protests

 

  • Rights Groups in Indonesia stand in solidarity with the People of Myanmar

    We, the undersigned civil society organisations in Indonesia, and organisations with presence in Indonesia, express solidarity with the people of Myanmar and condemn the ongoing grave violations committed by the military junta. We reiterate our commitment to call on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international community to abide by its obligations to hold the perpetrators accountable and to protect the human rights of peoples in Myanmar.

     

  • Tunisia: Exercise restraint and respect human rights as political tensions intensify

    French | Arabic

    Tunisian authorities must refrain from the use of excessive force amid political tensions. 
     
    On 25 July people took to the streets in several cities in Tunisia expressing concerns over the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the roll out of vaccinations and the dire economic situation that Tunisians are facing.

    CIVICUS, a global alliance for civil society, is concerned about the violent attacks against protesters in Tunisia and calls on Tunisian authorities to exercise restraint amidst political tensions and to respect human rights.  

    Following a day of anti-government protests, President Kais Saied proceeded to invoke emergency powers, most of which are against Tunisia’s constitution suspending Parliament for 30 days and dismissing Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi. The ministers of Justice and Defence were also dismissed. A month-long curfew was imposed together with additional restrictions which prevent people from moving between cities outside of the curfew except for urgent health reasons. The authorities have also imposed restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly prohibiting gatherings of more than three people in public places.

    On 26 July, 20 heavily armed police officers  raided the offices of international media outlet, Al-Jazeera, confiscated equipment and expelled staff from its premises. This raises serious concerns for press freedoms in the country.

    “President Saied should not use the current crisis and emergency powers to stifle democracy including, freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly in Tunisia. The consistent use of violence against peaceful protesters is  a worrying trend and the use of emergency measures to limit fundamental rights, under the guise of the COVID19 pandemic are an affront to democracy and a serious threat to gains made during pro-democracy protests ten years ago,” said Aarti Narsee, civic space researcher. 

    The imposition of current emergency measures in response to anti-government protests is reminiscent of an ongoing trend where demonstrations highlighting concerns on social and economic issues affecting Tunisians are violently repressed by the authorities. In January 2021,  security forces used excessive force, which included tear gas, water cannon and physical violence, against protesters, with one protester being killed as a result and thousands were arrested, including minors. Authorities also targeted human rights defenders and those who spoke out about the dire economic situation in Tunisia.

    Background:
    Civic space restrictions continue in Tunisia ten years after protests forced a political transition and human rights defenders, journalists and activists who raise concerns over human rights violations are targeted by the authorities. Freedom of assembly has been significantly curtailed under Covid-19-related emergency measures which have banned gatherings at different times.  In October 2020 security forces violently repressed peaceful protesters who demonstrated against legislation that would grant immunity to security personnel in front of Parliament in Tunis. Most of the protests are driven by the impact of a deteriorating economy, increases in the prices of basic communities and high levels of impunity enjoyed by security forces. After Sunday’s protests the President has assumed executive authority with the help of a new Prime Minister which he is going to select. In principle, the Prime Minister should be elected by Parliament, which is controlled by the Ennahda party, with which the President has a long standing feud.


    Civic space in Tunisia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • ‘Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised’

     

    Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Rodrigo Mundaca, Agronomist and National Spokesperson of the Defence Movement for Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (MODATIMA), an organisation established in 2010 in the Chilean province of Petorca, in the Valparaíso region, to defend the rights of farmers, workers and local people. Since the 1990s, the region has been affected by the massive appropriation of water by agribusiness in collusion with the political establishment.

    Rodrigo Mundaca

    What is the main environmental issue in your context?

    The main problem is water. We live in a territory characterised mainly by the monoculture of avocado, the production of which requires huge amounts of water. Water is in the hands of large producers who have dried out our territory and compromised the lives of our communities. Ours is an extreme case: Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised. Chile has clearly prioritised extractive industries over the rights of communities to water.

    The privatisation of water sources in Chile dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973 to 1990. The 1980 Constitution enshrined the private ownership of water. This was maintained, and even deepened, following the democratic transition, since sanitation was also privatised. The privatisation process of sanitation began in 1998, under the administration led by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat. Nowadays, people in Chile pay the highest rates in Latin America for drinking water, which is owned by large transnational corporations. Overall, the Suez group, Aguas de Barcelona, Marubeni and the Ontario teachers’ pension fund administrator from Canada control 90 per cent of the drinking water supply.

    Right now, President Sebastián Piñera's government is auctioning off rivers. Piñera came into government with a mission to underpin the legal certainty of water rights ownership, and his cabinet includes several ministers who own rights to water use, the most prominent of which is the Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Walker Prieto. This minister and his family own more than 29,000 litres per second, which is equivalent to the continuous water supply used by approximately 17 million people.

    Is it as simple as someone owning the rivers and being able to prevent others from using the water?

    Yes, the 1980 Chilean Constitution literally states that the rights of individuals over water, recognised or constituted in accordance with the law, grant their bearers ownership over it. In 1981, the Water Code established that water is a national good for public use but also an economic good. Water ownership was separated from land ownership, so that there are water owners who have no land and landowners who have no water. It is the state's prerogative to grant rights for water use. These rights fall into two categories: water rights for consumption use and water rights for non-consumptive use, for example for generating electricity. In the first category, 77 per cent of the rights are held by the agricultural and forestry sector, 13 per cent by the mining sector, seven per cent by the industrial sector and approximately three per cent by the health sector. As for the rights for the use of water that is not consumed, 81 per cent are in the hands of an Italian public-private company. The owners of exploitation rights can sell or lease water use in the marketplace.

    In 2018, the Piñera administration proposed a bill aimed at providing legal certainty to perpetuity to private owners of water and introducing water auctions. Currently, 38 rivers in Chile are being auctioned off; basically, what the state does is auction off the litres per second that run through a river. While this occurs in some territories where there is still water, areas accounting for 67 per cent of the Chilean population – some 12 million people – have become water emergency areas. Our region, Valparaíso, is a zone of water catastrophe due to drought. This is unheard of: while such a large population has serious difficulties in accessing drinking water, the state is auctioning off rivers.

    What kind of work do you do to promote the recognition of access to water as a right?

    For more than 15 years we have made visible the conflict over water in our territory. Although we originated in the Valparaíso region, from 2016 onwards our organisation has worked nationwide. We fight at the national level for water to be regulated as a common good. The right to water is a fundamental human right.

    Our original strategy was to kickstart the struggle for water, render the conflict visible and bring debate to parliament about the need to repeal private ownership of water, despite our lack of confidence in the political class that has the responsibility to make the law and watch over its implementation.

