‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’
CIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.
Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.
What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?
Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms:Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.
Thereport of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.
#UN75: ‘The UN cannot afford to miss opportunities for civil society engagement’
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Angie Pankhania, Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its actions are based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
The UN was set up primarily to prevent another world war. This, by far, is the UN’s biggest success in its 75-year history and in doing so the UN has saved millions of lives, and also helped humanity progress in so many other ways, such as by fostering technical advancement it has achieved economic prosperity and advances in health in addition to reducing world poverty and preserving everyone’s basic human rights.
Beyond that, the UN makes positive differences every day, from the UN Mine Action Services clearing thousands of landmines every year to the dozens of war criminals who have been brought to justice through UN processes – including, in 2019, Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda – to the thousands of people the UN feeds and houses every day, and the most important – but least measurable – work of providing a forum for the nations of the world to resolve their differences diplomatically rather than resorting to wars.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
At a time of global uncertainty, the UN is needed now more than ever. Public support for the UN is vital if our ambitions for a better, more sustainable and fairer world are to be realised. The UN must do all it can to protect civil society space, both inside and outside the UN. Determined work here will not only help strengthen public understanding and support for the UN but also motivate individuals, society and businesses to play their part to help us collectively take action to avert global challenges such as climate crisis, protection of everyone’s human rights, end poverty and hold our world leaders to account. For these reasons, the UN cannot afford to miss opportunities to strengthen engagement with civil society.
There are several civil society initiatives focused on strengthening citizen engagement. Among them is Together First, a campaign led by a coalition of over 150 civil society organisations, launched in 2018. It is a fast-growing movement of global citizens, experts, practitioners, civil society activists and business leaders from all regions of the world. The campaign calls for ideas on global governance reform and brings new voices to the decision-making table. Those ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions will be taken forward with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges. UNA-UK provides the secretariat for Together First.
What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and how did you overcome them?
The main challenge is always that the UN is a collection of individuals representing member states, and some of those states don't always have the greater good at the heart of their actions. This is often the bottleneck when it comes to solving some of the world’s problems and it is important to bear this in mind when communicating why the UN can sometimes be seen to underperform. The famous US ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said that blaming the UN itself when it fails is like blaming the stadium when a sports team loses.
As for the staff who keep the organisation running: we generally find them to be hardworking, diligent and idealistic – doing wonderful work, day after day, despite near-impossible demands and woefully insufficient resources. But of course, it's not without its frustrations. We've come across situations such as parts of the UN contacting us because they want to get in touch with other parts of the UN and don't know how, or UN staff acting in an entitled manner. And of course, in our campaigning work we've come across very serious issues, particularly the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, which is the subject of our ongoing Mission Justice campaign.
These issues cannot be downplayed, but nor must they obscure the good work that the UN does, particularly at a time when multilateralism is very much under threat as a result of the dissemination of a sceptical political culture. But as a critical friend to the UN, we feel that the best way we can help the UN is not to sweep these issues under the carpet, but to help them resolve the underlying problems. We do feel that the UN needs to change – in its recruitment processes, in its accountability mechanisms, in its diversity, in how it measures and rewards success and above all in how it involves civil society. Our Together First Campaign aims to take forward ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions for change with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges.
Guatemala: Respect fundamental rights ahead of Presidential elections
CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society, is gravely concerned of increasing attacks and restrictions on democratic and civic freedoms in the wake of Guatemala’s 25th June presidential elections. We call on the authorities to guarantee freedom and safety for people to participate in the political process without intimidation before, during, and after the elections.
We are appalled by the growing restrictions being imposed on civil society organisations and human rights defenders (HRDs) including indigenous leaders, justice operators and journalists in Guatemala. The authorities continue to undermine the rule of law and several HRDs have been investigated, detained, convicted, or forced into exile.
An example of this is the growing attacks on a leading human rights organisation protecting human rights defenders in Guatemala, Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) and its director Jorge Santos. They have been targeted with defamation campaigns, including through the spread of false allegations to discredit the organisation.
The authorities are also imposing restrictions on representatives of political groups preventing them from participating in the elections. Carlos Pineda, a businessman and presidential candidate was disqualified when the Constitutional Court ruled that he did not comply with legal requirements. Three others including Roberto Arzu García-Granados, indigenous Mayan leader Thelma Cabrera and Jordán Rodas Andrade have been prevented from running.
Civil society groups are also concerned about restrictions that may be imposed after the elections irrespective of the outcome. On 31 May 2023, 22 of 24 political parties contesting signed a declaration called "Life and Family", committing themselves to prevent the advancement of sexual and reproductive and LGBTIQ+ rights policies following the elections.
CIVICUS calls on the Government of Guatemala to lift all restrictions against HRDs, members of the political opposition and civil society organisations and create an environment free from intimidation and harassment before, during and after the elections.
In July 2022, CIVICUS, Acción Ciudadana and Redlad submitted Guatemala’s UN Universal Periodic Review which outlined the extreme violence against HRDs and journalists, who continue to face attacks, harassment, stigmatisation and killings. State and non-state actors have escalated attacks with impunity. The submission further reports cases of judicial harassment against justice officials and journalists and the gradual reduction of the space for a free and independent press.
As a result of these developments, civic space in Guatemala is currently rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe.
Joint NGO Statement on the human rights situation in Russia
Statement at the 49th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Joint NGO Statement under item 4 on the human rights situation in Russia
Delivered by Dave Elseroad, Human Rights House Foundation
I make this joint statement on behalf of Human Rights House Foundation, Amnesty International, CIVICUS, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights.
A year after last year’s joint statement on the situation in Russia, authorities there have further intensified the already unprecedented crackdown. A fully-fledged witch hunt against independent groups, media outlets and journalists, and political opposition, is decimating civil society and forcing many into exile.
In a shocking development, the authorities moved to shut down “Memorial,” one of the country’s most authoritative human rights organisations. At the end of December, courts ruled to “liquidate” the group’s key legal entities, International Memorial Society and Human Rights Center Memorial over alleged persistent noncompliance with the repressive legislation on “foreign agents.”
The rulings came at the end of a particularly terrible year for human rights, during which authorities threw top opposition figure Alexei Navalny in prison, banned three organisations affiliated with him as “extremist,” launched criminal proceedings against several of his close associates, doubled down on Internet censorship, and designated more than 100 journalists and activists as "media-foreign agents."
Recent months also saw a dramatic escalation of repression in Chechnya, where Russian law and international human rights obligations have been emptied of meaning. With the Kremlin’s blessing, the local governor, Ramzan Kadyrov has been eviscerating all forms of dissent in Chechnya, often using collective punishment. In December 2021, Kadyrov opened a brutal offensive against his critics in the Chechen diaspora, by having the police arbitrarily detain dozens of their Chechnya-based relatives. It continued in January with the abduction and arbitrary detention on fabricated charges of Zarema Musaeva, mother of human rights lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev, and death threats issued against the Yangulbaevs family and some prominent human rights defenders and journalists.
It is crucial the High Commissioner and members of this Council press the Russian authorities to reverse the course of the unprecedented human rights crackdown, and appoint a dedicated Special Rapporteur to monitor and report on the human rights situation in Russia.
Civic space in Russia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor
¿Puede S.A. mantener su reputación en materia de derechos humanos en el Consejo de Seguridad de las Naciones Unidas?
Por Masana Ndinga-Kanga, coordinadora del Fondo de Respuesta a las Crisis y responsable de incidencia para la región de Oriente Medio y África del Norte y Lyndal Rowlands, responsable de incidencia en Naciones Unidas de CIVICUS
¿Puede un influyente país africano que alguna vez fue vitoreado como campeón de los derechos humanos ayudar a que una poderosa nación de Oriente Medio rinda cuentas de su atroz historial en materia de derechos humanos? Esa será la pregunta en boca de algunos observadores cuando Sudáfrica se una al Consejo de Seguridad de las Naciones Unidas en el mes de enero para un mandato de un año como miembro no permanente.
Para leer el artículo en inglés: News24
‘Against hopelessness, we need to work not to lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship’
CIVICUS speaks to an Iranian woman human rights defender about the causes and significance of the recent protests in Iran, as well as the prospects for change in a country with a closed civic space and a theocratic government that maintains a firm grip on power. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
‘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.
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.
‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’
As the2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue withThea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director atESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.ESCR-Net is acollaborative initiative of groups- grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres -as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights.With over 280 members in 75 countries,ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights,with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment.ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.
1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?
All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.
In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.
We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.
2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?
The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses(Chapter IV, article 17.2).Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.
3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?
Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.
Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.
To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.
4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?
I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.
This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises(IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.
Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.
This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.
In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.
‘Tenemos que reconstruir con un enfoque de derechos humanos, es decir reactivando comunidades, y no solamente edificando casas’
Los dos terremotos que afectaron a México en septiembre de 2017 dejaron cientos de muertos y miles de heridos, y la sociedad civil respondió rápidamente. Además de tener impactos inmediatos, los terremotos expusieron graves deficiencias de gobernanza. CIVICUS habla con dos personas de Fundar: Centro de Análisis e Investigación - Eduardo Alcalá, Coordinador de Planeación, Seguimiento y Evaluación, y Sarahí Salvatierra, investigadora del Programa de Rendición de Cuentas y Combate a la Corrupción. Fundar es una organización de la sociedad civil mexicana, plural e independiente, que promueve una democracia sustantiva y la transformación de las relaciones de poder entre gobierno y sociedad. Realiza labores de incidencia a través de la producción y diseminación de conocimiento especializado, la reflexión crítica y propositiva y la experimentación y vinculación con actores civiles, sociales y gubernamentales.
1. ¿Piensan que la respuesta del gobierno mexicano ante los sismos de septiembre de 2017 fue adecuada y suficiente?
El 7 de septiembre de 2017 un sismo de 8.2 grados afectó gravemente a la población de Chiapas y Oaxaca. Poco después, el 19 de septiembre, otro sismo de 7.1 grados causó graves daños, principalmente en la Ciudad de México y en los estados de Guerrero, México, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala y Veracruz. Los sismos pusieron en evidencia la existencia de diversas falencias que el gobierno mexicano debe atender de manera urgente en materia de prevención y respuesta a los efectos de desastres naturales.
Desde nuestra perspectiva, la respuesta oficial ante estos hechos debe contemplar los siguientes elementos. En primer lugar, debe incluir la provisión de información accesible, clara, precisa y de calidad. Esto es determinante para la atención inmediata, es decir para el adecuado rescate de sobrevivientes, su cuidado y la recuperación de su patrimonio; para la reconstrucción de sus viviendas y de la infraestructura de sus localidades; para la provisión de condiciones de vida adecuadas a sus necesidades tras el desastre, y eventualmente para reparar daños y garantizar otros derechos.En este sentido, está claro que las plataformas y los sistemas oficiales de información y de comunicación deben ser actualizados con urgencia para ofrecer datos completos que permitan conocer de manera inmediata la magnitud de los daños, el tipo de asistencia de emergencia enviada a las poblaciones afectadas y, sobre todo, las estrategias planificadas y el origen y el destino de los recursos públicos con que el gobierno responderá a la catástrofe en el corto, el mediano y el largo plazo. En el caso de los sismos recientes, las respuestas del gobierno a las necesidades de información no cumplieron con estos estándares mínimos de transparencia ante desastres naturales.
Segundo, la respuesta oficial debe asimilar el hecho de que, en la fase de emergencia, la participación ciudadana encarada desde la solidaridad y la voluntad de las personas se organiza y coordina de manera natural y virtuosa. En ese sentido, las acciones para atender la fase de emergencia que desarrollaron las comunidades en México evidentemente superaron en tiempo y forma a las estrategias oficiales. Las redes sociales habilitaron una respuesta social mucho más ágil y efectiva que los procesos burocráticos. El involucramiento del gobierno a través de la marina, el ejército y los operadores públicos, si bien contribuyó a ordenar algunos aspectos durante esta fase, en ciertos momentos generó confusión e impuso medidas no necesariamente acordes a los protocolos internacionales en materia de rescate y salvaguarda de las vidas de las personas.
Tercero, la respuesta gubernamental debe incluir la participación ciudadana en la toma de decisiones para la reconstrucción. Las estrategias e intervenciones deben ser diseñadas e implementadas de acuerdo con los más altos estándares de derechos humanos. La participación no solo empodera a las comunidades sino que también garantiza una mayor congruencia entre las políticas resultantes y las prioridades de las comunidades. En este sentido, apremia que el gobierno mexicano habilite, promueva e implemente mecanismos efectivos de participación ciudadana para la formulación de planes de reconstrucción y, más en general, que fortalezca en forma permanente el diálogo con la ciudadanía.
Cuarto, la respuesta del gobierno debe ir acompañada de mecanismos adecuados de rendición de cuentas, basados en plataformas y sistemas eficaces de información, para que sea posible hacer un monitoreo en tiempo real tanto del avance físico como del aspecto financiero de los planes de reconstrucción. Asimismo, el gobierno debe estar dispuesto a reorientar sus acciones y ajustar la inversión en función de las necesidades más apremiantes desde una visión estratégica a corto, mediano y largo plazo. En este punto, el gobierno mexicano debería introducir mejoras sustantivas en el diseño, la implementación y la operación de mecanismos de rendición de cuentas y control ciudadano. La ciudadanía debería poder monitorear los procesos de reconstrucción en todas sus dimensiones, tanto físicas como financieras y en lo que respecta al desembolso tanto de recursos públicos como de recursos procedentes de donaciones privadas. Actualmente el marco normativo es poco robusto en este sentido y tiene lagunas procedimentales que complican la adecuada fiscalización.
2. ¿Qué rol desempeñó en este contexto la sociedad civil?
La sociedad civil ha estado desde hace años activa en todos estos temas. En primer lugar, diversas organizaciones han puesto en el centro del debate público la necesidad de una mejor planeación urbana y de vivienda, así como de un diseño integral en materia de protección civil y prevención y atención a riesgos. En segundo lugar, ante la ocurrencia de desastres - sismos, sequías, huracanes, inundaciones - la sociedad civil ha contribuido mediante la provisión de información y la puesta en marcha de mecanismos participativos para atender necesidades puntuales de las comunidades afectadas. Tercero, a través de diversas plataformas cívicas e iniciativas ciudadanas, desde la sociedad civil nos hemos involucrado en distintos frentes para, sobre la base de nuestra experticia,mejorar los procesos en las fases posteriores a una catástrofe.
De modo que, aunque el voluntariado fuera una de las caras más visibles de la sociedad civil en los momentos inmediatamente posteriores al desastre, nuestra presencia lo excede con creces. La sociedad civil ha impulsado el análisis y la discusión de enfoques que reconceptualizan la noción de bienestar de las personas afectadas por un desastre natural. Tenemos claro que “reconstruir por reconstruir” no sirve; tenemos que reconstruir con un enfoque de derechos humanos. Esto implica no solamente edificar casas sino también reactivar comunidades, impulsar un desarrollo acorde a las necesidades de cada población, priorizar los requerimientos de los grupos en situación de mayor vulnerabilidad y, en suma, asegurar mejores condiciones de vida para prepararnos para futuros eventos similares.
