‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’
CIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.
Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.
What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?
Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms:Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.
Thereport of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.
Russia: Stop smear campaigns, persecution of civil society
The ongoing violations of the right to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and particularly the labelling of civil society groups as “foreign agents,” is intended to force associations to close operations or self-censor, said CIVICUS, global alliance of civil society organisations. Russia is experiencing the most severe restrictions on civic space in decades as the authorities use legislation on “foreign agents” or “undesirable organisations” to restrict the activities of civil society organisations and subject their leaders and members to judicial persecution.
On 29 September 2021, the Ministry of Justice listed the Media Human Rights Project OVD-Info as one of the organisations designated as a “foreign agent.” The inclusion of OVD-Info on the list of organisations accused of functioning as a foreign agent is a direct response to OVD-Info’s civil society campaign against legislation used by the authorities to smear and stigmatise civil society groups. More than 229 organisations and over 154,000 people across Russia joined the campaign. OVD-Info is an independent media project focusing on human rights and political persecutions, which also tracks and monitors persecution of protesters in Russia. It depends on volunteers and donations to do its work and calls on the Russian authorities to respect the Constitution and other European Conventions on human rights.
Russia has often been known for targeting civil society organisations, opposition figures and human rights defenders. However, human rights violations have reached unprecedented levels as the authorities routinely use legislation to stigmatise civil society organisations and prosecute their leaders and members. The international community must intervene now to prevent a total dismantling of civil society, said Sylvia Mbataru, civic space researcher at CIVICUS.
Those included on the list on 29 September are members of the civil society group Golos that monitors elections and journalists from the media rights body Mediazoma. Organisations listed as foreign agents are required to undergo cumbersome administrative procedures and indicate their status as “foreign agents” in all official correspondence and materials. Media organisations designated as foreign face challenges collaborating with advertisers and partners and are hindered from doing interviews as few people would want to be associated with “foreign agents.” Several associations have been forced to close down while many more now self-censor as representatives of civil society are also subjected to judicial persecution.
Over the last several months, the Russian authorities have increased restrictions on civic space and targeted human rights defenders and protesters. Several civil society organisations and media groups have been added to a list of organisations accused of performing the functions of a foreign agent. The implications have been the closure of civil society and media groups, loss of income of many others, and the judicial persecution of leaders of these groups. Early in 2021, OVD-Info reported that more than 17600 were detained in response to large-scale protests calling for an end to the judicial persecution of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Due to the spiraling decline in fundamental rights and freedoms in the country, in February 2021, Russia was added to a watchlist of countries that have seen a rapid deterioration of fundamental democratic freedoms.
Civic space in Russia is rated 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor.
‘Against hopelessness, we need to work not to lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship’
CIVICUS speaks to an Iranian woman human rights defender about the causes and significance of the recent protests in Iran, as well as the prospects for change in a country with a closed civic space and a theocratic government that maintains a firm grip on power. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
‘El gobierno argentino envió un mensaje intimidatorio en relación con la participación de la sociedad civil; esta reducción del espacio cívico en las discusiones globales debe ser monitoreada’
CIVICUS conversa con Gastón Chillier, Director Ejecutivo del Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), una organización de derechos humanos de Argentina. El CELS fue fundado en 1979, durante la dictadura militar, para promover los derechos humanos, la justicia y la inclusión social. En sus primeros años, el CELS luchó por la verdad y la justicia ante los crímenes del terrorismo de estado. A fines de la década de 1980 amplió su agenda para incluir las violaciones de derechos humanos cometidas bajo la democracia, sus causas estructurales y su relación con la desigualdad social. CELS promueve su agenda a través de investigaciones, campañas, alianzas con otros actores de la sociedad civil, incidencia y políticas públicas y litigio estratégico en foros nacionales e internacionales.
1. Cuéntenos acerca de la decisión del gobierno argentino de revocar la acreditación de varias organizaciones de la sociedad civil para la Conferencia Ministerial de la Organización Mundial de Comercio (OMC) en Buenos Aires.
Sesenta y cinco personas de todo el mundo cuyas organizaciones habían sido acreditadas para participar en la Conferencia Ministerial de la OMC, que se celebró en Buenos Aires del 10 al 13 de diciembre de 2017, recibieron correos electrónicos de la OMC que indicaban que las autoridades de seguridad de Argentina, el país anfitrión, había rechazado sus acreditaciones “por razones sin especificar”. Algunas de estas personas decidieron de todos modos viajar a Argentina para participar en otras actividades. Muchas de ellas fueron retenidas durante horas en el Aeropuerto Internacional de Ezeiza antes de que se les permitiera ingresar al país. A dos personas - Petter Titland, un activista noruego de ATTAC (Asociación por la Tasación de las Transacciones Financieras y de Ayuda a los Ciudadanos), y la periodista británico-ecuatoriana Sally Burch, quien participaría en la Conferencia Ministerial en calidad de experta en regulación de internet – les fue denegado el ingreso y fueron posteriormente deportadas.
El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores inicialmente emitió un comunicado de prensa explicando que las acreditaciones habían sido rechazadas porque estas personas o sus organizaciones “habían hecho explícitos llamamientos a manifestaciones de violencia a través de las redes sociales, expresando su vocación de generar esquemas de intimidación y caos”. Resultó evidente que el gobierno había estado recopilando información de inteligencia, muy posiblemente sobre la base de la afiliación organizativa o la opinión política de las personas, lo cual está expresamente prohibido por la legislación argentina.
2. ¿Qué hizo la sociedad civil para que el gobierno de Argentina revocara su decisión?
Las organizaciones de la sociedad civil (OSC) de Argentina, y el CELS en particular, trabajaron para defender el derecho de los activistas puestos en la lista negra a la participación y la libertad de circulación, de modo de garantizar su ingreso a Argentina. Recopilamos y compartimos información tanto a nivel local como con sus organizaciones en sus países de origen. También alertamos a los funcionarios de las embajadas y en la justicia cuando las personas estaban siendo retenidas en el aeropuerto. Por último, tomamos medidas legales y administrativas.
Más específicamente, el CELS presentó peticiones de hábeas data, una solicitud de información pública y un habeas corpus colectivo, a la vez que se ocupó de los casos individuales de Titland y Burch, y brindó asesoramiento y apoyo a algunas de las otras personas directamente afectadas. Además, ayudamos a hacer correr la voz entre los periodistas, a través de las redes sociales y mediante entrevistas de prensa y comunicados en los medios.
Mediante estas peticiones legales y administrativas, solicitamos que el gobierno especificara las restricciones de seguridad establecidas para participar en el evento de la OMC y explicara los vínculos existentes entre esa evaluación y la prohibición o restricción del ingreso de activistas individuales al país.
