democracy

 

  • SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’

    Bhavani FonsekaCIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

    CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka. 

    How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?

    The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.

    It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.

    In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.

    The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.

    Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.

    What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?

    The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.

    A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.

    Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.

    What is the scale of arrests among protesters?How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?

    The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.

    Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.

    From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.

    Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens. 

    How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?

    I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew. 

    Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.

    Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@CPASL on Twitter. 

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

    RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

    How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

    This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

    Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

    Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

    The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

    Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

    Do you think the protests will make a difference?

    These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

    Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

    I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

    Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

    How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

    More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

    Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

    Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

    How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

    They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

    On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

    Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through hiswebsite and follow@rukitweets on Twitter. 

     

  • SUDAN: ‘The government and the international community must engage more with civil society’

    Abdel Rahman El MahdiCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy and civilian rule in Sudan with Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, founder and director of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA). SUDIA is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works toward stability, development and good governance in Sudan. With 25 years of experience in international development, Abdel-Rahman specialises in organisational management and programming, with a thematic expertise extending to peacebuilding and human security, and civic engagement and democratic transformation.

     

    What was civil society’s reaction when Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok returned to power in November?

    After being ousted by a coup in October 2021, Prime Minister Hamdok managed to return to power in November as a result of a deal he reached with the military, which was signed on 21 November 2021. Reactions to this varied, because Sudanese civil society is very diverse.

    Since the December 2018 revolution, Sudanese civil society is in three distinct segments. The first contains what can be called revolutionary civil society movements and groups such as neighbourhood resistance committees, the Sudan Professional Association and other alliances and networks that sprang up during or in the aftermath of the revolution. Second, there is the segment that includes formal state-regulated CSOs, which are usually registered under various laws and have a licence to operate. Third, there are informal or traditional forms of civil society that existed from before independence, including the traditional or native administrative system and tribal leaders, and faith-based groups such as various Sufi groups.

    In terms of the size of their constituencies and their representation of the public, the biggest segment is that of informal and traditional forms of civil society, followed by revolutionary civil society movements and groups, with formal and state-regulated CSOs being the smallest. 

    Each part of civil society has had a different reaction to the Hamdok’s agreement with the military. On one end of the spectrum, traditional or native administrative structures and tribal leaders welcomed the agreement and were even represented at the signing ceremony. At the other, revolutionary civil society movements and groups completely opposed the agreement, which they saw as treason to the values and aspirations of the revolution. As for the third group – that of formal and state-regulated CSOs – reactions were mixed, with a majority seeing the agreement as the most viable way forward and the best possible outcome given the situation.

    Divisions and polarisation regarding the issue of military versus civilian rule and governance in the transition period are evident among both citizens and their representative institutions – including civil society and political parties – as well as among democracy movements in Sudan.

    How significant is the recent resignation of Prime Minister Hamdok? Has anything changed as a result?

    Prime Minister Hamdok’s resignation in early January 2022 is a significant development in the trajectory of Sudan’s transition. Hamdok was the only candidate viewed as acceptable by all the main parties that have shaped the transitional period over the past two years, namely the military, the Forces of Freedom and Change - a political coalition made up of civilian, political and armed groups and signatories to the constitutional declaration of 2019 -, revolutionary groups and the international community. His departure has only complicated the political crisis, because now agreement needs to be reached not just on how to proceed with the governance of the transitional period moving forward, but also on who will lead and represent the civilian element in future governance arrangements – and someone needs to be identified who might be acceptable to all parties involved.

    Representatives of the international community, the European Union and the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) issued a statement on 4 January 2022 in which they warned against any unilateral move by the military to appoint a new prime minister and called for a Sudanese-led and all-inclusive process to address this and other transitional issues. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to worsen, with protests in the capital, Khartoum, and in other cities continuing unabated.

    How has civil society organised since the coup?

    Organising and responses to the military takeover of 25 October differ from one kind of civil society group to the other. Revolutionary civil society movements and groups, along with some political parties, have been organising mass protests in Khartoum and other cities and states to express their rejection of the 21 November political agreement and call for a civilian leadership for the transitional period.

    Beyond welcoming the agreement and military takeover, traditional native administrative structures and tribal leaders have thus far been absent from the scene, taking no visible actions or positions. Meanwhile, formal, state-regulated CSOs have been slow to mobilise a coordinated response but are gravitating towards facilitating dialogue between stakeholders and are beginning to take concrete actions towards that end.

    What factors led to the coup and what needs to happen for Sudan to get on the path to democracy?

    Several factors led to the coup and military takeover on 25 October 2021, but the most important in my opinion was the lack of a robust dispute resolution mechanism that should have been agreed to and put in place by the key parties leading the transitional period. Such a mechanism would have helped resolve differences among civilian elements and between the civilian and military elements of the transition.

    The transitional constitutional decree was a rushed fix to a complex and rapidly deteriorating situation and has many shortcomings, such as vague language allowing for different interpretations. The political milestones and issues to be tackled during the transitional period – including elections, constitution-making processes and to a great extent security sector reform and transitional justice – can be extremely divisive and are likely to be sharply contested by the key parties leading the transition. 

    To overcome these potentially divisive issues and improve the chances of a successful transition to a democratic, peaceful and just Sudan, it will require that such a dispute resolution mechanism is established in any future arrangement put in place to govern the remaining period of the transition.

    What role are international institutions playing, and what should they be doing?

    The role of international institutions, including the United Nations (UN) and African regional institutions, has been one of damage control rather than damage prevention. The United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) was deployed to Sudan in 2020 but throughout the months prior to the coup and the escalating tensions and differences between the parties leading the transitional period it remained totally absent. Its mediation role only materialised at a later stage, following the unfortunate events of 25 October and after the axe had already fallen, so to speak.

    Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Arab League have played a marginal role, with the former only issuing statements threatening suspension of Sudan’s membership, and the latter sending a delegation to help with negotiations in the wake of the coup.

    More recently, on 8 January 2022, UNITAMS issued a statement announcing it was ‘formally launching a UN-facilitated intra-Sudanese political process which is aimed at supporting Sudanese stakeholders in agreeing on a way out of the current political crisis and agree on a sustainable path forward towards democracy and peace’.

