ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential and National Assembly election in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment. MBAKITA is a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, it defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?
The political climate was veryunfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was alreadycharacterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.
Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.
Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.
ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.
What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?
Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.
A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.
In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.
The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.
On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.
As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statementindicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.
What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?
There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.
The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.
People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.
Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.
How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?
The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.
The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.
The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.
The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ANGOLA: ‘The new NGO Law is just a way of legalising the government’s arrogance and excesses’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on the work of Angolan civil society with Godinho Cristóvão, a jurist, human rights defender and executive director of the association Movimento de Defensores de Direitos Humanos de Angola (Movement of Human Rights Defenders of Angola, KUTAKESA).
KUTAKESA is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the rights and protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Angola, particularly those active in more vulnerable areas, working on more sensitive issues and from historically excluded groups.
What are the current conditions for civil society in Angola?
Angolan CSOs work in a climate of suspicion and uncertainty, despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Angola enshrines a catalogue of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedoms and guarantees.
The Angolan authorities should have aligned themselves with the democratic rule of law and respected the work of CSOs and HRDs. Instead, there has been an increase in threats, harassment and illegal arrests of HRDs who denounce or hold peaceful demonstrations against acts of bad governance and violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms. There have been clear setbacks with regard to the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution, as well as the rights set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties Angola has ratified.
How is the government targeting civil society with restrictive legislation?
The attacks on civil society are totally uncalled for. On 25 May, the Angolan National Assembly passed a draft NGO Statute, despite severe criticism from CSOs, which have stated that it limits freedom of association and gives the state excessive powers to interfere with CSO activities.
The government targets civil society with legislation that is meant for terrorists and money launderers, though it has never been proven in any court that a CSO has committed an act of terrorism in Angola. On the contrary, the rationale of this legislation constitutes institutional terrorism, the target of which are CSOs.
In Angola we all know who the corrupt are, and which party feeds corruption and money laundering. And as far as we know, CSOs are not part of that group. Funders of Angolan CSOs are all clearly identified, and the transfer of funds goes through national banking institutions and a rigorous compliance process. It is also worth remembering that many CSO funders are the same ones that fund government projects.
How does the new restrictive law compare with the 2015 decree that was declared unconstitutional?
In general, the content and spirit of Presidential Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs are the same as those of the new NGO Statute Law. By way of example, the rights and duties chapter of the previous regulation, later declared unconstitutional, was retained with only minimal changes in wording that in no way alter its content and its controlling and repressive spirit.
Additionally, the decree that was found unconstitutional provided for an administrative body under the tutelage of the Angolan executive – called IMPROCAC – with the power to monitor and control CSO actions. The recently approved draft NGO Statute Law provides for a similar body with the same attributions as the old IMPROCAC.
In other words, this is a new attempt to impose similar restrictions, but it is more serious since its instrument is no longer a presidential decree but a law. This means that it is no longer only the executive that is attacking the principles of autonomy and freedom of association provided for in article 48 of the constitution, but Congress as well, in which the president’s party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), has a majority. It is worth remembering that it was the MPLA majority that approved the 2010 constitution which it is now violating by passing the NGO Statute Law.
How is civil society, including KUTAKESA, reacting to the proposed law?
CSOs, at least the most active ones, are not looking favourably on the approval of this law, given the threats it represents in terms of closing off civic space in Angola.
We are taking joint action to prevent the final approval of this law and its entry into force. From the point of view of legal certainty and security, the courts should be aligned with the principle of jurisprudential precedent. Since they submitted the presidential decree to a review of unconstitutionality and declared it unconstitutional, they should now follow suit, given that the new law contains the same irregularities.
All national organisations took a joint position to call on parliament to take off the agenda the law now approved. This was done through information exchange meetings with opposition parties represented in parliament. At the same time we made public statements alerting the public about the dangers for freedom of association if the law was approved, and we made urgent appeals to the special rapporteurs of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations (UN) who have a mandate on freedom of association and HRDs to alert the Angolan government about the consequences the law will have on respect for human rights.
On KUTAKESA’s part, urgent appeals were made to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Remy Ngoy Lumbu, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor.
Do you see the new law as part of a wider trend to restrict civic space?
Yes of course, but it is also important to note that the repression of peaceful and legal demonstrations predates the approval of this law. Government mismanagement and endemic corruption have been some of the main causes of the deteriorating social, economic and family conditions for the majority of the population, leading to growing protests and mass demonstrations, which have often been repressed. The approval of this law is just another means of repression and of legalising the arrogance and excesses of the government and its agents, particularly the national police.
While the law is not necessarily intended as a response to the ongoing protests, given that the attempt to get it passed dates back to 2015, it is likely to be used as another tool to crack down on the protests.
Now, if the government has good sense and makes a strategic reading of the current political and social context of Angola, it could stop the process of approval of the law or, if it is too late for that, the president could refuse to promulgate it, taking the appeals of civil society into consideration. The law’s approval would certainly increase the number of protests and demonstrations.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KUTAKESA through theirwebsite.
ANGOLA: ‘The untrue government narrative reveals an aversion to civil society denouncing malpractice’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Angola with Emilio José Manuel, focal point for Angola of the Lusophone Platform for Human Rights and founding member of the Working Group for Human Rights Monitoring in Angola (GTMDH).
The GTMDH is a platform of civil society organisations (CSOs) that works to promote and defend human rights and strives for social justice within the framework of the Angolan constitution and other current laws, as well as international conventions and treaties.
What are the conditions for civil society in Angola?
Although there is currently no direct or indirect interference in the work of civil society in Angola, the authorities’ discourse is that, because they receive funding from international institutions, CSOs defend and represent foreign interests.
Meanwhile there are many joint actions between public institutions and CSOs. For example, once a year the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights organises a forum with CSOs where the GTMDH presents its public position on human rights and provides information on the granting of registration certificates, the legal documents that the Angolan state gives to each CSO attesting that it is legally registered and can operate in the country.
Why is the government targeting CSOs with legislation aimed at terrorists and money launderers?
According to the report supporting the draft law, the president considers that he has ‘encountered constraints and difficulties in ensuring compliance with international obligations assumed by the Angolan Government in the area of money laundering and the financing of terrorism’. Hence the need to control the sources and destination of CSO funds.
This narrative of the Angolan government is untrue and clearly demonstrates its aversion to the role of CSOs in monitoring and denouncing government malpractice. Financial support for the projects of CSOs and human rights defenders comes from well-identified organisations and goes through banking institutions with strict compliance rules – and some of these funders are the same ones that support government projects.
On 26 May, the draft NGO Statute Law was passed in general by the Angolan National Assembly, ignoring severe criticism from civil society, which has made clear that it limits the right of association and gives the executive excessive powers to interfere in CSO activities.
The situation is very alarming because the draft law imposes a 120-day period for existing CSOs to make their statutes conform with the law, otherwise they will be outlawed outright without a judicial decision. Article 2 of the draft law requires existing CSOs to conform with the new provisions, under penalty of having their statutes and registrations revoked. This is a violation of the principle of legality and access to justice guaranteed by the Angolan constitution. The principle of legality requires that the law should be clearly articulated and known in advance and should not be applied retroactively.
How has civil society reacted to the draft law?
Civil society analysed the draft law and reacted against it. In collaboration with the GTMDH coordinator, my role as legal officer was to prepare petitions, public position papers and communications with the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and to engage with regional and international partners to amplify the voices of Angolan civil society.
We requested a technical opinion from UN Special Rapporteur Clément Voule and drafted a public civil society position on the bill explaining why it violates freedoms of association, which we presented publicly at a press conference.
