civic space

  • COP27: ‘We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26’

    CIVICUS speaks with Sohanur Rahman, Executive Coordinator of YouthNet for Climate Justice, about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change. YouthNet for Climate Justice is a global platform of youth-led organisations of the global south that aims to promote climate action among young people.

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    What environmental issues do you work on?

    YouthNet focuses on climate justice, the new human rights frontier. We want to hold global leaders accountable for the climate crisis we are currently in. We work on climate justice because we understand that young people, people from the global south and Indigenous people are bearing a disproportionate share of the consequences of the climate crisis, while not being responsible for what is going on.

    Climate change must be addressed through an intersectional and intergenerational lens because vulnerable groups are the ones experiencing its worst consequences. The climate crisis is rooted in capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. This makes the struggle for climate justice inseparable from the struggle for human rights.

    We are now specifically working on the issue of loss and damage. We want world leaders to support adaptation and financing for loss and damage and provide funding facilities to help developing countries deal with the climate crisis.

    What issues would you like to see addressed at COP27?

    COP26 failed young people and vulnerable communities. It made clear to us that global leaders are not treating climate change as the global emergency it is. But sadly, we are currently facing one environmental catastrophe after the other. Most recently, there were massive floods in Pakistan and floods and a cyclone in Bangladesh. What else needs to happen so leaders realise we need urgent solutions to these problems?

    The COP26 presidency asked state parties to submit new climate plans and nationally determined contributions (NDCs), because the previously submitted ones were not ambitious enough, and would not reduce emissions to the extent needed to stay within the 1.5°C targets. However, Only 23 of the nearly 200 countries that signed the Glasgow Climate Pact have submitted enhanced NDCs. Rather than strengthening headline targets, most of these offered more policy detail. We need commitment from all parties involved to ensure that the climate crisis is addressed effectively.

    We can see the progress achieved in previous COPs is very limited. In the run-up to COP27, our major priority is loss and damage financing. Before we can pursue adaptation, we have to support communities with loss and damage. We are not asking developed countries for charity or debt, but for reparations for their historical responsibility in this climate crisis.

    In 2019, developed countries pledged US$100 billion towards adaptation and mitigation but they are not disbursing this. Everything at this point is theoretical – no practical mechanism has been put in place to ensure the money is paid up. And when the funds finally come, we would like to see a 50/50 split between adaptation and mitigation, because both require equal efforts. Finally, we would like to see the financing of locally led adaptation addressed at COP27. Communities should be given a platform to develop and implement solutions that will work for them, rather than implementing universal strategies that don’t fit everybody.

    This COP should be one where the focus shifts to implementation. We no longer want to hear promises that will remain unfulfilled. We want action towards solving our problems.

    Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?

    Civil society participation in COPs, and specifically the participation of young people, is important because they are there to hold leaders accountable. The global community is making empty promises and commitments and not taking action. Civil society’s mission is to hold governments and companies accountable, including by making polluters pay for the loss and damage they are causing to people and the environment.

    Because the current systems are failing, civil society must advocate for systemic change. To achieve such transformative change, we must be united. Those joining COP27 should use the platform to advocate for change; those observing from home countries should mobilise in their own countries to highlight the crisis we are in. We must all put pressure on decision-makers to deliver on their promises. COP27 will only bring a breakthrough if civil society is allowed to participate without any restrictions and a decision is made to start paying out climate reparations.

    Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?

    We are very frightened about the situation in Egypt. The government of Egypt should release all arrested activists before COP27 takes place. Without our participation, it will be just more greenwash. And we cannot archive climate justice if human rights are ignored. The global community should stand up and speak against what Egyptian environmental activists are going through.

    COP26 was labelled as ‘inclusive’, but it was very exclusive. The pandemic came on top of persistent systemic barriers, notably the lack of resources that excludes many young people. World leaders negotiated on issues affecting us, but they did not include us at discussion tables. Unfortunately, the situation for civil society participation at COP27 will be even worse.

    The government of Egypt does not respect or support human rights defenders. This was clear in the multiple arrests of activists that have taken place over the past few months. Civil society can expect to experience several barriers during the conference, and LGBTQI+ activists have expressed their concerns regarding their safety while in the country. We fear that our presence, digital footprint and communications will be monitored. We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26 in Glasgow where we held a climate strike.

    Even though labelled ‘the African COP’, COP27 doesn’t truly represent African people. Many young African activists are still struggling to get accreditation and sponsorship. Rising hotel prices will affect the participation of people from less developed countries. There will be limited participation of young activists, Indigenous people and organisations from the global south. This event was never meant to be inclusive at all. The most affected people will be excluded. This raises the alarm that, instead of addressing the real issues people are dealing with, it may turn into a greenwashing event.


    Get in touch with YouthNet for Climate Justice through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@YouthNet4CC and@SohanBMYP on Twitter.

  • COP27: ‘We shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks’

    Ayisha SCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit with Polluters Out co-founder Ayisha Siddiqa.

    Polluters Out is a global coalition founded in 2020 in reaction to the negative experience of COP25, when young and Indigenous activists were removed from the venue. Its aim is to put pressure on world leaders to adopt policies to fight climate injustice and hold them accountable.

    What key environmental issues should be addressed by the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change?

    A key issue is loss and damage finance. I would like to see COP27 mobilising theSantiago Network on Loss and Damage, a multi-stakeholder coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments launched at COP25 in 2019 to facilitate and support the efforts of global south countries to address loss and damages associated with the adverse impacts of climate change.

    A large number of those are affected by climate change are Indigenous people and people in the global south, who contribute proportionally little to environmental problems. Global north countries should use their resources to help those that have been put in these unfortunate circumstances. They should pay up the US$100 billion they committed to at COP26 so global south countries can develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies, as well as early warning mechanisms to help people get life-saving information in time.

    We also need to start thinking about taxing the money corporations make by exploiting emergency situations such as wars, natural disasters and economic fluctuations and channel those funds towards climate financing.

    My work currently focuses on raising awareness about the issue of tax havens. Governments have pledged a lot of climate financing but most of that money comes from taxes. Estimates show that every year around US$600 billion – six times the current climate finance target – are lost because corporations and high-net-worth individuals are using tax havens to escape their responsibilities to give back to the communities that make their profits possible. They should instead be made pay their share, and the additional funds should be used to help communities affected by changing climatic conditions.

    Have you faced any restrictions as a result of your work?

    Prior to working on climate finance, I worked on fossil fuel de-proliferation. According to a report by the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coal, oil and gas account for 86 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. This means governments should adopt strategies to phase out fossil fuels and adopt clean energies. But this would affect very powerful interests. Due to my work on this issue, I have faced challenges both in my home country, Pakistan, and abroad.

    I also advocate for a UN conflict-of-interest policy so that COP hosts cannot take money from the fossil fuel industry when organising the summit and lobbyists cannot influence COP outcomes. So far, every single COP has been sponsored by the very same people causing the climate crisis. As a result, the outcomes of these events have been diluted and have failed to address the key issues.

    For this work I have faced multiple restrictions traveling. Iam from a tribal community in northern Pakistan where fighting against dams and coal and pipelines puts people’s lives in danger.

    Why is civil society participation in climate talks important?

    Having people from the global south and members of Indigenous communities participate in climate talks is very important not just because they are the most affected by climate change but also because they are the main drivers of ambition for climate commitments.

    As civil society, our aim is to advocate for the good of people and the environment and hold those in power accountable. Civil society doesn’t only offer diversity – it also offers the tools, the language and the practical lens to push all of this forward. At the end of the day, every decision made in COPs affects everyone. Our lives are on the line so we should have a say. It is not only our right but also our duty to protect the earth. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks.

    Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?

    I don’t. COP27 has been labelled as the ‘African COP’ and one would think that African environmental organisations and activists would be given a platform to participate freely and make their voices heard. This was anopportunity for the global south to speak for itself and it would be a shame if that was limited. Many young people have been unable to get accreditation while others don’t have the funding to attend.

    Holding a COP in a country with closed civic space such as Egypt is problematic, and the reality of a restricted civil society cannot be ignored.

    Climate change is an urgent matter that must be addressed with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, who should be able to play their part without any restriction on free speech or the freedom of assembly, among many other indispensable freedoms. But many restrictions have been placed on Egyptian CSOs and activists – even on organisations outside of the country. As a result, there will most likely not be meaningful civil society participation at COP27.

    The situation we are now in is the responsibility of both the UN and the African governments that nominated Egypt to host COP27. They have let COP become an obstacle to climate justice so states who bid to host the COP make money from tourism and get media attention without caring the least about the crisis at hand and the policies needed to tackle it.

