BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’
CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.
Can you tell us about your background and work?
I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.
What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.
Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.
As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.
Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.
What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?
People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.
Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.
Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.
The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.
Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.
Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.
Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.
Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.
Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.
According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.
Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.
What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?
In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.
Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.
What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?
One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.
Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?
Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.
We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.
There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BANGLADESH: ‘The government is banishing the opposition in the run-up to the election’
CIVICUS speaks with Zaman Ashraf about the current pre-election crackdown in Bangladesh.
Zaman is a Bangladeshi human rights defender who advocates for the rights of survivors of torture and victims of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, and seeks stronger legal protections for human rights in compliance with international law. He currently lives in exile in Hong Kong, since human rights activism has become increasingly risky in Bangladesh.
BANGLADESH: ‘The legal vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people leads to harassment and discrimination’
CIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.
JMBD isa human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders,including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.
Bangladesh: Stop targeting Odhikar and its leadership
Respect the Fundamental Rights to Freedom of Association and Expression
Bangladeshi authorities must end reprisals against Odhikar and its leadership and respect the fundamental rights to freedom of association and expression. Those working to document and expose human rights violations should be able to conduct their important work without fear of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals.
Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters
Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.
‘Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.
In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.
Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.
An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”
Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.
One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”
Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.
One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.
“The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.
“The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.
The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.
Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests.
A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).
“The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.
The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.
“The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.
The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.
Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.
South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.
Big business and activists finally agree. On this one issue
By Danny Sriskandarajah
With some of the world’s biggest economies now companies, not states, the benefits for civil society of working more closely with business are clear. Yet, perhaps less well understood, are the benefits for business of defending civic space – the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest governance failings and corruption. The good news is that in one area at least, businesses and civil society are increasingly seeing eye to eye.
Read on:World Economic Forum
BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’
CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.
BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’
CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: ‘Civil society has failed to spark people’s activist side’
CIVICUS speaks about deteriorating civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) withAida Daguda and Dajana Cvjetkovic, director and programme manager atthe Centre for Civil Society Promotion (CPCD).
Founded in 1996, CPCD is a civil society organisation (CSO) working to strengthen civil society and citizen participation in BiH and the Western Balkans through capacity development, advocacy and campaigning.
What are civic space conditions like in BiH?
In our nearly three decades working in civil society in BiH and the Western Balkans, we have never witnessed such a rapid deterioration of civic space. Our organisation, along with other CSOs, is deeply concerned about two new pieces of legislation introduced in Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up BiH.
The first bill, already adopted, reintroduced criminal defamation into the legal system. The second, currently under parliamentary debate, is a ‘foreign agents’ bill that would criminalise CSOs that receive foreign funding or assistance for ‘political activities’ and give state institutions the power to shut them down. This would be just another tool to further restrict civil society in the hands of government authorities, who already use the mechanisms in place to oversee the work of CSOs and exert pressure and threaten us. Over the past year there have been more inspections of CSOs than ever before, specifically targeting smaller and more vocal organisations.
By silencing independent media and civil society, RS President Milorad Dodik seeks to eliminate public scrutiny and criticism in an entity marred by criminal activities and corruption and undergoing a difficult economic situation. The government is resisting democratic oversight and trying to eliminate all forms of critical thought among the public.
Moreover, in April 2023 the Sarajevo local government proposed amendments to local public order laws that would penalise the spread of ‘fake news’ and criticism of state authorities. Although the draft bill was withdrawn in June due to the public outcry it caused, the authorities have expressed their commitment to reintroducing a modified version of the bill.
These are all signals that the situation for civil society is rapidly worsening in RS and in BiH as a whole, with severe limitations being introduced on freedoms of association and expression.
How has Bosnian civil society organised against the restrictive bills?
A part of RS’s civil society is well organised and experienced in advocacy and campaigning. But overall, there are fewer than 10 CSOs that are strongly committed to their human rights mission and vision, while the rest maintain links with the government that make them less vocal against repressive laws. We provide support with expertise and funding to independent CSOs in RS, but we must be discreet because we are based in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other entity that composes BiH, and our help tends to be misunderstood by both politicians and the public in the RS.
Unfortunately, many Bosnian CSOs remain silent due to fear. In RS in particular, people are afraid for their safety and that of their families. Unlike in Georgia, where people took to the streets to defend freedom of association, people in Bosnia aren’t motivated, partly due to media narratives portraying civil society as being paid by the international community to act against the government.
We are using all available tools to raise awareness about repressive legislation within the country, at the European Union (EU) level and through communication with various civil society networks, including CIVICUS. The government argues that these laws are necessary to prevent the financing of terrorism and money laundering, but we view these as excuses.
We have informed opposition members of parliament about the potential negative consequences of the ‘foreign agents’ law but have made no impact. Our outreach to the public has been hindered by lack of media support.
However, we remain hopeful that this crisis may turn into an opportunity for Bosnian civil society to revive the sense of solidarity that we’ve lost over the past decade. These days, we constantly think in terms of projects and donors and tend to see each other as competitors when we most desperately need to be united.
How would you describe the current political climate in BiH?
Our region has historically bordered with empires, and this location has come at a price. The threat of RS’s secession has risen in recent years, posing a security problem for the entire region. Due to BiH’s location and rich natural resources and potential for energy production, many fear that its fate depends on the outcome of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the interests of major powers such as China, the EU, Russia, Turkey and the USA. The people of BiH are the ones with the least influence on the decisions that will affect them.