We advocated with opposition parties represented in parliament and made contacts with the Angolan Bar Association to file, within the scope of our constitutional prerogatives, the appropriate action for an assessment of the unconstitutionality of the draft law. The day before the general approval of the draft law, we sent a public petition to the National Assembly demanding that it not approve it.
Our next action will be to send a letter to the presidents of some key countries about the closure of civic space in Angola and increasing controls over CSOs, including international CSOs.
Protests are also taking place against the proposed NGO Statute Law, which have converged with protests against measures that have increased fuel prices and a crackdown on street vendors.
Do you see this bill as part of a wider trend of restricting civic space?
The recent repression of demonstrations, arrests of activists and attacks on protesters, including women, is an indicator that civic space is being severely restricted. The use of force by the national police has resulted in deaths without any appropriate process to hold to account and punish police officers involved in cases of violence, torture and killings.
Our country depends on importing food staples and other goods from abroad. Right now the prices of food, other goods and services have increased. Street vendors are a group that some CSOs work with, particularly those dedicated to empowering women to establish small businesses. Some organisations provide micro credits to street vendors. Although the street vendors’ movement has a life of its own, it is CSOs and their lawyers who have provided them with free legal aid.
There is a current of national solidarity, taking into account that the law does not explicitly say it will regulate all initiatives by citizens who wish to create an association. My personal opinion is that everyone feels that control will go further. The draft NGO Statute Law lacks a clear definition of what a ‘non-governmental organisation’ is. It also includes vague provisions that need to be better fleshed out to enable the proper interpretation of the law. For example, it is difficult to understand the meaning and normative scope of article 19(1)(d), which imposes a ‘duty on NGOs to refrain from practices and actions that are subversive or liable to be confused with them’. The unanswered question here is how subversive actions are to be defined in the context of the law.
How does the new draft law compare with the 2015 decree that was deemed unconstitutional?
According to the analysis we’ve made, the arguments and contents are the same as in Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs. We have the new role of counselling judges in the Constitutional Court. The situation in the Supreme Court indicates that we have a crisis in the judiciary. So it is uncertain whether this time the judicial decision will be in favour of CSOs. The present draft law establishes rules to control, restrict, approve, authorise and suspend the activities of CSOs, including CSO extinction by an administrative entity to be determined by the president as holder of the executive power, which violates the principle of freedom of association as provided in article 48 of the constitution.
Do you view the draft NGO Statute Law as part of a regional or global trend?
After having participated in sessions of the NGO Forum and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, I noted a tendency to restrict civic space throughout Africa. As part of the civil society strategy, we held meetings with activists from Mozambique to share experiences and assemble regional, continental and international strategies. It is worth remembering that various activists, whether linked to CSOs or not, are directly involved in campaigns and waves of protest to try to ensure that the draft law is not given final approval by parliament and promulgated by the president.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Contact GTMDH through itswebsite.
ANGOLA: “The ruling party sees local elections as a threat”
View the original interview in Portuguese here
CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in the Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, MBAKITA defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What is the state of civic space in Angola, and what are the main constraints faced by Angolan activists?
The repression of civic space in Angola is one of the biggest challenges facing Angolan civil society today. Activists suffer arbitrary and illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, killings, harassment and disappearances by government forces, police and state intelligence services. This repression has made many Angolans careful about what they say in public. The few organisations that defend human rights in Angola often do so at great risk to the activists involved and their families.
Could you tell us about the restrictions you and your colleagues faced in 2020?
In 2020, my MBAKITA colleagues and I faced obstacles aimed at preventing, minimising, disrupting and reversing the impact of our organisation’s legitimate activities that focused on criticising, denouncing and opposing rights violations and ineffective government positions, policies and actions.
The various forms of restriction we experienced included arbitrary restrictions and the interruption of demonstrations and meetings; surveillance; threats, intimidation, reprisals and punishments; physical assaults; smear campaigns portraying MBAKITA members as ‘enemies of the state’ and mercenaries serving foreign interests; judicial harassment; exorbitant fines for the purchase of means of transport; burglary of our offices and theft of computer equipment; search and seizure of property; destruction of vehicles; the deprivation of employment and income; and travel bans.
In addition, 15 activists were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated during the COVID-19 prevention campaign. On 1 May my residence was invaded, and its guards were teargassed. On 16 November, two female activists were raped. Fatalities for the year included three of our activists and one protester.
What kind of work does MBAKITA do? Why do you think it has been targeted?
MBAKITA is an organisation that defends and promotes human rights. We work to promote, protect and disseminate universally recognised human rights and freedoms, and especially the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, the freedom of the press, the right to self-determination by Indigenous peoples, the rights to land, adequate food, clean water and the environment, and the fight against torture and ill-treatment.
We challenge violations of the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of Indigenous and migrant people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities.
My organisation uses peaceful and non-violent means in its activities. However, we have faced incalculable risks as a result of our human rights work in the southern provinces of Angola.
MBAKITA has been systematically attacked for several reasons. First, because in 2018 we denounced the death of four children during Operation Transparency, an action against diamond trafficking and undocumented migrants carried out by the Angolan police and armed forces in the municipality of Mavinga, in the Cuando Cubango province. Second, because in 2019 we denounced the diversion of funds intended to support drought victims in Angola’s southern provinces by provincial governments. Third, because in April 2019, two activists of the organisation denounced the illegal appropriation of land by political businesspeople – generals, legislators and governors – in territories belonging to the San and Kuepe Indigenous minorities and used for hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits, which make up the diet of these groups. Fourth, because in February 2020 MBAKITA denounced the diversion of funds designated for the purchase of biosecurity products for the prevention of COVID-19 and the diversion of food destined for the Basic Food Basket Assistance Programme for Vulnerable Groups. Fifth, because we participated in and conducted an awareness-raising campaign on COVID-19, which included the distribution of biosecurity materials purchased with MISEREOR-Germany funds. And finally, because we participated in all demonstrations held by Angolan civil society, including the most recent one on 9 January 2021, focused on the fight against corruption and the demand for local elections, under the slogan ‘Local elections now, 45 years in power is too long!’ and for the fulfilment of various electoral promises, including those of 500,000 jobs, the reduction of the cost of living for families and the socio-economic inclusion of Indigenous minorities.
Why were the elections scheduled for 2020 cancelled?
For one thing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But aside from this deadly pandemic, the government was never interested in holding local elections in 2020. The ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sees local elections as a threat to central power and fears losing its grip on power. It fears introducing an element of voter control over local government, that is, citizen participation and control over the management of public funds. The government thinks that the people will wake up to the idea of the democratic state and the rule of law, and that many people will become aware of their rights and duties. This would run counter to the MPLA’s intention, which is to perpetuate itself in power.
The promise of local democracy in Angola has been a failure. Three years into his term in office, President João Lourenço has failed to deliver even 10 per cent of his electoral promises, leaving 90 per cent of Angolans in a state of total scepticism.
In Angola, the party that has been in power for more than 45 years does not tolerate free people. Today, human rights defenders lose their jobs, are unable to feed their children, lose their careers and even their lives if they dare to be free, to desire democracy and to exercise their freedom.
What are the prospects that the situation will change in the near future?
For the situation to change, civil society has a lot of work to do. The most important and urgent actions are acquiring training in individual, institutional and digital security, learning English, obtaining observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, observing and participating in demonstrations and other public events, advocating and lobbying for the legalisation of human rights organisations, conducting prison visits, including interviews with prisoners and gathering evidence of torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment conditions, observing trials of activists in the lower courts, fundraising for the sustainability of human rights defenders’ activities, and monitoring the 2021 local elections and the 2022 general elections.
What kind of support do Angolan activists need from international civil society to be able to continue their work?