En una audiencia judicial sobre el habeas corpus colectivo que presentamos en nombre de los activistas de la sociedad civil que habían sido retenidos al llegar al país, el gobierno presentó una lista con los nombres de las 65 personas cuyas acreditaciones habían sido rechazadas, pero insistió en que esto no les impedía la entrada en Argentina y que no tenía ninguna relación con las deportaciones de Titland y Burch. Reconocieron, sin embargo, que el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores había enviado esta lista a la Dirección Nacional de Migraciones, en calidad de “alerta”. Tanto Titland como Burch figuraban en esa lista.
En respuesta a nuestras otras peticiones, el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores afirmó que no podía proporcionar detalles sobre qué información se había recabado sobre esas 65 personas o cómo había sido obtenida, y remitió nuestras consultas al Ministerio de Seguridad y la Agencia Federal de Inteligencia. Todavía seguimos esperando sus respuestas.
Gracias a la presión legal, diplomática y mediática de la sociedad civil, el gobierno argentino se vio obligado a retroceder en algunos casos. Después de que Titland y Burch fueron deportados, a nadie más se le prohibió ingresar al país. Además, el 10 de diciembre el gobierno argentino anunció que un puñado de personas que figuraban en la lista estaban siendo acreditadas nuevamente. Entre ellas se encontraba Titland, quien finalmente regresó a Argentina y participó en la conferencia.
Sin embargo, muchas otras personas y OSC siguieron sin ser acreditadas, incluidas la organización chilena Derechos Digitales, la fundación argentina Grupo Efecto Positivo y la organización británica Global Justice Now. Algunos activistas cuyos nombres figuraban en la lista nos dijeron que se habían abstenido de viajar a la Argentina por miedo, y a otros les habían rechazado las solicitudes de visa. Algunos han manifestado temor de que estos rechazos y alertas queden registrados en su historial migratorio.
3.¿Qué impacto tendrá la decisión del gobierno argentino sobre la legitimidad de las conversaciones de la OMC y, en términos más generales, sobre las perspectivas de participación de la sociedad civil en futuros debates globales?
La decisión del gobierno argentino de rechazar la acreditación de activistas sobre la base de información de inteligencia que puede que haya sido recabada ilegalmente, retenerlos en el aeropuerto y, en los dos casos más notorios, deportarlos a terceros países, causó tensión con la propia OMC y con otros países, en particular Noruega. Daría la impresión de que el gobierno argentino intentó reducir la participación de la sociedad civil en esta conferencia ministerial. Independientemente de los resultados de la reunión, esto sin duda tendrá impacto sobre la legitimidad de las conversaciones.
Esta fue la primera vez en que hubo un rechazo de activistas en semejante escala, y sienta un precedente muy negativo para la participación de la sociedad civil. Las acciones del gobierno argentino han enviado un mensaje intimidatorio que pone en cuestión el compromiso del país con la participación de la sociedad civil. Esta reducción del espacio cívico en las discusiones globales es una nueva dimensión que debe ser monitoreada. Y debería hacer sonar la alarma para que la sociedad civil global se asegure de que otros gobiernos no conviertan este precedente en una práctica de rutina.
4. ¿Cómo describiría el ambiente para la sociedad civil en Argentina? ¿Qué debería cambiar para que el espacio cívico mejore en el país?
Aunque Argentina está lejos de presentar el peor escenario en la región, el ambiente para la sociedad civil se está deteriorando. El gobierno actual ordenó la represión de protestas sociales y promovió o toleró la criminalización de los manifestantes y de algunos prominentes líderes sociales. También ha mostrado desdén por la participación de la sociedad civil, por ejemplo al nombrar por decreto a jueces de la Corte Suprema -y por lo tanto pasar por alto todas las instancias de participación pública en el proceso- y llevar adelante un intento de designación relámpago de un candidato a ocupar la vacante Defensoría del Pueblo, ignorando nuevamente a la sociedad civil en el proceso. En ambos casos, los reclamos públicos forzaron al gobierno a retroceder.
Además, el CELS y otras organizaciones de derechos humanos nacionales e internacionales que desempeñaron un rol en el caso de Santiago Maldonado, un joven que desapareció durante la represión ilegal de una protesta de una comunidad indígena y fue encontrado ahogado casi tres meses después, fueron demonizados por algunos funcionarios nacionales.
Para que el espacio cívico en Argentina mejore, el gobierno debe proporcionar garantías para el ejercicio efectivo del derecho a la protesta, asegurando que las fuerzas de seguridad utilicen la fuerza responsablemente y dentro de la ley. También debe dar prioridad a los canales políticos para alcanzar soluciones concertadas a los conflictos y demandas sociales, y debe respetar y promover una variedad de mecanismos para la participación de la sociedad civil en procesos políticos clave.
- El espacio cívico en Argentina es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.
- Contáctese con el CELS a través de su página web o su perfil de Facebook, o siga @CELS_Argentina y a @gchillier en Twitter
‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’
As the2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue withThea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director atESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.ESCR-Net is acollaborative initiative of groups- grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres -as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights.With over 280 members in 75 countries,ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights,with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment.ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.
1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?
All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.
In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.
We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.
2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?
The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses(Chapter IV, article 17.2).Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.
3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?
Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.
Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.
To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.
4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?
I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.
This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises(IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.
Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.
This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.
In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.
‘Market discourse has captured the development agenda to a point that may be incompatible with UN mandates’
CIVICUS speaks with Barbara Adams, senior policy analyst at the Global Policy Forum (GPF),an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinises global policy-making. Founded in 1993 by a group of progressive scholars and activists, GPF promotes accountability and citizen participation in decisions on peace and security, social justice and international law. It does so by gathering information and circulating it through a comprehensive website, playing an active role in civil society networks and other advocacy arenas, organising meetings and conferences and publishing original research and policy papers.
1. What is driving the turn towards the private corporate sector for development funding?
To implement the 2030 Agenda, many in the international community have addressed the financing gap, proclaiming the need to go from “billions to trillions” of dollars. This has propelled a turn to the private sector, and not just the private sector - given the trillions needed - but more so the corporate sector.
According to this view and the analysis of multilateral development banks, as reflected in a 2015 report by the World Bank, the global community needs to move the discussion from billions in official development assistance to trillions in investments of all kinds, to meet the investment needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While admitting that the majority of development spending happens at the national level in the form of public resources, advocates stress that the largest potential for additional funds is from private sector business, finance and investment - working in partnership with governments. Assessments, however, have not adequately addressed the accompanying policy influence, programme distortions and undermining of the 2030 Agenda and ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This has been the conclusion recently reached by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda.
