UN Panel Discussion, Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
When: 13:15-14:30, Wednesday 17 October 2018
Where: UNHQ, Conference Room E, New York
Co-sponsors: Civic Space Initiative, CESR, ISHR, Oxfam, Solidarity Center
Keynote: Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, delivering opening remarks
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
Kate Donald, Director, Human Rights in Sustainable Development Program, Center for Economic and Social Rights
Shayana Kadidal, Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights
Moderator: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS
Panellists will discuss the connections between sustainable development and the the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association drawing on examples from movements related to different aspects of sustainable development from the environment to worker’s rights. The discussion will take place on the occasion of UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule presenting his report (A/73/279) ‘The linkages between the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ to the UN General Assembly, on Tuesday 16 October.
Please register here.
*Non-UN pass holders must register by noon on Monday 15 October to attend this event*
For more information please contact: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS,
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule - @cvoule
Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, a national from Togo, has been appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in March 2018. Prior to his appointment, he led the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) work to support human rights defenders from States in transition and coordinated the organization’s work in Africa as the Advocacy Director.
Andrew Gilmour - @gilmourUN
Andrew Gilmour of the United Kingdom assumed his functions as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on 1 October 2016, heading OHCHR’s Office in New York. In October 2016, Mr. Gilmour was designated by the Secretary-General as senior official to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights.
Kate Donald - @Mskaydee
Kate Donald joined Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) in 2014. She is currently the director of the Human Rights in Development program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and former Adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
Shayana Kadidal - @ShayanaKadidal
Shayana Kadidal is Senior Managing Attorney of the Guantanamo litigation project at the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is counsel in Energy Transfer Equity, et al, v. Greenpeace, a lawsuit brought by the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline against a number of environmental groups aiming to recast their support of grassroots activism against the pipeline's construction as criminal conspiracy and terrorism.
Lyndal Rowlands - @lyndalrowlands
Lyndal works in UN advocacy for CIVICUS the global alliance for citizen participation. She is an award-winning journalist and former UN correspondent and has written or conducted research for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Al Jazeera, the Diplomat, The Saturday Paper and IPS, where she was UN Bureau Chief.
Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing
By Danny Sriskandarajah
The closing of civic space is not just about people’s right to organize or protest in individual countries. This year’s Gobal Risks Report, published last week by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual Davos meeting, looks in detail at the risks posed by threats to governments clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. The report points out that, “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”
Read on: Open Democracy
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Getting a strong Ocean Treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic’
CIVICUS speaks with Ellie Hooper of GreenpeaceAotearoa about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards the development of a United Nations Ocean Treaty. 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. It uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that create a green and peaceful future.
What is the significance of the proposed Ocean Treaty?
A strong global treaty on the oceans could revolutionise the way oceans are managed, putting an end to fragmented governance that has failed to protect our blue planet the way we need to.
If done right, one of the key things the Ocean Treaty could deliver is the creation of fully protected marine areas on the high seas. These areas would be off limits to destructive human activities such as industrial fishing and mining. At the moment there is no legal mechanism to create fully protected areas outside of national jurisdictions, which has become a real problem. The ocean is under threat from all sides and to protect it we need to take a holistic view tackling multiple risk factors.
Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. A strong treaty would give us the mechanism to do this. The ocean is a huge carbon sink and has absorbed a great deal of global warming to this point. It’s also home to amazing biodiversity, produces the oxygen we breathe, stabilises the climate and is a food source for millions around the world.
In short, keeping the ocean healthy is vital to our survival and the entire functioning of our blue planet. But more and more research shows it is in decline. To turn this around we need to step up and protect it by reducing the multiple pressures on the system.
Science shows that fully protected marine areas are one of the best tools we’ve got to help the ocean recover and thrive. When these are put in place in the right areas – places known to be high in biodiversity, migratory pathways or unique ecosystems – ocean health improves and marine life flourishes. This has positive impacts across the board, from the number of creatures in the sea to how well the ocean can absorb carbon.
Why is the treaty process taking so long?
We’re talking about a hugely ambitious conservation effort. Getting a treaty across the line involves countries around the world agreeing to its terms, and that is not an easy feat.
While it’s disappointing that leaders failed to reach a conclusion on this at the latest round of negotiations held in August, this doesn’t mean an agreement isn’t going to happen. At the last meeting a great deal of progress was made, with countries showing more flexibility and a real sense of urgency. They ran out of time, but we are not giving up hope that this historic agreement is on the horizon. What needs to happen now is for countries to come together without delay and thrash out their remaining discrepancies.
How has civil society in general, and Greenpeace specifically, advocated for the treaty?
There’s been a great deal of civil society pressure for this treaty, with many organisations around the world pushing hard for its best version to materialise.
Greenpeace has been actively involved in the treaty process since the beginning. It sends a team to each round of negotiations and has run a global campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing the ocean and how a treaty could counter them. Our approach has been twofold: to build public momentum around the agreement while doing all the behind-the-scenes work, talking to ministers and other public officials in all the regions where we’re active.
As a consequence, millions of people around the world have joined the campaign for a strong treaty. They’ve done that in various ways, from signing petitions, sending letters and recording video messages to attending marches. Many people around the world are invested in this issue and their engagement has been critical to getting this far.
For us here at Greenpeace Aotearoa, it’s been inspiring to see the number of people willing to stand up for ocean protection, and we know that their voices have been heard. It’s fair to say that their repeated calls on New Zealand’s leaders to support a strong treaty has resulted in New Zealand supporting a far more progressive position at negotiations. That’s really people power in action. When we work together, we can make real change happen.
We’ve also met regularly with the New Zealand delegation to the treaty negotiations, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we consistently communicate with them about what this treaty needs to look like in order to protect the ocean for the future.
What can environmental civil society organisations and activists do to ensure the treaty is adopted?
Treaty negotiations need to urgently resume. At the latest round, countries ran out of time to agree on all its terms, but they’re almost there. So it’s up to civil society activists and organisations to keep pushing world leaders to prioritise reconvening and getting this done. We don’t want it to fall to the bottom of the agenda – it’s simply too important.
In more practical terms, making noise about the need for this treaty is really important. That could look like sharing content online, signing petitions, or writing to your country’s minister of foreign affairs to show how important getting this treaty done is. None of us can survive without a healthy ocean, so we all need to up to protect it.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Ocean Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society’
CIVICUS speaks John Paul Jose about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards a United Nations (UN) High Seas Treaty. John is an environmental and climate activist from India who currently serves as one of the youth ambassadors of the High Seas Alliance (HSA) and a member of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance. The HSA is a partnership of more than 40 civil society organisations (CSOs) plus the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It aims to build a strong common voice and constituency for ocean conservation.
What is the significance of the proposed treaty?
Seventy-one per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered by ocean, 64 per cent of which are high seas. The ocean regulates the global climate and sustains life on the planet. It sequesters much of the historic and cumulative carbon emissions: phytoplankton, marine forests and whales, in particular, play a significant role in locking carbon in the ocean. However, the ocean has been systematically ignored in efforts to address the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity, which have focused almost exclusively on the land.
As the high seas are a global commons, it is largely governed by the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency responsible for regulating shipping that was established in 1948, and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its autonomous intergovernmental body, the International Seabed Authority, established in 1994.
But high seas are experiencing unprecedented threats that were not foreseen when those agreements were reached, such as the accumulation of plastics, chemical and industrial waste, acidification, deep sea mining, bottom trawling and, last but not least, the overall impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and the overexploitation of marine habitats and species increase the danger of ocean collapse.
This is why it is urgent to develop a global treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – a High Seas Treaty. This would provide the legal basis for the conservation of marine ecosystems and the protection from extinction of countless species yet to be discovered. Only one per cent of the high seas are currently protected, and the treaty aims to make it 30 per cent by 2030.
This would be the equivalent of the Paris Agreement for the oceans. Through marine conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources, it will preserve the carbon cycle. By creating marine protected areas, it will contribute to the restoration of marine habitats and the replenishment of the marine resources on which many communities around the world rely for their livelihoods. It will further contribute to global climate resilience. Once it comes into effect, many practices harmful to the ocean will cease to exist within the protected areas.
Why is the treaty process taking so long?
It has been 15 years since the negotiations started, but cooperation has been lacking regarding many aspects of the treaty. Differences would need to be resolved in between sessions, and a treaty should be finalised to include all the aspects where agreements have been reached, leaving space for future amendments as differences over more contested elements are subsequently resolved. And intergovernmental conferences should definitely happen more often.
One element being discussed is the equitable distribution among states of marine genetic resources, which are essential in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and other industries. The current overemphasis on benefit sharing is an illusion, as we don’t know enough about such benefits, since much of the ocean is still unexplored. But it is a fact that 10 countries account for 71 per cent of global fishing and 98 per cent of patents of genetic codes of marine life in the high seas. Those few countries’ greed and unwillingness to share benefits and marine technology and knowledge, and the obvious concerns this creates among less powerful countries, are one big reason for the deadlock.