    While this step by UNITAMS is to be applauded, it is important for UNITAMS as well as the international community supporting UNITAMS to consider carefully the details of the process. Rather than taking a head-on approach or focusing on a single objective of just simply resolving the current political crisis, the process should include embedded elements that ensure ownership and transparency and help build visions for common ground amongst the stakeholders involved, for the transitional period and beyond. 

    The process should also ensure the elaboration of a dispute resolution mechanism for when differences arise. UNITAMS will have only one shot at this and if it fails, it will lose credibility and the continued presence of the mission in Sudan will come into question.

    Moreover, beyond the immediate challenge of surpassing the immediate political crisis, the UN and other international institutions need to step up their act and stay one step ahead of the transition game in Sudan. Transitions in countries such as Sudan, which is emerging from conflict and years of authoritarian rule, require greater agility, heightened levels of coordination and collaboration and more strategic responses on the part of the UN system and international institutions more generally. To achieve this, they need the help of Sudanese civil society, so they will also need to adopt a more structured and strategic approach in engaging with them, instead of the current ad hoc and largely symbolic form of engagement.

    What are the main challenges Sudanese civil society faces, and what support does civil society need?

    Three of the top-most challenges facing Sudanese CSOs are, in order of priority, the restrictive and disabling environment in which they operate, their limited financial viability and access to funding, and their limited organisational capacity. These are interconnected and have a knock-on effect on each other. They have thus far prevented civil society from playing the promising role that is expected of it in the context of the transition. 

    The 30-plus years of authoritarian rule in Sudan have had a devastating effect on the development of civil society and it will take years to reverse it. Both civil society and those investing in it need to factor this into their expectations and aspirations and adopt both short-term and long-term approaches to improving civil society’s contributions to the calls of the revolution: freedom, peace and justice. 

    Once the current political crisis is overcome and the path to the democratic transition is resumed, there must be greater investment in and commitment to civil society on the part of both the government and the international community. Support will be needed for efforts to improve civic space and create a more enabling environment for civil society. Support should also be geared towards facilitating dialogue across the various groups that make up the non-political civic scape in Sudan and strengthening their ability to act and speak as one on critical national issues and future challenges.

    Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with SUDIA through itswebsite or itsFacebook orLinkedIn pages, and follow@FollowSUDIA on Twitter. 

     

  • SUDAN: ‘We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution’

    Nazik KabaloCIVICUS speaks about Sudan’s situation under military rule with Nazik Kabalo, a woman human rights defender (HRD) from Sudan. Nazik has worked in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring, with a focus on women’s rights, for the past 15 years.

    What happened to Sudan’s transition to democracy?

    Sudan is now facing the consequences of the major problems of the deal made by the military and civilian leaders in August 2019. Following the revolution, this deal initiated a transitional government in Sudan, a partnership between civilians and the military council. But this partnership was never equal: the military and former regime forces – including paramilitaries, militias, tribal militias and the security apparatus – had more economic and political power. They had controlled the country for 30 years, after all.

    On the other hand, for 30 years political parties and civil society had been under so much pressure that they only managed to stay together with the momentum of the revolution, to defeat the former regime. But the Sudanese democracy movement has too many internal divisions.

    Ours is an unfinished political transition that is missing transitional justice and mechanisms to limit the power of military and other armed groups. All armed groups had been involved in very severe human rights violations and remained partners with civilians in the new government. To be honest, I think the military coup was bound to happen. The political deal achieved in 2019 gave the presidency to the military for almost one and a half years. The coup happened on 25 October 2021, only few weeks before the date the military was expected to hand over the Supreme Council presidency to civilian leaders. But we always knew civilians didn’t really have a chance to lead the country.

    How has the situation evolved after the coup?

    Following the coup, the amount of violence and human rights violations was quite overwhelming. Violence is to be expected from the Sudanese military; it has led civil wars for 50 years and killing people is basically all it knows.

    Seven months after the coup, at least 102 people have been killed in peaceful protests, more than 4,000 have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. There have been attacks on the freedoms of association and expression. Journalists are being attacked: at least three female journalists have been prosecuted or arrested in the past couple of days. The military coup has completely destroyed the civic space and freedoms created after the revolution. Our military is learning from our neighbour, Egypt, to effectively crush the civic movement.

    For the past seven months we have lived under a state of emergency that was only lifted three weeks ago. But the lifting of the state of emergency made no difference to military practices on the ground. The international community has put some pressure on the government and the military but has not been able to stop the violence and civic space and human rights violations.

    An aspect to consider is that Sudan has three conflict areas: Blue Nile, Darfur and Nuba Mountains. As well as western and southern Sudan, there’s also inter-communal violence in eastern Sudan. The coup hasn’t been able to provide security, although this is always the main excuse for the military to take power. Violence in urban areas, including the capital, has increased, especially for women. Members of the security forces, including the Central Reserve Police (CRP), have perpetrated gang rapes and sexual assaults against women; for this reason, the CRP has been recently sanctioned by the USA. A peace agreement was signed in October 2020 with several armed groups but hasn’t been effectively implemented. 

    Sudan’s economy has been in a freefall since the coup. We expected to have our debt cancelled by this year, but because of the coup, the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank decided not to move forward. Instead, the IMF, the World Bank and international donors have frozen over two billion dollars in economic aid, which is directly affecting the general humanitarian situation. Recent reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate at least half of Sudanese people will need humanitarian aid this year.

    Another impact of the coup was the internet shutdown. For at least seven weeks, HRDs lived under a complete communications shutdown. This has now been partially lifted, but internet and phone communications continue to be cut off on every day of protest – which means it has happened every single day for several weeks. Internet access is under very harsh surveillance, so no Sudanese activist feels safe to use the phone for work. Sudan has one of the worst cybercrime laws in the world: you can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced to five years in jail just for posting something on Facebook. A couple of months ago, a female HRD who reported the sexual violence that took place during protests was sent to jail, accused of posting ‘fake news’. She may be punished with up to 20 years in prison. The military have used this law to threaten activists both inside and outside Sudan.

