to supposed military or geopolitical experts.
Finally, while ICAN is itself a group of partner organisations, by working together ICAN as a whole can also make strategic working relationships with other larger organisations or movements, including the Red Cross and the Red Crescent Movement. This has served to amplify our voice and relevance as an actor in the field of disarmament.
3. What are the key challenges your campaign has faced?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, a major challenge has been public apathy around nuclear weapons and the fact that the media attention has centred on the same issues in the same way and has tended to reinforce the narrative that “nothing is possible”.
We, along with many, many advocacy-oriented organisations in the field of disarmament at large, have also struggled with funding. In the push for the ban treaty and beyond we need to consider the fact that civil society has been continuing to work to drive this initiative forward in spite of an alarming shrinking of resources devoted to advocacy in disarmament. Governments and foundations are quite keen to contribute to research, meetings, etc., but there is a much smaller pool that are interested in (or able to due to their internal technical regulations or traditions) funding civil society initiatives. There needs to be more of an institutional (among governments and also within the United Nations) recognition of the indispensable role played by civil society and that it is simply not possible without resources. If we simply rely on the generosity of the governments with resources to fund civil society initiatives, would we get the progressive outcomes we need?
Another challenge has been the active opposition of the most powerful states in the diplomatic sphere, in particular the “P5” states (that is, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council): the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. It seems the only thing those five states can agree on is that they are against pursuing the prohibition of nuclear weapons. Fortunately, our strategy and the power of the prohibition Treaty never relied on the participation of the nuclear weapon states – indeed it was borne out of acknowledging that the nuclear weapon states and their allies are blocking progress and that waiting for them is not an option. But they are powerful opponents, capable of wielding significant behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure that has proved to be too much to resist for several governments. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to thwart the process.
4. What are your thoughts on the fact that your work was recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize? Will this make any difference to your campaign?
We are both humbled and excited to receive this award. We are humbled because we know the breadth of actors that have been involved in making the ban treaty happen — from states to civil society to the international Red Cross and the Red Crescent movement to academics and researchers. We are excited because of the opportunities this presents us as campaigners to work for universalization of the Treaty and to work in nuclear weapon and nuclear umbrella states to change their policies related to nuclear weapons. We hope it will also allow us to further change the narrative around nuclear weapons.
Fortunately, all governments agree – at least nominally –that a world without nuclear weapons is a desirable goal. It’s time to hold them to their words and force them to pursue this goal. With the achievement of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and of course the recognition afforded us by the Nobel Peace Prize we hope there can be a new dawn for disarmament and the beginning of the end for nuclear weapons.
CIVICUS speaks to Horace Levy, the director of Jamaicans for Justice, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-violent citizens’ rights action organisation that advocates for good governance and improvements in state accountability and transparency.
1. What led to the formation of Jamaicans for Justice, and what does the organisation do?
In April 1999, the government announced new taxes, including a special fuel tax and a 30% hike in the cost of licensing vehicles. This prompted widespread protests, both peaceful and violent, including roadblocks and barricades, which lasted for several days. There was one group, in the St. Andrew’s section of Kingston, that included some lower class people, but was mostly middle class, and had gathered to block a road in protest. The poorer people were on one side of the road and the middle class people were on the other, but after a couple of days they came together. Some people from that middle-class group met afterwards to discuss the causes of the protests – the general state of injustice, the oppression of poor people. Out of a series of meetings, held along with a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Richard Albert, who offered his church as a venue, was born Jamaicans for Justice (JFJ). By July the group had formed, in August it registered as a limited liability company, and on 15 October 1999, six months after the riots, it officially became a registered NGO.
The very first case JFJ took on involved the ill treatment of inner city poor youth by the police. The police had detained 52 poor youths, put them behind bars — then they released some but they kept others. From the beginning, then, ill treatment by police became a major issue for JFJ. As a result of several presentations we made before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the government eventually set up a Special Coroners’ Court, because the Coroner’s Court was totally inadequate to deal with this. The Special Coroners’ Court deals specifically with police abuse, and killings in particular.
Another broad area of our work involves children in the care of the state. JFJ monitors the situation of wards of the state in children’s homes, places of safety, police lock-ups, remand and correctional facilities. We gather data, provide reports and lobby for the protection of this particularly vulnerable group.
We are also involved in a wide range of other things: we deliver human rights education in schools, we provide human rights training to police recruits, we bring legal advice to inner-city communities through legal advice sessions and workshops, we give testimony in front of parliamentary committees, we promote citizen awareness of the right to access public information, and we develop media campaigns, among other things. Right now some of us are working very hard on an identification process the government is putting in place, which involves elements of respect for privacy and other rights. But we keep focusing on one of our core issues: the conditions of detention.
One achievement we contributed to was the establishment by the government of an independent Commission of Enquiry to clarify the events that took place during the State of Emergency declared in May 2010, which left almost 70 civilians dead. A lot of progress was done in prosecuting the police for extra-judicial killings, which helped reduce the number of killings. In order to prevent this from happening again, we keep pushing for radical change in the way the security forces operate.
2. Organisations defending basic civil rights against actions by the security forces are often accused of “protecting criminals”. How do you get public opinion to take your side on divisive issues such as police brutality?
I don’t think we have entirely escaped that accusation. But we try in various ways: for instance, when a police officer is killed in the line of duty we issue a press release offering our sympathy to his family and condemning the act. Most of the times the papers don’t print that, but we issue it anyway. Secondly, we work on other issues as well, such as the welfare of children, which shows we are not fixated on police abuses. There was a period when we also did a lot of work on socio-economic rights: education, housing, employment and the development of rural communities. And of course, we also try to explain that the reason why we are concerned with police brutality is that the police are supposed to be protecting human rights. So a criminal killing somebody and a police officer killing somebody are two completely different things. But people seem to overlook that. Criminals are what they are, and they are not going to be moved by our condemning them. But by addressing actions by the state that should not happen, we have a chance to change them.
3. How would you describe the environment for civil society in Jamaica? Are civic freedoms enjoyed by all Jamaicans equally, or are there restrictions that affect specific groups disproportionately?
Civic space is quite good in Jamaica. The freedom of the press is perhaps the most unrestricted in the hemisphere. The freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are respected and protected. The state does not attack these freedoms; to the contrary, for instance, the state has facilitated the freedom of expression by passing laws governing the establishment of fresh media outlets.
About four years ago, we were stigmatised in public comments by the previous government’s Minister of Youth, who accused us of grooming children in state-run homes to be homosexuals, while we were in fact delivering a sexual education programme in about seven children’s homes. But this was an exception rather than a rule, and it was just an individual reaction from a public official that we had criticised. We had only had another situation like that in the past, when we had just started as an organisation and were perceived as hostile to the party that was in power at the time. But as time passed, and both parties spent some time in power, it became apparent that we criticised them both, that we were not partisan in any way, and that we were constructive rather than over-critical, so our position became accepted.
Along with a quite healthy civic space, we have had free elections since 1945, and elections have been overall free and fair ever since. We never had a party in power that was not legally and legitimately elected. At the same time, slightly more than half the population is currently not voting, which means that each party has the support of about 23% or 24% of the electorate. Although democracy is firmly rooted not just in the political sphere but also among business, civil society and religious groups, recent polls have witnessed an increase in the number of citizens that would favour a military takeover (which is highly unlikely to happen) in reaction to the perceived corruption of politics.
There are also lot of structural but subtle ways in which democracy is hurt. As a legacy of slavery and colonialism, our country has a hierarchical social structure that has stayed in place even after independence. It is a pyramid on top of which are white people, followed by brown people in the middle, and black people (who account for 85% of the population) at the bottom. Of course it’s not clear-cut: we have black politicians and top public officials, for example. But there is a sharp distinction between the brown and the black. The middle class is largely brown, although there are blacks among them as well. This distinction reflects in education: we have a two-tier education system, with the brown and upper class in private, proprietary and secondary schools, and the large mass of the mostly black population receiving and inferior education. Fortunately, this is changing, and formerly weak schools are now beginning to compete with privileged schools thanks to state funding. As for police abuses, they are directed against the black majority in poor communities: you don’t see upper class and white people being beaten by the police.
In other words, democracy is in many ways corrupted by overlapping race and class injustices. The system is not corrupt in the sense that officials massively take bribes, but it is indeed damaged by this racial and class hierarchy that, according to public opinion polls, is unfortunately accepted by the vast majority of the people. Interestingly, this is not reflected in the way Jamaicans individually behave: we don’t see ourselves as less than anybody else, and when overseas we are often regarded as aggressive. We have a strong sense of our rights, but at the same time there is a broad segment of black people bleaching their skin in an attempt to climb up the social ladder.
4. Do you think representative democracy in Jamaica is participatory enough? Do regular citizens and organised civil society have a say in how public affairs are run?
Our democracy is not participatory enough, which is part of our struggle. Recent events have enhanced the prospects for civil society participation, however. In the latest election, in early 2016, the government won by a very tight majority, which made it more open to civil society. So as to gather as much support as they could, they gave continuity to an institution called Partnership for a Prosperous Jamaica (PPJ, formerly known as Partnership for Jamaica).
The PPJ includes representatives of the state (both from the government and the opposition), the private sector, trade unions and civil society organisations. It was in fact as a result of civil society efforts that we got representation for five distinct civil society groups: a faith-based group, a rights advocacy group, a youth group, a women’s group and an environmental CSO. The Prime Minister, who chairs the Partnership, agreed to our proposal to have three sub-committees: on women and children; on violence and the rule of law; and on the environment. The chairpersons of all three sub-committees are civil society people.
The chairwoman of the environment sub-committee, in particular, is a civil society representative who is highly respected by both major political parties and who had resigned to her position in the previous Partnership because she was disgusted by the fact that there was all talk and no real action. She just led a petition to the Prime Minister to protect Jamaica’s Cockpit Country against bauxite mining. According to a recently established mechanism, if you gather 15 000 signatures in 40 days, the government will review the petition, and if it complies with certain standards the Office of the Prime Minister will issue an official response. This petition surpassed the target by far, so we are now waiting to see whether we won this battle or not.
So, there is an element of participation, but making it count is a permanent struggle. Additionally, there is a section of civil society that is mobilised around conservative or even reactionary causes, which means that not all forms of participation are helping advance a progressive agenda. For instance, an area in which we are struggling very strongly is LGBTQ rights. We have long been pushing for the revocation of buggery or sodomy laws, old pieces of legislation that criminalise male same-sex sexual activity. Under these statutes, loosely defined “unnatural offences” and “outrages on decency” can be punished with up to ten years of imprisonment and hard labour. But there is a wide section of society, led by conservative churches such as evangelists and Seventh-Day Adventists, which strongly oppose the repeal of these laws. The majority of the population belong to these churches, while more liberal churches are a small minority.
Politicians are afraid of conservative religious people, so the government has proposed to submit the issue to a referendum. So the government is in fact listening to civil society, just not to the progressive side of it. Now, why would the majority go against itself, its own social norms and its own privilege? We just had an international conference with leading Anglicans and human rights activists, including Anthony Gifford, explaining why this is not the kind of issue to be decided by a popular vote. It doesn't make any sense to ask the majority whether they would like to respect the rights of a minority they are oppressing. Sodomy laws were repealed in Britain 50 years ago, but in Jamaica we are not likely to have them revoked anytime soon. On this issue, a section of civil society is fighting another section of civil society.
5. What support, including from international actors, does progressive Jamaican civil society need to play a full role in building a fairer society and a more participatory democracy?
We get international support, for example in the form of the conference I just mentioned, with highly-respected figures putting forward a cogent argument that will hopefully help shape public debate. UNDP has also collaborated in a similar way.
Financial support, on the other hand, is not that good. That’s where organisations like JFJ are struggling. We get some funding locally, but it is very little. For instance, we have one donor who gives us nearly 2.5 million Jamaicans, but that’s just a few hundred US dollars. We have an annual fundraising art auction, which is quite unusual for an organisation like ours, but that’s because we have some middle- to upper-class donors, and this brings in a couple million Jamaican dollars a year. And it takes months of efforts.
So most of our funding comes from international sources. We had funding from the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF), but it expired last December. We just got UNICEF funding for our work with children, which is set to last for at least two years. We also have some funding from the European Union, but it ends in about five months, and we are finding it hard to replace it. We have been trying to get funding from the Open Society Foundations but have not yet succeeded. We are approaching the Inter-American Development Bank, and we might get something from them.
In short, we are struggling with funding. Until 2013 we had a Legal Department but we had to close it. We still employ one of the lawyers from our former Legal Department, but we need more lawyers because a lot of our work with pre-trial detainees is of a legal nature. For instance, we have a case now going to the Privy Council and we are struggling to get the money to send people there. Even though we have some pro bono lawyers in England, it still costs us money: we need to send them 3 000 pounds that we can ill afford.
When we get our Legal Department going, we will be able to use it to earn some money. In the past, we stupidly thought that, as a charity, we shouldn’t. But in fact, even as a charity we can earn some money by imposing retainer fees to those who can pay them, while working for free for those who cannot afford them. We are set to do that, but we have made that decision quite recently, so we won’t be earning any money from it for a few months yet.
On 26 October 2017, Kenya returns to the polls after the Supreme Court declared the election held on 8 August 2017 null and void. CIVICUS speaks to governance specialist Paul Okumu on the coming election re-run, the announcement by the main opposition that it will not contest the poll and what this means for Kenya’s democracy
Q: What is the mood in the country after the Supreme Court judgement ordering for a fresh election to be held this October?
On the whole, this has been the most exciting moment for Kenyans — both here at home and abroad.
But beyond Kenya, we have received several messages of solidarity and excitement from across Africa, with many African citizens and civil society telling us that this is a victory for the continent and not just for Kenya.
Never in their existence have the courts overruled the executive in the manner that the Kenya judiciary did. The judiciary has always shied away from challenging orders seen or perceived to touch the executive, and this ruling was totally unexpected, considering that the incumbent President is for all purposes the final appointing authority of members of the judiciary (based on recommendations from the Judiciary Service Commission and Parliamentary approval).
But the most ecstatic part is that citizens, as well as all arms of government, respected the judiciary and agreed to follow the orders. It has given citizens a renewed breath of fresh air and confidence in the judiciary.
It also reaffirmed the supremacy of the Constitution and the power of citizens, something that is seen as new in Kenya, considering that the Constitution is less than ten years old.
There is however some slight apprehension that being the first time, perhaps the excitement is temporary and it is not clear if indeed this is a reflection of a new activist and accountability nature of the judiciary, or this is limited just to the Supreme Court. Many of you may have also heard that the ruling party is using its new majority in both house of Parliament to push through two new laws that will dramatically weaken the Supreme Court and the electoral oversight body, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).
One must recall, however, that the groundwork that led to the nullification of this case was in fact another ruling by a lower court. In May this year, human rights activist Maina Kiai, who is the former Special UN Rapporteur on the Rights to Peaceful Assembly, went with others to court to challenge the Elections Act. He asked that the law be changed to ensure that the counting of votes is done at the polling station so that they cannot not be altered by the electoral body.The court ruled in his favour and the electoral body took the matter to the Court of Appeal, where the ruling was upheld.
At least 70% of the ruling by the Supreme Court was based on the ruling made in favour of Maina Kiai.
Q: There are concerns that there are many issues that the Electoral body must first rectify and will not be able to do this in the given time before the election. What are your views on this?
This is Kenya's greatest fear, and right now the opposition is already holding demonstrations to demand that some of these matters be rectified as conditions for participating in the fresh election. But the hands of the Supreme Court were tied here. The Constitution allows for only the electoral body, (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), to conduct elections. The Constitution also requires for those elections to be held within 60 days of the nullification of a previous one.
The concerns are therefore justified when one considers that the electoral body has decided to retain the three companies accused by the opposition of complicity in delivering a result that was not the will of the people — Al Ghurai, a Dubai based Company, Safaricom, Kenya’s largest Mobile company, and OT Morpho, a French company. Part of this is the lengthy procurement rules.
Kenyans are waiting with bated breath to see how the electoral body will address what the Supreme Court described as "systemic" and "institutional" failures within the IEBC. These failures were not just a failure of equipment, but a failure of oversight and accountability.
But remember that the main thrust of the judgement was not the manner in which the elections was conducted. The majority ruling of the Supreme Court accused the IEBC of redefining democracy and ignoring that democracy is a process that ends with elections. It rejected the view that democracy begins with elections.
In doing so the IEBC was accused of not following the entire democratic process that leads to elections — from public confidence-building to ensuring transparency in the entire process in the period leading to and the period after the elections.
So the challenges facing the IEBC are much bigger and it’s not clear if they will address these systemic and institutional challenges in the few days remaining to elections.
Q: The President has said he is disappointed by the Supreme Court Ruling. Why is this and what may it mean for the independence of the judiciary?
The President’s disappointment is understandable, and to an extent it appears justified since one of the dissenting judges insists that he had won the last election by 54%.
But unlike 2013 where the Supreme Court based its judgement on numbers, this time the court departed from this and refused to be drawn into recounting of votes. In their view, the court argued that if the process was flawed, and if there is proof that the Constitution was violated in the process leading to and after the elections, then the numbers do not matter.
This was a departure, not just from previous rulings, but other rulings within the Commonwealth jurisdiction and even the United States of America. But it is this kind of ruling that set the Supreme Court of Kenya apart from other courts.
While the judiciary around the world has refrained from helping advance society in its democratic agenda, the Kenya Supreme Court decided that Kenya should move forward and define democracy in a much broader way than just elections.
This is a game changer for other Supreme Courts around the world. For Africa, the judiciary has stamped its authority as the guardian of democracy, not just an arbiter in electoral disputes.
It means that Kenya's Supreme Court is not just asserting its role as pace-setters for society, but it is exercising its independence and the right to disagree with broader society. For a long time many Kenyans have had a very narrow definition of democracy. The Supreme Court offered a more superior definition.
Q: The opposition has just pulled out of the elections, claiming that the electoral body has refused to meet its demands and the demands required by the Supreme Court ruling. What does this mean for the credibility of the election?
The Supreme Court termed this a FRESH election, not a repeat poll. Under Kenya's Constitution, if there is only one candidate in a fresh election, the election is cancelled and the candidate is declared the winner. It is silent on what to do if a party boycotts. But the same Constitution states that fresh elections needs to be preceded by party nominations, which obviously cannot be done under the short period of 60 days allowed by law.
In pulling out of the elections, the main opposition cited a statement by the Supreme Court in the 2013 electoral dispute where the Court considered what options are left if a candidate pulls out. The court at that time interpreted the scenario to mean a candidate had died and so fresh nominations must be held and another election held within 90 days. It’s not clear because there are arguments that the court was merely discussing scenarios and was in no way giving directions.
In my opinion, this is the kind of crisis that hits societies that want to lead themselves purely by law. Laws alone cannot legislate morality, and in fact there is nowhere where society is managed by laws alone. An element of trust and compromise among its members is always needed - - which is what a proper social contract achieves in society.
Kenya has opted to let laws define its democracy, and hence its social contract.
There is a price to pay for that, and right now there will certainly be a price to pay because the law did not envisage the situation that we are in. The IEBC wanted to rectify that by bringing on board previous presidential candidates to run in this elections, but they quickly realised that that the law is not clear on this either.
Since the political players have chosen the path of legality rather than political compromise, my fear is that over the next few days we are going to see Kenya’s elections not as a democracy, but a battle between the judiciary and the executive.
It is never a good battle, and often one side ends up losing – its known who is the weaker of the two.
Q: One of the IEBC Commissioners resigned on 18 October 2017, citing threats over her life. In an interview in the media she admitted that the electoral body is not prepared and that the body has been hijacked by a section of its members aligned to the ruling government. What does this mean for the elections and for the credibility of the elections?
The situation is actually more delicate than that. You may be aware that on 12 October 2017, both Houses (Senate and Parliament) rushed through a new law that takes away considerable powers from the head of the IEBC and makes it difficult for the commission to reach decisions by compromise. The proposed law also seeks to return the country back to the manual system which was the cause of the problems in past elections, and which is blamed for the violence witnessed in 2007/2008. There are concerns that her resignation, added to the new proposed law, which by the way is only awaiting Presidential signature to become effective, may have dealt a big credibility blow to the electoral body, and in effect it short circuits the reforms that had been demanded by the Supreme Court. It certainly will have a huge impact on turnout because there is perception that the laws and the resignation have not just taken away the remaining teeth of the electoral body, but has effectively taken it back to the state it was that led to the crisis in the first place.
But once again the issue must be seen from a broader perspective, and here are the lessons that those of us who promote democracy should know. It is impossible to have democracy without a proper social contract. Democracy is about managing diversity within society to deliver on a collective aspirations using the resources at the disposal of that society. Instead we have made democracy about power plays and about the strongest or the richest or the largest ruling over everybody else. You can see where it has led the United States. We must realise that unless we work with society to learn how to negotiate, manage its diversity and develop a culture of regular compromise, anything we do in the name of democracy is merely buying time. Kenya’s crisis is very simple to manage, but we appear to have resorted to using the law, rather than the friendships, to manage it. It will not end well.
Q: What role can civil society play now before the fresh election?
There are three roles that civil society can play now and in the few days to come.
First is to celebrate the power of activism — whether in courts as did the Supreme Court, in each other as did Maina Kiai when he took the electoral body to court, or in other civil society who stood with the opposition and in fact provided the bulk of evidence that was used in court.
Secondly civil society needs to use this opportunity to connect more with citizens and explain to them what the Supreme Court just did.Never in the history of democracy anywhere in the world has the judiciary come out to teach the society what constitutes democracy! If civil society can use this case to educate citizens on why the court opted to define elections as a process and NOT an event, they will have advanced democracy in ways they would never do with all the donor money used in governance programmes.
Finally civil society need to come together. Currently there is great polarisation based on the ruling. A section of civil society, under the Elections Observer Group, had actually endorsed the elections and agreed with donors and observers that it was a free, transparent and fair election. They even agreed with the reported win of 54%, insisting it was based on their own scientific polling. They were left looking very foolish and seen as agents of donors and the government. They have not come out to explain themselves fully. The result is that they are now not seen as part of a neutral civil society.
But the rest of civil society, especially those engaged in human rights, are not seen in good light either. This was the second time in as many elections that they were directly challenging the elections alongside the opposition. And so they are also seen as partisan, even though they were vindicated this time by the Supreme Court ruling.
In a fractured and polarised society, civil society is not just about being on the right side or the legally correct path. It’s about understanding the dynamics of society and taking positions that rebuild that society. It is important that these two groups, whether they see their positions as superior or not, to come together and agree on how best to shepherd the nation and citizens at this time. Kenya is at a point where it does not need right or wrong, but truth. And that truth will only be found in taking a position that allows the society to build trust in a civil society that is removed from the emotions of politics, yet engaged in the ideals of democracy that leads to well understood social contract.
Q: Any other additional analysis you would like to share?
The elections in Kenya have shown just how perceptions vary between Africa and Europe.
In many of the European countries, the ruling by the Supreme Court has been treated with apprehension, fear and doom! They feel that Kenya is headed for another chaos and that the ruling should have at least balanced what they call "nascent democracy" and avoided a hard landing that this appears to be. Many of our colleagues that I have met and spoken to begin their conversation with: "So are you going to have war again?"
On the contrary there has been jubilation and excitement across all of Africa and most of Asia. Citizens as far as Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana and South Africa, and even India, have come out to rally behind Kenya. They see this as a renewed hope for a continent that has been defined by the West as unable to manage its democracy. For many of these citizens, this is a point of triumph and victory-on our terms as Africa. And the fact that it embarrassed the international community who had all but endorsed the elections, has given many Africans even more pride.
Both sides may be right, and democracy is always muddy. But we need to be careful that we do not push a sliding car down the valley simply because that is what we have been conditioned to think and believe about Africa. It’s much harder to get people out of negativity than it is to encourage them on the positive progress they are making.
Africa needs more messages of hope, not doom and constant suspicion. The negative descriptions we give to the continent — fragile, conflict-affected, war-torn, corrupt — appear to be what is keeping the citizens disillusioned.
One act of hope and the entire continent lights up!
CIVICUS conversa con Ramiro Orias, abogado y defensor de derechos humanos boliviano. Orias es Oficial de Programas de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF) e integrante y ex director de la Fundación Construir, una OSC boliviana establecida con la finalidad de impulsar procesos de participación ciudadana para fortalecer la democracia y el acceso igualitario a una justicia plural, equitativa, transparente e independiente.
Hace unos días se produjo en Bolivia una protesta nacional contra la posible re-reelección presidencial. ¿Observa en el intento del presidente Evo Morales de volver a reelegirse una degradación democrática?
El intento del presidente de volver a buscar la reelección forma parte de un proceso más amplio de erosión del espacio cívico democrático por efecto de la concentración de poder.
La búsqueda de una nueva reelección presidencial requiere de una reforma de la Constitución de 2009 (que fue promulgada por el propio presidente Evo Morales). Algunas de las disposiciones introducidas entonces en el texto constitucional fueron muy progresistas; hubo un importante avance en materia de derechos y garantías. Al mismo tiempo, se incluyeron reformas políticas destinadas a consagrar un proyecto de poder. Por ejemplo, hubo un cambio en la composición y en los equilibrios políticos de la Asamblea Legislativa destinado a sobre-representar a la mayoría; se destituyó anticipadamente a las principales autoridades del Poder Judicial (los miembros de la Corte Suprema y el Tribunal Constitucional fueron enjuiciados y obligados a renunciar) y se instauró un sistema de elección mediante el voto, sin una fase previa de calificación de méritos. Las instituciones árbitro, como la fiscalía, el Órgano Electoral o el Defensor del Pueblo, también fueron cooptadas en diversa medida por el Ejecutivo.
En relación con el Ejecutivo, la principal reforma constitucional consistió en habilitar la reelección, pero por una sola vez, es decir para un máximo de dos mandatos consecutivos. El primer mandato de Evo Morales (2006-10) hubiera debido contar, porque así lo establecía una cláusula transitoria de la nueva Constitución; sin embargo el gobierno luego argumentó que ese primer mandato no contaba porque se había producido bajo la vieja Constitución (la cual lo inhabilitaba a una nueva elección consecutiva). De modo que el presidente fue reelecto dos veces, en 2010 y en 2015. Es decir, ha cumplido tres mandatos consecutivos, uno más de los que permite la nueva Constitución, y ahora está buscando alguna vía constitucional para habilitar un cuarto mandato.
A principios de 2016 el gobierno convocó a un referéndum para consultar a la ciudadanía sobre una posible reforma de la Constitución para que Evo Morales pudiera competir nuevamente por la presidencia en 2019. Por un ajustado margen, el gobierno perdió ese referéndum; por eso acaba de presentar ante el Tribunal Constitucional una demanda de inconstitucionalidad, que el tribunal aceptó considerar.
Según el presidente, la prohibición de volver a competir afecta el principio de igualdad y discrimina contra los actuales representantes electos, por lo cual sería contraria al Pacto de San José de Costa Rica (la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos). Es el mismo argumento que utilizó en Nicaragua el presidente Daniel Ortega, quien logró que la Corte Constitucional declarara inconstitucional su propia Constitución y le permitiera reelegirse. Es un argumento bastante forzado, porque los derechos invocados no son absolutos, sino que admiten regulaciones en función del bien común y el interés general (de hecho, el derecho a competir por la presidencia incluye restricciones de nacionalidad y edad, por ejemplo) así como limitaciones en función de valores superiores de una sociedad democrática – por ejemplo, el de la alternancia y el fortalecimiento de las instituciones democráticas.
El 10 de octubre pasado, precisamente cuando se cumplían 35 años de la restauración de la democracia en Bolivia, se realizó una manifestación nacional contra la reelección indefinida y en defensa de la voluntad expresada por la ciudadanía en el referéndum del año pasado. Esta protesta fue convocada por diversas organizaciones cívicas, plataformas ciudadanas y partidos políticos de oposición. Fue una expresión callejera masiva, con las mayores concentraciones en las ciudades de La Paz y Santa Cruz y otras menores en Cochabamba, Potosí y Oruro. Afortunadamente el derecho de reunión pacífica fue respetado, en el sentido de que no hubo violencia ni intentos de suprimir las protestas. Sin embargo, el gobierno reconoció que la división de Inteligencia de la Policía siguió y vigiló de cerca de las marchas y a los propios dirigentes opositores, al punto que recabó al detalle las conversaciones que mantuvieron ese día. Lo cual es inadmisible en una sociedad democrática, ya que el uso de una policía política es propio de los gobiernos autoritarios.
¿Piensa que la lucha por la reelección se dará en los tribunales o acabará saldándose en las calles? ¿Convocará el gobierno movilizaciones a favor de la reelección?
Creo que la demanda de inconstitucionalidad es un artificio jurídico; no estamos ante un problema de derecho constitucional, y menos aún ante una cuestión de derechos humanos de los que detentan el poder. El proceso judicial es una táctica más en una estrategia de lucha política en pos de la concentración del poder y la permanencia en el gobierno. La solución de esta controversia se dará en el terreno político. Una característica de la ética política de este régimen es que cuando un tema está en discusión, la aceptación de un arreglo o acuerdo no necesariamente es el punto final.
¿Diría que la sociedad civil está dividida en función del apoyo o el rechazo al gobierno?
La sociedad civil está dividida. Como en todo proceso de cambio político, hay sectores ganadores, que han recibido beneficios importantes y apoyan la continuidad. Por ejemplo, algunos grupos sindicales, como la Confederación Sindical de Colonizadores de Bolivia (CSCB). Al mismo tiempo, hay sectores que en principio se sentían representados por el MAS pero acabaron perdiendo. El gobierno boliviano ha perdido apoyos, sobre todo en su base social indígena, debido a algunas medidas que supusieron retrocesos en la agenda indígena – por ejemplo, la decisión de construir una carretera a través del área protegida del TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), sin respetar el proceso de consulta previa, libre e informada de los pueblos indígenas titulares de ese territorio. El gobierno también autorizó la explotación de hidrocarburos en áreas protegidas. Esto resultó en cierto alejamiento de la base social que le había dado una amplia mayoría en los inicios de su gobierno.
La llegada de Evo Morales Ayma a la presidencia y las reformas que se plasmaron en la nueva Constitución implicaron una transformación política, social y cultural enorme, sobre todo en términos de inclusión. Sin embargo, la falta de institucionalización, que se expresa en la ausencia de nuevos liderazgos, ha hecho que el proceso se agote y ya no represente un abanico tan amplio de la sociedad boliviana. Hoy es más difícil para el gobierno erigirse en representante de los movimientos sociales en sentido amplio. Muchos sectores de la sociedad civil que en algún momento vieron con simpatía el proceso de cambio liderado por Evo Morales, hoy lo ven con preocupación porque se ha convertido en un proceso de acumulación de poder político que no ofrece garantías para que puedan realizar libremente su trabajo.
El resquebrajamiento de sus apoyos llevó al gobierno a imponer regulaciones dirigidas a desmovilizar a la sociedad civil que no adhiere en forma militante al proyecto gubernamental. Esto está afectando seriamente la capacidad de trabajo de muchas OSC. La situación se ha vuelto bastante difícil para los defensores de derechos humanos, y en particular para los defensores de pueblos indígenas y del medio ambiente, que han recibido diversos embates y presiones a su labor.
También ha habido cambios importantes en la regulación de las OSC nacionales. El principal cambio normativo, que dejó a las OSC en una posición de gran vulnerabilidad, fue la ley No. 351 de Otorgación de Personalidades Jurídicas (2013). Esta ley exige el alineamiento de los objetivos y acciones de las OSC con las políticas gubernamentales y reemplaza el principio de reconocimiento de la existencia legal de una organización, que se deriva de un acto constitutivo de derecho civil, por el otorgamiento de la personería jurídica por parte del Estado, un acto administrativo que concede amplia discrecionalidad a las autoridades centrales. La personería jurídica puede ser revocada mediante un procedimiento administrativo, sin ninguna garantía del debido proceso. Al mismo tiempo, las OSC no alineadas con el gobierno son estigmatizadas públicamente.
¿Qué se requeriría hoy para lograr la concreción de esa promesa democrática que en su momento expresó Evo Morales?
Al revés de la tendencia dominante de entregar más poder a una sola persona, uno de los principales temas pendientes en la agenda democrática boliviana es el reencauzamiento de la representación política a través de un sistema de partidos plural, institucionalizado, con prácticas internas democráticas. Si el tema de la reelección presidencial está en la agenda, es precisamente porque falta institucionalización: la fuerza en el gobierno no tiene un liderazgo de recambio. Más que un partido político, en el gobierno hay una coalición de diversos intereses que solo el presidente Morales logró amalgamar.
La democracia representativa, sostenida en instituciones, es un sistema que permite ciertas certidumbres en la vida política, con reglas que se cumplen con regularidad y actores que se someten a ellas de buena fe. Lo que estamos viendo actualmente es que el gobierno usa los mecanismos democráticos cuando le sirven, y cuando no le sirven se aparta de ellos y trata de modificarlos en beneficio propio.
En el marco de un sistema de partidos políticos débil, la sociedad civil cobra un relieve particular. Cumple un rol de preservación de las libertades de asociación, expresión y manifestación pacífica gracias a las cuales puede promover sus ideas de cambio social. La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa.
