human rights

 

  • UAE: Release all prisoners of conscience now

    Joint letter calling on the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to intervene immediately in favour of the release of prisoners of conscience.

    Your Highness,

    We, the undersigned organisations, write to you to urge Your Highness to release prisoners of conscience in UAE prisons and to address this issue decisively.

    We appeal to Your Highness as President of the United Arab Emirates to treat the issue of prisoners of conscience as a high priority and consider it an urgent humanitarian situation that requires your direct and immediate intervention.

    Your Highness- the absence of such policies, rooted in human rights standards, is a stain on the country’s international reputation and runs counter to the Emirati government's image of the UAE as a country that believes in the values of tolerance and openness. It is the primary responsibility of Your Highness to uphold constitutional principles by putting an end to all human rights violations.

    We call on Your Highness to assume full moral and legal obligations and to work for the respect of human rights. Therefore, we appeal to you not only to release all prisoners of conscience in UAE jails but also to ensure that such violations will not be repeated.

    Pending their release, we hope that Your Highness will work to demonstrate your commitment to human rights and compliance with international standards for prisoners by granting prisoners of conscience their rights, such as medical care and regular family visits, and ending all forms of violations they are being exposed to.

    With great respect and appreciation

    Signatories

    1. ALQST for Human Rights
    2. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain
    3. CIVICUS
    4. Emirates Detainees Advocacy Centre
    5. Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor
    6. European Centre for Democracy and Human Rights
    7. FEMENA
    8. Geneva council for rights and liberties
    9. Gulf Centre for Human Rights
    10. HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement
    11. International Campaign for Justice and Human Rights
    12. International Centre for Justice and Human Rights
    13. MENA Rights group
    14. Skyline International for Human Rights

     

  • Uganda yet to address civic freedom gaps ahead of UN review

    Human rights organisations CIVICUS, Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), Justice Access Point (JAP) and African Institute for Investigative Journalism (AIIJ) call on UN member states to urge the Government of Uganda to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN Human Rights Council on 27 January 2022 as part of the 40th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

     

  • Uganda: Egregious measures threaten free and fair elections

    Urgent joint civil society letter on Ugandan Elections taking place on 14 January 2020

    To the: African Commission and United Nations Special Procedures
    ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders 
    ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
    UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression
    UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders
    UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions 
    UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 

    cc: United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
    Regional and International Heads of State and Government 

    Re: Egregious and widespread pre-electoral violence, intimidation and repressive measures threaten free and fair electoral process in Uganda

    Uganda is set to hold Presidential and Parliamentary general elections on January 14th, 2021. The undersigned organisations are deeply concerned with the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country and submit this urgent appeal to your respective mandates under the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and United Nations (UN) to urge the Government of Uganda to adhere to its constitutional, regional and international obligations, particularly during this critical electoral period. 

    Over the last few months, we have noted an escalation of violations that has created a climate of unprecedented fear and intimidation by State security and other regulators, seemingly intended to silence dissent, undermine political opposition participation 1, and deprive Ugandans of their enjoyment of fundamental rights; in particular, the right to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Security forces have adopted the use of excessive and deadly force to quell public gatherings and intimidate the public, especially human rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and their supporters, and vulnerable groups such as women and youth.

    Credible human rights organisations and media institutions have documented numerous cases of mass arrests and abductions of civilians, which are becoming more of a daily occurrence 2. In addition, COVID-19 related prevention measures have been exploited to unduly restrict civil and political rights and other fundamental freedoms. In the months leading to the election, authorities arrested opposition party leaders, journalists, and dispersed opposition campaign rallies with teargas for allegedly violating COVID-19 guidelines 3. On the other hand, authorities in a partisan manner, allowed certain rallies organised by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to continue unhindered 4.

     Covering the political opposition has become an unacceptably dangerous job for journalists, who have been assaulted numerous times by security personnel. For example, on December 27 at least three journalists -- Daniel Lutaaya, Ashraf Kasirye, and Ali Mivuli-- were injured by projectiles fired by police 5. Kasirye remained hospitalized at the time of publication. In early December, police beat at least six journalists who were covering opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi in Lira 6 and fired a rubber bullet at another journalist in Jinja 7. In a December 27 statement 8, police said they would investigate attacks on journalists, a commitment that was deeply undermined on January 8, when the Inspector General of Police, Martin Okoth Ochola, told journalists that police were beating them for their own safety 9.

    Regulators have sought to further restrict media access and coverage during the electoral period. In December, the Media Council of Uganda issued guidelines, requiring all foreign journalists in Uganda to reapply for accreditation; introducing a more stringent regime for accreditation of journalists seeking entry into Uganda; and barring all local journalists from covering political events without credentials 10. The Uganda Communications Commission in December wrote to Google, asking for the take-down of opposition aligned YouTube pages 11. On January 12 Reuters 12 and AFP 13 news agencies reported that the regulator ordered Internet Service Providers to block access to social media platforms. In a speech 14, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni claimed the shutdown of social media platforms was retaliatory to an earlier measure by Facebook, which took down government-linked accounts for allegedly manipulating public debate 15.