While secession may not be imminent, the threat of it significantly impacts on people’s wellbeing. We experience a pervasive feeling of insecurity that contributes to an anxious atmosphere. This makes people easier to manipulate. Many people are considering leaving, mostly because of their sense of insecurity and the widespread corruption.
Fear is our main currency. Past experiences of police surveillance leading to arrests of protesters have deterred people from participating in demonstrations. People are losing hope that things will improve. During the war we experienced between 1992 and 1995, we had a very strong feeling of hope that when the war ended we would recover a normal life and rebuild our country. Now we have peace but we don’t have hope anymore.
How do you work to strengthen civil society in BiH, and what obstacles do you face?
Our organisation was established right after the war, so it has existed for 27 years. We were the first ones to connect CSOs from different parts of the country and our network currently includes over 350 organisations.
In 2004, we launched the first initiative of institutional cooperation between government and civil society. At that time, civil society was thriving. But over the past decade or so, the situation has steadily worsened. Civil society faces a shortage of human resources, and people hold rather negative views about civil society. We seek to change such perceptions by consistently communicating the purpose and results of our work to the public and beneficiaries of our services and activities.
We also lack strong connections with the media, which should serve as a channel between us, the government, the international community and, most importantly, our society. To show what we’re doing and what we are trying to achieve, instead of just following donors’ visibility guidelines we have established our own portal in which we collect inspiring stories of civil society’s impact in improving people’s lives.
But our biggest problem is lack of local ownership. For many years the international community did things for us, so we aren’t used to solving problems by ourselves. People aren’t used to activism; they complain and wait for others to resolve their problems. That’s one of the failures of civil society: we have implemented many projects, but never managed to spark people’s activist side.
What challenges do you face in cooperating with international partners?
International agencies implement large projects in BiH and many funds come from the international community, but we don’t see results. One of the reasons is that local civil society is pushed aside. When we inquire with donors about supporting local organisations or networks, they argue that small organisations lack the capacity to successfully implement large grants. It has become their mantra.
This hampers the development of civil society as the true democratic force our country urgently needs. We must engage in dialogue with the government to devise solutions for the numerous problems we face. We need to move past the ‘projectisation’ of civil society and focus on the long term.
This also applies to the government, which is also forced to work within the project framework, executing short-term tasks requested by the EU or other international institutions. For instance, the government, jointly with the European Commission, invested around €1 million (approx. US$1.06 million) to fulfil a request to establish a register for CSOs, but once international partners left the country, the register ceased to function. There was a failure to recognise that civil society could have created, managed and overseen the register, which could have been instrumental in developing a common civil society strategy.
This year we established an informal group of donors who support local civil society in Bosnia. We hope the international community will consistently convey the message that they must prioritise local ownership and sustainability. We don’t want to see civil society becoming a mere service provider for larger international agencies. We need to organise around genuine shared interests rather than form networks to satisfy the criteria of calls for proposals. It is time for us to think strategically about who we are and what our role is.
Civic space in Bosnia and Herzegovina is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist, which draws attention to countries where there is a serious and rapid decline in respect for civic space.
BOTSWANA: ‘We must strategise so that we don’t merely react to crises and anti-rights action’
CIVICUS speaks about the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Botswana with Dumiso Gatsha, an LGBTQI+ activist and founder of Success Capital.
Success Capital is a youth and feminist-led organisation working to strengthen youth agency and autonomy in human rights and sustainable development while challenging power, privilege and patriarchy through intersectionality. Its approaches include participatory research, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and advocacy.
Has the 2019 High Courtruling that decriminalised same-sex relations led to improvements?
The 2019 ruling had structural effects: by declaring the criminalisation of same-sex intimacy unconstitutional, it eliminated not only the possibility of prosecution but also the excuse that was often used to exclude LGBTQI+ people from service delivery. It affirmed our existence as Batswana, Africans and people and heralded a new field of untapped opportunities for improving the lives of all people in Botswana, not only LGBTQI+ people.
Documented instances of violence against queer people in social settings, hate speech and intolerance online have increased. This doesn’t mean violence itself has increased – only that it is now more visible. Decriminalisation has improved the environment to report on and seek redress for human rights violations, injustices and inequities.
However, there has also been backlash, and violence may be on the rise as a result of the higher visibility, agency and advocacy by LGBTQI+ people.
It’s true that in Botswana there weren’t any immediate negative reactions to the High Court ruling, unlike in countries such as Kenya or Namibia, where progressive judgements elicited immediate protest action. But, reflective of wider and broader anti-gender ideology influences, earlier this year there have been protest marches led by churches, a whole four years after the High Court ruling. This means that for those opposed to LGBTQI+ rights, the matter is far from settled.
The anti-rights reaction was triggered by a member of parliament’s request to consult with churches on the procedural steps parliament needed to take to amend the Penal Code in line with the 2021 ruling by the Court of Appeal that upheld the High Court’s decision. From what we understand, this ruling was needed to finally put the matter of decriminalisation to rest, having ensured that all processes had been exhausted within Botswana’s jurisdiction.
Representatives of churches and members of parliament questioned the very essence of our democracy. They publicly threatened politicians in a pre-election year, bringing confusion about the democratic process and denouncing our existence as citizens who have rights.
