civic space

 

  • MONGOLIA: ‘The government makes decisions without proper consultation’

    CIVICUS speaks with two civil society activists, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about restrictions experienced by civil society in Mongolia and proposed new laws affecting civil society.

    Mongolia protest

    Mongolian youth protest in Sukhbaatar Square (Photo Credit: Anand Tumurtogoo)

    What’s the problem with the Associations and Foundations bills, currently under discussion in Mongolia?

    The drafts of the bills on associations and foundations have been under discussion since 2019 and were submitted by the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs to parliament in November 2021. The bills are meant to govern the work of civil society organisations (CSOs), including the processes for registration and reporting and the types of activities allowed, among other issues.

    If passed, these bills will impose undue burdens on CSOs, particularly regarding the ways they will have to report to meet government requirements. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of CSOs, three-quarters of which are non-membership CSOs, may have to stop operating because of failure to comply with various undue burdens. These include increased and burdensome reporting criteria that apply to all CSOs regardless of their size, capacities and activities as well as internal requirements related to management and organisational structures that are not suitable for many informal groups.

    The provision establishing a Civil Society Development Support Council, an independent body to oversee CSOs, is also problematic because it comes with sweeping powers to dissolve organisations arbitrarily and allocate funding among CSOs, deciding which get government funding. This carries the potential of shrinking funding opportunities for many CSOs, particularly those working to further rights. The risk of arbitrary deregistration is also high, given the vast powers conferred on the Council and the broad and vague provisions on prohibited activities.

    How has civil society reacted?

    CSOs have tried to review and refine the bills several times to ensure they uphold fundamental civic freedoms, but to no avail. The attempt now is to block the laws.

    In November 2021, Mongolian civil society, together with several international CSOs, launched a campaign calling for the bills to be scrapped immediately, given there had been no consultation with civil society and there was no time or space to do so. The campaign managed to halt the progress of the draft bills and parliament announced that further discussions would be held.

    As of April 2022, it seemed likely the bills would be postponed and undergo further consultation. However, the speaker of parliament issued a decree to establish a working group to draft an alternative bill, the Professional Associations Bill.

    This draft had also been circulated in 2019 and was deemed problematic because it would tarnish the independence of CSOs by requiring CSO workers to have professional licences. At the moment, the discussion of this bill is suspended.

    What can the international community do to support Mongolian civil society?

    Although parliament has said the bills are currently suspended, there is no guarantee they will be dropped. Past experience shows the government often makes decisions on policy matters without proper consultation. Therefore, continuous scrutiny, including at the regional and international levels, would be very helpful.

    Access to resources and connection to international platforms such as the United Nations system would also be useful to help local civil society continue its struggle. 

    Civic space in Mongolia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 

     

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  • MYANMAR: ‘If we fail to take appropriate action, the junta will commit more crimes’

    KyawWinCIVICUS speaks with Kyaw Win, founder and Executive Director of theBurma Human Rights Network (BHRN), about the situation in Myanmar one year after the coup. As theCIVICUS Monitor has documented, activists and journalists continue to be criminalised and killed. Political prisoners have been tortured and ill-treated and the junta continues to block aid and imposes restrictions on humanitarian workers. 

    BHRN works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Myanmar. It has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with the international community and earned a reputation for providing credible and reliable analysis. It recently published reports oncrimes against humanity by the Myanmar military following the coup and on human rights violations and the situation inRohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

    What led you to found BHRN?

    I was born and brought up in a predominantly Muslim township in Yangon and lived there for 30 years. But in 2009 I had to leave the country and stayed at the Thailand-Myanmar border, temporarily leaving my family. Because I was not able to go back, I eventually moved to the UK and after one-and-a-half years I was reunited with my family.

    In 2012, when violence against Muslims erupted in Myanmar, I felt I needed to take action and founded BHRN, which was registered in the UK in 2015. Despite progress in the transition to democracy, we decided to keep BHRN underground. This surprised many, but we felt the situation could reverse easily. Unfortunately, this came true with the February 2021 military coup.

    BHRN tracks hate speech both online and offline. We believe hate speech is very dangerous and monitoring it helps us predict impending violence. As we are underground, we are able to collect data on the ground even if it’s very risky. We work in Myanmar and have staff there, including in Rakhine State, as well as in Bangladesh and Thailand. We see the need to expand because as a result of the coup there are restrictions on movement.

    We have experts on various themes, including on freedom of religion and Rohingya issues, and we produce monthly reports. We also undertake international advocacy to share our research with decision-makers such as United Nations (UN) representatives, European Union officials and staff of the US State Department, as well as decision-makers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

    We also work with young people in Myanmar and build capacity around human rights, democracy and pluralism.

    A year on from the coup, what is the situation for activists and civil society in Myanmar, and how are human rights groups outside the country responding?

    The military has accused civil society activists of leading the resistance against the coup with backing and funding from the west. The military wants to destroy civil society, and many are being attacked and killed, so there is a lot of fear. Those in detention are in terrible conditions. Many have been tortured.

    Other activists who became aware that the coup was imminent were able to flee the country or leave the cities. They now operate from the outside, in Thailand and at the Thailand-Myanmar border, supporting those still in the country.

    We are calling for justice and the removal of the military from power. We have been calling for international sanctions since 2017, following the Rohingya genocide. However, at the time the international community was unwilling to take strong action, as they hoped that democratic reforms would be undertaken by the government of the National League for Democracy. There was only symbolic action but no targeting of the government at that time.

    Following the coup, we made clear to the international community that if we fail to take appropriate action, the junta would be emboldened to commit more crimes. Now, finally, targeted economic sanctions have been imposed and some companies, such as Chevron and Total, have decided to leave Myanmar. Some argue that economic sanctions will push Myanmar closer to China, but those people forget that in 2007, following sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, there was an internal revolt that led to the transition to a civilian government. The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer due to sanctions, but many have told me they welcome them as long as they hit the military.

    We are also pushing for an arms embargo and to stop the sale of jet fuel to the junta, which they have used to bomb civilians. Another thing we request from the international community is humanitarian support.

    We are concerned about the UN’s position, which appears to view the military as a stakeholder in a potential power-sharing agreement. The UN Special Envoy recently expressed this position and we were very disappointed.

    We also have concerns with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed in exile by those who had been democratically elected, because we have observed the exclusion of minorities. The NUG has no Muslim representation, so we don’t have a voice. This also affects the NUG’s credibility.

    How do you assess the response to the military coup by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

    In April 2021, a five-point consensus plan was agreed at an ASEAN summit. This included an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

    However, ASEAN is not united on this. It includes three groupings that cannot agree on anything. For instance, Vietnam is close to Russia and would block any arms embargo. Thailand seems to support the military junta. Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a strong stand; we have engaged with them since day one and they have supported us. Singapore has also spoken up.

    It doesn’t help that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are toying with ASEAN, using this regional body as their proxy. They have passed the buck to ASEAN to resolve an issue that they have failed to tackle.

    We can’t expect more from ASEAN than it can deliver. We want the military to be removed from power and replaced with a civilian government, and this is something many ASEAN governments don’t understand. ASEAN’s five-point consensus plan has not been implemented. ASEAN has no weight on Myanmar unless China or the USA move. 

    We seem to have excessive expectations placed on ASEAN, while in fact there is not much it can do. The rest of the international community should step up and do more.

    What can international civil society do to support activists in Myanmar and hold the junta accountable?

    In the past we only focused on human rights investigations, but now we are also doing humanitarian work. We are renting and setting up safe houses to hide people and helping them leave the country. Costs have greatly increased but funding has remained the same.

    Those working in the country need the support of international civil society, and new ways to deliver support need to be devised because it has become dangerous to receive funds as the junta is monitoring bank accounts. There are also issues of accountability and transparency, as we cannot disclose the names of the people we are helping.

    However, I believe if we overcome this challenge, Myanmar’s civil society will emerge very strong. But we need more understanding and engagement with us.

    I believe nothing lasts forever and this too will pass. The junta will have to leave at some point. While the situation is quite bad, a good sign is that many military personnel have changed sides and now support the NUG. But we need to continue our struggle with a clear vision of the future that is centred on human rights and democracy. And we need support from the international community so those struggling on the ground will one day see their dreams come true.

