Guatemala: Respect fundamental rights ahead of Presidential elections
CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society, is gravely concerned of increasing attacks and restrictions on democratic and civic freedoms in the wake of Guatemala’s 25th June presidential elections. We call on the authorities to guarantee freedom and safety for people to participate in the political process without intimidation before, during, and after the elections.
We are appalled by the growing restrictions being imposed on civil society organisations and human rights defenders (HRDs) including indigenous leaders, justice operators and journalists in Guatemala. The authorities continue to undermine the rule of law and several HRDs have been investigated, detained, convicted, or forced into exile.
An example of this is the growing attacks on a leading human rights organisation protecting human rights defenders in Guatemala, Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) and its director Jorge Santos. They have been targeted with defamation campaigns, including through the spread of false allegations to discredit the organisation.
The authorities are also imposing restrictions on representatives of political groups preventing them from participating in the elections. Carlos Pineda, a businessman and presidential candidate was disqualified when the Constitutional Court ruled that he did not comply with legal requirements. Three others including Roberto Arzu García-Granados, indigenous Mayan leader Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas Andrade have been prevented from running.
Civil society groups are also concerned about restrictions that may be imposed after the elections irrespective of the outcome. On 31 May 2023, 22 of 24 political parties contesting signed a declaration called "Life and Family", committing themselves to prevent the advancement of sexual and reproductive and LGBTIQ+ rights policies following the elections.
CIVICUS calls on the Government of Guatemala to lift all restrictions against HRDs, members of the political opposition and civil society organisations and create an environment free from intimidation and harassment before, during and after the elections.
In July 2022, CIVICUS, Acción Ciudadana and Redlad submitted Guatemala’s UN Universal Periodic Review which outlined the extreme violence against HRDs and journalists, who continue to face attacks, harassment, stigmatisation and killings. State and non-state actors have escalated attacks with impunity. The submission further reports cases of judicial harassment against justice officials and journalists and the gradual reduction of the space for a free and independent press.
As a result of these developments, civic space in Guatemala is currently rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe.
‘La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa’
CIVICUS conversa con Ramiro Orias, abogado y defensor de derechos humanos boliviano. Orias es Oficial de Programas de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF) e integrante y ex director de la Fundación Construir, una OSC boliviana establecida con la finalidad de impulsar procesos de participación ciudadana para fortalecer la democracia y el acceso igualitario a una justicia plural, equitativa, transparente e independiente.
Hace unos días se produjo en Bolivia una protesta nacional contra la posible re-reelección presidencial. ¿Observa en el intento del presidente Evo Morales de volver a reelegirse una degradación democrática?
El intento del presidente de volver a buscar la reelección forma parte de un proceso más amplio de erosión del espacio cívico democrático por efecto de la concentración de poder.
La búsqueda de una nueva reelección presidencial requiere de una reforma de la Constitución de 2009 (que fue promulgada por el propio presidente Evo Morales). Algunas de las disposiciones introducidas entonces en el texto constitucional fueron muy progresistas; hubo un importante avance en materia de derechos y garantías. Al mismo tiempo, se incluyeron reformas políticas destinadas a consagrar un proyecto de poder. Por ejemplo, hubo un cambio en la composición y en los equilibrios políticos de la Asamblea Legislativa destinado a sobre-representar a la mayoría; se destituyó anticipadamente a las principales autoridades del Poder Judicial (los miembros de la Corte Suprema y el Tribunal Constitucional fueron enjuiciados y obligados a renunciar) y se instauró un sistema de elección mediante el voto, sin una fase previa de calificación de méritos. Las instituciones árbitro, como la fiscalía, el Órgano Electoral o el Defensor del Pueblo, también fueron cooptadas en diversa medida por el Ejecutivo.
En relación con el Ejecutivo, la principal reforma constitucional consistió en habilitar la reelección, pero por una sola vez, es decir para un máximo de dos mandatos consecutivos. El primer mandato de Evo Morales (2006-10) hubiera debido contar, porque así lo establecía una cláusula transitoria de la nueva Constitución; sin embargo el gobierno luego argumentó que ese primer mandato no contaba porque se había producido bajo la vieja Constitución (la cual lo inhabilitaba a una nueva elección consecutiva). De modo que el presidente fue reelecto dos veces, en 2010 y en 2015. Es decir, ha cumplido tres mandatos consecutivos, uno más de los que permite la nueva Constitución, y ahora está buscando alguna vía constitucional para habilitar un cuarto mandato.
A principios de 2016 el gobierno convocó a un referéndum para consultar a la ciudadanía sobre una posible reforma de la Constitución para que Evo Morales pudiera competir nuevamente por la presidencia en 2019. Por un ajustado margen, el gobierno perdió ese referéndum; por eso acaba de presentar ante el Tribunal Constitucional una demanda de inconstitucionalidad, que el tribunal aceptó considerar.
Según el presidente, la prohibición de volver a competir afecta el principio de igualdad y discrimina contra los actuales representantes electos, por lo cual sería contraria al Pacto de San José de Costa Rica (la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos). Es el mismo argumento que utilizó en Nicaragua el presidente Daniel Ortega, quien logró que la Corte Constitucional declarara inconstitucional su propia Constitución y le permitiera reelegirse. Es un argumento bastante forzado, porque los derechos invocados no son absolutos, sino que admiten regulaciones en función del bien común y el interés general (de hecho, el derecho a competir por la presidencia incluye restricciones de nacionalidad y edad, por ejemplo) así como limitaciones en función de valores superiores de una sociedad democrática – por ejemplo, el de la alternancia y el fortalecimiento de las instituciones democráticas.
El 10 de octubre pasado, precisamente cuando se cumplían 35 años de la restauración de la democracia en Bolivia, se realizó una manifestación nacional contra la reelección indefinida y en defensa de la voluntad expresada por la ciudadanía en el referéndum del año pasado. Esta protesta fue convocada por diversas organizaciones cívicas, plataformas ciudadanas y partidos políticos de oposición. Fue una expresión callejera masiva, con las mayores concentraciones en las ciudades de La Paz y Santa Cruz y otras menores en Cochabamba, Potosí y Oruro. Afortunadamente el derecho de reunión pacífica fue respetado, en el sentido de que no hubo violencia ni intentos de suprimir las protestas. Sin embargo, el gobierno reconoció que la división de Inteligencia de la Policía siguió y vigiló de cerca de las marchas y a los propios dirigentes opositores, al punto que recabó al detalle las conversaciones que mantuvieron ese día. Lo cual es inadmisible en una sociedad democrática, ya que el uso de una policía política es propio de los gobiernos autoritarios.
¿Piensa que la lucha por la reelección se dará en los tribunales o acabará saldándose en las calles? ¿Convocará el gobierno movilizaciones a favor de la reelección?
Creo que la demanda de inconstitucionalidad es un artificio jurídico; no estamos ante un problema de derecho constitucional, y menos aún ante una cuestión de derechos humanos de los que detentan el poder. El proceso judicial es una táctica más en una estrategia de lucha política en pos de la concentración del poder y la permanencia en el gobierno. La solución de esta controversia se dará en el terreno político. Una característica de la ética política de este régimen es que cuando un tema está en discusión, la aceptación de un arreglo o acuerdo no necesariamente es el punto final.
¿Diría que la sociedad civil está dividida en función del apoyo o el rechazo al gobierno?
La sociedad civil está dividida. Como en todo proceso de cambio político, hay sectores ganadores, que han recibido beneficios importantes y apoyan la continuidad. Por ejemplo, algunos grupos sindicales, como la Confederación Sindical de Colonizadores de Bolivia (CSCB). Al mismo tiempo, hay sectores que en principio se sentían representados por el MAS pero acabaron perdiendo. El gobierno boliviano ha perdido apoyos, sobre todo en su base social indígena, debido a algunas medidas que supusieron retrocesos en la agenda indígena – por ejemplo, la decisión de construir una carretera a través del área protegida del TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), sin respetar el proceso de consulta previa, libre e informada de los pueblos indígenas titulares de ese territorio. El gobierno también autorizó la explotación de hidrocarburos en áreas protegidas. Esto resultó en cierto alejamiento de la base social que le había dado una amplia mayoría en los inicios de su gobierno.