    The process leading to COPs is very opaque: for instance, we don’t know who the official sponsors are until the COP president announces them. And when civil society shows up with all of the hard work it has done, it can easily be erased with one vote from one state party.


    Get in touch with Polluters Out through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@Ayishas12 and@pollutersout on Twitter.

     

  • COP28: ‘Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action’

    CarolineOwashabaCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Caroline Owashaba, an eco-feminist and gender inclusion specialist and Executive Director of Action for Youth Development Uganda (ACOYDE).

    Founded in 2014 and fully operational since 2014, ACOYDE is a community-based civil society organisation (CSO) working with adolescents and young people to set the agenda and influence policymaking to tackle young people’s challenges at the local, national and international levels. Its head offices are in Mbarara District, southwestern Uganda.

    What environmental issues does your organisation work on?

    ACOYDE works on a variety of environmental issues. In August 2022 we officially launched Climate Justice Clubs in Schools, aimed at helping teachers and students learn more about climate issues, bring this information into their families and the wider community, advocate for climate justice in their localities and create their own sustainable solutions. Schools are in a good position to start up sustainable solutions – for instance, some schools have agreed not use polythene bags as packages for the food consumed at break times.

    We also run a social enterprise that uses banana fibre to produce a variety of useful items. In this way, we contribute to the green economy by producing eco-friendly products that are biodegradable and support community livelihoods, especially for women and young people. This adds value to available community resources by training women to learn new skills to enhance their livelihoods.

    We have recently launched a climate justice club for adolescents and young women in Mbarara, which works as a peer learning and knowledge exchange platform focused on learning new skills. We also aim to build the resilience of rural women and raise the voices of women environmental human rights defenders. Women make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in Uganda, but their importance is largely unacknowledged: their voices and concerns are rarely heard at the national and global levels and they are largely absent from decision-making roles. Our work has focused on training young women environmental defenders to be better able to tackle the challenges they face, including threats, intimidation, harassment and evictions, amplifying their voices, sharing their best practices and providing the conditions so they can learn from one another.

    Over time, we’ve seen growing collaboration between environmental activists and organisations working to protect biodiversity and those working for the rights of Indigenous peoples.

    Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?

    Civil society plays critical roles in pushing for new laws, programmes, policies and strategies on climate change, holding governments accountable for their commitments, identifying the lack of coordinated government responses to climate change and ensuring that national policymaking does not forget the poor.

    CSO networks also collaborate to engage the media in order to reach the public and important decision-makers to impact on policies at the planning levels.

    What are your expectations concerning the outcomes of COP28?

    We expect to see a clearly defined agenda take shape to implement the loss and damage strategy agreed at COP27. Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action.

    The loss and damage fund launched at COP27 lacked a clear action plan, so we now expect to see a strategy to make it operational. Loss and damage funds are supposed to be aimed at assisting global south countries that are most vulnerable and have experienced the worst impacts of climate change. This is meant to cover the costs of natural disasters caused by global warming, such as wildfires, rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and crop failure. Affluent countries must be the main source of funding for loss and damage, because forcing poor countries to borrow money to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and climate disasters would create more problems than it would solve.

    We would like to see more heads of states present at COP28, especially from the worst polluters and largest geopolitical powers, and held accountable for their countries’ emissions.

    We would like to see progress towards a just economic transition across key climate policy sectors. Meaningful partnerships are needed to link the climate agenda with broader issues of gender, food systems and ecosystem restoration. A fund should be set up for women farmers because in terms of climate resilience, grassroots and rural women are the most unsung change-makers of all time. They provide food, decent jobs and income to a large number of people. Consider how many households would be positively affected if they are adequately funded.

    That’s why I take part in the COP’s national gender and climate change working group, which has a chair reporting to the global chair. This is how we connect with the global climate movement and engage in conversations to influence climate policy.

    Do you anticipate any obstacles in engaging with COP28?

    Gender underrepresentation is likely to persist. Women have historically been underrepresented at COPs, for a variety of reasons including lack of funding to cover airfares, accommodation and living expenses. For example, when two young women from our organisation arrived in Egypt last year, they had trouble with their accommodation reservations. They had an incredibly hard time because hotels kept increasing their rates, and the hassle hindered their involvement in the event. We were very dissatisfied with the COP’s organisational planning.

    We have also witnessed accreditation procedures limiting women and girls’ involvement in COPs. The number of accreditations given is always limited, and a low share is granted to women, limiting their voices in decision-making spaces. In 2011 states agreed to boost female participation at COP, but their numbers have continued to significantly decrease. This happens at every level: for instance, a photo that was widely circulated at the start of COP27 showed only seven women among 110 leading negotiators.

    If we educate women and girls but do not provide them the opportunity to participate in international conferences, we are wasting their education, time and brains. Among participants at COP27 in Egypt, only 34 per cent were women. We don’t want this to happen at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. We want to see educated, learned women and girls representing us at COP28. More inclusiveness is needed, including of women and girls with disabilities, from Indigenous and grassroots communities, rural and peri-urban communities, and especially those working in agriculture.

    What measures should be taken to make it happen?

    States should invest in funding more women and young people to take part in COP28 negotiations to ensure their issues are addressed and their voices are heard. Governments should invest more in women to drastically increase the current rates of female representation, which for some countries is as low as 10 per cent.

    As a result of their bigger burden of unpaid care work and more limited access to resources, women are more affected by climate change and suffer its economic impacts more. In some contexts, women are forced to drop out of school or marry to alleviate financial stress. If women and girls are given more space in negotiations, it will be more likely that these issues are addressed.

    We acknowledge that COP27 had the first-ever children and youth pavilion, where young people were able to participate effectively in the process; however, there is a need for higher numbers in subsequent sessions.

    The United Nations Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change made a credible attempt to involve and engage young people at COP27. But there are ongoing barriers to youth participation in high-level events, including lack of commitment from older people and lack of funding, which must be addressed.


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

    Get in touch with Action for Youth Development Uganda through itswebsite andFacebook page.

  • COP28: ‘We are worried that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society’

    GideonSanagoCIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Gideon Abraham Sanago, Climate Coordinator with the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum (PINGOs Forum).

    Established in 1994, PINGOs Forum is an advocacy coalition of 53 Indigenous peoples’ organisations working for the rights of marginalised Indigenous pastoralists and hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania. It was founded by six pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ organisations promoting a land rights and development agenda.

    What environmental issues do you work on?

    PINGOs Forum works with Indigenous peoples’ communities across Tanzania to address the impacts the environmental and climate crisis is having on them.

    Although it is a global phenomenon, climate change affects communities in different ways and presents a variety of challenges. These include prolonged and severe droughts, floods, biodiversity loss, land conflicts and displacement, and the loss of livestock that communities depend on for their livelihoods. This also leads to the loss of culture and identity as young men migrate towards towns looking for an income-producing job, leaving women, children and older people abandoned at home.

    To respond to these challenges, PINGOs Forum supports community initiatives for land conflict resolution, the development of land use plans and the recognition of land rights for Indigenous peoples, as well as for water provision and restocking of agricultural supplies for destitute families. We also build capacity to tackle climate issues and support Indigenous peoples’ participation in national, regional and global climate forums to ensure their voices are heard and the resulting policies respond to their needs.

    PINGOs Forum is a member of the Climate Action Network (Tanzania Chapter), the CIVICUS alliance, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and other bodies engaging with the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change. We use these platforms for advocacy and campaigning. They have been instrumental for us in being able to voice our concerns and engage in productive dialogue and exchanges.

    Have you faced any restrictions or reprisals for the work you do?

    Human rights defenders face threats and intimidation when advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples to land and resources and organising to respond to their violations.

    The state of Tanzania does not recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples in the country. Instead, it always refers to them as marginalised groups, forest-dependent communities, forest dwellers and other such terms. This limits the ability of Indigenous peoples to exercise their rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Tanzania is a signatory but clearly does not respect.

    The UN declaration includes the key right of Indigenous peoples to give free prior and informed consent, which of course the Indigenous peoples of Tanzania have never exercised. Their rights to ownership of land and resources have been repeatedly violated through forceful evictions from their ancestral lands. We have seen examples of this in Loliondo/Ngorongoro and Kimotorok in Simanjiro District.

    Another major challenge is access to the media. We believe in the power of media and recognise the pivotal role it plays in addressing the challenges faced by Tanzanian Indigenous peoples. But the media is restricted when it comes to publishing any information coming from Indigenous people’s organisations regarding issues such as land crises, as happened in the case of Loliondo. All media outlets were warned not to publish any information about it.