The strength of the backlash despite the time that has passed shows that decriminalisation is only the beginning. It is not the solution or end point in fulfilling human rights, but it serves as a basis for much-needed interventions in social, cultural, institutional and public participation spaces.
How has civil society, and your organisation in particular, responded?
Fighting back has been a slow and protracted process because of limited resources. Botswana’s higher middle income country status and narrow avenues for civil society engagement have meant that the gains made from decriminalisation could not be strategically amplified across the human rights, sexual and reproductive rights and democratic landscape.
Success Capital has less than five per cent of the resources that more prominent civil society organisations have. This means grassroots, hidden and hard-to-reach communities and constituents are left behind – notably in more rural, climate-affected and impoverished areas, where queerness, migrant status, disability, sex work status and being an ethnic minority are all second to socioeconomic status and the need to secure a livelihood.
Our constituents didn’t feel threatened by the anti-LGBTQI+ protests, which is reflective of their resilience and agency. But this was a moment to gauge how unprepared philanthropy is to respond to backlash and regressive attempts. I was shocked when a funder asked me what I was doing about it while knowing full well that they had delayed disbursing funds aimed at removing human rights barriers for LGBTQI+ people.
Still, we commemorated Pride and helped host the Changing Faces Changing Spaces conference organised by the East African Sexual Health and Rights Initiative, for which we helped secure visas and provided advice to LGBTQI+ people and sex workers from across Africa. We worked in solidarity with East African groups in the context of increasing anti-LGBTQI+ sentiments, engaged in strategic policy-oriented dialogue with other civil society leaders, made a solidarity visit to Namibia and networked to ensure that we would be prepared for whatever came next. None of this was externally funded – it was pure feminist decolonial action underpinning our belief in our own freedom, with or without decriminalisation.
Has there been any change in the state of public opinion in Botswana on LGBTQI+ rights?
The Afrobarometer survey has noted some improvements in public opinion, but intolerance and hate speech remain prevalent. National-level data is not always reflective of the situation in local and grassroots communities. Language, socioeconomic status and the availability of services all contribute to how people in Botswana participate and perceive different issues.
For example, in our own community engagements in rural locations we have noted that abortion is mostly accepted on the basis of an understanding of the challenges experienced by many who end up pregnant. However, more than one abortion is frowned upon. And we see similar nuances across sexual orientation, sex characteristics and gender identity issues. For instance, feminine queer men tend to be tolerated more than trans women, as are masculine lesbian women giving birth, while bisexual men are emasculated online. Social parameters are too wide to be readily captured without meaningful resources and political will to ensure all LGBTQI+ people are included in state policy and programming.
Have you experienced any negative repercussions from your work?
Yes. Invitations have been rescinded and scrutiny increased. We are policed on who can be invited to take part in social participation mechanisms that include government officials. We are denied an audience despite fulfilling all the necessary steps in writing invitations, submitting proposals and following up through the hierarchy. For instance, we applied for approval for civil society participation in the 2023 World Bank-International Monetary Fund Spring meetings, and despite receiving permission from parliamentary caucuses, a ministry interrogated us on what we wanted to do and why we wanted to attend.
We had our email address blocked to prevent us submitting future statements to the United Nations. We have been denied funding for being too radical, and calling out funders has not really worked for us.
I’ve had several encounters with law enforcement. The first happened when a fellow volunteer was strangled and I recorded audio of the incident before police confiscated my phone. We are exploring a case on this at the moment. The second happened when a trans colleague was questioned because how she presented was not the same as the gender stated on her identity card. And more recently, we were told of plainclothes police in non-branded cars patrolling and possibly shooting people who don’t stop on highways when instructed to in the middle of nowhere. This kind of policing is harmful, unlawful and abusive, and is being used to target LGBTQI+ people without any accountability.
Where do these restrictions come from?
Some restrictions we’ve faced reflect a regional landscape in which LGBTQI+ networks have shut down, limiting representation, and a global trend in which eligibility, visa and logistical support have only worsened, limiting civil society participation in advocacy and governance mechanisms.
Civil society in Botswana is not immune from these trends. Even within the Global Fund mechanism, the most prominent enabler of those fighting for sexual health rights, delays have taken up most of the current financial year, compromising eight months of service provision.
I think we are underestimating the reach of anti-rights groups. Although global anti-rights influences have existed for decades, domestic counterparts have recently grown emboldened and are increasingly well resourced. Botswana’s higher middle income country status reflects a skewed and unequal income distribution and hides the fact that the few with capital and wealth side with the conservative, morally driven powerholders and are not afraid to deploy their influence against human rights activists. Criminalisation is good business for the politicians that also run corporations. Inequality is good news for those with means and power to subjugate those left behind.
How do you connect with LGBTQI+ rights movements abroad and internationally? What international support do you receive, and what further support do you need?
LGBTQI+ activists are dynamic and diverse. Success Capital has always engaged in collaborative knowledge sharing, linking with other initiatives and sharing the space in advocacy sessions, side events and mobilising actions. We take pride in unearthing young, emergent and nascent activists and movements that operate in the margins and sharing our platform with them. This helps us continue and challenge conversations in rooms we can’t access or engage in.
Since decriminalisation, international support has been quite high. It has, however, been skewed. It has followed a hierarchy that’s reflective of wider trends, with more institutionalised groups having easier access to funding and benefitting from the development industrial complex the most. Grassroots organisations continue to be left behind, lacking institutional or long-term funding.