A related trend is the emphasis put on multi-stakeholder partnerships by some governments and United Nations (UN) agencies and the former UN Secretary-General. This has been reinforced by the 2030 Agenda, and the push for its implementation and achievement of the SDGs.
For instance, a report released in 2015 by the UN Environment Programme emphasised the need to “access private capital at scale, with banking alone managing financial assets of almost US$140 trillion and institutional investors, notably pension funds, managing over US$100 trillion, and capital markets, including bond and equities, exceeding US$100 trillion and US$73 trillion respectively.”
2. To what extent has market discourse captured the development agenda, and why has this happened?
The fact that the action phase of the ‘big three’ landmark agreements - the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) and the Paris Agreement - is dominated by attracting private financing demonstrates the extent to which market discourse has captured the agenda. On a planetary scale this discourse or narrative capture continues patterns well underway at national and global levels.
Inadequate quantity and quality financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states has prompted different patterns of finance, including through philanthropists and big business. Core or un-earmarked resources have plummeted from nearly half of all resources in 1997 to less than a quarter today. According to a recent report by the UN Secretary-General, some 91 per cent of all UN development system activities in 2015 were funded with non-core and earmarked or project-based resources. A report that we published a couple of years back showed that between 1999 and 2014, total non-core resources for UN-related activities increased by 182 per cent in real terms, while core resources increased by only 14 per cent. Much of this increase has gone through a proliferating number of UN trust funds.
The growing use of trust funds - where contributions have jumped by 300 per cent over the last decade - allow donor governments and corporate interests to direct UN funding choices outside the ‘one country, one vote’ UN policy processes. This represents a substantial change in the funding architecture of the UN development system, characterised by the growing ‘bilateralisation’ of funding for multilateral aid.
The Third International Conference for Financing for Development launched the Financing for Development Business Compendium, which highlights 33 efforts aimed at mobilising business sector capital, claiming these provide “a strong indication of the broad scope of ongoing initiatives and the potential for scaling up to achieve the demands of the Sustainable Development Goals.” It also launched the Global Infrastructure Forum to bridge the “infrastructure gap.” The AAAA conference outcome document agreed that “to bridge the global infrastructure gap, including the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion annual gap in developing countries, we will facilitate development of sustainable, accessible and resilient quality infrastructure in developing countries through enhanced financial and technical support.”
To mobilise this support, the AAAA endorsed blended finance and emphasised public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a method of high potential among the instruments of blended finance. In order to assess this potential, it called for “inclusive, open and transparent discussion when developing and adopting guidelines” for PPPs and iterated that they “should share risks, reward fairly, include clear accountability mechanisms and meet social and environmental standards.”
To date, PPPs have been more commonly executed in developed countries, as lower-income countries are less likely to attract large private investors. The extensive use of PPPs in Portugal and Spain contributed to their domestic financial crisis, yet domestic experiences are not informing the donor push for PPPs in developing countries. This is despite warnings that modalities that were unsuccessful in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries are even more unlikely to succeed in less developed countries, where cost recovery is more difficult.
At a global level, the embrace of partnerships with the business sector brings with it a number of risks, side-effects and spill-over effects that have not received careful consideration and adequate independent scrutiny regarding compatibility with UN mandates for human rights and sustainable development; and their extra-budgetary funding lines remove the global partnerships from regular review and impact assessment.
3. Are civil society actors being recognised as UN partners alongside corporate actors?
The emphasis on public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder partnerships has technically included civil society organisations (CSOs). For example, member states have adopted mechanisms to support such engagement, such as in the resolution of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and in structuring the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a multi-stakeholder forum (A/RES/68/1). However, this inclusion tends to be procedural and more needs to be done to recognise the expertise and experience of civil society and its contribution in enriching substance in the context for policy decisions as well as in implementation strategies and monitoring. It is essential to differentiate the classifications of non-state stakeholders, rather than lumping them together as partners, and to recognise their different mandates and commitments to the public good.
However the emphasis on multi-stakeholder partnerships tends to be driven by the funding gap issue and it favours the corporate sector.
While CSOs focus on the enabling environment for their participation in key policy streams, it is important to broaden this attention. While the embrace of partnerships continues, the UN Secretary-General’s June 2017 report, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: ensuring a better future for all’, (A/72/124) has put in motion the mandate from the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) (A/RES/71/243) to “recalibrate and enhance other critical United Nations skill sets to match the needs of the 2030 Agenda,” and seeks “revamped capacities in partnerships and financing.”
Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council resolution establishing an Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights (OEIGWG), seeks “an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises” (A/HRC/RES/26/9).
The UN General Assembly partnership resolution has been on the General Assembly’s agenda since 2000 and is the main intergovernmental framework in place to govern non-state partnerships and hold them to account. But it lacks robust reporting and implementation. Its latest iteration is ‘Towards global partnerships: a principle-based approach to enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and all relevant partners’ (A/RES/70/224). While it references for the first time the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, its main emphasis continues to be the UN Global Compact’s 10 principles, which pre-date and are inadequate for the comprehensive 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.
In December 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted decision A/72/427, in which member states decided to “defer, on an exceptional basis, the consideration of the item entitled ‘Towards global partnerships’ and to include it in the provisional agenda of its seventy-third session.”
4. What can civil society do to respond to these trends?
There are a number of ways to respond, starting with an analysis and understanding of the overall context within which partnerships are promoted - the inadequate financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states. Crucial for CSOs is to assess their own situation and actions and the extent to which organisations have become passive participants in processes that are very limited, if not counter-productive to the pursuit of human rights and to strengthening the normative ability of the UN.
Another way to take action is to monitor these trends at the UN more broadly than in specific processes and siloes, and be more actively involved in the partnership resolution dynamics and the importance of championing the public interest. This will require strategic substance-led alliances, not ‘big tent’ groupings in which strategies based on substance tend to evaporate.
Additionally, it is important for civil society to undertake monitoring and to mobilise to prevent UN system activities, practices and appointments that undermine UN values-based mandates and that contradict the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.
Finally, civil society actors need to support each other to strengthen the independence of civil society monitoring, not only in developing countries but all countries. An independent civil society cannot rely only on financing through development assistance that focuses primarily on developing country policies and programmes.
‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’
Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.
1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?
2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.
It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.
The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.
One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.
2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?
For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.
In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.
Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.
Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.
But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.
3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?
There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.
The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.
There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.
Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.
We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.
We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.
4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?
There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.
Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.
Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.
There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?
5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?
When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.
There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.
“Fake news” violates citizens’ right to be informed
CIVICUS speaks to Lyndal Rowlands, United Nations Bureau Chief at Inter Press Agency on what is “fake news”, its effect on civil society and how civil society can respond to it.
