International human rights orgs: Stop ‘paid prioritisation’ bill
President of the Republic of Korea
1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu
Republic of Korea
Joint open letter to President Moon Jae-in
Re: Respect Net Neutrality, Oppose Bill Mandating ‘Paid Prioritization’ for Content Producers
Dear Mr. President Moon,
We the undersigned thirty (30) human rights and freedom of expression organizations are concerned by your recent apparent support for an amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act that would allow Korean internet service providers (ISPs) to impose financial barriers on content providers’ (CPs) network access. The proposed amendment risks eroding net neutrality in contravention of international standards regarding access to the internet. We call on you to oppose the proposed amendment, and to instead take steps to protect net neutrality in Korea.
The proposal, if passed, would impose the world’s first law mandating paid prioritization by requiring content providers like Naver, Kakao, Netflix, and Google to pay Korean ISPs termination fees based on network usage in order to have their content be sent to the ISP’s customers. This amendment comes a year after the Telecommunications Business Act was last revised to include vaguely defined requirements on content providers to ensure stable internet service, foreboding imposition of some sort of burdens on content providers. Since 2016, Korea has already imposed the world’s first mandatory Sending Party Network Pays (SPNP) rule albeit only among ISPs, where ISPs charge one another for sending data to other ISPs resulting in high internet connectivity charges for content providers.
The new amendment allows ISPs in Korea to restrict access to content based on how much money has been paid by the sender or to block traffic from CPs unable to pay network usage fees. This would contradict the principle of net neutrality, which protects internet users’ rights to access content, applications, services, and hardware of their choice by ensuring all data is treated without discrimination. The plurality and diversity of expression and information on the internet risks being stifled if ISPs are allowed to use their control of network infrastructure to slow, block, or prioritize content depending on whether money has been paid for its delivery.
Net neutrality principles have been upheld as an international human rights standard. In particular, in his 2017 report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression stated that “the State’s positive duty to promote freedom of expression argues strongly for network neutrality in order to promote the widest possible non-discriminatory access to information.” Speaking specifically in regards to paid prioritization, as now proposed in Korea, the Special Rapporteur explained that paid prioritization schemes give preferential treatment to certain types of traffic over others for payment, which undermines user choice and forces them to engage with content that has been prioritized without their knowledge. In its 2021 resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, the UN Human Rights Council further called on States to “ensure net neutrality” and “to prohibit attempts by Internet access service providers to assign priority to certain types of Internet content or application over others for payment or other commercial benefit.”
From a comparative perspective, such practices as now proposed in Korea have previously been banned in the United States under the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2011 Preserving the Open Internet order and that ban was also included in the 2015 Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet order . Even though these rules were revoked in 2017 under the Trump administration, the Biden administration in 2021 issued an executive order to restore them and their reimposition is now under review by the FCC. In Europe the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication already rejected a similar proposal in 2012. When the European Union adopted their Open Internet Regulation in 2015 that protects the principle of Net Neutrality union-wide, a similar decision was made by the European Parliament and the Council of EU member states to not establish a ‘Sending Party Network Pay’-regime that would charge termination fees..
Proponents of the amendment claim that content providers are “free-riding” on Korean ISPs and not paying their fair share, but in reality all users of the internet, including individuals and companies, are already paying for bandwidth and access to content delivery systems. Domestic content providers in Korea are already paying high fees to connect to domestic ISPs, who in turn pay to connect to overseas ISPs, thereby connecting Korea to the world. Small foreign content providers pay to connect to their home ISPs who pay to connect to higher-tier foreign ISPs who help deliver their data to Korean ISPs, while the big foreign content providers like Google and Netflix are spending their own resources to deliver directly to domestic ISPs in Korea or nearby either through sub-sea cables or cache servers. Once connected, these network routers are bound by a mutual promise of delivering data packets to their neighbor routers without discrimination based on origin, type, content, or whether or how much the sender has paid for delivery. It is through this promise of net neutrality and the mutually cooperative efforts to connect to one another that the world has entered the golden age of communication where an ordinary person can start a movement or a business of global scale from his or her computer.