    Civic space inMyanmar is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with BHRN through itswebsite and follow@kyawwin78 on Twitter. 

     

  • MYANMAR: ‘Opposition parties complain that the election body censors their messaging'

    Cape DiamondCIVICUS speaks to award-winning journalist Cape Diamond (Pyae Sone Win) about the upcoming elections in Myanmar. Cape is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar, covering issues of human rights, crisis and conflict. Currently freelancing for the Associated Press (AP), he has provided critical coverage during the Rohingya crisis and contributed to numerous international outlets, including Al Jazeera, ABC News and CBS. He also contributed to the BAFTA Award-winning documentaryMyanmar’s Killing Fields and New York Film Festival gold medal award-winner The Rohingya Exodus.

     

    Scheduled on 8 November 2020, the election will be Myanmar’s first since 2015, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and only the second competitive election since 1990, when the military annulled the NLD’s overwhelming victory.

    What is the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

    The situation for the freedom of speech is very concerning. Over the years, journalists and rights activists in Myanmar have been criminally charged for their work. Restrictive laws, including the Telecommunications Law, the Unlawful Associations Act, the Official Secrets Act and defamation provisions in the Penal Code, continue to be used to prosecute activists and journalists. The Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law has been used against those protesting.

    Many political parties have raised complaints that the Union Election Commission (UEC), the electoral body, has censored the messages that are set for broadcast on national TV ahead of the elections. For example, Ko Ko Gyi, chairman of the People's Party, said that the edits that the UEC made to his election campaign speech prevent him from airing the party's full political stance ahead of the elections. Two parties – the Democratic Party for a New Society and the National Democratic Force – cancelled their election broadcasts in protest against censorship.

    At the same time, critics say that the electoral body is biased in favour of the ruling party, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s something that we should keep our eyes on and speak out about to ensure credible elections.

    Has the electoral body engaged with civil society?

    I’ve been hearing that the current UEC is not that actively engaging with civil society. They initially barred the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), one of the largest election monitoring groups in the country, from monitoring the election. The UEC accused PACE of not being registered under the law that applies to civil society organisations and of receiving funding from international sources. Even though the UEC subsequently allowed PACE to operate, the organisation is struggling to proceed due to the newly imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

    What are the main issues the campaign will revolve around?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil war across the country are the main issues for us at the moment. It’s very clear that the ruling party and the government are not paying enough attention to the situation of minorities in regions experiencing civil war. 

    It’s worrying that the country is undergoing a pandemic, which I believe it does not have enough capacity to handle. As of 29 September 2020, we have had a total of 11,000 reported cases and 284 deaths due to COVID-19. A surge of infections over the last few weeks has been worrying, as we only had around 400 confirmed cases in August. I am concerned about whether the environment will be safe for people to go out and vote on the election days. 

    More than 20 political parties have sent requests to the electoral body to postpone the elections due to the pandemic, but they were rejected. The ruling party is not willing to have the elections postponed.

    Will it be possible to have a ‘normal’ campaign in this context? 

    I don’t think it’s possible to have normal campaign rallies such as those of the previous election in 2015, because we are in a pandemic. The government has taken several measures to combat the spread of the disease, including orders against gatherings of people. Political parties are not allowed to organise their campaigns in semi-lockdown areas.

    Major cities like Yangon and the Yangon Region, as well as some townships in Mandalay, are under semi-lockdown, which the government calls the Stay-At-Home programme. At the same time, the whole of Rakhine State, which is experiencing civil war, is also on semi-lockdown. I am afraid people in the civil war zone will not be able to go out and vote.

    Candidates are using both mainstream and social media to reach their audiences. However, as noted earlier, some opposition parties have been censored by the UEC. Some opposition members have denounced unfair treatment by the UEC and the government, while the ruling party is using its power to expand its popularity. This will clearly harm the electoral chances of the opposition.

    What specific challenges do candidates face in Rakhine State?

    As the whole of Rakhine State is under COVID-19 restrictions, candidates are not able to campaign in person. Therefore, they are mostly campaigning on social media. At the same time, a long internet shutdown has been in place in many townships in Rakhine State, imposed due to ongoing fighting between the Arakan Army and the military. I am concerned about whether people will be able to get enough information around the elections.

    The Myanmar government is also using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya people and block them from running for political office. Election officials barred Kyaw Min, head of the Rohingya-led Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), from running. He was disqualified along with two other DHRP candidates because their parents were allegedly not citizens, as required by election law. This is one of the various tools used to oppress the Rohingya population.

    In October, the UEC released a smartphone app that was criticised over its use of a derogatory label for Rohingya Muslims. The mVoter2020 app, aimed at improving voter awareness, labels at least two candidates from the Rohingya ethnic group as ‘Bengali’, a term that implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh, although most have lived in Myanmar for generations. This label is rejected by many Rohingya people. Additionally, none of the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another several hundred thousand dispersed in other countries will be allowed to vote.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated asrepressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Follow@cape_diamond on Twitter.

     

  • MYANMAR: ‘The ruling military junta uses fear as a domination tool’

    Myanmar coup protests 3 Gallo

    CIVICUS speaks about the human rights situation and prospects for democracy in Myanmar with a civil society activist based in Myanmar, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

    What is the current situation in Myanmar, a year and a half on from the military coup?

    Myanmar has been in turmoil since February 2021. The coup halted the fragile democratisation process. All branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary – were concentrated in the hands of the junta and fundamental rights were suspended.

    The rule of law has been significantly degraded at every level. In the business sector, the junta’s inconsistent regulations make it impossible for investors to make decisions. Foreign investors are increasingly withdrawing from Myanmar, and the telecom sector fell into the hands of the junta’s cronies. The junta has questionable capacity to manage the economy, and inflation has pushed up the prices of essential commodities.

    The degradation of the rule of law puts people’s everyday life and livelihood at risk. Repression and fundamental rights violations make everyone feel unsafe and spread fear. The junta uses fear as a domination tool. Even once-peaceful villages in central Myanmar have become conflict zones where the junta’s troops have destroyed tens of thousands of people’s humble homes.

    What effects has the coup had on civil society?

    The post-coup setting is very challenging. The coup set back civil society, which had been slowly growing since the late 2000s, when young democracy and human rights activists who had survived the military dictatorship started getting together and organising to pursue common objectives.

    Our organisation came into existence in the early days of Myanmar’s political transition. There were limited freedoms and rights and limited space for civil society organisations. Our objective was to create a gathering space and provide support for political and civic activists. Within a decade, we adopted the broader objective of promoting civic space in Myanmar. We use technology to reach the right audiences and promote civic awareness, participation and engagement.

    Right now our work is severely restricted. A few organisations have relocated their offices to border areas or neighbouring countries, but we continue operating inside Myanmar. Since speaking out entails security risks, along with many other activists and organisations we have changed our approach, keeping a low profile. We are also conducting research as a tactical response to understand the challenges and find possible ways out.

    For some of Myanmar’s local civil society activists, life under a repressive regime is not a new experience: they operated under similar conditions before the 2010s. They continue to take numerous risks to serve their communities. Some organisations have also managed to channel international humanitarian assistance to conflict areas and vulnerable populations.

    What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing and what backlash do they face?

    Restoring democracy is hard work. Pro-democracy groups are working to force a return of power to an elected government. They discuss things such as interim arrangements, political pacts for federalism and a transitional constitution. On the ground, they promote rights and freedoms and defend people from the junta’s repression.

    Having expressed their wish for democracy in the 2020 general election, the public supports pro-democracy groups in various ways, such as by taking part in peaceful demonstrations and campaigns for the suspension of tax payment, boycotting the junta’s products and brands, and joining in so-called ‘social punishment’, a form of protest that consists of doxing members of the junta and their family members – revealing information about their businesses and family connections. Many people inside Myanmar and in the diaspora also contribute financially to support the security of people in conflict areas and provide emergency humanitarian supplies.

