• ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They want to stop us because we do make a difference’

    Giada NegriAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Europe with Giada Negri, research and advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum (ECF). The ECF is a network of civil society organisations working on citizenship education, human rights advocacy and the promotion of democracy.


    What kind of work does the European Civic Forum do?

    The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a European network that includes over a hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from all across the European Union and the Balkans. It began in 2005 as an informal network and became official in 2007. This happened at a crucial moment because the Constitutional Treaty – the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – had just been thrown out as a result of popular votes. It was time to discuss serious issues related to democracy, issues that were transversal to civil society across countries, and the ECF thought it could provide a space for these debates to take place.

    More recently we started working on civic space, as our members and partners began to notice an increased pressure on civil society. The tipping point was the approval of the Anti-Foreign NGO Law in Hungary in 2017. About one-and-a-half years ago the ECF created a platform for civic space, Civic Space Watch, to collect resources, analyses, updates and articles on the state of civic space and civic freedoms in Europe, and to fuel civil society reaction to restrictions. We want civil society to be able to request and receive solidarity across borders, so if there is an attack in one country there is a shared understanding of what is happening and a quick collective reaction against it.

    What would you say are the main current threats against civic space in Europe?

    To understand these threats we have to take step back and look at what CSOs and social movements have been doing over several years – denouncing a system that has proven socially, environmentally and politically unsustainable and filling in the gaps in many areas and in different ways, whether by providing services and proposing practical solutions or by keeping the powerful accountable and keeping on the agenda the values and principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Civic space, the space to call out the powerful and to express dissent, has been restricted in an attempt to maintain a system that is not working for all anymore. We see rising illiberalism and the tendency to securitise public discourse and public space at the same time as social policies shrink. The underlying factor is a neoliberal vision of the world that views society as just a collection of individuals put together, and that does not recognise the importance of the value of social justice and the responsibility of public policies to deliver for everybody and to include everybody in the discussion.

    The specific challenges that civil society face are very diverse and differ among countries, as do the main actors that are targeted. But we are seeing some trends emerge across the European continent, so it is important to put them on the European agenda and raise them with European Union (EU) institutions. While some instances of restriction in countries such as Hungary and Poland are being very well covered by the media, other countries are experiencing attacks that are not being sufficiently discussed, such as violent policing and censorship in France or Spain.

    In other countries challenges are more subtle and tend to be ignored. For instance, in February 2019 a German Court ruled that the German branch of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) should have its public benefit status withdrawn due to its activities being ‘political’. This raises the worry that organisations promoting causes like tax justice might become afraid to speak up against the powerful and denounce policies that don’t work or that work to the benefit of few people because their financial capacity and therefore their continued existence could be at stake.

    Clearly civic space is not being restricted equally for everybody: specific groups are being targeted. Which groups are the most targeted in Europe?

    On the Civic Space Watch we see that those most affected by the introduction or tightening of civic space restrictions have been environmental organisations, groups providing solidarity to migrants and those fighting for inclusion, social sustainability, the rule of law and sexual and reproductive rights. All of these have found themselves at the centre of controversies because they point out systemic failures and injustices. Which issues are the more controversial, and therefore which groups find themselves under the most pressure, varies between countries. But whatever those issues are, the groups working on them and denouncing failures of the system are the most under pressure.

    Do all of these restrictions originate from the state, or are others imposing them as well?

    The state authorities and agencies, at all levels, are still the main actors responsible for civic space restrictions. But we are definitely seeing non-state actors threatening civic space as well. In several countries we have reported non-state groups, including private companies, taking action against the freedom of expression or the freedom of peaceful assembly. More research is needed about these because this is an emerging threat in many contexts – we have had cases reported in France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and so on. Additionally, we are also seeing anti-rights groups that are gaining confidence to act against the rights of certain people.

    European society is becoming increasingly polarised around many issues, which is making it easier for these groups to gain a support that would previously have been thought impossible. They promote a view of rights that creates competition between vulnerable groups or is exclusive of some groups on grounds of identity, culture or sexual orientation. They have become really good at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audiences, which in turn are the result of policies that have brought competition of all against all into our societies. They are being able to use human rights language and human rights tools, which is also new.

    In Romania, for instance, anti-rights groups gathered thousands of signatures to call a referendum to try to ban same-sex marriage. They used the tools of participatory democracy to try to change the Constitution, which did not specify the gender of the people in a marriage. Although a lot of resources were spent to promote it, this referendum failed. But in the process, anti-rights groups targeted LGBTQI people and activists and there was a rise in hate crime. In contexts like this, I fear for democracy. The fact that these groups are using democratic tools may be used as an excuse for governments to start withdrawing these democratic tools; however, I am convinced that less democracy can’t ever be the answer to these issues.

    Certain extremist groups – specifically neo-fascist ones – are using very confrontational tactics, such as physical attacks against the police, activists, vulnerable groups and CSOs. Thanks to their confrontational strategies they are gaining space in the media, which gives them an audience. European countries have legislation against these kinds of groups, but the authorities are failing to call them out, prosecute them and outlaw them, which confers some legitimacy on them. Around certain issues, such as migration, these groups are increasingly present in the public sphere. As governments also pick up the topic and treat migration as a problem in much the same way, they legitimise anti-migrant groups to the same extent that they criminalise the civil society groups that work to provide support to migrants.

    There is already a lot of knowledge about these extremist groups in individual countries, although less about conservative groups that are not necessarily extremist. But we need to learn more about how they are interconnected, because they clearly are. Connections happen at all levels, from top to bottom. At the highest political level, right-wing populist leaders restricting civic space and targeting marginalised groups are connecting, cooperating and learning from one another. In a highly symbolic gesture, in May 2019 Italy’s far-right Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where fences had been built to stop the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers coming north through the Balkans. The measures that Salvini proposes are very similar to Orbán’s, and they wanted to show to the world a unified front against migration.

    Anti-rights groups are also connected at the grassroots level. A clear example of this was the World Congress of Families that gathered in March 2019 in Verona, Italy. It was a massive gathering of activists from around the world, united by their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their vocal hate for LGBTQI people. But in this case the opposition was also strong and brought activists from all across Europe.

    How is progressive civil society responding to anti-rights groups? And what else should it do to respond more effectively?

    Solidarity is key. Civil society mobilisation in support of threatened groups provides a lot of the psychological strength needed to keep going, and has also brought important, tangible successes. In May 2018 Ireland celebrated a historic referendum that legalised abortion, and civil society mobilised around the right of women to choose not only in Ireland itself but also in other countries, as a way of saying, ‘We stand with you in solidarity, we are united for the same cause, an attack against one of us is an attack against us all’. In Poland, when the government tried to push through even more restrictive legislation of abortion, even though the law that is in place is already among the strictest in the world, civil society repeatedly mobilised. Women protested massively in 2016, in 2017, and keep doing so, not only in Poland but everywhere in Europe. So far, they have been very successful in stopping restrictive legislation.

    I think all rights are connected – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental rights – so if one of them is taken away, the whole universality of rights shrinks as well. Civil society has learned that we must react not just when those rights that we fight for are being threatened, or when it is political or civil rights that are under pressure, but every time any right is under threat. And we should not only point out when democratic mechanisms don’t work; democracy should not merely function, but it should function for everyone, so we should keep pointing out when that is not happening.

    It is also really important that we start telling the stories of our victories, because we are really good at pointing out when there are problems and sometimes it’s just necessary to acknowledge to ourselves, ‘hey, we did that’. We need to celebrate our victories because they are victories for everybody, and also because it boosts our confidence and gives us the strength to keep fighting. That is why the campaign that we started in 2018 around the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we are carrying out again this year and, we hope, in the years to come, takes the form of a celebration of all the work that civil society has done, trying to show the real, amazing impact of what we do, and the fact that everything would be quite different without us, because of all the human rights victories that would not have happened.

    I think I sometimes made that mistake when I started studying civic space and looking into civic space restrictions: when focusing so much on the restrictions, I lost sight of the fact that those restrictions were being introduced in reaction to our successes. We were being restrained precisely because we were winning, and someone resented it. They want to stop us because we do make a difference.

    Get in touch with the European Civic Forum through itswebsite andFacebook page, andfollow@ForCivicEU and@GiadaNegri on Twitter.

  • ‘Dutch citizens feel a major disconnect from politics’

    The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisationin the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.

    1. How would you describe the state of democracy in the Netherlands?

    The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.

    Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.

    The political landscape is polarising.  After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.

    A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.   

    1. Has the practice of democracy in the country changed (for better or worse) over the past few years?

    More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights. 

    When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country. 

    The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.

    At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.   

    1. In which ways have the recent elections altered the political and ideological landscape? Has the political conversation deteriorated as a result of the challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party?

    There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.

    At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.

    1. What is progressive civil society doing, and what should it do, to resist the rise of authoritarian, isolationist populism?

    The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach. 

    It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.

    At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.

    What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.

    • Civic space in the Netherlands was recently downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that rates the conditions for civil society in every country in the world. This downgrade was influenced by increasing infringements of protest and expression rights and a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the election.
    • Get in touch with Kompass through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow @KompassNL on Twitter
  • ‘People have power, even if they don’t usually feel like they do’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson of the Abortion Rights Campaign, in the aftermath of the historic vote that repealed the eighth amendment of Ireland’s Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

    See also our interview with Ivana Bacik, Irish Senator and campaigner for abortion rights.

    1. The vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution exceeded 66 per cent. Did you see it coming?

    We had lots of surprises – we certainly never saw 66 per cent coming. We thought it would be hard win, slightly over 50, 55 per cent at the most. We also thought that the people who were not really engaged would just stay home and not make what they surely considered a tough choice. But with close to 70 per cent, turnout was the third highest ever for a referendum.

    Just so it is clear, it wasn’t our choice to go to a referendum, and I would never recommend it if it can be avoided. It is really tough, and while we won, it was a hard win, as people had to expose themselves and their stories. It was also expensive. But it was the only way to do this, as the amendment was in the Constitution.

    2. What was the state of public opinion when the process started?

    It is not easy to put a date to the beginning of the process. For my organisation, the Abortion Rights Campaign, it began in 2012. We started work in reaction to two major incidents around abortion rights that took place in Ireland in 2012. In the summer of that year, Youth Defence, a very militant anti-choice organisation, put up billboards all around Dublin, saying that abortion hurt women, stigmatising women who had had abortions, and saying lots of things that weren’t true. The protests that took place in reaction to this campaign were the biggest pro-choice demonstrations in a long time. This time, we were also organising online, on Facebook and Twitter, and this made it easier to get information out, so the protests were quite large. The first March for Choice, held in September 2012, gathered a couple of thousand people, which was no small feat at the time. It was the biggest in about a decade.

    A month later, Savita Halappanavar died. Savita was pregnant and died because she was refused an abortion. She had been told she was going to have a miscarriage and there was a risk of infection but, according to the law, doctors were not allowed to intervene until her life was at imminent risk. This was a real wake-up call and put us under the global spotlight. Soon afterwards, in January 2013, the Abortion Rights Campaign began its work.

    But none of this happened out of the blue; it was the result of decades of activism. And of course, the Abortion Rights Campaign was just one among many groups rallying for repeal. But Savita’s death was a turning point: many young people started their journey when it happened. From then on, the Marches for Choice got bigger and bigger every year and at some point, we figured out that we had to call a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and push for political change. We had been agitating for a while, marching in the streets and getting bigger and stronger, and in the meantime, other terrible things that happened strengthened the view that change was necessary, including a horrific court case involving a young brain-dead woman kept on life support against her family’s wishes because she was 16 weeks pregnant.

    3. How did you manage to shift public opinion towards repeal?

    In early 2016 Amnesty International commissioned a poll that showed overwhelming support for change, with a breakdown of where people stood regarding different causes for legal abortion, including incest, rape, risk to the woman’s health and foetal abnormality. A little under 40 per cent were in favour of allowing women to access abortion as they choose, while about 40 per cent were in favour of allowing it only under very restrictive circumstances. Going in, we estimated we were looking at a maximum of 45 per cent of support.

