criminalisation

 

  • ‘Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised’

     

    Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Rodrigo Mundaca, Agronomist and National Spokesperson of the Defence Movement for Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (MODATIMA), an organisation established in 2010 in the Chilean province of Petorca, in the Valparaíso region, to defend the rights of farmers, workers and local people. Since the 1990s, the region has been affected by the massive appropriation of water by agribusiness in collusion with the political establishment.

    Rodrigo Mundaca

    What is the main environmental issue in your context?

    The main problem is water. We live in a territory characterised mainly by the monoculture of avocado, the production of which requires huge amounts of water. Water is in the hands of large producers who have dried out our territory and compromised the lives of our communities. Ours is an extreme case: Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised. Chile has clearly prioritised extractive industries over the rights of communities to water.

    The privatisation of water sources in Chile dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973 to 1990. The 1980 Constitution enshrined the private ownership of water. This was maintained, and even deepened, following the democratic transition, since sanitation was also privatised. The privatisation process of sanitation began in 1998, under the administration led by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat. Nowadays, people in Chile pay the highest rates in Latin America for drinking water, which is owned by large transnational corporations. Overall, the Suez group, Aguas de Barcelona, Marubeni and the Ontario teachers’ pension fund administrator from Canada control 90 per cent of the drinking water supply.

    Right now, President Sebastián Piñera's government is auctioning off rivers. Piñera came into government with a mission to underpin the legal certainty of water rights ownership, and his cabinet includes several ministers who own rights to water use, the most prominent of which is the Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Walker Prieto. This minister and his family own more than 29,000 litres per second, which is equivalent to the continuous water supply used by approximately 17 million people.

    Is it as simple as someone owning the rivers and being able to prevent others from using the water?

    Yes, the 1980 Chilean Constitution literally states that the rights of individuals over water, recognised or constituted in accordance with the law, grant their bearers ownership over it. In 1981, the Water Code established that water is a national good for public use but also an economic good. Water ownership was separated from land ownership, so that there are water owners who have no land and landowners who have no water. It is the state's prerogative to grant rights for water use. These rights fall into two categories: water rights for consumption use and water rights for non-consumptive use, for example for generating electricity. In the first category, 77 per cent of the rights are held by the agricultural and forestry sector, 13 per cent by the mining sector, seven per cent by the industrial sector and approximately three per cent by the health sector. As for the rights for the use of water that is not consumed, 81 per cent are in the hands of an Italian public-private company. The owners of exploitation rights can sell or lease water use in the marketplace.

    In 2018, the Piñera administration proposed a bill aimed at providing legal certainty to perpetuity to private owners of water and introducing water auctions. Currently, 38 rivers in Chile are being auctioned off; basically, what the state does is auction off the litres per second that run through a river. While this occurs in some territories where there is still water, areas accounting for 67 per cent of the Chilean population – some 12 million people – have become water emergency areas. Our region, Valparaíso, is a zone of water catastrophe due to drought. This is unheard of: while such a large population has serious difficulties in accessing drinking water, the state is auctioning off rivers.

    What kind of work do you do to promote the recognition of access to water as a right?

    For more than 15 years we have made visible the conflict over water in our territory. Although we originated in the Valparaíso region, from 2016 onwards our organisation has worked nationwide. We fight at the national level for water to be regulated as a common good. The right to water is a fundamental human right.

    Our original strategy was to kickstart the struggle for water, render the conflict visible and bring debate to parliament about the need to repeal private ownership of water, despite our lack of confidence in the political class that has the responsibility to make the law and watch over its implementation.

    In 2016 we took an important step by putting forward an international strategy that made it known throughout the world that in our province the human right to water was being violated in order to grow avocados. We were featured in a German TV report, ‘Avocado: Superfood and Environmental Killer’, in several articles in The Guardian describing how Chileans are running out of water and in an RT report in Spanish, ‘Chile’s Dry Tears’, among others. Last year Netflix dedicated an episode of its Rotten show to the avocado business and the violation of the human right to water in Chile. We have had a positive reception. In 2019 alone, we received two international awards: the International Human Rights Prize awarded by the city of Nuremberg, Germany, in September, and the Danielle Mitterrand Prize, awarded by the France Libertés Foundation, in November.

    Another thing we do is develop activists and leaders. We have long-term training programmes and do ongoing work to develop theoretical and political thinking. We also mobilise. In the context of the widespread protests that started in Chile on 18 October 2019, we have made our demands heard. Clearly, although at the national level the main demands concern the restitution of workers’ pension funds and improvements in education and health, in some regions further north and further south of the capital, the most important demand concerns the recovery of water as a common good and a human right.

    In addition to mobilising, our work on the ground involves more radical actions such as roadblocks and occupations. Among direct actions carried out on the ground are the seizure of wells and the destruction of drains. Some local grassroots organisations seize wells owned by mining companies, resist as long as they can – sometimes for 60 or 70 days – and divert the water to their communities. In places where rivers no longer carry water, groundwater has been captured through drains, works of engineering that capture, channel and carry all groundwater away. Some communities destroy the drains that transport water for use by agribusiness such as forestry companies. Such actions of resistance have increased since the start of the social protests in October 2019.

    The struggle for water is a radical one because it erodes the foundations of inequality. The origin of the major Chilean fortunes is the appropriation of common goods, basically water and land. President Piñera's fortune is no exception.

    Have you faced reprisals because of your activism?

    Yes, because of our strategy to give visibility to the conflict over water, several of our activists have been threatened with death. That is why in 2017 Amnesty International conducted a worldwide campaign that collected more than 50,000 signatures to demand protection for us.

    Between 2012 and 2014, I was summoned 24 times by four different courts because I denounced a public official who had been Minister of the Interior under the first administration of President Michelle Bachelet (2006 to 2010). As well as being a leading Christian Democratic Party official, this person was a business owner who diverted water toward his properties to grow avocado and citrus. I reported this in 2012, during an interview with CNN, and that cost me 24 court appearances over two years. I was finally sentenced, first to five years in jail, which were then reduced to 540 days and then to 61, and finally our lawyers managed to put me on probation. I had to show up and sign on the first five days of each month. We also had to pay a fine.

    We have been attacked and threatened with death many times. In November 2019, an investigation published on a news site revealed that we were being targeted by police intelligence surveillance. However, in response to an amparo appeal – a petition for basic rights – against the police, in February 2020 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the surveillance to which we are subjected does not violate our constitutional rights. This is Chile in all of its filthy injustice.

    Government behaviour has always been the same, regardless of the political colour of the incumbent government. All governments have reached agreements to keep the private water model because it is business, and one that is highly profitable for the political class. When they leave their positions in government, former public officials go on to occupy positions in the boards of the companies that appropriate the water.

    Did you join the global climate mobilisations of 2019?

    In Chile we have been mobilising since long before. In 2013 we had our first national march for the recovery of water and land, and from then on we have mobilised every year on 22 April, Earth Day. We also demonstrate to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. We have been on the move for a long time. Chile is going through a social, environmental and humanity crisis. We face the need to safeguard human rights that are essential for the fulfilment of other rights. The human right to water is a basic precondition for people to be able to access all other rights.

    We have also been mobilised for a long time to denounce that Chile's development model is extremely polluting and deeply predatory. We have privatised marine resources: seven families own all of Chile’s marine resources. Our country has five areas of sacrifice, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries. These are in Colonel, Huasco, Mussels, Quintero and Tocopilla. The areas of sacrifice are not only an environmental problem but also a social problem; they discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable communities. They are overflowing with coal-fired thermoelectric plants and, in some cases, with copper smelters. The are 28 thermoelectric plants: 15 of these are US companies, eight are French, three are Italian and two are owned by domestic capital. The population in these areas has endured the emission of toxic gases and heavy metals for decades. We have been mobilising in these areas for years in defence of common natural assets.

    Have you engaged in international forums on the environment and climate change?

    Yes, I have been involved several times. In 2014, before I was convicted, I went to Paris, France by invitation of several European civil society organisations to attend a forum on human rights defenders, where I spoke about the private water and land model. In 2018 I was invited to a global meeting of human rights defenders at risk, held in Dublin, Ireland. That same year I was also invited to a regional meeting of human rights defenders that took place in Lima, Peru.

    We have also been involved in intergovernmental forums such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2019, Chile was going to host the COP 25, and the global mobilisation for climate throughout the year had a tremendous echo in Chile. Obviously neither the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, planned for November, nor COP 25, scheduled for early December, could be held in Chile, because the government was completely overwhelmed by the popular mobilisation that began in late October, and because it responded to this with systematic human rights violations.

    Several of our members were at COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and were able to speak with the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and with some officials of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after this meeting we had a meeting in Chile with Baltasar Garzón, the judge who prosecuted former dictator Pinochet and had him arrested in the UK. Garzón was very impressed with the water model and the stories our activists told him. Also recently we met with the delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during their visit to Chile. We met with Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and presented an overview of the Chilean situation and what it means to live deprived of water.

    Do you think that forums such as the COP offer space for civil society to speak up and exercise influence?

    I have a critical opinion of the COP. I think that in general it is a fair of vanities attended by many presidents, and many ministers of environment and agriculture, to promise the world what they cannot fulfil in their own countries. The main greenhouse gas emitting countries have leaders who either deny climate change, or are talking the talk about climate change but don’t seem to have the intention to make any change in their country’s predatory economic behaviour. The countries that are most responsible for climate change and global warming are currently the main detractors of the COP.

    However, the summits do offer a space for civil society, from where it is possible to challenge the powerful, speak up about the climate injustice that affects the entire planet and promote the construction of a new development model that is viable and economically competitive while also socially fairer and ecologically healthier. But for that we need new paradigms: we cannot continue to think that there are unlimited development prospects on a planet that has finite natural resources.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with MODATIMA through theirwebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Modatima_cl on Twitter.

     

  • BELIZE: ‘Many laws remain that keep LGBTQI+ people as second-class citizens’

    Caleb OrozcoCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Belize and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Caleb Orozco, the chief litigant in a case successfully challenging Belize’s discriminatory laws and co-founder of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM).

    Founded in 2006, UNIBAM was the first LGBTQI+-led policy and advocacy civil rights organisation in Belize. Focused on dismantling systemic and structural violence that impacts on human rights, it uses rights-based approaches to reduce stigma and discrimination.

    What was the process leading to the overturn of Belize’s so-called anti-gay laws?

    The process of overturning the sodomy laws contained in Section 53 of the Criminal Code started with a preliminary assessment that guided the development of the University of the West Indies’ Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) led by Tracy Robinson, whose group initiated my case in 2010. In 2011 we worked with Human Dignity Trust, which joined as interested party, to engage on international treaty obligations.

    In 2007, a conversation started at a meeting in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, organised by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. URAP engaged by email and Viper Messenger, with additional regional conferences to flesh out legal arguments. The process identified Lisa Shoman as local Senior Counsel and Chris Hamel Smith, who argued the case in 2013.

    Meanwhile, we submitted reports for Belize’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council to test the government’s response to the challenge to the sodomy laws. We also resorted to thematic hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The response of the government was that it needed a ‘political mandate’. We worked with the subcommittee for policy and legislation of the National AIDS Commission to monitor legislative opportunities and gauge the position of the government and the prime minister. We knew the government would not significantly fight the process.

    In late 2010 we filed a challenge to Section 53 and a fight with the group of churches ensued. UNIBAM’s role was eventually reduced to that of an interested party, with the churches relegated to the same role, and I remained as the sole claimant.

    We did not have a communications strategy, so we developed one. Nor did we have a security strategy, but we got help from the Human Dignity Trust. We participated in around 300 media interviews, collectively, over the years. The process included the derailment of the government’s revised national gender policy of 2013, with hundreds protesting across the country. Also, in Jamaica, 25,000 people protested to demand the removal of Professor Brendon Bain, an expert witness in my case in support of the churches, from his job at the University of the West Indies. 

    The case was heard by the Supreme Court in May 2013. We submitted personal experiences of discrimination and tried to strike out the churches, but we failed. Three years later, on 10 August 2016, the judge ruled in our favour, establishing that Section 53 was unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalised consensual same-sex activity held in private by consenting adults.

    The Attorney General launched a partial appeal focused on the freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the grounds of ‘sex’, but the Court of Appeal’s judgment was reaffirmed in December 2019, with the expectation that the sodomy law had to be modified by parliament after the Court reaffirmed its unconstitutionality. Over time, the political tone changed: from claiming a political mandate was needed to change our sodomy law, to supporting 15 out of 17 Universal Periodic Review recommendations on LGBTQI+ rights in 2018. We are now waiting for parliament to modify the law as per the instruction of the Court of Appeal.

    Did you experience backlash?

    I experienced a lot of backlash throughout the process. This included character assassination and death threats, to the point that a personal security plan had to be put in place for me to go to court in 2013 and for my daily movement. Christian TV stations pushed negative propaganda and social media platforms buzzed with homophobia and threats. 