¿Qué apoyos necesita la sociedad civil boliviana para superar los obstáculos y avanzar en dirección de una democracia más participativa?
Lo más importante que necesita la sociedad civil en sus labores de promoción y defensa de los derechos humanos es un sistema de justicia independiente. Ha habido un proceso de debilitamiento de las instituciones judiciales por parte del Ejecutivo, que difícilmente podremos revertir en el corto plazo sin la cooperación de otros actores, nacionales e internacionales.
Necesitamos, entonces, solidaridad internacional. De hecho, hay un diálogo político intenso con los embajadores acreditados en Bolivia, que reconocen la necesidad de crear un ambiente habilitante para la sociedad civil, así como valoran la urgencia de promover un sistema de justicia independiente. También necesitamos apoyo para que las OSC se empoderen, mejoren sus propios procesos internos de rendición de cuentas y aseguren la transparencia de su propia gestión institucional. Pero lo cierto es que mientras no haya una justicia independiente capaz de tutelar derechos fundamentales, la situación de la sociedad civil seguirá siendo de extrema indefensión.
A South African NGO My Vote Counts recently won a court case in which it asked that political parties must be compelled to publicly reveal their sources of funds. CIVICUS speaks to Elizabeth Biney, a researcher with My Vote Counts on why they had taken this case and why this is an important victory for South Africa’s democracy
Q: Why is it important for political parties to reveal sources of private funding?
My Vote Counts believe that access to the private funding information of political parties is important and reasonably required for the effective exercise of political rights enshrined in the South African Constitution — namely, the right to vote and to make political choices. Political parties in South Africa occupy a unique and influential role in our constitutional democracy. Under our current electoral system, that is, a list system of proportional representation, only political parties determine which persons become members of the legislature as well as the national and provincial executives. These people then go on to shape public policies and the laws of the country. Given their pivotal role in the democratic functioning of the country, we cannot disassociate their activities from their funding sources.
There is also the argument to be made in advocating for the disclosure of private funding information as a deterrent to corrupt activities. Transparency in the funding of political parties is good for our democracy, broadly speaking.
Mandatory disclosures of private funding also allow us to detect and prevent possible cases of corruption and to control the influence of money in our politics. It is reasonable to anticipate that private political contributions can influence the manner in which political parties function. For instance, a political party may take a particular policy position in order to satisfy the expectations of substantial donors, at the expense of the majority that voted for it in an election. Secret funding of political parties creates the scope for and facilitates corruption.
Therefore, the disclosure of this kind of information is not only necessary to preempt future likely behavior of parties, it gives more depth and value to the right to vote. Having all the correct information available to the citizenry before they make a political choice means people are making informed choices — a voter is knowingly choosing a party and its principles and programmes. Having ratified three anti-corruption international agreements, including the United Nations Convention against Corruption, the South African government already acknowledges the relationship between political donations and corruption. The obvious next step is to put appropriate preventative mechanisms in place to guard against political corruption. One such measure is to have formal legislation or regulation that compels parties to publicly and proactively disclose their private funding information.
Q: What are the arguments by those parties who are against revealing funding sources?
Under the South African Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), access to information can be refused for a number of reasons, all of which seemingly pivot on the “right to privacy”. For example, a request for information can be refused if the information contains financial, commercial or technical information of a third party. Another problem with PAIA is when the disclosure of the information “would constitute an action for breach of a duty of confidence owed to a third party in terms of an agreement”. This is particularly concerning because it essentially allows parties to enter into confidential agreements with donors in order to avoid disclosing private funding information. In any case, political parties may rely on any of these provisions to deny access to their private funding information.
Some reasonable arguments have been advanced by smaller parties that warrant consideration. Most smaller parties are concerned about the possible intimidation of their funders and subsequently the loss of financial support to compete effectively with the ruling party.
Undoubtedly the effects of funders withdrawing donations to opposition parties for fear of reprisals from a governing party may be a reasonable concern. However, this should be addressed through existing appropriate legislation. In any case, parties cannot sustain this argument since the potential threat is criminal in nature and would warrant legal action.
However, the prevailing contention (mostly by the major opposition party) is that of the right to privacy versus disclosures. For them, a disclosure regime will not only limit the rights of donors to privacy and to express their political support in secret; it limits the privacy of political parties themselves. We find this elevation of the right to privacy over the right of access to information very problematic. Privacy, like any right in the Bill of Rights, is not absolute and therefore can be reasonably attenuated. Our Constitutional Court has said as much when it affirmed that the right to privacy exists on a continuum — so the more public the space, the more it can be justifiably limited. The two rights are equally important so they need to be weighted carefully to ensure our democratic processes are responsive, accountable and transparent.
Q: What are the next steps now that you have won the court case?
The judgment will be referred to the Constitutional Court for confirmation, we will await that decision. In the meantime, we continue with our lobbying for legislative reform. The judgment was handed down after a parliamentary process had been initiated to review the current political financing landscape, with the intention of reforming it. So, there is now a parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee on the Funding of Political Parties investigating the challenges in our party financing regime. We have been engaging with them on some critical issues as well as monitoring the entire process.
The Committee has produced a draft political party Bill and is accepting public comments on the Bill. We are in the process of making written and likely oral submissions on this draft Bill with the hope of improving it to meet both international best practices and constitutional standards.
Q: In your opinion, what is the state of democracy in South Africa?
This is never an easy question to answer and besides it can yield such diverse responses given its subjective nature. Personally, I think our democracy is under threat. The level of political impunity and sheer disregard for ethics and good governance, both politically and administratively is alarming. You only need to track the number of issues that civil society has taken the government and Parliament to court on to see that the protection of South Africans and our liberties are in the hands of civil society and the media.
Despite the slippery slope that we find ourselves in, South Africa’s democracy will not fail just yet. We have a constitutional democracy which means that despite political and administrative attempts to circumvent our democratic rights, the Constitution is paramount and the role the judiciary in this regard cannot be under estimated. Also, South Africa has a vibrant civil society sector constantly fighting for change and we will need to work together for the broader constitutional goal of a free and democratic society.
Q: What role can civil society play in South Africa to strengthen democracy?
I think civil society is doing what it is intended to and all it can do at the present moment. We are constantly asking the difficult questions that the ordinary citizen may be too scared to ask. We are demanding accountability of our leaders and private businesses.
Although government is trying to close down the dissenting spaces that we operate in, we are putting up a fight. Our democracy can only flourish if there are oversight bodies like civil society. You cannot underplay the significant role that public watchdogs play in ensuring accountability, fairness and transparency in democratic governance.
For us specifically, our role is to ensure that a few financial backers do not corrupt our political system. We want to see our democracy be as participatory as possible, and so we need to limit the influence of big money.
CIVICUS parle avec KEPOMEY Koffi Dela Franck de l'organisation non gouvernementale Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo des récentes manifestations dans le pays sur les limites du mandat présidentiel.
Q : L’accès à l’internet et aux réseaux sociaux était restreint au Togo entre le 5 et 12 Septembre. Est-ce que vous pourriez donner plus d’information sur les raisons de cette action ?
Effectivement l'accès à internet et aux réseaux sociaux a été restreint au Togo à cette période. La raison évoquée par le parti au pouvoir est une panne technique. Ce qui n'est pas vrai. La restriction est faite juste pour que l'opposition et les citoyens ne puissent pas utiliser les réseaux sociaux pour informer l'opinion internationale de la situation au Togo (grande manifestation de l'opposition et répression des forces de sécurité à partir de 22 heures). Sources proches du parti au pouvoir indiquent qu’ils l’ont fait pour prévenir que les gens diffusent des images qui incitent à la violence.
Cette décision viole l'article10 de la résolution NA/HCR/RES/32/13 du 1 juillet 2016 adopté par le conseil des droits humains des nations unies sur la promotion, la protection et l'exercice des droits humains sur internet.
Q. Quel était l’impact de cette restriction ?
Cette restriction n'a pas été sans impacts négatifs sur l'économie et la vie sociale du pays. Les activités de plusieurs opérateurs économiques sont restreintes et aussi la population est privée d'information.
Q. Le samedi 19 août 2017 des manifestants ont été tuées lors d’une manifestation menée par l’opposition. Est-ce que vous pourriez donner plus d’information de ce qui s’est passé ce jour?
Le samedi 19 août 2017, le Parti National Panafricain, PNP, a organisé à Lome et dans certaines localités du pays (Anié, Sokodé, Bafilo, Kara) une marche pour dénoncer le retour à la constitution de 1992 et réclamer le droit de vote de la population de la diaspora.
Au cours de cette manifestation il y’a eu plusieurs morts (2 selon des sources officielles et 7 selon les organisateurs) et de nombreux blessés. En même temps 66 personnes ont été arrêtées.
Q. Savez-vous pourquoi la police a réagi avec cette violence contre les manifestants?
Les organisateurs et le pouvoir n’ont pas pu s’entendre sur les itinéraires de la manifestation. Le jeudi 17 août 2017, les ministres de l’administration territoriale et de la sécurité ont déclaré, dans une conférence de presse, qu’aucun rassemblement ne sera toléré le 19 aout 2017 sur toute l’étendue du territoire et que les manifestations seront dispersées à leur point de départ.
Il s’agit d’une manifestation pacifique qui aurait dû être fait sous la direction des forces de police (gendarmerie et police) selon la loi n° 2011-010 du 16 mai relative aux conditions de manifestations publiques.
Malheureusement on a retrouvé sur les lieux de manifestation des militaires qui dispersaient les protestations. Ce qui peut expliquer l’agressivité des manifestants.
Q. Comment la société civile togolaise a-t-elle réagi à la brutalité de la police et aux meurtres?
La Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo (CNSC-Togo) a publié une déclaration publique de condamnation de la violence sous toutes ses formes au lendemain des tueries et a appelé le gouvernement à prendre d'urgence des mesures pour apaiser le climat social, y compris la libération des détenus. En outre, CNSC-Togo a appelé les partis politiques à améliorer le mentorat de leurs activistes/membres, entre d’autres.
Les Collectifs des associations contre l'impunité au Togo (CACIT) ont également condamné la répression de l'assemblée. Le 24 août 2017, un groupe de 32 associations et réseaux a publié une déclaration appelant le gouvernement et les autres acteurs publics à assurer l'exercice de la liberté de réunion afin d'assurer le professionnalisme des forces de sécurité dans le cadre des réunions et appelle les membres/partis politiques à respecter les biens publics et les infrastructures.
Q. Comment décririez-vous l’état de la liberté de réunion pacifique au Togo?
La liberté de réunion et d’association pacifique au Togo dépend de la tendance politique de ceux qui organisent la manifestation. Les militants et sympathisants du parti au pouvoir organisent des manifestations en toute quiétude même les jours ouvrables. Ce qui n’est toujours pas le cas des partis de l’opposition. Ils font souvent face à des restrictions sur les itinéraires et les points de départ des manifestations. Cela signifie que les réunions pacifiques peuvent facilement dégénérer en raison des exigences des forces de sécurité.
Q. Comment décririez-vous l’état de la démocratie au Togo?
La démocratie au Togo a traversé des moments difficiles depuis que les partis d'opposition sont revenus sur la mise en œuvre de réformes institutionnelles et constitutionnelles suite aux recommandations de la Commission Vérité, Justice et Réconciliation (CVJR) que le gouvernement prend du temps pour compléter. Les partis d'opposition soupçonnent que le gouvernement retarde la prise de décision pour éviter de traduire les réformes en réalité.
Le lundi 30 juin 2014, le projet de réforme constitutionnelle présenté par le gouvernement au Parlement après le dialogue connu sous le nom de Togotélécom II de mai 2014 a été rejeté, car les membres du parlement du parti au pouvoir ont voté contre le projet de loi.
Depuis, des voix discordantes se sont multipliées et la pression s'est accrue, même au sein des organisations de la société civile œuvrant dans le domaine de la promotion de la démocratie et de l'état de droit. Il y a souvent des pressions sur les partenaires financiers pour priver les organisations de ressources qui leur permettent d'être autonomes dans leurs actions.
Q. Quel type de soutien peuvent offrir les groupes régionaux et internationaux à la CNSC-Togo et aux autres organisations de la société civile du pays dans la situation actuelle?
En effet, le CCSN-Togo a des difficultés à réunir des fonds et est satisfait de certains microprojets et de l'allocation de fonds provenants des donateurs/partenaires gouvernementaux traditionnels, en particulier de l'Union européenne, et du PNUD à l’approche des élections. Ces partenaires reçoivent d'abord une autorisation gouvernementale avant d'accorder les ressources. Ce qui conduit souvent à l'autocensure dans nos déclarations et réunions publiques.
Nous devons entrer en contact avec d'autres partenaires / donateurs qui peuvent nous fournir un soutien financier durable.
• Suivez la Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile au Togo à: http://www.cnsctogo.org/
CIVICUS speaks to Zambian human rights defender McDonald Chipenzi. The Threatened State of Emergency invoked by the President on 5 July 2017 is due to expire on 13 October 2017 with no clear indication if the President will invoke a fresh Threatened State of Emergency. The country’s parliament is also considering a new Political Parties Bill. We ask Chipenzi what the Bill is about and what is the state of Zambia’s democracy.
1. In your opinion, is there a governance crisis in Zambia?
A writer called James Bovard (1999) once observed that: “Voting has changed from the process by which the citizens control the government to a process that consecrates the government’s control of the people.” Zambia has slipped into a governance crisis. It is on the verge of falling into an undemocratic cliff. All signs are pointing to the fact that freedom of expression, association and demonstrations or protests in Zambia have been curtailed even when citizens follow the procedure as prescribed by the law governing public assemblies. The civic, political and the general democratic spaces in the country have shrunk. There is much evidence to show that these spaces have been curtailed and citizens are now either living in fear or indeed have taken a docile and passive position in participating in national affairs.
The declaration of the Threatened State of Public Emergency on 5 July 2017 by President Edgar Chagwa Lungu after invoking Article 31 of the Constitution over suspiciously stage-managed spates of fires believed by some to have been sponsored by the party in power has left devastating effects on people’s rights and freedoms. This meant the enforcement of the Preservation of Public Security Act Cap 112 of the laws of Zambia which gives sweeping powers to the police to search, arrest and detain suspects for longer than the constitutional requirement of 48hrs for a detained suspect to be brought before court. The Act also automatically derogates citizens’ freedoms of assembly, expression, movement and of the media.
To buttress this suspicion, to date, the same government that emotionally attributed the acts of arson to opposition political parties’ sympathisers has failed to produce any report or evidence incriminating anybody for the arson. Religious freedoms too have not been spared and are steadily declining. For instance, the police in August 2017 sealed off the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where worshippers where supposed to conduct their Thanksgiving Prayers on account that they did not notify the police. The largest opposition party has also suffered denial to carry out their public political activities on account that the invocation of Article 31 was still in force.
On 29 September, 2017, six civil society and opposition leaders, musicians and other activists like Laura Miti and Lewis Mwape (civil activists), Sean Enock Tembo (politician), Chama Fumba, aka Pilato (musician) and others were arrested at the entrance of the Parliament building where they had picketed the National Assembly during the presentation of the 2018 National Budget demanding accountability in the procurement processes following the controversial purchase of 42 firefighters engines at a cost of US$1-million each. They were only released at midnight after spending half a day in police detention and on paying K2 000 (US$220) each as police bond. On 2 October, 2017, the police formally charged the six with two counts of “An unlawful assembly” and “Disobeying lawful orders” They will appear in court on 27 October 2017.
This Threatened State of Public Emergency will only come to end on 13 October, 2017.
The country’s leadership is engulfed in alleged acts of serious national plunder, looting and misuse of public resources, corruption, bribery and other misgovernance and yet there seems to be no one to provide leadership as the President has developed the propensity of globetrotting, locally known as Kamweendo munjila. Some people estimates that since taking office in January 2015, the President has allegedly made 49 trips across the globe. This has created a leadership vacuum and consequently a governance crisis the country is now faced with. The rule of law and constitutionalism is no longer a hallmark of country’s democracy. Law enforcers have sacrificed declining professionalism, ethical conduct and integrity levels. They have become vulnerable to political patronages. The judiciary especially the Constitutional Court faces public contempt, so is the office of the Director of Public Prosecution due to an “outbreak” of Nolle Prosequi (abandoned court cases by prosecutors) which is unprecedented in the history of the country. Most of these favour the interests of the executive. Zambia has, indeed, slid into the rule of men and has assumed characteristics of a banana republic.
The state of the country’s democracy is deplorable. The ruling elites hold a myopic view that democracy is the ballot or elections and that since they are not going to be held until 2021, the country is on the right path as far as democracy is concerned. They feel elections are the means and an end in themselves. Freedom of the media is under constant threat and self-censorship by government-owned media has become a norm. Opposition and divergent views are never entertained in government-owned media despite all citizens contributing a monthly levy to its management. Civic and political spaces continue to shrink on a daily basis. Poverty is growing in the neighborhoods of ordinary people while the opposite is different at State House and for ruling political party elites and their relatives and associates.
There is a dictatorship and an emerging authoritarian leadership in Zambia. The religious, political, civic and media spaces are shrinking daily. Opposition, musicians and civil society members are arrested and detained on trumped-up charges. This has become the order of the day. Court orders are disregarded with impunity by law enforcement agencies at the perceived instruction by the executive. In other words, the executive has taken over all arms of government. Public confidence in public institutions such as the judiciary, police, National Assembly, electoral body among others is at its lowest. Corruption, abuse of public resources are taking their tow while the Anti-Corruption Commission remains tight-lipped if not defending corruption itself. The Zambian society has been divided on tribal lines and elections are perceived from the same angle.
In essence, the democratic outlook in Zambia is very gloomy. What surprises us, however, is that the Southern Africa Development Community still believes in the Zambian leadership to an extent of allowing it to assume the position of deputy chair of the Organ on Security and Peace when it is a country at war with itself. This is so because, for the first time in 26 years, the country is living under a Threatened State of Public Emergency and citizens’ rights such as assembly, expression and protests are constantly denied or threatened. People have been arrested for expressing themselves on Facebook, others on TV or radio and detained for days or for months only to be released without any changes. This has prompted the church, the Commonwealth and other concerned regional and international dignitaries to intervene in the Zambian situation while SADC pursues it suspicious quiet diplomacy.
2. Please tell us more about the Political Parties Bill
The current debate on the need to develop a political parties’ law in Zambia has been triggered by the existing law. Article 60 of the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Act No. 2 of 2016 demands that there be a prescription of how the article on political parties would be operationalised which essentially means coming up with an Act of parliament. To this end, the government produced a draft Political Parties Bill which it later consulted stakeholders. Political parties under the umbrella of Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue participated in the validation processes of the Bill which is yet to be tabled before the National Assembly for enactment. The Minister of Justice has already indicated a desire to table the Bill for enactment before the end of 2017. However, there are mixed reactions to the Bill: some commentators have described the Bill as unconstitutional while others have welcomed it. My view is that in its current form, the Bill is a recipe for stifling political parties’ existence and effectiveness.
The proposed Political parties’ Act is about the provision of the registration and regulation of political parties services in the country. It is about the establishment of the Board of Political Parties to oversee the registration and operations of political parties and to provide mechanisms for the establishment and management of a Political Parties Fund. It will also inquire on and regulate the sources of funds for political parties and any matters connected with, or incidental, to the foregoing. This is as per objects of the draft Political Parties Bill (2017) signed off by the Attorney General, Likando Kalaluka. In other words, the pending Bill is trying to regulate, monitor and supervise political parties which consequently is likely to shrink and stifle political space in the country. In its current draft form, the suggested Political Parties Bill is draconian, unconstitutional and undemocratic.
3. Does Zambia have other legal frameworks that govern political parties?
Zambia has had no specific legal framework to regulate, monitor and supervise the conduct and administration of political parties in the country since independence. The draft Political Parties’ Bill, if passed into law, would be the first law specifically on political parties. However, all political parties, just like civil society and churches, are considered for registration under the Societies Act Cap 119 of the Laws of Zambia enacted in the 1960s. This is the Act which gave birth to all political parties and operationalised Articles 20 and 21 of the Constitution which entitles citizens the right to expression and association respectively. The Act is administered by the Department of Registrar of Societies hosted by the Ministry of Home Affairs. Under the current set up, political parties are required, at least to have 10 members to be registered who also undergo thorough security checks. After registration, the concerned party is issued with a certificate and holds it in perpetuity until deregistered by the Registrar or winds down on its own. In 2012, the former ruling party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was deregistered for not paying annual returns for the party’s branches in the provinces and districts as per law requirement and only saved by the courts. A number of churches during the same period suffered threats of deregistration from the registrar.
4. What do you think has triggered the current proposed Political Parties Bill?
There have been concerns from various stakeholders including within the political parties’ circles that political parties must be funded because they are the soul and lifeblood of the multiparty democracy in Zambia. The other school of thought has been that funding political parties would make them more accountable and transparent in the manner they raise and use funds either from government and/or other well-wishers. Others feared that having no mechanisms on how to monitor political parties’ source of income would be putting the country on an “auction sale advert” because political parties would be promising or baiting with money lenders and other unknown people and this could endanger the country especially during electoral campaign periods without citizens knowing. To this end, submissions were made during the previous constitutional reviews to include a political party clause in the Constitution. Therefore, the 2016 amended Constitution upheld this view and included a clause that defines a political party, prescribes dos and don’ts for a political party and introduces funding of political parties with representation in the National Assembly.
5. What are the advantages and disadvantage of the Bill for Zambia’s democracy?
Although the proposed political parties law has some positive aspects in it which are basically meant to bait for stakeholders’ buy-ins, its disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Some of the mischiefs it intends to treat include political parties limited accountability and transparency levels, lack of intra-and interparty democracies and proposes to emphasise on political parties’ need to hold regular internal elections and also the spirit of co-existence through the formation of political parties’ alliances, mergers and coalitions respectively. These aspects are not part of the legal framework today. The proposed law also awards rights to all registered political parties such as the right to hold and address political meetings anywhere in the country without interference, the right to police protection and assistance, and equitable access to the State-owned media. It proposes funding to parties with representation though small parties have described the provision as promoting bigger parties at the expense of smaller ones.
However, there are fatal disadvantages in the proposed Bill for instance sections 23(1) of the draft Bill states: “The Minister shall prescribe the matters to be included in the constitution or rules of a political party.” How does a minister who is also a political functionary of another political party dictate what another party should include in its constitution? Is this not stifling competitive political ideas and space? The proposed Act also does not include political parties’ representation on the political party Registration Board, instead, it only incorporates the church and government ministries. The Board also is appointed by and reports to the President, who is also party president of a political party. This will be problematic and would raise suspicions in the operations and decisions of the board. The disclosure aspect of the Act has also been received with caution especially that it may cause local businessmen and women to away shy from helping the opposition for fear of being victimised by losing business or denied business contracts with the government.
The proposed Act further gives immunity to board members and officers working at the Political Party Board Secretariat from their omissions and commissions during their duties. For instance, section 16 of the proposed Act states: “An action or other proceeding shall not lie or be instituted against a member of the Board or a member of staff for or in respect of an act or thing done or omitted to be done in good faith in the exercise or performance, or purported exercise or performance, of any of the powers, functions or duties conferred under this Act.” The Acts, once enacted into law, would demand a full disclosure of political parties’ source of funds and penalises whichever political party conceals such information.
6. What advocacy has been carried out concerning the Bill?
There has been no serious advocacy around the formulation of the proposed Act. The government through the Ministry of Justice just announced of its drafting and invited stakeholders’ submissions on the same. Political parties and few civil society organisations did their submissions. However, the government quickly organised a national conference on the draft Bill to consolidate stakeholder’s submissions. The results of this convention are yet to be officially shared with the rest of the nation. Some political parties like the Party for Economic Progress walked out of the convention citing unproductive debates.
7. What role can civil society play in building a more participatory society in Zambia?
To curtail the exercise of power by the government, citizens must not adopt the role of victims but victors and become effective participants in the governance processes. This is currently lacking in the Zambian situation. There is a lot of fear of being arrested and thereafter fail to have resources to hire legal representation. There is need to enhance solidarity efforts among citizens and discard the spirit of the fear of government and its leadership that has engulfed many citizens. Civil society must bring to a stop the increasingly rise of statism in Zambia which has consequently put people’s rights and freedoms in perpetual chains and slavery. Zambia’s civil society movement needs to push and advocate for a more competent, more trustworthy, more tolerant, more democratic and more benevolent government and leadership in the country and reject by confronting the any emergency of oppressive, corrupt and intolerant regime.
Therefore, one cannot be far from the truth in stating that Zambia’s democratic space and credentials have declined in the last six years of the Patriotic Front’s reign. The human rights and governance records are crumbling very fast on the watch of its citizens and the region at large. One wonders what has happened to a country that was a citadel of stability, unity and peace not too long ago and why it is now seemingly crumbling and its citizens living under forced peace and stability. There is no critical moment since the fall of the one party system in Zambian in 1991 than now that citizens have seen the scary emergence of a strong state that has put so much power in itself and coerced the opponents and critical voices, breaking their wills and compelling them into submission. The church, civil society, trade and students’ union movements have not been spared from the fear of the executive, if not divided on tribal and partisan lines. These movements, like majority citizens, have adopted the “watch and see” approach and the “wait for the 2021 elections” notion to sanction the political culprits. Perhaps, it is time that civil society in Zambia rediscover itself and stop leaving a “burning pot” unattended. Therefore, Zambian civil society and the citizens at large must not leave this battle to a few.
8. Any other additional analysis?
In Zambia currently, there is a growing imbalance between the citizen’s power to bind the government and the government’s power to bind the citizens. Theoretically, Zambian leaders still claim to be democratic, respecters of human rights and practitioners of good governance but in reality their practices speak to the contrary.
Public policy today in Zambia is a vast maze of payoffs and kickbacks, tangling everything that the state touches in political intrigue. For instance, elections have become a futile exercise to reveal comparative popular contempt for competing professional politicians.
Justice has become whatever serves the political needs of those in power. This is what has led to the emergence of the governance crisis in Zambia which has exhibited itself through declining or suppression of religious, civic, political and other liberties. It has also manifested itself in allegations of rampant corruption and abuse of public resources. The stronger the government grows, the more irrelevant the individual voter becomes to the leaders.
CIVICUS conversa con Medardo Mairena Sequeira, Coordinador del Consejo Nacional para la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía, un movimiento social organizado en oposición al proyecto de construcción del Canal Interoceánico en Nicaragua. En septiembre de 2017 Medardo Mairena integró la delegación de CIVICUS en el 36ª período de sesiones del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de las Naciones Unidas y participó como orador en un evento paralelo sobre las restricciones del espacio cívico que enfrentan los movimientos indígenas y ambientalistas en todo el mundo.
1. ¿Cuáles son las razones de la movilización contra el proyecto del Canal Interoceánico? ¿Qué consecuencias tendría la construcción del canal?
La concesión para construir y operar el canal por 50 años, prorrogables por 50 más, fue entregada en junio de 2013 a la empresa china HKND (Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company). Fue otorgada mediante la Ley 840, conocida como “ley canalera”.
El canal tendría unos 500 metros de ancho y 30 metros de profundidad, un área restringida de 10 kilómetros a ambos lados y 278 kilómetros de largo. Además incluiría un lago artificial de 400 kilómetros cuadrados y otro lago para una central hidroeléctrica, más aeropuerto y cantidades de comercios que ocuparían enormes extensiones de territorio.
Se estima que los desplazados, es decir los afectados directos, serían más de 350 mil personas. Muchas más serían afectadas de manera indirecta, ya que los desplazados tendríamos un impacto allí donde nos moviéramos: tendríamos que ocupar otras propiedades, dado que ya no existen en Nicaragua tierras libres adonde pudiéramos ser reubicados, pese a lo que ha dicho el gobierno en algunas ocasiones.
Las tierras que atravesaría el canal son las mejores tierras de Nicaragua: tienen agua, se pueden cultivar, y es donde vivimos los campesinos. El canal también atravesaría y arruinaría el Lago Cocibolca, que es el único reservorio de agua dulce que tenemos no solo en Nicaragua sino en toda Centroamérica. La contaminación de estas aguas es la muerte, porque miles de hermanos toman agua de ese lago.
Yo vivo en una zona que está en el camino proyectado para el canal. Estoy en Punta Gorda, cerca de un territorio indígena y de la Reserva Indio Maíz, la Reserva Natural Punta Gorda, los humedales de San Miguelito y el Refugio de Vida Silvestre Río San Juan. Somos vecinos y tenemos muy buena relación con los hermanos indígenas, y al igual que a ellos nadie nos ha consultado. No nos han preguntado si estamos de acuerdo en vender, arrendar o entregar nuestras tierras. En los cuatro años desde que se vendió la concesión, el gobierno aun nunca ha pedido la opinión de los afectados directos. Todo lo que ha hecho es militarizar la zona, poner cantidades de militares y policías que reprimen al pueblo. Así, en la franja canalera encuentras campesinos humildes que han sido intimidados e incluso sufrido torturas.
Pero tenemos una posición muy firme: no entregaremos nuestras propiedades ni aceptaremos la destrucción que el canal causaría en el medio ambiente, y en cambio exigimos la derogación de la Ley 840. El artículo 12 de la ley dice que “es de interés público del pueblo de la República de Nicaragua la expropiación de cualquier bien inmueble o derecho sobre un bien inmueble que sea razonablemente necesario para efectuar todo o una parte de El Proyecto”. Pero obviamente no es en nuestro interés que nos quiten nuestras propiedades para que el gobierno pueda hacer sus negocios con los chinos.
2. ¿Qué acciones realiza el movimiento anti-canal para exigir la derogación de la ley?
Hemos hecho más de 90 marchas en diversos lugares del país, y seis marchas nacionales. Las marchas locales han tenido siempre entre 3000 y 7000 personas, mientras que las nacionales han juntado desde 18 mil hasta 30 mil.
Además de marchar, trabajamos continuamente para dar a conocer la ley canalera. Hacemos foros en municipios, comarcas y distritos para explicarle a la gente la situación y nuestra lucha. Sucede que esta ley se hizo a espaldas del pueblo, y por eso la mayoría de los nicaragüenses no sabe lo que significa ni cómo los amenaza. A partir de los foros ellos han sentido la necesidad de organizarse, y así es como ha avanzado el movimiento.
También hemos seguido todo el procedimiento legal que establece nuestra Constitución política para las iniciativas ciudadanas. La Constitución de Nicaragua dice que con las firmas de por lo menos 5000 ciudadanos se puede presentar una iniciativa ya sea para derogar una ley o para proponer una nueva. En abril de 2016 llevamos a la Asamblea Nacional un petitorio para derogar la ley canalera que tenía más de 28 mil firmas, pero la Asamblea se declaró incompetente diciendo que no tenía atribuciones porque la ley canalera tenía rango constitucional, y que por lo tanto no podía derogarla. Pero nosotros tenemos claro que los diputados están autorizados para hacer y deshacer, así que presentamos un recurso de revisión, pero este fue enseguida rechazado. Así que siguiendo los pasos que indica la Constitución presentamos un recurso de amparo ante la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Al cabo de ocho meses La Corte Suprema también falló en contra de nosotros los campesinos, violando así nuestros derechos constitucionales. Una vez que agotamos todas las vías legales en Nicaragua, demandamos al Estado ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) en Washington por violación de nuestros derechos humanos.
El gobierno dice que el proyecto del canal es apoyado por la mayoría de los nicaragüenses, pero esto no es cierto. Esto se evidencia en la cantidad de gente que se ha unido a nosotros pese a que no contamos con recursos económicos para movilizarnos. Con los pocos recursos que tenemos hemos hecho enormes movilizaciones, y si tuviéramos más recursos quedaría claramente en evidencia que la realidad es exactamente la contraria de lo que el gobierno está diciendo.
El gobierno no nos escucha, al punto que después de cuatro años de lucha todavía no nos reconoce como organización, pese a que hemos liderado grandes movilizaciones. Y de remate, acaba de reestructurar la ley para poder explotar los recursos naturales sin siquiera hacer estudios de impacto ambiental. Para la construcción del canal nunca pudo presentar ningún estudio de impacto ambiental ni socioeconómico, porque ha manejado todo a escondidas: hizo la ley, vendió nuestras tierras a un empresario y luego quiso justificarlo con supuestos estudios. Pero como no tiene los estudios que necesita, porque todos los estudios dicen exactamente lo contrario, finalmente modificó la ley y ahora puede construir sin hacer un estudio de impacto ambiental, lo cual es una violación más de nuestros derechos constitucionales.
3. ¿Han tenido libertad para movilizarse contra el canal?
Hemos encontrado muchos obstáculos para movilizarnos y hemos sido muchas veces reprimidos; por ejemplo el 29 de noviembre de 2016 intentamos hacer una marcha nacional y tuvimos que suspenderla ante la represión de la policía y el Ejército. Desde el día anterior el gobierno puso obstáculos en los caminos, organizó retenes y requisó vehículos en todas las entradas y salidas a la capital. Los manifestantes que intentaban llegar a Managua fueron atacados por la policía antimotines. Hubo infiltraciones, provocaciones y violencia; varios campesinos fueron heridos; uno de ellos, que tuvo heridas graves, sigue mal, ya ha tenido dos operaciones.