    In 2016 we took an important step by putting forward an international strategy that made it known throughout the world that in our province the human right to water was being violated in order to grow avocados. We were featured in a German TV report, ‘Avocado: Superfood and Environmental Killer’, in several articles in The Guardian describing how Chileans are running out of water and in an RT report in Spanish, ‘Chile’s Dry Tears’, among others. Last year Netflix dedicated an episode of its Rotten show to the avocado business and the violation of the human right to water in Chile. We have had a positive reception. In 2019 alone, we received two international awards: the International Human Rights Prize awarded by the city of Nuremberg, Germany, in September, and the Danielle Mitterrand Prize, awarded by the France Libertés Foundation, in November.

    Another thing we do is develop activists and leaders. We have long-term training programmes and do ongoing work to develop theoretical and political thinking. We also mobilise. In the context of the widespread protests that started in Chile on 18 October 2019, we have made our demands heard. Clearly, although at the national level the main demands concern the restitution of workers’ pension funds and improvements in education and health, in some regions further north and further south of the capital, the most important demand concerns the recovery of water as a common good and a human right.

    In addition to mobilising, our work on the ground involves more radical actions such as roadblocks and occupations. Among direct actions carried out on the ground are the seizure of wells and the destruction of drains. Some local grassroots organisations seize wells owned by mining companies, resist as long as they can – sometimes for 60 or 70 days – and divert the water to their communities. In places where rivers no longer carry water, groundwater has been captured through drains, works of engineering that capture, channel and carry all groundwater away. Some communities destroy the drains that transport water for use by agribusiness such as forestry companies. Such actions of resistance have increased since the start of the social protests in October 2019.

    The struggle for water is a radical one because it erodes the foundations of inequality. The origin of the major Chilean fortunes is the appropriation of common goods, basically water and land. President Piñera's fortune is no exception.

    Have you faced reprisals because of your activism?

    Yes, because of our strategy to give visibility to the conflict over water, several of our activists have been threatened with death. That is why in 2017 Amnesty International conducted a worldwide campaign that collected more than 50,000 signatures to demand protection for us.

    Between 2012 and 2014, I was summoned 24 times by four different courts because I denounced a public official who had been Minister of the Interior under the first administration of President Michelle Bachelet (2006 to 2010). As well as being a leading Christian Democratic Party official, this person was a business owner who diverted water toward his properties to grow avocado and citrus. I reported this in 2012, during an interview with CNN, and that cost me 24 court appearances over two years. I was finally sentenced, first to five years in jail, which were then reduced to 540 days and then to 61, and finally our lawyers managed to put me on probation. I had to show up and sign on the first five days of each month. We also had to pay a fine.

    We have been attacked and threatened with death many times. In November 2019, an investigation published on a news site revealed that we were being targeted by police intelligence surveillance. However, in response to an amparo appeal – a petition for basic rights – against the police, in February 2020 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the surveillance to which we are subjected does not violate our constitutional rights. This is Chile in all of its filthy injustice.

    Government behaviour has always been the same, regardless of the political colour of the incumbent government. All governments have reached agreements to keep the private water model because it is business, and one that is highly profitable for the political class. When they leave their positions in government, former public officials go on to occupy positions in the boards of the companies that appropriate the water.

    Did you join the global climate mobilisations of 2019?

    In Chile we have been mobilising since long before. In 2013 we had our first national march for the recovery of water and land, and from then on we have mobilised every year on 22 April, Earth Day. We also demonstrate to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. We have been on the move for a long time. Chile is going through a social, environmental and humanity crisis. We face the need to safeguard human rights that are essential for the fulfilment of other rights. The human right to water is a basic precondition for people to be able to access all other rights.

    We have also been mobilised for a long time to denounce that Chile's development model is extremely polluting and deeply predatory. We have privatised marine resources: seven families own all of Chile’s marine resources. Our country has five areas of sacrifice, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries. These are in Colonel, Huasco, Mussels, Quintero and Tocopilla. The areas of sacrifice are not only an environmental problem but also a social problem; they discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable communities. They are overflowing with coal-fired thermoelectric plants and, in some cases, with copper smelters. The are 28 thermoelectric plants: 15 of these are US companies, eight are French, three are Italian and two are owned by domestic capital. The population in these areas has endured the emission of toxic gases and heavy metals for decades. We have been mobilising in these areas for years in defence of common natural assets.

    Have you engaged in international forums on the environment and climate change?

    Yes, I have been involved several times. In 2014, before I was convicted, I went to Paris, France by invitation of several European civil society organisations to attend a forum on human rights defenders, where I spoke about the private water and land model. In 2018 I was invited to a global meeting of human rights defenders at risk, held in Dublin, Ireland. That same year I was also invited to a regional meeting of human rights defenders that took place in Lima, Peru.

    We have also been involved in intergovernmental forums such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2019, Chile was going to host the COP 25, and the global mobilisation for climate throughout the year had a tremendous echo in Chile. Obviously neither the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, planned for November, nor COP 25, scheduled for early December, could be held in Chile, because the government was completely overwhelmed by the popular mobilisation that began in late October, and because it responded to this with systematic human rights violations.

    Several of our members were at COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and were able to speak with the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and with some officials of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after this meeting we had a meeting in Chile with Baltasar Garzón, the judge who prosecuted former dictator Pinochet and had him arrested in the UK. Garzón was very impressed with the water model and the stories our activists told him. Also recently we met with the delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during their visit to Chile. We met with Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and presented an overview of the Chilean situation and what it means to live deprived of water.

    Do you think that forums such as the COP offer space for civil society to speak up and exercise influence?

    I have a critical opinion of the COP. I think that in general it is a fair of vanities attended by many presidents, and many ministers of environment and agriculture, to promise the world what they cannot fulfil in their own countries. The main greenhouse gas emitting countries have leaders who either deny climate change, or are talking the talk about climate change but don’t seem to have the intention to make any change in their country’s predatory economic behaviour. The countries that are most responsible for climate change and global warming are currently the main detractors of the COP.

    However, the summits do offer a space for civil society, from where it is possible to challenge the powerful, speak up about the climate injustice that affects the entire planet and promote the construction of a new development model that is viable and economically competitive while also socially fairer and ecologically healthier. But for that we need new paradigms: we cannot continue to think that there are unlimited development prospects on a planet that has finite natural resources.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with MODATIMA through theirwebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Modatima_cl on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and Hong Kong people are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Reporton the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we areinterviewing civil society activists and leadersabout their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so.CIVICUS speaks with student leader Yiu Wa Chung about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong.