    How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? 

    The LGBTQI+ rights movement became part of a National Working Group, in which I helped draft a cabinet note to advance the Equal Opportunities Bill and Hate Crime Legislation, with support from the Human Dignity Trust. Even though the Equal Opportunities Bill was endorsed by the cabinet, it didn’t reach parliament before the 2020 general election, because the evangelical ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign succeeded in derailing it just in time. We are not giving up in 2022!

    I run the only LGBTQI+-led observatory of human rights in Belize, which provides litigation support to clients. We produce knowledge products on systemic and structural violence that feeds into a national and transnational advocacy framework that includes LGBTQI+ economic inclusion and livelihoods. 

    The process influenced and inspired the development of several niche organisations focused on LGBTQI+ families, health, trans issues and lesbian and bisexual women. It helped launch the global mandate of the Human Dignity Trust’s campaign on decriminalisation. Ours was in fact their first case back in 2011.

    What challenges do LGBTQI+ people continue to face in Belize? How can challenges be addressed?

    There is the denial of gender markers for trans people. Violence against us can take place in the family and the workplace. Kids experience discrimination in schools. In addition, family insecurity for LGBTQI+ parents is a huge deal. We endure economic rights violations and economic exclusion, as well as unequal access to economic benefits such as social security and government pensions. 

    LGBTQI+ Belizeans experience daily deficits in the police’s work that deals with us as victims of violence and detainees. If you’re of African descent and gay, expect police harassment.

    We need resources to advance 20 amendments to laws that exclude LGBTQI+ Belizeans as citizens, which attack our dignity and rights and keep us as second-class citizens. The functions of the Human Rights Observatory, which provides redress to LGBTQI+ Belizeans and marginalised women, should be strengthened.

    What kind of international support does Belizean LGBTQI+ civil society need? 

    International allies can support us with donations through our GoFundMe page. We also really value offers of pro-bono legal support for the work of our Human Rights Observatory, including legal research, legal defence,  protection work, bill drafting, litigation support, and branding strategies, as well as offers of pro bono support to produce investigative or victim advocacy training.

    Civic space in Belize is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with UNIBAMthrough itswebsite and follow@UNIBAMSupport on Twitter.

     

  • BERMUDA: ‘A right that the LGBTQI+ community enjoyed for four years has been stripped away’

    Adrian Hartnett BeasleyCIVICUS speaks about the recent court decision on same-sex marriage in Bermuda with Adrian Hartnett-Beasley, a founding board member of OUTBermuda.

    OUTBermuda is a civil society organisation that promotes and supports the wellbeing, health, dignity, security, safety and protection of the LGBTQI+ community in Bermuda. It provides educational resources on issues of diversity, inclusiveness, awareness and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and advances human rights, conflict resolution and equality and diversity in Bermuda.

     

    What is the significance of the recent court ruling declaring the ban on same-sex marriage constitutional? How has it affected LGBTQI+ people in Bermuda?

    In March 2022, Bermuda’s highest judicial body, the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee, sided with the government of Bermuda, stating that it may regulate and restrict marriage licences only to unions between a man and a woman. According to the judgement, this does not violate the Bermudian Constitution. It would have violated the Human Rights Act of 1981 if the Bermuda Government had not amended it to allow discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

    This judgement reversed previous decisions that starting in 2017 made it possible for same-sex couples to get legally married in Bermuda. As a result, a right that we as a community enjoyed for four years was stripped away.

    We don’t have survey data, but the general feeling of disappointment is palpable. Our community and our allies are disappointed that this fundamental human rights issue was ever made political in the first place, first with an irresponsible referendum held in 2016 – a non-binding consultation that failed due to low turnout – and then again by successive administrations who used our community as leverage in two electoral campaigns.

    We are still reviewing the case, but overall, we have concerns that our constitution has failed us and what this means, if people are paying attention, is that our constitution is not fit for purpose anymore.

    How was OUTBermuda involved in the case, and what will it do next?

    OUTBermuda was heavily involved throughout the process. We ran very successful arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with the guidance and hard work of our legal teams. We believe our leadership and standing helped bring together a consortium of plaintiffs, which together supported the novel and intricate legal arguments being made before the courts, including two churches and a couple of individuals – together encapsulating a broad range of perspectives, as reflected in the evidence we submitted to the courts.

    In its former life, that is, before it became a registered charity, OUTBermuda was known as Bermuda Bred and successfully sued the Bermuda government in 2015 to secure some immigration rights for non-Bermudian same-sex partners to live and work on the island. As a result of that victory, its members pivoted the organisation into OUTBermuda and registered it as a charity. The organisation has been leaning into the empty space in which the LGBTQI+ community had no voice ever since.

    This adverse ruling does not change that. We will continue to advocate for equality, justice and dignity for all LGBTQI+ Bermudians. If anything, the negative decision of the court highlights that OUTBermuda must continue its work.

    What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Bermuda?

    The issues we face are as diverse as the community itself. At the core of all of it is acceptance; without acceptance, our community is subjected to unfair and illegal housing discrimination, which alongside family disapproval results in young people having nowhere to live and having higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, this leads to members of our community staying in the closet longer, or at least being less comfortable about being themselves in public. All of this ends up resulting in our community not reaching its collective full potential.

    OUTBermuda gets requests for help regularly, and this is the typical story we hear over and over. Marriage has been one, very public, issue but it’s by no means the only one – probably not even the most important one. We will continue working to educate people, including our political leaders, about the human rights of LGBTQI+ people. The next government must re-amend the Human Rights Act to reinstate the full protection of sexual orientation.

    How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? Have you experienced any anti-rights backlash?

    We have made a lot of progress. When we started litigating for same-sex marriage, polls showed a slight majority of Bermudians were against it, and within five years, when same-sex marriage became legal, a clear majority supported it.

    A poll we conducted in 2020, three years into same-sex marriage being legal, showed that 92 per cent of Bermudians believed that LGBTQI+ people deserved human rights protection, 95 per cent believed we deserved civil rights protection, 53 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage and 72 per cent thought that a church should be allowed to perform a wedding between two consenting adults. An overwhelming majority of 75 per cent opposed the government spending more money on litigation to ban same-sex marriage, while a mere three per cent claimed they had been negatively affected by same-sex couples being able to marry, adopt or live together.

    But this progress was met with backlash, particularly by organisations such as Preserve Marriage, which grew markedly since the early days of the public debate on marriage equality. They are well-organised and well-funded and are reacting quite violently to the evidence that public perceptions on all LGBTQI+ issues is increasingly more accepting.

    What kind of support would Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society need from their international counterparts?

    Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society, while physically isolated – more than 600 miles away from North Carolina – is fortunate to have great internet accessibility, so resources are easy to access and connections are easy to make. OUTBermuda as an organisation has been fortunate to receive the support of comparable – but larger and more sophisticated – organisations overseas in the form of resources, ideas and solidarity. As we have just hired our first employee – a part-time executive director – we are looking forward to building out those relationships and capitalising on the great work that has already been done in other jurisdictions – while still doing it the uniquely Bermudian way.

    Get in touch with OUTBermuda through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@OUTBermuda on Twitter. 

     

  • CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’

    CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currentlyfaces further charges.

    Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson

    What were the origins of MNC?

    We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.

    This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.

    I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems. 

    A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.

    What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?

    They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.

    One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.

    What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?

    The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.

    There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill. 

    Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.

    What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.

    Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?

    Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.

    In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.

    In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.

    Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.

    We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.

    As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.

    This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.

    The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.

    Have you faced threats from private companies?

    The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.

    Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them. 

    Why did MNC decide to formally disband?

    In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.

    We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.

    What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?

    Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up. 

    That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists. 

    The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.

    Civic space inCambodiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Mother Nature Cambodia through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@CambodiaMother on Twitter. 

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’

    CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.

    alexandra gonzalez zapata

    What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?

    Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.

    The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.

    What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.

    How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?

    From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.

    In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.

    What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?

    The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.

    On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.

    On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.

    So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.

    How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?

    On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.

    In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.

    Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.

    Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”

    During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.

    Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.

    The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.

    In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.

    Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.

    How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?

    In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.

    Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

    What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?

    First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.

    Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?

    I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.

    However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@CSPP_ on Twitter.
    Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite andFacebook page, or

     

     

  • CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

    CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

    How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

    The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

    For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

    As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

    The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

    In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

    To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

    Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

    If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

    How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

    The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

    But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

    The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

    In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

    Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

    I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

    What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

    One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

    Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

    The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

    This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

    But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

    Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

    An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

    Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

    What other problems do you see?

    Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

    But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

    In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

    To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Martamar77 on Twitter.

     

  • GHANA: ‘The ‘anti-gay’ bill will have far-reaching consequences if we do not fight it now’

    Rightify GhanaCIVICUS speaks with Danny Bediako, founder and executive director of Rightify Ghana, about the LGBTQI+ rights situation and the significance of Ghana’s ‘anti-gay’ bill. Rightify Ghana is a human rights organisation that advocates for community empowerment and human rights, and documents and reports human rights abuses in Ghana.

    What are the aims of Rightify Ghana?

    Rightify Ghana was formed because LGBTQI+ organisations were all based in the capital, Accra. Living in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region in Ghana, I felt that I had to do something, so I brought together some people I knew and urged them to reach out to others. We all came together and formed Rightify Ghana. 

    We do advocacy work and report and document human rights violations. We contribute to capacity building through community empowerment activities, including human rights education and sensitisation on safety and security. While as an organisation we do not directly offer sexual health or HIV/AIDS-related services, we facilitate access to them for the people who reach out to us.

    We have become a widely known organisation, with people reaching out for information and referrals to certain services. We also offer psychosocial support to people facing various forms of abuse and human rights violations. We undertake media monitoring to understand how the media reports on LGBTQI+ matters and identify rising challenges, and particularly security threats, to inform and educate the LGBTQI+ community.

    What are the major challenges facing LGBTQI+ people in Ghana?

    For several years the LGBTQI+ community has been targeted by homophobic people, both from state institutions and non-state groups and individuals. But there isn’t enough awareness on these issues, so we usually have to deal with them by ourselves. There are frequent reports of attacks against LGBTQI+ people, including outing them, blackmailing, kidnapping them for ransom and outright physical violence.

    Ghana had previously sold itself globally as a progressive country, one that respects democratic principles and constitutional rule. But this year the rights violations that the LGBTQI+ community has experienced for years came to light. Attacks came in quick succession and caught us off guard.

    We started 2021 with the closure of a community centre established by LGBT+ Rights Ghana. Then an alleged lesbian wedding, which attendees claim was a birthday party, was stormed and denounced by traditional rulers, police and media. Twenty-two people were arrested and later released.

    In May came the case of the Ho 21, in which police and a team of reporters disrupted an event of human rights defenders who document and report violations against the LGBTQI+ community. Twenty-one of them were arrested, becoming victims of the crime they work to document. This nearly broke the whole movement down because other organisations closed their offices out of fear and activists went into hiding; there was too much uncertainty, and most people fell silent.

    Most recently, the so-called Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghana Family Values Bill – the ‘anti-gay bill’ – was officially introduced to parliament and is now open to contributions from the public.

    What does the bill say, and what motivates those behind it?

    The first time I read the bill, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: my right to exist in this country would be taken away from me. The bill promotes ‘conversion therapy’, making it a state function to torture people who question their sexuality or identify as intersex or transgender. Conversion therapy is very dangerous: those who undergo it may experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. United Nations Special Rapporteurs have stated that conversion therapy is a form of torture.

    Even though it is bipartisan, the bill is being pushed mostly by the opposition: seven out of eight members of parliament (MPs) supporting the bill are part of the opposition, including the speaker, who brought together the lawmakers and the homophobic group, the National Coalition for Proper Sexual Human Rights and Family Values. To promote the bill, they are using disinformation and lies, including incorrect HIV data stating that eight out of 10 HIV/AIDS cases are of LGBTQI+ people.

    We asked the Ghana AIDS Commission to speak out and release a statement against misinformation stigmatising people living with HIV/AIDS, but they declined out of fear. We then asked an independent fact checker, Ghana Fact, which confirmed that the claims were false. It was in turn falsely accused of being funded by the LGBTQI+ community.

    If you ask me where all this hate is coming from, I would say it has been imported. The religious texts that are being used to condemn sexual minorities and the current bill are backed by the US far-right movement, and particularly the World Congress of Families, which held a conference in Ghana in 2019. Leading up to the conference, they hosted several key personalities in Ghana, including a former president, the national chief imam and a former speaker of parliament, to ensure that they would encourage homophobia in the ‘background’.

    We believe that the US far-right movement has lost its own fight against equality, diversity and progressive values in the global west, so they have turned to Africa, which they view as fertile ground for their agendas. As early as 2017, we started to notice individuals urging the government to do something against the LGBTQI+ community. They did not seem to have enough resources to succeed, but once they formed an alliance with the World Congress of Families and began receiving funding, resources and technical support, they have been able to propose the worst bill we have ever seen go into our parliament.