La persecución y la criminalización son permanentes. La represión es cada día más fuerte y nuestras familias sufren. Cuando salimos de la casa los hijos piensan que algo nos puede pasar, porque el gobierno es capaz de cualquier cosa con tal de mantenerse en el poder, desde intimidar hasta asesinar. Algunos líderes que han luchado contra el régimen hoy están muertos, y nunca se ha sabido porqué, cómo ni por quién. La impunidad es total.
4. Usted no solía dedicarse a la política. ¿Cómo llegó a liderar esta lucha?
Nosotros nos organizamos por necesidad, porque los campesinos nos dedicamos a trabajar la tierra y no estamos acostumbrados a andar en estas cosas. Los que hemos emprendido esta lucha somos campesinos: es decir, somos autónomos, no dependemos de nadie más que de nosotros mismos. Nos organizamos por nuestros propios medios, aunque las organizaciones de derechos humanos nos han apoyado y ahora que hemos presentado nuestra demanda esperamos también el respaldo de la CIDH.
5. ¿El movimiento anti-canal mantiene vínculos con otros movimientos sociales que también están siendo atacados y reprimidos?
Hemos estado en contacto con otros movimientos y hemos tratado de hacer alianzas para fortalecernos. De hecho, el proyecto del canal se coloca en el marco de un modelo extractivista más amplio, que requiere de la entrega de grandes cantidades de tierras y trae mucha destrucción. Los movimientos que oponen resistencia contra la minería o la siembra de monocultivos y las comunidades indígenas que defienden sus territorios están en la misma situación que nosotros, ya que son amenazados por las mismas leyes que los exponen a la expropiación, y son reprimidos por el mismo gobierno.
El gobierno hace negocios con proyectos extractivistas entregando concesiones sin consultar ni con las comunidades indígenas – no se han hecho las consultas previas, libres e informadas que exige la ley – ni con nosotros los campesinos. El gobierno solo quiere seguir enriqueciéndose para mantenerse en el poder. El proyecto del canal es tan innecesario que cabe pensar en las peores motivaciones: por ejemplo, que se busca dar movilidad sin controles a negocios oscuros, incluso ilícitos. Nosotros no estamos en contra del progreso, pero el progreso puede y debe ser amigable con el medio ambiente y respetuoso de los derechos humanos.
6. Usted sufrió recientemente una instancia de criminalización. ¿Nos puede contar qué pasó?
Yo había viajado a Costa Rica porque tenía a mi hijo enfermo allá; estuve cinco días hospitalizado con él. Cuando venía de regreso para Nicaragua, visé mi pasaporte en Costa Rica, pagué los impuestos, pasé la frontera, y luego del lado nicaragüense me sellaron el pasaporte, me requisaron la mochila como de costumbre – todo normal. Y cuando ya estaba por volver a abordar el bus me alcanzó alguien de Migraciones de Nicaragua para decirme que querían hablar conmigo. Llegaron dos antimotines, me pusieron las esposas y me llevaron a empujones. Yo pregunté porqué me detenían, si tenían orden de captura, qué delitos se me imputaban, y pedí que me dejaran hacer una llamada telefónica a mi familia para que supieran que estaba siendo detenido, pero nunca me explicaron nada: solo me decían que querían hablar conmigo. Primero me tuvieron unas dos horas ahí en la frontera, y después llegó una patrulla de policía y me llevaron a la estación policial. Cuando les preguntaba cuál era mi delito me respondían que era una investigación y que la ley les daba facultades para detener a una persona por 48 horas para hacer averiguaciones. Yo les decía que yo no soy una persona desconocida ni ando escondido, y que si me hubieran dado una cita yo hubiera ido a la estación de policía para una entrevista si querían hablar conmigo; no era necesario que me pusieran las esposas o me encerraran.
Me llevaron a una cárcel de Managua que es una cárcel de tortura. Gracias a Dios a mí no me torturaron físicamente, pero torturaron psicológicamente a mi familia, porque desde el momento en que me desaparecieron sin dejarme hacer una llamada, considero que fue un secuestro. Mientras tanto me estuvieron interrogando; me hicieron preguntas ilógicas, me tuvieron dos días detenido y al final cuando ya me iban a liberar me dijeron que los disculpara, que no tenía ningún delito, que tenía razón, que lo que les había dicho era cierto…
Yo creo que intentan intimidarnos para que dejemos esta lucha. Pero estamos seguros de que es una lucha muy justa, de modo que vamos a seguir. En mi caso hubo mucha presión de organizaciones de derechos humanos que estuvieron preguntando por mi desaparición, de campesinos que ya se estaban movilizando en toda Nicaragua para protestar, algunos medios de comunicación, las redes sociales… esta presión ayudó mucho para que el caso saliera a la luz.
7. ¿Qué clase de apoyo necesita el movimiento de parte de la comunidad internacional?
Necesitamos espacio en los medios para divulgar nuestra lucha. Queremos que el mundo entero sepa lo que está ocurriendo en Nicaragua.
Queremos mandar un mensaje a las empresas y gobiernos que pudieran estar interesados en invertir en el proyecto del canal interoceánico. Ellos deben saber que las tierras sobre las que se piensa construir el canal no son de Daniel Ortega sino de los nicaragüenses, y que los nicaragüenses, y sobre todo los campesinos, estamos organizados y tenemos una posición muy firme en defensa de nuestra tierra. Nosotros vivimos en el campo y esta es la única forma en que sabemos sobrevivir. No podemos ir a la ciudad; allí nadie nos espera. Antes que morir de hambre, preferimos morir defendiendo nuestras tierras.
Las empresas y gobiernos interesados no deben malinvertir su dinero y el de sus pueblos. Tienen que saber que estamos firmes en esta lucha y que vamos a llevarla hasta el final, de modo que si tratan de invertir aquí se estarán comprando un problema.
El espacio cívico en Nicaragua es clasificado en el CIVICUS Monitor en la categoría “obstruido”.
Visite el perfil de Facebook del Consejo Nacional para la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía.
CIVICUS conversa con Andrés Nápoli, abogado especializado en derecho ambiental y Director Ejecutivo de la Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (FARN). Fundada en 1985, FARN es una organización de la sociedad civil dedicada a impulsar el desarrollo sustentable. Con énfasis en la participación ciudadana, FARN promueve una ciudadanía ambiental inclusiva, el desarrollo y la implementación de herramientas para mejorar la transparencia de las políticas públicas y el acceso a la información en materia ambiental. Además construye y lidera redes y alianzas en espacios colaborativos y estratégicos de conocimiento.
Hace unos días se desarrolló en Buenos Aires una nueva ronda de negociaciones en pos de la adopción de un tratado sobre desarrollo sostenible para América Latina y el Caribe. ¿Cuáles serían los contenidos de este tratado, y qué rol está desempeñando la sociedad civil en el proceso?
Este es un acuerdo de negociación que se conoce como “acuerdo por el principio 10”, en referencia al principio 10 de la Declaración de Río sobre el Medio Ambiente y el Desarrollo (1992), que garantiza el acceso a la información, a la participación en la toma de decisiones en materia ambiental y a la justicia de todos los actores afectados.
A partir de esa declaración y de un proceso similar que se dio en Europa y que ya a fines de los ‘90 resultó en la Convención de Aarhus, diez países de América Latina y el Caribe iniciaron negociaciones en la Conferencia de las Naciones Unidas sobre el Desarrollo Sostenible, conocida como Río+20, que tuvo lugar en Río de Janeiro en junio de 2012. Lo que buscaban era un acuerdo, un instrumento regional, para garantizar el acceso a la información sobre medio ambiente y que los ciudadanos tengan la posibilidad de participar en procesos de toma de decisiones que puedan afectar su calidad de vida o el ambiente y tener acceso efectivo a procedimientos judiciales y administrativos, por ejemplo para reparar daños.
Durante varios años el proceso fue avanzando mediante una serie de reuniones de puntos focales, hasta que finalmente en el año 2015 se dio inicio al proceso de negociación. Los países involucrados actualmente son 24. El proceso es apoyado, en calidad de Secretaría Técnica, por la CEPAL (Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe), un organismo que integra el sistema de las Naciones Unidas y que ha tenido un rol muy activo.
El proceso tiene una característica muy peculiar: sigue el modelo establecido en la Convención de Aarhus, que tenía el objetivo de consolidar los procesos democráticos en Europa del Este y que para ello contempló la incorporación activa de la sociedad civil. Así, el proceso actualmente en curso en nuestra región también establece mecanismos para la participación activa de la sociedad civil, la que cuenta con representantes en el Comité de Negociación que integran los representantes de los países. La sociedad civil cuenta con dos representantes electos por sus pares que debaten e intercambian ideas en la mesa de negociación del Convenio. Pueden incluso proponer texto para incorporar en el instrumento, el cual es incorporado si obtiene el apoyo de al menos uno de los países.
¿Cómo fueron seleccionados los representantes de la sociedad civil? ¿Ha trabajado la sociedad civil en alianzas o redes?
Los representantes de la sociedad civil (a la que en este proceso se denomina “público”) fueron electos en una votación realizada por medios electrónicos y en la que participaron los miembros del público que se encontraban inscriptos en el proceso al inicio de la negociación. Resultaron electos como titulares las representantes de la sociedad civil de Chile y Jamaica. En mi caso resulté electo como miembro alterno, junto con otros cuatro representantes de diversos países de la región.
Los representantes de la sociedad civil establecimos una red por medio de la cual desarrollamos nuestra tarea de manera articulada y conjunta. Contamos además con diferentes voceros en el proceso de negociación, como así también con el asesoramiento de expertos de países de la región y de Aarhus.
¿Ha habido desacuerdos importantes entre sociedad civil y estados en el curso de las negociaciones?
El proceso de negociación debería terminar a fines de este año, y si eso no se consigue habría alguna reunión más el año que viene. Se está negociando un texto propuesto por la Secretaría Técnica y sobre la base del cual se ha ido avanzando. Las negociaciones están entrando en su fase final.
Pero ha habido muchas idas y vueltas, y hay cosas importantes que aún no están definidas. Un tema en que la sociedad civil ha venido insistiendo, y sobre el cual hay una decisión cada vez más firme, es que el acuerdo debe tener carácter vinculante, vale decir que debe obligar a los países que formen parte del mismo. En tal sentido, entendemos que un acuerdo basado en derechos no puede admitir otro carácter. No queremos que este proceso sea una nueva declaración de principios, o una suerte de Ley Modelo: queremos un acuerdo que obligue a los países a establecer e implementar ciertos mecanismos efectivos de participación y acceso a la información en materia ambiental, como así también un amplio acceso a la justicia para reclamar la protección y tutela del derecho a gozar del ambiente.
Varios países se han pronunciado a favor de esta posición: entre ellos se cuentan Chile, Costa Rica, Panamá y Paraguay; también Argentina se expresó en ese sentido en la última reunión. Otros países sin embargo todavía no se han pronunciado en ese sentido, pero negocian el acuerdo como si fuera a adoptarse un mecanismo de carácter vinculante.
Sin embargo, nosotros creemos que hay ciertos países que no están negociando de buena fe el acuerdo. Ante todo, aún no se han pronunciado sobre si van a firmar el documento, ni sobre si aceptan que se trate de un acuerdo vinculante. Además, varios de esos mismos países negocian el acuerdo buscando bajar sistemáticamente los estándares de protección de derechos a establecer en el acuerdo, en algunos casos incluso fijando estándares más bajos que los que establecen sus propias legislaciones nacionales.
Estos intentos de bajar los estándares y garantías llevaron a que se generaran muchas discusiones que han prolongado por demás los plazos de las negociaciones y al mismo tiempo han generado un creciente malestar en los representantes de la sociedad civil. Esto se ha visto muy claramente en temas de acceso a información pública, donde se han establecido numerosas barreras que tornarán mas dificultoso al ciudadano acceder a la información en poder del estado.
De hecho, en la última reunión en Buenos Aires se planteó la posibilidad de que la sociedad civil abandonara el proceso si esta actitud persistía. Pero esto fue más que nada un llamado de atención para los negociadores: como sociedad civil trazamos un límite a la discusión, por debajo del cual ya no estaremos dispuestos a permanecer.
Esperamos que en la próxima reunión, que se va a hacer en Chile cerca de fin de año y en la cual se van a abordar las cuestiones referidas al acceso a la justicia, los estándares de los países se mantengan elevados. Caso contrario, va a ser muy difícil que aquellos países que ya tienen buenos estándares en sus legislaciones mejoren su cumplimiento.
¿Por qué es importante la participación de las sociedad civil? ¿Qué diferencia hace su presencia en estos foros?
La participación de la sociedad civil es muy importante no solo porque legitima los procesos de negociación; también permite que haya mayores niveles de apertura y transparencia. Lo que es más importante, la sociedad civil trae a la mesa de negociaciones muchos de los temas que los estados no están dispuestos a tratar, aporta una perspectiva que va más allá de los intereses estrechos de los estados y al mismo tiempo busca que se eleven los estándares exigidos de protección de derechos. Cuando hay transparencia y la atención pública está puesta en estos procesos, es mucho más difícil para los estados negarse a abordar estas discusiones.
Un ejemplo de los temas que se han impuesto por la impronta de la sociedad civil es el de la situación por la que atraviesan los defensores ambientales y de derechos humanos en la región y la necesidad de establecer garantías para que puedan llevar a cabo su labor sin sufrir amenazas y atentados, que a muchos les han costado la vida.
América Latina es la región del mundo con mayor cantidad de asesinatos de activistas ambientalistas. Nosotros creemos que el Acuerdo por el Principio 10 debe contener mecanismos que posibiliten la prevención y la protección efectiva de los defensores ambientales.
Hay incontables conflictos ambientales abiertos en toda América Latina y el Caribe, asociados a muchísimas violaciones de los derechos humanos, y por el momento no hay mecanismos institucionalizados de negociación entre los estados y las comunidades afectadas. El acuerdo por el Principio 10 puede ser una muy buena herramienta para canalizarlos.
Como lo muestran numerosos informes publicados recientemente por CIVICUS, PWYP, Global Witness y Front Line Defenders, la sociedad civil que se ocupa del medio ambiente y los recursos naturales enfrenta amenazas crecientes. ¿Qué se puede hacer frente a estas amenazas?
Efectivamente, América Latina es la región más problemática en materia de garantía de los derechos de los defensores ambientales. Un caso emblemático ha sido el de Berta Cáceres, pero lamentablemente no se trata de un caso único sino que ha habido centenares de defensores asesinados en Brasil, Colombia, Honduras, Perú, Paraguay, México, Nicaragua y Guatemala, entre otros países. En la mayoría de estos procesos están involucradas grandes inversiones, tanto en la lucha contra las mega represas hidroeléctricas como en el avance de la frontera agropecuaria o de la explotación minera. En esos contextos, los defensores ambientales, que son los que trabajan codo a codo con las comunidades afectadas, ven peligrar sus derechos e incluso su integridad física y su propia vida.
Frente a esto se requieren garantías y salvaguardas fuertemente expresadas por los estados, pero no solamente cuando suceden los ataques sino a manera de prevención, para garantizar el ejercicio legítimo del derecho a defender derechos que están expresando estos defensores ambientales. Muchos de nosotros tenemos la suerte y el privilegio de trabajar desde las capitales, pero los defensores ambientales están junto con los grupos de poblaciones afectadas cuando suceden, por ejemplo, las ocupaciones de tierras por parte de las empresas extractivas o cuando ocurren los desplazamientos del territorio de las poblaciones que lo habitan, que es cuando ocurren las peores violaciones de derechos humanos. De ahí la necesidad de que haya instrumentos internacionales y políticas activas de prevención y protección para estos defensores.
¿Qué tendencias, positivas o negativas, observa en materia de participación de la sociedad civil en procesos de toma de decisiones?
Hay una tendencia que yo creo que es irreversible: la discusión entre estados, con exclusión de la sociedad civil, no ha dado muchos resultados ni tiene mucho futuro. Sin embargo, estos procesos no son lineales; muchas veces se avanza en algunos espacios mientras que se retrocede en otros. Este proceso es un buen ejemplo de que la participación activa de la sociedad civil dentro del proceso puede ser virtuosa y que los acuerdos son posibles; también muestra que se requiere de tiempo, conocimientos y, sobre todo, se requiere ganar confianza.
Al mismo tiempo, estos procesos ponen en evidencia que muchos países “hacen como que” participan, “hacen como que” informan, pero esto es ficticio. Muchos países garantizan los derechos en sus legislaciones pero fracasan en su implementación. De ahí que nuestras luchas se centren en garantizar el efectivo cumplimiento de los derechos.
¿Qué recursos necesita la sociedad civil para fortalecerse y responder mejor a los desafíos que enfrenta?
Sobre este punto volvería a referir otra vez al tema con que iniciamos esta conversación: las negociaciones por el Principio 10. Este es un proceso abierto para toda la sociedad civil de América Latina y el Caribe, de modo que quiero hacer un pedido directo a toda la sociedad civil, no solamente a organizaciones sino también a personas individuales, profesionales en diversas áreas, para que se informen y tengan una participación activa en este proceso. Eso se puede hacer de manera muy sencilla, para lo cual hay primero que registrase en el proceso en www.cepal.org/es/register/p10. La idea es que el proceso pueda crecer cada vez más a través de una buena comunidad de participantes que contribuya a consolidarlo.
En términos de fortalecimiento de la sociedad civil, es muy importante que cada uno atienda a los temas que son de su interés y especialidad, pero que también podamos entre todos elegir temas para trabajar en conjunto. El trabajo colectivo fortalece cada uno de los reclamos y cada una de las luchas. En este sentido la sociedad civil siempre tiene elementos para aportar y para construir agenda. Esta agenda no se realiza en el corto plazo: hay que sostenerla en el tiempo. Por eso es bueno trabajarla en forma colectiva, de modo que el día en que uno no puede sostenerla, otro pueda hacerlo en su lugar y que el proceso no se detenga.
En relación con los derechos que defienden organizaciones como la nuestra, ningún resultado de interés público y de interés colectivo se obtiene en el corto plazo. Se requiere continuidad en el tiempo y, por lo tanto, trabajo colectivo. Apostamos a que estas luchas por los derechos humanos, el desarrollo sostenible y un medio ambiente sano se consoliden en instrumentos internacionales y formen un círculo virtuoso, en la medida en que cada vez más ciudadanos se movilicen, se informen y participen en el proceso de toma de decisiones, y que en ese proceso se generen más y mejores mecanismos institucionales y legales que garanticen esos mismos derechos de movilización, acceso a la información y participación a nivel tanto nacional como internacional mayores serán los resultados que se obtendrán en estos procesos.
El espacio cívico en Argentina es clasificado en el CIVICUS Monitor en la categoría “estrecho”.
CIVICUS conversa con Héctor Ulloa, estudiante de doble licenciatura en Derecho y Economía, vicepresidente de la Asociación de Estudiantes de Derecho de la Universidad Nacional de Honduras y fundador del Movimiento Progresista Universitario (PRO).
CIVICUS speaks to Julienne Lusenge, director of SOFEPADI (Solidarite Feminine pour la Paix et le Development Integral), an NGO based in the Democratic Republic of Congo which supports and empowers women and girls who are rape and domestic violence survivors.
CIVICUS conversa con Manuel Robles, integrante del Movimiento Marcha Verde de la República Dominicana. Surgida en enero de 2017 al calor de la indignación popular por el escándalo Odebrecht, que involucró a altos funcionarios de tres sucesivos gobiernos dominicanos, Marcha Verde incluye a un amplio conglomerado de organizaciones de la sociedad civil y centra su estrategia en la movilización callejera. Sus principales objetivos son el establecimiento de una comisión independiente de investigación, la identificación y apertura de causas judiciales contra todos los implicados en casos de corrupción, y la recuperación de los activos de la corrupción.
CIVICUS conversa con Sara García Gross, Coordinadora Ejecutiva de la Agrupación Ciudadana por la Despenalización del Aborto Terapéutico, Ético y Eugenésico de El Salvador e integrante de la Red Salvadoreña de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos. Fundada en 2009, Agrupación Ciudadana es una organización de la sociedad civil multidisciplinaria que busca generar conciencia para cambiar la legislación sobre la interrupción del embarazo en el país; defender legalmente a las mujeres que han sido acusadas o condenadas o por abortos o delitos relacionados; y promover la educación en materia de salud sexual y reproductiva.
CIVICUS conversa con Saúl Baños, abogado de la Mesa Nacional frente a la Minería Metálica de El Salvador y Director Ejecutivo de una de las organizaciones que la integran, la Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho. El entrevistado relata una historia de éxito de la sociedad civil en su lucha por la prohibición de la minería metálica en el país, y da cuenta de los desafíos pendientes.
1. A fines de marzo se aprobó en El Salvador una ley pionera que prohíbe la minería metálica en el país. ¿Cómo fue el proceso que condujo a su aprobación, y qué rol desempeñó en él la sociedad civil organizada?
La ley de prohibición de la minería metálica fue aprobada por la Asamblea Legislativa el 29 de marzo de 2017. Que un país tan pequeño y empobrecido como El Salvador tomara esta decisión soberana contra los intereses de una poderosa empresa transnacional fue un hecho sin precedentes que nosotros consideramos como una victoria aunque los contenidos de la ley no fueran exactamente los que impulsábamos en un principio.
CIVICUS speaks to a Liberian activist about the invasions by multinational companies into community and indigenous lands. Rural communities are at the receiving end of human rights violations perpetuated against these companies and the police while the state appears to be turning a blind eye to their plight. The activist prefers to remain anonymous to protect their identity.
1. Can you describe the state of land rights, resource rights and indigenous rights in Liberia?
Communities and land rights activists in Liberia struggle to protect land and natural resources from multinational companies who are given access to land and natural resources by the government without taking into consideration the needs and views of Liberians. In exploiting land and natural resources, these multinational corporations violate the rights of communities, exploit children and their actions have an adverse effect on the environment. Recently, the Liberian government discussed land ownership and rights through a land authority and land rights Act and promised to include more local voices such as those of women and children. However, the laws remain unenforced even though resources that are being taken by big companies are supposed to empower all communities in Liberia. A major challenge is that these multinationals have agreements with the government without taking into account the views and concerns of communities whose livelihood will be affected by the exploitation of these resources.
2. What do you view as the core issues related to Golden Veroleum’s work in Liberia?
The survival and livelihood of Liberia’s rural communities is attributed to their access to the rainforests and to land for cultivation. Upon the arrival in 2010 of Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL), a oil palm developer, rural farmers’ lands have been taken from them, often times by force. GVL has continued their expansion and let nothing get in their way; not farmers, not virgin rainforests teeming with wildlife, not even their promises made to help the local communities and assist them in developing education and other necessities. GVL has continued their operations but has returned nothing to the Liberian communities from whom they took the land.
Many of the communities and farmers have disagreed with GVL but have been met with threats and bribery by officials in positions of power. When the members of the communities chose to take a stand and express concerns over the actions of GVL, they have been arrested and beaten. GVL has employed a heavily armed and armored police unit called the Police Support Unit which they have invited to indefinitely stay to protect GVL’s interests and plantations. The workers that work for GVL are underpaid – in most cases US$10 a day and a rice supply which GVL’s forces have been confiscating in village raids. GVL has forced communities out of their land and some members of communities have gone into hiding to avoid reprisals.
3. How are communities of rural farmers affected by GVL’s palm oil production?
The land of these rural farmers has been confiscated, oftentimes by force, and has been poisoned with the chemicals used inside of palm plantations. GVL supposedly assumes that all local farmers will be obliged to work for them, facing underpayment and no access to the land on which they used to live. Some farmers have refused and simply left to live in the rainforest, yet GVL’s continued expansion threatens the delicate balance of the rainforest in which they live. Others have been beaten and imprisoned and remain there with no hope of ever leaving due to the corruption of GVL’s employed police unit.
4. In addition to concerns by farmers, can you expand on what your concerns are about the palm oil expansion by GVL?
My concerns are that the pleas of these farmers have remained unheard and overlooked by the Liberian government because of the economic benefit the government is receiving for this development. The conditions into which they force these communities, along with the ruthless means used to place them in such peril is very worrying and speaks a lot about the corruption that remains unexposed within the palm oil industry. I am concerned at what the future will bring, with little advancement in development for the communities. Farmers are detained and several are unaccounted for and GVL colludes with the government to gain access to land without consent of local communities.
5. In your opinion, why is this issue not being covered in the mainstream media?
Much of the story has been covered up or kept quiet by corrupt local officials and GVL. However, we hope that as civil society continues to highlight these issues, the matter will get the attention it deserves. Palm oil is used widely for domestic and industrial purposes — from cleaning products to culinary purposes and manufacturing — yet the methods of producing palm oil are not made public. Even major brand names using this oil have not spoken about which companies they source it from and by what means. If this was publicised by the mainstream media there would be a breach of trust between consumers and providers.
6. How has the government of Liberia responded to opposition to the oil plantation and why has it responded in this manner?
In the aftermath of Liberia’s war, the government expected investors to boost the economy and were quick to accept companies that produce palm oil. Liberians were initially happy about the arrival of multinational companies as they promised to create jobs and build schools. However, when the multinationals started violating the rights of communities, the government did not respond. In fact, we know that GVL has been bribing government officials who now ignore the actions of GVL and silence the voices of communities.
7. What can international civil society do to provide support and solidarity to activists in Liberia on this matter?
I would suggest we call on the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to include Liberia consistently on their agenda. It would also be important for international human rights institutions and mechanisms to work with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary association of the palm oil industry, to ensure GVL stops its operations until it has fulfilled promises made to communities. Finally, we hope local and international media outlets can do more to highlight the human rights violations, human-trafficking, child slavery and illegal deforestation which are common in the palm oil industry. This will persuade customers to demand that their providers ensure that products are produced in line with ethical and human rights standards. Providers unwilling to meet these demands should be exposed to prevent further damage to communities and their lands, in countries such as Liberia.
• Liberia is rated as “Repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Huseyin Hurmali, President of the Journalists and Writers Foundation about the difficult environment for journalists in Turkey. Worldwide, Turkey has the highest number of imprisoned journalists. He also speaks about the future of democracy in Turkey after the President’s move to consolidate power following a tightly-contested referendum.
1. How would you describe the situation in Turkey for journalists and writers?
Depressing: More than half the journalists who are in prison around the world are in Turkey. Turkey currently has the highest number of journalists in jail worldwide. Concrete information, confirmed by the international press and human rights organisations, indicates that Turkey is not a free country in terms of freedom of the press.
According to a report released by the Journalists Association of Turkey, 839 journalists appeared in court simply for reporting news in 2016. These numbers are a clear indication that the problematic situation of freedom of the press in Turkey is far worse than many people think. It should be noted that this number may rise at any moment due to ongoing police raids and detentions. After the 15 July 2016 coup, 85% of the journalists and media workers were taken into custody and arrested. The journalists are charged with various charges among them “espionage”, “membership of a terrorist organisation”, “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “attempting to overthrow the current government”. As is mentioned in the report of the Stockholm Center for Freedom, the practices of silencing journalists through the abuse of the criminal justice system and expanding the scope of the definition of terrorism to use it against defendants are among the human rights violations frequently cited in human rights reports as well as in documents from the European Union, the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In addition to the jailed journalists and writers, there is a significant number of those for whom detention warrants were issued or were forced to flee the country due to the fear of unfair trial. These journalists and writers have to live in exile enduring financial hardships, intimidation of their families back in Turkey, denial of consular services at Turkish embassies and consulates, uncertain legal status in their respective countries, and having to hide their identities in their countries of asylum due to continuous death threats on social media from supporters of President Recep Erdogan.
There are a few remaining independent and critical media organisations in Turkey, and their staff are working under constant threat of arrest, violence, hate speech, discrimination, profiling, censorship and even death. The court is now the most frequent place of visitation for critical journalists who face criminal cases against them, if they have not been jailed yet. The seizure and closure of 189 media organisations by the government indicates that not only the freedom of media is lost, but also a huge number of employees in this sector including the editorial, administrative and technical staff who have to face unemployment. More than 30% of journalists alone in the media sector have lost their jobs and were denied the right of carrying out their profession in any other institution, due to being blacklisted by the government. Furthermore, some of the journalists and writers who are in jail or in exile have lost all their assets by seizure orders from non-independent courts. Thereby, the victimisation of journalists and writers in Turkey reaches out to their close and extended families, inside and outside of the country.
2. Please elaborate on some of the persecution tactics being used by the Turkish state against those who don’t agree with what’s going in the country at present.
President Erdogan and the Turkish government are waging a war against dissent under the disguise of a war on terror, using the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 as a tool. The Turkish state’s persecution of dissenters was already taking place at a gradual speed since the mass protests in June 2013. The violent crushing down of the peaceful protests became a routine after that, until a point where people are afraid to exercise their right of peaceful gathering and mass protests. The government’s use of the police force to suppress dissent became more explicit when a corruption probe was revealed in December 2013, which included the close circle of Erdogan as prime suspects. Erdogan turned this case into a test of loyalty to himself within the security and the judiciary branch, jailing, discharging, or displacing the police officers and the judiciary members who were involved in the corruption probe against his government members (and himself). He became increasingly interventionist on the judiciary system by declaring his opponents as terrorists and criminals without any evidence.
The redesigning of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors in 2014 gave way to the total instrumentalisation of legal system for the intimidation and persecution of dissenters. They reinterpreted the trusteeship concept in property law which was meant to prevent a private enterprise from bankruptcy, and appointed trustees as a way of seizing the private media, business, and educational institutions that were owned by the targeted individuals or groups. The ending of the peace process with the Kurdish movement in June 2015 was followed by a collective punishment of the Kurds by a military attack that tore down the Kurdish-majority cities in the southeast of Turkey. Legal actions were taken against peaceful supporters of the Kurdish case in order to silence opposition, as seen in the case of more than 1 000 academics who signed a petition for peace, and had to suffer administrative and legal investigation for criticising the state. People who belonged to the Gulen-inspired Hizmet movement, which became Erdogan’s number one target after the corruption probe in 2013, began to be detained and arrested for being a member of an “armed terror organisation” which was a term that was coined for the movement, in addition to “the parallel state structure” without any trial or a court decision. Critics from all sections were subjected to arbitrary legal harassment, by facing charges such as “insulting the President” “defaming state institutions” or “aiding a terror organisation” when they stood against the wrongful acts of the state; therefore people were forced to exert self-censorship in their social media posts and public conversations. Legal actions were taken against absurdly small incidents, such as liking an anti-Erdogan cartoon on Facebook, as a way of demonstrating the power of authority and the extent of its reach.
The State of Emergency declared in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave total impunity to the state’s ongoing persecution tactics as well as enabling it to launch a total crackdown against civil society and civil servants. The coup attempt gave the government the pretext to declare the Hizmet movement as an “armed terror organization” by blaming Gulen and his followers for the putsch, and to round up anyone who is even remotely connected to the network as a “coup supporter” and “member of an armed terror organisation.” It is a serious offense in Turkish criminal law, and entails harsh imprisonment conditions. The state of emergency decrees are immune to parliamentary or judicial control, allowing the dismissal of over 138 000 civil servants without any right to appeal, the closure of 149 media outlets, 2 099 schools, dormitories and universities. Under the state of emergency over 50 000 have been arrested (including 13 MPs from pro-Kurdish HDP) and 102 000 detained. Again, the Kurdish opposition and the Hizmet movement became the main target of the executive decrees, while the state is careful to include all sorts of dissidents to create fear among loyalists and opponents alike. The state also uses its embassies and consulates around the world to harass opponents by denying them of regular services, canceling their passports, and threatening to revoke their citizenship status if they are charged with a crime in Turkey and reject to return to the country after three months of notice.
Turkey’s persecution of dissidents through illegal means has also reached beyond its national borders. Tactics employed include threats, denial of consular services, profiling and abductions. The recent abductions of Turkish nationals from Malaysia in total violation of international law is a case in point. Since October 2016, five Turkish nationals have been illegally detained by Malaysian operatives and handed over to Turkish authorities. These individuals are currently jailed in Turkey, raising serious fear of torture and inhuman treatment. The systematic nature of their abduction leaves little doubt about cooperation between the Turkish and Malaysian governments. There is growing concern that such a pattern could be repeated in other parts of the world where corrupt regimes or clandestine structures would be willing to cooperate with Turkey in order to kidnap Hizmet Movement sympathisers.
3. Please elaborate on how your organisation was deprived of its status at the UN following pressure from the Turkish government.
As an international civil society organization dedicated to a culture of peace, human rights and sustainable development, the Journalists and Writers Foundation (JWF) promotes diversity and inclusion by creating forums for intellectual and social engagement, generates and shares knowledge with stakeholders, builds partnerships worldwide and develops policy recommendations for positive social change.