President Moon, you were a human rights lawyer and should understand how, in addition to its economic promise, internet access is crucial to and has become a necessary ingredient of the global democratization and human rights movement. Without net neutrality, people’s ability to share their ideas with many will be severely restricted by the imposition of charges for data delivery. This will impact more than the delivery of streaming media; it will impact the global spread of ideas in the fight for democracy and human rights.
We, therefore, reiterate our call that you immediately oppose the proposed amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act and take positive steps to protect net neutrality in line with Korea’s obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information. This includes repealing or amending existing laws that challenge net neutrality, such as the requirement on CPs to ensure service stabilization measures and the 2016 SPNP rules.
Human Rights Watch
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Electronic Frontier Foundation
European Digital Rights (EDRi)
epicenter.works – for digital rights
Open Net Association
Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet
Software Freedom Law Center of India
Internet Freedom Foundation
Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Net
Citizen D / Državljan D
i freedom – Uganda Network
Campaign for Human Rights and Development International
Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC) Nigeria
Elektronisk Forpost Norge
Chaos Computer Club (Germany)
Point of View
Fight for the Future
Civic space in the Republic of Korea is rated as narrowed by the Civicus Monitor
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
#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.
CIVICUS 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.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right’
CIVICUS speaks about girls’ right to education in Afghanistan with Matiullah Wesa, founder and president of PenPath.
PenPath is an Afghan civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to reopening closed schools, establishing new schools with communities and local authorities’ support, supporting ‘secret schools’, collecting books and setting up libraries, distributing humanitarian aid and educational materials and conducting awareness-raising campaigns in Afghanistan.
What is PenPath, and what kind of work does it do?
My brother Ataullah and I founded PenPath in 2009. We work on a wide variety of topics, including human rights, girls’ education and public libraries. We seek to realise fundamental human rights. We support children’s human rights and women’s human rights.
In the area of education, we work towards the goal of reopening closed schools. In 2009, we reopened a school in a war zone area that had been closed for almost 15 years. After we started reaching out to volunteers, we were able to campaign house to house in village after village. Over time, we were able to reopen 100 schools in the 16 provinces of Afghanistan.
For instance, once we went to an area which had 2,100 families and not a single school. We started encouraging people by giving them information about the importance of education. They saw how important it was to have a school in their area. PenPath eventually established 46 schools in this previously school-less area, and we also opened 40 public libraries in remote areas.
We want to change people’s minds and show them that children’s rights, women’s rights and the right to education are all fundamental rights. We organised a book donation campaign and with the help of Afghan people we have so far collected 340,000 books. We have also distributed 1.5 million stationery material kits (pens, notebooks, schoolbags, pencils) among Afghan people. We provided education facilities for 110,000 children; and 66,000 of them were girls.
We think of PenPath as a bridge: we are a bridge between people and education.
What inspired you and your brother to found PenPath?
Our father was a tribal leader, and after 25 years of work and campaigning house to house to promote education, he established a public school for 900 students. This first school was built out of tents my father got, and we all studied under the trees. In 2003, I was a child attending school in Kandahar Province, Maruf District. I was in the fourth grade and I still remember the day when armed militants came and burned it down. It was very early in the morning, and they destroyed everything, including the Afghan national flag, pictures of the president, and of course the tents, chairs, books, and all school materials we owned. They yelled out awful things to teachers and students. My father was not present when this happened, so I told him once I saw him at home that evening. Even though he was devastated, this did not stop him. The next day, he encouraged all of us to fight for our rights and rebuild the school.
Six days after my school was burned down, militants came into my house to warn my father that as he was a supporter of girls’ education we were not welcome any longer. They gave us one week to go. We left our home and our district or else we would have been killed.
We left for Kabul, where we saw that both girls and boys had access to education. I reflected on this and decided to start some kind of campaign. I explained my idea to my father and he agreed to give me financial support for my project, which was also dear to him because he had a history with girls’ education initiatives. This is how my brother and I founded PenPath in 2009.
What obstacles have you faced?
When we campaign with PenPath, we travel around the country and visit all districts and villages on our way. We talk to the local people in each area and we promote the unity of Afghan society for the cause of education. It is always difficult to start this conversation. When you first approach locals, their reaction can be very aggressive; they give us death threats and say they will kill us if we keep doing what we do. We also receive threatening phone calls from unknown numbers.