Es resumen, tenemos conocimientos especializados y experiencia de sobra, y el gobierno debería reconocerlo mediante la promoción de un diálogo fluido y la adopción de compromisos concretos con la sociedad civil. Sin embargo, todo esto requiere de una gran voluntad política y administrativa, y difícilmente ocurra a menos que nosotros elevemos nuestras exigencias. En sentido estricto, lograr que el gobierno adecue sus mecanismos a las oportunidades de mejora y a nuestras observaciones y recomendaciones es el principal reto que tenemos enfrente. Como todo proceso de incidencia en pos de transformaciones estructurales, no será fácil. Será un esfuerzo permanente y de largo plazo, y en ningún momento podrá perder de vista los principios y las prácticas de información, participación y rendición de cuentas. Pero solo en la medida en que hagamos nuestra labor de vigilancia lograremos mejorar los procesos democráticos y asegurar mayores niveles de bienestar humano para la ciudadanía.
3. ¿Acaso los sismos pusieron en evidencia otros problemas subyacentes de larga data? ¿Ha abierto la emergencia alguna ventana de oportunidad para la resolución de esos problemas?
Los sismos confirmaron la existencia de fallas estructurales e instruccionales, así como la necesidad de fortalecer los controles y la rendición de cuentas en materia de ejecución de recursos y procesos de contratación por adjudicación y licitación. El mapa de las comunidades más afectadas dejó en evidencia que ellas enfrentaban fuertes precariedades y desigualdades desde mucho antes de los sismos. De igual modo, se observa que las mujeres son las principales víctimas de los desastres, al mismo tiempo que las tareas de asistencia inmediata tras el sismo otorgaron a las mujeres un protagonismo sin precedentes. De modo que esta es una oportunidad ideal para atacar esos problemas, vulnerabilidades y desigualdades desde la raíz. El gobierno mexicano no debe perder la oportunidad que tiene enfrente. Por un lado, debe mejorar la conceptualización y el diseño del marco normativo y procedimental, a partir de principios y estándares de derechos humanos. Por otro lado, debe transformar las prácticas institucionales mediante las cuales implementa sus acciones y gasta los recursos públicos. En ese sentido, los sismos también abrieron una ventana de oportunidad (que todavía debe ser aprovechada por el gobierno) para poner en marcha una estrategia de colaboración con la sociedad civil.
La toma de decisiones en esa dirección contribuiría a resolver no solamente el tema inmediato de la respuesta a emergencias sino también otras problemáticas que cruzan profundamente a la agenda pública: la falta de transparencia y rendición de cuentas, la desigualdad, la corrupción, las violaciones de derechos humanos y la impunidad.
4. ¿Han surgido iniciativas novedosas de la sociedad civil en el contexto del desastre?
Han surgido varias iniciativas novedosas. Una de ellas es la plataforma #Epicentro, integrada por organizaciones de la sociedad civil, de la academia y del sector empresarial, así como por voluntarios. Con el lema “Reconstrucción social con integridad”, #Epicentro surgió a partir de un núcleo de diez organizaciones, que en pocos días se convirtieron en 30 y en las últimas semanas se multiplicaron hasta superar las 100. Fundar forma parte de esta iniciativa, que busca promover la participación ciudadana en las distintas fases de la reconstrucción, exigiendo del gobierno mexicano los más altos estándares de transparencia y rendición de cuentas. La atención a la reconstrucción es clave porque ésta insumirá mucho más tiempo y recursos que la propia situación de emergencia: actualmente se calcula que llevará tres años y costará unos 30 mil millones de pesos, buena parte procedente del sector privado. Y por supuesto que en un período tan largo la atención mediática declina, y dados los montos involucrados, el descuido puede tener enormes costos. En este caso, además, el período de reconstrucción se superpondrá con el próximo proceso electoral que se desarrollará en 2018, y es preciso minimizar el riesgo de que se haga un uso político y clientelar de los recursos destinados a la reconstrucción.
La coalición #Epicentro se articula en tres nodos temáticos. El primero está a cargo de hacer un seguimiento minucioso para vigilar que los recursos para la reconstrucción se gasten correctamente y lleguen a quienes realmente los necesitan. El segundo se ocupa de monitorear que la reconstrucción se lleve a cabo siguiendo las mejores prácticas, los aprendizajes de otras experiencias y los estándares de derechos humanos. El tercero se centra en el tema de las reparaciones del daño causado a las víctimas de casos de corrupción y la sanción de los responsables. En ese sentido, es necesario investigar porqué murieron personas cuando se derrumbaron construcciones que tenían permisos que probablemente nunca deberían haber sido otorgados.
En suma, #Epicentro representa un compromiso y una apuesta ciudadana de largo aliento. El formato de la plataforma, diseñada por jóvenes especialistas en tecnologías cívicas, es novedoso en el marco de la experiencia mexicana de construcción de redes, alianzas a iniciativas para el monitoreo ciudadano, no solamente por la cantidad de organizaciones y voluntarios involucrados o por su diversidad y complementariedad temática y técnica, sino también por el grado de coordinación logrado en torno de un fin común.
5. ¿Ha recibido México suficientes expresiones de solidaridad y apoyo financiero de la comunidad internacional? ¿De qué modo adicional podrían los actores externos apoyar la reconstrucción?
Tras los sismos la solidaridad de la comunidad internacional se hizo sentir. El apoyo abarcó desde ayuda humanitaria en especie y asistencia técnica para el rescate hasta un gran caudal de aporte financiero procedente de donativos de diversos actores de la comunidad internacional, tanto públicos como privados.
El portal “Transparencia Presupuestaria” ofrece información oficial acerca de los donativos que el gobierno mexicano ha recibido de distintos países y organizaciones internacionales, entre las cuales se cuenta el Equipo de las Naciones Unidas para la Coordinación y la Evaluación en Casos de Desastre (UNDAC). Sin embargo, la publicación de la información no alcanza para asegurar que los recursos atiendan las necesidades de las poblaciones afectadas por los desastres naturales.
La multiplicidad de fuentes de recursos internacionales incrementa la necesidad de instrumentos eficientes para su administración, garantías de transparencia en su ejecución y mecanismos de participación ciudadana en la toma de decisiones y en la vigilancia sobre el destino de los recursos. Expresados como mera cantidad, los montos de los recursos financieros no dicen demasiado: en lo inmediato, claro que es importante que esos fondos no acaben en el bolsillo equivocado. Pero en el largo plazo, lo que realmente importa es que esos recursos se materialicen en estrategias y acciones concretas que aseguren una reconstrucción encarada con un enfoque de derechos. En ese sentido, sería importante que los donantes de los recursos expresaran interés en el destino de los fondos y en el impacto que ellos van teniendo en el logro de los fines para los cuales fueron dispuestos.
- El espacio cívico en México es clasificado por el CIVICUS Monitor en la categoría ‘represivo’, indicativa de la existencia de serias restricciones sobre las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión.
- Visite la página web o el perfil de Facebook de FUNDAR, o siga en Twitter a @FundarMexico.
‘The democratic revolution is currently in hibernation; from a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Egypt’s democracy as below zero’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Reporton the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we areinterviewing civil society activists and leadersabout their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so.CIVICUS speaks to Mohamed Zaree, a human rights activist and legal expert, andthe Egypt Country Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS). Following the crackdown on Egyptian human rights organisations, CIHRS was forced to relocate its headquarters to Tunis, and Mr Zaree is currently being prosecuted for his human rights advocacy. He risks life imprisonment if convicted. In October 2017 he was awarded the annualprize of the Martin Ennals Foundation for his contribution to promoting human rights amid the government’s escalating harassment and intimidation of activists.
- How would you describe the state of democracy in Egypt? What happened to the democratic resurgence of 2011?