JWF received ECOSOC general consultative status in 2012, becoming the first and only NGO from Turkey to hold this status. Having this important status made the United Nations’ Global Agenda 2030 a priority area for JWF, particularly in terms of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals. Following the numerous violations of the freedom of speech in Turkey and as a result of the groundless claim of the Permanent Mission of Turkey to the UN – namely, that JWF no longer exists, despite the fact that JWF is an NGO registered in New York State – JWF‘s general consultative status with ECOSOC was revoked on 19 April 2017 during the UN ECOSOC meeting. The Turkish government´s dictation for the withdrawal of JWF’s consultative status with ECOSOC was based on the fact that JWF’s operations were ended in Turkey by a post-coup emergency decree on 22 July 2016, which was issued due to its alleged associations with a fictitious terror organisation. We must point out that JWF is a 501(c) non-governmental organisation registered in New York State and has had its headquarters in New York since 2014.
The Turkish government exploited procedural flaws in the rules and misused its membership status at the relevant UN bodies to extend its massive crackdown on civil society in Turkey to the United Nations platform. The ensuing decision to revoke JWF’s consultative status clearly contradicts the UN’s promotion of active civil society participation in the 2030 Agenda. Apart from Turkey’s increasing tendency towards dictatorship, there is also a growing concern about the intimidation of and reprisals against individuals and organisations that cooperate with the UN system. The withdrawal of JWF’s status clearly violates Article 56 of Resolution 1996/31, which indicates that the NGO concerned “shall be given written reasons for that decision and shall have an opportunity to present its response for appropriate consideration by the Committee”. JWF was neither informed in writing about this arbitrary action, nor was it given a platform to defend its twenty-three years of dedication to peace and the protection of human rights. JWF’s dedication to peace, human rights and sustainable development has been proven by the many activities and projects that have been implemented ever since JWF received general consultative status with ECOSOC in July 2012. JWF’s quadrennial report submitted to the Committee on NGOs in June 2016 is more than enough to indicate that this decision is not fair, given JWF’s activities and performance. The decision is clearly politically driven and secured by the privileged position of member states against NGOs in the ECOSOC system.
4. Given the total clampdown on freedom of expression in the country how is democratic dissent being expressed? Are any creative methods being used?
The “No” campaign during the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum can be seen as a very creative expression of democratic dissent. Especially, young people’s creative political activism against the referendum shows that free expression will be hard to stamp out in the country.
Without a doubt, speaking out against Erdogan comes with risks: “No” campaigners have faced alleged government-backed coercion and suppression. In March 2017, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) unveiled a 78-point report regarding irregularities and suppression of 'No' campaigners.
But still, protesters have plastered photos of jailed artists and politicians who oppose the measure at select transport hubs. Videos of police questioning women who spoke out against the referendum on a ferry have gone viral in social media. Officials have banned a Kurdish song encouraging a “no” vote. (The subtitle to this song reads, "Playing this song in Turkey will land you in jail.") Young women in colorful masks shouting “No!” and university students beating drums and singing songs about freedom were among the thousands who marched on Istiklal Street, a popular thoroughfare in Istanbul, to campaign against boosting President Erdogan’s powers in a constitutional referendum. Erdogan’s crackdown on dissent is nothing new, but the creativity of the young people especially is still giving hope.
5. What can international civil society do to support freedom of expression in Turkey?
As the civil society and free and independent media in Turkey have been greatly impaired by the ongoing purge, international delegations of civil society and media organisations visiting Turkey must show solidarity with all victims of state oppression and be their voice indiscriminately. The wide range of civil servants, professionals, in addition many journalists and intellectuals who had to flee Turkey after the coup must be supported in their struggle to find safety and legal protection. The exiled journalists who launched initiatives to report on human rights abuses in Turkey need the help of international civil society in carrying out this high-risk, and mostly high-cost task. The remaining voices of dissent, which have most recently surfaced itself with the 49% (and possibly more) of the referendum voters in Turkey can only be kept alive as long as they feel the support of the international civil society through social media campaigns, as the social media is the major platform where alternative voices can be heard. Where Turkish citizens are silenced with fear, the international community must speak for them.
6. How do you see the future of democracy in Turkey.
The constitutional referendum last month unfortunately nailed the coffin of democracy and separation of powers in Turkey, allowing President Erdogan to combine the executive, legislative and judiciary powers. While this has already been the de facto system in Turkey for the last couple of years as Erdogan captured more and more elements of the state, the proposed Constitution will make it permanent as the de jure system. Yet there is still hope, as we have seen that even in an unfair and possibly rigged election, half of the voters stood against this proposal, and denied Erdogan a decisive victory. First and foremost of all, the State of Emergency rule must end as soon as possible, and the Turkish government has to stop the repression of its people and establish the fundamental rights of individuals.
• Turkey is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Natalia Muñoz Castillo, director of International Affairs at the Observatory Against Street Harassment (OCAC), a Chilean civil society organisation that works to make public spaces safe and egalitarian, making them accessible to the most vulnerable, and specifically to women, children, adolescents and LGBTI people.
1.Why an organisation dedicated to the issue of street harassment? Why is this an important issue in terms of women’s rights?
While there are indeed other outstanding issues in which women’s lives and health are directly at stake, street sexual harassment is also a real problem in Chile. And it is an issue that is difficult to address because it is supposedly attached to our culture. For a long time it was considered to be part of our Latin American culture and upheld as “the way Chilean men are”, and therefore it was believed that there was nothing you could do to guarantee your safety in the street. We believe it is unfair for women to be second-rate persons and to be forced to use the public space in fear. What we try to do at OCAC is challenge preconceptions, take ownership of public space and promote change so that we can feel safe without being constantly on guard against the possibility of sexual assault. In Chile, giving a woman a “compliment” in the street is widely accepted, it is considered normal and natural; however, it actually violates the right of women to walk around safely. This practice has endured for many years, and in that sense it is “traditional”, but that does not make it acceptable. If it causes you fear and insecurity, and limits your prospects for the only reason that you are a woman – it makes you avoid certain routes, restrict your schedule, change the way you dress or move – then it amounts to gender-based violence.
2. In which ways does the use of public space – that is, the restrictions linked to the understanding of the place that each is meant to occupy – relate to the broader problem of gender inequality?
The female gender is generally associated with the private sphere. The privileged participation of males in the public sphere translates into better salaries, greater security in the streets and sexual freedom. When women dare to cross these barriers of patriarchy, societal norms immediately set the limits. If I, a woman, leave the private space and try to move freely in the public space, I become a target for violence. And society will blame me for whatever happens to me: it was my fault because I was in a place where I should not have been, because I was dressed in a way I shouldn’t have, or because I was out at a time when I should have been home. So gender inequality is visible both inside and outside the home. The Observatory focuses on what goes on outside, while other organisations focus on, for instance, sexual violence within the home, dating violence and other violations of rights that occur in the sphere of private or intimate relationships. In sum, OCAC focuses its efforts on addressing sexual violence taking place in the streets, and occurring when women seek to occupy a public space that traditionally, according to societal norms, does not belong to them.
3. You have probably been told a thousand times: “Chile has a female president, what else do you want?
That’s exactly right. And we reply: The fact that Chile has a female president [Michelle Bachelet, president in 2006-10 and re-elected in 2014] is no guarantee that all women in our society are being treated equally. In fact, the president herself is portrayed in the media in an extremely sexist fashion. Congress representatives such as former student leaders Camila Vallejo and Karol Cariola also receive sexist press coverage and public opinion also reflects these views. People refer to the president in demeaning ways by focusing on her weight or her body, which has never happened to male presidents. Even when they reach prominent positions in national politics, women are still subjected to violence linked to traits that have nothing to do with their ability to do their jobs. They are permanently questioned and assessed in terms of their “feminine” attributes and for their bodies above anything else.
4. As feminist activists, have you and your colleagues faced similar stereotypes?
I am also a teacher, and when I talk to my students about gender issues they often react by saying “but prof, you don’t look like a feminist!” It’s just that I don’t fit into their stereotypes. They say “but you are married”, meaning I am not a lesbian, or they point out that I have long hair, or that I wear makeup, or that I don’t mistreat male students but instead treat them all equally. This surprises them because their point of departure is the characterisation of a feminist as a very angry woman who rejects everything feminine and wants to vent her anger against men – in short, a “feminazi”.
This conversation helps my students feel that gender issues are much closer to them and gives them a different point of entrance into feminism – by watching my actions, and particularly my emphasis on equal treatment. As representatives of a feminist organisation, we are subjected to public scrutiny, so we need to be careful of, for instance, the ways we refer to men and women. And we strongly insist that the current situation is not the fault of individual men, but of the patriarchal structure within which all of us, both men and women, have been raised.
In fact, although there are many women in our organisation, and our directors are all female (for reasons of experience with these issues as well as trajectory within the organisation), ours is not strictly a women’s organisation, since many males also work in it.
5. On its website, the Observatory does not define itself as a feminist organisation. Is that label still too much weight to carry?
This was a discussion that we did have in the beginning. When the organisation was founded, in 2013, there was still some fear of the connotations the label could carry. Still then, being a feminist was not “cool” in Latin America, it was not in fashion, so the label was not all that desirable. But after a while we realised that what we were doing was grounded in feminism, and that we needed to claim the label and see what happened – and if it was not well received, then bad luck. So we started presenting ourselves as feminists, as we do on Twitter and Facebook.
As our work began to take hold – our posters were there in the metro, our memes circulated on social media – we noticed feminism was becoming more popular among younger generations. Among young women, today it is almost unconceivable not to be a feminist. I may have a biased perspective, because I am talking about the people I interact with in my surroundings, but nowadays my students are very aware of what harassment is, they recognise gender differences and inequalities, they know that respect requires and understand what things should not be done… I am not sure I would say feminism is now fashionable, but at least it is more normal: you can say you are a feminist and you will not be attacked from all flanks. It is possible to have a meaningful conversation, and even to quote feminist organisations to support your argument… this may have something to do with access to information, which is much more open today. Internet access has educated the public on these issues.
6. What strategies – advocacy, campaigning, mobilisation – does OCAC use?
As an organisation we work in various fields, and we work in teams of professionals specialised in law, sociology and political science, communications and design, and psychology, pedagogy and social work, depending on the case. The International Networks team, which I lead, works alongside “sister” organisations in several Latin American countries: Bolivia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Uruguay. In some of these countries, and particularly in Guatemala and Nicaragua, the situation is much more difficult than in Chile. Here in Chile, street sexual harassment usually takes less-than-drastic forms: you feel insecure and limited in your freedom, but phenomena such as gang rapes are rare, while they are fairly common in other countries.
So we collaborate with our counterparts in these countries by producing joint campaigns at the regional level and supporting the communications work of our weaker nodes. For those countries where violence against women and girls is more serious, such as Guatemala, we have devised stronger awareness-raising campaigns. The demands we put forward for our governments to address are not the same everywhere: in those cases, for instance, rather than a law against street harassment more basic security measures are required, including protection against femicide. We try to be a source of support for these organisations, because they also feel much more abandoned by the law than we do. After all, civil society organisations mostly have one another for support.
In turn, the Legal Advisory team provides legal support to victims of street sexual harassment, and it was also the one that drafted and promoted the Law of Street Respect (Ley de Respeto Callejero) that is currently under discussion in the Chilean Senate Human Rights Commission. The Communications team works in sharing experiences, making public denunciations and generating content for campaigns. We also have a Studies team whose research feeds into public debate, outreach efforts and campaigns; an Interventions team that works with communities, schools and public opinion to educate the public about street harassment, and also accompanies victims; and a Management and Projects team that develops alliances, seeks donations and guarantees funding for our initiatives.
It is important to note that while we emerged as an organisation with a focus on street sexual harassment, which is therefore at the core of our work, we embrace the feminist demand in its entirety. We therefore have a clear-cut position on femicide and we support the #NiUnaMenos (“not one less”) campaign and the legalisation of abortion. However, street mobilisation does not rank high among our strategies: although we regularly join in mobilisations summoned by other organisations, OCAC itself rarely calls for mobilisation. Rather than massively taking to the streets, we focus on using to our favour a variety of platforms – social media, traditional media, institutional spaces, communications with elected officials – that are available for citizens to make themselves heard. We consider ourselves to be neither street feminists nor academic feminists, but we rather try to spread our message throughout society. So we try to be present in the media, in schools and universities as well as in streets, marketplaces and public squares.
A recent campaign we took out there was #Notedavergüenza (“Aren’t you ashamed”). We addressed it to men, whom we invited to reflect on consent in order to understand that, in the absence of explicit consent, many behaviours that are relatively common in fact constitute sexual violence. Besides spreading it on social media, we took the campaign to street markets in order to talk to people about it. Our goal is to establish a dialogue, introduce our organisation to people and have them commit to making a change and spreading it.
6. Have you faced any obstacles, cultural or otherwise, when doing this work?
Cultural obstacles are there, but mostly among older generations. Chile was the last country in the region to legalise divorce, and is among those that still ban abortion under any circumstances. However, this is a legacy of the dictatorship (1973-1990) rather than a deeply rooted cultural trait. In fact, until the late 1960s Chilean women had access to therapeutic abortion, under lax conditions that made it relatively accessible. It was under the Pinochet regime that legislation went back to unmitigated prohibition, and this remained untouched as democracy was restored, among other reasons because the coalition that came to power and ruled for many years was either led by or prominently included the Christian Democratic Party. Thus the law remained aligned with Christian doctrine.
While the law remained frozen in time, citizens’ mentality changed. And in some areas, and to some extent, this had repercussions on the law, which began to give way. This was the case of Law No. 20830, passed in 2015, which regulated civil unions for same-sex couples. This happened because the younger generation is more open on these issues than their predecessors. My parents’ generation grew up under the dictatorship, so they grew up in fear, and change does not come easy to them.
In this sense, today’s obstacles are legal and political rather than cultural. Chile’s majority is nominally Catholic, that is, Catholic by tradition rather than out of actual conviction or regular religious practice. The majority of the population takes stances that are more open and tolerant than those of the Church, but the political class is more conservative than public opinion. The Catholic Church continues to wield power and its views are taken into account when decisions are made. That is why, for us, the Catholic Church remains a wall in our way.
• Civic space in Chile is rated as “narrowed” in the CIVICUS Monitor.
• Get in touch with OCAC through their website, visit their Facebook page, or follow @ocacchile on Twitter. You can also sign to support the campaign against street harassment at www.respetocallejero.cl
CIVICUS speaks to Anita Koncsik of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) on the recent Bill on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding. Anita also speaks on the recent massive protests in the country and the general operating environment for civil society. For over two decades, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union has been active in protecting the rights of citizens against undue interference by those in position of public power.
1. What are the main concerns of civil society over the draft bill “on transparency of organisations receiving foreign funding” that was presented to the Hungarian Parliament on 7 April?
First and foremost, the Bill is not necessary at all. NGOs are complying with already existing comprehensive transparency requirements. Act CLXXV of 2011 on the Freedom of Association, on the Non-profit Status and on the Operation and Support of Civil Organizations also known as the Civil Act already regulates which financial statements have to be presented for meeting transparency standards. For example ourselves as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union we have to create 4 annual reports - including one focusing on donations. While we believe that accountability in both the governmental and non-governmental sphere is important, the new regulation clearly serves other interests. That is the reason why it is embedded into the smear campaign of the government that was initiated 4 years ago against NGOs that dare to take a critical stance against its measures. The very existence of the Bill is an attempt to silence or threaten critical voices. It therefore violates freedom of expression, good reputations and it serves to stigmatise NGOs (therefore is discriminative) and infringes on the privacy of donors as well.
2. The government says the law is necessary to guard against money laundering and terrorism. How is civil society responding to these concerns and what accountability mechanisms are in place?
This is a hypocritical argument coming from a government that has allowed several grey zones for financial maneuvers, like stability savings account (which is explicitly state supported money laundering) or the concept of settlement bonds (invented by a minister of the government who himself is known to channel public resources to unidentified offshore brokers without any legitimate reason at all). But apart from the government’s deflective argumentations, there are already accountability mechanisms in place anchored in the aforementioned Civil Act. NGOs that do not receive Hungarian public funds (like HCLU) have to publish an annual financial report, a non-profit report (as an annex to the report deposited at the registering court), and a report on donations.
Anti-money laundering measures affect mostly the private financial sector in Hungary and these measures are usually the subject of criticism from both of Hungarian and international experts for lacking proper risk assessment of sufficient depth with regard to potential threats, vulnerabilities and their consequences in general. According to the expert group MONEYVAL of Council of Europe, Hungary should conduct a formal review of the entire non-profit organisation (NPO) sector in order to identify NPOs that could potentially pose a higher risk of financing terrorism. But this recommendation puts emphasis on a substantiated review of the sector and if the government concludes that the existing frameworks and measures are not good enough to protect the sector, the newly adopted laws/measures must be proportionate and targeted (but not tailored to target NGOs that criticise government). We are not aware of the occurrence of any such review. The new Bill clearly does not serve anti-money laundering purposes. In addition, if the regulation enters into force, MONEYVAL still can consider the aforementioned recommendation unfulfilled - based on overregulation and discrimination - alongside with other recommendations that the government is not so eager to address such as rectifying shortcomings of the mechanism for verifying the information on beneficial owners of financial institutions. Therefore meeting international standards is not the motive behind the legislation.
3. What other motivations does civil society believe lie behind the government’s actions?
This proposal clearly fits into the hostile anti-NGO campaign that was initiated 4 years ago, during which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán denounced human rights NGOs as agents of foreign political interests, endorsed the idea of “illiberal state” and rhetorical attacks were accompanied by a series of administrative checks and criminal investigations. Eventually, all investigations were dropped and none yielded any finding of wrongdoing or irregularities, but - in 2016, after a two and a half year long legal procedure - HCLU shed light on the fact that the government control investigations were ordered by the Prime Minister himself which proves the pure political nature of the audits.
In the meantime, government propaganda started to portray NGOs that criticise it as a national security risk. MP Szilárd Németh, vice president of the Fidesz and of the Parliament’s National Security Committee announced in September of 2016 in an interview that he requested the national security services to inspect organisations “cooperating with the Soros-network”. The MP stated that he had identified 22 such organisations, and claimed that these organisations openly violate Hungarian and European laws, and participate in politics unlawfully with “black money”. It must be noted that in Hungary secret services can gather information without a judicial warrant when it is related to national security risks, therefore safeguards and independent oversight of the covert information-gathering is missing, which contradicts international law of course.
After a short break, in December 2016, Prime Minister Orbán announced that in 2017, states would aim to “drive out” from their countries George Soros and also the organisations he supports.
A month later, Fidesz Vice President Szilárd Németh, one of the MP’s who is currently submitting the Bill, said: “The Soros empire’s fake civil organisations are maintained so that global capital and the world of political correctness can be imposed on national governments. These organisations have to be rolled back with all available tools, and I think they have to be swept out of here.”
These statements reveal the true aim of the illiberal Hungarian government: the Bill is the latest attempt to stigmatise and silence those who voice critical opinions about public affairs.
4. Can you tell us about recent mass protests that occurred over the possibility of the closure of the Central European University.
The adopted and promulgated Bill aimed clearly at undermining operation of Central European University (CEU) in Hungary. The proposal was amending the Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education enacting new requirements for domestic operation that extend beyond already existing accreditation criteria (and the recognition of foreign accreditation). The purpose of the amendment was to enable politics to intrude into education, making the operation of universities subject to these regulations (currently that covers exclusively CEU) depending on political will. Opponents were protesting against unconstitutional restriction on educational and academic freedom and freedom of research, joined by thousands of Hungarians outraged over the latest anti-EU government propaganda campaign in the form of another “national consultation,” (calling on Hungarians to “stop Brussels”). It also has to be noted that as a reaction to the first protests, the government only accelerated the legislative procedure aiming at prohibiting real political discussion about the amendment. During the mass protest other buzzwords emerged, like protest against the illicit closure of the left-wing broadsheet Népszabadság, restrictions on freedom of expression and fighting propaganda of the FIDESZ media empire (including public television channels) and against social exclusion and xenophobia fueled by the government, etc.
5. Can you describe the overall environment for CSOs in Hungary? Do different CSOs experience different attitudes from the state?
Yes, they do experience different treatment depending on which financial resources they have access to and how critical they dare to be of the government. Besides the blacklisted Soros-network NGOs, there are Hungarian GONGOs, like the Civil Cooperation Forum [Civil Összefogás Fórum (CÖF)] that is the organiser of pro-government “peace rallies” and participated very actively in the electoral campaign of 2014 on the side of the governing parties. CÖF claims to finance the organisation’s operations exclusively through private donations. It is not clear from their reports, though, who these donors are and CÖF has a proven connection to a FIDESZ party Foundation from which it has received tens of millions of forints. Transparency of such organisation, however, is not an issue according to the government.
Besides, government propaganda created a (false) link between human rights defense and terrorism, since according to the governmental narrative, the refugee phenomenon is the radix malorum of terrorism and there is a vocal group of human rights NGOs that still devote attention to refugee rights and try to help in spite of the current hostile circumstances. These NGOs therefore are face charges of supporting terrorism by increasing the terror threat level of the country.
6. Given the government’s attitude towards civil society, what support can international and regional groups offer to civil society organisations in the country?
Opposing the Bill and the threats to fundamental freedoms and CSOs in Hungary, is crucial right now on both an international and a domestic level. We ask our partner organisations to express their views, and also call on their government representatives to convey these concerns to the representatives of the Hungarian government. Besides moral support and creating a pressure on the government, it is equally important to maintain financial security and independence of these organisations, therefore helping with widening the scope of international fundraising is also appreciated. The international community can be the biggest listed donor of these organisations that could be used against government pro bill arguments.
• The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union monitors legislation, pursues strategic litigation, conducts public education and launches awareness raising media campaigns. It stands by citizens unable to defend themselves, assisting them in protecting their basic rights. Our lawyers provide free legal aid service in about 2 000 cases per year and this number is increasing.
Hungary is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor
CIVICUS speaks to María Ysabel Cedano, Director of DEMUS –Study for the Defense of Women’s Rights, a Peruvian feminist organisation that since 1987 defends human rights, and particularly women’s sexual and reproductive rights, by promoting their free exercise and questioning the hegemonic cultural paradigm on women and their sexuality. DEMUS carries out public opinion campaigns and advocacy work with the three branches of government; it conducts strategic litigation and promotes mobilisation on issues related to the promotion of equality and non-discrimination, a life free from gender-based violence, access to justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.
1. How would you describe the context for the exercise of feminist activism in Peru?
Generally speaking, conditions for activism greatly depend on the ideology, programme and nature of the organisation and movement in question - on its stance regarding the state and the incumbent government, and on its relationship with political forces and the powers that be.
Due to our agenda, we feminists are antagonists of Fujimorism, the political movement founded by Alberto Fujimori, who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000. Our organisation has criticised and opposed them since the 1990s, as we have fought for justice and reparations for the thousands of victims of the Fujimori administration’s policy of systematic forced sterilisation. Its victims were mostly peasant, indigenous and poor women who underwent irreversible surgical contraception without being able to give their free and informed consent, in a context of widespread violence.
On this issue, in 2003 we reached a Friendly Settlement Agreement (FSA) in the Mamérita Mestanza case. As a result, the Peruvian state acknowledged its responsibility for human rights violations in the context of the forced sterilisation policy and committed to providing justice and reparation to victims. We also obtained favourable statements by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that have boosted our work to defend the right to access justice and to promote a policy of integral reparations. That made us a target of Fujimorist attacks, in the form of defamation in the national media as well as in social media. We have in fact sued former congressman Alejandro Aguinaga, under investigation in the preliminary examination of forced sterilisations as a crime against humanity and other serious violations of human rights, which the Public Ministry opened in 2004 in compliance with the already mentioned FSA. The case still remains in its preliminary stages due to political interference, which we have publically denounced. For more than fourteen years, the Public Ministry has failed to accuse former President Fujimori and his former Health Ministers, including Aguinaga, and no prosecution has taken place. In the meantime, Fujimorism has not undergone any renovation whatsoever: it still does not believe in human rights and cannot fathom the right of women to decide on their own. In fact they all remain very convinced that it is the state that has to decide for them.
The other antagonists we have as a result of our feminist agenda are the Catholic and Evangelical ecclesial hierarchies, as well as other conservative and fundamentalist religious groups such as Opus Dei, Sodalitium and Bethel. These are the leaders of an anti- sexual and reproductive rights agenda and seek to legislate and implement public policies to strengthen the institutions that guarantee their political, economic, social and cultural dominance, thereby ignoring the secular character of the state that the authorities in turn fail to enforce. For decades they have run a strong campaign against what they call “gender ideology”, not just in Peru but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and beyond. These are multimillion-dollar campaigns that maintain that “gender ideology” attacks life, marriage and family. The funding they poured into the fear campaign against the peace accords in Colombia is a good example of this. They have also promoted a campaign called "Don't mess with my children" in several countries in the region.
While these actors have questioned the scientific and legal validity of the gender perspective, the concept of gender has been adopted in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and in standards such as CEDAW, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Convention of Belém do Pará. In Peru it was included into several laws, public policies and institutions, as a result of which conservative sectors are currently trying, for instance, to eliminate the gender perspective from the school curriculum, including all allusions to sexual orientation and gender identity. They have done so by means of both street actions and lawsuits. These however have not yielded the desired results: the overwhelming response from the Ministry of Justice’s Attorney General even covered them in ridicule. As a result, they had no alternative left other than using their power in Congress, where there are currently two bills that have been submitted by Fujimorism towards that aim.
Lastly, in addition to harassing us through their press, as they have always done, these sectors now also attack us for our funding sources. They say we are the instruments of great powers seeking to impose Western models of family and sexuality in our country.
Thanks to a journalistic investigation that then became a criminal investigation, we currently know of child sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sodalitium, one of the most conservative and powerful groups within the Catholic Church. The scandal contributed to weakening the attacks coming from the ecclesial hierarchy. We are also beginning to know about the unholy business the Church does with education, health and even cemeteries within the framework of the Concordat between the Peruvian state and the Vatican. The very same priests who have spent years fighting us on the decriminalisation of abortion for rape cases, and who have said the worst things about us because they consider themselves to be the “defenders of life”, have allegedly covered for rapists of children and adolescents in their congregations and communities. This has helped people overcome their fear of denouncing the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy and double standards, and has limited the church’s ability to demand the government implement specific policies. For instance, the government has recently obeyed a court order to resume the distribution of emergency oral contraception despite pressures from Cardinal Cipriani.
Given that our struggles for transitional justice have led us to seek justice and integral reparations for the victims of sexual violence during the internal armed conflict (1980-2000), we face not only Fujimorism but also APRA, a traditional party that ruled during a part of this period. They both seek to divide Peruvians between terrorists and non-terrorists and associate the left and human rights with terrorism. They never get tired of asserting that those who attack the military are terrorists - or ungrateful to say the least, for persecuting those who freed us from terrorism. If we strive for the legalisation of abortion we are abortionists, and if we defend human rights we are terrorists.
2. How does DEMUS work to overcome these obstacles?
We combine organisational and mobilisation strategies to strengthen the feminist and women’s diversity movement, public and political advocacy for legislation, public policies and access to justice measures, and strategic litigation. Among the latter were for instance the Manta y Vilca trial on rape during the internal armed conflict, which established that this was a crime against humanity; the case of forced sterilisations during the Fujimori administration; and other cases that have allowed us to move forward in terms of the recognition and guarantee of the human right to therapeutic abortion, among other sexual and reproductive rights.
Ours is not just a lawyers’ struggle: we work in multidisciplinary teams and in alliances and within networks including other feminist, women’s, LGBTIQ and human rights NGOs, groups and platforms. Experience has taught us that it is not enough to obtain jurisprudence, standards, laws and public policies if there are no social movements and citizens defending them, that is, if there is no social base accompanying and empathising with the victims. Strategic litigation, legal defence and psycho-legal and therapeutic help are therefore always to be accompanied with mobilisation and campaigning.
3. Is the Peruvian women’s movement integrated into regional or global networks, so as to face an adversary that is?
There are indeed very important global and regional networks. In Latin America, the level of articulation reached by indigenous, peasant and environmental women human rights defenders is astonishing in contrast with the weakening of some feminist networks. New technologies have revolutionised communications, and we now have various alternative means to organise ourselves in networks.
We must think about how to strengthen our thematic networks, for instance in the field of sexual and reproductive rights, in order to resist together. This is facilitated by a number of conceptual convergences, but complicated by the scarcity of resources reaching Latin America, competition around which affects alliances and articulations. Neoliberalism has also had an impact on inter-subjective relations: conflicts and rivalries arise due to scarce funding. It is impossible to understand the degree of difficulties we face without analysing the changes in and the new rules of international cooperation and funding mechanisms.
On the other hand, we must not forget that Peru’s is a post-conflict society, with open wounds and an abundance of distrust, which has not yet learned to resolve differences without violence. We need to be aware of these limitations, so as not to reproduce what we criticise. But we are certainly still very strong: with much greater organisation and resources than we have, Catholics and evangelicals have not yet managed to create enough pressure in the streets and on public opinion to remove sex education from the school curriculum. Their only hope is now placed on authoritarian conservative forces in Congress.
4. What progress or setbacks do you perceive in the struggle for women’s rights in Peru?
Taking stock of the forty years of contemporary feminism in Peru, there has been net progress in terms of the legal-institutional framework. Advances have been the result of constant struggle and permanent dispute, and are neither ideal nor stable: they need to be continuously defended and perfected.
For instance, in late 2015 a substantial amendment to Law No. 26260 (1993) on domestic violence was finally passed. The new legislation, Law No. 30394, is a law against gender-based violence. Shortly after, in July 2016, the Third National Plan against Gender Violence (2016-2021) was passed. In both cases there was a dispute over the diversity of the women to be protected. There was much resistance against the possibility that legislation would also protect lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. In fact, recognition of the variety of forms that gender violence can take was not as resisted as the extension and recognition of the objects of protection. The women’s movement succeeded in getting some previously unacknowledged forms of gender violence recognised as such, including gender-based violence in the context of social conflicts. We wanted the new law to protect women human rights defenders of land, the environment, and natural resources, that is, indigenous and peasant women who are currently criminalised and on whom conflicts have a differential impact on the basis of gender. This we achieved. We had also proposed that the violation of sexual and reproductive rights be recognised as gender violence. And while we achieved recognition of forced sterilisation, rape in the context of internal armed conflict, violence due to sexual orientation, and obstetric violence as forms of gender-based violence, such recognition was not expressed in the language of sexual and reproductive rights. In additional, sexual orientation-based violence was recognised but gender identity-based violence was not.
Fifteen years after the First National Plan was launched, and more than twenty after the first law against then-called “domestic” or “intra-family” violence was passed, tension between women’s rights and family protection persists. Although Law No. 30364 has in many respects aligned legislation with the Belém do Pará Convention, violence based on gender identity discrimination has not yet been recognised. Public debate continues to focus on nature as a determinant of sexuality, reproduction and family.
Why is it that feminists and LGBT people perceive “family protection” as contrary to our rights? First, because not all families are protected. Family rights of the LGBT population are not recognised. Secondly, because why protect the existing family – a traditional, hierarchical, violent family based on sexual division of labour and the exclusive recognition of heterosexual sexuality? A family organisation free of discrimination and gender-based violence should be promoted instead. In other words, measures should be taken to dismantle the patriarchal family, which functions as the very first place of normalisation and control, particularly for women and LGBT persons. The family has become a space in which physical, psychological and sexual violence remain unpunished: in fact, Peru has the second highest rate of denunciation of sexual offences against girls and adolescents in the region, and these are in many cases perpetrated by family members. Finally, a person’s (and in this case a woman’s) rights can never be subordinated, conditioned or reduced to a by-product of family welfare, in the same way as the rights of an actual person cannot be subordinated to the rights of being yet to be born.
In sum, in historical perspective there has been progress in the recognition and guarantee of rights, but these have been the product of constant struggle. We face strong resistance, and if we had not permanently defended our conquests, we would certainly have seen them retreat long ago.
5. In this context, how has DEMUS’ agenda changed since its beginnings in 1987?
DEMUS is an organisation well known for its work for the right to a life free of gender-based violence. We specialise in prevention, care, denunciation, therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment, litigation, advocacy with legislative, policymaking and justice administration bodies, and campaigning and mobilisation on gender-based violence. For instance, we developed the “Not one more death” campaign, which placed femicide on the public agenda, and the “A man doesn't rape” campaign, which contributed to call attention on the problem of sexual violence, impunity and the culture of rape.
In the beginning we had to dispute about the very concept of what was then called “intra-family violence”, which we designated as “violence against women” and today we call “gender-based violence”. We saw violence against women as a problem of power inequality, sexual discrimination and impunity, so we advocated for equality and access to justice. However, as years passed and the first laws and policies on the issue were passed, we realised that we were not obtaining the results we expected.
The fight against violence against women had gained consensus as part of the state agenda and had occupied a space in the institutional structure of the state (commissions, ministries, etc.), and even ultraconservatives had begun to accept equal opportunities between men and women (which was enshrined in Law No. 28983 of 2007) all the while resisting the recognition of other sexual orientations and gender identities. So we began a conceptual revision and concluded that if we wanted to combat gender-based violence, our central strategic battle had to revolve around women’s autonomy and self-determination in the field of sexuality and reproduction, the recognition of and the provision of guarantees for sexual and reproductive rights understood as fundamental human rights, and access to justice in cases where these were violated. The perspective of sexual and reproductive rights came to enrich the equality and non-discrimination approach in addressing the problems of gender-based violence and impunity.
