asia

 

  • MYANMAR: ‘The government needs to open the doors’

    CIVICUS speaks with Nay Lin Tun, a doctor and civil society humanitarian worker in Myanmar, about conflict in Rakhine State, the difficulties faced by minorities in the region, and civil society’s work to provide help.

    nay lin tun

    Can you tell us about your background and the work you’re doing in Rakhine State?

    I’m a doctor working in public health, particularly focusing on primary healthcare, reproductive and women’s health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I was part of a group who founded a civil society organisation, the Center for Social Integrity, which supports communities in conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine State. We’re trying to support people based on their needs, including their needs to food, shelter and livelihoods. Right now in Rakhine State we are providing basic humanitarian support, education, healthcare, livelihoods and water and sanitation services for people in the conflict areas. Because of my experience I focus on providing healthcare and humanitarian support.

    At the moment there is fighting in the north and east of Rakhine State between the Myanmar Army and the insurgent Arakan Army. According to the United Nations there are around 35,000 newly displaced people because of the fighting in 2019, living in camps in Rakhine State. We are supporting these communities and other conflict-affected communities in the area.

    What are some of the challenges minority groups face in Rakhine State?

    In my country there are 135 recognised ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, who are the main group across most of Myanmar. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of small groups, often in the regions close to borders, who are becoming less and less recognised by the government. Different groups face different challenges. In Rakhine State there are religious, ethnic and social minorities, and they all face human rights challenges.

    The Rohingya community, who are Muslims, have been subjected to a lot of abuses. They are denied citizenship and treated as stateless persons. They are not recognised as an ethnic group by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are called Bengalis by many in the dominant population groups, because they see them as belonging to Bangladesh. They have their movement restricted and struggle to access education and healthcare.

    Local hospitals are inadequate, so if there is a medical emergency people have to travel to a major city. Before 2017 they could go to the Bangladesh side of the border on a short-term pass and get hospital treatment, but now the border area is closed and they cannot do this. But because they don’t have citizenship and their movement is restricted, it is also hard to go to the big hospitals in Sitwe, the main city in Rakhine State. People can pay for this with their lives. If there is an emergency, the only way people can negotiate to get treatment is to pay a bribe. This happened to someone I was trying to treat for a tumour.

    In another case, a pregnant woman had severe labour pains in the middle of the night. They tried to take her to hospital, but there is a curfew, introduced in 2017 and in force ever since. No one can go out between 11pm and 5am. There are many police checkpoints in the area, and while other villages were okay, in this case they would not allow this pregnant woman to pass. She had to go home. By the time she could go to hospital the next day, the child was already dead. Luckily, the mother survived.

    Rohingya people are also denied education. The highest education most people can get is at high school. They cannot join a university as a full-time student. They can only do distance learning for a few subjects. They also struggle to find work. Most Rohingya people work in farming, fishing and cutting timber, but right now they are not allowed to fish or go into forests to chop wood. Most of the farming lands are occupied by the military. Most people are now involved in daily casual work. So everyday life is very challenging.

    The Rohingya are not the only minority in the region who face difficulties. Local ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Dynat and Mu, who live on the mountains, face challenges, even though their religion is Buddhist. Because they live in remote locations, they cannot access healthcare and education. They have no life opportunities.

    What was your experience of the violence that occurred in 2017?

    What I saw was people living in fear. I saw communities that were afraid of each other: Rohingya people and Rakhine people, the majority group within the state, were afraid of each other. I worked on medical clinics in northern Rakhine State and hired a taxi to transport medicines. My driver, who was from the Rakhine group, did not want to take me to the area. You had people unable to go to the other communities because they did not think they would come back.

    What role do you think hate speech and extremist views played in stoking conflict?

    Most of the hate speech and extremist protest and provocations came from extreme groups in the big cities, and was spread by social media, whereas in rural communities it was more that you had villages of different ethnic groups that were afraid of each other. There was a lot of misinformation spread through social media, and this was viral. No one could know what was true or not. Positive stories and true information were far less viral than hate speech and misinformation.

    In the major cities, hate speech and misinformation turned a social conflict into a religious conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Extremist Buddhist monks turned this into a bigger conflict. Extremist groups spread disinformation and encouraged extremism, with the unofficial support of the military and political parties, in their own interests. People played political games in the big cities, but they had no connection to the villages in the conflict area. Those people were the most affected and they were living in fear, and live in fear now. There is a big challenge in controlling hate speech and misinformation on social media.

    It is much harder for civil society voices promoting social cohesion and religious harmony to be heard compared to hate speech, but civil society is trying to do this. These are messages my organisation is trying to promote very strongly in the conflict areas. But there is a need for more impact, and more efforts, not just from civil society but from the government. There is a need for much more activity that strengthens communities.

    What support is needed, including from the international community, to improve the lives of minorities and people affected by conflict?

    There is a lot of willingness from the international community to support people in Rakhine State, and not only Rohingya people but also other minorities. But the most challenging thing at the moment is that national government and local authorities are limiting them from doing so, and have been doing since 2017. So there is a lack of ability to really go into the villages and directly help people.

    The international community needs to engage with the national government and local authorities so that they are willing to work with them and listen to the voices of local communities and support them in the areas affected by conflict. They need to build relationships with the government, and the government needs to work with the international community. The government needs to open the doors.

    It is all about access – access to healthcare, access to education, access to livelihoods. Right now access is blocked. Even access to the internet was blocked by the government, between June and September. People don’t have access to the means to share their voices. People are also scared of speaking out because of restrictive media laws. They fear they will get into trouble. This is why I try to share their stories. So, access is the big challenge. We need more access by the community for the community. This is why the government needs to open the doors for international and local civil society.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch withCenter for Social Integrity through its website andFacebook pages, and on Twitter@cfor_integrity.

     

  • REFUGEE RIGHTS: ‘It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger’

    CIVICUS speaks to Evan Jones of theAsia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) about the challenges that refugees face in Asia and civil society’s work to help realise refugee rights.

     

    Evan Jones

    Can you tell us about your network and what it does?

    APRRN is a civil society network with around 400 members across Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Iran to South Korea and Taiwan and down to New Zealand. We’ve existed for 10 years and our main aim is to advance refugee rights in Asia and the Pacific. We push for legislative and policy change in the region to help refugees have sustainable lives and access to the same rights as everyone else. Our key purpose is advocacy, and underneath this there are three pillars of work: first, capacity strengthening for our members, through training and courses in areas such as refugee law, advocacy, working with the media and gender; second, information sharing across borders about best practices, contacts, resources, skills and communication ideas: if there’s a good development that’s happened in one country, we’ll try to connect civil society organisations (CSOs) in other countries to share lessons learned and possible ideas to adapt; and third, advocacy on the national, regional and international levels.

    In recent years we’ve been working on building refugee self-representation and putting refugee voices front and centre of everything we do. A refugee, someone with lived experience, is the chair of our entire network and the chairs or deputy chairs of many of our working groups are either still in refugee situations or have been earlier in their lives. Throughout our advocacy, we make sure that refugees are present in everything we do.

    What are the key current movements of people in the region, and what are the main reasons that drive people to become refugees?

    We have movements of refugees both from outside the region into the region, and also within the region. Specific refugee populations vary from country to country and also in size. In Malaysia, for example, there are about 180,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, a number of whom have arrived after the 2017 exodus. Others have been there for decades, eking out an existence, often on the fringes of society. In Thailand, there are a significant number of Pakistani refugees from religious minorities, along with groups of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam. In South Korea, there are refugees from Yemen. There are many populations in almost every country across the region.

    There are a number of reasons why people are forced to flee their homes, ending up as refugees in Asia. One is religious persecution. This has been clearly evident with the decades-long persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, alongside persecution of Christian minorities such as the Chin. The Ahmadi Christian minority of Pakistan are another example of a population that has been subject to ongoing religious persecution.

    Aside from refugees fleeing religious persecution, many individuals are also fleeing persecution due to their race, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Because often ethnic minorities are targeted, we see a sizable amount of people fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. Other groups include those fleeing generalised violence and civil war, for example in Syria and Yemen, LGBTQI community members fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual identity and individuals fleeing despotic regimes such as North Korea’s.

    Refugees often find themselves in Asia for a number of reasons. For some, capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were the only places they could afford to travel to at short notice and with relatively easy visa requirements. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, people from most countries can get a visa on arrival. Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis can still get a visa on arrival in Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries around the world where they can do so. Many people came to these hubs thinking they would only be transit points, intending to claim asylum in Australia, Canada, or elsewhere, and then got stuck in these countries because they weren’t able to travel further.

    What are the key challenges refugees face?

    There are generally no local protections. There are usually no safeguards from detention, no capacity to work and no access to education and healthcare. Refugees struggle to attain almost all their human rights. This situation is common in most countries in both South and South East Asia.

    One of the biggest challenges, in Asia as well as globally, is the lack of durable solutions for refugees. Many have been and are expected to be here for years or even decades. With record numbers of refugees, no longer is it the norm nor can it be expected that refugees will be resettled in months or even years. Now, many have no real prospects of resettlement, with the number of resettlement spots globally having dropped so significantly. Under one per cent of all refugees in the world will ever get resettled, and the situation is even worse in Asia.

    Particularly in South East Asia, detention is a key concern and a continued focus of our advocacy. Instead of detention being used as an option of last resort it is quite often the norm. In Thailand for example, UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) cardholders are subject to arrest and detention if they are unable to produce a valid passport or visa. The detention centre is, in essence, a jail, where refugees are often held indefinitely until they either return home – which is not really a possibility – or get resettled, which is also unlikely for many people.

    Access to a legal right to stay is extremely difficult for people with a passport from refugee-producing countries. It’s hard to maintain or extend a visa in many countries around the region. If you’re from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, for example, often one of the restrictions to maintain a visa is that you’re expected to go home and then come back, which obviously isn’t an option for refugees. In some countries like India, we are seeing a worrying rise in racism and xenophobia, where refugees from some Muslim countries are being requested to ‘return immediately’ and told that they ‘are no longer welcome’.

    A further worrying trend that we are seeing is the use of extradition. States both within and outside the region are using extradition as a tool to have refugees forcibly return to countries from which they’ve fled. Sadly, we are quite often seeing states where refugees have sought protection going ahead with these extraditions. In essence, we see them buckling to the weight or political interests of neighbouring governments.

    One such example that made world headlines was the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem is a Bahraini refugee who lives in Australia and was held in a Thai prison for three months, from November 2018 to February 2019, pending extradition back to Bahrain, after going to Thailand on his honeymoon. There was also the case of Sam Sokha, the Cambodian political activist, who was famous for throwing her shoe at a billboard of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an act that was filmed and widely shared on the internet. She was arrested in Thailand in January 2018 and held in the immigration detention centre even though she had a UNHCR card recognising her as a refugee. The Thai government allowed an extradition request to be processed and sent her back to Cambodia, where she’s currently serving a prison sentence. Another case is Praphan Pipithnampron, an activist from Thailand who fled to Malaysia, claimed refugee status and was then extradited back to Thailand with the agreement of the Malaysian government. These examples show a clear and fundamental breach of the principles of refugee protection. Even with UNHCR status, the lack of legal protection leaves refugees in precarious situations across the region.