Needs are enormous and varied. Activists urgently need protection and security, including training in risk analysis, security planning and international and regional human rights protection mechanisms, as well as skills in investigating, litigating, documenting, petitioning and reporting human rights violations. Specifically, MBAKITA would like to receive technical assistance to assess what security arrangements could be put in place to increase the physical protection of the organisation’s office and my residence, as well as financial support for the purchase of such arrangements, such as a security system or a video surveillance camera.
Assaulted activists, and especially the 15 MBAKITA activists who have been direct victims of repression and torture at the hands of government forces, also need post-traumatic psychological assistance. Financial assistance would help us pay the fees of the lawyers who worked for the release of six activists who were imprisoned between August and November 2020. It would also help us replace stolen work equipment, without which our ability to work has been reduced, including two vehicles, computers, memory cards, a digital camera and a camcorder.
In the case of activists threatened with arbitrary detention, kidnapping or assassination, who have no choice but to leave the country or their region of origin quickly, we need support for transportation and provisional accommodation. Our activists would also benefit from exchanges of experience, knowledge and good practice, opportunities to strengthen their knowledge of digital security, training in journalistic and audio-visual techniques and the acquisition of English language skills.
Finally, the operation of organisations and their sustainability would be helped by obtaining support for the installation of internet services and the creation of secure websites, the acquisition of financial management software and resources to recruit permanent staff, so that staff members are able to support their families and fully dedicate themselves to the defence of human rights.
Angola: Restrictions on fundamental freedoms continue ahead of elections
The arraignment of two journalists in Angola on spurious charges is the latest assault on fundamental freedoms as the government increases restrictions on civic space ahead of crucial elections scheduled for 23 August 2017. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS urges the government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of journalists, and calls on international observers to ensure freedom of expression is respected in the run up to the elections.
On 20 June 2017, journalists Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras Lourenço were indicted by the Office of the Attorney General and charged with “outrage to a body sovereignty” and “insult against public authority” under the Law on Crimes Against the State and Penal Code respectively.
The charges stem from an article published by Rafael Marques on 26 October 2016 on his website Maka Angola, in which he exposed details of the dubious circumstances in which the Attorney General Joao Mana Moreira de Sousa purchased a piece of land in 2011. Mariano Bras Lourenço, Director of the O Crimenewspaper, was charged after he re-published Rafael’s article. Both journalists could face up to six years in jail.
“The judicial persecution of journalists is one of several strategies used by the Angolan government to silence critical voices in the lead -up to elections next month,” says Ine Van Severen,
Policy and Research Analyst at CIVICUS. “Angola is one of the most repressive states in the Southern Africa region as the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos has shown complete disregard towards human rights norms.”
Marques has been a victim of judicial persecution in the past. In 2015, he was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence after he was found guilty of defamation for publishing a book titled Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, in 2011. In the book, he revealed details of hundreds of killings by security guards and soldiers and human rights violations in the diamond fields of the Lundas region.
The Angolan authorities continue to use violence to disperse peaceful protests. On 24 June 2017, protests led by the Movimento do Protectorado Lunda Tchokwe (MPL-T) in the provinces of Moxico, Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul, were violently repressed by security forces. One person died, at least 13 were wounded, and over 78 protesters were detained. MPL-T has been demanding for autonomy for the Lundas region. More protests are planned for 29 July 2017.
In February 2017, security forces again used brute force to disperse peaceful protests in Luanda and Benguela. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the Minister for Territorial Administration because of a perceived conflict of interest in his position as a candidate for the ruling party in the August elections and his responsibilities to oversee the voter registration process.
Even though President José Eduardo dos Santos has agreed to step down after 38 years in power, his government is doing everything possible to ensure that the ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), maintains its grip on power.
CIVICUS calls on the Government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of media and respect the rights of all citizens to peacefully assemble.
Angola is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform tracking track civic rights violations around the world.
For more information, please contact:
Ine Van Severen
Policy and Research Analyst
Another puzzling break-in prompts Uganda CSO to move operations to police station
CIVICUS speaks to Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) executive directorAdrian Jjuuko (pictured) after their offices were broken into recently. He also speaks on the situation of human rights defenders and civil society in general in Uganda.
Are Rising Attacks On Human Rights Defenders The ‘New Normal’?
By Mandeep Tiwana
At CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance working to strengthen citizen participation, we receive bad news of attacks on compatriots every day. In the past few years, with nauseating regularity, we’ve heard from colleagues who’ve been arbitrarily imprisoned, had their organisations’ starved of resources or have had their life’s work to create just, inclusive and sustainable societies ridiculed by crafty politicians.
Read on: Inter Press Service
ARMENIA: ‘As people leave their homes in search of safety, humanitarian organisations must support their basic needs’
CIVICUS speaks about the civil society humanitarian response to the Azerbaijani blockade and military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh – the disputed territory within Azerbaijan that until recently was governed by ethnic Armenians – withShushanik Nersesyan,Media and Communication Manager at People in Need (PIN) Armenia.
Founded in 1992 bya group of journalists involved in the 1989 Czechoslovak ‘Velvet Revolution’, PIN is a civil society organisation (CSO) working in the fields of humanitarian aid, human rights, education and social work. Since it was established in 2003, its permanent office in Armenia has worked to strengthen Armenian people’s abilities to improve their lives and the communities they live in.
How did the Azerbaijani blockade affect people in Nagorno-Karabakh?
It all started in December 2022, when Azerbaijani civilians identifying themselves as environmental activists began obstructing the Lachin corridor, which links Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. In April 2023 Azerbaijan set up an official checkpoint that largely cut off the passage of people and goods between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Once it was under Azeri control, it was possible to use the corridor only in exceptionally urgent cases, through the intermediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or Russian peacekeepers.
On 29 July Azerbaijani authorities abducted V Khachatryan, a 68-year-old Nagorno-Karabakh resident who was being evacuated by the ICRC for urgent medical treatment through the Lachin corridor. Khachatryan remains in captivity. Another incident occurred in late August when three Nagorno-Karabakh students were captured by Azerbaijani border guards while travelling to Armenia via the corridor. They were only released 10 days later. Free movement of people to Armenia became impossible.
The prolonged blockade led to a humanitarian crisis due to shortages of essential goods – including electricity, fuel and water – and the closure of basic services. People in Need, along with Action Against Hunger and Médecins du Monde France, condemned it but, regrettably, our efforts to open to road for the trucks with food to Nagorno-Karabakh were thwarted.
The situation changed with the shelling that caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent people on 19 and 20 September. Since 24 September, over 100,000 people have fled Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenian regions, where they are also facing an emergency situation due to food and hygiene needs, plus longer-term issues of housing, education and jobs.
How has Armenian civil society responded to the humanitarian crisis?
CSOs including PIN deployed humanitarian projects to help blockade-affected people. CSOs conducted visits and issued statements. In Kornidzor, on the border, representatives from dozens of Armenian CSOs gathered during the blockade, urging the international community to uphold human rights and ensure the passage of humanitarian aid for civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh. The unimpeded delivery of essential goods, including food, hygiene items, medicine and fuel, as well as the unrestricted movement of people, including critically ill patients, are fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law.
What work is PIN doing in this context?
Since 1992, as a newly established organisation, PIN has been there to help people affected by the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, which lasted from February 1988 to May 1994. We have actively contributed to the growth of Armenian civil society, which has remained resilient throughout this crisis. We coordinate our efforts with the government and local authorities to closely monitor the situation on the ground and carry out numerous humanitarian projects.
We continue assisting the most vulnerable populations. Since September 2020, we have provided essential humanitarian aid and long-term efforts for the social and economic integration of thousands of people.