    The vital goal of pro-democracy protests is to sustain awareness of fundamental rights and freedoms, provide encouragement and show determination to take action rather than be the junta’s victims. In the earlier days, the protests were joined by people from all walks of life, including young people, students, members of civil society and political parties, government staff and celebrities. Even as the junta used lethal force and arbitrary arrests and committed atrocities, they continued to demonstrate daily in some rural regions and hold occasional flash mobs in urban areas.

    The junta keeps trying to clear out pro-democracy groups and to get the endorsement of the international community. As it finds the latter quite hard, it increasingly focuses on the former. They apply the so-called ‘four cuts’: they try to cut off financial support, rations, information and recruitment by pro-democracy groups. They arrest high-profile businesspeople suspected of supporting them and strictly regulate financial transactions. They deploy police and troops at every crossroads, equip their supporters with weapons and train informants. They have banned numerous news agencies and publications that could counter their propaganda and torched villages that were believed to host pro-democracy groups.

    What will be the consequences of the recent executions of pro-democracy activists?

    In late July the military executed four pro-democracy activists. It was the first time the death penalty was imposed in Myanmar in decades.

    For the junta, this means there is no turning back. They meant it as a message to shock and paralyse people and comfort their hard-line supporters. But it backfired: it fuelled robust determination among pro-democracy groups.

    Internationally, the executions showed that the junta will not play by the rules to gain international recognition. In fact, it has continued to show muscle, using hostage diplomacy. A former British ambassador, recently jailed, became one of the victims of this.

    When they lose power, they will have to face justice. Any transition will have to contemplate transitional justice arrangements to hold everyone who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable in domestic and international courts. They shall not enjoy impunity anymore.

    How can the international community help Myanmar’s civil society?

    Myanmar needs attention and practical coordination. The international community must listen to our people’s voices and reflect on their agendas by following up with quick and responsive actions. Paying attention to local concerns and voices and developing effective international assistance will make people feel more hopeful and maintain their resilience.

    Meanwhile, the junta is trying to boost its legitimacy by holding a controversial election. Elections under its iron fist will never be free and fair. The international community must be clever enough not to recognise such elections, which are a rotten trick the military have used for decades. Endorsing the junta as a legitimate ruler will only prolong the crisis.

    So we ask the international community: please listen to and amplify Myanmar people’s voices!


    Civic space inMyanmar is rated ‘repressedby theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • MYANMAR: “If this coup is not overturned, there will be many more political prisoners”

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent military coup in Myanmar with Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and co-founder of theAssistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP). Founded in 2000 by former political prisoners living in exile on the Thai-Myanmar border, AAPP has its headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand and two offices in Myanmar that opened in 2012. AAPP advocates for the release of political prisoners and the improvement of their lives after their release, with programmes aimed at ensuring access to education, vocational training, mental health counselling and healthcare.

     

  • MYANMAR: “Nearly everyone detained tells us they were beaten”

    CIVICUS speaks to Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), about the human rights situation in Myanmar. Manny was previously a journalist and spent many years living and working in Myanmar,

    Myanmar remains on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist as a country that has seen a recent and rapid decline in civic freedoms. The Myanmar military seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and launched a brutal crackdown against the protest movement. More than six months on, the assault on civic space persists. Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and detained. Many face baseless charges and there have been reports of torture and ill-treatment during interrogation, and of deaths in custody.

    Manny Maung

    What is the situation of civic freedoms in Myanmar more than five months after the coup?

    Since the military coup on 1 February, we’ve seen a rapid deterioration of the situation. Thousands have been arbitrarily detained and hundreds have been killed, while many more are in hiding and trying to evade arrest. HRW has determined that the military has committed abuses that amount to crimes against humanity against its population, so quite clearly the situation for civil society is extremely dangerous as civic freedoms have become non-existent.

    Is the civil disobedience movement (CDM) still active despite the repression?

    Protests are still being held daily, although they are smaller and more ad hoc. Flash strikes are popping up all over Myanmar, not just in major cities. But these demonstrations are now slightly muted, not just due to the violent crackdowns by the security forces, but also because of the devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued for protest leaders, including against almost 600 medical doctors who participated in or led the CDM earlier on. Journalists, lawyers and civil society leaders have all been targeted and so has anyone who is deemed to be a protest or strike leader. In some cases, if the authorities can’t find the individual who they are targeting for arrest, they arrest their family members as a form of collective punishment.

    What is the situation of protesters that have been arrested and detained?

    Nearly everyone we speak to who was detained or rounded up during widespread crackdowns on protests tells us they were beaten when they were arrested or being held in military interrogation centres. One teenager described to me how he was beaten so hard with a rifle butt that he passed out in between beatings. He also described how he was forced into a pit and buried up to his neck while blindfolded, all because the authorities suspected him of being a protest leader. Others have described severe beatings while being handcuffed to a chair, being denied food and water and deprived of sleep, and experiencing sexual violence or the threat of rape.

    Many protesters who are still detained have not had serious trials. Some have been charged and convicted, but that’s a small number compared to the thousands who are waiting to have their cases move forward. Many detainees who have since been released from prison tell us they had minimal contact, if any, with their lawyers. But the lawyers who represent them also face risks. At least six lawyers defending political prisoners have been arrested, three of them while representing a client in a trial proceeding.

    How has the disruption of internet and television services affected the CDM?

    Bans on satellite television have added to the restrictions on access to information. The junta claimed that ‘illegal organisations and news organisations’ were broadcasting programmes via satellite that threatened state security. But the bans appear primarily targeted at foreign news channels that broadcast via satellite into Myanmar, including two independent Myanmar-language broadcasters, Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima, both of which had their media licences revoked by the junta in March. Internet shutdowns have also made it difficult for people to access information and communicate with each other in real time.

    Blanket internet shutdowns are a form of collective punishment. They hinder access to information and communications that’s needed for daily life but especially during crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. The restrictions also provide cover for human rights abuses and complicate efforts to document violations.

    Why has violence in the ethnic areas increased, and who is being targeted?

    The coup sparked renewed fighting in some parts of the country between ethnic armed groups and the military. Rakhine State appears to be the exception, as the Arakan Army has negotiated a ceasefire there, and protests against the military have not been as vocal or widespread. Other ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have welcomed resistance to the military and are providing safe haven to those fleeing from the military in the territories they control. Renewed clashes between the military and the KNLA have resulted in a number of human rights violations on civilians and have displaced thousands on the Thai-Myanmar border.

    What do you think of the response by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the situation in Myanmar so far?

    ASEAN has attempted to follow diplomatic channels, but this is not a situation where it’s business as usual. The military has seized power and has been committing crimes against its own people – a civilian population that has already voted for its preferred government. After months of futile negotiations, ASEAN should be prepared to impose penalties on Myanmar. As independent nations, ASEAN member states should act together and impose targeted sanctions on Myanmar to ensure the military no longer acts with total impunity.

    The reaction by General Min Aung Hlaing, who has made himself the Prime Minister, to the five-point consensus plan proposed by ASEAN shows his utter disdain for regional diplomacy and makes it apparent that he will only respond to tough acts – such as cutting off his and the military’s access to foreign revenue through smart sanctions.

    What can the international community do to support civil society and push for a return to democratic rule?

    HRW recommends that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) refers the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. The UNSC and influential countries such as the USA, the UK, Australia, Japan, India, Thailand and the European Union should apply coordinated sanctions to pressure the junta. The UNSC should also pass a resolution to ban the sales of weapons to Myanmar.

    As for international civil society organisations, they should continue to advocate on behalf of civil society members who are currently in hiding or being held in arbitrary detention. This means continuing to push for recognition of the severity of the political and humanitarian crisis in Myanmar and pushing for governments to act in favour of the people of Myanmar.

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

    Follow @mannymaung on Twitter.

     

  • MYANMAR: “The military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight”

    Nay Lin Tun May

    CIVICUS speaks to Nay Lin Tun, a medical doctor who regularly volunteers with rescue teams in emergency areas in the city of Yangon, Myanmar. Since the military seized power through a coup on 1 February 2021, the army has launched abrutal crackdown against the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), a protest movement that spread across the country.Medical workers have played a key role in the movement.