    We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution. We feel that the old regime is back; in fact, the military has started appointing people from the former regime everywhere, from national television to the Humanitarian Commission, which is responsible for managing the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) inside Sudan. So CSOs are back to needing to request authorisation to hold meetings at venues outside our offices and are under constant surveillance. Activists, journalists and lawyers are being silenced because power went back to the military.

    What are protesters’ demands?

    Following the revolution, the deal reached between the military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. There have been at least 20 killings of HRDs since the transition began, but this hasn’t stopped them. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.

    Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang-raped. In August a deal was reached with the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.

    Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with running the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy. A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.

    Who are the people on the streets?

    Protesters have built an amazing grassroots movement; resistance committees have formed in every neighbourhood, even every block. Those who participate in them are ordinary people who have nothing to lose, so unlike the civilian elites, they are willing to continue the struggle until the end. They organise street protests every single day and are creating new ways of protesting, such as strikes, stand-ups, music, movies and poems. They use every tool available, including recreating Sudanese traditions and bringing our cultural heritage to the streets.

    Women and feminist movements are doing an amazing job, breaking so many norms. During the revolution, many young women were on the frontlines. The Angry, a protest group that stays on the frontlines of every protest, protecting other people and leading clashes with the police, includes lots of young women.

    Women are also working to provide medical care and trauma support. After 50 years of civil war, you will definitely be a traumatised country, but this has intensified following the past five years of revolt. Before, one was able to distinguish between people from war zones and people from cities. Right now, the whole country is a war zone. There are machine guns everywhere, firing bullets into neighbourhoods, and children are dying inside their own homes because bullets go through their roofs.

    Diaspora activism has also been key. Activists from the diaspora have been super effective in spreading the word, and during the internet shutdown they were online 24/7 to get information out to the world, not only sharing it on social media but also connecting people inside Sudan, who could receive international calls but not domestic ones.

     What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing?

    The pro-democracy camp is very diverse. There are longstanding CSOs that have always promoted and advocated for human rights and continue to document violations, advocate, engage and build capacity inside the democracy movements. There are also new grassroots groups, the resistance committees, thar right now are the key movement leaders: other CSOs will follow their lead since they express the majority view. Professional organisations and trade unions are also a major group; they are key in organising mobilisations in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and similar roles play an important role in putting pressure through strikes and civil disobedience. 

    Unfortunately, for the time being there’s not a single unified network or body that can represent the democracy movement in Sudan. This is the movement’s main weakness. Resistance committees are trying to produce a unified political declaration and how to unify this movement while including all of Sudan, even conflict areas, is being discussed.

    What international support do Sudanese HRDs need?

    Our country must not be forgotten. The international community must take action and support the democracy movement’s demands for fundamental change. International human rights bodies must put make Sudan a priority. Sudanese civil society is fighting to get Sudan on top of their agenda, especially since the war started in Ukraine and most attention is going that way.

    Neglecting building democracy in Sudan and leaving power in the hands of the military would be a big mistake. What’s going on here isn’t disconnected from what’s going on in Ukraine. Reports indicate the involvement of the Sudanese military and militias in smuggling gold that supports the Russian economy during this conflict. Moreover, many reports have exposed the strong relations of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leaders with Russian leadership; they were in Russia the week the war started to ensure the flow of gold. RSF militias have relations with other African countries like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, which are sources of blood gold and blood diamonds entering Russia through Sudan. 

    Sanctions would be an important tool. A couple of days ago, the International Bar Association called on the UK to apply Magnitsky sanctions in Sudan. International CSOs should move ahead with similar actions.

    It’s understandably hard for the international community to deal with the people in the absence of an actual government or elite they could deal with. But young university students are the democracy movement’s leaders, and they represent us. Protests have continued for eight months now and will probably continue for many more, and activists need a lot of help.

    Because of persecution and violence, many CSOs and local groups have had to move their operations outside Sudan, and activists have had to relocate. Those working inside Sudan are having a very low-profile and using all the digital and physical security strategies available. Access to funding has also been increasingly challenging. The military wants to find out where funding for the democracy movement is coming from and has therefore increased surveillance, which makes it very risky to receive funds inside Sudan. Organisations working at grassroots levels and in conflict areas are suffering the most.

    Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@nazik_kabalo on Twitter. 

     

  • TANZANIA: ‘What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people’

    CIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democratic change under a new president in Tanzania with Maria Sarungi Tsehai, a communications expert and founder of Change Tanzania. Change Tanzania is a social movement that began on social media as an informal group of people focused on bringing positive, sustainable change to Tanzania.

    Maria Sarungi Tsehai

    What is the current state of civic space – the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression – in Tanzania?

    Civic space continues to be restricted, as the legal framework has not changed. Amendments have been proposed to the 2020 Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, which have led to the severe restriction of online freedom of expression and digital media freedoms. However, these amendments are limited good news, as critical issues such as the criminalisation of what is perceived as ‘fake news’ or misinformation remain and the authorities have retained ultimate arbitrary power to take action and have so-called ‘prohibited content’ removed within two hours. The list of prohibited content, which is open to interpretation and has been used to restrict media freedom and the freedom of expression in the past, remains.

    Regarding the freedom of peaceful assembly, restrictions have become harsher, to the extent that internal political party meetings are now banned and have been disrupted by riot-geared police, as witnessed recently in the case of a number of meetings and convenings held by the main opposition party, the Party for Democracy and Progress – better known as CHADEMA for its acronym in Swahili – as well as in the case of the National Convention for Construction and Reform, another opposition party, whose internal council meeting was broken up by the police on 28 August 2021.

    Those who continued to gather in defiance have been illegally detained and kept incommunicado. In some cases, this has involved dozens of people, while recently in Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, it has affected close to 100 CHADEMA supporters. The chairman of CHADEMA, Freeman Mbowe, was recently abducted by masked security forces and held incommunicado for days before being charged with terrorism – all because he defied police calls and flew to Mwanza to be part of a symposium on constitutional reforms.

