Civil society resourcing: “Revolutions do not occur because of good project proposals”
By Ine Van Severen
It’s undeniable: the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and philanthropy is shrinking. According to new research by CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks trends in the conditions for civil society in countries around the world, 3.2 billion people live in countries where citizens’ freedoms of association, assembly or expression are restricted.
Read on: Alliance Magazine
Civil society tackling global challenges with ‘resolute resistance,’ says new report
As 2017 gave way to 2018, many in civil society found renewed purpose in striving to make democracy real, and demanding human dignity and justice.
Even as attacks on civil society have become more brazen, the story of the past year was one of resolute resistance against the rising tide of restrictions on fundamental freedoms and democratic values, according to CIVICUS’ 2018 State of Civil Society Report, released 6 March 2018. Sobering data from the CIVICUS Monitor reveals serious systemic problems with civic space in 109 out of 195 countries covered. However, there are also numerous examples of civil society successfully advocating for progressive new laws on women’s rights, access to information and protection of human rights defenders.
Closed and repressed: No space for democracy to take root in Eritrea
CIVICUS interviews a human rights defender from Eritrea, who speaks about the nature of the government and its complete disregard for fundamental human rights. The human rights defender asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
1. What is the overall state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Eritrea?
Unlike in the neighbouring countries, the regime in Eritrea is unique and arguably has no match in the world. It is the most repressive regime in the world, ruling the country with no Constitution and national assembly. There is no political pluralism and no elections have been organised since independence. The ruling party exists only in name with most of its leaders in the executive and legislative arms of government are either languishing in unknown detention centres or have abandoned the party. Since 1994 the party has never held any congress or elected new leadership. Hence power has been concentrated in the hands of a single man, President Issias Afwerki, who rules the country alone and as he wishes.
The absolute power he enjoys combined with his sadistic, cruel and arrogant character has driven him to the extreme. His regime violates every aspect of human rights and inflicts unbearable suffering on the Eritrean people. The regime has no regard for human rights and international law. Almost the entire population of Eritrea has been subjected to indefinite national service, forced labour and slavery. Families have disintegrated and societies destroyed by migration as citizens seek to escape the repression. Those who escape the country are exposed to human trafficking, hostage taking for ransom, torture and other inhumane treatment.
The regime has made Eritrea a closed and an isolated country with no independent and foreign media outlets; civil society activities are banned in Eritrea thus there are no local CSOs or international NGOs of any kind in the country. In addition, the report of the UN Commission of inquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in June 2016 revealed that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea by the Eritrean regime.
2. What is the state of the media?
Between 1997 to 2001 private press in the form of print media operated in Eritrea but this was under a restrictive legal domestic framework. There were eight private newspapers until September 2001. In 2001 senior government officials known as “G-15” demanded democratic reforms and the enforcement of the 1997 ratified Constitution. In September 2001, the government clamped down on 11 members of the “G-15” accusing them of treason and said they were a threat to national security. The government proceeded to close private newspapers and imprisoned 18 journalists for providing platforms to the “G-15” to express their views. Since then both the political prisoners and journalists have been held incommunicado in secret prison facilities without charges. Many of the journalists and writers are believed to have died in detention. In effect, since September 2001 no private media has existed in Eritrea. Only state-owned and state-operated media exists in the country. These include TV, radio, and print outlets.
Freedom of expression, exchange of information and communication in public places such as tea shops, buses, taxis, restaurants, bus terminals, offices, schools and colleges, public, social and religious events are closely monitored by spys working for the regime. Even people who are out of the country are afraid to express themselves publicly for fear of reprisals against their relatives at home in Eritrea. Journalists who work for public media outlets and manage escape still fear that their families back home will be targeted as the Eritrean government punishes family members because of association.
3. How does the compulsory national military service exacerbate human rights violations in Eritrea?
According to the National Service Proclamation of 1995, Eritreans are required to serve 18 months of national service which includes six months of military training and 12 months of service in the army and civil service. The proclamation notes that military service is compulsory for males and females who are between 18 to 40 years old. However, contrary to the national proclamation, in reality the national service is indefinite. Those who were recruited in the first round, for example in 1994 have not been released up to now. The whole productive section of the society has been locked up in the national service without any pay, proper feeding or clothing. Even children are recruited into national service. All students have to go to the military training camp of Sawa to do their final year of education in the secondary level and complete military training. Conditions there are very miserable. The national service recruits are treated worse than slaves. They are deprived of opportunities to start families and from undertaking economic activities. They are deprived of moving freely, expressing themselves and from practicing the religion of their choice. In addition, those who desert and evade national service are detained, tortured or fined. Also women are used as sex objects by the military officers and work as house maids or slaves to provide forced services to the officers.
4. Tell us about the failure of the government to implement the 1997 Constitution
The government does not have any desire to implement the 1997 Constitution. In May 1998, one year after the ratification of the Constitution, the Eritrean government ignited a border war with Ethiopia. It developed into a full-fledged conflict that came to end in 2000 after the loss of about 100 000 lives on both sides and huge damages to properties and a huge humanitarian crisis and displacement. The Algeris agreement ended the war and a border commission was formed to delineate and demarcate the border but the border has not yet been demarcated. A “no war and peace state” prevails now. Although there are no links between the border and the Constitution, the Eritrean government claims that it is not implementing the Constitution because the border has to be demarcated first.
5. What are three things that need to change for democracy to take root in Eritrea?
For democracy to take root in Eritrea: there needs to be
- Change of the existing government;
- Crimes committed so far have to be addressed and perpetrators brought to justice;
- The international community needs to support Eritreans both in the diaspora and those in Eritrea in leading a transition to democratic rule.
COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’
CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.
What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?
Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.
The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.
What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.
How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?
From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.
In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.
What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?
The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.
On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.
On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.
So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.
How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?
On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.
In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.
Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.
Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”
During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.
Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.
The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.
In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.
Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.
How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?
In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.
Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.
What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?
First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.
Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?
I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.
However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.
Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@CSPP_ on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite andFacebook page, or
COLOMBIA: ‘People are tired of the long hegemony of political elites who are also economic elites’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).
Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.
How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?
It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.
The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.
I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.
A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.
How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?
Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.
Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.
Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.
What was the campaign for the runoffs like?
It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.
Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.
The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.
Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.
Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.
Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.
Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.
For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.
Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.
What kind of voter backed the candidates?
There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.
The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.
The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.
What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?
Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.
There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.
Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.
Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.
For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.
Comprehensive UN resolution needed to protect civic space
Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights
A group of governments (Ireland, Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone, Tunisia) and over 50 civil society organisations reaffirm the need for the Human Rights Council to adopt a comprehensive resolution that promotes and protect civic freedoms.