    Ever since the coup, Nay Lin Tun has been on the frontline treating protesters injured by the security forces. He previously worked in Rakhine State providing mobile community-based medical care to Rohingya people and other internally displaced populations in conflict-affected areas. He was also involved in theGoalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator campaign dedicated to accelerating progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

    What has the situation been since the coup? How has the medical system been affected?

    Since the military coup occurred on 1 February, our lives entered darkness: internet access, the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech and all our basic human rights have been denied. I cannot believe that such a military coup can still happen in the 21st century. We live in a cycle of fear every day and are afraid of getting arrested or killed for no reason.

    People were already in a stage of desperation before the coup, due to the social and economic hardships associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. They were hoping that their business would recover and grow when COVID-19 infection figures fell in Myanmar. Now, all these plans are gone. People have said they would rather die fighting for a democratic future than live under a military junta.

    Almost all government departments and ministries are shut down because the CDM is boycotting all services linked to the military and promoting labour strikes and walkouts by civil servants and other workers. Health systems have all collapsed.

    Worryingly, COVID-19 prevention and control mechanisms have also stopped since the coup, as has the vaccination campaign. The authorities bought 30 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from the Indian government, which were shipped in January and April 2021. But there are lots of data discrepancies between those who have received the first dose and those who have received the second: 1.54 million people have received the COVID-19 vaccine once but only 0.34 million have been vaccinated for a second time. This shows the failure of the vaccination programme. In addition, the COVID-19 surveillance system has been slow and has low testing capacities. This puts many people at risk in case a third or fourth wave of COVID-19 hits Myanmar.

    How are medical workers responding to the pandemic and the coup?

    Myanmar healthcare professionals have shown their strength and commitment, and have been hailed as COVID-19 heroes, since the beginning of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak. At that time, there were not enough resources to treat those infected and cases began rising; deaths reached a total of 3,209 (according to the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) website, COVID-19 Dashboard data updated on 4 May 2021). But, due to our admirable health heroes and good leadership, the slope of COVID-19 infections declined in late 2020 and people in Myanmar began to receive vaccines in the last week of January 2021. Myanmar was the third country to have a COVID-19 vaccination programme in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, right after more developed countries such as Indonesia and Singapore.

    But all these positive developments have been destroyed overnight. On 1 February, all elected government officials, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, were detained. People have not been willing to accept this takeover by an abusive military junta and are showing their anger on the streets. The military forces have brutally cracked down on the protests with lethal weapons and real bullets. This has led to 769 people being killed as of 4 May, according to data from the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). Due to the military coup, government workers left their jobs to join the CDM. It was medical workers from the MOHS who initiated this movement, and they were followed by those in other departments and ministries.

    Therefore, the military has targeted government staff involved in the CDM protest movement and those who support them. They have tried to arrest them using a new provision in the Penal Code, Section 505A, that can be used to punish comments regarding the illegitimacy of the coup or the military government, among other violations. These are punishable with up to three years in prison.

    By doing so, the military turned medical workers from heroes to criminals overnight. The military spokesperson for the Tatmadaw Information Team, Brigadier-General Zaw Min Tun, has even accused government doctors who withdrew their services after joining the CDM of murdering people in cold blood.

    In reality, CDM doctors are helping the public in various ways, including by providing free treatment at private hospitals and charity clinics, making home visits and providing telephone counselling. Due to the military coup, people have faced numerous challenges and insecurity both day and night. Curfews are in place from 8 pm to 6 am in all states and regions except Rakhine State. In addition, the internet is blocked for those accessing it via SIM cards and Wi-Fi services; as a result, most people lack internet access and the flow of information is restricted. All these conditions have had a major impact on people’s ability to reach out to healthcare services on time.

    What risks do medical workers face for speaking out?

    Currently, all the medical doctors who help anti-coup protesters risk arrest and those who joined the CDM are on an arrest list. Up to now, according to AAPP data, more than 4,700 people, including elected leaders, election commissioners, anti-regime protesters, teachers, doctors, journalists, writers, artists and civilians, have been arrested since the coup. Therefore, if we speak out, we face a high risk of arrest anytime, any day in any place.

    According to the latest information, not even free charity clinics are now allowed to accept CDM doctors or admit wounded patients for treatment. The military is also acting against private hospitals, which are forced to shut down, and have their doctors arrested if they accept CDM doctors’ consultations.

    Have you witnessed military violence against civilians?

    On the evening of 9 April, reports began emerging that security forces had killed scores of people in the city of Bago, about 80 kilometres north-east of Yangon, after unleashing heavy weapons and grenades to disperse protesters occupying barricades. Before launching the operation in Bago, the armed forces had blocked the roads, preventing ambulances from picking up the wounded, many of whom were eventually dumped in a monastery compound.

    At least 80 people were killed in Bago that day, but the final death toll will probably never be known. Something else we will likely never know is how many of the wounded died because they did not receive treatment. I arrived in Bago three days later to help treat the wounded. It was a difficult task. Many injured protesters were in hiding, for fear they would be arrested if they sought treatment. We were also told that volunteer medical workers had been detained by the security forces.

    As a frontline medical volunteer, I have regularly witnessed the brutality of the junta’s operations to disperse protesters. The first time was during a protest near Thanlyin Technological University in the outer south-eastern Yangon Region on 9 March. Troops had occupied the campus, and students were protesting peacefully to demand that they leave. The security forces suddenly opened fire with live rounds, leaving several people injured. We began treating some of the injured in a safe house not far from the site of the protest, but then soldiers arrived nearby, and we had to quickly evacuate the patients to another safe house. Thankfully, we managed to get them to a safe location and continued treating them.

    How can the international community support medical workers?

    Attacks on health facilities and personnel must be documented by national and international bodies. We are lucky that the World Health Organization has a surveillance system on attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel, which are recorded daily. From 1 February to 30 April, there were at least 158 attacks on healthcare facilities, vehicles, staff and supplies, as well as against patients, resulting in 11 deaths and 51 injuries. These facts help people understand the scope of the problem and can guide the design of interventions to prevent and respond to the attacks. But in Myanmar, there isn’t a leading organisation that can take action to prevent attacks and violence against healthcare personnel. Therefore, we need international pressure on Myanmar authorities and need international humanitarian organisations to address this issue seriously. 

    The international community should stand together with us in condemning the attacks on healthcare facilities and workers and unite with Myanmar healthcare workers in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers and facilities. Support to frontline medical workers in the form of medicines and other emergency aid would also be welcome.

    What is your hope for Myanmar?

    I wish for a day when all our healthcare workers receive full respect in accordance with our professional role. In other countries, medical professionals also held protests against their government, but their governments engaged with them and worked out agreements to end the protests because medical workers deal with millions of patients and in a democracy, their protests could have an impact on elected officials. Therefore, doctors’ strikes in other countries did not last long.

    It is the opposite in Myanmar. The military has unleashed a brutal crackdown on striking doctors and has arrested health workers. Doctors who are involved in the CDM can be sentenced to up to three years of imprisonment. CDM doctors have also been arrested at their homes and even in their clinics while providing treatment to patients. Therefore, it will be a very meaningful day for all our medical workers in Myanmar when we get full respect for our work.

    We also aspire to have a professional body that can protect all healthcare workers from attacks. The Myanmar Medical Association and Medical Council have silently witnessed the arrest of our brothers and sisters in the medical sector. We should receive full protection from a strong medical association.

    Last but not least, according to medical ethics reflected in the Hippocratic Oath, we have a full duty of care for the safety of patients that require treatment. Treatment of needy patients in an emergency should not be seen as a crime. But our medical teams are targeted for arrest for providing medical assistance. We wish one day all our medical workers will have freedom of care with no limitation.

    Civic space inMyanmaris rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Myanmar: International action needed to restore democracy and protect rights

    Statement at the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

     

  • NAMIBIA: ‘There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies’

    Screenshot 20221125 152931CIVICUS speaks with Rinaani Musutua of the Economic and Social Justice Trust (ESJT) about thee resistance of communities in the Okavango River Basin in Southern Africa against oil and gas exploration by the Canadian company ReconAfrica.