    President Samia Suluhu Hassan has accused citizens leading movements for constitutional reform of fostering foreign interests and seeking to destabilise the country for personal gain, therefore designating their actions as ‘sedition’.

    When CHADEMA supporters assembled outside the court building the day Freeman Mbowe was due to appear in court, they received rough treatment from the police and were picked off the streets and detained just for standing silently with banners and wearing opposition t-shirts. Many women have been detained in such a way and denied their basic rights to food, water and sanitary pads while in illegal detention. One female CHADEMA leader, Neema Mwakipesile, was detained for over 14 days, and was initially denied any access to a lawyer or contact with family members.

    The government has also frequently instrumentalised the COVID-19 pandemic to limit political gatherings. Specifically, any gathering deemed to be critical of the government is restricted using COVID-19 regulations, while mass gathering in stadiums for sports and entertainment are still allowed.

    As for restrictions on the freedom of expression, harsh reprisals against those speaking up have not been limited to opposition members and critics but have recently started to target dissenting voices within the ruling Party of the Revolution (Chama Cha Mapinduzi, CCM). On 31 August 2021, a CCM member of parliament, Jerry Silaa Ukonga, was suspended because during a meeting with his constituents he said that parliamentarians should pay income taxes. His suspension will deter other lawmakers from speaking up any matter that may be deemed critical of the government, as the parliamentary leadership is an extension of the executive rather than an independent pillar of government.

    Has the new government under President Suluhu – who came to power following the death of President John Magufuli – taken any steps to improve the conditions for civil society and the expression of dissent?

    First of all, calling it a ‘new government’ is a misnomer, because it is basically the same government, in which the former vice president became president and a little cabinet reshuffle took place, but most key positions were retained by the same group of people. There was some hope around the new minister responsible for foreign affairs, but for civil society not much has changed, as the mechanisms for the oversight of civil society organisations (CSOs) and the legal framework have remained in place.

    In fact, a by-law has been recently introduced whereby CSOs are not allowed to give out joint statements without previously developing a memorandum of understanding that needs to be submitted and registered with the NGO Registrar. So it’s the same laws and the same people who continue to be a threat to any open dissent. This continuity is visible in the government’s response to Tanzania’s Universal Periodic Review examination at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which hardly seems to have addressed any area of concern.

    The only visible difference under the new president has been the government’s admission of the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new president has introduced and encouraged COVID-19 preventative measures and Tanzania officially joined the COVAX initiative, as a result of which it has received vaccines.

    However, there has been no change regarding the key people overseeing health policies, and as a result trust in the government is low. The mixed messaging has led to apathy and disbelief; therefore, vaccine uptake is slow and even precautions are not enforced genuinely and systematically. Additionally, COVID-19 data has not been released in a regular and systematic manner. The government randomly releases ad hoc and aggregate numbers that are impossible to assess. There are evidently a lot of COVID-19-related deaths that go undocumented.

    Do you think the fact that the country has its first female president will make a difference for women’s rights?

    So far, nothing has changed. In fact, President Suluhu has fronted herself as a patriarchy enabler, both in rhetoric and appointments. She has adopted approaches similar to those used by previous governments to target opposition and dissent. She has even refused to lift a ban on pregnant schoolgirls from re-entering formal education after delivery.

    For real change to happen, a shift in fundamental structures needs to take place, starting with constitutional and legal reforms to enable political competition and allow access for more female decision-makers who are not dependent on patronage by the male-dominated leadership of the CCM. But President Suluhu is ignoring calls for constitutional reform. 

    What would the government need to do so that Tanzania becomes more open and democratic?

    Unfortunately, the government led by the CCM, which is in power as a result of an openly rigged election that was accompanied by one of the most violent post-election repression episodes, is not capable of driving any democratic reform. What is needed is a new constitution reflecting the will of the people. A good place to start would be the ‘Warioba draft’ – named after the chairperson of the Constitutional Review Commission, retired judge Joseph Warioba - that was published in 2013 and ditched at the last minute by CCM in October 2014, during its failed attempt to pass a new constitution through a constituent assembly.

    The process has to be revived and it has to be multi-party and involve the citizenry more broadly. But President Suluhu seems unwilling to do this, and in some cases, as in that of Freeman Mbowe, she has shown outright hostility towards the opposition. If its only goal is to cling to power, the government will not work on any real reforms. The sooner this becomes clear to everyone, the better.

    Besides writing a new constitution, the government would also need to improve accountability, especially by following up on the Controller and Auditor General’s (CAG) Annual Report. The first thing that President Suluhu did when she was sworn in was to ask the CAG to submit its report and promised that measures would be taken against those civil servants who were involved in wrongdoing. She also ordered a CAG special audit of the Central Bank for the first quarter of 2021. But the report was never published, and only a press statement was released which said that everything was in order. Regarding accountability and transparency, rejoining the Open Government Partnership would be a good starting point. The government should also introduce police and prison reforms and make new appointments for positions including judges, the Inspector General of Police, the Attorney General, the Chief Justice, and other positions to improve justice and social services.

    How can global civil society support civil society in Tanzania?

    The main focus should be on high-level, intense pressure on the government of Tanzania to engage with the opposition and credible civil society representatives and citizen groups in ushering in constitutional reforms so that by 2025 we will have laid down the foundations for free and fair elections. Otherwise, the next elections may put Tanzania on a very dangerous path in many regards.

    Global civil society needs to make sure that Tanzania is held accountable and that in all discussions fundamental structural and legal framework reforms are emphasised. It should make sure not to succumb to nice promising rhetoric and superficial cosmetic changes because allowing the government to get away with such flimsy actions will have very grave consequences.

    Those funding projects in Tanzania need to consider funding social movements and more loose coalitions of citizens and groups rather than small circles of civil society actors that embrace a top-down approach. This will have significant impacts on building a society conducive to the greater good and serving the wider population.

    Civic space inTanzaniais rated asrepressedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Change Tanzania through itsFacebook page and follow@ChangeTanzania and@MariaSTsehai on Twitter. 