Madame High Commissioner,
This core group first took the initiative of a Council resolution on civil society space in 2013.
We did so in light of what we saw as two equally true but very different realities:
- first, the transformative role which civil society can and does play, alone or in partnership with other stakeholders; and
- second, that civil society space is all too regularly, and unfortunately increasingly, restricted and threatened.
In the intervening period, our commitment to this initiative has not diminished, in fact quite the opposite, we have established new frontiers.
We remain deeply committed to highlighting at this Council, the critical importance of protecting and promoting a safe and enabling environment for civil society.
In normal times, we would have presented a resolution to this Session of the HRC.
But these are not normal times, so, for practical reasons, we have decided to raise these important issues by way of a Joint Statement.
In this Joint Statement, we take the opportunity to draw attention to the concerns that persist for civil society including inter alia: diversity of participation; attacks, reprisals and acts of intimidation against civil society actors; shortcomings in access and accreditation processes; the use of legal and administrative measures to restrict civil society activity; and the particular challenges that have emerged in recent weeks and months by the almost wholesale move to online methods of communication and engagement.
We also pay tribute to the significant steps forward that international organisations and States have taken to foster and encourage the meaningful participation of civil society, set out in the
High Commissioner’s report presented at this Session. This report also noted that significant further steps are needed, such as: increasing support to and empowering civil society, including human rights defenders, in particular women’s rights and environmental defenders and journalists; and expanding the space in which civil society operates through better laws and policies and improved protection mechanisms.
Realisation of these steps would bring to bear the immense benefits of this participative approach to policy formulation and implementation, as emphasised by the Secretary-General in his “Call to Action”.
Madame High Commissioner,
The people that States in this room represent are facing the challenge of a generation in dealing with COVID19 and its devastating impact, particularly in terms of the many, many lives lost, on every continent.
In responding to, and rebuilding from this crisis, we must recognise, as articulated by the UN Secretary-General, and as emphasised by this Council in the recently adopted Presidential Statement on the human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of human rights in shaping the response to the pandemic, both for the public health emergency, and the broader impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.
We welcome your statement, Madame High Commissioner, that civil society must be included in every stage of response to the COVID19 pandemic.
We would encourage you therefore Madame High Commissioner, to ensure that the essential role of civil society, and States’ efforts to protect and promote civil society space, are reflected in the report that you will present to the 46th Session of the HRC, as mandated by the recent Presidential Statement.
There will be many lessons to be learned from our experience of recent weeks and months if we are to build back better, by protecting fundamental freedoms in the face of crises and addressing structural inequalities.
We stand ready to learn.
And we undertake to bring to a future Session of this Council, a resolution that will build on a more comprehensive examination of the key challenges and opportunities that have emerged and will set out concrete steps for States to take to realise open civic space for the benefit of all.
COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’
As the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.
CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.
What made you become an environmental defender?
I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.
What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?
We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.
What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?
In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.
In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.
I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.
What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?
We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.
We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.
Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.
What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?
The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.
The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.
COP27: ‘Climate justice requires debt cancellation, reparations and non-debt climate finance for small island developing states’
CIVICUS speaks with Bahraini social entrepreneur Tariq Al-Olaimy about the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change.
Tariq is Managing Director of 3BL Associates, an ecosystem of social and planetary enterprises working towards regenerative, inclusive and wellbeing-centred economies.
What was the purpose of the Greenpeace United for Climate Justice ship tour you recently took part in?
Greenpeace is sailing throughout Egypt together with climate leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to put climate justice high on the agenda in the lead-up to COP27, which will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The ship tour is a platform for climate leaders living in some of the world’s most affected regions to promote systemic change around climate adaptation, justice, access to energy and response to the loss and damage associated with the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis. They are representing the voices of people from across the region, focusing on both climate impacts and the many solutions already at hand.
It's important to spread these leaders’ messages around the world and to make sure their voices are not forgotten during COP27, especially in highlighting the need for climate justice for the global south. For these leaders, this is a collective fight for justice for their countries and communities.
Young people from the across the global south in particular are among the most affected and most marginalised, but also among the most powerful voices. They are not victims, but collectives of solidarity and hope working for a brighter future for all.
What issues should be prioritised at COP27?
COP27 must raise the call of climate justice for the most vulnerable, and also the least responsible for climate change: the people in Africa, in the South-west Asia and North Africa region, and on small islands, among others.
I am from Bahrain, which makes me one of 65 million people who live in small island developing states, representing roughly one per cent of the world’s population. Climate justice, mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage strategies require consistent and regular resources. Small islands typically lack those resources and, being particularly vulnerable to extreme climate events, often face reconstruction costs that lead to more borrowing and debt, which in turn increases their vulnerability.
All small island states together only received US$1.5 billion in climate finance between 2016 and 2020. In the same period, 22 small island developing states paid more than US$26 billion to their external creditors – almost 18 times as much. Climate justice requires debt cancellation, reparations and non-debt climate finance for small island developing states.
COP 27 is framed as an ‘implementation COP’, and the climate finance gap and unequal distribution of finance between countries are critical barriers to implementation.
Are you hopeful meaningful commitments will be made at COP27?
The window of opportunity to act is closing. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s6th Assessment Report offers an even clearer picture of the remaining carbon budget available to stay within a 1.5°C temperature rise and therefore avoid the worst impacts of climate change. While enhanced mitigation ambition is critical, the urgency of implementation is a key concern. Taking into account the pledges fully implemented as of 31 December 2021, total greenhouse gas emission levels are still projected to be 10 per cent higher than 2012 levels.
To truly scale mitigation ambition, it is important that governments don’t just negotiate the text and numbers of pledges but negotiate the very system within which we implement climate action. We need degrowth of the most ecologically harmful sectors of our economy, a global and just transition and transformation towards a post-growth economy.
In a context characterised by short-term political calculations we are completely missing the need for urgent and radical change. I do not expect COP27 to address all this. But there are still some issues that could be meaningfully advanced – in particular, the establishment of the basis for the operationalisation of a Loss and Damage Finance Facility, the details of which could be finalised at COP28 next year.
This is an issue of climate justice towards the many countries in the global south that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change yet have done little to contribute to the crisis. At the same time, these countries do not have the financial or technological capacity to address these impacts, adapt and pursue a post-extractivist and low-carbon transition. Loss and damage financing can force a rethink around financial commitments and contributions, and pressure for both debt and tax reform as well as renewed financial commitments for mitigation and adaptation.
How concerned are you about the conditions for civil society participation at a COP held in a country with highly restricted civil space?
Civil society participation is always a critical concern at COPs. It’s clear that we can’t have a green and peaceful future without justice, equity, civil rights and empowered communities. That includes the full inclusion of independent civil society as a key stakeholder in climate negotiations. This is why business and civil society organisations have stressed the crucial importance of a rights-based approach to climate action.