However, I don’t personally see these threats as obstacles. We manage to have thousands of contacts with locals and tribal leaders from all religious backgrounds who support our work. Fundamentalist militants can’t control our work and they can’t make us stop.
How did the context change as the Taliban returned to power?
The Taliban took over Afghanistan on 15 August 2021. Two days after this, PenPath started campaigning. We travelled to 20 provinces and met with thousands of women, men, tribal leaders and people from all religious backgrounds. We encouraged them to join us and contribute to the cause of girls’ education. We told them education is our basic right, it’s an Islamic right, it’s a human right.
When the Taliban closed girls’ schools, PenPath was the first CSO to start protests against this. We started protesting in March 2022 and held press conferences against the Taliban’s decision.
Right now, girls’ schools are closed from grade six to grade 12 – that is, approximately from ages 12 to 18 –, which means that secondary education is out of reach for girls. People are starting to feel hopeless because it has been seven months now and girls still can’t go back to school.
We are campaigning to reverse this every day, protesting and holding press conferences. The Taliban told the media they would open these schools soon, so now we are waiting for this to happen. We are just waiting for the Taliban’s final decision regarding girls’ education. If the Taliban don’t keep their promise and open the schools, we won’t stay silent – we will take to the streets.
We will protest outside the Ministry of Education until schools are reopened. The reason I stayed in Afghanistan was to open all schools and to defend this fundamental right. This is now PenPath’s responsibility.
To what extent are people able to mobilise for girls’ education in Afghanistan?
Mobilising in Afghanistan is not an easy task. Every day we work to change the narrative around protests. We tell the media that we love our people and our country, and that is why we are fighting. But we must accept the hardships of mobilising in Afghanistan.
We receive threats and face any challenges that come our way. I could write books about all the challenges I’ve encountered because of my work. But I prefer not to focus on the challenges: I try to share with the media just the positive things. We want to reopen schools, and we will do whatever is necessary to achieve this. We won’t be silenced.
How does a ‘secret school’ work?
Secret schools function inside people’s homes. Many houses in Afghan villages are sufficiently big, with very big entrance halls. Some secret schools have grades one to six (ages 7 to 12), and others have grades six to nine (ages 12 to 16). Girls usually attend the latter since the biggest problem is that now they can’t attend high school. We also have five online programmes that are specially designed for girls who can’t attend school right now due to the political situation. The vast majority of our secret schools are located in the most remote areas or in war zones. We provide them with teachers, grade divisions and the necessary infrastructure.
In 2016 we started with 12 secret schools. These were located in a war zone area where there were no teachers available. We moved education to the houses and family teachers helped us with this. At this time, we didn’t want to promote this initiative on the media or among the government because we were afraid for the well-being of the teachers and students who took part. If they saw we had secret girls’ schools in that area, the military would try to kill our teachers.
Right now, we have 33 secret schools in the poorest provinces of Afghanistan. These areas had no schools 20 years ago, and we were the ones who brought education to them. There are two kinds of schools in these areas: one has only one class, and the other one has up to nine classes. Girls from poor areas used to have no access to schooling, and now they do. This is what matters to us. We give girls hope. Right now, 5,000 girls are studying every day in our secret schools.
How could international civil society support your work?
Funding is a big challenge for us. During the last government, I had contacts with the president and the minister of education, but I’ve never had contacts with the local Taliban. This means that no one in the current administration will help us. We used to have a team of 2,400 volunteers and worked together with the government. They had a big salary budget and helped us with donations. But the majority of those officials don’t have a job anymore, and this is a problem because we are running very low on donations.
On the ground I can manage, because all of our activities used to be in war-zone areas, which were 50 per cent Taliban-controlled anyway. I know how to talk to religious leaders and how to navigate these difficulties. But funding is a whole different thing.
I am very active on social media. PenPath has a website, Facebook page and Twitter account. I also use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If international civil society or foreign CSOs want to contribute to our projects, they can always get in touch with us on social media, by email and through WhatsApp. We currently don’t receive any kind of international funding, and all our work is volunteer work. But we do need your support to continue running secret schools, public libraries, online classes and other activities. Donations would be a big help for PenPath.
Another key way the international community could help is by putting pressure on the Taliban government to reopen schools and by supporting education in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban took over in August last year, there were still many areas with no schools, so we need help building schools, providing scholarships, distributing books and stationery and bringing all these to remote places. We need all the help we can get if we are to provide education opportunities to every woman, girl and boy in Afghanistan.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with PenPath through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@PenPath1 and@matiullahwesa on Twitter and@penpathvolunteers and@matiullah_wesa on Instagram.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Lack of dialogue and punishing sanctions are undermining the promotion of human rights’
CIVICUS speaks about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with Hadiya Afzal, programme coordinator of Unfreeze Afghanistan.. Unfreeze Afghanistan is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) formed by women from Afghanistan and the USA. It advocates for the release of Afghan assets frozen following the Taliban takeover to enable the state to pay salaries owed to public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, and tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Why is civil society calling for the release of frozen assets of the Afghan state?
When over US$9 billion of Afghanistan’s Central Bank reserves were frozen in August 2021, it had a devastating impact on the economy. Central Bank assets are the people’s money, used to hold currency auctions in the country, safeguard against inflation and control price stability. Afghanistan needs its Central Bank reserves back to stabilise its economy and perform centralised banking functions again.
The assets frozen also included private monies, that is, accounts held by private individuals, companies and CSOs. People were unable to withdraw their own money from banks for months, with many still unable to do so due to lack of cash. Many Afghans sold off anything they owned to afford essential goods, the prices of which skyrocketed.
Over the past year, leading CSOs, humanitarian organisations and more than 70 economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, have advocated through meetings, protests, letters and media appearances for the return of Afghanistan’s money to get its economy back on its feet, independently of whatever global aid funding is provided. United Nations (UN) experts have also called for the USA to unblock Afghanistan’s frozen assets to ease the humanitarian situation.
What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?
The USA has signalled that funds could be returned to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank, as long as three conditions are met: the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms, the implementation of credible anti-money laundering regulations and controls to combat the financing of terrorism and DAB’s insulation from political interference – which meant replacing its top leadership, in the hands of Taliban officials, one of whom is under US and UN sanctions, with professionals.
DAB has already agreed on independent monitoring conditions, and experts have set out how pre-existing independent monitoring and electronic auditing could be restored. US claims that the new Afghan government lacks expertise and that capacity building is needed for the state to be able to perform central bank functions could be addressed by assistance from the international community. The law that outlines DAB’s function as a technocratic institution charged with responsibilities such as currency auctions and oversight of banks is still in place. DAB continues to have the same audit oversight committee, with the same members it had under the previous government. And the chair of the audit committee has been an outspoken advocate for the return of DAB’s reserves.
The Afghan government should ensure that the DAB law remains in place and that the institution will function separate from political considerations. Advocacy experts highlighted that the USA does not apply audit conditions as strictly to other countries as it does to Afghanistan. It does not seize their foreign assets due to limited monitoring capabilities.
What else should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?
The international community should focus on supporting a strong, independent Afghan economy that can run on its own, the first step in which should be to return the full assets of the Afghan people to its central bank.
Another measure the international community can take is to provide global aid raised by the UN and other international bodies. Human Rights Watch alerted that without sustained humanitarian aid donations, Afghanistan’s upcoming winter could be even worse than the last one.
Last year, UN emergency funding staved off experts’ worst fears of a devastating winter, but the people of Afghanistan cannot continue to depend on global kindness after a year marked by war, the pandemic and rising inflation. Afghanistan’s assets must be returned to its central bank to bring stability to the lives of ordinary Afghans, and the international community should invest in the infrastructure necessary to ensure its success.
What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights, and specifically women’s rights, and support civil society in Afghanistan?
Sanctions have had a devastating impact on Afghanistan, and the resulting humanitarian crisis has disproportionately affected the average Afghan. The Center for Economic and Policy Research stated that financial sanctions on Afghanistan amount to a form of ‘collective punishment’ of the Afghan people for the actions of a government they did not choose.
The sanctions are not helping. In the words of Jamila Afghani, founder and president of the Afghan chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ‘we are not supporting Afghan women by starving them’.
In fact, sanctions are only making things worse. The cultural practice of forced marriages and what effectively amounts to the sale of girls is reinforced by socio-economic factors. Even under the previous government more than 70 per cent of marriages were forced. These are expected to increase as a result of the humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, Islamic scholars such as Daisy Khan have highlighted Quranic evidence supporting women’s independence, education and liberation. The promotion of human rights and specifically women’s rights is best fostered in a stable economic environment with sustained international diplomacy and interfaith dialogue.
Lack of dialogue between the international community and the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan compounded by punishing sanctions is undermining the promotion of human rights. Human rights can only be promoted through constructive dialogue while addressing the drivers of wellbeing – rebuilding financial stability, economic independence and global cooperation.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Open-source monitoring reveals both the clampdown on women’s rights and the impact on their lives’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Anouk Theunissen and Humaira Rahbin, researchers with Afghan Witness, and Meetra Qutb, Afghan Witness’s communications specialist.
Afghan Witness is a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan. It seeks to provide reliable data to international organisations, governments, the media and civil society and to create awareness about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Its team includes people on the ground as well as international researchers, analysts, journalists and experts. Most of its team members’ identities are kept confidential for safety reasons.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’
CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.
Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.
Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests,especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.
Why did you establish your organisation?
Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.
But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.
What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?
We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.
The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.
Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.
Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.
Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.
How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?
Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.
What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?
Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.
Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.
What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?
I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination.
More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.
Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’
CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms
What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.
Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.
Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.
What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?
In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.
The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.
Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.
Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?
To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.
How have you been supporting civil society and activists?
The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.
Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.
What do you think of the response by the international community so far?
Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.
On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.
What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?
Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.
The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.
For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.
Civic space inAfghanistan is rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The seizure of sovereign assets will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster’
CIVICUS speaks with Arash Azizzada, co-founder and co-director of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Afghans for A Better Tomorrow is a grassroots civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated tobringing about transformative change for Afghans in the USA and beyond. It has recently advocated for the release of Afghanistan’s frozen assets.
Why is civil society calling for the return of Afghanistan’s frozen assets?
Before August 2021, when the USA froze Afghanistan’s assets, Afghanistan’s western-backed government was heavily reliant on foreign aid and was spending most of its revenue on the conflict with the Taliban. Since the Taliban took over, the entire country has essentially found itself sanctioned economically and Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), its central bank, had all its assets frozen.
Since the DAB serves as collateral insurance for private banks to be able to operate, the entire banking system has been paralysed as of August 2021. The same goes for the whole Afghan economy: businesses and people cannot access their own hard-earned money to buy food at the market down the street. Philanthropic foundations have trouble sending funds into Afghanistan. This has contributed to soaring inflation, worsened by the rise in food and commodity prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a record-breaking drought.
As a result, Afghanistan has become ‘hell on Earth’, as the director of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme put it. Over 21 million Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. Every women-led Afghan household currently faces poverty and hunger as the country’s healthcare system teeters on the brink of collapse.
The consensus among Afghan civil society, both within and outside the country, is that the seizure of sovereign assets that belong to the Afghan people is a violation of international norms and will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Through grassroots organising, high-level advocacy and litigation, the Afghan American community has stepped up to bring the frozen assets back to their rightful owner: the Afghan people.
At the same time, following the blocking of Afghan assets, a group of families in the USA who had secured rulings against the Taliban connected to its role in the 9/11 attacks filed a civil case in a federal court to enforce those rulings using the frozen DAB funds. In February 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order allocating half of the more than US$7 billion that the previous government of Afghanistan had placed in the New York Federal Reserve for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and leaving half subject to litigation brought by some of the 9/11 families.
As part of a broad coalition of Afghan-American groups representing the community, we filed an amicus – friend of the court – brief stating that the court should oppose this for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Taliban are not recognised as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan by its people or the international community. The money belongs to the Afghan people, not the Taliban. And although 9/11 families deserve compensation, doing it this way would harm Afghans and not the Taliban.
What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?
While the Taliban might be the de facto rulers of most of Afghanistan, they remain untrustworthy and illegitimate. But the DAB continues to be function as a technocratic body, so frozen funds should be returned as long as there is proper ring-fencing and enhanced safeguards such as electronic auditing records to ensure the reserves are not interfered with by the Taliban.