La llegada de Evo Morales Ayma a la presidencia y las reformas que se plasmaron en la nueva Constitución implicaron una transformación política, social y cultural enorme, sobre todo en términos de inclusión. Sin embargo, la falta de institucionalización, que se expresa en la ausencia de nuevos liderazgos, ha hecho que el proceso se agote y ya no represente un abanico tan amplio de la sociedad boliviana. Hoy es más difícil para el gobierno erigirse en representante de los movimientos sociales en sentido amplio. Muchos sectores de la sociedad civil que en algún momento vieron con simpatía el proceso de cambio liderado por Evo Morales, hoy lo ven con preocupación porque se ha convertido en un proceso de acumulación de poder político que no ofrece garantías para que puedan realizar libremente su trabajo.
El resquebrajamiento de sus apoyos llevó al gobierno a imponer regulaciones dirigidas a desmovilizar a la sociedad civil que no adhiere en forma militante al proyecto gubernamental. Esto está afectando seriamente la capacidad de trabajo de muchas OSC. La situación se ha vuelto bastante difícil para los defensores de derechos humanos, y en particular para los defensores de pueblos indígenas y del medio ambiente, que han recibido diversos embates y presiones a su labor.
También ha habido cambios importantes en la regulación de las OSC nacionales. El principal cambio normativo, que dejó a las OSC en una posición de gran vulnerabilidad, fue la ley No. 351 de Otorgación de Personalidades Jurídicas (2013). Esta ley exige el alineamiento de los objetivos y acciones de las OSC con las políticas gubernamentales y reemplaza el principio de reconocimiento de la existencia legal de una organización, que se deriva de un acto constitutivo de derecho civil, por el otorgamiento de la personería jurídica por parte del Estado, un acto administrativo que concede amplia discrecionalidad a las autoridades centrales. La personería jurídica puede ser revocada mediante un procedimiento administrativo, sin ninguna garantía del debido proceso. Al mismo tiempo, las OSC no alineadas con el gobierno son estigmatizadas públicamente.
¿Qué se requeriría hoy para lograr la concreción de esa promesa democrática que en su momento expresó Evo Morales?
Al revés de la tendencia dominante de entregar más poder a una sola persona, uno de los principales temas pendientes en la agenda democrática boliviana es el reencauzamiento de la representación política a través de un sistema de partidos plural, institucionalizado, con prácticas internas democráticas. Si el tema de la reelección presidencial está en la agenda, es precisamente porque falta institucionalización: la fuerza en el gobierno no tiene un liderazgo de recambio. Más que un partido político, en el gobierno hay una coalición de diversos intereses que solo el presidente Morales logró amalgamar.
La democracia representativa, sostenida en instituciones, es un sistema que permite ciertas certidumbres en la vida política, con reglas que se cumplen con regularidad y actores que se someten a ellas de buena fe. Lo que estamos viendo actualmente es que el gobierno usa los mecanismos democráticos cuando le sirven, y cuando no le sirven se aparta de ellos y trata de modificarlos en beneficio propio.
En el marco de un sistema de partidos políticos débil, la sociedad civil cobra un relieve particular. Cumple un rol de preservación de las libertades de asociación, expresión y manifestación pacífica gracias a las cuales puede promover sus ideas de cambio social. La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa.
¿Qué apoyos necesita la sociedad civil boliviana para superar los obstáculos y avanzar en dirección de una democracia más participativa?
Lo más importante que necesita la sociedad civil en sus labores de promoción y defensa de los derechos humanos es un sistema de justicia independiente. Ha habido un proceso de debilitamiento de las instituciones judiciales por parte del Ejecutivo, que difícilmente podremos revertir en el corto plazo sin la cooperación de otros actores, nacionales e internacionales.
Necesitamos, entonces, solidaridad internacional. De hecho, hay un diálogo político intenso con los embajadores acreditados en Bolivia, que reconocen la necesidad de crear un ambiente habilitante para la sociedad civil, así como valoran la urgencia de promover un sistema de justicia independiente. También necesitamos apoyo para que las OSC se empoderen, mejoren sus propios procesos internos de rendición de cuentas y aseguren la transparencia de su propia gestión institucional. Pero lo cierto es que mientras no haya una justicia independiente capaz de tutelar derechos fundamentales, la situación de la sociedad civil seguirá siendo de extrema indefensión.
- El espacio cívico en Bolivia es clasificado en elCIVICUS Monitor como “estrecho”.
#BEIJING25 : « Plus de femmes dans la fonction publique signifie un meilleur gouvernement et une démocratie plus forte »
À l'occasion du 25e anniversaire duProgramme d'Action de Beijing, CIVICUS s'entretient avec des activistes, des dirigeants et des experts de la société civile pour évaluer les progrès accomplis et les défis qui restent à surmonter. Adopté en 1995 lors de la quatrièmeConférence mondiale des Nations Unies (ONU) sur les femmes, le Programme d'Action de Beijing poursuit les objectifs d'éliminer la violence contre les femmes, de garantir l'accès au planning familial et à la santé reproductive, d'éliminer les obstacles à la participation des femmes à la prise de décision et de fournir un emploi décent et un salaire égal pour un travail égal. Vingt-cinq ans plus tard, des progrès importants mais inégaux ont été faits, en grande partie grâce aux efforts incessants de la société civile, mais aucun pays n'a encore atteint l'égalité des genres.
CIVICUS s'entretient avec Pakou Hang, directrice des programmes pour Vote Run Lead (Vote Candidate Dirige), une organisation dédiée à la formation de femmes afin qu’elles puissent se présenter aux élections et les remporter, augmentant ainsi la représentation des femmes à tous les niveaux de gouvernement. Créée en 2014, elle a déjà touché plus de 36 000 femmes aux États-Unis, dont près de 60% sont des femmes noires et 20% proviennent de zones rurales. De nombreuses formées à Vote Run Lead siègent désormais dans des conseils municipaux, des conseils de comté, des chambres d'État, des cours suprêmes et au Congrès des États-Unis.
Un quart de siècle plus tard, dans quelle mesure la promesse contenue dans le Programme d’Action de Beijing s’est traduite par des changements concrets ?
Beaucoup de progrès ont été réalisés depuis 1995, mais il reste encore beaucoup à faire et nous sommes encore loin de l’égalité. En termes de représentation politique, il y a eu des progrès, mais cela a aussi été lent : globalement, au début de 2019, 24,3% des membres des parlements nationaux étaient des femmes, contre 11,3% seulement en 1995. Seuls trois pays dans le monde ont atteint ou dépassé la parité dans leurs chambres basses ou législatures monocamérales, mais beaucoup d'autres ont atteint ou dépassé le seuil de 30%. Jusqu'à l'année dernière, il y avait également 11 femmes chefs d'État et 12 chefs de gouvernement ; et les femmes occupaient près de 21% des postes ministériels, souvent dans les domaines les plus associés aux problématiques des femmes, tels que l'action sociale et les portefeuilles liés à la famille, à l'enfance, à la jeunesse, et aux personnes âgées et handicapées. Les résultats sont donc mitigés - beaucoup de progrès ont été accomplis, mais les progrès ont été lents et sont loin d'être suffisants.
Il y a également eu de grandes variations entre les régions et les pays, d'environ 16% de femmes parlementaires dans la région du Pacifique à plus de 40% dans les pays nordiques. La moyenne pour les Amériques est de 30%, mais les États-Unis sont en dessous de la moyenne. Le Congrès reste dominé de manière disproportionnée par les hommes. Bien que les femmes représentent plus de la moitié de la population, elles n'occupent que 24% des sièges. Le Congrès est également moins diversifié sur le plan racial que la population dans son ensemble, 78% de ses membres s'identifiant comme blancs, une proportion nettement supérieure au 60% de la population américaine composée de personnes blanches.