    Human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) play an important role in promoting an enabling environment for the respect and protection of human rights. In relation to elections, they support institutional processes in areas such as voter education, independent election monitoring and helping to reduce election-related conflict. Despite this critical role, organisations such as the Uganda National NGO Forum and Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) that were engaging in election-related activities such as polling have had their bank accounts arbitrarily frozen following allegations of money-laundering 16. Prominent human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo along with four others were arrested last month on similar money-laundering allegations 17. Another striking example is the suspension of the National Election Watch-Uganda (NEW-U), a loose coalition of largely formal NGOs engaged in election monitoring, by the National Bureau of NGOs, allegedly for non-registration 18.

    In light of the numerous and widespread violations that have been observed, particularly over the past several weeks, there is a strong justification to be concerned over the fairness and integrity of the upcoming elections. 

    This appeal calls on the UN and African Commission special procedures to exercise their mandates to urge the government of Uganda to adopt all reasonable safeguards to enable Ugandans to participate in the election free of violence and intimidation, and to abandon all efforts to restrict the media from freely reporting on the electoral process. Ugandan security forces must refrain from the excessive use of force against civilians and refrain from arbitrary arrests and detention as a means to silence persons critical of the State. Anyone arrested must be afforded the full due process of the law, including a prompt, free and fair trial. Perpetrators of election related violations that have occurred in recent months must be held accountable and effective remedies afforded to the victims.

    We further call on you to strongly urge the government of Uganda to embrace the fundamental right to political participation and to observe the cardinal principles of transparency, accountability, fairness and non-discrimination in collecting, processing, registering and reporting of the votes. In addition, the Ugandan government must allow independent organisations to freely and safely conduct election monitoring to help safeguard the general election process from electoral misconduct and instill public confidence in the integrity of the process.

    Finally, we call on you to remind member States of the African Union and United Nations and other multinational organisations to uphold their treaty obligations and hold Uganda accountable to its own constitution, regional and international obligations, ensuring adherence to the principles of a free and just democratic society. 

    We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues that carry with them serious implications for the rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms in Uganda, as well as the East African sub-region more generally, and stand ready to provide any further information.

    Sincerely, 

    Access Now
    African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies (ACDHRS)
    African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX)
    ARTICLE 19 - Eastern Africa 
    Association Nigérienne des Scouts de l'Environnement (ANSEN)
    Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
    Center for Civil Liberties (Ukraine) 
    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance
    Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    Eastern Africa Journalists Network (EAJNet)
    Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Center (EHRDC)
    MARUAH, Singapore
    Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA)
    Network of Estonian Non-profit Organizations
    Network of Public Interest Lawyers, Uganda  
    Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
    ROSE (Réseau des Organisations de la Société Civile pour l'Observation et le Suivi des Élections en Guinée), Guinea
    Odhikar, Bangladesh
    Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS)
    Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
    Spaces for Change, Nigeria
    Uganda National NGO Forum
    Vijana Corps, Uganda
    Womankind Worldwide 
    Zambia Council for Social Development (ZCSD)


    1. The Independent, NUP accuses security of targeting their supporters during night operations, November 24, 2020, available at https://www.independent.co.ug/nup-accuses-security-of-targeting-their-supporters-during-night-operations/.

    2.  Id.See also NTV Youtube broadcaST, Mukono residents cry out, some now sleep in the bush in fear of arrest, January 6, 2021, available at  https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mukono+residents+cry+out. Relatedly see Daily Monitor, Two NUP candidates, four supporters go missing in Mpigi District, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/two-nup-candidates-four-supporters-go-missing-in-mpigi-district-3251388.

    3. Human Rights Watch, Uganda: Authorities weaponize covid-19 for repression, November 20, 2020, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/20/uganda-authorities-weaponize-covid-19-repression.

     4. Id.

    5. Committee to Protect Journalists, Police beat, detain journalists covering opposition candidates ahead of Uganda elections, January 7, 2021, available at https://cpj.org/2021/01/police-beat-detain-journalists-covering-opposition-candidates-ahead-of-uganda-elections/.

    6. Human Rights Network for Journalists- Uganda, Journalists covering presidential candidate Kyagulanyi brutally attacked by security forces, December 12, 2020, available at https://www.hrnjuganda.org/journalists-covering-presidential-candidate-kyagulanyi-brutally-attacked-by-security-forces/.

    7. Foreign Correspondents Association Uganda, Tweet, December 2, 2020, available at https://twitter.com/fcauganda/status/1334184041722093568?lang=en.

    8. Uganda Police Force, Statement on violent fracas at Kyabakuza, December 27, 2020, available at https://www.upf.go.ug/statement-on-violent-fracas-at-kyabakuza/.

    9. Daily Monitor, Police will beat you for own safety, ICP Ochola tells journalists, January 8, 2021, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/news/national/police-will-beat-you-for-own-safety-igp-ochola-tells-journalists-3251102.

    10. International Press Institute, Uganda orders journalists to seek fresh accreditation, December 11, 2020, https://ipi.media/uganda-orders-journalists-to-seek-fresh-accreditation/.

    11. Accessnow, KeepItOn: Uganda must #KeepITOn during the upcoming general election, January 11, 2021, available at, https://www.accessnow.org/cms/assets/uploads/2021/01/KeepItOn-open-letter-uganda-general-election.pdf.