    Access to work is another major challenge. There are generally no special provisions for refugees to access work unless they happen to have come on a business visa with work rights and have maintained their visa. The lack of labour rights for refugees impacts on all other rights, including their ability to obtain food and shelter, access education and pay for healthcare. Interestingly, there have been a few small positive steps towards addressing this. A few years ago, the Malaysian government instigated a pilot project on work rights for Rohingya refugees, for a very limited number of 300 people. Whilst the initiative was a failure, the fact that the government even initiated such a program indicated a notable shift towards recognition of work rights. It shows that work rights are now on the agenda.

    Access to education differs country by country, but broadly speaking, it’s very problematic across the region. In Malaysia, there’s no capacity for refugees to access primary education. Malaysia has a reservation against the Convention on the Rights of the Child that means refugee children aren’t able to access state schooling. In Thailand, despite there being a progressive ‘education for all’ policy, practically it’s still quite difficult for refugee children to be able to attend school. This is because of the costs, the requirement to have basic Thai language skills and concerns about xenophobia and racism. Schools may not want to receive children who don’t have the relevant immigration papers or who look or sound too different.

    Across the region more broadly, there is also a hidden but major concern regarding a lack of access to tertiary education. From the perspective of states, and even many CSOs and service providers, tertiary education is seen as something that far surpasses basic needs. However, without this access, there remains a large refugee population who are simply left to linger in a state of under-productivity. They are not only unable to work, but they also cannot improve the skills and expertise that would help them grow personally and professionally if they were resettled or even decided to return home. This is starting to change just a little, and there are some positives here. For example, Japan has opened up 20 scholarship spaces for Syrian refugees, and some universities in Malaysia have also begun to offer dedicated spaces and scholarships.

    Healthcare is also problematic. Often refugees have to pay upfront for healthcare before they can be reimbursed by CSOs or the UNHCR. Refugees often fear that if they go to hospitals when they lack the correct documentation they may even be referred to immigration authorities.

    What are the challenges refugees face from anti-rights groups and majority populations?

    There were three pronounced examples over the past year of majority religious groups mobilising against minorities in the region. In South Korea in June 2018, 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island. Almost immediately there was a huge outcry from the public, church groups – particularly conservative Christian groups – and the media. This fanned what was partly an anti-refugee sentiment but was more strongly an anti-Muslim sentiment that swept through the country and became conflated with refugee issues. It connected to the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric that was coming out of Europe, and showed how these two have become intertwined. Within weeks of the story hitting the headlines a petition with more than a million signatures was sent to the president’s office requesting that South Korea pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thankfully the government didn’t go down this track but there have been high-level talks about how potentially South Korea could modify its domestic legislation for refugees and wind back some of its protection for refugees.

    In Sri Lanka, the 2019 Easter Bombings in Colombo gave rise to an immediate anti-Muslim public sentiment, which affected the refugee population in Sri Lanka, which is significantly an Afghan and Ahmadi Pakistani population. Several hundred fled from Colombo to the city of Negombo and went into hiding. Some stayed in a police station for several weeks of their own volition for protection and others were supported by CSOs. UNHCR was so concerned it sent additional staff to try to expedite cases and look at emergency resettlement out of Sri Lanka because of the fear of retribution and abuses against Muslim refugees.

    The third example was what we saw in Myanmar with the Rohingya. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment have permeated through Myanmar society. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and viewed as associated with terrorism. This resulted in what many are calling a genocide.

    Given these challenges, how is civil society in the region trying to respond, and what have the successes and challenges been?

    Negative stories dominate the discourse, and we try to counter this by placing refugees’ voices front and centre. This is something that is being supported quite strongly within the region, from Australia and New Zealand, but also now from within South East Asia. Civil society groups are realising that it is refugee voices that are the most impactful, and civil society is trying to amplify these voices to show the agency and contribution of refugees. In Malaysia, for example, there is now a completely self-organised group, the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, where Afghani, Eritrean, Rohingya, Somali and Sri Lankan refugees are all coming together by themselves, putting forward their messages. They are offering training and they have learning centres. This is a really positive development. CSOs are trying to facilitate and support these developments.

    There’s also awareness-raising with the public, and with local host communities, the media and government. The media are stakeholders with potential for huge good but also huge harm, depending on their messaging. Many CSOs are trying to engage better with the media, including through media training. Misinformation is a major issue in some countries, such as in Myanmar, where both before and after the upsurge in violence there was a lot of anti-Rohingya messaging. However, in other countries, such as Thailand, refugee stories are rarely covered by local media.

    Over the past few years, there has also been a definite shift towards building connections with parliamentarians across the region. There has been a lot of work in trying to find champions within governments and trying to get them to work for refugees within governments and across borders. One organisation we work with quite closely that has done excellent work on several issues, including refugees, is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights. They have a network of members of parliament in each country where they share information and strategies and use their status as elected officeholders to try to support rights.

    As well as positive shifts on labour rights and education in Malaysia, the government there is also looking at possible ratification of the Refugee Convention. Another positive move in Malaysia which shouldn’t be underestimated is that the government is speaking more openly about the issue, and in many cases speaking the right language. Five years ago you would not have seen the Malaysian government speaking out bilaterally or within ASEAN about the atrocities in Myanmar. Now the government is quite strong in calling attention to the situation in Myanmar and has also spoken out about other vulnerable populations, such as the Uighurs in China. They seem to be heading in the right direction.

    Another positive development has come in Thailand. Despite the fact that there is still immigration detention, in January 2019 the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to release mothers and children from the immigration detention centre to live in the community. This might seem a small win, but it was a practice that went on for so long. It was a change largely driven by civil society advocacy.

    Elsewhere there are regressions, as with the anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. There are still a million-plus Rohingya sitting in camps in Bangladesh and there’s the growing prominence of the Uighur detention camps in China. There have been other headline stories this year, such as that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi Arabian woman who was fleeing from Kuwait to Australia and was stuck in a hotel within Bangkok airport. So even when we see governments in the region appearing to move in the right direction, all of a sudden they do something that takes them back again, such as threatening to return refugees for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations. But we can have some cautious optimism that things are progressing in the right direction.

    What more could be done to support refugees and the civil society that supports them in the region?

    While the Refugee Convention is still incredibly important, this is no longer the pinnacle and the sole focus of our advocacy. We have states that have signed it that completely ignore it. So now we’re looking for tangible legal and policy changes on the ground.

    International civil society can help by keeping things on the agenda. Asia as a region is quite often forgotten and underrepresented globally. The huge refugee movements and protracted situations in Asia are often completely overlooked. A million Afghanis have been in Iran for 40 years with several million more in Pakistan. There are 100,000 Myanmar refugees on the Thai border along with the million-plus Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Compare this to headlines about migration in Europe and the USA and you’ll soon realise that our perception of refugee crises is skewed. There are these massive populations that don’t make the same global media impact and don’t get the attention they deserve. Keeping things on the agenda is really important.

    Cohesive messaging and cohesive action are also important. We all need to be able to work together to share resources and best practices, understand what is happening in other regions and learn the lessons that can be applied. I think in civil society we tend to look at the same things again and again: we look at national governments, the United Nations, we talk to ourselves a lot, but I think there are under-utilised mechanisms, such as ASEAN, the European Parliament and the private sector. I think in sensitive situations, such as with the Uighurs, the European Parliament could be lobbied to put pressure on ASEAN, which could then put pressure on the government of China. We need to look outside the box at how we can utilise regional platforms and also have other countries exert their influence in the region.

    People such as Abdul Aziz Muhammat, who spent years in the Australian government’s detention centre in Papua New Guinea and campaigns for refugees’ rights, should inspire us, and he should be a person we all aspire to be. He’s had such a traumatic life and so many things have gone against him, but he remains so positive and so ardent about supporting other populations. He continues to speak up for those left behind after him. To see refugees who have gone through everything and still fight for other refugees is inspiring. It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger.

    Get in touch with APRRN through theirwebsite andFacebook profile, and follow@APRRN_ on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Due to the communications blockade in Kashmir, news of protests went largely underreported’

    On 5 August 2019, the government of India revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed the autonomous status and rights of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The government also imposed a severe communications blockade that impacted on the daily lives of Kashmiri people, including by affecting access to medical care, basic necessities and emergency services. Hundreds of detentions of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been reported. CIVICUS speaks about this situation with Natasha Rather, Regional Campaign Officer for the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, linked to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation that focuses on enforced disappearances in the region, monitors the human rights situation and documents abuses.

    Natasha Rather interview

    What was the situation of civic freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir prior to the revocation of its special status under Indian administration?

    During the first half of 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (JK) witnessed continued and increased violence and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following a militant attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy on the Jammu–Srinagar highway that resulted in the killing of 48 Indian soldiers in February 2019. Following this attack, Kashmiri people living in various cities and towns of India became targets of hate crimes. Thousands of Kashmiri students were forced to flee from their colleges and universities and return back to Kashmir. People living in JK feared the attack would have dreadful consequences – which turned out to be true.

    The frequency of cordon and search operations (CASOs) and crackdowns increased in the aftermath of the attack. CASOs are a form of harassment that breach people’s right to privacy. According to a report by the APDP and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 177 CASOs were conducted by the Indian armed forced in JK, which resulted in the killing of at least 118 militants and four civilians and the destruction of at least 20 civilian properties.
    In February 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Kashmir Chapter of Jamaat-i-Islami were banned and hundreds of their leaders and workers were arrested.
    Ahead of the elections to the Indian Parliament, held in JK in April and May 2019, 100 additional companies of soldiers were deployed in Kashmir and mass arrests of political and religious leaders were carried out. During polling days there were complete shutdowns, violence and killings.

    The use of administrative detention under the provisions of repressive Public Safety Act (PSA) led to many arrests and detentions. Between January and June this year, at least 25 people were booked under the PSA.

    Internet shutdowns have also been a common practice in JK. Internet services were curtailed 51 times in the first half of the year.

    How did people in Jammu and Kashmir respond to the revocation of the state’s special status?

    Before revocation was formally announced by the Indian government, many rumours made the rounds and people guessed that something sinister was underway. Official orders by the state administration added to the apprehension. People prepared themselves for a complete lockdown, drawing from their previous experience when the Indian government imposed curfews and shut down phones and the internet.
    When revocation of the special status was announced amidst a complete blockade of communication and full restrictions on movement, people were not greatly shocked. The autonomy guaranteed to JK under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it had been greatly eroded before revocation of the special status, which downgraded JK from a state to a union territory, and there was nothing much left in it for the benefit of the people.

    There have been concerns attached to the revocation of Article 35a, which permits the local legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir to define who are permanent residents of the region. People have speculated that demographic changes might be underway, designed and strategised along the same lines as the occupation of Palestine, including the demographic changes introduced by Israel in Palestine. While there are fears of demographic changes, the majority’s response has been not to fight against revocation of the state’s special status, as this would have meant legitimising the occupation of the region. The larger struggle is for the right to self-determination.

    We have read reports of civic space restrictions, including a ban on meetings, restrictions on freedom of movement and arrests of leaders. Can you provide more information about this?