Solidarity is like sunshine – everyone deserves some. That’s why the ecosystem needs to be steered towards collaboration. And it must focus on strategising so that we don’t merely react to crises and anti-rights action, but we take the initiative in the struggle for our rights.
Civic space in Botswana is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BRICS bloc’s lofty aims lack legitimacy without civil society
By Mandeep Tiwana and Cathal Gilbert
As Xiamen prepares to host 2017 summit, the group's vision of a "just, equitable and democratic multi-polar international order" is not served well by its member states' disregard for citizens' voices.
Read on: Asia Times
Brics: Uma proposta de nova ordem mundial que ignora os direitos básicos dos cidadãos
Escrito por Fabio de Almeida Pinto, Coordenador Executivo do IDS, e Marianna Belalba Barreto, da CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Entre 3 e 5 de setembro, o presidente Michel Temer estará em Xiamen, China, para a 9ª Cúpula dos Brics, onde se reunirá com os líderes de Rússia, Índia, China e África do Sul para discutir e aprofundar a cooperação em comércio internacional, desenvolvimento e segurança.
Leia aqui: Estadão
BULGARIA: ‘Our society has finally become sensitised to domestic and gender-based violence’
CIVICUS speaks with Victoria Petrova, Communications and Development Director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), about civil society’s struggles to end domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria.
Established in 2004, the BFW is the only Bulgarian feminist civil society organisation (CSO) supporting organisations, collectives and activists that challenge the status quo and work towards systemic change for women, girls and all marginalised communities.
What does BFW do?
The BFW has played a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights across Bulgaria for two decades. Our focus has recently extended. As well as funding projects, in 2020 we started providing core funding to help organisations meet essential needs such as administrative costs, office space, equipment and staff salaries, which often remain uncovered by project funding.
Core funding is of paramount importance to ensure the sustainability of CSOs. Financial stability empowers organisations to be strategic, proactive and resilient in the face of challenges. As of today, providing core funding objective has become our biggest focus.
We also have other funding mechanisms such as project funding and the Open Opportunity programme, which provides rapid funding of up to 10,000 BGN (approx. US$5,500). This has proven invaluable in times of crisis or in the face of unforeseen challenges, such as last year’s attack on the Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQI+ space in the capital, Sofia. A far-right former presidential candidate attacked the hub during an event and injured a participant, an activist and Rainbow Hub team member. The premises were destroyed. Through the Open Opportunity programme BFW gave them a grant so they could get it fixed.
Overall, BFW distributed a total of over US$700,000 in direct grants to CSOs in 2022 alone.
We’ve also taken proactive steps to contribute to building capacity in the organisations we support, recognising the significance of robust women’s rights organisations in a context where great gender inequalities persist.
It is estimated that one in three women, or approximately one million, suffer from domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria and at least 15 women have been killed by former or current intimate partners, husbands or other relatives since the beginning of 2023. Women do a disproportionate share of household chores and care work. There aren’t enough support services, such as public kindergartens. There is a significant pay gap and women are grossly underrepresented in politics – only about 25 per cent of members of parliament are women. Life is even harder in small towns, where gender stereotypes are much more deeply rooted.
Have you faced backlash for the work you do?
Women’s rights organisations as well as the entire civil society sector in Bulgaria have encountered significant challenges since 2018. These started alongside attacks on the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.
Attacks were sparked by a far-right party, VMRO, and also by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after it shifted its stance in relation to the Convention. The party with the biggest parliamentary representation, GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), sort of washed its hands at the time and left the matter with the Constitutional Court. And the Court ruled that ratifying the Istanbul Convention would be unconstitutional. This made Bulgaria one of the few European states that haven’t ratified the Convention.
These days, attacks focus on the changes recently made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act. Regressive and pro-Russian groups such as Revival (Vazrazhdane) and BSP claim that this law seeks to impose the Istanbul Convention and implement what they call ‘gender ideology’. A few months ago, the BSP even started collecting signatures to enable a referendum against ‘gender ideology’. The party has recently announced it has collected the required number of signatures.
What recent changes were made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, and why?
Changes to this law had been pursued for years but faced rejection by some political parties, including Revival, the BSP and some GERB members. They were finally introduced in July and they represented progress, even though they did not include the definition of ‘intimate relationship’ proposed by women’s advocates, as a result of which they did not extend protection to people who are in relationships but are unmarried and not in a domestic partnership.
Regrettably, this omission meant that the shocking Stara Zagora case, in which an 18-year-old woman was beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, did not fall within the law’s purview. This attack happened in late June but only became public in late July, as a result of the victim’s family’s engagement with the media out of frustration with the slow pace of the investigation.
In response, around 10,000 people protested in Sofia and tens of thousands demonstrated in other regions, demanding justice for victims and action against domestic and gender-based violence. This groundswell of public engagement was unprecedented, shaking the normalised apathy or victim-blaming that had often been the response to similar cases in the past.
This forced parliament to reconsider the bill, and on 7 August it reconvened to widen its scope to cover ‘intimate relationships’. This was a step in the right direction, although some concerning elements remain.
First, criteria for people to be considered as intimate partners include having been in a relationship for at least 60 days, without any clarity as to what counts as the start of those 60 days and, more concerningly, what happens if violence occurs within the first 60 days. Second, at the last minute, members of parliament inserted the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the definition, therefore limiting its scope to heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples were completely excluded from seeking protection under this law.