Selon le Centre pour les Femmes et la Politique Américaine (Center for American Women and Politics), la situation n'est pas très différente au niveau des états : 29,2% des sièges législatifs des états et 18% des postes des gouvernants sont occupés par des femmes. Il y a moins de données sur les pouvoirs exécutifs locaux et l'essentiel des informations disponibles se réfère aux plus grandes villes, dont 60% des maires sont des hommes blancs, alors que les hommes blancs ne représentent que 20% de la population de ces villes. Bien que davantage de femmes aient accédé à la fonction publique locale en 2018, les conseils municipaux et les commissions de comté ont continué à n'inclure qu'une seule femme ou pas de femmes.
D’autre part, malgré le nombre relativement restreint de femmes parlementaires, et en particulier de femmes noires, le Congrès actuel est le plus diversifié de l'histoire. Ainsi, le bassin de candidats pour des mandats législatifs en 2020 était également le plus diversifié de l’histoire. Bien entendu, ces candidats ont reçu de violentes attaques de la part des médias et de l'opposition politique. Mais je pense que nous devons changer notre perspective pour comprendre l'ampleur du changement qui s'est produit. J’ai certainement été déçue de voir que nous nous retrouvions avec deux hommes blancs d’un certain âge à la tête des deux principaux sièges présidentiels - mais désormais, nous comptons également une femme noire d’origine indienne comme vice-présidente élue, ce qui constitue sans aucun doute un progrès.
Je me souviens que lorsque le triomphe de Joe Biden et Kamala Harris à l'élection présidentielle de 2020 a été annoncé, j'ai appelé ma nièce de neuf ans pour lui annoncer la nouvelle. Elle était extatique. Cela m'a rappelé qu'elle appartient à une nouvelle génération d'Américains née sous la présidence de Barack Hussein Obama. Quand elle grandira elle saura que Donald Trump a été président, mais elle saura également que Trump a été vaincu par une femme noire d'origine indienne. Pendant que nous parlions, ma nièce m'a dit : "Nous avons presque réussi, ma tante." Et j'ai pris conscience qu'elle avait raison : oui, nous y sommes presque.
Pourquoi est-il important d'atteindre la parité homme-femme dans la représentation politique ? S'agit-il uniquement des droits des femmes et de l'égalité des chances, ou aura-t-elle également des effets positifs sur les institutions démocratiques et les politiques publiques ?
L'une des principales raisons pour lesquelles nous avons besoin d'un plus grand nombre de femmes aux postes gouvernementaux est qu'elles ne gouvernent pas comme les hommes. Les femmes au gouvernement sont plus collaboratives, plus civiles, plus communicatives. Elles sont plus susceptibles de travailler avec des membres d'autres partis pour résoudre des problèmes. Elles obtiennent plus d'argent pour leurs localités, elles votent plus de lois et leurs projets sont davantage axés sur les populations les plus vulnérables telles que les enfants, les personnes âgées et les malades. Les femmes élargissent l'agenda politique, au-delà des questions qui concernent traditionnellement les femmes. Et cela produit de meilleures politiques pour tous, c'est-à-dire non seulement pour les femmes et les filles, mais aussi pour les hommes et les garçons. Enfin, dans la mesure où elles apportent un nouvel ensemble de perspectives et d'expériences de vie au processus d'élaboration des politiques, leur présence garantit que les perspectives des femmes ne soient pas négligées et que des questions telles que la violence sexiste ou les soins aux enfants ne soient pas ignorées. En bref, les femmes occupant des postes gouvernementaux ont tendance à être plus efficaces que les hommes. Et étant donnée la situation actuelle de stagnation politique et d'hyper-partisanerie, nous devons changer la façon de faire. Plus de femmes dans la fonction publique signifie un meilleur gouvernement et une démocratie plus forte.
De plus, la nécessité de femmes au pouvoir et en politique est devenue d’autant plus essentielle dans le contexte de la pandémie de COVID-19. Lors du dernier cycle électoral, les bailleurs de fonds voulaient plus que jamais contribuer aux campagnes électorales des femmes candidates, étant donné que la pandémie les a sensibilisés non seulement aux nombreuses inégalités qui affectent notre société et le système de santé, mais aussi au travail remarquable que les femmes, et en particulier les femmes noires, entreprennent dans leurs communautés pour répondre aux besoins urgents, combler les lacunes des politiques inadéquates du gouvernement et résoudre les problèmes des communautés exclues qui ont été affectées de manière disproportionnée par la COVID-19 et la crise économique. Au cours de cette crise, les femmes ont joué un rôle essentiel en soutenant la connexion des communautés, en collectant et en distribuant de la nourriture et d'autres produits de base aux familles en difficulté, en trouvant des moyens de soutenir l'activité économique locale et en fournissant des services communautaires ad hoc, entre autres.
Les recherches sur la manière dont divers pays ont répondu à la pandémie suggèrent que les pays avec des femmes au pouvoir ont tendance à avoir moins de cas et moins de décès dus à la COVID-19. Il semble que les femmes au pouvoir ont adopté un style de leadership transformateur qui peut être plus approprié pour la gestion des crises. Ce type de leadership se concentre sur les relations humaines profondes, l'investissement dans l'équipe de travail et l'échange de connaissances, l'action exemplaire et la motivation des autres. Cela représente des qualités très utiles dans notre contexte actuel.
Pourquoi pensez-vous que la représentation politique des femmes aux États-Unis est encore si faible ?
Il existe de nombreuses raisons pour lesquelles nous n'avons pas de parité entre les sexes dans la représentation politique. Tout d'abord, il y a encore trop de raisons structurelles pour lesquelles les femmes ne se présentent pas et ne sont pas élues. Les femmes effectuent encore une quantité disproportionnée de travaux ménagers et l'éducation des enfants, et la couverture médiatique reste sexiste, se concentrant sur les apparences et les personnalités des femmes plutôt que sur leurs positions politiques. En outre, les personnes qui occupent les structures des partis et qui ont des connaissances politiques, des réseaux et de l’argent sont encore des hommes, et ce sont souvent eux qui déterminent qui est politiquement viable. Par exemple, un jeune homme qui a étudié le développement communautaire à Harvard est considéré comme plus viable qu'une femme d'âge moyen qui travaille dans l'organisation communautaire depuis 20 ans.
Paradoxalement, les femmes candidates remportent les élections dans les mêmes proportions que leurs homologues masculins et, selon les sondages, les électeurs sont enthousiastes face à la possibilité d'élire des femmes. Mais la deuxième raison pour laquelle les femmes ne sont pas élues est tout simplement qu'elles ne se portent pas candidates autant que les hommes, et évidemment, dès lors que vous ne concourez pas, vous ne pourrez pas gagner.
Pourquoi les femmes ne présentent-elles pas leurs candidatures à des fonctions publiques ? La raison peut-être la plus répandue est que les femmes doutent d'elles-mêmes. Elles ne sont pas considérées comme qualifiées. Elles ne voient pas d'autres femmes qui leur ressemblent ou qui pensent comme elles dans ces positions de pouvoir, et c'est donc un cercle vicieux. Et non seulement les femmes doutent d'elles-mêmes, mais les observateurs extérieurs aussi. De ce fait, si une position de pouvoir particulière n'a jamais été occupée par une femme, la question qui se pose encore de façon répétée dans les médias, sur un ton de doute, est : une femme pourrait-elle être élue ? C'est une question que l'on entend beaucoup dans le cadre des primaires présidentielles démocrates de 2020.
Il y a aussi le fait que certaines qualités considérées comme positives chez les hommes, comme l'assurance ou l'ambition, prennent une connotation négative lorsqu'elles sont appliquées aux femmes. Alors qu'il y a sans aucun doute eu des hommes en colère et vengeurs qui ont été élus président, les femmes qui sont perçues comme « en colère » ou « vengeresses » sont considérées comme désagréables et donc disqualifiées. Les femmes candidates sont soumises à des attentes beaucoup plus élevées, parfois de leur propre fait, mais plus souvent par les autres, et par conséquent nous manquons de parité entre les sexes dans notre représentation politique.
Quand avez-vous réalisé que, contrairement aux hommes, les femmes avaient besoin d'une formation pour se présenter à des fonctions publiques ?