Our proposed plan recommends an initial trust-building process in which a conditional amount of US$150-200 million a month is released so that the DAB is allowed to perform its core functions. The funds ought to be used to regulate the Afghan currency and run US dollar auctions to inject liquidity into the struggling economy and ease the pain of the Afghan population. Not one cent of these funds should be used for humanitarian aid purposes.
What should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?
International philanthropy and the international community should support a fledging Afghan civil society, and especially the women’s groups that remain operational within the country, by ensuring wide-ranging sanctions relief.
As it stands, the entire Afghan population is on the receiving end of collective punishment due to the sanctions imposed on the Afghan state. As the world has become hostile to doing business in the country, the World Bank and other international institutions should continue to focus on funding economic development projects and ensure the healthcare system remains functional.
The international community should work hard to differentiate between targeted sanctions that focus on individuals within the Taliban and projects that ensure Afghans have a chance at survival. As one example, direct cash assistance to the Afghan population remains a much more effective and equitable method of assistance than trying to truck in food for a population of over 21 million people and helping circumvent Taliban attempts at interfering with aid.
The UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan still remains US$2 billion short of its target. There is a strong need for donor countries to fill that gap. Much of it should be filled by the NATO member countries that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years.
What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights and support civil society in Afghanistan?
A core demand remains the non-recognition of the Taliban government, which is deepening its repression and remains unrepresentative of the Afghan population. It is important that the international community listens to the voices of Afghan civil society, and specifically those of Afghan women leaders and the minority Hazara and Shia communities.
The most vital thing at this moment is a strengthened mandate by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to document and monitor human rights violations as well as support accurate and free media in the country. Significant UN presence on the ground will be key as Afghanistan faces a deteriorating human and women’s rights situation.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Afghanistan: Joint call for immediate end to attacks against HRDs & need for protection & accountability
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.
- Amnesty International
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- World Organisation Against Torture
- (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Front Line Defenders
- South Asians for Human Rights
- Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights – Asia & Pacific
- 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.
ASEAN: ‘There is a lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis’
CIVICUS speaks with Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, a globally recognised human rights advocate and the new Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), on the state of civic space in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body’s response to the human rights situation in Myanmar.
In March 2023, Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by theCIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed, in response to developments including the detention of thousands of activists and protesters, many of them convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including thedeath penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. The ruling military junta has also systematically targeted journalists andforced civil society organisations (CSOs) to shut down and their leaders to go into hiding or flee the country. The junta has committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful attacks, killing and injuring civilians through the use of extrajudicial executions, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.
What is the state of civic freedoms in ASEAN member states?
In recent years, there has been a discernible trend in ASEAN toward democratic regression and shrinking civic space.
In Cambodia, as an election draws near, there is an ongoing assault on civic space and an increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians and media workers.
In Myanmar, the path toward democracy, which began in 2011, was dismantled and civic space has closed. The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) they reached in April 2021 has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.
In Singapore, civil liberties are curbed through the prosecution of journalists, protesters and harassment of activists. Civil space has been further limited by repressive laws such as the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which include vague provisions that allow for executive discretion in interpretation and implementation.
Overall, civic space in ASEAN countries has deteriorated. But in the midst of this darkness, the results of recent elections have cast a ray of hope that could have an impact at the regional level. Election results in Malaysia in November 2022 and Thailand in May 2023 have brought hope and a breath of fresh air after years of regression of fundamental freedoms. ASEAN’s youngest member state, Timor-Leste, is unique in that it has committed to consolidating democracy and held a free, fair and transparent election on 21 May 2023, allowing voters to cast their ballots peacefully, thus making their voices heard.
As the current ASEAN chair, has Indonesia made any efforts to engage with civil society and protect human rights?
Indonesia became ASEAN chair amid a lot of expectations regarding its potentials to address the Myanmar crisis, following the lack of progress under its two predecessors, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia – and possibly on the assumption that no further progress will happen under its successor, Laos.
Led by Indonesia, ASEAN managed to adopt several Leaders’ Declarations related to human rights, including one on combating trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology and one on the protection of migrant workers and family members in crisis situations, adopted at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023. These represented a crucial step toward protecting rights. However, questions of implementation and domestication have long plagued the ASEAN region.