Thus, although the defence of LGBT rights and the legalisation of abortion were already in DEMUS’ agenda, they have since become more central to it. And our strategies became richer in the process, because besides strategic litigation and therapeutic and psycho-legal accompaniment we started to focus as well on organisation and mobilisation, public advocacy and communication. We have used the whole toolbox in our search for justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilisations, and also in our campaigns for emergency oral contraception and the legalisation of abortion (first of all for reasons of rape, foetal malformations incompatible with extra-uterine life, and unconsented artificial insemination and egg transfers, and eventually on the basis of women’s dignity and right to decide).
Most recently, in our work to defend victims of sexual violence and impunity, we have learned from the indigenous and peasant women defenders of land and water that women human rights defenders are being differently affected by the extractivist economy due to their gender, and are being specifically criminalised by corporations such as the Yanacocha mining company and by the state itself. In their struggle to defend lakes and resist mining projects such as Conga, women are having a hard time, since gender-based violence is being used against them. In the actions of the police and the Armed Forces we are currently seeing a criminalisation of social protest, threats and violations of women’s rights echoing those that took place during armed conflict. In order to avoid the repetition of serious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity, we are using the new legislation, which now enables it, to denounce Yanacocha and make it clear that there is gender-based violence behind situations of harassment like that suffered by women human rights defenders such as Máxima Acuña.
The other agenda that we increasingly adopted as central is the defence against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, in order to achieve recognition of and guarantees for the right to gender identity and lesbians’ right to maternity. We choose the issues we fight for on the basis of several criteria. One of them is that of revolutionising whatever the system resists the most, so that if we win, we will not only have obtained a law, public policy or jurisprudence, but we will also have conquered people’s common sense. And what the system most resists today is transgender identity and the right of LGBT persons to love and family. The system condemns us to civil death, poverty, marginalisation, murder, harassment and rape.
6. In Peru, there have recently been major mobilisations with the motto #NiUnaMenos. How was the issue placed on the public agenda in such a way that mobilisation turned out to be so massive? What roles did regional networks play in the process?
The marches in Argentina, Mexico and other countries inspired many of us: we wanted to do something similarly massive in our own country. But mobilisation did not occur in Peru as a response to a regional call, or as a result of prior coordination within a regional network.
A year prior to this mobilisation there was a high profile case in Peru, in which a woman was savagely attacked in a hotel in Ayacucho, dragged by the hair and almost raped and murdered. The episode had been recorded on video, and everyone followed the case in the media and expected the attacker to be convicted. The ruling came out a few months before the demonstration, and it acquitted the accused. It denied that an attempted rape and femicide had taken place, and it even ruled that the injuries on the victim had been minor. This generated a social phenomenon of indignation that spread throughout the national territory and in social media. Women who were in the ideological and social antipodes from one another agreed that something had to be done, and feminists started talking about a mobilisation meant to make it clear that “if they touch one of us, they are touching us all”. The #NiUnaMenos (#NotOneLess) slogan was adopted out of the belief that the time had finally come and that this would be a mobilisation of a magnitude similar to those that had taken place in other countries.
In Peru, the idea persists that if you do not obtain justice it is because you cannot prove what has happened to you. You only have your word and that is not enough for justice administrators. Now, if even in a case where there is a video like that, the aggressor is eventually absolved, what kind of security and justice is left for the rest of us? This created an unprecedented feeling of helplessness. Fear quickly turned into indignation, and this in turn into mobilisation. I was invited to join a Facebook chat a few hours after the video was made public. There were ten of us to start with, and a little while later we were over sixty, and the next day we were meeting at a comrade’s place. Within a few hours, the closed group formed in Facebook went from a few women testifying to the various forms of violence in their daily lives to 20 thousand, 40 thousand women reporting on their own stories of violence: at home, in the streets, at work, in school. Terrible stories, and everybody was telling them and keeping each other company.
Thus, in Peru citizens went out into the streets to reject impunity and defend the right to justice. People began to wonder why violence against women persists despite all the laws and policies to combat it. The media started talking about patriarchy and machismo as its causes. There was some recognition of the importance of the feminist struggle, at least in that particular context. Much of the leadership and organisational work towards mobilisation was done by various organised and unorganised female citizens, leaders of feminist groups in neighbourhoods, universities, trade unions, NGOs. Women of a wide diversity of movements, colours, desires, education, professions and talents, in alliance and dialogue with the survivors whose emblematic cases united diverse sectors of society. Conservative sectors have still not managed to obtain similar success in defence of their agenda.
7. Did the mobilisation have any positive effect in terms of public policy?
The mobilisation resulted in some concrete measures, although these were too narrowly focused and involved little public investment. A Circle of Protection program was created, thereby extending attention to 24/7 in five out of over 200 Emergency Women’s Centres (EWC). Coverage of the emergency line Línea 600 was extended to all days of the week. This contributed to an increase in addressed complaints. Also, cases of femicide and rape were subsequently included into the rewards programme to stop offenders.
Additionally, there were announcements regarding the expansion of temporary shelters, the provision of gender training to justice operators, and in particular to the National Police, and the creation of at least 50 new EWCs in various police stations across the country. The Public Ministry adapted its guidelines to Law No. 30364 and announced the creation of prosecution offices specialised in femicide. The Judiciary established a National Gender Commission.
Nonetheless, femicidal violence persists as a savage daily occurrence; there is in fact a patriarchal and male chauvinist counteroffensive underway. They continue to kill us and rape us, and the femicide and rape culture keeps blaming us for it. And the measures adopted by the state in defence of the gender approach and gender equality fall short: they are basically reactions and responses to public pressure. We women do the reporting and monitoring job that the state should be doing. The state and the government always give in when it comes to the sexual and reproductive rights of women and LGBTIQ people. Which makes it clear that unless it becomes feminist, public policy will yield no results. If public policy priorities do not change, women will continue to die.
The most important changes have occurred in the realms of common sense. #NiUnaMenos has shown that there is widespread rejection of violence against women, and that women have become empowered to talk about sexual violence in the same way that we first learned to talk about partner and domestic violence. There is no longer shame in having been a victim: it is clear that the other party is the one at fault. Women now know that there are things that are not right, and that if they happen to them it is not their fault, or God’s will, or the work of nature: it is a violation of rights and a matter of justice, and those responsible have to be punished.
CIVICUS interviews Habiba Al Hinai a human rights defender from Oman who had to leave the country for her own safety. She also elaborates the situation for human rights defenders in the country. She is currently living in Germany with her son after she felt that had become difficult for her to live in her home country due to her human rights activities.
1. What are the restrictions you and other human rights defenders in Oman have faced after being active in the uprising in 2011?
In 2011, and like in many suppressed Arab countries, Oman witnessed wide spread human rights demonstrations that triggered an extremely violent government reaction attempting to suppress such unusual public actions. Demands of Omani demonstrators were not something new to the authorities, especially with rampant corruption, unemployment, poverty, limited education, suppression of press freedom and freedom of expression, ignoring women and children's rights, conducting of false elections and enforced restrictions and monitoring of civic society associations. The protests resulted in the death of two innocent civilians, in addition to tens wounded by rubber bullets and hundreds detained from different parts of the country.
As expected, the government responded with an iron fist to human rights movements such as teachers, doctors and workers strikes by imprisoning demonstration organisers along with many human rights defenders, activists, writers, bloggers and the educated elite. As a result of this oppression, many activists had to run away to other countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain and Australia and ask for political asylum, as it has been made impossible for them, facing all kinds of threats of detention and imprisonment, to conduct human rights activities within Oman.
In 2012, I was arrested along with two of my colleagues during our coverage of a strike by more than 4 000 workers in the desert oilfield. In 2016. I had to pay a fine as I was convicted of two charges for “insulting the Omani people” and “disturbing the general order set by the government”. These charges arose over a post I wrote on my Facebook page. Because of this statement, I had to sign a statement written by the top security service stating that I will not continue with my human rights activities or otherwise I would be sent to prison. Our organisation’s website, Facebook account and Twitter account were hacked and I was kicked out of the Facebook group so that I cannot edit it anymore. The account is still running and all that’s being said on the site is that we are very happy and have no human rights complaints anymore. For this reason, it would not be safe to start another website, Facebook or Twitter account without having high levels of digital security as it can be hacked again.
A lot of human rights activists in Oman have been sent to courts and faced long and costly trials over fake accusations. Many have served prison sentences of one to three years in prison for “defaming the Sultan” following Facebook and Twitter posts that criticised Sultan Qabos bin Sa’eed Al Sa’eed. This is part of a punishment method for activists who refuse to stop their work. The security services are using different kinds of tools as punishment, including judicial, religious or social pressure. Sadly many activists end up in prison, unable to work or are banned from travelling. Luckily, I was able to leave Oman before I could have been banned from travelling. The political situation in Oman is dire now since the Sultan is of advanced age and is quite sick, which has led to all the different political factions fighting over who will take over power. Unfortunately, the government is using this time to punish activists through prison sentences and other restrictions.
2. What is the situation in general for civil society in Oman?
The situation is that all independent civil society organisations (CSOs) are banned from carrying out their activities and CSO workers have been threatened to not even work online or even form WhatsApp groups. Making calls on Skype, Signal, Messenger and WhatsApp is also banned. All independent magazines and newspaper have been closed down and reports indicate that three journalists from the Al Zaman newspaper have been sentenced to three years in prison for publishing articles critical of the state. Six activists have fled to the United Kingdom where they have been granted asylum, which is a new phenomenon for us. Many of those human rights defenders who are not in prison right now in Oman are waiting for their cases to be finalised by the courts.
The result of this is fear of doing any human rights work. We don’t know who will rule Oman after the Sultan and many people in Oman are in general very afraid because they don’t know what will happen in the future. Additionally there is a lot of corruption and the unemployment rate is very high. 70% of the population are youth under the age of 30, meaning youth unemployment is very high. Omanis feel that the Sultan cannot solve these problems because of his age and illness and are unsure as to who will rule the country in the future.
The crackdown on civil society has resulted in very little reporting on the human rights situation in Oman and most human rights defenders have completely stopped making posts online. The state security has managed to control and push the society back and to make civil society afraid. This has resulted in nobody recording the human rights violations publicly from inside Oman and only space left is for Omani human rights defenders who are abroad to publicly report about the situation.
3. What specific restrictions have you faced as a woman human rights defender?
In general, the environment for women human rights defenders in Oman is very unhealthy. The government uses its political power and pressures religious entities and our families to pressure us with the aim of breaking us down. Methods used to shame women human rights defenders include defamation and spreading bad news about women activists. This has resulted in many women human rights defenders being silenced.
Almost all the women human rights defenders in Oman stopped their activism because they couldn’t take the pressure. The government has contacted over and over the families of women activists to pressure them to stop their female family member from activism. This and the other restrictions became too much for most women human rights defenders to handle. I worked on women’s rights, children’s rights and other human rights issues in Oman and I was punished for it. Besides the detention and paying a fine, I also underwent interrogations by the security forces and was told by the government that I didn’t have a permit to do any work on women and children’s rights.
In my situation, the government sent my own family members to break me down. The government used them and some of our personal differences to come and detain me when I attended a protest in 2011. This creates terrible cracks in the family and I suffered a lot. Now some of my family members chose to abandon me or don’t talk to me. If they even support me financially, they will face a backlash from the government. The restrictions I faced are still causing me great problems. After I was imprisoned in the middle of the dessert in temperatures that could sometimes reach 50 degrees with my hands ties and with no air conditioning, I have a phobia of indoor spaces and this is still very stressful for me today. Currently I am seeing a psychiatrist in Germany for a treatment.
4. What support is needed from international civil society and international actors?
The international community must be aware of the human rights situation in Oman. Many people and governments around the world don’t think there is an issue with human rights in Oman including the European Union. This has a lot to do with us not being able to report on the situation from Oman. The government in Oman managed to scare us quickly before the international community knew what was happening.
It is important to pressure the embassies of Oman around the world. Just recently, I saw that the Omani embassy in London had invited a big INGO for an event at the embassy. This is a sign of how good the Omani government is at networking and putting on a certain face to the outside world including human rights organisations worldwide. It is important that international human rights organisations do not accept invitations to events by the Omani embassies. If they do attend, they must pressure the government officials while at the events.
The United States of America had previously started a Female Genital Mutilation campaign in Oman but when the US-Iran deal came into place with Oman being a key actor in the deal the US started being friendlier to the Omani government. In the United Nations Universal Periodic Review of Oman in March 2015, the United States was very gentle concerning the human rights situation in Oman. But the international community can do a lot through diplomacy. When UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to association and assembly, Maina Kiai, came to Oman, he met with activists. Luckily, international organisations supported Maina Kiai’s critical reports but this report must be collected and used as part of diplomacy at an international level. Unfortunately, the Omani government does very good diplomacy so governments need to be persistent.
CIVICUS speaks to Aunohita Mojumdar the editor of Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture based in Nepal and run by the not-for-profit Southasia Trust. Aunohita Mojumdar speaks on the suspension of the magazine from publishing and freedom of expression in the region. She has spent 25 years reporting from parts of South Asia. Before arriving in Kathmandu in 2012, Mojumdar was based in Kabul, Afghanistan for eight years as a freelancer. She is currently working for the re-launch of the suspended magazine
1. Please tell us about Himal Southasian and what makes it unique?
Himal is unique in a number of ways. It has a regional outlook, covering the whole of Southasia; it functions as a bridge between academia and journalism by making in-depth reporting and research accessible to a wider audience; and it challenges the jingoism and ultra-nationalism that obstructs a clear-eyed view of the region and its challenges.
Though the South Asian region has strong independent media outlets, reportage and analysis are invariably dominated by the national perspective, whether it is in the selection of issues the media covers or the manner in which issues are reported. The hostile rhetoric strengthens the confrontational postures based on jingoism rather than fact-based discourse and debate. As evident in the coverage of Indo-Pak issues. Reporting is also overwhelmingly event-based reporting and Himal has been unique in the kind of context it provides, thus answering the critical question of journalism that is often ignored – the why.
Though significant path-breaking scholarship exists in the region, much of this remains confined to academic texts which remain inaccessible to a wider audience because of stilted jargon or language. Himal seeks to bring this scholarship into the public domain on the premise that informed debate and discourse is a necessary element of democracy.
Despite the rise of ultra-nationalism, most media are unwilling to undertake critical reporting on this issue for fear of being branded as being anti-national. Himal’s contribution in this of expanding the scope for debate and discourse on this is well-established, a recent example being the controversy over Himal’s signature map. (See map is pictured above. Readers note, the map is rotated intentionally by the editors of Himal to reconceptualise regionalism and put a focus on people and not nation-states).
2. Himal Southasian has been forced to cease its operations due to bureaucratic reasons. Could you shed some light as to what happened?
Small organisations are sometimes challenged by the lack of money, staff, professionalism or administrative weaknesses. It is worth mentioning that Himal has met all these challenges and risen above them. The magazine’s suspension in November 2016 was caused by a new but growing expression of intolerance which uses bureaucracy to silence individuals and organisations which are troublesome to regimes, governments and states.
Often this tactic is through investigations, never-ending and ambiguous, and it is the process rather than the outcome which kills. In the case of Himal the method was even simpler. Himal was never investigated nor even questioned. The simple expedient of withholding permission for us to use our grants and to secure work visas for our staff as well as a slow-down of other regulatory processes paralysed our functioning.
These methods clearly work much better than direct censorship or attacks, both because there is no obvious attack and it is long drawn and because it is nearly impossible to mobilise public opinion on it. The low-level but high-value attrition of these methods is making them an increasingly popular form of clamping down on civil society.
3. How would you characterise the environment for civil society in Nepal? Is freedom of expression respected?
As a non-Nepali I cannot hope to speak to the entirety of the situation in Nepal but our experience suggests that there is a high degree of self-censorship. Very few civil society groups spoke out on our behalf after the suspension and even some media organisations whose mandate is the protection of journalists have been reluctant to speak out, let alone other media outlets.
4. Are you hopeful about the future of freedom of expression in South Asia? Is it being respected at present?
Freedom of expression throughout Southasia is facing a major challenge and in fact our last issue published out of Nepal documents the shrinking space in almost the entire region with a few exceptions. There are multiple challenges to freedom of expression. We have increasingly intolerant governments, which are using direct or indirect means to curb media and civil society. We have vigilante groups who are carrying out violent attacks on writers and journalists who are either being actively encouraged by the governments or are encouraged by the impunity the government inaction offers.
Governments are also using more sophisticated methods of control detailed earlier. In fact the challenge to Himal has made us aware of the extent of control exercised on routine functions. There is nothing, for example, in the rules and procedures which force the Nepal government to either give permission or show cause why the permission is being withheld. We see similar actions against NGOs in India where a large number of organisations critical of the government are losing the permission to operate or losing the ability to accept grants. Many non-commercial organisations rely on grants for their function and the reasons to deny them the permission appears arbitrary, linked not to their performance but to their perceived opposition to the government.
Even where media are not directly attacked, the corporatisation of media has led to media reporting more and more on selective subjects catering to audiences with purchasing power. As media emerge more as carriers for advertising they are required to create a feel-good audience for their readers, leaving out the vast majority of the citizens who do not have the purchasing power to drive advertising spend.
Self-censorship is being exercised by the media to avoid any confrontation that could damage the corporate interests while the profit motive of media companies has taken away resources from the actual task of journalism.
While the trends in Southasia are not very different from global trends, the weak rule of law and poor governance in Southasian countries poses additional challenges and is a threat to the small number of independent outlets that exist.
5. How can international and regional civil society support you in carrying out your mandate?
With increasingly complex and sophisticated threats emerging to the survival of independent media, the support structures and strategies also need to evolve. While there are robust processes in place to provide safe havens to activists who are threatened, to relocate them in exile, there are few processes in place for supporting activists and organisations who wish to remain in situ and work. There are few processes to support organisations who may not be physically at risk but whose work is being threatened or compromised. There are absolutely no initiatives which are examining and questioning the new methodologies of attack where organisations and individuals are being targeted by financial investigations even though there is, by now, a pattern of such victimisation.
In our case for example it would have helped if there had been questions asked of the government on the refusal to process permissions. Indeed given the suspension of Himal and the closure of its offices in Nepal after nearly 30 years of public service journalism such questions could still be asked so that governments know they will be held accountable.
While Himal remains ready to resume its editorial work as soon as it is able, it is currently seeking to establish the administrative and financial structures that will allow it to function. Support that would enable this would be welcome.
About Himal: Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture, is the only regional magazine of its kind. Stretching from Afghanistan to Burma, from Tibet to the Maldives, this region of more than 1.4 billion people shares great swathes of interlocking geography, culture and history. Yet today neighbouring countries can barely talk to one another, much less speak in a common voice. For over three decades, Himal Southasian has strived to define, nurture, and amplify that voice.
CIVICUS conversa con Rosana Palacios Barriga (foto), presidenta de la Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE) del Ecuador. La UNE, la organización de maestros más grande del país, fue disuelta por resolución del Ministerio de Educación en agosto de 2016 por presuntos incumplimientos de sus propios estatutos y de la normativa vigente para el funcionamiento de las organizaciones sociales.
1. ¿Cuáles fueron las circunstancias que condujeron a la disolución de la Unión Nacional de Educadores, el sindicato más grande del país?
La Unión Nacional de Educadores (UNE) del Ecuador tiene dos líneas de acción. Por un lado, es una organización defensora de derechos humanos, de la educación y de la profesión docente en sus aspectos laborales, de salud y de mejoramiento profesional, económico y social. Por el otro lado, investiga la situación del país y del magisterio; presenta propuestas para que sean trasformadas en políticas públicas; y trabaja en propuestas pedagógicas tales como la de “Educación para la Emancipación” y en estrategias para implantar tecnologías de la información y la comunicación en el aula. En ese sentido, enfrenta la corrupción, la prepotencia y el autoritarismo.
Cuando inició su gestión en 2006, el Presidente Rafael Correa contaba con el respaldo de los sectores de izquierda, los movimientos sociales, sindicales y populares. Ese mismo año, el pueblo ecuatoriano aprobó mediante consulta popular el Plan Decenal, que incluía ocho políticas para la educación. La propuesta que se sometió a consulta popular había sido presentada por la UNE a Rafael Correa, por entonces candidato a presidente, para que fuera elevada a política de Estado. La UNE apoyó su candidatura porqué él dio su apoyo a nuestra propuesta.
El conflicto entre el gobierno y la UNE se inició cuando, una vez comenzada la gestión, la UNE exigió el cumplimiento del Plan Decenal. Ya en el año 2008, la UNE se enfrentó con el Ministro de Educación, Raúl Vallejo, porque éste buscaba implantar una evaluación punitiva destinada a destituir a docentes sin brindarles ninguna opción para que pudieran volver a ejercer su profesión, al tiempo que liberaba al Estado de sus obligaciones laborales para casos de despido. En ese contexto, la UNE exigió el respeto de los derechos laborales y defendió la educación bilingüe, en riesgo ante el cierre de 6000 instituciones escolares.
En el marco de la construcción de la nueva Ley Orgánica de Educación Intercultural (LOEI), la UNE exigió el reconocimiento de los derechos laborales alcanzados por el magisterio y la incorporación de sectores de profesores a la carrera docente de tal manera sean protegidos por la seguridad social y la LOEI. Denunció la precarización y la flexibilización laboral –actualmente son 40 mil los profesores bajo régimen de contrato-, la inestabilidad laboral, el congelamiento de salarios, los chantajes y los despidos. Cabe señalar que al trabajo docente se ha sumado el requisito de cumplimiento de trabajo administrativo, lo cual modifica el rol docente y genera temor, ya que se crea un ambiente de total indefensión.
2. ¿Cuáles cree Ud. que fueron las motivaciones del gobierno para tomar la decisión de disolver la UNE?
El Presidente Correa tiene una política de desintegración de las organizaciones sociales como estrategia de concentración de poder. Cuando la UNE mantuvo sus exigencias, Correa tomó la decisión de destruir esta organización sindical, gremial y popular.
El proceso se inició con una exhibición de poder por parte del presidente, por dos vías: por un lado, el debilitamiento del sindicato ante la opinión pública, mediante campañas persecutorias para las que hizo uso de cadenas nacionales de radio, prensa y TV, en las que condenó sus acciones gremiales; por el otro, la implementación, en 2009, de la evaluación punitiva del magisterio nacional.
En aras del cumplimiento de los objetivos del Plan Decenal, la UNE entregó al gobierno una contrapropuesta de evaluación elaborada sobre bases científicas y pedagógicas. Ante la negativa del régimen de dialogar, la organización declaró un paro nacional que se extendió desde el 15 de septiembre hasta el 7 de octubre de 2009. El paro terminó con un acuerdo entre UNE y el Ejecutivo, cuyos artículos luego fueron incorporados a la nueva Ley de Educación. En suma: lo que el correísmo nunca le perdonó a la UNE fue que desafiara su poder y le ganara.
En su afán por eliminar a nuestra organización, y más en general a todas aquellas que no siguieran sus mandatos, así como de dominar a las restantes, el gobierno emitió el Decreto Ejecutivo No. 16 del 4 de junio de 2013 (Reglamento para el funcionamiento del Sistema Unificado de Información de las Organizaciones Sociales y Ciudadanas). Este decreto recibió el rechazo unánime de la sociedad civil independiente, ya que era violatorio de la libertad de asociación. El decreto estableció nuevos procedimientos y requisitos para el reconocimiento legal de organizaciones de la sociedad civil e introdujo un proceso de evaluación para autorizar a ONGs internacionales para operara en el país. También exigió que las ONGs ecuatorianas se volvieran a registrar, impuso requisitos excesivos de información que podrían ser utilizados contra las propias organizaciones, y otorgó al gobierno amplia discrecionalidad para rechazar peticiones de reconocimiento jurídico o disolver organizaciones con argumentos vagos vinculados con el desvío de sus objetivos declarados, el involucramiento en actividad político-partidaria, la interferencia con las políticas públicas o la afectación de la seguridad del Estado o la paz pública.
Gracias al apoyo de la sociedad civil, organizaciones sindicales, organizaciones de servidores públicos y organismos internacionales como la Federación Sindical Mundial y la Internacional de la Educación, logramos llegar hasta la Organización Internacional del Trabajo (OIT) y las Naciones Unidas para denunciar el Decreto Ejecutivo No. 16. En Ecuador, además, se interpuso una demanda de inconstitucionalidad del decreto ante la Corte de Justicia. La primera víctima de disolución a partir de la aplicación del Decreto No. 16, a fines de 2013, fue la Fundación Pachamama, una organización ambientalista.
Entretanto, el gobierno utilizó una táctica de desgaste mediante criminalización contra los dirigentes de la UNE. Mery Zamora, presidenta de la UNE entre 2007 y 2010, fue acusada de sabotaje y terrorismo por supuestamente haber incitado a los alumnos de un colegio a salir a las calles durante la revuelta policial de 2010. Se le siguió un juicio, fue hallada culpable gracias a la presentación de pruebas falsas y finalmente condenada a 8 años de prisión. Si bien en instancia de apelación fue eventualmente declarada inocente y no debió cumplir pena, la Fiscalía de la Nación enseguida volvió a presentar nuevas acusaciones contra ella, por supuestamente haber atentado contra los derechos del Estado.
Otros dirigentes nacionales, como Xaver Cajilema, Paúl Jácome y Edwin Lasluisa, fueron encarcelados durante un año. Decenas de dirigentes provinciales y cantonales – entre ellos Francisco Rojas, Juan Cervantes, Luis Chancay, Sisa Bacacela y Pilar Paredes – fueron destituidos. Hubo cantidades de sumarios administrativos contra maestros que declararan pertenecer a UNE, y muchos fueron removidos de sus funciones o de sus sitios de trabajo.
Los nuevos dirigentes de la UNE, elegidos para el período 2013-2016, incluida yo misma, no fuimos reconocidos. El Ministerio de Educación esgrimió varios pretextos para ello, por ejemplo el incumplimiento del Decreto No. 16, que sin embargo había sido dictado meses después de las elecciones de la UNE, celebradas con voto universal y secreto y con la veeduría del Consejo Nacional Electoral. El Comité Electoral de UNE argumentó la ilegalidad de esta actuación, pero durante casi un año enfrentó el silencio administrativo, y por último recibió la respuesta de que la documentación requerida no había sido entregada. Presumimos que los documentos entregados fueron deliberadamente extraviados.
Por último, en 2015 el Ministerio de Educación creó una organización paralela, llamada “Red de Maestros por la Revolución Educativa” que, dicho sea de paso, no cumplía con ninguno de los parámetros que le eran exigidos a la UNE. De más está decir que esta iniciativa viola los estándares internacionales, empezando por el Convenio 98 de la OIT sobre el derecho de sindicación y negociación colectiva.
La Red de Maestros no es más que un instrumento para la ejecución de la política autoritaria del gobierno en cada institución educativa del país. Dentro de cada escuela, es el brazo político del gobierno y el instrumento persecutorio de los docentes. Así, por ejemplo, la Red de Maestros tiene coordinadores zonales a los que se concede el tiempo para realizar visitas institucionales y se les otorga el respaldo de las autoridades educativas para que cumplan con el rol asignado.
Las autoridades educativas intervinieron para obligar a los maestros, mediante mecanismos ilegales, a afiliarse a la nueva organización. Al mismo tiempo impedían el acceso de la dirigencia de la UNE a los planteles educativos con el objetivo de acelerar el desgaste de nuestra organización. De hecho se emitieron oficios circulares bajo pena de sanción para las autoridades que dejaran ingresar a los establecimientos a dirigentes de UNE, permitieran a los maestros reunirse en asambleas, asistieran a las instalaciones de su gremio o permitieran la diseminación de información sobre la situación del magisterio. Por último, la autoridades se apropiaron del Fondo de Cesantía del Magisterio ecuatoriano, la entidad financiera de la UNE, con una caja de 405 millones de dólares. Para esto último se debió reformar la Ley de Seguridad Social.
3. ¿Qué impacto tuvo la disolución de la UNE? ¿Cómo caracterizaría Ud. la situación resultante?
La disolución de la organización fue el punto culminante de un proceso de acoso que se extendió durante diez años. En el curso de ese período la dirigencia de UNE se dividió en tres sectores: los que decidieron resistir, los que se replegaron, y los (muy pocos) que abandonaron la organización. Este mismo fenómeno se replicó en las bases, con el predominio de los que siguieron la resolución de la dirigencia nacional, plasmada en la consigna “La UNE vive, la lucha continúa”, más tarde reformulada como “La UNE vive, Correa se va” y “La UNE es una organización, no un edificio”.
La dirigencia de UNE resistió y se dedicó a desenmascarar la política correísta que profundizaba la violación de los derechos laborales del docente y de los trabajadores en general. Se unió para ello a las centrales sindicales y a otras organizaciones sociales.
La disolución de la UNE era necesaria para que el gobierno pudiera continuar con el desmantelamiento de la educación pública y el irrespeto a los docentes. A pesar de lo que afirma la propaganda gubernamental, la educación ha sufrido un retroceso. Se han implantado evaluaciones de ingreso a las universidades y puntajes para la elección de carreras fijados desde la Secretaría Nacional de Educación Superior, Ciencia y Tecnología, lo cual trajo aparejada la privatización de la educación superior.
4. ¿Es la disolución de la UNE parte de un patrón más amplio de restricciones sobre la sociedad civil en Ecuador? En caso afirmativo, ¿cuáles han sido las principales restricciones del espacio cívico?
La disolución de la UNE es parte de una fórmula que responde al objetivo central del régimen de eliminar toda forma de organización y participación de la sociedad civil en la formulación de las políticas públicas, la defensa de derechos humanos y la promoción de las libertades públicas. O sea, es parte de una estrategia para mantenerse en el poder.
De hecho, en todos los sectores el gobierno ha creado organizaciones paralelas como el FUE (Frente de Estudiantes Universitarios del Ecuador), el FESE (Frente de Estudiantes Secundarios del Ecuador) y Seguro Campesino. Para enfrentar a las centrales sindicales tradicionales se creó en 2014 la CUT (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), afín al gobierno, y lo mismo en el terreno de los movimientos de mujeres, los movimientos ecologistas y las organizaciones defensoras de la tierra. Al mismo tiempo que estas nuevas organizaciones eran movilizadas, se instituyeron leyes anti obreras para criminalizar la lucha social y se utilizaron los aparatos represivos del Estado contra las organizaciones genuinamente representativas.
Las violaciones de las libertades fundamentales han aumentado bajo la forma de persecución judicial, insultos, linchamiento mediático y agresiones físicas. Sin embargo, el 65% de la población rechaza actualmente estos atropellos, aunque por temor no se ha movilizado en defensa de las organizaciones que enfrentaron procesos de disolución. Pese a ello, hemos podido generar un debate sobre la defensa de los derechos. Y, en el caso específico de los maestros, está presente en la sociedad la necesidad de la existencia de nuestra organización como elemento de defensa, orientación y organización.
5. ¿Ha recibido la UNE solidaridad y apoyo desde el exterior? ¿De qué modo podría la comunidad internacional apoyar a la sociedad civil en Ecuador?
Pienso que tenemos una relación mejorada con nuestros pares en otras partes del mundo. Frente al proceso de disolución y el asalto que hemos sufrido, hemos recibido toda clase de muestras de solidaridad nacional e internacional. Los sindicatos de docentes en Canadá y en España, en particular, han sido claves en esta lucha de resistencia, de defensa de nuestra personería jurídica y recuperación del patrimonio. Sin embargo, en el terreno de la acción de masas no tenemos respuesta. Ello se debe a que existe un debate ideológico y una polarización muy fuerte, ya que fuera del Ecuador el discurso de izquierda de Rafael Correa, unido a la propaganda que despliega el gobierno, sigue sosteniendo la creencia errónea de que el Ecuador aún vive una revolución. Para disipar ese malentendido seguimos necesitando apoyo.
El espacio cívico en Ecuador es clasificado en el CIVICUS Monitor en la categoría “obstrui-do”.
Visite el sitio web o el perfil de Facebook de la Unión Nacional de Educadores, o siga en Twitter a @UNENACIONAL y a @ROSANAPALACIOS4.
CIVICUS speaks to Marco Antonio Gandarillas, Director of the Centre of Information and Documentation Bolivia (CEDIB), a human rights organisation founded in 1970 with the aim of providing information and consulting services with a critical eye on the social reality of Bolivia and Latin America. He speaks on the protests gripping the country in recent years, the response of state security forces and the dire situation of environmental activists.
1. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been protests over water, mobilisations for and against the president’s re-election, violent protests against the coca Bill, and countless local protests. Are we seeing a peak in social mobilisation in Bolivia?
Conflict is a part of this country’s political culture: as sociologist Fernando Calderón would put it, politics in Bolivia is “done in the streets”. We have government agencies and civil society organisations dedicated to counting social conflicts in Bolivia, because this is a country that is in permanent conflict.