There is no democracy in Egypt. It is obvious to everyone here that this is a dictatorship: there is no rule of law, there is a lack of an active civil society and political parties, and the space for civil society (civic space) is closing. Even if there is an appearance of democratic institutions, including parliament, there is no democracy of any kind. Institutions are controlled by the security apparatus. Even the elections for parliament have not been a competition among political parties as much as a competition between security apparatuses, so members of parliament don’t represent the people as much as they represent the security apparatus. This situation is reflected in all the laws that have been recently enacted, including the infamous NGO (non-governmental organisation) Law (also known as Law 70) that has been widely criticised.
So I wouldn’t like to say that the 2011 democratic revolution has been defeated, but at least we must acknowledge that it has been momentarily set back. We put high expectations on the 25 January Revolution, and it gave us some hope, which still lives on. But technically, nothing is left from the revolution except for the benefits for the army, the police and the judiciary – there have been no gains for the people who participated in or led the revolution. Many people who took part in it are now in jail or in exile. But it is still not over yet; even if we are going through the hardest of times, a step was taken on 25 January 2011 that is very difficult to erase. So I would rather say the revolution is in hibernation right now.
- What do you see as the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy, and what should be the role of civil society in it?
Elections are a very important democratic procedure, but at the end of the day they are just a procedure. The practice of democracy is the art of compromise among different opinions; it involves the peaceful coexistence of diverse views and requires a dynamic and lively society. So democracy means a free media, free civil society and free political parties, or, in other words, the freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Elections are therefore necessary, but they are not enough. To fulfil their purpose, elections need to meet a number of conditions that cannot be taken for granted. In the upcoming presidential elections, to be held in early 2018, we are supposedly going to vote for a president, but the election could easily become a referendum on the incumbent president, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, since there is no democratic atmosphere that can guarantee that there is a meaningful competition among candidates for office. We are currently living under a state of emergency, with military courts and military trials for civilians, and a potential presidential candidate is facing a politically motivated trial; if convicted, he would be prevented from running.
The highly repressive NGO law that was passed earlier this year cripples the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to monitor the elections. The 1914 Assembly Law and the 2013 Protest Law severely restrict the ability of citizens to gather and demonstrate. The state and the security agencies control the media, even nominally private channels, so there is no chance for a variety of opinions to be heard. So the elections are likely to turn into a referendum.
- How far is Egypt from achieving a functioning democracy, and what should the government do in the short term towards that end?
From a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate Egypt as below zero. So for starters, for the upcoming elections to be actual elections, some changes should take place immediately: the state of emergency and the Assembly and Protest Laws should be repealed so that candidates are able to organise assemblies and run their campaigns. Political activists and media workers who are in jail should be released. An independent entity should oversee the media in order to guarantee a fair coverage for all candidates, instead of the ongoing disproportionately negative coverage of opposition candidates on state-owned media. Media channels should be open to all citizens. And for civil society to be able to play its role, the NGO Law should be repealed.
- 4. What do you think the government was trying to achieve with the NGO Law? What restrictions does the new law impose on the activities of civil society?
The government was, and is, trying to close civic space completely. Or rather, the president along with the security apparatus is, and not necessarily the government, since the president is in practice ruling alone.
The NGO Law is clearly not an isolated piece of legislation; it fits perfectly within a wider strategy to restrict civil society. It is not targeted specifically at human rights organisations, but encompasses all of civil society, including charity and developmental organisations. Under the new law, a CSO can be fined and its director can be jailed for up to five years for conducting a poll or publishing a report that has not been approved by the government, or for hiring a foreign worker. A sentence of two years in prison can be imposed for merely changing the organisation’s headquarters without notifying the authorities.
Similar to the National Security Council provided for in the constitution, which is responsible for identifying ways to secure the country and respond to crises and disasters, the bill provides for an entity known as the National Agency for the Regulation of Foreign Non-Governmental Organizations. To be constituted by presidential decree, the agency will consist of representatives from three security bodies, as well as representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Cooperation, the competent ministry for civic associations, the Central Bank, the anti-money laundering unit, and the Administrative Control Authority. Under the law, this agency will determine all matters related to the affairs of international CSOs, funding and cooperation between Egyptian associations and any foreign body. In utter disregard for constitutional principles, the law specifies that applications to the agency receiving no response within two months will be considered denied. In an attempt to combat civic action by all possible means, the law gives the government the right to object to all internal association resolutions, nominations to their boards of directors, and the regularity of their meetings.
So this law is truly a declaration of intentions from the president toward civil society. The message is: you will work under very strict supervision, and if you are not able to work at all, that is fine with us, because you are not wanted.
- Have you or your organisation directly experienced restrictions? How has this clampdown on civil society affected your work - and your life?
I don’t think the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies will be very affected by the NGO Law specifically. There are a lot of articles in the Penal Code that are affecting civil society a lot more than the NGO Law. For instance, the assets of our Director have been frozen, but this happened as a result of the application of the Penal Code rather than the NGO Law. I have been under a travel ban not because of this law, but because of the Penal Code. I have been under investigation and faced three charges, two of them under the Penal Code and the third, the softest, under the NGO Law.
The latter charge is punishable with up to six months in prison. The other two, in contrast, can lead to life imprisonment. The two most serious charges I face, which have nothing to do with the NGO Law, are related to receiving unauthorised foreign funding and setting up an organisation of an international nature without a permit. Although this case, also known as the Foreign Funding Case against CSOs, or Case 173, dates back to 2011, these crimes became more serious after the Penal Code was amended in 2014. As I am facing two charges, I could receive two back-to-back life sentences. A life sentence in Egypt amounts to 25 years, so I could receive more than 30 years imprisonment overall, if I were convicted.
As a result of the travel ban, I was unable to travel to Geneva to receive the Martin Ennals Award. The organisers tried to contact the President and the Minister of Foreign Affairs to have it lifted, but they didn’t receive any response, so my wife and two daughters travelled to receive it on my behalf.
Of course all of this has affected me. I am in denial; I try not to think that I may be going to prison. In fact, I avoid this kind of thought and try to live a normal life. My family are also worried, and all of this has affected their morale, so it was good for them to go to Geneva to get my award. In Egypt you cannot predict anything; there is always fear of what could happen next. I could finish this interview only to find the police knocking on my door to arrest me. This could happen at any time, so it’s better not to think too much about it.
- You, your organisation and other civil society organisations keep working nonetheless. What are you doing to counteract these threats?
We have learned that challenging restrictions such as travel bans and freezing asset orders through legal means is somehow useless, given the destruction undergone by the Egyptian judicial system. What we are doing instead is raise these issues with the international community. Pressure from the international community doesn’t automatically make our situation better, but at least it helps so that our situation does not get any worse. International actors have been in many meetings with government officials, in Cairo and abroad, to put pressure so that no additional charges are raised and the cases against us are closed.
From our end, we also keep challenging the legality of the procedures followed on our cases. Some human rights defenders have challenged the legitimacy of the judge presiding on their cases. The Cairo Institute has questioned the decision to extend the appointment of the judge presiding over Case 173 and claimed that this and other legal and procedural violations have marred the case.
Besides, we keep trying to do our normal work on a daily basis. As we monitor human rights abuses, we have more work than ever. We are experiencing the worse restrictions just at the time when we are needed the most. Many human rights organisations have downsized or have moved some of their staff abroad. I am still in Cairo, but many people with the CIHRS have left the country and the organisation has been based in Tunisia since 2014.
In sum, we are pursuing two strategies to counteract restrictions: legal challenge and international pressure. But in terms of effectiveness, international pressure definitely comes first.
- What additional international support does Egyptian civil society need to be able to respond better?
We need the international community to keep putting pressure on the government, facilitating the work of human rights organisations in Egypt and abroad, and providing protection for threatened human rights defenders.