As the world transitions toward net zero, protecting the human rights of civil society, workers and communities is key to achieving a just transition. There is significant danger of pledges being made to close the emissions gap while irresponsible implementation strips the rights of civil society. Green transitions in rich countries and ‘green growth’ require significant mineral resources, supplied from the global south, so there is a risk of a neo-colonial mineral rush and a regression of labour rights. It is essential to develop norms, standards and safeguards so that the transition strategies implemented by governments and businesses comply with international human rights and labour standards.
In the context of the COP, this starts with the United Nations taking a much stronger stance regarding the enabling of safe, inclusive and meaningful civil society participation throughout the negotiation process. The COP agenda is largely dominated by global north governments and interests, and civil society perspectives, especially those from the global south, need to find their way into the mix, bringing forward alternative pathways, experience and knowledge.
COP27: ‘The participation of civil society is important because it represents the voices of communities’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 climate change summit with Chibeze Ezekiel, coordinator of the Strategic Youth Network for Development (SYND).
SYND is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes youth participation and advocacy for environmental sustainability in Ghana.
What are the environmental issues that you work on?
SYND works for environmental sustainability by promoting youth participation in policymaking and project implementation. We focus on four thematic areas: climate change, biodiversity, forests and energy. In May 2019, with support from the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme, we established the Youth in Natural Resources and Environmental Governance platform. It is a platform for young people to share and exchange learning on their respective actions and help them embark on joint, coordinated campaigns.
To help build capacity so that young people can better advocate for environmental sustainability and help the government fulfil its climate obligations, we have also developedcapacity building projects. As part of our efforts to empower students to become climate activists and environmentalists, we have also worked with schools. For instance, through our Children for Climate (#C4C) Action campaign we are empowering children to become climate champions. And we publishreports that highlight our activities and their impacts in the communities we work in.
Have you faced any restrictions when conducting your work?
Fortunately, we have not faced any restrictions working in Ghana. We believe that this might be because of our approach. We confront the government and question public officials on their policies, but we do it in a manner that will not jeopardise the work relationship we have built or put ourselves in harm’s way. This has worked for us, because our work relationship not only with the government but also the private sector has strengthened over the years, which has helped us continue doing our work.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
We work in connection with similar organisations in other African countries as well as with international organisations advocating for environmental rights. In the African region, some of the organisations we work with include theAfrican Youth Initiative on Climate Change,350 Africa,African Climate Reality Project and thePan African Climate Justice Alliance. We are also the West Africa Regional Node forACCESS Coalition, a global network with about 70 members advocating for people living in poverty to have access to safe, reliable and affordable energy, and for environmentally sustainable and efficient energy systems globally.
Working with all these organisations has allowed us to transcend the local level and connect to the global. To contribute to this global work, we produce position papers and give input on policies, among other things.
What issues would you like to see addressed at COP27?
Over the years global leaders have made pledges and promises but they have not fulfilled them. We hope at this year’s COP more serious commitments will be brought forward. Global leaders shouldn’t be making promises they won’t keep and should instead get to work.
Climate finance is still an outstanding issue. There should be a clear understanding of how the mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change will be rolled out. Global leaders must provide communities with resources to adapt to climate change and assist them with mitigation plans. All of this will only be possible if adequate climate finance is provided.
Another priority is loss and damage. We are aware that vulnerable people and those living in underdeveloped communities are the ones suffering the most as a result of climate change. Many people have lost their homes, land and source of livelihood, and it is only fair they are compensated for the irreparable damage caused to them.
A few weeks back we travelled around Ghana to analyse how climate change has affected communities and what demands people had for the government. We conducted interviews and asked people about the situations they are going through and the solutions they would like to see implemented. We plan to present our video documentary at COP27 to show world leaders the real situation on the ground. This will give a clearer picture of what we mean by loss and damage, and hopefully put pressure for urgent action.
Energy transition, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies, is also an issue we expect to see discussed. Especially since there are industrialising ambitions in Africa, it will be interesting to see how leaders plan to make energy available and affordable during this transition. Africa has plenty of resources such as wind, solar and hydro, but its progress towards renewable energies has been very slow. According to theInternational Renewable Energy Agency, only two per cent of global investment in renewable energies is invested in Africa, and only three per cent of jobs in the continent are in the sector. We want to know how global leaders plan to use their resources to help Africa with its energy transition.
Why is civil society participation in climate talks important?
The participation of civil society in COPs is important because it represents the voices of communities and is best placed to articulate people’s concerns and propose polices that will improve the lives of citizens. CSOs are also accountable to their communities, so when we attend global conferences such as COPs, we all go back to our respective countries to provide feedback and confront decisions made at the global level with the realities that people continue to live in. This pushes us to continue with our advocacy work. We continue carrying out engagement activities at the local, regional and international levels, holding our leaders accountable to their commitments and supporting their work to implement the policies agreed in global forums.
Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?
Because of the role we play, there is a space for CSOs to participate in COPs, although improvements in access could certainly be made. It is, however, unfortunate that CSOs only have observer status and cannot take part in negotiations. If they were offered an opportunity to interact with negotiators, they would get a better chance to convey their priorities and share their ideas.
COP27 in particular is tricky because it’s taking place in a closed civic space environment. But that is what the situation is in Egypt. More could have been done to offer a conducive environment for civil society, but we will have to work with what we are presented with. I believe there is still some room to have a discussion with the Egyptian authorities so they allow some form of demonstration and civil society can make the voices of people heard. The government should allow its citizens to participate without any restriction because their views are also important.
Civic space in Ghana is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
COP27: ‘We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26’
CIVICUS speaks with Sohanur Rahman, Executive Coordinator of YouthNet for Climate Justice, about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change. YouthNet for Climate Justice is a global platform of youth-led organisations of the global south that aims to promote climate action among young people.
What environmental issues do you work on?
YouthNet focuses on climate justice, the new human rights frontier. We want to hold global leaders accountable for the climate crisis we are currently in. We work on climate justice because we understand that young people, people from the global south and Indigenous people are bearing a disproportionate share of the consequences of the climate crisis, while not being responsible for what is going on.
Climate change must be addressed through an intersectional and intergenerational lens because vulnerable groups are the ones experiencing its worst consequences. The climate crisis is rooted in capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. This makes the struggle for climate justice inseparable from the struggle for human rights.
We are now specifically working on the issue of loss and damage. We want world leaders to support adaptation and financing for loss and damage and provide funding facilities to help developing countries deal with the climate crisis.
What issues would you like to see addressed at COP27?