As a humanitarian organisation, we advocate for rights and a peaceful resolution of conflicts in adherence with international law. Along with our partners, we have expressed our concerns, called for measures to prevent the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe and continuously raised internal and donor funds to help people in need.
When people started fleeing Nagorno-Karabakh, we immediately mobilised PIN funds to support the first recipient centre in the Syunik border region to deliver aid such as food, clothes and blankets to forcibly displaced people and create a special space for children’s activities while their parents dealt with registration and searching for accommodation. Additionally, we launched the SOS Armenia appeal and new humanitarian assistance projects funded by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Union, the Netherlands Refugee Foundation, Start Network and USAID.
As people continue to leave their homes in search of safety without being able to take their belongings, humanitarian organisations must continue providing assistance to support their basic needs.
Civic space in Armenia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ARMENIA: ‘Lack of compelling international action allowed the attack on Nagorno-Karabakh to occur’
CIVICUS speaks about the humanitarian crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh– the disputed territory within Azerbaijan that until recently was governed by ethnic Armenians –withLida Minasyan, a feminist peace activist and Resource Mobilisation Consultant at theCentral Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central and North Asia (CEECCNA) Collaborative Fund.
Founded in 2022, the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a feminist fund that mobilises sustainable resources for social justice movements across the CEECCNA region.
What is the current security and human rights situation in Nagorno-Karabakh?
The ethnic Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh was forcibly displaced within days of the Azerbaijani government launching a full-scale attack on 19 September. A week later, 100,632 people had arrived in Armenia, having left behind their homes, their belongings and the lives they had built.
Several actions deliberately targeted against civilians occurred before the start of the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population from Nagorno-Karabakh. In December 2022, Azerbaijan blocked the Lachin corridor, the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, leaving the 120,000 Armenians who lived there completely isolated. People endured nine months of severe food insecurity, fuel shortages, electricity outages, communications breakdowns and medical supply shortages. This resulted in a humanitarian crisis that put people, particularly those with vulnerabilities, at risk. Many pregnant women had miscarriages and stillbirths, people with chronic illnesses couldn’t receive their medication and treatment, and risk of infection increased due to the lack of hygiene products. These were just a few of the severe challenges people faced during the blockade.
The Lachin road was reopened several days after the Azerbaijani offensive, when people, already traumatised and starving, experienced a direct threat to their lives. They had no choice but to leave their homes in search of safety in Armenia.
Why did Azerbaijan initiate the blockade and military offensive?
The nine-month blockade and the offensive were meant to achieve the ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. The intentional deprivation of essential resources for survival followed by the direct attack to take over Nagorno-Karabakh, along with the creation of conditions for the Armenian population to leave, indicate that Azerbaijan is not contemplating any peaceful end to the conflict or human rights guarantees for Armenian people to feel safe in their homes and continue living in Nagorno-Karabakh.
By leveraging additional threats against Armenians and Armenian sovereign territories, demonstrating its military power, and consistently introducing new conditions in the negotiation process with Armenia, Azerbaijan intends to assert its dominance. This approach reinforces a policy of hatred towards Armenians spanning decades and undermines the peacebuilding process between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
How has Armenian civil society responded to the humanitarian crisis?
Displaced people endured a journey of over 20 hours to reach Armenia, during which they had no access to food, water or sanitation facilities. As a result, most of them arrived thirsty, hungry and in need of medical attention. When they began arriving, local organisations, activists and volunteers were among the first to give them food, hygiene products and assistance to register for the state support system.
Local civil society organisations engage in continuous needs assessments of displaced people, using dynamic data collection approaches, as the situation is changing rapidly. In addition to the immediate provision of goods, there are medium and long-term needs to address. Displaced people need psychological assistance to overcome trauma, sustainable medical support, permanent housing, access to education and employment and services to prevent and address gender-based violence.
As part of the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund, we provide timely updates about the situation to our international partners and mobilise and direct resources to local organisations. Due to limited resources, Armenian civil society activists worked under a lot of pressure because they had to initiate fundraising efforts while simultaneously providing emergency response.
The Armenian government has provided displaced people with one-time financial support, essential products and access to temporary accommodation. For all its good intentions, however, the government also lacks resources and capacity to provide adequate long-term assistance to displaced people.
Has the international community’s response been adequate?
The response has been slow and inadequate. A few months into the blockade, the international community refused to call the situation a humanitarian crisis and many turned a blind eye to the deteriorating conditions of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population.
After numerous appeals and demands from civil society, some international agencies began releasing statements urging the Azerbaijani government to open the Lachin corridor. They mainly referred to the International Court of Justice’s orders of 22 February and 6 July 2023, which unequivocally mandated Azerbaijan to ensure unrestricted movement of people, vehicles and cargo along the corridor in both directions.
Despite these decisions, the road remained blocked. A group of four United Nations experts also expressed their concern about the continued closure of the Lachin corridor and called on the Azerbaijani authorities to promptly reinstate unimpeded and safe movement along the road, as stipulated by the November 2020 ceasefire agreement.
The lack of more compelling action by the international community created an unhindered environment for the attack to occur. Many organisations are currently responding by issuing new alerts and appeals, along with providing much-needed humanitarian support. However, the people of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia require sustainable peace and human security, which will only be achievable through a negotiation that is inclusive of the voices of those most profoundly affected by the conflict. We advocate specifically for the inclusion of women in formal negotiations, in order to pave the way to sustainable peace.
The international community’s crisis-response support is highly appreciated, but it should be complemented by long-term funding for dialogue, peacebuilding and the reestablishment of human security. Armenian civil society working to alert about potential risks of conflict escalation on the borders of Armenia could also benefit from their support.
Civic space in Armenia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Learn more aboutCEECCNA Collaborative Fund in thisblog.
As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow
By David Kode
Across the globe, from East Africa to eastern Europe, there is a trend of increasing attacks on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support reforms governments are opposed to.
Read on: Open Global Rights
ASEAN: ‘There is a lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis’
CIVICUS speaks with Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, a globally recognised human rights advocate and the new Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), on the state of civic space in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body’s response to the human rights situation in Myanmar.
In March 2023, Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by theCIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed, in response to developments including the detention of thousands of activists and protesters, many of them convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including thedeath penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. The ruling military junta has also systematically targeted journalists andforced civil society organisations (CSOs) to shut down and their leaders to go into hiding or flee the country. The junta has committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful attacks, killing and injuring civilians through the use of extrajudicial executions, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.
What is the state of civic freedoms in ASEAN member states?
In recent years, there has been a discernible trend in ASEAN toward democratic regression and shrinking civic space.
In Cambodia, as an election draws near, there is an ongoing assault on civic space and an increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians and media workers.
In Myanmar, the path toward democracy, which began in 2011, was dismantled and civic space has closed. The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) they reached in April 2021 has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.
In Singapore, civil liberties are curbed through the prosecution of journalists, protesters and harassment of activists. Civil space has been further limited by repressive laws such as the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which include vague provisions that allow for executive discretion in interpretation and implementation.
Overall, civic space in ASEAN countries has deteriorated. But in the midst of this darkness, the results of recent elections have cast a ray of hope that could have an impact at the regional level. Election results in Malaysia in November 2022 and Thailand in May 2023 have brought hope and a breath of fresh air after years of regression of fundamental freedoms. ASEAN’s youngest member state, Timor-Leste, is unique in that it has committed to consolidating democracy and held a free, fair and transparent election on 21 May 2023, allowing voters to cast their ballots peacefully, thus making their voices heard.
As the current ASEAN chair, has Indonesia made any efforts to engage with civil society and protect human rights?