    What are the bill’s implications for LGBTQI+ people in Ghana

    The implications of the bill reach even beyond those who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community and are already being felt, even before it has been passed. Blackmail has become a major issue faced by the LGBTQI+ community. We used to see two or three cases a week, but now we are getting about three per day. We are seeing homophobic people on dating sites and social media pose as gay to lure gay men into their homes, where they subject them to group violence. In one particular case, the victim was blackmailed and threatened with death. If the bill is passed, people like these will have free rein to harm others, because the law will condone their behaviour.

    Ghanaians give much importance to the value of sympathy, but this bill is also going to criminalise the exercise of this value. If an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to violence in public, nobody will come to their rescue because you can be prosecuted for that. The implications are very serious in the area of public health. According to the bill, if you know or suspect that someone is an LGBTQI+ person, you must report them to the police. This applies to nurses and other health workers, which will lead to fewer people seeking health services.

    HIV programmes targeting key populations are run by community-based organisations that are mostly peer-led, and if the bill bans them from operating and bans others from registering, people will not be able to access healthcare, which is a constitutional right, making it much harder to fight HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

    While our constitution prohibits censorship, this bill will ban the publication of LGBTQI+ content, including reports of crimes against the LGBTQI+ community. This also applies to social media. It will take away our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, as well as our right to dignity and privacy. While the constitution speaks against discrimination of all forms, this bill is going to legalise discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.

    It will also target those who are not queer, including people who use sex toys or cross-dress for comedy, and youth groups and students. Our cultural traditional norms of people of the same gender walking and holding hands and putting our arms across each other’s shoulders are at stake – we sometimes also sit on each other’s laps if there is no space! All these will be outlawed due to being seen as indecent exposure and public show of amorous relations.

    What are the current priorities for Rightify Ghana and other LGBTQI+ organisations in Ghana?

    Our biggest priority is safety. Even before it is passed, we have already started seeing parts of the bill being implemented. For instance, we have seen an increase in arrests of our community members. In one of these cases, the police arrested two people and urged them to give them the names and addresses of other queer people. They were picked up by the police not for committing any crime, but because someone told them that they were queer.

    Each time we hear of people being arrested, activists rush to police stations to get them out. We are paying for our freedom. Although bail in Ghana is free, the police won’t let them go. Under Section 104 of the current Criminal Offences Act, they cannot arrest you just because someone told them you are gay, but they still do. They know they cannot prosecute you, but if you want to recover your freedom fast, they make you pay.

    We are also worried that if the bill is passed, its effects may reach further, into the homes of Ghanaian people across the world. The typical Ghanaian diasporic family upholds in their home the same principles they would in Ghana, so queer Ghanaians in the diaspora may also become victims of parents who don’t want to come back with a lesbian or gay child, and may be excommunicated from the family due to homophobia. Even in the UK, Canada and other western countries, Ghanaian families still attend Ghanaian churches where homophobia is preached. If the bill is passed, this is the law that will rule within their homes, and not that of the countries they live in.

    What are you doing to push back against the bill?

    We are working to take up space, encourage dialogue and start conversations. People have been brainwashed by the homophobic disinformation and genuinely think that queer people are paedophiles and other terrible things. We correct these lies and try to find ways so that people start listening to us and understand that people do not ‘become’ gay due to media influence and they are not ‘recruited’ by some Western power to become gay.

    Some people do not know or believe that the queer community faces human rights violations. When we show them the facts, tell them the names of those who have been beaten, evicted, lost their job, or been suspended from school and make them understand that this could be their family member, they might start listening and shift their stance, even if not to support us, at least to soften their position and listen.

    We are strategising against the bill and building alliances with mainstream organisations that have access to the legislature and the executive. This is not something one organisation can fight. It is a collective struggle. We mapped the legislative arena to identify those MPs we could reach out to, speak with and share information with, because we needed to have progressive MPs debating on our behalf.

    Awareness-raising and engagement are also taking place online. People have reached out to the LGBTQI+ community and offered donations, expertise and contacts so that we could reach out to key personalities who could help. Protests were also coordinated and held outside the country, for instance in Canada, the UK and the USA. Online organising allowed us to hold abroad the in-person protests that for security reasons we could not physically hold here.

    How can international civil society best support the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Ghana?

    When people ask us what they can do, we tell them to protest, to create awareness, to let people know what is happening in Ghana and urge their governments to do something about it. If they have worked in Ghana before and have contacts among powerful people in Ghana, they should use them. A consultant who has worked with a ministry can use their contacts there, and a civil society organisation that has worked here can use its networks to support local organisations. They should encourage their own governments to take up any opportunity to raise the human rights implications of the bill with the Ghanaian government. International civil society organisations and the global community should definitely put more pressure on the Ghanaian government. 

    This is a crisis and local organisations and activists were not prepared, so we need a lot of support, particularly technical expertise in the legal arena. It is also key to have allies who can speak on our behalf, so that not all those speaking up against the bill are part of the LGBTQI+ community.

    Another thing that the global community and international civil society can do is support us through funding. Rightify Ghana is currently self-financing its activities and cannot offer the level of support that people need. As soon as the bill was submitted to parliament, evictions of LGBTQI+ people increased alongside arrests, and we saw an increase in the number of people asking for help finding shelter, but unfortunately, our community doesn’t have safe houses.

    People are being evicted not just by their landlords but also by their own families under suspicion of homosexuality, and they are not finding new places to live. We receive a lot of desperate messages from people who are temporarily staying with friends but urgently need a more stable arrangement. Some of these people are under very high risk.

    In one such case, a woman who identifies as lesbian told us she considered leaving the country because a group of boys in her community threatened her with ‘corrective rape’. She lives with her family, and if she tells them about the threat, they will realise that she is a lesbian and will throw her out. Either way, she is in a very dangerous situation, and right now, there is not much that we can do to help her.

    Civic space in Ghana is rated ‘narrowedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Rightify Ghana through itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@RightifyGhana on Twitter. 

     

  • HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

    Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

    Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

    The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

    Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

    After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

    Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

    On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

    However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

    In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

    In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

    Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

    In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

    Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

    What did civil society do to secure their release?

    During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

    Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

    First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

    Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

    Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

    This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

    Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

    There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

    In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

    However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

    Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

    We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

    In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

    Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

    However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

    Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

    The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

    Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

    In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

    Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

    Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Learn more about the Guapinol case on itswebsite and follow@Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

     

  • INDIA: ‘The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways’

    Sudha BharadwajCIVICUS speaks Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and long-time human rights defender working for the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples in India.

    Sudha wasarrested and detained in August 2018 under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. Alongside 15 other human rights defenders, she was further accused of conspiring to incite violence among the Dalit community. Despiteproof that incriminating evidence against them was planted,concerns expressed by United Nations (UN) experts about the arbitrary charges and UN calls to release political prisoners from crowded jails during the pandemic, requests for Sudha’s release, including on health grounds, were repeatedlyrejected. She was finallyreleased on bail in December 2021 after three years in detention.

    How did you get involved in human rights work?

    For the last 35 years I have been working in Chhattisgarh, an area in eastern India that is very rich in mineral resources. I began around 1986 as a trade unionist and worked with a legendary union leader, Shankar Guha Niyog, who was organising iron ore miners. Conditions were appalling. Workers were not unionised, working hours were long, wages were very paltry and even the very basic labour laws of our country were not being applied.

    I became a lawyer basically because my trade union needed one. I graduated in 2000, at the age of 40. I initially took up matters of our own union and later I shifted to work at the high court, where I realised contractual workers, farmers resisting land acquisition and Adivasi Indigenous groups resisting mining projects were forced to face very expensive corporate lawyers without any real legal assistance. They needed lawyers who understood them and who could devise legal strategies compatible with the tactics of their movements.

    I started a group of lawyers to provide legal aid to unions, farmers’ and village organisations, Adivasi communities, and civil society organisations (CSOs). Around this time, I became involved in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of the oldest human rights organisations in India. We dealt with various human rights issues, including attacks and harassment of minorities and the criminalisation of Dalits and Adivasis under false accusations of having links with armed Maoist groups, also called Naxals. We took up several cases in which security forces fired on villagers accused of being Naxalites. We were eventually able to prove that these were false accusations.

    I dealt with cases against big corporations, so I made powerful enemies. By taking up cases of Adivasis I also annoyed the government. In 2018 I was teaching a course at the national lawyer’s university in Delhi and that’s when I was arrested.

    Can you tell us about your experience in detention?

    Because the case was in Pune, I was initially sent to the women’s wing of the Yervada central jail, which is a prison for convicts. I was taken there with another activist, Shoma Sen. As soon as we were brought there, we experienced attacks on our dignity. We were asked to strip and squat. We were isolated: kept in separate cells, unable to communicate with other prisoners, led out into a yard for only half an hour a day. We were under constant surveillance.

    In the winter it was very cold. We spend most of the time reading, although we struggled to get books. Because the library was in the men’s side of the jail, only 25 books were brought at a time. We were allowed to keep only two or three with us in our cell. We also had issues with access to water and sometimes had to carry in buckets. Shoma struggled with severe arthritis. 

    Later on, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over our case, so we were moved to Byculla jail in Mumbai. This jail was extremely overcrowded, and we lacked any privacy. We would sleep right next to one another on coffin-sized strips of the floor which were allotted to us by the kamwali (staff) in charge of the barracks. There were also limited bathrooms to share.

    Social distancing was impossible, and during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, many detainees got infected and were stuffed in a quarantine barrack. I did not become seriously sick but both Shoma and I requested medical bail due to underlying conditions. This was systematically denied.

    Due to the pandemic, we were totally cut off from the outside world and were not taken to the courts for about five or six months. Then PUCL and other groups requested the Bombay High Courts to authorise telephone calls and we were allowed to speak to our families for 10 minutes once a week. Our lawyers could talk to us by sending an email to the jail, and the jail would allow us to phone them back - for 10 minutes, twice a week. That’s how we were able to tell them about prison conditions. I also tried to help people around us who were old or sick to write petitions.

    How did you feel when you were finally granted bail, and what’s next?

    The bail order was issued on 1 December 2021. I felt extremely disappointed that other activists linked to the case were not released with me. My request for bail was accepted on technical grounds. I heard the NIA appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn my bail, but it was immediately dismissed.

    On 8 December I was taken to the court, given cash bail, and asked to produce sureties. When I came back to the jail, many detainees celebrated for me and gave me their requests. I was released the next day.

    The bail conditions have restricted me to Mumbai, which is not my city. Friends have been very helpful, but I don’t have a home or work here so I’m still trying to adjust to the situation. I would like to continue my practice on behalf of prisoners and trade unions. For now, I have to attend court hearings and check-in at the police station every two weeks.

    How have the conditions for activism in India changed while you were in jail?

    Even before I went to jail things were already challenging, but since I was released, I have seen increasing attacks against minorities, notably Muslims. There has been a rise in hate speech, which seems to be manufactured and copiously funded, especially on social media.

    The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December 2019, is discriminatory against minorities. There was a strong movement against the CAA law, in many places led by Muslim women, but this was shut down due to the pandemic.

    We are also seeing that many institutions that are supposed to be independent – such as the Election Commission and investigating agencies – are being manipulated by the government. There are even concerns about the independence of the National Human Rights Commission, which has failed to take a proactive role on many important issues. The undermining of these institutions will affect their roles in their future, even if the government changes.

    The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways. One clear example is the increasing surveillance of journalists, activists, and advocates. A lot of us involved in the case had our phones infected by Pegasus spyware. We have approached the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Committee looking into the use of Pegasus against Indian citizens and it has decided to request our phones from the NIA and undertake an inquiry.

    There are also concerns about the impacts of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) on civil society. If you advocate for workers, Indigenous peoples or poor communities, your work is considered a political activity and you are barred from doing it. Larger CSOs with FCRA registration should be able to support smaller CSOs on the ground, but the government is depriving them of the ability of distributing funds to local grassroots groups and reaching out to real beneficiaries.

    Where do you see positive change coming from in India?

    One beacon of hope is the farmers’ movement. The opposition was against the farm bills proposed by the government, but it was unable to stop them. It was farmers themselves who stopped them, by standing their ground for almost one year in the heat, cold and rain. Thousands of criminal cases were brought against farmers, and they were smeared as terrorists. But they managed to hold their ground, build unity and push back. The key lesson here is that people must get organised.

    I think that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, the anti-CAA law movement would have had similar results. Students are also an important force, but we are seeing them facing attacks to prevent them organising and speaking up. But they will find a way to continue their struggle.

    At a time when many internal mechanisms are failing us, international scrutiny and pressure are also key to improving the situation. There are international standards India cannot ignore. But of late, the Indian government has taken a problematic attitude towards UN bodies, including UN missions to Kashmir, and has gone as far as preventing people from speaking at or participating in international conferences. When UN Special Rapporteurs have made comments on human rights in India, the response has been dismissive and disparaging.