    Founded in 2012, ESJT is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes social and economicr ights in Namibia and has been part of the coalition mobilising against ReconAfrica’s extractivep roject.

    What are your concerns regarding ReconAfrica’s operations in the Okavango River Basin?

    The Okavango River Basin, known in Namibia as the Kavango, flows from Angola through northern Namibia and empties out into the Okavango Delta in northwest Botswana. We first heard that ReconAfrica, an oil and gas company headquartered in Canada, had a petroleum exploration licence there in 2020. We were never informed when it sought and obtained its exploration licence and environmental clearance certificate. We looked it up and found it strange that the company received its environmental clearance certificate on a public holiday in Namibia. This makes us wonder who authorised its operations.

    Communities in the Kavango region have never been consulted by ReconAfrica. This is worrying because, according to the law, to get to their environmental and clearance certificate companies must first consult with the people who live in the places they wish to operate in. But locals were never informed about the pros and cons of the project and had no idea what the project was about. Only recently did ReconAfrica hold one meeting with community members, after we complained. But even after this meeting, community members were confused about the project because the information provided wasn’t detailed or clear enough.

    ReconAfrica decided to apply for land rights after civil society activists and organisations started questioning its legitimacy to operate and occupy land in the region. Prior to this it claimed to have received permission from traditional chiefs, but when media and activists approached them, the chiefs denied it. As it stands, the company is illegally occupying communal land and should be charged for it, but the government doesn’t seem to care.

    How will local communities be affected if the project goes ahead?

    The Kavango region is home to many communities, including the Indigenous San, who make their living from farming and fishing, and many more that rely on the water that flows from the Okavango Delta. ReconAfrica’s activities threatens the habitat of several wildlife species and could potentially contaminate the water people and animals depend on.

    ReconAfrica has been drilling very close to the Omatako River, which is ephemeral due to the low average annual rainfall. It looks like there is not activity, but scientists have confirmed there is activity underneath the river.

    When the company was conducting its seismic surveys, many local communities complained that their homes and croplands were damaged due to negligence by drivers. When people complained, ReconAfrica used local people to manipulate community members into signing papers without explaining the content. It was later found that the signed papers gave the company the right to pass through their crops and because of this those affected haven’t been compensated for their loss.

    Unfortunately, works continue because our government supports the company. There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies at the expense of local communities. 

    How is civil society mobilising against oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Kavango region?

    As civil society we have held public meetings to inform people about the potential danger of this project. ESJT teamed up with other Namibian CSOs to petition the government to halt ReconAfrica’s activities immediately. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources conducted an investigation but didn’t do such a good job because it failed to go to affected areas. Most of its meetings were held in town and people from the affected areas weren’t able to attend because they don’t have resources to travel to town.

    We have also written a lot of newspaper articles highlighting the dangers of ReconAfrica’s activity.

    Since we are not able hold public meetings all over Namibia, we are hopeful that these articles will reach people so they can stay informed.

    Together with other local and international CSOs we have released a joint statement calling on the Namibian government to examine the oil and gas exploration activities taking place in the Kavango region. We have also complained about ReconAfrica to the Canadian authorities authorities, who started investigating the company. What was disappointing, however, is that it did not investigate ReconAfrica’s environmental and human rights violations in the Kavango region, but only its potentially fraudulent stock market business.

    Unfortunately, it seems like our demands are falling on deaf ears. People have accused us of being against development. This makes it difficult for us to unite against ReconAfrica and the government, because they know we don’t have everyone’s full support.

    What kind of support from international civil society and the wider international community would help the movement?

    Fortunately,international organisations such as Re:wild have expressed support for our fight and brought awareness to what is going on in the Kavango region. Prince Harry Harry has also shown support for our fight against ReconAfrica and its activities.

    But beyond international support, we still need people in the Kavango region to also stand up and speak against this project. Right now, most people organising the resistance are based in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. People in the Kavango region should mobilise so the government can see this is an urgent matter that affects them. We need resources to continue delivering workshops to inform people about the dangers of this project. Our work is limited because we aren’t adequately equipped.


    Get in touch with Economic and Social Justice Trust through its website or its Facebook page,and follow @esjtnam on Twitter.

     

  • New paper on the restrictions facing climate change activists

    • Environmental activism is dangerous and too often deadly, and may worsen as the growing climate crisis fuels divides over access to natural resources
    • Millions of people have marched this year calling for an end to climate injustice yet around the world just 4 percent of the world’s population live in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression according to the CIVICUS Monitor.
    • The annual United Nations climate change negotiations (COP), to be held in Madrid from 2 to 13 December  was meant to be the ‘People’s COP’ but was unable to find a home in Latin America, which remains the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender

    Millions of people have taken to the streets in 2019 calling for an end to climate injustice but on the frontlines of the crisis and at the United Nations brave activists continue to be deliberately silenced.

    This new position paper ‘We will not be silenced: Climate activism from the frontlines to the UN’ details how people who speak out for climate justice are threatened and intimidated with violence, repressive laws, frivolous lawsuits and disinformation campaigns. Instead of responding to the demands of the climate movement for a more ambitious and just response to the climate crisis, governments are choosing to smother their voices.

    In October, when Chilean civil society called for the government to withdraw the military from the streets before hosting COP 25 the Piñera government instead responded by withdrawing overnight from hosting the pivotal meeting. Chile’s withdrawal reflects a worrying trend after Brazil earlier pulled out from hosting COP 25 and Poland, the host of COP 24, imposed restrictions on public mobilisations and limited the participation of accredited civil society.

    Civil society scrutiny and contributions to UN climate talks are vital in a year when millions of people have marched in the streets demanding an end to climate inaction. Recent developments in UN climate talks - including the erasure of the landmark IPCC 1.5 degree report from negotiations - under pressure from states including  Saudi Arabia - show the vital need for the COP 25 to be the first true ‘People’s COP’ - reversing the trends in closing space for civil society from the local to the global level.

    For more information and interview requests please contact:

    Lyndal Rowlands (English)
    Natalia Gomez Peña (English, Spanish)

    Download: English | Spanish

     

  • New Paper: Regulating Political Activity of Civil Society -- A look at 4 EU countries

    A comparative analysis of regulation of civil society organisations’ ‘political activity’ and international funding in Ireland, Netherlands, Germany and Finland. Written by CIVICUS, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, with support from The Community Foundation for Ireland

    RegulatingPoliticalActivityOfCivilSociety650This paper provides a comparative assessment of how the “political activities” of civil society organisations are regulated in Ireland and three other European Union member states. This paper focuses particularly on organisations, such as human rights organisations, which carry out public advocacy activities and rely on international sources for a substantial portion of their funding.

    All four countries are rated as “open” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform which tracks respect for civic space in 196 countries. These four  european countries are also well known for their strong promotion of civil society, human rights and democratic freedoms through their foreign policy and international development cooperation on programmes. 

    Following a brief outline of key international and regional norms, the paper outlines relevant aspects of domestic regulatory systems in Netherlands, Germany and Finland. A final section sets out what Ireland could learn from these examples, with a view to reforming its laws and policies governing “political activities” and foreign funding of civil society organisations.

    Download Paper

     

  • New Report: Civic Space in the Americas

    People’s rights to organise, speak out and take action are being extensively violated in a large number of countries in the Americas. This is according to new research by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), the Charity and Security Network, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (REDLAD) and the Rendir Cuentas initiative. Our findings are based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a new research collaboration to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.

     

  • New UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association

    The Civic Space Initiative welcomes Mr. Nyaletsossi Clément Voule as the new UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, and congratulates him on his appointment.  The Civic Space Initiative (CSI) is a collaborative project of ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), and the World Movement for Democracy.

    Since its creation in September 2010, the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur has been critical in providing practical guidance to States on how they should implement their human rights obligations as they relate to association and assembly, and has consistently stood up for those whose rights were violated. The CSI expresses its appreciation to the two previous mandate holders, Mr. Maina Kiai and  Dr. Annalisa Ciampi.