    The announcement of the revocation of JK’s special status was accompanied by widespread restrictions. There was an increased deployment of Indian armed forces at all roads and intersections across the valley, and the unyielding troops have strictly restricted the movement of people. For the first few weeks, people were not even able to reach hospitals and doctors. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings of more than four people, was imposed despite a curfew being in place since the night of 4-5 August. This prevented people from organising protest gatherings and meetings.

    According to a government report dated 6 September, more than 3,800 people had been detained since 5 August and only about 2,600 of them were subsequently released. Those detained include political leaders from both pro-India and pro-independence parties, civil society members, lawyers and protesters. Three former Chief Ministers of JK – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been detained since 5 August. On 16 September, Farooq Abdullah was detained under the PSA. Leaders and politicians like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Farooq Abdullah, Taj Mohiuddin and M Y Tarigami have been under house arrest. Hotels and government guesthouses have been turned into detention centres. Many leaders and civil society members have been lodged in jails in India.
    There has been an extensive use of the PSA to detain people, especially young people. Many young people were detained without being formally charged and were released only after the signing of community bonds. Many young people and most political leaders continue to be detained.

    Have people protested? How have the security forces responded to protests?

    Despite the severe restrictions imposed on the movement and assembly of the people, there have been many protests across the valley of Kashmir, with people taking to the streets and shouting slogans demanding freedom from the Indian state. The Indian media has claimed that there were negligible protests against the abrogation of Article 370, making it seem like there is normality and acceptance of the Indian state’s decisions. Since the local media has not been able to report on these protests, stories from them have not come to the fore. There were many protests in Kashmir valley, but due to the communication blockade and restrictions on the movement of journalists and media, news of protests from other districts went largely underreported.

    Protesters have been met with excessive force by the Indian armed forces. For instance, on 9 August, several people were injured during protests in the Soura area of Srinagar. A doctor confirmed that at least 53 young people were treated for injuries at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. Reports also emerged that five people have been killed in separate incidents as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the policing of protests since the start of the clampdown.

    How has the internet shutdown affected the work of activists and journalists?

    The communication clampdown has greatly affected the work of journalists and activists. Owing to the shutdown of internet services and curbs on the movement of journalists, it has been a huge challenge for journalists to collect and file stories. The administration set up a Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar where journalists are allowed to access the internet and email their stories. No such facilities are available in other districts of Kashmir. Newspapers in Kashmir have been publishing with a reduced number of pages. Journalists have been forced to rely just on state-issued press briefs once or twice a week, without any means to verify the stories. There has been news of journalists facing reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing situation.

    Also, since 5 August, civil society in JK has been under threat and dealing with a very precarious situation, as many civil society members have been detained and jailed under the PSA. In this way the Indian state has put pressure on Kashmiri civil society to remain silent about the current situation, and therefore their space is completely choked. There is a lot of resistance and criticism of the communications clampdown that is preventing civil society from carrying out its work.

    In this context, the support required from the international community is that they should increase their understanding of the Kashmir conflict and talking about it so as to prevent this human rights crisis from worsening.


    Civic space in India is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow @natasha_rather on Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘Governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    cristina palabay pictureCIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of theKarapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatanhas 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.

    What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.

    Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.

    The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.

    What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?

    Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.

    First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.

    Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.

    Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.

    All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.

    What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?

    We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.

    When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.

    When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.

    When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.

    When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.

    Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Karapatan through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@karapatan and@TinayPalabay on Twitter

     

  • Afghanistan: Joint call for immediate end to attacks against HRDs & need for protection & accountability

    Afghanistan Statement on Security of HRDs May2021

    The threats, harassment, intimidation, and attacks against human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and media workers in Afghanistan must end – the undersigned international human rights organisations said.  

    From September 2020 until May 2021, a total of 17 human rights defenders have been killed, including nine journalists, based on information compiled by the Afghan Human Rights Defenders Committee (AHRDC). Nine of those killed were in the first five months of this year. During this period, over 200 human rights defenders and media representatives reported that they were receiving serious threats to the AHRDC and the Afghanistan Journalists Safety Committee. A report published by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in February 2021, noted that 65 media practitioners and human rights defenders have been killed since 2018. In most of these cases, no perpetrators have been held to account. These attacks are aimed at silencing peaceful dissent and those working on human rights, especially women’s rights, as well as those seeking justice and accountability for human rights violations. The timing of escalating attacks against human rights defenders, activists, and journalists appears to be linked to the ongoing peace process between the Government of Afghanistan, the United States, and the Taliban.

    It is vital to uphold and prioritize freedom of expression during this critical time in Afghanistan and for its future. The progress made on creating safe space for human rights defenders especially women human rights defenders and journalists is at stake with the United States and NATO forces’ full withdrawal announcement from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021. The attack targeting school children in Kabul on 8 May, is a devastating reminder of escalating violence against civilians, especially against women and girls. The international community, as stakeholders of the current political processes, including the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, and NATO member States, should under international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law, protect the rights of all, especially those being targeted such as human rights defenders and civil society activists. However, with the announcement of unconditional withdrawal and no progress on the peace process, the promotion and protection of the rights of human rights defenders and journalists do not seem to be a priority.   

    The lack of respect for International Humanitarian Law and the absence of accountability for attacks against human rights defenders and activists, have only increased the danger to defenders and emboldened perpetrators. Afghan authorities and the international community must call on all parties to stop using civilian targets for military gains and safeguard the progress in human rights made over the last two decades and ensure that they are not scaled back as a result of the ongoing negotiations. 

    Civil society members, women human rights defenders, and journalists are systematically threatened and attacked for the work they carry out. Those working outside the capital are especially exposed to serious threats due to the lack of support available in Kabul and through some international networks and embassies. Many of these defenders have had to relocate within Afghanistan and, in some cases, even temporarily leave the country with their families for safety concerns. Defenders fear publicly denouncing attacks they are subjected to due to concerns over the security and sustainability of their work. This demonstrates the immense pressure under which Afghan defenders, activists, and journalists are forced to live and work. 

    State mechanisms for the protection of defenders including the recently appointed Joint Commission for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders have yet to be operationalized. The government has failed to adequately respond to complaints of threats and early warning signals of attacks against human rights defenders and journalists. Defenders are faced with the impossible choice of balancing their commitment to work in their country with threats against themselves and their families.  We call on the Government of Afghanistan to take greater responsibility to ensure the safety and security of defenders, activists, and journalists, and to end impunity for the attacks against them. 

    Women human rights defenders, journalists, and minority groups in Afghanistan have been among the worst affected.  Many women defenders have been compelled to relocate internally or outside the country, stop their work, or stay at home. Attacks on women defenders have included harassment of family members and colleagues. Women who have campaigned for years for equal rights, and equal participation in public spaces, including the peace process, have found themselves under attack in reprisals against them for their work.  

    The Government of Afghanistan and international stakeholders and facilitators in the ongoing peace process must take responsibility through their conduct and engagement in the country to stop the increase in violent attacks against human rights defenders.  Rights groups and the United Nations have consistently called for the effective participation of civil society representatives, especially women human rights defenders, in the peace process given its huge impact on security on the ground. Despite this, and even though rights groups and women defenders have worked continuously to engage with the peace process, the Moscow summit in March 2021 did not see effective representation of women.  A peace process, or negotiation, that fails to include women representatives adequately and effectively, and in parallel engages with the Taliban without benchmarks on human rights, undermines women’s safety and progress made on human rights over the past years. Much more must be done to ensure that the peace process takes into account the threats, harassment, intimidation, and attacks occurring in the country and to ensure that it does not exacerbate people’s suffering.  

    The crisis unfolding in the country requires a strong commitment to direct engagement and support for Afghan defenders to work and live in safety and dignity. It requires the international community to proactively support those defenders who have worked to promote and protect human rights, at great personal cost. As human rights organizations focusing on the protection of human rights defenders, we call for an effective protection mechanism for human rights defenders in Afghanistan.  We, therefore, call on the Government of Afghanistan and relevant international actors to take the following measures: 

    • The newly established government-led Joint Commission must deliver on its objectives to provide effective protection to human rights defenders at risk. We call for access to information on the measures that the Joint Commission has taken so far to provide immediate protection to defenders, investigate the threats against them, and bring suspected perpetrators to justice. 
    • Ensure that human rights standards and the protection of human rights defenders are articulated as key benchmarks for any sustainable peace process. The Taliban and others targetting civilians and human rights defenders must immediately halt violence and prioritize intra-Afghan peace talks as a way to ensure sustainable peace. 
    • Offer human rights defenders immediate practical support on the ground at all levels, including through diplomatic and political channels. 
    • Actively ensure justice and redress for violence and threats against defenders especially by local authorities and law enforcement to ensure prompt responses to security threats. 
    • Establish a national monitoring mechanism, and an impartial and independent mechanism internationally to investigate the killings of human rights defenders, journalists, clarifying the circumstances in which the defenders were killed, expeditiously bringing those responsible to justice. 
    • Collaborate with human rights defenders and civil society organisations for designing and implementing robust protection policies with a gender perspective and an intersectional approach.
    • Ensure effective representation of human rights defenders, especially women, in any peace process that has a bearing on their security, including but not limited to the peace process. Participation must include guarantees of safety and effective and equitable representation of views. 

    Signatory Organisations: 

    1. Amnesty International 
    2. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    3. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    4. FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    5. World Organisation Against Torture 
    6. (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    7. Front Line Defenders
    8. South Asians for Human Rights 
    9. Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights – Asia & Pacific
    10. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

    For further information, please contact: 

    • Front Line Defenders: Adam Shapiro, Head of Communications & Visibility – - +1-202-294-8813
    • South Asians for Human Rights: Anushaya Collure, Programme Coordinator – +94)-11-2695910
    • Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) - .
    • Amnesty International: Samira Hamidi, Regional Campaigner,
    • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation: Josef Benedict, Asia Pacific Researcher -
    • FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders: Juliette Rousselot, +33 (0)6 81 72 10 73,
    • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) - Iolanda Jaquemet, Director of Communications - - +41 79 539 4106
    • Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights – Asia & Pacific -
    • Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom: Tessa Cerisier <>;

     

  • Alert: Bangladesh’s restrictive NGO law undermines development efforts, should be reviewed

    Bangladesh’s new Foreign Donations law is in breach of international norms and agreements, says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.  CIVICUS remains deeply alarmed that the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act which was enacted last month will have serious negative consequences for Bangladeshi civil society and prevent them from undertaking their essential and legitimate work.

    “Worryingly, the law endows the government officials with broad powers to sanction civil society groups which are critical of the state or its policies and imposes arbitrary restrictions on access to vital funding to engage in sustainable development activities,” said Tor Hodenfield, Policy & Advocacy Officer from CIVICUS. “We urge the government to undertake a review of the law’s restrictive provisions in light of constitutional and international commitments and in the interests of the people of Bangladesh whom the country’s vibrant civil society serves.”

    Bangladesh is party to several international agreements, including the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation which obliges states to create an enabling environment for civil society organisations to maximise their contribution to development, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals framework which promises effective and meaningful civil society partnerships and protection of fundamental freedoms.

    Under the new law, foreign-funded NGOs which make ‘inimical’ and ‘derogatory’ remarks against the constitution and constitutional bodies, including the President, Prime Minister, Parliament, and the Supreme Court, can be subjected to criminal and administrative sanctions. Specifically, the law stipulates that the authorities may unilaterally deregister, withhold the registration or ban the activities of an NGO if it makes such comments. These provisions breach fundamental freedoms of expression and association and preclude civil society groups from publically scrutinising state policies and practices.

    In addition, the law places unwarranted and targeted controls on NGOs which receive funding from foreign sources. Under the law, all foreign-funded NGOs must register with the NGO Affairs Bureau (a state institution seated within Prime Minister’s office), submit regular activity reports and secure the Bureau’s prior approval before initiating any project which will use foreign donations. The law further imposes arbitrary and onerous limitations on how NGOs can use their own resources. Without justification, the law precludes NGOs from spending more than 20% of their budget on administrative costs.

    We urge the Government of Bangladesh to initiate (i) a dialogue with Bangladeshi civil society who will be severely impacted by the law’s restrictive provisions, and (ii) undertake a review process of the law to evaluate its compatibility with Bangladesh’s constitutional and international commitments. 

    Bangladesh is listed as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

     

  • Asia home to largest number of indigenous peoples: Activists building a movement in face of attacks

    By Josef Benedict, Civic Space Research Officer

    The 9th of August, marks International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The day is commemorated in recognition of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 1982.

    Asia is home to the largest number of indigenous peoples with an estimated 260 million from the 370 million original inhabitants worldwide. Despite this significant number, equaling half of the combined population of Europe, Asian indigenous peoples face an array of challenges such as the denial of the right to self-determination, the loss of control over their land and natural resources, discrimination and marginalisation, forced assimilation and violent repression by state security forces. 

    While most of the countries in Asia had voted for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007, many refuse to respect and implement these rights. This has been made more difficult with the shrinking democratic space in many Asian countries and the rise of autocratic leaders. 

    In 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor continued to document human rights violations and state repression against indigenous peoples in the region. In the Philippines, there has been an increase of vilification against indigenous activists under the Duterte government. In March 2018, the Philippines labelled a number of local indigenous rights activists as “terrorists” for alleged links to the Communist Party. This included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, a Filipino national. 

     

  • ASIA: ‘Durante la pandemia, el racismo hacia los pueblos Indígenas se ha intensificado’

    CIVICUS conversa con Gam Shimray, Secretario General del Pacto de Pueblos Indígenas de Asia (Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact, AIPP) sobre la situación de los grupos Indígenas en Asia durante la pandemia del COVID-19. AIPP es una federación regional de movimientos de pueblos Indígenas de Asia que trabaja para promover y defender los derechos humanos de los pueblos Indígenas, incluyendo derechos territoriales y culturales. Debido a su posición de subordinación y a su distancia respecto de la cultura y la política convencionales, lospueblos Indígenas padecen graves violaciones de derechos humanos, racismo sistémico, discriminación y exclusión. Como resultado de la constante negación de sus derechos a la tierra, el territorio y los recursos naturales, muchas comunidades Indígenas se cuentan entre los grupos más vulnerables y desfavorecidos.

     Gam Shimray

    ¿Qué nos puedes contar acerca del trabajo de AIPP?

    El trabajo de AIPP se guía por nuestra creencia en los derechos humanos universales y el derecho inherente a la autodeterminación de todos los pueblos, incluidos los pueblos Indígenas. Los derechos a la autodeterminación y el autogobierno son una necesidad social para lograr una continuidad de los procesos sociales el autodesarrollo Indígena.

    Mientras que nuestro trabajo de incidencia se centra principalmente en los niveles regional y global, a través de nuestros miembros y redes establecemos conexiones con procesos a nivel país. AIPP consolida una posición común de las organizaciones Indígenas para la incidencia global y regional. Para ello, nos enfocamos en el fortalecimiento de las capacidades de las comunidades, consolidando los movimientos Indígenas y programando una agenda común para campañas y actividades de incidencia colectivas a nivel nacional.

    AIPP también trabaja en la construcción de liderazgos y promueve un liderazgo distribuido a lo largo de Asia, incluyendo a mujeres, jóvenes y personas con discapacidades.

    ¿Cuál era la situación de los pueblos Indígenas en Asia antes de la pandemia del COVID-19?

    Antes de la pandemia causada por el COVID-19 la situación política en Asia se había ido deteriorando, particularmente en los últimos años. En muchos países asiáticos hemos experimentado ataques crecientes contra la sociedad civil y la restricción del espacio democrático necesario para el debate y la formación de la opinión pública. Algunos intelectuales atribuyeron esta tendencia a la existencia de liderazgos políticos cada vez más apartados de la democracia y los derechos humanos.

    Las transiciones de regímenes autoritarios hacia la democracia que algunos países han experimentado en las últimas décadas, como Filipinas en los años ‘80, Indonesia a finales de los ‘90 y Nepal a comienzos de los 2000, no han culminado. Otros países, como China, Laos y Vietnam, tienen sistemas de partido único de jure, mientras que Camboya tiene uno de facto. En Myanmar, los militares todavía controlan el gobierno, mientras que la tradición tailandesa de gran tolerancia todavía no ha producido un Estado democrático moderno y estable. A su vez, el ascenso del populismo constituye una seria amenaza para estas democracias. En India, la democracia más grande del mundo y probablemente una de las más fuertes en la región, bajo el gobierno populista del Primer Ministro Narendra Modi estamos viendo continuos ataques contra toda institución autónoma, desde la justicia hasta el banco central y la prensa independiente.

    El resultado es que, en los últimos años, la mayoría de los defensores de las personas defensoras de derechos humanos asesinadas han sido Indígenas. Ellas han perdido sus vidas defendiendo sus derechos, hogares, tierras, territorios y recursos.

    Estos problemas también evidencian la existencia de problemas subyacentes más profundos, referidos a la insuficiente capacidad política e institucional para abordar eficientemente los desafíos que presentan la democracia y los derechos humanos en los países asiáticos. Enfrentamos cuestiones morales y políticas que requieren una evaluación seria de la erosión de los estándares y prácticas de derechos humanos y el debilitamiento de la capacidad política e institucional para responder a los desafíos sociales y políticos del presente. La experiencia de sufrimiento de las personas más pobres durante la pandemia del COVID-19 es evidencia de ello.

    ¿Qué desafíos han enfrentado los grupos y activistas Indígenas durante la pandemia?

    Los problemas y desafíos varían según las diferentes situaciones de los países. Aún así, uno de los principales desafíos se relaciona con el hecho de que la mayoría de los gobiernos de Asia impusieron cuarentenas en sus países sin mucha preparación, lo cual desencadenó el caos. La situación fue abrumadora y no pudimos responder a las necesidades de activistas, comunidades y trabajadores migrantes.

    Las personas refugiadas, trabajadoras migrantes y apátridas fueron las que más sufrieron. Las que carecían de documentos identidad tuvieron problemas para demostrar su ciudadanía, lo cual debían hacer para recibir ayuda gubernamental. La mayoría de las personas migrantes y refugiadas carecen de la documentación necesaria y también abundan los errores de registro, y quienes no figuran en el registro nacional no pueden recibir un documento de identidad.

    Durante la pandemia, el racismo hacia los pueblos Indígenas se ha intensificado. Esta situación ha sido peor en India, donde gente del noreste del país fue expulsada de sus hoteles o de las casas que alquilaban, no podían comprar comida, ir a los mercados o usar transporte público. Hubo gente que les escupió y se les detenía sin ningún tipo de explicación. Muchas de estas personas, entre ellas mujeres, fueron golpeadas sin ninguna razón, por lo que mucha gente en ciudades de toda India vive en un estado de temor permanente.

    En algunos países, los gobiernos están aprovechando la situación actual como excusa para emprender campañas militares, acaparar tierras, autorizar grandes proyectos de infraestructura, denegar derechos y debilitar regulaciones y protecciones medioambientales. Muchos activistas y miembros de las comunidades en países como Bangladesh, India, Filipinas y Myanmar fueron asesinados o encarcelados a raíz de acusaciones inventadas. La policía y las fuerzas de seguridad también han impedido que los líderes de las comunidades realizaran tareas de emergencia y ayudaran a comunidades en emergencia alimentaria.

    Estos incidentes son graves y hay muy poco que podamos hacer al respecto, ya que la gente no puede salir a protestar o hacer campaña, y apenas pueden tener acceso a la justicia. En India están permitidas las peticiones electrónicas y los tribunales siguen atendiendo los temas más urgentes mediante videoconferencia, pero muchas comunidades no están familiarizadas con procesos tan complicados y tampoco tienen acceso adecuado a internet.

    ¿Como han respondido ante esta situación AIPP y otras organizaciones de derechos Indígenas?

    Lo primero que hicimos fue comunicarnos con nuestros miembros y redes para juntar información de las bases. También les respondimos a quienes se comunicaron con nosotros en busca de ayuda y apoyo. Nuestra primera acción fue proveer o movilizar asistencia, y en particular alimentos para las personas en situación crítica en diferentes áreas, por intermedio de nuestros miembros. Nuestra ayuda también se concentró en compartir información relativa a las comunidades Indígenas. Esto ha sido necesario porque los niveles de desinformación han sido abrumadores, y han desencadenado reacciones impulsadas por el pánico. Hemos compartido con las comunidades solicitudes y llamamientos solidarios para impulsar respuestas humanitarias y difundir buenas prácticas que las comunidades pueden implementar.

    La situación es complicada porque no se trata solamente de responder a la pandemia. Las comunidades indígenas padecen de muchos problemas subyacentes. Lo mínimo que podíamos hacer era dejar constancia de nuestra protesta y llevar a cabo campañas a través de medios digitales.

    La pandemia del COVID-19 ha desenmascarado muchos problemas y nos plantea nuevos desafíos. Por lo tanto, estamos evaluando y haciendo esfuerzos para dar pasos adicionales para afrontar el impacto de la pandemia en el largo plazo. Con respecto a esto, también hemos formado una alianza regional en respuesta al COVID-19, que se encuentra en proceso de expansión. Pronto tendremos listo nuestro informe preliminar de evaluación regional, que nos va a ayudar a planificar mejor. Ya sabemos que el fortalecimiento de las capacidades de las comunidades va a ser crucial en el proceso de adaptación a lo que se ha dado en llamar “la nueva normalidad”.

    ¿Qué otros apoyos necesitarían los grupos Indígenas en este momento?

    El apoyo que las comunidades Indígenas necesitan es enorme, porque los impactos se seguirán sintiendo en el largo plazo. Pero algunas de las necesidades principales son las siguientes.

    En primer lugar, necesitamos establecer grupos locales de respuesta rápida a la pandemia con fondos asignados y con un equipo de funcionarios designados para coordinar con autoridades provinciales o estaduales y organizaciones de la sociedad civil para monitorear la situación en las comunidades Indígenas y proveerles el apoyo que necesiten. El equipo de respuesta también debe coordinar con las autoridades correspondientes para atender las necesidades especiales de las mujeres, los niños, los adultos mayores y las personas con discapacidades en las comunidades Indígenas.