     

  • THAILAND: ‘Young people question the government abusing their rights and compromising their future’

    CIVICUS speaks to Amnesty International Thailand’s executive director, Piyanut Kotsan, about the Thai pro-democracy movement and the repression of protests. Established in Bangkok in 1993, Amnesty International Thailand has more than 1,000 members across Thailand. Its work focuses on the promotion of the freedoms of online and offline expression and peaceful assembly, human rights education, abortion rights and the rights of people on the move, while denouncing torture, enforced disappearances and the death penalty.

     

  • THE GAMBIA: ‘Civil society works to ensure Jammeh and other perpetrators of human rights violations face justice’

    Adama JallowCIVICUS speaks about the prospects of The Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh being put on trial with Adama Jallow, National Coordinator of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations (Victim’s Center).

    Founded in 2017, the Victims Center is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks justice and reparations for victims of human rights violations under the dictatorship. It has successfully pressured the government to recognise the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

    What are the main conclusions of the TRRC report?

    After consulting with victims of Yahya Jammeh’s inhumane treatment, the TRRC’s report concluded that Jammeh should be brought to justice and victims must receive help and support to recover from the atrocious experience they endured under the former dictator’s rule. The government has released a white paper in which it accepts the recommendations made by the TRRC. We believe this is huge, considering the amount of work civil society put into advocating for the establishment of the TRRC.

    The TRRC report is a sort of roadmap we can use so that justice can be served in The Gambia. Out of the 265 recommendations made by the TRRC, the government rejected only two, while marking the rest for implementation. Many atrocities were committed under Jammeh’s dictatorship and were highlighted by both perpetrators and victims before the TRRC. These include sexual and gender-based violence, torture, enforced disappearances and killings, arbitrary detention and crimes in which the victims were accused of witchcraft.

    The TRRC’s report states that The Gambia’s society and government institutions have a responsibility to prevent the reoccurrence of the crimes it documented. Its recommendations focus basically on the well-being of victims, who are expected to receive individual and collective reparations, and the prosecution of perpetrators. 

    We initially did not think the government would agree to implementing the TRRC’s recommendations. It came as a shock to us when the government agreed to it, because it is a new experience for civil society to be seen and heard by the government. It is a positive indication that our government is prepared to work together with us. The fact that only two of the recommendations were rejected surpassed our expectations. Now we will focus on pushing the government to implement the recommendations.

    What does the Victims Center do?

    The Victim’s Center was established in 2017, right after the regime change. Under Jammeh’s rule citizens lived in an oppressive state that restricted their rights and freedoms, and there was no freedom of association, assembly and expression. Many human rights violations and abuses occurred, including killings, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence and the indiscriminate and illegal use of force. Many civil society activists and organisations were arrested because of the work they did – basically for speaking up against the regime and pushing for democracy.

    When Jammeh was overthrown, and we got a new government, civil society and victims felt the need to seek justice and hold Jammeh accountable for the atrocities committed under his rule. We formed the Victims Center to offer a platform for victims to express their issues, seek support and assistance and advocate towards the government.

    Part of our mission is to advocate for the TRRC report. We have been fortunate enough to receive international support. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have released letters in solidarity with the victims and to demand the government responds to our advocacy asks. We have also worked closely with other CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure that the government takes its duty seriously, recognises victims and provides reparations. We want to make sure the government provides reparations to all victims, without discriminating against anyone.

    We have also seen a need to go out and sensitise people on transitional justice processes, victims’ rights and the cases submitted to the TRRC. The Victim’s Center has always been at the forefront of advocating and engaging with the Ministry of Justice and mobilising media to ensure victims are getting the help they need. Despite the challenges we have faced, such as intimidation and lack of capacity, we remain committed to helping victims get justice.

    How has civil society advocated for prosecution?

    The Gambia’s civil society has been very active throughout the process. We understood the importance of engaging with the government because it will play a key role in ensuring that justice is served. We had meetings with the Ministry of Justice staff to find out how they intend to support victims.

    We have also disseminated press releases demanding that justice take place at the societal level. We think it is important to inform victims, their families and society at large about the contents of the TRRC report and how The Gambia’s society will benefit from it, so we have held conferences. We have also formed partnerships with other local and international CSOs to reach a wider audience and to put additional pressure on our government.

    We know that our laws present obstacles. We were supposed to have a new constitution to replace the 1997 one, but the new text was rejected by the National Assembly. The legislation presently in place does not consider enforced disappearance or torture as crimes, which is something civil society advocates for. We now hope the National Assembly can adjust the old constitution to ensure the possibility of litigation in such cases. In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice has promised to form a body to handle cases involving crimes that are not codified in our legislation.

    In essence, civil society has engaged extensively to ensure that Jammeh and other perpetrators face justice.

    Do you foresee any challenges in the implementation of the report’s recommendations?

    We foresee several challenges, one of them being the Ministry of Justice’s lack of capacity to handle cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture. We need experts to oversee these cases so that everyone who is prosecuted is brought to justice.

    Another challenge lies with our constitution, as neither the old nor the current draft recognises enforced disappearance and torture. These are some of the human rights violations victims experienced and we need them to be recognised so that victims can receive help and perpetrators can be tried.

    We are also concerned about whether Jammeh can be brought to trial outside The Gambia, given that he is not currently residing in the country. We are trying our best to see how we can work with other organisations to address this issue.

    But all these challenges have not discouraged us. We continue advocating with partners to ensure the TRRC’s recommendations are implemented. We are also putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to come up with a realistic timeframe that will convince us that the government is really committed to implementing the recommendations. We encourage the government to work closely with CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure they implement the white paper with an inclusive approach.

    What kind of support does civil society in The Gambia need from the international community?

    Local CSOs and victim-led organisations need funding to continue their advocacy work, build capacity and support victims. International CSOs should partner with us and advise us on a way forward in terms of what types of cases could be brought, and how they can be brought if the constitution is not changed or amended. We also need them to use their resources to put pressure on the Gambian government to make sure justice prevails.

    Civic space in The Gambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations through itsFacebook, and follow@gambia_vc on Twitter. 