The Egyptian government is now facing the threat of extremism, and insist that we should all stand together against terrorism. But what they need to understand is that security and human rights are very much linked. Rather than dealing individually with terrorists by arresting or bombing them, they need to deal with the root causes of radicalisation in Egypt. It is important that they realise that repression is not part of the solution as much as it is part of the problem.
The leaders of democratic societies are in the best position to put this kind of pressure. I don’t want French President Emmanuel Macron to lecture anyone on human rights. That is not his job; it is actually my job. What he could do is show integrity by providing protection and using his leverage to bring about slight improvements in the human rights situation, instead of selling Rafale warplanes and other military equipment to Egypt. So far, remaining silent and praising a dictator has been the price tag of those Rafale fighters.
‘The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it’
CIVICUS speaks toSusannah Sirkin, director of international policy and partnerships and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises. Sirkin oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems, and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.
1. What is the current situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh?
The situation is absolutely desperate and devastating, both inside Myanmar, as far as anybody can tell, and in Bangladesh, as the world is able to see on television. Essentially, what we have witnessed over the past six months – although this has been building up for years – is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has referred to as possible genocide, and what most organisations concerned with international law and human rights have denounced as crimes against humanity. Dozens of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground, forcing people to flee on long journeys through the jungle to reach a very precarious situation in Bangladesh. People fleeing have been pursued and attacked with guns and other weapons not just by the military but also by civilian members of the Burmese population.
In Bangladesh, refugees are living in incredibly overcrowded, under-resourced, and dangerous camps – it’s hardly fair to even call them “camps,” although the situation has improved a bit over the past couple of months. More than 620,000 Rohingya, about half the population, have so far fled Rakhine state, and they have nowhere else to go. So they are forced to stay on a very small piece of land in one of the poorest and already most densely populated countries in the world. There have already been outbreaks of infectious diseases, and given the problems of overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, which my own team at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recently reported, it is possible for infectious diseases to spread rapidly and with lethal results.
Essentially, the world has witnessed the virtual destruction of a culture, a community and a portion of the Burmese population. Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently reached an agreement for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but nobody really believes such an agreement can be implemented under the present circumstances. In the first place, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to Myanmar unless citizenship and basic rights are guaranteed. In the second, the provisions in the agreement involve Rohingya providing documents according to citizenship laws that don’t recognise them as citizens. This is obviously hugely problematic. What’s more, they have no homes to return to, as their villages have been burned, their lands and cattle seized by their non-Muslim neighbours, and many in their families and communities killed. There have also been very serious reports of mass rapes of women and girls, as well as killings of babies and young children, so the situation couldn’t be worse on any count.
2. Why is the Rohingya minority being specifically targeted?
There’s a long history of discrimination and persecution of minority groups in Myanmar, not only of the Rohingya but also of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Shan minorities. PHR has documented the persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar for a decade, and other human rights groups have done it long before us.
Historically, it has been a problem for people who are not Burmese to live in Burma or Myanmar. There is a hyper-nationalist strain among both the population and the country’s leadership, and, on top of this, the country has lived for decades under a military dictatorship that persecuted not only the political opposition but also ethnic and religious minorities.
Myanmar has failed to recognise diversity and human rights for all its population. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a country that has a Buddhist majority, have long been deprived of their citizenship and treated as if they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for several generations, well over a hundred years, and belong in Myanmar as much as anybody else. However, in the latest census they were not counted among Burmese minorities but rather as foreigners lacking the protections that citizens receive under the law.
The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it. A few years ago, PHR released a report on the burning of Muslim homes in Buddhist-dominated areas of Myanmar. We documented a well-known massacre in the town of Meikhtila, where police and security officials stood by and watched as local population burned houses and people alive. These actions had long been encouraged by racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, fuelled by a few very charismatic Buddhist monks that had much influence with the population.
Before the 2015 crackdown and subsequent crisis, more than one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine state. Their relationship with their Buddhist neighbours had been tense for quite some time, and outbreaks of violence had been relatively frequent in the past. The current crisis broke out in August 2017, when government forces were attacked by militants and a “clearance operation” was launched by Myanmar security forces in response. Mass expulsion of the Rohingya has since been executed under the pretence of a counter-insurgency operation, with the local population joining in burning villages and killing people. This looks like a very well-coordinated effort between officials and citizens, which is very disturbing.
In present Myanmar, the situation is compounded by the denial of human rights on multiple levels. We have recently seen a frightening crackdown on the freedom of expression in the country, and for some time the area in northern Rakhine State has been closed off to journalists. For some years now, it has been very difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the area. When a government shuts down access in such way, one can only fear the worst, because it strongly suggests that they are trying to hide something.
3. Has progressive and human rights-oriented civil society in Myanmar and Bangladesh done anything to respond to this crisis? If so, what challenges have they faced?
There have been efforts by very courageous individuals and organisations inside Myanmar, especially those representing minority groups, as well as human rights and humanitarian organisations. But it is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to be an independent civil society voice inside Myanmar right now. For the Rohingya in Rakhine State, speaking up means sure death, and there is no access even for journalists to document what is going on in the area. So, unfortunately, even the most courageous members of civil society have been silenced by persecution.
In Bangladesh, there are a number of efforts underway, particularly by the humanitarian community, to help the refugees. But it’s not the best possible situation in terms of humanitarian response, either. The fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not designated as the lead agency has been viewed negatively, although there has been strong coordination between the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR. In any case, the refugee influx has been overwhelming and the early response was insufficient. Moreover, this is happening in a challenging environment, and we need to understand that such an influx of refugees can be nothing but overwhelming for a country like Bangladesh – which makes an adequate international response all the more important.
4. You mentioned that the area where the atrocities are occurring is closed to journalists and civil society. What challenges have PHR and similar organisations faced in documenting the abuses?
The number one challenge is that human rights groups can’t get into Myanmar. It is therefore extremely difficult to do what we are supposed to do in terms of properly and independently documenting and assessing the facts inside the country where the crimes have occurred. The prohibition not only applies to human rights civil society organisations – representatives of the UNHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have also been barred from visiting the country. On the other hand, entry was allowed for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who was able to interview survivors and confirm reports of atrocities.
As we lack access to Myanmar, we have instead documented what has happened to this people by interviewing them in Bangladesh. Thankfully, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations have had access to refugee camps, and this has been critical to documenting the plight of the Rohingya and their current humanitarian situation, and reporting on it. Doing this in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis poses specific challenges. We are basically interviewing survivors who are desperately in need of trauma recovery, medical care, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and information about their missing family members. We have interviewed people who lost everybody in their families and are the sole survivors; people who have seen their homes burned to the ground, who had family members raped and shot dead, who were shot at even while crossing the river to get to Bangladesh. Documenting these kinds of human rights violations is certainly challenging for the person that is being interviewed, but it is also challenging for the one doing the reporting, because the need is so intense and the trauma is so acute – and we are a medically-based organisation, after all.
5. What support should the international community offer to resolve this crisis?
First, what most urgently requires a response from global governments is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the ground in Bangladesh, in order to meet the most desperate needs of the refugees.
Second, there is a need for governments of the most powerful countries with influence on the Myanmar government – including China, which has consistently supported the government – to exert pressure so Myanmar immediately stops persecuting this population and gives them the citizenship and associated guarantees that they are due.
It is important to note that there have been high expectations regarding the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now Myanmar’s nominal head of state, and her apparent lack of concern and acknowledgment of what her government has been doing have been very concerning. On one hand, we need to understand that she has limited control over the country’s military forces enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya. On the other hand, however, the international community needs to send Suu Kyi a strong message, since so much of the Burmese population views her as a leader and a hero, and her voice could change the tenor of this crisis – it could turn the population away from prejudice, discrimination, and persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities.
Third, there needs to be credible efforts to establish accountability and justice. This is critical, given the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed. Unfortunately, efforts to refer the crimes in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for assessment have been blocked by China, among others.