    The government often uses terrorism and national security as an excuse for all kinds of human rights abuses. It is important to put the spotlight on this and not let the government get away with it.

    Civic space inIndia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 


    Sudha was one of our #StandAsMyWitness faces. The campaign advocates for the release of Human Rights Defenders behind bars. In 2021, we welcomed the news of the release of three Human Rights Defenders -including Sudha-, and we continue to use our voices to call for the release of all other detained activists. Head to the official campaign page to read more about the current faces featured and join us in standing as their witnesses!

    StandAsMyWitness released HRDs

     

     

  • JAMAICA: ‘After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights’

    Karen Lloyd

    CIVICUS speaks with Karen Lloyd, Associate Director of J-FLAG, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the significance of a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that held the Jamaican government responsible for violating rights. J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica.

    What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica?

    Gender and sexuality-based discrimination continue to be of concern and impacts on people in many ways, including their right to work, education, health, life and equality before the law. The law does not protect people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and same-sex intimacy is criminalised.

    In April 2011, the Jamaican government passed the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, but calls to include sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for non-discrimination went unheard. The 2012 National Survey on Attitudes and Perceptions towards Same-Sex Relations, commissioned by J-FLAG, found that one in five Jamaicans respected LGBTQI+ people and supported the inclusion of sexual orientation as a ground for non-discrimination. In addition, about one-third of the population believed the government was not doing enough to protect LGBTQI+ people from violence and discrimination.

    Members of the Jamaican LGBTQI+ community are routinely deprived of their human rights and suffer from widespread discrimination, exclusion, violent attacks, police abuse, joblessness and a distinct lack of legal protection, among other issues. Many LGBTQI+ Jamaicans live in fear because of discriminatory policies, laws and attitudes and the lack of political will to protect their human rights. Since 2009, over 600 cases of abuse and violence have been reported to J-FLAG, and the National Survey carried out in 2015 revealed a 12 per cent rate of tolerance toward LGBTQI+ people among the public.

    A 2016 report found that out of 316 LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, 32 per cent had reported being threatened with physical violence over the previous five years and 12 per cent had reported being attacked; 23.7 per cent reported being threatened with sexual violence and 19 per cent being sexually assaulted. However, 41 per cent had not reported these incidents because they did not think the police would do anything, and 30 per cent thought the matter was too minor. One in four feared a homophobic reaction from the police and one out of five felt too embarrassed and did not want anyone to know.

    This reality is compounded by homophobia and transphobia as well as by laws criminalising same-sex intimacy between men, weak and largely inaccessible anti-discrimination legislation, weak protections against sexual and domestic violence and lack of legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

    In February 2021, the IACHR issued a report on LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica. What was the significance of this?

    Several sections of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) of 1864 prohibit sexual activities between men. Section 76 criminalises buggery, section 77 criminalises any attempt to commit buggery and section 79 criminalises acts of gross indecency, which can include kissing, hand holding and other acts of male-to-male intimacy. Men convicted of buggery face a maximum of 10 years of hard labour. This and other laws relating to sexual offences that precede the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms are protected from rights-based challenges.

    In the cases examined by the IACHR, the petitioners – Mr Gareth Henry, who is gay and Ms Simone Edwards, who is a lesbian – alleged that Jamaica was in violation of its obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights by continuing to criminalise private consensual sexual activity between adult males and by protecting these laws from being challenged. They claimed that this perpetuates Jamaica’s culture of violent homophobia and encourages the state and the general population to persecute not only male homosexuals, but also the broader LGBTQI+ community. They said they had both been victims of homophobic attacks. 

    The report by the IACHR concluded that the Jamaican government was responsible for these violations of their rights. The last we heard about it, the Attorney General’s department had acknowledged the decision and was preparing a response. For civil society, it reinforced ongoing calls for amendments to the OAPA and became part of existing engagement with policymakers to have it changed. Advocacy efforts with legislators have continued to be difficult, however, because they are unwilling to be publicly associated with a call for repeal due to potential backlash by religious extremist groups and some members of the public.

    How is J-FLAG working to try to improve the situation?

    J-FLAG is the foremost human rights and social justice organisation in Jamaica advocating for the rights, livelihood and wellbeing of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica. Our work seeks to build a Jamaican society that respects and protects the rights of everyone. Our board and staff are committed to promoting social change, empowering the LGBTQI+ community and building tolerance for and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people. We promote the values of all-inclusivity, diversity, equality, fairness and love. These values are at the heart of all we do, as we seek to become effective agents of social change.

    To achieve our goals, we work on four main areas. First, we seek to improve the provision of non-discriminatory health services, engage key stakeholders and employees to address employment-related discrimination, and provide LGBTQI+ young people with a dedicated organisation that focuses on issues that directly affect their life outcomes.

    Second, we seek to increase participation in policy development and review processes by empowering young LGBTQI+ people and youth leaders and increasing collaboration among the LGBTQI+ young people involved in mainstream youth organisations.

    Third, we create service packages for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans aimed at increasing their access to information and counselling, reducing homelessness, increasing access to non-discriminatory social services, and increasing access to safe entertainment and networking.

    Fourth, we advocate for the human rights of LGBTQI+ people by legitimising the needs of the community, sensitising the population and parliamentarians around human rights, stigma and discrimination, increasing the capacity of LGBTQI+ leaders, civil society organisations (CSOs) and other stakeholders and duty-bearers to be better equipped to respond to the needs of LGBTQI+ people, and increasing the visibility of the experiences and the issues affecting them. 

    What have been some of your achievements and lessons learned so far?

    Our achievements over the past decade included the training of over 700 healthcare workers, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, on how to treat LGBTQI+ clients; successful mass media campaigns such as We Are Jamaicans, #iChooseLove and #OutLoudJA, which sought to raise awareness about LGBTQI+ people among the general population; Our public Pride celebrations; four national surveys on attitudes and perceptions of the public on LGBTQI+ people and issues; the provision of capacity building for CSOs and youth leaders; and numerous research and publications on LGBTQI+ issues.

    Since our inaugural Pride event in 2015, Jamaica has held annual celebrations during the ‘Emancipendence’ period – the holidays celebrating both the end of slavery and independence from British colonial rule. The first thing to note is that Jamaica Pride has been conceptualised and implemented through a culturally appropriate lens; for example, it does not include a parade and instead takes the form of a diverse set of events and activities that are important to Jamaicans, including a sports day, church service, trade show, concert, party events and a day of service. At our inaugural Pride in 2015, the keynote speaker at our opening ceremony was the Mayor of Kingston, Dr. Angela Brown-Burke, which meant to signal that the community had allies among policymakers and parliamentarians.

    Another success has been having mainstream dancehall artistes such as Tanya Stephens, D’Angel, Jada Kingdom, Tifa, Ishawna, Yanique Curvy Diva and Stacious perform at Pride events. This focused national attention on our celebrations and signalled a positive shift regarding cultural spaces that had been highly contested.

    For the first time this year, J-FLAG did not host all the Pride events itself; instead, it provided financial and logistical support for members of the community to spearhead their own events. Dubbed #PrideShare, the initiative featured events led by community members, including arts events and a lip-sync battle, whose success indicated that our efforts are a step in the right direction.

    After 20 years of advocacy, now there is sustained public conversation around LGBTQI+ rights, increasing public tolerance and a growing willingness among parliamentarians, policymakers and key decision-makers to engage with the local LGBTQI+ community, including steps in working with LGBTQI+ rights organisations and advocates to improve the lives of members of the community. Notably, J-FLAG has built and sustained a significant partnership with the Ministry of Health that has led to the training and sensitisation of over 500 healthcare workers to fight stigma and discrimination in the health sector.

    Notwithstanding these gains, the movement has been dogged by sluggish law and policy reform, limited availability of spaces for community mobilisation and engagement, limited financial support to address homelessness and displacement, and low engagement of LGBTQI+ people living in rural areas. J-FLAG in particular has outlined the need for greater support in strengthening community systems as a means of scaling up advocacy efforts and ensuring wider reach and greater impact.

    How can international civil society best support the struggle of LGBQTI+ people in Jamaica and more generally in the Caribbean?

    International civil society can support the local and regional movement in many ways, including by giving us a seat at the table during global conversations, and understanding that we are the experts on what is happening in our societies. Where possible, it should also support our resourcing efforts with international donors. It can also help by sharing best practices and relevant research and raising awareness about the issues we face in Jamaica and the Caribbean among wider audiences.

    Civic space inJamaica is rated as ‘narrowedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with J-FLAG through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@EqualityJa on Twitter.

     

     

  • JAMAICA: ‘Laws that discriminate against LGBTQI+ people send a signal about our place in society’

    Glenroy MurrayCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Glenroy Murray, Executive Director of J-FLAG.

    J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and well- being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jamaica.

    What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica?

    We continue to face challenges even as we note that there has been progress in the form of moderately increasing positive attitudes towards the community. Based on the 2019 Awareness, Attitude and Perception Survey commissioned by J-FLAG, there was a small but noticeable increase of five percentage points in tolerant and positive attitudes towards LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, from 20 to 25 per cent. A 10-year analysis of the human rights violations being reported to J-FLAG shows a decline in mob violence, arson and murder.

    However, there continues to be reports of verbal harassment, threats, physical violence and displacement of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans by their family and members of their community. According to the 2019 Community Needs Assessment commissioned by J-FLAG, one in five LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have been displaced at some point in their lives, and 46.8 per cent of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have experienced discrimination.

    That being said, there has been a noticeable increase in the willingness of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans to be more visible and a decline in openly homophobic rhetoric among politicians and key decision-makers, and in violently homophobic lyrics in popular music genres. These qualitative shifts suggest that we are slowly moving in a positive direction as a society, even though the most vulnerable members of the community often continue to face the most severe manifestations of homophobia.

    Do you think there are enough mechanisms in place to address homophobia in Jamaica?

    Quite the opposite: there are specific legislative provisions that are discriminatory. For example, section 76 of the Offences Against the Person Act criminalises anal sex regardless of consent and section 79 generally criminalises male-to-male intimacy. Although these laws are hardly enforced, they send a signal about our place in society. In addition, same-sex couples are deliberately excluded from laws that recognise unmarried couples and provide benefits and protections, including against domestic violence, to people in those relationships.

    Jamaican law does not prohibit discrimination by private people and groups, including companies, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While some steps have been taken to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in policy, this has not always translated into better protection for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. In addition, there continues to be a reticence among community members to report crimes and violence against them to the police because of experiences of discrimination that they’ve had or are aware of.

    It is critical for the Jamaican government to do more to ensure the inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. A 2020 study done by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute revealed that billions of dollars are lost because of discrimination against the community. Beyond this economic burden, the continued exclusion faced by the community puts Jamaica at odds with its international human rights commitments and obligations. The success of our national development plan, Vision 2030, is endangered by this exclusion.

    What work does J-FLAG do, and what challenges has it faced?

    J-FLAG uses a range of approaches to advocate for greater inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans within society. We continue to agitate for law and policy reform so that criminalising and discriminatory laws are changed and protective laws and policies are introduced. Recognising the need to engender cultural change, we do online and traditional media campaigns to promote tolerance and inclusion.

    We have also invested heavily in building the capacity of members and allies so they can do their personal advocacy independently from us. This has led to increasing visibility among community members, contributing to our efforts to change hearts and minds.

    We also do research around issues facing the community to ensure our advocacy is evidence-based and we are able to act as a repository of knowledge for those who would like to support our work. Additionally, we do capacity building training and sensitisation sessions for a range of public and private groups to improve their engagement with members of the community. Finally, we have hosted seven incident-free PrideJA celebrations since 2015 and are now planning the eighth.

    The major challenge we have faced is fear among a wide range of stakeholders to openly or quietly engage with our work. There are low levels of political will to effect legal and policy change. Community members are reticent to engage with us openly because of fears of discrimination. Various public and private organisations prefer not to work with an openly LGBTQI+ organisation. There has been consistent, though in recent years not as visible, opposition by extremist religious groups.

    Within Jamaican society there are mixed views about our work, but support for it has grown significantly over the last five to 10 years. Some people are curious, others are willing to engage and learn, but among a significant mass there continues to be distrust or outright opposition. 

    How can Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

    Given the similarities across many Commonwealth countries, there is an opportunity for dialogue and experience-sharing, particularly with countries such as Bahamas, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, which have taken different routes to decriminalisation.

    As a body, the Commonwealth has a majority of countries from the global south, which while it presents its own challenges, also affords the opportunity to discuss and do work around LGBTQI+ rights with respect for each country’s cultural experiences. Within such a space, there is less potential for global north and western countries to be regarded as pushing ‘a foreign agenda’, and it is more likely for honest and difficult conversations about LGBTQI+ inclusion to happen and for collaboration to emerge. The only challenge will be whether the heads of government of these countries are willing to engage in these conversations.