    1. Three years after the 2014 protests, what has happened to the pro-democracy movement?

    Two separate processes have unfolded over the past few years: street protests and an institutional process that took place around the Legislative Council elections. What we demanded through street demonstrations in 2014 was true universal suffrage. We wanted China to change its electoral guidelines and the pro-China Chief Executive to resign.

    Since Britain returned it to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means the Hong Kong government has jurisdiction over internal affairs and trade relations, while the government of China is in charge of Hong Kong’s defence and foreign policy. We therefore enjoy limited self-determination and political rights, although we do have an independent judiciary and a free press.

    Hong Kong has the status of a Special Administrative Region, and our government is led by a Chief Executive who is chosen by a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people, most of them from pro-China elites. The Legislative Council is the legislative branch of government.

    The thing is, when Hong Kong was returned to China, we were promised that we would be able to elect our Chief Executive by universal suffrage by 2017; however, in 2014 it became clear that free elections were not going to happen, as a reform framework was passed in August that established that only a few committee-vetted (pro-China) candidates would be allowed to compete in these elections. And that was the trigger for the massive 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in Hong Kong’s history.

    The main reason that mobilisation decreased in the years after 2014 is that people were discouraged by the lack of results. After such a big movement and 79 days of occupation that paralysed major roads in the financial centre, we got no reply from the government, and there was no institutional change. People devoted a lot of energy, time and effort and they sacrificed so much. Almost every single young protestor who appeared on camera or was interviewed by the media in 2014 is being prosecuted or is in jail. And it was all for nothing. In other words, the costs of protest increased and the expected gains decreased, so the momentum passed and street protest declined.

    However, in the years since 2014 there were two elections, for the local District Councils in 2015 and for the Legislative Council in 2016. Because of the atmosphere and because voting in elections has much lower cost than going out to the streets, the results of those two elections were quite good for the pro-democracy camp.

    But it is important to note that half the legislative seats are filled through small circle elections within functional interests, which works almost like an appointment, so regardless of how well we fare in the elections we still face considerable obstacles when looking at the overall composition of the Legislative Council. Moreover, what happened in 2016 is that after the elections that the pro-democracy camp won, the government found an excuse to disqualify six of the elected legislative councillors. For instance, they argued that one of the councillors had not taken his oath properly because he had changed the tone of his words, so his promise to obey the laws of the People’s Republic of China sounded more as a question than a statement. He hadn’t changed a single word, but according to the government he pronounced them in a questioning rather than a neutral tone. Another elected councillor took the oath properly, in a neutral tone and all, but after he had been sworn in, he chanted a pro-democracy slogan, “Rights to the people.” Another one paused excessively in between words and mispronounced the word “China,” and so on.

    The judicial process following a demand for disqualification takes about a year, during which time these elected councillors were banned from taking part in the Council’s deliberations. And when they were eventually disqualified, they were required to pay back the salaries they had received. This is something that not just anybody can afford. In other words, the government is using every means at their disposal to bend people’s opinion, including by forcing us to go bankrupt. The message that Beijing is sending to people in Hong Kong is that resisting is pointless.

    In sum, both in the streets and at the institutional level, the pro-democracy movement is currently in decline.

    1. Do you think a “culture of protest” emerged out of the Umbrella Movement, and that the public is now more prone to mobilising than in the past?

    It did look like it around 2015, but the enthusiasm has long since dissipated. By 2015 the government was not as authoritarian as it is today, and community organising flourished. There were lots of new organisations that put their efforts into all kinds of issues, including labour rights, universal suffrage and institutional change. But by 2016, with the government on the offensive, trying to disqualify elected lawmakers, passing restrictive bills and jailing people, protest and mobilisation had declined.

    I believe that the current authoritarian trend is no accident; it fits the long-term plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the handover, the CCP has devoted a lot of human and financial resources to setting up satellite organisations in Hong Kong. They have consistently worked to infiltrate each and every sector and change the democratic culture, step by step. Hong Kong people resented this; resentment built up and resulted in the 2014 protests. The Umbrella Movement took the CCP and the Hong Kong government by surprise; nobody expected so many people to take to the streets. But they chose to ignore it and let it wear out by providing no response whatsoever to its demands. The occupation lasted 79 days, during which the CCP clearly sized the movement up. They got to know its weaknesses and limits perfectly well. They were aware that people were getting tired. They saw us as a wave coming from the ocean, gathering strength and gradually wearing out, and they waited it out. As the movement weakened, the CCP asserted its power. Increasingly authoritarian methods are hard to resist once you have used up all our energy. All that has been done has yielded no results, so people have retreated further and increasingly refrain from voicing their opinion.

    It should be noted that unlike in China, control in Hong Kong can be subtle. Different methods are being used, the prosecution and jailing of protestors being just the most blunt of them. But the government has also been deliberately increasing the cost of living in Hong Kong, and most notably rent, which is already the highest in the world. The effects of this are appalling: for many people, it means they have to work longer hours, with little time or energy left for leisure or politics, and that they have no leftover money for anything else, and organising obviously costs money. Additionally, the Hong Kong economy is very dependent on China, and if you have business with China you will lose everything for not playing by their rules, which include political alignment.

    Control is also cultural and educational. There is an increasing control of the school curriculum, and changes are being introduced in the content of schoolbooks, so young children learn from an early stage that they have to love and obey China and its leaders. Children are being told to love the CCP, the “most democratic” party there is. There is also an ongoing attack on our language, as they are trying to impose Mandarin instead of Cantonese in schools. In short, combined control tactics are being applied from all sides – they are truly a tight network of control - so there is no room to even think of resisting.

    The democratic camp has kept trying to mobilise support, but people are tired and less ready to respond. Public reactions against authoritarianism and rights violations have become exceptions rather than the rule in the present context.

    1. A number of pro-democracy activists were jailed in 2017. What was the background to this, and what was the civil society response?

    In August 2017, three student leaders of the pro-democracy movement were sentenced to between six and eight months in jail. They had originally been sentenced to community service for storming a fenced-off section of the government headquarters. They were charged with unlawful assembly, and inciting people to take part in illegal rallies. However, the local government appealed against the case arguing that community service was too light a punishment, and they were eventually sentenced to jail. Additionally, they were barred from running for public office for five years, which meant that one of them, who was considering running for a legislative position, would no longer be able to do so.

    In reaction to the sentencing tens of thousands of people took to the streets and marched to the Court of Final Appeal. This was the biggest demonstration since 2014. Sadly, it was only an isolated reaction, which probably was due to the fact that these students were some of the most visible leaders of the Umbrella Movement and their cases drew lots of attention.