    En segundo lugar, necesitamos asegurar que las autoridades locales y provinciales reciban pautas e instrucciones apropiadas en relación con las medidas que deben tomarse para que los pueblos Indígenas puedan afrontar el COVID-19 y cumplir la cuarentena.

    El tercer lugar, es crucial crear conciencia y asegurar el acceso a los servicios de salud. Por eso es importante preparar materiales informativos en formatos amigables para las comunidades, que expliquen con claridad la naturaleza de la enfermedad, las medidas de cuarentena y contención y las pruebas virales, de modo de derribar los mitos acerca del virus. Se necesita coordinación entre los trabajadores del departamento de salud y los sanadores tradicionales para garantizar que los sistemas de conocimiento Indígenas estén integrados en los mecanismos de respuesta. Se deberían fomentar estrategias de cuarentena localizadas y separadas que promuevan un ambiente natural y de participación de la comunidad. También se pueden preparar centros de atención para casos de COVID-19 manejadas por sanadores y enfermeros de las comunidades.

    En áreas remotas se deberían desplegar unidades móviles de salud que incluyan a sanadores tradicionales y trabajadores de la salud. Se debería prestar particular atención a aquellas áreas donde hay más trabajadores migrantes que han retornado a sus hogares. También se debería facilitar el acceso al testeo y proveer instalaciones para que estas personas puedan hacer la cuarentena. También se debería proveer acceso a servicios de salud en caso de emergencia, incluido el transporte. El acceso al agua para limpiar y beber es otra necesidad crítica que se debería asegurar.

    Asegurar la seguridad alimentaria, el nivel de ingresos y el sustento económico también es crucial dados los niveles de desnutrición que existen en muchas regiones Indígenas. Por lo menos en los próximos seis meses va a ser sumamente necesario distribuir en forma gratuita raciones alimenticias para todas las personas, independientemente de si tienen cédula de identidad o son clasificadas como migrantes.

    Por último, es urgente fortalecer los medios de subsistencia basados en la producción forestal no maderable (PFNM) mediante la creación de mecanismos institucionales efectivos de recolección, almacenamiento, adquisición y venta. En Asia hay una alta dependencia de la PFNM. Se debería proveer apoyo financiero y logístico a las comunidades para que puedan generar una fuente de ingreso sustentable. Las comunidades que viven en áreas protegidas deben tener acceso a los bosques por motivos de subsistencia.

    ¿Que lecciones han aprendido sobre la situación de los pueblos Indígenas durante la pandemia?

    Durante la pandemia la situación ha sido abrumadora, y las medias impuestas por los gobiernos han desencadenado actos de violencia de la policía y las fuerzas de seguridad. Centenares de personas pobres han muerto de hambre, y las que se aventuraron a salir por efecto de la desesperación han sido atacadas brutalmente por la policía.

    El impacto potencial parecía bastante sombrío y si no hubiésemos puesto nuestra confianza en la gente y en las comunidades, nuestros esfuerzos no hubiesen sido muy exitosos. Los servicios de asistencia en emergencia debían ser eficientes y la clave de nuestro éxito en países como Malasia o Tailandia ha sido depositar nuestra confianza en el trabajo de los voluntarios de las comunidades. Todos los recursos que fue posible generar les fueron transferidos a ellos y ellos reportaron las acciones y actividades que llevaban a cabo por teléfono o por otros medios que tuvieran a disposición.

    Además, por lo que pudimos ver, muchas comunidades respondieron muy bien a la situación iniciando cuarentenas en los pueblos, regulando las visitas, poniendo a los retornados en cuarentena o implementando medidas de distanciamiento social aun con poca información o sin los recursos apropiados. También hubo miedo, pero las comunidades lo fueron superando y fueron mejorando sus respuestas. Las comunidades no solo recibieron asistencia de nuestra parte o de otras fuentes: algunas de ellas también aportaron alimentos para otras comunidades más necesitadas. La mayoría de estas comunidades han trabajado con nosotros en el pasado y han podido gestionar exitosamente sus sistemas de producción alimentaria y sus recursos naturales. No estaban preocupadas por escasez de alimentos; por el contrario, sus líderes aprovecharon esta oportunidad para crear conciencia de la importancia de mejorar la producción local y el manejo sustentable de los recursos. Personalmente, esto ha sido inspirador.

    También nos hemos sentido inspirados por comunidades que se organizaron y usaron prácticas curativas y medicinas locales para mejorar la inmunidad y la resistencia a la enfermedad o establecieron sistemas de intercambio de alimentos con poca o casi nada de ayuda de parte del Estado, cuando los programas estatales no funcionaban o no llegaban a tiempo. Lo que es más importante, esto demostró que la devolución de atribuciones y el empoderamiento de las comunidades pueden ser más efectivos a la hora de afrontar una crisis si se entrega a las instituciones locales autónomas los recursos y el apoyo necesarios.

    Las respuestas espontáneas de las comunidades se fueron dando de forma casi natural porque se trata de comunidades que históricamente se han autogobernado. De aquí en adelante, si confía en la gente y empodera a las comunidades el Estado podrá lidiar de forma más eficiente con cualquier crisis de salud pública y con sus impactos en el largo plazo.

    Contáctese con el Pacto de Pueblos Indígenas de Asia a través de susitio web o de su perfil deFacebook, y siga a@aippneten Twitter.

     

  • ASIA: ‘Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified’

    CIVICUS speaks to Gam Shimray, Secretary General of the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), about the situation of Indigenous groups in Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. AIPP is a regional federation of Indigenous peoples’ movements in Asia that works to promote and defend Indigenous peoples’ human rights, including land rights and cultural rights. Because of their subordination and distinctiveness from mainstream culture and politics,Indigenous peoples are subjected to gross human rights violations, systematic racism, discrimination and dispossession. As a result of the denial of their rights to land, territory and resources, many Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

    Gam Shimray

    Can you tell us about the work of AIPP?

    The work of AIPP is guided by our belief in universal human rights and the inherent right to self-determination of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples. The rights to self-determination and self-government are a social necessity for the continuity of Indigenous social processes and self-development.

    While our advocacy work is primarily focused on the regional and global levels, linkages with country-level processes are built through our members and networks. AIPP consolidates a common position of Indigenous organisations for regional and global advocacy. For this, we focus on building capacity in communities, consolidating Indigenous movements and setting a common agenda for collective campaigning and advocacy at the country level.

    AIPP also focuses on building leadership and promoting distributive leadership across Asia, including among women, young people and persons with disabilities.

    What was the situation of Indigenous peoples in Asia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the political situation in Asia had been deteriorating, particularly in the past few years. We have seen an increasing clampdown on civil society and the restriction of democratic space for public debate and opinion formation in several Asian countries. Some public intellectuals attribute this trend to the retreat of political leadership from democracy and human rights.

    The transitions to democracy from authoritarian governments in recent decades, such as the Philippines in the 1980s, Indonesia in the late 1990s and Nepal in the 2000s, have remained incomplete. Other countries, such as China, Laos and Vietnam, have de jure one-party systems, and Cambodia has a de facto one. In Myanmar, the military still holds a grip on the government, while Thailand’s tradition of high tolerance is yet to produce a stable democratic modern state. Further, rising populism is posing a serious threat to democracies. In India, the world’s largest democracy and arguably one of Asia’s strongest, we are seeing a continuous assault on autonomous institutions, from the judiciary to the central bank and the free press, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist government.

    The result is that in the last few years, most of the human rights defenders killed have been Indigenous peoples. They lost their lives defending their rights, homes, lands, territories and resources.

    These problems are also evidence of deeper and underlying issues that relate to the inadequacy of political and institutional capacity to address effectively the challenges of democracy and human rights in Asian countries. We are faced with moral and political questions that call for serious examination of the erosion of human rights standards and practices and the weakening of political and institutional capacity to respond to present social and political issues. The suffering experienced by poor people during the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this.

    What challenges have Indigenous groups and activists faced under the pandemic?

    Issues and challenges vary across countries as the situation differs. One of the main challenges relates to the fact that most governments in Asia initiated countrywide lockdowns without much preparation, leading to chaos. The situation was simply overwhelming, and we could not respond to the needs of activists, communities, or migrant labourers.

    Migrant workers, refugees and stateless persons suffered the most, and those without ID cards struggled to prove their citizenship, which they needed to receive government aid. Most migrants and refugees lack proper documentation and errors in registration abound. Those left out from national registries are denied national ID cards.

    Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified. The situation has been worst in India, where people from the north-eastern part of the country have been thrown out of their hotels and rented houses. They have been denied the ability to buy food from grocery shops and board public transport. They have been spat on and taken into custody without an explanation. Many people, including women, have been beaten up for no reason, and many in cities across India are living in fear.

    In some countries, governments are using the situation as a cover for conducting military campaigns, grabbing land, granting permission for large-scale development projects, rolling back protective rights and weakening environmental laws and safeguards. Several activists and community members have been killed or jailed under trumped-up charges in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and the Philippines. Community leaders have also been stopped by police and security forces from carrying out relief work and helping starving communities.

    These incidents are grave in nature and there is extraordinarily little that we can do about them, as people cannot go out and protest or campaign, and can hardly access the courts. In India, e-petitions are allowed, and urgent matters are still heard by courts through video conferencing, but most communities are not familiar with such complicated processes and many do not even have proper internet access.

    How have AIPP and other Indigenous rights organisations responded to the situation? 

    The first thing we did was reach out to our members and networks to gather information from the ground. We also responded to those reaching out to us for support. Our first action was to provide or mobilise relief, and particularly food for those in critical need, in different areas through our members and networks. Our outreach also focused on sharing information concerning Indigenous communities. This was necessary because misinformation has been overwhelming, leading to panic-driven reactions from communities. We shared appeals to communities calling for humane responses and disseminating good practices that communities could implement.

    The situation is complicated because it is not just about responding to the pandemic. Indigenous peoples face multiple underlying issues. The least we could do was register our protest and conduct our campaigns through digital channels.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded many hidden issues and poses new challenges. So we are assessing and making efforts to take the next steps to cope with the longer-term impact of the pandemic. In this regard, we have also formed a regional network for COVID-19 response, which is in the process of expansion. We will be coming up with a preliminary regional assessment report soon, which will help us plan better. We can already see that capacity building will be crucial as we adapt to what is called the ‘new normal’.

    What further support do Indigenous groups need at this time?

    The support that Indigenous communities need is enormous as the impact is going to be long term. But few things that must be stressed are the following.

    First, we need to set up COVID-19 response cells with designated funds at the local level, with a team of designated nodal officers to coordinate with state or provincial authorities and civil society organisations to monitor Indigenous issues and provide the necessary support. The response team should also coordinate with the appropriate authorities to cater to the special needs of women, children, older people and persons with disabilities in Indigenous areas.

    Second, we need to ensure that appropriate guidelines and instructions are issued to provincial and local authorities on measures to be taken for Indigenous peoples to deal with COVID-19 and lockdown, including on ensuring compliance.

    Third, it is critical to raise awareness and ensure access to healthcare. It is important to prepare community-friendly information materials that clearly explain the nature of the disease, quarantine and containment measures and testing, helping dispel myths. Coordination between health department workers and traditional healers is needed to ensure that Indigenous knowledge systems are part of these response mechanisms. Localised and separate quarantine strategies encouraging natural environment and community participation should be promoted. COVID-19 care centres can be set up at the community level, managed by community healers and nurses. 