    International organisations should maintain lines of communication with local organisations such as J-FLAG and TransWave Jamaica, which works on trans health and wellbeing, to develop an informed understanding of LGBTQI+ issues in the Jamaican context and use their various platforms to share that understanding with a wide range of actors. It would also be useful for them to assist in forging partnerships among organisations and movements in places like Jamaica and other parts of the world and offer support to ensure that the Jamaican movement is sustained.

    Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with J-FLAG through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@EqualityJa on Twitter.

     

     

  • JAMAÏQUE : « Après 20 ans de plaidoyer, les droits des LGBTQI+ sont désormais abordés publiquement »

    Karen LloydCIVICUS s’entretient avec Karen Lloyd, directrice associée de J-FLAG, sur la situation des personnes LGBTQI+ en Jamaïque et sur la signification d’un récent rapport de la Commission interaméricaine des droits de l´homme (CIDH) qui tient le gouvernement jamaïcain responsable des violations des droits. J-FLAG est une organisation de défense des droits humains et de justice sociale qui défend les droits, la vie et le bien-être des personnes LGBTQI+ en Jamaïque.

    Quelle est la situation des personnes LGBTQI+ en Jamaïque ?

    La discrimination fondée sur le genre et la sexualité reste préoccupante et affecte les personnes de nombreuses façons, entravant leurs droits au travail, à l’éducation et à la santé, et même les droits à la vie et à l’égalité devant la loi. La loi ne protège pas les personnes contre la discrimination fondée sur l’orientation sexuelle ou l’identité de genre, et les relations intimes entre personnes de même sexe sont criminalisées.

    En avril 2011, le gouvernement jamaïcain a adopté la Charte des droits et libertés fondamentaux, mais les appels à y inclure des garanties de non-discrimination sur la base de l’orientation sexuelle et de l’identité de genre sont restés lettre morte. L’enquête nationale de 2012 sur les attitudes et les perceptions à l’égard des relations entre personnes de même sexe, commandée par J-FLAG, a révélé qu’une personne sur cinq en Jamaïque respectait les personnes LGBTQI+ et soutenait l’inclusion de l’orientation sexuelle comme motif de non-discrimination. En outre, environ un tiers de la population pensait que le gouvernement ne faisait pas assez pour protéger les personnes LGBTQI+ de la violence et de la discrimination.

    Les membres de la communauté LGBTQI+ jamaïcaine sont systématiquement privés de leurs droits fondamentaux et sont victimes de discrimination, d’exclusion, d’agressions violentes, d’abus policiers, de difficulté d’accès à l’emploi et d’un manque évident de protection juridique, entre autres problèmes répandus. De nombreuses personnes LGBTQI+ vivent dans la peur en raison de politiques, de lois et d’attitudes discriminatoires et d’un manque de volonté politique de protéger leurs droits fondamentaux. Depuis 2009, J-FLAG a reçu plus de 600 signalements d’abus et de violences, et l’enquête nationale de 2015 a révélé que seulement 12 % du public exprimait sa tolérance envers les personnes LGBTQI+.

    Un rapport de 2016 a révélé que sur 316 Jamaïcains LGBTQI+, 32 % ont déclaré avoir été menacés de violence physique au cours des cinq années précédentes et 12 % ont déclaré avoir été agressés ; 23,7 % ont déclaré avoir été menacés de violence sexuelle et 19 % avoir été agressés sexuellement. Cependant, 41 % n’ont pas signalé ces incidents, parce qu’ils pensaient que la police ne ferait rien, et 30 % estimaient que l’affaire était trop mineure pour être traitée. Un sur quatre craignait une réaction homophobe de la part de la police et un sur cinq se sentait trop honteux et préférait ne rien dire à personne.

    Cette réalité est aggravée par l’homophobie et la transphobie, ainsi que par des lois criminalisant l’intimité entre personnes de même sexe, une législation anti-discrimination faible et largement inaccessible, une faible protection contre la violence sexuelle et domestique, et l’absence de reconnaissance légale des relations entre personnes de même sexe.

    En février 2021, la CIDH a publié un rapport sur les droits des LGBTQI+ en Jamaïque. Quelle est sa pertinence ?

    Plusieurs articles de la loi sur les infractions contre la personne (OAPA), qui remonte à 1864, interdisent les activités sexuelles entre hommes. L’article 76 criminalise la sodomie, l’article 77 criminalise toute tentative de sodomie et l’article 79 criminalise les actes de grossière indécence, qui peuvent inclure le fait de s’embrasser, de se tenir la main et d’autres actes d’intimité entre hommes. Les hommes reconnus coupables de sodomie risquent jusqu’à 10 ans de travaux forcés. Cette loi et d’autres lois relatives aux infractions sexuelles antérieures à la Charte des droits et libertés fondamentaux sont protégées contre les contestations juridiques fondées sur les droits.

    Dans les affaires examinées par la CIDH, les requérants - M. Gareth Henry, qui est homosexuel, et Mme Simone Edwards, qui est lesbienne - ont allégué qu’en continuant à criminaliser l’activité sexuelle privée entre hommes adultes consentants et en protégeant ces lois de toute contestation, la Jamaïque a manqué à ses obligations au titre de la Convention américaine relative aux droits humains. Ils ont fait valoir que cela contribuait à perpétuer la culture jamaïcaine d’homophobie violente, et encourageait l’État et la population en général à persécuter non seulement les homosexuels, mais aussi la communauté LGBTQI+ dans son ensemble. Tous deux ont affirmé avoir été victimes d’attaques homophobes. 

    Le rapport de la CIDH a conclu que le gouvernement jamaïcain était responsable de ces violations de leurs droits. Aux dernières nouvelles, le département du procureur général avait pris acte de la décision et préparait une réponse. Pour la société civile, le rapport a renforcé les appels continus en faveur d’une modification de l’OAPA et s'est inscrit dans le cadre de l'engagement existant auprès des décideurs politiques pour qu'elle soit modifiée. Cependant, les efforts de plaidoyer auprès des législateurs sont restés laborieux, car ceux-ci ne veulent pas être associés publiquement à un appel à l’abrogation de l’OAPA, en raison de la réaction potentielle de la part des groupes extrémistes religieux et de certains segments du public.

    Comment J-FLAG travaille-t-elle pour essayer d’améliorer la situation ?

    J-FLAG est la principale organisation jamaïcaine de défense des droits humains et de la justice sociale qui défend les droits, les moyens de subsistance et le bien-être des personnes LGBTQI+ en Jamaïque. Notre travail vise à construire une société qui respecte et protège les droits de toutes les personnes. Nos dirigeants et notre personnel s’engagent à promouvoir le changement social, à donner des moyens d’action à la communauté LGBTQI+ et à encourager la tolérance et l’acceptation des personnes LGBTQI+. Nous promouvons les valeurs d’inclusion, de diversité, d’égalité, d’équité et d’amour. Ces valeurs sont au cœur de tout ce que nous faisons, car nous cherchons à devenir des agents efficaces du changement social.

    Pour atteindre nos objectifs, nous travaillons dans quatre domaines principaux. Tout d’abord, nous cherchons à améliorer l’offre de services de santé non discriminatoires, à impliquer les principales parties prenantes dans la lutte contre la discrimination liée à l’emploi et à fournir aux jeunes LGBTQI+ une organisation axée sur les questions qui affectent directement leurs perspectives de vie.

    Deuxièmement, nous cherchons à accroître la participation aux processus d’élaboration et de révision des politiques, en donnant des moyens d’action aux jeunes LGBTQI+ et aux responsables de la jeunesse, et en renforçant la collaboration entre les jeunes LGBTQI+ impliqués dans les organisations de jeunesse traditionnelles.

    Troisièmement, nous avons créé des ensembles de services pour les Jamaïcains LGBTQI+ afin d’améliorer leur accès à l’information et aux conseils, de réduire le nombre de sans-abri, d’augmenter l’accès à des services sociaux non discriminatoires, de permettre l’accès à des loisirs et une mise en réseau sûrs.

    Quatrièmement, nous défendons les droits humains des personnes LGBTQI+ en légitimant les besoins de la communauté, en sensibilisant le public et les parlementaires aux droits humains, à la stigmatisation et à la discrimination, en renforçant la capacité des dirigeants LGBTQI+, des organisations de la société civile (OSC) et des autres parties prenantes et responsables à être mieux équipés pour répondre aux besoins des personnes LGBTQI+, et en augmentant la visibilité des expériences et des problèmes qui les affectent. 

    Quelles ont été vos principales réalisations et leçons apprises jusqu’à présent ?

    Parmi nos réalisations de ces dix dernières années, citons la formation de plus de 700 professionnels de la santé, en collaboration avec le ministère de la Santé et des Affaires sociales, sur la manière de traiter les patients LGBTQI+ ; des campagnes médiatiques réussies, telles que We Are Jamaicans, #IChooseLove et #OutLoudJA, qui visaient à sensibiliser le public au statut et aux droits des personnes LGBTQI+ ; nos célébrations publiques de la Fierté ; quatre enquêtes nationales sur les attitudes et les perceptions du public à l’égard des personnes et des questions LGBTQI+ ; la fourniture d’un soutien au renforcement des capacités des OSC et des jeunes leaders ; et la production de nombreuses recherches et publications sur les questions LGBTQI+.

    Depuis notre événement inaugural de la Fierté en 2015, chaque année, la Jamaïque organise des célébrations pendant la période d’ « Emancipendence », qui comprend des célébrations commémorant à la fois la fin de l’esclavage et l’indépendance de la domination coloniale britannique. La première chose à noter est que la Fierté jamaïcaine a été conceptualisée et mise en œuvre d’une manière culturellement appropriée ; par exemple, elle ne comprend pas de défilé et prend plutôt la forme d’un ensemble diversifié d’événements et d’activités pertinents pour les Jamaïcains, notamment une journée sportive, un service religieux, une foire commerciale, un concert, des événements festifs et une journée de service. Lors de notre Fierté inaugurale en 2015, l’orateur principal de la cérémonie d’ouverture était la mairesse de Kingston, la Dr Angela Brown-Burke, ce qui était un signe que la communauté avait des alliés au niveau politique et parlementaire.

    Un autre succès a été la participation d’artistes de renom tels que Tanya Stephens, D’Angel, Jada Kingdom, Tifa, Ishawna, Yanique Curvy Diva et Stacious aux événements de la Fierté. Cela a attiré l’attention nationale sur nos célébrations et a constitué un changement positif par rapport aux espaces culturels qui avaient été fortement contestés.

    Pour la première fois cette année, J-FLAG n’a pas pris la tête de l’organisation de tous les événements de la Fierté, mais a fourni un soutien financier et logistique aux membres de la communauté pour qu’ils puissent organiser leurs propres événements. Baptisée #PrideShare, l’initiative proposait des événements dirigés par la communauté, notamment des manifestations artistiques et un battle de synchronisation labiale (lip sync), dont le succès a montré que nos efforts allaient dans le bon sens.

    Après 20 ans de plaidoyer, les droits des personnes LGBTQI+ font désormais l’objet d’un débat public. On constate une augmentation de la tolérance publique et une volonté croissante des représentants parlementaires, des dirigeants politiques et des décideurs de s’engager auprès de la communauté LGBTQI+ locale, ce qui a permis de progresser dans la collaboration avec les organisations de défense des droits et les défenseurs des personnes LGBTQI+, afin d’améliorer la vie de ces dernières. En particulier, J-FLAG a établi et maintenu un partenariat important avec le ministère de la santé, qui a permis de former et de sensibiliser plus de 500 agents de santé pour lutter contre la stigmatisation et la discrimination dans le secteur de la santé.

    En dépit de ces avancées, le mouvement a été affecté par la lenteur des réformes législatives et politiques, la disponibilité limitée d’espaces pour la mobilisation et la participation communautaires, le soutien financier limité pour lutter contre le problème des sans-abri et le déplacement, et l’engagement limité des personnes LGBTQI+ vivant dans les zones rurales. J-FLAG, en particulier, a souligné la nécessité d’un soutien accru pour renforcer les systèmes communautaires comme moyen d’intensifier les efforts de plaidoyer et d’assurer une plus grande portée et un plus grand impact.

    Comment la société civile internationale peut-elle soutenir au mieux la lutte des personnes LGBQTI+ en Jamaïque, et dans les Caraïbes en général ?

    La société civile internationale peut soutenir le mouvement local et régional de plusieurs manières. Par exemple, en nous donnant un siège à la table des conversations mondiales et en comprenant que nous sommes les experts de ce qui se passe dans nos sociétés. Dans la mesure du possible, elle devrait également soutenir nos efforts de financement auprès des donateurs internationaux. Elle peut également nous aider en partageant les bonnes pratiques et les recherches pertinentes et en sensibilisant le grand public aux problèmes auxquels nous sommes confrontés en Jamaïque et dans les Caraïbes.