COP26 failed young people and vulnerable communities. It made clear to us that global leaders are not treating climate change as the global emergency it is. But sadly, we are currently facing one environmental catastrophe after the other. Most recently, there were massive floods in Pakistan and floods and a cyclone in Bangladesh. What else needs to happen so leaders realise we need urgent solutions to these problems?
The COP26 presidency asked state parties to submit new climate plans and nationally determined contributions (NDCs), because the previously submitted ones were not ambitious enough, and would not reduce emissions to the extent needed to stay within the 1.5°C targets. However, Only 23 of the nearly 200 countries that signed the Glasgow Climate Pact have submitted enhanced NDCs. Rather than strengthening headline targets, most of these offered more policy detail. We need commitment from all parties involved to ensure that the climate crisis is addressed effectively.
We can see the progress achieved in previous COPs is very limited. In the run-up to COP27, our major priority is loss and damage financing. Before we can pursue adaptation, we have to support communities with loss and damage. We are not asking developed countries for charity or debt, but for reparations for their historical responsibility in this climate crisis.
In 2019, developed countries pledged US$100 billion towards adaptation and mitigation but they are not disbursing this. Everything at this point is theoretical – no practical mechanism has been put in place to ensure the money is paid up. And when the funds finally come, we would like to see a 50/50 split between adaptation and mitigation, because both require equal efforts. Finally, we would like to see the financing of locally led adaptation addressed at COP27. Communities should be given a platform to develop and implement solutions that will work for them, rather than implementing universal strategies that don’t fit everybody.
This COP should be one where the focus shifts to implementation. We no longer want to hear promises that will remain unfulfilled. We want action towards solving our problems.
Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?
Civil society participation in COPs, and specifically the participation of young people, is important because they are there to hold leaders accountable. The global community is making empty promises and commitments and not taking action. Civil society’s mission is to hold governments and companies accountable, including by making polluters pay for the loss and damage they are causing to people and the environment.
Because the current systems are failing, civil society must advocate for systemic change. To achieve such transformative change, we must be united. Those joining COP27 should use the platform to advocate for change; those observing from home countries should mobilise in their own countries to highlight the crisis we are in. We must all put pressure on decision-makers to deliver on their promises. COP27 will only bring a breakthrough if civil society is allowed to participate without any restrictions and a decision is made to start paying out climate reparations.
Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?
We are very frightened about the situation in Egypt. The government of Egypt should release all arrested activists before COP27 takes place. Without our participation, it will be just more greenwash. And we cannot archive climate justice if human rights are ignored. The global community should stand up and speak against what Egyptian environmental activists are going through.
COP26 was labelled as ‘inclusive’, but it was very exclusive. The pandemic came on top of persistent systemic barriers, notably the lack of resources that excludes many young people. World leaders negotiated on issues affecting us, but they did not include us at discussion tables. Unfortunately, the situation for civil society participation at COP27 will be even worse.
The government of Egypt does not respect or support human rights defenders. This was clear in the multiple arrests of activists that have taken place over the past few months. Civil society can expect to experience several barriers during the conference, and LGBTQI+ activists have expressed their concerns regarding their safety while in the country. We fear that our presence, digital footprint and communications will be monitored. We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26 in Glasgow where we held a climate strike.
Even though labelled ‘the African COP’, COP27 doesn’t truly represent African people. Many young African activists are still struggling to get accreditation and sponsorship. Rising hotel prices will affect the participation of people from less developed countries. There will be limited participation of young activists, Indigenous people and organisations from the global south. This event was never meant to be inclusive at all. The most affected people will be excluded. This raises the alarm that, instead of addressing the real issues people are dealing with, it may turn into a greenwashing event.
COP27: ‘We shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit with Polluters Out co-founder Ayisha Siddiqa.
Polluters Out is a global coalition founded in 2020 in reaction to the negative experience of COP25, when young and Indigenous activists were removed from the venue. Its aim is to put pressure on world leaders to adopt policies to fight climate injustice and hold them accountable.
What key environmental issues should be addressed by the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change?
A key issue is loss and damage finance. I would like to see COP27 mobilising theSantiago Network on Loss and Damage, a multi-stakeholder coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments launched at COP25 in 2019 to facilitate and support the efforts of global south countries to address loss and damages associated with the adverse impacts of climate change.
A large number of those are affected by climate change are Indigenous people and people in the global south, who contribute proportionally little to environmental problems. Global north countries should use their resources to help those that have been put in these unfortunate circumstances. They should pay up the US$100 billion they committed to at COP26 so global south countries can develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies, as well as early warning mechanisms to help people get life-saving information in time.
We also need to start thinking about taxing the money corporations make by exploiting emergency situations such as wars, natural disasters and economic fluctuations and channel those funds towards climate financing.
My work currently focuses on raising awareness about the issue of tax havens. Governments have pledged a lot of climate financing but most of that money comes from taxes. Estimates show that every year around US$600 billion – six times the current climate finance target – are lost because corporations and high-net-worth individuals are using tax havens to escape their responsibilities to give back to the communities that make their profits possible. They should instead be made pay their share, and the additional funds should be used to help communities affected by changing climatic conditions.
Have you faced any restrictions as a result of your work?
Prior to working on climate finance, I worked on fossil fuel de-proliferation. According to a report by the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coal, oil and gas account for 86 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. This means governments should adopt strategies to phase out fossil fuels and adopt clean energies. But this would affect very powerful interests. Due to my work on this issue, I have faced challenges both in my home country, Pakistan, and abroad.
I also advocate for a UN conflict-of-interest policy so that COP hosts cannot take money from the fossil fuel industry when organising the summit and lobbyists cannot influence COP outcomes. So far, every single COP has been sponsored by the very same people causing the climate crisis. As a result, the outcomes of these events have been diluted and have failed to address the key issues.
For this work I have faced multiple restrictions traveling. Iam from a tribal community in northern Pakistan where fighting against dams and coal and pipelines puts people’s lives in danger.
Why is civil society participation in climate talks important?
Having people from the global south and members of Indigenous communities participate in climate talks is very important not just because they are the most affected by climate change but also because they are the main drivers of ambition for climate commitments.
As civil society, our aim is to advocate for the good of people and the environment and hold those in power accountable. Civil society doesn’t only offer diversity – it also offers the tools, the language and the practical lens to push all of this forward. At the end of the day, every decision made in COPs affects everyone. Our lives are on the line so we should have a say. It is not only our right but also our duty to protect the earth. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks.
Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?
I don’t. COP27 has been labelled as the ‘African COP’ and one would think that African environmental organisations and activists would be given a platform to participate freely and make their voices heard. This was anopportunity for the global south to speak for itself and it would be a shame if that was limited. Many young people have been unable to get accreditation while others don’t have the funding to attend.