     

  • TUNISIA: ‘Civil society is not yet under direct threat, but we believe that our turn is coming’

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy in Tunisia following the president’s July 2021 power grab with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at promoting civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider region, through awareness-raising, capacity-strengthening and documentation. 

     

  • TUNISIA: ‘The new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers, enabling further violations’

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about Tunisia’s 25 July constitutional referendum with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). 

    KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, through awareness-raising, capacity-building and documentation.

    Why is President Kais Saied holding a constitutional referendum on 25 July?

    Changing the constitution or revising it is part of the president’s private project – a plan he didn’t announce either when running for the presidency in 2019 or during his first two years in office. This all started with President Saied dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament in July 2021.

    At that time, he didn’t even announce the revision of the constitution. It was only in mid-December that the president had to spell out a roadmap under international and local pressure. At the heart of Saied’s roadmap is a new constitution.

    Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was based on broad consensus, the process leading to a constitutional referendum didn’t gain public support. When people were asked their opinion on revising the constitution, as part of online consultation organised in early 2022, only around 30 per cent of respondents agreed. Still, the president has gone ahead with the constitutional review process, with a referendum campaign asking Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ to ‘correct the course of the revolution’.

    To what extent has civil society engaged in the process leading to the upcoming referendum?

    Civil society has gone through unprecedented times in recent months. When it comes to its stance on the issue, in broad terms civil society has mostly been either silent or supportive.

    At the start of the president’s July 2021 power grab, some civil society activists who were fed up with problems we have encountered in the past few years, with an inefficient democracy, saw Saied’s move as a political attempt to correct the trajectory of our democracy. One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance.

    But as soon as the president revealed his intention to change the constitution, political parties, influential people and some civil society groups started to oppose him. 

    Civil society is not one group or in one position – of course there is some diversity. The most vocal and influential groups are critical of him, especially since the planned new constitution was shared with the public; they realised its aim is not to ‘restore democracy’, but rather attack it. Now many are trying to stop the referendum process happening.

    How has civil society organised against the referendum?

    Although civil society’s response is late, they have recently used a range of means to oppose the referendum. Coalitions have been built, civil society has published position papers, conferences have been held.

    Some groups are calling for a boycott of the referendum while others are trying to bring a case to court, although they do so in the face of presidential attack on justice: in June the president fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting ‘terrorists’. In protest against judicial interference, Tunisian judges went on strike, only returning to work very recently.

    The Tunisian League of Human Rights, a prominent CSO, has called on the president to withdraw his proposal and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society. 

    How free and fair might the referendum be?

    When democratic transition took place in 2011 our country strived to create independent institutions such as the electoral commission and an anti-corruption body, among others. The proposed constitution dissolved almost all these independent bodies.

    The only one it keeps is the electoral commission, which President Saied seized control of in May by firing its members and appointing new ones. In February he dissolved the High Judicial Council, as well as sacking the judges in June. 

    Given that context, the independence of this ‘independent commission’ running the referendum, and the integrity of the whole election, must be questioned.

    What are your expectations for the results, and what impact will they have on the quality of democracy?

    By examining the latest polls on President Saied’s approval ratings, he still has huge public support. But this is the result of his populism. He is a populist president and populism – at least in its early years – has many supporters. But once a populist president fails to deliver on their promises, they lose popularity and support. In Tunisia, we are still going through the early stages of populism.

    Despite his popularity, I believe that his upcoming referendum will have a very low participation rate. With a small turnout, the legitimacy of the result will be questioned.

    But the president and his regime don’t care about legitimacy. For example, when the national consultation took place months ago, it was a complete failure in terms of the participation rate. Yet President Saied used it as a justification to hold this referendum. 

    If the referendum is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in December, according to his roadmap; parliament was dissolved in April. Meanwhile, there will probably be several ‘reforms’ and new laws. I am afraid to say that the next phase is quite scary because the president has the ultimate power to change laws without any checks and balances, in the absence of an independent judiciary, constitutional court and parliament. 

    Democracy means the separation of powers, checks and balances, and participation, but all of these have been cancelled by the president since July 2021. He has tightened his grip over the entire executive body, the entire legislative body, and even part of the judiciary. With an attack on the judiciary, we can count less on judges to be the ultimate defenders of rights and freedoms. Our democracy is probably at its worst level since the 2010 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

    The human rights situation is worsening with the decline of democracy. We have witnessed several human rights violations, some of which reminded us of the kind of abuses that were committed during the early years of the revolution. The difference between that time and now is the absence of any accountability. The president hasn’t been held accountable for any decision he has made during the last year. 

    From our side, civil society has condemned these violations, but it was not enough, so we have been trying to network with various defenders of democracy in Tunisia as well as abroad. In the next phase, civil society will continue its pressure and mobilise against any deviations from democracy, given that the new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers and open the doors for further violations.

    How has the international community responded? 

    We feel the international community has left Tunisia behind. The international community is offering a very weak response to this attack on democracy and the loss of a democratic country. The community of democratic countries is not putting in much effort to keep Tunisia within its family.

    Many of us are very disappointed by their reactions to the closure of parliament and what followed. The result is a very bad draft constitution that will probably cancel Tunisia’s democracy. But there has been no solid response from democratic friends of Tunisia.

    In this way, they encourage the president to commit more violations. These countries are back to their policies of the past decades in prioritising security and stability over democracy and human rights in our region.

    Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KADEM through itswebsite or itsFacebook page. 

     

  • TURKMENISTAN: ‘There is nothing resembling real civil society – and no conditions for it to emerge’

    Farid TukhbatullinCIVICUS speaks with Farid Tukhbatullin, founder and director of the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR), about the upcoming election and the environment for civil society in Turkmenistan.

    TIHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Austria, where Farid lives in exile, that collects information from sources inside Turkmenistan to report internationally on human rights and civic space violations and advocate for democratic change.

    What is the state of the space for civil society in Turkmenistan?

    In the early 1990s, several independent CSOs appeared in Turkmenistan. The fingers of one hand were enough to count them. These included our organisation, Dashoguz Ecological Club.