    L’espace civique en Jamaïque est classé « rétréci » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contactez J-FLAG via sonsite web ou son profilFacebook,et suivez@EqualityJa sur Twitter. 

     

  • KENYA: ‘The government has put all the burden of addressing homophobia on civil society’

    Stephen OkwanyCIVICUS speaks about the situation ofLGBTQI+rights in Kenya and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Stephen Okwany, programme director of Talanta Africa.

    Talanta Africa is a civil society organisation (CSO) that uses art to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people and advocates for an inclusive society in which LGBTQI+ and young people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

    What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Kenya?

    The Kenyan LGBTQI+ community continues to celebrate amazing gains brought by progressive organising and its focus on opening conversations around queer lived realities, discussing bodily autonomy and deconstructing cis hate.

    This has been met with mixed reactions from different quarters. Our gains have elicited organised opposition from anti-gender and anti-rights movements highly resourced by illiberal populists and very active in the religious, cultural and legal arenas. These movements perpetrate organised rights violations against LGBTQI+ people, including by promoting conversion therapy practices, profiling LGBTQI+ people and queer activists, deliberately denying access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education, perpetrating online attacks and outing queer people, and even through the murder of queer people, the most recent case being that of Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian who was attacked, sexually assaulted and killed in her home on 17 April.

    How does legislation discriminate against Kenyan LGBTQI+ people?

    The Kenyan government recognises the existence of queer people in the country. However, there are still regressive laws in place that threaten the existence of the queer movement, such as Sections 162-165 of the Penal Code, which discriminate against consensual same-sex relationships and criminalise those who live on the proceeds of sex work, limiting the independence of LGBTQI+ sex workers in Kenya.

    Additionally, queer people and collectives face restrictions on their freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, as the government shies away from registering queer collectives and the police typically use excessive force to disrupt queer parades.

    The government has not put in place mechanisms to address homophobia. The burden to do so has been left to civil society. Queer survivors of deliberate homophobic attacks have been denied justice by a judicial system built upon cis hate and in violation of the provisions to integrate LGBTQI+ community members as equal participants in the Kenyan development process. No progress can be achieved if a section of the population continues to be excluded on the basis of prejudiced perceptions.

    How does your organisation work to counter those perceptions?

    Talanta Africa is an artivist collective of queer human rights defenders. We put the power of strategic communications tools such as arts, culture, media and tech at the service of queer storytelling to promote a change in narratives and improve the civic space of LGBTQI+ people.

    Our organisation is largely a strategic communications platform that convenes queer people who believe that silence is too high a price to pay in the face of injustice and inequality. We believe that conscious art and culture play a key role in shaping narratives and telling stories while also countering regressive narratives that advance cis hate.

    Not surprisingly, our work has been met with extreme opposition and has been branded as a queer ‘recruitment’ process. This has resulted in attacks on our offices, the intimidation of our artivists, the profiling of our work and intentional exclusion from activist spaces and platforms.

    How can Kenya and other Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

    Commonwealth countries should establish multilateral instruments to affirm and advance the bodily autonomy of LGBTQI+ people. These could provide a platform for auditing legal instruments at a country level and assessing the development and implementation of new legal frameworks to replace regressive legal provisions.

    International organisations have a mandate to raise human rights awareness, including of the human rights of LGBTQI+ people, and denounce human rights violations, including those faced by LGBTQI+ community. To do so, they must promote progressive queer narratives. They must be deliberate in resourcing queer-affirming spaces through the equal rights and equal opportunities framework.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Talanta Africa through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@TaAfrika on Twitter.

     

  • MEXICO: ‘Human rights defenders constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk’

    AntonioLaraCIVICUS speaks with Antonio Lara Duque, a human rights lawyer with the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Centre (CDHZL), about the situation of Indigenous rights defenders in Mexico, and specifically about the situation of Kenia Hernández, a criminalised and unjustly imprisoned woman Indigenous leader.

    CDHZL is a civil society organisation in the state of Mexico that accompanies the struggles of Indigenous communities, native peoples and collectives who are seeking a dignified life by claiming and exercising their human rights.

    Who is Kenia Hernández, and why is she detained?

    Kenia is an Indigenous Amuzga young woman. She is 32 years old. She is the coordinator of the Zapata Vive Libertarian Collective, which promotes peaceful resistance against the neoliberal development model. She is a lawyer by training, a self-identified feminist and is dedicated to defending human rights, and specifically to defending people imprisoned for political reasons, looking for missing people with the goal of finding them alive and giving legal support to female victims of violence.

    Kenia was arrested on 18 October 2020 under accusations of attacks on a public thoroughfare and robbery with violence. She was charged with serious crimes to ensure she could be kept in the most terrible maximum-security prison for women in all of Mexico.

    On 15 March 2022 the trial court in Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico, will determine whether she is guilty or innocent in one of the five criminal cases against her. All these cases were fabricated with the sole purpose of isolating her and preventing her from continuing mobilising, as well as to send a signal of exemplary punishment to all those people she managed to bring together into a nationwide movement that questioned the private management of highways.

    Is Kenia’s case part of a broader trend of criminalisation of Indigenous defenders in Mexico?

    Indeed, Kenia’s case reveals that the Mexican state has a clear policy of a ‘pedagogy of punishment’, for two reasons.

    First, it sends a signal to the people who protest, and particularly to those who protest against the privatisation of highways, that they should no longer resort to public demonstrations as a form of social mobilisation, because if they do, they will bring upon themselves an unjust and cruel imprisonment such as the one experienced by Kenia.

    Second, Mexican state officials are trying to subdue and bend the will of Kenia, to punish her for protesting, but also to weaken her convictions, to subdue the energy and strength she puts into protest, to let her know who is in charge and who must obey. As she has not submitted to them, they continue to keep her in prison. They know that if she is released she will go back to her activism.

    Both situations are seriously worrying, because they seek to reverse decades of social struggles and opening of democratic spaces.

    What is civil society, and specifically CDHZL, doing to secure her release?

    CDHZL is dedicated to disseminating, promoting and defending the human rights of peoples, organisations and human rights defenders. We defend the environment, land and territory, the human right to water and Indigenous culture. And we focus particularly on the protection of human rights defenders, since in Mexico these are people who constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk.

    Part of our work consists in providing legal defence to human rights defenders who are unjustly criminalised and imprisoned for the peaceful defence of their rights. In its 10 years of existence, CDHZL has helped around 250 people regain their freedom.

    We hope that soon Kenia will be another of them. Mexican civil society has given a lot of visibility to her case, putting her criminalisation on the public agenda and involving key people, in particular Mexican senators, to convince relevant decision-makers to stop criminalising Kenia. We have also tried to bring her case to the international arena, pointing out the punitive policy of the Mexican federal government.

    Through its large team of lawyers, CDHZL has sustained a legal defence in the five legal processes against Kenia, with all that they entail: dozens of hearings, challenges and trials of guarantees, some of which we won. But clearly this is much more than a legal struggle, as high-ranking officials are determined to keep Kenia in prison at all costs.

    Has there been any improvement in the situation of Indigenous defenders under the current leftist government?

    We expected improvements in the situation of Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and collective rights more generally, but unfortunately there continues to be a generalised disdain among the federal government, regardless of its leftist leanings.

    The government has been unable or unwilling to tune in to the most heartfelt demands of Indigenous peoples. Aggressions against human rights defenders have continued, including disappearances, murders and imprisonments. When it comes to imprisonment, Kenia’s case is one of the most shocking examples of the misuse of the criminal justice system against a human rights defender under a government that claims to be the architect of a ‘fourth transformation’ – a process of profound change supposedly comparable to those of independence (1810-1821), reform (1858-1861) and revolution (1910-1917).

    What kind of regional and international support does Mexican civil society need in its struggle for human rights and civic space?

    Undoubtedly, international observation, very poorly accepted by the current government, would help recover democratic spaces for social protest and the free expression of ideas.

    Appeals to the Mexican government can help sensitise the authorities to the importance of respecting human rights and those who defend them beyond political party affiliations.

    International mediation and good offices will undoubtedly be a key tool to strengthen civil society in the defence of human rights, particularly in processes where the life and freedom of human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples’ rights are at stake.

    Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with CDHZL through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow @cdhzloficial on Twitter.

     

     

  • NICARAGUA: ‘María Esperanza’s case is part of a growing process of criminalisation of social protest’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ana Lucía Álvarez, Nicaragua officer of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), about the case of María Esperanza Sánchez, unjustly imprisoned in Nicaragua since March 2020, and the ongoing campaign for her release.

    IM-Defensoras is a network of activists and organisations from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua that seeks to provide a comprehensive, regional response to the increasing violence against women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica. Founded in 2010, it seeks to empower and connect women defenders involved in various organisations and social movements to strengthen networks of protection and solidarity among them and to increase the visibility, recognition and impact of their human rights work.

    Ana Lucia AlvarezEntrevista

    How long has María Esperanza been in prison, and why?

    María Esperanza was captured on 26 January 2020. She is an activist who for a long time accompanied relatives of political prisoners. I believe she began her activism and her organisation after the citizens’ uprising of April 2018. She was already being persecuted, so she was staying in a safe house. The police illegally and arbitrarily raided the house, without a search warrant, and arrested her. She was accused of trafficking narcotics, psychotropics and other controlled substances to the detriment of public health. Her trial is being handled by lawyer Julio Montenegro, who specialises in cases of criminalisation of protest and judicial prosecution of activists and human rights defenders. 

    Do you consider María Esperanza’s case to be part of a broader attack on civic space in Nicaragua?

    There is definitely a growing process of criminalisation of social protest in Nicaragua. The first upsurge in criminalisation came after Operation Clean-up, which ended around August 2018. This was a pseudo-military operation carried out by police and para-police forces to dismantle any organisation of territorial protection that the population had built through barricades in neighbourhoods and roadblocks around the country.

    Once Operation Clean-up was over, the criminalisation of those who had taken part in the civic struggle began. More than 800 people became political prisoners, before being released in 2019 by unilateral decision of the government through the Amnesty Law.

    María Esperanza had already been persecuted, harassed, put under surveillance and threatened before she was imprisoned for her human rights work. Her arrest and trial, like those of so many others, were plagued by irregularities. Violations of due process are systematic. In Nicaragua, the justice system is totally co-opted. It has collapsed and is under the control of the presidential couple: President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo.

    How has the situation of civil society changed since the 2018 wave of protests?

    More than 350 people were killed in a span of six months during the 2018 protests. The symbolic and emotional weight of that death toll in a country that has experienced civil wars, dictatorships and armed uprisings has been tremendous. In Nicaragua there has never been accountability, there have always been policies of wiping the slate clean, which has deepened the wounds.

    In addition to the suffering of the 350 dead, there were over 800 people imprisoned for political reasons, and while many have since been released from prison, we purposefully say that they have been released rather than that they are free, because after their release, political persecution has not ended for them. Systematic harassment by police and para-police forces continues, and it becomes an obstacle to the enjoyment of many rights, including the right to work.

    For these people, the effects of the economic crisis that the country is currently experiencing are compounded by the difficulties brought about by political persecution. They often cannot leave their home because there is a patrol outside, or they go out and they are followed, and then those who follow them learn the names of their employers and start to harass them as well.

    Persecution happens at the local, neighbourhood level. The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, has established various structures that are used to maintain territorial control through surveillance and repression: Councils of Citizen Power, Family Cabinets and Sandinista Leadership Committees. If you are an opponent or a human rights defender, there will always be a neighbour of yours who is involved in one of these structures and informs the regime and the police of what you are doing, and then you start to be persecuted and harassed, and maybe at some point you get arbitrarily arrested.

    Harassment and hypervigilance cause psychological damage not only to the persecuted individual but also to their family. This has had an impact on the increase in emigration, which is a dual phenomenon, caused by both political persecution and social need. Since 2018, 120,000 people have left Nicaragua, a huge number for a country of just six million.

    The 2021 presidential election openly exposed the regime’s lack of legitimacy. On what basis does the government stand?

    In the run-up to the 2021 election, persecution was only exacerbated. In order to carry out the electoral farce of November, the government imprisoned 10 presidential pre-candidates and many people with a key role in the electoral process and in the formation of alternatives. This sent a very clear message, as a result of which there is still a lot of self-censorship.

    Daniel Ortega has continued to concentrate and consolidate his power. We are currently living under a regime that has become totalitarian, where all freedoms are totally restricted. This is the only way the government can sustain itself, because it has no legitimacy. That is why repression and social control continue to increase rather than decrease. In the absence of such levels of repression and social control, the very high level of popular rejection of the regime would make it impossible for it to maintain political control.

    As a result, repression, territorial control, neighbourhood repression, the criminalisation of protest and social dissent, and the closing of spaces for the exercise of the freedom of expression and media freedoms can be expected to continue.

    Now a combination of laws has been passed that includes a Cybercrime Law. And we have already seen the first political prisoner convicted under this law, which does nothing other than criminalise the freedom of opinion.

    What the government is looking for with political prisoners is to use them as hostages. Among the people arrested recently are presidential candidates, businesspeople, bankers, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders. The government is trying to negotiate their release to gain legitimacy and international approval.

    The truth is that the government has no international support. The only foreign leaders who attended the presidential inauguration were Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and outgoing Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.

    How can the international community support Nicaraguan civil society in its struggle for the recovery of democracy and human rights?

    We need to amplify denunciations of violations and sharpen accountability mechanisms. Civil society in Nicaragua has made a tremendous effort not only to document human rights violations but also to identify their perpetrators. Given that the justice system in Nicaragua has collapsed, and that civil society is doing everything within its power, the onus is on the international community to push for accountability and punishment of those responsible.

    Daniel Ortega’s regime is no longer a political project but an economic enterprise. Its control of the state allows Ortega to use corruption networks to his advantage. In the light of this, the international community should fine-tune its mechanisms, review economic sanctions and identify the companies that continue to do business, not always entirely legally, with the Ortega regime. Since many association agreements have democratic and anti-corruption clauses, they need to be made operational. Personal sanctions must also be imposed on the architects of corruption and repression.

    What kind of pressure should be exerted to get María Esperanza Sanchez released?

    María Esperanza was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Everything that has happened to her and to the rest of the political prisoners is completely arbitrary; that is precisely why we consider them to be political prisoners. What we demand is the unconditional and guaranteed release of them all.

    What happens to them will depend to a large extent on the strength with which the opposition and the international community manage to exert pressure, and on the correlation of forces that is established between the Nicaraguan government and the human rights movement.

    We must campaign and keep up the pressure. We must continue to put our finger on all the arbitrariness, illegalities and human rights violations. There are still people in Europe and other parts of the world who think Ortega is the idealistic revolutionary of the past, and not the despot he has become. The best way to expose dictators and human rights abusers is to keep communicating the truth on the basis of well-documented evidence.

    Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with IM-Defensoras through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@IM_Defensoras on Twitter.

     

  • NICARAGUA: ‘The regime seeks to annihilate all forms of autonomous citizen organisation’

    CIVICUS speaks with María Teresa Blandón, a Nicaraguan human rights defender and director of Feminist Programme La Corriente, a civil society organisation (CSO) whose legal status was recently cancelled by the authoritarian regime led by President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo.

    Maria Teresa Blandon

    What is the reason for the current wave of intensified in repression in Nicaragua?

    Repression increased on the eve of the fraudulent 2021 elections, when the state specifically targeted the leaders of the main opposition groups who had been building alliances to participate in the elections, because even though they knew that conditions were extremely adverse, they insisted that this was the way out of the crisis.

    From January 2022 onwards, the Ortega-Murillo regime further escalated its offensive, possibly due to a failure in its political calculations: it had thought that once the electoral fraud had been consummated and the opposition was thrown in jail, the opposition would abdicate its role and the regime would obtain the endorsement of the international community.

    But neither of these things happened: the opposition did not resign itself and there was no international support; on the contrary, the regime’s isolation only deepened. The Nicaraguan opposition continued to constantly denounce the establishment of a de facto police state and to call for the regime’s exit through civic means. The CSOs that managed to remain in the country continued to denounce systematic human rights violations and repression, hence the approval of new laws to strip them of their legal status and assets.

    Faced with a lack of legitimacy, the Ortega-Murillo regime has deepened its strategy of annihilating any form of citizen organisation that is not subordinate to its interests. To date, more than 1,600 CSOs have been eliminated by the National Assembly and in many cases their assets have been confiscated through the application of laws that openly violate our country’s constitution, which recognises the right to free association and expressly prohibits confiscation.

    Until very recently, the power to cancel an organisation’s legal personality was in the hands of the National Assembly, but a new law assigned it to the Ministry of the Interior, which now has the absolute power to decide who has the right to associate and who does not. The procedure has been expedited and there is no recourse to appeal, which clearly speaks of the situation of defencelessness Nicaraguan civil society finds itself in.

    The judiciary has remained silent in the face of the unconstitutionality appeals filed in 2021, following the approval of the Law on Foreign Agents, which obliges CSOs that receive funds from international cooperation sources to report their activities at a level of detail that makes it practically impossible for them to operate.

    This way, the regime eliminates all forms of autonomous participation, leaves activists and human rights defenders in a more precarious situation, and obtains the resources it needs to feed the clientelist practices that are its trademark.

    One of the problems faced by the regime is precisely its lack of resources to sustain the community development projects carried out by many of the eliminated CSOs. It can no longer count on support from Venezuela, nor can it continue to expand the family businesses that the Ortega-Murillo clan has built while in power. Many of these companies have been sanctioned, including the one that monopolises the fuel business, which has forced them to carry out various manoeuvres to keep them active.

    What work does your organisation do?

    Feminist Programme La Corriente has existed for almost 30 years and was born with the aim of contributing to generating critical thought and encouraging new forms of participation by women in Central America. Over the last 15 years we have expanded our work with young people and sexual and gender dissident collectives.

    Throughout our journey, we have contributed to challenging heterosexism, misogyny and macho violence and built vital networks for the defence of rights. We have prioritised issues related to the prevention of violence, voluntary motherhood, women’s right to decide about their bodies and respect for sexual and gender diversity.

    Efforts to research the reality experienced by women, young people and dissident bodies have been key to the development of training and public communication programmes. For us it is of vital importance to strengthen collective action through social movements capable of thinking and acting on the changes required by Nicaraguan society. We are also part of Central American and Latin American networks and alliances, from where we contribute to advocacy processes with governments and global institutions.

    Precisely because we generate critical thought and defend rights, in May this year the National Assembly cancelled our legal status and in early July the police took over our facilities.

     

    On what grounds was the organisation ordered to shut down?

    Generally speaking, the arguments put forward by the Sandinista deputies who control parliament include an unfounded accusation that CSOs are potential money launderers because they receive funding from foreign sources, deliberately ignoring the fact that these sources are linked to governments and duly established cooperation agencies.

    They also cite alleged bureaucratic infractions such as the expiry of the term of the board of directors, failure to update statutes and refusal to provide information requested by the Ministry of the Interior. On the latter point, it is worth highlighting the abusive ministry’s intervention: in accordance with the new law, it requires CSOs to submit detailed information on each activity to be carried out and personal data of the people with whom they work.

    Such demands denaturalise the meaning of CSOs, turning them into an extension of the state, clear evidence of the totalitarian zeal of this regime. It is clearly an attempt to impose a model of absolute control that requires the dismantling of all forms of autonomous civil society participation.

    Likewise, by shutting down CSOs that work with low-income groups of the population, the regime is trying to regain control of what it thinks of as its social base, which it seeks to recover or retain by means of clientelist policies. This is why it has eliminated organisations that promote access to education for low-income children and young people, fulfil the needs of people with disabilities, promote access to land and other resources for rural and Indigenous women and provide sexual and reproductive health services and support for women who are victims of violence, among others. 

    CSOs that work in the field of citizen participation from a rights-based perspective and with a clear focus on the defence of democratic values have also been closed. They have been declared opponents of the regime and their representatives have been subjected to surveillance, threats, exile and imprisonment. It is also a kind of revenge for generating evidence that contradicts the official discourse and denouncing the systematic violation of rights by the Sandinista regime.

    Why has the regime specifically targeted feminist organisations?

    Hostility against Nicaraguan feminists dates back to the 1980s. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), as a guerrilla force turned into party that came to power, never really reflected on the patriarchal logics of power, but simply replicated them unceremoniously.

    The feminists of my generation had to endure an authoritarian and abusive relationship with the Sandinista government, which at different times expressed discomfort with the existence of women’s organisations, because from their perspective this weakened the unity of revolutionary forces.

    They exercised their veto power to prevent women’s collectives from placing demands related to macho violence and sexual and reproductive rights on the public agenda. The leaders of these collectives were silenced and forced to take on the priorities set by the ruling party leadership.

    The watershed that marked the feminist movement’s definitive break with the FSLN occurred in the late 1990s, when Zoilamérica Narváez, daughter of Rosario Murillo, who is both Daniel Ortega’s wife and Vice President, denounced the abuses committed by her stepfather for more than 20 years. When feminists clearly stood on the victim’s side it meant a break with the FSLN leadership, which has since perceived us as enemies. Zoilamérica’s denunciation encouraged further accusations involving other members of the FSLN national leadership, including the late Tomás Borge.

    Additionally, during the 2005-2006 electoral campaign, part of the feminist movement participated in an electoral alliance of opposition parties that included the Sandinista Renovation Movement, now UNAMOS, which the FSLN considers traitors to the revolution for having demanded democratisation of the party and questioned Ortega’s authoritarian and strongman leadership.

    As he returned to power in 2007, it immediately became clear that Ortega’s strategy was to dismantle feminist networks, which by that point had increased their capacity to put forward ideas and influence Nicaraguan society. The stigmatisation campaign began with a speech by Murillo in which she accused feminists of trafficking in women’s suffering and of wanting to impose a way of life alien to Nicaraguan culture. That same year, the government began to pressure international aid agencies to suspend their support for feminist collectives, causing many of them to leave the country.

    Among the main strands of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s discourse was its supposed commitment to gender equality: they proclaimed as a key advance the achievement of gender parity in all branches of government. This idea was taken up by United Nations (UN) bodies and multilateral financial institutions, but feminists provided clear evidence confirming the persistence of inequalities and the absence of public policies to address women’s demands.

    The absolute criminalisation of abortion, the absence of policies to prevent and punish macho violence, including sexual abuse against girls and adolescents, which is prevalent in Nicaragua, the absence of sex education, the failure to comply with the law that established the creation of a fund to distribute land to rural women and the violation of the labour rights of workers in foreign factories are among the many problems that remain unresolved by a regime that dares to compare itself with the countries that have made the most progress in terms of gender equality in the world.

    What should donors, and the international community in general, do to help Nicaraguan civil society?

    In such turbulent times and with so many hotspots of tension in the world, it is hard to appeal for solidarity with Nicaraguan society, which continues to bet on civic and peaceful change to move away from this new dictatorship and lay the foundations for the country’s democratisation.

    However, we must continue to appeal to democratic governments, regardless of their ideology, so they do not look away from what is happening in Nicaragua and support our just demands for the immediate release of political prisoners, the suspension of the police state, an end to the persecution of CSOs and the Catholic Church and the full restoration of our rights.

    We call for a coherent position on the part of democratic governments, UN agencies, multilateral financial institutions, regional integration blocs and political party forums to avoid any action that could contribute to prolonging the stay of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship in power.

    At this point it is inadmissible that they denounce the regime’s systematic human rights violations, including the commission of crimes against humanity, while at the same time voting in favour of granting loans to the very same regime, which in addition to increasing a debt that is already greater than the country’s GDP gives it greater room for manoeuvre to remain in power.

    Active support for human rights defenders, independent journalists and CSOs is vital to sustain hope for democratic change that does not impose further suffering on the Nicaraguan people.

    Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with La Corriente through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@LaCorrienteNica on Twitter. 

     

  • NIGERIA: ‘People experience gross rights violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’

    Olaide Kayode TimileyinCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Nigeria and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Olaide Kayode Timileyin, executive director of Queercity Media and Productions.

    Queercity Media is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes the rights of LGBTQI+ people in West Africa through advocacy and communications.

    What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Nigeria?

    Nigerian LGBTQI+ people are marginalised. They experience gross violations of their rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including extortion perpetrated by state actors such as the police and military as well as non-state forces such as local boys, landlords and bosses. Other violations include blackmail, mob attacks, assault and battery.

    It is very traumatic to live in an environment that discriminates against you and puts your life in danger. Homophobia is a huge problem. It is disheartening to see cisgender heterosexual people threaten the lives of LGBTQI+ people.

    Does Nigerian legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

    Yes, Nigerian laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people. Two major laws criminalise LGBTQI+ people: the Criminal Code Act and the 2013 Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Under these laws LGBTQI+ people are not allowed to get married or carry out their advocacy activities. In addition, their way of life is not considered to be normal because it goes against social norms. As a result of these laws, members of our communities are arrested and their rights systematically violated by the police.

    A few states, such as Lagos, also have local laws that criminalise LGBTQI+ people. In the past year Queercity Media has recorded two murders of LGBTQI+ people that were clearly linked to homophobia. In response to these we have held a nationwide digital campaign, with over a hundred people signing our petition on one of the cases.

    It is very unfortunate that we have not seen any form of government response in these cases, or any other hate crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, rights violations against the Nigerian LGBTQI+ community have only increased. For example, a recently proposed cross-dressers bill further targets and aids the targeting of queer people.