1. How would you define fake news? How is this different from propaganda and established forms of political campaigning?
Fake news only very recently became a part of our collective vocabulary. During the 2016 United States of America presidential election “content mill” websites created articles which mimicked the real news but were in fact entirely made up with the sole intention of going viral to make money from “clicks” or people visiting their websites. Yet before most of us had even begun to wonder what exactly fake news was, the term was co-opted by the very people who arguably benefited from fake news in its original form, and I think that it is important for civil society to pay attention to this later shift in how the term fake news has been employed.
As comedian John Oliver has said, audiences need the press to help them to sort out fact from fiction and yet now that same press finds itself under attack. Even small mistakes made by journalists, have been seized upon by political figures as a way to discredit and delegitimise the so-called fourth estate. In light of this, I think it’s important to try and restore trust in the vast majority of the media who do uphold the professional standards that differentiate them from fake news.
So, rather than trying to define fake news, I think that it’s better to focus on how we can discern which news audiences should trust and why. A few things that I would suggest would include making sure that you get your news from a wide variety of sources, finding out who owns the media companies you are getting your news from, and making sure that you double-check check anything that seems unusual against a primary source.
2. Why do you think we are seeing a rise in fake news?
The motivation for the initial rise in fake news was advertising revenue, however the disinformation that we are now seeing shared is more complex. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that the spread of disinformation can help benefit a political side because it makes it more difficult for undecided voters to find out the truth. These undecided people may hear so much shouting and disagreement going on that they decide that it’s simply easier to go about their everyday lives, than to try and work out exactly who is telling the truth.
This may explain why USA President Donald Trump’s team have now referred to three separate incidents which haven’t happened: namely Trump’s reference to “last night in Sweden”, Kelly Anne Conway’s reference to the Bowling Green Massacre and White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s three references to a terrorist attack in Atlanta.
As professor Rosen says, many of the Trump/Republican administration’s policies are not necessarily popular so by surrounding them with “fog and confusion” the administration “can get a lot more done”. However it’s also another reason why it’s so important that we all commit to not add to that fog and confusion ourselves, by making sure we don’t inadvertently share disinformation.
3. Why do you think some citizens believe fake news?
Sometimes we may believe a fake news story because it confirms our world view. We may then not be corrected, because for most of us, our world view has become increasingly polarised because of social media bubbles, which mean that we now almost exclusively see news which confirms our pre-existing opinions and values.
4. How does fake news impact on civil society and human rights defenders?
Attacks on press freedom affect civil society and human rights defenders because it is the job of the media to hold the powerful to account. If the vital democratic role of a free press is endangered through accusations that they are fake news and should be censored, then who will be there to report when the government or others in positions of power attack people demonstrating in the street or imprison them?
Those who spread disinformation may also use it to discredit human rights defenders and civil society organisations. They may make up information about how many people attended a demonstration or argue that protestors are “paid”. Disagreements have begun to emerge over which protestors are violent, and whether they have been planted by the opposition, in order to discredit one side or the other. This may lead eventually to a curtailing of the right to protest, if peaceful protestors are successfully discredited.
5. How should civil society respond to fake news?
Sadly, the same people who seek to curb the freedoms of civil society organisations often also seek to control the media, so I definitely think that civil society and the media should work together to address these issues. Many media organisations are now also set up to serve the public interest as non-profit organisations, and many journalists are also freelancers, so there are other things that the media and non-profits have in common. If you rely on high quality journalism to get your story out, don’t forget to also support the journalists who produce these stories. If you can’t afford to buy a subscription, find other ways to support journalists, even through messages of support. Foundations and other funding organisations should also seriously consider supporting public interest journalism.
In countries where the media is not free or where due to ownership interests they only partially or incompletely cover civil society issues, civil society organisations have also successfully begun using social media to tell their own narrative. By telling their stories directly to the public civil society organisations can also counter the sharing of disinformation. However, I would also encourage civil society to work together with the media, since there are many journalists who are committed to accurately representing issues on a wide range of topics in the public interest from human rights to climate change.
•Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter at @lyndalrowlands
#HRC51: States must ensure systematic investment in meaningful, safe and inclusive participation of civil society
Statement at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council
General Debate on Item 3
Delivered by Nicola Paccimiccio
Thank you, Madame Vice-President.
We welcome the report of OHCHR on the essential role of civil society, which concludes that civil society must be empowered and protected. It highlights that there is much more to be done to address challenges in this respect.
Looking forward, civil society should be meaningfully included in all post-pandemic processes, and we urge States to take particular note of the recommendation to urgently and actively facilitate meaningful participation of diverse civil society entities in the development of a pandemic treaty.
The resolution on the Council’s role in prevention adopted by this Council during its 45th Session acknowledged the important role played by civil society organizations and human rights defenders in preventing human rights violations, including by providing information on early warning signs. This role is only possible through the protection, and empowerment, of civil society to operate without risk of reprisals.
As access to resources continues to be an existential threat to civil society participation, we similarly call on States to implement the recommendation to refrain from limiting receipt of funds, including from foreign sources. We look particularly to States introducing or misusing legislation which undermines this recommendation, including India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, Zimbabwe’s proposed Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Bill, and legislation relating to so-called ‘Foreign Agents’ in Russia.
We call on States to ensure more systematic investment in meaningful, safe and inclusive participation at all levels, including by proactively addressing threats to civil society and human rights defenders. By doing so, States would be ultimately securing the mechanisms, enablers, and spaces that they themselves need to work with and for the societies they serve.
We thank you.
#UN75: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic showed that multilateral institutions are essential’
To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to the UN advocacy lead of an international civil society organisation (CSO), who responded on conditionof anonymity, about the opportunities and challenges faced by CSOs engaging with various UN bodies.
In which ways do you think the UN has made a positive difference?
The UN has made many positive differences over its 75 years, and it’s making a difference now. From my perspective, a significant recent reaffirmation of the UN’s importance, which is a kind of inverse reflection of recent failures or shortcomings, is that the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has quickly responded to the human security aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of my longstanding critiques of the UN has been its lack of public leadership at the top. It’s been the approach of the current UNSG, who’s chosen backdoor diplomacy over outspoken advocacy. I won’t deny he’s in a difficult situation, but nonetheless he hasn't been forthright enough in holding major states to account for human rights violations.
I think the pandemic changed things in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. The UNSG finally did what he should have been doing as a general rule, which is to say that this is not about politics or having to tiptoe around the sensitivities of certain member states – this is about telling the world that the only way we will overcome this crisis is by coming together, and that this requires an immediate suspension of hostilities globally. That is aspirational and idealistic, but it’s also technically correct.