Indonesia became ASEAN chair amid a lot of expectations regarding its potentials to address the Myanmar crisis, following the lack of progress under its two predecessors, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia – and possibly on the assumption that no further progress will happen under its successor, Laos.
Led by Indonesia, ASEAN managed to adopt several Leaders’ Declarations related to human rights, including one on combating trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology and one on the protection of migrant workers and family members in crisis situations, adopted at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023. These represented a crucial step toward protecting rights. However, questions of implementation and domestication have long plagued the ASEAN region.
Progress made at the regional level is not necessarily reflected by domestic developments. For example, ahead of the 2023 ASEAN summit, held in Labuhan Bajo, the Indonesian police summoned two residents, Viktor Frumentius and Dominikus Safio, over a planned protest regarding compensation for houses and land clearing for a road project. The criminalisation attempt happened a few days after the police issued a warning letter for local people not to conduct actions that could ‘create incitement’ during the summit. This incident came on top of ongoing attacks on civil liberties in Indonesia.
Regarding engagement with civil society, unfortunately the Indonesian government failed to respond to civil society’s request to conduct an interface meeting during the summit. Taken together, this and the attempted criminalisation of protesters reveal the government’s exclusionary approach to critical voices.
Did the summit’s outcomes include any commitment on human rights?
The summit’s outcome document highlighted the commitment to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. Human trafficking is indeed a serious and systemic violation of human rights in Southeast Asia, with the pandemic exacerbating the already precarious situation of marginalised people who might end up in hands of human traffickers.
Regarding Myanmar, however, disappointment continues. On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.
Unfortunately the issue of shrinking civic space was not discussed at the summit, which reveals continued neglect by ASEAN member states and a lack of consensus about the importance of the fact that civic space is deteriorating across the region.
Has there been progress in strengthening the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)?
Since its inception, the AICHR has been criticised as nothing more than a front for ASEAN member states to comply with their duty to put human rights on the regional agenda. It is not surprising that ASEAN finds it difficult to promote human rights at the regional level, given that its membership includes several authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies.
Civil society groups have done what we could to strengthen the AICHR, leading to incremental progress in its institutional strength and its relations with civil society. In 2019, FORUM-ASIA and its partners called for a review of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference to make it more independent and give it a protection mandate, among other things. ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to this, but the process hasn’t kicked off. Still, other positive changes happened, such as the inclusion of civil society in various AICHR activities and growing opportunities for the AICHR to meet with civil society in a variety of settings.
For example, recently and for the first time ever, FORUM-ASIA and other CSOs with AICHR consultative status were invited to meet with AICHR representatives at the 37th AICHR Meeting. The question remains whether this practice can be sustained and institutionalised. The AICHR has also recently demonstrated increased engagement with national human rights institutions, its natural national partners. This also needs to be maintained and strengthened.
Additionally, the current AICHR mechanism for handling human rights complaints needs to be assessed for it to become more transparent and responsive to rapidly deteriorating civic space conditions. But because the issue of shrinking civic space has not been met with consensus among AICHR member states, progress has been minimal. However, FORUM-ASIA keeps engaging with the AICHR in the knowledge that it will take years of effort to build a mechanism that lives up to our aspiration of holding states accountable for human rights violations. We are willing to engage in discussions with the AICHR about how to strengthen its complaint mechanism to contribute to enforcing states’ human rights obligations at the national level.
Why hasn’t there been any progress in implementing the 5PC to address the situation in Myanmar?
The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.
Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, the ASEAN chair in 2022, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.
Finally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed.
How has civil society responded to ASEAN’s failure to address the situation in Myanmar?
Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.
Along with reputable Myanmar CSOs and other regional and international organisations, FORUM-ASIA recently released a position paper calling for a review and reframing of the 5PC. This paper provides five counterpoints of action that ASEAN leaders must immediately take to prove the bloc’s commitment and capability to resolve the Myanmar crisis effectively.
The first point calls for the immediate adoption of an action plan for civilian protection and cessation of violence. The second emphasises the need to convene inclusive and meaningful consultations with legitimate Myanmar stakeholders, including the NUG, its advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a group of ousted parliamentarians – and ethnic resistance organisations. The third stresses the need to amend the mandate of the ASEAN Special Envoy’s term to three years with authority, independence and resources to take effective action. The fourth calls for the provision of direct support to frontline humanitarian responders in Myanmar and along ethnic borderlands, including Myanmar’s western borders. And the fifth point calls on the Special Envoy to immediately open formal communications and engage with civil society and other key stakeholders from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
What should the international community do to push ASEAN to protect human rights and address the situation in Myanmar?
International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the NUG as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.
They should also work closely with the United Nations, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the Special Envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed Special Envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.
Attacks On Citizen Rights In SA: Five Trends And Countrywide Threats
By Kgalalelo Gaebee
From the large city centres to the rural townships, South Africans are witnessing a nationwide crackdown on their civic rights. Citizens’ ability to speak out, organise and take action on social issues in South Africa is becoming increasingly restricted. For those critical of business and government elites, there are much higher rates of harassment and detention by security forces. Social activist Kgalalelo Gaebee lists five threats to our basic freedoms that we should be concerned about.
Read on:The Daily Vox
AUSTRALIA: ‘Repressive laws have been introduced to limit people’s ability to protest against climate injustice’
CIVICUS speaks about the challenges faced by climate activists in Australia with Nelli Stevenson, head of communications and investigations at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
AUSTRIA: ‘Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality’
CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender-based violence (GBV) in Austria with Hannah Steiner and Sophie Hansal of the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls.
The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at improving women’s and girls’ lives through the development of training programmes, the provision of free counselling and campaigning and advocating for women’s concerns to be addressed by public policies.
How did the work of the Network change under the pandemic?
The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls is an umbrella organisation encompassing 59 counselling centres all over Austria. We build our internal network by organising training activities, exchange and communication among counselling centres. We represent the concerns of our member organisations externally and are therefore in constant contact with funding bodies, politicians, the media and the public. We advocate for a society in which all human beings, and particularly women and girls, can lead a free and safe life.
The Network and all its counselling centres have no affiliation with any political party or religion. Our member organisations provide various forms of support, from career guidance, training and reintegration to work after parental leave, guidance regarding employment laws and residence status, to partnership and support on child-rearing issues, divorce and custody, physical and mental health issues, all the way to violence in all of its forms.
The pandemic had a major effect on our work, particularly at the beginning, when uncertainty was highest and the availability and accessibility of counselling was very limited. Many women and girls were unsure where to seek advice. Counselling centres tried to react to this as quickly as possible, for example by offering counselling online, but also by actively contacting women and girls who had registered with them earlier to ask how they were doing and whether they needed anything.
As in many other areas, counselling embraced new technologies during the pandemic. However, some women and girls didn’t have – and still don’t have – the equipment or skills to access these opportunities. At the same time, some organisations have told us that there are women and girls who find it easier to ask for advice or help in an online setting. And women who live in rural areas, far from the next counselling centre, found access to counselling easier via phone or email. The ways the pandemic impacted on our work cannot be summarised so easily, because its effects were multifaceted.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Austria, and how has civil society reacted to this?
Studies have shown that all types of violence against women and girls intensified during the pandemic. Political measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 affected women and girls in specific ways: financial worries, movement restrictions, often cramped living conditions and – in cases of domestic violence – isolation in close quarters with abusers all made the situation especially dire for many women and girls.
It is important to note that the pandemic has also affected many people’s psychological health. Only the future will show the pandemic’s long-term effects on a social level. Unfortunately, times of crisis have rarely proven to be a catalyst for gender equality.
What is key for achieving equality and social justice is an active civil society. Civil society gives a public voice to those who are often not heard. During the pandemic, CSOs have pointed out how the crisis affected the most vulnerable groups in society. They have continued to offer advice and support to those who need it and have developed new offers to address pandemic-induced economic and psychological stress.
Counselling centres for women and girls play a special role in protection from GBV. We can recognise violence early on and in cases where it is hidden behind other problems. Even – and especially – in times of crisis such as this, counselling centres are crucial contact points for women and girls.
CSOs have always been key figures in advocating for gender and social equality in Austria, and will certainly continue to do it in the aftermath of the pandemic.
What should the Austrian government do to curb GBV?
Austria ratified the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence – in 2013. Since then, its implementation has been evaluated by the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). In its evaluation report, GREVIO has included many CSO demands. Full implementation of the Istanbul Convention would be a milestone in the elimination of GBV.
One of the most important political steps would be an increase in funding for CSOs working in the field. Due to the ongoing crisis and the increased need for advice, women’s and girls’ counselling centres need more support. There is often no long-term funding that can ensure CSO sustainability, only project-based funding. This does not allow for long-term actions and makes planning difficult.
Furthermore, the knowhow and wide experience of women’s CSOs should be considered and included to a higher degree when it comes to policy-making at the national and regional levels. The government should make use of and rely on the expertise of women’s organisations and the long-existing services they built when planning new measures or setting up new institutions.
Further research on the specific situation of young women and girls should be conducted so that their needs are taken into consideration when new measures are designed.
The International Women’s Day theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How have you organised around it in the communities you work with?
The Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls works 365 days a year to create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination, by offering counselling for women and girls in difficult situations; by making sexism, gender stereotypes and GBV a political issue; by advocating for women’s and girls’ rights on a daily basis; by developing training programmes, quality standards and working documents; by connecting feminist CSOs and by positioning ourselves as experts for the issue of gender equality. Our aim is to improve the living conditions of all women and girls living in Austria.
Due to the pandemic, we have not organised an event on 8 March, but some of our member organisations have planned events and we are joining the International Women’s Day protest in Vienna.
Civic space in Austria is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Network of Austrian Counselling Centres for Women and Girls through itswebsite ofFacebook page, and follow it onInstagram.
Austria’s civic space rating downgraded
The downgrade is based on an assessment of conditions for the exercise of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression on theCIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS has today downgraded Austria’s civic space rating from open to narrowed. This decision was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law. The downgrade follows nearly a year of rule by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, during which the space for civil society has worsened. A narrowed rating indicates a situation in which the state mostly allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, however certain restrictions on these rights take place.
“The Austrian government appears intent on turning its back on the values of the European Union, as it chooses division over dialogue and restrictions over rights,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Austria’s failure to protect fundamental freedoms is borne out by verbal attacks and administrative encroachment on media freedoms, as well as restrictive measures such as an increase in the notice period required for protests from 24 to 48 hours.”
Protests against the new government took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon. Since then, the new administration has steadfastly refused to engage in structured dialogue with civil society in a range of sectors. Instead, leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. This includes Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who accused international humanitarian NGO - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of cooperating with people smugglers. More recently, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced.
Freedom of expression has also come under attack this year, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. One minister even went so far as to expressly instruct officials not to brief certain media outlets which are critical of the government. Earlier in the year, media monitors in Austria reported a spate of attacks, including online hate speech, directed at independent media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF.
Meanwhile, a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours and designating certain “protection zones”, in which protests are prohibited.
“CIVICUS calls on the Austrian authorities to discard its policy of exclusion and denigration of civic activists,” said Gilbert. “We call on the government to instead begin a constructive dialogue with CSOs in all sectors, and to review laws and policies which are out of step with Austria’s commitments under international law and as a member of the European Union.”
These developments are supported in a damning new report published this month by the Chamber of Austrian Lawyers, which sets out a bleak perspective for the protection of fundamental freedoms in Austria in the coming years.
Austria is now rated narrowed on the CIVICUS Monitor. Visit Austria’s homepage for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates. Next week, on 27th November 2018, CIVICUS will release People Power Under Attack 2018 - a fresh global analysis on civic space.
For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS
cathal.gilbert[at]civicus.org or media[at]civicus.org
Backsliding on civic space in democracies
By Mandeep Tiwana
It’s no secret that democracy is facing a global stress test. Divisive politicians are creating a chasm between the majoritarian impulses of electoral democracy and the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy. The former emphasises a simplistic ‘winner takes all’ mentality to advance partisan political agendas while the latter accommodates dissent and minority voices through checks and balances. Notably, civil society activists and organisations speaking truth to power and seeking inclusion in decision making are facing severe hurdles as civic space appears to be backsliding in several democratic countries.
Read on: Open Democracy
BAHRAIN: ‘Had there been civic freedoms, the authorities would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of political prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).
Founded in 2012, Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) registered in France, Switzerland and the UK. It undertakes research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, intends to return to Bahrain imminently to ensure her father gets medical treatment and press for his immediate and unconditional release. Yet she, too, faces possible arrest. What’s your assessment of the situation?
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 62, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, is the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has a long history of activism. He was arrested by the government of Bahrain in 2004, 2007 and again amid mass unrest in April 2011. After this he faced a grossly unfair trial before a military court, including on charges of ‘seeking to overthrow the government’. He was tortured in pretrial custody and since his arbitrary imprisonment he has been repeatedly denied access to adequate healthcare.
On 9 August he joined some 800 other hunger strikers. They called for an end to lockdown policies that require them to spend up to 23 hours of the day in their cells, the suspension of solitary confinement, the opportunity for collective or congregational prayer in Jau Prison’s mosque, face-to-face meeting rights with family members without a glass screen and access to healthcare commensurate with that available to the public, among other improvements in prison conditions.
On 13 September the mass hunger strike ended with the authorities reportedly meeting many of these demands. This came as Bahrain’s Crown Prince visited Washington, DC, where he met with senior members of the Biden administration: the problem had to go away.
Maryam nevertheless intends to travel and she has our full support. We continue to call for Abdulhadi’s immediate and unconditional release. The Danish and European Union (EU) authorities must do more.
What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain. If there was space for independent civil society, then CSOs would have effectively alerted the authorities to prison conditions and they could have addressed the situation. An independent civic space makes it possible to find a balance in government conduct.
What does this mean for Maryam al-Khawaja and our courageous colleagues travelling with her? It means they should be allowed to enter Bahrain and make their demands. The government should engage with them in a spirit of transparency. The absolute worst that could happen is for dissent to be tolerated just a little bit more. While this seems unlikely to happen, it is what the government should do. We wish them all Godspeed.
How is it possible to conduct human rights activism in such a closed environment? How does Salam DHR do it?
Bahrain has closed civic space. Government officials decide which CSOs can be registered and who can stand for their boards. They prevent people from engaging in public life who have no criminal records or public complaints but rather perhaps a past association with a political movement or party that was unfairly banned years ago.
The Bahraini constitution provides for freedoms and safeguards similar to many other states, but the reality is that the government continues to carry out arbitrary arrests and stage unfair trials for acts that are not internationally recognised as crimes. The authorities torture detainees and use the death penalty, despite domestic opposition and international condemnation. They have stripped hundreds, including myself, of citizenship, depriving us of even the right to have rights in our homeland. They use the digital space to monitor and punish dissent and to foment religious and sectarian strife.
Activists linked with Salam DHR cannot, in effect, exercise their right to peaceful assembly, let alone openly campaign for freedoms of association and expression, the release of prisoners unfairly tried and imprisoned or a moratorium on the death penalty. They would risk arrest if they did that.
Yet engaging in civic activism is not totally impossible, only very challenging. Alongside CIVICUS and other partners, Salam DHR engages with allies and like-minded activists as well as the few CSOs that openly but cautiously raise human rights concerns so that the wider Bahraini society hears our message. We echo and amplify their appeals.
We are a catalyst: we help Bahraini activists access platforms to reach domestic and international audiences and provide training and development opportunities such as internships. Alone and in partnership with others, we research, document and publicise developments, grounding our message in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs.
How useful for advocacy purposes was theglobal event held by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023?
It was mixed: Danish parliamentarians and those from other countries addressed human rights issues and the absence of an independent civic space. The IPU’s human rights team raised concerns about freedom of expression and violations against Bahraini parliamentarians. But despite the IPU’s affiliated status with the United Nations (UN), the government still denied access to independent observers and human rights organisations, denying them either visas or access and turning at least one around at the airport. This was the authorities once again restricting civic space.
A few days before the IPU meeting officially began, Bahraini lawyer and activist Ebrahim Al-Mannai called for parliamentary reforms on social media. He and three others who shared his post were arrested for publishing material that could ‘disturb public order’.
At the event itself, the government appeared uninterested in seriously engaging with visiting parliamentarians on human rights issues, despite attempts from the Danish delegation and representatives from Finland, Iceland and Ireland. Our message is clear: open up civic space, free up CSOs and political parties and liberate discourse, otherwise the cycle of political unrest will continue.
Reports indicate that the mass hunger strike in Jau Prison has ended. What’s your assessment of this episode?
The painful August 2023 mass hunger strike was wholly avoidable. It happened mainly due to the government’s stubborn and short-sighted refusal to allow civic space to exist even to a minimum degree. Had there been freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, they would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison. If you don’t let people say what they think, then public life can only lurch from crisis to crisis.
The hunger strike was the expression of the accumulation of a number of factors that have been present in Bahraini prisons for years and it was based on grievances that have been repeatedly expressed: prison conditions and ill treatment of prisoners amounting to torture. The abuses worsened and conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, medical neglect resulted in the deaths of two prisoners, Hussein Barakat and Abbas Mallalah.
We appeal once more to the authorities to allow for the opening of civic space and provide a social vent to end the cycle of human rights crises we face.
Is the international community doing all it can to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain?
International human rights organisations, UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures and partner states, for instance in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process of Bahrain, have all joined us in calling on the government of Bahrain to abide by its international human rights obligations, starting with the basic step of letting people have a voice in public life.
Today, 15 September, is International Day of Democracy, and we are joining the UN in calling on the government of Bahrain to empower the next generation by ensuring that their voices are included in the decisions that will have a profound impact on their world. In his address, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that ‘walls are closing in on civic spaces’. Those walls are also the walls of Jau Prison, where it took 800 detainees’ unjust suffering for the government to even take notice.
But the UN has also let neighbouring United Arab Emirates, which is as closed as Bahrain, host the forthcoming COP28 climate change summit. Lack of civic space means there can be no activism for climate justice in Bahrain – for instance, no public demands for accountability can be expressed over costly and environmentally damaging land reclamation in Bahrain’s northeast, which has already eroded the livelihood of fishing communities. We need to be able to address these challenges openly, with a rights-based approach, to avoid a future calamity.
And powerful states that could be putting some pressure for change are avoiding the issue. Right now, Bahrain’s Crown Prince is wrapping up meetings with senior Biden administration officials, none of whom appear to have raised civic space concerns or addressed the needless suffering of 800 Bahraini prisoners. The UK has removed Bahrain from its list of ‘countries of concern’ at the same time as it trumpeted a billion-dollar Bahraini investment in the UK. In October the EU will recommence its cycle of so-called human rights dialogues.
The international community’s inexplicable complacency over the festering human rights quagmire in Bahrain will further embolden the government in crushing civic space. Many leaders miss the point when it comes to Bahrain and its Gulf neighbours: they appear to accept the facade of what is presented as pragmatic autocracy and appear to accept regional rulers’ colonial-mindset contention that democracy will destabilise the region.
Democracies have in fact produced the most stable, enduring and dynamic systems in the world. Human rights and democracy are essential for Bahrain and its neighbours because their deficits continue to be the primary cause of resentment and unrest. A security-based approach does not remedy these problems. Bahrain’s history has shown these methods to be a failure, as it has endured continuous waves of mass unrest followed by violent crackdowns.
Authoritarianism and the forms of violence it fosters are the real destabilising forces, a cycle that can only be broken through the recognition and enactment of democratic rights. The first step towards this goal is simply letting civic space exist.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BAHRAIN: ‘The government uses public relations to mask human rights violations’
CIVICUS speaks withDrewery Dyke of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) about closed civic and democratic space in Bahrain as the state prepares to host the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU Assembly takes place in the capital, Manama,from 11 to 15 March 2023.
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, and also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
We last spoke on the eve of the parliamentary election held in November 2022. How has civic space in Bahrain evolved since?
The government of Bahrain held the November 2022 parliamentary election under the same, highly restrictive, 2018 Political Rights Law used in the 2018 elections. It banned scores of people from being able to vote or stand for election on spurious grounds such as affiliation to a banned political party or having a criminal record.
Bahrain’s international partners, United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and civil society all decried the banning of political parties, as it flew in the face of international standards and simply deprived many people of having a voice. The court cases, too, dating from the 2011 unrest, were grossly unfair. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee denounced both the Political Isolation Law and the Law on Associations
And yet there seems to be a small opening for civil society and greater freedoms. The regional mood music appears to be changing, with the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates normalising relations with Qatar, and the Bahraini government having set out a 2022-2026 National Human Rights Plan.
Bahrain’s government appears to have signalled that it is minded to undertake some reform but civil society remains highly sceptical. Many of us are concerned that the government is once again using public relations initiatives to project an image of the country that masks longstanding, unresolved human rights violations for which there has been no accountability.
Is change possible? Yes, to some degree, it appears so. But civil society needs to remain vigilant and sceptical. Action will speak louder than words. An amendment of existing laws on political and civil society organisations is now a must.
How does Salam DHR manage to work in such a restrictive environment?
Current legislation makes it impossible for our organisation to register and openly carry out any research or advocacy in Bahrain. That has been the case since 2013. And yet at least one woman human rights defender who is linked to Salam DHR and other human rights CSOs has remained active inside Bahrain. She walks a tightrope on a daily basis, taking action to support individuals, notably prisoners of conscience. Lawyers, political and civil society activists and others from all walks of life continue to contact us but we cannot discuss their identities to protect their safety. It is a challenge.
In November 2022, however, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights obtained accreditation to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which means it can now formally participate in UN meetings and events. This important step could help prise open the space for civil society just that little bit more. We will see.
Why do you think the Bahraini government offered to host the IPU Assembly?
The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing. The IPU’s catchphrase on its website is ‘For democracy. For everyone’. The government seeks to own this message in a situation where democracy does not exist.
The theme of the 146th Assembly is ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.
Possibly to foster its mission, the IPU accepted the Bahraini government’s offer to hold its meeting in Manama. Is that problematic? In some ways, yes. But it is upon us to promote – peacefully – democratic change that advances adherence to international human rights standards. And parliamentarians from around the world attending the IPU Assembly could help chip away at deeply rooted discrimination and the fact that so many in civil society are deprived of having a voice or are afraid to use it.
Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly.
The IPU Assembly may be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns. Parliamentarians are a building block of a free civil society. We need them to step up during the Assembly to make that a reality in Bahrain.
How could this whitewashing attempt become an advocacy opportunity?
The IPU Assembly will be a pivotal opportunity for advocacy. Visiting parliamentarians must make it so. They must reject baseless hype and propaganda depicting Bahrain as a land of freedom and democracy.
In a recently published brief, Salam DHR is urging attending parliamentarians to join with other parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarianshas lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship. We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.
We urge visiting parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment, and to meet with human rights activists and others in civil society while in Bahrain.
How can the international community better support Bahraini civil society and activism for democracy?
Civil society in and engaged with Bahrain needs the international community to listen and speak with us, to hear our experiences and work with us. There is a narrative and experience that differs from the public relations whitewashing by the government.
We are saying that there are longstanding problems that need to be addressed, in terms of law, practice and accountability. But we are also saying that we believe that Bahrain’s international partners – from varying states, including European Union member states, the UK and USA, and the UN and its human rights bodies – and now parliamentarians can all work together, in unison, to erode the climate of repression that denies respect for human dignity, in order to empower Bahraini civil society and gradually build a more open and rights-respecting country.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BAHRAIN: ‘This election is make-believe: its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy’
CIVICUS speaks about the election being held today in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian. In the 2010 election his political group, al-Wefaq, won 18 out of 40 seats, becoming the largest group in the Council of Representatives. They all resigned in repudiation of the repression of protests in 2011, and Jawad and another parliamentarian were arrested, tortured and ill-treated in detention. In November 2012, while he was visiting the UK, the government withdrew his citizenship, making him stateless. He became a campaigner against statelessness and for the rights of the stateless and founded Salam DHR in 2013.
What is the significance of today’s election?
Elections matter, or at least they should. In Bahrain, elections for municipal councils and the 40-seat parliament, the Council of Representatives, are held every four years, with possible runoffs where no candidate obtains a majority.
Between 2002 and 2010, these elections were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.
Far more than now, they showed elections are a pivotal moment for social and political renewal – for those who will shape society to engage with civil society and to accommodate differing social and political views. Elections can create a sense of shared ownership, and in a context of tolerance and acceptance they can foster a vibrant and responsible civil society. They can help build a culture of human rights.
But that is not the case with today’s election.
This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.
This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.
But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.
Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We need to start organising now so that global parliamentarians can help carry our voices and those of international civil society to the heart of Manama.
We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent. We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace. We are looking forward.
Have further restrictions been imposed on civic space in the run-up to the election?
Not really, as most of the damage was already done.
In December 2014, the authorities imprisoned Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the largest political association. He was arrested for protesting against the parliamentary elections, which al-Wefaq boycotted because promised reforms had not been implemented. In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges such as inciting hatred, disturbing the peace and insulting public institutions, but he was acquitted of the most serious charge, of inciting political change, which could carry a life sentence.
He appealed, but so did the prosecutor, who demanded a stricter sentence, and in 2016 his prison sentence was increased to nine years. Further charges were subsequently added and in 2017 he was accused and tried for the crime of ‘spying for Qatar’. For having tried to mediate in Bahrain’s conflict with Qatar, the authorities handed him a life sentence.
In July 2016, a court in Bahrain dissolved and banned Al-Wefaq after accusing it of fostering violence and ‘terrorism’. In May 2017, the main non-sectarian political association, Wa’d, was shut down as well, also under accusations of advocating violence, supporting terrorism and inciting crimes.
In advance of the 2018 parliamentary election, the government amended the NGO law, extending restrictions on who could establish or be on a CSO board, irrespective of the organisation’s nature – this applies even to organisations working on sports, working with the community or providing charitable services. It also forbade all those linked to banned political parties from engaging with CSOs.
In addition, anyone sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment, even if subsequently pardoned by the King, convicted in error or provided with a ‘no objection certificate’, is now deprived for life of voting rights and the right to stand for election. Likewise, all those who for whatever reason did not take part in the previous election have been banned from taking part in the next.
Having crushed civic space for years, in the run-up to the 2022 election the authorities only needed to ensure that calm persisted. To that effect, in September the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs issued vaguely worded regulations that appeared to link electioneering and religion. Among other things, these regulations banned the holding of meetings in public religious centres and other public places such as educational facilities. They appeared aimed at the majority Shi’a community for whom such centres have often become the only places where they – we – are allowed to gather.
What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?
In Bahrain, the very existence of a civil society – let alone an independent one – depends on the political will and whim of the government: the Ministry of Labour and Social Development controls the licensing of all CSOs.
The newly amended NGO Law redefined who could establish and run a CSO and prohibited members of banned political bodies from setting up a CSO. These new rules were applied in January 2022 to forbid two peaceful women activists, Zainab al-Durazi and Safia al-Hasan, taking up the board positions to which they had been freely elected in a women-focused CSO. The two women had been linked to the banned group Wa’d.
Do some of the activities of CSOs whose directors are demonstrably loyal to the state help and support society’s needs? Of course they do. We need them and we commend such organisations. But they are not independent.
Those perceived as not personally loyal to the government and its leaders do not get licences to operate any CSO and are not allowed to be on supervisory boards, in any sector, in total contravention to international law and practice, and completely against the wishes of Bahraini people. A thorough vetting process ensures this remains the case.
All CSOs must obtain permission to engage in any way with non-Bahraini bodies such as foreign or international human rights groups or to meet with foreign Bahrain-based diplomats. If they get permission and the meeting takes place, the government requires the participation of a Foreign Ministry representative and the preparation of notes for the meeting, subject to approval. If this is not done, the representative of the CSO risks criminal charges or the closure of the organisation.
The absence of an independent civil society means that any consultation that does take place is performative – just for show. The authorities don’t typically take the limited civil society that is loyal to the government into account, so independent voices are simply not even in the picture.
If the government only consults those of whom they approve, and even then, only barely, how will that shape government policy? How can it capture the concerns and wishes of the wider population? How is this sustainable? Well, it isn’t. It is unwise and risks creating conditions similar to those that resulted in a national crisis in 2011.
What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?
Recent history has shown that democratic institutions are difficult to build and easy to lose. In Bahrain and the Gulf, the human rights movement does not call for removal of X so that they be replaced by Y. Instead, we build case studies from each country to show the inequities of laws and practices, and we campaign on that. The reform of specific practices, in certain areas – the administration of justice, the freedom of assembly – is achievable if the authorities in Bahrain and across the Gulf actually engage with human rights groups and United Nations human rights bodies.
We need the Bahraini authorities to provide some genuine representation of the people by the people. We are ready to have a real, genuine dialogue with the authorities, but there needs to be a level playing field. If, despite the restrictions placed on them, the parliamentarians elected in this election step up, then we will have a chance to make a difference going forward. But just as we dare to dream and act, they need to do so too.
What kind of support does Bahraini civil society need from the international community?
We need more engagement. We need states and friends in international civil society to step up and explain the character and vision of the democratic society that the majority of Bahrainis seek; to explain that it does not represent a threat but rather an unlocking of potential.
We need international civil society counterparts to engage in international fora, not only to reflect and project our voice but also to emphasise the role and inherent legitimacy of Bahraini civil society to the Bahraini authorities.
We need our international partners to put pressure on the government’s human rights oversight bodies – the Ombudsman’s office, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights – to provide real rather than cosmetic redress, accountability and reform. Some of these oversight bodies have helped migrant workers facing abuse, but even then, their scope has been limited as they have failed to address underlying unjust laws or practices.
We need help and expertise to collate evidence to mount realistic claims for accountability in jurisdictions that have provisions for sanctioning, such as the Global Magnitsky Act that the US government uses to sanction foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders,
We need international civil society to press the government of Bahrain to explain why it has failed to adhere to the international conventions to which it has acceded, or why it has not acceded to additional standards such as optional protocols, or been clearer about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.