Finally, it is also crucial to confront the flaws of the repatriation agreement, so that anybody who chooses to return to Myanmar is able to do so safely and with guarantees for all their human rights, including the right to reclaim their land, property, livelihood, and employment, as well as to practice their religion freely and safely. On the other hand, those who choose not to go back need to be guaranteed the right to claim asylum and find safe haven in another country. Policy-wise, the biggest challenge will be defining what will happen to these people who have fled in such high numbers.
This will not be an easy crisis to solve. Global politics are not looking particularly good at the moment. World leaders and the Security Council have many other crises to deal with, including the North Korea situation, Iran, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and so on. Many of us are worried that people are going to forget about this particular crisis unfolding in a remote part of the world, so it is vital to continue to call attention to these serious human rights abuses and not let the world forget that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. As recently as last week, we’ve seen reports of outbreaks of diphtheria, and there are fears of a cholera epidemic, which will not be easy to contain. The long-term solution to this crisis will most definitely require continuous surveillance, reporting, and action by UN bodies, regional organisations, individual governments, and civil society.
‘We are an activist group that seeks to restore faith in democracy’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, the challenges they encounter in doing so, and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the Democracy Restoration Group, a Thai civil society organisation seeking to restore faith in democratic processes, particularly among young people, and promote accountable and responsive democratic institutions.
"Born a refugee, I dream of a place called home"
By Mohammed Eid
This story was facilitated by CIVICUS.
I am a refugee, born to a refugee family. I was granted that status on the day I came into this world. I was not aware of what had happened before then. I did not fight any battle, I did not threaten anyone. I did not even choose my own race or ethnicity. I just came to this world to find myself a displaced person.
Being a refugee means I am a stranger on every spot on this planet. Some see me as a burden on the people of the hosting country. I drink their water, I eat their food, and I breathe their air. Day after day, their resources are less and less because of me, the alien person who came from outside. Maybe that explains why I never had access to education or healthcare, and I will never have access to work in the future.
Read on: Open Democracy
#FreeSherifOsman: UAE must not extradite political commentator to Egypt, where he would face torture
We, the undersigned organisations, urge the authorities of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) not to deport Sherif Osman to Egypt, where he would be at high risk of being subjected to torture and other human rights violations. An extradition would constitute a violation of the principle of non-refoulement enshrined under article 3 of the Convention against Torture, to which the UAE is a party since 2012. We further urge the UAE to release Osman immediately.
#HRC50: Call for Urgent Debate on the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan
Open letter to Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States to the UN Human Rights Council
We, the undersigned civil society organisations, urge you to call for and support an urgent debate at the 50th session of the UN Human Rights Council regarding the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan. We further urge you to support a resolution responding to this crisis.
Since August 2021, when the Taliban took control of the country, there has been an enormous deterioration in the recognition and protection of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, including with respect to the rights to non-discrimination, education, work, public participation, health, and sexual and reproductive health. The Taliban has also imposed sweeping restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement for women and girls. Afghanistan is now the only country in the world to expressly prohibit girls’ education.
In the last few weeks, the situation has worsened dramatically, with a Taliban directive that women and girls must fully cover themselves in public, including their faces, and leave home only in cases of necessity. International investigations, witness testimony and video evidence indicate that women human rights defenders and others protesting against the restrictions and violations have been subject to home invasions, threats, abductions, enforced disappearances, and assaults with electric devices and chemical sprays.
On 17 May 2022, the Taliban dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, cutting off a crucial source of support for Afghans facing violations of their human rights, including women and girls experiencing gender-based violence.
On 26 May 2022, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Afghanistan concluded his country mission by describing recent measures as ‘fitting a pattern of absolute gender segregation…aimed at making women invisible in society’.
This is the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world today, and the most serious women’s rights crisis since the Taliban took over Afghanistan the last time in 1996.
Consistent with the mandate conferred under General Assembly resolution 60/251 that the Human Rights Council address situations of gross and systematic human rights violations, it is imperative that the Council consider and take action on the women’s rights crisis in Afghanistan in a manner reflecting the gravity and urgency of the situation. At the Council’s forthcoming 50th session the High Commissioner will provide an oral update on the human rights situation in Afghanistan, followed by an interactive dialogue. In our view, this interactive dialogue, which will consider the situation in the country in general, should be complemented by an urgent debate providing a dedicated focus on women’s and girls’ rights, gender equality, and the situation for women human rights defenders in the country.
The purposes of an urgent debate could include:
- To unequivocally condemn the huge regression in the recognition, protection and realisation of the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan;
- To express solidarity and support for women and girls in and from Afghanistan, including women human rights defenders who continue to advocate for equality and non-discrimination despite the threats and risks;
- To provide a platform and opportunity for women human rights defenders from Afghanistan, together with other independent civil society actors, to share their experiences, expertise, recommendations and demands;
- To provide a platform and opportunity for the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan to brief the Council on the preliminary findings and recommendations from his country visit of 15 to 26 May; and
- To request that the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan and the Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls prepare a report on the situation to be presented and discussed at the Council and ensure that they are adequately resourced to do this.
Recognition and protection of gender equality is both a human rights obligation and essential to achieve peace, justice and sustainable development in Afghanistan. These grave and systematic violations of women’s rights demand an urgent and proportionate response. It would be unacceptable for the June session of the Council, traditionally the session focused on gender-related issues, to pass without dedicated attention and action on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. We consider that an urgent debate and substantive resolution are part of an appropriate response and urge you to take and support action in this regard.
- Afghan Women's Educational Center
- Aid Afghanistan for Education
- Amnesty International
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Center for Reproductive Rights
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Civic Participation
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
- Consortium on Gender, Security and Human Rights
- DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
- Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
- Freedom Now
- Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
- Global Justice Center
- Global Network of Women Peacebuilders (GNWP)
- Human Rights Watch
- International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Malala Fund
- OutRight Action International
- Social Association for Development of Afghanistan
- Women & Children Legal Research Foundation
- Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF)
- Women's Refugee Commission
- World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
#HRC51: States must ensure systematic investment in meaningful, safe and inclusive participation of civil society
Statement at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council
General Debate on Item 3
Delivered by Nicola Paccimiccio
Thank you, Madame Vice-President.
We welcome the report of OHCHR on the essential role of civil society, which concludes that civil society must be empowered and protected. It highlights that there is much more to be done to address challenges in this respect.
Looking forward, civil society should be meaningfully included in all post-pandemic processes, and we urge States to take particular note of the recommendation to urgently and actively facilitate meaningful participation of diverse civil society entities in the development of a pandemic treaty.
The resolution on the Council’s role in prevention adopted by this Council during its 45th Session acknowledged the important role played by civil society organizations and human rights defenders in preventing human rights violations, including by providing information on early warning signs. This role is only possible through the protection, and empowerment, of civil society to operate without risk of reprisals.
As access to resources continues to be an existential threat to civil society participation, we similarly call on States to implement the recommendation to refrain from limiting receipt of funds, including from foreign sources. We look particularly to States introducing or misusing legislation which undermines this recommendation, including India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, Zimbabwe’s proposed Private Voluntary Organisation Amendment Bill, and legislation relating to so-called ‘Foreign Agents’ in Russia.
We call on States to ensure more systematic investment in meaningful, safe and inclusive participation at all levels, including by proactively addressing threats to civil society and human rights defenders. By doing so, States would be ultimately securing the mechanisms, enablers, and spaces that they themselves need to work with and for the societies they serve.
We thank you.
#UDHR75: Global deterioration of civic space puts States' commitment to human rights in question
Statement at the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
General Debate on the High Commissioner’s update
Delivered by Humberto Mendez Ramos
Thank you, Mr President,
This 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the High Commissioner has described civic space as the best indicator of a state’s commitment to upholding the aspirations of the Declaration. However, as documented by CIVICUS, rapid deterioration of civic space remains a global trend, putting into serious question many states’ commitment to human rights.