    What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at COP28?

    There are several key priorities for Tanzanian Indigenous peoples on the frontline of climate challenges, the first one being funding of loss and damage. One of the key decisions from COP27 was to establish a loss and damage funding mechanism. We would like to see this funding mechanism operationalised with sufficient resources to urgently respond to the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples. We are eager to understand how this mechanism will address economic and non-economic losses and provide compensation for what we have already lost.

    More broadly, Indigenous peoples are in dire need of direct access to reliable and flexible funding, including for adaptation measures and to build resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.

    Regarding the carbon market, Indigenous peoples would need to be engaged and the technicalities and political issues around these investment approaches should be clarified. Indigenous peoples should be able to exercise their right to free, prior and informed consent when it comes to carbon credits in their ancestral lands and forests to avoid any rights violations resulting from climate interventions.

    All this would require a recognition of the rights and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their full and effective participation in climate forums at all levels to inform better policy formulation and decision-making processes.

    Do you think COP28 will provide enough space for civil society?

    We are particularly worried about the fact that COP28’s host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society movements and campaigns. It is key for civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations to be able to exercise their rights to express their views and peacefully demonstrate at any time during the negotiations. Otherwise their perspectives will not be reflected in the outcomes and their concerns will not be addressed.

    Civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations play a pivotal role as observers at COPs. They hold negotiating parties accountable and make a difference when they are reluctant to take important decisions during the negotiations. During COPs, civil society campaigns, mobilises, develops position papers and issues joint statements to push parties to take urgent actions on agreed points.

    What are your expectations concerning its outcomes?

    Our main expectation is to have an ambitious COP28 addressing key points of climate change action. We expect the loss and damage financial mechanism to be operationalised in ways that take into consideration the rights of Indigenous peoples and address both the economic and non-economic losses they are experiencing. We expect direct and flexible funding to become accessible to Indigenous peoples, as well as capacity building and the transfer of the required technologies.

    We also would like to see a clear definition of adaptation actions and serious emission reduction commitments by developed countries. But above all, we want this to be a COP of actions and not of empty promises – we want to see developed states live up to their commitments, giving vulnerable communities reasons for hope that they will be able to face and survive the impacts of climate change.


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

    Get in touch with PINGOs Forum through itswebsite ofFacebook page, and follow@PINGOsForum on Twitter.

  • COVID-19 and freedom of expression: A global snapshot of restrictions

    New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor finds:

    • New censorship controls have been implemented during the pandemic
    • The pandemic has expanded the use of laws criminalising misinformation - new or amended measures in over 35 countries
    • Journalists detained in over 30 countries for their reporting on the pandemic

    Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During this period, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions to civic freedoms. The latest research brief focuses on the state of freedom of expression and violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.

    The research covers the period from January 2020 to February 2021 and highlights where governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to censor the media and silence dissent. In some countries, governments have passed laws and regulations which impose undue restrictions on press freedom and access to information.

    Censorship and the detention of journalists are some of the violations covered in the research brief. From Tanzania to Turkmenistan, governments have banned and blocked media for their COVID-19 related coverage. While in Chile and China, governments have put journalists in jail for their reporting on the pandemic.

    The research brief how of journalists, media workers and civil society organisations have been the target of government overreach and provides over 60 country case studies that illustrate three trends:

    • The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including the use of misinformation legislation
    • Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage
    • Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks and arrests

    READ ANALYSIS

  • CSOs express concern over judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party members

    We, the undersigned civil society groups, express serious concern regarding the recent and ongoing judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) elected officials and members through baseless arrests, summonses, and detentions across multiple provinces. We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to immediately cease the harassment of members of the political opposition and instead take concrete measures to restore civic space and enable all individuals to exercise their rights to free expression, association, assembly and political participation.

  • CSW66: ‘Global-level policy-making is disconnected from women’s realities’

    CIVICUS speaks about women’s human rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) and Misun Woo of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

    APWLD is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) committed to building feminist movements to advance women’s human rights and development justice in Asia and the Pacific as well as globally. CWT, a member organisation of APWLD, is a CSO that works with local communities and women to call for urgent climate action and climate justice.

    Thailand CSW66 interview

    What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Thailand and the Asia Pacific region, and how does APWLD work to address them?

    Women in Thailand still do not have access to political spaces. Women work on farms and take care of their families, but when policies are made regarding farm work and domestic work they are not engaged in policy discussions, either in the planning process or the implementation stages.

    We tend to look at the symptoms of issues, in this case of the violations of women’s human rights, but we need to look at both the structural causes and the consequence of these violations and injustices. The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.

    APWLD’s work consists of identifying the systems of oppression – patriarchy, fundamentalisms, militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and fighting to dismantle them while finding alternative solutions to advance women’s human rights and development justice. Through our work we have been able to build capacity and solidarity among feminist movements.

    We focus on several thematic areas, including climate justice. Part of our work is about identifying and promoting the adoption of mitigation and adaptation strategies to advance women’s human rights as well as address the loss and damage and historical responsibilities. We see women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately and they must be a source of solutions to help deal with the climate crisis. However, the reality is that they are not sufficiently engaged and the policies implemented in most instances do not cater to their needs and concerns.

    What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

    This year’s focus for CSW’s 66th session (CSW66) was on the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We have highlighted the ways women have been experiencing the impacts of climate change and the solutions they have devised. What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.

    A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel industries. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.

    Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.

    What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

    We had high expectations, even though so many restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic. We viewed CSW as a space or momentum to elaborate on the causes and the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We expected it to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

    Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.

    We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.

    Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.

    If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.

    Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience access issues?

    We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.

    Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against traveling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with ECOSOC accreditation to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.

    We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.

    If we compare CSW66 to other UN spaces, such as climate conferences, the lack of engagement between CSOs and national governments in CSW66 becomes readily apparent. It was challenging to have a dialogue with government representatives and negotiators because of the travel restrictions and the inability of some countries to participate in person.

    Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

    If we look at UN climate conferences, for instance, we will find that the proportion of women delegates is always low. Even though it has been increasing, it is still significantly small. We have seen attempts in successive climate conferences of the parties (COPs) to try and have a gender and climate focal point for every country, but the UN has not supported the initiative to introduce a protocol for national governments to implement it. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions reiterate the need to have a gender and climate focal point in national governments. Thailand still does not have one.

    Arrangements may be better for women in the global north, but from our global south perspective they are pretty bad. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions note the importance of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in decision making. However, the reality of women’s participation at CSW is far from encouraging.

    It’s easier to say that UN Women or the CSW methods of work resolution encourage member states to include CSO representatives on their delegation. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have seen a rise in autocratic and misogynistic leadership, and having CSO representatives on such government delegation is not something that will happen at all or in a meaningful way. It is not enough to hear the voices of women; women must be given actual power to make policy decisions grounded in women’s realities. This is the only way structural changes will happen.

    Civic space in Thailandis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor
    Get in touch with APWLD through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@apwld on Twitter. Get in touch with Climate Watch Thailand through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ClimateWatchTH on Twitter. 

  • CSW66: ‘Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere’

    Zarin HainsworthCIVICUS speaks about women’s participation and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Zarin Hainsworth, director of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), a UK civil society network that works for women’s empowerment by advocating for women’s rights at the national and international levels.

    What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in the UK, and how does NAWO work to address them?

    In the UK there is a lack of an institutional mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights. The Women’s National Commission, which used to be an independent advisory body that represented women and made sure their views were heard by the UK government, was closed by the Conservative government in December 2010. 

    The Government Equalities Office (GEO), established in 2007, is identified by the government as the institutional mechanism although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee continues to question this. The GEO is a department of government, with employees who are civil servants and all communications must abide by the usual government codes with all reports agreed by ministers. It cannot therefore claim to be independent. Some civil society members have complained that there is a lack of consultation with them and this affects how women are included in the policy-making process. Furthermore, GEO does not have remit in devolved nations, meaning it does not cover Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The CEDAW Committee has raised concerns about the UK not being compliant with the treaty, but the government responded that they are adequately provisioned by the GEO.

    The UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance has a good relationship with the GEO, especially in regard to CSW, which we believe to be an example of best practice. However, many would argue that in light of the recommendations of CEDAW and the definition within the Beijing Platform for Action, there is still need for an independent body representing the voice of women and girls to government. NAWO would suggest that it is well placed to be such an organisation. 

    Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Sexism is institutionalised in the police force, but this is still a postcode lottery – how women are treated depends largely on where they live. Rape is still underreported and too few cases get to trial, and adolescent girls are not taught about gender-based violence. NAWO is part of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which seeks to create awareness of these issues and urge the government to address them. Recently a number of members of Parliament have raised awareness on this issue and the government is keen to state it is in the process of effecting positive change in this regard.

    We are aware that the UK has not ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The government says that the new Domestic Violence Bill covers the same ground as the Istanbul Conversion, but civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender-based violence claim that the Bill does not robustly cover all the areas of the Istanbul Convention. NAWO is part of IC Change, a campaign pushing the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention; in the past, we also participated in advocacy work towards legislation to implement the Istanbul Convention across the UK.

    Regarding employment, occupational segregation continues to hinder women from progressing and becoming leaders in their workplaces. Despite efforts to increase the presence of girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women still do not occupy equitable work positions because of pre-existing structures put in place to accommodate men rather than women.

    Finally, there is evidence that women’s voices are not heard in the health sector and that women are suffering the most when services and budgets are cut. Health education is biased towards the male experience and female indicators of stroke or heart attack are only slowly starting to be taught in medical school. Most drug trials are based on male responses.

    NAWO raises awareness of these issues through coalition-building and advocacy work. We also engage government stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these issues and put mechanisms in place to promote women’s equity and rights.

    To address these issues at CSW, NAWO has helped establish and worked within the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, seeking ways of working with the government to promote equality and ensure that women’s rights are advocated for at CSW. As an organisation, we have understood the need to develop a good relationship with the GEO and we are developing relationships across the government to advance our advocacy work.

    What issues did you try to bring to the CSW agenda this year?

    We are aware that CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process, and we highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support CSOs and integrate them into policy-making processes.

    We have seen COVID-19 affect marginalised women and girls disproportionately, so this is an issue we emphasised at CSW this year. The pandemic revealed pre-existing gender gaps regardless of mechanisms put in place to promote women’s empowerment. Women from marginalised groups did not have access to proper healthcare and their employment chances have severely decreased. Pandemic recovery structures are not working for them because they are being put in place with little to no consultation with them.

    We also raised the concern of women’s access to decent work. There is a need to promote the participation of women in the labour force, but this should be done in an inclusive manner and with respect for human dignity. Many women still struggle with sexual harassment at work and there are not enough measures in place to counter this. Women have much lower prospects of advancing at work than their male colleagues. We hope CSW will see the need to help women in the workforce and find sustainable and realistic ways to protect them.

    As we have done every year since 2005, we enabled a youth delegation and we are keen to ensure the informed voice of young women is present at CSW.

    What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

    We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.

    We hosted side events that offered young people a space to talk about the issues they experience and how they affect them. In these side events we were able to discuss how women experience climate change and their views and demands concerning gender equality, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.

    We participated virtually and faced some issues concerning broadband and connectivity issues. We believe there were challenges with the online platform and most CSOs had problems accessing it.

    Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

    We believe women are still not adequately integrated in decision-making processes both at the national and global levels. Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.

    Civic space in the UKis rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with NAWO through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@NAWOorg on Twitter. 

  • CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

    CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

    How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

    The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

    For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

    As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

    The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

    In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

    To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

    Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

    If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

    How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

    The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

    But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

    The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

    In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

    Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

    I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

    What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

    One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

    Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

    The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

    This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

    But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

    Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

    An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

    Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

    What other problems do you see?

    Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

    But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

    In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

    To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Martamar77 on Twitter.

  • CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’

    CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.

    havana protest

    Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.

    The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?

    Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.

    In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.

    In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.

    Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.

    In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.

    How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?

    There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.

    The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.

    At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.

    At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.

    Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.

    Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.

    Why the change?

    The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.

    In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.

    How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?

    The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.

    From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.

    For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.

    However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.

    Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?

    The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.

    What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.

    The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos through its webpage and Facebook profile, or follow @conflictoscuba on Twitter.

  • CUBA: ‘The only options available are prison, exile, or submission’

    Carolina Barrero

    CIVICUS speaks with Cuban activist  Carolina Barrero, who has been in exile in Spain since February 2022, about the circumstances driving increasing numbers of Cubans out of the country.

    Carolina is an art historian and a member of the 27N movement, formed out of the protests held on 27 November 2020 outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana to denounce lack of freedoms, the repression of dissent and harassment against the San Isidro Movement, a protest group started by artists. She was forced to leave Cuba in reprisal for her activism in support of relatives of political prisoners held since the protests of 11 July 2021, known as 11J.

    Why did you leave Cuba?

    My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.

    On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at aprotest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of thetrial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.

    As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.

    The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.

    These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.

    How different is the situation of political exiles from that of those emigrating for economic reasons?

    In principle, there would seem to be a big difference between exile resulting from the use of systematic repression to punish or neutralise political dissent and emigration motivated by social and economic asphyxiation. However, this classification obscures the ultimate causes of the factors that lead people to leave Cuba.

    Under a dictatorship such as Cuba’s, the root reasons why people leave the country are always political. All waves of exile from Cuba, from the 1960s to the present day, have had a political background: repression by the ruling regime. Not only are political freedoms missing, but all the freedoms necessary for people to be able to manage their own destiny. In Cuba people have no agency over any aspect of their public or private lives; all aspects of life are controlled by the Cuban state, which is not merely authoritarian, but totalitarian.

    No one flees paradise. No one decides to leave their life, work, career and affections to pursue the ‘American dream’. Although in some cases the forced character of exile seems clearer than in others, at the end of the day every exile from Cuba is a forced exile. We flee to survive and to have the opportunity to just be.

    Many Cubans risk their lives at sea or cross jungles with their babies to get to a place where they don’t know the language or the culture, just to be a little freer. In Cuba, if you don’t fit the mould set by the Communist Party, the only authorised party, in power since 1965, you are treated as a potential criminal. Everything is politically determined, from access to education and healthcare to the possibility of earning a living. Economic suffocation also has political causes. So it is misleading to distinguish sharply between political exile and economic migration.

    Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.

    Like other Cuban activists in exile, you have conducted international advocacy ever since you left Cuba. Do you think this could prompt the Cuban state to rethink its tactic of offering exit instead of prison?

    At the moment, the Cuban state is more concerned about us being inside, lighting the fire of protest, than outside, denouncing repression in international forums. But I think the regime’s calculations are wrong, because those of us who have gone into exile have not forgotten Cuba and are not going to abandon the cause of democracy. And international advocacy plays an important role in our struggle.

    This, which may seem innocuous to the regime, is a fundamental part of activism to end the dictatorship because it attacks one of the fundamental pillars that have sustained the regime: the effectiveness of international propaganda. The Cuban state has allocated enormous resources to diplomacy so that every embassy is a propaganda centre that promotes the narrative, the epic and the myth of the Cuban Revolution.

    To counter the effect of propaganda on international opinion, now Cuba also has a growing army of ambassadors who have witnessed and been part of the latest cycle of protests and can speak in international forums of what is really happening in Cuba. I firmly believe that, to a large extent, the fall of the dictatorship depends on the fall of the myth. This is an important task for us in exile.

    What are the chances of a political transition in Cuba?

    I do not dare to make predictions on such a delicate issue, and one so longed for by Cubans for decades. But I am able to highlight one fact: the Cuban regime has never been as weak as it is now. After the mass protests, the regime can no longer hide the extent of the discontent, which it has historically blamed on a few opponents who, according to its narrative, are funded by ‘the empire’. Social discontent is now evident and massive, reaching all corners of the island and all social groups. The dictatorship no longer has the support of the poorest or of those it claims to defend, but only of the military and bureaucratic leadership.

    It also has a serious succession problem. Since Miguel Díaz-Canel assumed power after being appointed by Raúl Castro, he has not made a single administrative decision that has earned him praise. Everything has been a disaster and he will be remembered as an incompetent dictator with very little charisma. I think the regime spends 24 hours a day thinking of how to fill this power vacuum, since Díaz-Canel has no credibility whatsoever, even among officials, and even demoralises the repressive apparatus. The problem is that they have no one to replace him with, nor do they know how. They could stage a vote, but the situation is so delicate that they know it could easily get out of hand. They could even stage a self-coup, but this is also a very delicate path that could end up being lethal.