    In contrast, in December 2017 the government approved changes in the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedure that would break the balance between pro-democracy and pro-China camps, and there was no visible reaction. The democratic camp called for a protest, but only a couple of hundred people showed up and were easily removed. These procedure changes were accomplished because, with six of its democratically elected legislators disqualified, the pro-democracy camp did not have enough votes to block them. Over several weeks, numerous pro-democracy legislators were kicked out of the chamber for disrupting the debate with filibustering tactics, and the amendments eventually passed. As a result, the president will now have the power to reconvene meetings, to ban and combine amendments, and to stop legislators from raising adjournment motions.

    1. Looking ahead, what are the main challenges to the sustainability of the pro-democracy movement, and how are they being addressed?

    All the major tools that we had are gone. For protesting in the streets you get arrested and thrown into jail, and if you try the institutional path, you get disqualified or stripped of decision-making power. The cost of involvement in both arenas is going up.

    Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and it is much more than what you can see on camera. People in Hong Kong are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways, such as setting up a tiny bookstore to counter state-sponsored indoctrination, using public space for cultural activities or creating semi-public spaces for reading groups.

    But of course we are not going to defeat the network of control that oppresses us by ourselves, with a music concert or a reading group. We need help. This could take the form of the international media focusing more on Hong Kong, the United Nations setting up a special commission, or foreign governments putting economic pressure on China to change its Hong Kong policy. However, we all know that this will hardly happen. Not even Britain, our former colonial power, reacted strongly as China recently stated that their Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which laid the blueprint for Hong Kong to organise after its handover to China, no longer had any practical significance. China is not fulfilling its promises and Britain is not doing anything about it. There’s a lot the international community could do, but there’s not much they are willing to do, given the facts of China’s economic and military rise. They all want to do business with China and do not dare bring up the Hong Kong issue. The cause of Hong Kong is unfortunately not nearly as popular as that of Tibet.

     

  • ‘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.

     

  • ‘If citizens are not able to recognise what is going on and mobilise, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region’

    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 Stefan Cibian, president of the Federation of Non-Governmental Development Organisations of Romania (FOND) and Board member of the Romanian Association for International Cooperation and Development (ARCADIA). Founded in 2006, FOND includes some of the most important civil society organisations in the country, and currently has 33 member organisations. Since its inception, it has organised capacity-building training for its members to become more active in the field of international development cooperation, volunteering and humanitarian assistance as well as landmark events for the Romanian development community, such as the Romanian Development School and for the broader region, including the Black Sea NGO Forum.

    1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Romania? Has the practice of democracy changed over the past few years?

    I would describe the current state of democracy in Romania as worrying. In essence, there used to be a positive trend at the grassroots level, where individuals and communities came to life after the treacherous totalitarian regime that lasted until 1989. More recently, however, the political mood has reverted back towards the totalitarian practices of before 1989. This is unfortunately part of a broader trend, with several countries in the region being led by democratically elected leaders who are, in essence, destroying or undermining the democratic systems that brought them to power. Country after country in Central and Eastern Europe - and not only in that region - are following the same approach: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and now Romania.

    In Romania’s case the practice of democracy had improved over the past decades. The positive side includes, or rather included, a strengthened judiciary with an increasingly efficient anti-corruption agency, that until now managed to increase respect for public assets; a media landscape with some weaknesses in terms of ownership structure and politicisation, but nevertheless is free and diversified; an increasingly stronger civil society with grassroots movements that give life to broadly disempowered communities; and an increasingly empowered citizenry that expresses itself through mass protests and online, as well as through community engagement, increased donations and participating in sporting activities. This trend is made possible by a new generation shaped by access to information and technology – a generation that has partially different aims and behaves fundamentally differently from its predecessors.

    Romanian democracy faces, however, challenges that are similar to those faced by many countries experiencing an externally-assisted democratisation process. Its most important weakness relates to its citizens’ capacity to fulfil their constitutional mandate. While democratic systems place power in the hands of citizens, democratisation processes to date have largely ignored the capacity of citizens to make good use of the power they possess (including the way a citizen votes, decides to be involved and holds political leaders and state institutions to account). The key problem is a lack of critical thinking and abilities to put into practice the rights offered by democratic constitutions. Understandably, if they are not able to live and practise the freedoms brought about by democracy, citizens are not going to defend their democratic system, whenever needed.

    A set of other challenges relate to inherent weaknesses in the sustainability of organised civil society. Democratisation driven by donors’ assistance has not generated any sustainable organised civil society in terms of resources, nor in terms of connection to the governmental sphere, or indeed, often to local communities.

    A last set of challenges relate to the party system. Rather than holding to democratic principles, the parties that emerged after the Communist period in Romania function as mechanisms to capture the state for various private or even illegal interests.

    2. Is Romanian civil society currently able to fully contribute to democratic governance?

    I would say it is partially able to do so. While protests have made a positive contribution over the past few years, the democratic system has been significantly altered when it comes to the relations between civil society and political parties or state institutions. With the exception of some new parties born out of civil society initiatives, relations between political parties and society are not yet embodying democratic principles. Parties attempt to control society, not to represent it, and civil society is weak in terms of organisation and its ability to articulate common interests, while keeping a distance from the main political parties. Therefore, in the way the current system works, it is unlikely that civil society will be able to contribute fully to democratic governance.

    3. What triggered the anti-corruption demonstrations that took place earlier in 2017? What fuelled them, and why did they continue after the government rolled back the decree that motivated them in the first place?

    There are two key aspects here: first, the dynamics were not only about corruption, but also about the type of power that is deployed along with it. Second, the word we live in is being fundamentally transformed by technology, which is creating societal needs that cannot be catered for by current organisational models. This poses fundamental challenges to the way in which our societies are organised. Whether we talk about civil society, political or business organisations, those changes are taking us towards a new world that exposes new ways of being and living.

    In Romania’s case, protests have been about corruption, but they have also been about much more – a fundamental lack of trust in political parties and core institutions, which are de jure but not de factodemocratic. Protests have continued for a good reason, as recent laws passed by the Romanian parliament, including new regulations on civil society organisations (CSOs), and emergency decrees issued by the Romanian government, have indicated that public institutions are being used to dismantle democracy and limit the space for civil society. Therefore, the aim is not corruption; corruption is just the means. The true aim is to hold control over society, and gaining discretionary power over resources is necessary in that regard. That is also the reason why, although the government’s reactions to citizens exercising their right to protest was soft at the beginning, there has been a growing tendency for the government to intervene to limit protests, spark violence, and then use that violence as an excuse for repression.