    So we started with a strong, solid base of 40-plus per cent, and we knew the other side had a solid 10 to 20 per cent. There were lots of people, another 40 per cent, who were in doubt, unsure of where they stood. These were the people who could tip the scale, so we had to go talk to them. The common thinking is that people who are unsure will stick to the status quo because that’s what they know. But we knew that when people get the facts, when they get to listen to the evidence, they tend to come to a more pro-choice position. We knew this because that is exactly what happened to each of us, personally: we heard about the issue, thought about it, said ‘well, actually that’s really unfair, let’s work on it’. That’s also what we saw happen at the Citizen’s Assembly and again at the Joint Parliamentary Committee. We saw this time and again and knew it was just a matter of letting people have these conversations. We knew there was a big swathe of people that needed to be persuaded one way or the other, so this was a big part of our strategy: to encourage conversation and bring the tools so they could take place.

    As activism grew and marches got bigger, we figured out a couple of things. One was that there was an increasing sentiment for change: no matter how you felt about abortion, there was a growing sense that the status quo was not helping women. Our abortion policies had drawn criticism from international human rights bodies. This just couldn’t go on – so at some point we needed to start talking to politicians to make sure they understood that they couldn’t brush the issue under the carpet anymore.

    So we decided to make abortion a red-line issue in the 2016 general elections – that is, a key issue that politicians would be asked about daily as they knocked on our doors to ask for our votes. And we gave people the language to talk to their politicians about the issue. We knew that if they encountered the issue once and again when they were canvassing, they would pay attention. We did this in a number of ways: we had civic engagement training sessions where we would give people information about how referendums work, how the law works, what it says about the issue, what we can do and what our position regarding free, safe and legal abortion is. And it worked! We succeeded in forcing the issue into the agenda.

    The other thing we realised is that, if and when this came to a referendum, it couldn’t just be a Dublin-based campaign – we had to go national. So we worked very hard to set up regional groups in every county around Ireland. By the time the referendum came, there was a pro-choice group in every county. And those groups went on to form canvassing groups that would hold their own events and talk to their politicians.

    4. What role did the media play in the process? How did you work with both traditional and social media?

    From my perspective, a key takeaway from the process is that it is vital to use social media to create a space so people can have a nuanced discussion about these issues.

    With traditional media, our hands were tied, because when it comes to controversial issues, they are required to provide ‘balanced coverage’. According to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling, it is unconstitutional for the government to spend taxpayers’ money to provide arguments for only one side in a referendum. As a result, any broadcaster that receives state funding must allocate equal airtime to both sides. So, if you talk on TV about how you had an abortion, or you say you are pro-choice, the opposite view has to be given space as well. Even if someone was telling their actual story of needing an abortion and having to travel to the UK, saying exactly what had happened to them, rather than preaching about right or wrong, there would be someone who would be called in to ‘balance’ that. And the rule was interpreted very broadly, so it applied not just during the referendum campaign but also for years before that. It was very stifling.

    In other words, traditional media were a massive block to people’s education. You normally look to the media to educate yourself on an issue, but it is not educational to constantly pitch ideas against each other, especially on an issue as complex and nuanced as abortion can be. So we had to bypass the mainstream media to get to the people. Fortunately, we exist in the time of social media, and we put a lot of effort into it and gave people the language and the nuance to talk about these things. We were used to hearing discussions about the morality of abortion where it was either right or wrong: there was no middle ground for people who were not that comfortable with it but thought the status quo was bad, and there was no room to talk about it.

    We advocate for free, safe and legal abortion for anyone who wants or needs one, no questions asked, because we know it’s the gold standard and believe that women having choice and control over their own lives is a good thing. But we didn’t want to impose this on people. Rather we wanted to give people the language to talk about it, allowing them to ask more questions, to find out what they were ready to accept and how far they were ready to go. This really worked. There has been so much discussion about the dark web, bots, trolls and possible interference with the campaign – but there were hundreds of pro-choice Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles set by hundreds of pro-choice individuals, and we had tools to protect the space we had created where these discussions were taking place. For instance, a group of volunteers created Repeal Shield, which was basically a public list of bots and troll accounts. When a user flagged an account by messaging @repeal_shield, a volunteer would investigate, and if the account met the criteria of being a bot or troll, it would be added to the list. As a result, people could keep having a conversation without interference.

    One big takeaway from this is that people have power. They usually don’t feel like they do, but what they do matters. Someone clicking ‘like’ on your page because they really like it means so much more than paid advertising. People don’t realise that, but when it comes to something that needs to be shared by many people or otherwise won’t be visible at all, this gives everyone a bit of power. Of course, there’s a lot more to activism than clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook post, but every little thing adds up.

    We are always told that there we are an echo chamber, that we only talk with people who already think alike, but it turned out that we weren’t doing this at all. We got 66 per cent of the vote. That was not an echo chamber. That was reality.

    Traditional media and politicians were slower to catch up to this, so we carved our own way. I am not saying this is the way to go for every activist group around the world. For one, Ireland has very good internet coverage, most people have access to it, and we have high user rates of Twitter and Instagram. This is not the case everywhere. But we used the tools we had, and it worked for us.

    5. What other tactics did you use?

    We gave people the language and an understanding of the political process, and that didn’t happen on social media; it happened on the ground. We would talk to people and they would bring the issue to their doorsteps. The Abortion Rights Campaign is a grassroots organisation, and what we did best was give people those tools so that they could then use them themselves. For years we had stalls every second week so people would come, have a chat, get information, take a leaflet. We had monthly meetings so people would learn about the organisation and how they could join, and sometimes we had somebody bring in a different perspective, such as a migrant or somebody from Direct Provision, a terrible institution for asylum seekers. We also developed training activities for marginalised groups about abortion in a wider reproductive context.

    Other groups would lobby politicians. We are now probably going to do so, but at the time the grassroots campaign was our main concern. We also did advocacy at both the national and international levels, including submissions to various United Nations bodies. And we maintained links with Irish groups in other countries, because the Irish diaspora is very focused on this issue. We also had connections with other organisations that didn’t have a direct pro-choice mandate but might support a repeal stance, such as migrants’ rights groups, disability groups and others.

    Beyond women’s rights organisations, we got the support of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, which meant a lot because everyone knows who they are, as well as some migrants’ rights organisations. An awful lot of the charity organisations in Ireland would have a nun or a priest on their board, so they would not take a stand on this issue. But a lot did, and we got a lot of support. More than a hundred organisations eventually signed up.

    And of course, we sold t-shirts, repeal jumpers, so we gave people visibility. People became visibly pro-choice. You knew somebody was on your side when you saw them. You felt supported on a decision that maybe once you took and never told anybody about. Now you knew there was a visible crowd of people who supported you.

    6. What was the tone of the debate?

    A lot of it was about the moralities of abortion. Many people would say ‘I believe that life begins at conception; I believe you are taking a human life’ – and that’s okay, it’s people’s beliefs. But there were also lots of arguments that were brought in that were disprovable, greatly exaggerated, or not responding to the reality of what people were going through. Abortion is a contentious issue and there are indeed conversations to be had around disabilities and the like. But people were saying things like: ‘99 per cent of the people who get a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome will abort’. And may be true in certain contexts, but not necessarily here. And in any case, that says more about our attitudes towards people with disabilities than it does about abortion.

    While some of it was about people’s deeply held beliefs, there were also lies, exaggerations and a deliberate misuse of stats. Some really nasty stuff happened: a huge amount of graphic images were used and are still out there. I absolutely do not think that every ‘no’ voter is a terrible person - people have their beliefs and their struggles - but I do think the anti-choice campaign made it quite nasty. It never got as bad as we had expected, but it was still hard.

    7. For things to happen, changing the Constitution seems to be just a first - big - step. What work remains to be done, and what will be the role of the Abortion Rights Campaign?

    When the eighth amendment was repealed, legislation about abortion had already been put on the table. It wasn’t fully spelled out, but it provided broad strokes of legislation coming from the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Parliamentary Committee. As a result, people knew going in what they were voting for: 12-week access with no restrictions as to reason, and longer if a woman’s life or health is in danger or in case of severe foetal abnormalities. There are discussions about mandatory wait periods and this kind of thing, and we are not that happy about those, but part of our work is to have discussions about that.

    The legislation will be debated in the autumn and we expect it to be brought forward at the beginning of 2019. In the meantime, our job is to keep the pressure on to make sure that the legislation includes the right language and that people who continue to travel or take pills are taken care of. The Abortion Rights Campaign has a broader mandate. We have a mandate to seek the establishment of free, safe and legal abortion, but we also have a longer-term mandate aimed at de-stigmatising abortion. We’ve taken huge steps towards that because we’ve had this national conversation and it’s not possible to avoid the issue any more, but we still have a long way to go.

    It’s been more than a month since the referendum, and we are already strategising about what we want and how we see our role moving forward, in forcing legislation through and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. Are people still having to travel to the UK? What improvements can be made? We need to make sure our legislation is good enough, that it allows people to get access. All along, part of the ban on abortion was also a ban on information about abortion, and most of all about how to get one. You were basically left to your own devices to go sort yourself out in the UK, and there were rogue pregnancy agencies giving terrible advice and purposefully delaying women seeking abortions. So a big part of what will come in the future will be making sure that doctors can actually take care of their patients. We take it that conscientious objection is going to come into play and need to make sure that it does not undo any of the good that we have achieved.

    Civic space in Ireland is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Abortion Rights Campaign through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@freesafelegal on Twitter.

  • “Sustainable Lifestyles” Conference

    In this 2 day highly interactive conference, the EU Sustainable Lifestyles Roadmap and Action Plan to 2050 will be presented for the first time. This conference is focused on actions for more sustainable living across Europe. It presents a unique opportunity for policy-makers, business, innovators, designers, civil society, citizens, and researchers to accelerate current work and activate new ideas within the Sustainable Lifestyles Roadmap Framework. For any questions, send an email to sonia[at]

    Read More at Spread Sustainable Lifestyles 2050

  • Alarm bells ring as EU governments take aim at funding to ‘Political’ NGOs

    By Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS and Giada Negri, Research and Advocacy Officer with the European Civic Forum

    Increasingly, public figures across Europe are twisting the meaning of “political activity” by claiming that NGOs overstep the mark when they campaign publicly for social or policy change: that they somehow encroach on territory reserved exclusively for political parties.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier 


  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Protesting once is not enough; we need to fight back every single day’

    Asia LeofreddiFollowing our 2019special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about civil society protests against the World Congress of Families held in Verona, Italy, with Asia Leofreddi, a PhD Candidate at the Antonio Papisca Human Rights Centre of the University of Padua and a journalist with Confronti, a think tank and magazine dedicated to the study of the relationships between religion, politics and society.Based on the values of memory, hospitality, solidarity and pluralism, Confronti promotes dialogue among Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and lay people interested in the world of faiths, with the aim of breaking down misunderstandings and fundamentalism and helping to build an intercultural democratic society.

    How would you characterise the World Congress of Families?

    The World Congress of Families (WCF) is the biggest ‘pro-family’ gathering in the world. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQI+ advocacy group and political lobbying organisation in the USA, has defined it as “the largest and most influential organization involved in anti-LGBT policies worldwide.” It was established by an American and a Russian in Moscow in 1997, and today it gathers together many associations, religious groups, scholars and political activists based in various countries, primarily belonging to Christian denominations. Among them, the Russian branch is particularly strong and acts with the open support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.

    The WCF’s pro-family agenda translates into support for the traditional family model and reflects a highly conservative view of gender roles. Accordingly, the WCF opposes abortion, surrogate motherhood, same-sex marriage and any progress towards equality in sexual and reproductive rights. Their gathering is organised by the International Organization for the Family (IOF) which is active at many other levels. At the international level, beyond organising international conferences, it tries to influence international institutions, such as the UN, in order to promote a conservative and restrictive interpretation of human rights, in particular of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In domestic politics, its member organisations link with or operate as interest groups infiltrating parties and academic institutions, lobbying officials and using democratic means such as referendums and mobilisations to advance their claims in national public spheres.

    Not coincidentally, over the past decade Brazil, Russia, the USA and several European countries have witnessed the rise of anti-gender and pro-family discourse, promoted by far-right parties, as well as the introduction, and sometimes also the approval and implementation, of morally conservative policies put forward by representatives of their national governments. In 2013, for instance, the Russian Duma unanimously approved a Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values (popularly known as the ‘anti-gay law’). In Croatia a referendum was held that same year, promoted by an organisation called U ime obitelji (‘In the name of the family’) and aiming to establish a constitutional prohibition against same sex-marriage. It won with 67 per cent of the vote. In 2018 the right-wing governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which they viewed as a threat to the traditional family structure. And in 2019 the Council of Verona approved Motion 434, described as ‘an initiative to prevent abortion and promote motherhood’, put forward by a representative of the far-right League Party, and declared Verona a ‘pro-life city’. All the organisations and political representatives involved in all these processes are somehow connected to the WCF, which shows that over the past decades the ‘family’ label has started to play a key role in the creation of new geopolitical alliances that were not even thought to be possible a short while ago.