Bulgarian politicians should do much better. During that same debate a GERB member of parliament, former Minister of Culture and former Chairman of the Parliament, Vezhdi Rashidov, made extremely offensive comments. It was during the break, when he thought his microphone was off and basically called raped women ‘whores’. Our organisation wrote an open letter asking for his resignation, and just a few days later he announced he was resigning.
Unfortunately, his comments reflect widespread attitudes among many of our politicians towards women’s rights and domestic and gender-based violence. We are fed up with their sexist jokes, homophobic expressions, lack of understanding and deliberate disinformation regarding gender issues and women’s rights.
What do you think made the Stara Zagora case so impactful?
The impact of the Stara Zagora case can be attributed to several factors, primarily stemming from systemic failures that occurred across various institutional levels. The perpetrator’s swift release within 72 hours of the attack, despite being on probation for prior offences, set the tone for public outrage.
Public indignation also resulted from the discrepancy between the severity of the attack, which involved the use of a knife and resulted in 400 stitches, a broken nose and a shaved head, and its categorisation as a mere ‘soft bodily injury’.
There was a shift in public sentiment that revealed heightened awareness and empathy for victims. The usual response in these cases is often victim-blaming. This time, however, many more people sided with the victim. Although some anti-rights voices questioning the victim’s innocence emerged, particularly on social media, most public figures refrained from such insensitivity.
As a result, over the past few weeks, we have started to see more and more domestic violence cases being reported on the media. So I’d say the Stara Zagora case sensitised society and accelerated change. I hope people will now be more willing to seek protection and justice, and institutions and the media will be more willing to empathise with the victims.
What else should be done to combat gender-based violence more effectively?
While there are organisations like BFW that have worked against gender-based violence for decades, it’s evident that a comprehensive national campaign led by the state is needed to catalyse broader change. Such a campaign should aim to reach people across all socio-economic strata, fostering a shared understanding of gender equality and the unacceptability of violence.
Education and prevention are paramount, and they must begin at an early age. Teaching children about gender equality and the importance of rejecting violence from the outset can contribute to lasting change.
The establishment of more crisis centres across the country to provide immediate support and safety for victims is also crucial. Only 15 out of 28 regional cities have crisis centres so far. Perhaps positive change will now take place as four ministries have got involved in solving the issue.
Finally, ratification of the Istanbul Convention remains a pivotal goal. Its comprehensive framework can guide Bulgaria in its efforts to counter gender-based violence. We will continue advocating for these changes and support other organisations that work for women’s rights.
How do you connect with the global women’s movement and what additional support do you need?
Collaboration among organisations and international assistance are essential to counter anti-rights narratives, fend off far-right movements that are unfortunately increasingly organised and determined and promote positive change. When helping people and organisations, we sometimes tend to be reactive to attacks. We need to support each other to be more proactive.
As I already mentioned, core funding is of huge importance to our grantees, but it is for us as well. I am happy to see that more of our donors started providing this type of long-term support, and I am hopeful that even more will recognise the need for it in the future.
To end on a more positive note, I am thankful that Bulgarian society has finally become sensitised to the topic of domestic and gender-based violence. This isn’t a private issue but an issue that affects the whole of society. We are all responsible for educating ourselves on the topic, learning about its different forms, stepping up when we see something unacceptable and supporting people who are brave enough to report violence.
We look forward to a collective push toward lasting change, supported by all of you.
Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.
BURUNDI: ‘The election of new leaders is not synonymous with democracy’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in Burundi with a civil society activist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, two months before the elections, the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi launched an appeal to the international community, including the UN Security Council and regional institutions, to join forces to encourage the government of Burundi to reopen democratic, civil and political space. On the day of the elections, the president of the Commission of Inquiry stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. Asreported by the CIVICUS Monitor, opposition members faced death threats and physical attacks, as well as administrative hurdles, as several candidacy applications were rejected. The leader of an opposition party was murdered and other candidates were arrested on bogus charges. Independent reporting was systematically impeded through the arrest of journalists and the blockage of social media platforms.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Has the government of Burundi’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic further restricted the space for civil society?
Civic space in Burundi has been closed since April 2015, due to the political unrest caused by the decision of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, recently deceased, to run for a controversial third term. This led to widespread violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and forced 400,000 to flee the country. Surprisingly, in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in almost all African countries, the Burundian authorities opened space for political campaigns to be held ahead of the May presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. But one can conclude that civic space is still closed in terms of being able to express any open criticism about how the country is politically run, including criticism regarding the way the government handled the pandemic during the electoral period.
What were the views of civil society about holding elections during the pandemic?
The decision of the Burundian authorities to allow election campaigns to proceed during a period in which many other African countries were taking measures of confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19 was viewed as denial of the reality of the pandemic to save the political interests of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy), to the detriment of the public’s health.
Despite fears of mass COVID-19 contamination, the elections were rushed, at least in part, due to the opportunity to hold an electoral process in the absence of a sizeable number of independent and international observers who could denounce any irregularities. By doing so, given that the National Independent Electoral Commission was mostly composed of members of the ruling party, the government ensured that it could manipulate the election results as much as it wanted.
Was the outcome of the election accepted by majority of Burundians?