Bien que j'aie étudié les sciences politiques à l'université, je sentais que la politique américaine était sale et corrompue et je ne me suis jamais impliquée dans la politique électorale. Mais en 2001 ma cousine aînée, Mee Moua, a décidé de se porter candidate pour un siège au Sénat pour le district de East Saint Paul lors d'une élection spéciale. Le district oriental de Saint-Paul devenait rapidement un district où les minorités étaient majoritaires, mais tous ses élus, de l'état au comté et au niveau de la ville, étaient des hommes blancs conservateurs. Ma cousine était diplômée d'une université prestigieuse, avait exercé la profession d'avocate, avait été présidente de la Chambre de Commerce Hmong, et avait décidé de se présenter après avoir fait du bénévolat pendant des années dans de nombreuses campagnes politiques. Cependant, comme c'est souvent le cas pour les femmes candidates, on lui a dit qu'elle devait attendre son tour. Et bien, elle a décidé de ne pas le faire, et comme aucun acteur politique pertinent ne l'a aidée, elle a rassemblé nos 71 cousins germains pour devenir son armée de volontaires et m'a recrutée comme directrice de campagne, car j'étais la seule à avoir étudié les sciences politiques. Contre toute attente, sans expérience politique et au milieu de l'hiver du Minnesota, nous avons frappé aux portes, passé des appels téléphoniques, mobilisé les électeurs à l'aide des radios communautaires, amené les gens aux urnes, et gagné. Nous avons marqué l'histoire en élisant le premier législateur d'état Hmong de l'histoire américaine et de l'histoire des Hmong.
Rétrospectivement, je me rends compte que j'ai mené la campagne uniquement par instinct, alimentée par l'expérience de mon enfance d'aider mes parents non anglophones à se déplacer dans le monde extérieur. Et même si nous avons gagné, on aurait pu affronter un adversaire mieux organisé et perdu. Ce n'est que des années plus tard, après avoir suivi une formation politique au Camp Wellstone, que j'ai constaté que les femmes candidates avions besoin de quelque chose conçu spécialement pour nous, quelque chose qui nous interpellerait directement et nous préparerait aux vrais défis auxquels nous serions confrontées en tant que femmes candidates.
Quel type de formation propose Vote Run Lead et comment contribue-t-elle à briser les barrières qui empêchent les femmes d'accéder au pouvoir ?
Vote Run Lead est le programme de leadership des femmes le plus vaste et le plus diversifié aux États-Unis. Nous avons formé plus de 38 000 femmes pour se présenter à des fonctions publiques, y compris des femmes rurales, des femmes transgenre, des jeunes femmes et des femmes noires, autochtones et de couleur. Plus de 55% de nos diplômées qui ont participé à l'élection générale de 2020 ont gagné, et 71% de nos diplômées qui sont des femmes de couleur ont également été élues.
Les femmes que nous formons décident généralement de se présenter aux fonctions publiques parce qu'elles identifient quelque chose de négatif dans leurs communautés et veulent y remédier. Mais elles ne voient pas beaucoup de personnes comme elles dans des positions de pouvoir. Vote Run Lead propose plusieurs modules de formation qui apprennent aux femmes tout ce qu'elles doivent savoir sur la campagne électorale, qu'il s'agisse de prononcer un discours, de constituer une équipe de campagne ou de rédiger un message, de collecter des fonds ou de motiver les gens à voter. Mais ce qui distingue notre programme de formation, c'est que nous formons les femmes pour qu’elles postulent telles qu'elles sont. Les femmes ont souvent besoin de soutien pour se considérer comme étant des candidates qualifiées, capables et dignes. Nous leur montrons qu'elles n'ont pas besoin de rechercher une autre promotion ou d'obtenir un autre titre puisque, en fait, leur histoire personnelle est leur plus grand atout. Notre programme de formation, Run As You Are, rappelle aux femmes qu'elles suffisent et qu'elles sont le genre de leaders que nous devons élire pour bâtir la démocratie juste que nous méritons.
Quel est le profil « typique » de la femme que vous aidez à postuler ? Soutenez-vous une femme qui souhaite concourir quelle que soit son orientation politique ?
Il n'y a pas de formée typique de Vote Run Lead. Nous sommes une organisation non partisane, nous formons donc des femmes des milieux les plus divers, de toutes les professions, de tous les partis politiques et quel que soit leur niveau de développement politique. Nos valeurs sont profondément liées à la promotion de femmes intersectionnelles et antiracistes engagées à construire une démocratie plus juste et équitable.
Compte tenu du phénomène généralisé de suppression des électeurs aux États-Unis, le programme vise-t-il également à motiver la participation électorale ?
Traditionnellement, Vote Run Lead n'utilise pas son propre programme pour motiver la participation électorale (GOTV, pour son acronyme en anglais) étant donné que la plupart de nos diplômées dirigent une élection ou travaillent sur une campagne. Mais en 2020, lorsque les niveaux déjà élevés de suppression des électeurs ont été alimentés par des campagnes de désinformation et des préoccupations en matière de sécurité sanitaire, Vote Run Lead a lancé un solide programme GOTV qui a mobilisé les femmes formées chez nous. Ce programme GOTV comprenait huit modules de formation spécifiques pour motiver la participation électorale, allant de la manière de répondre à l'apathie et au cynisme autour de l'élection, aux plateformes numériques et aux outils de communication à utiliser pour promouvoir la participation. Nous avons également contacté plus de 200 bénévoles, eu 3 000 conversations, effectué 30 000 appels téléphoniques et envoyé plus de 33 000 messages texte pour que nos diplômés et leurs réseaux votent.
Avant l'été, nous avons également lancé une série intitulée « Votre armoire de cuisine », avec laquelle nous formons les femmes à la collecte de fonds, au contact direct avec les électeurs et même au lancement d'un plan numérique tout en maintenant une distanciation sociale. Ces guides et webinaires sont disponibles sur notre site Web et sur notre chaîne YouTube et offrent des conseils en temps réel et des informations factuelles.
#BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’
For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.
A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?
A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.
Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.
On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.
I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.
Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?
A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.
Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.
Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.
Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?
There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.
Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.
Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.
There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.
When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?
Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.
Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.
What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?
Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.
The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.
What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?
There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.
Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?
Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.
Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.
After elections, hard work starts for Zimbabwe’s civil society
By Teldah Mawarire, CIVICUS Campaigns and Advocacy Officer
For many Zimbabwean voters, casting their ballots on July 30 is sure to be a somewhat surreal experience. For the first time since the country’s independence, the ever-present face of Robert Mugabe will not be staring back at them on the ballot paper. But that new experience – while perhaps inspiring hopes for positive change among some – is likely to be preceded by an old, familiar feeling of déjà vu. The road to the 2018 general election has been littered with the same potholes of electoral irregularities and restrictive laws of previous polls.
Read on: Inter Press Service
Alert: Is the Ugandan administration "doing an Ethiopia"? CIVICUS concerned as Uganda replicates Ethiopia's authoritarian approach in the run up to the elections
Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.
As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.
ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential and National Assembly election in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment. MBAKITA is a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, it defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?
The political climate was veryunfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was alreadycharacterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.
Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.
Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.
ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.
What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?
Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.
A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.
In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.
The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.
On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.
As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statementindicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.
What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?
There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.
The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.
People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.
Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.
How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?
The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.
The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.
The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.
The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Angola: Restrictions on fundamental freedoms continue ahead of elections
The arraignment of two journalists in Angola on spurious charges is the latest assault on fundamental freedoms as the government increases restrictions on civic space ahead of crucial elections scheduled for 23 August 2017. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS urges the government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of journalists, and calls on international observers to ensure freedom of expression is respected in the run up to the elections.
On 20 June 2017, journalists Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras Lourenço were indicted by the Office of the Attorney General and charged with “outrage to a body sovereignty” and “insult against public authority” under the Law on Crimes Against the State and Penal Code respectively.
The charges stem from an article published by Rafael Marques on 26 October 2016 on his website Maka Angola, in which he exposed details of the dubious circumstances in which the Attorney General Joao Mana Moreira de Sousa purchased a piece of land in 2011. Mariano Bras Lourenço, Director of the O Crimenewspaper, was charged after he re-published Rafael’s article. Both journalists could face up to six years in jail.
“The judicial persecution of journalists is one of several strategies used by the Angolan government to silence critical voices in the lead -up to elections next month,” says Ine Van Severen,
Policy and Research Analyst at CIVICUS. “Angola is one of the most repressive states in the Southern Africa region as the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos has shown complete disregard towards human rights norms.”
Marques has been a victim of judicial persecution in the past. In 2015, he was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence after he was found guilty of defamation for publishing a book titled Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, in 2011. In the book, he revealed details of hundreds of killings by security guards and soldiers and human rights violations in the diamond fields of the Lundas region.
The Angolan authorities continue to use violence to disperse peaceful protests. On 24 June 2017, protests led by the Movimento do Protectorado Lunda Tchokwe (MPL-T) in the provinces of Moxico, Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul, were violently repressed by security forces. One person died, at least 13 were wounded, and over 78 protesters were detained. MPL-T has been demanding for autonomy for the Lundas region. More protests are planned for 29 July 2017.
In February 2017, security forces again used brute force to disperse peaceful protests in Luanda and Benguela. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the Minister for Territorial Administration because of a perceived conflict of interest in his position as a candidate for the ruling party in the August elections and his responsibilities to oversee the voter registration process.
Even though President José Eduardo dos Santos has agreed to step down after 38 years in power, his government is doing everything possible to ensure that the ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), maintains its grip on power.
CIVICUS calls on the Government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of media and respect the rights of all citizens to peacefully assemble.
Angola is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform tracking track civic rights violations around the world.
For more information, please contact:
Ine Van Severen
Policy and Research Analyst
Are women the last line of defence against Brazil’s authoritarian shift?
By Ana Cernov, human rights activist and Inés Pousadela, Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS
In a matter of days, 2.5 million Brazilian women had gathered on Facebook to discuss how to best present their case against Bolsonaro and how to take their action offline and organise themselves locally.
Read on: Open Democracy
ARGENTINA: ‘Milei’s victory expresses the rejection of the previous governments’
CIVICUS speaks with Yanina Welp, researcher at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, about the results of Argentina’s runoff presidential election, won by a far-right outsider.
How do you explain the victory of Javier Milei, an outsider with no party structure?
Milei’s victory, like that of any other candidate, cannot be explained by a single reason. There are at least three main explanations for his victory.
First, there’s the economic situation. On top of a high level of poverty – 40 per cent and growing – Argentina has very high inflation, and the economy hasn’t grown for many years. And the same goes for formal employment. There are a lot of informal workers and many people experience high levels of uncertainty.
Second is the inability of the political class to respond to these demands. Most recently, those in power have acted arrogantly. Insecurity, corruption scandals and the passivity of the authorities in the face of all these have increased. Milei’s leadership came to embody people’s rejection of the situation. Many people voted for him because he expresses well the rejection of recent administrations, and not necessarily because they approve of or adhere to the policies he has proposed to implement.
Third, there’s the role of political leadership, and specifically of the incumbent, for doing nothing in the face of this threat and even encouraging Milei’s candidacy with the aim of dividing the opposition’s vote and therefore having a better chance at winning. This was done first by Peronists, in the run-up to the first round, and by former president Mauricio Macri ahead of the runoff, which put his Together for Change coalition in crisis.
Do you think the electorate has leaned to the right?
Unlike almost all the other candidates, who only had vague and general proposals, Milei ran on a strongly ideological platform, which he kept putting forward throughout the campaign.
However, when analysing people’s attitudes, there are contradictions, first and foremost because there is no universal notion of what is supposed to be ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’. For instance, polls show growing concern about rising insecurity, and it would be very elitist to think that having this concern makes you right-wing. The rise in crime shows that it is a real concern.
It is true that in this election campaign positive perceptions of the private sector have increased compared to perceptions of the public administration, possibly as a result of Milei’s discourse but also because the image of the state has deteriorated considerably under recent administrations. In this sense, it could be said that voters have indeed moved towards the right. But Milei’s victory with almost 56 per cent of the vote shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that more than half of the electorate have ideologically leaned rightwards, or even embraced the radical right, because many voted for him because he embodies the reaction to the status quo rather than because of his ideological proposals.
During the campaign it was argued that democracy was at stake. Is Argentina’s democracy in danger?
Democracy is not in imminent danger, as was the case with military coups, which wiped democracy away overnight. There are signs of democratic erosion – but these have been there for years. There has been both progress and setbacks, including attempts to co-opt the judiciary, the misuse of state resources and clientelistic practices.
Generally speaking, Argentina’s democratic institutions work. Despite the opposition’s complaints about the electoral system, the elections took place normally and the results were out very quickly.
However, we have seen a huge setback in terms of public debate. Intolerance and verbal violence have increased. Supporters of different parties can hardly talk to each other. There is a lot of aggression on social media. These are all medium-intensity warning signs that, if not addressed, will only pave the way for more violence and authoritarianism.
How will Argentina’s political scene change following this election?
Since 2003, with Néstor Kirchner’s election to the presidency, a system of two broad coalitions formed, which since 2007, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has been maintained by the introduction of open, simultaneous and compulsory primary elections. These served to avoid party fragmentation but had the negative effect of eroding programmatic or ideological differences. The two coalitions that formed as a result included their own right and left wings, blurring the ideological debate and replacing it with a divide between Peronism and anti-Peronism. This ended up encouraging affective polarisation with very watertight alignments where it is increasingly difficult to find common ground.
The fact that the presidential elections were won by a party that until a couple of years ago did not exist will force the two big coalitions of recent decades, the Peronist ruling party and the opposition Together for Change, to profoundly reconfigure themselves.
Within Peronism, former president and current vice-president Cristina Kirchner was the big loser of this election. In recent times she has been absent from the political scene, leaving Peronism without clear leadership. Peronism has strong roots in trade unions and social organisations that are highly dependent on the state. These organisations have incentives to negotiate, should the new government open up that space. However, Milei’s initial discourse has pointed in a completely different direction, insisting that he will take shock measures.
What are the main challenges the new government will face?
The new government should tackle three major challenges. The first is to stabilise the economy by stopping inflation and putting the exchange rate in order. The second is to introduce reforms to increase productivity and solve the crisis in formal employment. And the third is governance. Argentina has very strong social organisations, which has both positive and negative aspects, but in any case, it is a strongly organised society that is very predisposed to conflict.
These three challenges must be tackled in a coordinated and consistent way, which is quite difficult.
Do you think Milei’s government will be able to tackle them?
I have serious doubts that the new government will be able to meet these challenges, not only in the area of stabilisation and structural reforms, but also and above all in the area of governance. Many of the proposed measures, such as adopting the US dollar as the currency, could be found unconstitutional. Other measures require legislative majorities that the new government won’t have. Its only prospect of obtaining substantial legislative support was through Together for Change, but the division of the opposition coalition leaves Milei without even a congressional quorum.
Milei has not one provincial governorship and almost no mayorships. However, Argentina’s sub-national powerholders have always been accommodating and pragmatic. Still, some key measures would go directly against the interests of the provinces, such as the elimination of co-participation, the system through which the federal state distributes public resources from national taxes to the provinces. And then there is the potential confrontation with the province of Buenos Aires.
Milei could try to rule by decree, but this would cause an instant crisis, and in case of an impeachment trial the vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, would take over. This would not ensure any positive change but would rather imply some additional negative elements.
Milei was elected with a very large majority, so he has great popular legitimacy. But this majority could be inflated, as is often the case in runoffs, and is compounded by the volatility and impatience of a large part of Argentina’s electorate. If he succeeds in implementing his ultra-liberal programme, a global rarity, the social costs will be extremely high. And if he fails to do so, people’s disenchantment with politics could increase and their support for democracy could be called into question.
Civic space in Argentina is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Armenia: ‘For the quality of democracy to improve, judicial independence must be guaranteed and labour rights need further protection’
Elections held in Armenia in 2017 resulted in the ruling party holding onto power, but were marred by allegations of fraud, including vote-buying and misuse of state resources.CIVICUS speaks to Artur Sakunts, chairman of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor Office (HCA Vanadzor), a non-political, non-religious and not-for-profit civil society organisation that seeks to advance the values of human rights, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Armenia. HCA Vanadzor works in the areas of research, dissemination, litigation, training, lobbying, campaigning and the promotion of public debate.
1. How would you describe the current state of democracy and human rights in Armenia?
Since 2013, human rights and democracy have considerably regressed in Armenia. The constitutional referendum, held in 2015, and elections to the National Assembly and Yerevan City Council in 2017 were marked by fraud and procedural violations. As a result of the constitutional referendum, Armenia changed from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and the changes began to be implemented during the 2017 elections. The new parliamentary system strengthened the dominant position of the Republican Party, which is the main party, and the power of its leader. A number of opposition figures have suffered and still suffer persecution. Any demonstration of civic activism has faced a harsh reaction and pressure by law enforcement agencies, and the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and civil society initiatives has further shrunk. Additionally, the Four Day War with Azerbaijan in April 2016 led to a large loss of human lives and exposed the country's vulnerability to external threats. All these processes have occurred in an atmosphere of impunity. Meanwhile, the steps towards reform taken by the authorities have been reactive or aimed at solving problems by increasing the social burden on citizens rather than by making systemic changes.
In December 2015, a new phase of negotiations was launched between Armenia and the European Union (EU). The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialled in March 2017 and eventually signed in November 2017. However, the unpredictable behaviour of the Armenian authorities creates uncertainty in terms of the expected developments in EU-Armenia relations, even after the agreement has been signed.
2. Have recent changes in CSO regulations affected civil society’s ability to contribute to democratic governance?
On 16 December 2016, after long-held discussions, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was adopted, entitling CSOs to represent the public interest in court, albeit only in the field of environmental protection. It should be noted, however, that in its ruling of 7 September 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court recognised the right of CSOs to represent the public interest in national courts without any limitation.
Another risk associated with the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was that it initially prescribed state supervision over the financial activity of all CSOs. However, as a result of public debate, this requirement was eventually prescribed only for state-funded CSOs.
In short, contrary to expectations, the new regulations ended up being a positive development for civil society.
3. What is the environment like for human rights defenders in Armenia?
In early 2016 a well-known human rights defender, Karen Andreasyan, stepped down as Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman without providing any reasons. It should be noted that in the autumn of 2015, during the presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, Andreasyan was strongly criticised and personally insulted by Republican Party deputies. His resignation exposed the vulnerability of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In December 2013 Andreasyan had published a well-substantiated report on the spread of corruption in courts and the lack of independence of judges, which was harshly criticised by the Prosecutor General's Office, the Republican faction of the National Assembly and several judges. None of the concerns raised by the report on the state of the judiciary have been considered or examined.
Following the National Assembly’s appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, the concentration of oversight and protection mechanisms over different fields of human rights, including children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, has increasingly raised serious concerns. Along with such centralisation, space for other human rights institutions is becoming more limited and the variety of human rights protection mechanisms is being reduced. Given that since the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was introduced, all Ombudsmen have resigned before the end of their term under pressure from political and executive powers, the concentration of protection mechanisms in the hands of a single person makes the Human Rights Ombudsman and human rights protection mechanisms extremely vulnerable.
In early July 2016, an armed opposition group known as Sasna Tsrer seized a police station and took hostages. As Sasna Tsrer members underwent trial, significant restrictions were imposed on various stakeholders engaged with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, and particularly on attorneys and on the public monitoring group on penitentiary institutions. Before Sasna Tsrer’s surrender, members of the Group of Public Observers Conducting Public Monitoring in Penitentiary Institutions and Bodies of the Ministry of Justice were illegally banned from meeting Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner detained at the Vardashen penitentiary institution. Later, members of the Group of Public Observers were also banned from meeting Sasna Tsrer members detained at the Nubarashen penitentiary institution, after information was aired that on 28 June 2017 Sasna Tsrer members had been subjected to violence at the General Jurisdiction Court of the Avan and Nor Nork administrative districts.
It should be also noted that during the former Minister of Justice’s tenure, draft regulations were put forward suggesting that any new members of the Group of Public Observers would need to be confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, although the Group's Charter states that new members only need to be accepted by the Group itself. The draft regulation was rejected, but it was an attempt to restrict the activities and independence of the Group of Public Observers. The current Human Rights Ombudsman has not reacted in any way to this attempt, which is yet further evidence of the dangers of concentrating human rights defence mechanisms.
Illegal attempts were made to search the defence attorneys of Sasna Tsrer members before they entered the courtroom. As the attorneys resisted those searches, the court adopted a tactic of imposing sanctions on the attorneys and replacing them with public defenders, which posed a risk of substantially reducing the protection of Sasna Tsrer members. The legal community also faces pressures through disciplinary proceedings initiated against lawyers on suspicious grounds. An added challenge is the behaviour of the Bar Association, which imposes its own disciplinary sanctions on individual attorneys. The Bar Association’s chairman has openly argued against laws preventing domestic violence and has repeatedly made homophobic statements.
The environment has also been unfavourable for journalists, including legislative restrictions and physical attacks, particularly during protests, as well as legal actions meant to silence them.
4. How have the authorities responded to peaceful protests over the years?
President Serzh Sargsyan's second term in office, which began in 2013, has been marked by increasing civic activism, which has in turn been suppressed by the police and other state bodies. Citizens’ protests have mostly been related to various issues of public or social significance, particularly transportation and electricity price hikes, the introduction of a mandatory funded pension system, the dismantling and destruction of cultural monuments and environmental issues.
On 2 December 2013, the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Armenia, a large number of citizens held protests in Yerevan, the capital, against Armenia joining the Eurasian Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union. The police dispersed the protests using violence and apprehended 110 peaceful protesters, who were kept in police stations for eight hours without access to legal assistance.
The summer of 2015 was marked by the so-called ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests against the hike in electricity prices, which lasted almost two weeks. On 23 June 2015 at 5am, the police used water cannons to disperse a peaceful sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. Using physical violence, the police apprehended around 240 protesters and attacked 21 journalists, damaging their equipment. Following the police violence, the number of sit-in participants dramatically rose, but at the end of June 2015 protesters split up as some of them obeyed police warnings and moved to Liberty Square. The number of sit-in participants on Baghramyan Avenue gradually decreased, and on 6 July 2015 the police eventually dispersed the demonstration. Criminal proceedings were initiated, against both protesters and police officers that used violence against them. Four police officers faced charges for using violence against journalists, but none has so far been held liable for the violence.
In July 2016, following the Sasna Tsrer incident, a series of mass protests was held in Khorenatsi Street and Liberty Square in Yerevan, and the police again used violence against the demonstrators. Hundreds of people were illegally apprehended and the protests were brutally dispersed through excessive force. According to official data, between 17 July and 4 August 2016, 775 people were arrested. On 20 and 29 July 2016 police used unprecedented violence against protesters; as a result, several protesters and journalists received serious bodily injuries. For the first time in the entire history of the Republic of Armenia, protesters were violently taken to the Police Internal Troops barracks and illegally deprived of their freedom. Many people compared this with the situation in Chile in 1973 when dictator Augusto Pinochet kept people captive in a football stadium.
As a rule, no police officer that uses violence against protesters or violates their rights in any way are held accountable, while protesters are liable for administrative and criminal offences. In this regard, it should be noted that in 2012 a Police Disciplinary Commission was created with a provision allowing for the inclusion of representatives from five CSOs. The Disciplinary Commission’s membership and procedures were decided by the government. However, through a decree issued on 31 March 2016, the government handed this power over to the Chief of Police. This change may lead to a conflict of interests and to a further reduction of the Commission’s independence.
5. Have any civil society freedoms been restricted around the 2017 elections?
The new draft Electoral Code resulting from the constitutional amendments first became available on 22 February 2016 on the official website of the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters), in English. Its Armenian version was posted on the Armenian government’s website no sooner than 3 March 2016.
Unlike what had happened with the draft constitutional amendments and the initial draft of the Electoral Code, which had been prepared within a narrow pro-government circle, wider participation was ensured during the further amendment of the Electoral Code. At the suggestion of Levon Zurabyan, a deputy with an opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, negotiations on the draft Electoral Code started between the ruling party, the political opposition and civil society in a 4+4+4 format. As a result, the Electoral Code included a number of recommendations, mostly of an administrative nature, put forward by the opposition and civil society. However, the authorities made no concessions on issues of political significance or that would affect the distribution of power in the parliament to be formed. It should be noted that civil society members took part in the negotiations only at the initial stage and refused to sign the agreements that were eventually reached by the government and the opposition.
The Electoral Code adopted in May 2016 imposed significant restrictions on observers and mass media representatives. In particular, the Code gave precinct electoral commissions the right to set a maximum number of observers and mass media representatives allowed at a polling station. The Code set a requirement for election observation organisations to have had a provision on human rights and democracy in their statutory goals for at least the past year and imposed an accreditation requirement for mass media, allowing for only a limited number of representatives. As a result, a media outlet may have a maximum of 50 representatives throughout the country. The new Electoral Code also stipulates that commission members may remove observers, mass media representatives and proxies from a polling station by a vote.
It is noteworthy that the Electoral Code considers CSOs as the main entities engaged in civic oversight and particularly in electoral observation, but it gives them no right to appeal against the actions or inactions of electoral commissions, or election results, or to file any other complaints.
The Code extended the voting population, as the right to vote was granted to persons who have committed crimes of minor and medium gravity and have served their sentences, and to persons doing military study abroad; however, the rest of the approximately 450,000 to 500,000 Armenian nationals living abroad were not granted the opportunity to vote.
As a result of amendments passed a few months later, the Electoral Code also provided for the publication of signed voter lists, something that the opposition and civil society had been demanding for years. Citizens were given the right to file an application for voter impersonation cases, although the Armenian Criminal Code included an article on false statements regarding such applications. According to the Central Electoral Commission’s report, only one person filed an application on voter impersonation in the context of the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017. Among other reasons, this might have been due to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, though it is widely held that the number of cases of multiple voting or voter impersonation during the elections was not considerable, and the authorities mostly distorted the election through the abuse of administrative resources and vote-buying.
During the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017 and the Yerevan City Council elections of 14 May 2017, widespread abuses were identified that took the form of fake observation. The Central Electoral Commission accredited around 28,000 observers from 49 organisations to observe the National Assembly elections. The overwhelming majority of those observers acted at polling stations mostly as proxies representing the interests of the Republican Party or the Tsarukyan Bloc, which came second in the election.
6. What needs to change for the quality of democracy to improve in Armenia?
First, more protection of labour rights is needed in both the government and business sectors, where rights are not protected. This was explicitly revealed during the recent elections. At the same time, the independence of the business sector and the protection of their rights from the ruling elites should be ensured as well.
The second important issue is judicial independence from executive power. Control of the judiciary is the main tool that the government uses to reinforce impunity, and this is an obstacle for the effective protection of citizens and civil society groups.
As India goes to to the polls, will the people vote against the ‘politics of hate’
By Alina Tiphagne, Human Rights Defenders Alert (HRDA)
In just under a week, the world’s largest democracy, India, will vote to elect and constitute the 17th Lok Sabha. According to the Election Commission (EC) of India, nearly 900 million voters will be eligible to vote for representatives to the lower house or the Lok Sabha of the bicameral Indian Parliament. Voting will begin on 11th April and be held in seven phases till 19th May, 2019 across 543 constituencies. The EC has also declared 23rd May, 2019 the day of counting and results.
Attacks on opposition and media continue as elections approach in Maldives
Attacks on opposition and media continue as elections approach in #Maldiveshttps://t.co/IVqYT0xf9w #Civicspace in The Maldives is rated as "Obstructed" by the @CIVICUSMonitor pic.twitter.com/oDnLZxAIy4— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) September 20, 2018
- State slaps opposition supporters with spurious “terrorism” charges ahead of elections
- Opposition campaign offices and members’ properties attacked and vandalised
- New cumbersome visa requirements for foreign journalists adds to media restrictions
- Global human rights groups call for probe into attacks and an end to media repression
BAHRAIN: ‘The government uses public relations to mask human rights violations’
CIVICUS speaks withDrewery Dyke of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) about closed civic and democratic space in Bahrain as the state prepares to host the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU Assembly takes place in the capital, Manama,from 11 to 15 March 2023.
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, and also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
We last spoke on the eve of the parliamentary election held in November 2022. How has civic space in Bahrain evolved since?
The government of Bahrain held the November 2022 parliamentary election under the same, highly restrictive, 2018 Political Rights Law used in the 2018 elections. It banned scores of people from being able to vote or stand for election on spurious grounds such as affiliation to a banned political party or having a criminal record.
Bahrain’s international partners, United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and civil society all decried the banning of political parties, as it flew in the face of international standards and simply deprived many people of having a voice. The court cases, too, dating from the 2011 unrest, were grossly unfair. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee denounced both the Political Isolation Law and the Law on Associations
And yet there seems to be a small opening for civil society and greater freedoms. The regional mood music appears to be changing, with the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates normalising relations with Qatar, and the Bahraini government having set out a 2022-2026 National Human Rights Plan.
Bahrain’s government appears to have signalled that it is minded to undertake some reform but civil society remains highly sceptical. Many of us are concerned that the government is once again using public relations initiatives to project an image of the country that masks longstanding, unresolved human rights violations for which there has been no accountability.
Is change possible? Yes, to some degree, it appears so. But civil society needs to remain vigilant and sceptical. Action will speak louder than words. An amendment of existing laws on political and civil society organisations is now a must.
How does Salam DHR manage to work in such a restrictive environment?
Current legislation makes it impossible for our organisation to register and openly carry out any research or advocacy in Bahrain. That has been the case since 2013. And yet at least one woman human rights defender who is linked to Salam DHR and other human rights CSOs has remained active inside Bahrain. She walks a tightrope on a daily basis, taking action to support individuals, notably prisoners of conscience. Lawyers, political and civil society activists and others from all walks of life continue to contact us but we cannot discuss their identities to protect their safety. It is a challenge.
In November 2022, however, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights obtained accreditation to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which means it can now formally participate in UN meetings and events. This important step could help prise open the space for civil society just that little bit more. We will see.
Why do you think the Bahraini government offered to host the IPU Assembly?
The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing. The IPU’s catchphrase on its website is ‘For democracy. For everyone’. The government seeks to own this message in a situation where democracy does not exist.
The theme of the 146th Assembly is ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.
Possibly to foster its mission, the IPU accepted the Bahraini government’s offer to hold its meeting in Manama. Is that problematic? In some ways, yes. But it is upon us to promote – peacefully – democratic change that advances adherence to international human rights standards. And parliamentarians from around the world attending the IPU Assembly could help chip away at deeply rooted discrimination and the fact that so many in civil society are deprived of having a voice or are afraid to use it.
Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly.
The IPU Assembly may be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns. Parliamentarians are a building block of a free civil society. We need them to step up during the Assembly to make that a reality in Bahrain.
How could this whitewashing attempt become an advocacy opportunity?
The IPU Assembly will be a pivotal opportunity for advocacy. Visiting parliamentarians must make it so. They must reject baseless hype and propaganda depicting Bahrain as a land of freedom and democracy.
In a recently published brief, Salam DHR is urging attending parliamentarians to join with other parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarianshas lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship. We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.
We urge visiting parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment, and to meet with human rights activists and others in civil society while in Bahrain.
How can the international community better support Bahraini civil society and activism for democracy?
Civil society in and engaged with Bahrain needs the international community to listen and speak with us, to hear our experiences and work with us. There is a narrative and experience that differs from the public relations whitewashing by the government.
We are saying that there are longstanding problems that need to be addressed, in terms of law, practice and accountability. But we are also saying that we believe that Bahrain’s international partners – from varying states, including European Union member states, the UK and USA, and the UN and its human rights bodies – and now parliamentarians can all work together, in unison, to erode the climate of repression that denies respect for human dignity, in order to empower Bahraini civil society and gradually build a more open and rights-respecting country.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BAHRAIN: ‘This election is make-believe: its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy’
CIVICUS speaks about the election being held today in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian. In the 2010 election his political group, al-Wefaq, won 18 out of 40 seats, becoming the largest group in the Council of Representatives. They all resigned in repudiation of the repression of protests in 2011, and Jawad and another parliamentarian were arrested, tortured and ill-treated in detention. In November 2012, while he was visiting the UK, the government withdrew his citizenship, making him stateless. He became a campaigner against statelessness and for the rights of the stateless and founded Salam DHR in 2013.
What is the significance of today’s election?
Elections matter, or at least they should. In Bahrain, elections for municipal councils and the 40-seat parliament, the Council of Representatives, are held every four years, with possible runoffs where no candidate obtains a majority.
Between 2002 and 2010, these elections were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.
Far more than now, they showed elections are a pivotal moment for social and political renewal – for those who will shape society to engage with civil society and to accommodate differing social and political views. Elections can create a sense of shared ownership, and in a context of tolerance and acceptance they can foster a vibrant and responsible civil society. They can help build a culture of human rights.
But that is not the case with today’s election.
This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.
This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.
But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.
Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We need to start organising now so that global parliamentarians can help carry our voices and those of international civil society to the heart of Manama.
We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent. We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace. We are looking forward.
Have further restrictions been imposed on civic space in the run-up to the election?
Not really, as most of the damage was already done.
In December 2014, the authorities imprisoned Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the largest political association. He was arrested for protesting against the parliamentary elections, which al-Wefaq boycotted because promised reforms had not been implemented. In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges such as inciting hatred, disturbing the peace and insulting public institutions, but he was acquitted of the most serious charge, of inciting political change, which could carry a life sentence.
He appealed, but so did the prosecutor, who demanded a stricter sentence, and in 2016 his prison sentence was increased to nine years. Further charges were subsequently added and in 2017 he was accused and tried for the crime of ‘spying for Qatar’. For having tried to mediate in Bahrain’s conflict with Qatar, the authorities handed him a life sentence.
In July 2016, a court in Bahrain dissolved and banned Al-Wefaq after accusing it of fostering violence and ‘terrorism’. In May 2017, the main non-sectarian political association, Wa’d, was shut down as well, also under accusations of advocating violence, supporting terrorism and inciting crimes.
In advance of the 2018 parliamentary election, the government amended the NGO law, extending restrictions on who could establish or be on a CSO board, irrespective of the organisation’s nature – this applies even to organisations working on sports, working with the community or providing charitable services. It also forbade all those linked to banned political parties from engaging with CSOs.
In addition, anyone sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment, even if subsequently pardoned by the King, convicted in error or provided with a ‘no objection certificate’, is now deprived for life of voting rights and the right to stand for election. Likewise, all those who for whatever reason did not take part in the previous election have been banned from taking part in the next.
Having crushed civic space for years, in the run-up to the 2022 election the authorities only needed to ensure that calm persisted. To that effect, in September the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs issued vaguely worded regulations that appeared to link electioneering and religion. Among other things, these regulations banned the holding of meetings in public religious centres and other public places such as educational facilities. They appeared aimed at the majority Shi’a community for whom such centres have often become the only places where they – we – are allowed to gather.
What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?
In Bahrain, the very existence of a civil society – let alone an independent one – depends on the political will and whim of the government: the Ministry of Labour and Social Development controls the licensing of all CSOs.
The newly amended NGO Law redefined who could establish and run a CSO and prohibited members of banned political bodies from setting up a CSO. These new rules were applied in January 2022 to forbid two peaceful women activists, Zainab al-Durazi and Safia al-Hasan, taking up the board positions to which they had been freely elected in a women-focused CSO. The two women had been linked to the banned group Wa’d.
Do some of the activities of CSOs whose directors are demonstrably loyal to the state help and support society’s needs? Of course they do. We need them and we commend such organisations. But they are not independent.
Those perceived as not personally loyal to the government and its leaders do not get licences to operate any CSO and are not allowed to be on supervisory boards, in any sector, in total contravention to international law and practice, and completely against the wishes of Bahraini people. A thorough vetting process ensures this remains the case.
All CSOs must obtain permission to engage in any way with non-Bahraini bodies such as foreign or international human rights groups or to meet with foreign Bahrain-based diplomats. If they get permission and the meeting takes place, the government requires the participation of a Foreign Ministry representative and the preparation of notes for the meeting, subject to approval. If this is not done, the representative of the CSO risks criminal charges or the closure of the organisation.
The absence of an independent civil society means that any consultation that does take place is performative – just for show. The authorities don’t typically take the limited civil society that is loyal to the government into account, so independent voices are simply not even in the picture.
If the government only consults those of whom they approve, and even then, only barely, how will that shape government policy? How can it capture the concerns and wishes of the wider population? How is this sustainable? Well, it isn’t. It is unwise and risks creating conditions similar to those that resulted in a national crisis in 2011.
What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?
Recent history has shown that democratic institutions are difficult to build and easy to lose. In Bahrain and the Gulf, the human rights movement does not call for removal of X so that they be replaced by Y. Instead, we build case studies from each country to show the inequities of laws and practices, and we campaign on that. The reform of specific practices, in certain areas – the administration of justice, the freedom of assembly – is achievable if the authorities in Bahrain and across the Gulf actually engage with human rights groups and United Nations human rights bodies.
We need the Bahraini authorities to provide some genuine representation of the people by the people. We are ready to have a real, genuine dialogue with the authorities, but there needs to be a level playing field. If, despite the restrictions placed on them, the parliamentarians elected in this election step up, then we will have a chance to make a difference going forward. But just as we dare to dream and act, they need to do so too.
What kind of support does Bahraini civil society need from the international community?
We need more engagement. We need states and friends in international civil society to step up and explain the character and vision of the democratic society that the majority of Bahrainis seek; to explain that it does not represent a threat but rather an unlocking of potential.
We need international civil society counterparts to engage in international fora, not only to reflect and project our voice but also to emphasise the role and inherent legitimacy of Bahraini civil society to the Bahraini authorities.
We need our international partners to put pressure on the government’s human rights oversight bodies – the Ombudsman’s office, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights – to provide real rather than cosmetic redress, accountability and reform. Some of these oversight bodies have helped migrant workers facing abuse, but even then, their scope has been limited as they have failed to address underlying unjust laws or practices.
We need help and expertise to collate evidence to mount realistic claims for accountability in jurisdictions that have provisions for sanctioning, such as the Global Magnitsky Act that the US government uses to sanction foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders,
We need international civil society to press the government of Bahrain to explain why it has failed to adhere to the international conventions to which it has acceded, or why it has not acceded to additional standards such as optional protocols, or been clearer about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BANGLADESH: ‘The government is banishing the opposition in the run-up to the election’
CIVICUS speaks with Zaman Ashraf about the current pre-election crackdown in Bangladesh.
Zaman is a Bangladeshi human rights defender who advocates for the rights of survivors of torture and victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and seeks stronger legal protections for human rights in compliance with international law. He currently lives in exile in Hong Kong, since human rights activism has become increasingly risky in Bangladesh.
BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’
CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.
BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’
CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.
BOLIVIE : « La pandémie est devenue une justification pour le renforcement du contrôle de l’information »
CIVICUS s’entretien sur la situation politique bolivienne et le calendrier électoral dans le cadre de la pandémie de COVID-19 avec Cristian León, directeur des programmes d’Asuntos del Sur et coordinateur de Public Innovation 360, un projet qui poursuit le renforcement démocratique des gouvernements infranationaux et qui est mis en œuvre dans trois pays d’Amérique latine. Asuntos del Sur est une organisation régionale de la société civile basée en Argentine qui conçoit et met en œuvre des innovations politiques pour développer des démocraties paritaires, inclusives et participatives. Cristian León est également l’un des fondateurs, et actuellement un contributeur, d’InternetBolivia.org, qui défend les droits numériques en Bolivie.