    4. Would you say a full-fledged anti-corruption movement has emerged from the protests?

    No. What this year’s mobilisations have produced is, on one hand, an increasing number of angry people, and on the other a growing number of disempowered people. Established CSOs have played a role in the protests, but up to now it has been a marginal one. Their ability to mobilise citizens, or even to coordinate amongst themselves, has remained alarmingly low.

    While some connections have been established with like-minded mobilisations in other parts of the world, these have taken place mostly at an inspirational level, and for very few of those involved.

    For the time being, the 2017 mobilisations have only succeeded in postponing the ruling party’s plans, which are now being rolled out through parliament. Citizen reactions, on the other hand, are now far from the strength that they had at the beginning of 2017.

    This is a crucial moment for Romanian democracy. If citizens are able to recognise what is going on and they mobilise, they will be able to protect their rights and re-establish a democratic system. If they do not, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region.

    • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of some restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression
    • Get in touch with FOND through their website or Facebook page, and contact ARCADIA through their webpage, or follow @stefancibian and @FONDRomania on Twitterdemocracy 

     

  • 5 Ways New Movement Leaders Are Effecting Change

    By Michael Silberman, Global Director of Mobilisation Lab, a network that equips social change-makers and their organisations to deliver more effective, people-powered campaigns in order to win in the digital age.

    The publication of this piece was facilitated by CIVICUS as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations. 

    The Parkland students and others are reinventing models for people-powered activism that adapts to today’s rapid pace of change.

    Read on: Yes Magazine 

     

  • 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.

     

     

     

  • ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’

    Rachid AouineCIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.

    SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.

    What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?

    As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.

    The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.

    Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.

    Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.

    A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?

    The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.

    Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.

    Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?

    Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.

    Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.

    All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.

    The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.

    Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.

    What needs to change in Algeria?

    Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.

    If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.

    How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.

    Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.

    Civic space in Algeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with SHOAA for Human Rights through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@shoaa_org on Twitter.

     

  • Algeria: Assertive public position from international community crucial to protecting Algerians on Hirak anniversary

     

    Read the statement in Arabic

    On 18 February 2021, with the potential resumption of protests on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the “Hirak” pro-democracy protest movement, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced a presidential pardon for at least thirty Hirak detainees. As of 21 February, thirty-eight prisoners of conscience were released according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), although it remains unclear how many were pardoned. At least nineteen of them were only released conditionally while awaiting judgment, such as journalist Khaled Drareni, union activist Dalila Touat and political activist Rachid Nekkaz.

    Throughout the past year, President Tebboune issued several presidential pardons in February, April and July 2020 for a total of 19,502 detainees, out of which thirteen were Hirak detainees. These releases, while a welcome development for the detainees and their families, have not yet indicated any willingness from authorities to reverse an unrelenting crackdown on civic space.

    On the anniversary of the Hirak, the undersigned organisations reiterate their call for the international community to urge the Algerian government to put an end to policies aimed at silencing those who seek peaceful outlets and means of expression, in line with the Algerian Constitution, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

    We appeal to the international community to take a more assertive public position clearly condemning human rights violations, with the aim of protecting Algerian citizens striving to safeguard their fundamental freedoms. The international community should call on the authorities to release all arbitrarily-held detainees and cease all judicial harassment and intimidation against them and the judiciary. Increased scrutiny on Algeria is direly needed, and international actors are urged to closely monitor the human rights situation and trials of activists, journalists and human rights defenders.

    International actors should further ensure the prompt investigation of allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in detention, such as those raised by student Walid Nekkiche on 1st February 2021, after fourteen months of arbitrary pre-trial detention, and suspected perpetrators should be held accountable.

    As the Hirak became a largely online movement after protests were voluntarily halted in March 2020, authorities have accelerated the arbitrary prosecution and harassment of individuals, including activists and journalists, in most cases merely for expressing their opinion online.

    The number of prisoners of conscience has doubled in the second half of 2020 according to the documentation of the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), overshadowing the presidential pardons, and illustrating the increased criminalisation of public freedoms. About one thousand prosecutions stemmed from individuals exercising their rights to free expression and peaceful assembly in 2020, as reported by the Collective of Lawyers for Prisoners of Conscience. Sixty-three individuals have been prosecuted on charges of offence to the President, a charge not used more than four times in twenty years under the Bouteflika presidency.

    Among those targeted, Algerian women’s rights organisations recently jointly denounced the arbitrary detention and sentencing of activists Dalila Touat and Naïma Abdelkader. Other prisoners of conscience include activist Oussama Taifour, sentenced in October 2020 to one year in prison after he denounced online a work suspension related to his activism; activist Zoheir Kaddam, sentenced in June 2020 to one year in prison, although he had neither access to his legal file nor his lawyers present; or activist Khaldi Ali[1], sentenced in November 2020 to three years in prison based on critical social media publications. Furthermore, in September 2020, two men were sentenced to three years of prison and forty-two others to suspended terms after police raided what they alleged was a “gay wedding”.

    In January 2021, Judge Saad Eddine Merzouk was sanctioned by the Superior Judicial Council with a six months’ suspension after making critical public declarations. Prior to this, in February 2020, prosecutor Mohamed Belhadi was transferred, seemingly arbitrarily, after he requested the acquittal of sixteen protesters.

    Amendments to the Penal Code passed in April 2020 now allow for the criminalisation of free expression, assembly and association. Executive decree 20-332 in November 2020 tightened controls over digital media, including a regime of prior authorization, which added to an already restrictive legal framework under the Law 12-06 on Associations or the 2012 Information Law.

    At least thirteen media outlets have been made unavailable on Algerian networks in 2020[2], adding to five others in 2019[3]. Journalists Khaled Drareni, Abdelkrim Zeghileche, Mustafa Bendjama – who says he was arrested at least fifteen times - and Said Boudour are among those sentenced and/or repeatedly prosecuted.

    A top-down constitutional revision, adopted in December 2020 following a referendum with a historically low official turnout rate, was largely criticised for its lack of transparency and inclusivity. The revision does not bring about tangible progress on the rule of law, but instead constitutionalizes the army’s political role, includes weak guarantees on rights and freedoms – deleting the right to freedom of conscience – and perpetuates the executive authorities’ domination over all institutions.

    In addition to the erosion of fundamental freedoms witnessed in the past year, the weaponizing of the pandemic against civil society and journalists has defied calls by the United Nations to decongest detention facilities, and only serves to foster conditions for violence and instability.

    Signatories

    • Article 19
    • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
    • CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    • National Centre for Development Cooperation (CNCD-11.11.11)

    [1] Also identified as Khaldi Yacine.

