ERITREA: ‘When the government reacts to our work, we know what we do is making an impact’
CIVICUS speaks with about civil society work in Eritrea’s context of closed civic space with Helen Kidan, chairperson of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR).
Founded in 2003 and based in South Africa, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that raises awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promotes the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.
What’s the situation for civil society in Eritrea?
Eritrea has never truly implemented its 1997 Constitution and until Eritrea it is run by the rule of law, human rights abuses will continue with no recourse to justice. This includes completely closed civil society space, with no semblance of rights of association, assembly and expression.
Since Proclamation No. 145 of 2005 went into effect nearly two decades ago, there has been no independent civil society in Eritrea. According to this law, the only way CSOs can implement programmes is in partnership with government agencies, which restrict the areas, themes and focus of the projects that can be implemented. There are obviously very few CSOs present and active in Eritrea.
The only way to start creating any space for independent CSOs in Eritrea would be to have Proclamation 145/2005 revoked.
What is EMDHR doing to try to improve the situation?
EMDHR advocates against the ongoing human rights abuses in Eritrea as well as for the rights of Eritrean refugees in the diaspora. Our mission is to promote and defend human right values as established in international legal instruments and advance democratic change, rule of law and constitutionalism in Eritrea, with the ultimate aim of building a society in which people exercise their basic rights and live in peace, dignity and prosperity.
We provide training, sustain networks and produce and disseminate information to create awareness of the situation of Eritreans. We have made several presentations at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in July 2022 we made a presentation at the UN in New York.
We are currently working with African CSOs to bring the ongoing crisis in Eritrea to the African level and get support for Eritrean refugees. We have also commissioned a report on the state of Eritrean CSOs that makes recommendations to the international community.
In early September 2023 we co-organised the Africa Civil Society Organisations Summit held in Arusha, Tanzania. Through a joint project with Africa Monitors, Eritrean Satellite Television and Eritrean Diaspora for East Africa, a CSO based in Kenya, we have provided training to Eritrean human rights activists, including on digital activism, and created a space for Eritrean CSOs and activists to be able to work together.
In 2019 we provided in-person training in a workshop held in Uganda. In 2017 we co-organised a conference in Brussels on the ongoing Eritrean refugee crisis, with which we tried to elicit a reaction from members of the European Parliament, commissioners and CSOs from across Europe. And in 2015 we campaigned and got asylum for Eritrean footballers in Botswana.
What’s it like to be a diaspora activist? How do you connect with activists within Eritrea?
It’s extremely frustrating because it makes our work less effective. Connecting with people inside Eritrea is very hard as internet penetration in Eritrea is only two per cent. The government basically controls all media: all independent media ceased to exist in 2001. This is why most information is brought to us by people who have recently left the country. But while the work is challenging, it is still possible to get information. And when the government reacts to our work, we know what we do is making an impact.
A lot of funders provide funds to African organisations only when they operate in their home country. The fact that we are not able to operate inside Eritrea means we also suffer financially and hence a lot of Eritrean CSOs are forced to sustain themselves on the basis of voluntary work.
Additionally, the work remains emotionally and psychologically draining, as many Eritrean activists in the diaspora are threatened with harm to family members still living in Eritrea for speaking out against the regime back home.
As Eritrean human rights defenders, even if you are operating outside the country, the government will always discredit your work. All those that don’t agree with them are seen as traitors. The government uses social media as a means of trolling and tries to attack websites and other social media channels.
What sparked recent protests by Eritrean refugees in Israel, and how has the Israeli government responded?
Those protests appeared to have been organised by a new group called Brigade N’Hamedu, which is trying to overthrow the regime. Their members hold demonstrations across the world, and they particularly attack the festivals that the regime holds abroad, which they view as a means of raising funds for the regime and spreading its propaganda. They are tired of government interference and intimidate Eritreans who have left their country but still support the Eritrean government. They want all Eritreans who claim asylum but express support for the Eritrean government to have their asylum revoked.
This is a movement of young Eritreans but a lot of veterans and older members of the community support them, as they see them as the most plausible means of removing the regime. Although they have succeeded in mobilising Eritreans, however, there seems to be no clear strategy and this could be a stumbling block. They are very unlikely to succeed.
In response to these protests, and using their unprecedented violence as an excuse, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he wants all Eritreans removed from Israel. The predicament of Eritreans in Israel was already dire, but this has now opened the doors for the far-right government in Israel to deport all Eritreans. However, the UN, Israeli human rights groups and other human rights groups outside Israel are asking that genuine refugees whose lives are at risk not be deported to Eritrea.
Civic space in Eritrea is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ESTONIA: ‘Legal changes deepen the cultural shift favourable to LGBTQI+ rights’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the recentlegalisation of same-sex marriage in Estonia with Kelly Grossthal, head of strategic litigation at the Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC).
Established in 2009, the EHRC is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) working to create anopen society where human rights are guaranteed by the state, and where everyone knows that their rights, as well as the rights of others, deserve equal protection.
How significant is the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage?
Marriage equality has always been the ultimate goal of LGBTQI+ and human rights advocates. The previous arrangement, that of civil unions, was only a temporary compromise. In 2014, the Estonian parliament passed the gender-neutral Registered Partnership Act, which came into force in 2016. Under this law, couples entering a partnership agreement are entitled to joint property rights, succession rights, shared financial obligations, access to each other’s private information and resolution of issues related to the end of life. However, due to the law’s lack of implementation provisions, many couples had to resort to the courts to be able to actually exercise these rights.
In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of the lack of implementing provisions, the Registered Partnership Act was in force and was part of the Estonian legal order. It stated that failure to issue implementing provisions did not automatically render the legislation unconstitutional, as some argued. This highlights that even with the Registered Partnership Act in place, the struggle for marriage equality persisted.
How did the EHRC advocate for legal change?
Since its establishment in 2009, the EHRC has monitored legislation that impacts on LGBTQI+ people and put forward suggestions to improve it. Our main advocacy goal has always been legal equality. However, we have encountered numerous obstacles, primarily stemming from the political climate and societal attitudes. For many years LGBTQI+ rights lacked support from public opinion, and therefore it was not advantageous for politicians to actively champion the cause.
We have conducted public campaigns advocating for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights, engaged in research, contributed to public discussions and pursued legal cases through our strategic litigation programme. Strategic litigation aims to have a societal impact through specific cases and narratives. When selecting cases related to the LGBTQI+ community, our primary criterion is their potential to maximise a positive outcome for LGBTQI+ people’s human rights.
We handled several cases that have improved access to social benefits and adoption rights for LGBTQI+ people and filed petitions for constitutional review of regressive laws. For instance, in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Aliens Act that prevented the granting of temporary residence permits to same-sex registered partners of Estonian citizens for leading a family life in Estonia was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.
Many of our advocacy efforts have been planned and executed in cooperation with the Estonian LGBT Association and the Equal Treatment Network, which unites 10 Estonian CSOs dedicated to protecting the equal rights of different target groups.
How have public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people evolved over time?
Just a couple of years ago, the majority of Estonians opposed marriage equality. Resistance could have been influenced by personal values, religious beliefs, or a fear of change. Over the past few years, however, there has been intense societal debate over LGBTQI+ issues. Various video campaigns and petitions have been launched both in support of and against the Registered Partnership Act, marriage equality and LGBTQI+ rights more generally. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in hate speech towards LGBTQI+ people, fuelled by conservative politicians. But it had the positive effect of making rainbow families more visible, as they shared their stories in response to anti-rights attacks.
The ongoing debate and increased visibility have played a crucial role in driving cultural change and garnering support for LGBTQI+ rights. The adoption of the Registered Partnership Act and the legalisation of same-sex marriage were two big milestones. Legal changes seem to have further deepened the positive cultural shift.
For over a decade the EHRC has commissioned public opinion surveys on LGBTQI+ issues from an independent research company, Turu-uuringute AS. According to the most recent one, conducted earlier this year, support for marriage equality has increased by six points in the past two years, with 53 per cent of Estonians currently in favour. Progress has been significant: a decade ago only 34 per cent were in favour and 60 per cent opposed it.
Civil society has been instrumental in shifting public opinion about LGBTQI+ people, with numerous LGBTQI+ groups and networks organising events for both LGBTQI+ people and the public as a whole.
The Estonian LGBT Association has been the main organiser of Baltic Pride, the most recent of which took place in the capital, Tallinn, in June, just before the parliamentary vote on marriage equality. It attracted over 7,000 participants from three Baltic states and there were no major incidents. It was a truly joyous march followed by an open-air concert with community artists and a picnic.
Since 2017, Estonia has also hosted an LGBTQI+ film festival, Festheart, organised by a small CSO. Initially held in the town of Rakvere, by 2020 it had expanded to Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city.
Has the legalisation of same-sex marriage elicited any anti-rights backlash?
As anticipated, there has been a conservative backlash in response to the new legislation. Two parties, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and Isamaa (Fatherland), have been vocal opponents of LGBTQI+ rights in general and marriage equality in particular. Their leaders and prominent members have expressed great dissatisfaction with the new law, and some politicians have pledged to reverse it should conservative parties regain power.
The anti-LGBTQI+ civil society movement in Estonia is closely linked to conservative parties. A few weeks before the final parliamentary vote, conservative CSOs and parties organised a demonstration in front of parliament. Surprisingly, it attracted only a few thousand protesters and was not as visible and large as some previous demonstrations. Nonetheless, protests of this nature will likely continue in some form, although their scale and impact are difficult to predict.
Do you think progress in Estonia can pave the way for similar developments in other post-Communist countries?
We certainly hope so! At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge that each country in our region is distinct, with its own language, culture and political landscape. In the case of Estonia, there’s currently a ruling coalition with all three members prioritising individual liberties, which has provided civil society with a historic opportunity to advance marriage equality. Hopefully, favourable conditions will also arise for our Baltic friends and beyond.
Meanwhile, we are delighted to share our experiences, both failures and successes, with our regional allies. Although we are a traditional human rights advocacy organisation, we maintain strong connections with LGBTQI+ CSOs in Latvia and Lithuania. We have collaborated on several international projects related to combating hate speech, working with victims of hate crimes and promoting equal treatment.
What forms of international support does Estonian civil society need to keep supporting LGBTQI+ people and advancing their rights?
International cooperation and support are incredibly important. Human rights work can be frustrating at times, and it is comforting to connect with others working in other countries and facing similar societal and personal struggles. While it may sound like a cliché, it is vital to establish connections, share experiences and learn from each other. This process is empowering and fosters development.
It is crucial to recognise that marriage equality alone will not solve all the problems. Issues such as bullying of LGBTQI+ children, harassment of LGBTQI+ people, anti-LGBTQI+ hate speech, disinformation, intolerance and the denial of transgender rights continue to be pressing concerns. We have seen in other countries that progressive laws and legal precedents can be reversed. Therefore, it is essential for like-minded individuals and CSOs to cooperate across borders. Just as we are currently endeavouring to support the human rights of Hungarian LGBTQI+ people through various actions and means, we hope to receive support ourselves in times of urgent need.
Civic space in Estonia is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ETHIOPIA: ‘Civil society can play a key role in overcoming divisions’
CIVICUS speaks to Yared Hailemariam, Executive Director of theAssociation for Human Rights in Ethiopia, about recent political reforms in Ethiopia, the opening opportunities for civil society and the prospects for further change.
Can you tell us about your background and how the political reforms introduced in Ethiopia since 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have impacted on you?
I used to work for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), a civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1991 by people concerned about the human rights situation in Ethiopia at that time. This was just after the removal of the military junta and its replacement by the current ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). I joined EHRCO as an investigator in 1998, and then came the notorious 2005 elections, which the government rigged and which were followed by violence. There were mass killings in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June 2005, and then my colleagues and I were targeted by security forces and detained several times. One time we were detained for a couple of weeks. After we were released there were more clashes between government security forces and opposition members and supporters. Just before the second round of massacres in November 2005 I left the country to attend a conference in Uganda, and while I was there I found myself in the wanted list, so after that I was in exile.
I returned home in January 2018 for the first time after 13 years in exile. Currently I’m leading the Europe-based Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, which is an organisation that was working to fill the gap, because Ethiopian civil society was under threat and not able to do any advocacy activities outside the country. They were not able to conduct any research or reach the international community. So some of my colleagues who left the country and I established this association in 2013. We conducted undercover research in Ethiopia, but mostly we have focused on advocacy. I was working mostly at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and with European institutions. We were doing advocacy together with CIVICUS, the Committee to Protect Journalists, DefendDefenders, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and other partner organisations. But now we are allowed to go back home.
What are the main differences the political reforms have made for Ethiopian civil society?
In the last 10 years, civic space in Ethiopia was in a very horrible condition but now, following these reforms, it’s seen a really huge change. Civic space has opened widely.
The previous law was very restrictive. It targeted civil society working on rights-based issues, but now CSOs are encouraged. The Civil Society Proclamation, a very draconian piece of legislation, has been reformed, and the process was very open and civil society was respected in it. The new draft accommodated all our concerns. The previous law established an agency that monitored the activities of civil society that was very authoritarian and limited the work of civil society, but that institution has also been reformed. In the new agency there’s a presence of civil society and independent representatives, as well as people from the government. I visited the agency. They are very friendly, very open and work really closely with civil society.
Just a year and a half ago, international human rights organisations were not able to organise any meeting or training activity, or even visit Ethiopia. I’ve now been able to conduct capacity development workshops in Addis Ababa. So, the impression I have is one of huge progress that is very satisfactory for local civil society.
The opening of civic space in Ethiopia can be also a good example for other countries that had followed the bad practices of Ethiopia.
How has civil society responded to the changes?
There is now a lot of activity, including training and workshops, and it’s open to international human rights organisations. They are providing capacity development training and financial and technical support to local civil society, which is also receiving support from donors, embassies and the international community. These opportunities are new. Local civil society can now recover and rehabilitate from its past limitations, and reach the international community, because people can also now travel.
What are the major challenges that remain for civil society?
Because of the impact of the previous laws and because CSOs were labelled as enemies of the state they were restricted in their development, and now they have challenge of getting back to attracting skilled professionals. CSOs have opportunities but they don’t have the capacity to explore and exploit all the opportunities that come to their door. That’s the big challenge. I interviewed some CSOs that don’t know how to prepare a proposal to attract donors and don’t know how to do advocacy. I met some donors who told me that they want to provide support to local civil society but there is shortage of skilled people who can prepare proposals and report back to them at the level they require. Now an election is coming in 2020 and many CSOs want to engage with this process, but even prominent CSOs have told me that they don’t know how to approach donors and how to submit good proposals to get grants.
So there is a huge gap now, and that’s the area where we are trying to support local CSOs to develop skills. There is a need for people from outside. What I’m saying to the international community is that it’s not enough to go there and do training; if they send one or two experts for some months these experts could help strengthen and offer support for some prominent CSOs.
Given that the reforms are emanating from the prime minister, what are the risks that could hinder further reforms?
There are potential dangers. Reform is still at the top level. The prime minister promised to reform the country through a democratic transition and to open up the political space. You can feel that there is a change in the country and there is some political willingness at the top level, but at the same time the regime has huge and very complex bureaucratic structures.
Most government structures, offices and institutions are full of political appointees from parties in the ruling coalition. That makes it really difficult to reform organisations. Even when the central government in Addis Ababa says something or a new law or regulation is adopted, it may not go very deep. Reforms may not go deep through to the bottom of bureaucracy, to the structures. People are starting to complain in public media that the government is saying the right things, reforming the law, appointing new faces to high-ranking positions, but the suffering still continues at the lower level. So, that’s one challenge, and there is still no clear roadmap that shows how the central administration can improve this mess
People who were appointed because of their political affiliation rather than their talents now feel under threat. They fear they may be moved or replaced. So in some regions we have seen that some movements are trying to shift the direction of reform. Some people linked to the old regime are still in control of their regions and are trying to instigate conflicts. They have money and weapons, so they can manipulate regions to instigate ethnic conflicts.
The EPRDF is a coalition of four major parties that are now not united like they were before and are publicly disagreeing. There are tensions between the Amhara and Tigray regional governments, and recently a conflict erupted in the border area between the Amhara and Oromia regions. In the past, these groups acted together because they were fully dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the other parties were used as a tool. But now, each of the regional governments considers themselves as effectively a sovereign state so there is competition. Each regional state is recruiting and training militias, such that each region has thousands of fully armed forces.
There is a fear that the administration in Addis Ababa has failed to control these dynamics of conflicts and tension within the ruling coalition that might affect the unity of the country. We don’t know in which direction it will lead us, but there are clear tensions. There is tension between the ruling party members and the different coalition parties, there is ethnic tension, and in each region there are extremist elements, groups that spread hate speech and advocate the removal of other targeted ethnic groups from their region. Ruling parties are also competing and fighting with the extremist groups in their regions. Because of this, the Addis Ababa administration is failing to reinforce the rule of law.
In some regions, the instability is such that there are huge and serious debates about the dangers of holding the election. Some parties are requesting that the election be postponed for at least six months because of extreme elements, and the fear that people will be targeted and attacked and wouldn’t be moved from region to region to mobilise their supporters or open offices. Some parties are restricted from moving and are now only able to work in Addis Ababa, and maybe a few more cities where they are given full security. So, many parties have requested a delay. But on the other side, extreme and ethnic-based parties are requesting that the government conducts the election on its planned dates. They have already declared that if the election day changes, even by one day, they will call for a protest, and that might create more problems. So now the Addis Ababa administration faces a dilemma. If the election is conducted on its time, I’m sure that ethnic nationalist extremist parties that are instigating violence will win seats in parliament. These upcoming days, weeks and months will be a very difficult time for Ethiopia.
What role is hate speech playing in stoking ethnic conflict?
People are living together and still sharing values. In Addis Ababa you didn’t feel it. People are living their normal lives and going about business as usual. It is the elites and their activists who are using social media to spread hate speech instigating ethnic tension, violence and targeting of certain groups of people. They have followers, and when they call some kind of violent action you immediately see that there is a group on the ground that’s ready to act and attack people.
In the last year and a half almost three million people were forced into internal displacement. Ethiopia is now in the 10 highest countries in the world for internal displacement. This has happened in the last year and a half because of ethnic conflicts. Hate speech is spreading easily and very quickly through phones and social media, especially Facebook. Some of the calls for ethnic conflicts are coming from outside Ethiopia, including Europe and the USA.
Now the government is drafting a new law to regulate hate speech, but it’s really hard to tackle.
How can further political reform be encouraged?
We all, especially human rights activists and researchers, including from the international community, need to encourage this reform in many ways. We need to support the strengthening of national human rights institutions, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and strengthen the capacity of local civil society.
Civil society could play a key role in overcoming divisions, given that political parties and some media are ethnically based. Because civil society is neutral, the international community should focus on strengthening its capacity to play a key role in shaping the behaviour of new generations, who are vulnerable to being used by political elites. Civil society could give broad-based civic education to nurture good citizens who understand their responsibilities.
In short, we need to focus on how to strengthen the capacity of civil society to support the positive achievements and political reforms going on in Ethiopia.
What are the most urgent support needs of civil society?
There are many ways to support local civil society, and not only by providing money. As I said earlier, there is now the possibility to receive funding, but people still need skills to apply for and use these grants. So, in addition to financial support, local civil society needs skill training in various aspects, including in advocacy, research methodologies, monitoring and documenting human rights, and they also need to network, and not only at the national level. They need support to connect themselves to the outside world, to the UN Human Rights Council and other international and regional mechanisms. Local civil society is not able to use these processes well, and some don’t know how to engage with these international mechanisms at all. So, they need the guidance and support of the international community.
Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ETHIOPIA: ‘The June 2021 election is between democratic life and death’
CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.
EU-Southeast Asia CSOs Recommendations to the 4th EU-ASEAN Policy Dialogue on Human Rights
On behalf of the CSOs that participated at the 2nd EU-Southeast Asia CSOs Forum held on October 24-22, 2022 in Jakarta, and in parallel with the 4th EU-ASEAN Policy Dialogue on Human Rights, we would like to express our gratitude to the EU-ASEAN Forum on Human Rights for the space and opportunity to engage in a dialogue with civil society representatives. We believe that this is proof of commitment for improved communication, coordination, and meaningful engagement between CSOs, ASEAN, and the EU to achieve our common aspiration to leave no one behind.
On this occasion, we hereby submit the following recommendations to strengthen human rights protection within the ASEAN and the EU. The recommendations are based on present and emerging challenges faced by human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists, and on recommendations submitted by CSOs at the EU-ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue in 2019. We request for the inclusion of the attached submission as part of the official meeting notes. In this light, we urge immediate steps to be taken, collectively with civil society organisations across both regions, towards the implementation and monitoring of our recommendations.
Present and Emerging Challenges
After the First EU-ASEAN Human Rights Dialogue with CSO in 2019, the socio-political and economic situations in the ASEAN and the EU have tremendously regressed. These were mainly brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis, and the rise of militarism and authoritarianism. With respect to critical security issues, the Russian invasion of Ukraine led by President Vladimir Putin has resulted in deaths and injuries of thousands of civilians. Since 1 February 2021, the attempted military coup in Myanmar has spurred a cross-regional political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis. As of this writing, more than 1,000,000 people have been displaced, with more than 2,000 civilians killed, and 15,000 arrested. The use of excessive force by police and military against civilians claiming their basic human rights and fundamental freedoms has been perpetuated with impunity across the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, indeed, aggravated the shrinking of civic spaces. Instead of meaningfully addressing challenges and needs of the vulnerable, authoritarian states have even accumulated more power by convoluting health emergencies and national security approaches. Numerous documents have revealed how COVID-19 was used as a pretext to adopt restrictive laws to curb access to information, justice, and basic services. State-sponsored disinformation and misinformation were intensified. Dissenting opinions towards government pandemics measures were purged. Furthermore, measures to mitigate viral infection limited peoples’ movement and participation in social, economic and political affairs. The proclivity towards securitized approaches has led ASEAN to further exclude civil society and neglect peoples’ voices. This is in breach of the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, which aims to promote a people-centred and people-oriented regional community.
The climate crisis has led to the global health emergency, political upheavals, gross human rights violation, and humanitarian disasters. Climate change has disproportionately affected planetary health, which is closely linked with the health of its population and their ability to achieve their right to life. These have contributed to the uncertainty and instability of the future, particularly of those who live in fragile situations. In fact, Southeast Asia is already bearing the brunt of climate emergencies. Moreover, rising sea levels, flooding, and typhoons have tremendously increased more recently.
The current economic systems have perpetuated capitalist greed. Extractive industries have greatly contributed to multiple rights violations, particularly land grabbing. Moreover, they have put the lives of indigenous communities and environmental human rights defenders. With respect to climate action, communities' access to decision-making processes and participation remains virtually absent. As their concerns are neglected, this crisis continues to hinder State obligations to protect and fulfil human rights, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Worse, more and more people have become vulnerable and disempowered.
Amidst these crises, communities with pre-existing intersectional vulnerabilities are further discriminated against and marginalised. Pandemic recovery plans have failed to meaningfully address the specific needs of women, youth, children, LGBTQIA+ communities, and persons with disabilities. Furthermore, conflicts and climate emergencies have forcibly displaced people, rendering many stateless and without protection.
The steady rise of militarism and authoritarianism has many lives at greater risk. Repressive laws and practices, both in offline and online spheres, have become dangerously normalised. These include systematic proliferation of censorship, harassment, arbitrary arrests, violence, misinformation, and state-sponsored propaganda. As of this writing, human rights and environmental rights defenders, pro-democracy activists, dissenters, children, youth, journalists, academics, LGBTQIA+ communities - historically marginalized based on their sexual orientation, gender identity & expression and sexual orientations and sex characteristics (SOGIESC) are finding themselves on the edge of uncertainty and danger.
These shared lived experiences have proven the urgent need to establish and sustain safe and brave transnational and cross-sectoral networks and solidarity. It is crucial for marginalised individuals and communities to meaningfully engage in multilateral advocacy on human rights, and intersectional issues that matter to them the most.
Building on the 2019 Consolidated Recommendations from the first EU-ASEAN CSO Forum, our key recommendation is for EU and ASEAN Member States (referred to as ‘States’) to develop policies, implement measures, and invest in programmes that are inclusive, non-discriminatory, participatory, and proportionate. These should promote greater accountability and sustainability in order to address issues related to public health emergencies, security and climate crises, and the rise of authoritarianism.
States should ensure that development programs, which are in line with international human rights standards and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), are designed and implemented to fully advance inclusion, equality, dignity and justice in all corners of ASEAN and the EU.
Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
EUROPE: ‘Delays in dealing with gender-based violence cost women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives’
As part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks about civil society efforts to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) with Eliana Jimeno and Charlotte Cramer of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).
Founded in 1994, WAVE is a network of organisations from across Europe working to prevent GBV and protect women and children from violence.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.
What work does WAVE do?
WAVE is a network of 160 women’s rights civil society organisations (CSOs) working against GBV in European countries. Most of these organisations provide specialised services such as shelters, rape crisis centres and helplines. Some are umbrella organisations that include among their membership groups delivering specialist services to women, while others focus more specifically on research and data collection, and yet others focus on advocacy and campaigning for better legislation at the national level and at the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).
WAVE’s work focuses on three main areas: advocacy, capacity building and data collection. Regarding our advocacy work, we lobby and campaign for better legislation to help fight GBV against women. WAVE is pushing for women’s specialist services all over Europe to be better funded so more women have access to specialist support.
We also focus on capacity building. We provide training for our members so they are better equipped to support women and children exposed to violence. We do this through webinars, conferences and mutual learning exchanges.
We collect data on women’s specialist support services in the 46 countries we operate in and analyse it to identify gaps in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
What challenges have you faced?
We have faced several challenges. The main one has been dealing with the strong anti-gender movement pushing to block theaccession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention. Because of the backlash, we have seen governments trying to get away with implementing it only partially, as in the case of Poland, or just completelywalking out, as in the case of Turkey.
Anti-gender movements frame their narrative in ways that put feminist CSOs and institutions advancing women’s, children’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights under threat. At a country level, they argue that women’s rights organisations challenge the ‘traditional values’ of the family, for example by demanding access to accessible contraception, or claim they are exposing kids to ‘harmful’ information – a reference to comprehensive sexuality education – in schools. There are also security challenges. Many of our members work in hostile environments and some have been threatened for challenging governments and holding them accountable.
We also face issues regarding data collection and systematisation. Data is collected and codified in different ways in different EU countries, so it is very difficult to collect and compare information regarding women support services, access to sexual and reproductive rights or education. There is no standardised way of tracking GBV cases in Europe – particularly femicide, for which there is no common definition – so we are constantly trying to adapt to collect the data required to advance the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people more effectively.