    In remote areas, mobile health units should be deployed involving community healers and health workers. Special attention should be given to areas with migrant workers who have returned home. Testing and quarantine facilities should be immediately provided to them. Access to health services in case of emergencies, including transportation, should also be provided. Access to safe water for cleaning and drinking is another critical need that should be ensured. 

    Ensuring food security and incomes and protecting livelihoods is also crucial given the known evidence of undernourishment in many Indigenous areas. Over at least the next six months it will be necessary to distribute free rations of nutritional food to everybody, irrespective of people’s migratory status or whether they have an ID card. 

    Lastly, it is urgent to strengthen non-timber forest produce (NTFP)-based livelihoods by urgently devising effective institutional mechanisms for collection, storage, procurement and sale. Dependence on NTFP is high across Asia. Financial and logistical support should be provided directly to the communities to help generate sustainable livelihoods. Communities living in protected areas must be allowed to have access to forests for livelihood purposes. 

    What lessons you have learned so far about the situation of Indigenous people under the pandemic?

    Under the pandemic, the situation has been overwhelming, and the measures imposed by governments have led to acts of brutality from police and security forces. We saw hundreds of poor people die of starvation and those venturing out in desperation brutalised by the police.

    The potential impact was looking grim, and had we not put our trust in the people and the communities, the efforts we made would have been far less successful. Relief work had to be efficient and putting our trust in community volunteers to do the job was the key to success, for instance in Malaysia and Thailand. Whatever resources were generated were transferred to them and they reported back on the actions carried out through phone or other means available to them.

    Further, in our observation, several communities responded very well to the situation by initiating village lockdowns, regulating visits, quarantining returnees, or self-isolating themselves despite having little information or no appropriate resources and equipment. There were fears too but communities were quick in overcoming them and improved their responses. Communities have not just received relief from us or others, but some of them also contributed food for other communities in need. Most of those communities had worked with us and had successfully managed their food production systems and natural resources. They were not worried about food shortages; rather, their leaders used the opportunity to create awareness about the importance of improving local production and sustainable resource management. Personally, this has been inspiring.

    We have also been inspired by communities organising themselves and using local healing practices and medicine to improve immunity and resistance to the disease, or establishing food exchange systems with little or no help  from the state, at a time when state-run programmes were not functional or did not arrive in time. Most importantly, this showed that devolution and community empowerment can be more effective in dealing with the crisis if resources and support are provided to such self-governing local institutions. 

    Spontaneous community responses came almost naturally because these are historically self-governing communities. Looking forward, trusting people and empowering communities will enable the state to deal more efficiently with public health crises and their long-term impacts.

    Get in touch with the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@aippneton Twitter.

     

  • Attacks on women’s day march in Malaysia inconsistent with the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms

    Amnesty International, Article 19 and CIVICUS strongly condemn the government backlash against the International Women’s Day march held in Malaysia on 9 March 2019. A few days after the event, the country’s Home Minister announced that police were investigating the organisers of the march for allegedly conducting an illegal assembly, while the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs criticized the march as “a misuse of democratic space.” On 14 March 2019, the organisers were also informed that they were being investigated under the Sedition Act. These actions undermine the rights to freedom of expression and assembly and are inconsistent with human rights commitments made by the Pakatan Harapan government in its election manifesto and at the UN Human Rights Council.

     

  • Azerbaijan: End attacks on peaceful protestors

    Johannesburg. 8 April 2011. The Government of Azerbaijan should immediately order its security forces to cease the use of violent force against peaceful protesters and free those arbitrarily detained without charge after mass arrests, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation said today.

    At least 200 people were arrested and dozens beaten on 2 April 2011 when security forces shut down a largely peaceful anti-government protest in the capital city of Baku. According to a statement released by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs on 4 April, 17 activists and organisers were arrested in the days leading up to the protest.

    CIVICUS partners in the country said leaders of opposition political parties, journalists and members of civil society organisations were among those detained. Currently authorities continue their crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan, promising to halt another planned protest slated for 16 April.

     

  • BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

    I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

    What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

    Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

    Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

    As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

    Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

    What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

    People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

    Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

    Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

    The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

    Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

    Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

    Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

    Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

    Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

    According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

    Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

    What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

    In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

    Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

    What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

    One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

    Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

    Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

    We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

    There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • BANGLADESH: ‘Protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations’

    Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Sharif Jamil, an environmental activist and the General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water, and he is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

     sharif jamil

     

    What is the key environmental issue that you work on?

    The Waterkeeper Alliance is a global platform and network that now includes over 400 organisations in 40 countries across the globe. We protect the water bodies that we all need and use, but that cannot speak for themselves. We call for people to respect water bodies and defend their rights, so when a waterkeeper speaks it is as if a water body spoke.

    We focus on water, but we don’t work only on water, because if there is no rainforest there is no water, if there are no mountains there is no water: if you don’t preserve the environment and ecology as a whole, then the water is also in trouble. So our water protection movement is not limited to protecting water bodies. 

    We have launched a global campaign because water does not respect borders, so it needs to be protected globally. Climate change and global warming are threatening the entire planet, and we need the planet to come out of this crisis as a whole.

    While thinking globally, you are also acting locally. Can you tell us about the work you are doing in Bangladesh?

    I started my activism 20 years ago. BAPA was formed in 2000 at an international conference on the environment in Bangladesh. The conference was held to discuss what we could do for the environment from the civil society level. It was agreed that civil organisations were doing good work but a platform was still needed for all of them to act as a unified pressure group, to bring the conflict to the table and apply pressure to come up with a solution. When BAPA started, we prioritised the issues directly affecting the environment in Bangladesh, but as rivers do not follow political boundaries, we realised that protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations. That is why I also got involved with human rights organisations and members of a human rights group based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and we are now tracking human rights violations related to ecological degradation.

    Specifically in Bangladesh, in recent times, we are focusing our work on the conflict between fossil fuels, the energy system and environmental degradation. In 2010 the government updated a power system master plan required for the country to grow economically. The government decided to focus on industrialisation, so it formed a special economy zone authority and declared more than 100 special economic zones across the country. These were meant to attract investment from foreign investors and to facilitate the establishment of multinational companies in the country. Industry requires energy, so to foster industrialisation the government came up with a plan to produce the power that it estimated would be required up to 2030. In order to meet the requirement, it decided to increase dramatically the share of energy produced from coal, from 2.5 per cent of total electricity to over 50 per cent. The government made this decision just as the world was shifting away from coal because of global warming.

    At this point there were civil society reactions, but initially we did not know enough. We lacked information, expertise and funding. But we worked hard to understand how much this master plan would impact on water and climate. With the collaboration of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2015 we organised an international conference in Dhaka, ‘Coal energy in Bangladesh: impact on water and climate’, and we came to understand that coal is more of a problem than a solution. The government’s plan identified three major hubs to establish coal-based power plants in the coastal region, and each of those hubs is threatening a unique ecological treasure.

    One of them is the Sundarbans, a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site, is the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world. It covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometres in both Bangladesh (60 per cent) and India (40 per cent) and it is the last habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger. The Sundarbans protects the entire nation from cyclone and storm surges because Bangladesh is a densely populated country and is highly vulnerable to global warming, climate change and extreme weather hitting the land from the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh is almost a flat country and is therefore affected by floods. The Sundarbans is a lot more than just a huge forest – it is also a barrier that protects all of our country’s land.

    So we started protesting against the Rampal and Orion coal power-plant projects, located only around four kilometres away from the Ecologically Critical Area of the Sundarbans. We first started protesting against the coal-based power developments that were closest to home and then found out that on the other side of the Sundarbans, there were also huge numbers of coal-based power production plants going on in and around Payra, which were also threatening the Sundarbans as well as one of the rarest sea beaches where you can see the sunrise and sunset. And more importantly, thinking about the food security of our nation, the pollution that it causes threatens our national fish, hilsa. This is a fish that migrates from sea to freshwater and from freshwater to sea. The region is one of the major landing stations for this migratory fish and would be entirely destroyed by the coal plants.

    What we are trying to do is to reach a balance and understand what we should do and how we can protect this environment while keeping development moving onwards, that is, how we can make development sustainable. But the most urgent thing to do is protecting our water and air from this kind of pollution. We have been organising people’s movements. We are trying to convince our government, doing research and presenting global data and studies to our policy-makers. We are also inviting global investors like China, Japan and the UK to review their strategies. Some of the biggest investors are phasing out coal in their own countries while funding its use in this poor, overpopulated nation. We want the global community to influence and engage global investors to keep development progressing while ensuring that it is done with renewable energy. The global community should understand that producing 5,000 megawatts in Australia is not the same as producing 5,000 megawatts in Bangladesh. We are an overpopulated deltaic country, with more than 1,084 people per square kilometre. 

    Have you participated in global climate mobilisations?

    I was the national coordinator of the climate march in Bangladesh in 2015, when the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) was held in Paris, France. We took people out on the street and had a very good turnout. We held a procession together with other civil society organisations in the capital, Dhaka, and more than 30,000 people participated in the march.

    More recently, in September 2019, we mobilised in the context of the global climate strike called by Greta Thunberg. Waterkeepers Bangladesh, Waterkeepers Nepal, the Nepal River Conservation Trust and BAPA jointly organised a series of events and activities in solidarity, including a mobilisation to protect the Himalayas by the banks of the Sunkoshi River in Nepal, near the source of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, on 23 September, and another focused on protecting the Sundarbans, held at Katka Beach in the Bay of Bengal, near the source of the sea, on 29 September.

    I also took part in COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and joined the European Union’s 21st EU-NGO Human Rights Forum in Brussels, Belgium, both in December 2019. Discussions there revolved around building a fair environmental future.

    So yes, Bangladeshi people are the victims of climate change, which they face every day, but they are also protecting themselves with their own knowledge and capacity, and reaching out to the global community.

    A big problem is that many in the global community are ready to help people with adaptation, but no one is putting enough attention on mitigation. So we request help for Bangladesh not only regarding adaptation to climate change, but also for mitigation, to keep our forest, to protect the Sundarbans, to protect the water bodies. The truth is that if you don’t keep this place alive, the entire region will be in trouble.

    The situation is urgent because water is depleting and there are no shared protocols. So we have started efforts within civil society, with people-to-people communication. We are working on the five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal – to manage the entire Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna basins together on the basis of equity and trust. These countries should come up with a treaty or some form of consensus to deal with the problem of melting Himalayan glaciers. Bangladesh is a water-scarce country as we get only 20 per cent of total water over half of the year from upstream during the lean period. When a neighbouring country blocks all the water, water bodies die, agriculture collapses and the economy is destroyed.

    Do you think international climate forums provide a useful space for civil society?

    I have participated in many global talks; in September 2018 I was even invited as a speaker to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, USA. The problem with these forums is that sometimes good things are said, but actions do not match words. The government of California was one of the organisers of the summit in San Francisco, but California’s policies are all about protecting themselves while exporting fossil fuels to other countries. It’s irrational to think that you can save yourself alone. What you have to do to protect the planet from climate change is to keep fossil fuel underground. You cannot exploit mines in poor nations and then organise a nice summit to come up with recommendations to solve the problem you have created and that you do not have any intention to implement.