    [2] Casbah Tribune, Tariq News, Twala.info, Maghreb Emergent, Radio M, Interlignes, Dzvid, Le Matin d’Algérie, L’Avant-Garde, Ultra Sawt, Yabiladi.com, Essaha.com and Shihab presse.

    [3] Tout sur l’Algérie (TSA), Observ’Algérie, Algérie Part, Algérie Patriotique and Ma Revue de Presse DZ.

     

  • Algeria: Free Amazigh and Hirak activist in prison for exercising his freedom of opinion

    بالعربية

    On 11 November, the court of Khenchela (eastern Algeria) is expected to hear activist Yacine Mebarki's appeal, following his sentencing on 8 October to 10 years in prison and a heavy fine of 10 million dinars (about 77,611.55 USD) – the most severe sentence ever handed to an activist for his online speech. 

    Algerian authorities should release Yacine Mebarki and drop unfounded charges related to his online publications and other charges that stem from the legitimate exercise of his freedom of speech and conscience, said the undersigned organisations. Authorities should put an end to criminal investigations and prosecutions against individuals for peacefully expressing their views, including views which may be critical of religious teachings and state officials. 

    Yacine Mebarki is a farmer from the town of Khenchela, known for his participation in the Hirak popular protest movement demanding radical political change in Algeria, and his engagement in the defense of Amazigh rights. 

    Police in Khenchela arrested Yacine Mebarki on 30 September, after a search of his home during which they discovered an old Quran belonging to Mebarki’s grand-father, which had a torn page, as well as two empty bullets. According to the activist’s lawyer, the bullets are the remains of old traditional celebrations involving gun-firing, prevalent in the Khenchela region and which are now used for decorative purposes. 

    The prosecutor of the Khenchela First Instance Court prosecuted Mebarki on the basis of social media publications, including a Facebook post from 17 February in which he appears to criticize Egyptian Salafi scholar Abu Ishaq al-Heweny for calling for “jihad” against countries to take their “money, their children and their women”, as well as for the torn Quran and the bullets found in his house. During the trial, the judge also mentioned a Facebook post from 12 September in which Mebarki appeared to mock Algerian Minister of Justice Belkacem Zeghmati.

    Mebarki was sentenced on 8 October to ten years in prison for "offense against the precepts of Islam" (Article 144bis 2 of the Penal Code); “profanation of the Sacred Book” (Article 160 of the Penal Code); “inciting to discrimination” (Article 295bis); “inciting a Muslim to convert to another religion” and “distribution of documents intended to undermine the faith of a Muslim” (Article 11 par. 1 and 2 of ordinance 06-03 setting the conditions and rules for the exercise of religions other than Islam). In addition, he was sentenced for “possession of war material without authorization” (Article 31 of ordinance 97-06 relating to war material, arms and ammunition), based on the discovery of the two bullets. 

    The above charges related to the activist’s freedom of speech and conscience are in violation of Algeria’s Constitution (article 42) and international human rights law, notably Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) ratified by Algeria. In an authoritative interpretation of the ICCPR from 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee noted that “the prohibition of displays of disrespect for a religion or any other belief system, including anti-blasphemy laws, is not compatible with the Covenant”. In October 2017, UN Experts also urged States “that still have blasphemy laws to repeal them because of their stifling impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief, and on the ability to engage in a healthy dialogue about religion”. 

    This development is especially worrying as in recent months, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities have accelerated the arbitrary prosecution of peaceful activists for expressing their opinion and journalists. As of 9 November and according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD), a local group monitoring Hirak trials, there are 87 prisoners of conscience in Algeria. 

    Signatories

    • Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights
    • Amnesty International
    • Article 19
    • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    • CGATA (General Autonomous Confederation of Workers in Algeria)
    • CIVICUS
    • SNAPAP (Autonomous Union of Public Administration Personnel)

     

  • 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.

     

  • As reprisals continue in Zimbabwe, CIVICUS calls on international bodies to intervene

    (Johannesburg 7 August 2020) CIVICUS calls on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and African Union (AU) to denounce ongoing human rights violations in Zimbabwe and act decisively against the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Increasing human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, together with the silence of the international community, have prompted an online campaign #ZimbabweanLivesMatter. There have been more than 700,000 tweets in the last few days as people from across the world express their solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe.

     

  • Attacks on Media in the Balkans Sound Alarm Bells for Democracy

    By Susan Wilding, Head of Geneva, CIVICUS 

    This article is part of a series on the current state of civil society organisations (CSOs), which is the focus of International Civil Society Week (ICSW)
     
    Anti-government protesters invading Serbia’s state-owned television station, demanding that their voices be heard. Journalism bodies writing to the Albanian prime minister over plans to censor online media outlets. A Belgrade corruption-busting reporter forced to flee his house that had been torched; a Montenegrin investigative journalist shot in the leg outside her home.
     
     

     

  • BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”

    CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.

    Aparajita Sangita

    What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?

    On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.

    Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.

    These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.

    All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).

    People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.

    What were protesters’ main demands?

    The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.

    Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.

    Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.

    Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.

    How did the authorities respond to the protests?

    On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.

    In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.

    Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.

    What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?

    After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.

    Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.

    What can the international community support the movement?

    In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.

    Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.

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

     

  • Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse

    To the President of Bangladesh,
    H.E. Md Abdul Hamid

    Bangladesh: Release all those arbitrarily arrested and investigate police abuse

    Dear President Hamid,

    We are writing to express our concerns about serious violations of civic freedoms perpetrated during recent protests in Bangladesh. We urge your government to take immediate steps to address these issues in accordance with your international human rights obligations.

    Our organisations are concerned about reports that police used excessive force, including firing rubber bullets and tear gas on 4th August 2018 to disperse demonstrations in Dhaka which were triggered by the killing of two teenagers by a speeding bus on 29th July 2018. We are also concerned that the government may be covering up the actual death toll and have received information that at least three others students may have also been killed and one critically injured.

    Some of the student protesters were also allegedly attacked by members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and Jubo League, the student and youth wing of the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party.

    More than 20 journalists were attacked, some of whom were later detained briefly by the police. At least four journalists from The Daily Star newspaper were reportedly beaten while at least seven photojournalists were injured in attacks in Jhigatala and Science Lab areas of the city on 5 August 2018. While some attackers wore helmets, the journalists identified some of their attackers as BCL members.