Also the World Health Organization (WHO), despite obvious challenges, essentially showed what it’s there for and its relevance to the general public. Of course the UN Security Council (UNSC) let the UNSG down as a political body, but still the pandemic showed that UN agencies and multilateral institutions more generally are essential and that we need them, both in the context of a public health crisis and to organise a global response to any global crisis.
The obvious long-term success of the UN has been to build multilateralism and establish an international rules-based framework for human rights, sustainable development and the protection of civilians. The framework is there, and the challenge is its implementation. Not only are we currently not seeing implementation, but we are also seeing a steady erosion of these international norms and standards, which has taken place over the past few years. China and Russia are becoming more active in conflicts around the world, either directly or indirectly, and have become emboldened in eviscerating the UN or remoulding institutions to serve their visions, while those states that would traditionally protect and even champion these norms are either less willing or less empowered to do so. The UN made much progress over six or seven decades in building this framework, but now it’s under severe stress.
How have you engaged with the UN, and what challenges have you encountered?
Our work focuses on protecting civilians in armed conflicts, so our UN engagement is almost entirely in relation to the UNSC, and UN agencies with a focus on security and peacebuilding. We tend to engage with the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly (UNGA), mostly when we identify that the UNSC is completely paralysed, which unfortunately is happening increasingly often. But in previous roles I have worked across a wide range of UN agencies, including the UNHRC, the UNGA and other agencies that work on climate change and education, so I’m aware of the comparative opportunities available for civil society engagement.
The means of civil society engagement with the UNSC are much more informal than those with the UNHRC. And I think there are quite a few advantages to not having formal processes for civil society engagement, because the absence of a formal process can result in more effective engagement. At the UNHRC, there is an agenda item and 500 CSOs queue up to give a two-minute statement, which no policy-maker listens to, and you end up with this process of artificial participation that is not very productive. With the UNSC, many CSOs don’t see where the opportunities lie; they think it’s not for them. This means there are fewer CSOs looking for an entry point, so it’s a less crowded field.
Working at the UNSC requires you to build direct relationships with the states that are on the UNSC. You don’t maintain a high public profile. You build relations with the missions, and through that process you often end up having more direct and meaningful influence. So the absence of a formal process can often result in more effective CSO engagement. True, it may also be more difficult, although it varies depending on the composition of the UNSC when it comes to the elected members. Some of them don’t have a long history of engagement with civil society, are not very interested in listening, or have very little capacity. But there’s always some states that prioritise civil society engagement and recognise that the only way the UNSC has legitimacy is by reflecting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. I would emphasise that one of the successes of the UNSC in the past 20 years has been to open up space for civil society briefers, particularly on women, peace and security issues. Fewer speakers means they tend to have more weight: you get the 15 UNSC members to listen to this one person whose time is unlimited and who is very focused on the protection of civilians or other issues. In terms of public participation, that is a sign of progress.
Of course, there’s also the fact that we have to engage with the five permanent UNSC members whether we like it or not, because they are there to stay and they have the veto. And in that respect the situation is currently very bad. From our perspective, the current US administration is not on the right side of things and is not consistently championing accountability for war crimes. France and the UK are inconsistent across countries, and China and Russia are at least consistent in their positions, but for all the wrong reasons. China is opening up to international engagement with civil society, which I think is part of a wider strategy. Five or six years ago, China wouldn’t think it needed to engage with civil society and appeared not to recognise the legitimacy of international human rights CSOs, but now its ambassadors have started agreeing to meet with civil society groups collectively. It may be a public relations exercise, or China may have gained enough confidence to confront international CSOs directly. It’s a clear shift in its foreign policy. Russia, to its credit, has long done the same, and sees value in engagement to some extent, although the dynamic can be a difficult, adversarial one.
How have you managed these challenges?
Collective advocacy often works best with the UNSC. When civil society can form quick coalitions of humanitarian organisations, human rights organisations, local partners, faith leaders and youth representatives and present a few key asks that are consistent across these groups, it builds credibility with UNSC members and increases the chances that it will act promptly. There are about 30 CSOs that work consistently on the UNSC. They have different priorities and a variety of messages, so they certainly engage individually as well. But the message is more powerful when it’s expressed collectively. For instance, if something goes wrong in Yemen and the UK is the penholder it is way more powerful when 12 organisations engage the UK on the same points collectively than the 12 organisations complaining individually.
What things are currently not working and would need to change?
The one thing that needs to be reformed fundamentally, which is the very core of the UN and has been a problem since day one, is the veto. The UNSC is clearly not fit for purpose in this regard; its composition and balance of power doesn’t reflect the world we now live in. There is no reason why France or the UK should have a veto – or any state for that matter. The inherent problem of the UN is that it was built as part of an agreement amongst the winning powers after the Second World War that they would hold the reins of power, and there is no way to dismantle that without their collective agreement. That is not going to happen with China, Russia, the USA or even the UK. France, to its credit, is at least openly supportive of voluntary processes to check misuse of the veto.
I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and I wouldn’t if I were speaking about other things, such as progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But the UNSC is power politics in its purest form and no amount of citizen participation will change it. The only way to circumvent the veto would be to dismantle the UN and start from scratch – unless somehow we found ourselves in a parallel world in which these five countries were led by enlightened leaders who at the same time realised they should give up that power for the sake of humanity. But that couldn’t be farther from our current reality, when the veto power is actually being misused, by China, Russia and the USA, as a weapon to discredit the UN.
Apart from this unsurmountable problem, other things have been changing for good. For instance, we are now seeing climate change and security on the UNSC agenda. While China, Russia and the USA seek to block use of the very words ‘climate change’, Germany, Niger and a number of other states went on to create an informal working group on climate change, although to place the issue on the UNSC agenda, they agreed to call it ‘environmental degradation’ instead. This obviously should have happened decades ago, but at least it’s happening now and it’s progress.
What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change so we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes?
During the pandemic, civil society supported and coordinated engagement towards an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire. The initial statement by the UNSG was highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic, but he was absolutely right both in terms of what should happen in the world and in taking that leadership and not consulting first with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, or anybody else. It was courageous and correct. It momentarily reinvigorated the role of the UNSG and the UN as a whole.
While the UN institutional response from the top down was good, the UNSC was an absolute failure. China and the USA and engaged in hostile and juvenile behaviour at a time when the world’s future rested on the UN being effective.
On the other hand, the UNGA responded reasonably well, taking the initiative despite not being able to meet physically. In early April it passed a resolution calling for international cooperation and multilateralism in the fight against COVID-19. Mexico was also very strategic in pushing a resolution on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19, adopted by consensus in late April. In view of the challenges that the UNGA experienced, however, I think one procedural lesson learned was the need for the UN be better prepared to work virtually in the event of another crisis.
An assessment of the performance of other multilateral institutions like the WHO lies outside my area of expertise, but we all read about the allegations that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive with China early on. This is currently under independent review, which suggests as least that basic checks and balances are in place.
25 years later, looking back at my CIVICUS journey
by Anabel Cruz, Board Chair 2016-2019
In early 1993, democracy was rather “young” in many parts of the world. Only less than four years had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall; Apartheid had not yet been totally dismantled and the first elections in South Africa held with universal suffrage were to happen the year after, in 1994. At the same time, the early nineties saw several countries in Latin America taking their first steps towards elected democracies, after more than a decade of military dictatorships.
Internet did not exist yet, and global communications were something at least very new, slow and difficult. Only one year earlier, in 1992, a professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen had described globalisation as the compression of the world and the intensification of the consciousness of the world as a whole.
So, in that context, isn’t it really admirable that a group of individuals, from diverse regions and parts of the world, came together to found CIVICUS, as a global alliance of civil society organisations? Those visionaries defined the mission of the new Alliance as: “to strengthen citizen action and influence, based on the underlying principle that free and effective societies exist in direct proportion to their degree of citizen participation and influence." (CIVICUS Organising Committee, minutes Lisbon meeting January 1993).
Today, more than 25 years later, this mission is still valid and current, and it is also our permanent challenge. Freedom, participation and solidarity remain as one of our basic goals and fundamental values.
My 25-year journey with CIVICUS
As I reflect on my own journey with CIVICUS, a series of images come to my mind, and I relive my first contacts with CIVICUS like one of those high-speed movies. I learned of the new organisation in the first months of 1993: while helping to consolidate local democracy, civil society organisations in Latin America were seeking new international horizons and collaborations.
I never imagined that my visit to Independent Sector in Washington DC, at that moment hosting the recently founded Alliance, would result in such a long-lasting and enduring relationship. For the last 25 years, I have had the privilege of following and participating in CIVICUS history, its achievements, challenges, strategies and course corrections, from diverse positions: I have been a member, a partner, a Board member, the Chair of Board in two different opportunities.
One of CIVICUS first successful steps was probably its first international meeting. Soon after the organisation was founded, in 1995, the first CIVICUS World Assembly took place in Mexico City: 500 people from more than 50 different countries came together to learn about the new organisation and to have conversations on how to strengthen citizen action and cooperation opportunities. Since that moment, 16 global events have been organised in all parts of the world, global gatherings for civil society to connect, debate and create shared solutions, now known as International Civil Society Week (ICSW). The most recent one, in Belgrade, Serbia happened just last month, and was a vibrant gathering attended by over 700 delegates from 92 countries.
From the very beginning, CIVICUS prioritised activities such as networking, information-gathering and building the capacity of existing and new national and regional associations. Consistent with this, the Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) was one of CIVICUS’ first, and still enduring, programmes, bringing together national associations and regional platforms from around the world for more than 20 years to foster greater cooperation across boundaries.
Building civil society knowledge in a changing world
From its inception in 1993, CIVICUS has sought to make a significant contribution to recording the rise of civil society around the world, and to building a knowledge base on civil society by civil society. A first World Report on Citizen Participation came out as early as 1995, intended to get a grasp on the state of civil society worldwide. Later in 1997 The New Civic Atlas was published, as a compilation of civil society profiles from 60 countries around the world. In order to provide consistency with regard to the issues covered and a more rigorous comparative framework and after a number of consultations, in 1999 CIVICUS was ready to launch a new idea, the Civil Society Index (CSI).
I remember so well the words of former CIVICUS Secretary General Kumi Naidoo, reporting years later that participants of the CSI consultations had described the project as “an exercise in madness,” especially due to the lack of data on civil society in most countries, and the contested definition of civil society that would not allow comparisons or global analysis. But CIVICUS challenged the paradigms once again and the so-called Diamond Tool was presented in the CIVICUS World Assembly in Manila, as the preliminary methodological design for the CSI project.
Subsequently, CIVICUS developed a fully-fledged project design and the CSI had its pilot phase from 2000 to 2002, with the CSI implemented in 13 countries. The evaluation of the pilot phase recommended modifications in the methodology and considered the Index project as “an innovative, contextually flexible, empowering and uniquely participatory tool for self-assessment by civil society stakeholders of the state of civil society in their countries” Two full phases followed, from 2003 to 2006, with the participation of 53 countries, and from 2008 to 2011, with the CSI implemented in 56 countries and also at regional level in six African countries.
The results of the decade of CSI implementation yielded an enormous contribution to the body of knowledge about civil society around the world. The world was changing very fast, new actors burst onto the scene: The Indignados Movement in Madrid, the student protests in Chile and in other countries, the Arab Spring, all these new started to rise in late 2010 with peaks during 2011 and 2012. The CSI findings were clear and very well oriented, pointing out a noticeable disconnect between established civil society organisations and the increasing number of citizens involved in both new and traditional forms of activism. It does not come as surprise that the final CSI report title was “Bridging the gaps: citizens, organisations and dissociations” (2011) and concluded that the CSI needed to evolve to encompass the changing landscape.
Conditions for civil society proved to be volatile and can change very rapidly, so information cannot be out of date. Indeed, more agile tools were needed, without compromising the rigor that characterized the CSI tool, in order to continue providing a leading barometer of that human impulse to freedom, justice and collective endeavour.
CIVICUS has listened and has tried to respond to the changing situations and the multiple demands. The State of Civil Society Report, published annually since 2013 and the CIVICUS Monitor launched in 2016, are part of that necessary evolution. The State of Civil Society Report has become CIVICUS' flagship annual publication, providing the key trends affecting civil society organisations (CSOs) and citizen movements. Furthermore, the CIVICUS Monitor is a research tool aimed to share reliable, up-to-date data on the state of civil society freedoms in all countries. Danny Sriskandarajah, our Secretary General from 2012 to 2018, defined the CIVICUS Monitor as “the first robust and comprehensive tool to track conditions for civil society around the world”.
The road ahead…
CIVICUS is indeed one of the few organisations whose main job is to protect and promote civil society writ large, all over the world. And in the years to come, no doubt that CIVICUS will continue listening to our members, partners, to our primary constituencies and will always be ready to innovate, will work hard to understand realities to defend civic and democratic freedoms, to strengthen the power of people, and to empower a more accountable and innovative civil society.
As we prepare to address new challenges, we are fortunate to find ourselves in a position of strength at CIVICUS: with a stable financial base, a committed and diverse board, a broad and growing membership and a talented secretariat team led by Lysa John, our inspiring new Secretary General. We have the best conditions to continuing strengthening citizen participation around the world.