The current situation must be apprehended in historical perspective. When President Evo Morales attained power in 2006, it was initially a rather convulsive stage. Certain actors, notably centres of regional power, disputed power spaces with the state. Starting with the constitutional process in 2006-2008, disputes between regional power groups and the central state subsided, and some stability ensued. There were some violent incidents here and there, but generally speaking it was a phase of low levels of conflict that lasted several years.
Around 2011 the situation changed again, with sustained increases in conflict, particularly fuelled by socio-economic factors. The turning point was the mobilisation of the indigenous peoples of TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), a highly biodiverse protected area. The people of TIPNIS mobilised to reject the construction of a highway that would cut through their territory. The conflict was particularly relevant because this was a sector that had been an ally of the government, and that by mobilising independently raised a national conflict with the state. They received numerous expressions of public support and this became one of the main topics of public debate.
It should be noted that this process of de-alignment was important at the level of social leadership, but not so much at the grassroots level of indigenous organisations. Indigenous peoples actually live very far removed from conventional partisan politics and were not necessarily aligned with the government to begin with. In fact, many indigenous peoples – we are talking about more than thirty groups in the highlands, and about as many in the lowlands - never saw President Evo Morales as one of their own. President Morales represents the sector of the cocaleros, colonisers from the highlands who occupied the lowlands to grow coca in territories originally belonging to smaller and more vulnerable indigenous peoples. So there is actually not a single standpoint attributable to “the indigenous peoples”. Politically, indigenous organisations were a circumstantial ally of a government that at first advocated certain rights, promoted legal progress and proposed dialogue and social pacts. But the government also supported the expansion of agribusiness in the lowland territories of indigenous peoples, even allowing illegal activities such as coca cultivation for cocaine production.
In short, since 2011, and more intensely on the eve of the latest presidential election (the third) that President Morales won in late 2014, we have had a number of conficts that is even higher than the number of conflicts that took place in 2003, a time of social upheaval leading to the fall and flight of then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Although larger in number, however, the nature of conflicts has also changed. At present, there is a great proliferation of disaggregated conflicts, many of which are accompanied by high levels of violence.
2. How has the state reacted to the protests?
It has become commonplace for conflicts to be contained by heavy police intervention, often resulting in fatalities. The security forces, and particularly the police, enjoy total impunity: no cases of deaths caused by repression have been truly probed, and perpetrators have never even been prosecuted.
For instance, last year the conflict involving mining cooperatives resulted in seven deaths, six on the side of the miners plus a high authority – the deputy Interior Minister – who was lynched. There are detainees, but there is no evidence of legal proceedings complying with due process guarantees having been initiated against the material and intellectual authors of these crimes. Five of those people were killed by police-issued weapons, but perpetrators have not been identified.
This increase in conflict levels is the result of growing social unrest, which has surprisingly not expressed itself at the polls. From President Morales’ 2014 solid victory – he was re-elected with about 60% of the vote – the government deduced that society supported their economic model, regardless of the fact that according to the available data, the main reason for most conflicts was socio-economic in nature, revolving around wages, land, natural resources, public services and the allocation of public funds.
Therefore, as he was inaugurated for the third time, President Morales embraced the deepening of the government’s model as his main objective. This triggered new conflicts and worsened existing ones. I think this is at the basis of the high levels of violence that now characterise social conflict, along with the impunity with which repressive agencies act.
3. Was the repression of protests accompanied by legal changes that may have fueled police violence and increased impunity?
Legal changes have indeed also taken place, as part of a regional trend. Under pressure from the United States of America, all countries in the Southern Cone have introduced repressive reforms into their criminal codes, typifying various forms of social protest as criminal offences. An ambiguous figure that almost all countries incorporated was that of “fight against terrorism”.
In Bolivia, the government soon realised that it could not control society solely through the co-optation of social leadership – what I call “clientelistic social control” – and therefore began to deploy a strategy of repressive social control. The new tools it used went beyond police repression: they included for instance smear campaigns and “public lynching” of dissenting voices by government authorities. Any sector, institution or leader who appears as overly critical is accused by the president of being right-wing, destabilising or promoting coups. This in turn justifies the adoption of further measures such as the physical seizure of organisations’ headquarters, which has often occurred. Many grassroots organisations that were independent from the government, including large indigenous organisations such as CIDOB (Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia) have been forcibly taken over by government-affiliated groups that had their legitimately elected authorities removed and replaced with activists from their own ranks or even with government officials. In general, they sought to make this look as if this had been the outcome of a confrontation between groups, when in fact the police intervened to remove legitimate leaders and replace them with impostors. A recent example of this was the attempted takeover of APDHB (Permanent Assembly of Human Rights of Bolivia) in February 2017.
Once the government was engaged in media lynching, it was only natural for a conviction to develop regarding the need to regulate those situations in which protesting is not acceptable. Various laws – including the Investment Promotion Law and the Mining Law, both passed in 2014 –, along with a number of supreme decrees, for instance those about cooperatives, classified a variety of forms of legitimate social opposition as criminal offences, in many cases carrying prison sentences ranging from 4 to 8 years. I do not know of any specific case in which the Investment Law has been applied to someone for blocking a road; this legislation works rather as deterrence of mobilisation against state-promoted initiatives.
4. Are there any specific issues or mobilised groups that are targeted with higher levels of violence?
Mobilisations with a national ambition and involving political questioning of the government are most harshly repressed. Such was the case of the mobilisation by mining cooperatives. In the pre-electoral period in 2014, miners were promised many things that eventually found their way into a Mining Law (Law No. 535/2014) granting them unrestricted access to exploitation areas. Failure to comply with these provisions led to their mobilisation in 2016.
At the same time, other sectors – particularly indigenous peoples – typically react when their territories and livelihoods are affected by extractive activities. 2011 was a turning point for them too. Until then, there were umbrella indigenous organisations at the regional and national levels. Since then, government action has focused on de-structuring indigenous organisation: most departmental, regional and national organisations have since been seized, or parallel organisations have been established. Indigenous communities’ capacity for national action against mining or hydrocarbon exploitation has therefore been greatly affected. These days, in the context of a large hydroelectric project north of La Paz, the government strategically avoids dealing with local actors, who are directly affected and therefore oppose the project, and deals instead with a regional leadership that no longer represents anybody but turns out to be their preferred political partner.
In dozens of territories, still known as TCOs (tierras comunitarias de origen or “original community lands”), simultaneous processes of resistance are taking place against a number of extractive projects. But these resistances are taking place on a local scale that is often almost imperceptible to the media and public opinion.
5. Have other fundamental civic space freedoms been affected?
Restrictions have been introduced in all areas, but the freedom of association has been hit the worst. From 2011 onwards, the government has targeted not only the directly affected groups mobilised against extractive activities but also the organisations supporting them through research, advocacy and by shaping public opinion. Thus, many research centres and environmental, human rights and indigenous rights NGOs have become enemies to be defeated by the state. In addition to systematically smearing them in public, the government has passed legislation – notably Law No. 351 on Legal Personalities (2013) – in order to deplete the urban civil society that works in solidarity or campaigns on behalf of indigenous and other excluded groups. Law No. 351 replaces the entire previous legal framework of the Civil Code and requires civil society to align its objectives and activities with government policies. More than in the forcible shutting down of organisations, the new legal framework has resulted in “silent suicide”. In a context in which, since judicial authorities are now elected by popular vote, the judiciary has become subordinate to the executive and due process guarantees fail, civil society has felt intimidated. Many organisations have decided to either close their doors or change their goals and lower their profile so as not to disturb power. In so doing, civil society has lost strength and independence.
Over the past few years, CEDIB has received countless inspections by various state agencies. Neither public offices nor private companies are subjected to the kind of controls that this small organisation has had to submit to. We have had audits of all kinds, including some that are blatantly illegal, as when we had to respond to a requirement to submit accounting documentation dating back more than twenty years, although the Commercial Code establishes an obligation to keep records going back just five years.
However, CEDIB is a prestigious centre and has a certain specific weight. In fact, the state is one of the main users of our services and data. So our relationship with the state is complex and contradictory, as the authorities demand resources from us all the while wishing we were politically aligned with the government. This leads to some authorities, as the vice president did at some point, launching attacks against us, while at the same time others keep recognising that they need our information and advice. And in the eyes of society and even the media – including para-governmental outlets – we are still a serious and credible organisation whose existence is vital for democracy. That, in a way, is what has kept us going.
6. How has civil society responded to the deterioration of its enabling environment?
Unfortunately, historic NGO networks have not been able to curb authoritarian advances. Other governments in the past had tried to deprive civil society of its autonomy, but had failed to do so because NGO networks used to be stronger. Vis-à-vis our current government, however, civil society organisations have become weak and intimidated, partly because of the already mentioned administrative restrictions and reprisals used against them, and also as a result of reductions in development aid funding.
Civil society has not just been attacked: it has also suffered divisions. In the face of reduced flows of international cooperation funds, many organisations were left without sources of external funding, which used to be prevalent in the sector, and therefore sought refuge in the state. Other organisations were co-opted not by means of state resources but by President Evo Morales’ developmentalist discourse, which accurately reflected their own ideals and trajectory. And for many others – I would say for the majority – what prevailed was the feeling of impotence vis-à-vis a government that proved itself capable of doing whatever they wanted with them, be it legally or extra-legally. In other words, fear prevailed given the credible threat of controls resulting in steep, impossible-to-pay fines and even in prison sentences for organisations’ staff.
As a result, there is now a large set of NGOs that are actually para-governmental organisations and survive on contracts, consultancy work and other state resources. In addition, there are a number of NGOs that have been founded and are directed by high state authorities. All senior public officials, starting with President Evo Morales, manage NGOs that have been set up in order to run government programmes with international cooperation or public funds. It has been reported that, for instance, a foundation run by the president has its own television channel and handles large state advertising contracts.
Still, along with three other organisations – the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDHB), the Centre for Legal Studies and Social Research (CEJIS) and the Centre for Local Development Studies and Support (CEADL) – we did submit a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in defence of the freedoms of associacion and expression as a negative ruling was issued by the Constitutional Court. But it was just the four of us, out of a very vast group of NGOs that did not come together in defence of these freedoms. Fear semed to be the common denominator among them all.
7. Have you missed out on international solidarity as a result of Latin American and global progressives’ sympathies for President Evo Morales? In which ways could the international community support civil society in Bolivia?
We are currently facing a transition scenario. President Morales can no longer run for re-election, and there are several crises underway. One of those crises has derived from the fall in commodities’ prices, which has had a major impact on this ultra-extractivist country that has placed all its bets on primary exports. In other words, we will have not just a change of government but also a change in the state, as a result of impending public spending restrictions. Politically, the upcoming transision must involve the recovery of infringed rights, which requires the repeal or reform of various pieces of legislation and the abandonment of intimidatory practices. It is necessary to ensure a favourable environment for the activities of civil society and journalists, to make public management transparent, and to build an agenda for the strengthening of civil society.
At the international level, the critical phase was overcome years ago. There was a period in which it was outrightly condemned to criticise, or even relativise, the very optimistic view that prevailed abroad about what was going on in Bolivia. We were told that criticism amounted to “play into the hands of the right” and in favour or international power centres. That ended even before TIPNIS: in 2010, the Mother Earth Summit (World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth) held in Cochabamba exposed major contradictions between what the government said abroad and what they did domestically: between its environmental discourse, on the one hand, and the expansion of extractivism and the advances of deforestation, on the other.
Another, more recent turning point was the Indigenous Communication Summit in November 2016. The Bolivian government acted as convenor of this annual summit of movements, and then tried to control it, bypassing the entire indigenous leadership from other countries. They did this so clumsily that even the groups that came in most convinced that in Bolivia there was an indigenous intercultural revolution underway, came out disillusioned. The government attempted to control them in the same way it has done with Bolivian indigenous organisations - they even accused them of having come to Bolivia to conspire to organise a coup, which made no sense.
In this context, the first thing we need from the international community is that they condemn the regression we have experienced in terms of fundamental rights. The legal framework established by Law No. 351 is rather suited to a dictatorship: a government requiring civil society to organise along its own objectives is completely unacceptable.
Second, we need a rapprochement with the civil societies of the countries in our region. In recent times, regional mafias have mobilised across borders, and we need common standards in order to fight them. Not only governments but also civil societies need to have an agenda beyond our own country’s borders, that is, with an international projection – regional to start with, and then global as well.
• The Centre of Information and Documentation Bolivia is one of Bolivia’s most prestigious and socially rooted civil society institutions. CEDIB administers one of the most important archives containing documents of major historical importance, and its research has great impact on public opinion.
• Get in touch with CEDIB through their Facebook page or website, or follow @cedib_com on Twitter
• Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor
CIVICUS speaks to Koffi Déla Frack Kepomey, the executive director of Concertation Nationale de la Société Civile du Togo (CNSC-Togo) concerning the recent closure of a television and radio station by the regulatory authority as well as the torture of a journalist.
1. Two independent media outlets, LCF television station and radio City FM, were closed by the media regulatory authority High Authority for Audio-Visual and Communication (HAAC) on 6 February 2017. Can you detail these closures?
The High Authority for Audio-Visual and Communication (HAAC) issued a communiqué on 19 September and 26 December 2016 respectively saying that it had informed media outlets LCF and City FM which are under the media group Sud Média, of irregularities and invited them to comply with the rules before 5 February 2017. A failure to comply would lead to the withdrawal of their licenses the HAAC said.
During a press conference convened by the president of the HAAC, Pitang Tchalla, on 3 February 2017, he declared that he was not aware of the existence of documents constituting a file of the Sud Média group and announced they will be closed after 5 February 2017.
The director of the Sud Média group, Luc Abaki, confirmed that the Sud Média group complied with the rules and that all documents had been provided to the then HAAC president Philippe Evegno.
Some questions remain to be clarified after the closure such as what exactly is the Sud Média group being blamed for? What are the underlying and unsaid reasons for this case?
Although it is the HAAC that attributes frequencies to radio and television stations, and gives authorisation to the written press, the HAAC also does not have the authority to cancel frequencies from those with legal existence. This power belongs to the justice arm of the state. Article 130, title IX of the Constitution states, among others that “… the HAAC has the competence to grant authorisations to new installations of private television and radio stations”. Additionally, article 24 of the Organic Law establishing the HAAC specifies that the HAAC has the competence to grant authorisations for the installation and operation of television and radio stations. Analysing these two situations shows clearly that the powers that be have decided to muzzle the press.
CNSC remains particularly concerned about the increasing restrictions for the freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Togo.
2. Journalist Robert Avotor was violently attacked on 7 February 2017 and tortured for two hours by security forces when reporting on a land dispute in Akato-Viépé. What happened?
The journalist Robert Avotor was carrying out his reporting work when he was arrested, handcuffed and tortured. This happened in Akato-Viépé, a suburb of Lomé, where he was reporting on a land dispute.
According to the journalist there is a land dispute in Akato-Viépé following a decision of the Supreme Court ruled that some buildings had to be demolished. Gendarmes came to force people from the area. There were about one hundred men in combat uniforms. Robert went there to do a report. He had his press vest and his press card. He descended from his motorcycle and approached the gendarmes and presented himself and requested to speak with the chief of the gendarmes.
Here are the facts as described by the journalist in his own words: “One of them asked me who I am and I repeated to him that I am a journalist. They responded that there was no chief among them, that they were all chiefs. After this, they asked me to show my press card, which I did. Afterwards they said: ‘We don’t eat cards here’. One of them ordered me to leave the premises. He had hardly finished saying that when he started to beat me. I ran but other gendarmes caught me and started clubbing me. They then handcuffed me, put me in a corner and walked away. Some minutes later, they came back and asked me for which press organisation I work for. I told them I came from L’Alternative. They asked me who the director was. I said it was Ferdinand Ayité. They responded, ‘This time, we have you. We always come across this name. We will make you feel what we are capable of. When you are in the crowd, you make noise. Today, it’s you alone.’ They left me in the corner. They handcuffed my hands behind my back. From time to time they came back to tighten my handcuffs. This hurt my wrists.
At a certain point, I felt the need to relieve myself. I asked them if they would permit me to urinate. They categorically refused. I then urinated in my pants and this amused them. They also brought in another person that they had discovered filming the eviction. I was there, handcuffed, for more than two hours. They then handcuffed us together (with the other person that had also been arrested), and we got into their vehicle. Once we arrived at the Gendarmerie of Sagbado, they erased all the images in our phones and on our devices. They gave us back our phones and asked us to leave. They took note of our identity numbers and we left around 14.30.”
According to Ferdinand Ayité, director of L’Alternative, journalist Robert Avotor has been subject to anonymous calls and harassment since the attack on 7 February. On the night of 19 February, while going home by motorcycle, he was followed by a car that sped up and hit the rear of his motorcycle, leading him to fall.
The Minister of Security, Yak Damehame, has received the journalist a couple of days later, together with the director of l’Alternative newspaper and other media actors, in which he reassured to take the necessary sanctions to those responsible.
3. How would you describe the situation of freedom of expression in Togo?
The closure of these two independent media described above and the attack on and torture of journalist Robert Avotor by security forces are incidents that bear a heavy cost for freedom of expression in Togo.
The mission of the High Authority for Audio-Visual and Communication (HAAC) is “to guarantee and ensure the freedom and protection of the press and other ways of mass communication” and the first article of Organic Law 2004-021/PR of 15 December 2004 regulating the HAAC, modified by Organic Law 2009-029 of 22 December 2009 and Organic Law 2013-016 of 8 July 2013 says the HAAC is an “independent institution, independent of the administrative authorities, of all political power, of all associations and pressure groups”. The HAAC does not have the calling/ vocation to close media.
Togo has ratified international agreements, and in particular, it has ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and also its Constitution does not permit torture.
These incidents constitute an obstacle to the exercise of the freedom of press and the freedom of expression, also protected by the Togolese Constitution and are an attack on human rights. They risk to annul all the efforts the government has implemented in that sense, and above all eligibility for different programmes of the Millenium Challenge Corporation.
4. How has Togolese civil society reacted to these developments?
Confronted with these events, civil society in Togo has mobilised to express their indignation through press statements, open letters and public marches. A public march was organised on 25 February in Lomé by CSOs and press organisations, joint by certain political parties, to condemn the closure of LCF and City FM. Although the march was authorised by municipal authorities, the crowd was dispersed by security forces using teargas grenades and batons, and chased protestors into the compound of the University of Lomé. CSOs and press organisations condemned strongly this violation of peaceful assembly.
Joint press statements were organised to denounce the violations of the freedom of expression, and open letters were written to government structures to use their influence to guarantee the freedom of expression. For example, CNSC has written to the MCA Cell, a structure put in place by the government to assist Togo to benefit from the Treshold and Compact of the Millenium Challenge Corporation.
5. Can you tell us some more about the environment for civil society in Togo?
At the moment we can say that there is a beginning of awareness within Togolese civil society in terms of mobilisation that needs to be encouraged. However, civic space is still under threat and there is need for more sensitisation and capacity enhancement to preserve civil society.
6. What support can international and regional groups offer to CNSC-Togo and other civil society organisations in the country?
Togolese CSOs not only need capacity enhancement for the effective preservation of civic space but also institutional support. There is a need to strengthen CSOs and activists on the preservation of civic space by accentuating the use of technology and including them in regional and international networks in order to share experiences and information.
Institutional support is a big need of CSOs in Togo, for them to achieve increased effectiveness and sustainability. Additionally regional and international groups must advocate, to the international community and the partners for Togo to respect regional and international instruments in practice.
Confronted with this situations, CNSC-Togo has addressed a communication to the Coordinator of the Cell MCA – Togo, a cell that was set up by the state to improve the indexes of development, freedom, corruption in order for Togo to benefit from the Millenium Challenge Corporation. We have asked the cell to use its influence to bring the president of the HAAC to reconsider its decision to withdraw the authorisation to close the LCF and City FM stations of the Sud Média group.
Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, the largest worker rights organisation based in the United States speaks to CIVICUS about challenges facing workers, Solidarity Center’s work and the response of professional NGOs to worker’s rights. Follow her on @Shawna_SolCntr
1. What do you see as the biggest challenges for workers in 2017? What are the key drivers behind these challenges?
Workers around the world are confronting serious challenges to whether they can exercise their rights and work with dignity. Among them are labour markets and systems that generate, rather than alleviate, poverty; and governments that fail to protect workers, either through omission or deliberate act. In addition, weak legal environments—national and international—tend to reward exploitative supply chains, permit human trafficking, allow discrimination to flourish and generally disenfranchise workers. Lastly, the toxic spread of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and fear marginalizes millions of migrant workers and refugees—further disenfranchising people whose jobs do not lift them from poverty, afford them safe workplaces or uphold their dignity.
I see four key drivers behind these challenges. One is downward pressure on wages along global supply chains combined with greater barriers to workers exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association—to organize and promote their issues, protect their wages from eroding and exercise their rights. Another driver is the increasing informalization of work and the gig economy, which limits wages, workplace protections and workers' ability to improve either, as well as strips workers of the benefits that come with full-time jobs. A third is the fact that governments around the world—to attract investment—are taking deliberate actions to weaken worker rights or simply not enforcing laws designed to protect workers. The last would be widening inequality coupled with resurgent authoritarianism, closing space for people to have a voice on the job and in their community, and curtailing worker and human rights.
2. How is the Solidarity Center and its network responding to these challenges?
The Solidarity Center stands with workers as they defend their right to freedom of association, supporting them as they organize, advocate and build worker voice. Our work is explicitly pro-equality, anti-racist, pro-migrant, class conscious and inclusive. We support freedom of association as a foundation of democracy and ensure the centrality of worker self-organizing and leadership across our efforts. In addition, we see justice and rule of law as an alternative to exploitation and arbitrariness—a leveler of inequality of power and wealth—and are putting greater emphasis on developing legal capacity among our partners and supporting innovative legal processes at the national, regional and international levels.
With our partners, we are building a grassroots movement for work with dignity and respect for workers’ human rights. We work with 400-plus labour unions, pro-worker nongovernmental organizations, legal-aid groups, human rights defenders, women’s associations, advocacy coalitions and others to support workers—in garment factories, home service, seafood processing, mining, agriculture, informal marketplaces, manufacturing, the public sector and beyond—as they exercise their rights, including organizing for safer work sites, demanding living wages and improving laws (and the enforcement of existing laws) that protect working people, and fighting exploitation and abuse. We are, quite deliberately, building broad alliances with other organizations fighting the forces of repression and all forms of discrimination and violence against people, communities and the environment.
Specifically, we provide training and technical expertise that can help workers take on societal ills such as child labour, human trafficking, unfair labour laws, infringement of women’s rights, dangerous workplaces and the exploitation of the vulnerable. We focus on supporting women as they challenge the systems and organizations that deny them voice. We also work to ensure that the rights of migrant workers and refugees of any category are respected, and help connect them to protective networks. In addition, we implement legal-assistance programs, including the training of paralegals, to help workers recover stolen wages or benefits illegally denied them, and we push to broaden legal norms, protections and cultural space for the freedom of association necessary to sustain a vibrant civil society
3. What are your thoughts on global protections for the rights to protest and strike?
The right to strike goes part and parcel with the rights to freedom of association and assembly. It also is established international law, supported by ILO core conventions and international human rights conventions, and specifically covered in the constitutions of at least 90 countries.
The right to strike is a collective mechanism through which workers speak truth to power, whether to rectify poor wages and working conditions at a factory, or to push back against government policies that perpetuate poverty, discrimination or persecution. In many cases, going on strike is one of the only ways workers can hold ruling or corporate elites accountable, protest injustice and serve as a check the concentration of power. It is a civil liberty that we all should strive to protect.
4. Are you satisfied with the response of professional NGOs (working on development and human rights matters) on workers’ rights issues? If not what could be done to improve the situation?
No. For a long time, worker rights and human rights have been seen as different issues, by both human rights NGOs and the global labour movement. Because of that, we are all far less effective in confronting the current global human rights crisis perpetuated by the resurgence of authoritarianism, the crackdown on the public sphere and the greatest expansion of multinational and investor rights in modern human history. These three trends have created a perfect storm for workers and citizens, greatly impeding their ability to stand up for their rights, improve their lives and livelihoods, and expand democracy.
An increasing number of human rights advocacy groups have begun to take on worker issues, looking to improve corporate respect for rights. Very often, however, NGOs fail to involve workers, the major stakeholder, in the process or leave worker rights, including freedom of association, off the table while focusing on a company’s “social responsibility.” At the same time, they fail to involve unions or labour advocates, who have 30 years of experience with corporate social responsibility efforts—including many mistakes—in campaigns. They could easily avoid some of the pitfalls the labour movement has already encountered.
Worker are up against powerful forces. And while they are the first line of defense against workplace exploitation, it will take a global network of worker rights defenders—NGOs, human right activists, trade unions—to oppose the stifling of civil society, staunch the erosion of workplace rights and protect human dignity and freedom.
5. Are there any particular mobilisation strategies that you are focusing on in light of current political trends when human rights and social justice concerns appear to be taking a back seat?
The Solidarity Center has joined with labour unions and women's rights activists to push for an end to gender-based violence at work. In addition, we are supporting safe migration policies and building networks to support migrant workers and refugees. We also are seeking out new ways to help informal-economy workers access and exercise their rights. And, of course, we will not rest until freedom of association for all workers is a given. That is our core challenge in this era of closing space for civil society.
6. What advice would you give to the CIVICUS alliance?
Worker rights activism and human rights activism must be linked if we are to push back the forces that drive inequality, poverty and injustice. There is no time like the present to begin.
CIVICUS interviews, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitations’ Fletcher Simwaka about the state of civic space in Malawi and the new NGO policy.
1. What is the state of human rights in Malawi at the moment?
There is a great sense of ambivalence on the human rights situation in the country. In some instances, one notices commendable steps government is taking in facilitating citizens’ progressive enjoyment of the various civil and political rights in the country. Remarkably, for instance, the President Professor Peter Mutharika signed the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law. This is a milestone as the law will enable citizens to access key and vital information held by the government. The ATI is an effective tool to entrench a culture of transparency and openness in government operations. In addition to the ATI, a major improvement on civic space is that the government is now relaxing its former restrictive stance on freedom of assembly. Concerned citizens and human rights activists are now able to conduct peaceful protests government without any undue legal hindrances.
On the other hand, however, the government has demonstrated vestiges of intolerance towards key human rights and freedoms, especially against critical human rights defenders and civil society. The current administration is resorting to a divide-and-rule tactic so as to weaken and isolate civil society in the country. The government does so by appointing some of the vocal human rights defenders into government positions. Moreover, government has taken a leading role in influencing elections of civil society leaders in civil society networks and platforms by supporting their stooges. Most unfortunately, government is resorting to the selective application of justice aimed at shielding ruling party loyalists. Only cases involving government critics are dealt with expeditiously. Civil society in Malawi has also expressed concerns over the very restrictive provisions in the NGO Act which are largely reflected in the draft NGO Policy.
2. What are the main civil society concerns over the NGO Policy?
The most fundamental civil society concern over the NGO Policy is that the draft policy formulation did not undergo meaningful consultations with the wider civil society community. The policy formulators only embarked on selective consultations with pro-government CSOs. Secondly, the draft Policy is almost silent on governance and human rights CSOs in its definition of civil society. It assumes all CSOs are community charitable organisations which are simply there to complement the service delivery work of the government. This is a deliberate and dangerous omission as it might systematically emasculate the equally important role of governance and human rights CSOs and activists in the country.
The Policy provides the relevant development planning structures with increased and unwarranted powers to approve projects developed by NGOs. The policy notes that “a project shall not be implemented unless it is approved by these structures.” While it is important that projects planned by NGOs are in line with development objectives, such broad powers prescribed by the policy and given to the planning structures, will infringe on the independence and privacy of NGOs.
In addition, the draft policy doesn’t mention the protection of NGOs and human rights defenders. These is supposed to be reflected in any NGO policy as it is one of the crucial areas that shape their day to day work. In fact, the policy should have also acknowledged the relevant role of NGOs as a watchdog in the exercise of political and legal authority by those in public office. In view of the above, the policy priority areas need to be expanded.
While the policy notes that this is aimed at ensuring that NGO are transparent and accountable, it will increase the administrative burden on NGOs and allow for bureaucratic discretion to reject requests for renewal of the registration of NGOs and to target NGOs that question the government. For example, this was the case in 2014 when the NGO Board threatened to close NGOs that were not registered with the Board, despite the fact that the NGO Act (2000) does not provide the Board with powers to close on NGO.
Again, the question of mandatory registration of NGOs with the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations in Malawi (CONGOMA) and NGO board as indicated in the NGO Act of 2001 as a requirement to qualify or be recognised in the categorisation of the draft’s policy three categories of NGOs may be challenged at law considering the fact that it may be perceived as an infringement on freedom of association, and also considering that other NGOs register under Trustees Incorporation Act of 1966 and Companies Act.
3. Have there been any concerns over the years over the NGO Act?
CSOs in Malawi have always had misgivings concerning the NGO Act. Both in its originality and practice, the NGO Act is seen as tool to police and silence critical voices in civil society. For instance, section 23 of the NGO Act gives power to the NGO Board, the body appointed by the President, to deregister any NGO that does not operate within NGO guidelines. Some of the NGOs targeted for de-registration are those involved in and comment on political issues. Several voices within civil society have noted that this is aimed at targeting civil NGOs working on human rights and governance who are critical of the government. The provision has always been a source of the fractious relationship between civil society organisations focusing on human rights and the government.
4. How can international civil society support civil society in Malawi to improve civic space?
Support from international civil society is needed to build the capacity of local civil society to empower them to demand and promote and protect civic space in the country. There are also opportunities for international civil society groups to partner with local civil society to effect change.
5. What are three things that need to change to further improve the environment in which NGOs operate in Malawi?
i. The NGO Act needs to be reviewed and amended to reflect the spirit of constitutionalism.
ii. There is need for a robust, responsive and inclusive NGO Policy that will address the challenges faced by CSOs.
iii. Government must come up with a law that protects human rights defenders.
Civic space in Malawi is rated as Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor
Azza Soliman and Mozn Hassan have both been working to improve women's rights in Egypt. They have campaigned to end violence against women, amongst many other campaigns, and are now wrongfully accused of receiving foreign funding against national interest and "irresponsible liberation" of women.
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At the recent summit of the African Union (AU), states adopted what appeared to be a plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the global body that prosecutes grave crimes and challenges impunity. This followed the announcement in 2016 by three states, Burundi, the Gambia and South Africa, that they would pull out of the Court, although the Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, subsequently reversed his country’s position. While the prospects could seem bleak for the ICC, Netsanet Belay, Africa Director, Research and Advocacy of Amnesty International, suggests that there are reasons to be more optimistic.
1. What is the current state of play on African withdrawal from the ICC?
Contrary to what many believe and what is being reported, 2016 saw a tempering of the rhetoric of African mass withdrawal from the ICC. While people expected a domino effect following last year’s decision of Burundi, the Gambia and South Africa to withdraw from the ICC, the outcome went in the opposite direction. Since the last Assembly of State Parties to the ICC in November 2016, many African states unequivocally rejected calls for mass withdrawal. A number of countries, including those who had been silent supporters, publicly affirmed their support of the ICC. This includes Botswana, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Zambia.
Building on this momentum, at the 28th AU Summit in January 2017, many African countries effectively refuted any myth of mass withdrawal. While the AU Summit adopted what is called a mass ‘withdrawal strategy’, it is actually nothing like this. To the contrary, the strategy sets out a roadmap for engagement with the ICC and other stakeholders. It makes clear that the concept of mass withdrawal is not recognised under international law and clarifies that if member states chose to withdraw, they should do so according to their domestic mechanisms. Further, many states - Cape Verde, Liberia, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Tunisia and Zambia - made reservations on the decision. Others, notably Nigeria, opposed the adoption of this strategy.
What this is telling us is that what once looked like a trend of mass withdrawal by African nations is not there. Those countries that were silent before are now saying they will not stay silent any more and will support the ICC. The Gambia’s return is also a significant game-changer for a number of reasons: it was the only misfit in West Africa, a region that’s traditionally a staunch supporter of the ICC. The Gambia is also the human rights capital of Africa, given it is the seat of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Burundi and South Africa are left alone at the moment, and they need to use this opportunity to change their minds.
But despite the tampering of anti-ICC rhetoric in Africa, we should not downplay the legitimate concerns that African member states have about the ICC. The Court is a far from perfect institution. There are legitimate questions to be raised about why the ICC has not progressed on its preliminary investigations on non-African situations
The role of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the politicised nature of referrals is also a very important question that should be addressed – not by the ICC but by the UNSC itself. As we saw with the failures on Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere, the UNSC is in dire need of reform and needs to be engaged.
There are also legitimate reform proposals on the table with respect to the Rome Statue system that sets out the ICC’s rules and procedures. For instance, weeks before its decision to withdraw, the South African government tabled a proposal on the development of rules and procedures for consultation processes with ICC members, under Article 97 of the Rome Statute. One of South Africa’s concerns was the lack of a clear process on consulting with the ICC when the country was faced with a dilemma on whether to arrest Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir when he attended the AU Summit in South Africa in 2015. The government felt that the procedures were not clear enough and suggested clearer procedures. The organisation I represent, Amnesty International, agrees that there is a gap there that needs to be filled and has proposed recommendations on how this proposal should be taken forward.