    But by the late 1990s, the first president of the country, Turkmenbashi, viewed them as a danger to the system he was building. Independent CSOs were liquidated and only a few quasi-CSOs remained - the Union of Women, the Union of Veterans and the Union of Youth, all of which were remnants of the Soviet era.

    Turkmenistan not only lacks anything resembling real civil society – it also does not meet the minimal preconditions for its emergence.

    There are no independent media outlets in Turkmenistan. Not surprising, in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, the country constantly ranks second-to-last or last, next to North Korea.

    People who dare express opinions critical of the government publicly, through YouTube or on social media, end up in prison. Recent examples include Murat Dushemov and Nurgeldy Khalykov, both sentenced to four years in prison, and Pygamberdy Allaberdiyev, who received a six-year sentence.

    Special services also harass relatives of activists who are working or studying abroad and run opposition blogs from outside the country. They try to silence them by threatening their families back home.

    What have been the implications of Turkmenistan’s policy of insisting it has no COVID-19 cases?

    Unfortunately, there is no reliable information regarding the real impact of the pandemic in Turkmenistan, and of course no assistance for those who have been badly hit. According to our sources, the number of people hospitalised is now decreasing. But before this there was a large number of deaths. Small towns were holding several funerals a day. According to local traditions, a large part of the local population takes part in funeral rites, so the whole town knows who died and when.

    Why has President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov called an early election, and what is its likely outcome?

    President Berdimuhamedov started promoting his son Serdar as his heir quite a long time ago. We became aware of the planning of an extraordinary meeting of the People’s Council, the upper house of parliament, in November 2021. The idea of holding early presidential elections was voiced at this meeting; that’s when preparations for the next step for a formal change of power began.

    But there is no reason to believe this process will trigger real political change in Turkmenistan. No one doubts that on 12 March the younger Berdimuhamedov will become the country’s next president. But his father is not going to give up the reins. In violation of the constitution, he is now both president and leader of the People’s Council. After the election, he will retain his second position.

    Moreover, it has already been announced that changes will be made to the constitution. We have no details yet, but changes will surely create further opportunities for father and son to lead the country in tandem.

    Even leaving the presidency to his son frightens President Berdimuhamedov. The younger Berdimuhamedov will certainly want to make changes in the cabinet of ministers, replacing some with proxies of a younger age, and this may create some turbulence in the highest spheres of power. So Gurbanguly will most likely remain the real ruler at the beginning, with Serdar’s leadership a formality.

    How is civil society, and TIHR specifically, working to defend human rights and monitor violations in Turkmenistan?

    A CSO, the Helsinki Group of Turkmenistan (HGT), was founded in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in July 2002 to monitor the human rights situation on the ground. HGT was the predecessor organisation to TIHR. It operated underground and its members were systematically persecuted and repressed. I was detained on 23 December 2002 and sentenced to three years in prison for my peaceful activism. Fortunately, the campaign ran by international CSOs and pressure from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) paid off and I was pardoned and released on 2 April 2003. I left the country in June and received refugee status in Austria in November 2003. I led the establishment and registration of TIRH in Austria in November 2004.

    TIHR has the vision of a democratic Turkmenistan based on the rule of law, respect for human rights and cooperation with civil society. We work to create the conditions that would allow for the emergence and evolution of a so far non-existent civil society and to raise citizens’ legal awareness, particularly regarding human rights. 

    We collect, analyse and publish information on various human rights issues, including prison conditions, the treatment of ethnic minorities, child labour, the education system and restrictions on the freedom of association. Our reporting is based on information from sources inside Turkmenistan whose identities we must keep confidential to protect them and their families.

    In 2006 we established a website, Chronicle of Turkmenistan, which provides first-hand information in English, Russian and Turkmen and has become one of the most widely cited sources on Turkmenistan. And in 2007 we started making YouTube videos. We have so far published 244, which have overall reached almost 50 million views.

    This format has allowed us to use humour effectively as a political tool. For instance, in August 2017 we published one of our many satirical videos about President Berdimuhamedov, based on official state TV footage of his meetings with military personnel Rambo-style. The video instantly became a meme on social media and was republished by leading global media outlets. The president with the ‘hard-to-pronounce last name’ became a YouTube star and we gained millions of viewers.

    The popularity snowball effect reached the USA with Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, which in February 2018 awarded President Berdimuhamedov the prize for ‘best performance by a dictator in a propaganda video’. And in August 2019, it further snowballed when John Oliver reused our content in a Last Week Tonight episode about the Turkmen president, amassing 10 million clicks. Finally, in December 2019 Netflix released the action movie ‘6 Underground’, about the overthrow of the dictator of the fictional state of Turgistan, which very much resembled Turkmenistan.

    We do all this to shed light on the human rights violations that continue to happen in this very isolated country. We have submitted several shadow reports – 16 since 2008 – to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and to nearly all UN treaty bodies, often together with other human rights organisations. We have also submitted dozens of analytical reports and briefing papers to intergovernmental organisations, and have published countless statements and open letters, often in cooperation with other CSOs. In 2020 alone, we published 10 analytical reports, four briefing papers, two press statements and six open letters.

    Our analytical reports include a series focusing on civic space, which since 2017 we have published quarterly together with CIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights. We cooperate with all major international human rights CSOs, all of which rely – at least partly – on our work when it comes to Turkmenistan.

    What can the international community, including international civil society, do to support civic space and human rights in Turkmenistan?

    What helps the most is targeted advocacy at the international level and reporting to inform, shape and guide the policies of outside actors – international institutions such as the European Union, OSCE and UN, but also individual governments and others that have political or economic interests in the country – with respect to human rights issues in Turkmenistan.

    Civic space in Turkmenistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with TIHR through the Chronicles of Turkmenistanwebsite orFacebook page. 