    12. Reuters, Uganda orders all social media to be blocked -letter, January 12, 2021, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-uganda-election-social-media/uganda-orders-all-social-media-to-be-blocked-letter-idUSKBN29H1E7

    13. Rfi, Uganda bans social media ahead of election, Bobi Wine says home raided, January 12 2021, available at https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20210112-uganda-bans-social-media-ahead-of-election-bobi-wine-says-home-raided-yoweri-museveni.

    14. NTV Uganda, Facebook, January 12, 2021, available at https://web.facebook.com/169252986456497/videos/401297207829849.

    15. DW, Uganda elections: Facebook shuts down government-linked accounts, January 11, 2021, available at https://www.dw.com/en/uganda-elections-facebook-shuts-down-government-linked-accounts/a-56195067.

    16. Daily Monitor, Govt freezes accounts of 4 NGOs doing poll work, December 2, 2020, available at https://www.monitor.co.ug/uganda/special-reports/elections/govt-freezes-accounts-of-4-ngos-doing-poll-work-3216360.

    17. The Guardian, Uganda charges leading lawyer for LGBT rights with money laundering, December 24, 2020, available at, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/dec/24/uganda-charges-leading-lawyer-for-lgbt-rights-with-money-laundering-nicholas-opiyo

    18. URN, Government suspends operations of national Election Watch Uganda, October 29, 2020, available at https://ugandaradionetwork.net/story/government-suspends-operations-of-national-election-watch-uganda.

     

  • UK: ‘For women to be respected, police reform is necessary but not sufficient’

    CIVICUS speaks with Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, policy lead at the Co-operative Party and councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. 

    Reclaim These Streets was formed in March 2021 to speak up against street harassment of women and girls, educate boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenge the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced.

    Anna Birley

    What prompted you to organise and how did Reclaim These Streets get started?

    I live in south London, close to the place where Sarah Everard was last seen before going missing on 3 March 2021. Over the following week, posters appeared on every bus stop, lamppost, tree – her face was everywhere. We were in lockdown, activities were very limited, so when you went for a lunchtime walk with the one friend you were allowed to meet under lockdown regulations, you would see her face everywhere.

    My friends and I realised we all felt scared. New details about Sarah’s disappearance were coming out every day and we put ourselves in her shoes, tried to imagine where she could have been, what she could have done, what could have happened to her. In our lunchtime walks, we found ourselves trying to retrace her steps. As we spoke with other local women, we realised we were all thinking twice about everything we did, changing our lives simply because we didn’t feel safe in public spaces.

    For a couple of days, the police were door-knocking all over the area, not just trying to get information about Sarah but also giving women advice to stay safe. They were not telling men not to be predators – they were telling women not to go out after dark, not go out alone, to take extra precautions. That’s when our worry and our fear turned into anger.

    On 10 March I texted my friends – we needed to do something together in solidarity, but also in defiance. We wanted to challenge the idea that we had to lock ourselves down, impose curfews on ourselves because male violence made it unsafe for us to be out there, because if we didn’t take enough precautions, we – not our aggressors – would be the ones to blame.

    I set up a Zoom call in which we organised a Facebook event and looked up the regulations on COVID-19 and assemblies. We initially wanted to do a walk along the route Sarah had taken, but you need to get permission to march, but not for a stationary protest. We didn’t have time to request a permit, and we also didn’t like the idea of having to ask for permission for us as women to express our anger together, so we went for the stationary vigil. We chose Clapham Common because it is a huge open space allowing for social distancing, and also because it was one of the last places where Sarah had been seen alive. We did it at sunset so women could take back the park after dark.

    We let both the police and the council know – I and another organiser are local councillors – because we wanted the event to be safe. We wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or counter protests, and that women would be able to feel safe walking back home after the vigil.

    The name, Reclaim These Streets, echoed that of the Reclaim the Night movement, which formed in Leeds in the late 1970s when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large and the police told women the same things they were telling us now – to stay home for our own good and take extra precautions. We felt angry that we still had to fight the same battles over and over. Several decades had passed but the culture and the victim-blaming approach had not changed.

    What obstacles did you face in organising and mobilising?

    In March 2021, when we planned the vigil for Sarah, the UK was subjected to COVID-19-related public health regulations, and the police used these to try to prevent us mobilising. They said that we needed their permission, which wasn’t true. They threatened us, as organisers, with a £10,000 (approx. US$13,600) fine each, and with arrest under the Serious Crimes Act, on the basis that we would be inciting others to break the law. The Serious Crime Act is used against terrorists. Being charged under it would, among other things, prevent me holding public office again, effectively ending my career.

    The police did nothing to facilitate our human right to protest. We tried to engage with them, because we wanted to know if they had intelligence that would help us keep women safe. We wanted to make sure that the policing would be sensitive to the need to build trust after a serving police officer was arrested for Sarah’s rape and murder, and to know that it would be proportional – for example, ensuring women wouldn’t be kettled or pushed into a close crowd when there were social distancing measures in place.

    We started organising on a Wednesday, and by Thursday night, after receiving threatening emails and having a series of pointless meetings with police, we instructed lawyers and crowdfunded for a judicial review. The police insisted that there was a blanket ban on all gatherings; they couldn’t seem to differentiate between a birthday picnic and a protest. From what we could tell, they declared our vigil unlawful without conducting any risk assessment in which they considered our human rights under articles 10 and 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act concerning freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

    The judge agreed with us that a risk assessment be done and that it should take human rights into account, but the police said they had done it and the judge took them at face value. We met with police straight out of the judgment and proposed to do a staggered event over a longer period of time, and asked if we could make any changes to make the event more acceptable. But they wouldn’t budge, and while we were still at the meeting they issued a press release warning people it was unlawful to attend.

    The vigil was supposed to be happening the next day, and nobody was able to confirm whether we would still be liable for a £10,000 fine if someone turned up even if we cancelled it. On top of this, at least 34 additional vigils had been organised all over the country. We felt responsible because we had told those wishing to replicate the event that the law allowed for ‘reasonable excuse’, and that this included our human right to protest. Now they could be subjected to significant fines and life-changing judicial processes for organising these events.

    Despite the event being cancelled, women kept coming in throughout the day, bringing flowers, paying their respects. Even the Duchess of Cambridge came. Crowds grew in the evening, and right after sunset police moved in, pushing women together, manhandling some and pinning them to the ground.

    We went back to court and now expect the judgment. We demanded to see the risk assessment that was supposedly conducted and insisted on the priority of human rights and the principle of proportionality. We hope our case sets a precedent and helps other people challenge arbitrary police decisions. For instance, there is a nurse in Manchester who was given a £10,000 fine for holding a solo protest – we hope this can help people like her too.

    What do you think are the root causes of misogynistic policing?

    Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age. 

    The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.

    Take the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, who was strip searched and humiliated in a police station in 2013 – this was basically state-sanctioned sexual assault. The officers involved were assessed by a tribunal of their peers that found them to have behaved in an exemplary manner; some were even promoted. Dr Duff didn’t give up despite being gaslit by the police for eight years: she went to court and was able to access the CCTV and demonstrate the appalling treatment she had experienced. That’s the only reason she got an apology or any recognition at all.

    What changes are needed in police culture and policing practices?

    Because it turned out that it was a police officer who was responsible for Sarah’s death, and because so many revelations of police misconduct and impunity followed, the police ended up occupying a more central place in our work than we had anticipated. But our focus is on women’s safety rather than on police reform. We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.

    This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. For instance, if you drop litter or a cigarette butt, or you leave your car idling, you will be fined. But if you follow a girl in her school uniform walking home from school, pull your car up next to her, drive at the same speed as she’s walking and make sexually explicit comments at her, as long as you don’t solicit sex from her you are not breaking any laws – unless you idle your car for too long, that is. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.

    Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.

    As part of that, we have reflected a lot about the fact that we mobilised about a white woman – because she has kidnapped and murdered in our neighbourhood, but still, we were not aware at the time of other women whose cases had been treated differently because they were Black. We made a conscious decision to use our platform and privilege to raise the voices of women who would otherwise not get the same support and attention from the media and public institutions.

    What concerns do you have about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently in the UK parliament?

    Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls that they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more. 

    The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.

    What’s your reaction to the resignation of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?

    Our first reaction was of surprise – I don’t think even the Home Secretary knew she was resigning. But we were pleased she stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Metropolitan Police. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.

    Of course, this is a problem for many police forces across the UK, and other police leaders should also reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.

    But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.

    We also hope that this will pave the way for the Angiolini Inquiry – a review into the investigation and prosecution of rape in London – to widen its scope and look into institutional misogyny instead of writing the problem off as a ‘bad apples’ issue. The inquiry needs to be made statutory too – so that it is led by a judge rather than a politically appointed chair, so that the police are required to comply and cannot close ranks, so that victims are at the heart of the inquiry and get legal support to contribute, and so that the recommendations have to be taken on board.

    It's been almost a year since Sarah went missing, and at the time everyone – politicians, police, the media – said ‘never again’. It was supposed to be watershed moment. And then nothing. I can barely point to a single tangible improvement that has happened since. Safety hasn’t improved; nor has police culture. We are disappointed in the last 12 months, but we expect institutions to do better over the next 12 months.

    Civic space inthe UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Reclaim These Streets through itswebsite and follow@ReclaimTS on Twitter. 

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘If we share information, leaders won’t be able to turn blind eye to human rights violations’

    Yaropolk BrynykhCIVICUS speaks with Yaropolk Brynykh of Truth Hounds about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Truth Hounds is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of international crimes and grave human rights violations through investigation, documentation, monitoring, advocacy and problem-solving assistance for vulnerable groups. Jointly with Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, The Truth Hounds team has carried out over 50 fact-finding missions to document war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    I’m a board member of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Truth Hounds, which has focused on documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in war contexts since 2014. We wouldn’t be able to tackle this mission without a highly qualified team of human rights professionals with experience in conflict areas – not only in the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea but also in neighbouring countries, including in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, we have developed thorough knowledge of international standards and best practices of evidence collection and systematisation of war crimes.

    Thus, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.

    Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.

    Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the ICC, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.

    In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Ukrainian civil society is in the same boat as the whole nation, and as everyone else, we are trying to keep working despite the difficult circumstances. Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.

    While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population. But their capacities are down to a minimum because they are not able to receive much support from international CSOs.

    Only a tiny segment of civil society took on board information about a possible Russian invasion and was prepared enough. They have managed to continue working for the past weeks. But even this small group cannot be as effective as it used to be because of the need to hide in shelters during chaotic air and rocket attacks.

    Overall, civil society is under tremendous mental pressure, which will have long-lasting effects. This will become yet another challenge for the country once the war is over. Civil society will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Ukrainian civil society needs advocacy and communications support. Our partners must help us deliver our messages to our allies and governments worldwide. Needless to say, Ukraine cannot win this fight alone. But we share the same democratic values and we need your support.

    All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.

    Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.

    Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told that were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Truth Hounds through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities’

    Oleksandra MatviichukCIVICUS speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about human rights violations in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion and civil society’s response.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    How has Ukrainian civil society organised in the wake of the Russian invasion?

    Ukrainian civil society came together and issued the Kyiv Declaration, an appeal made by 100 civil society leaders that includes six points: to establish safe zones that protect civilians from air and ground attacks; to provide immediate defensive military aid, including lethal and non-lethal weapons; to implement crippling economic and financial sanctions to undermine Russia’s war machine; to provide immediate aid to local humanitarian organisations; to freeze the assets and revoke the visas of Putin’s cronies; and to provide the technology and support required to record war crimes.

    There are a lot of CSOs in Ukraine, and therefore lots of initiatives happening. CCL has an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which we launched a while back, in 2013, to provide legal help to activists detained during the Revolution of Dignity. This initiative involves hundreds of volunteers and focuses on legal and logistics support, humanitarian assistance and the documentation of war crimes to help bring perpetrators to justice.

    We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.

    We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.

    As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.

    We have all adapted our work to the needs of the moment. I for instance am a human rights lawyer, so my field is the law, but I have somewhat shifted my priorities. I do not have military experience or expertise, but I have had to learn a number of things to be able to help. My work now not only involves research on war crimes for the quest for international justice, but also advocating and finding ways to pressure for the war to be stopped. So while I still conduct work in the field of law and gather evidence for future use, I also do other things, such as connecting with international organisations to try to get them to maintain their presence in Ukraine.

    What are you asking the international community to do?

    We work to force the international community to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Western politicians have expressed their support for Ukraine and its people, but their actions say otherwise. They have established economic sanctions against Russia, but there are still too many loopholes. A clear example is that of the SWIFT network, which has banned only a few Russian banks. Sberbank, one of the biggest banks, has not been excluded. We want all Russian and Belarusian banks expelled from the system, which would hopefully obstruct funding for the war and put enough pressure so that they will push for stopping it. Another urgent measure would be to put an embargo on Russian oil and gas, which are enabling the Russian government to fund its invasion of Ukraine.

    We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world. Russia started this war because it is afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of freedom. We hope our example will also impact on other post-soviet states and we will get to decide what our region will be like.

    We want the international community to provide tangible solutions. Now that the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion itself to stop. In occupied territories, we have already seen people being beaten up, arrested and tortured. Detentions, kidnappings and torture are being used against the brave Ukrainians who go out with the Ukrainian flag and face Russian soldiers. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people. 

    What is your assessment of the international response to the Russian invasion so far?

    We feel and appreciate the huge wave of solidarity across the globe, but it is not enough to address our situation. What we need is a serious response to the Kyiv Declaration.

    Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.

    This is why we urged the establishment of a no-fly zone and the supply of long-range distance weapons, defence systems and fighter planes. We have been asking for weeks but have not received anything yet. What we got instead from the international community has been drones, that’s all. But drones will not protect civilians from Russian attacks.

    Our own allies sometimes offer us aid that is not useful. Instead of listening to our requests, people who have no idea what it is to be under this kind of attack insist on providing the help they think we need. For instance, I have received calls from international CSOs who wanted to send us vests and helmets, which hopefully would arrive in Kyiv within a few weeks. That sounded funny because right now we don’t know what will happen within the next few hours. I had to explain to them that if Russians came to occupy Kyiv and found us wearing their nice helmets, they would kill us all. Their helmets won’t protect us from the dangers we face.

    I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities. 

    I remain in Kyiv and have spent yet another horrible night in which residential buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles. I really don’t understand what the international community is waiting for. We need their urgent help. The people who died last night in Kyiv couldn’t wait.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘The presence of international organisations is key to ensure safe humanitarian corridors’

    Sasha RomantsovaCIVICUS speaks with Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    In the face of the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union.

    This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.

    Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.

    At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for the protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.

    Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.

    We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.

    Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed to a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country. 

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Most CSOs have been forced to suspend their activities on the ground, and some have had to leave Ukraine for the time being. Many CSO staff members and activists who have stayed have at the very least sent their families away. There are some cities – such as Kharkov in the northeast and Mariupol in the southeast – where it is impossible for any CSO to continue to work. In other cities, such as Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, activists are being kidnapped for their work.

    CCL continues to operate from Ukraine and our team members have not left the country. We are truly blessed to have a group of fantastic people who have run the Euromaidan initiative since Russia started this war.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Our demands to global leaders are to close the skies over Ukraine, provide weapons for our effective protection and fully enforce all the sanctions imposed on Russia, including the disconnection of all Russian banks from the SWIFT network and the cessation of oil and gas purchases from Russia.

    Given that most international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.

    These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the International Criminal Court should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.

    We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

  • UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs

     

    CIVICUS welcomes the adoption by consensus of a resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs by the UN Human Rights Council.

     

  • UN Human Rights Council: Civic space in Eritrea

    38th Session of UN Human Rights Council
    Dialogue with UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea

    On behalf of CIVICUS, Reporters without Borders, the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, the Eritrean Law society, Eritrea Focus, Network of Eritrean Women, Amnesty International, and the Horn of Africa Civil Society Forum, I would first like to express our deepfelt gratitude and appreciation to the Special Rapporteur for her unwavering support to Eritrean victims of human rights violations.

    Today, her work is all the more important. The latest reports emerging from the country indicate that the human rights situation is not improving. Following the imprisonment and death in detention of respected Muslim elder Haji Musa in March 2018, Eritrean authorities have conducted mass arrests and disappearances of youth.

    We are also concerned by the Special Rapporteur’s reports that individuals who dare to exercise their right to freedom of expression have been targeted with arrest and detention, while peaceful demonstrations in October 2017 following the arrest of Haji Musa were met with scores of arrests and night house raids without search or arrest warrants.

    Since the publication of the UN Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report, government officials have continued to torture, imprison, and arbitrarily detain people without notifying them of the reason for their arrest.

    Mr President, since the publication of the CoI report, not a single individual has been held accountable for the human rights violations, including crimes against humanity, committed in Eritrea. Civil society remains forced to work outside the country and independent press is still not permitted to operate inside the country. Eritrea remains the largest jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa.

    The Eritrean government has repeatedly ignored the Special Rapporteur’s requests for access to conduct investigations.

    Mr President, we urge the UN Human Rights Council to renew the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and maintain attention on some of the most egregious human rights violations in sub-Saharan Africa. The Human Rights Council has a responsibility to follow up on the CoI’s serious findings and ensure that accountability for crimes against humanity committed in Eritrea remains a priority.

     

  • UN Human Rights Council: New Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

    38th Session of the Human Rights Council  
    Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the  Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity

    CIVICUS welcomes this occasion to dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

    We note with great appreciation the Special Rapporteur’s prioritisation of consultation and engagement with a range of civil society actors during the first months of his mandate. 

    Mr President, the report presented by the Special Rapporteur today exemplifies the endemic threat civil society across the world is facing. In both severity and frequency, the 1156 communications sent to governments by the mandate since 2011 expose the systematic campaigns to silence dissent as well as the resoluteness of civil society to continue protecting and promoting human rights.

    CIVICUS’ research comports with the Special Rapporteur’s analysis that state and non- state actors are using a range of unwarranted and pernicious tactics with the explicit intent to stifle fundamental rights.

    We remain deeply concerned that many governments in this chamber routinely pay lip service to the need to protect all human rights and at the same time actively persecute defenders and civil society leaders who work tirelessly to defend these very same rights. This hypocrisy and deceit has rarely, if ever, been so acute.

    On this, the first day of the 38th Council Session, we call on all states to heed the Special Rapporteur’s recommendation to treat civil society an ally, rather than an adversary.

    We further urge all States to pledge their support to the Special Rapporteur including by providing all necessary informational and financial resources to discharge the mandate and to work closely with civil society.

    See latest updates from CIVICUS' work at the UN Human Rights Council here. Follow the latest events on Twitter #HRC38

     

  • UN Human Rights Council: Statement on widespread arbitrary detention

    UN Human Rights Council
    36th session
    12 September 2017

    Statement at the UN Human Rights Council during interactive diialogue with the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention
    CIVICUS welcomes the annual and mission reports of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.  We applaud the Working Group for its unstinting dedication and invaluable work in exposing the wilful and unwarranted persecution of human rights defenders.

    As noted by the Working Group from its annual missions to both Azerbaijan and the United States, politically motivated detention of those who dare to speak out against the government or its policies afflicts both mature and emerging democracies across the world.

    It is a matter of deep concern that despite constitutional protections, peaceful demonstrators engaged in legitimate activities continue to face judicial harassment in the US. At least 20 states that have proposed legislation making it harder to protest, creating harsher penalties for protesters who are arrested.

    One recent example of the criminalisation of protests is the trial of protesters arrested during the mass demonstration on Inauguration Day in January 2017. Initially, approximately 230 people were arrested and charged with felony rioting. However, on 27th April 2017, additional charges were made against 212 defendants, including three of whom had not previously been charged. 

    In Azerbaijan, the authorities have failed to head repeated calls from the Work Group and a range of independent UN experts to end the use of judicial harassment to suppress independent dissent. On 3 March 2017, Journalist and blogger, Mehman Huseynov was sentenced to two years in prison on libel charges.

    Weeks earlier on 17 February 2017, another Azeri journalist, Elchin Ismayilli, was arrested. Ismayilli is well-known for his articles detailing acts of corruption and human rights violations in Azerbaijan. The authorities haev since charged him with extortion and abuse of power in a position of influence.

    We urge both Azerbaijan and the United States to immediately and unconditionally implement the recommendations made by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including releasing all persons detained for exercising their legitimate rights and repeal all laws and policies which criminalise international and national enshrined rights to association, assembly and expression. 