2. Outside Africa, what are the current or emerging threats to the ICC?
The biggest threat approaching for the ICC and international justice globally seems to from powerful nations outside Africa, as the Court moves to undertake preliminary examinations and ultimately investigations on crimes committed in Afghanistan and Palestine. The ICC has been investigating crimes committed in Palestine by Israeli forces as well as Palestinian armed groups, and in Afghanistan, by members of the Taliban, Afghani forces and US nationals, including allegations of torture. If reports are correct, the ICC is very close to opening an investigation into crimes under international law committed in Afghanistan in particular, which could possibly result in some US nationals facing prosecutions. Even though the US is not a member state of the ICC, because the crimes were committed in Afghanistan, a member state, US citizens suspected of committing crimes there might face prosecution. This move is likely to face stiff political challenge and backlash from the US.
Already we see signs of countries putting pressure on the ICC about its examination on Palestine. Israel is lobbying a number of European governments. In a possible sign of things to come, at the last Assembly of States Parties session, the ICC was squeezed on its budget to its absolute limit by the Court’s key financial contributing states, including Canada, France, Germany, the UK and others.
So the next biggest threat to the ICC will come from outside Africa, from powerful nations in the global north. Hence all the more reason why the global south, including Africa, which has been demanding a balancing of ICC prosecutions, should strongly support the ICC at a time when it is becoming more courageous.
3. What other challenges does the current global context offer?
Broadly speaking, with the rise of toxic populist agendas in US and Europe, global accountability and human rights mechanisms are facing threats. We are increasingly seeing the US, for instance, threatening to withdraw its financial and political support to the UN. The deadlocks at the UNSC continue and can be expected to worsen, enabling mass atrocities to continue unabated. There is also the UK’s eventual withdrawal from the European Union, including from the European Human Rights Convention. All of these point to what I would call the normalisation of indifference in the face of mass atrocities. This indifference is growing. One possible outcome of this trend will be weakening of international accountability mechanisms, including the ICC. This is another reason why civil society needs to come together to stand in support of these mechanisms.
4. What can civil society in South Africa and Burundi do?
South Africa has a dynamic and engaged civil society and, amidst the threats, there are clear opportunities emerging to defend international justice. Despite the recent High Court decision that revoked the Government’s notification of withdrawal, there are concerns that the government might press on with its withdrawal agenda. The government has tabled a draft bill for the repeal of the Rome Statute Implementation Act, the act that domesticates the Rome Statute, and has also announced its intention to introduce a new draft Bill on International Crimes to replace it. As draft bills are opened for pubic consultation, civil society has an immediate task and responsibility to engage with these processes and engage the government and members of parliament in challenging the decision to withdraw from the ICC.
Beyond engagement with government, there is more pressing need for public awareness campaigns. Views are quite polarised in South Africa, as elsewhere, about the ICC: to some extent state propaganda has worked and quite a significant part of the population believes what the government is saying, that the ICC is a western, imperialist tool that is attacking Africa. Civil society’s starting point should be to demystify the facts from the myths and win people’s heart and minds. For example, not a lot of people know that the reason so many African cases have come before the ICC is because of self-referrals by African states. Civil society needs to explain why the ICC was created and how it operates, as a court of last resort. South Africans need to know the historic, moral and legal implications of withdrawal, including the fact that this nation stands to withdraw from one of the few international instruments that codifies apartheid as a crime against humanity. For a country that has lived through that experience and a nation that was born out of such crime, and as a nation that led the creation of the ICC to ensure that such a crime will not happen again anywhere in future, it cannot afford to withdraw. Now more than ever, South Africa leadership in promoting justice and human rights is needed in the global arena.
Burundi, on the other hand, is a very different context. It is quite a closed country, and there are hardly any spaces for people and civil society express dissent. The motive of the government for withdrawing from the ICC is partly self-serving: it is protecting itself from future prosecutions. This is a whole different challenge and civil society will not find it easy to engage with the government to shift thinking about that. I see more difficulties in Burundi than in South Africa.
5. What about regional alternatives?
Nobody, including civil society, is challenging the advantage and significance of having a regional accountability mechanism. In principle, it is to be welcomed, as an additional accountability mechanism where people can obtain redress and victims seek justice, and where African-specific contexts can be addressed. The Malabo Protocol – the AU’s agreement to extend the jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and People’s rights – goes beyond the ICC’s four core crimes, of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crime of aggression, to criminalising transnational crimes such as corruption, illicit financial flows and terrorism. This shows a lot of potential.
The problem is that the proposal as it currently stands has several problematic legal and institutional implications. The fact that the Protocol stands to give immunity from prosecution to heads of state and senior government officials while they are still in power is a serious deviation from international standards on accountability, and also contrary to the AU’s own constitutive act, which champions a complete rejection of impunity. A deviation from this ideal is regressive. It would only embolden dictators who commit atrocities and human rights violations to remain in power. Secondly the definition of some of the transnational crimes is problematic and violates the international principle of legality. For example, terrorism is vaguely defined. The risk of peaceful dissent being criminalised as terrorism remains high. In Africa, there are so many living examples where peaceful dissent is being crushed as terrorism, so this is a huge risk.
Apart from legal standards, the second issue is the implication of adding a criminal jurisdiction to an already existing, heavily under-resourced and weak human rights court, given that the proposal is to expand the jurisdiction of the African Court. The new Court, if and when it becomes operational, would have a human rights mandate, a general affairs mandate and a criminal mandate. There is no such comparable model out there. It's a heavy and ambitious undertaking, and an expensive and complex venture. As such, it is highly doubtful that the continent will have the right political will and sufficient financial and other resources to enable this proposed Court to succeed.
The proposal also runs the risk of weakening the existing human rights mandate of the African Court. For instance, the number of judges currently proposed under the Malabo Protocol means a reduction in the number of judges that will be dealing with human rights issues. Already the current African Court is overloaded with casework, and reducing the number of judges will undoubtedly have a heavy impact on the capacity of the court to deliver on human rights protection needs in the continent. The proposal might also hamper or slow down future ratifications of the statues of the only existing human rights court in Africa. Member states may only be presented with the option to ratify and domesticate all of the successive amendments as outlined under the Malabo Protocol, and will not be able to pick and choose which instrument to adopt and ratify. As such, countries that do not want to commit to the expansion of the current court to have a criminal jurisdiction but want to strengthen the human rights jurisdiction of the exiting Court will not be able to do so easily.
So broadly, while in principle the decision to establish a regional criminal court is a good idea, there are a number of legal and institutional implications of the current proposal that may necessitate rethinking the model and discussing substantive amendments before member states rush to sign and ratify the Malabo Protocol. In any case, as a viable alternative to the ICC, and a permanent international justice mechanism, it is not there yet.
CIVICUS speaks to Carlos Andrés Santiago, spokesperson of CORDATEC, an organisation that defends water, the territory and the ecosystems of San Martín, in the Colombian region of Cesar. CORDATEC mobilises against oil extraction through fracking in the area.
1. Now that the peace accords with the FARC have finally been ratified, one would think that violence in Colombia is over. However, aggressions against social activists have not diminished. You and your colleagues at CORDATEC have reported numerous intimidations and threats. What are the causes of the on-going violence against human rights defenders?
The conflict between the FARC and the military has effectively de-escalated over the past several months, even before the peace treaty was signed, thanks to the bilateral ceasefire that was declared in August 2016. This is reflected in the information that President Santos provided a few days ago: at that time, a single wounded soldier was being treated at the Military Hospital, in contrast to very high figures just a year earlier.
In regions such as Cauca changes became apparent as a result of the ceasefire, the signing and ratification of the peace agreements, and more recently the establishment of “normalisation border zones” (zonas veredales de tránsito y normalización). These are areas in which the guerrillas will carry out the process of laying down their weapons, demobilising and reintegrating into civilian life. This, however, has also meant that in these regions a vacant space has remained that is now being occupied by new armed groups or criminal gangs.
In addition, we are witnessing a transition from a great conflict between two armed actors to a set of diverse conflicts around social issues, many of them linked to environmental causes. For instance, land use conflicts involving victims who demand the restitution of their land and struggles in defence of water and, particularly in communities like ours, mobilised against extractive projects.
The extinction of the conflict with the FARC, which yielded countless victims, therefore correlates with an increase in the number of murders of social and environmental activists and also the visibility of human rights defenders active in territories and communities.
2. What is CORDATEC’s role and aims in this context?
It is important to note that, as part of its post-conflict strategy, in December 2015 the Colombian government signed a contract with two multinational companies (ConocoPhillips and Canacol Energy) to explore and exploit hydrocarbons from unconventional deposits through fracking in three municipalities. One of them is ours: San Martín, in the department of Cesar.
So our community got organised and in early 2016 we formed the Corporation for the Defence of Water, Territory and Ecosystems, CORDATEC. We began to mobilise: we staged demonstrations, pot-banging protests, a civic strike and several marches. About 9,000 people took part in the most recent one, on 25 September 2016 – in a municipality that has 21 000 inhabitants. We also went to the media, resorted to strategic litigation and looked for allies in Congress. We even went along with CIVICUS to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
We seek to defend the most fundamental good which is water. By resorting to peaceful resistance, we are trying to prevent oil exploitation through fracking because we acknowledge the environmental and social impacts that it causes, and we are not willing to pay the costs. Among other impacts, fracking uses large amounts of water, contaminates underground and surface water sources, increases induced seismicity, causes serious damages to public health, changes the uses of agricultural land, and releases large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse effect gas.
3. What sort of restrictions on the exercise of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly have you faced as environmental and anti-fracking activists?
We face many. In retaliation for resisting fracking, the community of San Martín, and particularly CORDATEC members, have been subjected to harassment. It is clear that the municipal mayor, Saul Educardo Celis, has a strategy of intimidating all the people that are close to CORDATEC. For instance, CORDATEC members’ relatives have lost their jobs in the local administration. I have personally received death threats, and the comrades from the Workers Trade Union (Unión Sindical Obrera), who accompany us in our struggle, were threatened through a pamphlet just a few days ago.
The company ConocoPhillips has also attempted to file civil lawsuits, and through several letters to the municipal government they have requested that the conflict be judicialised, that is, that measures be taken to arrest and imprison the leaders of the mobilisation and protest actions, and that guarantees be provided so the company could start work in the Pico Plata 1 well, which they had so far been unable to do.
In the demands that they directed towards the government, the company appealed to the Criminal Code, according to which the obstruction of roads is a crime punishable with imprisonment. In response to these demands, the municipal government – in complicity with the Attorney General at the time and the national government – authorised the use of the ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, or Anti-Riot Squad), the unit of the National Police that is employed to control demonstrations and carry out evictions. Our fundamental right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, enshrined in Article 37 of our Constitution, was therefore ignored.
Since then, the ESMAD has repressed the community of San Martín and our comrades from the department’s subdivision of Cuatro Bocas on three separate occasions, and several people have been injured. The ESMAD’s operations have resulted in numerous human rights violations, on top of the threats, intimidation, harassment and illegal surveillance that CORDATEC leaders have been subjected to. These events have been reported to the Office of the Attorney General, the Ombudsman Office, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, of the Organization of American States, among other instances. Nevertheless, the government has taken no measures to safeguard the lives and physical integrity of the environmental defenders under threat.
Ever since its first operation, on 19 October, the ESMAD has remained in San Martín. The camp and the entrances to the well are guarded by militarised police at all times. In other words, a significant number of military personnel have been assigned to guarding the interests of a multinational company instead of protecting the communities. In the context of a social state based on the rule of law, the communities should take priority – not a transnational corporation that has come to plunder those communities’ natural resources.
The same is happening in other regions of Colombia, which is not surprising given that there are currently 43 blocks assigned to fracking that would eventually affect more than 300 municipalities across the country. In seven of those blocks there are already signed contracts, most of them adjudicated to foreign companies. To make it worse, despite the pronouncements by the Comptroller General, two additional contracts are currently being processed.
Why is this happening? It’s fairly simple. The extractive industries create very strong economic interests that frequently involve politicians and government officials who receive bribes in exchange for facilitating contracts, granting environmental licences, providing congressional support or favouring the companies when under investigation. Corruption has pervaded this type of megaprojects: the Odebrecht case is a clear example of this. These are struggles led by small communities that are trying to defend themselves, like the Biblical David from a giant and corrupt Goliath that crushes whoever gets in their way. From their perspective, the end justifies whatever means.
A few months ago the Minister of the Environment acknowledged that 75% of current conflicts in Colombia are environmental conflicts. And the pattern of threats, intimidation and ESMAD use is replicated throughout the country. It is part of a familiar script that often ends with activists being murdered. We are used to life not being worthy enough; therefore, we see it as relatively normal when physical elimination is resorted to so as to remove from an obstacle from the way. In Colombia, defending water is costing us our lives.
4. Are there any civil society initiatives to overcome these limitations of civic space?
Due to the long-standing conflict that we have experienced, many organisations in Colombia have long specialised in human rights issues. Numerous Colombian civil society organisations as well as the international community follow and give accompaniment in this sort of situations and provide support to communities regarding self-protection, visibility and denunciation.
As the situation in San Martín unfolded, we have found allies willing to accompany the process. Along with trade unions and social and environmental organisations, we are in the process of forming the Alliance Colombia Free of Fracking as an arena in which to weave resistances, and we are moving forward from there.
But this does not happen in all regions of the country: many struggles are being quietly fought in very small and distant territories that are not easily reached and where access to media and technology is extremely limited. In those places, the law of fear continues to prevail, and whoever gets in the way is easily taken out of the equation.
5. What concrete actions should the Colombian government adopt in the short term to safeguard civic space and protect the rights of its citizens?
First of all, the government must stop stigmatising and criminalising environmental activists and human rights defenders, and particularly those who oppose extractive industries. The Mayor’s accusation that we are terrorists, for instance, lapidates us and undermines the legitimacy of human rights defenders’ struggles.
Secondly, the government must provide guarantees for the exercise of the constitutional rights to mobilise and protest, which is not presently the case. Third, it should stop relying on mining and fossil fuels, and instead reorient its development model towards alternative and sustainable energy sources that do not pollute the environment.
Fourth, it must channel the required resources towards the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección, UNP), which provides protection schemes to persons under threat. The capacity of the UNP is currently insufficient, and only one out of every six submitted applications receives a positive answer entailing the provision of some type of protective measure. This means that five out of six persons seeking protection are left unprotected. Many social leaders who submit applications are told that their risk level does not warrant the granting of security measures.
Recognising threat levels, however, does not automatically result in the adoption of timely and effective measures. For instance, on 29 November 2016 the Ombudsman’s Office – a human rights guarantor with no enforcement capacity – issued a report identifying several political groups and social organisations in various communities of Cesar, including CORDATEC, as facing imminent risk due to their work. On 1 December an early warning was issued for the authorities to guarantee these persons’ life and integrity. Protection however never came and one of those people – a member of the Community Board of Hatillo – was murdered a month later.
This situation is a reflection of a very unequal country, where congressional representatives, former presidents and various politicians enjoy very generous protection schemes, with many people assigned to their protection detail, while community leaders and human rights defenders are left exposed.
6. How connected is local civil society in Cesar with its counterparts in other parts of the world and how can external actors support activists and civil society organisations in Colombia?
Given the high profile of both the armed conflict and the peace negotiations in Colombia, the organisations that form the United Nations and the Inter-American system, as well as international cooperation agencies and various CSOs around the world have spoken out about what is happening.
Global Witness in its reports On Dangerous Ground and How Many More?, Front Line Defenders in its Annual Report on Human Rights Defenders at Risk 2016, and also CIVICUS in the report Against All Odds about the dangers of environmental activism, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) with their strong statements to condemn the assassinations of land rights defenders, and Amnesty International in their 2016/2017 Report – they all converge in alerting the world about the serious risks faced by social and environmental leaders in Colombia. This has originated a very strong movement to repudiate the wave of assassinations, forcing the Colombian state to acknowledge the problem.
Concrete measures, however, are still very inadequate. That is why it is urgent for the international community to adopt a firmer position vis-à-vis the Colombian government. We need international actors to put more pressure on the Colombian state so it behaves more consistently.
Indeed, there are currently major contradictions and inconsistencies between what the national government says out there and what they do domestically. The Colombian state promotes and ratifies international commitments in defence of the environment and against climate change; it proclaims the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreements while within its own territory it implements fracking and mining projects that contradict those agreements for the protection of the environment and its inhabitants. Not only does it fail to fulfil its environmental commitments, but it also receives the Nobel Peace Prize while its mining-energy locomotive opens the way for the murder of social leaders. Somebody needs to call them to account.
Following reported violations on the press in Zambia that have included the closing of a newspaper and two radio stations, CIVICUS speaks to Wilson Pondamali a Zambian freelance investigative journalist and media activist to detail the situation
1. Describe Zambia’s media landscape?
Zambia is home to a plural media since the reintroduction of a political multiparty system in 1991 when veteran trade unionist Fredrick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) ousted the liberation leader Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP).
2. Please explain recent violations of the press in Zambia?
The Post newspaper of late has been facing severe harassment. The Post newspaper, a forerunner to the Weekly Post, was one of the first independent newspapers and continued to champion democracy and good governance by holding government accountable. Incidentally, the harassment of The Post newspaper started way back but the previous leaders between 1990 and 2008 – Kaunda, Chiluba and Levy Mwanawasa were tolerant of it.
Mwanawasa succeeded Chiluba in 2001 but died in office in 2008, being succeeded by Rupiah Banda who was later defeated by Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF) in 2011. The suffocation of The Post newspaper which manifested in 2016 during the reign of Michael Sata’s successor and incumbent Edgar Lungu could have started under President Banda apparently because the tabloid showed open support for Sata from the first day Banda was nominated to contest the 2008 election, in which he narrowly defeated Sata.
The Post newspaper continued to be critical in the three-year reign of Banda while projecting Sata in the limelight. It is undisputable that the tabloid played a pivotal role in the PF’s 2011 victory. This can be supported by the large number of its staff who were offered jobs in the civil service thereafter. The managing editor, and Editor in Chief Fred M’membe’s right hand man Amos Malupenga, was appointed as permanent secretary, while M’membe’s deputy Sam Mujuda was appointed into foreign service as high commissioner. The news editor George Chellah became press aide at State house while many other journalists were appointed press attaches to Zambia’s foreign missions. Sata died after only three years in office and was succeeded by Edgar Lungu in a tight 2015 election, defeating closest rival UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema mainly with support from former President Banda. Lungu himself received fair criticism from The Post during and before the 2015 and 2016 elections.
It would be correct to speculate that Banda was still vindictive of The Post and wanted it closed as evidenced by his threatening statement made when he was still in office. Being a close ally of Lungu, the newspaper company is now being pursued over a disputed tax claim by the Zambia Revenue Authority, leading to the tax authority threatening to seize the company’s fleet of vehicles and the premises on 21 June 2016 leaving the newspapers workers and owners to operate outside.
But then that was not enough, some workers who claimed not to have been paid applied to the High court to have the newspaper liquidated and a long-time foe of M’membe, Lusaka lawyer Lewis Mosho was appointed liquidator on 1 September 2016. Mosho, of Lewis Nathan and partners immediately after assuming the liquidator role ‘fired’ M’membe and lawyers Mutembo and Nchima Nchito.
After The Post was closed down, the only media that remained as the strongest force was the privately owned Muvi TV with its sister company Komboni radio, both based in Lusaka but broadcasting to many parts of the country.
Zambian broadcast media, except the national broadcaster Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation – ZNBC are all regulated by the ‘not so independent’ Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) which was created by an Act of parliament. The IBA board and director general are appointed by the minister of information and its offices are located at the government owned mass media complex, housing ZNBC and another government media agency Zambia news and Information Services.
The IBA suspended the broadcasting licenses of Muvi TV, Komboni and Itezhitezhi radio stations a few days after the disputed re-election of Lungu in the August general election. They were accused of allegedly broadcasting statements that were a danger to national security. The three media outlets were never charged nor given a chance to be heard but were just served with suspension notices and switched off. Their premises were taken over by heavily armed police who denied workers any entry to the premises. The stations were then reinstated in an apparent ‘diluted’ form weeks after the election petition hearing had commenced and Lungu was sworn into office. In the process, Komboni executive director Lesa Kasoma Nyirenda was assaulted by police as she tried to gain entry into her premises after being reinstated.
3. Why are we witnessing a clamp down on media?
The Edgar Lungu led PF regime seems to be in a mode of not tolerating divergent views as can be witnessed by continued threats on any dissenting views. Some of the threats are in the party while others are external. He has kept a strong grip on the PF, as witnessed by the harsh treatment of past PF members who resigned and sought to rejoin. One such member is Miles Sampa who was given some conditions before he could be readmitted. Another possible challenger Chishimba Kambwili, was relieved of his influential position of youth chairman in the central committee and later stripped of his position as information minister.
To ensure he is in a safe haven, most media houses that have hosted people critic to his administration have been victimised by state machinery or even party cadres. In principle, the President seems not to tolerate criticism hence the clamp-down of critical media and journalists.
4. What was the situation of freedom of expression during last year’s election?
There was a serious and visible clamp-down on freedom of expression in the run up to the elections as evidenced by countless refusals by the authorities for the opposition to organise party meetings. The main victims were UPND cadres who also had their meetings disrupted by unruly PF cadres.
Radio stations that hosted the opposition members were also victimised by police or cadres themselves with impunity and no arrests were made. The scenario has continued as evidenced by the detention of and threats to journalists hosting opposition. Prime TV, Chipata TV, Mkushi radio and Radio Mano, to mention but a few have been victims.
The ongoing harassment of The Mast newspaper owned by Fred’s wife Mutinta Mazoka M’membe is yet another example of a clampdown on freedom of expression. This is what led me to stage a one-man protest at the M’membe’s residence on Sunday, 19 February 2017.
5. What is the way forward for media in Zambia
There is need for a very strong force of media rights activism in the nation, which must be backed by legal instruments to ensure that journalists are protected from both economic and professional manipulation. Most private media houses are paying about K1 000 (US$100) per month salaries and this exposes journalists to temptations of unethical conduct.
There is also need for effective retraining as some media houses are manned by unprofessional journalists, especially the community radio stations who form the majority of plural media. To date, the Media Institute for Southern Africa Zambia chapter is the only organisation that seems to champion media violations but over some time it has also not shown enough stamina hence receiving resentment and criticism from media practitioners. Today Zambian media is very highly polarised and there is a need to resolve this.
6. How can international CSOs assist in the situation?
As local CSOs remain threatened, international CSOs can help mitigate the situation by lobbying both the Zambian government and other governments to allow for freedom of expression. This could be done through interventions at international meetings that are being attended by Zambia’s leadership. There is also need for capacity building among the Zambian media practitioners and activists and lobbying for legal reforms such as the long-awaited but elusive Access to Information law. Exchange programmes and attachments of Zambians to other media outlets outside the country would help as well.
Wilson Pondamali is a freelance investigative journalist and media activist who has worked in print and electronic media, both in government and privately owned media. He is the founding editor of a community newspaper Kabwe Bulletin and currently sits on the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zambia chapter) board as membership committee chairperson. He is also chairing this year’s MISA Zambia media awards to be hosted in May. He holds various qualifications from the University of Zambia, Zambia Institute of Mass Communication, Institute for Advancement of Journalism (South Africa), Cavendish University Zambia and Fojo Media Institute of Sweden.
24 February 2017
Dr Angela Merkel
Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany
Subject: Your visit to Cairo, 2-3 March 2017, amidst clampdown on human rights in Egypt
Dear Chancellor Merkel,
CIVICUS speaks to Ana Correa, a member of the organising group of #NiUnaMenos, a movement that has held massive protests against gender-based violence in Argentina. Correa holds a master’s degree in international relations and is also a political communication consultant.
1. What are the origins and context of the recent protests against gender-based violence in Argentina?
The first big march against gender-based violence, which took place on 3 June 2015 under the banner #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less), was born out of a succession of femicides in Argentina. Every 30 hours, a woman was killed just for being a woman. The femicide of 14-year-old Chiara Páez in Rufino, Santa Fe province, unleashed a wave of indignation at what appeared to be a total lack of public reaction to the succession of crimes against women. People were already fed up, so the tweet published by journalist Marcela Ojeda fell on fertile ground. The tweet read: “Women: they are killing us. Are we not going to do anything?” At that point an organising group was formed with the aim of holding a great mobilisation event, a loud call for attention from the citizenry that forced political, social and media actors to react. We wanted to send a strong message and at the same time we imagined this as a “turning-point moment” regarding demands for women’s rights. If gender-based violence affected us all, then it was important for all of us to join forces in order to make ourselves heard.
Raising our voices was necessary to say “enough”. But also in order to shake society and the political class a bit, so they could see what the concrete actions were that they were failing at, be it by mistake, inaction or omission.
2. What was your role in the process leading to the mobilisation? How much spontaneity and how much organisation was involved?
I was part of the organising group for the 3 June mobilisation. I think there was some degree of spontaneity, but there was also a lot of organisational work.
From the beginning we set out to do something massive. We saw this as the only way our goals could be achieved. This could not be just another march. That’s why we took initiatives that were disruptive at the time: for instance, we sought the support of “celebrities”, women and men, so they could help us disseminate the call for mobilisation as far and wide as possible. Let’s keep in mind that we didn’t have any budget to do this, and we did not want to accept help from the very same sectors we were addressing our demands to. We needed allies in the mass media and support from both women and men. We did not ask for seniority credentials within feminist movements, although we obviously did in set some boundaries.
On the other hand, the political dimension was very important. It was an electoral year in Argentina and political forces were very polarised. Over the previous few years there had been virtually no mobilisation encompassing all sectors; there was always someone on the opposing side. So while we were disseminating the call for our big march, we met with representatives from political parties, the government and the judiciary to make our message clear: we are not protesting against anyone in particular; we just want you to do well in your job in combatting gender-based violence. Everything pointed in the same direction: towards the generation of a movement around the defence of women’s rights cutting across all political, social and cultural forces. We wanted to build a sort of great movement committed to women’s rights, which as such had to include representatives or sympathisers of all political parties defending these rights. As we noticed during the weeks leading up to the mobilisation, however, most political forces promoting a presidential candidate, be it male or female, actually lacked a gender policy proposal.
3. In light of the experience with #NiUnaMenos, what is the potential of social media in terms of protest organisation, and what are the limitations?
#NiUnaMenos has demonstrated the importance of social media when it comes to making a massive call and disseminating a message without the mediation of political and media structures. We know of the enormous efforts made by women who have participated in civil society organisations, and also in political parties, for many years. The former face the challenge of finding spaces to disseminate their message; the latter find difficulties in the very structures of politics. We have a female quota system for legislative seats, but not for decision-making positions within political parties. The voice of women on these matters is seldom heard. Social media does not replace activism of any kind. The woman who devotes most of her time to her work, inside and outside the home, without support structures or any help, has an important limitation when it comes to participating in organisations of any kind. Social networks allow for and activate another form of activism, which adds up to the traditional ones. What matters is to rattle structures and open participation to all women - to each one in a form that is attainable for them.
The logic of social media also helped a lot when putting out a message. We defined a hashtag, #NiUnaMenos, that was backed up by a document that was read at the end of the rally on 3 June 2015, and which was the result of much joint work within the organising group as well as with other organisations. But the motto that made our demand compelling was summed up in just three words.
4. What protest tactics have been adopted, and why?
After the first mobilisation, the rapid reaction allowed by social media to set an agenda, make claims and demand answers remained activated. But that was evidently not enough. During 2016 two important things happened. The first one was that, as the one-year anniversary of the first mobilisation approached, women throughout the country started to summon one another to march again. Just as the first march required total dedication to get organised, we saw with satisfaction that #NiUnaMenos now belonged to all. The date – June 3rd – was then instituted as #NiUnaMenos day. I believe that the best thing that can happen to this movement is for it to turn into something latent that can be appropriated by every person, male or female, who wants to see women’s rights respected.
The other important thing took place as a result of an atrocious crime. Lucía Pérez, a 16-year-old girl, was found tortured, impaled and murdered in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. There was almost no reaction from political and judicial actors. So much so that in those days, in the same city where the crime occurred, Mar del Plata, a big meeting – the IDEA Colloquium - was being held between businesspeople and representatives of the federal and provincial governments, and nobody there seemed to be aware of the brutal crime that had just happened again. It was as if they had become accustomed to these horrible things happening over and over. That’s when the decision was made to call for a Black Wednesday mobilisation and a women's strike for 19th October. On that afternoon it was pouring rain, but thousands upon thousands of women dressed in black marched through the city. It was necessary – again – to shake the apathy in the face of a new atrocity.
An International Women's Strike is now being prepared for 8 March. As its organisation is being coordinated with groups in other countries, not all the details are ready yet. But the idea is for the seed that was planted on 3 June 2015 to continue to grow. From the first march onwards, #NiUnaMenos mobilisations were replicated in various countries across the region, which then converged with other mobilisations that were taking place in European countries, and eventually with the Women’s March in the United States.
5. How were protests reported? Were there any negative media coverage or reactions to mobilization?
Media coverage was another important reason why we were concerned with closing the political “gap” between those supporting the administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president at the time, and those opposing it. When organising the first march, we wanted to make sure that the media aligned with each sector would provide nonpartisan coverage of the march. And right after the demonstration, for the first time in years, the front pages of all Argentine print media highlighted the same event, our march, as the most important of the day. It was a historic moment in that sense too.
6. How did the authorities react to the protest?
At first there was distrust on the part of political actors. However we were so firm in making it clear that they were not allowed to appropriate the march for their own purposes, although it was imperative for all of them to support it, that there were only a few isolated attempts to co-opt the movement. And then, on the evening before the march, both the then-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and Supreme Court Justice Elena Highton de Nolasco, publicly (and independently from one another) gave their support for the mobilisation. We did not see this as a problem; on the contrary, the fact that the highest representatives of the State were acknowledging the protest was perceived as a step forward.
Elections however were close (presidential and legislative elections were both held in October that year), and during the weeks leading up to the march various candidates had begun to see it as an advantage to have their photo taken holding the #NiUnaMenos banner. We did see that as a contradiction: it was too easy for a legislator or a candidate to just take a selfie to attract the female vote. We needed something more from them, so we asked them that if they took their picture, then they also needed to sign a five-point commitment that they would work to eradicate sexist violence.
7. What impacts have been achieved to date, and what potential impacts do you see in the medium term ahead?
The main impacts were that women’s rights were placed on the agenda and that a state of constant alertness and mobilisation around these issues was achieved. There were also small but concrete steps forward, such as the judiciary launching the first Femicides Registry, the newly appointed president of the Council for Women presenting an action plan to eradicate gender-based violence, and an attempt to lower the Council’s budget being reversed, actually resulting in an increase. There is still a lot to do. We are convinced that we can only achieve our aims by remaining active in reaching out with our demands. And one of these definitely needs to be the implementation of the attention protocol for non-criminalised abortions – which applies in cases such as rape, foetal non-viability or danger to the pregnant woman’s life – and progress towards the legalisation of abortion in Argentina. In between, there is a huge agenda both in Argentina and in the region. With the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States we are already seeing setbacks at the global level that we would never have imagined. The only way to do something about this is to remain united, attentive and mobilised. And to keep exploiting our creativity so that we can achieve the required impact even if politics, the media and the circumstances are not on our side.
• Civic space in Argentina is rated as “narrowed” in the CIVICUS Monitor.
• Get in touch with #NiUnaMenos through their website or Ana Correa’s Facebook page, or follow @niunamenos_ and @anaecorrea on Twitter.
CIVICUS interviews a human rights defender from Eritrea, who speaks about the nature of the government and its complete disregard for fundamental human rights. The human rights defender asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
1. What is the overall state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Eritrea?
Unlike in the neighbouring countries, the regime in Eritrea is unique and arguably has no match in the world. It is the most repressive regime in the world, ruling the country with no Constitution and national assembly. There is no political pluralism and no elections have been organised since independence. The ruling party exists only in name with most of its leaders in the executive and legislative arms of government are either languishing in unknown detention centres or have abandoned the party. Since 1994 the party has never held any congress or elected new leadership. Hence power has been concentrated in the hands of a single man, President Issias Afwerki, who rules the country alone and as he wishes.
The absolute power he enjoys combined with his sadistic, cruel and arrogant character has driven him to the extreme. His regime violates every aspect of human rights and inflicts unbearable suffering on the Eritrean people. The regime has no regard for human rights and international law. Almost the entire population of Eritrea has been subjected to indefinite national service, forced labour and slavery. Families have disintegrated and societies destroyed by migration as citizens seek to escape the repression. Those who escape the country are exposed to human trafficking, hostage taking for ransom, torture and other inhumane treatment.
The regime has made Eritrea a closed and an isolated country with no independent and foreign media outlets; civil society activities are banned in Eritrea thus there are no local CSOs or international NGOs of any kind in the country. In addition, the report of the UN Commission of inquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in June 2016 revealed that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea by the Eritrean regime.