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘If we share information, leaders won’t be able to turn blind eye to human rights violations’

    Yaropolk BrynykhCIVICUS speaks with Yaropolk Brynykh of Truth Hounds about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Truth Hounds is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of international crimes and grave human rights violations through investigation, documentation, monitoring, advocacy and problem-solving assistance for vulnerable groups. Jointly with Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, The Truth Hounds team has carried out over 50 fact-finding missions to document war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    I’m a board member of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Truth Hounds, which has focused on documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in war contexts since 2014. We wouldn’t be able to tackle this mission without a highly qualified team of human rights professionals with experience in conflict areas – not only in the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea but also in neighbouring countries, including in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, we have developed thorough knowledge of international standards and best practices of evidence collection and systematisation of war crimes.

    Thus, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.

    Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.

    Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the ICC, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.

    In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Ukrainian civil society is in the same boat as the whole nation, and as everyone else, we are trying to keep working despite the difficult circumstances. Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.

    While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population. But their capacities are down to a minimum because they are not able to receive much support from international CSOs.

    Only a tiny segment of civil society took on board information about a possible Russian invasion and was prepared enough. They have managed to continue working for the past weeks. But even this small group cannot be as effective as it used to be because of the need to hide in shelters during chaotic air and rocket attacks.

    Overall, civil society is under tremendous mental pressure, which will have long-lasting effects. This will become yet another challenge for the country once the war is over. Civil society will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Ukrainian civil society needs advocacy and communications support. Our partners must help us deliver our messages to our allies and governments worldwide. Needless to say, Ukraine cannot win this fight alone. But we share the same democratic values and we need your support.

    All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.

    Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.

    Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told that were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Truth Hounds through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities’

    Oleksandra MatviichukCIVICUS speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about human rights violations in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion and civil society’s response.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    How has Ukrainian civil society organised in the wake of the Russian invasion?

    Ukrainian civil society came together and issued the Kyiv Declaration, an appeal made by 100 civil society leaders that includes six points: to establish safe zones that protect civilians from air and ground attacks; to provide immediate defensive military aid, including lethal and non-lethal weapons; to implement crippling economic and financial sanctions to undermine Russia’s war machine; to provide immediate aid to local humanitarian organisations; to freeze the assets and revoke the visas of Putin’s cronies; and to provide the technology and support required to record war crimes.

    There are a lot of CSOs in Ukraine, and therefore lots of initiatives happening. CCL has an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which we launched a while back, in 2013, to provide legal help to activists detained during the Revolution of Dignity. This initiative involves hundreds of volunteers and focuses on legal and logistics support, humanitarian assistance and the documentation of war crimes to help bring perpetrators to justice.

    We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.

    We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.

    As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.

    We have all adapted our work to the needs of the moment. I for instance am a human rights lawyer, so my field is the law, but I have somewhat shifted my priorities. I do not have military experience or expertise, but I have had to learn a number of things to be able to help. My work now not only involves research on war crimes for the quest for international justice, but also advocating and finding ways to pressure for the war to be stopped. So while I still conduct work in the field of law and gather evidence for future use, I also do other things, such as connecting with international organisations to try to get them to maintain their presence in Ukraine.

    What are you asking the international community to do?

    We work to force the international community to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Western politicians have expressed their support for Ukraine and its people, but their actions say otherwise. They have established economic sanctions against Russia, but there are still too many loopholes. A clear example is that of the SWIFT network, which has banned only a few Russian banks. Sberbank, one of the biggest banks, has not been excluded. We want all Russian and Belarusian banks expelled from the system, which would hopefully obstruct funding for the war and put enough pressure so that they will push for stopping it. Another urgent measure would be to put an embargo on Russian oil and gas, which are enabling the Russian government to fund its invasion of Ukraine.

    We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world. Russia started this war because it is afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of freedom. We hope our example will also impact on other post-soviet states and we will get to decide what our region will be like.

    We want the international community to provide tangible solutions. Now that the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion itself to stop. In occupied territories, we have already seen people being beaten up, arrested and tortured. Detentions, kidnappings and torture are being used against the brave Ukrainians who go out with the Ukrainian flag and face Russian soldiers. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people. 

    What is your assessment of the international response to the Russian invasion so far?

    We feel and appreciate the huge wave of solidarity across the globe, but it is not enough to address our situation. What we need is a serious response to the Kyiv Declaration.

    Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.

    This is why we urged the establishment of a no-fly zone and the supply of long-range distance weapons, defence systems and fighter planes. We have been asking for weeks but have not received anything yet. What we got instead from the international community has been drones, that’s all. But drones will not protect civilians from Russian attacks.

    Our own allies sometimes offer us aid that is not useful. Instead of listening to our requests, people who have no idea what it is to be under this kind of attack insist on providing the help they think we need. For instance, I have received calls from international CSOs who wanted to send us vests and helmets, which hopefully would arrive in Kyiv within a few weeks. That sounded funny because right now we don’t know what will happen within the next few hours. I had to explain to them that if Russians came to occupy Kyiv and found us wearing their nice helmets, they would kill us all. Their helmets won’t protect us from the dangers we face.

    I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities. 

    I remain in Kyiv and have spent yet another horrible night in which residential buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles. I really don’t understand what the international community is waiting for. We need their urgent help. The people who died last night in Kyiv couldn’t wait.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘The presence of international organisations is key to ensure safe humanitarian corridors’

    Sasha RomantsovaCIVICUS speaks with Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    In the face of the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union.

    This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.

    Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.

    At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for the protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.

    Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.

    We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.

    Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed to a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country. 

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Most CSOs have been forced to suspend their activities on the ground, and some have had to leave Ukraine for the time being. Many CSO staff members and activists who have stayed have at the very least sent their families away. There are some cities – such as Kharkov in the northeast and Mariupol in the southeast – where it is impossible for any CSO to continue to work. In other cities, such as Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, activists are being kidnapped for their work.

    CCL continues to operate from Ukraine and our team members have not left the country. We are truly blessed to have a group of fantastic people who have run the Euromaidan initiative since Russia started this war.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Our demands to global leaders are to close the skies over Ukraine, provide weapons for our effective protection and fully enforce all the sanctions imposed on Russia, including the disconnection of all Russian banks from the SWIFT network and the cessation of oil and gas purchases from Russia.

    Given that most international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.

    These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the International Criminal Court should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.

    We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

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