Holding a COP in a country with closed civic space such as Egypt is problematic, and the reality of a restricted civil society cannot be ignored.
Climate change is an urgent matter that must be addressed with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, who should be able to play their part without any restriction on free speech or the freedom of assembly, among many other indispensable freedoms. But many restrictions have been placed on Egyptian CSOs and activists – even on organisations outside of the country. As a result, there will most likely not be meaningful civil society participation at COP27.
The situation we are now in is the responsibility of both the UN and the African governments that nominated Egypt to host COP27. They have let COP become an obstacle to climate justice so states who bid to host the COP make money from tourism and get media attention without caring the least about the crisis at hand and the policies needed to tackle it.
The process leading to COPs is very opaque: for instance, we don’t know who the official sponsors are until the COP president announces them. And when civil society shows up with all of the hard work it has done, it can easily be erased with one vote from one state party.
COP28: ‘Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action’
CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Caroline Owashaba, an eco-feminist and gender inclusion specialist and Executive Director of Action for Youth Development Uganda (ACOYDE).
Founded in 2014 and fully operational since 2014, ACOYDE is a community-based civil society organisation (CSO) working with adolescents and young people to set the agenda and influence policymaking to tackle young people’s challenges at the local, national and international levels. Its head offices are in Mbarara District, southwestern Uganda.
What environmental issues does your organisation work on?
ACOYDE works on a variety of environmental issues. In August 2022 we officially launched Climate Justice Clubs in Schools, aimed at helping teachers and students learn more about climate issues, bring this information into their families and the wider community, advocate for climate justice in their localities and create their own sustainable solutions. Schools are in a good position to start up sustainable solutions – for instance, some schools have agreed not use polythene bags as packages for the food consumed at break times.
We also run a social enterprise that uses banana fibre to produce a variety of useful items. In this way, we contribute to the green economy by producing eco-friendly products that are biodegradable and support community livelihoods, especially for women and young people. This adds value to available community resources by training women to learn new skills to enhance their livelihoods.
We have recently launched a climate justice club for adolescents and young women in Mbarara, which works as a peer learning and knowledge exchange platform focused on learning new skills. We also aim to build the resilience of rural women and raise the voices of women environmental human rights defenders. Women make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in Uganda, but their importance is largely unacknowledged: their voices and concerns are rarely heard at the national and global levels and they are largely absent from decision-making roles. Our work has focused on training young women environmental defenders to be better able to tackle the challenges they face, including threats, intimidation, harassment and evictions, amplifying their voices, sharing their best practices and providing the conditions so they can learn from one another.
Over time, we’ve seen growing collaboration between environmental activists and organisations working to protect biodiversity and those working for the rights of Indigenous peoples.
Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?
Civil society plays critical roles in pushing for new laws, programmes, policies and strategies on climate change, holding governments accountable for their commitments, identifying the lack of coordinated government responses to climate change and ensuring that national policymaking does not forget the poor.
CSO networks also collaborate to engage the media in order to reach the public and important decision-makers to impact on policies at the planning levels.
What are your expectations concerning the outcomes of COP28?
We expect to see a clearly defined agenda take shape to implement the loss and damage strategy agreed at COP27. Political momentum should translate into adequately funded collective action.
The loss and damage fund launched at COP27 lacked a clear action plan, so we now expect to see a strategy to make it operational. Loss and damage funds are supposed to be aimed at assisting global south countries that are most vulnerable and have experienced the worst impacts of climate change. This is meant to cover the costs of natural disasters caused by global warming, such as wildfires, rising sea levels, heat waves, droughts and crop failure. Affluent countries must be the main source of funding for loss and damage, because forcing poor countries to borrow money to mitigate the effects of extreme weather and climate disasters would create more problems than it would solve.
We would like to see more heads of states present at COP28, especially from the worst polluters and largest geopolitical powers, and held accountable for their countries’ emissions.
We would like to see progress towards a just economic transition across key climate policy sectors. Meaningful partnerships are needed to link the climate agenda with broader issues of gender, food systems and ecosystem restoration. A fund should be set up for women farmers because in terms of climate resilience, grassroots and rural women are the most unsung change-makers of all time. They provide food, decent jobs and income to a large number of people. Consider how many households would be positively affected if they are adequately funded.
That’s why I take part in the COP’s national gender and climate change working group, which has a chair reporting to the global chair. This is how we connect with the global climate movement and engage in conversations to influence climate policy.
Do you anticipate any obstacles in engaging with COP28?
Gender underrepresentation is likely to persist. Women have historically been underrepresented at COPs, for a variety of reasons including lack of funding to cover airfares, accommodation and living expenses. For example, when two young women from our organisation arrived in Egypt last year, they had trouble with their accommodation reservations. They had an incredibly hard time because hotels kept increasing their rates, and the hassle hindered their involvement in the event. We were very dissatisfied with the COP’s organisational planning.
We have also witnessed accreditation procedures limiting women and girls’ involvement in COPs. The number of accreditations given is always limited, and a low share is granted to women, limiting their voices in decision-making spaces. In 2011 states agreed to boost female participation at COP, but their numbers have continued to significantly decrease. This happens at every level: for instance, a photo that was widely circulated at the start of COP27 showed only seven women among 110 leading negotiators.
If we educate women and girls but do not provide them the opportunity to participate in international conferences, we are wasting their education, time and brains. Among participants at COP27 in Egypt, only 34 per cent were women. We don’t want this to happen at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. We want to see educated, learned women and girls representing us at COP28. More inclusiveness is needed, including of women and girls with disabilities, from Indigenous and grassroots communities, rural and peri-urban communities, and especially those working in agriculture.
What measures should be taken to make it happen?
States should invest in funding more women and young people to take part in COP28 negotiations to ensure their issues are addressed and their voices are heard. Governments should invest more in women to drastically increase the current rates of female representation, which for some countries is as low as 10 per cent.
As a result of their bigger burden of unpaid care work and more limited access to resources, women are more affected by climate change and suffer its economic impacts more. In some contexts, women are forced to drop out of school or marry to alleviate financial stress. If women and girls are given more space in negotiations, it will be more likely that these issues are addressed.
We acknowledge that COP27 had the first-ever children and youth pavilion, where young people were able to participate effectively in the process; however, there is a need for higher numbers in subsequent sessions.
The United Nations Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change made a credible attempt to involve and engage young people at COP27. But there are ongoing barriers to youth participation in high-level events, including lack of commitment from older people and lack of funding, which must be addressed.
Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
COP28: ‘We are worried that the host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society’
CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Gideon Abraham Sanago, Climate Coordinator with the Pastoralists Indigenous Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum (PINGOs Forum).