In Ecuador, we have documented attacks against journalists and political figures. We are also concerned about the continuing harassment, arbitrary detentions, public vilification, and unfair trials against human rights defenders. Especially in the context of the upcoming national elections, we underscore the need for effective mechanisms to protect freedom of expression and civil society from violence.
Ahead of Senegal’s presidential elections, set to take place in February 2024, civic space violations have soared. These include the use of excessive force, including lethal force, in the face of opposition protests, arbitrary arrests of journalists, the restriction of access to internet and social media, the suspension of media outlets and the dissolution of opposition party.
We are also concerned about developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in particular the Republika Srpska, where repression of civil society and freedom of expression are being sought through restrictive legislation, including on the supervision and control of civil society. We underscore the need to ensure an enabling environment for activists in law and in practice, including for LGBTQI+ advocates who have been subjected to increased hostility and harassment.
In the face of deteriorating situations for human rights and civic space, CIVICUS calls on this Council to act and address these situations objectively, impartially and without double standards.
We thank you.
#UN75: ‘Commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda are going unfulfilled’
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Sally Chin, Head of the New York Office at Oxfam International, a global confederation of 20 affiliates working on humanitarian and development issues with the aim of tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality around the world. Oxfam is present in more than 90 countries and works with thousands of partners, allies and communities to save and protect lives in emergencies, help people rebuild their livelihoods and campaign for genuine, lasting change, with an approach centred on women's rights. In New York, Sally oversees Oxfam's work with the UN.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
It would be impossible to sum up all of the successes or challenges of the UN in one response given how many issues the UN deals with. Nevertheless, one thing I can say is that one of the biggest successes of the UN in its 75-year history has been the countless lives saved through its humanitarian efforts. At its best, the UN has acted as a place of refuge, a voice that speaks out and defends the rights of all the people whose rights would otherwise be violated or forgotten. When we reflect upon the roots of the UN, the fact that we now have these standards, agreements and norms of how we act and expect others to act is truly remarkable. UN peacekeepers have protected people seeking safety at their bases, and UN humanitarian agencies and their partners have got aid to some of the most difficult to reach locations. Fundamental treaties, resolutions, structures and frameworks have been agreed and created that protect people’s rights and at times allow them to participate in processes that affect them, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Human Rights Council with its Special Procedures and Universal Periodic Review, to name a few. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the architecture of the UN system put in place, is one of the key multilateral mechanisms for defending both the full human rights of people worldwide and the civic space for people to exercise the three fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
The UN has also been indispensable in bringing together the world to tackle problems that are bigger than any one member state can handle. One example of this is the climate crisis –this generation's existential threat. Through economic policies that devalue people and planet, we have become our own greatest enemy. To the UN's collective credit, over the course of three decades, countries have established the framework for a global governance regime to address the climate crisis. Now they must match their actions to the scale of the problem. If every nation – led by big polluters and wealthy nations – implemented these already-agreed commitments, we would be able to solve the climate crisis!
And with the inclusion of Goal 10 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), inequality has been officially recognised as a constraint to development and poverty eradication and an intergovernmental space has been created for countries to make voluntary commitments and track progress on ending inequality at home and globally. However, a binding system and institutional mechanisms overseeing Goal 10's implementation is still lacking.
In addition, in recent years both the UN Secretariat and some UN Security Council (UNSC) member states have been introducing promising reforms and ways of working. One example would be the advances made by the UN in achieving some levels of gender parity in the Secretariat. Although on that note, we still have not yet seen a female UN Secretary-General and hopefully we will not have to wait another 75 years to have a feminist woman as Secretary-General.
Another positive trend is the increasing number of civil society activists from around the world that have been able to brief the UNSC. The UNSC’s Resolution 2242 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2015, “expresses its intention to invite civil society, including women’s organizations, to brief the Council in country-specific considerations and relevant thematic areas…”. According to data gathered by the NGO Working Group on Women Peace and Security, in 2015 only 16 civil society members briefed the Council, but by 2019, that number had grown to 53.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
As we know, the UN is only as successful as its member states, collectively, want it and allow it to be. And herein we see many of the challenges and the flaws. Here are just a few.
First, globally we are seeing a terrifying rollback of women’s rights, attacks on women human rights defenders and a shrinking of civic space. This is happening at a national level – where we see decreasing compliance with international human rights law – as well as at a global UN level. Member states with regressive agendas are using any opportunity they can find to chip away at long-established norms regarding rights. An example of this was at the negotiations in April 2019 around UNSC Resolution 2467 on conflict-related sexual violence, when the Council stripped all language on sexual and reproductive health rights from the final text, including previously agreed language. And 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and 20 years on from the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, commitments to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and gender equality more broadly are going unfulfilled. Gender advisors are being cut from UN missions, women’s rights and women-led organisations in conflict and fragile states are not getting enough funding, and gender mainstreaming efforts are slow.
As civic space is shrinking around the world, it is also being challenged at the UN – indeed, even the importance of multilateralism is being challenged – with key human rights mechanisms being defunded, civil society access to the UN being blocked through visa denials, and the people affected by conflict not being consistently included in the processes that impact them.
Another challenge is that while the UN and its partners may be saving lives, the current humanitarian system is overstretched, outdated and not yet able to respond adequately to all the growing need. Leadership and resources for humanitarian response need to be decentralised, with more power and funding given to the local organisations that are often the first to respond, and humanitarian action needs to be gender transformative. The whole system will need to rise up to all the challenges ahead, including the humanitarian dimension of the climate crisis.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the humanitarian aid system that is in trouble. Funding for climate and the SDGs is off-track too. Currently there is an outsized reliance on the business sector for delivering the SDGs, when what we need is more action by member states themselves.
A major additional challenge is that the UNSC, which is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, is blocked and paralysed due to its members’ own geopolitical fights. When wars are not prevented or resolved, humanitarian need only grows. Combine this with humanitarian need driven by natural hazards and other causes: according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2020 167.6 million people – about 1 in 45 of the world’s population – will be in need of humanitarian aid and protection. It appears that there is now little that the UNSC can find agreement on. And as it fails to address crises, warring parties also fail to uphold their responsibilities; we see decreasing compliance with international humanitarian and international human rights law, with harrowing impacts. In too many conflicts we are seeing civilian populations, their organisations and infrastructure, as well as humanitarian aid workers, being targeted. And when the parties at war are supported by the member states on the UNSC or indeed are the member states themselves, where is the accountability and incentive to action?
Some kind of change at the UNSC is clearly needed. In the first instance, the five permanent members could voluntarily agree to not use their veto in the face of mass atrocities. This then should be followed by serious efforts to make the UNSC fit for purpose in the 21st century. Or how about asking incoming elected UNSC members to commit to adopting a feminist foreign policy – with the rest of the existing Council following suit?
For his part, the UN Secretary-General should take more advantage of his Article 99 powers under the UN Charter to ensure the Council discusses topics it would rather ignore. He must also ensure the implementation of the UN’s own Human Rights up Front approach, speaking out strongly against injustice and violations when they occur.
Do you know of any civil society initiative pushing for that kind of change?
While we must of course celebrate the successes of the UN this year on its 75th anniversary, as civil society we are most focused on working to both advance a rights agenda as well as defend against the attacks on this work that we increasingly see at the UN headquarters level and globally. Working together in alliance has been one of the most effective ways to do this. One important example of this coalition work is the 19 international non-governmental organisations that have been working together in New York as the NGO Working Group on WPS to advocate collectively for better implementation of the WPS agenda.