    Still, we are invited to these forums and we attend. The former BAPA general secretary was a member of the Bangladeshi government team for the climate negotiations at three successive sessions of the COP. We try to help our government in the negotiations, for instance by providing data and analysis. True, our government still needs to change its mindset and understand that economic growth needs to be sustainable. Our government needs to conduct itself diplomatically while being firm in searching for funding for sustainable development. 

    But we support our government in international negotiations because Bangladesh is a poor nation and there are many things that our government is not in a position to do or decide by itself; we depend on developed nations in many respects. We understand that responsibility falls on our government when it comes to changing its mindset and becoming more inclusive in its decision-making processes, but it is the responsibility of the global community to come up with a holistic approach to deal with a global problem.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Waterkeepers Bangladesh through itswebsite and itsFacebook page, or follow@WaterkeepersBD on Twitter.

     

     

  • BANGLADESH: “Para hacer frente a las violaciones necesitamos una profunda reforma del sistema legal”

    CIVICUS conversa con Aparajita Sangita, activista bangladesí de derechos humanos y cineasta independiente premiada internacionalmente. Aparajita ha trabajado en varias películas sobre la discriminación de género y los derechos de las mujeres, y ha participado en diversas acciones sociales, tales como proyectos de educación de los niños en situación de calle y bancos de alimentos. En respuesta a su activismo, ha sido acosada por la policía. Por su activismo en las redes sociales también fue demandada por acoso bajo la draconiana Ley de Seguridad Digital. Las acusaciones en su contra fueron retiradas en reacción a las protestas que se produjeron tanto en las calles como en internet.

    Aparajita Sangita

    ¿Qué desencadenó las recientes protestas contra las violaciones en Bangladesh?

    En la noche del 5 de enero de 2020, una estudiante de la Universidad de Dhaka (UD) fue violada tras bajar de un autobús universitario en la zona de Kurmitola de la capital, Dhaka. Los y las estudiantes de la UD se sintieron perturbados por este incidente, que dio lugar a protestas y a la organización de varios actos.

    A pesar de las protestas generalizadas contra la violación, la violencia sexual contra las mujeres persistió e incluso aumentó durante la pandemia de COVID-19.

    El 25 de septiembre, una mujer que visitaba el MC College de Sylhet con su marido fue violada en un albergue del campus por activistas políticos vinculados al partido gobernante. Mientras estallaban protestas en reacción a este hecho, el 4 de octubre se hizo viral en las redes sociales un video en el que se veía cómo abusaban de una mujer en Begumganj, Noakhali. El video mostraba a un grupo de hombres entrar en la casa de la mujer, desnudarla y agredirla físicamente, al tiempo que dejaban todo grabado en video.

    Estos incidentes son apenas algunos de los numerosos casos de violación y violencia sexual contra las mujeres que han circulado por las redes sociales en Bangladesh. Entre los autores de esta violencia se encuentran padres, familiares cercanos, agentes de la ley, funcionarios públicos, líderes políticos y actores religiosos.

    Todo ello gatilló las protestas masivas contra la violación que tuvieron lugar en octubre de 2020, en las que personas de todo el país se unieron para protestar contra la violencia contra las mujeres. El movimiento de protesta contra la violación comenzó en Shahbag, conocida como “la Plaza del Movimiento de Bangladesh”, pero pronto se extendió a todas las ciudades, e incluso a los pueblos, de todo Bangladesh. Entre ellas se contaron Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainabganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira y Syedpur (Nilphamari).

    En el movimiento de protesta contra la violación confluyeron personas de diferentes ámbitos, como miembros de partidos políticos, escritores, activistas culturales, activistas de las redes sociales, jugadores del equipo nacional de críquet, activistas por los derechos de la mujer y periodistas. Por primera vez en Bangladesh, las mujeres se manifestaron contra las violaciones en plena noche. En Dhaka, marcharon desde Shahbag hasta el Parlamento, portando antorchas y gritando consignas.

    ¿Cuáles eran las principales reivindicaciones de las manifestantes?

    El movimiento de protesta contra la violación planteó nueve demandas para acabar con las violaciones y la violencia sexual. Entre ellas, la introducción de castigos ejemplares para los implicados en violaciones y violencia contra las mujeres en todo Bangladesh y la destitución inmediata del ministro del Interior, que no ha desempeñado su rol de impartir justicia.

    Las manifestantes también exigieron el fin de todos los abusos sexuales y sociales contra las mujeres tribales; la creación de un comité para prevenir el acoso sexual contra las mujeres en todas las organizaciones gubernamentales y en el sector privado, así como en las instituciones educativas, en línea con los fallos del Tribunal Superior; y la plena aplicación de la Convención sobre la Eliminación de todas las Formas de Discriminación contra la Mujer (CEDAW). También instaron a la abolición de las leyes y prácticas que perpetúan las desigualdades de género.

    También se hicieron llamamientos a poner fin al acoso mental de las víctimas durante las investigaciones y a garantizar su seguridad jurídica y social, a incluir a personas expertas en criminalidad y género en los Tribunales de Prevención de la Represión de la Mujer y el Niño, y a crear más tribunales para garantizar la rápida tramitación de los casos.

    Por último, las manifestantes instaron a la modificación del artículo 155(4) y otros artículos pertinentes de la Ley de Evidencia para poner fin a la admisibilidad de las pruebas del carácter de las denunciantes en juicios por violación y a la eliminación de los libros de texto de todo material considerado difamatorio hacia las mujeres o que las describiera como inferiores.

    ¿Cómo respondieron las autoridades a las protestas?

    El 6 de octubre, las manifestantes marcharon desde Shahbag hasta la Oficina del Primer Ministro con banderas negras, pero fueron detenidas por la policía en las cercanías del Hotel Intercontinental. Varios dirigentes y activistas de un organismo estudiantil de izquierdas resultaron heridos por la policía.

    Además, el comunicado emitido por la jefatura de policía el 10 de octubre contenía elementos de vilipendio de los y las manifestantes. En él se afirmaba que determinados sectores intentaban utilizar la protesta “para servir a sus intereses”, socavando la ley y el orden y “creando caos social”. La policía advirtió a los y las manifestantes que evitaran cualquier “actividad antiestatal” y anunció que la policía se comprometía a garantizar la paz y el orden internos a toda costa. Esta declaración provocó pánico entre las personas movilizadas, que temieron ser reprimidas.

    Además de enfrentar represión policial, varias mujeres activistas, entre ellas la líder de la Asociación de Estudiantes de Izquierda, que participaron en el movimiento contra la violación, fueron amenazadas por teléfono y por Facebook Messenger. Algunas de las activistas también fueron amenazadas con la apertura de causas penales contra ellas.

    ¿Qué ha pasado con el movimiento desde entonces? ¿Se ha detenido la campaña?

    Después de que las protestas contra las violaciones y agresiones sexuales se extendieran por todo el país, se modificó la Ley de Prevención de la Represión de Mujeres y Niños. Se impuso la pena de muerte como castigo más severo para la violación. Anteriormente, la pena máxima por violación en Bangladesh era la cadena perpetua. La pena de muerte sólo se aplicaba en casos de violación en grupo, o de violación que provocara la muerte de la víctima.

    A raíz de esto, las protestas se detuvieron, ya que mucha gente pensó que la pena de muerte reduciría los delitos de violación. Sin embargo, muchas defensoras de los derechos de las mujeres insisten en que la pena de muerte no es la respuesta y exigen una reforma profunda del sistema legal y más educación para hacer frente a lo que, según ellas, es una epidemia de violencia contra las mujeres en Bangladesh.

    ¿Qué puede hacer la comunidad internacional para apoyar al movimiento?

    A raíz de los diversos casos de violencia sexual y violación cometidos contra las mujeres, hemos visto surgir un importante movimiento de protesta en el país. Sin embargo, algunas manifestantes y activistas han recibido amenazas por alzar sus voces. La solidaridad de la comunidad internacional es esencial para quienes protestan contra violaciones de derechos humanos y hacen reclamos justos.

    La sociedad de Bangladesh es extremadamente patriarcal, y durante años se han sucedido numerosos intentos de restringir las vidas y las voces de las mujeres. La violación es una expresión de este contexto. Vivir seguras es un derecho fundamental de toda mujer, y es responsabilidad de todas y todos los ciudadanos, así como de la comunidad internacional, garantizar este derecho.

    El espacio cívico en Bangladesh es calificado como “represivo” por elCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”

    CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.

    Aparajita Sangita

    What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?

    On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.

    Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.

    These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.

    All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).

    People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.

    What were protesters’ main demands?

    The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.

    Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.

    Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.

    Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.

    How did the authorities respond to the protests?

    On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.

    In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.

    Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.

    What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?

    After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.

    Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.

    What can the international community support the movement?

    In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.

    Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.

    Civic space inBangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Bangladesh: Hold security forces accountable for torture

    Rights Groups Call for Decisive Action on International Day for Victims

    The Bangladesh government has failed to address widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment by its security forces, ten rights groups said on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. The groups called on the United Nations and concerned governments to take decisive action.

    Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies in Bangladesh, including both the police and soldiers seconded into civilian law enforcement are credibly accused of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and suspects. Such acts have included: beatings with iron rods, belts, and sticks; using electric shocks on their ears and sexual organs; waterboarding; hanging detainees from ceilings and beating them; deliberately shooting to maim, including knee-capping them; forcing prolonged exposure to loud music and sounds; committing mock executions; and subjecting them to forced nudity. Hundreds have become victims of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

    “Bangladesh human rights activists, international groups, and UN experts have all raised concerns about security force abuses including ill treatment in custody only to be met with denials and lies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Over the past several decades Bangladesh leaders pledged reform but each government has scaled up such atrocities, fostering a culture of abuse and impunity among security forces.”

    The Bangladesh government failed to follow-up as required in August 2020 after the UN Committee against Torture made concrete recommendations to prevent and address torture during the country’s review under the Convention against Torture in July 2019. These recommendations included official statements at the highest levels that torture will not be tolerated and that law enforcement authorities must end unacknowledged detentions. 

    The committee said that the government should establish an independent mechanism to investigate all allegations of torture or ill-treatment by law enforcement officials, enact legislation to protect victims and witnesses, and publish a list of all detention sites. 

    Following the review, the UN human rights body described the police as a “state within a state,” asserting that “in general, one got the impression that the police, as well as other law enforcement agencies, were able to operate with impunity and zero accountability.” 

    Seven years after its implementation, in 2020, a Bangladesh court ordered the first ever conviction under the 2013 Torture and Custodial Death (Prevention) Act. Activists hoped this would pave the way for investigations and accountability for the dozens of documented reports of torture by security forces. However, following the 2020 conviction, the victim’s family told the media that they faced repeated pressure, threats, and offered bribes by law enforcement to drop the case. Furthermore, Bangladesh police have repeatedly called for the government to amend the 2013 Torture Act to make it less prohibitive, casting doubt on the hope some harbored that Bangladesh’s security forces may be serious about ending torture. 

    Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, died in prison on February 25, 2021, after being held in pretrial detention for nine months for posting on Facebook criticism of the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. His death caused a public outcry. Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist, who had been detained with Ahmed by members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), was released on bail. Kishore filed a legal claim alleging that he was tortured, and also described the torture Ahmed said he had undergone while they were illegally detained. 

    “Mushtaq was smelling strongly of urine,” Kishore said. “He too had been picked up a few days ago and had been beaten a lot. He was electrocuted in the genitals. There were newspapers on the floor and I asked Mushtaq to use that to clean himself. He took off his underwear and threw it away—I saw that it had excrement in it. He had defecated in his pants from the torture, he told me.”

    When 13 Diplomats expressed grave concern about Ahmed’s death in custody and called for “a swift, transparent, and independent inquiry into the full circumstances” of his death, Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the media to “stop giving publicity to this sort of nuisance.” The government has yet to hold an independent and transparent investigation into Ahmed’s death.

    Rights groups have extensively documented crimes of torture, extrajudicial killing, and enforced disappearances, in particular by the Detective Branch of police and the RAB, a paramilitary force notorious for committing acts of torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances, and have called for RAB to be disbanded. In March 2021, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet affirmed that “[a]legations of torture and ill-treatment by the Rapid Action Battalion have been a long-standing concern.”

    In October 2020, US senators published a bipartisan letter calling for targeted sanctions against top RAB officials for torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances under all applicable authorities, including the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. The US government should swiftly move forward with these measures and should be joined by other concerned jurisdictions with similar sanctions regimes including the UK, EU, and Canada. 

    The UN Committee against Torture has expressed concern “that personnel that have served with the Rapid Action Battalion have frequently been deployed for service with United Nations peace missions” and called for an independent inquiry into allegations of grave abuses by the Rapid Action Battalion. Bangladesh is the top contributor of peacekeeping troops in the world, yet these troops are not being sufficiently vetted to ensure abusive practices inculcated at home are not tacitly condoned and exported to missions abroad, the groups said. 

    “The United Nations should stand with victims of torture in Bangladesh by ensuring that abusive security forces cannot ‘blue-wash’ their reputations through deployment in UN peacekeeping operations,” Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, liaison officer of the Asian Human Rights Commission. “The UN department of Peace Operations should start by taking a serious look at how their human rights vetting policy is being applied in Bangladesh.”

    The UN should undertake a comprehensive review of its ties with the Bangladesh military. All discussions about increasing Bangladeshi troop deployments in UN missions and high-rank posts should be put on hold pending the results of such an investigation, the groups said. The UN Department of Peace Operations should sever all ties with any units, soldiers, and commanders found responsible for serious human rights abuses, including commanders who failed to prevent or punish abuses by individuals under their command. 

    In addition, the UN department of Peace Operations should carry out increased vetting for all personnel with a history of RAB affiliation under the 2012 UN policy on Human Rights Screening of United Nations Personnel which requires verification that any individual serving the United Nations has not committed any “violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.” 

    The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution on enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings in Bangladesh. 

    “Bangladesh authorities have long been sweeping allegations of torture under the rug,” said Angelita Baeyens, Vice President of International Advocacy and Litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The government should heed recommendations by the UN rights bodies and address abuses by its security forces.”

    This joint statement is endorsed by:

    1. Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) 
    2. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) 
    3. Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 
    4. Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) 
    5. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    6. Eleos Justice, Monash University 
    7. Human Rights Watch 
    8. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) 
    9. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
    10. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

     

     

  • Bangladesh: Stifling expression using Digital Security Act must not be the norm to address COVID-19 pandemic

     
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    A Joint Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS

    The Bangladesh government has resorted once again to its notorious Digital Security Act-2018 to muzzle freedom of expression, arresting 11 individuals following criticism of the governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Four people have been detained since 5 May 2020 under the draconian digital law, including cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, IT specialist Md. Didarul Islam Bhuyan, and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaz Mannan Emon. A further seven people have been charged. 

    All four detainees were forcibly disappeared for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka on 5 May 2020. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police on 6 May at around 7:45 PM, and a case under the Digital Security Act was filed against them by Abu Bakar Siddique, the Deputy Assistant Director of RAB. They remain in detention.

    The seven other individuals accused in the same case are Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, which the government has blocked in Bangladesh since it was launched last year from Sweden; Saer Zulkarnain; Shahed Alam; Ashik Imran; Shapan Wahed; Philip Schuhmacher; and Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger of Bangladeshi origin living in Germany.

    All 11 have been charged under various provisions of the Digital Security Act including ‘propaganda or campaign against liberation war’ and ‘publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information’. Authorities have confirmed that the charges relate to allegedly ‘spreading rumours’ over the coronavirus pandemic on social media. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail. 

    The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, included harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. And, it has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Despite repeated calls to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s international commitments to protect freedom of expression, the government has refused to revise the law.

    In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on access to information both off and online. Silencing journalists and activists and blocking websites, is not an effective public health strategy. We urge the authorities to end its use of restrictive laws to silence critics and amid the pandemic ensure the right to seek, receive, and share information relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak.

    We further call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately release the detained critics and drop the charges brought against them and seven other individuals under repressive legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse to use state forces to stifle freedom of expression.

     

    Background:

    The pandemic has exposed failings by the government in addressing a public health emergency. Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 were denied access to public and private hospitals and died without treatment. The country’s healthcare system failed to provide adequate protective equipment and necessary infrastructures in hospitals to treat the pandemic. Within weeks, hundreds of doctors and nurses were infected with COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association. 

    Persistent suppression of freedom of expression and censorship under the government of Sheikh Hasina has continued amid the pandemic. The authorities have blocked international news outlet Al-Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. A monitoring body established by the Ministry of Information to monitor if private television channels were “running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus outbreak” was scrapped after public outcry.

    Due to the muzzling of the press by the authorities, social media has become the preferred platform for those critical of the regime. In response, the police and the RAB have started picking up people for their Facebook posts. On 10th of April 2020, it was reported that at least 50 people were arrested in the country for allegedly spreading rumors. The government has also blocked dozens of websites and Facebook profiles as of late March after the government officially acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak. Healthcare workers, who spoke out about the problems they have been facing, have been barred from talking to media

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh as repressed.

     

     

  • Belarusian authorities must end suppression of citizens, says CIVICUS

    Johannesburg. 19 May 2011. The recent detention of 14 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists in Minsk is just one more incident in an on-going crackdown on civil society in Belarus, said CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation today. The arrests came as local LGBT groups were gathering in Minsk to commemorate the International Day of Anti-Homophobia on 17 May.

    According to one organiser, Sergei Androsenko, head of the organisation Gay Belarus, the protestors were planning to gather peacefully with the goal of spreading tolerance and understanding, but were detained pre-emptively by police before they could assemble. The fourteen detainees, including Androsenko, were taken to a local police precinct, where they were finger-printed, harassed with slurs and had some of their personal effects confiscated, including a thousand flyers advertising the campaign to ‘legalise love’, before being released.

     

  • BRICS bloc’s lofty aims lack legitimacy without civil society

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Cathal Gilbert

    As Xiamen prepares to host 2017 summit, the group's vision of a "just, equitable and democratic multi-polar international order" is not served well by its member states' disregard for citizens' voices.

    Read on: Asia Times 

     

     

  • Cambodia Human Rights Crisis: The UN Human Rights Council Should Act Now

    To Members and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council

    The undersigned civil society organizations are writing to draw your attention to the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia and to call for your support at the upcoming 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council (the “Council”) to ensure that the resolution on Cambodia effectively reflects the significant deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and enhances the monitoring and reporting by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

    The human rights situation in Cambodia has continuously worsened since 2017, as the government-controlled courts dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and barred its co-founders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha and more than a hundred CNRP politicians from politics, while replacing over 5,000 locally elected officials with members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

    The situation has further deteriorated since the last Human Rights Council resolution on Cambodia was adopted in September 2019. Judicial harassment against opposition members has sharply increased, including through the conduct of mass trials against them in more recent months. Human rights defenders, activists, independent media and media workers, and trade unionists have continued to be relentlessly persecuted through judicial harassment and legal action. Environmental human rights defenders and youth activists have specifically been targeted: recently, six members1 of Mother Nature - a grassroots environmental group - were detained under serious charges including “plotting” to overthrow the government and face up to 10 years in prison. A highly politicized judicial system renders the prospect of fair trials for those deemed a threat to the interests of the government virtually non-existent.

    The government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to significantly expand its powers through an over-broad and vague state of emergency law2 ; a similarly broad Covid-19 law that allows for up to 20-year prison sentences for violations of Covid-19 measures; and the selective prosecution of political opponents who criticized the government’s Covid-19 efforts. The government also failed to protect human rights in its Covid-19 response. The government’s lockdowns were imposed without ensuring access to adequate food, medical, and other humanitarian assistance, and authorities took insufficient steps to prevent major Covid-19 outbreaks among the prison population in a penal system plagued by chronic overcrowding.

    Laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict human rights, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The authorities continue to adopt repressive legislation, with complete lack of oversight. In the past year, the government has taken drastic measures to further increase online surveillance, clamp down on freedom of expression online and erode privacy rights. In February 2021, the authorities adopted the “Sub-decree on the Establishment of a National Internet Gateway” which aims at forcing all web traffic and internet connections through government controlled and monitored gateways by February 2022. The pending “Draft Law on Cybercrime” and the “Draft Law on Public Order” would provide further tools to criminalize freedom of expression or behaviors in the digital, print, and public spaces, in addition to legislation already denounced by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia and other UN Special Procedures3.

    Noting the announcement of Commune Council elections to be on June 5, 2022, we are deeply concerned that there has been no meaningful progress to restore human rights.

    The Council has a critical role to play in addressing the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia. It is imperative that the Council takes robust action with regard to the government’s escalating repression by sending a strong signal at its 48th session - the last opportunity within the context of the biennial Human Rights Council resolution to address the human rights crisis in Cambodia before the Commune Council elections in 2022 and the National Assembly elections in 2023. For this reason, our organizations urge the Human Rights Council to:

    • Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, so as to allow the mandate to continue to work on long-term issues.

    • Request the OHCHR to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, and in particular in the context of the electoral process, and to present to the Human Rights Council an oral update with recommendations at the 49th session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue, and to present a written report at the 51st session in an enhanced interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia.

    • Highlight escalating repression and restrictions on human rights, including persecution of human rights defenders, media workers and trade unionists, and misuse of legislation to restrict human rights.

    We further urge your government, during the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, to speak out clearly against ongoing violations in Cambodia.

    We remain at your disposal for any further information.

    Sincerely,

    1. Amnesty International
    2. ARTICLE 19
    3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    4. CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    5. Human Rights Watch
    6. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    7. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)


    1In May 2021, the authorities convicted and sentenced three Mother Nature activists to 18 and 20 months in prison. Two others were convicted in absentia.
    In June 2021, the authorities arrested four Mother Nature activists, released one, and maintained the other three in pre-trial detention.
    2The Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency (April 2020)
    3See, for example, Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), Law on Trade Unions, Law on Political Parties

     Civic space in Cambodia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

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