    Mr. Voule takes on this mandate at a time where the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association are under increasing pressure globally and the gap between states’ international commitments and national realities is growing ever wider.  The Civic Space Initiative regards the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur as critical in bridging that gap.  Mr. Voule will build on 20 years of experience in addressing this challenge, including coordinating the recent African Commission on Human and People's Rights Study Group on the laws governing freedom of association and assembly in the region, which produced guidelines to assist states in the implementation of these rights.

    Having supported similar initiatives on a global, regional and country level since 2012, the Civic Space Initiative aims to influence policy actors to protect civic space; empower civil society actors to advance civic space freedoms; and increase the awareness and engagement of the public in supporting civic space. The CSI stands ready to support Mr. Voule in his capacity as Special Rapporteur, and urges all States to respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association and be responsive to the mandate. 

    For more information, please contact:
    Andrew Smith, ARTICLE 19 (andrewATarticle19.org) 
    Susan Wilding, CIVICUS (susan.wildingATcivicus.org)
    Vanja Skoric, ECNL (vanjaATecnl.org) 
    Nicholas Miller, ICNL (nmillerATicnl.org) 
    Troy Johnson, World Movement for Democracy (troyJATned.org) 

     

  • NGO letter to EU Ministers on rule of law and human rights situation in Poland

    As the EU General Affairs Council prepares to hold a hearing on 22 February on the rule of law in Poland under the Article 7.1 TEU procedure, the undersigned civil society organisations would like to draw your attention to some alarming developments. Since the Council last discussed the situation in June 2021, a severe and steady decline in the respect for EU values in Poland has continued unabated. Despite the numerous actions undertaken by EU institutions since the procedure was launched in 2017, the Polish government has continued to systematically infringe upon those standards and ignore EU recommendations and the EU Court’s rulings.

     

  • Nicaragua: Growing human rights violations require UN scrutiny to continue

    UN Human Rights Council – Intersessional Activity

    Interactive Dialogue on the interim oral update by the High Commissioner on the human rights situation in Nicaragua

    Delivered by Amaru Ruiz Aleman, Asociación Red Local

    I make this statement on behalf of the Asociación Red Local, a member of the Nicaraguan Platform of NGO Networks.

    We express our concern about the situation of the more than 240 political prisoners who are being held in degrading conditions and receive cruel treatment in various prisons in the country.

    In the recent municipal elections, the Ortega government secured control of the 153 municipalities of the country in an arbitrary and non-transparent manner, thus restricting the civil and political rights of Nicaraguan citizens.

    Due to the various human rights violations, more than 150,000 Nicaraguans are living in exile without being able to return to Nicaragua and more than 3206 civil society organisations and 55 media outlets have been shut down in a concerted effort by the Nicaraguan government to eliminate all dissenting voices.

    We call on the members of the Council to support and strengthen the resolution on Nicaragua at the March 2023 Human Rights Council session to give continuity to the efforts of the Group of Experts and to the monitoring mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, paying special attention to the restrictions of civic space, the conditions of political prisoners and the situation of forcibly displaced families.

    Freedom for all political prisoners in Nicaragua!


     Civic space in Nicaragua is rated as "Closed" by the CIVICUS Monitor 

     

  • Nigeria: Proposed NGO bill will be a death knell for civil society

    Abuja —A proposed bill currently before Nigeria’s lawmakers, which will give the government sweeping powers over non-governmental organisations (NGOs), threatens the existence of Nigerian civil society, if passed into law.

    The Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) and global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, have warned that the bill is clearly intended as a means to undermine the work of NGOs, especially those working to hold the government accountable. The fact that the House of Representatives hastily announced a scheduled public hearing for 13 and 14 December 2017 in the capital, Abuja is indicative of the intention of the authorities to avoid broad participation of civil society organisations from the different parts of Nigeria and ram the bill through the Legislature.  Most CSOs are based outside of Abuja, where the public hearing will be held, making it difficult for them to travel to the hearing at short notice. 

    The Bill for the Establishment of the NGO’s Regulatory Commission for the Supervision, Coordination and Monitoring of NGOs and Civil Society Organisations makes it compulsory for all NGOs operating in Nigeria to register with the government and requires them to include details such has location and duration of proposed activities as well as information on all sources of funding.  In addition, the proposed legislation states that NGOs will be required to provide “additional information” as requested by the Board during registration but does not say what this “additional information” would be. 

    These requirements make the registration process cumbersome and may inhibit the timely registration of some NGOs, making them susceptible to penalties.  In addition, making NGO registration compulsory goes against international standards for freedom of association as it prevents informal associations from existing and operating freely because of their lack of formal status.

    Said Oyebisi Oluseyi, NNNGO Director: “Civil society organisations in Nigeria provide social services to communities, contribute towards development outcomes and work to ensure that the government adheres to its human rights obligation.” If passed into law, the proposed NGO law will severely restrict the environment in which civil society operates and reverse socio-economic and democratic gains made over the years.” 

    The Bill provides wide powers to a regulatory agency to refuse to issue a registration certificate if, for example, it deems activities of the NGO to be against national interest.  The Agency also has the authority to suspend or cancel a certificate that has been issued. Such broad powers place NGOs — especially those critical of government actions and who speak out against corruption and human rights violations — at the mercy of the authorities who can deregister organisations as a punitive measure for holding the government to account. 

    The content of the Bill is symptomatic of a growing global trend we now experience among governments to thwart the work of civil society organisations by placing restrictions on them in law and practice and by using the term “foreign agents” to discredit their work.  

    In addition, the Bill requires that NGOs register every two years and that the names of NGOs that fail to do so are deleted from the national register, forcing such NGOs to cease all their activities. It states that the registration of an organisation will be renewed on condition that the organisation submits its tax clearance certificate and other relevant documentation required by the Board. 

    The Bill compels NGOs to submit projects to the relevant government Ministry for approval and then registered with the agency’s board before they are implemented. The Bill does not place a limit on the registration fees for NGOs but leaves it to the discretion of the Commission.  Individuals who violate provisions of the Bill face up to 18 months in prison or a huge fine and those convicted of such violations are prohibited from holding office in an NGO for a period of ten years.  

    Said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for CIVICUS: “If passed into law, this draconian bill will place civil society under the thumb of the government and practically take away the independence of NGOs.  It might also set a negative precedent in the West African region, aggravating an already hostile environment for civil society.”

    CIVICUS and NNNGO call on the Nigerian authorities to adhere to their constitutional and international obligations on freedom of association and expression and withdraw the Bill. 

    ENDS.

    For more information contact:

    Oyebisi Oluseyi

    Nigeria Network of NGOs

    +234 906 948 5207

    David Kode

    Lead: Campaigns and Advocacy

    CIVICUS

    +27 11 833 5959

     

  • NORTH KOREA: ‘Many women escape to experience the freedoms they are denied’

    Kyeong Min ShinCIVICUS speaks with Kyeong Min Shin, researcher with Korea Future, about the situation in North Korea and the challenges faced by North Korean women in exile in South Korea.Korea Future is a civil society organisation that investigates human rights violations in North Korea and works with governments, national commissions, parliamentary bodies, civil society, diaspora groups and legal experts and organisations across the world to hold those most responsible accountable for their crimes.

    What proportion of North Korean exiles are women, and what specific challenges do they face due to their gender?

    Of the 33,834 North Koreans who have escaped the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), most of whom have found refuge in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), 72 per cent are women and girls, and around 60 per cent are women in their 20s and 30s.

    South Korea is a liberal democracy. However, women continue to experience structural, direct and indirect discrimination across the political, economic and social spheres. For North Korean women exiled in South Korea, these challenges are magnified. Our research has found that 43 per cent of exiled North Korean women had experienced identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices, in addition to gender-based and indirect forms of discrimination. This has led to the social, economic and political marginalisation of exiled North Korean women in the diaspora and wider South Korean society.

    What kind of conditions are these women escaping from, and how do they manage to escape?