    We are also concerned about the arbitrary arrest of scores of individuals around the protest, in particularly Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam who was taken from his home, just hours after he made comments on Al-Jazeera about protests in the city. He was subsequently charged under section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information Communications Technology Act a provision that has been frequently used to bring charges against critics, activists and other dissenting voices in Bangladesh. He has also alleged that he was tortured while in custody. A lawyer in Sirajganj, Sakhawat Hossain Shakil, was also arrested and remanded under Section 57 of the ICT Act on 7th August for allegedly sharing anti-government posts and expressing solidarity with safe road protesters on Facebook.

    At least 22 protesters were remanded in police custody for two days and five are facing charges under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act. Some were allegedly tortured or ill-treated in custody. They are now detained in prison as the courts have rejected the applications for bail.

    In the last few months, our organisations have also documented attacks by the BCL against students protesting the civil service quota system, which reserves 30 percent of government jobs for children of freedom fighters from Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971. Academics and journalists supporting them have also been targeted. Some student activists were subsequently detained and charged. At least six are languishing in jail and according to their lawyers were allegedly tortured in police custody. 

    The arrest and charging of peaceful protesters and allegations of torture and ill-treatment, clearly contravene Bangladesh obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment. Our organisations also believe that the violent actions of the police at these protests are inconsistent with international human rights standards on the use of force such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement, and that the failure to take appropriate measures to prevent and punish harm caused by private actors, such as the BCL, also contravenes Bangladesh’s international human rights obligations.

    Many of the issues above were also raised at the Human Rights Council during Bangladesh’s recent Universal Periodic Review in May 2018, and received support from your government. Protecting civic freedoms is also part of Bangladesh’s commitments under Agenda 2030 and these violations highlight that the country is failing abysmally to meet targets set under Sustainable Development Goal 16 on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, and particularly target 16:10 to “protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements”.

    Therefore, we urge your government to take the following steps as a matter of priority:

    • Immediately and unconditionally release all protesters who have been arbitrarily detained for exercising their human rights, in particular photographer Shahidul Alam, and drop all charges against them;
    • Carry out prompt, impartial, independent and efficient investigations into all complaints and reports of excessive use of force by the police, as well as attacks by non-state actors, against protesters and journalists, bring those responsible to justice and provide reparations to the victims;
    • Review and amend all laws that restrict freedom of expression, such as section 57 of the 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act;
    • Send a clear message to members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) and other non-state actors that violence by them will not be tolerated;
    • Create a safe and enabling environment for activists, civil society and citizens to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly without intimidation, harassment, arrest or prosecution.

    We express our sincere hope that you will consider and implement these recommendations. 

    Sincerely, 

    David E. Kode
, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead
, CIVICUS
    Ichal Supriadi
, Secretary General, 
Asia Democracy Network (ADN)
    Basil Fernando, Director, Policy and Programme, 
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
    Henri Tiphagne
, Executive Director, 
People’s Watch
    Mathew Jacob
, National Coordinator, 
Human Rights Defenders Alert – India (HRDA)
    John Samuel, 
Executive Director, 
Forum Asia (Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development)

     

  • Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

    Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

    Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

    In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

    Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

    An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

    Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

    One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

    Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

    One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

    “The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

    “The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

    The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

    Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

    A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

    “The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

    The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

    “The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.


    Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.


    Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’

    CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.

     

  • Both protests & restrictions surge during the pandemic

    The CIVICUS Monitor has produced a fourth installment of research on the state of civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest research brief provides a snapshot of trends and case studies related to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.

    Despite bans & restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, protests have been staged in all regions of the world.

    • People continue to mobilise to demand their rights during the pandemic
    • Anti-confinement measures a common driver of covid-related protests
    • Violations of protest rights widely documented: protesters are being detained, and excessive force is being used by both authoritarian governments and mature democracies

    MonitorCovidBrief 092021

    In the early days of the pandemic, restrictions on public gatherings temporarily brought many mass protests movements to a halt. However, people quickly returned to the streets and for a wide range of causes. A new research brief released today by the CIVICUS Monitor documents where protests took place during the first year of the pandemic, the drivers of those protests, and how governments responded to mass mobilisations.

    Protests over state responses to the pandemic and economic hardships have been recorded across the world. Data compiled by the CIVICUS Monitor finds that covid-related protests were staged in at least 86 countries from February 2020 to January 2021. Other protests were also staged including on racial justice, women’s rights, and anti-corruption.

    Anti confinement measures have been the biggest driver of covid-related demonstrations. From Argentina to Iraq, people have protested against lockdowns and its impact on livelihoods. In over a quarter of the world’s countries, these protests have often highlighted stark inequalities and called on governments to ease the economic burdens of confinement. In some instances, people have also protested against COVID-19 measures, such as mask-wearing and social distancing, including in Australia, Germany, and the USA.

    The global research brief also documents three other categories of covid-related protests, with a snapshot of country case studies, including labour rights protests, sector-led protests, and mass demonstrations to reopen schools.

    In addition, and at the heart of the CIVICUS Monitor’s research mandate, the brief also documents where there have been violations on the right to peaceful assembly. Protesters have been detained in at least 100 countries, on the grounds of failure to adhere to COVID-19 measures or other laws related to peaceful assemblies. Although restrictions on protests can take on many forms, some of the most troubling responses by authorities and security forces have been the prevalent use of excessive force to disperse protests. This has included lethal force, leading to the killing of protesters in at least 28 countries.

    “The COVID-19 crisis should not be used as a pretext to suppress the right to peaceful assembly. The use of excessive force by the authorities to disperse protests is contrary to international law, even during a state of emergency,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, CIVICUS Monitor Lead.

    The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association has stated that laws limiting public gatherings must be necessary and proportionate in light of the circumstances. The UN expert has raised concerns that In many cases, it appears the measures adopted are geared more at cementing control and cracking down on oppositional figures than at ensuring public health.

    As both authoritarian governments and mature democracies have responded to the pandemic with repressive measures, the research brief closes with recommendations on how governments can respond to health crises while maintaining respect for peaceful assembly and other civil liberties.

    Read the full report here.


    INTERVIEWS

    For more details, or to arrange an interview, please contact: media [@] civicus.org

     

  • Brasil: ‘Na esquerda, as estruturas tradicionais se enfraqueceram ao mesmo tempo que novas formas de organização locais e autônomas surgiram em todo o país’

    English

    Após os muitos protestos vistos no Brasil em 2017, CIVICUS fala com José Henrique Bortoluci, professor do Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (CPDOC) na Fundação Getúlio Vargas, em São Paulo, Brasil. José Henrique é PhD em Sociologia na Universidade de Michigan, nos Estados Unidos, e é especialista em movimentos sociais, estudos urbanos e teoria social, com foco no Brasil.