A positive challenge is weaving our network together. We represent 160 organisations in 46 European countries, some of which are themselves umbrella organisations, which means we are talking about some 1,600 organisations. There is a lot of diversity within our membership, and this creates complexities when it comes to balancing what brings us together as feminist CSOs and our different perspectives due to our different national contexts.
What have you planned for the 16 Days of Activism campaign?
We have released astatement on femicides, one of the main topics of the campaign. We are also emphasising the need to adopt a standardised definition of femicide throughout Europe to better monitor the evolution of the phenomenon and push for the design and implementation of better policies to tackle it. We want to push key stakeholders to act right now, as every delay costs women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives.
On 8 March,International Women’s Day 2022, the European Commission presented aproposal for a directive to combat violence against women and domestic violence. The draft that was put forward, which resulted from consultations with selected CSOs, is rooted in a criminal law approach and fails to recognise GBV and domestic violence as human rights violations. It is also reactive, focusing on how states should act when violence has already happened rather than on preventing it happening in the first place. During the 16 days of Activism, we will campaign for a directive that enables victims of GBV and domestic violence to exercise their human rights.
We also plan on having webinars and releasing podcasts to highlight the problem of GBV in Europe, the intersectional harm it causes and the need for better legislation and practices to fight it. Our expectation is that the podcast and webinars will help us reach a larger audience. We will also focus on how the media can tackle GBV through a more sensitive approach.
Additionally, WAVE has prepared a toolkit to make advocacy and campaigning more accessible to young people. The toolkit will serve as a resource to empower them and help them raise their own voices and run their own campaigns in a meaningful, sustainable and creative way.
What should international bodies, particularly the UN, do to contribute to eradicating GBV?
The UN has opened the space for specific conversations to take place on women’s rights, for example on the link between violence against women and child custody procedures. This has been really helpful because feminist CSOs all over the world run programmes and projects and provide specialist services for victims and survivors of violence with very limited resources. They seldom have the resources or logistics capacity to play such a global convening role. WAVE is one example of women’s grassroots organisations seeking to host conversations at a European level, but we are not a global network.
In contrast, the anti-gender movement has a lot of funding as well as a global footing. To be able to compete, we must work extra hard and are still at a disadvantage. So, by bringing in its resources for convening, supporting the work of feminist CSOs and data collection, the UN can to some extent help level the playing field.
In many countries the space for civil society is shrinking, and the UN can play a key role in creating the platforms where we, as feminist CSOs, can have these very important conversations, instead of just giving the space to national governments that are disseminating narratives not reflective of the experiences of survivors of GBV.
Further, we hope accountability will move at the centre of the UN’s work. The UN must hold perpetrators accountable to stop the culture of impunity, including UN staff, such as soldiers serving in UN peacekeeping operations. The UN must send a strong message that it does not tolerate GBV.
Finally, we hope that world leaders, governments, international institutions and CSOs will genuinely and meaningfully work together and take an intersectional approach to achieve the SDGs for world justice and leave no one behind.
Faces of Open Government - An interview with Danny Sriskandarajah
In his interview with Open Government Partnership (OGP), CIVICUS Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah shares insights on broad trends affecting civil society globally and how CIVICUS is responding to these. He also highlights the importance of the “openness revolution" and why everyone, including new powerful players in the corporate world, should throw their weight behind it.
Read on: Open Government Partnership
FINLAND: ‘We’ll have the most right-wing government since the 1930s’
CIVICUS speaks about Finland’s new government with Silla Ristimäki, development policy specialist at Fingo.
Founded in 2018, Fingo is an umbrella organisation comprising about 270 Finnish civil society organisations (CSOs). Fingo monitors and defends civic space in Finland and around the world with the aim of building a strong, diverse, open, active and free civil society with solid operating capacities.
What was the relationship between government and civil society like under the government of former Prime Minister Sanna Marin?
Sanna Marin’s government took measures to promote transparency and the rule of law and improve conditions for civil society. Under the previous government’s programme, Finland took an active role in promoting open government internationally. Several initiatives were undertaken to improve the participation of and dialogue with Finnish civil society to increase transparency, which was seen as an integral part of all national governance objectives. For example, a transparency register was developed in 2023 to keep track of lobbying with parliament.
The previous government’s programme also aimed to harmonise procedures for tracking civil society funding while respecting CSOs’ autonomy and guaranteeing equal treatment of organisations. The objective was to reduce bureaucracy and increase the predictability of funding. Changes were made in accounting and fundraising regulations that particularly favoured small CSOs. Overall, official development assistance grew quite consistently. Fundamentally, the nature of relationships was about building a partnership between state and civil society to reduce inequality.
What were the key issues that influenced the outcome of the 2023 parliamentary elections?
Sanna Marin’s government was a coalition of left-wing parties that pushed, for example, for stricter climate policies and reduced inequalities, including gender-based one. During its term, the Finnish government’s debt grew significantly. At the same time, Russia’s attack on Ukraine resulted in an unprecedented change in Finnish popular opinion regarding NATO membership. So the elections were greatly influenced by two major issues: the severity of government debt and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The economic and security conditions increased the popularity of right-wing parties. The National Coalition Party that won the election has been the longest and loudest advocate of Finland’s NATO membership. It also pushed an agenda to urgently reduce Finnish public debt. The far-right Finns Party, which came second, ran an anti-immigration campaign and proposed balancing the budget by reducing climate measures and cutting development funding. On 18 June it was confirmed that Ville Tavio from the Finns Party will be the new minister for Trade and Development.
The Social Democratic Party headed by Sanna Marin came third. This is politically noteworthy, since the ruling party generally tends to do much worse in parliamentary elections. There was a significant fall in support for The Greens and the Left Alliance, and some experts say that people voted strategically for the Social Democratic Party to try to prevent the emergence of a conservative right-wing government. However, the new government coalition formed with the Finns Party, Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the Christian Democrats will be the most right-wing government Finland has had since the 1930s. Their overall interpretation of the elections results is that Finland ‘needs a change in direction’, and that people particularly want new fiscal policies.
How much public debate was there around Finland’s accession to NATO?
There has never been a lot of public political debate over Finland’s accession to NATO. Politicians used to maintain a position that it was never the right time for it, and if Finland were to change its position of neutrality and consider accession to NATO, a referendum would be organised before a final decision was made.
But the situation changed when Russia attacked Ukraine. Polls showed a significant increase in support for accession, rising to above 60 per cent. Almost no members of parliament publicly raised concerns or expressed an opinion against Finland’s accession. In the end, Finland applied for NATO membership without a referendum being held. It was considered that the polls were a strong enough indication of citizen support.
What is the new government programme’s stance on civil society and human rights?
All three parties that received the most votes in the election are largely committed to supporting civil society and recognise the value of safeguarding civic space. The new government’s programme, published on 16 June, confirms that a vibrant civil society is a prerequisite for social development and states that in all its activities Finland will promote the principles of democracy, civil society and the rule of law.
However, it also states that Finland will reduce the number of refugees it welcomes, control immigration and limit the rights of migrants. It doesn’t mention the issues of loss and damage and climate finance. While it claims that Finland will stick to its national Climate Change Act, which commits it to become climate-neutral by 2035, it also states that this must not be done at the expense of increasing daily living costs or negatively impacting on the market competitiveness of Finnish industries.
How is civil society working to safeguard human rights and democracy in Finland?
Civil society works at the local and national levels to promote human rights and safeguard democracy in Finland.
In regard to democracy, Finnish civil society has a role in providing training for democracy skills (such as decision-making in communities and communication skills); advocating towards policy-makers on a variety of societal issues; as well as working with decision-makers and officials for the implementation of democratic decisions. For example, with regards to social and health care services as well as development cooperation, this last role in implementation is quite crucial. Generally, the basis for the work of Finnish civil society is human rights: concretely this means for example working for the economic rights of vulnerable people in Finland or promoting the ‘leave no one behind’ -principle in development cooperation.
Fingo has three main areas of work: advocacy, learning and communications. Advocacy is targeted towards political leaders. Fingo undertakes efforts to improve the operational environment and institutional support for CSOs and to protect civic space. The learning component is particularly targeted at building capacity among member CSOs, offering training on, for example, how to improve advocacy, communication and analytical skills and fundraising proposals, or how to mainstream gender. A significant portion of this component is to advance global citizenship education. Communications efforts are targeted at the broader public to uphold and generate further support for human rights and democracy through media engagement and campaigns.
Following the publication of the new government’s programme, our next step is to re-evaluate the priorities of our advocacy efforts. For example, the new government has left reproductive rights out of development assistance priorities, so this may be an area that needs particular attention. All efforts to jointly protect civic space globally are valuable and support one another.
Civic space in Finland is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Five key battles for re-imagining democracy in a radically changed world
By Danny Sriskandarajah
The challenges facing civil society now aren’t about reviving our weakening democracies—they are about re-imagining democracy for a radically changed world.
Read on: Open Global Rights
From Venezuela to US: People power
By Danny Sriskandarajah
Goldman Sachs’ decision to bailout the Venezuelan government has, unsurprisingly, attracted widespread global condemnation. The transnational firm stands to make a potential windfall profit as Venezuelans continue to face empty shelves and government water cannons daily. Usually it is international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not transnational companies, which occupy the dubious space of government bailouts.
Read on: New Internationalist
G20 commitment to civic space and partnerships critical for sustainable development - CIVICUS
Realising commitments to civil society space and partnerships are essential to progressing on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and inclusive, resilient, and green growth, says CIVICUS, ahead of the New Delhi G-20 meeting. The Global civil society alliance made this call as leaders prepare to meet on 9-10 September 2023, with accelerating progress on SDGs, green development, and inclusive and resilient growth topping the agenda.
G20: ‘Civil society is treated as a second-class partner; its recommendations often go unheard’
CIVICUS speaks with María Emilia Berazategui, Transparency International’s Global Advocacy Coordinator, about the role of civil society in international and inter-governmental forums and the degree to which it can influence decision-making processes, and the successes achieved and challenges encountered in 2019 by the C20, the engagement group for civil society within the G20. Before joining Transparency International, María Emilia led the area of Political Institutions and Government at an Argentine civil society organisation, Poder Ciudadano. In 2018 she was appointed C20 Sherpa under the presidency of Argentina. In 2017 and 2019 she was a member of the C20 Steering Committee, and in 2018 and 2019 she was the co-Chair of the C20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.
What is the C20, and why does it matter?
The C20 (Civil-20) is one of the G20’s official engagement groups, and it the natural space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to advocate at the G20 level.
There are two additional ways in which CSOs can participate in G20 processes: by attending the G20 Working Group meetings, as guests, to present thematic recommendations, and by being present at the G20 International Media Center when summits take place, which allows them to engage directly with the media covering the G20 summit and disseminate their messaging around key themes.
The C20 is a global civil society space, without a permanent structure and with a presidency that rotates annually, in line with that of the G20, for CSOs from all over the world – from grassroots and local groups to large international CSOs – to influence the G20 collectively. According to the recently adopted C20 Principles, its aim is to ensure that world leaders listen not only to voices representing the government and business sectors, but also to the proposals and demands of civil society, and that they are guided by the core values of human rights, inclusion and sustainable development.
Civil society engagement with the G20 matters because we are only 10 years away from the 2030 deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and the gap between the actions taken by governments and the measures that need to be taken to achieve them is immense. Most of the challenges we face – political polarisation and extremism, human rights abuses and civic space restrictions, extreme inequality, systemic corruption, gender disparities and gender-based violence, intersectional discrimination, the lack of decent employment, the health crisis and the negative impact of digitalisation and technology in our lives – not only remain unanswered but continue to deepen.
Governments and multilateral institutions have a central role to play in finding shared solutions to common challenges. World leaders need to come together urgently to find those solutions, and despite all of its challenges, the G20 is one of the few spaces that provides them with the opportunity to do so.
Sadly, in the last few years we have seen little evidence of any real progress from G20 leaders. Commitments are made in front of the world’s media but are quickly forgotten and rarely implemented once they return home. A recent report by Transparency International exposing issues of money laundering and anonymous company ownership found deeply troubling weaknesses in almost all G20 countries.
What can civil society contribute?
Civil society engagement with the G20 can help because civil society brings a set of unique skills to the table.
First, in trying to make sure that policy outcomes serve the common good, we hold governments accountable. So when governments commit to something, we will hold them to their promises. Sometimes they resist, but other times we succeed in strengthening champions inside governments who really want to get things done.
Second, we contribute our expertise. Civil society groups are not just watchdogs. We are innovators, technologists, researchers and policy experts who can help support policy implementation to achieve the best possible results. Civil society can also contribute to increased transparency and the credible evaluation of outcomes.
Third, civil society functions as a bridge, helping translate technical jargon into language people actually use, explaining what change means and bringing citizens’ perspectives back to decision-makers. Governments should talk to civil society about their plans so we can provide feedback on how those plans will impact on people.
Last but not least, civil society provides much-needed balance. One of the greatest weaknesses of the G20 is the lack of openness to having civil society represented at the same table where business interests sit. This raises the question of whether the G20 values the interests of corporations more than those of citizens. This certainly does nothing for trust, and it shows why people around the world believe that governments are too close to business or only act for the benefit of a few private interests.
How much space do international forums such as the G20 offer for civil society to influence policy-making in reality?
The G20 is often described as elitist, as a group of economic powerhouses – although not all the largest economies take part in it – trying to rewrite the rules of global economic governance, operating largely behind closed doors in an opaque way. It’s no wonder that many in civil society instinctively feel that we should oppose the G20 rather than engage with it.
The G20 invites a variety of guests to take part in its meetings, including representatives from different regional groupings, guest states and international organisations. However, its record of speaking to citizen groups and civil society is mixed at best. Despite all that we have to offer, we do not sit at the same table; we are treated as second-class partners and our recommendations and ideas on important issues often go unheard.
Experiences vary widely across the various working groups that comprise the G20. For instance, despite all the knowledge that civil society has on financial issues, the G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group has systematically closed its doors to civil society participation. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a standing item on the agenda of the Anti-Corruption Working Group, in which governments speak to business and civil society on the same footing. Still, while we appreciate this, we think that both this working group and the G20, in general, need to improve their engagement with civil society significantly.
Despite all these limitations and challenges, during 2019, when the G20 presidency was in the hands of Japan, civil society managed to influence the G20 in some areas including the protection of whistleblowers, making infrastructure spending more transparent and on gender and corruption.
In 2019, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group adopted two important documents: the High-Level Principles for the Effective Protection of Whistleblowers, which was much in line with civil society’s recommendations and included an unprecedented recognition by the G20 of the gender-specific aspects of whistleblowing, and a Compendium of Good Practices for Promoting Integrity and Transparency in Infrastructure Development, also aligned with civil society recommendations.
Through the Compendium, the G20 also recognised that transparency regarding who the ultimate owners of companies are is critical to the fight against corruption. In line with civil society suggestions, they recommended implementing company beneficial ownership registers to reduce the possibility of public funds being used to favour specific individuals or companies, and to identify conflicts of interest.
Overall, what would you say were the main successes of civil society engagement with the G20 during 2019?
In one word, the main success of civil society engagement during 2019 was its continuity. Civil society was able to maintain a similar degree of engagement with the G20 as it had in 2018, when Argentina chaired the G20. In 2018, and for a short period of time, civil society won access to some G20 Working Group meetings, although unfortunately, not to the working groups that are part of the so-called G20 Finance Track, and to the G20 Media Center. This allowed civil society to access, for the first time ever, some sessions that used to be held behind closed doors. In addition, we got G20 local representatives, including the G20 Sherpa, to attend the C20 in-person meetings.
Civil society's 2018 call for G20 delegates to move from words to action passed from Argentina to Japan. This had an echo on social media, through the hashtag #G20takeaction. In order to continue strengthening civil society participation and ensure an increasing impact within the G20, in 2019 the C20 agreed a set of principles that enshrined transparency, collaboration, independence, internationalism, inclusiveness and respect for human rights and gender equality as central pillars of the engagement group’s practice. This was a very important milestone in the C20’s history.
And what were the challenges and what needs to improve?
Despite these successes, there is an urgent need for the G20 to change the way it engages with civil society. At the G20, governments discuss policies that have a huge impact on our lives. As civil society, we should be allowed to bring to the table the voices of citizens, real and diverse. These are the people who will be affected by the public policies promoted in this forum.
The few times we have managed to gain access to G20 meetings, the experience has usually not been positive. We make great efforts to be there. After finding the resources and traveling many hours, we wait – sometimes for a very long time – outside the meeting room until they finally let us in. Once inside, we share our ideas and recommendations as quickly as possible in order to ensure there is time for dialogue with the delegations, which itself is rarely an open and honest conversation. After a short while, we are diplomatically ushered out of the room so that, having ticked the civil society participation box, negotiations can continue.
The G20 still has a long way to go to ensure effective civil society participation. G20 leaders need to stop thinking that inviting civil society representatives to a couple of meetings amounts to the fulfillment of their obligation to consult widely and open themselves to scrutiny. They need to acknowledge the unique skills that civil society brings to the table and move towards more meaningful and sustained engagement with civil society.
They can do this in many ways. First, they can, and should, invite civil society as well as business representatives to additional sections of various Working Group meetings, to provide insights and guidance on a thematic basis, and not just during a single, short session dedicated to listening to all of our concerns. Additionally, they should share the agenda of those meetings with us. It may sound crazy, but more often than not we are invited and go to meetings without knowing what is being discussed, so we are not necessarily sending the most appropriate person or preparing the most relevant or detailed contribution.
Second, the G20 delegates should consistently meet with domestic civil society throughout the year, both prior to and after G20 Working Group meetings. This already happens in some G20 countries but not all of them.
Third, G20 representatives need to be more open and honest in their exchanges with civil society. When G20 delegates speak to civil society, mostly they only share limited information on what they are doing to address major global challenges, which sometimes simply amounts to propaganda. How about they asked us what we want to discuss and what information we’d like to receive? Or how about they provide honest and direct feedback on the proposals and recommendations we shared with them?
G20 leaders seem to be unaware that good communication and access to information are key. There is no permanent G20 website. Instead, every presidency establishes its own, which isn’t updated afterwards. The digital landscape is littered with redundant G20 websites. This makes documents hard to find for civil society, media and researchers seeking to inform themselves about G20 activities. In 2017, when Germany chaired the G20, the German government took an excellent initiative: it compiled all existing anti-corruption commitments in one location. This should be normal practice. For transparency and accountability, all G20 Working Groups should publish minutes and agendas of their meetings. And they should systematically consult with civil society so we provide an input into the draft documents they are planning to adopt and suggest key topics the G20 should focus on.
What changed in terms of civil society engagement when the G20 presidency passed on to Saudi Arabia for 2020?
Despite its limitations and weak engagement with civil society, the G20 has been a relevant space to bring our concerns directly to governments and advocate with them to tackle the most critical issues we face. Unfortunately, in 2020 the space for civil society engagement became significantly reduced when the presidency of the G20 and all its Engagement Groups, including the C20, passed to Saudi Arabia – a decision taken by G20 governments in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
Saudi Arabia is a state that provides virtually no space for civil society and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated. It systematically suppresses criticism from the media, regularly arrests and prosecutes human rights defenders, censors free speech, limits free movement and tortures and mistreats detained journalists and activists. This makes civil society participation ethically dubious.
In addition, the C20 principles emphasise a series of elements that the Saudi presidency is unable to provide, such as inclusion of a variety of truly independent civil society actors, from local to global, the transparency of decision-making procedures and the guiding values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. By participating in the very limited space that the Saudi government would be able to provide, we would only help launder Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The Saudi government has already recruited expensive Western public relations advisors and spent millions of dollars to polish its tarnished image.
In response, an overwhelming number of CSOs from all over the world have joined their voices together and decided to boycott the C20 hosted by Saudi Arabia this year. At Transparency International we are looking forward to re-engaging fully with the C20 process next year, when the presidency will pass to Italy.
Civic space in Saudi Arabia is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Transparency International through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@anticorruption and@meberazategui on Twitter.
GABON: ‘Civic space and the conditions for the exercise of human rights were difficult under the former regime’
CIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Georges Mpaga, National Executive President of the Network of Free Civil Society Organisations of Gabon (ROLBG).
Over the past decade, ROLBG has focused on enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention. It advocates to improve civic space in Gabon and Central Africa and campaigns on inhumane detention conditions.
What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent elections and subsequent military coup?
The 26 August elections were undoubtedly fraudulent, as were the previous ones. The regime led by predatory dictator Ali Bongo had banned international and domestic observer missions and international media. ROLBG was the only organisation that carried out citizen observation through the parallel vote tabulation system. Because of Bongo’s despotic will, the election was held under totally irregular conditions, in flagrant violation of international norms and standards. The vote count was held behind closed doors, in an opaque context that allowed for large-scale electoral fraud and falsified results.
On 30 August 2023, the salutary intervention of the defence and security forces put an end to this aberration. For me, as someone from civil society, what has just happened in Gabon is by no means a military coup; it is quite simply a military intervention led by patriots within the army, under the leadership of General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, that put an end to a 56-year imposture, a predatory system and an infernal cycle of rigged elections often punctuated by massive human rights violations. This is our reading of the situation, and it is the general opinion of the Gabonese people, who have just been freed from a criminal dictatorship and oligarchy.
Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?
The military intervention on 30 August was justified as a response to the desire shown by the Bongo clan and its Gabonese Democratic Party to remain in power by will or by force, through fraudulent elections and police repression orchestrated by the defence and security forces, which were instrumentalised and took orders from the former president.
The Gabonese armed forces intervened to avert a bloodbath and replace the Bongo regime: an unrelenting regime that was ruthless towards the Gabonese people, tainted by clientelist relationships, shady business deals, predatory corruption and widespread violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, all sanctioned by fraudulent elections.
In this sense, the coup in Gabon is not part of a regional trend, but the result of a purely internal process resulting from 56 years of dictatorship and its corollary of human rights violations and the destruction of the country’s economic and social fabric. However, the events underway in Gabon obviously have repercussions in the Central African region, home to some of the worst of Africa’s dictatorships.
What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?
Civil society welcomed the military intervention because it sounded the death knell for more than half a century of deceit and predation at the top of the state. Without this intervention, we would have witnessed an unprecedented tragedy.
The Gabonese army, under the leadership of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), the military junta in power, allowed the country to escape a tragedy with incalculable consequences. Seen in this light, the military should be celebrated as heroes. As soon as he took power, General Oligui set about uniting a country that had been deeply divided and traumatised by such a long time of calamitous management by the Bongo family and the mafia interests around them.
The attitude of the international community is unacceptable to civil society, human rights defenders and the people of Gabon, who have long paid a heavy price. In 2016, when Bongo planned and carried out an electoral coup followed by atrocities against civilians who opposed the electoral masquerade, the international community remained silent, leaving Gabon’s civilians to face their executioner. In view of this, we categorically reject the declarations of the international community, in particular the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union, two institutions that have encouraged the manipulation of constitutions and presidencies for life in Central Africa.
What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance that the situation will now improve?
Civic space and the conditions for exercising democratic freedoms and human rights were difficult under the former regime. The rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression were flouted. Many civil society activists and human rights defenders, including myself, spent time in prison or were deprived of their fundamental rights.
With the establishment of the transitional regime, we are now seeing fundamental change towards an approach that is generally favourable to civil society. The new authorities are working in concert with all the nation’s driving forces, including civil society, which was received on 1 September by General Oligui and his CTRI peers, and I was the facilitator of that meeting. The transitional president, who was sworn in on 4 September, took to work to restore state institutions, human rights and democratic freedoms, and to respect Gabon’s national and international commitments. A strong signal was given on 5 September, with the gradual release of prisoners of conscience, including the leader of Gabon’s largest civil service union confederation, Jean Remi Yama, after 18 months of arbitrary detention.
Civic space in Gabon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.
GABON: ‘Under the old regime civil society was not taken into account’
CIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Pepecy Ogouliguende, expert in human rights, governance, gender and peace mediation and founder and president of Malachie.
Malachie is a Gabonese civil society organisation that combats poverty and promotes sustainable development and gender equality. It is active in a areas that include biodiversity protection, aid in the event of natural disasters, medical support, particularly for people living with HIV/AIDS, and human rights education, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.
What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent general election and subsequent military coup?
At around 3am on 30 August 2023, the Gabonese Electoral Commission announced the results of the presidential election, with incumbent Ali Bongo as the winner. A few minutes later, the military announced they had seized power. It is important to stress that this was not a coup d’état, but a seizure of power by the military. This distinction is justified by the fact that it took place without bloodshed.
The election was marred by irregularities and the announcement of the results would have led to protests, albeit legitimate, but which would have ended in violence. I would therefore like to salute the bravery of the defence and security forces.
The military then dissolved all governing institutions and set up a Transition Committee for the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI).
Was your organisation able to observe the election?
No, my organisation was unable to observe the election for the simple reason that no international or national observers were admitted. The election was conducted in total secrecy. Like all Gabonese people, I saw that the announced results did not correspond with the results at the ballot box.
The seizure of power by the defence and security forces in this particular context of public distrust of the authorities and deep suspicion of the election results is rather akin to a patriotic act.
Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?
Our defence and security forces, along with the public, have observed numerous irregularities and dysfunctions in the state apparatus in recent years. They therefore decided to put an end to this regime, which no longer corresponded to the aspirations of the Gabonese people.
The military saw an opportunity in the 26 August election to end the current system by assuming their responsibilities to save the nation and the rule of law. The aim of this seizure of power is to ‘restore the dignity of the Gabonese people’. As the CTRI spokesperson put it, ‘we are finally on the road to happiness’.
What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?
The international community simply acted by the book without first analysing the context. Gabon’s is a very special case.
Celebrations on the streets of Gabon’s main cities showed the extent to which the old regime was no longer wanted, just tolerated. These scenes of popular jubilation, which contrast with the international community’s condemnation, should be a wake-up call to the international community, inviting it to review its approach, which is more focused on safeguarding stability at all costs, often to the detriment of real social progress, development or economic growth – in short, at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority.
All those in the international community who spoke up condemned the ‘coup d’état’ and assured us that they were following developments in Gabon with interest, while reiterating their attachment to respect for institutions. Reactions from international organisations were very strong: the United Nations condemned the coup and the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) suspended Gabon because they directly associated this ‘coup d’état’ with those that had previously taken place elsewhere in the region.
The USA has distanced itself somewhat by stating that it will work with its partners and the people to support the democratic process underway. This is where we look to the rest of the international community to help us work towards building strong institutions.
We salute those states that have clearly understood the need for this change. We condemn AU and ECCAS sanctions. The international community should support states in respecting their laws and constitutions and ensuring that democracy and human rights are respected.
Do you think this coup is part of a regional trend?
First and foremost, it should be reminded that in the case of Gabon, this was a military takeover and not a coup d’état in the strict sense of the term. It was in fact the result of bad governance and failure to take account of the needs of the population, particularly social needs, but also of the thirst for change. It can have regional impacts in the sense that most African populations are experiencing the same difficulties – youth unemployment, poverty, lack of access to healthcare – and aspire to major change. When people don’t feel taken into account by policymakers, they become frustrated.
We don’t rule out the possibility that this will have an impact on our neighbours. It is not too late for the regimes in power in Central Africa to seize this opportunity to rethink the way they serve their people.
What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance the situation will now improve?
In Gabon, the operation of organisations and associations is governed by law 35/62, which guarantees freedom of association. That said, under the old regime civil society was not taken into account. It was only partly involved in the management of public affairs.
Some leaders, particularly trade union leaders, could be arrested or intimidated if the regime felt they were being overzealous. Several Gabonese civil society leaders denounced arbitrary arrests linked to their opinions and positions.
Like the Gabonese people, civil society is delighted at the change. Civil society as a whole is committed to taking an active part in the actions and reforms carried out by the authorities during the transition, to promote respect for human rights, equity and social justice, the preservation of peace and good governance.
The CTRI has just authorised the release of some of Gabon’s leading trade unionists and prisoners of conscience. In view of the first decisions taken by the CTRI, the best is yet to come. I can safely say that the Gabon of tomorrow will be better. Today there is a glimmer of hope.
Civic space in Gabon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.
Gambian civil society optimistic as new democratic era dawns
The Gambia has recently gone through a major democratic transition. CIVICUS interviews Sohna Sallah, the Vice President of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists about the major political change and implications for human rights in the Gambia.
GEORGIA: ‘Civil society must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts’
CIVICUS speaks about Georgian civil society’s successful campaign against the draft Agents of Foreign Influence Law with Nino Ugrekhelidze, co-founder of the CEECCNA (Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central and North Asia) Collaborative Fund, and Guram Imnadze, Director of the Democracy and Justice Programme of theSocial Justice Center.
Founded in 2022, the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a feminist fund that moves sustainable resources for social justice movements across the CEECCNA region.
The Social Justice Center is a progressive civil society organisation (CSO) working on human rights and social justice in Georgia. It seeks to identify the structural reasons for economic, social and political inequality, and share critical knowledge while contributing to change through democratic means.
What was the draft Foreign Agents Law that was proposed in Georgia?
On 20 February 2023, the ruling party presented a draft law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’. The initiative would affect any Georgian-language media and any CSO registered in Georgia that receive more than 20 per cent of their annual income from a ‘foreign power’, meaning a foundation or organisation registered outside Georgia. They would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’ and disclose foreign funding. If they failed to do so, they would risk very high fines.
But the need for more transparency is an excuse, because there are already numerous laws regulating the financial transactions and transparency of legal entities, CSOs included, such as the Law on Grants and the Law on Budgeting and Accounting. There have not been cases of CSOs not complying with the existing legal requirements. In fact, most large CSOs also use their media platforms to provide annual financial reports and list their donors.
The draft law includes language that has negative connotations in Georgia due to our Soviet past. ‘Agent’ means ‘traitor’, especially if used together with the adjective ‘foreign’. It has the clear purpose of delegitimising independent CSOs and critical media by labelling us as enemies of the state, politically biased and aligned with the opposition.
The government is doing everything it can to delegitimise CSOs as local actors voicing real local needs. They don’t want the public to listen to us when we criticise the government and provide information that is true and in the interest of the country – they want them to believe that we are the ones lying to them.
This is part of a larger government stigmatising campaign against civil society and independent media, which gained momentum over the past few months.
Who would be most affected if this law was passed?
It is critical to highlight the role that CSOs have played in Georgia since we gained independence – civil society has played a key role in the democratic transition and in ensuring the provision of services the government could not provide, particularly to vulnerable groups. When the state could not fully perform its duties, it was civil society that stepped in and got the work done.
If the law was passed, people with HIV and disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, women, children and LGBTQI+ people would be among the first to be directly impacted. Programmes targeted at these groups have been created and operated by Georgian CSOs, because the government is either not interested and therefore does not prioritise this work or does not have the money for it.
Of course, as the government is not funding these programmes, Georgian CSOs operating them typically get their funding from outside the country. Domestically, there is very little interest in funding civil society; domestic funding is almost non-existent and CSOs are severely underfunded. Major civil society donors are various private and public foundations, and bilateral and multilateral institutions from the USA and the European Union, all of which maintain political neutrality. Many of them even fund the government agencies as well.
If the law were adopted, given the difficulties in fundraising domestically, CSOs would be exposed to financial starvation. Numerous CSOs would have to shut down. And this would be no accident: it is part of a very intentional attack on the financial resilience of CSOs.
How has civil society organised against the bill?
Over 380 CSOs signed a statement explaining their strong opposition to the bill. Civil society and independent media worked hard to reach people with compelling messages, avoiding NGO jargon and explaining in simple terms why this bill is against the interests of the country and against democracy – why, in fact, this bill is a Russian import, part of a trend that is quickly gaining ground across the region.
It took some effort to mobilise against the bill because civil society had been demonised for so long already, and many people did not want to support ‘foreign agents’. But our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again. This connected with a widespread sentiment of Georgian people.
This messaging dispelled the climate of resignation that things cannot change and helped mobilise people. On 7 March, parliament passed the draft law in the first reading, but just as the bill was being discussed, tens of thousands gathered outside parliament to protest in Tbilisi. There were protests day and night, for several days in a row. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Georgia’s modern history.
The protests were repressed by riot police using rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon. At least one person lost an eye because of police brutality. Over 150 people were detained for ‘disobedience’ but later released following further pressure from protesters.
As a result of the protests, the bill was recalled on 10 March. That day we realised that if we come together, things can change. There was a spirit of resistance, unity, dignity and solidarity in the protests. People who were not necessarily politicised became interested in politics. And it all started because civil society came together to stand up against a bill that posed an existential threat.
Protesters connected in a very well-articulated way the situation in Georgia with the plight of Ukraine, and understood this as a fight against Russian political interests trying to absorb us as a country. That’s why they also showed solidarity with Ukraine, singing their anthem and displaying pro-Ukraine messages.
The way young Georgians reacted gives us hope for the future. The way they came together, the way they protested, the messages they conveyed – it was so politically consistent and coherent. They protested, they resisted, and when the protest was over, they even cleaned the public space after themselves. They were truly amazing.
Would you say danger has passed?
Parliament is currently on its best behaviour because it had a moment of realisation that this might turn into a revolution. In pushing forward the bill, the government thought there was no limit to its power, but found such a limit in the protests. A sentiment started spreading among protesters that they could fire their representatives, send them home. But the government’s targeting of civil society is not over yet – it is only starting. Although the bill has been withdrawn, the prime minister has already said that they are going to continue pushing for it. He even doubled down as he mentioned that their step will be to tackle so-called ‘gay propaganda’, another Russian import that is part of the crackdown on progressive civil society.
The government continues its campaign against civil society. Even if the law does not pass, the official narrative keeps labelling civil society and independent media as ‘foreign agents’, and the consequences of this will continue to be felt for a long time. In Kutaisi, for instance, a social justice activist saw their home vandalised, and someone marked it with a sign alerting that ‘an agent lives here’. It is to be expected that anti-rights forces will use this language as a weapon against civil society activists.
And of course, the authorities continue to use other tools they have to obstruct civil society work. For instance, Georgia has a problematic administrative code that grants the police and the courts the right to use administrative sanctions such as fines and detentions without sufficient evidence and due process. Such measures are often used against civil society and human rights activists. Since 2016, administrative fines for most common administrative offences have quadrupled. This is a serious barrier for civil society work, as it is expensive for activists to pay the fines.
What kind of international support does Georgian civil society currently need?
Georgia is currently experiencing a rapidly shrinking civic space, and the government is sliding towards authoritarianism. International solidarity and conversations on the political situation in Georgia and the whole post-Soviet region are going to be critical.
In post-Soviet countries, the influence of Russian politics is very strong. There is an actual war going on in Ukraine, and what is happening in Georgia is in a way war by different means. These are two fronts of the same fight against Russian imperialism. Understanding this is essential.
Also, we need to talk more about where money comes from for anti-rights organisations. There are very clear mechanisms to track where money comes from when it comes to CSOs and independent media, but there are none to investigate where funding for anti-rights groups such as religious fundamentalist and far-right organisations comes from. One reason is that they often don’t register as CSOs – this means they wouldn’t even be under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Agents Law if it were passed. Lots of money for these organisations is coming from Russia without any conditionalities or reporting mechanisms in place.
This is a way bigger problem than Georgia having a Foreign Agents Law. We need to make the connection to what is happening elsewhere. In Ukraine and Moldova there were also attempts to adopt a similar law and people pushed back. The logic of this law is already working in Mongolia, and it is effectively in place in Belarus.
We need more complex conversations about what we are organising against, how this is impacting us, what tactics are being used and how human rights language and spaces are being co-opted. The obvious types of support needed are spaces for such conversations and funding, because ultimately, for us to resist, we need spaces to reflect, build strategies and develop our political imagination, and we need resources, given that we are already so underfunded across the region. We must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts. We haven’t seen the last of it.
Civic space in Georgia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
GERMANY: ‘Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger’
CIVICUS speaks with Zoe Ruge of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Germany.
Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to urge governments to address the climate emergency, enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.
What forms of protest has Last Generation deployed in Germany?
Last Generation has come to dominate the climate movement in Germany, so its tactics have become the prevailing tactics. The most common form of climate protest in Germany is currently street blockades, and blockades of public infrastructure more generally, because they are efficient at creating a certain level of disruption. A small number of people protesting peacefully is all it takes to generate a wide public reach. Additionally, street blockades are a platform to have talks with politicians and citizens about the climate crisis, do media work and underline our demands.
Alongside disrupting everyday traffic, we draw attention to the major responsibility of the richest one- to-10 per cent of the population. To target them specifically, we block airports, spray-paint private jets, disrupt big events and bring protests into museums and other public spaces.
Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger. We take adequate security measures, for instance to make sure no emergency vehicle gets stuck in traffic. In case of an emergency, we are ready to open the blockade and clear the street.
We know the kind of civil disobedience tactics we use face criticism, and we constantly reflect on our practices and take all feedback into consideration. We have aimed to choose a protest form that effectively rises awareness and is the least disruptive for people, and we think the street blockade is one such form. It may cause people to get to work half an hour late one day, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to stop people’s everyday routine and encourage them reflect on what we’re doing and where it’s leading us.
What have been your biggest achievements?
More people are realising the seriousness of the crisis we’re facing. Street blockades allow us to talk to people who would normally not get involved but are forced to listen and ask questions about our reasons to be there and our demands. Through disruption, we’ve been able to bring a lot of climate-related topics into public discourse, not only through media coverage but also thanks to local, face-to-face conversations. We are seeing rising awareness, which is necessary to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.
In terms of policies, one of our demands during the first protest wave was a law similar to the one France has, to save food from going to waste in supermarkets. One third of all food is lost in the production chain, which equates to a lot of preventable CO2 emissions. Such a law is currently being discussed in several federal states.
In terms of public awareness, when street blockades began about a year ago they attracted 25 to 30 people, and now they bring thousands to the streets in Berlin. Churches are standing behind us and civil society groups are also voicing demands for climate action.
Overall, we are receiving increasing support from the whole society. We get invitations to discuss the climate crisis with politicians, artists, at schools and with other parts of civil society. In response to the criminalisation we are facing, which has included the freezing of some of our assets, we have also seen a rise in donations from the public.
What are your demands to the German government?
What Last Generation demands are pretty simple things that must be done to tackle the consequences of the climate crisis and prevent it escalating. We demand a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour in Germany, which would bring a reduction of more than 6.7 million tons of CO2 emissions a year, and a permanent €9 (US$9.90) monthly ticket to make public transportation affordable. This was tested last year and was a huge success, as many people shifted from using cars to using public transport – but now it’s quite expensive again.
Our third demand is the establishment of a citizen assembly as a long-term mechanism for us to deal with the climate crisis as a society and end the use of fossil fuels in a socially just manner by 2030. Since our politicians are not even able or willing to implement a speed limit, we need citizens to be able to help tackle the climate crisis through more direct democratic tools.
As part of a global movement, Last Generation works in close cooperation with Debt For Climate, a grassroots global south-driven initiative connecting social justice and climate justice struggles with the aim of freeing impoverished countries from a debt burden that is often used as a tool for further natural resource extraction. We support their demand for financial support because they are the primary victims of climate change that they haven’t caused. German politicians tend to argue that the climate catastrophe isn’t happening in Germany, although it is indeed taking place, maybe to a lesser extent. But in other parts of the world people are already dying because of it while more developed countries continue benefiting from their resources.
How have German authorities reacted to your demands?
Reactions have varied at different government levels. We’ve had very productive talks with local politicians who have shown openness and understanding. But at the federal level we’ve faced a harsh and criminalising public discourse. Last Generation is being called a criminal group and increasingly treated as such.
We face accusations that we are hurting the cause of climate protection because our tactics are scaring people away. But it’s not true. The government is just trying to shift the focus from the substance of our demands to the form of our actions and avoiding our questions of why we still don’t have a speed limit and why we still don’t have proper affordable public transportation even though we have the resources for it.
The fact that our government isn’t willing to act as the climate emergency demands and is instead turning against us is the main challenge that we as climate activists currently face.
How is the government criminalising climate activism?
There are between 3,000 and 4,000 cases coming to court soon, mainly connected to street blockades. In Germany, this kind of spontaneous demonstration is protected by law, but once the police intervene and tell you to leave, it’s not so clear whether the assembly continues to be legally protected. There are also accusations of vandalism on the basis that people have damaged walls by spray-painting them.
A serious accusation being used against climate activists is that of being part of a criminal group. Based on section 129A of the German Criminal Code, when the police start an investigation on these grounds they can listen to your phone calls, read your messages and search your homes. This is weird because Last Generation is so transparent that anything the government would like to know about us – our structures, our funding, our planned protests – is publicly accessible. We have nothing to hide.
This June, some of us experienced searches of our homes, our website was taken down, our bank accounts were frozen and we had work materials confiscated. Activists are struggling because it’s scary to feel that the police could force their way in, search your entire home and take away whatever they want.
A friend of mine, Simon Lachner, was recently taken from his home to the police station and kept there for the entire day, just because he had publicly announced a protest scheduled for that afternoon. In Bavaria, people have been repeatedly taken into preventive custody for long periods of time to keep them from protesting. This form of preventing protests is becoming more common.
What kind of support are you receiving, and what further support would you need to continue your work?
The criminalisation of peaceful protests organised by people who aren’t trying to hurt anyone but who want to protect lives elicits instant solidarity. Thousands of people have joined Last Generation’s protest marches. Frozen funds have been almost fully replaced by donations pouring in. People contact us to ask how they can play their part in climate activism.
We’re also part of the A22 international network of climate movements that use civil disobedience tactics, and this also supports us, especially in the face of criminalisation. Other organisations from all around the world are reaching out to us and offering help such as legal support.
What we need is for everybody to consider their potential role in building a more resilient society. One of the most efficient ways to fulfil our collective responsibility is by exercising our right to protest within a democratic system.
Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Global assault on our basic freedoms signposts a dangerous return to the past
By Danny Sriskandarajah
Ask yourself these four questions. Can I criticise my head of state on Twitter? Can I join a human rights group to campaign for change? Can I take part in a peaceful protest outside government buildings? And can I do all of these things while knowing that my government will not just protect me but will actually enable my right to organise, speak out and take action on issues that matter to me?
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then congratulations. You are in the very lucky, and sadly very tiny, minority of people who live in the 26 countries which, today, have “open” civic space.
Read on: Huffington Post
Global challenges, local responses
By Danny Sriskandarajah and Mandeep Tiwana
We are facing a global emergency of civic space. This is now a universal phenomenon, no longer restricted to autocracies and fragile democracies. While there is growing interest in the nature and impact of these restrictions, there is limited analysis of the deeper drivers of the phenomenon, and even less about how to support local responses.
Global Monitor Report: Twice as many people live in repressed countries compared to a year ago
Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.
The CIVICUS Monitor's latest global assesment, People Power Under Attack 2019, finds that the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are backsliding across the world. In the space of a year, twice as many people are living in countries where these civic freedoms are being violated: 40% of the world’s population now live in repressed countries - last year it was 19%.
The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that civil society is under attack in most countries. In practice, this means that just 3% of the world’s population are now living in countries where their fundamental rights are in general, protected and respected – last year it was 4%.
2019 has been a historic year for protest movements. From the streets of Sudan to Hong Kong, people have poured onto the streets to make their voices heard. However, according to the 536 updates by the CIVICUS Monitor, the fundamental right to peaceful assembly is under attack across the world. In fact, within the last year the CIVICUS Monitor documented that 96 countries either detained protesters, disrupted marches or used excessive force to prevent people from fully exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
“This data reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe. As millions of protesters spilled onto the streets, government response has been repression instead of dialogue,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “However, the fact that so many activists were brave enough to raise their voices, shows the resilience of civil society in the face of brutal repression.”
Nine countries have changed their civic space rating: seven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating. Worrying signs for civic space are recorded in Asia-Pacific, where three countries dropped a rating: Australia, India and Brunei. There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Malta also being downgraded. Other countries on the slide include Nigeria, Comoros and Madagascar.
People Power Under Attack 2019 also provides analysis on the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past year. Globally, censorship is the most common violation, occurring across 178 countries. From blocking websites and social media, to banning television programmes, governments across the world are going to great lengths to control public discourse and suppress free speech. The other top violations include:
There are bright spots emerging, as both Moldova and the Dominican Republic improved their ratings this past year. The Dominican Republic moved from the obstructed to narrowed category after civil society managed to challenge and overturn restrictive laws; these laws related to defamation cases and constitutional amendments which would lengthen Presidential terms.
Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
Regional summaries and press statements: