civic space

 

  • KENYA: ‘People are discouraged from voting when they think that voices do not matter’

    Ken OgemboCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Kenya with Ken Ogembo, programme manager of Siasa Place.

    Siasa Place is a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2015 with the aim of promoting youth participation in politics. It educates people about the importance of voting and how the government can be held accountable.

    Did you observe an increase in civic space restrictions around the 9 August election?

    We observed several civic space restrictions during the election. The media did not provide fair coverage to all candidates, and the most popular candidates had a clear advantage because everything they did was widely covered and they got a lot of propaganda. Media are powerful tools that can be used to influence the views of people and in this case were used to promote some parties and bring down others. Social media was also used to spread misinformation that influenced many people’s voting decisions.

    Further, there was violence in some counties, which we believe was organised to spark fear. As a result, people no longer felt comfortable attending campaigns for some candidates because of fear they could be attacked. 

    There were also cases of candidates being attacked. Some female politicians were attacked and assaulted; unfortunately not much was done to protect them or follow up on their cases. William Ruto, announced as the winner of the election, was also attacked in Kisumu. His vehicles were destroyed but fortunately he was not hurt. 

    There was also a situation in Kakamega county between the two main coalitions, Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja: they were fighting over access to a stadium and a number of people got hurt in the process.

    However, I do not believe violence was serious or widespread to the point that we could say it was what marked the electoral process.

    Why was there such low voter turnout?

    There are a number of factors that could have possibly contributed to it, but I think it is first and foremost about people being demotivated from voting because they do not see any change happening as a result of elections. Government corruption is pervasive no matter who is in the government, and economic performance is consistently poor. Public services are of very low quality: there are not enough healthcare facilities, doctors are often going on strike, markets are dirty. Youth unemployment continues to be very high, and most people don’t think this will change, so many do not see any reason for voting.

    We also need to look at how candidates are nominated. Presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s party, Azimio la Umoja, did not conduct democratic internal processes in most of its strongholds and often nominated people who had long been in power and had performed dismally. People are discouraged from voting when they think their voices do not matter.

    I would also say it is also ignorance that drives young people away from the polls. They should understand that regardless of whether they get out to vote, a government will get elected and will rule over them. The fact that they did not vote takes away their moral authority to question those in power. Of course they still have a constitutional right to do so, but their questioning will lack substance and they will not have any alternative to offer.

    Through our engagement with young people, we have noticed they lack confidence in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC), the institution that manages elections, which many consider unable to deliver free and fair elections. They view it as pointless to go out and vote if the IBEC can’t ensure their votes will count.

    This is probably a mistake, because there have been improvements in the electoral process, including by making it clear that the results received from voting stations are final. However, the IBEC still has a lot of work to do make people trust the electoral process.

    Finally, I think the government played a huge role by not providing any civic education. It only started doing the basics when it was already too late, as most people who didn’t vote had already made up their minds not to. And when the government did, the content was not of the right kind, in the sense that would make people understand why voting is important and how to play their role as citizens.

    Has civil society been able to play its role in the electoral process?

    Civil society’s role has been somewhat restricted. Many CSOs would need more support and resources to play their full range of roles during elections. During this election we saw many CSOs unable to provide civic education programmes because of lack of funding and government support.

    Our job as civil society is to advocate on people’s behalf, inform them about the process and raise awareness of their rights. But most of us were denied the right to do our work due to lack of resources. My organisation, Siasa Place, played a key role in the previous election because it received the required resources in time. But this year the support we needed came about two months before the elections, which is rather late for us to start doing our work at the community level. This affected our role, but we hope things will improve in the coming years. We need government and civil society to work together to inform people around elections so they know what they are doing.

    There were also cases of CSOs being instrumentalised by political parties to influence voters. That defeats the whole purpose of having an active civil society. We urge the concerned CSOs to remember their original goals and mission and refocus on them. We should be the voice of marginalised people and communities, not of political parties. It is our duty to hold political parties accountable, not root for them at elections.

    Given the very close result, do you think there could be a recount or even an election re-run?

    If the defeated candidate can convince the court that there have been irregularities so gross that they have affected the outcome, then the court could nullify the results. But if votes are recounted and the result comes out the same, there won’t be a need for a rerun.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Siasa Place through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@siasaplace on Twitter. 

     

  • KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

    Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

    With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

    Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

    In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

    For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

    By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

    The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

    In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

    There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

    What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

    The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

    But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

    And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

    But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

    What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

    The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

    But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

    Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

    As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

    The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

    What is the potential for electoral violence?

    Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

    Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Africa Platform through itswebsite.

     

  • KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

    Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

    Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

    It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

    However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

    Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

    Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

    In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

    Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

    The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

    What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

    The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

    Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

    It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

    The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

    The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

    What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

    The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

    Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

    The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

    In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

    In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

    The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

    To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

    In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

    According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

    Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

    The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

    The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

    Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

    It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

    In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

    The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

    Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

    The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

    The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

    Civic space in Kyrgyzstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Legal Prosperity Foundation through itsFacebook page and followlpf_kg on Instagram.

     

  • Kyrgyzstan: Joint NGO report for UN Human Rights Committee review

    The United Nations Human Rights Committee will review Kyrgyzstan’s human rights record at its upcoming session in Geneva, which starts on 10 October 2022. The Committee will assess Kyrgyzstan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and adopt conclusions and recommendations based on the third periodic report about the implementation of the covenant submitted by Kyrgyzstan’s government, as well as other information, including NGO reports.

     

  • Law enforcement agencies and decision makers must respect the right to protest in the US 

    • ​​​​​​CIVICUS expresses solidarity with US protesters in their struggle for justice
    • We defend the right to peaceful assembly and condemn violent police force
    • National and global protests highlight the need to address institutionalized racism, and police impunity and militarisation

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, condemns violence against protesters by law enforcement officials over the past few days, and stands in solidarity with those protesting against deep-rooted racism and injustice.

    Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the United States (US) to protest the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May. Their demands for justice for George Floyd and other Black people unlawfully killed at the hands of police have been met with force. Law enforcement agencies have responded to protests using rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas.  

    CIVICUS reaffirms that the right to protest, as enshrined in international law, must be protected. We call for an end to police violence against Black communities.

    Earlier this week, as law enforcement agencies suppressed protests in Washington DC, President Trump threatened to deploy the National Guard to crush demonstrations:

    “President Donald Trump is stoking violence by threatening to forcibly deploy military units in states and cities to crush the demonstrations and restore order in a constitutionally questionable manner,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief of Programmes at CIVICUS. 

    There are reports that over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since protests began. CIVICUS is concerned by the arbitrary arrests of thousands of protesters, including 20 members of the press. There are numerous cases of journalists being deliberately targeted by law enforcement agencies and at least 125 press freedom violations have been reported since the start of the protests.

    Demonstrations have broken out across the world in solidarity with the US protesters and their demands for justice and accountability. Our recently released State of Civil Society Report 2020 highlights the importance of people’s movements in demanding change. CIVICUS supports the right of protesters around the globe to peacefully and safely assemble during lockdown:

    “These protests are a call to action to address systemic racism and unprovoked violence experienced by the Black community in the US and beyond. A systemic reckoning with unaddressed notions of white supremacy is needed,” Tiwana continued.  

    As a matter of urgency, CIVICUS calls on authorities to respect the rights of freedom of assembly and expression. We urge systemic reforms to address police impunity, militarisation and institutional racism. The deliberate targeting of journalists must also end, as must the incendiary language used by President Trump and other politicians. 

    We also call on law enforcement agencies to stop using violent methods to disperse protesters and call for an investigation into the unwarranted use of force.

    About CIVICUS

    CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. We have over 9000 members across the globe. The CIVICUS Monitor is our online platform that tracks threats to the freedoms of assembly, association and expression across 196 countries. Civic space in the United States is currently rated as narrowed by the research and ratings platform.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Abuses against women are the direct product of the gender imbalances of a patriarchal society’

    Ghida AnaniCIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities in Lebanon with Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD – Resource Centre for Gender Equality.

    ABAAD is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) that strives for gender equality as a key condition for sustainable social and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa. Its work is organised around three pillars: providing direct services, building capacity and developing resources, and advocating for policy reform.

    How has COVID-19 impacted on women and girls in Lebanon?

    Even before the pandemic, women and girls in Lebanon suffered from a vicious cycle of gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination that deprived them of the opportunity to participate meaningfully in social, economic and political life.

    Most of the abuses and discriminatory acts experienced by women and girls in Lebanon are the direct product of imbalances between women and men in the patriarchal Lebanese society, which are codified into law. Domestic violence is a longstanding problem due to deeply engrained gender social norms that permeate the entire societal system, policies and legislation. So far the government has failed to recognise and therefore address the problem and has not allocated dedicated resources to tackle GBV.

    COVID-19 lockdowns and the ensuing economic downturn did nothing but exacerbate already existing GBV risks both at home and in public spaces. Self-isolation, misuse of power, heightened tensions, financial uncertainties and the disruption of life-saving services were key factors that worsened the situation.

    During the pandemic, ABAAD noticed an increase in the severity of the violence women were subjected to at home. Some women reached out to tell us they were struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. At least two women said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection.

    How has civil society in general, and ABAAD in particular, responded to this situation?

    Since the initial stages of the outbreak, we put together a response to ensure the continuity of life-saving services. We prioritised the best interests of rights-holders by putting them at the centre of the response.

    We had to suspend some in-person activities, such as outreach, community events and awareness and training sessions. But on the positive side, our focus on maintaining life-saving services helped us develop new internal case management guidelines for crisis counselling and emergency support services by phone, along with face-to-face services for high-risk cases.

    We also provided community-based awareness sessions on COVID-19 and psychosocial support sessions via conference calls and WhatsApp groups. Our helpline continued to function 24/7, including for services provided by ABAAD’s Emergency Temporary Safe Shelters across the country and its Men Centre. Moreover, as the three safe shelters operated by ABAAD were at full capacity, we worked to create additional capacity by renting new spaces. 

    We led several campaigns, such as #LockdownNotLockup and #TheRealTest, to fight the stigma surrounding COVID-19, show solidarity with women and let them know that they were not alone. We also worked closely with relevant ministries, United Nations (UN) agencies and CSOs to advocate for enhanced-quality coordinated response at a national level. In partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, we recently launched a series of workshops about national mechanisms to report GBV and special units dedicated to supporting survivors.

    On International Women’s Day, we held digital activism activities and sessions for women and girls through ABAAD’s Women and Girls Safe Spaces. There are 23 such centres across Lebanon, providing a safe, non-stigmatising environment for women and girl survivors of GBV and their children to receive comprehensive and holistic care services.

    How is civil society working to bring women’s rights concerns into the policy agenda?

    Civil society is working hard to bring gender equality to the top of the policy agenda. As Lebanon approaches its first parliamentary election following the popular uprising of late 2019, Lebanon’s Feminist Civil Society Platform, a group of 52 feminist CSOs and activists first convened by UN Women in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, has launched a series of demands for candidates running for parliament to commit to achieving gender equality goals.

    Our statement to future members of parliament details the laws that need to be reconsidered from a gendered perspective, including various laws to criminalise sexual violence in the Lebanese Penal Code. This is a demand that CSOs have long advocated for.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with ABAAD through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@AbaadMENA on Twitter. 

     

  • LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND ProgrammesManager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered.ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.

    Ziad Abdel Samad Zahra Bazzi

    What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?

    The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.

    Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.

    Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.

    How did the government react to the protests?

    Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.

    Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.

    The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.

    On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.

    Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.

    Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.

    Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.

    Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.

    When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?

    The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.

    Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.

    What role have CSOs played during the process?

    CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.

    It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?

    While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.

    Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.

    The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.

    The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.

    Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”

    What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

    Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.

    First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.

    Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.

    Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.

    Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.

    Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.

    The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.

    How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?

    Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.

    In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.

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

    Get in touch with the Arab NGO Network for Development through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@ArabNGONetwork on Twitter.

     

  • LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

    Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

    The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

    What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

    Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

    Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

    By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

    It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

    How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

    There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

    Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

    In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

    What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

    The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

    We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

    The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

    Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS monitor.
    Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through itswebsite and follow@AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

     

  • LESOTHO: ‘We must work hand in hand to promote democracy and hold our leaders accountable’

    LESOTHO ELECTIONCIVICUS speaks about the 7 October election in Lesotho with Libakiso Matlho, executive director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA). 

    WLSA is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Southern Africa and working to promote women’s leadership and eradicate gender-based violence. It contributed to the recent election process by providing voter education. 

    How would you assess the recent election   in  Lesotho in terms of its   transparency   and fairness?

    Looking at the overall proceedings I would say they were transparent and fair. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) did a good job. All candidates were given a  platform to share their manifestos as well as their campaigning approaches at different  levels, including through the media  and public gatherings. Independent candidates did not face any threats. Nobody experienced any restrictions in terms of the exercise of their right to reach out to members of the community and potential voters. Voters were free to attend candidates’ forums and political party rallies.

    There were two major challenges, however. One concerned voter civic education, which started a bit later than normal and therefore lasted only about three or four weeks, so it was not as broad as should have been.

     The other challenge had to do with the dynamics of the campaign, which was affected by conflict among candidates during public forums. Some participants invited to take part in the discussions also caused chaos. This  unfortunately led to a few discussions being cancelled before all the candidates could present their manifestos in some areas, especially those that were marked as hotspots.

    Do you foresee any election-related conflict?

    It is hard to predict, but this election seems to have been a bit different from others in the past, which makes me wonder.

    Around 65 political parties and 2,560 candidates competed in the 7 October election. For a small country with a population of two million, that is a huge number of people. And many might find it difficult to accept the outcome if things do not happen according to their expectations. 

    The election itself was peaceful, but political tension mounted as votes were counted over the following days. The results were announced on 11 October: the opposition Revolution for Prosperity party came first but was short of a majority, with 56 of 120 seats, while the incumbent All Basotho Convention party (ABC) came second. It is not clear whether ABC will contest the results and its supporters will take to the streets in protest. If this happens, clashes with rival parties might occur and security force repression could follow.

    I would not rule conflict out but rather consider it as likely to happen as not.

    Do you think the failure to pass constitutional reforms had an impact on the election results?

    I think the failure to pass the Omnibus Constitutional Bill, which had been years in the making, probably had a strong impact on the electoral process, and will definitely have an impact on what happens next.

    The bill sought to amend key provisions regarding political parties, candidate selection, floor-crossing in parliament, the appointment of senior officials and the role of the prime minister, whose removal would require a two-thirds majority. In May, all major parties in parliament committed to pass the bill by the end of June, but disagreements held it up much longer.

    One of the key issues of contention concerned the electoral law, which only allows party leaders to submit a proportional representation party list. With the current system, 80 members of parliament are elected in constituencies and 40 are elected through a proportional division of votes. Small parties are negatively affected because to get some proportional representation seats, they are forced to come together into a list with larger parties, and if they are unable to merge with other parties they are left out.

    Another key issue wasthe politicisation of the security sector, which contributes to political instability. The reforms proposed a way to deal with this.

    The reforms were eventually passed as parliament was reconvened for an urgent session but, following a series of legal challenges, the Constitutional Court declared them null and void at the last minute before the election.

    The failure to pass the reforms will also contribute to continuing difficulties in maintaining coalition governments. Lesotho has had coalition governments since 2012 that have never served a full five-year term due to conflicts that led to their dissolution. In 2017 ABC formed a six-party coalition government, but because of internal conflict Prime Minister Tom Thabane was forced to resign in 2020 and was replaced by Moeketsi Majoro.

    Coalitions have not made for stable and effective governments. The coalition-forming process also confuses voters because ideologies are not a big factor when putting them together. This makes voters a bit sceptical that their parties will remain faithful to their mandate.

    These were some of the issues the reform was meant to address, but unfortunately they remain unaddressed to this day.

    What did voters expect from the election?

    One of the expectations voters place on political parties is that they will work on improving service delivery. This includes fixing infrastructure and providing access to water and electricity, among other things. Lesotho also has high rates of unemployment and widespread problems of gender-based violence and femicides, as well as high crime rates that people hope will be addressed by the new government.

    Basotho people are not happy with the way the public sector has been managed over the years. Employment is mostly driven by nepotism and political affinities. People are uneasy because political parties on the campaign trail are quick to promise they will fix these things but once in power they fail to deliver.

    We have also seen a lot of instability in a key industry, the textile industry, with COVID-19 only making things worse. People were already dealing with bad working conditions and when the pandemic hit many were fired unfairly. This led to worker strikes and has negatively affected foreign investment. Elected leaders need to find means of retaining foreign investment while ensuring good work conditions.

    How can the international community support civil society’s work to strengthen democracy in Lesotho?

    During the election, civil society faced the challenge that almost all funding for civic education came from the IEC, that is, from the government budget. This could potentially compromise civil society’s watchdog role. Additionally, these funds are never sufficient to allow civil society to conduct its work thoroughly.

    The international community should support capacity building so that civil society can conduct robust advocacy during and after the election period. Collaboration between international and local CSOs is also important. For the recent election local CSOs took on voter education alone, without any involvement by international CSOs. We must work hand in hand to promote democracy in our countries and hold our leaders accountable.


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

    Get in touch with WLSA through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

  • Letter from Jail: Nicaraguan Farm Leader, Medardo Mairena

    Incarcerated farm leader Medardo Mairena writes a letter to media from jail

    SOSNicaragua6Medardo Mairena Sequeira,  is the Coordinator of the National Council in Defense of Land, Lake and Sovereignty and member of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. Medardo is one of the leaders of the movement against the construction of the Canal in Nicaragua. Medardo was detained on July 13 along with campesino leader Pedro Joaquín Mena Amador when they were planning to board a plane to the United States to participate in a solidarity event with Nicaragua. Medardo and two other farm leaders, face false charges ranging from terrorism, murder, kidnappings, aggravated robbery and obstruction of public services.


    I am grateful to God and my family, to the Nicaraguan people, to independent media, to national and international human rights commissions, to the Organization of American States, to the UN Security Council for not letting the Nicaraguan people alone.

    To all my friends, to all the people, I ask you to remain united praying in these difficult times for everyone, especially for us political prisoners. We are imprisoned only because we think differently. The Ortega regime is a coward. They have imprisoned us just for raising our voices and speaking up for those who can’t and for those who are no longer with us. In the penitentiary system, we are in maximum security jails where the cells are in bad conditions, there is no electricity, restrooms are damaged. Windows that are supposed to allow air to enter are closed. It is like being baked in an oven and we are isolated from everyone else. Us campesino leaders are in the Modelo gallery 300, in the place known as “little hell”. We are 20 prisoners in the same conditions, we are sick, and they don’t allow a doctor to visit us. Thanks to god, I’m feeling better but it is only because of god. Here we have mosquitoes, cockroaches, scorpions. They don’t allow us to get out of the cells even for taking sun. They took my friend Pedro Mena’s Medication, he suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure and he always carries his treatment in his bag because he needs to take a daily pill. They treat us inhumanely.

    I invite the people to keep doing peaceful demonstrations,  as we have always done it. Even if you don’t see me, my heart is always with you because we need to demand our freedom, because we are innocent from the accusations. The day the facts happened in Morito, we were in Managua demanding for dialogue be resumed with the government, because we want justice, democratization and a peaceful exit to the crisis. We cannot forget those whose lives have been taken by the regime. At least my family still has hope of seeing me alive, but the mothers that lost their children do not and we cannot forget their injustice.

    Sincerely,

    Medardo.

    Translated originally from Spanish. Read original letter


    CIVICUS has called on the authorities in Nicaragua to drop all charges against Medardo Mairena, Pedro Joaquín Mena, and Victor Manuel Diaz, and release them safely. CIVICUS also calls for the release of all the rural leaders, students and activists currently detained for exercising their right to protest.

    Nicaragua has been added to a watchlist of countries which are experiencing an alarming escalation in threats to fundamental freedoms. The watchlist is compiled by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe.   

     

     

  • MALAWI: ‘The tactics used by the current administration are the same used by its predecessors’

    Michael KaiyatsaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Malawi with Michael Kaiyatsa, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).

    CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

    How has the situation in Malawi evolved since the 2020 elections?

    Malawi held a presidential election in June 2020 because the 2019 election was annulled on the basis that there were massive irregularities and the court ordered a rerun. The 2020 election was won by the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.

    During the campaign, Chakwera said that if elected, he would address some key issues, including corruption in the public sector. It was the perception of public opinion that corruption was on the rise and the previous administration had not done much to tackle the problem. Chakwera promised to introduce reforms to seal all loopholes allowing for corruption and to improve the judicial system so corruption cases would not be ignored.

    However, once in power it didn’t look like these changes were effectively being implemented. As usual, the first year people gave the new administration some time. The president kept on making the same promises but made very little actual progress. 

    The second year continued in the same way and Malawians started to lose patience. People started to take their discontent out to the streets. The economic situation in Malawi also kept getting worse, with costs of living skyrocketing every day and a rise in unemployment. People looked back at campaign promises and compared them to their reality, and frustration arose.

    I wouldn’t say all campaign commitments were just empty promises and lies, because there were issues the government attempted to address, but progress has been slow. For instance, they promised to increase funding for the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and ensure its independence. Funding for the ACB increased significantly, and a new law was eventually passed to amend the Corrupt Practices Act, removing the requirement of the ACB director to seek consent to prosecute corruption cases. They promised to set up special courts to prosecute corruption cases, and finally submitted a bill to amend the Court’s Act and make a provision for special courts.

    But they also promised to work to recover stolen assets and are moving at an extremely slow pace in this regard. And they also said they would create a million jobs for young people, which has never happened.

    What’s behind recent protests against the judiciary?

    Last year we started seeing lots of protests against corruption and impunity. There have been numerous cases involving government officials – including from the current administration – that have not been prosecuted. Investigations take years, and those involving senior government officials take the longest and rarely end in conviction. Recent ACB reports show that only 30 per cent of such cases have been concluded, and most of these date back to 2015.

    In sum, the wheels of justice are barely moving, and people have concluded that the government is pursuing selective justice. In a recent case, for instance, an 18-year-old man arrested for cannabis possession was prosecuted and given a sentence of eight years in prison, while people accused of serious crimes involving corruption are given three and four-year sentences, if anything at all. Ironically, before this case, a powerful business leader was accused of the same crime, marijuana possession, and was just asked to pay a fine. Such arbitrariness is pushing people to the streets.

    While selective justice is nothing new, this time around people want to hold the government accountable for the promises made on the campaign trail. As a result, pressure is also coming from the opposition to hold the government to account. When the current ruling party was in the opposition, they were the ones raising these issues. Now people are realising it is not any different from its predecessors.

    How have the authorities responded to the protests?

    The government has often tried to stop protests with the use of excessive force. Just recently, over 80 activists were detained and arrested. They were charged with holding an illegal assembly, although the constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly. Hours before these demonstrations started, some Malawians claiming to be from the business community requested the court issue an injunction to stop them. The injunction was granted late in the afternoon, so people gathered the next morning without knowing about it, and the police came in and started firing teargas, beating up people and arresting everyone they could.

    The tactics used by the current administration are the same ones used by its predecessors. The habit of getting last-minute injunctions isn’t new at all: this is what happened in July 2011, when the government got a last-minute injunction, people assembled without any knowledge of it and over 20 were killed by the police in the ensuing repression.

    What shocks me the most is the court’s interpretation of the meaning of the right to the freedom of assembly. The Police Act is very clear about what needs to be done if people stage a protest. It all starts with a notification to the authorities, but this is usually interpreted as people needing to obtain permission from the police, which is against what the law actually says.

    In the recent protest against the judiciary, we were told the demonstration would not proceed until the organisers provided a list with the protesters’ names, to be held liable if the demonstration resulted in damage to property. This is strange, as you cannot be sure who is going to attend a protest and how they will conduct themselves. It is not just the police but also the courts that are now asking for a registry of attendees, something that cannot be found anywhere in the law.

    How could the international community support Malawian civil society?

    Over the past two or three years, new civil society groups have emerged to defend human rights and economic justice, and are mobilising mostly through social media platforms and community radio, particularly in rural areas, issuing statements and calling people to the streets.

    Malawian civil society needs international protection. We need to be able to express ourselves and feel safe while doing it, so we need our international partners to send a message to the president, reminding him of his commitments and his obligations under the constitution. 

    We continue to experience the same challenges as in the past, despite the administration being a beneficiary of civil society mobilisation. In 2019 and 2020, when organisations like ours were protesting against electoral irregularities, the current authorities were by our side and supported our protest for democracy. But they are now doing exactly what they criticised when they were in the opposition, including by passing laws that restrict civil society, such as the recent NGO Amendment Act.

    Civil society also needs resources, including for legal representation. There are currently over 80 civil society activists under arrest, most of whom don’t have legal representation. As a result, they remain in custody awaiting trial. There’s no fair access to justice and they could be held indefinitely.

    Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CHRRMalawi on Twitter.

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘The government should have assisted refugees under the pandemic’

    Htoon Htoon OoCIVICUS speaks to Htoon Htoon Oo, a refugee and activist from Myanmar, currently based in Malaysia. In 2007, he was a chemistry student in East Yangon University and an activist who took part in what was described as the Saffron Revolution, a series of protests unleashed by a hike in fuel prices, which were harshly repressed. He was also active during Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government in 2010.

    Aware of being under state surveillance and fearing that his family members and loved ones would experience reprisals and harassment due to his activism, he fled Myanmar in 2011 and has lived as a refugee in Malaysia ever since.

     

    What is the situation of refugees in Malaysia?

    The life of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia continues to be difficult, as it involves various struggles and suffering. We often feel helpless, hopeless, and unprotected. As of May 2021, there were an estimated 179,570 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia. The majority – a total of 154,840 – were from Myanmar, including 102,950 Rohingya people, 22,490 ethnic Chins, and 29,400 from other ethnic groups fleeing persecution or conflict-affected areas.

    Malaysia has not yet ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The absence of a legal framework for recognising refugees and asylum seekers has created problematic and exploitative conditions for refugees and asylum seekers because we lack formal rights to work, we do not have legal status, we do not benefit from any legal protection and we continue to remain at risk of arrest, detention, and refoulement.

    We also have limited civic freedoms. Although there are many different organisations of refugees from various backgrounds, when it comes to expressing our concerns and organising our struggles, the reality is that we are not able to do it freely. There is common fear among refugees regarding the consequences of speaking up about our struggle, expressing our concerns, and claiming our rights.

    For example, under the Peaceful Assembly Act, Section 4(a), the right to assemble peacefully is reserved exclusively for Malaysian citizens. Moreover, there are many laws in Malaysia that create a chilling effect for refugees who want to speak up, such as the Immigration Act, which criminalises undocumented migrants as well as refugees, given that we are not recognised by law. The Immigration Act also exposes refugees to severe forms of punishment, such as caning. The lack of recognition of refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia exposes us to arrest, imprisonment, and various abuses.

    What additional challenges have refugees faced under the pandemic?

    Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Malaysia in March 2020, refugees have faced several issues and struggles. The lockdown, known as the Movement Control Order (MCO), which was applied to the whole nation, has had a huge impact on refugees.

    Refugees cannot work under Malaysian law, but some do seek informal work to survive. Under the pandemic, we have seen cases of employers forcing refugees to work for salaries below the normal wage or to take unpaid leave or resign just because of their refugee status. Many refugees lost their jobs due to the pandemic. There is nothing to protect us from these abuses.

    We also fear for our safety during the pandemic because there have been several cases of refugees being targeted by the police and immigration officers due to a lack of clear policies and awareness among law enforcement officials on what a refugee is. Some refugees were fined by the police, and some were even detained at police stations for several days.

    Some people also label us as illegal immigrants even if we hold complete and authentic UNHCR refugee cards or documents.

    Most of the refugees who face these struggles are also dealing with depression and are mentally exhausted through thinking of ways just to survive and remain safe.

    Have refugees received any support from the Malaysian government or the UNHCR during the pandemic?

    Refugees have received no support from the Malaysian government; rather we experienced more raids and increasing restrictions. This is the opposite of what should have happened: they should have provided us with access to information on COVID-19 treatment and testing and there should have been other support programmes for refugees during the pandemic.

    Instead, in May 2020, Malaysia’s immigration department and police force carried out immigration raids in Kuala Lumpur. While those registered with the UNHCR were largely spared arrest, unregistered asylum seekers were swept up along with undocumented migrant workers. Some were also stuck in areas under strict lockdown surrounded by barbed wire, with residents forbidden from leaving their homes, which made it very difficult. Many of us have not recovered from this.

    There has also been a wave of online hate speech towards refugees, and particularly towards Rohingya people, during the pandemic, accompanied by government announcements and policies that are hostile towards migrants and refugees.

    The UNHCR sent direct messages to refugees whose documents expired informing them that they would remain valid until the UNHCR could resume its normal operations, which were disrupted by the pandemic. This, however, made no difference to law enforcement, and many people have been fined and arrested.

    What is the status of refugees regarding access to the COVID-19 vaccine?

    The Malaysian government has encouraged refugees to come forward to register for vaccination but has not provided clear information, and the existing systems are not accessible for refugees.

    For example, there is a requirement for specific documents to register for vaccines. The system requires refugees and asylum seekers to input an ID card or passport number, two documents that we do not have access to.

    The system should be more inclusive of all persons living in Malaysia, including refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented migrants because vaccinations should be the first barrier against the creation of COVID-19 clusters. Arresting us will only make things worse because fatal clusters are known to have been formed in detention centres. The criminalisation of immigration is at the root of this problem.

    What are the demands of refugee communities towards the Malaysian government and the international community?

    We would like the Malaysian government to raise public awareness on the status of refugees as refugees, rather than as illegal immigrants, ‘risk’ groups or criminals. There has been a negative perception of refugees as only benefiting from society and not contributing to it, which is false.

    In reality, we want to contribute to Malaysia in every way that we can. We urge the Malaysian government to give refugees legal access to work and to acknowledge their legal status. We are currently unable to find formal work, and lack of recognition exposes us to exploitation. We hope the government will raise awareness of the true reasons why refugees are here.

    I hope that the government can work hand in hand with the UNHCR and civil society to settle refugee issues in more appropriate and effective ways and not deport any Myanmar detainees back to Myanmar, which is currently under a military regime. Instead, we should find solutions such as a resettlement programme. There should also be clear policies and information on vaccines accessible to all refugees.

    Civic space inMalaysiais rated as ‘obstructedby theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Malaysia: A year after elections, fundamental freedoms still restricted

     

    A year after the electoral victory of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, authorities have failed to reform repressive legislation or expand civic space, and continue to restrict fundamental freedoms and silence dissent, a new briefing from ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS said today.

    The briefing, New Government, Old Tactics: Lack of progress on reform commitments undermines fundamental freedoms and democracy in Malaysia”, concludes that, despite some encouraging early steps by Malaysia’s new political leaders, broader reform processes to protect human rights have ground to a halt. The Pakatan Harapan coalition has not followed through on commitments in its campaign manifesto to reform repressive legislation, including the Sedition Act 1948, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, and Peaceful Assembly Act 2012. Instead, authorities have used these laws to harass and prosecute activists, government critics and others exercising fundamental freedoms.

    “The Pakatan Harapan government came to power on the back of promises to reform repressive laws and open up public spaces that have long been restricted by the previous regime. Instead, authorities have used the same old laws to silence critics, stifle unpopular opinions and control public discourse. These retrogressive tactics blemish the supposed reformist credentials of Malaysia’s new leaders, and impede the democratic transition that they promised to bring about,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer.

    While welcoming steps to establish a self-governing media council, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS are concerned about that the lack of progress in reforming restrictive laws that impede press freedom and the ability of journalists to report without fear of judicial harassment and criminal penalties. Further, there has been a lack of transparency in legislative and institutional reform processes, with limited opportunities for meaningful participation by civil society and other stakeholders. The decision by authorities to place the report of the Institutional Reform Committee under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), preventing its release to the public, underscores these concerns.  

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS’s review of the government’s record during its first year in office reveals continued restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly. Those involved in peaceful protests, including students, women’s rights activists and indigenous activists have been arbitrarily detained, threatened or investigated, while the Peaceful Assembly Act has yet to be amended in line with international law and standards. Further, the government has failed to follow through on manifesto promises to create an enabling environment for civil society and to review laws and policies that restrict the registration and operations of NGOs.

    “The government must halt the judicial harassment of demonstrators for exercising their right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and instruct police officers that it is their duty to facilitate peaceful assemblies, rather than hinder them,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher. “Immediate steps must also be taken to review the Societies Act to guarantee that undue restrictions on the freedom of association are removed,” Benedict added. 

    The Pakatan Harapan government faces tremendous challenges in dismantling the repressive legal and institutional framework built during 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule. ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS understand that opposition forces are determined to undermine progressive reforms in Malaysia. Nevertheless, we urge the government to follow through on its promises and undertake a comprehensive, transparent and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. Failure to act with urgency, resolve and principle in this regard will lead to the entrenchment of restrictions on civic space and call into the question the government’s commitments to fundamental freedoms.

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Malaysia as ‘Obstructed

     

  • Malaysia: Civic spaces shrinking at an alarming rate for LGBTQ persons in Malaysia

    Together with over 66 organisations, we express concern over the recent raid of a social gathering in Kuala Lumpur and the shrinking civic spaces for LGBTIQ person in Malaysia.


     In the wake of Halloween celebrations, the Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM), the Federal Territories Islamic Religious Department (JAWI), and the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), conducted a joint raid of a social gathering attended by people of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expressions (SOGIE), including LGBTQ persons. The raid which took place on October 29, 2022, resulted in the arrests and interrogation of at least 24 gender-diverse persons.

    Those arrested were alleged to have committed unclearly defined violations such as “encouraging vice” and “indecent acts”; the use of ‘illegal substances’; and for freely exercising one’s gender expression. All persons have been released on bail, and awaiting further action. Sharing of experiences by the attendees and monitoring by LGBTQ human rights groups responding to the raid show a number of critical human rights violations. They reinforce the ongoing trend of state actions that suggest discriminatory intent to persecute and shrinking spaces for LGBTQ people to live with dignity. During the raid, the attendees were segregated based on religion and gender: gender-diverse persons identified as Muslims were targeted, vilified, mistreated, misgendered, and slapped with charges for violating the Syariah Criminal Offences Act. Trans and gender-diverse people reportedly experienced degrading and humiliating treatment while undergoing urine tests by the police.


     READ THE FULL STATEMENT

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

     

  • Malaysia: Fundamental freedoms in decline under Perikatan Nasional government

    Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

    The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

    The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

    “The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

    Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

    Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

    In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

    The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

    The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

    “The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

    Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    For further information:

    • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
    • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

    More information

    The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.

     

  • Malaysia: Gap in election manifestos on commitments to respect civic freedoms

    Malaysia Elections Gallo 2022

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, calls on all parties contesting the upcoming elections to strengthen commitments to respecting and protecting civic freedoms. Despite some promises to review restrictive laws, the three main coalitions contesting have failed to outline clear steps they will take to strengthen human rights and fundamental freedoms, which have come under increasing attack in recent years. 

     

  • Malaysia: New report on the state of fundamental freedoms under the Perikatan Nasional government

    Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

    The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

    The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

    “The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

    Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

    Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

    In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

    The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

    The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

    “The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

    ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

    Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    For further information:

    • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
    • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

    More information

    The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.

     

  • MALDIVES: ‘We have come a long way, but more needs to be done to further open up civic space’

    SaafathCIVICUS speaks about the situation of women’s rights in Maldives with Safaath Ahmed Zahir, founder and president of Women & Democracy (W&D). 
     
    Founded in 2016, W&D is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s economic and political participation and good democratic governance in the Maldives through research, advocacy and awareness-raising activities. 
     
    What led you to become an activist and found a women’s rights CSO?
     Growing up in Maldives, a small island developing nation, the disparities between men and women became evident to me. I came from a majority-women family and witnessed the personal upheavals that my mother endured and how much my family battled for my education. Returning home after studying abroad was an eye-opener for me. In interviewing for a job, I experienced first-hand the deep-rooted patriarchal culture and the double standards women face on a daily basis. So I decided to put my education to good use: to push for women’s rights and empowerment in my country.