On 20 May 2020, CNDD-FDD candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye was elected president with 71 per cent of the vote. The ruling party also won 72 of the 100 seats at stake in the National Assembly.
As soon as the Electoral Commission announced the results, opposition parties such as the National Council for Liberation, which came a distant second, stated in foreign media that the official numbers were not credible and were the result of massive fraud. The truth is that the elections were held in a context of continuing repression of the political opposition, independent media and civil society. No international observers were present because the government had warned that due to the pandemic they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.
Low-key criticisms were made by others, including the Catholic Church, regarding incidents that marked the election processes. Others whispered, as it’s not easy to make open criticisms, that election results were rigged. But that was it. Powerful members of the international community such as the governments of Belgium and the USA were fast to congratulate the elected president, and the East African Community congratulated Burundi for holding a “peaceful and successful” election.
In my personal view, the outcomes of the elections were eventually accepted because many feared that bloodshed could follow if an open rejection of the election results by the opposition was followed by street protests.
How likely is that the elections result will lead to an improvement of democracy and civic space?
Some pretend to believe that the election of new leaders is synonymous with democracy. The outcome of the May 2020 elections helped Burundi change the faces of top leaders and show that the dictator who ruled us for 15 years is no longer leading the country. However, the human rights violations that took place during the electoral campaign, the appointment of officials under European or US economic sanctions for the human rights abuses they had committed and the political rhetoric describing some countries and their leaders as colonialists all show that democracy in Burundi still has a long way to go.
However, some measures to fight against corruption and others abuses that President Ndayishimiye has taken since assuming office have allowed us to believe that the impunity that some local authorities enjoyed during Nkurunziza’s administration might come to an end.
Many had argued that the plan was for former President Nkurunziza to remain the power behind the scenes. Have prospects changed as a result of his death?
Former President Nkurunziza died unexpectedly in June, before his successor had even been inaugurated. As a new president had already been elected, the Constitutional Court decided that he should be sworn in two months early.
Many believed that Nkurunziza’s passing would allow President Ndayishimiye to rule with total independence, and his inaugural speech seemed to confirm it, as he vowed to enter into dialogue with anyone, on any issue. It is too soon to say whether the fact that Nkurunziza is out of the equation will allow the new administration to open up civic space and whether the new president will seize this opportunity. However, it is encouraging to see that the new president has already met with the leaders of other political parties, former Burundi presidents and Anglican and Catholic bishops, and has promised to promote dialogue. We are expectant to find out whether his words will turn into actions.
At the same time, however, the Minister of Home Affairs has recently issued a note to halt the registration of all new civil society organisations and churches and the recognition of newly elected authorities of organisations, pending a new order. Such decisions are inconsistent with the change that is being sought. If maintained, they will hinder civil society from growing and becoming a legitimate and publicly recognised sphere.
What should the international community do to help improve civic space in Burundi?
It is hard to set just a few priorities, as many things need to be put in place for Burundi to become a place of freedoms. However, it would be vital to engage the government of Burundi in multidimensional dialogue. International cooperation needs to be relaunched in a way that helps the Burundian government to end endemic poverty. The international community should advocate the repatriation of all refugees, including those who are under an arrest warrant from the Burundian government, and ensure their protection. And it also should offer its mediation to solve conflict between Burundi and its neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda, in order to facilitate the movement of people and goods and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
If the suggested priorities are pursued, the Burundian authorities might come to realise that Burundi is not isolated and that the international community is not acting to sabotage its interests, but rather to strengthen the positive aspects of globalisation in all domains.
Civic space in Burundi is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Call for proposals: Application for partners for pilot national civil society assessment in El Salvador, Georgia and Indonesia.
The Enabling Environment National Assessment (EENA), developed by CIVICUS and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), is a participatory, civil society-led and action-oriented research methodology.
Cambodia: the international community must step up efforts to address human right violations
Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia
Delivered by Lisa Majumdar
Thank you, Mr President, and thank you Special Rapporteur for your report.
In the face of ongoing reporting by the Special Rapporteur, the Cambodian government has shown no political will to undertake democratic or civic space reforms.
Cambodian human rights defenders and activists continue to face repression and persecution. Highly politicised courts mean that those arbitrarily detained and charged are often held for prolonged periods in pretrial detention and have no chance of getting a fair trial. The ongoing harassment of the Nagaworld workers union and attacks on press freedom is extremely worrying.
The criminalisation of the opposition in the last five years and recent efforts to harass and undermine new political parties during the commune elections are precursors of what the Cambodian people can expect from their national elections next year.
If the international community wants to see a free and fair elections in Cambodia it must step up efforts to address these violations.
We call on the Council to take note of the benchmarks set out in the Special Rapporteur’s report, particularly those relating to the opening up of civic and political space and ceasing the persecution of human rights defenders, specifically:
- Release detained human rights defenders and political dissidents and drop the charges against them
- Desist from applying and reform draconian laws including the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO)
- Restore and re-enfranchise a variety of political parties, and ensure free and fair elections.
If these benchmarks are not met, the Council must be prepared to take stronger action by way of a stronger monitoring mandate. Failure to do so will see the one-party state entrenched still further in years to come.
Civic space in Cambodia is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor
CAMBODIA: ‘No free and fair election can take place in the current political environment’
CIVICUS speaks about Cambodia’s communal elections of June 2022 with Lee Chung Lun, Campaign and Advocacy Programme Officer of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).
Established in 1997, ANFREL is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democratic, free and fair elections by conducting election monitoring, capacity building and civic engagement in member countries.
How free and fair were the recent local elections in Cambodia, and what were their results?
The official results of the elections for the commune and sangkat – an administrative subdivision – council held on 5 June 2022 gave the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 9,376 (80.7 per cent) of the 11,622 council seats and 1,648 (99.8 per cent) of the 1,652 positions of commune chief. The recently reactivated Candlelight Party gained 2,198 (18.9 per cent) of council seats and four commune chief positions. The remaining 48 council seats went to other small parties.
The CPP’s victory is no surprise given its tight control of politics and the pressures on the opposition, including the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. In such context, the CPP won over 3,000 more seats than it did in the 2017 elections, and its popular vote surged from 3.5 million to 5.3 million.
However, it was unexpected that the Candlelight Party only managed to secure four commune chief positions despite winning one-fifth of the popular vote. The disproportionate vote-to-seat translation warrants further investigation.
Overall, Cambodia still falls short of the benchmark for free, fair and inclusive elections, as assessed in ANFREL’s pre-election assessment mission. ANFREL’s member, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also noted various irregularities in the process.
The undemocratic elements of the existing legal framework continue to allow room for abuse. In recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, crackdowns on the media, CSOs and the political opposition have increased. Numerous opposition candidates and members of opposition parties, most notably from the Candlelight Party, became the target of harassment and intimidation throughout the election period. As long as threats against the opposition and civil society continue to be prevalent, there can’t be a genuine and legitimate election.
What role did civil society play in the election process?
In July 2021, a coalition of 64 Cambodian CSOs launched a list of recommendations that they named ‘minimum conditions for legitimate commune and sangkat council elections’. These included enabling a free political environment and active participation in political activities and allowing the main opposition to review and select members of the National Election Committee (NEC). They also called for greater political neutrality of military forces and independence of the courts, as well as freedom for the media and CSOs to function. Regrettably, no significant changes have been made since then.
CSOs such as COMFREL recruited, trained and deployed citizen observers to monitor the election process. The NEC’s accreditation standards, however, are questionable, given that 93 per cent of the 74,885 accredited election observers came from organisations closely linked to the CPP. More than half of them came from the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia and Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, led by Cambodian prime minister’s son Hun Manet and deputy prime minister Men Sam An, respectively.
Cambodia is virtually a one-party state and now has a mostly closed civic space as a result of ongoing attacks on CSOs, independent media and the political opposition. Since 2017, the government has arrested, imprisoned, and harassed hundreds of activists, opposition figures and journalists. Some flee the country out of fear of retaliation.
The draconian provisions outlined in the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations continue to be in effect. The law forbids unregistered organisations from carrying out any activity and grants sole authority over the registration process to the Ministry of the Interior, while registered organisations must adhere to a broadly defined ‘political neutrality’ requirement. CSOs are frequently required to go through informal approval processes with local authorities to carry out their work on the ground, even though the law does not require them to do so.
Do you think the results of the communal elections will be replicated in the upcoming national elections?
The results of the commune and sangkat council elections can be regarded as a predictor of the results of the next National Assembly elections, scheduled to take place in July 2023. They confirm once again that no free and fair election can take place in Cambodia’s current political environment. If attacks on the opposition and civil society continue, the CPP will retain its power in the next election.
What support does Cambodian civil society need from international organisations?
Cambodian civil society needs more attention from the international community on critical human rights violations and the dwindling state of democracy. International organisations should keep up their efforts to monitor developments in Cambodia closely and extend solidarity with Cambodian civil society, which frequently faces threats and harassment while carrying out their work. Local CSOs also need funding to continue their advocacy and campaigning on the ground.
CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’
CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currentlyfaces further charges.
What were the origins of MNC?
We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.
This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.
I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems.
A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.
What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?
They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.
One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.
What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?
The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.
There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill.
Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.
What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.
Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?
Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.
In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.
In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.
Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.
We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.
As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.
This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.
The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.
Have you faced threats from private companies?
The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.
Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them.
Why did MNC decide to formally disband?
In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.
We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.
What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?
Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up.
That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists.
The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.
Cambodia: Drop Fabricated Charges against ‘ADHOC 5’
Cambodian authorities should immediately drop politically motivated bribery charges against five human rights defenders known as the ADHOC 5 (“FreeThe5KH” in social media campaigns), five international organizations said today. The trial of the five – four current and one former senior staff members of the nongovernmental Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) – is scheduled for August 27, 2018, after lying dormant for a year. If convicted, each faces between 5 and 10 years in prison.
CAMEROON: ‘The Anglophone discontent must be addressed through meaningful discussion with all parties’
CIVICUS speaks with the Cameroonian writer and digital activist Dibussi Tande about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and educational grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.
Dibussiis the author ofScribbles from the Den. Essays on Politics and Collective Memory in Cameroon. He also has a blog where he shares news and analyses of the situation in Cameroon.
What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalating conflict in Cameroon?
The main humanitarian issue is the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, by August 2021 there were 712,800 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although some have since returned, there are still over half a million IDPs spread across Cameroon.
The priority needs of IDPs and returnees today are housing and access to healthcare, food, water and education. However, help has not been readily available, which explains why this conflict has repeatedly been classified as one of the most neglected displacement crises since 2019.