As I step down from the Board soon, I can only say how privileged and grateful I feel. Thank you for the opportunity of having served for so many years, for all the learnings, for the love and friendship that I have received, for having met the most committed people to justice that can exist. CIVICUS is about shared values, solidarity and inclusion. I will always be a champion for those values. Thank you CIVICUS!
Chair of the Board of CIVICUS 2016-2019
Activism and the state: How African civil society responds to repression
By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga
In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders. African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
Read on: Pambazuka
Addressing Civic Space Restrictions in Uganda: What Role for the UPR?
This policy action brief, prepared by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), examines a range of restrictions on civil society’s fundamental rights recently experienced in Uganda. In particular, these have included a series of break-ins on the premises of civil society organisations (CSOs), in which CSO information has been stolen; attacks on the media, which have included physical attacks on journalists and the closure of private radio stations; the introduction of restrictive legislation, including on CSO operations, the media and the freedom of assembly; and increased restriction of peaceful assemblies, including through the use of excessive force to break up protests.
Adjournment of Civil Society Activists’ Trial in Cameroon Shows State Has No Case
JOHANNESBURG – Three civil society leaders in Cameroon remain imprisoned in solitary confinement and on trial for leading peaceful protests, following their court appearance on 27 July.
The trial of Felix Balla Nkongho, Fontem Neba and Mancho Bibixy in a military court in the capital, Yaoundé, was adjourned for the third time since it began over six months ago. The activists face various spurious charges, some which, like treason and terrorism, carry the death penalty. A fourth activist, Justice Ayah Paul Abine is being held incommunicado at the Secretariat for Defense while hundreds of others remain detained at the Kondengui Central Prison in Yaoundé.
The activists were arrested in January 2017 after publicly raising concerns against the marginalisation of Cameroonians in the country’s Anglophone North West and South West regions, by the Francophone regime of President Paul Biya. They had called for the reforms in the legal and education system. Their organisation, the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC), has been banned.
“We strongly condemn the ongoing arbitrary arrests and unjustified prosecution of individuals opposing the atrocities in defiance of human rights standards. The international community has a responsibility to help end the cycle of persecution in Cameroon.” Said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS:
The trial itself has been marked by irregularities and a lack of due process. In the latest proceedings, the judge began by kicking one of the defence attorneys out of court. The defence team’s representations in English were also mistranslated into French by the court interpreter. In addition, the judge claimed that the state was not aware of the trial of the activists.
CIVICUS also expresses growing concern at the deepening human rights crisis. Reports of human rights violations in the Anglophone regions include the shooting and killing of unarmed protesters; arbitrary arrests; detention without trial; torture; legal harassment and unjust prosecutions; the targeting of journalists and media outlets; and the shutdown of the internet for months.
We call on the Cameroonian authorities to release all detained protesters and ensure that democratic rights to freedom of expression and assembly are respected.
We further call on the international community to increase efforts to engage the Biya regime to find lasting solutions to the conflict. We particularly urge the United Nations to intervene on behalf of barrister Nkongho, who has served the UN as a human rights and legal advisor to the UN Mission in Afghanistan, and the other activist leaders on trial.
Note: Civic space in Cameroon is rated as “repressed” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global tracking tool of violations against the freedom of expression, association and assembly.
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AFGHANISTAN: ‘Lack of dialogue and punishing sanctions are undermining the promotion of human rights’
CIVICUS speaks about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with Hadiya Afzal, programme coordinator of Unfreeze Afghanistan.. Unfreeze Afghanistan is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) formed by women from Afghanistan and the USA. It advocates for the release of Afghan assets frozen following the Taliban takeover to enable the state to pay salaries owed to public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, and tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Why is civil society calling for the release of frozen assets of the Afghan state?
When over US$9 billion of Afghanistan’s Central Bank reserves were frozen in August 2021, it had a devastating impact on the economy. Central Bank assets are the people’s money, used to hold currency auctions in the country, safeguard against inflation and control price stability. Afghanistan needs its Central Bank reserves back to stabilise its economy and perform centralised banking functions again.
The assets frozen also included private monies, that is, accounts held by private individuals, companies and CSOs. People were unable to withdraw their own money from banks for months, with many still unable to do so due to lack of cash. Many Afghans sold off anything they owned to afford essential goods, the prices of which skyrocketed.
Over the past year, leading CSOs, humanitarian organisations and more than 70 economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, have advocated through meetings, protests, letters and media appearances for the return of Afghanistan’s money to get its economy back on its feet, independently of whatever global aid funding is provided. United Nations (UN) experts have also called for the USA to unblock Afghanistan’s frozen assets to ease the humanitarian situation.
What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?
The USA has signalled that funds could be returned to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank, as long as three conditions are met: the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms, the implementation of credible anti-money laundering regulations and controls to combat the financing of terrorism and DAB’s insulation from political interference – which meant replacing its top leadership, in the hands of Taliban officials, one of whom is under US and UN sanctions, with professionals.
DAB has already agreed on independent monitoring conditions, and experts have set out how pre-existing independent monitoring and electronic auditing could be restored. US claims that the new Afghan government lacks expertise and that capacity building is needed for the state to be able to perform central bank functions could be addressed by assistance from the international community. The law that outlines DAB’s function as a technocratic institution charged with responsibilities such as currency auctions and oversight of banks is still in place. DAB continues to have the same audit oversight committee, with the same members it had under the previous government. And the chair of the audit committee has been an outspoken advocate for the return of DAB’s reserves.
The Afghan government should ensure that the DAB law remains in place and that the institution will function separate from political considerations. Advocacy experts highlighted that the USA does not apply audit conditions as strictly to other countries as it does to Afghanistan. It does not seize their foreign assets due to limited monitoring capabilities.
What else should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?
The international community should focus on supporting a strong, independent Afghan economy that can run on its own, the first step in which should be to return the full assets of the Afghan people to its central bank.
Another measure the international community can take is to provide global aid raised by the UN and other international bodies. Human Rights Watch alerted that without sustained humanitarian aid donations, Afghanistan’s upcoming winter could be even worse than the last one.
Last year, UN emergency funding staved off experts’ worst fears of a devastating winter, but the people of Afghanistan cannot continue to depend on global kindness after a year marked by war, the pandemic and rising inflation. Afghanistan’s assets must be returned to its central bank to bring stability to the lives of ordinary Afghans, and the international community should invest in the infrastructure necessary to ensure its success.
What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights, and specifically women’s rights, and support civil society in Afghanistan?
Sanctions have had a devastating impact on Afghanistan, and the resulting humanitarian crisis has disproportionately affected the average Afghan. The Center for Economic and Policy Research stated that financial sanctions on Afghanistan amount to a form of ‘collective punishment’ of the Afghan people for the actions of a government they did not choose.