2. What is the state of the media?
Between 1997 to 2001 private press in the form of print media operated in Eritrea but this was under a restrictive legal domestic framework. There were eight private newspapers until September 2001. In 2001 senior government officials known as “G-15” demanded democratic reforms and the enforcement of the 1997 ratified Constitution. In September 2001, the government clamped down on 11 members of the “G-15” accusing them of treason and said they were a threat to national security. The government proceeded to close private newspapers and imprisoned 18 journalists for providing platforms to the “G-15” to express their views. Since then both the political prisoners and journalists have been held incommunicado in secret prison facilities without charges. Many of the journalists and writers are believed to have died in detention. In effect, since September 2001 no private media has existed in Eritrea. Only state-owned and state-operated media exists in the country. These include TV, radio, and print outlets.
Freedom of expression, exchange of information and communication in public places such as tea shops, buses, taxis, restaurants, bus terminals, offices, schools and colleges, public, social and religious events are closely monitored by spys working for the regime. Even people who are out of the country are afraid to express themselves publicly for fear of reprisals against their relatives at home in Eritrea. Journalists who work for public media outlets and manage escape still fear that their families back home will be targeted as the Eritrean government punishes family members because of association.
3. How does the compulsory national military service exacerbate human rights violations in Eritrea?
According to the National Service Proclamation of 1995, Eritreans are required to serve 18 months of national service which includes six months of military training and 12 months of service in the army and civil service. The proclamation notes that military service is compulsory for males and females who are between 18 to 40 years old. However, contrary to the national proclamation, in reality the national service is indefinite. Those who were recruited in the first round, for example in 1994 have not been released up to now. The whole productive section of the society has been locked up in the national service without any pay, proper feeding or clothing. Even children are recruited into national service. All students have to go to the military training camp of Sawa to do their final year of education in the secondary level and complete military training. Conditions there are very miserable. The national service recruits are treated worse than slaves. They are deprived of opportunities to start families and from undertaking economic activities. They are deprived of moving freely, expressing themselves and from practicing the religion of their choice. In addition, those who desert and evade national service are detained, tortured or fined. Also women are used as sex objects by the military officers and work as house maids or slaves to provide forced services to the officers.
4. Tell us about the failure of the government to implement the 1997 Constitution
The government does not have any desire to implement the 1997 Constitution. In May 1998, one year after the ratification of the Constitution, the Eritrean government ignited a border war with Ethiopia. It developed into a full-fledged conflict that came to end in 2000 after the loss of about 100 000 lives on both sides and huge damages to properties and a huge humanitarian crisis and displacement. The Algeris agreement ended the war and a border commission was formed to delineate and demarcate the border but the border has not yet been demarcated. A “no war and peace state” prevails now. Although there are no links between the border and the Constitution, the Eritrean government claims that it is not implementing the Constitution because the border has to be demarcated first.
5. What are three things that need to change for democracy to take root in Eritrea?
For democracy to take root in Eritrea: there needs to be
Ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America, activists and civil society are mobilising protests against the new establishment. CIVICUS speaks to Nicole Barner, an activist who works on economic justice and is based in Washington D.C. Barner will take part in some of the inauguration day protests.
CIVICUS asked Nibal Salloum, program manager at the Syrian peace-building organisation Nuon, about the situation for civil society in Syria and the challenges faced working in a conflict area. Nuon is a Syrian civil society organisation that works on peace building from a human rights approach in Southern Syria and with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
CIVICUS speaks to Ugandan independent blogger and journalist Rosebell Kagumire (pictured). She speaks on the situation for journalists in Uganda, freedom of expression in the country and the relationship between the media and civil society in the country
1. What is the operating environment at the moment in Uganda for the media?
The past year 2016 has been particularly bad for media. There were been a record number of attacks due to elections that were held in February 2016. It was the 31st year of the President, Yoweri Museveni, being in power so it was a high-stakes game. The environment was hostile as the president felt really challenged. Many journalists who tried to cover opposition leaders were intimidated, attacked, harassed, restricted and pepper-sprayed. Over 80 journalists were violated in that month only by the state. Over 100 journalists were attacked by the state during the elections. For example, a huge case of intimidation was when a television journalist was arrested while broadcasting live and the police did not realise they were “live” and the nation got see there was no legitimate reason for his arrest. So it was not an easy year. Also some cases of violations were not publicly reported.
2. Social media and the Internet were cut off on election day. What happened?
On the day of voting, Internet, social media and access to mobile money services were cut off. We were also cut off on the day of the counting of votes. A few people were able to connect using other means such as VPN. The reason for the cut off was that government said there was a “national emergency” but they did not explain to us what sort of an emergency. The general view of the public is that the election was so tight so they needed the cover of darkness to prevent people from sharing of results from polling stations. Rigging is never done at polling stations but at the tabulation of results. So where people are not connected they could not share results of individual stations. The poll was highly fraudulent so cutting off social media was also to prevent people from mobilising to protests and to kill any planning of uprisings against the government. So you control the mood of the public and kill expectations by not having social media. The results were in favour of the opposition then suddenly overnight the results changed.
3. How are you as online media treated by the authorities?
The government is realising the power of online media. It was an independent blogger who exposed ghost voters on the voters roll. And this had not been identified by journalists. In terms of covering protests, we have the problem covering opposition rallies. We are generally able to cover protests but the more government feels threatened by protest, the more difficult it is to cover protests. Such as a few years ago, an army commander told journalists that their safety would not be guaranteed if they attended a particular protest. So journalists know protection is not a given.
4. Are members of the public free to express themselves in media?
Despite the challenges we face of shrinking civic space, Ugandans like to talk. We are able to talk in the media. We have over 200 radio stations. If you tune in, you hear people speak their minds. Off course government targets specific people. Members of public speak to media freely on the streets if their opinion is asked for. Even during Idi Amin’s time, we still expressed ourselves even though it was underground. Government has set up media Crimes Unit and people know they are being monitored but people are not afraid and use their real names even online even though we know we are being watched and have that discomfort of being watched, we still speak. Sometimes people are cautious but generally we express ourselves freely. Academics are able to also express their opinion, even those working at state universities. Although sometimes there is self-censorship on some topics as some people prefer not to speak about security or military or things to do with the first family.
However, of concern, the Uganda government has made requests to Facebook to access certain accounts. One example is an account called TVO which does some exposès and commentary on government workings. One Ugandan Robert Shaka was arrested because government thought he is behind the account.
5. Are journalists able to protect their sources and whistle-blowers?
No we’ve not had public cases of intimidation of members of the media to reveal sources in 2016. Whistle blowing is generally weak in Uganda. You can get leaked stuff here and there but it’s not common. But media houses have been closed over coverage of security issues and the journalists and editors at heart of those stories face enormous pressure.
6. What is the state of investigative reporting of both the private and public sector?
Investigative journalism has gone low this year I think. There’s maybe sense of resignation affecting the media after the electoral outcome as the same regime has been in power for so long and maybe fear as well plays a part. I think we still have great in-depth stories on issues but newsrooms do not have dedicated investigative desks that are fully functional. Sometimes media ownership also affects how much a journalist can dig deep because owner interest may also mean the owner has a larger business empire to protect so journalists don’t want to bite the hand feeding them. The media owner may have a big empire with media being a small part of that empire that may have interests in hotels and so on, so the media has to support the rest of the owner’s business empire. Also advertising is a lifeline for media so there’s no in-depth questioning of big companies as the media wants the advertising revenue. So economic crimes go unreported unless if it’s a matter before parliament.
7. What is the impact of terrorism on the work of journalists?
Terror reporting is expected to be in praise of government only. We also now have anti-terror laws and the recent case of journalist Joy Biira being charged with abetting terrorism is one such case where these laws are being used. Using terrorism and treason charges as a way to stifle journalism is huge. Another journalist after the 2010 bombings, Timothy Kalyegira, faced criminal libel charges for presenting a different narrative on who was behind the bombings and role of government. Another journalist was also remanded on treason charges.
The arrest of KTN television journalist Joy Biira in November 2016 and being charged of abetting terrorism is ridiculous and shows how far government is willing to go to intimidate journalists perceived to show their military actions in Kasese in good light. The government was trying to control a narrative on the Kasese massacre and once photos of dead bodies were leaked it was upset. These charges cannot even hold in a court of law.
8. How far reaching is political influence over the media in Uganda? What drives this?
You will find that most media attention goes to politicians and the elite and less on ordinary poor people. From time to time we have allegations of journalists being on “payrolls” of rich people but this is also employed as a tactic to smear journalists. The other problem is some politicians or their friends own media especially radio stations so there is that bias. Nonetheless, many good journalists continue to stand above the political interests and do their work well to deliver news to millions of Ugandans.
9. What is the relationship between the media and civil society in Uganda? How can it be improved?
It’s a bit of a loose relationship. Media covers civil society activities but perhaps media and civil society do not always realise and appreciate we are fighting for the same goal most times ─ public accountability.
We can improve the relationship by highlighting the young and upcoming young people in civil society using social media who are fighting for democracy and accountability. We have to identify these good voices in civil society and make good coalitions with media. Civil society and media can work in coalition on certain causes. For example, in Uganda, in recent months an association of female lawyers highlighted cases of women in the flower industry being exposed to chemicals and being denied leave benefits. A couple of television stations and newspapers picked up on the issue and put a spotlight on this and were backed by civil society. The outcome looks good and it is still ongoing and the responsible ministers have put together a committee to investigate safety standards on flower farm workers. This is a great example of media and civil society working together to fight for those underprivileged in our society. We are a long way and need more such partnerships.
Follow Rosebelle on Twitter on @RosebellK and read her blog on https://rosebellkagumire.com/
Human rights defender Cyriaque Nibitegeka speaks to CIVICUS about Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the implications for human rights and victims of human rights abuses. Nibitegeka is one of the leaders of civil society in Burundi. He is also a lawyer and member of the Burundi Bar. He was a professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Burundi before being dismissed for his human rights activities.
CIVICUS interviews Mathew Jacob on the restrictions on freedom of association and attacks on civil society in India including laws on foreign funding. Jacob is the National Coordinator of Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA). HRDA is a national platform of human rights defenders for human rights defenders. Mathew is also a PhD scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Since assuming power in May 2016 Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has embarked on a controversial campaign against drugs in which over 3 000 people have been killed over three months in extra judicial killings for allegedly being drug peddlers or users. CIVICUS speaks to Roselle Rasay of Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO), the largest umbrella body of civil society organisations in the Philippines. She speaks on the situation of human rights in the Philippines and those speaking out against the drug war
1. What have been the main impacts of the president’s anti-drug campaign on human rights?
The anti-drug campaign is a blatant attack on human rights as the President himself is “encouraging” through his statements “vigilante” actions and for citizens to take up arms to kill drug pushers or users. The president has taken the side of the police being investigated for abuse in the anti-drug campaign; he also badmouths and undermines the Commission on Human Rights and other nations and institutions calling for investigations of blatant human rights violations in the ant-drug campaign. He also personally attacks and encourages, if not orchestrates, an all-out attack by his Justice Secretary and allies in Congress against Senator Leila de Lima who led the Senate investigations on this drug war, all to apparently silence or undermine the opposition. The majority of those being killed are from the poorest communities who may not even be drug users. There are very few big names being caught up in this save for a mayor who was killed after he voluntarily submitted himself for investigation because the authorities were looking for him. He was killed right at the jail. The impression was that he has knowledge of who else has knowledge on drugs matters.
2. How is civil society responding to these actions to try uphold rights?
While civil society is largely divided in their opinion or position on the matter, there are still some quarters that have mustered courage to go public and have denounced the excesses of the present administration. This is being done in various ways such as mobilisation and other actions against extra judicial killings. Several human rights groups and peace groups, have condemned the campaign, including my organisation CODE-NGO, by way of issuing statements in traditional and social media condemning the extra judicial killings that are related to the drug war being waged by the government. In social media though, these statements usually receive nasty responses from supporters of President Duterte, many of whom appear to be funded trolls. Lawyers taking up cases are also being attacked in this way.
The CODE-NGO general assembly recently passed a resolution calling on government arms ─ the legislative, the executive and the judiciary ─ to uphold human rights in this anti-drug campaign. Discussions are also ongoing among CSOs about providing orientation to their partner communities on how to protect themselves and assert their rights against house searches or arrests without warrants by the police.
3. Has civil society’s work to uphold rights provoked a backlash from the authorities?
Recently, the President said he will also kill human rights advocates if the campaign against drugs is stopped because of them and the illegal drug problem gets worse. The Commission on Human Rights is also being attacked by the President. There is apparent inaction by police authorities on reported cases of extra judicial killings with all of them being lumped into “deaths under investigation”.
4. How do human rights defenders feel? Are they becoming scared of speaking out?
There are no physical attacks on human rights defenders speaking against the killings in the government’s anti-drug campaign that we know of to date. However, at a community level the threats are creating fear because the police are going from house to house asking people to write their names and if they use drugs. Some people wouldn’t know what these forms mean. They just submit their data depending on the situation in the community. It creates trouble within some communities because neighbours would point to each other – some people in the community can also write down names of people they do not like. Some of those using drugs will point to others. Among CSOs, some are very much against it and are emboldened in their work and are very vocal about their sentiments about the campaign. Others do not openly express their disagreement of the campaign because they are careful not to jeopardise other advocacies they are working out with government, such as the peace talks, agrarian reform and others.
5. What do you think is the impact that CODE NGO has in improving the situation of civic space?
Over the years CODE-NGO has provided venues for civil society to clarify and understand the various social and political issues affecting a particular sector of our society and/or the country in general. This has not only provided an opportunity to enhance knowledge but more so to consolidate civil society forces and efforts to address issues concerning the environment by which they are able to do their work.
In the past, we have been successful in improving policies related to the regulation of CSOs and in improving the public image and public support for CSOs. However, it is too early to tell if CODE-NGO and other CSOs can successfully defend and promote civic space given the President’s pronouncements and actions. We certainly hope we can.
Currently, CODE-NGO is trying to engage specific persons or offices in government who could have the influence to improve civic space situation or are more open to listening to CSOs such as the Office of the Vice President, Department of Interior and Local Government and the Office of the Cabinet Secretary.
As a national association of CSOs in Philippines, a large part of our work is in strengthening capacities of CSOs in the Philippines in being effective in their work, creating accountability in public institutions and showing that we’re also accountable. That adds to our legitimacy and making sure government will listen to us if we are legitimate. We have also been part of several policy advocacy processes in the past supporting the creation of local resources for local CSOs. We are advocating for policies for a more enabling regulatory environment for civil society. Given the current context, it is still too early – only six months into the new presidency, to tell how these will all turn out. But we must think about future steps and be vigilant to make sure that civic space is not constricted.
6. What do you think are the main challenges you are facing as a CSO network in improving civic space conditions?
A challenge has always been relating with government because of politics – the difficulty in the Philippines is that we have very good laws but implementation is poor depending on who is the leader. The level of participation by CSOs in governance changes and varies with who is in power. So we must always be aware of political realities.
There is also little funding for advocacy work. It is widely acknowledged that CSO networks perform important convening, capacity-building and advocacy roles, but sadly, there is not much support for this kind of infrastructural work. Sustainability of CSOs and their work have been challenged, especially those doing human rights campaigns and advocacy. Some other CSOs would have better access because they give very direct products and service. But it is difficult for advocacy groups and networks who focus on coalition building and capacity building of local CSOs; there is not much support for that kind of work.
7. What other challenges do civil society organisations and human rights defenders face in the country?
We have seen gains in the past years of opening up civic space. In the previous administration, there was a generally friendly environment for civil society. Currently, the environment is still quite open because we still have open media. There is no apparent suppression – the gains of fighting for democracy has not been affected. Although there is a feeling of creeping reintroduction of authoritarianism. While it is very open and safe, we’re worried that the space is constricting and can soon get tight.
Currently, it is still easy to register a CSO and run one. Cost-wise the fees are very low for setting up an organisation. Registering authorities require very basic documents. However, more recently, there have been stricter guidelines about CSOs accessing government funds, although very few CSOs actually access that money. The government made it stricter by requiring additional accreditation. These factors restrict the work of CSOs a bit. But this is not because of President Duterte. It was a policy from 2013 as a reaction of government to fake NGOs accessing the legislators’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) or ‘pork barrel’ funds and implementing ghost projects. But we thought making CSO accreditation tougher after the PDAF scam was a knee-jerk reaction on the part of government; the scam came about so that some legislators and government officials could dip their hands into government’s coffers through these fake NGOs.
8. What could the international community and international civil society do to support civil society in the Philippines?
Statements of solidarity with local CSOs; independent investigations; support for human rights activists and sharing of successful campaigning models would be important.
On the attacks on human rights activists, solidarity messages from the rest of civil society from all over the world would be of help. Exchanges on campaigning, tips on how we can improve online campaigning would be useful because while CSOs have been quite active and able to advocate for policies, we’re worried about the changing environment and would like to learn how others have been successful in their campaigns.
Roselle Rasay is the Deputy Executive Director at Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO). CODE-NGO is the largest coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) working for social development in the Philippines, with its six national networks and six sub-national networks representing more than 1 600 development NGOs, people’s organisations and cooperatives nationwide. Contact CODE-NGO on their Facebook page or visit their website and follow them on Twitter @CODE_NGO
CIVICUS speaks to Angela Mudukuti about South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, the implications for human rights and justice and the work which the Southern Africa Litigation Centre is doing on this issue. Angela is a lawyer with the International Justice Programme at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre. Angela is involved in advocacy around international criminal justice issues and strategic litigation, including taking the South African government to court for failure to arrest President Bashir of Sudan
1. What do you think motivated South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC)?
The state seems to advance a number of misplaced excuses for withdrawal in its legal papers and media statements. This includes the allegation that the ICC is targeting Africa, which is of course unfounded as evidenced by the number of self-referrals and the fact that the ICC has preliminary examinations in Afghanistan, Iraq for example. The state also alleges that its commitments to the Rome Statute are a hindrance to peace and security efforts in Africa yet this too does not make any sense as South Africa has been engaged in peace and security initiatives for several years “despite” the obligations in terms of the Rome Statute. South Africa signed the Rome Statute in 1998 and ratified it in 2000 and not once has the Rome Statute been raised as a hindrance to peace-keeping efforts. It is only since the arrival of President Omar Al Bashir in 2015 that South Africa has had problems with the ICC. Thus it cannot really be about peace-keeping as South Africa does not have to host suspected perpetrators in South Africa to successfully conduct peace-keeping activities. They have been involved in mediation efforts since former President Thabo Mbeki’s time and not once have they needed to host President Bashir in South Africa. In fact they explicitly declined to do so in 2009 when President Bashir was expected to attend the 2009 inauguration of President Jacob Zuma. It was made publically clear that President Bashir would be arrested if he came to South Africa and as such he did not come to South Africa in 2009.
The arguments of the state seem to be labouring under the misconception that withdrawal will allow them to host President Bashir, yet as made clear by article 127 of the Rome Statute, the obligations of state party do not evaporate because it decides to leave the Rome Statute, thus South Africa is still duty bound to arrest President Bashir for as long as he is wanted by the ICC. The state has failed to provide justifiable and reasonable excuses for leaving the Rome Statute thus the only plausible explanation was an unfortunate political explanation that only the government itself could provide.
2. What do you think is motivating the antipathy of several African states towards the ICC?
The allegation that the ICC is targeting Africa is the main reason advanced by a number of African leaders. Yet as described above this is not factually accurate. In addition to the fact that this is because of a lack of understanding about the jurisdictional limits of the Court it is also an excuse that is conveniently used by politicians to further their political agenda instead of prioritising justice, accountability and the victims of international crimes. While the ICC is not a perfect institution, it requires support and critical yet constructive engagement from member states.
3. What are the likely implications on human rights and justice for victims of human rights violations?
South Africa leaving the ICC will have serious implications for justice and human rights. It sends the wrong message to the victims of crimes. It also shows that South Africa has chosen to support impunity given its failure to arrest President Bashir and the fact that they seek to abandon the only permanent international criminal court instead of constructively engaging with it. South Africa could potentially become a safe haven for suspected perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity as the government seeks to repeal the Implementation Act which domesticates the Rome Statute and includes a provision on universal jurisdiction. Should the Implementation Act be repealed a lacuna will be created which could be exploited by potential perpetrators of heinous crimes. In addition, if justice fails at the domestic level, there is no African Court with criminal jurisdiction and if South Africa successfully leaves the ICC, there will be no justice at the international level either. This creates an untenable situation which will leave the victims with nowhere to turn.
4. How is civil society in South Africa responding to the withdrawal?
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) is actively involved in legally challenging the constitutionality of South Africa’s notice of withdrawal. The matter was heard in the High Court on December 5 and 6 and the court reserved judgment. SALC will also continue with advocacy to raise awareness and sensitise the general public on the importance of supporting international criminal justice as the move to repeal the Implementation Act should go through the parliamentary process which also includes a process of public participation. Hence it is vital that the general public understand the importance of supporting international criminal justice. Civil society is also actively supporting the development and improvement of domestic justice mechanism as the ICC was designed as a court of last resort and will only function as such if domestic systems are willing and able to deal with international crimes. Though the Rome Statute does not recognise regional courts, civil society are actively seeking to promote credible, impartial regional courts that will not provide immunity for heads of state or senior government officials as we see justice as a three-layer system where each layer functions in a complementary fashion.
5. What are three things South Africans need to know about the ICC as an institution of justice for victims of human rights violations?
a) South Africans need to know that the ICC is an impartial and independent court with limited jurisdiction.
b) They should also know that without the support of the African states, the court may not have come into existence in the first place and thus it is more constructive to work towards improving the ICC instead of simply abandoning it.
c) South Africans should also know that regionally there is no African court with criminal jurisdiction and thus if domestic justice fails it is the ordinary citizens who will have no access to justice.
Visit the Southern Africa Litigation website - http://www.southernafricalitigationcentre.org/
To commemorate International Human Rights Day, CIVICUS speaks to the Chair of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) - Advocate Faith Pansy Tlakula about the state of human rights in Africa. Advocate Tlakula is also the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa.
1. What in your view is the current state of human rights in Africa as we celebrate Human Rights Day?
The African continent has made progress in the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, many countries hold regular elections and cases of peaceful transfer of power from the incumbent to the newly elected leader after an election are increasing. The Gambia is the most recent example. Progress has also been made in areas such as the adoption of laws to criminalize torture, adoption of Access to Information laws, the abolition of the death penalty, with an increase in the number of countries observing a moratorium on the death penalty to give a few examples. Despite these positive developments, challenges remain. These include terrorism and violent extremism in a few countries, continued conflict and acts of armed groups in others which have had a detrimental effect on civilians. There are also cases of arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists, human rights defenders and members of the opposition, violent protests and the use of excessive force by law enforcement agencies during peaceful protests and violence and discrimination against persons on the basis of their real or imputed sexual orientation.
2. Do women face the same human rights challenges as men and why?
Yes they do due to the patriarchal nature and continuing gender stereotypes in African societies. Although a number of countries have adopted legislative and other measures to advance the rights of women, the effective implementation of these measures remains a challenge, particularly in areas such as the economic empowerment of women, access to land, female genital mutilation, to mention a few.
3. What are some of the successes resulting from the ACHPR’s interventions in Africa?
We have witnessed the adoption of laws to criminalize child marriage, the recognition of the rights of indigenous populations in Africa, observation of a moratorium on the death penalty and the commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment in a number of countries. We have also experienced the opening of spaces for dialogue on sexual orientation, irrespective of the difficulty of the dialogue, the initiation, drafting and submission to the African Union for consideration of draft human rights instruments such as the draft Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons in Africa, the draft Protocol on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the draft Protocol on Specific Aspects of the Right to Nationality in Africa.
4. What is the state of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa?
Although the situation of freedom of expression and access to information in Africa is steadily improving in that there is an increase in the number of countries with Access to Information laws and a decrease in the number of murders of journalists, challenges remain. Very few countries have decriminalized laws that limit freedom of expression such as criminal defamation, insult laws, publication of false news and continue to use these laws to prosecute and harass journalists. The jamming of internet signals and the blocking of social media in the run up to and during elections and demonstrations in the name of protection of national security is a worrying and increasing trend on the continent.
5. Do you think civil society has engaged the ACHPR and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information adequately?
I believe so. The ACHPR in general and the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa in particular would not have achieved what it has without the support of and engagement with civil society organizations. For example, CSO's have provided technical and other support to the Commission and its Special Mechanism in drafting standard setting documents such as the Model law on Access to Information in Africa, Principles and Guidelines on Human and Peoples Rights while Countering Terrorism in Africa, General Comment No. 2 on Article 14 .1 (a), (b) and (f) and Article 14.2 (a) i (c) of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa to mention a few.
6. What message to you have for Africans on this human rights day?
One of the paragraphs in the Preamble of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights recognizes freedom, equality, justice and dignity as essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples. We should always draw inspiration from these powerful words in our quest to improve the situation of human rights on our beloved continent.
To read this in Portugese, click here.
In this anonymous interview, CIVICUS speaks to a civil society activist in Mozambique concerning the environment for civil society and human rights defenders in the country. There is growing concern that killings and acts of intimidation against critical voices often go unpunished.
CIVICUS speaks to Asep Komarudin (pictured) of Legal Aid Institute for the Press concerning the cyber bullying amendment that was recently made to the Electronic Information and Transactions Bill. Human rights activists have complained that the amendment is being used to target them. Asep Komarudin also speaks of the impact of the law on LGBTI activists in the country.
Q: Please detail briefly the Electronic Information and Transactions cyber-bullying amendment
In 2008 the Indonesian government enacted a law related to the use of information technology, the Information and Electronic Transactions Act. The writing of this law began in 2003. In the process of formulation, two drafts were generated, namely the Utilization of Information Technology Bill and the Electronic Information and Electronic Transaction Bill. The purpose of the Bill was to respond to the development of information technology, which has implications in particular to the dimensions of the economy and trade, both nationally and globally. From March 2003, the Ministry of Communications and Information began designing the Information and Electronic Transactions Bill which was a broad spectrum law to regulate cyberspace in Indonesia. This Bill regulates the legality of electronic documents and signatures, the institutionalisation of electronic systems and the implementation of electronic certification, electronic transactions, domain names, intellectual property rights, and protection of the right to privacy among other issues.
Unfortunately, once it was enacted, this legislation caused much controversy. Problems with the Act include lack of recognition and protection of information, documents, signatures and electronic transactions, and a failure to deal with criminal threats online. There have also been problems raised in relation to Internet content and the threat to punish by defamation, the spread of hatred using the internet. The way provisions of the law have been set out is such that they are open to multiple interpretations and have serious implications in political and social life in Indonesia. There are also problems with the provision of cyber bullying in this law.
Q: What do you believe are the state’s real motivations in introducing the amendment?
At first our organisation, LBH Pers, and some other institutions filed a request for a judicial review to the Constitutional Court in 2009 after the Act was passed because parts of the law are problematic and would criminalise citizens on the Internet who criticise the government. This is especially the case with social media. Article 27 paragraph 3 of the law says insult and defamation on the Internet can result in an imprisonment of up to six years.
However, the judicial review application was rejected by the Constitutional Court which considered that article to be necessary because, the Internet distributes information very rapidly and is different to defaming someone offline. Then LBH Pers and other institutions continued to campaign on the dangers of the article arguing that it is in need of revision. There has been an increase in the number of ordinary people, activists and bloggers being prosecuted under the aforementioned article. Until now, more than 200 people have been charged and 90% of those laying charges are public officials or other people with power.
Later, the government agreed to revise the provision and lowered the possible sentence from six to four years but has refused to delete that article entirely. In early 2015, the government put a draft revision of the law to parliament with not too many substantive changes and these were ratified on October 27, 2016. It however also added several chapters that previously did not exist in the preliminary draft. We reject the draft revision proposed by the government as it does not answer the problems we raised and we also criticise the discussion process in parliament because it was not an open process and was very difficult to monitor.
Q: Can you explain what is of concern to civil society in the new cyber-bullying amendment
Cyber bullying as stipulated in Article 29 paragraph (4) is not well spelt out or defined. This has led to the misinterpretation and arbitrary use of “cyber-bullying” as a crime. Because there is no standard definition of cyber-bullying, even of bullying alone in other legal instruments, then the formula that is used to define cyber-bullying is flexible and results in a lot of interpretations leading to it becoming a “multipurpose Act” to suit any situation.
In such conditions, this criminal offence of cyber-bullying is prone to be misused by the enforcement authorities. This has opened a gap for the suppression of freedom of expression in cyberspace in Indonesia.
Q: Has there been any collaboration between civil society and the private sector concerning the cyber bullying amendment
Currently, there has been no collaboration between civil society and the private sector on cyber-bullying because this provision is entirely new. For now we can see that the bullying provision is not being used to protect children and teenage internet users or the general public but is only used to target civil society groups.
Q: What are the limitations in general that hinder Freedom of Expression in Indonesia?
In the context of internet regulation in Indonesia, the amendment law makes main reference to the regulation of internet content, although it must be admitted the regulation is still very limited. Content that is prohibited by the provisions of the law includes content believed to violate decency; content containing gambling; content containing insult and / or defamation; content that contains elements of extortion and / or constitutes threats and; content that spreads false news, causing loss of customers. Pornographic products are also prohibited on the basis of preserving public morals, public order, public security and the rights and reputations of others.
In general, the government can restrict content on the internet with a view to protecting the public interest and barring information deemed to disturb public order. However, there is no clarity on how rules will be enforced concerning such restrictions. We also found there is no discussion about the implications of restrictions in pertaining to the limitation of human rights. In addition, there is another problem of too broad a definition of what constitutes pornography, so it is an open space for the violation of the right to freedom of expression.
LBH Pers therefore holds that the amendment is a potential threat to freedom of expression. The criminal provisions of the law can be multi-interpreted and easily misused. Reducing the sentence for these, as done by the amendment, will not resolve the root of the problem.
The procedure to block the access to internet content is so easy and basic and may result in excessive abuse and misuse by the government.
The provision on the right to be forgotten on the internet, although welcome, also causes a problem in that government officials may want to censor and block out old news of their misdeeds of their past for political expediency.
Q: Lately there has been an increased attack on LGBTI activists and rights. What is the effect of this law amendment for LGBTI activists?
There are many problems posed by the amendment to the law including restrictions on human rights, particularly the criminal insult and defamation provisions.
There is also a problem concerning supervision of Internet content which has also has resulted in the blocking and filtering of certain webistes being done arbitrarily. There is no regulation on the procedure to be followed regarding blocking and filtering internet content. So we see a violation on the right to information, freedom of opinion and expression. Blocking is mainly supposed to be directed against the sites that are considered to have pornographic elements of content. However, in practice, some sites of organisations that fight for the rights of LGBTI persons, whose service was not intended to provide pornographic content, are getting caught up in this. Abuse of power is wide open when it comes to blocking and filtering internet content due to the absence of strict rules that guarantee and ensure transparency and accountability in the process.
Blocking and filtering was experienced by the site of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC.org), in February 2012. At least three service providers Indosat, Telkomsel and Lintas Arta are blocking such sites. In response to these actions, the human rights organisation in Indonesia sent a letter formally objecting to this practise. This letter was followed by unblocking by the three operators. A similar case was experienced by the site of the organisation fighting for the rights of LGBTI people, Our Voice, in April 2013. Our Voice (ourvoice.or.id) is blocked by one internet service provider in Indonesia (XL), so they are not accessible to the public. In addition to XL, other providers such as Indosat, 3, Axis and Smartfren are also suspected of participating in the blocking of the site. It is most likely that the blocking of websites that fight for LGBTI sexual rights in Indonesia is closely related to the use of words in block letters, such as “gay” or “lesbian”, which in Indonesia tend to be defined as deviant sexual behaviour.
Indonesia is listed in the 'obstructed' category of the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS spoke to a civil society leader based in Juba, South Sudan about why the government threatened and prevented human rights defenders from travelling to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva for reviews on South Sudan and the general state of human rights and media freedoms in the country five years after the country became independent. The activist requested to remain anonymous for security purposes.
1. How and why did the authorities prevent human rights defenders from travelling to the UNHRC to participate in pre-Universal Periodic Review sessions?
The actions of government against civil society activists and human rights defenders have forced many to leave the country and abandon their participation in the UPR-pre sessions. After testifying in a meeting organised by the visiting United Nations Security Council delegation in Juba, the national security agents blacklisted all those who spoke about the human right situation in the country including those that called for justice and the need to expedite the establishment of a Hybrid Court for South Sudan. One activist was killed the next morning; others were being sought after while those who were fortunate managed to escape to neighboring countries. Just as the government tries to deny the flow of information on South Sudan they are quite aware that the pre-session would provide a platform to expose the unabated human right situation and probably demand for international intervention. Members of civil society whose invitations were leaked to the security agents received anonymous calls threatening to deny them return to South Sudan if they dare attended the UPR-pre session. Phone tapping of human rights defenders including accusing certain civil society organisation leaders of being collaborators with rebel groups is being commonly used to undermine the work of civil society.
Vice-President of the Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR), Penelope Faulkner, speaks to CIVICUS about the current challenges faced by civil society in Vietnam and the role of international solidarity networks in supporting the creation of a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders.