freedom of expression

 

  • Human rights situation in Africa: a special focus on shrinking of civic space

    CIVICUS statement at the 71st Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

     

  • International human rights orgs: Stop ‘paid prioritisation’ bill

     한국어  

    Moon Jae-in
    President of the Republic of Korea
    1 Cheongwadae-ro, Jongno-gu
    Seoul 03048
    Republic of Korea

    Joint open letter to President Moon Jae-in

    Re: Respect Net Neutrality, Oppose Bill Mandating ‘Paid Prioritization’ for Content Producers

    Dear Mr. President Moon,

    We the undersigned thirty (30) human rights and freedom of expression organizations are concerned by your recent apparent support for an amendment to the Telecommunications Business Act that would allow Korean internet service providers (ISPs) to impose financial barriers on content providers’ (CPs) network access. The proposed amendment risks eroding net neutrality in contravention of international standards regarding access to the internet. We call on you to oppose the proposed amendment, and to instead take steps to protect net neutrality in Korea.

    The proposal, if passed, would impose the world’s first law mandating paid prioritization by requiring content providers like Naver, Kakao, Netflix, and Google to pay Korean ISPs termination fees based on network usage in order to have their content be sent to the ISP’s customers. This amendment comes a year after the Telecommunications Business Act was last revised to include vaguely defined requirements on content providers to ensure stable internet service, foreboding imposition of some sort of burdens on content providers. Since 2016, Korea has already imposed the world’s first mandatory Sending Party Network Pays (SPNP) rule albeit only among ISPs, where ISPs charge one another for sending data to other ISPs resulting in high internet connectivity charges for content providers.

    The new amendment allows ISPs in Korea to restrict access to content based on how much money has been paid by the sender or to block traffic from CPs unable to pay network usage fees. This would contradict the principle of net neutrality, which protects internet users’ rights to access content, applications, services, and hardware of their choice by ensuring all data is treated without discrimination. The plurality and diversity of expression and information on the internet risks being stifled if ISPs are allowed to use their control of network infrastructure to slow, block, or prioritize content depending on whether money has been paid for its delivery.

    Net neutrality principles have been upheld as an international human rights standard. In particular, in his 2017 report to the Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression stated that “the State’s positive duty to promote freedom of expression argues strongly for network neutrality in order to promote the widest possible non-discriminatory access to information.” Speaking specifically in regards to paid prioritization, as now proposed in Korea, the Special Rapporteur explained that paid prioritization schemes give preferential treatment to certain types of traffic over others for payment, which undermines user choice and forces them to engage with content that has been prioritized without their knowledge. In its 2021 resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet, the UN Human Rights Council further called on States to “ensure net neutrality” and “to prohibit attempts by Internet access service providers to assign priority to certain types of Internet content or application over others for payment or other commercial benefit.”

    From a comparative perspective, such practices as now proposed in Korea have previously been banned in the United States under the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2011 Preserving the Open Internet order and that ban was also included in the 2015 Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet order . Even though these rules were revoked in 2017 under the Trump administration, the Biden administration in 2021 issued an executive order to restore them and their reimposition is now under review by the FCC. In Europe the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication already rejected a similar proposal in 2012. When the European Union  adopted their Open Internet Regulation in 2015 that protects the principle of Net Neutrality union-wide, a similar decision was made by the European Parliament and the Council of EU member states to not establish a ‘Sending Party Network Pay’-regime that would charge termination fees..

    Proponents of the amendment claim that content providers are “free-riding” on Korean ISPs and not paying their fair share, but in reality all users of the internet, including individuals and companies, are already paying for bandwidth and access to content delivery systems. Domestic content providers in Korea are already paying high fees to connect to domestic ISPs, who in turn pay to connect to overseas ISPs, thereby connecting Korea to the world. Small foreign content providers pay to connect to their home ISPs who pay to connect to higher-tier foreign ISPs who help deliver their data to Korean ISPs, while the big foreign content providers like Google and Netflix are spending their own resources to deliver directly to domestic ISPs in Korea or nearby either through sub-sea cables or cache servers. Once connected, these network routers are bound by a mutual promise of delivering data packets to their neighbor routers without discrimination based on origin, type, content, or whether or how much the sender has paid for delivery. It is through this promise of net neutrality and the mutually cooperative efforts to connect to one another that the world has entered the golden age of communication where an ordinary person can start a movement or a business of global scale from his or her computer.

    President Moon, you were a human rights lawyer and should understand how, in addition to its economic promise, internet access is crucial to and has become a necessary ingredient of the global democratization and human rights movement. Without net neutrality, people’s ability to share their ideas with many will be severely restricted by the imposition of charges for data delivery. This will impact more than the delivery of streaming media; it will impact the global spread of ideas in the fight for democracy and human rights.

    We, therefore, reiterate our call that you immediately oppose the proposed amendments to the Telecommunications Business Act and take positive steps to protect net neutrality in line with Korea’s obligations to protect the right to freedom of expression and access to information. This includes repealing or amending existing laws that challenge net neutrality, such as the requirement on CPs to ensure service stabilization measures and the 2016 SPNP rules.

    Signatories:

    Human Rights Watch

    Article 19

    Wikimedia Foundation

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    Electronic Frontier Foundation

    European Digital Rights (EDRi)

    Access Now

    PEN America

    Public Knowledge

    epicenter.works – for digital rights

    Open Net Association

    Korean Progressive Network Jinbonet

    Software Freedom Law Center of India
    Internet Freedom Foundation

    Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Net

    Citizen D / Državljan D

    Wikimedia France

    Ubunteam

    Last Mile4D

    i freedom – Uganda Network

    Campaign for Human Rights and Development International

    Sassoufit Collective

    Youths and Environmental Advocacy Centre (YEAC) Nigeria

    Elektronisk Forpost Norge

    Chaos Computer Club (Germany)

    IT-Pol Denmark

    Point of View

    Derechos Digitales

    MediaJustice

    Fight for the Future

    Civic space in the Republic of Korea is rated as narrowed by the Civicus Monitor 

     

  • Nicaragua: One month later, Medardo Mairena Sequeira still behind bars

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is seriously concerned about the prolonged detention of Nicaraguan human rights defender, Medardo Mairena Sequeira. Medardo was detained a month ago as part of a wave of arrests targeting activists and people who expressed their desire to stand for the Presidency ahead of Presidential elections scheduled for November 2021.

    For far too long, President Daniel Ortega has used state apparatuses to target human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition to stifle freedom of expression and extend his grip on power. Now, a few months before the November 2021 elections, this intensified crackdown aims to silence political opponents to guarantee him victory when Nicaraguans vote. The international community must act now to prevent a further deterioration of human rights,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    In addition to Medardo, those detained include labour leaders Freddy Navas Lopes, Pablo Morales and Pedro Joaquin Mena. Most of the people arrested are accused of complicity in the kidnapping and killing of police officers in 2018 during large scale protests that swept through Nicaragua that year. The authorities state that they are investigating those arrested for inciting foreign interference and violating national sovereignty.

    Police also raided the home of feminist leaders Dora Maria Tellez and Ana Margarita Vijil, and arrested them. They are both members of the opposition party Unamos. For several months, leaders and members of Unamos have been subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions. The authorities have also imposed travel bans on other members of the political opposition and civil society, and froze their bank accounts.

    Background

    Since 2018, President Ortega’s administration has precipitated a socio-political and human rights crisis in Nicaragua. Human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition have been subjected to acts of intimidation, arrests and detentions by security agents. In March 2021, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution in response to human rights violations which renews and strengthens scrutiny on Nicaragua. In March 2021, Nicaragua was also placed on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, due to concerns about the country’s rapidly declining civic space. A few months before the November elections, the authorities have increased their attacks against members of the political opposition, human rights defenders and journalists.

    Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, our online platform that measures the state of civic freedoms in all countries.

    *Photo Credit: Jorge Mejía peralta

     

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

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

    Natasha Rather interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

     

  • Advocacy priorities at 47th Session of UN Human Rights Council

    The 47th Session is set to run from 21 June to 15 July, and will cover a number of critical thematic and country issues. Like all Sessions held over the course of the pandemic, it will present challenges and opportunities for civil society engagement. CIVICUS encourages States to continue to raise the importance of civil society participation, which makes the Human Rights Council stronger, more informed and more effective.

     

  • Advocacy priorities at the 50th Session of UN Human Rights Council

    The 50th Session of the Human Rights Council will run from 13 June to 8 July, and will provide an opportunity to advance civic space and the protection of civil society, as well as address serious country situations. This session will address particularly civic space rights: CIVICUS will engage on a resolution and debate on freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, as the Council renews the critical mandate of the Special Rapporteur, and on a resolution on peaceful protests, aiming to advance accountability for violations. It will also look to strengthen international norms on freedom of expression. On country situations, CIVICUS will engage on Eritrea, join calls to ensure continued scrutiny on Sudan, and urge the Council to take steps to protect Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in and outside Myanmarwhile addressing its ongoing serious violations and join events on both topics.

    The Human Rights Council also has the opportunity to address situations of serious concern on countries that are not on the agenda. CIVICUS urges to Council to do so on India, to create a long-needed mechanism on Russiaand to address the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan.

    The full participation of civil society remains a critical part of the Human Rights Council, and CIVICUS encourages States to ensure consultation with national, regional and international civil society, and to ensure that they are fully able to participate in Council debates and negotiations.


    Resolutions

    Freedom of association and peaceful assembly

    The resolution on freedom of peaceful assembly and association will be presented at this session, renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The Special Rapporteur will present a report on restrictions to access to funding, which has emerged as an existential threat to civil society. Countries such as India, El Salvador and Tunisia have had economic development and human rights activities curtailed owing to restrictions in foreign funding.

    CIVICUS calls on States to support the renewal of the mandate in a strong resolution which reflect contemporary challenges, and to deliver statements during the debate with the Special Rapporteur highlighting countries and situations in which restrictions to access to funding have emerged as an existential threat to civil society.

    Peaceful protests

    Peaceful assembly is a fundamental right, and protests offer a powerful and successful means of advocating for and defending other vital rights. The resolution that will be presented this session on peaceful protests will provide an opportunity to strengthen protection of protests and accountability frameworks for violations during protests, building upon existing norms and standards, including the Human Rights Committee published its General Comment 37 on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

    CIVICUS encourages States to support the resolution and its emphasis on crisis, and to encourage stronger language on accountability and the protection of journalists and protest monitors.

    Freedom of expression

    Freedom of expression is essential for any democratic society. The right to seek, receive and impart information is an inherent aspect of this. As internet shutdowns continue to be imposed throughout the world – from Myanmar to India to Chad to Kazakhstan – this right has been curtailed, exacerbated by existing challenges in to accessing digital space.

    CIVICUS calls on States to support a resolution on freedom of expression which strengthens norms and standards around this vital issue and protects the right of people to fully participate.


    Country Priorities

    Eritrea

    The situation of human rights in Eritrea – a Human Rights Council member – and its lack of cooperation with international mechanisms is a source of serious concern. In 2019, the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea identified ‘benchmarks for progress in improving the situation of human rights.’ To date, none have been met and there continues to be widespread impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations.

    CIVICUS joins other organisations in calling for the Council to adopt a resolution that extends the mandate of the Special Rappor­teur, clearly describes and condemns violations Eritrean authorities com­mit at home and abroad, and incorporate the Special Rapporteur’s benchmarks towards tangible improvement.

    Civic space in Eritrea is rated 'closed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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    Sudan

    The situation in Sudan risks further escalation, and a successful political settlement requires accountability. Following the military coup of 25 October last year, the UN Human Rights Council took urgent action by holding a special session and adopting a resolution re­ques­ting the High Commis­sioner to designate an Expert on Human Rights in the Sudan. The Council now must follow up on its initial action, and ensure ongoing scrutiny.

    CIVICUS joins others in calling for states to support a resolution which ensures that the High Commissioner regularly reports on the human rights situation and that dedicated public debates are held.

    Civic space in Sudan is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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    India

    India was placed on CIVICUS’s Watchlist in February this year, illustrating its severe and rapid decline in respect for civic space. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) has been weaponized against non-profit organisations, including rejecting registrations and preventing them from accessing foreign funding. The broader human rights situation continues to deteriorate; scores of human rights defenders and activists remain in detention under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other laws.

    CIVICUS calls on states to raise India specifically in the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association with particular reference to the FCRA and UAPA.

    Civic space in India is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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    Myanmar

    15 months after the military coup, grave human rights violations by the military junta continued to be documented in Myanmar. There will be a number of opportunities to raise concerns during this Council session, including updates from the High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar. It is imperative that pressure remains on the military junta, and that further targeted action is taken by the international community to address the junta’s crimes. The coup has made the safe, voluntary, dignified, and sustainable return of Rohingya refugees untenable.

    CIVICUS calls on states to ensure that the resolution on the situation of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar reflects these concerns, and to deliver strong statements to condemn the military coup and call for the restoration of an elected civilian government.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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    Russia

    Since the start of Russia's aggression in Ukraine, the authorities' targeting of Russian civil society has intensified significantly. Russian authorities embarked on a severe crackdown on civic freedoms after authorities brutally responded to nationwide anti-war protests, threatened and shut independent media outlets for reporting about the war in Ukraine, and blocked access to social media and media websites. Russia’s crushing of internal dissent has removed virtually all domestic checks and balances, enabling it to become a destabilizing actor not only in the region, but also globally.

    CIVICUS supports Russian and international civil society groups in calling for the Council to appoint a dedicated Special Rapporteur to address the human rights situation in Russia.

    Civic space in Russia is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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    Afghanistan

    There is a woman’s right crisis in Afghanistan: since August 2021, when the Taliban took control of the country, there has been an enormous deterioration in the recognition and protection of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, including with respect to the rights to non-discrimination, education, work, public participation, health, and sexual and reproductive health. The Taliban has also imposed sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement for women and girls. Afghanistan is now the only country in the world to expressly prohibit girls’ education.

    CIVICUS joins partners in calling for an urgent debate on Afghanistan for the Council consider and take action on the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan in a manner reflecting the gravity and urgency of the situation.

    Civic space in Afghanistan is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Advocacy priorities at the 51st Session of UN Human Rights Council

    The 51st regular session of the Human Rights Council will run from 12 September to 7 October, and will provide an opportunity to advance civic space and the protection of civil society, as well as address serious country situations.

    There are a number of opportunities for the advancement of civic space and the protection of civil society at the upcoming 51st Human Rights Council session session. On country situations, the Council must take stronger action to address the worsening human rights situation in Afghanistan, particularly for women and girls. The Council must renew its mechanisms on Burundi, Ethiopia and Venezuela, while ensuring continued Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)'s monitoring of the human rights situation in the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Thematically, the Council can reaffirm the importance of respecting human rights while countering terrorism.


    Country Priorities

    Afghanistan

    Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, a human rights and humanitarian crisis has ensued. The establishment of a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan was a first important step to address the situation, and now States must strengthen its focus on accountability for violations, including by establishing a Commission of Inquiry to complement the Special Rapporteur’s work.

    Civic space in Afghanistan is rated "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    The Philippines

    Since 2016, when Duterte came to power, CIVICUS has documented systematic intimidation, attacks and vilification of civil society and activists, an increased crackdown on press freedoms, and the emerging prevalence of a pervasive culture of impunity. With domestic accountability processes unfit for purpose, the Council must extend monitoring by the High Commissioner on the situation to ensure that scrutiny remains on the country and that impunity does not prevail.

    Civic space in The Philippines is rated "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Burundi

    The human rights situation in Burundi has not improved since the mandate of the Special Rapporteur was established at the Council’s 48th session, and impunity remains widespread. It is vital that the Council maintains scrutiny on Burundi, relying on benchmarks identified by the earlier Commission of Inquiry to assess its progress, so the Council must extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. See a joint NGO letter here.

    Civic space in Burundi is rated "Closed"' by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Sri Lanka

    Sri Lanka has long been on the Council’s agenda to promote transitional justice towards accountability and reconciliation in the country. In June 2022, Sri Lanka was placed on CIVICUS’ watchlist due to its severe and rapid decline in civic freedoms, including violent force against peaceful protesters and attacks against civil society organisations. The Council must extend Office of OHCHR's mandate on reporting and accountability in Sri Lanka in a resolution which also addresses the current crisis.

    Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated "Obstructed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Venezuela

    The wave of human rights violations in the country continues unabated.  Human rights defenders continue to be persecuted, detained, and killed. Such violations – especially against freedom of assembly, association and expression – further undermine the already fragile economic and social situation. The Council must renew the mandate of the Fact-Finding mission on Venezuela, and engage constructively with its recommendations.

    Civic space in Venezuela is rated "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     -------------------------------------------------------------------------------

    Ethiopia

    Since the outbreak of the armed conflict in the Tigray region, the human rights situation in the country remains grave and alarming. The state of emergency endorsed by Parliament has led to a new wave of targeted and arbitrary arrests against the ethnic Tigrayans. The Council must renew the mandate of the Commission of Experts and engage constructively with its recommendations.

    Civic space in Ethiopia is rated "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor.


    Thematic Priorities

    Arbitrary detention

    Arbitrary detention remains a tactic used by governments worldwide to silence dissent and curtail civil society action.  The detention of peaceful protesters, human rights defenders and journalists persistently remains one of the most common violations of civic space. We call on States to engage in the Interactive Dialogue with the Working Group, in particular by raising cases of specific human rights defenders being held in arbitrary detention.

    Terrorism and human rights

    Measures to guarantee national security and stability should always fully comply with international human rights standards and they should never jeopardise core human rights. Civil society is witnessing an increasing misuse of counter-terrorism and national security laws and tactics which severely affects civil society and especially minority groups. A resolution on terrorism and human rights will be presented at this session, and we call on States to ensure that it addresses threats fundamental freedoms and and legal, regulatory and policy restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate.

     The human rights violations committed by Russian forces during the ongoing unlawful aggression against Ukraine have been enabled in part by escalating serious repression within the country, and the situation and its impact merit the urgent establishment of a Special Rapporteur on Russia. Sustained attacks against civic space in Indiahave rendered the Council overdue on taking action, and we urge States to do so at this session. 


    Side- Events

    CIVICUS and our partner, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights will hold a side event on the escalating civil and political rights violations in Zimbabwe on 26 September at 17:00 GMT +2. 

     

     

  • AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’

    CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms

    Arzak Khan

    What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?

    On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.

    Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.

    Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.

    What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?

    In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.

    The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.

    Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.

    Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?

    To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.

    How have you been supporting civil society and activists?

    The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.

    Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.

    What do you think of the response by the international community so far?

    Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.

    On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.

    What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?

    Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.

    The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.

    For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.

    Civic space inAfghanistan is rated repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Arzak Khan through hisblog orFacebook page, and follow@arzakkhan on Twitter.

     

     

     

  • Alert: Continued deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela

    Spanish

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) are deeply concerned about the continuing deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela. On 28 and 29 March 2017, the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) issued rulings No. 155 and 156 by which it declared the National Assembly in contempt of court, stripped legislators of parliamentary immunity, and assumed congressional powers as well as the prerogative to delegate them to whoever it decided, namely the Office of the President.

    In practice, many civil society organisations in Venezuela have expressed an opinion that these rulings amounted to an attempted coup against the legislative branch of government, a fundamental pillar of democratic institutions and the embodiment of the people’s right to be represented in the arena where key decisions concerning their lives and rights are made. Similarly, the Venezuelan Attorney General considered these decisions represent a rupture of the Constitutional order.

    The latest developments are the culmination of a several years’ long process of erosion of congressional authority which has plunged the country into a deep social crisis. Through the past year and a half, the TSJ issued more than 50 rulings that undermined the functions of the National Assembly and conferred unlimited powers onto the executive branch of the state. This is the reason why the backing down by the TSJ on its latest rulings did not amount to a restoration of the separation of powers and the rule of law. The fact that this reversal was executed at the executive’s request further emphasised the judiciary’s lack of independence and the on-going degradation of Venezuelan republican institutions.

    Over the years, the erosion of constitutional checks and balances and the resulting political polarisation have progressed hand in hand with increasing restrictions on civic freedoms, namely the rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly without which an empowered and enabled civil society cannot exist.

    In turn, the increasing concentration of decision-making powers in the executive leadership has led to serious policy-making failures, thereby intensifying rather than resolving the social crisis facing the country, including acute shortages of food and other basic goods, challenges with the public health system and a spike in street violence which disproportionately affects impoverished communities. We are also concerned about state repression against individuals and civil society groups when they speak up, organise and protest about their troubles.

    In the face of this multidimensional crisis, we call on Venezuelan Government to:

    • Restore the constitutionally defined functions and resources of the National Assembly as well as the prerogatives of its members, devolve the extraordinary powers conferred onto the executive by subsequent TSJ rulings, and introduce measures to guarantee the independence of the judiciary.
    • Repeal the current state of exception, established through an executive decree, and comply with human rights commitments under international law to guarantee basic enabling conditions for human rights defenders and civil society organisations. 
    • Guarantee the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and of expression. Security forces must refrain from the use of force against, or the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protestors.
    • Engage in dialogue with relevant national actors, including civil society, to resolve the current crisis; and ensure access to food and medicine for the entire population.

    We also urge the international community and in particular, the Organization of American States and its members to assist in resolution of the social and political crisis facing Venezuela.

    Contact:
    Eleanor Openshaw, ISHR NY Office: +1 212 490 2199,
    Inés Pousadela, CIVICUS Policy and Research: +598 2901 1646,

     

  • Alert: Is the Ugandan administration "doing an Ethiopia"? CIVICUS concerned as Uganda replicates Ethiopia's authoritarian approach in the run up to the elections

    Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.

    As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.

     

  • Alerta: Continuo deterioro de instituciones democráticas en Venezuela

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS y el Servicio Internacional para los Derechos Humanos (ISHR) expresan su profunda preocupación por el creciente deterioro de las instituciones democráticas en Venezuela. Los días 28 y 29 de marzo de 2017, la Sala Constitucional del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) de Venezuela emitió las sentencias N° 155 y 156, mediante las cuales declaró a la Asamblea Nacional en desacato, privó a los legisladores de inmunidad parlamentaria y asumió atribuciones del Congreso, así como la prerrogativa de delegarlas en quien juzgara conveniente, en este caso en la presidencia.

    Numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil venezolanas han manifestado que estas decisiones equivalen en la práctica a un intento de golpe de Estado contra el Poder Legislativo, un pilar fundamental de las instituciones democráticas y la encarnación del derecho de la ciudadanía a estar representada allí donde se toman las decisiones clave que repercuten sobre sus vidas y sus derechos. Del mismo modo, la Fiscal General consideró que estas decisiones del TSJ representan una ruptura del orden constitucional.

    Los últimos acontecimientos han sido la culminación de un proceso de erosión de la autoridad del Congreso que lleva varios años, y que ha sumido al país en una profunda crisis social. Durante el pasado año y medio, el TSJ emitió más de 50 resoluciones que socavaron las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional y otorgaron poderes ilimitados al Ejecutivo. Esta es la razón por la cual la decisión del TSJ de dar marcha atrás sobre sus últimas decisiones no supuso un restablecimiento de la separación de poderes y del estado de derecho. El hecho de que el TSJ revirtiera sus decisiones a petición del Ejecutivo, asimismo, no hizo más que enfatizar la falta de independencia del poder judicial y la degradación en curso de las instituciones republicanas en Venezuela.

    A lo largo de los años, la erosión de los controles constitucionales y la consiguiente polarización política han ido acompañados de restricciones cada vez mayores sobre las libertades cívicas, es decir, sobre los derechos a la libertad de asociación, de expresión y de reunión pacífica sin los cuales no puede funcionar una sociedad civil activa y empoderada.

    A su vez, la creciente concentración de poderes de decisión en el liderazgo ejecutivo ha redundado en graves fallos en la formulación de políticas públicas, intensificando en vez de resolver la crisis social que afronta el país, con fenómenos que incluyen una aguda escasez de alimentos y otros bienes básicos, el desmoronamiento del sistema público de salud y un aumento de la violencia callejera que afecta desproporcionadamente a las comunidades empobrecidas. También resulta preocupante la creciente represión estatal contra individuos y grupos de la sociedad civil que se expresan, organizan y protestan acerca de estos problemas.

    Frente a esta crisis multidimensional, hacemos un llamado al gobierno venezolano para que:

    1. Restaure las funciones y recursos constitucionalmente definidos de la Asamblea Nacional, así como las prerrogativas de sus miembros, devuelva las facultades extraordinarias conferidas al Poder Ejecutivo mediante sucesivas sentencias del TSJ, e introduzca medidas para garantizar la independencia del Poder Judicial.
    2. Derogue el estado actual de excepción, establecido mediante decreto ejecutivo, y cumpla con los compromisos de derechos humanos asumidos bajo el derecho internacional en materia de garantía de las condiciones básicas para el trabajo de defensores de derechos humanos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil.
    3. Garantice el derecho a las libertades de reunión pacífica, asociación y expresión. Las fuerzas de seguridad deben abstenerse del uso de la fuerza y el arresto arbitrario de manifestantes pacíficos.
    4. Participe en un diálogo con actores nacionales relevantes, incluyendo a la sociedad civil, para resolver la actual crisis; y asegure el acceso a alimentos y medicamentos para toda la población.
      Instamos también a la comunidad internacional, y en particular a la Organización de los Estados Americanos y a sus Estados miembros, a colaborar en aras de la resolución de la crisis social y política que enfrenta Venezuela.

    Contactos:
    Eleanor Openshaw,
    ISHR Oficina de Nueva York
    +12124902199

    Inés Pousadela
    CIVICUS Políticas e Investigación
    +598 2901 1646

     

  • Alerta: Continuo deterioro de instituciones democráticas en Venezuela

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS y el Servicio Internacional para los Derechos Humanos (ISHR) expresan su profunda preocupación por el creciente deterioro de las instituciones democráticas en Venezuela. Los días 28 y 29 de marzo de 2017, la Sala Constitucional del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) de Venezuela emitió las sentencias N° 155 y 156, mediante las cuales declaró a la Asamblea Nacional en desacato, privó a los legisladores de inmunidad parlamentaria y asumió atribuciones del Congreso, así como la prerrogativa de delegarlas en quien juzgara conveniente, en este caso en la presidencia.

    Numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil venezolanas han manifestado que estas decisiones equivalen en la práctica a un intento de golpe de Estado contra el Poder Legislativo, un pilar fundamental de las instituciones democráticas y la encarnación del derecho de la ciudadanía a estar representada allí donde se toman las decisiones clave que repercuten sobre sus vidas y sus derechos. Del mismo modo, la Fiscal General consideró que estas decisiones del TSJ representan una ruptura del orden constitucional.

    Los últimos acontecimientos han sido la culminación de un proceso de erosión de la autoridad del Congreso que lleva varios años, y que ha sumido al país en una profunda crisis social. Durante el pasado año y medio, el TSJ emitió más de 50 resoluciones que socavaron las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional y otorgaron poderes ilimitados al Ejecutivo. Esta es la razón por la cual la decisión del TSJ de dar marcha atrás sobre sus últimas decisiones no supuso un restablecimiento de la separación de poderes y del estado de derecho. El hecho de que el TSJ revirtiera sus decisiones a petición del Ejecutivo, asimismo, no hizo más que enfatizar la falta de independencia del poder judicial y la degradación en curso de las instituciones republicanas en Venezuela.

    A lo largo de los años, la erosión de los controles constitucionales y la consiguiente polarización política han ido acompañados de restricciones cada vez mayores sobre las libertades cívicas, es decir, sobre los derechos a la libertad de asociación, de expresión y de reunión pacífica sin los cuales no puede funcionar una sociedad civil activa y empoderada.

    A su vez, la creciente concentración de poderes de decisión en el liderazgo ejecutivo ha redundado en graves fallos en la formulación de políticas públicas, intensificando en vez de resolver la crisis social que afronta el país, con fenómenos que incluyen una aguda escasez de alimentos y otros bienes básicos, el desmoronamiento del sistema público de salud y un aumento de la violencia callejera que afecta desproporcionadamente a las comunidades empobrecidas. También resulta preocupante la creciente represión estatal contra individuos y grupos de la sociedad civil que se expresan, organizan y protestan acerca de estos problemas.

    Frente a esta crisis multidimensional, hacemos un llamado al gobierno venezolano para que:

    1. Restaure las funciones y recursos constitucionalmente definidos de la Asamblea Nacional, así como las prerrogativas de sus miembros, devuelva las facultades extraordinarias conferidas al Poder Ejecutivo mediante sucesivas sentencias del TSJ, e introduzca medidas para garantizar la independencia del Poder Judicial.
    2. Derogue el estado actual de excepción, establecido mediante decreto ejecutivo, y cumpla con los compromisos de derechos humanos asumidos bajo el derecho internacional en materia de garantía de las condiciones básicas para el trabajo de defensores de derechos humanos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil.
    3. Garantice el derecho a las libertades de reunión pacífica, asociación y expresión. Las fuerzas de seguridad deben abstenerse del uso de la fuerza y el arresto arbitrario de manifestantes pacíficos.
    4. Participe en un diálogo con actores nacionales relevantes, incluyendo a la sociedad civil, para resolver la actual crisis; y asegure el acceso a alimentos y medicamentos para toda la población.
      Instamos también a la comunidad internacional, y en particular a la Organización de los Estados Americanos y a sus Estados miembros, a colaborar en aras de la resolución de la crisis social y política que enfrenta Venezuela.

    Contactos:
    Eleanor Openshaw,
    ISHR Oficina de Nueva York
    +12124902199

    Inés Pousadela
    CIVICUS Políticas e Investigación
    +598 2901 1646

     

  • Bahrain: On 7th anniversary of beginning of popular movement, NGOs call for end to systematic targeting of human rights defenders and journalists

    Arabic

    On the 7th anniversary of the peaceful popular movement of the Bahraini people which started on 14 February 2011, the undersigned NGOs call on the international community to help free human rights defenders in Bahrain, some of whom are jailed for life, and to stop the persecution of journalists simply for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

     

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

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

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Bangladesh: No accountability for killing of Mushtaq Ahmed 100 days on

    100 days on since the death in custody of writer and critic Mushtaq Ahmed, no one has been held accountable for his killing. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Bangladesh authorities to immediately establish an independent investigation into his death and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

     

  • Bangladesh: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill

    To

    The President of Bangladesh, H.E. Md Abdul Hamid

    The Chair of the National Human Rights Commission, H.E. Kazi Reazul Hoque

    Subject: Open letter on Digital Media Security Bill

    Your Excellencies

    We write to you as international civil society organisations engaged on human rights and sustainable development issues in Bangladesh. We are concerned that in the current political climate in Bangladesh, which is narrowing avenues for free debate and legitimate democratic dissent in the country, the Bangladesh Digital Security Bill 2018, likely to be introduced in the current session of Parliament, fails to protect the right of the media, civil society and members of the general public to freely express their opinions on policies and actions of decision makers.

    Many of our organisations have closely followed debates about this bill over the years. In the past we have raised concerns about the existence of overbroad definitions and harsh punishments in the bill which, if enacted, would severely undermine freedom of expression as well as the freedom of the press. From available information, it appears that our concerns about the bill’s provisions as likely to impinge on constitutional rights and well as Bangladesh’s commitments under international law persist. Both Article 29 of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allow the imposition of restrictions on the right to freedom of expression only in very limited and clearly defined circumstances.

    In the present situation we recommend that the bill’s provisions are carefully considered from a constitutional and international law standpoint. Mr. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, has done extensive work on the subject including on the exercise of the freedom of expression in the digital age. We believe that the government would greatly benefit from engagement with Mr. Kaye, who could advise on the permissible limits on the freedom of expression under international law.

    Furthermore, we urge the government to seek assistance from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on measures to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights in the country in line with constitutional and international standards. We are concerned to hear that an official visit to Bangladesh by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, H.E. Zeid bin Ra’ad Al Hussein has been postponed and request the facilitation of a such a visit at the earliest opportunity.

    We believe that Bangladesh’s democracy and commitment to human rights and sustainable development will be strengthened through constructive engagement with UN human rights experts. We urge you to kindly consider the above requests in the interests of the people of Bangladesh.

    Sincerely,

    List of signatories (in alphabetical order)

    Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD)

    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

    Asian Human Rights Commission

    CIVICUS

    FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights

    Human Rights Watch

    Odhikar

    People’s Watch

    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)

     

  • Bangladesh: Open Letter to Prime Minister about controversial digital security bill

    Conditions for human rights defenders and journalists in Bangladesh are dire, and appear to be worsening according to the CIVICUS Monitor. A declining respect for democracy has precipitated the closure of civic space through a systematic clampdown on independent dissent. This intensifying crackdown on civil society has led to a de facto ban on public meetings, mass arrests of activists and reports of abductions and torture. Civil society actors documenting human rights violations perpetrated by the government are particularly vulnerable to harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrest.

    The authorities in Bangladesh continue to target civil society, most recently through draconian legislation designed to undermine the sector's independence. In  October 2016, parliament passed an amendment to the widely-criticised Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill (FDRB). The law strengthens the government's power to revoke CSO licenses for a variety of offences, including defamation, involvement in subversive activities and terrorist financing. The Digital Security Bill placed in Parliament is yet another attempt to stifle freedom of expression in Bangladesh and impede independent journalism. See full details of the Security bill in a joint leter below to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh:

    H.E. Sheikh Hasina Wazed
    Prime Minister of Bangladesh
    c/o Md. Nojibur Rahman
    Principal Secretary to the HPM
    Prime Minister’s Office
    Tejgaon, Dhaka-1215
    Bangladesh

    Dear Prime Minister,

    Open Letter: Proposed Digital Security Bill will restrict free expression and promote self-censorship in Bangladesh

    FORUM-ASIA, the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) are writing to you, as civil society organisations, to express our grave concern about the implications of the proposed Digital Security Bill 2018 on the right to freedom of expression of the citizens of Bangladesh. 

    We understand that the draft bill was presented before the parliament and was sent to a Standing Committee on 9 April 2018 and is expected to be reviewed over the next four weeks. 

    We believe the 2018 Digital Security Bill contains provisions that are overly broad and vague, and that impose disproportionate sentences and prescribe lengthy prison sentences for violators. The bill, if adopted, will exacerbate a range of legal restrictions that will impinge on the right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Constitution and the country’s obligations under international law, in particular the ICCPR, which was ratified by Bangladesh in 2000.
    We are particularly concerned about the follow aspects of the bill: 

    • The bill proposes to empower low ranking police officers with wide discretionary powers to conduct investigations, searches and seizures without applying normative digital evidentiary standards and without judicial oversight. 
    • The bill lacks a precise definition of what is considered a cybercrime and criminalises the use of electronic devices to “cause deterioration to law and order”, harm "religious sentiments”, cause incitement "against another person or organization”, and carry out “acts of defamation” - all of which have been incorporated from section 57 of the ICT Act. The bill simply splits these offences into four separate sections (21, 25, 28 and 29) with punishment ranging from three to 10 years' jail term. 
    • There are concerns around the inclusion of the crime of “carrying out negative propaganda" against the Liberation War (1971 War of Independence) or the ‘Father of the Nation’ (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president) that carries a maximum sentence of up to 14 years' in jail or a fine of up to Tk 50 lakh (60,000 USD) or both. These provisions are in contravention of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
    • Section 32 of the draft bill related to "espionage” could be used against journalists, online activists and lawyers who investigate and expose controversy or illegality within the government. 
    • The bill also stipulates some crimes are “non-bailable” and authorises security agencies to search or arrest anyone without any warrant if a police officer believes that an offense under the law has been committed or there is a possibility of crimes. Such provision often encourages abuse of power by law enforcement officers and promotes self-censorship.

    We are concerned that, according to reports, although the draft bill is currently under consideration in parliament, cases filed under section 57 of the ICT Act will continue to be investigated and if necessary, prosecuted.

    Section 57 of the ICT Act violates the right to freedom of expression by both criminalising legitimate forms of expression and through its vague wording that allows the authorities to arbitrarily and abusively apply the law. Scores of journalists have been arrested under section 57 of the Act for their reporting; around 700 cases have been filed under this Section since 2013. The provision has also been described as a “de facto blasphemy law”, as it criminalises several forms of online expression including anyone who “causes to hurt or may hurt religious belief”.

    In 2017, the Human Rights Committee in its concluding observations raised concerns about the arrest of journalists, “secular bloggers” and human rights defenders under the ICT Act and called for the government to “repeal or revise the [ICT law] with a view to bringing it into conformity with the State party’s obligations under the Covenant, taking into account the Committee’s general comment No. 34 (2011) on the freedoms of opinion and expression”.

    We are also highly concerned by the government's lack of meaningful consultation regarding the bill with key stakeholders including journalists, civil society and the human rights community. We urge the government of Bangladesh to prioritise a collective review of the proposed Digital Security Bill to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards and to repeal Section 57 of the ICT Act. The government must ensure that any future legislative proposals that have implications for the media or civil society are developed in full consultation with all stakeholders.

    Freedom of expression is of critical importance to hold those in power accountable. There should be no limitations on the freedom of expression and personal opinion, particularly those that systematically violate democratic spaces and practices.

    It is crucial that the government takes steps to develop an enabling environment for freedom of expression in line with international standards and end its willful misuse of restrictive legislation to subvert free speech.

    The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) works towards the radical rethinking and fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in order to protect and promote human rights in Asia. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong based organisation is a Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award, 2014.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa it is a membership alliance with more than 4,000 members in more than 175 countries.

    FORUM-ASIA is a regional human rights group with 58 member organisations in 19 countries across Asia. FORUM-ASIA has offices in Bangkok, Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. FORUM-ASIA addresses key areas of human rights violations in the region, including freedoms of expression, assembly and association, human rights defenders, and democratization.

    For further details, contact: 


    AHRC, bangladeshATahrc.asia 
    CIVICUS, josef.benedictATcivicus.org
    FORUM-ASIA, sasiaATforum-asia.org

     

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

     
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    A Joint Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

    Background:

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

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

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

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

     

     

  • Belarus: Release arrested journalist after forced emergency landing at Minsk Airport

    Journalist, Roman Protasevich is wanted by the government for broadcasting the government’s violent response to last year’s protests against Alexander Lukashenko

     

  • Call for independent investigation into Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo’s death

    Open letter to all Commonwealth Heads of Government

    Civil society organisations around the world are calling on the Rwandan authorities to allow an independent, impartial, and effective investigation into the death in custody of Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer and peace activist. As your governments mark Commonwealth Day today and prepare to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali in June, we are writing to ask you to engage with your counterparts in the Rwandan government in support of this call.

     

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