Let’s not forget that the UN Refugee Agency has an additional 82,000 Cameroonian refugees registered in Nigeria. Add the millions of people trapped in conflict zones and caught in the crossfire, and you have the recipe for a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.
What will it take to de-escalate the situation?
It’s quite simple. First, the parties involved in the conflict must be willing to look beyond the military option, which so far has not resolved anything, and seek a peaceful resolution instead. There can be no real de-escalation until they give meaning to the now derided calls for an ‘all-inclusive dialogue’ that have become a platitude and an excuse for inaction. That said, I think the onus lies primarily with the government of Cameroon, which is the party with the resources to at least initiate real dialogue.
Second, the international community needs to revise its approach to the conflict. All attempts thus far at international mediation – for example, the ‘Swiss Process’ in which the government of Switzerland convened talks – have either dragged on for years or simply failed. The international community must step up the pressure on all factions, including the threat of individual and collective sanctions for their continued obdurateness. Without this two-pronged approach, there will not be a de-escalation anytime soon.
What kind of challenges does civil society face when advocating for peace?
Civil society faces numerous challenges. For starters, civil society organisations (CSOs) have limited access to conflict zones. They must also walk a fine line between government and Ambazonian groups – those fighting for the independence of Ambazonia, a self-declared state in the Anglophone regions – who both routinely accuse them of supporting the other side. Even when civil society gains access to conflict zones, it operates with very limited financial and other resources.
That said, the most serious challenge to their operations is government hostility. Local CSOs have routinely complained about intimidation and harassment by Cameroonian authorities as they try to work in conflict zones. In 2020, for example, the Minister of Territorial Administration accused local CSOs of colluding with international CSOs to fuel terrorism in Cameroon. He claimed that these ‘teleguided NGOs’ had received 5 billion CFA francs (approx. US$7.4 million) to whitewash the atrocities of separatist groups while publishing fake reports about alleged abuses by the Cameroonian military.
International humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have also faced the wrath of the government. In 2020, Cameroon suspended MSF from carrying out activities in the Northwest region after accusing it of having close relations with separatists. And in March 2022, MSF suspended its activities in the Southwest region after four of its workers were arrested for allegedly collaborating with separatists. MSF complained that the government confused neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian aid with collusion with separatist forces.
What were the expectations of English-speaking Cameroonians for 1 October, proclaimed as ‘Independence Day’ in the Anglophone regions?
English-speaking Cameroonians come in different shades of political ideology, so they had different expectations. For independentists, the goal is simple: independence for the former British Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons. As far as they are concerned, any negotiation with the government must be about how to end the union and not about whether the union should continue.
But other segments of the population still believe in a bilingual Cameroon republic, albeit under new political arrangements. Federalists believe that Anglophone expectations will be met if the country returns to the federal system that existed between 1961 and 1972. This system gave the former British Southern Cameroons constitutional protections within a federal republic, including the right to its own state government, an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a vibrant local government system and state control over the education system.
The government of Cameroon has accommodated neither the radical demands of independentists nor the comparatively moderate demands of the federalists. Instead, it is forging ahead with a ‘decentralisation’ policy that gives nominal power to the regions but does not even begin to address the fundamentals of the so-called ‘Anglophone problem’.
What should Cameroon’s government do to ensure the recognition of the rights of English-speaking Cameroonians?
For starters, the government should abandon its stopgap and largely cosmetic approach to resolving the conflict, because it only adds to the existing resentment. This is the case, for example, with the much-maligned ‘special status’ accorded to the Northwest and Southwest regions, supposedly to recognise their ‘linguistic particularity and historic heritage’, but which does not give them the power to influence or determine policies in key areas such as education, justice and local government, where this ‘particularity’ needs the most protection.
The historical and constitutional origins of the Anglophone discontent within the bilingual Cameroon republic are well documented. This discontent must be addressed with a holistic approach that includes meaningful discussions with all parties, from the federalists to the independentists. Dialogue is a journey, not a destination. And the time to start that journey is now, no matter how tortuous, frustrating and challenging, and despite the deep-seated distrust, resentment and animosity among the parties.
How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society and help find a solution?
Cameroonian civil society needs financial, material and other resources to adequately provide humanitarian and other assistance to displaced people and people living in conflict zones. This is where the international community comes in. However, international aid is a double-edged sword, given the Cameroon government’s suspicion and hostility towards local CSOs that have international partners, especially those that are critical of how the government has handled the conflict so far. Civil society also needs resources to accurately and adequately document what exactly is happening on the ground, including war crimes and violations of international human rights laws.
To be able to play a pivotal role in the search for a solution to the conflict, CSOs will have to figure out a way to convince the government – and Ambazonian groups that are equally suspicious of their activities – that they are honest brokers rather than partisan actors or trojan horses working for one side or the other. This is a Herculean, if not virtually impossible, task at this juncture. So, for now, civil society will continue to walk a fine line between the government and the independentists, all the while promising more than it can deliver to the people affected by the conflict.
As for international support to finding a solution, there has been a lot more international handwringing, from the African Union to the UN, than real action. The international community has so far adopted a largely reactive stance towards the conflict. It issues statements of distress after every atrocity, followed by hollow calls for inclusive dialogue. And then it goes silent until the next tragedy. Hence, the parties have little incentive for dialogue, especially when each believes, rightly or wrongly, that it is gaining the upper hand militarily.
Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.