Progress made at the regional level is not necessarily reflected by domestic developments. For example, ahead of the 2023 ASEAN summit, held in Labuhan Bajo, the Indonesian police summoned two residents, Viktor Frumentius and Dominikus Safio, over a planned protest regarding compensation for houses and land clearing for a road project. The criminalisation attempt happened a few days after the police issued a warning letter for local people not to conduct actions that could ‘create incitement’ during the summit. This incident came on top of ongoing attacks on civil liberties in Indonesia.
Regarding engagement with civil society, unfortunately the Indonesian government failed to respond to civil society’s request to conduct an interface meeting during the summit. Taken together, this and the attempted criminalisation of protesters reveal the government’s exclusionary approach to critical voices.
Did the summit’s outcomes include any commitment on human rights?
The summit’s outcome document highlighted the commitment to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. Human trafficking is indeed a serious and systemic violation of human rights in Southeast Asia, with the pandemic exacerbating the already precarious situation of marginalised people who might end up in hands of human traffickers.
Regarding Myanmar, however, disappointment continues. On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.
Unfortunately the issue of shrinking civic space was not discussed at the summit, which reveals continued neglect by ASEAN member states and a lack of consensus about the importance of the fact that civic space is deteriorating across the region.
Has there been progress in strengthening the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)?
Since its inception, the AICHR has been criticised as nothing more than a front for ASEAN member states to comply with their duty to put human rights on the regional agenda. It is not surprising that ASEAN finds it difficult to promote human rights at the regional level, given that its membership includes several authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies.
Civil society groups have done what we could to strengthen the AICHR, leading to incremental progress in its institutional strength and its relations with civil society. In 2019, FORUM-ASIA and its partners called for a review of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference to make it more independent and give it a protection mandate, among other things. ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to this, but the process hasn’t kicked off. Still, other positive changes happened, such as the inclusion of civil society in various AICHR activities and growing opportunities for the AICHR to meet with civil society in a variety of settings.
For example, recently and for the first time ever, FORUM-ASIA and other CSOs with AICHR consultative status were invited to meet with AICHR representatives at the 37th AICHR Meeting. The question remains whether this practice can be sustained and institutionalised. The AICHR has also recently demonstrated increased engagement with national human rights institutions, its natural national partners. This also needs to be maintained and strengthened.
Additionally, the current AICHR mechanism for handling human rights complaints needs to be assessed for it to become more transparent and responsive to rapidly deteriorating civic space conditions. But because the issue of shrinking civic space has not been met with consensus among AICHR member states, progress has been minimal. However, FORUM-ASIA keeps engaging with the AICHR in the knowledge that it will take years of effort to build a mechanism that lives up to our aspiration of holding states accountable for human rights violations. We are willing to engage in discussions with the AICHR about how to strengthen its complaint mechanism to contribute to enforcing states’ human rights obligations at the national level.
Why hasn’t there been any progress in implementing the 5PC to address the situation in Myanmar?
The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.
Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, the ASEAN chair in 2022, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.
Finally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed.
How has civil society responded to ASEAN’s failure to address the situation in Myanmar?
Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.
Along with reputable Myanmar CSOs and other regional and international organisations, FORUM-ASIA recently released a position paper calling for a review and reframing of the 5PC. This paper provides five counterpoints of action that ASEAN leaders must immediately take to prove the bloc’s commitment and capability to resolve the Myanmar crisis effectively.
The first point calls for the immediate adoption of an action plan for civilian protection and cessation of violence. The second emphasises the need to convene inclusive and meaningful consultations with legitimate Myanmar stakeholders, including the NUG, its advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a group of ousted parliamentarians – and ethnic resistance organisations. The third stresses the need to amend the mandate of the ASEAN Special Envoy’s term to three years with authority, independence and resources to take effective action. The fourth calls for the provision of direct support to frontline humanitarian responders in Myanmar and along ethnic borderlands, including Myanmar’s western borders. And the fifth point calls on the Special Envoy to immediately open formal communications and engage with civil society and other key stakeholders from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
What should the international community do to push ASEAN to protect human rights and address the situation in Myanmar?