    At the current international juncture, Cuba’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the Cuban dictatorship, the oldest in the western hemisphere, even more difficult to justify in the eyes of international opinion. Justifying Cuba has become a challenge even for those with a marked ideological bias. Added to these factors are the economic, social and humanitarian crises, all of which threaten the regime and its continuity. Faced with the energy crisis and shortages of basic goods, the Cuban foreign minister himself has requested support from the Biden administration, something totally unheard of. The irony is complete: in Cuba there are people in prison accused of ‘mercenaryism’ for having received US support, and now it turns out that the Cuban government itself has become a mercenary by its own definition.

    What will happen or not, I dare not predict. I believe that the protests will not be silenced and our voices will continue to be heard. I only hope that the democratic transition will come about through a peaceful process rather than violence.

    Beyond overthrowing the dictatorship, the goal – and the challenge – is to build a democracy. For this we will need the support of civil society organisations such as CIVICUS. After six decades of civic and political anaesthesia, in recent years Cuban civil society has awoken and showed that it has the capacity, the will and the determination to move towards democracy. We have an open window of opportunity and, as the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima would say, we have the power for change.


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

    Contact Carolina Barrero through herInstagram page and follow@carolinabferrer on Twitter.

    Photo credit: Fernando Fraguela

     

  • Danny Sriskandarajah: Is it the beginning of the end for the charity sector?

    UK's largest network of civil society leaders, ACEVO, spoke to Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS, as part of its 30th birthday celebrations to get him to expand on his article for Civil Society Futures, where he asks if it is the beginning of the end for the charity sector. 

    Read on: 30thingstothinkabout.org

  • Democracy campaigner: governments are scared of the participation revolution

    Closing space for civil society is undermining the ability of citizens to organise and mobilise. In an interview with Guardian Global development professionals network, CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah, speaks about the restrictions to civic space around the world. 

    Read on:The Guardian 

  • Dialogue to Protect Young People in Civic Space

    The UN High-Level Global Conference on Youth-Inclusive Peace-Processes

  • DISINFORMATION: ‘The fact that profit drives content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy’

    CIVICUS speaks with Rory Daniels about the 2019 elections in the UK and the dangers that disinformation poses to democracy.Rory is a student, activist and writer intent on promoting the voices of those left behind by governments and globalisation. In the 2017 general election, he stood as a 19-year-old parliamentarycandidate for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency of Llanelli. Since September 2019, he has been a member of Amnesty International's firstGlobal Youth Task Force.

    rory daniels

    What role would you say disinformation has played in the recent elections in the UK?

    As a candidate myself during the 2017 UK general election, I saw first-hand the role disinformation played throughout the campaign. Prominent newspapers often printed misleading headlines, biased websites attacked real journalists uncovering the truth and advertisements created by political parties lacked sources for statistics, featured heavily edited video footage and virtually never presented balanced arguments.

    Then the 2019 general election saw all this take place again, plus more. There were doctored videos, highly misleading websites and even signs of foreign interference. A doctored video came from the Conservative Party, which later admitted to editing a clip of a speech given by Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer. The video they released made it look like he had struggled to answer a question about exiting the European Union, while in fact he had answered the question. The same party then changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to ‘FactcheckUK’. Twitter responded by warning the Conservatives that this effectively constituted an act of deception, as the account was not impartial as users may have been led to believe. Clearly not satisfied with deceiving videos and social media accounts, the Conservatives then bought ads on Google that appeared as the top result for anybody seeking the Labour Party’s manifesto. These criticised the proposals in a heavily biased fashion.

    The Labour Party also succumbed to disinformation. For example, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, cited documents suggesting that the Conservatives would sell off large parts of the National Health Service to the USA in a post-Brexit trade agreement. It later transpired, however, that these documents were linked to a Russian disinformation campaign.

    Which platforms do you think are the most vulnerable to disinformation?

    It’s hard to say which platforms are more vulnerable to disinformation than others. In November 2019, I attended the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. The whole event revolved around the question of whether democracy is ‘in danger’ in the information age. It didn’t take long for me to see that vulnerabilities exist on any platform that possesses many users and is constrained by little regulation.

    In addition, with disinformation it’s often more about the content than the platform. For example, I remember reading a recent analysis conducted by BuzzFeed which found that during the final months of the 2016 US election campaign, fabricated news stories reached a greater online audience than actual news stories.

    What are the impacts of disinformation on democratic freedoms?

    All democracies depend upon facts, truth and scrutiny. Voters need reliable information in order to vote rationally – that is, to have good reason to vote for a certain politician or policy instead of others – to challenge their own worldview or preconceptions, and ultimately to hold power to account.

    In an age of disinformation, facts become indistinguishable from fiction, truth becomes impossible to discern among all the lies and scrutiny gets entangled in ideological polarisation. Where once there was the traditional media to keep the populace informed, now there is the internet – an unregulated mess of opinions, corporations and agendas.

    On the internet, the business model is simple: more clicks equal more revenue. This means that often, websites will only seek facts and the truth if they bring greater profits. If not, they may decide to prey on fear, stereotypes, insecurity, hatred and division. Authors know that readers achieve greater levels of satisfaction when they read opinions that confirm their worldview, rather than challenge it. This leads to greater polarisation, as empirical evidence is disregarded in favour of the ‘facts’ that confirm readers’ previously held views.

    We’ve already seen that if this occurs in a democracy, politics suffers. Voters develop apathy, because as they become overwhelmed by confusion and conflicting viewpoints, they switch off from political developments, while ‘establishment’ candidates lose out to populists who pedal quick solutions to complex problems. In short, rational, informed debate all but dies.

    What are the forces behind disinformation?

    Disinformation can be created by anybody at any time. State actors may intervene in foreign elections to tip the scales in their favour, while domestic activists may sow news stories that build support for far-right or populist actors. In other words, the ‘information war’ is fought from all sides.

    Since the creation of the internet, we’ve also seen what some people call the ‘democratisation of disinformation’ unfold. This means that anybody, whether in place A or with budget B, can create and share intentionally misleading content with ease. As a result, what only a few years ago was seen as a tool that was largely positive for democracy – the 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ came to be known as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ – is today perhaps its greatest threat.

    What is being done to combat disinformation, and what have the successes and challenges been so far?

    A few months ago, I spoke at UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy (MIL) conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. I did so because I believe that education can play an enormous role in addressing disinformation, and I also wanted to share some lessons I had learned from my 2017 parliamentary campaign. The conference was no doubt held in Sweden due to the country’s incredible push for MIL education in recent years, and after meeting many Swedish activists throughout the week, I can only applaud the valuable work they are doing in the field.

    I’m also looking to address some of the negative consequences of disinformation. For example, as a member of the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, I’m part of a team of young activists planning a ‘Unity Day’ celebration to take place in London on 19 May 2020. Crucially, in a time of increasing division and hatred, this will see politicians, thought-leaders, community organisations and others come together to champion values and ideas that unite us. I urge you to visit the Unity Day website if you’re interested in pledging to take an action, no matter how big or small, that celebrates unity and combats division.

    Of course, trying to inform the debate about disinformation has not been easy. Still today, MIL education is woefully underprovided, sensible media regulations are too often labelled as censorship or attacks on free speech and social media platforms continue to constitute dangerous echo chambers.

    What more is needed to combat disinformation?

    Many of the causes of disinformation are structural by nature, and therefore I believe that many solutions must be too. We must finally recognise that the profit incentive driving content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy and ultimately unsustainable, while tabloids that spew out sensationalist clickbait should be heavily regulated and severely fined if caught breaking the rules.

    In addition, I’m of the opinion that media and information literacy is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable strategy to countering disinformation and restoring our trust in democracy. MIL education should be offered far beyond schools, also targeting older generations who are less likely to identify disinformation and more likely to share it in the first place. Ultimately, readers must know how to spot and avoid disinformation, or else all the regulations and structural changes in the world will not solve the problem at hand.

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

    Get in touch with Rory throughLinkedIn if you’re interested in the regulation of big tech companies, London Global Shapers’ Unity Day or his work more generally.

  • DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘The times ahead may bring positive change’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in the Dominican Republic, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hamilk Chahin, coordinator of the Citizen Manifesto for Electoral Transparency, and Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG. The Citizen Manifesto, a civil society-led multi-stakeholder initiative, was launched in December 2019 to monitor the 2020 municipal, legislative and presidential elections and foster the consolidation of democratic institutions. Alianza ONG is a network that encompasses 40 Dominican civil society organisations (CSOs). Founded in 1995, it is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through initiatives to strengthen civil society, intersectoral dialogue, training and dissemination of information, political advocacy and the promotion of solidarity and volunteering.

    Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral landscape was quite complex. What was the situation as of March 2020?