    In North Korea, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea implements policies and oversees practices that are openly hostile to women. Legislation designed to protect women is inadequate and unenforced. Acts of sexual and gender-based violence are perpetrated against women of every class, age and status. The persistence of economic violence targeted at women forces many to adopt perilous activities, which in turn leads to further and more severe human rights violations, including human trafficking, forced marriage, forced abortions and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

    While individual motives to escape North Korea differ, I would highlight two distinct patterns. First, many women have told me they escaped to experience the freedoms they were denied in North Korea, to reunite with family members in South Korea who had previously escaped their homeland, and to be able to earn a living and feed their families. Second, we found that many women are forced to enter China through economic necessity. There, many fall victim to human trafficking and are sold into either prostitution or forced marriages in rural areas. While escape is difficult owing to China’s policy of returning refugees, some are successful and travel through China and southeast Asia before finding sanctuary in South Korea.

    How are they received in South Korea, and what challenges do they face?

    Upon their entry into South Korea, North Korean exiles often receive South Korean citizenship and are not considered refugees. However, exiled North Koreans who have settled in South Korea face unique forms of identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices about North Korea as dangerous and communist and North Korean exiles as disloyal, idle, unthankful or ill-mannered. According to our survey, 43 per cent of respondents have experienced at least one form of identity-based discrimination since arriving in South Korea. Across the diaspora, 18 per cent of North Korean women and men experienced discrimination in South Korea in 2020.

    North Korea maintains clandestine agents in many countries, including South Korea. If the presence of exiles in South Korea is established by these agents, remaining family members in North Korea can be subject to extortion and punishment under the principle of ‘guilt by association’. There have also been cases where exiles in South Korea have been coerced by North Korean state agents to return to North Korea, although this is less common.

    How is your organisation working to respond?

    Korea Future is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation investigating human rights violations in North Korea in support of justice and accountability. We were founded in London in 2017 and expanded from a long-running civil society and diaspora collective that had documented human rights violations and provided assistance to North Korean refugees who were exiled in Europe. Today, we are a diverse team of professionals with over 30 years of combined experience working on North Korea with offices in Seoul, London and The Hague.

    We primarily undertake detailed in-person interviews with North Korean survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of human rights violations and advocate for justice and accountability. We also source internal documents and photographic and video evidence from inside North Korea as part of our ongoing investigations. More recently, we used digital modelling to recreate the internal architecture of a North Korean detention centre. This was the first time anyone had been able to see inside a North Korean penal facility.

    Much of our information is stored in the North Korean Prison Database, a growing and comprehensive archive of international human rights law violations and atrocities that have transpired in the North Korean penal system. The database is freely available to legal practitioners, policymakers, researchers, civil society organisations, journalists and more.

    We also engage in capacity strengthening of exiled North Korean women to increase their involvement in and leadership of human rights investigations, documentation and organisations. I recently completed a two-year project with exiled women, exploring how the human rights movement, particularly grant-makers, can deploy their resources to better support the active participation and leadership of exiled women and exiled women-led organisations.

    How should the South Korean government engage with North Korea? And what should the international community do?

    We encourage and support all states and the wider international community to work toward justice and accountability solutions for North Korea. It is well established that crimes against humanity are ongoing in North Korea, and this should inform how states approach the situation. Human rights cannot be divorced from other diplomatic initiatives or approaches to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. The reality today is that there are no international mechanisms to investigate North Korea, nor are there any ongoing international or domestic court cases. It is too easy to assume that a problem like North Korea is too difficult to solve. A solution has to start somewhere, and failing a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court or the formation of an international tribunal, we encourage the examination of other approaches, such as investigation under the principle of universal jurisdiction and targeted human rights sanctions. While North Korea is probably the largest crime base in modern history, it should be seen as remarkable that it remains the least documented and understood as well.


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

    Get in touch with Korea Future through itswebsite and follow@KFuturexhr on Twitter.

     

  • Nuevo documento sobre las restricciones que sufren los activistas que luchan contra el cambio climático

    • El activismo ambiental es peligroso y, con demasiada frecuencia, mortal. Esto puede empeorar a medida que la creciente crisis climática agrava el acceso a los recursos naturales.
    • Millones de personas han marchado este año pidiendo el fin de la injusticia climática, pero en todo el mundo solo el 4 por ciento de la población mundial vive en países donde los gobiernos respetan adecuadamente las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión, según el Monitor CIVICUS.
    • Aunque la COP 25, que se celebrará en Madrid del 2 al 13 de diciembre, debía ser la "COP de la gente", no pudo encontrar un hogar en América Latina, que sigue siendo la región más peligrosa del mundo para defender el medioambiente

    Millones de personas salieron a las calles en 2019 pidiendo el fin de la injusticia climática, pero en la primera línea de la crisis y en las Naciones Unidas, valientes activistas continúan siendo silenciados deliberadamente. Este nuevo documento de posición "Silenciando a los Testigos: activismo climático desde la primera línea hasta la ONU" detalla cómo las personas que hablan por la justicia climática son amenazadas e intimidadas con violencia, leyes represivas, juicios frívolos y campañas de desinformación. En lugar de responder a las demandas del movimiento climático por una respuesta más ambiciosa y justa a la crisis climática, los gobiernos eligen sofocar sus voces.

    En octubre, cuando la sociedad civil chilena pidió al gobierno que retirara a los militares de las calles antes de la COP 25, el gobierno de Piñera respondió cancelando de la noche a la mañana esta reunión central. El retiro de Chile como anfitrión de la COP refleja una tendencia preocupante,  después de que Brasil decidió no alojar la COP 25 y Polonia, la anfitriona de la COP 24, impuso restricciones a las movilizaciones públicas y limitó la participación de la sociedad civil acreditada.

    El escrutinio por parte de la sociedad civil y las contribuciones a las conversaciones sobre el clima de la ONU son vitales en un año en que millones de personas marcharon por las calles exigiendo el fin de la inacción climática. Los recientes desarrollos en las negociaciones climáticas de la ONU, incluida la eliminación del histórico informe de 1.5 grados del IPCC de las negociaciones, bajo la presión de estados como Arabia Saudita, muestran la necesidad vital de que la COP 25 sea la primera 'COP de la gente', y que se reviertan las tendencias del cierre del espacio cívico para la sociedad civil desde el nivel local hasta el global.

    Para obtener más información y solicitudes de entrevistas, comuníquese con:

    Lyndal Rowlands (Inglés)

    Natalia Gomez Peña (Inglés, Español)

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  • ONLINE CIVIC SPACE: ‘We shouldn’t expect tech giants to solve the problems that they have created’

    Marek TuszynskiAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Marek Tuszynski, co-founder and creative director of Tactical Tech, aBerlin-based international civil society organisation that engages with citizens and civil society to explore the impacts of technologyon society and individual autonomy. Founded in 2003, in a context where optimism about technology prevailed but focus was lacking on what specifically it could do for civil society, Tactical Tech uses its research findings to create practical solutions for citizens and civil society.

    Some time ago it seemed that the online sphere could offer civil society a new space for debate and action – until it became apparent that online civic space was being restricted too. What kinds of restrictions are you currently seeing online, and what's changed in recent years?

    Fifteen years ago, the digital space in a way belonged to the people who were experimenting with it. People were building that space using the available tools, there was a movement towards open source software, and activists were trying build an online space that would empower people to exercise democratic freedoms, and even build democracy from the ground up. But those experimental spaces became gentrified, appropriated, taken over and assimilated into other existing spaces. In that sense, digital space underwent processes very similar to all other spaces that offer alternatives and in which people are able to experiment freely. That space shrank massively, and free spaces were replaced by centralised technology and started to be run as business models.

    For most people, including civil society, using the internet means resorting to commercial platforms and systems such as Google and Facebook. The biggest change has been the centralisation of what used to be a distributed system where anybody was able to run their own services. Now we rely on centralised, proprietary and controlled services. And those who initially weren’t very prevalent, like state or corporate entities, are now dominating. The difference is also in the physical aspect, because technology is becoming more and more accessible and way cheaper than it used to be, and a lot of operations that used to require much higher loads of technology have become affordable by a variety of state and non-state entities.

    The internet became not just a corporate space, but also a space for politics and confrontation on a much larger scale than it was five or ten years ago. Revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and scandals such as those with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are making people much more aware of what this space has become. It is now clear that it is not all about liberation movements and leftist politics, and that there are many groups on the other end of the political spectrum that have become quite savvy in using and abusing technology.