International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the NUG as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.
They should also work closely with the United Nations, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the Special Envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed Special Envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.
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.
¿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.
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.
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.
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: ‘Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari project’
CIVICUS speaks about the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal-fired power plant project in Bangladesh with Sharif Jamil, 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. He is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh and Council Member of Waterkeeper Alliance.
What is the significance of the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 project in Bangladesh?
The cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal plant project is very significant because it shows global leaders living up to their commitment to fight climate change. Last year G7 countries reached an agreement to stop building coal plants and funding coal-related projects. If Japan continued to support this coal project, it would have undermined the global effort being made to tackle climate change.
We were happy to see a few contractors also pulling out of the project. Sumitomo Corporation, one of the biggest ones, decided to back out of the project on the basis that it contradicts their new climate policy. The Japanese-owned company decided to stop building and supporting coal plants. We believe this was a major step towards the cancellation of the project.
People living in the area where Matarbari 1 and 2 were implemented were affected by pollution caused by the projects. If it continued, people living near the coal plant would have been affected by air pollution. The coal plant also threatened to pollute water in surrounding areas, which would have also put people in danger.
How has civil society been involved?
Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari coal project, and hard advocacy work finally paid off. We made sure to talk to community members in surrounding areas to get their views on the project. Because we listened to their concerns about the health issues the project might cause it was easier to carry out advocacy work in the communities. Environmental civil society organisations (CSOs) were able to put pressure on key stakeholders with the help of research institutions that studied and tracked global finance and investments.
It is encouraging to see G7 countries living up to their commitments. Japan taking a position against coal financing is a huge step towards protecting the environment in Bangladesh and the rest of world. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributors of carbon emissions and therefore one of the biggest obstacles to climate change mitigation efforts. As civil society we are happy to see that it is possible to hold governments and multinational corporations accountable.
However, while it is good news to see Japan backing away from coal plant projects in Bangladesh, it is also quite frustrating to see it headed towards liquefied natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel. It would be good if Japan could help Bangladesh move towards clean and renewable energies. They have the necessary technology to do so and sharing it with us would help us overcome the climate crisis we are all going through.
What role did your organisation play?
As an organisation we found it important to talk to scientists to understand the scientific impacts this project would have had on our environment. We also analysed the environmental impact assessment study provided by organisations that were monitoring the project. We communicated with the plant company and the government to understand their position on the fight against climate change and environmental issues in Bangladesh. Fortunately, they were willing to listen to our concerns and even invited us to their stakeholder meetings.
The problem we noticed with this project is that the parties involved did not consider the data provided by environmental organisations. It was understood that power plants would boost industrial activity, but our argument was that these projects had to be sustainable. Doing an environmental impact assessment was therefore key. Any project that is implemented should be carried out comprehensively, inclusively and on the basis of science so that it does not harm our environment. It was frustrating that the environmental impact assessment of Matarbari 1 did not do any modelling for harmful pollutants such as fine particles (PM 2.5) or mercury, letting the plant continue functioning subjecting it to scientific scrutiny.
In advocating against the Matarbari project we tried to let people be part of the development activities happening around them. It was important to make them understand that every development project happening in their communities had to be sustainable and promote their wellbeing, which was not the case with Matarbari 1 and 2.
What other actions are needed to combat climate change and environmental degradation?
Japan is a trusted partner of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long received Japanese investment and development collaboration. We have worked for a long time with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which has done a lot of good. We would like to see collaboration for development continue, but it should be of the sustainable and green kind.
The Matarbari plant project was detrimental to our environment and its activities would have polluted both our water and air. This caused unrest and protests. We want multinational corporations and governments to consider the environmental impacts of any project they intend to introduce. They should consider the long-term effects of every project as well as the country’s energy security.
Did you receive any support from international CSOs and activists?
Several environmental organisations in Japan and other countries helped us raise awareness about the negative impacts of the Matarbari project. Some of these organisations conducted studies and came up with recommendations on how projects could be made green and sustainable.
But we still need support to ensure that upcoming projects aim to promote the use of clean energy and live up to environmental standards. Our country also needs resources to help it transition to clean energies. Therefore, there is further need for collaboration with governments that can help us move in that direction.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.