    Who were the main groups involved in protesting against the WCF in Verona?

    The main protests held in Verona during the meeting of the WCF in March 2019 were led by the local branch of the transnational feminist movement Non Una di Meno (‘Not one woman less’). They organised a three-day mobilisation called Verona Città Transfemminista (Transfeminist City Verona) that encompassed a variety of events spread throughout the city. These events looked like a real counter-congress, complete with panels, shows and speakers coming from every part of the world.

    Additionally, another forum took place at the Academy of Agriculture, Letters and Sciences, a historic building in the city centre, on 30 March. This encounter was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation – European Network and the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti) in collaboration with Rebel Network and other national and international organisations. This event gathered more than 30 speakers representing the transnational struggle of civil society for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

    Some Italian politicians also decided to show their opposition to the WCF, and several female representatives of the opposition Democratic Party organised a public meeting in the K2 Theatre of Verona on the same day.

    As all these events show, during those days Verona became a political laboratory in which two opposed views of society were on display. The small city became the battlefield of a global struggle. On the one hand, there was the reactionary and illiberal activism of the WCF, and on the other, the open and inclusive activism of national and international progressive movements and people who autonomously decided to participate in the protests.

    However, what was most surprising was the great participation of Italian civil society. The demonstration held on 30 March was the biggest Verona had ever seen: more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the city to side with women’s right to choose.

    What motivated all these groups and citizens to protest?

    For civil society groups, the main binding factor was the WCF. Mobilised groups focused their activism on defending sexual and reproductive rights, strongly jeopardised by the narratives promoted and political strategies used by Congress participants.

    Meanwhile Italian citizens took to the streets mostly in reaction against the strong support that the WCF received from an important sector of the Italian government at the time. Indeed, three then-ministers took part in the Congress – Matteo Salvini, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Lorenzo Fontana, Minister of the Family and Marco Bussetti, Minister of Education – and both the governor of the Veneto region and the mayor of Verona gave official sponsorship to the gathering. A majority of Italians viewed the institutional promotion of a gathering detrimental to civil rights as a political action against our Constitution.

    What was the impact of the protests?

    This was the first time the WCF had to face such a huge protest. As soon it was announced that the 13th edition of the WCF would take place in Italy – a founding member of the European Union with a strong civil society and a deep attachment to a set of rights gained through many years of struggle – analysts started watching the events with great interest. However, I don’t think anyone expected such a big reaction – not even our politicians attending the Congress.

    At the national level, the protests achieved good results. For instance, they forced Matteo Salvini to publicly proclaim that Law 194 – the Italian law recognising abortion rights – would not be not touched and forced League Senator Simone Pillon to postpone a draft bill that had been widely criticised as not defending women from domestic violence. They also provided the opportunity for representative Laura Boldrini to pass a law against revenge porn, which until then had been strongly opposed by the parliamentary majority. Additionally, the days of the Congress were a great opportunity to unmask the strong connections that a section of our government, and particularly the League Party, which was in coalition government at that time, has with the global far right, despite their rhetoric on national sovereignty, and with some domestic far-right forces such as Forza Nuova, an extreme-right nationalist party, members of which were accredited to the Congress.

    At the international level, the WCF in Verona offered an opportunity for participating opposition movements to forge new transnational alliances and reflect on the construction of common narratives and strategies. It was then that groups that until then had focused on their own national, and sometimes provincial, contexts realised how important it was to act globally. The presence of foreign experts and activists helped Italian movements to understand better the strategies of ultra-conservative groups and their ability to function simultaneously at different levels.

    While we in Italy have always been confronted with the conservative positions of the Vatican and its influence on politics and civil society regarding sexual and reproductive rights, the WCF in Verona made it clear that we are facing a process of modernisation and professionalisation of ultra-conservative activism. As Kristina Stoeckl, an Austrian scholar, has widely demonstrated in her project on postsecular conflicts, these actors now enter public debate with their religious claims and turn them mainstream. They present them in a non-religious language, translating them into the language of human rights or natural law. They disseminate them with by using tactics and strategies typical of progressive mobilisations and campaigns. During the WCF held in Verona, Italian progressive movements became aware of the dimension of the phenomenon that they face as well as the fact that far from being limited to a national context, the politicisation of religion and pro-family rhetoric are actually part of a much broader political project.

    These successes, however, by no means turned the Verona edition of the WCF into a failure. They clearly showed they were not be ready to deal with countries with a strong civil society capable of mobilising discourses and resources at their same level. Still, about 10,000 people took part in their ‘family march’ on 31 March. They were far fewer than those who took to the streets to participate in the feminist and progressive mobilisation off the previous day, but they were still many. Moreover, I think the success of the WCF is measured more by what happens inside the Congress than what happens outside. In the WCF in Verona there were many representatives of governments from all over the world – far more than in previous years – which offered them a great opportunity to strengthen their networks.

    I don’t mean to diminish the results achieved by progressive movements in Verona, but to emphasise that protesting once is not enough. We need to remember to fight back every single day. We need to be aware that our opponents remain active even when they disappear from the scene. Ours is a battle of public opinion, which must be informed on a daily basis.

    What more could civil society be doing to push back against anti-rights groups such as the WCF, and what support does it need to be able to respond?

    First, the days in Verona demonstrated the importance of a vigilant and united civil society. On the way forward, it is important for progressive actors to develop better knowledge of these transnational networks and gain the ability not only to react but also to move proactively against ultra-conservative political projects on a daily basis. It is worth noting that the WCF has existed since 1997, and around the mid-2000s it started to become a political actor, capable of influencing national discourse and policies in several countries, from Russia to Central and Eastern Europe up to the USA. Moreover, for quite a long time some of its members have been involved in UN negotiations, playing a wider role in the international human rights debate. However, most Italian groups working on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only became aware of its existence when it was announced that the Congress would take place in Verona.

    Second, it is important to move beyond a reductionist interpretation of these movements as simply anti-gender and of this phenomenon as a mere ‘conservative backlash’ against progressive and emancipatory movements. Defining ultra-conservative claims in culturally binary terms (past vs future, intolerance vs tolerance, religion vs secularism, traditional family vs sexual freedom) does not help grasp the complexity of their project and their strong contextual adaptability, nor prevent them from taking further actions.

    Indeed, their anti-gender claims often intersect with other issues including the right to homeschooling, concerns such as human ecology, demography, Christianophobia, political stances such as nationalism, the defence of national sovereignty and a more general critique of the Western liberal political and economic order and its supranational institutions. All these concepts help them build a more comprehensive and systematic ideology, mobilising forces in various countries and strengthening their political alliances.

    But binary oppositions overlook these groups’ capacity to function in a variety of contexts. For instance, although they support a conservative view of gender roles, several ultra-conservative political parties have female leaders – just think of Alice Weidel (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national, France), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia) and Pauline Hanson (One Nation, Australia). Others have women among their leadership, as seen with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang, Belgium) and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Swiss People's Party). On top of that, once in power, many of them promote social policies that advance women’s interests, such as a monthly income for every child born or more general welfare measures. Of course, these policies only favour heterosexual families, but still, they allow many families – and many women – to get the support they need.

    Even regarding LGBTQI+ rights, they are able to contextualise their stances. While Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro says that he would prefer a dead son than a gay one, Alice Weidel is an out lesbian who lives with her partner and her two children. Similarly, prioritising the fight against radical Islam and foreign powers, during her latest electoral campaign the ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen recognised the acceptance of homosexuality as part of French values.

    Third, the media have a key role in opposing these movements. It is very important to do research and disseminate information, explaining for example that many of the populist forces we see emerging in our countries are part of larger networks. It is no coincidence that Italy’s Salvini publicly kisses the crucifix, Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the legalisation of homeschooling one of his key priorities for his first 100 days in office, and Donald Trump is the first US president to attend his country’s most important national anti-abortion march. They are all part of a specific structure of power and the media have the responsibility to unmask their political and economic links.

    Finally, I believe that the rise of these ultra-fundamentalist movements is the consequence of a broader crisis, which has also led to the success of several illiberal leaders in various parts of the world. Progressive movements need to be aware of this so as to rethink some key concepts of their strategy, assess whether they are still connected with the broader society and, if they are not, start addressing this issue. As masterfully expressed by Eszter Kováts, “We need to recognise the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful question: ‘how did we get here’, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.”

    Get in touch with Confronti through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Confronti_CNT on Twitter.

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They don’t think human rights are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human’

    gordan bosanac

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’sreport ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’


    You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?

    These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.

    They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.

    To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.

    When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?

    A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.

    The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.

    Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.

    Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?

    We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.

    Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.

    In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.

    Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?

    In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.

    This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.

    What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?

    First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.

    Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.

    Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.

    Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.

    Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.

    Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.

    Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.

    Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.

    In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.

    Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?

    I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.

    However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.

    The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.

    It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.

    Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.

    Civic space in Croatia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow @GordanBosanac on Twitter.inter

  • AUSTRIA: ‘A new civil society coalition is emerging to defend democracy against extremism’

    Gabriela GreilingerCIVICUS speaks about the growth of the far right in Austria withGabriela Greilinger, PhD Student at the University of Georgia, USA and co-founder and director Quo Vademus,a grassroots think tank publishing analysis by young writers and encouraging young people to engage with politics and current affairs.

    What are the main far-right groups in Austria, and how concerning is their recent growth?

    The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is the main far-right political party, but there are other groups outside the party system that are also ideologically far right and are considered very close to the FPÖ, such as Identitarian Movement Austria. Freiheitliche Jugend (Freedom Party Youth of Austria), the youth wing of the FPÖ, also maintains close links to the Identitarian Movement. There are also right-wing extremist fraternities, such as Olympia, which are similarly closely connected to the FPÖ.

    The FPÖ’s recent rise in the polls is not really a novelty but rather a recurrence. Since its founding after the Second World War, it has been included as a coalition partner in government several times and has risen and fallen in popularity over the years. It plummeted in the polls following the 2019 Ibiza scandal – in which FPÖ politicians were filmed appearing to offer business contracts in return for support – and other corruption allegations, and the breakup of the far-right coalition government led by Sebastian Kurz, which included the right-wing conservative, Christian-democratic Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) along with the FPÖ. After that, the Austrian Freedom Party went through several leadership changes.

    Several factors jointly account for the FPÖ’s most recent surge in the polls. First came the COVID-19 pandemic, during which it positioned itself as a strong opposition to the public health measures put in place by the ÖVP-Greens coalition government, including mandatory testing and vaccinations. It openly supported anti-lockdown demonstrations, bringing together people from both right and left.

    Then, in 2021, corruption allegations around then-ÖVP chancellor Kurz emerged, which played into the hands of the FPÖ, helping it regain its popularity. This was followed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which led to an energy crisis and soaring prices in Austria, a country traditionally highly dependent on Russian gas.

    As a result, inflation surged further and exacerbated economic anxieties, which have remained largely unaddressed by the current government. All of this has helped the FPÖ regain its popularity, so much so that in November 2022 it surpassed the Social Democrats in the polls and has polled around 30 per cent since. Forecasts predict that it will come in first in this year’s elections and, if so, it would for the first time in history be able to appoint the chancellor.

    What public concerns is the FPÖ tapping into?

    Immigration is certainly one of the main issues the FPÖ keeps coming back to, but not the only one.  The FPÖ also engages in ‘culture war’ politics, taking on issues such as gender-inclusive language and LGBTQI+ rights.

    Over the past couple of years, in the context of rising inflation following the pandemic and during the war in Ukraine, it has also increasingly tapped into people’s financial anxieties.

    Overall, though, it doesn’t present any viable solutions to people’s concerns but rather attacks and smears political opponents, trying to present itself as the clean alternative to what it calls the ‘system parties’ – a term formerly used by Nazis. Social media, specifically Facebook, is one of the main platforms it uses to spread their messages.

    How have Austrian civil society and public opinion reacted to this rise of the far right?

    The far right has long been mainstreamed and normalised in Austria, among other reasons because of its repeated inclusion in government. That means its rise, while concerning, is not necessarily surprising or shocking to most people. We’ve seen it happen before. Still, time and again there have been protests against the far right – in 2017, for instance, people mobilised against the inclusion of the FPÖ in the right-wing Kurz government.

    However, civil society and its leaders have again become more outspoken in recent weeks, after the German investigative outlet Correctiv reported on a secretive meeting known as the Lehnitzsee Conference that took place last November in Germany, in which right-wing extremists, businesspeople and even some members of the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union discussed plans to expel millions of people deemed not sufficiently ‘assimilated’ to the majority society. A notorious Austrian extremist, Martin Sellner, took part in the event, implicating the Austrian extreme-right scene.

    This far-right meeting triggered large-scale anti-far-right demonstrations in Germany, which inspired Austrians to organise protests in Vienna and other cities across the country. Although the protests were fewer and smaller in size than Germany’s, many people mobilised.

    We have also seen the emergence of a new civil society coalition to defend democracy against extremism. In response to the revelations about the Lehnitzsee Conference, several civil society organisations formed the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy (Bündnis für Menschenrechte und Demokratie) to ‘create a firewall’ against right-wing extremism. It then also organised a demonstration in defence of democracy in the city of Graz.

    How has the government reacted to the rise of the far right?

    As of today, we’ve seen little reaction or attempts by the government to curtail the far right. It’s been rather the opposite: the ÖVP has long adopted the messages of the far right on immigration and largely appropriated the FPÖ’s depiction of immigrants. And although the current chancellor, Karl Nehammer, had said he would not enter a coalition that includes FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl, a hardliner, he has not completely ruled it out after this year’s election.

    As it stands, the FPÖ is set to win the election and a relaunch of another ÖVP-FPÖ coalition seems to be the most likely option. All in all, I see the government making very little effort to avert the far-right danger. If anything, the ÖVP is trying to take the wind out of the FPÖ’s sails by co-opting its agenda and programme. This is not weakening the far right but rather mainstreaming its policy points and making it part of the ‘normal’ public debate – which it shouldn’t be.

    What forms of international support does Austrian civil society need to sustain its efforts?

    I believe that there could and should be more international cooperation between civil society organisations that are addressing right-wing extremism and racism. Further, more positive media coverage is needed of civil society efforts to mobilise in defence of democracy to divert the focus from the far right. While it is true that the far right has once again made significant advances, the media continues to focus disproportionately on far-right successes, potential future successes, positions and discourse, simply giving it too much airtime. In contrast, there is much less focus on the forces standing up for democracy and civil society’s efforts to respond to extremism.

    At the end of the day, as the slogan used in the German protests goes, ‘Wir sind mehr’ (We are more). We are the majority, even if at times a silent one – and not the far-right supporters and sympathisers.

    Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Quo Vademus through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow @ggreilinger @quovademusorg on Twitter.

  • AUSTRIA: ‘If anything changed for women under the pandemic, it was for the worse’

    CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequality in Austria with Judith Goetz, a political analyst and scholar who studies gender and right-wing extremism.

    Alongside her role as a university professor, Judith works with civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for equal rights of excluded groups and support feminist movements in Austria. She has recently co-edited two anthologies on gender perspectives and right-wing extremist movements.

    Judith Goetz

    Do you think COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on women in Austria?

    I believe so and I think the gender-specific effects of the pandemic and lockdown are especially visible in employment. Gender-specific occupational patterns that predated the pandemic resulted in an additional workload for women. Women are also employed disproportionately in the service industry and healthcare sector, so many women saw their workload increase during lockdown and throughout the pandemic.

    Women have been further affected through low wages and short-term employment. In addition, gender imbalances in childcare roles, and caretaking roles more generally, intensified with the pandemic.

    Crises always bring the chance to rethink the social contract, and the pandemic in particular opened up an opportunity to renegotiate gender-specific arrangements, but unfortunately it was not taken. Relationships of dependency have been intensified, so if anything changed, it was for the worse.

    The increase of domestic and sexual violence under lockdown is proof of this. This has been a problem not just in Austria but in all of Europe. Many people lost their jobs and did not have enough money to make a living. It seems that many men, unable to cope with economic and pandemic-related stress, simply took it out on their partners and children.

    It is worth noting that the pandemic had a negative impact not only on women but also on LGBTQI+ people. Conservative forces took advantage of the pandemic to promote a return to traditional values and families. They said that lockdown showed families the importance of spending time together, and made women see the advantages of undertaking their ‘natural’ role as caretakers. Fringe anti-feminists even blamed the pandemic on those promoting gender rights because according to them, the pandemic was God’s punishment for their sins.

    Has the government done enough to tackle these negative impacts?

    Through its government programme, the Austrian government promised measures to counter domestic and sexual violence. But it did too little.

    The current Minister for Women, Family and Youth, Susanne Raab, upholds a very conservative image of women. She only takes an anti-patriarchal stance when it comes to migrant women, because she only sees patriarchal structures and conservative, traditional gender conceptions in migrant communities, rather than in society at large. This has set limits on the design of policies to curb gender injustices in Austrian society and to support women’s empowerment more generally.

    What role has Austrian civil society played in advocating for gender equality, both before and during the pandemic?

    In Austria there are lots of CSOs that work against discrimination against women and other gender identities, and for equal treatment of people regardless of how they choose to identify themselves. Many feminist achievements, notably in the form of social change, are the result of this commitment. But this progress has also engendered a reaction in defence of male privilege, and we have seen the rise of counter-movements.

    The way I see it, civil society encompasses all the associations, social movements and initiatives in which citizens engage, independently from political parties even though they often work together. These are all part of civil society regardless of their political orientation, of whether they are progressive or regressive. During the pandemic, we saw movements against LGBTQI+ rights, sexual education for diversity and gender studies in general become popular within movements that mobilised against pandemic restrictions.

    Overall, women’s organisations and other solidarity CSOs, from anti-racist to progressive feminist movements, are doing an enormously important job in Austria. But we must keep in mind that there is a whole other segment of CSOs that are not progressive at all, and progressive civil society must find strategies to deal with them.

    What role do you think progressive civil society will have to continue to play after the pandemic?

    Solidarity networks will be extremely important in the aftermath of the pandemic because many people – particularly women - have been pushed under the poverty line.

    But the pandemic has also made clear that there are a lot of people who are willing to help and support other people. Many people are not even organised, but they used their own resources to help others in need. At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw self-organised neighbourhood networks in which people took care of each other. The pandemic allowed people to realise they could easily organise networks in their contexts and practise solidarity.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Austria?

    Like anywhere else in the world, challenges abound in Austria: there is the gender pay gap – the goal of ensuring equal pay for equal work, the elimination of discriminatory role models and making opportunities available for women in all areas of life.

    The intersectional entanglement of discrimination plays an important role here: women face discrimination not only because of their gender but also because of their social origin, their location, their race, or because they are not able-bodied.

    But the problem I want to highlight is that of sexual and domestic violence. Austria must face the fact that it has a very high number of femicides. This is one of the reasons why Austria gained international attention in recent years – not just because femicide cases in Austria are very high compared to other European countries, but also because Austria is one of the few countries where more women than men are being murdered, mostly by their intimate partners or family members.

    How is civil society organising to tackle gender-based violence?

    Women’s rights CSOs have worked on these issues since long before the pandemic, and alerted that they were worsening as soon as the pandemic broke out. Such was the case with the Association of Autonomous Austrian Women’s Shelters (Verein Autonome Österreichische Frauenhäuser).

    Civil society has engaged in intense advocacy to challenge policies that do not benefit excluded people, bring the concerns of the underrepresented to the forefront of the policy agenda and hold the authorities accountable. For instance, in October 2021 the Minister for Women, Family and Youth promised €25 million (approx. US$28 million) for a package of new measures to counter gender-based violence and femicides. Feminist CSOs complained that it was far too little: they were demanding €228 million (approx. US$256 million).

    They also criticised the programme for prioritising helping perpetrators over protecting victims. The new anti-violence programme focuses on making perpetrators attend a six-hour training session, which is a step into the right direction but not nearly enough to change their behaviour, while not providing enough funding to the care of the women affected by violence.

    On top of this, there is an important new movement growing in Austria. It follows on from the Ni Una Menos (‘Not one woman less’) feminist movement that originated in Latin America and encompasses both individuals and organisations. Since its founding in July 2020, no femicide in Austria has been left unacknowledged.

    The new grassroots movement claims public space: every single time a femicide is found to have taken place, the movement gathers in central parts of Vienna to rally against patriarchal violence and commemorate its victims. The movement seeks to politicise femicides in order to go beyond mere reaction and win agency. More than 30 such rallies have been held since 2020.

    In my opinion it has already achieved a lot of success. For instance, media reporting has completely changed. They no longer refer to a femicide as a family drama or a murder, but rather as femicide – that is, the murder of a woman because of the fact that she is a woman.

    The way we speak about the topic, and therefore the way we think of it, has changed completely thanks to the work of civil society. It is now clear that femicides are typically not perpetrated by strangers in the dark – most of them are committed by relatives, spouses, boyfriends. It is not about the perpetrator’s background, but rather about the social relations between preparator and victim.

    The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

    I really like this theme because we should indeed undertake complex thinking instead of continuing to think in black and white. Austria’s organising committee has chosen solidarity as a theme, which is very broad but can potentially encompass various gender identities, workers and groups facing various forms of discrimination. I think this theme is a good match for the #BreakTheBias theme.

    I am joining the 8 March rally and the activities that bring feminist groups together in Vienna. I like this space because it offers a platform for feminist organisations, activists and experts to speak up about their own issues. This is also part of breaking the bias, because it is about different feminist perspectives and experiences coming together and having a frank discussion in which we try to leave our own bias aside. It also allows the bridging of different feminist struggles. We should prioritise what connects us over what separates us. We will surely have enough time to talk about our differences and become stronger once we have connected.

    Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 

  • AUSTRIA: ‘Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality’

    CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) in Austria with Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal of the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls.

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at improving women’s and girls’ lives through the development of training programmes, the provision of free counselling and campaigning and advocating for women’s concerns to be addressed by public policies.

    Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal

    How did the work of the Network change under the pandemic?

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is an umbrella organisation encompassing 59 counselling centres all over Austria. We build our internal network by organising training activities, exchange and communication among counselling centres. We represent the concerns of our member organisations externally and are therefore in constant contact with funding bodies, politicians, the media and the public. We advocate for a society in which all human beings, and particularly women and girls, can lead a free and safe life.

    The Network and all its counselling centres have no affiliation with any political party or religion. Our member organisations provide various forms of support, from career guidance, training and reintegration to work after parental leave, guidance regarding employment laws and residence status, to partnership and support on child-rearing issues, divorce and custody, physical and mental health issues, all the way to violence in all of its forms.

    The pandemic had a major effect on our work, particularly at the beginning, when uncertainty was highest and the availability and accessibility of counselling was very limited. Many women and girls were unsure where to seek advice. Counselling centres tried to react to this as quickly as possible, for example by offering counselling online, but also by actively contacting women and girls who had registered with them earlier to ask how they were doing and whether they needed anything.

    As in many other areas, counselling embraced new technologies during the pandemic. However, some women and girls didn’t have – and still don’t have – the equipment or skills to access these opportunities. At the same time, some organisations have told us that there are women and girls who find it easier to ask for advice or help in an online setting. And women who live in rural areas, far from the next counselling centre, found access to counselling easier via phone or email. The ways the pandemic impacted on our work cannot be summarised so easily, because its effects were multifaceted.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Austria, and how has civil society reacted to this?

    Studies have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls.

    It is important to note that the pandemic has also affected many people’s psychological health. Only the future will show the pandemic’s long-term effects on a social level. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality.

    What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society. Civil society gives a public voice to those who are often not heard. During the pandemic, CSOs have pointed out how the crisis affected the most vulnerable groups in society. They have continued to offer advice and support to those who need it and have developed new offers to address pandemic-induced economic and psychological stress.

    Counselling centres for women and girls play a special role in protection from GBV. We can recognise violence early on and in cases where it is hidden behind other problems. Even – and especially – in times of crisis such as this, counselling centres are crucial contact points for women and girls.

    CSOs have always been key figures in advocating for gender and social equality in Austria, and will certainly continue to do it in the aftermath of the pandemic.

    What should the Austrian government do to curb GBV?

    Austria ratified the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – in 2013. Since then, its implementation has been evaluated by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). In its evaluation report, GREVIO has included many CSO demands. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would be a milestone in the elimination of GBV.

    One of the most important political steps would be an increase in funding for CSOs working in the field. Due to the ongoing crisis and the increased need for advice, women’s and girls’ counselling centres need more support. There is often no long-term funding that can ensure CSO sustainability, only project-based funding. This does not allow for long-term actions and makes planning difficult.

    Furthermore, the knowhow and wide experience of women’s CSOs should be considered and included to a higher degree when it comes to policy-making at the national and regional levels. The government should make use of and rely on the expertise of women’s organisations and the long-existing services they built when planning new measures or setting up new institutions.

    Further research on the specific situation of young women and girls should be conducted so that their needs are taken into consideration when new measures are designed.

    The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?

    The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls works 365 days a year to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, by offering counselling for women and girls in difficult situations; by making sexism, gender stereotypes and GBV a political issue; by advocating for women’s and girls’ rights on a daily basis; by developing training programmes, quality standards and working documents; by connecting feminist CSOs and by positioning ourselves as experts for the issue of gender equality. Our aim is to improve the living conditions of all women and girls living in Austria.

    Due to the pandemic, we have not organised an event on 8 March, but some of our member organisations have planned events and we are joining the International Women’s Day protest in Vienna.

    Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls through itswebsite ofFacebook page, and follow it onInstagram. 

  • AZERBAIJAN: ‘Operating on the ground has become increasingly difficult due to security concerns’

    KateWattersCIVICUS speaks about the links between the exploitation of fossil fuels and human rights violations in Azerbaijan with Kate Watters, Executive Director of Crude Accountability.

    Founded in 2003, Crude Accountability is a civil society organisation that works to protect the environmental and human rights of people in the Caspian and Black Sea regions and in areas of Eurasia affected by oil and gas development.

    How do extractive industries fuel human rights violations in Azerbaijan?

    The key problem is corruption, which results from the close relationship between the executive branch of government and the oil industry. The use of the state oil company by the regime led by president Ilham Aliyev is a key feature of Azerbaijan’s kleptocracy.

    Corporations operating in Azerbaijan handle vast sums of money and oversee massive projects. For example, British Petroleum (BP), the largest foreign investor, is involved in many of the key fossil fuel projects and is the majority shareholder and operator of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, through which around 80 per cent of Azerbaijan’s oil is exported. BP has a monopoly in the industry that dominates the national economy, with oil and gas accounting for 95 per cent of all exports, 75 per cent of government revenue and 42 per cent of national GDP.

    Those in charge of the oil and gas sector control the financial and economic dynamics of the whole country. The vast revenues generated by the hydrocarbon industry make it difficult for smaller environmentally sustainable alternatives to gain traction and create fertile ground for corruption and secrecy. International mechanisms that promote transparency in the industry rely on a level of adherence to the rule of law that Azerbaijan lacks.

    That’s why Crude Accountability’s advocacy efforts focus on advancing transparency and accountability. We aim for the adoption of cleaner technologies that ensure the wellbeing of local communities and call for international financial institutions to cease financing fossil fuels and redirect their investments toward sustainable green energy projects. We urge companies to be transparent about the social and environmental impacts of their operations and strive for continuous improvement.

    What work do you do in Azerbaijan?

    Crude Accountability’s involvement in Azerbaijan dates back to the early 2000s. We work with communities, organisations and people affected by oil and gas developments. Our efforts encompass extensive research, educational and advocacy activities that address the specific impacts of the hydrocarbon industry, such as gas flaring from the BP’s Sangachal Terminal, which is causing villagers health problems and sleep disruption, along with  the broader impacts of onshore and offshore oil and gas development in Azerbaijan.

    As an organisation, we’ve shed light on previously undisclosed areas. One of our achievements is the collaborative report ‘Flames of Toxicity‘, produced in partnership with Omanos Analytics. Using satellite imagery and other technologies, we proved that oil spills and flaring were happening during extraction and refining processes in several locations. By doing this we reminded industry stakeholders that, even when it’s unsafe for activists to conduct extensive on-site verification, there are technologies we can use to gain insight into environmental and human rights violations.

    For the past few years, operating on the ground in Azerbaijan has become increasingly difficult due to security concerns for our partners. Since mid-2023, our primary focus in Azerbaijan has shifted to advocating for the release of Gubad Ibadoghlu, a prominent economist and anti-corruption activist. He was arbitrarily detained in July 2023 and is currently held in miserable conditions in a pretrial detention centre outside the capital, Baku, facing mistreatment and denial of medical attention. During his arrest, both he and his wife were severely beaten after the car they were driving was surrounded and forced to stop. The physical violence perpetrated against Ibadoghlu and his wife during arrest is extremely concerning.

    We are part of an international coalition of activists, academics, policymakers and journalists that works for the release of Gubad Ibadoghlu and other Azerbaijani political prisoners, including independent journalists affected by the recent crackdown on civil society.

    Is the level of repression in Azerbaijan increasing?

    Repression has intensified over the last five years, and particularly in the past couple of years, as President Ilham Aliyev and the presidential apparatus have sought to solidify their position and power. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, authoritarianism and the repression of civil society have escalated across Eurasia. This is certainly the case in Azerbaijan.

    Azerbaijani people are afraid to speak out about the Azerbaijani offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh. Even those who refrain from criticising the offensive and work to address other related issues risk being labelled as ‘pro-Armenian’, a smear used by authorities against activists and dissenters.

    The snap presidential election scheduled for 7 February will serve to further consolidate Aliyev’s rule amidst regional turmoil. In this context, independent journalists face a heightened risk of repression. In June 2023, protests erupted in the village of Soyudlu, already threatened by environmental degradation, against the construction of an artificial lake to contain waste from the nearby Gadabay goldmine. Police severely beat community activists and journalists who came to cover the story. The village remains under lockdown, and although it appears that the goldmine’s activity has been limited or halted, it remains a challenge to obtain verified information. The community has been under stress since the incident.

    Environmental activists are also at risk. People with information about issues such as flaring or emissions are often afraid to speak out. Sometimes they have family members employed by the oil company or refinery and fear that they may lose their jobs, jeopardising the family’s livelihood. Fear of repercussions silences environmental activists and others who are aware of environmental violations. Still, some environmental and human rights defenders continue to operate discreetly in Azerbaijan.

    What forms of international support does Azerbaijani civil society currently need?

    Azerbaijan’s selection as the host for this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP29, poses significant challenges from both a human rights and an environmental perspective. Azerbaijan has fallen short of its climate commitments. It hasn’t signed the Global Methane Pledge, a step taken even by countries like Turkmenistan. There are also serious concerns about civil society’s ability to participate in COP29 due to ongoing repression and severe human rights violations taking place in the host country. The imprisonment of a prominent Azerbaijani economist investigating corruption in the oil and gas sector raises further concerns.

    The international community should demand transparency and accountability from the Azerbaijani authorities in the run-up to COP29 and throughout the conference. A legitimate discussion on climate change in the framework of sustainability and human rights can only occur with the active participation of civil society.

    It is also very important to building international coalitions to confront authoritarianism, repression and closed civic space. Autocratic governance seeks to make people feel isolated and disunited, so collaborative efforts are vital. By working together, sharing resources and leveraging each organisation’s expertise for knowledge exchange, we can enhance our impact.

    Azerbaijani civil society requires financial resources, solidarity and support from the international community. The more we can offer to activists on the ground, the more successful our collective efforts will be.

    Civic space in Azerbaijan is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Crude Accountability through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow it onLinkedIn andTwitter.

  • BALKANS: ‘The emergence of white supremacism adds another layer of vulnerability for migrants and refugees’

    MyriamCorreaCIVICUS speaks with Myriam Correa, director of Collective Aid, about the situation of migrants across the Balkan migration route.

    Initially under the name BelgrAid, Collective Aid was established in 2017 in response to the changing needs of migrants and refugees in Serbia. It currently has offices in Bosnia and Herzegovina, France and Serbia. It provides services to cover aid gaps and improve the lives of people on the move.

    What effects have recent policy changes had on migration along the Balkan route?

    In early 2023, we witnessed an increase in migration along the Balkan route, particularly in Bosnia and Serbia, even though migrants were staying for a shorter time. This posed challenges for organisations like ours in locating and assisting people. Increased movement and rapid turnover made migrants harder to reach and rendered the phenomenon less visible – just as the authorities wanted. However, from a humanitarian standpoint, this only heightened risks.

    On 25 October, Serbia initiated a military operation along its border with Hungary, targeting areas with high levels of border crossings. This led to the closure of refugee camps in the north and the forced relocation of migrants to centres in the south. Military presence escalated tensions, making access to migrants even more challenging. Arms proliferated and we observed instances of violence, including mistreatment of our personnel by the police.

    The subsequent absence of migrants in previously bustling areas indicated that the authorities had achieved their aim. However, some traces of migration still lingered, albeit in reduced numbers, with Bosnian camps experiencing a notable influx.

    The exact forms of migration are now unclear. Recent actions by the Serbian government, such as the temporary closure of southern camps, add to the uncertainty surrounding future migration patterns. As we continue to navigate these challenges, it is imperative for humanitarian efforts to remain adaptable and responsive to the evolving dynamics along the Balkan route.

    What routes are migrants taking to reach western Europe?

    Migrants travel from Turkey to the Aegean Islands or Evros and then enter Greece. After Greece, there are various routes. Some people take flights, but others cannot afford air travel. Some take shortcuts. Some enter Bulgaria directly from Turkey, while others enter the country from Greece. As a result needs are increasingly high in Bulgaria.

    Several organisations currently focus on Bulgaria. We recently conducted a location assessment covering the border between Serbia and Bulgaria, the capital, Sofia, and the border between Bulgaria and Turkey. Significant numbers of people are crossing and have a pressing need for basic humanitarian services such as food, water, sanitation and hygiene services.

    Local organisations lack government support to advocate against human rights violations. This means there is a crucial advocacy need in Bulgaria. One notable town is Harmali, near the border with Turkey, which has camps for asylum seekers and is heavily militarised. Sofia also has a significant migrant population, expected to increase due to Romania’s inclusion in the Schengen area. This makes Sofia a potential hotspot.

    Further along the border with Serbia, Ragueman serves as a major crossing point. This region hosts several camps, primarily in southern Serbia near the Bulgarian border. The journey continues through Bosnia and Croatia into the European Union (EU). However, there are challenges in crossing the Bosnia-Croatia border, particularly at Hajj, due to reported pushbacks. Our organisation monitors border violence, mostly reported from the Croatian side, with Sarajevo serving as a refuge for those pushed back, particularly during harsh winters.

    Bulgaria has become a gateway to the rest of Europe. But specific points like Seredets and road 79 pose dangers, with smugglers providing stimulants to keep migrants awake during crossings, leading to fatal consequences. Both Bulgaria and Serbia have seen severe instances of violence, with reports of brutal treatment by border authorities, including mutilation and burning. Such atrocities are alarming and demand immediate attention.

    In contrast, Bosnia is emerging as a relatively safe passage, providing temporary respite for migrants. The living conditions in Bosnian camps have improved, though challenges persist during winters due to inadequate insulation, a lack of essential items and low maintenance standards.

    Overall, the journey is perilous, with varying experiences based on financial resources and geographical factors. But despite the hardships, migrants persevere, hoping for a better life in Europe.

    What’s the situation of migrants from conflict-affected regions travelling along the Balkan route?

    The short answer is that these migrants experience an unbearable amount of traumatisation. Most people who traverse this route are fleeing conflict – including genocide, ethnic oppression, religious persecution and collapsing regimes. They come from countries such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria. They are not economic migrants. They are seeking safety in Europe. It is shocking that they have to endure such trials, particularly considering that while Bosnia and Serbia are not EU countries, they are still in Europe. And the fact that Bulgaria and Croatia are part of the EU raises thorny questions about why such hardships persist.

    The initial reaction is often shock, followed by a profound sense of hopelessness. It is disheartening to realise that safety remains a distant dream and the journey ahead is bleak. People are aware that their lives remain at risk but have limited knowledge about the challenges they will face. Misinformation and reluctance to share the full extent of their suffering with loved ones exacerbate the situation.

    Regardless of migrants’ origins, the challenges they face are consistent. They endure rough living conditions, sleeping in tents, bushes, forests or abandoned buildings. The emergence of white supremacist sentiments in Europe adds another layer of vulnerability, making them easy targets for violence.

    It is important to note that most people crossing the Balkan route are single men, with few women and families. While there are some families on the road and a family camp in Sarajevo, most migrants are single men. This is a reflection of the perilous conditions along the route, which are unsuitable for women and children.

    Smuggling gangs are streamlining the process, making crossings more efficient, but at the cost of safety. Migrants are left at the mercy of criminals who view them as a mere source of income and are indifferent to their wellbeing. Many disappear without a trace.

    Survivors face immense psychological trauma. They endure sexual, physical and psychological violence, compounded by environmental hardships and homelessness. The perpetual threat triggers a constant fight-or-flight response, hindering cognitive functions and deteriorating mental health. Chronic stress, reflected in elevated cortisol levels, poses severe health risks.

    Hygiene-related issues, such as scabies, exacerbate the already dire situation. Lack of access to proper sanitation and healthcare amplifies the suffering, turning minor ailments into life-threatening conditions. The lack of awareness of and attention to these issues perpetuates the cycle of suffering, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive solutions and compassionate action.

    In sum, the refugee experience in Europe is a harrowing journey marked by trauma, violence and despair. It is imperative to address the underlying issues and provide adequate support to those in need, ensuring that every person is treated with dignity and compassion.

    What support do civil society organisations working along the Balkan route need for their work?

    The most obvious, yet the truest, answer is funding. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, attention and empathy have understandably shifted towards Ukraine and its people. However, grassroots organisations working on the frontlines with other migrant groups continue to face significant challenges in fundraising. For instance, Collective Aid used to easily raise €15,000 to €30,000 (approx. US$16,200 to US$32,400) twice a year, but now struggles to raise as little as €5,000 (approx. US$ 5,400). This has taken a massive toll on these organisations.

    The redirection of donor funding to other areas, such as Lebanon and the Middle East, has further compounded the issue. The recent crises in Gaza, Sudan, Syria and Turkey have also diverted attention and resources away from the ongoing migrant crisis within European borders.

    Lack of financial support is the biggest obstacle faced by grassroots organisations, pushing them to their limits as they struggle to support migrants on the ground.

    Get in touch with Collective Aid through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow @collective_aid onTwitter andInstagram.

  • BELARUS: ‘There is a pro-democracy civil society that opposes the war and advocates for democratic reforms’

    AnastasiyaVasilchukCIVICUS speaks with Anastasiya Vasilchuk of Viasna about the escalatingrepression and criminalisation of civil society in Belarus.

    Founded in 1996, Viasna (‘Spring’ in Belarusian) is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) based in Minsk, the capital, with regional organisations in most Belarusian cities and around 200 members throughout the country. Its main goal is to promote respect for human rights and contribute to the development of civic society in Belarus.

    What is the current situation of civil society activists and organisations in Belarus?

    At the moment, the work of activists and CSOs in Belarus is practically paralysed. Those activists who remain in Belarus and try to remain active are at great risk. Volunteer activists who are not members of any CSO are being detained and charged administratively and even criminally for any form of activity, including sending parcels to political prisoners and organising solidarity meetings, and are tried under phony charges such as reposting ‘extremist materials’ found on their phones or ‘disobeying’ police officers.

    Members of CSOs who have remained in Belarus are being persecuted on the basis of article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits activities on behalf of organisations that are unregistered or have been deprived of registration. Since 2021, about 1,180 CSOS have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation. All human rights organisations have already been deprived of registration, so it is impossible for them to work legally inside Belarus.

    In order to keep functioning, most human rights CSOs, Viasna included, have been forced to leave Belarus and continue their work from abroad. Almost all meetings and legal consultations with people who have been subjected to repression are now taking place online. The regional branches of our organisation have also only been able to continue working from abroad, collecting information on repression in their regions through local volunteers who put themselves in harm’s way every day, as well as through open-source investigation techniques, which employees had to learn fast after being forcibly relocated.

    Generally speaking, displacement has brought many challenges for civil society. We’ve had to search for extra funding, in light of the usually higher costs of living in host countries. We’ve had to rethink our work processes, which were previously based mainly on direct personal communication with victims of human rights violations, and shift them online. And we’ve had to focus on maintaining the visibility and significance of our activities in the eyes of victims of human rights violations in Belarus.

    Despite the ongoing crackdown on dissent, Viasna and other human rights CSOs continue to document human rights violations, which are occurring on a huge scale and on a daily basis in Belarus, to make them visible and try to elicit a reaction from the international community.

    How are Belarusian CSOs supporting activists under threat?

    Viasna is working for persecuted activists to be recognised as political prisoners and providing further assistance to them, as well as to other victims of repression. We collect information about people detained for political motives all over the country, and alongside other CSOs that are part of our human rights coalition we highlight their cases as political prisoners and provide comprehensive support to them and their families, including providing free legal advice, sending them care packages and leading advocacy campaigns for their release. Right now, we are also looking for resources and opportunities to help political prisoners who are being released and are in need of material, psychological and medical support.

    Other CSOs provide other forms of support to political prisoners and repressed activists, depending on their area of work. For example, women’s human rights organisations provide support to female political prisoners, while independent trade unions, which have also been forced to leave the country, provide assistance to their arrested colleagues. There are also specialised funds and initiatives that provide medical and psychological support to victims of repression.

    What have been the impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine on Belarusian civil society?

    In the present context we can identify several impacts. Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, many Belarusian CSOs jointly condemned the Russian aggression and demonstrated their solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and some CSOs provided humanitarian assistance. The outbreak of war actualised the problem of Russian political influence in Belarus and highlighted the fact that Belarus is exposed to a potential military threat from Russia, which has become a key area of concern for some CSOs.

    Particularly in the first months of the war, the attitude of some international actors towards Belarusian CSOs changed due to the pro-Russian position of the Belarusian illegitimate authorities, and the problem of the severe political repression ongoing in Belarus began to fade into the background. The ongoing war has meant that Belarusian CSOs have had to make additional efforts to make sure their voice is heard, reminding the outside world that there is more to Belarus than the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus also has a pro-democracy civil society that opposes the war and advocates for democratic reforms.

    What further support does Belarusian civil society need from theinternational community?

    Belarusian civil society, including Viasna, has continued to receive financial and informational support from international allies. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine some major donors, who had helped ensure stable long-term funding for civil society, reduced or completely stopped their assistance to Belarusian civil society. We are therefore in much need of long-term, stable financial assistance.

    Regarding informational support, we are currently actively working to expand the network of international actors interested in the human rights situation in Belarus. Informational support is a key element for raising awareness of systemic human rights violations in Belarus.

    Civic space in Belarus is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Viasna through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@Viasna onTwitter.

  • Belarus: A Prison State in Europe

    By Andrew Firmin, Editor-in-Chief, CIVICUS

    Last October, Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was one of three winners, alongside two human rights organisations: Memorial, in Russia, and the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. The Nobel Committee recognised the three’s ‘outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power’.

    But Bialiatski couldn’t travel to Oslo to collect his award. He’d been detained in July 2021 and held in jail since. This month he was found guilty on trumped-up charges of financing political protests and smuggling, and handed a 10-year sentence. His three co-defendants were also given long jail terms. There are many others besides them who’ve been thrown in prison, among them other staff and associates of Viasna, the human rights centre Bialiatski heads.

    Read on Inter Press Service 

  • BELGIUM: ‘Small extremist groups are reacting to all advances in women’s rights’

    CelineDanhierCIVICUS speaks with Céline Danhier, director of O’YES, about the recent conservative backlash to the implementation of a sex and relationships education programme in state schools in Belgium’s Walloon region. Disinformation is spreading, claiming that the programme’s aim is to hypersexualise children, and there have beenarson attacks on schools as a result.

    O’YES was founded to focus on HIV/AIDS. Since 2011 it has broadened its scope to health promotion while working on the sexual health of young people aged 15 to 30, taking a peer education approach.

    What is EVRAS and why has it become controversial?

    Education in relational, emotional and sexual life (EVRAS for short) is an educational process aimed at increasing young people’s ability to make informed choices that will help them develop their relational, emotional and sexual life and respect themselves and others. Its aim is to guide each young person towards adulthood by using a comprehensive approach in which sexuality is understood in its broadest sense and includes relational, emotional, social, cultural, philosophical and ethical dimensions.

    The relational dimension encompasses social, family, friendship, love, personal and other relationships. The affective dimension includes everything to do with feelings, emotions and self-esteem, while the sexual dimension includes the biological, psychological, affective, legal and ethical aspects of sexuality.

    The EVRAS approach is based on the values of respect, equality, acceptance of differences and openness to others. It aims to provide reliable, impartial and comprehensive information to help young people develop a critical mind, ensure their rights are protected, consider the impact of their choices on their wellbeing and that of others and make decisions throughout their lives.

    As with all significant advances in women’s rights, such as the pill and the voluntary termination of pregnancy, EVRAS has been the subject of controversy fuelled by small extremist groups.

    The entry into force of an inter-ministerial political agreement and reference framework has reignited controversy around EVRAS despite the fact that these activities have taken place in Belgium for over 40 years.

    They have been compulsory since 2012, but were made so by a decree that had no clear objectives, procedures or controls to ensure that schools complied with their obligations. For example, a poster on a restroom wall could suffice for a school to be listed as having carried out EVRAS activities. As a result, there was no equal access for all young people. The new agreement will give every young person in grade six of primary school (aged 11 to 12) and in the fourth year of secondary school (aged 15 to 16) access to a guaranteed level of information during their schooling for two hours each year.

    Who opposes this, and how has O’YES got involved in the debate?

    As explained in a recent article published by public broadcaster RTBF, the disinformation campaign against EVRAS is being waged by a network made up of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists, people immersed in paedo-criminal theories, children’s defence associations and ultra-conservative and far-right associations. It should be noted that it is not just religious groups that are behind the misinformation circulating about EVRAS.

    Mainstream media are well informed and, for the most part, treat information objectively. But a serious problem lies with social media and the algorithms that lock in people who view this type of content and persuade them that their arguments are well founded. Social media have a huge influence on people who are undecided.

    Mobilising Facebook in relation to hate speech could be an avenue worth exploring. In fact, it’s through these different channels that we’ve launched an information campaign on EVRAS: what it is, what its objectives are and what the issues at stake are regarding public health, combating violence and boosting self-esteem.

    Do you see this as part of a broader conservative reaction to advances in sexual and reproductive rights?

    There is indeed a conservative and ideological reaction to progress in sexual and reproductive rights. Every time there is a major advance on an issue relating to relationships and emotional and sexual life, conservative movements oppose it. This was the case when the first family planning centres opened in the 1960s.

    Anti-EVRAS groups spread disinformation to frighten the public and parents in particular. They use moral panic to divide public opinion and sow doubt among a section of the public that is not aware of the news. The same dynamics have been observed around COVID-19 and vaccination.

    The trend was initially viewed as regional but we soon realised it was global, or at least international at the European level. We would therefore like to work on this at a European level. At present, however, we continue working at the national level in order to pass on relevant, coherent and accurate information to people who have questions about EVRAS.

    How does O’YES promote the sexual and reproductive rights of young people?

    O’YES is a not-for-profit association set up in 2009 by and for young people. It is active in the field of health promotion. Its mission is to train and raise awareness of sexual health issues among young people through peer education in order to change attitudes and improve behaviour over the long term.

    O’YES is active throughout the year in the living environments of young people in the Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles – Belgium’s French-speaking community – setting up a series of interactive and educational games, workshops and training courses.

    With a view to improving the sexual health of young people, O’YES bases its project on several methods, at the crossroads between the youth, health, education, health promotion and prevention sectors.

    Being a youth organisation means addressing a public mainly made up of people under the age of 30 and helping them develop their responsibilities and personal skills. In this way, O’YES helps them become responsible, active, critical and supportive citizens.

    ’Our field of action is the sexual health of young people, particularly those aged 18 to 30. Sexual health is defined by the World Health Organization as ‘a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence’.

    Peer education is a highly effective means of prevention that has already proved its worth in other countries and in many areas, particularly sexual health. This approach allows sexual health issues to be tackled in a fun and relaxed way while achieving positive, tangible and lasting results. Young people are able to raise awareness among their peers, promote prevention and create teaching tools and innovative campaigns. It’s prevention for young people by young people, without taboos or complexes.

    Civic space in Belgium is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with O’YES through itswebsite.

  • BELGIUM: ‘We need systemic transformation to stop the climate crisis’


    CIVICUS speaks with Sarah Tak, General Coordinator of Klimaatzaak (‘Climate Case’), about a recent ruling by the Brussels court of appeal mandating drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in Belgium by 2030.

    Klimaatzaak is a civil society group founded in 2014 by 11 concerned citizens who wanted to take action against Belgium’s inadequate climate policy.

    What’s the significance of the court ruling ordering the government to take more decisive action to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

    Governments have been aware of the climate crisis for decades and committed to work together to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the situation becoming truly dangerous. They have signed United Nations treaties on climate change to that end, yet unfortunately very little has been achieved. Scientists have been long telling us we must halve emissions by 2030 if we are to have a chance of limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees compared to pre-industrial times. That is the danger threshold governments said they would strive not to cross when they signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, and they reaffirmed this commitment in 2021 at the COP26 climate summit. Yet they fail to translate these promises into domestic action and global emissions continue to rise, even to this day.

    What this shows is that politicians are not able – or willing – to act on the climate crisis in the decisive way needed. Meanwhile the situation is becoming increasingly alarming, which is why judges are asked to step in, often by citizens or civil society groups who see their most fundamental rights threatened by climate change.

    The verdict issued by the Brussels Court of Appeal on 30 November 2023 is truly historic because it was only the second time worldwide that judges have imposed a binding obligation on governments to reach a defined emission reduction target. The first victory was achieved by the Urgenda Foundation in the Netherlands in 2015. Our verdict found the climate policy of the Belgian federal, Brussels and Flemish regional governments to be negligent to the extent that it constitutes a breach of the human rights of all 58,586 individual co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

    What was Klimaatzaak’s role in the court case?

    We are a movement of concerned citizens that decided to start court actions to force governments to act on climate. Initially we were just 11 people, but we grew to a grassroots movement of 58,586 citizens. This number makes the Belgian climate case the largest worldwide, which is why it considers itself to be a lawsuit by and for citizens.

    We started the legal case in 2014, by sending a formal notice to the four parts of Belgian government that have competence for climate policy – the federal government, plus those of the Flemish, Brussels-Capital and Walloon regions. After disputes about the procedural language, the proceedings on the merits of the case started in 2019.

    Legally we built the case on two pillars, where we argued that the inadequate climate policy pursued by the Belgian authorities was a violation of both the tort provision of the Belgian civil code (the ‘duty of care’) and of articles 2 and 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Given the importance and urgency of the matter, we requested a penalty payment of €1 million (approx. US$1.07 million) for every month’s delay in executing the judgment.

    When oral proceedings started in March 2021, people mobilised in more than 100 municipalities and cities across Belgium. An estimated 7,000 citizen climate advocates took to the streets dressed as lawyers to show their support. The Court of First Instance of Brussels issued its decision in June 2021, confirming that the Belgian climate policy was so substandard that it violated the legal duty of care and human rights, but it did not impose any specific reduction target.

    Since it soon became clear that the competent ministers had no intention of abiding by the judgment and changing their policy course, we decided to start the appeal procedure in order to complement the first instance verdict with binding reduction targets. And this time everything went much faster because the Brussels Court of Appeal decided to prioritise our case. Submissions from the federal and regional governments were received and we then filed ours throughout 2022 and 2023. Four intense weeks of oral pleadings took place in September and October 2023, and the historic verdict was out before the end of November.

    It was the backing of our countless supporters that helped sustain our work for so long. They kept us upright financially and morally. If anything, this was a victory of civil society and the public.

    Do you expect this ruling to set a precedent for others to follow?

    Our case is part of a wider trend and sets an important legal precedent that is already today being used in other jurisdictions to try to impose similar climate targets. Steep national emission reduction targets are urgently needed for climate policies to have a chance of being effective.

    We are now seeing a lot of civil society groups, individual citizens and even government authorities turning to courts to push for climate action. There are more than 2,000 climate cases worldwide, initiated by a wide array of claimants. In the USA, the state of California is suing major oil corporations over claims they misled the public for decades and seeking the creation of a special fund to pay for recovery. Organisations such as Milieudefensie in the Netherlands already won a pioneering climate case against the oil major Shell and recently initiated a new climate case against IGN Bank.

    To stop the climate crisis, we need systemic transformation: we need governments, carbon majors and banking and insurance companies to drastically change course. In the coming years we can surely expect a lot more litigation against not only governments but also other powerful actors. We simply need to hold them accountable if we want to see the transition that is needed before 2030.

    Our case is already being consulted and referenced by civil society in other countries. We were contacted by several groups seeking similar rulings in their countries who were trying to understand the reasoning of the judges and use their arguments in their own proceedings.

    What are the next steps in your advocacy work?

    Elections will take place in Belgium in June 2024, so we are working to keep the verdict alive in public debate. After the election we will continue to monitor compliance with the ruling. The judges set up a follow-up mechanism so we can go back to them in 2025 if climate policy continues to be unsatisfactory. The judges will then decide on penalty payments if need be. A good mix of advocacy and legal work awaits us in the coming months and years.

    Civic space in Belgium is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Klimaatzaak through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow @Klimaatzaak onTwitter andInstagram.

  • BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: ‘Civil society has failed to spark people’s activist side’

    AidaDaguda DajanaCvjetkovic
    CIVICUS speaks about deteriorating civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) with
    Aida Daguda and Dajana Cvjetkovic, director and programme manager atthe Centre for Civil Society Promotion (CPCD).

    Founded in 1996, CPCD is a civil society organisation (CSO) working to strengthen civil society and citizen participation in BiH and the Western Balkans through capacity development, advocacy and campaigning.

    What are civic space conditions like in BiH?

    In our nearly three decades working in civil society in BiH and the Western Balkans, we have never witnessed such a rapid deterioration of civic space. Our organisation, along with other CSOs, is deeply concerned about two new pieces of legislation introduced in Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up BiH.

    The first bill, already adopted, reintroduced criminal defamation into the legal system. The second, currently under parliamentary debate, is a ‘foreign agents’ bill that would criminalise CSOs that receive foreign funding or assistance for ‘political activities’ and give state institutions the power to shut them down. This would be just another tool to further restrict civil society in the hands of government authorities, who already use the mechanisms in place to oversee the work of CSOs and exert pressure and threaten us. Over the past year there have been more inspections of CSOs than ever before, specifically targeting smaller and more vocal organisations.

    By silencing independent media and civil society, RS President Milorad Dodik seeks to eliminate public scrutiny and criticism in an entity marred by criminal activities and corruption and undergoing a difficult economic situation. The government is resisting democratic oversight and trying to eliminate all forms of critical thought among the public.

    Moreover, in April 2023 the Sarajevo local government proposed amendments to local public order laws that would penalise the spread of ‘fake news’ and criticism of state authorities. Although the draft bill was withdrawn in June due to the public outcry it caused, the authorities have expressed their commitment to reintroducing a modified version of the bill.

    These are all signals that the situation for civil society is rapidly worsening in RS and in BiH as a whole, with severe limitations being introduced on freedoms of association and expression.

    How has Bosnian civil society organised against the restrictive bills?

    A part of RS’s civil society is well organised and experienced in advocacy and campaigning. But overall, there are fewer than 10 CSOs that are strongly committed to their human rights mission and vision, while the rest maintain links with the government that make them less vocal against repressive laws. We provide support with expertise and funding to independent CSOs in RS, but we must be discreet because we are based in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other entity that composes BiH, and our help tends to be misunderstood by both politicians and the public in the RS.

    Unfortunately, many Bosnian CSOs remain silent due to fear. In RS in particular, people are afraid for their safety and that of their families. Unlike in Georgia, where people took to the streets to defend freedom of association, people in Bosnia aren’t motivated, partly due to media narratives portraying civil society as being paid by the international community to act against the government.

    We are using all available tools to raise awareness about repressive legislation within the country, at the European Union (EU) level and through communication with various civil society networks, including CIVICUS. The government argues that these laws are necessary to prevent the financing of terrorism and money laundering, but we view these as excuses.

    We have informed opposition members of parliament about the potential negative consequences of the ‘foreign agents’ law but have made no impact. Our outreach to the public has been hindered by lack of media support.

    However, we remain hopeful that this crisis may turn into an opportunity for Bosnian civil society to revive the sense of solidarity that we’ve lost over the past decade. These days, we constantly think in terms of projects and donors and tend to see each other as competitors when we most desperately need to be united.

    How would you describe the current political climate in BiH?

    Our region has historically bordered with empires, and this location has come at a price. The threat of RS’s secession has risen in recent years, posing a security problem for the entire region. Due to BiH’s location and rich natural resources and potential for energy production, many fear that its fate depends on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the interests of major powers such as China, the EU, Russia, Turkey and the USA. The people of BiH are the ones with the least influence on the decisions that will affect them.

    While secession may not be imminent, the threat of it significantly impacts on people’s wellbeing. We experience a pervasive feeling of insecurity that contributes to an anxious atmosphere. This makes people easier to manipulate. Many people are considering leaving, mostly because of their sense of insecurity and the widespread corruption.

    Fear is our main currency. Past experiences of police surveillance leading to arrests of protesters have deterred people from participating in demonstrations. People are losing hope that things will improve. During the war we experienced between 1992 and 1995, we had a very strong feeling of hope that when the war ended we would recover a normal life and rebuild our country. Now we have peace but we don’t have hope anymore.

    How do you work to strengthen civil society in BiH, and what obstacles do you face?

    Our organisation was established right after the war, so it has existed for 27 years. We were the first ones to connect CSOs from different parts of the country and our network currently includes over 350 organisations.

    In 2004, we launched the first initiative of institutional cooperation between government and civil society. At that time, civil society was thriving. But over the past decade or so, the situation has steadily worsened. Civil society faces a shortage of human resources, and people hold rather negative views about civil society. We seek to change such perceptions by consistently communicating the purpose and results of our work to the public and beneficiaries of our services and activities.

    We also lack strong connections with the media, which should serve as a channel between us, the government, the international community and, most importantly, our society. To show what we’re doing and what we are trying to achieve, instead of just following donors’ visibility guidelines we have established our own portal in which we collect inspiring stories of civil society’s impact in improving people’s lives.

    But our biggest problem is lack of local ownership. For many years the international community did things for us, so we aren’t used to solving problems by ourselves. People aren’t used to activism; they complain and wait for others to resolve their problems. That’s one of the failures of civil society: we have implemented many projects, but never managed to spark people’s activist side.

    What challenges do you face in cooperating with international partners?

    International agencies implement large projects in BiH and many funds come from the international community, but we don’t see results. One of the reasons is that local civil society is pushed aside. When we inquire with donors about supporting local organisations or networks, they argue that small organisations lack the capacity to successfully implement large grants. It has become their mantra.

    This hampers the development of civil society as the true democratic force our country urgently needs. We must engage in dialogue with the government to devise solutions for the numerous problems we face. We need to move past the ‘projectisation’ of civil society and focus on the long term.

    This also applies to the government, which is also forced to work within the project framework, executing short-term tasks requested by the EU or other international institutions. For instance, the government, jointly with the European Commission, invested around €1 million (approx. US$1.06 million) to fulfil a request to establish a register for CSOs, but once international partners left the country, the register ceased to function. There was a failure to recognise that civil society could have created, managed and overseen the register, which could have been instrumental in developing a common civil society strategy.

    This year we established an informal group of donors who support local civil society in Bosnia. We hope the international community will consistently convey the message that they must prioritise local ownership and sustainability. We don’t want to see civil society becoming a mere service provider for larger international agencies. We need to organise around genuine shared interests rather than form networks to satisfy the criteria of calls for proposals. It is time for us to think strategically about who we are and what our role is.

    Civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which draws attention to countries where there is a serious and rapid decline in respect for civic space.

    Get in touch with CPCD through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@cpcdba on Twitter.

  • BULGARIA: ‘Our society has finally become sensitised to domestic and gender-based violence’

    VictoriaPetrovaCIVICUS speaks with Victoria Petrova, Communications and Development Director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), about civil society’s struggles to end domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria.

    Established in 2004, the BFW is the only Bulgarian feminist civil society organisation (CSO) supporting organisations, collectives and activists that challenge the status quo and work towards systemic change for women, girls and all marginalised communities.

    What does BFW do?

    The BFW has played a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights across Bulgaria for two decades. Our focus has recently extended. As well as funding projects, in 2020 we started providing core funding to help organisations meet essential needs such as administrative costs, office space, equipment and staff salaries, which often remain uncovered by project funding.

    Core funding is of paramount importance to ensure the sustainability of CSOs. Financial stability empowers organisations to be strategic, proactive and resilient in the face of challenges. As of today, providing core funding objective has become our biggest focus.

    We also have other funding mechanisms such as project funding and the Open Opportunity programme, which provides rapid funding of up to 10,000 BGN (approx. US$5,500). This has proven invaluable in times of crisis or in the face of unforeseen challenges, such as last year’s attack on the Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQI+ space in the capital, Sofia. A far-right former presidential candidate attacked the hub during an event and injured a participant, an activist and Rainbow Hub team member. The premises were destroyed. Through the Open Opportunity programme BFW gave them a grant so they could get it fixed.

    Overall, BFW distributed a total of over US$700,000 in direct grants to CSOs in 2022 alone.

    We’ve also taken proactive steps to contribute to building capacity in the organisations we support, recognising the significance of robust women’s rights organisations in a context where great gender inequalities persist.

    It is estimated that one in three women, or approximately one million, suffer from domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria and at least 15 women have been killed by former or current intimate partners, husbands or other relatives since the beginning of 2023. Women do a disproportionate share of household chores and care work. There aren’t enough support services, such as public kindergartens. There is a significant pay gap and women are grossly underrepresented in politics – only about 25 per cent of members of parliament are women. Life is even harder in small towns, where gender stereotypes are much more deeply rooted.

    Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

    Women’s rights organisations as well as the entire civil society sector in Bulgaria have encountered significant challenges since 2018. These started alongside attacks on the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

    Attacks were sparked by a far-right party, VMRO, and also by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after it shifted its stance in relation to the Convention. The party with the biggest parliamentary representation, GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), sort of washed its hands at the time and left the matter with the Constitutional Court. And the Court ruled that ratifying the Istanbul Convention would be unconstitutional. This made Bulgaria one of the few European states that haven’t ratified the Convention.

    These days, attacks focus on the changes recently made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act. Regressive and pro-Russian groups such as Revival (Vazrazhdane) and BSP claim that this law seeks to impose the Istanbul Convention and implement what they call ‘gender ideology’. A few months ago, the BSP even started collecting signatures to enable a referendum against ‘gender ideology’. The party has recently announced it has collected the required number of signatures.

    What recent changes were made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, and why?

    Changes to this law had been pursued for years but faced rejection by some political parties, including Revival, the BSP and some GERB members. They were finally introduced in July and they represented progress, even though they did not include the definition of ‘intimate relationship’ proposed by women’s advocates, as a result of which they did not extend protection to people who are in relationships but are unmarried and not in a domestic partnership.

    Regrettably, this omission meant that the shocking Stara Zagora case, in which an 18-year-old woman was beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, did not fall within the law’s purview. This attack happened in late June but only became public in late July, as a result of the victim’s family’s engagement with the media out of frustration with the slow pace of the investigation.

    In response, around 10,000 people protested in Sofia and tens of thousands demonstrated in other regions, demanding justice for victims and action against domestic and gender-based violence. This groundswell of public engagement was unprecedented, shaking the normalised apathy or victim-blaming that had often been the response to similar cases in the past.

    This forced parliament to reconsider the bill, and on 7 August it reconvened to widen its scope to cover ‘intimate relationships’. This was a step in the right direction, although some concerning elements remain.

    First, criteria for people to be considered as intimate partners include having been in a relationship for at least 60 days, without any clarity as to what counts as the start of those 60 days and, more concerningly, what happens if violence occurs within the first 60 days. Second, at the last minute, members of parliament inserted the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the definition, therefore limiting its scope to heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples were completely excluded from seeking protection under this law.

    Bulgarian politicians should do much better. During that same debate a GERB member of parliament, former Minister of Culture and former Chairman of the Parliament, Vezhdi Rashidov, made extremely offensive comments. It was during the break, when he thought his microphone was off and basically called raped women ‘whores’. Our organisation wrote an open letter asking for his resignation, and just a few days later he announced he was resigning.

    Unfortunately, his comments reflect widespread attitudes among many of our politicians towards women’s rights and domestic and gender-based violence. We are fed up with their sexist jokes, homophobic expressions, lack of understanding and deliberate disinformation regarding gender issues and women’s rights.

    What do you think made the Stara Zagora case so impactful?

    The impact of the Stara Zagora case can be attributed to several factors, primarily stemming from systemic failures that occurred across various institutional levels. The perpetrator’s swift release within 72 hours of the attack, despite being on probation for prior offences, set the tone for public outrage.

    Public indignation also resulted from the discrepancy between the severity of the attack, which involved the use of a knife and resulted in 400 stitches, a broken nose and a shaved head, and its categorisation as a mere ‘soft bodily injury’.

    There was a shift in public sentiment that revealed heightened awareness and empathy for victims. The usual response in these cases is often victim-blaming. This time, however, many more people sided with the victim. Although some anti-rights voices questioning the victim’s innocence emerged, particularly on social media, most public figures refrained from such insensitivity.

    As a result, over the past few weeks, we have started to see more and more domestic violence cases being reported on the media. So I’d say the Stara Zagora case sensitised society and accelerated change. I hope people will now be more willing to seek protection and justice, and institutions and the media will be more willing to empathise with the victims.

    What else should be done to combat gender-based violence more effectively?

    While there are organisations like BFW that have worked against gender-based violence for decades, it’s evident that a comprehensive national campaign led by the state is needed to catalyse broader change. Such a campaign should aim to reach people across all socio-economic strata, fostering a shared understanding of gender equality and the unacceptability of violence.

    Education and prevention are paramount, and they must begin at an early age. Teaching children about gender equality and the importance of rejecting violence from the outset can contribute to lasting change.

    The establishment of more crisis centres across the country to provide immediate support and safety for victims is also crucial. Only 15 out of 28 regional cities have crisis centres so far. Perhaps positive change will now take place as four ministries have got involved in solving the issue.

    Finally, ratification of the Istanbul Convention remains a pivotal goal. Its comprehensive framework can guide Bulgaria in its efforts to counter gender-based violence. We will continue advocating for these changes and support other organisations that work for women’s rights.

    How do you connect with the global women’s movement and what additional support do you need?

    We participate in networks like Prospera and On the Right Track. These connections expose us to diverse perspectives and experiences and enrich our understanding of the broader movement.

    Collaboration among organisations and international assistance are essential to counter anti-rights narratives, fend off far-right movements that are unfortunately increasingly organised and determined and promote positive change. When helping people and organisations, we sometimes tend to be reactive to attacks. We need to support each other to be more proactive.

    As I already mentioned, core funding is of huge importance to our grantees, but it is for us as well. I am happy to see that more of our donors started providing this type of long-term support, and I am hopeful that even more will recognise the need for it in the future.

    To end on a more positive note, I am thankful that Bulgarian society has finally become sensitised to the topic of domestic and gender-based violence. This isn’t a private issue but an issue that affects the whole of society. We are all responsible for educating ourselves on the topic, learning about its different forms, stepping up when we see something unacceptable and supporting people who are brave enough to report violence.

    We look forward to a collective push toward lasting change, supported by all of you.

    Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the BFW through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@bgfundforwomen on Twitter.

    The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

  • BULGARIA: ‘Women’s rights organisations are working together towards the goal of a feminist Europe’

    Iliana BalabanovaCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Bulgarian civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) with Iliana Balabanova, founder and president of the Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby (BPEWL). 

    BPEWL was founded in 2005 by a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) working for gender equality and social justice, and against violence towards women. Since its inception it has organised at the community level to raise gender issues and push them up the agenda, promoted petitions, organised workshops, implemented projects and collaborated with civil society in other European countries on joint advocacy initiatives against gender inequality.

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Bulgaria?

    As reported by civil society, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in violence against women and children. One of the main challenges in preventing violence has been the lack of a coordinating body bringing together both government and civil society. There is need for much better coordination among all institutions to review cases of violence and identify the best ways to deal with them.

    According to the office of the World Health Organization in Bulgaria, at least seven women lost their lives at the hands of a partner or family member since pandemic-related confinement measures were put in place. The national helpline for children received 80 reports of a parent abusing another parent in March 2020 alone. This indicated that violence against women and children doubled compared to the months before the pandemic.

    The pandemic impacted very negatively on the work of the centres that provide assistance to GBV victims. The impact was dramatic on victims of domestic violence and rape in need of emergency support. Assistance had to be provided exclusively through the phone, while phone calls for consultations increased by 30 per cent.

    In addition, the interaction with public institutions – judicial, health and municipal bodies – was difficult. And the pandemic had a negative effect on the justice system, as it delayed court decisions. During lockdown periods, applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases were submitted by mail to the regional or district courts, and most other applications could not be sent due to the huge backlog.

    What role has Bulgarian civil society historically played, and continues to play, to tackle GBV?

    Bulgarian women’s organisations have worked against GBV and domestic violence for decades. At the very beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to work on domestic violence by counselling victims and we opened the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria.

    At that time there was no legislation to prevent domestic violence or protect victims, and Bulgarian women’s CSOs – joined later by other human rights CSOs – drafted the first such bill. The lobbying campaign and the advocacy work to get the bill passed lasted almost five years. 

    Thanks to this work, in 2005 the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for Protection against Domestic Violence, which defined domestic violence quite widely, encompassing all forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic – committed by family members or partners in a formal or de facto relationship or cohabitation. The process was hurried by the fact that Bulgaria had started harmonising its legislation with European Union (EU) regulations, and women’s CSOs took advantage of the momentum to exert pressure for a new legislative framework to protect women from domestic violence.

    By then the Bulgarian women’s movement had gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise, and we started to work to change societal attitudes and create an understanding of domestic violence as an expression of unequal power relations at the personal, community and societal levels. We tried to shine a light on the link between social domination, economic control, power inequalities, stereotypes and GBV. The BPEWL and its member organisations have worked on disrupting the continuum of violence against women and girls ever since.

    After 2011, one of our main goals was to get the Bulgarian state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention. Unfortunately, mostly because of the rise of populist, nationalist and transphobic politics, Bulgaria rejected the Istanbul Convention. Moreover, in 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the concepts of gender and gender identity were irrelevant for the Bulgarian constitutional and legal system. They said they have no clear and precise legal content and would have dangerous legal consequences.

    As a result of this decision, Bulgaria does not keep official statistics on domestic violence and other forms of GBV. The number of complaints registered by the police and cases submitted to the courts are not counted in publicly available statistics. Murder, the most serious form of intrusion against a person, is also not captured through a gender-specific lens – that is, as femicide. So it fell on civil society to do this work, and so far information on GBV has been gathered by CSOs and some social agencies.

    According to this data, one in three women in Bulgaria are subjected to GBV and approximately one million women experience domestic violence. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria, a third of whom have been subjected to systematic violence by their murderer, and a tenth of whom have sought police protection against their murderer. Civil society reported that between 2014 and 2017, over 5,500 women sought protection from women’s CSOs providing victim services and over 700 women and their children were placed in crisis centres.

    As I mentioned, during the pandemic domestic violence increased. Worryingly, however, the number and capacity of shelters remained very limited, and no progress was achieved in systematically collecting and analysing statistical data on GBV, including registering femicides. So women’s CSOs continue to lobby for the government to increase the number and capacity of state-funded crisis centres and other services, provide adequate support for CSOs offering shelter and care to victims, collect administrative data on all forms of GBV and ratify the Istanbul Convention.

    How is the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) working at the regional level?

    The EWL is the largest European women’s rights network, involving more than 2,000 organisations throughout Europe. It brings together the European women’s movement to influence the public and European institutions to support women’s human rights and gender equality. The Bulgarian Platform became a member of the EWL in 2005 and ever since we have worked together with member organisations at both national and EU levels. Our vision is that of a society in which women’s contributions are recognised, rewarded and celebrated, and in which all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice and freedom from violence and exploitation.

    The EWL works towards the goal of a feminist Europe. In a policy brief published in April 2020, ‘Women Must Not Pay the Price for COVID-19!’, we called on governments to put gender equality at the heart of their response. We call for a universal social care system with infrastructure to provide social and quality care services that are accessible and affordable for all women and girls.

    The 2022-2026 EWL strategy was developed during the pandemic, as all aspects of our work and our mission were being impacted on significantly. Over the course of this period, the EWL adapted to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, sharpened its actions in a radically changed world and enabled online spaces for the women’s movement to come together, analyse and strategise about the significant and long-term impacts of this crisis, which will surely be shouldered disproportionately by women and girls.

    What are your plans for International Women’s Day? 

    This year’s International Women’s Day in Bulgaria will be focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine.

    Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Bulgarian platform of the European Women’s Lobby through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

  • Catalonia: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’

    Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.



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