The sanctions are not helping. In the words of Jamila Afghani, founder and president of the Afghan chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ‘we are not supporting Afghan women by starving them’.
In fact, sanctions are only making things worse. The cultural practice of forced marriages and what effectively amounts to the sale of girls is reinforced by socio-economic factors. Even under the previous government more than 70 per cent of marriages were forced. These are expected to increase as a result of the humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, Islamic scholars such as Daisy Khan have highlighted Quranic evidence supporting women’s independence, education and liberation. The promotion of human rights and specifically women’s rights is best fostered in a stable economic environment with sustained international diplomacy and interfaith dialogue.
Lack of dialogue between the international community and the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan compounded by punishing sanctions is undermining the promotion of human rights. Human rights can only be promoted through constructive dialogue while addressing the drivers of wellbeing – rebuilding financial stability, economic independence and global cooperation.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Open-source monitoring reveals both the clampdown on women’s rights and the impact on their lives’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Anouk Theunissen and Humaira Rahbin, researchers with Afghan Witness, and Meetra Qutb, Afghan Witness’s communications specialist.
Afghan Witness is a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan. It seeks to provide reliable data to international organisations, governments, the media and civil society and to create awareness about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Its team includes people on the ground as well as international researchers, analysts, journalists and experts. Most of its team members’ identities are kept confidential for safety reasons.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’
CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.
Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.
Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests,especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.
Why did you establish your organisation?
Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.
But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.
What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?
We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.
The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.
Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.
Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.
Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.
How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?
Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.
What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?
Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.
Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.
What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?
I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination.
More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.
Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’
CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms
What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.
Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.
Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.
What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?
In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.
The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.
Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.
Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?
To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.
How have you been supporting civil society and activists?
The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.
Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.
What do you think of the response by the international community so far?
Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.
On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.
What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?
Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.
The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.
For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.
Civic space inAfghanistan is rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The seizure of sovereign assets will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster’
CIVICUS speaks with Arash Azizzada, co-founder and co-director of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Afghans for A Better Tomorrow is a grassroots civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated tobringing about transformative change for Afghans in the USA and beyond. It has recently advocated for the release of Afghanistan’s frozen assets.
Why is civil society calling for the return of Afghanistan’s frozen assets?
Before August 2021, when the USA froze Afghanistan’s assets, Afghanistan’s western-backed government was heavily reliant on foreign aid and was spending most of its revenue on the conflict with the Taliban. Since the Taliban took over, the entire country has essentially found itself sanctioned economically and Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), its central bank, had all its assets frozen.
Since the DAB serves as collateral insurance for private banks to be able to operate, the entire banking system has been paralysed as of August 2021. The same goes for the whole Afghan economy: businesses and people cannot access their own hard-earned money to buy food at the market down the street. Philanthropic foundations have trouble sending funds into Afghanistan. This has contributed to soaring inflation, worsened by the rise in food and commodity prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a record-breaking drought.
As a result, Afghanistan has become ‘hell on Earth’, as the director of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme put it. Over 21 million Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. Every women-led Afghan household currently faces poverty and hunger as the country’s healthcare system teeters on the brink of collapse.
The consensus among Afghan civil society, both within and outside the country, is that the seizure of sovereign assets that belong to the Afghan people is a violation of international norms and will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Through grassroots organising, high-level advocacy and litigation, the Afghan American community has stepped up to bring the frozen assets back to their rightful owner: the Afghan people.
At the same time, following the blocking of Afghan assets, a group of families in the USA who had secured rulings against the Taliban connected to its role in the 9/11 attacks filed a civil case in a federal court to enforce those rulings using the frozen DAB funds. In February 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order allocating half of the more than US$7 billion that the previous government of Afghanistan had placed in the New York Federal Reserve for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and leaving half subject to litigation brought by some of the 9/11 families.
As part of a broad coalition of Afghan-American groups representing the community, we filed an amicus – friend of the court – brief stating that the court should oppose this for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Taliban are not recognised as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan by its people or the international community. The money belongs to the Afghan people, not the Taliban. And although 9/11 families deserve compensation, doing it this way would harm Afghans and not the Taliban.
What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?
While the Taliban might be the de facto rulers of most of Afghanistan, they remain untrustworthy and illegitimate. But the DAB continues to be function as a technocratic body, so frozen funds should be returned as long as there is proper ring-fencing and enhanced safeguards such as electronic auditing records to ensure the reserves are not interfered with by the Taliban.
Our proposed plan recommends an initial trust-building process in which a conditional amount of US$150-200 million a month is released so that the DAB is allowed to perform its core functions. The funds ought to be used to regulate the Afghan currency and run US dollar auctions to inject liquidity into the struggling economy and ease the pain of the Afghan population. Not one cent of these funds should be used for humanitarian aid purposes.
What should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?
International philanthropy and the international community should support a fledging Afghan civil society, and especially the women’s groups that remain operational within the country, by ensuring wide-ranging sanctions relief.
As it stands, the entire Afghan population is on the receiving end of collective punishment due to the sanctions imposed on the Afghan state. As the world has become hostile to doing business in the country, the World Bank and other international institutions should continue to focus on funding economic development projects and ensure the healthcare system remains functional.
The international community should work hard to differentiate between targeted sanctions that focus on individuals within the Taliban and projects that ensure Afghans have a chance at survival. As one example, direct cash assistance to the Afghan population remains a much more effective and equitable method of assistance than trying to truck in food for a population of over 21 million people and helping circumvent Taliban attempts at interfering with aid.
The UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan still remains US$2 billion short of its target. There is a strong need for donor countries to fill that gap. Much of it should be filled by the NATO member countries that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years.
What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights and support civil society in Afghanistan?
A core demand remains the non-recognition of the Taliban government, which is deepening its repression and remains unrepresentative of the Afghan population. It is important that the international community listens to the voices of Afghan civil society, and specifically those of Afghan women leaders and the minority Hazara and Shia communities.
The most vital thing at this moment is a strengthened mandate by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to document and monitor human rights violations as well as support accurate and free media in the country. Significant UN presence on the ground will be key as Afghanistan faces a deteriorating human and women’s rights situation.
Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
After elections, hard work starts for Zimbabwe’s civil society
By Teldah Mawarire, CIVICUS Campaigns and Advocacy Officer
For many Zimbabwean voters, casting their ballots on July 30 is sure to be a somewhat surreal experience. For the first time since the country’s independence, the ever-present face of Robert Mugabe will not be staring back at them on the ballot paper. But that new experience – while perhaps inspiring hopes for positive change among some – is likely to be preceded by an old, familiar feeling of déjà vu. The road to the 2018 general election has been littered with the same potholes of electoral irregularities and restrictive laws of previous polls.
Read on: Inter Press Service