    It is clearly necessary to work on the integration and reintegration of LGBTQI+ people as active members of Nigerian society. Criminalisation not only cripples the socio-economical capacity of this population but also disempowers LGBTQI+ people from active participation in nation-building.

    What does Queercity Media do, and what kind of backlash have you faced?

    We are a community-based media organisation whose four cardinal points are productions, events, campaigns and archiving. These represent our strategic departments, namely Queercity Productions, GLOW UP Pride, Queercity Campaigns and The Nigerian LGBT+ Museum of Arts.

    As well as the rights violations that some of our staff, myself included, have experienced at the hands of the Nigerian police because of our work, the comments section of our Facebook page can sometimes be quite scary. This is one of our main ways of being in direct contact with everyday Nigerians, and it is mostly filled with negative comments or aggressive arguments among strangers.

    Sometimes we learn from these reactions to better design our campaign language and approach. However, funding is a major problem for us and many LGBTQI+ organisations in West Africa, as no one seems to be interested in LGBTQI+ people, organisations or businesses, so we are often self-funded. Lack of access to proper funding also massively limits the reach we have compared to mainstream media organisations.

    How can the international community support LGBTQI+ people fighting for their rights in Commonwealth countries?

    Sadly, partnerships across Commonwealth countries on LGBTQI+ rights and movement-building is slow, and I do not know the reason for this. But I believe if we could find organisations doing the same work we are doing in other Commonwealth countries, it should be easy to create networks and partnerships to foster each organisation’s strategic goals in their home countries.

    The international community and international civil society could help by recognising the socio-political nuances of working with local LGBTQI+ organisations and the need to be more flexible with their partnership and funding approach. That way, the advocacy work of organisations and activists living in contexts of restricted civic space will be enhanced and they will be able to better promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people.

    Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Queercity Media and Productions through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@PrideInLagos on Twitter. 

     

  • Open letter: Stop reprisals against Mongolian human rights defender Sukhgerel Dugersuren

    CIVICUS and over 120 civil society organisations have signed a joint letter to urge the authorities in Mongolia to stop reprisals against human rights defender Sukhgerel Dugersuren and to ensure that environmental defenders, and communities impacted by development projects, can freely and safely defend human rights and protect the environment without fearing reprisals.

     

  • SRI LANKA: ‘They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others’

    CIVICUS speaks with Hejaaz Hizbullah, a human rights defender who waskept in detention for 22 months under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

    Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Hejaaz is an attorney and a minority rights advocate who fights hate speech against the Muslim community. He began his career at the Attorney General’s Department and started his own law practice in 2012. He has litigated in several important cases before the Supreme Court and is among the lawyers who challenged the dissolution of parliament in 2018.

    Hejaaz

    What kind of work were you doing when you were arrested and why do you think you were targeted?

    In 2012 a hard-line Buddhist group emerged in Sri Lanka calling itself ‘Bodhu Bala Sena’, or Buddhist Force. The group began a nationwide campaign against Muslims that was based on lies, Islamophobia and hate speech. They sought to stir up Sinhala Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s majority, against the Muslim minority. Similar groups soon proliferated. As a result, there were incidents of violence against Muslims all over Sri Lanka. Muslim girls got their hijabs ripped off, Muslim businesses were attacked and torched, and Muslims were harassed everywhere.

    I began my human rights work in response to these very extraordinary circumstances. With two colleagues I launched an anti-hate hotline, a telephone helpline to assist victims of hate speech and hate crimes. We helped people protect themselves and assert themselves against racism and hate by using the tools provided in the law. We also monitored these incidents and prepared reports to bring the situation to the attention of the government.

    This work led to me appearing in cases involving human rights and constitutional law issues. One of the earliest cases I appeared in was the case of a Muslim schoolgirl who wanted to go to school in a uniform approved by the Ministry of Education that also respected her cultural and religious norms, which school authorities objected to. The case concluded with the Attorney General upholding the student’s right to wear an approved uniform of her choice that met her cultural and religious norms.

    In 2018 the then-president dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister and appointed another one, and called for general elections. This was challenged by political parties and by a member of the Sri Lankan Elections Commission, whom I successfully represented before the Supreme Court.

    This was the kind of work I was doing when I was arrested, and there are various theories regarding why I was targeted. My arrest may have been part of an attempt to scapegoat selected Muslims who were critical of the government’s treatment of Muslims and blame them for the Easter Sunday bombings, a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings in April 2019. They tried to silence us personally and as a community. In that sense, my arrest is no different from so many arrests of lawyers all over the world. They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others.

    How were you treated while in detention?

    During the first 10 months I was a detainee, so I was under police custody; then I was produced before a judge and I became a remand prisoner. For the following year I was in the custody of the Prisons Department, and my experience was radically different.

    As a detainee you are in the custody of those who are trying to frame you and fix you for an offence you did not commit. For 24 hours, seven days a week, you are exposed to your tormentors and under their control – for everything, including food, sleep and family and lawyer visits. Remand prison was different because the guards just knew I was a special case but beyond that they did not care much about me.

    As a detainee I was locked up 24 hours a day: the cell was opened only to let me use the toilet or go for questioning. In remand prison we spent around six hours a day outside in the yard, which was good. However, both places degrade you and seek to destroy you mentally and psychologically. I am happy that I survived without too many scars; many are not that lucky.

    Were you aware of the international solidarity around your case and how does it feel to be out on bail?

    As a detainee I knew very little, just what my wife would tell me when I met her on Saturdays for around 15 minutes. It was only after I was remanded that I learnt more about the support I was receiving from the international community. This gave me real hope and made me even more determined to fight back, so it was incredibly helpful. I am grateful for the support I received and for the international and local pressure that forced the Attorney General to agree to release me on bail.

    Being free is like being born again. I am slowly trying to rebuild my life. My imprisonment had deep effects on the lives of my family: everybody’s life was on pause for almost two years. But being on bail is not easy: I am always looking behind my shoulder and concerned about the progress of my case.

    What are your thoughts on the use of the PTA law?

    In its judgment on my case, the Court of Appeal described the PTA as a ‘draconian law’ leading to a cycle of abuse. That is precisely what it is. The PTA puts detainees into a legal blackhole from which they find it almost impossible to get out. I am a lawyer and had lots of legal backing, support and attention, and still found it tough. Many others don’t have a fighting chance.

    The government has recently made some amendments to the PTA, but they have not changed some of the worst aspects of the law, such as the use of confessions against those who are co-accused. Whilst amendments have been cosmetic, they have in fact opened a window for judges to intervene, and if they do, the situation of detainees may improve. I think the judiciary will grab this opportunity.

    What is the current state of civic freedoms in Sri Lanka?

    My answer to your question would have been different if not for what I am seeing today. It seems freedom is what we carve out for ourselves through courage. Desperate times have pushed people to desperate measures, and they have now overcome their fears and are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting in the legal space that has been created through years of jurisprudence. The theoretical space has now been occupied in real time and I feel is also being expanded. All good news! However, this is not due to any state intervention but due to the actions of people responding to the dire circumstances they find themselves in.

    How can international civil society and the international community support criminalised human rights defenders?

    When human rights activists are arrested, the state would like the whole world to forget them. They hope grand allegations and prolonged detentions will suffocate everyone’s will and resolve to fight. Civil society and the international community can help us by keeping us alive outside the prison walls: by asking the important questions and putting pressure on the government to justify its actions.

    Civic space inSri Lankais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@hejaazh on Twitter 

     

  • THE GAMBIA: ‘Civil society works to ensure Jammeh and other perpetrators of human rights violations face justice’

    Adama JallowCIVICUS speaks about the prospects of The Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh being put on trial with Adama Jallow, National Coordinator of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations (Victim’s Center).

    Founded in 2017, the Victims Center is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks justice and reparations for victims of human rights violations under the dictatorship. It has successfully pressured the government to recognise the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

    What are the main conclusions of the TRRC report?

    After consulting with victims of Yahya Jammeh’s inhumane treatment, the TRRC’s report concluded that Jammeh should be brought to justice and victims must receive help and support to recover from the atrocious experience they endured under the former dictator’s rule. The government has released a white paper in which it accepts the recommendations made by the TRRC. We believe this is huge, considering the amount of work civil society put into advocating for the establishment of the TRRC.

    The TRRC report is a sort of roadmap we can use so that justice can be served in The Gambia. Out of the 265 recommendations made by the TRRC, the government rejected only two, while marking the rest for implementation. Many atrocities were committed under Jammeh’s dictatorship and were highlighted by both perpetrators and victims before the TRRC. These include sexual and gender-based violence, torture, enforced disappearances and killings, arbitrary detention and crimes in which the victims were accused of witchcraft.

    The TRRC’s report states that The Gambia’s society and government institutions have a responsibility to prevent the reoccurrence of the crimes it documented. Its recommendations focus basically on the well-being of victims, who are expected to receive individual and collective reparations, and the prosecution of perpetrators. 

    We initially did not think the government would agree to implementing the TRRC’s recommendations. It came as a shock to us when the government agreed to it, because it is a new experience for civil society to be seen and heard by the government. It is a positive indication that our government is prepared to work together with us. The fact that only two of the recommendations were rejected surpassed our expectations. Now we will focus on pushing the government to implement the recommendations.

    What does the Victims Center do?

    The Victim’s Center was established in 2017, right after the regime change. Under Jammeh’s rule citizens lived in an oppressive state that restricted their rights and freedoms, and there was no freedom of association, assembly and expression. Many human rights violations and abuses occurred, including killings, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence and the indiscriminate and illegal use of force. Many civil society activists and organisations were arrested because of the work they did – basically for speaking up against the regime and pushing for democracy.

    When Jammeh was overthrown, and we got a new government, civil society and victims felt the need to seek justice and hold Jammeh accountable for the atrocities committed under his rule. We formed the Victims Center to offer a platform for victims to express their issues, seek support and assistance and advocate towards the government.

    Part of our mission is to advocate for the TRRC report. We have been fortunate enough to receive international support. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have released letters in solidarity with the victims and to demand the government responds to our advocacy asks. We have also worked closely with other CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure that the government takes its duty seriously, recognises victims and provides reparations. We want to make sure the government provides reparations to all victims, without discriminating against anyone.

    We have also seen a need to go out and sensitise people on transitional justice processes, victims’ rights and the cases submitted to the TRRC. The Victim’s Center has always been at the forefront of advocating and engaging with the Ministry of Justice and mobilising media to ensure victims are getting the help they need. Despite the challenges we have faced, such as intimidation and lack of capacity, we remain committed to helping victims get justice.

    How has civil society advocated for prosecution?

    The Gambia’s civil society has been very active throughout the process. We understood the importance of engaging with the government because it will play a key role in ensuring that justice is served. We had meetings with the Ministry of Justice staff to find out how they intend to support victims.

    We have also disseminated press releases demanding that justice take place at the societal level. We think it is important to inform victims, their families and society at large about the contents of the TRRC report and how The Gambia’s society will benefit from it, so we have held conferences. We have also formed partnerships with other local and international CSOs to reach a wider audience and to put additional pressure on our government.

    We know that our laws present obstacles. We were supposed to have a new constitution to replace the 1997 one, but the new text was rejected by the National Assembly. The legislation presently in place does not consider enforced disappearance or torture as crimes, which is something civil society advocates for. We now hope the National Assembly can adjust the old constitution to ensure the possibility of litigation in such cases. In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice has promised to form a body to handle cases involving crimes that are not codified in our legislation.

    In essence, civil society has engaged extensively to ensure that Jammeh and other perpetrators face justice.

    Do you foresee any challenges in the implementation of the report’s recommendations?

    We foresee several challenges, one of them being the Ministry of Justice’s lack of capacity to handle cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture. We need experts to oversee these cases so that everyone who is prosecuted is brought to justice.

    Another challenge lies with our constitution, as neither the old nor the current draft recognises enforced disappearance and torture. These are some of the human rights violations victims experienced and we need them to be recognised so that victims can receive help and perpetrators can be tried.

    We are also concerned about whether Jammeh can be brought to trial outside The Gambia, given that he is not currently residing in the country. We are trying our best to see how we can work with other organisations to address this issue.

    But all these challenges have not discouraged us. We continue advocating with partners to ensure the TRRC’s recommendations are implemented. We are also putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to come up with a realistic timeframe that will convince us that the government is really committed to implementing the recommendations. We encourage the government to work closely with CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure they implement the white paper with an inclusive approach.

    What kind of support does civil society in The Gambia need from the international community?

    Local CSOs and victim-led organisations need funding to continue their advocacy work, build capacity and support victims. International CSOs should partner with us and advise us on a way forward in terms of what types of cases could be brought, and how they can be brought if the constitution is not changed or amended. We also need them to use their resources to put pressure on the Gambian government to make sure justice prevails.

    Civic space in The Gambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations through itsFacebook, and follow@gambia_vc on Twitter. 

     

Page 1 sur 2