    DominicanRepublic FlagIn recent years, the ruling party, the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), accumulated a lot of power in all state institutions, affecting the quality of democracy. The PLD was re-elected for several terms and political elites settled into their positions and got used to exercising power for their own benefit and to the detriment of the interests of the community. Little by little and inadvertently, society also accepted this situation. In this sense, the exceptionally efficient handling of communication mechanisms by successive governments helped a lot. In addition to good international alliances and good luck in managing the economy, advertising and propaganda structures made the perpetuation of the government easy.

    Fortunately, in every society there is a seed that is practically impossible to uproot: that of civil society. At times it may lay dormant or in hibernation, but at some point something happens that causes it to get moving. In our case, it was the extreme confidence of our rulers in having their power assured, which led them to increasingly blatant practices, to the point that the citizenry, which for the most part had long tolerated them, at one point said ‘enough’ and went into a state of effervescence. The first important manifestation of this change was the Green March Movement, which began in January 2017.

    Born out of popular outrage over the Odebrecht scandal, which involved senior officials from three successive Dominican governments, the Green March Movement encompassed a broad spectrum of CSOs and focused on street mobilisation. It all started with a modest protest walk that we organised through a CSO called Foro Ciudadano (Citizen Forum), which kicked off a great mobilisation phenomenon whose main achievement was to end citizen indifference, to force the middle class out of its comfort zone, in which people expressed criticism without taking action. Opposition parties began to ride on these dynamics. Given that it thought it controlled all power resources, the government initially paid little attention. But the phenomenon far exceeded marching: signatures were collected, community meetings were held, various forms of mobilisation were promoted. It was a state of awakening driven by dignity. Citizens lost their fear of speaking up and this puzzled the government.

    How did the 2020 electoral process begin, and how did Citizen Manifesto form?

    The beginning of the electoral process was also the beginning of the end of the incumbent government. In October 2019, parties held their primary elections; they were the first primaries to be carried out under new electoral and political party legislation and were managed by the Central Electoral Board (JCE). While the PLD opted for open primaries, allowing the participation of all eligible voters, the main opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), held closed primaries, allowing the participation of its members only. The candidacy of Luis Abinader, who would eventually be elected president, emerged clearly from the PRM primaries. In comparison, as a result of the PLD primaries, Gonzalo Castillo became the official candidate only by a small difference over three-time president Leonel Fernández.

    The primary elections of the ruling party were much more than a candidate selection process: what was at stake in them was the power of the president, Danilo Medina. In office since 2012, Medina had been re-elected in 2016, and had made some unsuccessful attempts to reform the constitution to be re-elected again. Leonel Fernández, as party president, had opposed these manoeuvres, so Medina did not endorse him when he decided to run in the primaries. It became apparent that the government resorted to state resources to support Medina’s designated heir; as a result, the PLD underwent division and Fernández joined the opposition. The primaries were highly contested and there was a lot of manipulation. They left a bitter taste among the citizenry: faced with the possibility that fraud had been used to thwart a primary election, many wondered what would become of the national election.

    It was then that many CSOs began to think about what to do: we connected with each other and with political actors, we shared information and our assessments of the situation. We decided to express our concern and demand fixes from the institutions and entities responsible for organising the elections, starting with the JCE and also the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office, which are responsible for prosecuting crimes and irregularities. This is how the Citizen Manifesto initiative began to form. It included actors from the business, religious, labour, union and peasant sectors. We campaigned to draw the attention of society to the need to defend and monitor the process of democratic institutionalisation ahead of the elections. And above all, we advocated with political figures. We met with party representatives, and as a result the Citizen Manifesto had the support of all sectors. This turned us into direct interlocutors of the JCE.

    When were the elections originally scheduled?

    The electoral cycle included a series of elections: municipal elections, scheduled for February, and national elections, both presidential and legislative, initially scheduled for May. In the municipal elections, a new dual voting system was used for the first time, which consisted of a fully electronic voting system for urban areas with a higher population density and a manual system for rural areas. As a consequence of the Citizen Manifesto’s requests to bring some guarantees and certainty to the process, the electronic voting system also had a manual component in the stage at which the ballots were counted; we also successfully demanded that the vote counting process be recorded and a fingerprint and QR code capture system be introduced.

    Although security measures were strengthened, there were serious problems with the implementation of the new software. On 16 February, several hours after the vote had started, the JCE discovered that there was a problem with around 60 per cent of the electronic voting machines and decided to suspend the municipal election across the country.

    This caused a crisis of confidence, and thousands of people took to the streets in almost daily protests. On 17 February, a demonstration outside the JCE headquarters demanded the resignation of all JCE members. Discontent also affected the government, as many protesters believed that it had tried to take advantage of machines not working properly. On 27 February, Independence Day, a massive demonstration was held to demand the investigation of what happened and urge greater transparency in the electoral process. The Dominican diaspora in several countries around the world organised solidarity demonstrations in support of democracy in their country.

    Municipal elections were rescheduled and held on 16 March, and the electronic voting was not used. By then the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun but suspending the election a second time was not an option. That is why the Dominican Republic declared its state of emergency quite late: the government waited for the elections to take place and three days later it passed a state of emergency and introduced a curfew.

    In April, as the situation continued, the electoral body decided to postpone the national elections until 5 July, after consulting with political parties and civil society. There was not much margin for manoeuvre because sufficient time was needed for the eventuality of a run-off election, which would have needed to take place before 16 August, when the new government should be inaugurated. Of course, there was talk of the possibility of a constitutional amendment to postpone inauguration day, and civil society had to step in to deactivate these plans and help put together an electoral process that included all necessary sanitary measures. Fortunately, the media provided the space that CSOs needed for this; we had a good communications platform.

    As elections took place during the pandemic, what measures were taken to limit contagion risks?

    As civil society we tried to force the introduction of adequate sanitary measures. We urged the JCE to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States to convey the certainty that the necessary measures would be taken and the elections would take place. It was a titanic effort, because we have not yet had an effective prevention and rapid testing policy in the Dominican Republic; however, it turned out to be possible to impose sanitary protocols, including disinfection and sanitation, the distribution of protective materials and physical distancing measures.

    The truth is that the great outbreak of COVID-19 that we are experiencing today has not happened exclusively because of the elections; it seems to be above all the result of two-and-a-half months of disorganised and irresponsible campaigning carried out mainly by the incumbent party. The government tried to profit from the pandemic and the limitations imposed by the state of emergency. However, this may have played against it. The waste of resources in favour of the official candidate was such that people resented it. It was grotesque: for instance, just like in China, the measure of spraying streets with disinfectant was adopted, but while in China it was a robot or a vehicle that went out on the streets at night and passed through all the neighbourhoods, here we had an 8pm parade by a caravan of official vehicles, complete with sirens, flags, music – a whole campaign show. People resented it, because they saw it as wasting resources for propaganda purposes instead of using them to control the pandemic effectively.

    Was the opposition able to run a campaign in the context of the health emergency?

    The conditions for campaigning were very uneven, because public officials enjoyed a freedom of movement beyond the hours established by the curfew and opposition parties complained that the incumbent party could continue campaigning unrestricted while they were limited to permitted hours. Access to the media was also uneven: propaganda in favour of the official candidate was ubiquitous, because it was one and the same as government propaganda. In this context, a specific ad caused a lot of discomfort: it said something like ‘you stay home, and we will take care of social aids’, and included the images of the official candidates for president and vice-president.

    The pandemic was used politically in many ways. At one point the fear of contagion was used to promote abstention; a campaign was launched that included a drawing of a skull and said, ‘going out kills’. While we were campaigning under the messaging ‘protect yourself and get out to vote’, the government’s bet was to instil fear among the independent middle class, while planning to get their own people out to vote en masse. The negative reaction they provoked was so strong that they were forced take this ad down after a couple of days.

    Likewise, the state was absent from most policies implemented against the pandemic and left the provision of social aid and prevention in the hands of the ruling party candidate. Often it was not the government that carried out fumigations, but the candidate’s companies. It was jets from the candidate’s aviation company, not state or military planes, that brought back Dominican citizens who were stranded abroad. The first test kits were brought from China by the candidate, with of course large propaganda operations.

    With everything in its favour, how was it possible for the government to lose the elections?

    The PRM candidate, Luis Abinader, prevailed in the first round, with more than 52 per cent of the vote, while the official candidate came second with 37 per cent and former President Fernández reached only nine per cent. The division of the incumbent party as a result of the allegations of fraud in the primaries had an effect, because if the party had been united and not affected by this scandal, the results could have been different.

    Faced with the fact that a single party had ruled during 20 of the past 24 years, citizens showed fatigue and searched for alternatives. Citizens expressed themselves not only through mobilisation and protest, but also through a process of awareness raising that took several years. Very interesting expression platforms emerged, such as the digital medium Somos Pueblo (We are the People), whose YouTube broadcasts played a very important role. With the government campaigning on the streets and citizens isolated by the pandemic, creative strategies were also employed to overcome limitations and protest without the need to leave our homes, such as through cacerolazos (pot-banging actions).

    The interest in participating to bring about change was reflected in the election turnout, which exceeded 55 per cent. Although well below the 70 per cent average recorded in the elections held over the past decade, the figure was noteworthy in the context of the pandemic. Given the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, people have high hopes in the new government. If we can overcome this challenge, the times ahead may bring positive change in terms of strengthening institutions and deepening democracy.

    Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Manifiesto Ciudadano through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ManifiestoCiuRD on Twitter.

    Get in touch with Alianza ONG through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@AlianzaONG and@AddysThen on Twitter.

  • Don't lecture the Americans about our values. Demonstrate them.

    By Danny Sriskandarajah and Julia Sanchez 

    There has never been a better time for Canada to show progressive leadership globally in support of inclusive and open societies that respect human rights. As the government prepares a new budget and a new approach to international assistance, the stage is set for Canada to put its money where its mouth is and support its values, at home and abroad.

    Read on: iPolitics

  • DRC: ‘Civil society action is needed more than ever, but the space in which it can undertake it is getting smaller’

    Bahati_Rubango.jpgCIVICUS speaks with Bahati Rubango, country coordinator at the Women’s International Peace Centre (WIPC), about conflict in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

    WIPC is a feminist organisation seeking to catalyse women’s leadership, amplify their voices and deepen their role in peacebuilding. It started out in 1974 as Isis-Women’s International Cross-Cultural Exchange, and in 1994 it moved from Geneva to Uganda and deepened its focus on the women, peace and security agenda.

    What’s the security situation in the DRC, and how is civil society working to address it?

    In the DRC, and particularly in Kivu and other parts of eastern DRC, including Beni, Bunagana, Masisi and Rutshuru territories and Ituri and South Kivu provinces, the situation is dire due to ongoing conflict. The prominence of the M23 rebel group exacerbates the crisis. The DRC’s government has accused Rwanda of supporting M23, with these claims substantiated by United Nations (UN) reports. The region is also plagued by the presence of over 120 other armed factions, foreign and local, some of which receive backing from Uganda, further complicating the situation.

    This has precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe, characterised by widespread displacement, killings, rape, plundering of natural resources, instances of sexual violence and severe limitations on access to education and healthcare, worsening the suffering and vulnerability of millions of civilians.

    Despite the deployment of various regional and international peacekeeping missions, the violence persists. The peacekeeping efforts of MONUSCO, the UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC, have fallen short. The conflict has regional and global dimensions beyond the DRC’s borders, impacting on peace and security across multiple countries.

    There is a complex interplay of local and international dynamics, including economic interests that perpetuate the conflict. The conflict’s economic dimension has been illustrated by the fact that rebel groups are mainly located where there are strategic natural resources.

    Efforts to quell the insurgency by national militia groups such as the Wazalendo movement find obstacles in the challenging terrain and the firm grip of rebel groups on strategic areas. As a result, access to Goma and other conflict-affected regions is primarily limited to air travel and boats across Lake Kivu, which impedes humanitarian aid and peacekeeping efforts.

    Civil society organisations play a crucial role in peacebuilding, monitoring human rights violations and advocating for justice and security sector reforms. Civil society highlights the need for justice for victims and the involvement of women and young people in peace processes. Despite challenges, including threats to human rights defenders, civil society strives to raise awareness, combat hate speech and protect vulnerable populations.

    How much space is there for civil society action in the DRC?

    The situation has been tumultuous since May 2021, with the declaration of a state of siege in conflict areas that has subsequently been renewed. Under the ongoing state of siege, the military displaced civilian authorities and assumed control. This shift resulted in a significant curtailment of civic freedoms, particularly for public demonstrations and speech. Military justice has taken precedence over civilian law, raising ethical concerns and contributing to lack of accountability.

    Problems have been compounded by the questionable level of training and education in the army. There have been reports of inadequately trained people being integrated, including former rebel fighters with no regard for human rights principles, approaches or values. This has led to a rise in criminal activities and violations committed by security forces, further restricting civic space.

    Human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government have faced persecution. Arrests and criminalisation under baseless charges have become commonplace. Despite legislative efforts to protect activists, implementation has been lacking, exacerbating the erosion of civic space. An example is Lucha (Lutte pour le changement – Fight for Change), an organisation of young activists, several of whom spent four days under arrest simply for signing a declaration urging the state to stop war.

    Advocacy at national, regional and global levels is needed to address the challenges of conflict. However, entrenched power dynamics in the DRC, including the dominance of the ruling party, pose significant obstacles to meaningful reform. Urgent action is needed to reverse the trend of declining civic space, because civil society action is needed more than ever, but the space in which it can undertake it is getting smaller.

    What’s the likelihood of tensions between the DRC and Rwanda escalating into a regional conflict?

    Rwanda’s involvement in destabilising the DRC is concerning, especially considering its history of aggression in the region, but it won’t necessarily lead to a regional conflict. Despite Rwanda’s attempts to exert influence, the DRC has demonstrated significant military strength in defending its territory against its aggression in the past.

    Rwanda’s diplomatic prowess and hidden support from foreign countries – often driven by economic interests around mineral resources – contribute to its ability to manipulate regional dynamics. Rebel groups such as the M23 and the Allied Democratic Forces exploit the porous borders between Rwanda and the DRC, seeking refuge in and support from Rwanda to evade accountability for their actions. This exacerbates tensions between the two countries.

    But the likelihood of the conflict escalating into a full-blown regional war is mitigated by mutual interests and dependencies. Both countries rely on resources derived from the DRC, which acts as a deterrent to all-out warfare. Regional initiatives like the Nairobi Process, brokered by the East African Community in November 2022, seek to address underlying tensions and promote peacebuilding efforts. However, the effectiveness of such initiatives is undermined by external influences dictating the terms of engagement and providing support to conflicting parties.

    Civil society plays a crucial role in advocating for peace and stability, but its efforts are hindered by external interference and power dynamics that dictate the trajectory of the conflict. While regional organisations, notably the African Union, are theoretically focused on addressing conflict in the continent, external influences and interests often compromise their effectiveness.

    Ultimately, it will require a concerted effort from regional and global players committed to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region to prevent the escalation of the conflict and resolve it for good.

    How can the international community support peacebuilding efforts in the DRC?

    There is a pressing need for support from the international community to assist internally displaced people in desperate need of essentials such as food and shelter. Efforts are also needed to document atrocities to ensure accountability further along the road. This includes highlighting the responsibilities of perpetrators and using this information to ensure justice is served, even if it takes years. Support for civil society groups involved in peacebuilding processes is crucial, particularly since the state lacks adequate resources.

    Although it may not generate enthusiasm in all quarters of the international community, security sector reform requires attention. Fortunately, there are promising initiatives funded by international donors.

    Another critical need is justice reform, which should include mechanisms for transitional justice. This will be vital to address the immediate effects of conflict and the long-standing grievances and cycles of violence that have plagued the region for decades. Access to justice for victims is paramount to break the cycle of impunity and prevent further atrocities. There’s a need for collective and individual reparations for victims, as well as guarantees that such violence will not be repeated. This includes addressing psychological trauma and providing survivors the support they need to rebuild their lives.

    Both local and international engagement will be needed to ensure that peacebuilding agreements are fully respected and implemented, including by holding all parties responsible and accountable. Civil society activists, academics and journalists will have a crucial role in monitoring and advocating for these agreements to be fulfilled.

    Finally, it’s essential to recognise that the conflict in the DRC is not isolated but has regional and global implications. Efforts to address the crisis must consider its broader context and involve stakeholders at all levels, from local communities to international organisations. Only through a holistic and inclusive approach can lasting peace and stability be achieved in the region.


    Civic space in the DRC is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Women’s International Peace Centre through itswebsite and follow @TheWIPCentre and@BRubango on Twitter.

  • EAST AFRICA: ‘The pipeline project would open up critical ecosystems to commercial oil exploitation’

    OmarElmawiCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (#StopEACOP).

    #StopEACOP is a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and calls for its cancellation.