    I first played a role in creating Women on Boards, a CSO promoting gender diversity in the workplace. This inspired me to try to contribute further to building the organisational infrastructure and community to support women’s economic and political participation in Maldives. The organisation I founded, W&D, is now one of the most prominent in Maldives, with over 300 members, 200 of them aged between 18 and 29.

    What are the main women’s rights challenges in Maldives?

    Maldives ranked 106 out of 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. Women are marginalised in the political sphere due to institutional barriers, discriminatory cultural practices and social norms. Despite being roughly half of the population, having a 98 per cent literacy rate and actively participating in political parties, in 2009 only 6.5 of members of parliament were women. The proportion fell to 5.9 per cent in 2013, and again to 4.6 per cent in 2019. Currently, only four out of 87 parliamentarians are women, and few women hold senior public sector roles.

    With the passing of the Decentralisation Act, which allocates 33 per cent of local council seats to women, there has been some progress in local governance. The Maldives’ women development committees are an important platform for women to enter into politics and to participate in the decision-making process at local and national levels. But many barriers still limit their fulfilment of their mandate. They should be empowered to achieve true decentralisation.

    Women continue to take on the burden of childcare and domestic chores, which makes it difficult for women to engage in economic activities on a par with men. Female labour force participation in Maldives is higher than in other South Asian countries, but women tend to be clustered in low-growth sectors and in lower-paying positions, and they earn less than men. While tourism is the lifeblood of our economy, women make up only seven per cent of the tourism labour force.

    Women’s entrepreneurship is generally underdeveloped, and women’s economic contribution tends to be rendered invisible, particularly in major sectors such as tourism, fisheries, construction and wholesale and retail trading. Gendered economic inequalities were exacerbated under the pandemic, reversing what little progress had been made over previous years.

    Gender-based violence also remains an entrenched problem. One in three women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. There is a great need for more and better infrastructure to support survivors.

    In sum, a clear female disadvantage persists. Regulatory institutions must be strengthened to solidify existing gender equality gains and mitigate gender inequalities.

    How is civil society in general, and W&D in particular, working to address these challenges?

    Women’s rights CSOs have been working to address these challenges for several years, through capacity development workshops, advocacy campaigns, movement-building and creating opportunities for women and girls.

    Six years on from its founding, W&D has become a leading CSO working to protect the rights and improve the lives of women. We particularly advocate for women’s safety, economic and political leadership and for inclusive democratic governance.

    Since 2018, we have conducted an annual capacity development programme to advance women’s leadership and political empowerment in partnership with the International Republican Institute. In three years, more than 680 women aspiring to public office and political leadership have taken part in our training activities. In the 2021 elections for local councils and women’s development committees, 83 women who successfully completed our training were elected.

    During the pandemic, we launched a rapid response programme for vulnerable women and girls. In response to the dramatic increase in reports of domestic abuse, we established a domestic violence and mental wellness helpline to help women seek the assistance of the relevant authorities, undertake safety planning and connect them with wellbeing resources. We provided survivors with psychosocial counselling and referred the most urgent cases to emergency shelters or other safe spaces. With a grant from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) we were able to assist 130 women.

    Also with QCT support, we worked to improve access to menstrual materials for vulnerable women and girls. Approximately 10,500 sanitary materials were distributed as part of our rapid response programme. We have just received additional support to continue our rapid response programme. We expect to assist at least 240 more women and girls within the next eight months.

    Additionally, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation we have hosted multi-stakeholder discussions and consultations with vulnerable populations, relevant government bodies and CSOs to offer policy reforms to address the needs of the most vulnerable.

    This year we implemented a project to help strengthen the capacity of CSOs and community-based organisations working towards women’s empowerment and social development in Maldives. We brought together more than 160 people from various organisations.

    How has civil society in Maldives joined the recent global mobilisation wave against gender-based violence?

    Over the past seven years there have been many street mobilisations, mainly condemning rape and demanding justice for sexual crimes against women and girls and children in Maldives. Protection gaps in rape laws and barriers to accessing justice have perpetuated the prevalence of sexual violence and the lack of justice for survivors. The dire state of women’s safety in Maldives was highlighted by the 2016 Demographic Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, which showed that one in every four women in relationships had faced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. In recent years, the Maldivian community has become more outspoken on the issue, particularly amidst the #MeToo movement, where a lot of Maldivian women came forward with their experiences.

    Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were multiple street mobilisations spurred by cases of sexual violence and injustice. In early 2020, following a case of sexual abuse of a two-year-old girl by her relatives, outraged citizens protested against rape and urged the government to protect children from predators. The authorities again came under criticism in mid-2020 after a foreign woman was sexually assaulted and the suspects were released from custody, with reports soon following that one of them was in a position of influence. People gathered outside parliament to protest against rape and impunity.

    Following the exacerbating effects of the pandemic on violence and abuse against women and girls, protesters rallied again in 2021 The government has taken steps to address these problems. It ratified the First Amendment to the Sexual Offences Act to improve the definition of rape and strengthen investigations, including by removing burdensome evidence requirements. In 2021, it also criminalised marital rape, marking a significant milestone for the women’s rights movement. But there is still a lot of progress to be made in combating the violence and abuse faced by women and children.

    How has the space for civil society action evolved over the past few years?

    As a relatively new democracy, the Maldives has taken significant steps towards ensuring civic space freedoms, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

    Following the November 2018 elections, Maldives has experienced legislative reforms and a relative opening up of civic space. A commission was established to probe unresolved disappearances. Maldives drastically improved its position in the World Press Freedom Index, moving from 142 to 87 out of 180 countries. This was made possible by reforms such as the repeal of the 2016 defamation law.

    While Maldives has come a long way since its first democratic election back in 2008, more needs to be done to further open up civic space. Over the years, human rights defenders have been targeted and subjected to verbal attacks, including hate speech and death threats, while women activists have faced online vilification and threats due to their work for women’s rights.

    CSOs are also under pressure from extremists and hate groups, whose influence in limiting the social and cultural lives and roles of women has persisted. There have been instances of religious scholars advocating for girl child marriage and female genital mutilation, and attempts to suppress women advocates who speak out against these grave violations of women’s rights. Women human rights defenders are specifically targeted and face additional and gender-specific challenges, including threats of sexual violence and rape.

    What kind of international support does the Maldives’ women’s rights movement need?

    We need the continued support of international partners and collaborators to maintain and advance our work to empower women. As our movement is mainly composed of CSOs, we rely on the generosity of international organisations that identify with our mission to be able to continue to run the projects that are making a difference in Maldives.

    We also need continued opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with the international community. The exchange of ideas and information among countries and cultures is inspiring and empowering for women and girls in Maldives, particularly in the areas of business and politics.

    International support for Maldivian civic space also plays a significant role in furthering women’s empowerment. This is largely achieved by developing the skill sets of CSOs through workshops and programmes run by our international partners and collaborators.

    Vocal support from the international community for the Maldives women’s rights movement is also crucial. While we have faced obstacles, CSOs in Maldives have persevered in promoting women’s rights and we will continue to do so alongside our international partners and supporters.


    Civic space in Maldives is rated ‘obstructed’by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Women & Democracy through its website or Facebook page, and follow @wdmaldives on Twitter.

     

  • MALTA: ‘People should be able to access abortions locally without the risk of criminalisation or stigmatisation’

    Malta BreakTheTabooCIVICUS speaks about the struggle for abortion rights and the anti-rights backlash in Malta with Break the Taboo Malta.

    Break the Taboo Malta is a storytelling platform that documents abortion experiences to highlight the lived reality and address abortion stigma in Malta.

     

  • MEXICO: ‘Human rights defenders constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk’

    AntonioLaraCIVICUS speaks with Antonio Lara Duque, a human rights lawyer with the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Centre (CDHZL), about the situation of Indigenous rights defenders in Mexico, and specifically about the situation of Kenia Hernández, a criminalised and unjustly imprisoned woman Indigenous leader.

    CDHZL is a civil society organisation in the state of Mexico that accompanies the struggles of Indigenous communities, native peoples and collectives who are seeking a dignified life by claiming and exercising their human rights.

    Who is Kenia Hernández, and why is she detained?

    Kenia is an Indigenous Amuzga young woman. She is 32 years old. She is the coordinator of the Zapata Vive Libertarian Collective, which promotes peaceful resistance against the neoliberal development model. She is a lawyer by training, a self-identified feminist and is dedicated to defending human rights, and specifically to defending people imprisoned for political reasons, looking for missing people with the goal of finding them alive and giving legal support to female victims of violence.

    Kenia was arrested on 18 October 2020 under accusations of attacks on a public thoroughfare and robbery with violence. She was charged with serious crimes to ensure she could be kept in the most terrible maximum-security prison for women in all of Mexico.

    On 15 March 2022 the trial court in Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico, will determine whether she is guilty or innocent in one of the five criminal cases against her. All these cases were fabricated with the sole purpose of isolating her and preventing her from continuing mobilising, as well as to send a signal of exemplary punishment to all those people she managed to bring together into a nationwide movement that questioned the private management of highways.

    Is Kenia’s case part of a broader trend of criminalisation of Indigenous defenders in Mexico?

    Indeed, Kenia’s case reveals that the Mexican state has a clear policy of a ‘pedagogy of punishment’, for two reasons.

    First, it sends a signal to the people who protest, and particularly to those who protest against the privatisation of highways, that they should no longer resort to public demonstrations as a form of social mobilisation, because if they do, they will bring upon themselves an unjust and cruel imprisonment such as the one experienced by Kenia.

    Second, Mexican state officials are trying to subdue and bend the will of Kenia, to punish her for protesting, but also to weaken her convictions, to subdue the energy and strength she puts into protest, to let her know who is in charge and who must obey. As she has not submitted to them, they continue to keep her in prison. They know that if she is released she will go back to her activism.

    Both situations are seriously worrying, because they seek to reverse decades of social struggles and opening of democratic spaces.

    What is civil society, and specifically CDHZL, doing to secure her release?

    CDHZL is dedicated to disseminating, promoting and defending the human rights of peoples, organisations and human rights defenders. We defend the environment, land and territory, the human right to water and Indigenous culture. And we focus particularly on the protection of human rights defenders, since in Mexico these are people who constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk.

    Part of our work consists in providing legal defence to human rights defenders who are unjustly criminalised and imprisoned for the peaceful defence of their rights. In its 10 years of existence, CDHZL has helped around 250 people regain their freedom.

    We hope that soon Kenia will be another of them. Mexican civil society has given a lot of visibility to her case, putting her criminalisation on the public agenda and involving key people, in particular Mexican senators, to convince relevant decision-makers to stop criminalising Kenia. We have also tried to bring her case to the international arena, pointing out the punitive policy of the Mexican federal government.

    Through its large team of lawyers, CDHZL has sustained a legal defence in the five legal processes against Kenia, with all that they entail: dozens of hearings, challenges and trials of guarantees, some of which we won. But clearly this is much more than a legal struggle, as high-ranking officials are determined to keep Kenia in prison at all costs.

    Has there been any improvement in the situation of Indigenous defenders under the current leftist government?

    We expected improvements in the situation of Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and collective rights more generally, but unfortunately there continues to be a generalised disdain among the federal government, regardless of its leftist leanings.

    The government has been unable or unwilling to tune in to the most heartfelt demands of Indigenous peoples. Aggressions against human rights defenders have continued, including disappearances, murders and imprisonments. When it comes to imprisonment, Kenia’s case is one of the most shocking examples of the misuse of the criminal justice system against a human rights defender under a government that claims to be the architect of a ‘fourth transformation’ – a process of profound change supposedly comparable to those of independence (1810-1821), reform (1858-1861) and revolution (1910-1917).

    What kind of regional and international support does Mexican civil society need in its struggle for human rights and civic space?

    Undoubtedly, international observation, very poorly accepted by the current government, would help recover democratic spaces for social protest and the free expression of ideas.

    Appeals to the Mexican government can help sensitise the authorities to the importance of respecting human rights and those who defend them beyond political party affiliations.

    International mediation and good offices will undoubtedly be a key tool to strengthen civil society in the defence of human rights, particularly in processes where the life and freedom of human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples’ rights are at stake.

    Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with CDHZL through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow @cdhzloficial on Twitter.