There is also a stalemate on defining criteria for environmental impact assessments and the implementation of marine protected areas. What is at stake here are the interests of deep-sea mining industries and industrial fisheries.
However, the treaty process has seen a lot of success in convening discussions and negotiations. As of now, more than 100 states are highly committed to backing the treaty as it stands and some, such as Costa Rica, are leading by example by pushing forward regionally, opening up additional avenues for conservation.
The treaty is likely to be finalised at the next session, so further efforts should be put into funding delegations from global south countries so they can be a stronger voice and bring more balance into negotiations.
How has civil society in general, and the HSA in particular, advocated for the development and adoption of a treaty?
Since its inception, the HSA has advocated for protecting at least 50 per cent of the ocean, engaging decision-makers, experts and civil society. We are now focused on keeping up the momentum of the intergovernmental conferences, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a legally binding treaty to protect the planet by changing the way we govern the high seas. This process has created a lot of awareness about the importance of the high seas, so governments that used to be unfamiliar with them are now supporting a robust treaty.
That said, it should be noted that only states are considered as parties to the treaty, so non-state voices have no space in the negotiations. Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society and experts. Many of us cannot even witness live negotiations and documents are only made available once discussions have been closed.
There are also clear inequalities among participating states. Many states with limited resources bring very small delegations and lack the expertise to engage productively in the discussions. It would make a difference to all parties involved if civil society were able to bring its expertise into the process.
What can environmental CSOs and activists do to ensure the treaty’s adoption?
There are clear limits to what we can do to expedite the treaty’s adoption. We believe it is crucial to have a treaty as soon as possible, and it is better to have an incomplete one than to have none. So states should move forward on all the issues where agreements have been reached and design an amendment process to integrate further issues and stakeholders’ concerns in the future.
CSOs and activists can contribute to the process by bringing diverse perspectives to the table. As current negotiations are closed discussions among states in which civil society, scientists and the private sector don’t have a seat, we only can do so by advocating with receptive states that do have a seat at the table.
We can also campaign to bring bottom-up pressure into the process, by bringing the concerns the treaty tries to address into the discussion of the global climate movement and getting the wider public engaged. Resources such as the HSA’s Treaty Tracker provide access to useful information regarding the treaty and negotiations. This information should reach across the globe and empower people to demand that world leaders finalise the treaty, and to call on their own governments to hear them in environmental policy process.
A treaty would provide a legal basis for action, but even without one, states, communities and corporations can act to protect the high seas. Many countries already have marine protected areas within their national jurisdictions, and more can be established with public participation. Civil society should engage in these processes but should not be limited by national boundaries. It’s time for us to transcend borders and advocate for the global commons as well.
UNITED STATES: ‘Every country should do their part to welcome people in need’
CIVICUS speaks about new US immigration regulations withAaron Nodjomian-Escajeda, policy analyst on asylum and human trafficking at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).
Founded in 1911, USCRI is a non-governmental, not-for-profit international organisation committed to working on behalf of refugees and immigrants and their transition to a dignified life.
What are Title 8 and Title 42 regulations?
Title 42 was never meant to be used as an immigration tool. It was applied in March 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a basis to provide public health services across the USA, but it also allowed border officials to rapidly expel asylum seekers and migrants to Mexico or their home countries without due process. As this was considered an ‘expulsion’ rather than a ‘deportation’, those subject to it were not given the right to seek asylum. Furthermore, no records were kept of an expulsion, which provided an incentive for people to attempt to enter the USA, via dangerous land routes, over and over.
Even though thousands of public health experts denounced the use of Title 42 as ineffective for stopping the spread of COVID-19, the Biden administration increased the use of this authority to turn people away more than 2.3 million times. The Title 42 public health order was finally lifted on 11 May 2023.
Title 8 contains the current laws and regulations pertaining to immigration and naturalisation, and outlines the processing of non-citizens at the border.
What is the new so-called ‘asylum ban’, and how is it being applied?
Now that the use of Title 42 has ended, the processing of migrants and asylum seekers has returned to Title 8 authority. Additionally, a new rule from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice is in effect. This rule, also referred to as an ‘asylum ban’, went into effect right after the Title 42 public health order was lifted, supposedly to address the expected surge in migration and further discourage irregular migration.
The end of the use of Title 42 to expel migrants and asylum seekers is a good thing, but the new asylum ban is not.
The asylum ban applies to anyone who presents at a port of entry at the US-Mexico border without a visa or pre-scheduled appointment, who enters without inspection between ports of entry, or who is apprehended in contiguous waters. The rule presumes all of them are ineligible for asylum unless they were granted prior permission to travel to the USA pursuant to a DHS-approved parole process, or were able to make an appointment to present themselves at the border using the smartphone app CBP (Customs and Border Protection) One, or have previously sought asylum and were denied in a country or countries through which they travelled. Unaccompanied children are exempt from this rule.
The presumption of asylum ineligibility will apply in expedited removal proceedings, as well as to asylum applications affirmatively filed with the Asylum Office or filed in immigration court proceedings as a defence against removal.
What are the lawful pathways of entry to the USA?
‘Lawful pathways’ include entering the USA through regular channels, such as tourist visas, humanitarian parole, or existing family reunification pipelines.
The Biden administration also points to recently created pathways, including the parole process for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguansand Venezuelans, new family reunification parole processes for Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the opening of regional processing centres in Colombia and Guatemala, expanded access to the CBP One app, and an increase of the number of appointments available at each port of entry for individuals from all countries from 750 to 1,000 daily.
People who enter the USA via an established pathway will not be subject to the asylum ban.
What are the reasons migrants and asylum seekers don’t to use lawful pathways of entry?
This parole framework for Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans is only available for those who have a US-based sponsor, unexpired passports and the financial resources to travel to a US port of entry by commercial air travel. Many advocates see this as a type of means test, since many people fleeing harm do not have the luxury of a passport or resources to reach the USA via plane.
There are additional access and equity issues with the CBP One app. Many migrants do not have smartphones. And even if they have one, they may lack adequate wi-fi or a data plan. Asylum seekers can be exempted from the rule if they prove it was impossible for them to access or use the CBP One app due to a language barrier, illiteracy, significant technical failure or other persistent and serious obstacle. However, in most cases proving a language barrier or illiteracy is not enough, and asylum seekers must show that they have asked someone for assistance to use the app and were still not successful, which puts them at risk of exploitation.
What are the exceptional circumstances in which unlawful entry isn’t supposed to be penalised, and how is it implemented in practice?
People can rebut the presumption of asylum ineligibility if they demonstrate that, at the time of entry, they or a member of their family with whom they were traveling faced an acute medical emergency or an extreme and imminent threat to their life or safety, or were a victim of a severe form of trafficking.
If one family unit member establishes an exception or rebuts the presumption, the presumption will not apply to the entire family unit. All family members, including children, will be interviewed prior to determining whether the presumption of ineligibility applies.
In theory, people should not be turned back at the border. Even under the asylum ban, people should be able to present themselves at the border without a CBP One appointment or having been denied asylum in their country of origin. However, if they are unable to prove they can overcome the rebuttable presumption, they will only be eligible for the lesser protections of statutory withholding of removal and protection under the regulations implementing US obligations under Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In practice, there have been reports that the Mexican Commission for Refugee Assistance and CBP officials have turned individuals away at the border even when they have cited fear of return.
Is the new regulation compliant with international standards on refugee protection?
Advocates believe that the asylum ban violates the principle of non-refoulment, which means that a person should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, cemented in international standards outlined by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
The rule is already facing challenges in court. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and the National Immigrant Justice Center have amended their complaint in the East Bay Covenant Sanctuary v. Biden lawsuit to include claims that the rule is unlawful. USCRI, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and many other advocates, has denounced this rule and continues to call on the administration to rescind it immediately. It does nothing to protect the most vulnerable and creates additional inequities in an already difficult system.
What impact has the regulation change had so far?
USCRI was at the border the day after Title 42 ended to observe the immediate impact of the change. The administration and many others warned about a ‘surge’ of migrants rushing to border as soon as Title 42 ended. However, this was not the case; the situation at the border remained calm. There were reports that people were trying to enter the USA before the cruel new asylum policy took effect. In fact, border crossings have decreased more than 70 per cent since the implementation of the asylum ban on 11 May. The administration touts this as a result of its ‘comprehensive plan to manage the border’. However, to me, it shows that many people trying to reach safety are not able to access life-saving protection via the asylum system.
What obstacles does US civil society helping migrants and refugees face?
The greatest limiting factors are that people seeking asylum in the USA or in removal proceedings do not have access to federal benefits, including housing. Right now, there is a housing crisis and some civil society organisations have limited resources from emergency food and shelter funds, while many volunteers are offering shelter in churches or in their own homes.
Another major barrier is the difficulty in providing legal counsel to immigrants in asylum hearings in CBP custody. In alignment with the asylum ban, the administration increased the use of expedited asylum screenings and brought back the harmful practice of conducting ‘credible fear interviews’ in CBP facilities. The goal is to conduct these within as little as 24 hours, which does not give people time to prepare their asylum case or access legal help. USCRI led a letter that was signed by over 90 organisations and sent to the administration outlining concerns about this practice. A more recent letter, which USCRI supported, went to the administration outlining how those concerns have in fact materialised. We continue to advocate through letters and engagement sessions. However, the administration has decided to fully embrace enforcement and pushback policies.
What international support does US civil society working with migrants and refugees need?
Everyone in this field needs funding, but the USA is one of the most financially able countries in the world, hence support should not come from the international community. The administration should do a better job of funding civil society initiatives and allowing the American people to continue welcoming individuals in need, as they are ready and willing to do so.
As international factors such as armed conflict and climate disasters continue to push people from their homes, it is important that every country does their part to welcome them. One country cannot do it all but if everyone comes together, we can empower hope. World Refugee Day is a good rallying point for doing so.
Civic space in the USA is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Upholding fundamental rights is crucial for global crisis response
Joint Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Madame High Commissioner,
Thank you for your timely report. This is a statement on behalf of the Civic Space Initiative, including CIVICUS, Article 19, ICNL, ECNL and the World Movement for Democracy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing challenges to civic freedoms.
The CIVICUS Monitor shows that it has exacerbated the ongoing use of restrictive laws; restrictions on funding; reprisals, attacks and acts of intimidation; the ongoing violent repression of mass mobilisations for change; and the wilful exclusion of civil society from decision making processes. It has provided cover for executive overreach and spurred new growth in the use of surveillance technologies. According to ICNL-ECNL’s Civic Freedom Tracker, at least 145 countries have enacted 280 measures in response to COVID that further affect civic freedoms and human rights.
But it has also revealed the centrality of civil society in crisis response: in providing critical information and services to communities, running feeding schemes and health screenings, providing aid and monitoring abuses.
Civil society has again proved itself to be an integral stakeholder. And time of crisis is a time of opportunity. As has been so often said, this is the time to build back better.
We have seen many examples of good practice to draw on. Several States are developing specialised online platforms for better consultation on emergency measures. Others are establishing oversight bodies inviting the public to share views on the measures governments have taken, or conducting surveys to gauge public response on government handling of the crisis.
We call on all States, in their response to the crisis, to:
- Create avenues for inclusive participation and feedback and reach out to those most at risk and those most likely to be excluded.
- Ensure transparency and access to information to enable civil society to respond with the most accurate information available.
- Ensure that existing channels of civil society participation, at local, national and international levels are maintained – and possibly expanded – in the COVID-19 context.
- Undertake thorough human rights impact assessments to ensure that measures and actions in response to the crisis do not infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms.
We have seen time and time again positive change emerge when people are able to organize, speak out and take action. A strong and vibrant civil society is a core pillar of a thriving democracy. We must not allow emergency responses to undermine democratic gains.
VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’
CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.
How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?
A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.
As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.
An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.
There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.
The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.
While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.
What is the context in which civil society works?
There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.
Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.
Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.
But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.
One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.
As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.
Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.
How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?
In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.
The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.
The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.
The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.
Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.
Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.
How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?
A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.
What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.
The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.
For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.
The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.
Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.
The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.
What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?
What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.
Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.
The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.
If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.
Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AccionSolidaria and@fjreyna onTwitter.
VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’
CIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.
The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.
What does The 88 Project do?
The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.
What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?
The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.
The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.
The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.
The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.
Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.
Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.
What is the situation of political prisoners?
The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.
The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.
Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment.
Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.
Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare.
The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.
Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.
We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.
Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?
Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.
The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.
During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.
Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.
How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?
Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.
Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.
Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.
What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?
Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.
We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.
VIETNAM: ‘The government hates losing face and has zero tolerance for criticism’
CIVICUS speaks about recent arrests of leading environmental activists in Vietnam with Penelope Faulkner, President of Quê Me: Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR). The crackdown came just months after the Vietnamese government signed a deal to receive billions of dollars of international aid to tackle climate change, partly on the condition that it would involve grassroots activists in the effort.
VCHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in Paris in 1975 to promote and defend civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in Vietnam. Working closely with other CSOs, it monitors human rights abuses, informs international opinion through reports and press alerts and mobilises international support for human rights and the release of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam.
Has the situation of Vietnamese climate activists improved following the deal signed by the government to receive international aid to tackle climate change?
The jailing of prominent climate activist Hòang Thị Minh Hồng on bogus charges of tax evasion answers your question. Hòang Thị Minh Hồng is founder and former CEO of CHANGE, a CSO that advocates for action on climate change, the environment and wildlife protection. She is a high-profile environmental activist and former Obama Foundation scholar, and was listed by Forbes magazine in 2019 as one of the 50 most influential women in Vietnam. She was forced to close CHANGE in 2022 in the wake of the arrests of other environmental rights activists, after being harassed by the government.
Her arrest therefore came as a shock, but not a surprise. Her arrest is eminently political, because she has access to a high-level audience in the global environmental community, and her actions and international appeals have a strong influence on the movement for climate change worldwide.
Hòang Thị Minh Hồng was arrested in June 2023. The Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) was signed in late 2022. To secure this US$15.5 billion deal, Vietnam pledged to involve civil society in accelerating the country’s shift from coal to renewable energy. Yet six months later, they broke this pledge, and the crackdown continues.
Just this month, Vietnam arrested another prominent environmental rights defender, Ngô Thị Tố Liên, executive director of the Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition. It is still unclear what charges she faces, but the trumped-up charge of tax evasion is a predictable option. At the time of her arrest, her organisation was working with the United Nations (UN) Development Programme to help implement the JETP.
Ms Tố Liên is the seventh high-profile environmental rights defender arrested since the government launched this crackdown in June 2021. Vietnam clearly has no political will to respect its international commitments, and the repression of grassroots activists is bound to continue.
Why is the Vietnamese government cracking down on the grassroots climate movement?
Up until now, government repression had largely been targeted at political and religious dissidents, human rights defenders and activists calling for freedom and political reforms. Vietnam uses political repression, threats, harassment, arrests and detention under vaguely worded ‘national security’ provisions in the Criminal Code to crack down ruthlessly on bloggers, journalists, followers of non-recognised religious groups, people who participate in demonstrations and civil society activists from all walks of life. At least 200 prisoners of conscience are languishing in Vietnam’s prisons today, some serving sentences of up to 20 years in extremely harsh conditions.
Until recently, the Vietnamese government did not perceive environmental rights defenders as a threat. On the contrary, the authorities have benefited massively from the diverse activities of Vietnamese associations in the fields of development and environmental protection, as well as from the substantial contributions of international CSOs working in Vietnam. In a recent report published in official media, Vietnam said it had received over US$677 million from international environmental CSOs between 2020 and 2022.
Two elements drastically changed this: the ratification of the European Union (EU)-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), which came into force in August 2020, and the impact of the rising global movement to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
As in all EU free trade agreements, EVFTA provides for a civil society pillar to monitor implementation of the chapter on trade and sustainable development, which includes environmental issues and labour rights. The pillar consists of two domestic advisory groups (DAGs), one in the EU and one in Vietnam.
Mai Phan Lợi and Bạch Hùng Dương, leaders of the Centre for Media Educating Community, and lawyer Đặng Đình Bách, chair of the Law and Policy of Sustainable Development Research Centre, were Steering Committee members of VNGO-EVFTA, a civil society network created in Vietnam to raise awareness about EVFTA and encourage participation in the Vietnamese DAG. As such, they actively promoted the independent role of civil society in the monitoring process.
These actions put them at odds with the government, whose intent was to maintain the Vietnamese DAG under tight state control. In June 2022, the three men were arrested and sentenced to terms of 30 months to five years in prison for alleged tax evasion. On 10 September 2023, just one day before US President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam, Mai Phan Lợi was given early release. But Đặng Đình Bách, who has refused to plead guilty or repay any alleged tax demands, is serving a five-year sentence in Prison No. 6 in Nghe An, where conditions are extremely harsh.
How did the global movement against fossil fuels become a factor in the crackdown?
The Vietnamese government hates losing face. It tolerates activists when they support government development programmes but has zero tolerance for criticism, especially in the international arena. And the ‘crime’ of this new generation of climate change activists in the eyes of the Vietnamese government is to speak out openly to advocate for cleaner energy policies in Vietnam.
Đặng Đình Bách joined 353 CSOs from 58 countries in signing a letter to the G7 Summit calling on world leaders to ‘stop all fuel finance from bilateral and multilateral funding sources, and encourage other governments to do the same’. Award-winning environmentalist Ngụy Thị Khanh, who was also sentenced to two years in prison for tax evasion in June 2022, had written to the government to denounce the disconnect between Vietnam’s international pledges to reduce carbon emissions and the Communist Party’s Power Development Plan aimed at building 27 new coal-fired power plants between 2021 and 2030. She also signed the Hanoi Declaration alongside other CSOs calling on the government to ‘guarantee implementation of provisions in the 2013 Constitution and related texts concerning grassroots democracy, which require consultations with the people and people’s representatives on energy projects from the very moment of their conception’.
For Vietnam, these high-level public declarations are tantamount to threats against national security, and the authorities decided to silence their voices by any means. To avoid international condemnation, instead of charging them under national security laws, it has resorted to the old pretext of tax evasion charges, using loopholes and vague wording in tax laws to silence environmental rights defenders.
Our organisation, VCHR, was among the first to denounce this crackdown on environmental rights defenders, which we see as the tip of the iceberg in a new and far-reaching assault on civil society, and we continue to denounce this at every opportunity. This month we presented the human rights situation in Vietnam at a meeting of the EU DAG in Brussels.
How much space for civil society is there in Vietnam?
In Vietnam’s one-party state, the space for civil society has always been restricted. However, in recent years the authorities have developed a whole range of tools, including new laws, technologies and repressive methods to stifle civil society voices.
Despite government censorship, the internet used to provide a vital space for civil society, but the Cybersecurity Law and other regulations have seriously affected freedom of expression online. One prominent blogger, Nguyễn Anh Tuấn, recently left Vietnam to live in Canada because since the Cybersecurity Law came into force in 2019 he had found it impossible to continue any meaningful activism.
To suppress protests, the government has set up squads of anti-riot police all over the country who are ready to intervene at a local level to nip protests in the bud and prevent them gaining momentum.
New regulations have been enacted to limit CSO access to international funding and ban them organising conferences on topics such as human rights. We have documented these, and many other developments, in a recent report we published jointly with the International Federation for Human Rights. Despite these difficulties, civil society activists keep on. They are extremely brave and resilient. I admire them immensely.
These restrictions also make it extremely difficult for CSOs such as VCHR, based in Paris, to support activists in Vietnam. We stay in contact with movements in Vietnam and circulate information in Vietnamese. VCHR has also conducted in-country human rights training, notably on freedom of religion or belief for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam’s youth movement. However, the responsibility of supporting activists without putting them in danger is extremely heavy, and this work is getting increasingly difficult. I can happily say that no one was ever arrested because of VCHR’s training or other programmes, and this was thanks to the trust and confidence built over many years working in Vietnam.
What international support does Vietnamese civil society need?
The international community should do far more to denounce Vietnam’s repressive policies and practices. As a human rights defender for many decades, I am always surprised how Vietnam manages to escape condemnation for human rights abuses that would cause outcry if they happened in China, Myanmar or elsewhere. Political prisoners are dying in Vietnam due to ill-treatment and lack of medical care. Journalists and bloggers are serving 10 or 15-year sentences simply for exchanging emails. Now environmental activists are being imprisoned for trying to create a cleaner environment for their people. Yet at the same time, the UN Secretary-General applauds Vietnam at the UN General Assembly as a shining example of a country committed to climate change. How can this be?
Economic pressure should be applied when Vietnam fails to uphold its commitments. The JETP should be blocked until Vietnam releases all environmental rights defenders, ceases the current crackdown and guarantees the involvement of civil society in this process. Countries with bilateral trade agreements should use them to press for human rights progress in Vietnam. So much can be done. VCHR is doing its best to amplify the voices of activists in Vietnam and engage in international advocacy to call for greater pressure from the international community. It is a long and hard path, but I believe that in the long run, as the song goes, we shall overcome.
Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
VIETNAM: ‘The government is using non-state actors against minority religions’
CIVICUS speaks with Thang Nguyen of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a civil society organisation based in the USA and Thailand, about the challenges for civil society and religious minorities in Vietnam, and about their work to enable civil society responses.
Can you tell us about BPSOS and the work it does?
I’m currently the CEO and President of BPSOS, having joined initially as a volunteer. BPSOS was founded in 1980. We have two major divisions. The first, our domestic programme, is about serving refugees and migrants in the USA, across six locations. Second, we have our international initiatives, run from our regional headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.
In Bangkok, we provide a legal clinic to help refugees and asylum seekers with their asylum claims and with protection – not only those coming from Vietnam but also from other countries, including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We have a programme to help Vietnamese human rights defenders at risk, whether they be in prison or in hiding in Vietnam or seeking refuge in Thailand or elsewhere. A major component is to build capacity for civil society in Vietnam at the community level. Finally, we have a religious freedom project, working with local, regional and global partners, to build up a network for advocates for freedom of religion or belief in South East Asia. We hold an annual conference, the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB).
What are the key current challenges experienced by civil society in Vietnam?
The regime is still very oppressive. The government has heavy-handed policies against people coming together to form their own associations, which make it hard for organised civil society to develop. The government is now somewhat more tolerant with individuals speaking out, or perhaps it is that the government struggles to control expression on social media to the same extent.
Another challenge comes with the people themselves. Living in a closed society, they don’t have many opportunities to develop the necessary skills or experience to come together and form associations.
Further, there’s very little commitment or investment from the international community to develop civil society in Vietnam, compared for example to Cambodia or Myanmar. There are very few organisations from outside Vietnam that work hand in hand with groups in Vietnam to help them develop capacity to implement programmes.
Because of this, there are very few truly functional independent civil society organisations in Vietnam and the number of these has decreased over the last five years because they cannot sustain themselves in the face of interference from the government. There are only individual human rights defenders, some of them well-known, but not organised civil society.
In contrast, there are tens of thousands of government-owned ‘non-governmental’ organisations (GONGOs) that are controlled by the Communist Party. They present themselves as the civil society of Vietnam.
What are the challenges minority groups face in Vietnam, particularly religious minorities?
Many of the minority groups are indigenous peoples, but the government of Vietnam does not recognise them as such; it only classes them as ethnic minorities. They therefore face a fight for the right to be recognised as indigenous people. They are often separated from their ancestral land.
For many groups, a religion that is a minority belief in Vietnam is part of their social and cultural makeup. For example, the Cham are Muslim and the Khmer Krom are Theravada Buddhists, which is very different from the Mahayana Buddhism practised by the majority of Vietnamese Buddhists. Then there are the Hmong and the Montagnards: Christianity has spread among the Montagnards for decades, and the government wants to control and stop this. Since the early 1980s, Christianity also started to develop in the Northwest Region among the Hmong population. The government of Vietnam viewed this as an undesirable influence from the west, and therefore it has taken drastic messages to stop its further spreading in the Northwest and Central Highlands regions.
Most of these groups of people are located remotely and so don’t have access to the internet, and don’t know how to attract resources, even from within Vietnam. Other people in Vietnam aren’t aware of the situation, let alone the international community. Little information is available about these groups.
The government authorities are directly suppressing independent house churches. In the Central Highlands, thousands of house churches have been closed, set on fire and destroyed. In 2004 the government issued an ordinance on belief and religion, meaning that house churches have to be registered. There are credible reports that the government trained a lot of its own people to become pastors, and they have set up new churches allowed by the government. These are run and controlled by the government.
A major challenge is the forced renunciation of faith. Christians have been ordered to leave their parish churches and told not to follow any religion, or to join a government-controlled church. People who have resisted joining government-controlled churches have been harassed, persecuted and tortured. Several deaths in police custody have been documented. There are quite a lot of religious prisoners of conscience, many of them Montagnard Christians.
The repression of the Hmong is even more drastic. In many parts of Northwest Region, Hmong Christians who have refused to renounce their faith have been evicted from their villages by the local authorities. Their villages have been declared as Christian-free zones. Tens of thousands of Hmong have been affected, something that continues to this day. They became itinerant, and it has taken them many years to coalesce into new communities, usually in previously uninhabited areas unknown to local government. Many moved to the Central Highlands. They are completely undocumented and so have become functionally stateless. They live outside society. Married people are not issued with marriage certificates, babies do not get birth certificates, children can’t formally receive education – although some slip into school unofficially – and people can’t get legal employment, set up a business, or open a bank account. They are restricted in their travel: pastors can’t travel into these communities, while they cannot travel to worship elsewhere.
In many provinces Catholics, even when they are part of the major ethnic groups, have been persecuted by the government. And then there is the Cao Dai religion, a minority religion with about five million reported followers, although the government only recognises around 1.2 million Cao Daiists. Its church structures were disbanded in 1978. In 1997 the government created a new Cao Dai sect, and then 10 years later turned this into a new religion with a similar name and transferred all the property of the Cao Dai religion to it. To the world the government presents this sect as the representative of the Cao Dai religion.
The government is also using non-state actors against minority religions. In Nghe An Province, the authorities use organised mobs known as Red Flag Associations, which are supported and encouraged by local authorities to attack churches and beat up parishioners. We have had several reports of this.
What steps are needed to help civil society respond to these rights violations?
Because of the restriction of organised civil society there’s very little response to the suppression of religious minorities. This lack of organised civil society also makes it difficult to foster partnerships between civil society groups in Vietnam and international human rights organisations. In response, we are trying to build community capacity to develop organisations in Vietnam to protect rights.
We train a lot of people in Vietnam to know how to report human rights violations. So far we’ve trained about a thousand local rapporteurs and they have generated about 200 different reports that have been submitted to various United Nations (UN) special procedures and UN bodies, and shared with other governments and international human rights organisations to raise awareness of the situation in Vietnam.
We are helping to form community-based CSOs in each minority community. So far there are about 20 of these, and we aim to have 100 by the end of 2020. We have incubated a number of CSOs specialising in different aspects of human rights, based on the international commitments Vietnam has made as a result of signing various conventions. For example, we have supported the creation and development of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, the Vietnam Coalition Against Torture and the Vietnam Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable. We have worked with Montagnard people to form a CSO specialising in Montagnard minorities. Now we are connecting these specialist CSOs with their peers outside Vietnam. For instance Vietnamese Women for Human Rights is now a member of FORUM-ASIA, a network of human rights organisations throughout Asia and the Pacific. We are cultivating these kinds of partnerships.
What more support is needed?
Once CSOs in Vietnam have developed some capacity, there is a need to connect them with civil society outside Vietnam. We are advocating for organisations to offer internship and fellowship schemes to enable staff to develop skills, experience, connections and exposure outside Vietnam.
We hope to see more projects geared at further developing civil society in Vietnam, through training, coaching and technical assistance as well as advocacy. There has been an almost complete lack of this kind of investment from civil society worldwide. Organisations are issuing statements about Vietnam and that is appreciated, but this is the next step needed. Amnesty International now has a Vietnamese national working on Vietnam, who was with BPSOS before, so this is a positive step and a model to replicate.
It would be much more effective if international human rights organisations working on Vietnam could coordinate among themselves, and with groups within Vietnam. For instance, a joint advocacy project on the functionally stateless Montagnard Christians, with pressure coming from multiple directions, would help.
Civic space in Vietnam is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Why Trump, Brexit and populism could be an opportunity
By Danny Sriskandarajah
Many of the business and political leaders gathering in Davos this week will be focused on how to protect the global economic order - and their interests - after a year of major political and social upheavals. That is the last thing they should be doing. For me, the greatest lesson from 2016 is that we need to build new mechanisms for airing political grievances and addressing economic frustrations.
Read on: Huffington Post
With mentoring and incentives, CSOs venture into raising key resources and support at home
By Yessenia Soto, Community Engagement Officer on Civil Society Resourcing, CIVICUS
The Change the Game Academy provides classroom training on local fundraising to CSOs.
It’s something that many in the development and civil society sector have been painfully aware of for several years now. But the reality is hitting home harder than ever.
Official Development Assistance (ODA) – government aid designed primarily to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries – is steadily decreasing. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently announced that ODA fell almost 3% from 2017, with even larger reductions for developing countries. As foreign aid has long been a significant source of funding for southern CSOs, this news reminds us that civil society can’t rely on it in the long term, so, those who haven’t started diversifying their resource base, should do it now.
“There will be an end to foreign funding, at least as we now know it,” said Robert Wiggers, manager of programs and policy development at the Dutch Wilde Ganzen Foundation (WGF), during one of several panels about the financial sustainability of civil society held at the International Civil Society Week convened in Serbia from April 8-12. At ICSW, various organizations shared why and, most importantly, how CSOs can leverage more support, money and other resources in their own countries and communities to face financial pressures and gradually lessen dependence on ODA and other foreign aid.
“This is more than a funding alternative, highlighted Wiggers. “CSOs that mobilise their own resources locally get closer to their communities and the people they serve, gain independence from donors, have more control of their own development and feel even more empowered to hold their governments accountable.”
There is a wide consensus about the power of local resources to boost the financial sustainability, legitimacy, ownership and independence of CSOs. Even in a world with endless supplies of international assistance, weaning civil society off it should be the goal. But how can a small community organisation or one that has always relied on foreign aid start fundraising “at home” and on their own?
Agencies, associations, and foundations like the WGF are providing special training, mentoring sessions, online learning platforms, campaigning support and even dedicated grants to prepare CSOs for this journey. And the results are encouraging.
For example, the WGF partnered with the Smile Foundation from India, the Kenya Development Foundation and Brazil’s CESE, to create the Change the Game Academy, an innovative blended-learning program specially designed for civil society organisations that provides both online and classroom training on local fundraising, lobby and advocacy to hold governments and duty bearers accountable through civic participation.
The classroom training is delivered in a total of six months by local certified trainers. It includes individual coaching sessions to implement a fundraising plan and uses materials adapted to country contexts. The online platform contains 11 interactive modules of e-learning available in four languages, plus 40 toolkits and 88 inspiring success stories, all freely accessible and free of charge.
More than 800 small NGOs and community based organisations have been trained through the Change the Game Academy in fourteen low- and middle-income countries. They intend to implement this initiative in four more countries this year.
In the Balkans, there is a similar initiative called the Sustainability Academy, created by the SIGN Network, a group of indigenous grantmakers who support the sustainable development of local communities and civil society. This academy focuses mostly on CSOs at a grassroots level, which have an annual budget of less than 10,000 euros, on average.
Their training program covers strategic planning, financial sustainability, networking, local fundraising techniques and campaign development, and is delivered in three modules over six months. At the end of the third module, the organisations receive small technical grants to implement their fundraising campaigns for four to six months. When the campaign is over and they meet their goal, the SIGN Network provides 100% matching grants.
“We have had very successful examples where, through our training and accompaniment, small organisations managed to fundraise even half of their annual budget and developed relationships with many local donors,” said Biljana Dakic, director of the Trag Foundation, a SIGN network member. “And most of them consolidated their causes and work in their communities, which brings invaluable support.”
Since 2014, the Sustainability Academy has supported over 100 CSOs in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.
CISU - Civil Society in Development, an association of Danish CSOs with members engaged in development work in Asia, Africa and Latin America, is also providing knowledge, training tools and assistance for local resource mobilisation in these regions. Additionally, they offer a co-funding modality through which the local CSOs can access 4-year grants if they leverage a small percentage of the total grant, explained Souad Bourrid, advisor at CISU.
Together, these opportunities have been key to reducing the initial resistance and fear that keep some organisations from exploring and testing new resourcing avenues.
“Many organisations still think that the only way to get funds is applying for donor grants. So, when we approach them about leveraging local support, they are skeptic and don’t believe is possible. But those who receive the training and try it, see how many more doors open to them and end up very thankful for the push,” emphasized Bourrid.
Besides strengthening skills, many civil society networks and coalitions (including CIVICUS) around the world are also advocating the need to create or improve other crucial conditions for facilitating the mobilisation of domestic resources for civil society, including legal frameworks and incentives for local philanthropy, establishing alliances with the public and private sector, and promoting policies to support the financial sustainability of CSOs.
Women’s bodies are the battleground for civil liberties
By Teldah Mawarire and Sara Brandt
Around the world, civic spaces are shrinking. In many countries, activists are under threat as governments increasingly use the law and violence as tools of oppression, according to a new report. For women human rights defenders, this means their bodies have become the battleground on which the fight for civil liberties is being waged.
Read on:Mail and Guardian: Bhekisisa
WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Violence against women is a global crisis that needs urgent attention’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the fight against gender-based violence with Lina AbiRafeh, a feminist activist, women’s rights expert and Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where she served as Executive Director for seven years.
How big a problem is violence against women(VAW)at the global level?
VAW is a muchbigger global problem than we tend to imagine:statistics showone in everythree women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime. The fact so many women and girls are denied the right tolivefreely without facing restrictions and danger makes this a global crisis that needs urgent attention. I personally do not know a woman who has not been affected by some form of this insidious violence. Women have the right to feel free and safe in their own bodies, at home, in the streets and in any public spaces, but unfortunately that is not–and has never been – theirreality.
VAWis a human rights violation thatis embedded in our culture– andwomenare often silenced when they try to speakup.Women-led organisationsand women’s rights groups and movementsmust be supported because they are the voice of these women and girls who are silenced. They are the voice ofallwomen and girls.
Having worked to endVAW around the worldfor 25 years, I knowthis is a very hard problem to crack. VAW stems from a global context of gender inequality where women and girls are viewed as less than men, as second-class citizens. There is lack of awarenessin our societies and lack of political willamong our leaders.Existing laws don’t enable women to access justice, security, services, orsupport.Nothing works the way itshouldto put an end to this violence.
Women and girls remain unequal across every aspect of their lives – politics, economy, health, education and the law. Women and girls are the majority of the world’s poor.They are the majority of those who are illiterate. But they are a minority, an exception, and treated like an anomaly in every aspect of leadership and decision-making. Wage gaps are wide, and women are too often relegatedto the informal sector. And they continue to bear the burden of unpaid care. In too many countries, womenface discriminatory laws that refuse to recognisethem as equals with men.
How much progress has been achievedso far?
Women and girlsaround the worldstill do not have the opportunity to participate fully inevery aspect ofsocial, economic and political life, despite their right to do so.Wehave made progress, butnot enough.
Although advances have been made in trying to reduceVAW, cases continue, and are often perpetrated with impunity.
In many countries, women are being stripped of theirsexual and reproductive rights, compromising their health and denying theirright to decide about their own bodies and lives. In addition,the problem of girl-child marriagecontinues, and increased as a result of COVID-19, with12 million girlsunder 18 being married offevery year.Forthis and other forms ofVAW, rhetoric doesn’t match reality. There is more talk than action.
Women-led organisationsmustbe involved in policydecisions– and be given full leadership.There is a lot of talk about localisation,but this seems to just be a buzzwordas most women’s rights and feminist organisations aremarginalised andunderfunded.This only sets them up for failure because it limits the scope of their work, keeping the support they offer out of reach for the majority of women and girls. We need to fund these organisations fully, andnot with thetypicalshort-term quick-fix project funding but with long-term, unrestricted, open-ended funding thatcan allow them to function and flourish. Local groupsshoulddictate the agenda, not the donors who are holding the strings.
What work do you do to contribute topositive change?
I am committed to building a better world for women. I am a global women’s rights activist, author and speaker with decades of experience worldwide.
I worked for over 20 years as a humanitarian aid worker in contexts such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti and Papua New Guinea.I now work independently, advising organisations and companies to enhance their engagement with women’s rights and gender equality. I also serve as the Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at theArab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where I was Executive Director until 2022.I am also the founder ofYalla, Feminists!, an online space and open platform dedicated to amplifying women’s voices worldwide.
I was honoured to be able to share my passion and experience in ending VAW on global stages including aTEDx talk, a Women DeliverPowerTalk and akeynote address for Swedish International Development Agency annual meeting, among others.
I’ve written two books:Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan andFreedom on the Frontlines. My next book outlines 50 years of Arab feminism and will be published in early 2023. I will keep using my voice in whatever ways I can to fight for women’s rights and remedy inequalities. That’s why I speak andpublish everywhere I can and I serve on the board of numerous global women’s rights organisations.
What good practicesshould be implemented to prevent VAW?
We need to start believing survivors so that perpetrators can be brought to justice.When women see the law is on their side, more willbe encouragedto speakup. Wealsoneed to make sure that survivorshave access to the full range of services and support, and security systems handle their cases with care.
There is also a need to reform education so that more people are taught aboutVAW, consent, human rights and women’s rights – from a very young age.Education canbring us a step closer to defeating thisscourge. We need men to step up to support women and speak up against perpetrators.And yes, we need data, but not at the expense of action. Anyway, data will always underestimate the reality. And what we know is that no country is immune. This affects women and girls everywhere, in every culture and context and community.
Worldwide attack on rights: over three billion people living in countries where civic freedoms are violated
- Global impact laid bare by the CIVICUS Monitor, a new online research tool that rates civic space around the world and documents violations of rights
- Governments shutting down civic space and shutting up dissenting voices
Johannesburg, 24 October 2016 –More than three billion people live in countries where the rights to protest, organize and speak out are currently being violated according to the CIVICUS Monitor, the first-ever online tool to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.
The new tool, launched in beta today by the global civil society alliance CIVICUS, rates countries based on how well they uphold the three fundamental rights that enable people to act collectively and make change: freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.
Worrying legislation to restrict Nigerian civil society sector underway
CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) are deeply concerned about impending legislation to restrict freedom of association in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s National Assembly is currently considering a bill to provide for “the establishment of the Non-Governmental Organisations Regulatory Commission for the Supervision, Coordination and Monitoring of Non-Governmental Organisations, Civil Society Organisations etc. in Nigeria and for related matters.” First introduced in July 2016, the bill has since passed through the second reading in the House of Representatives. The bill has now been referred to the Committee on CSOs and Development Partners for further legislative input.
“The bill is in conflict with Nigeria’s Constitutional and international law obligations,” says Oyebisi Oluseyi, Executive Director of NNNGO. “We must instead strengthen civic space in Nigeria, as our sector’s role in finding solutions to the enormous challenges facing our nation cannot be overemphasized”.
ZAMBIA: ‘Electoral practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region’
CIVICUS speaks to McDonald Chipenzi, Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative and Chair of the NGO Council in Zambia, about the state of civic space ahead of the crucial general election being held on 12 August 2021.
What is the state of civic space and media freedoms ahead of the elections?
The civic and media space in Zambia remains fragile and has been shrinking due to legal restrictions. This has now been compounded by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and newly crafted rules and guidelines that have heightened restrictions on citizens’ freedom of movement and freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This has led to ineffective citizens’ participation in national affairs.
COVID-19 rules and guidelines have compounded the already delicate and restricted state of the civic, media and political space in Zambia. These restrictions are the result of the selective application of archaic legislation such as the Public Order Act of 1955 and newly enacted laws such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021, which is aimed at intercepting, monitoring and interfering with citizens’ conversations, correspondence and communications, even without a court order or warrant. This new law, viewed as aimed at shrinking virtual civic space, has instilled fear in citizens, deterring them from effectively engaging online. As a result, many have opted to remain silent or opted out of online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
The media space also remains intimidated, harassed and cowed as a result of restrictive laws and the actions of ruling elites. The closure of Prime TV, a private television station, in March 2021, sent a chilling wave through the media community. Most of them now fear hosting critical voices and opposition leaders. They fear losing government advertising and other business opportunities. Those associated with the powers that be also distance themselves from those media houses giving platforms to critical voices.
What are the main concerns of civil society in the lead up to the elections?
Civil society’s main concern is the security of all stakeholders, as the police are not committed to providing security to all. The police have been reluctant to deal with the violence perpetuated by ruling party elites and have even been instrumental in it. The fear is that on election day, when some parties feel that they are losing in some polling stations, they may engage in disruptive activities to push for a re-vote, which may give them advantages. Another concern is the possibility of a shutdown of internet, mobile services and social media, especially after the vote, to try to black out results.
A third concern is the COVID-19 pandemic, which was seen to have the potential to be spread by political parties had they held rallies. According to the Ministry of Health and the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), rallies were seen as potential superspreading events for COVID-19, and therefore they recommended a ban. This mostly affected the opposition while ruling party officials were busy campaigning in the name of launching and inspecting developmental projects.
Note that ECZ constituted a task force on COVID-19 to develop guidelines that was dominated by government institutions. Out of 14 institutions represented, nine were in government with only three spaces for the media, and two for civil society organisations in gender and water and sanitation. To prevent violence and keep violence under control if it happens, civil society is engaging with the police, encouraging them to be more professional and ethical, and with political parties to provide leadership to their cadres.
Regarding the possibility of a media and internet shutdown, civil society organisations have sent petitions to the President of the Republic to refrain from shutting down the internet or social media during and after the elections. For the purpose of this election, the GEARS Initiative developed what it termed as the “Ing’ombe Ilede strategy” to allow for the collection of election results in an event of an internet shutdown. A common place has been designated for constituency and provincial coordinators involved in the election to share their documents without needing to meet with each other. This strategy is borrowed from the old trade tactics at a place called Ing’ombe Ilede in the Gwembe Valley of Southern Province in Zambia. We feel this strategy will help navigate the possible internet shutdown, which the government has already signalled.
How is polarisation increasing ahead of the election, and what are the election’s likely impacts on social and political division?
The election has polarised the country as politicians from the ruling party are now using regionalism and tribalism to win votes from their perceived strongholds. The impact of this will be deep divisions after elections, especially if the ruling party now wins the elections as it will marginalise those they feel did not support them during the elections. Already, the groups or regions perceived as strongholds for the biggest opposition party have been marginalised and discriminated against in terms of development and economic opportunities, including political positions in government.
Employment and trading opportunities are also a preserve of those perceived to support the ruling party. Markets and bus stations are all in hands of ruling party supporters and not the councils. This has shrunk the civic space for many citizens who survive through trading in markets and bus stations as it has led to them adopting what they have termed the ‘watermelon strategy’, symbolic of a watermelon fruit which is green on the outside (the colour of the ruling party) and red on the inside (the colour of the opposition) in order to survive at these markets, bus stops, stations and taxi ranks. This situation may be escalated should the ruling party retain power.
What is the state of the economy and how will this influence the choices of voters?
The state of the Zambian economy is not pleasing but biting to many ordinary people. The local currency, the kwacha, has continued to depreciate against major convertible currencies. The cost of living has quadrupled and the cost of essential commodities is skyrocketing. The poor are barely managing to live while the ruling political elites are sleeping on top of money due to excessive corruption and abuse of state resources in the absence of controls and accountability. The poor eat in order to live rather than live in order to eat. This will have effect in the peri-urban areas of major cities like Lusaka and the Copperbelt towns.
The rural population, on the other hand, may not be as badly affected by the state of the economy as most of them had harvested good crops during the past rainy seasons and further benefited from a scheme involving social cash transfers targeted at older and vulnerable people, which has now been converted into a campaign tool. In addition, rural voters tend to be conservative and vote for the traditional political parties preferred by their forefathers.
Zambia has been known as a bastion of democracy in the region. What impact will this election have on democracy both in Zambia and the region?
This election is key to the unfolding of a unique trend in the region on how elections can and will be handled. If it is handled very poorly and it results in chaos, it has potential to influence the region in a negative way, as the leaders of most Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries tend to copy from each other. This being one of the few elections held in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic after Malawi’s landmark election, Zambia has an opportunity to show the region that it remains the bastion of democracy in SADC.
However, the practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region. For instance, the cancellation of rallies and other campaign activities, mainly targeted against the opposition while the ruling party and public officials continue to run their campaigns, is a very bad lesson for democracy, fair competition and credible elections. The selective application of the electoral code of conduct by the electoral manager is also a very bad example for the region. Therefore, the region will have to cherry-pick the good lessons from the bad ones. However, most electoral institutions and political leaders are more inclined to cherry-pick the bad lessons and leave the good ones aside, since bad electoral practices benefit incumbents.
What can regional and global civil society groups do to support Zambian civil society during this period of elections and after?
Regional and global civil society have a larger role to play to ensure that peace prevails in Zambia and targeted intimidation and harassment of the civil society movement does not occur after elections. There is a need to keep a watchful eye over the post-election events, especially regarding manoeuvres to shrink civic space. With the election a few days away, on 9 August the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Amos Malupenga, issued a statement warning citizens that the government might shut down the internet ahead of the election, a direct threat to the enjoyment of citizens’ online freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression during and after the elections.
The army and other defence forces besides the police have been deployed on the streets around the country on pretext of quelling any possible political and electoral violence, which can potentially be abused and undermine physical civic space. Therefore, physical and online civic and political space will constantly be under threat from the establishment during and after the elections, as it has been before.
Civil society and critical media outlets are potential targets of post-election intimidation and harassment, hence the need for global and regional civil society to support civil society in Zambia with strategies to counter the reprisals that may be imposed on them by the state machinery after the elections. If the current government wins, its categorisation, marginalisation and discrimination of civil society organisations according to their real or perceived party affiliation will get worse after the elections.
There will be need for solidarity strategies and legal funds to help those who may be incriminated and litigated against using archaic laws. There is need to continue challenging the existence of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Law, the Public Order Act and the NGO Act. To this end, regional and global civil society needs to support, defend, promote and protect the civic and media space in Zambia before, during and after the elections.
Civic space in Zambia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Zambia: State of Emergency signifies worrying signs for civic space
The declaration of State of Public Threatened Emergency in Zambia is a glaring indication of plans by the government to increase restrictions on civic space in an effort to consolidate the regime of President Edgar C Lungu, global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Zambian Council for Social Development (ZCSD) noted today.
ZIMBABWE: ‘Election violence is a cover for ideological ambivalence and lack of substantive programmes’
CIVICUS speaks about the general election in Zimbabwe and the role of civil society with Wellington Mbofana, former director ofthe Civic Education Network Trust (CIVNET), a civil society organisation (CSO) that recently shut down due to lack of funding, and a former board member of several Zimbabwean CSOs.
What was at stake in this election?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single crucial issue that was at stake. Over a considerable period, Zimbabwean elections, much like those in other parts of Africa, have ceased to revolve around substantive issues and have instead become centred on political parties and personalities. This trend is evident in this election, in which major political parties failed to present their manifestos in a timely manner. The main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), unveiled its programme merely two weeks prior to voting, while the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) didn’t even bother.
Given the crumbling state of the economy, reflected in record-breaking unemployment, pervasive economic informality, escalating poverty, the world’s second-highest inflation rate and a sense of hopelessness, economic strife remained the most prominent concern for voters. Ideally, the competition should have revolved around two or three contrasting strategies for addressing these economic woes. However, what we observed was a cloud of obfuscation. The ruling party advanced a narrative that conditions are improving and investors are flocking to the country, but progress would be even greater if it weren’t for sanctions imposed by Western states. The opposition pledged to outperform ZANU-PF across all fronts. But neither specified how they would fund their proposed initiatives.
To deal with Zimbabwe’s predicament effectively the government would need to confront a range of issues, including land reform and productivity, water shortages, electricity generation, infrastructure development and urbanisation and, most importantly, guarantee the required funding.
It should have been important to ensure the meaningfulness of this election because when elections fail, civil unrest and coups ensue, a truth that Africa has repeatedly witnessed.
Was there any election-related violence?
The prevalence of violence in all its manifestations – physical, structural and cultural – remains an unfortunate hallmark of Zimbabwean elections. Lives have been lost, injuries endured and property destroyed as a result.
It is also important to note that because of its fractured politics, the country is in a perpetual election mode. Over the past five years, we have had multiple recalls from parliament and local authorities, leading to by-elections. Instances of intra-party violence have also occurred during parliamentary and primary elections. The culture upholding the idea that wielding the strongest fist is the key to ascending to power must change. Violence is a cover for ideological ambivalence and lack of substantive programmes. Who needs a manifesto when you can use force?
What tactics did the government use to stifle dissent in the run-up to the election?
The ruling party stands accused of engaging in lawfare, a tactic that uses laws to constrain the opposition and human rights defenders. These efforts are facilitated by an allegedly captured judiciary. A prominent CCC legislator, Job Sikhala, along with other political activists and human rights defenders, languish in remand prisons on spurious allegations after being denied bail.
The government introduced controversial laws aimed at silencing dissent. The Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act, commonly called the Patriotic Bill, are clearly designed to deal with critics of the government.
The Patriotic Bill came into force on 14 July 2023. With this bill, the government created a new crime of ‘wilfully injuring the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe’. The scope and definition of this offence is vague. There are valid concerns that law enforcement agencies will interpret the law broadly and use it to stifle and penalise the work of independent civil society.
Citizens and permanent residents of Zimbabwe will be found guilty if they participate in meetings aimed at discussing or plotting armed intervention in Zimbabwe, subverting or overthrowing its government and implementing or extending sanctions or trade boycotts against Zimbabwe. A meeting encompasses any form of communication involving two or more people, regardless of whether it takes place offline or online.
Participating in discussions about armed intervention can result in life imprisonment or the death penalty if the meeting involves planning such an intervention. Discussing subversion or overthrow of the government is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Taking part in meetings discussing sanctions or trade boycotts can lead to a fine of up to US$12,000 or up to 10 years in prison, or both. Aggravated offences may lead to consequences such as the termination of citizenship for those who are not citizens by birth or descent, cancellation of residence permits for non-citizens and disqualification from voting or holding public office for five to 15 years.
In the hands of overzealous and partisan law enforcement agents, this punitive law is very dangerous. It seems to target not only the opposition and civil society but also factions within the fractured ruling party and the military. It likely seeks to prevent a recurrence of a military-assisted transition, which brought the current government to power in 2017. That coup was willingly accepted by powerful global players, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which inadvertently endorsed the idea of military change of power.
How did Zimbabwean civil society engage with the electoral process?
Civil society was actively involved in electoral activities throughout the electoral cycle. CSOs play a pivotal role in providing voter education, observing elections, advocating for electoral reforms, safeguarding human rights and offering legal, medical and psycho-social assistance to victims of human rights violations.
Both local and international observers were generally allowed and accredited. However, there were isolated cases, such as the denial of accreditation to Musa Kika, allegedly due to security risks, while some local citizens encountered intimidation, harassment and threats from unidentified people after engaging with international observers.
But unfortunately, the last couple of years have been very difficult for Zimbabwean. Several CSOs have shut down. CIVNET, a major organisation providing civic education, closed its doors this year due to lack of funding.
The Zimbabwean economy is too fragile to support a strong civil society, which heavily relies on international donors and solidarity. Further international support should be rendered to all groups promoting development, good governance, human rights, justice and the rule of law. The international community should also amplify local voices and exert pressure on the Zimbabwean government to act in accordance with international human rights and democratic standards.
What did CIVNET work on?
CIVNET operated through three main programmes: the Citizen Participation Programme, including two projects on constitutionalism and voter education, the Leadership Development Programme and the Peace Building Programme.
The Citizen Participation Programme encouraged citizen engagement in governance and development, fostering collaboration between communities and local authorities through participatory workshops and development projects. The Constitution and Constitutionalism Project aimed to raise awareness about the significance of the new constitution and share information on how to use it to exercise human rights and honour obligations as citizens.
The Leadership Development Programme enhanced leadership skills of people engaged in community projects. Our graduates now lead various Zimbabwean CSOs and work in local authorities and parliament. CIVNET contributed to the formation and development of CSOs such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Peace Project and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe. It was also a key member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGOs Forum.
The Peace Building Programme helped people and communities divided by conflict to reach out to each other and mend broken relations. This was done through creatively designed workshops that provided security and safety to both victims and perpetrators of violent conflicts. Mediators were also trained to address local disputes, resulting in transformed relationships and improved dialogue within previously divided communities.
To what extent could the election be called free and fair?
The concept of free and fair elections involves political freedoms and fair processes prior to elections, culminating in the casting of votes by well-informed eligible voters able to vote freely for candidates and parties of their choice. A transparent tally of all valid votes, accurate result announcements and universal acceptance of the election outcomes by all parties are integral components of this concept.
Past elections in Zimbabwe have been contested at courts and other institutions. For Zimbabwe to uphold its position within the international community, this election would have to gain universal recognition as credible, legitimate and conducted in a free and fair manner. It would be key to ensure the acceptance of its outcome and secure peace and stability to attract investors.
The 2023 election was disputed in the legal arena even before a single ballot was cast. This may be a harbinger of future developments. On 12 July, the Electoral Court disqualified a presidential candidate, Savior Kasukuwere, whose participation had been previously permitted by the Nomination Court. Then the High Court disqualified 12 CCC parliamentary candidates, ostensibly for late filings, although the Nomination Court had accepted their submissions. Both decisions favoured the ruling party. However, following an appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s verdict on the 12 CCC candidates, leading to their reinstatement on the ballot. On 19 July the electoral court ruled in favour of a leader of the opposition United Zimbabwe Alliance party, Elizabeth Valerio, whose candidacy had been initially rejected by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), also for alleged untimely filing.
Declaring the election to be free and fair would be unreasonable given the political environment characterised by violence, intimidation and voter suppression, non-transparent processes with the electoral roll and ballot paper printing, pre-voting by security personnel, biased media coverage, opposition rallies barred by the police, vote buying through handouts, influence from traditional and religious leaders on voters, misuse of government resources for party campaigns and indications that some parties will reject any outcome other than their own victory, implying that the ruling party wouldn’t have handed over power if it had lost. Indeed, SADC decided to abandon the term ‘free and fair’ regarding Zimbabwean elections, instead referring to them as ‘legitimate’.
What electoral reforms are needed?
Adherence to rule of law and impartial management of elections is essential. The ZEC should enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct, safeguarding the right for all to express their political views and campaign freely. It must also ensure fairness by curbing the misuse of state resources, preventing intimidation, harassment and destruction of campaign materials and improving voter education.
The police should fulfil their constitutional duties impartially, without bias, fear, or favour. Political parties should adhere to the Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates. This entails refraining from violence, misuse of public resources for partisan ends, coercion and intimidation of the electorate and inciting violence through hate speech and derogatory language.
Were there any issues with people being prevented from voting, and what do you expect to happen next?
A high turnout was to be expected given the high stakes. The economy has done its own campaign, motivating people to participate. The ruling party also mobilised people, especially in rural areas, by any means necessary.
However, many voters might not have been able to locate their names on the register. The polling station-based system is such that people living in a specific neighbourhood can only vote at a certain polling station. In the 2018 election, a lot of people found their names had been removed from their usual stations without a change having been requested, while others who requested changes after moving to other districts saw those changes unimplemented. Following the election, many constituencies and councils had elected representatives recalled by political parties in power. Since there are no guarantees that this won’t happen again, some people may have been discouraged from voting.
Based on experience, disputes around results and their resolution by the courts are to be expected. Given that the judiciary is perceived to be captured and judges were given significant ‘housing loans’ before the election, judgements against the opposition are also rightly likely to be perceived as unfair.
Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ZIMBABWE: ‘This so-called election was a circus and a waste of resources’
CIVICUS speaks about Zimbabwe’sAugust general election and its aftermath with Obert Masaraure, national president of Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe and spokesperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, which brings together 84 Zimbabwean civil society organisations (CSOs).
What was at stake in this election?
This was an important election. We were expecting both a democratic and an economic breakthrough after years of dictatorship and economic stagnation. Millions of young people are dropping out of school, thousands are dying after failing to secure healthcare and millions are unemployed. We expected change to happen.
But we were disappointed. Civil society tried to engage with the electoral process and play a monitoring role but was criminalised. Those who were doing voter tabulation were arrested. After the Election Management Board barred civil society groups we had to monitor the electoral process clandestinely. In the run-up to the election we also did a lot of voter education. We managed to generate excitement among voters, but on voting day they were frustrated.
What’s your assessment of the credibility of the results?
According to the results announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) on 26 August, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) received 52.6 per cent of the vote, while the leading opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), received 44 per cent. But these results are not credible because the polls were held on a flawed electoral field and the ZEC failed to discharge its duty to run a reasonably free and fair election, as evidenced by multiple acts and omissions.
First, the ZEC didn’t supply ballot papers or the voter roll in time to many polling stations in the provinces of Bulawayo, Harare and Manicaland, which are traditional opposition strongholds. This was a clear attempt to suppress voters and help the incumbent stay in power.
The Electoral Act mandates ZEC to display the voter roll at all polling stations 48 hours before the polls open, but most polling stations only received it on election day. This had consequences for the opposition, because in urban areas, where the opposition is stronger, at least 180,000 voters couldn’t find their names at the designated polling stations on election day. Their names had been moved after a shambolic delimitation process but as voter rolls had been unavailable until the last minute, these voters were unable to locate their new polling stations.
According to a ZEC statement, only 23 per cent of polling stations opened on time in Harare, with 75 per cent doing so in Bulawayo and 85 per cent in Manicaland. Some polling stations in Harare were still waiting for ballot papers as late as 6pm, one hour before closing. In contrast, in the majority of the ruling party’s strongholds, typically in harder-to-reach areas, election materials were received early and all polling places were open at the scheduled time.
In urban areas there were waiting times of up to 12 hours. Many people were unable to vote within that period and voting had to be extended to 48 hours. In rural areas, where the ruling party is strongest, the maximum waiting period was 30 minutes. Additionally, an estimated 42,000 civil servants who were working as polling officials could not vote after the ZEC refused to facilitate their voting.
The overall impact of this was to disenfranchise millions of voters and suppress opposition voters while encouraging those of the ruling party.
There were also lots of fraudulent and deceptive practices. There were cases where local candidates were taken off the ballot, as happened to CCC’s Shepherd Sithole in ward 1 of Bulawayo. A shocking incident was also recorded in which party symbols for ZANU-PF and the CCC were switched, confusing voters and making it impossible to record their actual choice.
There were reports from at least 50 polling stations in rural areas that the supposedly indelible ink used could easily be washed away. This was suspected to be a deliberate attempt to allow rural voters to vote multiple times to inflate the results for ZANU-PF. The postal ballot mechanism also appeared to be abused for ballot stuffing, as at least 35 polling stations reported receiving more postal ballots than they had voters registered.
There were numerous instances of intimidation at polling stations. A ZANU-PF affiliate, Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), set up ‘exit survey tables’ in at least 1,340 polling stations. Individual voters were asked to declare who they had voted for and provide their personal details. FAZ also recorded the serial numbers of voters’ ballot papers and told voters they would be able to tell who they voted for. Needless to say, this intimidated voters who have experienced a long history of serious political violence.
This was a sham, not an election. It was a circus and a waste of resources that subverted the will of the people and illegally kept the incumbent in power.
What needs to happen next to bring about democracy in Zimbabwe?
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition has demanded the immediate announcement of a date for a fresh free, fair and credible election. We must put an end to the long history of disputed elections in Zimbabwe and usher in a legitimate government that can lift Zimbabwe up from the category of a pariah state, rebuild its economy and improve the lives of its people.
Zimbabwe needs an inclusive national dialogue to broker a political settlement leading to credible elections supervised by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union. Zimbabweans should play their role in exerting pressure on the government to force it to agree to dialogue.
Zimbabwean pro-democracy organisations must be strengthened through international support so that they can play their proper role in a transition to democracy. The international community is also invited to exert pressure so that the government agrees to engage in an inclusive national dialogue. And while it does not, the international community must isolate the country from the family of nations. A dictatorship does not deserve a seat on any international platform.
Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.