Established in 1994, PINGOs Forum is an advocacy coalition of 53 Indigenous peoples’ organisations working for the rights of marginalised Indigenous pastoralists and hunter-gatherer communities in Tanzania. It was founded by six pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ organisations promoting a land rights and development agenda.
What environmental issues do you work on?
PINGOs Forum works with Indigenous peoples’ communities across Tanzania to address the impacts the environmental and climate crisis is having on them.
Although it is a global phenomenon, climate change affects communities in different ways and presents a variety of challenges. These include prolonged and severe droughts, floods, biodiversity loss, land conflicts and displacement, and the loss of livestock that communities depend on for their livelihoods. This also leads to the loss of culture and identity as young men migrate towards towns looking for an income-producing job, leaving women, children and older people abandoned at home.
To respond to these challenges, PINGOs Forum supports community initiatives for land conflict resolution, the development of land use plans and the recognition of land rights for Indigenous peoples, as well as for water provision and restocking of agricultural supplies for destitute families. We also build capacity to tackle climate issues and support Indigenous peoples’ participation in national, regional and global climate forums to ensure their voices are heard and the resulting policies respond to their needs.
PINGOs Forum is a member of the Climate Action Network (Tanzania Chapter), the CIVICUS alliance, the International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change and other bodies engaging with the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change. We use these platforms for advocacy and campaigning. They have been instrumental for us in being able to voice our concerns and engage in productive dialogue and exchanges.
Have you faced any restrictions or reprisals for the work you do?
Human rights defenders face threats and intimidation when advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples to land and resources and organising to respond to their violations.
The state of Tanzania does not recognise the existence of Indigenous peoples in the country. Instead, it always refers to them as marginalised groups, forest-dependent communities, forest dwellers and other such terms. This limits the ability of Indigenous peoples to exercise their rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, of which Tanzania is a signatory but clearly does not respect.
The UN declaration includes the key right of Indigenous peoples to give free prior and informed consent, which of course the Indigenous peoples of Tanzania have never exercised. Their rights to ownership of land and resources have been repeatedly violated through forceful evictions from their ancestral lands. We have seen examples of this in Loliondo/Ngorongoro and Kimotorok in Simanjiro District.
Another major challenge is access to the media. We believe in the power of media and recognise the pivotal role it plays in addressing the challenges faced by Tanzanian Indigenous peoples. But the media is restricted when it comes to publishing any information coming from Indigenous people’s organisations regarding issues such as land crises, as happened in the case of Loliondo. All media outlets were warned not to publish any information about it.
What priority issues do you expect to see addressed at COP28?
There are several key priorities for Tanzanian Indigenous peoples on the frontline of climate challenges, the first one being funding of loss and damage. One of the key decisions from COP27 was to establish a loss and damage funding mechanism. We would like to see this funding mechanism operationalised with sufficient resources to urgently respond to the challenges faced by Indigenous peoples. We are eager to understand how this mechanism will address economic and non-economic losses and provide compensation for what we have already lost.
More broadly, Indigenous peoples are in dire need of direct access to reliable and flexible funding, including for adaptation measures and to build resilience in the face of the impacts of climate change.
Regarding the carbon market, Indigenous peoples would need to be engaged and the technicalities and political issues around these investment approaches should be clarified. Indigenous peoples should be able to exercise their right to free, prior and informed consent when it comes to carbon credits in their ancestral lands and forests to avoid any rights violations resulting from climate interventions.
All this would require a recognition of the rights and knowledge of Indigenous peoples and their full and effective participation in climate forums at all levels to inform better policy formulation and decision-making processes.
Do you think COP28 will provide enough space for civil society?
We are particularly worried about the fact that COP28’s host country, the United Arab Emirates, restricts civil society movements and campaigns. It is key for civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations to be able to exercise their rights to express their views and peacefully demonstrate at any time during the negotiations. Otherwise their perspectives will not be reflected in the outcomes and their concerns will not be addressed.
Civil society and Indigenous peoples’ organisations play a pivotal role as observers at COPs. They hold negotiating parties accountable and make a difference when they are reluctant to take important decisions during the negotiations. During COPs, civil society campaigns, mobilises, develops position papers and issues joint statements to push parties to take urgent actions on agreed points.
What are your expectations concerning its outcomes?
Our main expectation is to have an ambitious COP28 addressing key points of climate change action. We expect the loss and damage financial mechanism to be operationalised in ways that take into consideration the rights of Indigenous peoples and address both the economic and non-economic losses they are experiencing. We expect direct and flexible funding to become accessible to Indigenous peoples, as well as capacity building and the transfer of the required technologies.
We also would like to see a clear definition of adaptation actions and serious emission reduction commitments by developed countries. But above all, we want this to be a COP of actions and not of empty promises – we want to see developed states live up to their commitments, giving vulnerable communities reasons for hope that they will be able to face and survive the impacts of climate change.
Civic space in Tanzania is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
COVID-19 and freedom of expression: A global snapshot of restrictions
New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor finds:
- New censorship controls have been implemented during the pandemic
- The pandemic has expanded the use of laws criminalising misinformation - new or amended measures in over 35 countries
- Journalists detained in over 30 countries for their reporting on the pandemic
Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During this period, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions to civic freedoms. The latest research brief focuses on the state of freedom of expression and violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.
The research covers the period from January 2020 to February 2021 and highlights where governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to censor the media and silence dissent. In some countries, governments have passed laws and regulations which impose undue restrictions on press freedom and access to information.
Censorship and the detention of journalists are some of the violations covered in the research brief. From Tanzania to Turkmenistan, governments have banned and blocked media for their COVID-19 related coverage. While in Chile and China, governments have put journalists in jail for their reporting on the pandemic.
The research brief how of journalists, media workers and civil society organisations have been the target of government overreach and provides over 60 country case studies that illustrate three trends:
- The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including the use of misinformation legislation
- Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage
- Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks and arrests
CSOs express concern over judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party members
Arrests & detentions for being a member of the political opposition in #Cambodia. Over 70 civil society organisations call on the government to cease the harassment and attacks against members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. https://t.co/a74mfsRpto pic.twitter.com/UJxL0sPbwE— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) June 4, 2019
We, the undersigned civil society groups, express serious concern regarding the recent and ongoing judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) elected officials and members through baseless arrests, summonses, and detentions across multiple provinces. We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to immediately cease the harassment of members of the political opposition and instead take concrete measures to restore civic space and enable all individuals to exercise their rights to free expression, association, assembly and political participation.
CSW66: ‘Global-level policy-making is disconnected from women’s realities’
CIVICUS speaks about women’s human rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) and Misun Woo of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).