    What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

    EACOP is a project to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to Tanzania, led by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and French energy conglomerate TotalEnergies alongside the Uganda National Oil Company and Tanzania Petroleum Development Cooperation.

    If it goes on, EACOP would have disastrous consequences for local communities, for wildlife and for the entire planet. In other words, it will affect humans, nature and climate. It threatens to displace thousands of families and farmers from their land. It poses significant risks to water resources and wetlands in both Uganda and Tanzania – including the Lake Victoria basin, which over 40 million people rely on for drinking water and food production.

    Additionally, EACOP would increase the severity of the global climate emergency by transporting oil that, when burned, will generate over 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. The pipeline would also open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Central and Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation.

    It would also rip through numerous sensitive biodiversity hotspots and risk significantly degrading several nature reserves crucial to the preservation of threatened species, including elephants, lions and chimpanzees.

    How are you mobilising against EACOP?

    Civil society came together under a global campaign that we have called #StopEACOP, aimed at sharing news related to the pipeline project and distributing resources to help people organise and take action against it.

    #StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global civil society organisations (CSOs). Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.

    Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oil fields in Kingfisher and Tilenga, several cases have been filed against the EACOP pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.

    We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.

    How have the governments involved responded to the #StopEACOP campaign?

    The governments of both Tanzania and Uganda are committed to seeing this project through despite the fact that each will receive only 15 per cent of the proceeds from the crude oil going through the pipeline. TotalEnergies and CNOOC hold 70 per cent of the pipeline’s shares, so they will be the ones pocketing 70 per cent of the proceeds from crude oil.

    Additionally, TotalEnergies and CNOOC both get tax benefits, including a waiver on payment of corporate tax for 10 years once the pipeline becomes operational and on the value-added tax on imported products and materials needed for the pipeline. They are required to pay only five per cent in withholding tax instead of the required 15 per cent.

    We haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.

    What kind of support do you need from international civil society and the wider international community?

    Allied organisations, activists and regular people are welcome to visit our website and click on our action page, which suggests a variety of actions addressed at the companies involved and governments and their funders and insurers. Please take as many of the actions listed as you can, prioritising those targeting insurance companies and banks. This is key because the EACOP project will need multi-billion-dollar loans to proceed, as well as numerous insurance policies covering every component of the project.

    People can also donate to the cause. All the resources we receive are shared with our community partners and support any security and legal needs that may arise, including legal representation fees.

    You can follow us on our social media pages to get updates on the campaign and subscribe to receive email updates on the progress of the campaign and upcoming actions that you can endorse or take part in.

    Civic space in bothTanzania andUganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with #StopEACOP through itswebsite or its Facebook and Instagram pages,and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter. 

  • ECUADOR: ‘Democracy has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow’

    MauricioAlarconSalvadorCIVICUS speaks with Mauricio Alarcón Salvador, executive director of Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo (Citizenship and Development Foundation, FCD), about the elections that will be held in Ecuador on 20 August, the eruption of political violence and organised crime and the implications for civil society and the future of the country.

    FCD is an Ecuadorian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes and defends the rule of law, democratic principles and individual freedoms and encourages citizen participation, social control, transparency, open government and public innovation.

    Why is Ecuador facing general elections only two years after the inauguration of a new president?

    We will have new elections because the current president resorted to the mechanism known as ‘mutual death’, established in the constitution since 2008. This allows the president to dissolve the National Assembly on various grounds. It is known colloquially as ‘mutual death’ because ‘killing’ the legislature also causes the ‘death’ of the executive. In May this year, President Guillermo Lasso dissolved the National Assembly because, in his opinion, it had caused a serious political crisis, in the context of an impeachment trial against him based on accusations of corruption in his close entourage. The use of this mechanism allows the president to continue governing briefly without Congress but requires both legislative and presidential elections to be called within a short period of time to elect those who will complete the ongoing term. That is why the National Electoral Council called for presidential and legislative elections to be held on 20 August. Those elected in this vote will stay in power for approximately 18 months, the length of the current term remaining, which will end in May 2025.

    How has civic space evolved under this government, and what are the prospects for the future?

    For the little more than two years that this government has been in office, the situation of civic space has not changed much from the previous period. While it is true that the Organic Law on Communications was reformed to provide greater guarantees for freedom of expression and press freedom, the hostile environment against the media and journalists remains unchanged. The main aggressor may no longer be the president, but the notion persists that some people have the right to silence others just because they think differently. The climate of censorship and self-censorship hasn’t changed.

    Nor have the regulatory conditions under which CSOs operate. Although the authorities no longer persecute or intimidate them, the regulations that enable them to do so remain in place. No progress has been made towards the adoption of an NGO law fully guaranteeing freedom of association.

    Finally, as regards freedom of peaceful assembly, protests in June 2022 highlighted the weak character of the procedures available to authorities for guaranteeing it. There is still much work to be done in this regard and the challenge ahead is enormous.

    CIVICUS, an organisation of which we are members, has been key in making the situation of civic space in Ecuador and its evolution visible in recent years.

    Are the conditions for clean and transparent elections in place?

    At FCD we believe that general conditions exist for a clean and transparent electoral process. The National Electoral Council that is in charge of this process is the same that organised the presidential vote in 2021 and local elections a few months ago. These were processes that, generally speaking, have been commended by electoral observation missions. There are some pending issues to be resolved, mainly regarding the financing of politics, but in terms of the organisation of the process we are confident that everything will go well.

    As civil society, we would have liked to collaborate much more in supporting these elections, but this process came about unexpectedly and the organisations that usually take part have not been in a position to implement all our initiatives. Nevertheless, national election observation will be carried out and we have conducted campaigns to promote informed voting: we have published background information about the candidates and their government plans, and we have even monitored, albeit in a limited way, issues related to political financing. The challenge is enormous, but we are confident that we are doing our part to strengthen an extraordinary electoral process that we never saw coming.

    What are the key campaign issues?

    What we’ve seen these past few weeks is an apathetic campaign, very weak on proposals. Candidates seem to be fully aware that what is being elected is a transitional government that will last a few months, and they are not giving it due importance. Little has been said about fundamental rights and freedoms in a context where security is the main focus of public attention. This is of great concern to us, because in the face of the critical situation of insecurity at the national level, people demand quick solutions regardless of whether their implementation violates rights and freedoms. Regarding security, for example, several candidates have referred to the use of force outside of what is established by basic rights and international standards in force in Ecuador and the region.

    Unfortunately, it is difficult for a situation as serious as the one Ecuador is going through to be resolved in such a short period of time as the one that will be afforded to the future president. The main concerns of Ecuadorians are centred on insecurity, the economic crisis and corruption. It is hoped that the new government will act on these issues by listening to people and putting an end to the arrogance that has characterised the outgoing government. Although time is short, the transitional government should establish basic lines of action, either for continuity through the next period or so that whoever comes to power in 2025 will have a basis for doing so.

    How does the assassination of Fernando Villavicencio change the political scenario?

    Political violence is nothing new in Ecuador: in recent elections there have been candidates who experienced threats and attacks, which in some cases have cost them their lives.

    However, this is the first instance in a long time that a presidential candidate has been the victim of an assassination. The conditions under which the attack on Fernando Villavicencio occurred are revealing. He was a candidate with a risk assessment of over 95 per cent, who had police protection and had been denouncing constant threats against him.

    This affects not only the electoral landscape but also Ecuador’s democracy itself, which has allowed room for organised crime and narco-politics to grow. If the proper institutions act in a timely manner and not only prevent events like this from happening again, but also manage to put an end to the prevailing impunity, we will end up strengthening a weak democracy that has been crying out for help. For this to happen, there is much work ahead, focused on coordinating efforts between public institutions, civil society, the private sector and political actors in ways that put the country ahead of any particular interest.

    What international support does Ecuadorian civil society need to continue doing its work?

    After what has happened in recent years, the starting point would be to ensure that international cooperation does not abandon Ecuadorian civil society. Cooperation institutions must also understand that although it is more profitable – at least in terms of communication – to save the environment, protect species or support community development, it is key to maintain support for organisations and initiatives working for democracy and civic space, because no other initiative would be viable without these.

    The international community must keep its eyes on Ecuador and look for local allies to fight back against the democratic setbacks we are experiencing. A joint effort is needed to strengthen civil society as a fundamental pillar of democracy.


    Civic space in Ecuador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with FCD through itswebsite orFacebook account, subscribe to itsYouTube channel and followfcd_ecuador on Instagram and@FCD_Ecuador and@aiarconsalvador on Twitter.

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