     

    1. 2017 foi um ano de grande mobilização no Brasil? Quais foram os principais grupos mobilizados e quais foram as principais causas para seu descontentamento?

    2017 foi um ano bastante contraditório e desigual em termos da atuação da sociedade civil no Brasil. De um lado, movimentos sociais não foram capazes de sustentar um movimento nacional de oposição ao governo de Michel Temer, por muitos considerado ilegítimo. O presidente continua governando, a despeito de ter assumido o poder a partir de um processo de impeachment altamente contestável (um golpe parlamentar, de acordo com parte da opinião pública) e de avançar reformas em quase tudo contrastantes com o programa de governo escolhido pelas urnas em 2014.

    Apesar disso, em 2017 continuou avançando um processo de dinamização da sociedade civil no Brasil, com o surgimento de movimentos sociais pela renovação da política, sobretudo entre parcelas mais jovens da população – que se sentem em geral bastante barrados do sistema político como ele se organiza hoje. Trata-se de uma dinâmica que começou a ficar mais clara e se aprofundou a partir dos grandes protestos de 2013 e se dinamizou com os movimentos de ocupação de escolas em 2015, com a mobilização contra a Copa do Mundo e as Olimpíadas, que se realizaram no Brasil em junho-julho de 2014 e agosto de 2016, respectivamente, com a atuação de movimentos de ativismo urbano e com o substancial crescimento em tamanho e importância do movimento feminista e LGBTI nos últimos três anos.

    Em suma, eu diria que o cenário é ao mesmo tempo de profunda politização entre vários setores da sociedade, mas de falta de articulação (seja por falta de força, seja por discordância política ou estratégica) entre esses movimentos em nível nacional.

    1. Como o governo reagiu aos protestos? Como a sociedade civil respondeu às restrições ao espaço de atuação cívica?

    O governo tem reagido de forma bastante violenta, nos casos em que houve enfrentamento com manifestantes (como na greve de abril de 2017), como é de costume no país, sobretudo desde 2013. O que muitos ativistas apontam é que as forças policiais, sobretudo nas cidades onde houve um grande número de movimentações de impacto nacional nos últimos anos (principalmente Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo) se tornaram mais “eficientes” desde 2013 – e também como “legado” da Copa do Mundo e das Olimpíadas – em dissuadir protestos e em usar força máxima em muitos casos, dificultando estrategicamente que grandes protestos se concretizem.

    Além disso, a outra forma de reação do governo tem sido, com frequência, desprezar deliberadamente a opinião pública, fechando-se ainda mais em suas alianças com o congresso e alguns setores da economia e da imprensa. Temer teve ao longo do 2017 a menor aprovação de qualquer presidente da história brasileira, e certamente uma das menores do mundo, o que não o impediu de manter-se, mesmo que sem legitimidade, no poder.

    Por seu lado, a sociedade civil ainda busca novas formas de atuação frente a esse cenário de fechamento dos canais institucionais. As novas redes sociais têm desempenhado um papel crucial para a disseminação de novas gramáticas políticas entre a população - tanto à esquerda como à direita, como atestam exemplarmente o movimento feminista e as redes de apoio a um candidato de extrema-direita como Jair Bolsonaro.

    Na esquerda, o enfraquecimento do Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), da Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), a principal central sindical do país, do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) e da União Nacional dos Estudantes (UNE), que exerceram papel quase hegemônico nas últimas décadas, se deu em paralelo à emergência de novas formas de organização mais locais e autônomas em todo o país, como movimentos de bairro, coletivos de jovens de periferia e movimentos de estudantes não-alinhados a partidos políticos.

    1. Em abril de 2017, o Brasil teve uma das greves gerais mais massivas de sua história. O que levou a esse protesto? Por que ele teve uma dimensão tão massiva? E o que mudou como resultado?

    A grande greve de abril 2017, com uma quase paralisação geral de um dia, deveu-se à conjunção de dois fatores: a crise do governo Temer, com a divulgação de evidências de seu envolvimento – e do envolvimento de ministros e outros políticos muito próximos a ele – em escândalos de corrupção de grandes proporções, e às tentativas do governo em avançar duas reformas que impactarão profundamente os trabalhadores: a nova lei trabalhista (sancionada pelo presidente em julho) e a reforma da previdência (ainda em tramitação no Congresso). Outros movimentos sociais de oposição ao governo, assim como movimentos de esquerda (estudantes, feministas, LGBTI, ativismo urbano) se juntaram aos protestos. De qualquer forma, apesar de sua enorme importância, essa grande movimentação não ganhou momento ao longo do ano – ao menos não como um movimento nacional unificado antigoverno e antirreformas neoliberais.

    1. O que podemos esperar para 2018 com a aproximação das eleições e a liderança do ex-presidente Lula da Silva nas pesquisas?

    O cenário ainda é bastante aberto, e qualquer previsão é marcada por muita incerteza. A primeira questão importante é se Lula poderá concorrer às eleições de outubro – caso ele não seja condenado em segunda instância. Em julho de 2017, Lula foi condenado a quase 10 anos de prisão depois de ter sido declarado culpado por acusações de corrupção e lavagem de dinheiro, mas seu recurso ainda está pendente. Mesmo que seu recurso fosse resolvido contra ele, alguns juristas ainda defendem que ele poderia ser candidato, até que o Supremo Tribunal Federal, a suprema corte constitucional do país, confirmasse o julgamento.

    Outras iniciativas à esquerda ainda são bastante tímidas, como um início de movimentação em torno do nome de Guilherme Boulos (líder do mais significativo movimento de moradia do país, o MTST) e Ciro Gomes, um político com posições nacionalistas mas associado a práticas políticas bastante tradicionais.

    A mesma incerteza também marca a direita e o centro – é bastante provável que o governador de São Paulo, o pouco carismático Geraldo Alckmin, concorrerá, provavelmente com uma plataforma liberal na economia e conservadora em termos de costumes e segurança pública. Jair Bolsonaro deverá ser o primeiro candidato abertamente de extrema direita com alguma chance de ir ao segundo turno.

    De qualquer forma, a disputa tende a ser ferrenha e não há candidato com chances claras de vitória em primeiro turno. Além disso, a despeito do surgimento de novos movimentos que pregam uma renovação na política, a legislação eleitoral brasileira dificulta imensamente uma renovação no legislativo, um dos maiores responsáveis pela atual crise política e pelo avanço de uma agenda conservadora.

    • O espaço cívico no Brasil é classificado como ‘obstruído’ noCIVICUS Monitor, indicando restrições graves nos direitos da sociedade civil.

    Entre em contato com Jose Henrique através de seus perfisFacebook ouAcademia, ou pelo email

     

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