APWLD is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) committed to building feminist movements to advance women’s human rights and development justice in Asia and the Pacific as well as globally. CWT, a member organisation of APWLD, is a CSO that works with local communities and women to call for urgent climate action and climate justice.
What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Thailand and the Asia Pacific region, and how does APWLD work to address them?
Women in Thailand still do not have access to political spaces. Women work on farms and take care of their families, but when policies are made regarding farm work and domestic work they are not engaged in policy discussions, either in the planning process or the implementation stages.
We tend to look at the symptoms of issues, in this case of the violations of women’s human rights, but we need to look at both the structural causes and the consequence of these violations and injustices. The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.
APWLD’s work consists of identifying the systems of oppression – patriarchy, fundamentalisms, militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and fighting to dismantle them while finding alternative solutions to advance women’s human rights and development justice. Through our work we have been able to build capacity and solidarity among feminist movements.
We focus on several thematic areas, including climate justice. Part of our work is about identifying and promoting the adoption of mitigation and adaptation strategies to advance women’s human rights as well as address the loss and damage and historical responsibilities. We see women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately and they must be a source of solutions to help deal with the climate crisis. However, the reality is that they are not sufficiently engaged and the policies implemented in most instances do not cater to their needs and concerns.
What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?
This year’s focus for CSW’s 66th session (CSW66) was on the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We have highlighted the ways women have been experiencing the impacts of climate change and the solutions they have devised. What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.
A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel industries. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.
Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.
What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?
We had high expectations, even though so many restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic. We viewed CSW as a space or momentum to elaborate on the causes and the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We expected it to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.
Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.
We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.
Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.
If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.
Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience access issues?
We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.
Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against traveling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with ECOSOC accreditation to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.
We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.
If we compare CSW66 to other UN spaces, such as climate conferences, the lack of engagement between CSOs and national governments in CSW66 becomes readily apparent. It was challenging to have a dialogue with government representatives and negotiators because of the travel restrictions and the inability of some countries to participate in person.
Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?
If we look at UN climate conferences, for instance, we will find that the proportion of women delegates is always low. Even though it has been increasing, it is still significantly small. We have seen attempts in successive climate conferences of the parties (COPs) to try and have a gender and climate focal point for every country, but the UN has not supported the initiative to introduce a protocol for national governments to implement it. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions reiterate the need to have a gender and climate focal point in national governments. Thailand still does not have one.
Arrangements may be better for women in the global north, but from our global south perspective they are pretty bad. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions note the importance of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in decision making. However, the reality of women’s participation at CSW is far from encouraging.
It’s easier to say that UN Women or the CSW methods of work resolution encourage member states to include CSO representatives on their delegation. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have seen a rise in autocratic and misogynistic leadership, and having CSO representatives on such government delegation is not something that will happen at all or in a meaningful way. It is not enough to hear the voices of women; women must be given actual power to make policy decisions grounded in women’s realities. This is the only way structural changes will happen.
Civic space in Thailandis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with APWLD through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@apwld on Twitter. Get in touch with Climate Watch Thailand through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ClimateWatchTH on Twitter.
CSW66: ‘Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere’
CIVICUS speaks about women’s participation and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Zarin Hainsworth, director of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), a UK civil society network that works for women’s empowerment by advocating for women’s rights at the national and international levels.
What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in the UK, and how does NAWO work to address them?
In the UK there is a lack of an institutional mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights. The Women’s National Commission, which used to be an independent advisory body that represented women and made sure their views were heard by the UK government, was closed by the Conservative government in December 2010.
The Government Equalities Office (GEO), established in 2007, is identified by the government as the institutional mechanism although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee continues to question this. The GEO is a department of government, with employees who are civil servants and all communications must abide by the usual government codes with all reports agreed by ministers. It cannot therefore claim to be independent. Some civil society members have complained that there is a lack of consultation with them and this affects how women are included in the policy-making process. Furthermore, GEO does not have remit in devolved nations, meaning it does not cover Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The CEDAW Committee has raised concerns about the UK not being compliant with the treaty, but the government responded that they are adequately provisioned by the GEO.
The UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance has a good relationship with the GEO, especially in regard to CSW, which we believe to be an example of best practice. However, many would argue that in light of the recommendations of CEDAW and the definition within the Beijing Platform for Action, there is still need for an independent body representing the voice of women and girls to government. NAWO would suggest that it is well placed to be such an organisation.
Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Sexism is institutionalised in the police force, but this is still a postcode lottery – how women are treated depends largely on where they live. Rape is still underreported and too few cases get to trial, and adolescent girls are not taught about gender-based violence. NAWO is part of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which seeks to create awareness of these issues and urge the government to address them. Recently a number of members of Parliament have raised awareness on this issue and the government is keen to state it is in the process of effecting positive change in this regard.
We are aware that the UK has not ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The government says that the new Domestic Violence Bill covers the same ground as the Istanbul Conversion, but civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender-based violence claim that the Bill does not robustly cover all the areas of the Istanbul Convention. NAWO is part of IC Change, a campaign pushing the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention; in the past, we also participated in advocacy work towards legislation to implement the Istanbul Convention across the UK.
Regarding employment, occupational segregation continues to hinder women from progressing and becoming leaders in their workplaces. Despite efforts to increase the presence of girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women still do not occupy equitable work positions because of pre-existing structures put in place to accommodate men rather than women.
Finally, there is evidence that women’s voices are not heard in the health sector and that women are suffering the most when services and budgets are cut. Health education is biased towards the male experience and female indicators of stroke or heart attack are only slowly starting to be taught in medical school. Most drug trials are based on male responses.
NAWO raises awareness of these issues through coalition-building and advocacy work. We also engage government stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these issues and put mechanisms in place to promote women’s equity and rights.
To address these issues at CSW, NAWO has helped establish and worked within the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, seeking ways of working with the government to promote equality and ensure that women’s rights are advocated for at CSW. As an organisation, we have understood the need to develop a good relationship with the GEO and we are developing relationships across the government to advance our advocacy work.
What issues did you try to bring to the CSW agenda this year?
We are aware that CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process, and we highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support CSOs and integrate them into policy-making processes.
We have seen COVID-19 affect marginalised women and girls disproportionately, so this is an issue we emphasised at CSW this year. The pandemic revealed pre-existing gender gaps regardless of mechanisms put in place to promote women’s empowerment. Women from marginalised groups did not have access to proper healthcare and their employment chances have severely decreased. Pandemic recovery structures are not working for them because they are being put in place with little to no consultation with them.
We also raised the concern of women’s access to decent work. There is a need to promote the participation of women in the labour force, but this should be done in an inclusive manner and with respect for human dignity. Many women still struggle with sexual harassment at work and there are not enough measures in place to counter this. Women have much lower prospects of advancing at work than their male colleagues. We hope CSW will see the need to help women in the workforce and find sustainable and realistic ways to protect them.
As we have done every year since 2005, we enabled a youth delegation and we are keen to ensure the informed voice of young women is present at CSW.
What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?
We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.
We hosted side events that offered young people a space to talk about the issues they experience and how they affect them. In these side events we were able to discuss how women experience climate change and their views and demands concerning gender equality, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.
We participated virtually and faced some issues concerning broadband and connectivity issues. We believe there were challenges with the online platform and most CSOs had problems accessing it.
Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?
We believe women are still not adequately integrated in decision-making processes both at the national and global levels. Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.
CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’
CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.
Photo by María Lucía Expósito
How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?
The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.
For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.
As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.
The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.
In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.
To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?
Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.
If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.
How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?
The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.
But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.
The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.
In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.
Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.
I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.
What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?
One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?
Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.
The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.
This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.
But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.
Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.
An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.
Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.
What other problems do you see?
Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.
But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.
In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented.
To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.
CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’
CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.
Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.
The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?
Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.
In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.
In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.
Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.
In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.
How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?
There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.
The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.
At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.
At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.
Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.
Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.
Why the change?
The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.
In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.
How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?
The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.
From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.
For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.
However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.
Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?
The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.
What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.
The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.
CUBA: ‘The only options available are prison, exile, or submission’
CIVICUS speaks with Cuban activist Carolina Barrero, who has been in exile in Spain since February 2022, about the circumstances driving increasing numbers of Cubans out of the country.
Carolina is an art historian and a member of the 27N movement, formed out of the protests held on 27 November 2020 outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana to denounce lack of freedoms, the repression of dissent and harassment against the San Isidro Movement, a protest group started by artists. She was forced to leave Cuba in reprisal for her activism in support of relatives of political prisoners held since the protests of 11 July 2021, known as 11J.
Why did you leave Cuba?
My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.
On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at aprotest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of thetrial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.
As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.
The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.
These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.
How different is the situation of political exiles from that of those emigrating for economic reasons?
In principle, there would seem to be a big difference between exile resulting from the use of systematic repression to punish or neutralise political dissent and emigration motivated by social and economic asphyxiation. However, this classification obscures the ultimate causes of the factors that lead people to leave Cuba.
Under a dictatorship such as Cuba’s, the root reasons why people leave the country are always political. All waves of exile from Cuba, from the 1960s to the present day, have had a political background: repression by the ruling regime. Not only are political freedoms missing, but all the freedoms necessary for people to be able to manage their own destiny. In Cuba people have no agency over any aspect of their public or private lives; all aspects of life are controlled by the Cuban state, which is not merely authoritarian, but totalitarian.
No one flees paradise. No one decides to leave their life, work, career and affections to pursue the ‘American dream’. Although in some cases the forced character of exile seems clearer than in others, at the end of the day every exile from Cuba is a forced exile. We flee to survive and to have the opportunity to just be.
Many Cubans risk their lives at sea or cross jungles with their babies to get to a place where they don’t know the language or the culture, just to be a little freer. In Cuba, if you don’t fit the mould set by the Communist Party, the only authorised party, in power since 1965, you are treated as a potential criminal. Everything is politically determined, from access to education and healthcare to the possibility of earning a living. Economic suffocation also has political causes. So it is misleading to distinguish sharply between political exile and economic migration.
Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.
Like other Cuban activists in exile, you have conducted international advocacy ever since you left Cuba. Do you think this could prompt the Cuban state to rethink its tactic of offering exit instead of prison?
At the moment, the Cuban state is more concerned about us being inside, lighting the fire of protest, than outside, denouncing repression in international forums. But I think the regime’s calculations are wrong, because those of us who have gone into exile have not forgotten Cuba and are not going to abandon the cause of democracy. And international advocacy plays an important role in our struggle.
This, which may seem innocuous to the regime, is a fundamental part of activism to end the dictatorship because it attacks one of the fundamental pillars that have sustained the regime: the effectiveness of international propaganda. The Cuban state has allocated enormous resources to diplomacy so that every embassy is a propaganda centre that promotes the narrative, the epic and the myth of the Cuban Revolution.
To counter the effect of propaganda on international opinion, now Cuba also has a growing army of ambassadors who have witnessed and been part of the latest cycle of protests and can speak in international forums of what is really happening in Cuba. I firmly believe that, to a large extent, the fall of the dictatorship depends on the fall of the myth. This is an important task for us in exile.
What are the chances of a political transition in Cuba?
I do not dare to make predictions on such a delicate issue, and one so longed for by Cubans for decades. But I am able to highlight one fact: the Cuban regime has never been as weak as it is now. After the mass protests, the regime can no longer hide the extent of the discontent, which it has historically blamed on a few opponents who, according to its narrative, are funded by ‘the empire’. Social discontent is now evident and massive, reaching all corners of the island and all social groups. The dictatorship no longer has the support of the poorest or of those it claims to defend, but only of the military and bureaucratic leadership.
It also has a serious succession problem. Since Miguel Díaz-Canel assumed power after being appointed by Raúl Castro, he has not made a single administrative decision that has earned him praise. Everything has been a disaster and he will be remembered as an incompetent dictator with very little charisma. I think the regime spends 24 hours a day thinking of how to fill this power vacuum, since Díaz-Canel has no credibility whatsoever, even among officials, and even demoralises the repressive apparatus. The problem is that they have no one to replace him with, nor do they know how. They could stage a vote, but the situation is so delicate that they know it could easily get out of hand. They could even stage a self-coup, but this is also a very delicate path that could end up being lethal.
At the current international juncture, Cuba’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the Cuban dictatorship, the oldest in the western hemisphere, even more difficult to justify in the eyes of international opinion. Justifying Cuba has become a challenge even for those with a marked ideological bias. Added to these factors are the economic, social and humanitarian crises, all of which threaten the regime and its continuity. Faced with the energy crisis and shortages of basic goods, the Cuban foreign minister himself has requested support from the Biden administration, something totally unheard of. The irony is complete: in Cuba there are people in prison accused of ‘mercenaryism’ for having received US support, and now it turns out that the Cuban government itself has become a mercenary by its own definition.
What will happen or not, I dare not predict. I believe that the protests will not be silenced and our voices will continue to be heard. I only hope that the democratic transition will come about through a peaceful process rather than violence.
Beyond overthrowing the dictatorship, the goal – and the challenge – is to build a democracy. For this we will need the support of civil society organisations such as CIVICUS. After six decades of civic and political anaesthesia, in recent years Cuban civil society has awoken and showed that it has the capacity, the will and the determination to move towards democracy. We have an open window of opportunity and, as the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima would say, we have the power for change.
Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Photo credit: Fernando Fraguela