Other examples include the Charter for Change (C4C) network, the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) and the Global Refugee-Led Network (GRN), which are all civil society initiatives pushing for reforms within their member organisations and the humanitarian system to enable more locally-led responses. These three networks work to ensure that the perspective and direct representation of crisis-affected communities and their organisations are part of decision-making processes.
#UN75: ‘Governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community’
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of theKarapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatanhas 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.
What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.
Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.
The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.
What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?
Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.
First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.
Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.
Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.
All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.
What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?
We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.
When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.
When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.
When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.
When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
#UN75: ‘Human rights are at the centre of multilateral diplomacy’
CIVICUS speaks to Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations of DefendDefenders, an organisation that promotes the work and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa – Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. DefendDefenders provides emergency and legal support, protection grants and relocation programmes; helps build capacity in security and protection, digital safety, advocacy and communication, monitoring and reporting, human rights education and mental health and wellbeing; connects HRDs and civil society organisations (CSOs); raises awareness through research and analysis; and advocates for the protection of HRDs at the regional and international levels. A regional NGO, it is based in Kampala, Uganda and has a permanent office in Geneva, Switzerland.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
In its first 75 years of existence, the UN has secured a great deal of achievements in the fields of peace, security and development. When it comes to its third pillar, human rights, I would say that the UN’s greatest success is the international community’s acceptance, at both the ideological and practical and policy levels, that human rights are not within the sphere of domestic affairs.
With the UN, the promotion and protection of human rights – or indeed their violation – became a legitimate matter of international and multilateral concern. Today, states cannot simply use ‘sovereignty’ to disregard criticism over their human rights record. Some unconvincingly attempt to claim that human rights advocacy amounts to ‘interference’ in their internal affairs, but all, even the most closed, feel compelled to defend their human rights record and claim that they respect human rights (dictatorships usually add ‘fully’).
In other words, sovereignty cannot be used as a veil to prevent the international community from looking at the way a government treats its own people. This is immensely significant when you look back at history: states used to refuse to look at what was going on inside other states; they did so only when their own nationals or coreligionists were abused.
Now of course, selective invocation of human rights still exists: why does Country A raise human rights issues in Country B (its adversary) while remaining silent on exactly the same issues in Country C (its strategic ally)? However, unlike in past centuries, Country B will reply and will usually try to reverse the narrative (by saying ‘we respect human rights’) and to raise human rights issues in Country A (and, for good measure, in Country C).
Governments like to claim that ‘pressure does not work’ and ‘naming and shaming’ does not bring about any results. A number of them praise ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance and capacity-building’. Yet they spend time responding to criticism. They invest in the UN human rights system. They engage with the Human Rights Council and with the General Assembly’s Third Committee. They go through the Universal Periodic Review every four and a half years. They engage with special procedures (the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Council) and act on their communications – even when they do not publicly acknowledge so. They constantly interact with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Most states ratified a large number of human rights instruments and are therefore subjected to periodic reviews by treaty bodies. Finally, states systematically reply to HRDs and CSOs that conduct investigations and advocacy, either openly and constructively, or, sadly, by exercising reprisals against them.
Further, it often goes overlooked that ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance’ actually include substantial human rights elements. In 2019, DefendDefenders published a thorough analysis of the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘item 10’ resolutions on advisory services, which showed that human rights scrutiny is part and parcel of item 10, contrary to received wisdom and the narrative propagated by authoritarian states.
Multilateral human rights diplomacy has spilled over to, or has been accompanied by, bilateral human rights diplomacy. Human rights are included in the conduct of foreign affairs, from multilateral arenas to bilateral human rights dialogues. Further, provided they enjoy a degree of free expression, peaceful assembly and association, citizens demand human rights compliance from their governments not only at home but also with regard to the conduct of foreign policy. All of these aspects are – at least partly – human rights successes of the UN.
Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In 2019, as an instance in which the UN made a difference, I could cite the fact that sitting members of the Human Rights Council were subjected to more, not less, scrutiny. In July 2019, for the first time, the Council adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in three of its sitting members – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and the Philippines – during the same session. This showed that Council membership does not shield you from scrutiny, and that election to the Council does not amount to an endorsement of your human rights record. At the same time, states that until recently believed they were outside the reach of coordinated multilateral condemnation – notably China and Saudi Arabia – were subjected to scrutiny through joint oral and written statements.
These developments were unimaginable prior to 1945. This remains true despite reason for concern in recent years, with increasingly direct attacks against multilateral institutions and the UN human rights system by authoritarians and populists.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
Budget is always an issue for the UN’s human rights pillar. Compared to the peace and security and development pillars, it gets very little: the figure that is usually put forward is a mere three per cent of the overall UN budget.
This means that UN secretariat staff – OHCHR and human rights advisers in peace missions – and UN human rights bodies and mechanisms must work on a shoestring – and they achieve much! But the UN’s financial neglect for its human rights pillar also means that the UN system as a whole is facing a lack of policy consistency. Whereas the idea that development, peace and security, and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing has brought about policy initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front, decision-makers have been backtracking. In fact, the UN’s human rights pillar has faced mounting budget cuts, forcing a number of bodies to prepare for reduced numbers of sessions and meetings.
Caving to pressure from China, Russia and the USA, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has since he assumed office betrayed efforts to mainstream human rights in all UN work. He has by and large buried Human Rights Up Front, and human rights components of peace operations are being eviscerated as a result of this pressure and budget cuts decided by members of the UN Security Council.
How is civil society reacting to this?
Civil society is pushing back at all levels, reminding the UN and states of their duties towards the human rights pillar. Civil society has relied on, and promoted, a human rights-based approach to issues of global concern, from migration to counter-terrorism to climate change.
Civil society’s very existence and its dynamism are also important insofar as they highlight that the current form of the state – which still relies, essentially, on a ‘Westphalian’ concept of territorial sovereignty – is recent in the history of mankind, and that it is contingent and somewhat arbitrary. Societies, including the international society, could be organised differently.
State representatives sometimes portray human rights advocacy CSOs as arrogant when the latter name and shame human rights abusers, but the existence of civil society and the role citizen movements play call for more modesty on the part of state officials. Governments – provided they result from free and fair elections – represent one form of legitimacy, but not the only form of legitimacy. Civil society was there before the Westphalian state, and it will probably be there after the latter is, as Michel Foucault would say, “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
I believe these elements are important to keep in mind when discussing how civil society is pushing for change.
What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and what have you achieved?
For a regional human rights CSO like DefendDefenders, challenges are many. They include financial resources, a shrinking civic space in some of the countries we work on, impunity for human rights violations and abuses, and the very nature of our work. Human rights are, and will always be, about challenging power and imposing restrictions on those exercising it, to prevent abuse.
We always focus on the quality and relevance of our work. We also build bridges with all stakeholders: governments (as human rights duty-bearers), international and regional institutions, fellow CSOs, communities, grassroots activists and individual HRDs, who in the East and Horn of Africa have been organising themselves in coalitions and networks.
In December 2019, DefendDefenders was involved in the launch of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, something that was unthinkable two years ago when civic space in the country was closed. Any opportunity must be seized to build stronger human rights protections.
I will end with an anecdote. For years, Sudanese HRDs were insulted, intimidated, threatened, subject to surveillance, prevented from leaving their country and abused. In April 2019, through a peaceful revolution, Sudan’s people and civil society brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. In July, Dr Nasredeen Abdulbari, an academic and HRD, was part of DefendDefenders’ delegation to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council. Together, we advocated for meaningful UN action on Sudan, put forward our proposals and met with stakeholders. Two months later, at the Council’s 42nd session, Dr Abdulbari led the Sudanese government’s delegation to Geneva. In the meantime, he had been appointed Minister of Justice and joined a transitional cabinet led by civil society figures and activists. This is certainly not the end of the story, but it shows that one should never lose hope.