    In sum, changes are being driven by both economic and, increasingly, political factors. What makes them inescapable is that technology is everywhere, and it has proliferated so fast that it has become very hard to imagine going back to doing anything without it. It is also very hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalise your life and separate your professional and personal activities, or your political and everyday or mundane activities. From the point of view of technology, you always inhabit the same, single space.

    Do people who use the internet for activism rather than, say, to share cat pictures, face different or specific threats online?

    Yes, but I would not underestimate the cat pictures, as insignificant as they may seem to people who are using these tools for political or social work. It is the everyday user who defines the space that others use for activism. The way technologies are used by people who use them for entertainment ends up defining them for all of us.

    That said, there are indeed people who are much more vulnerable, whose exposure or monitoring can restrict their freedoms and be dangerous for them – not only physically but also psychologically. These people are exposed to potential interceptions and surveillance to find out what are they doing and how, and also face a different kind of threat, in the form of online harassment, which may impact on their lives well beyond their political activities, as people tend to be bullied not only for what they do, but also for what or who they are.

    There seems to be a very narrow understanding of what is political. In fact, regardless of whether you consider yourself political, very mundane activities and behaviours can be seen by others as political. So it is not just about what you directly produce in the form of text, speech, or interaction, but also about what can be inferred from these activities. Association with organisations, events, or places may become equally problematic. The same happens with the kind of tools you are using and the times you are using them, whether you are using encryption and why. All these elements that you may not be thinking of may end up defining you as a person who is trying to do something dangerous or politically controversial. And of course, many of the tools that activists use and need, like encryption, are also used by malicious actors, because technology is not intrinsically good or bad, but is defined by its users. You can potentially be targeted as a criminal just for using – for activism, for instance – the same technologies that criminals use.

    Who are the ‘vulnerable minorities’ you talk about in your recentreport on digital civic space, and why are they particularly vulnerable online?

    Vulnerable minorities are precisely those groups that face greater risks online because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Women generally are more vulnerable to online harassment, and politically active women even more so. Women journalists, for instance, are subject to more online abuse than male journalists when speaking about controversial issues or voicing opinions. They are targeted because of their gender. This is also the case for civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on women’s rights, which are being targeted both offline and online, including through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website hacks, leaks of personal information, fabricated news, direct threats and false reports against Facebook content leading to the suspension of their pages. Digital attacks sometimes translate into physical violence, when actors emboldened by the hate speech promoted on online platforms end up posing serious threats not only to people’s voices but also to their lives.

    But online spaces can also be safe spaces for these groups. In many places the use of internet and online platforms creates spaces where people can exercise their freedoms of expression and protest. They can come out representing minorities, be it sexual or otherwise, in a way they would not be able to in the physical places where they live, because it would be too dangerous or practically impossible. They are able to exercise these freedoms in online spaces because these spaces are still separate from the places where they live. However, there is a limited understanding of the fact that this does not make these spaces neutral. Information can be leaked, shared, distorted and weaponised, and used to hurt you when you least expect it.

    Still, for many minorities, and especially for sexual minorities, social media platforms are the sole place where they can exercise their freedoms, access information and actually be who they are, and say it aloud. At the same time, they technically may retain anonymity but their interests and associations will give away who they are, and this can be used against them. These outlets can create an avenue for people to become political, but that avenue can always be closed down in non-democratic contexts, where those in power can decide to shut down entire services or cut off the internet entirely.

    Is this what you mean when you refer to social media as ‘a double-edged sword’? What does this mean for civil society, and how can we take advantage of the good side of social media?

    Social media platforms are a very important tool for CSOs. Organisations depend on them to share information, communicate and engage with their supporters, organise events, measure impact and response based on platform analytics, and even raise funds. But the use of these platforms has also raised concerns regarding the harvesting of data, which is analysed and used by the corporations themselves, by third-party companies and by governments.

    Over the years, government requests for data from and about social media users have increased, and so have arrests and criminalisation of organisations and activists based on their social media behaviour. So again, what happens online does not stay online – in fact, it sometimes has serious physical repercussions on the safety and well-being of activists and CSO staff. Digital attacks and restrictions affect individuals and their families, and may play a role in decisions on whether to continue to do their work, change tactics, or quit. Online restrictions can also cause a chilling effect on the civil society that is at the forefront of the promotion of human rights and liberties. For these organisations, digital space can be an important catalyst for wider civil political participation in physical spaces, so when it is attacked, restricted, or shrunk, it has repercussions for civic participation in general.

    Is there some way that citizens and civil society can put pressure on giant tech companies to do the right thing?

    When we talk about big social media actors we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of which are in fact part of Facebook – and we don’t think of Google because it is not seen as social media, even though it is more pervasive, it is everywhere, and it is not even visible as such.

    We shouldn’t expect these companies to solve the problems they have created. They are clearly incapable of addressing the problems they cause. One of these problems is online harassment and abuse of the rules. They have no capacity to clean the space of certain activities and if they try to do so, then they will censor any content that resembles something dangerous, even if it isn’t, to not risk being accused of supporting radical views.

    We expect tech giants to be accountable and responsible for the problems they create, but that’s not very realistic, and it won’t just happen by itself. When it comes to digital-based repression and the use of surveillance and data collection to impose restrictions, there is a striking lack of accountability. Tech platforms depend on government authorisation to operate, so online platforms and tech companies are slow to react, if they do at all, in the face of accusations of surveillance, hate speech, online harassment and attacks, especially when powerful governments or other political forces are involved.

    These companies are not going to do the right thing if they are not encouraged to do so. There are small steps as well as large steps one can take, starting with deciding how and when to use each of these tools, and whether to use them at all. At every step of the way, there are alternatives that you can use to do different things – for one, you can decentralise the way you interact with people and not use one platform for everything.

    Of course, that’s not the whole problem, and the solution cannot be based on individual choices alone. A more structural solution would have to take place at the level of policy frameworks, as can be seen in Europe where regulations have been put in place and it is possible to see a framework shaping up for large companies to take more responsibility, and to define who they are benefiting from their access to personal information.

    What advice can you offer for activists to use the internet more safely?

    We have a set of tools and very basic steps to enable people who don’t want to leave these platforms, who depend on them, to understand what it is that they are doing, what kind of information they leave behind that can be used to identify them and how to avoid putting into the system more information than is strictly necessary. It is important to learn how to browse the internet privately and safely, how to choose the right settings on Google and Facebook and take back control of your data and your activity in these spaces.

    People don’t usually understand how much about themselves is online and can be easily found via search engines, and the ways in which by exposing themselves they also expose the people who they work with and the activities they do. When using the internet we reveal where we are, what we are working on, what device we are using, what events we are participating in, what we are interested in, who we are connecting with, the phone providers we use, the visas we apply for, our travel itineraries, the kinds of financial transactions we do and with whom, and so on. To do all kinds of things we are increasingly dependent on more and more interlinked and centralised platforms that share information with one another and with other entities, and we aren’t even aware that they are doing it because they use trackers and cookies, among other things. We are giving away data about ourselves and what we do all the time, not only when we are online, but also when others enter information about us, for instance when travelling.

    But there are ways to reduce our data trail, become more secure online and build a healthier relationship with technology. Some basic steps are to delete your activity as it is stored by search engines such as Google and switch to other browsers. You can delete unnecessary apps, switch to alternative apps for messaging, voice and video calls and maps – ideally to some that offer the same services you are used to, but that do not profit from your data – change passwords, declutter your accounts and renovate your social media profiles, separate your accounts to make it more difficult for tech giants to follow your activities, tighten your social media privacy settings, opt for private browsing (but still, be aware that this does not make you anonymous on the web), disable location services on mobile devices and do many other things that will keep you safer online.

    Another issue that activists face online is misinformation and disinformation strategies. In that regard, there is a need for new tactics and standards to enable civil society groups, activists, bloggers and journalists to react by verifying information and creating evidence based on solid information. Online space can enable this if we promote investigation as a form of engagement. If we know how to protect ourselves, we can make full use of this space, in which there is still room for many positive things.

    Get in touch with Tactical Tech through itswebsite and Facebook page, or follow@Info_Activism on Twitter.