     

  • UN must condemn systematic violations of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong

    The UN’s highest official principally responsible for human rights, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, should publicly denounce the Hong Kong Government for its systematic violations of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and condemn the unnecessary and disproportionate use of force by police in Hong Kong. 

    The Hong Kong Police Force have systematically suppressed the right to peaceful assembly by using excessive force against individuals exercising their rights, including beating peaceful protesters and using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. Police have increasingly denied permits for assemblies and marches and arbitrarily detained individuals for “unlawful assembly.” 

    The Hong Kong and Chinese Central governments have allowed police to operate with complete impunity. No police officer has faced legal action over excessive use of force or abuse of power in connection to the violent suppression of the protests since the demonstrations broke out. In contrast, police have arrested almost 4,500 individuals in connection to the protests since June 9. There has been credible evidence of torture and ill-treatment of protestors by police in detention.

    On November 19, the Office of the High Commissioner released a press briefing which stated incorrectly that the Hong Kong “authorities have by and large respected the exercise of [the] right [to peaceful assembly].” The Office of the High Commissioner failed to condemn police violence. This amounts to a denial of the extensive documentation from credible sources of violations of human rights in Hong Kong and ignores concerns raised by other UN independent experts.

    According to the mandate determined by the UN General Assembly, the High Commissioner has the responsibility to “promote and protect the effective enjoyment by all of all human rights,” and to “play an active role in removing the current obstacles and in meeting the challenges to the full realization of all human rights and in preventing the continuation of human rights violations throughout the world.”

    This mandate asks that the High Commissioner use her position to raise serious concerns about human rights abuses everywhere in the world. By not doing so, the Office has harmed its credibility by ignoring police brutality and the suppression of the Hong Kong people’s largely peaceful exercise of their fundamental freedoms. 

    China’s Government in Beijing has increasingly signalled that it is ultimately in charge in Hong Kong. On November 16, People’s Liberation Army soldiers cleared up debris and bricks, without being invited by the Hong Kong Government to assist, as required by the Basic Law. On November 18, China’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom Liu Xiaoming said, “We [the Central Government] have enough resolution and power to end the unrest.” Holding the China-controlled Hong Kong Government accountable for its human rights abuses is a key test if the UN can resist interference in the UN human rights system by an increasingly powerful China. 

    Beginning in June, millions of people in Hong Kong have publicly demonstrated against an extradition bill to Mainland China that would have undermined the separate freedoms that are enshrined in law in Hong Kong. The police have repeatedly responded to these peaceful protests with excessive force, and the protests have since morphed into a movement denouncing police violence and demanding full democratic rights for the people of Hong Kong. Police inaction in the face of attacks on protesters, journalists and bystanders at the Yuen Long MTR Station on July 21 represented a clear failure to protect the rights to life and security of persons. Journalists trying to cover the protests have faced violence, intimidation, and threats from police, including an incident in which police shot an Indonesian journalist in the face with a rubber bullet while she covered the protests, permanently blinding her in one eye. Medics and social workers providing assistance to arrestees and injured individuals have also faced police obstruction.

    The political situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated since October. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam used colonial-era emergency powers to ban face-masks at assemblies (which was later ruled unconstitutional) and police have used live ammunition to shoot three young protesters. The death of 22-year-old student Chow Tsz-lok (周梓樂) on November 8 after being injured close to a police operation sparked the most recent outbreak of violence; the campuses of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and Polytechnic University have been turned into battlefields. While certain protestors have used violence, including petrol bombs, bricks and arrows, the Hong Kong Police Force’s response has been severe and disproportionate. Hong Kong police must distinguish violent elements from peaceful protestors and restrict the use of force to the minimum extent necessary, in accordance with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.

    On June 28, four UN independent human rights experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council sent a communication to the Chinese Government raising concern over allegations of excessive use of force by Hong Kong police on June 12 against “overwhelmingly peaceful” demonstrators. These same four experts then issued a public statement on September 12 stating, “We are seriously concerned by credible reports of repeated instances where the authorities failed to ensure a safe environment for individuals to engage in public protest free from violence or interference.” We are disappointed that this language does not appear in the Office of the High Commissioner’s November 19 press statement. 

    On August 13, the High Commissioner’s spokesperson said the Office has “credible evidence” of law enforcement officials using some anti-riot measures which are “prohibited by international norms and standards” and urged the Hong Kong authorities to “act with restraint.” The failure of Hong Kong authorities to heed this call from the High Commissioner’s office should have been raised in the latest press statement. Instead, the statement lacks a sense of proportion between the violent actions of small groups of protesters and the systematic use of unnecessary and disproportionate force by police against unarmed protesters.

    The High Commissioner herself called on the Hong Kong Government to immediately carry out an “effective, prompt, independent and impartial investigation” into violence during a press conference on October 5. Hong Kong has no independent mechanism to investigate excessive use of force by authorities, as the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC)’s expert advisers themselves re-confirmed recently. The IPCC does not have investigatory powers such as subpoenaing documents and summoning witnesses. The Human Rights Committee, which monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, raised concern over the lack of independence of the IPCC to the Hong Kong Government in 2013. 

    The High Commissioner for Human Rights must call on Hong Kong authorities to take concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and reduce violence on both sides - police and protesters. As a minimum first step, Hong Kong authorities must establish an independent commission of inquiry into excessive use of police force, bringing to justice any law enforcement official responsible for unlawful use of force, as well as their superior officers. Any response to allegations of violent attacks on police must be handled through a fair judicial process. Those detained solely for exercising their rights to peaceful assembly and free expression should be unconditionally released and charges against them should be immediately dropped.

    This statement is endorsed by: 

    Amnesty International 
    Article 19 
    Australia Tibet Council
    Child Rights International Network (CRIN)
    Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Covenants Watch Taiwan
    CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
    Free Tibet
    Geneva for Human Rights
    International Campaign for Tibet 
    International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)
    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) 
    International Tibet Network Secretariat
    International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific
    Safeguard Defenders
    Students for a Free Tibet
    Taiwan Association for Human Rights
    Tibet Action Institute
    Tibet Justice Center
    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
    World Uyghur Congress 

     

  • Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    The closing of civic space is not just about people’s right to organize or protest in individual countries. This year’s Gobal Risks Report, published last week by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual Davos meeting, looks in detail at the risks posed by threats to governments clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. The report points out that, “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • UNITED NATIONS: ‘From now on, states should adopt a human rights approach to environmental regulation’

    Victoria Lichet

    CIVICUS speaks with Victoria Lichet, executive director of the Global Pact Coalition, about the resolution recently passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right.The Global Pact Coalition brings together civil society organisations (CSOs), activists, artists, lawyers and scientists advocating for the adoption of the Global Pact for the Environment, a draft international treaty to enshrine a new generation of fundamental rights and duties related to the protection of the environment, and particularly the right to a healthy environment.

    What are the relevance and implications of the recent UNGA resolution on the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment?

    The adoption of a resolutionon the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UNGA, the legislative body of the UN, which includes all the UN member states, is a historic victory for environmental protection. The recognition of the right toa clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right makes environmental protection a core aspect of human rights protection. It is a major step towards a human rights-based approach in environmental litigation, as it integrates human rights norms into environmental matters.

    In addition to recognising the right to a healthy environment as a right for all people, the resolution’s preamble clearly affirms the linkage between a healthy environment and human rights. The UNGA recognises that ‘environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights’.

    While UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, this resolution is a strong political and symbolic message. It will play a role in shaping and strengthening new and stronger international environmental norms, laws, standards, and policies. As such, it will necessarily improve the overall effectiveness of environmental law and catalyse further environmental and climate action. This also proves that multilateralism still has a role to play in international environmental law.

    What role did civil society play in the process leading to this resolution?

    This resolution followed months of mobilisation by CSOs and Indigenous peoples’ organisations (IPOs), including the Global Pact Coalition. Under the inspiring leadership of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R Boyd, and his predecessor, John Knox,the coalition of CSOs and IPOs was able to reach out to governmentsthrough emails and letters to better inform them about the importance of the right to a healthy environment. It also led social media campaigns to inform the public about the process. 

    The core group of countries that led this initiative, made up of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was really helpful and communicated important steps regarding the resolution. We are very grateful for their leadership.

    Does the final text of the resolution fully reflect civil society contributions?

    The final text of the resolution mostly reflects civil society expectations. Through negotiation, some states were able to remove a few paragraphs. For example, the first draft said that the right to a healthy environment was related to the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. But the final draft also included additional paragraphs, for example to include ‘business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders’ in the call to adopt policies to enhance international cooperation to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment.

    Overall, the main goal for civil society was to have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment recognised as a human right for all, and this was obviously fully reflected in the final text. So it is in fact a historic victory for civil society.

    What measures should states adopt to make the right recognised in the resolution effective?

    Recognition should be combined with strong and ambitious national and regional public policies that implement mechanisms to strengthen environmental protections, the protection of people’s health and the enjoyment of their other human rights. From now on, states should adopt a human rights-based approach in environmental regulation as well as better renewable energy and circular economy policies.

    As Special Rapporteur David Boyd said, the international recognition of the right to a healthy environment should encourage governments to review and strengthen their environmental laws and policies and enhance their implementation and enforcement.

    What should civil society do next?

    Civil society should now advocate for stronger and more ambitious instruments to protect the environment, our right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. Now that the right to a healthy environment has been recognised at the international level, we should introduce additional progressive rights and duties that will take us even further in environmental protection.

    The UNGA resolution could be the foundation for a more comprehensive international instrument on the right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. We already have ambitious models that could be used in these future negotiations, including the Global Pact for the Environment and the draft covenant of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest global environmental network.

    The path from ‘soft law’ to ‘hard law’ – in this case, from the non-binding UNGA resolution to a convention on the right to a healthy environment – is a very common one in international law. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is one part of the UNGA resolution on the International Bill of Human Rights, and therefore not legally binding, resulted in two treaties adopted in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It took 18 years to incorporate the Declaration into two legally binding texts.

    We hope it will not take 18 years to achieve a convention on environmental rights, because that would bring us to 2040. We do not have that kind of time. The time has come to adopt such a convention, a ‘third pact’ recognising a third generation of human rights. After civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, it is time to enshrine our environmental rights.

    As we face a triple planetary crisis, a binding international environmental text is critically important because millions of people are already dying from toxic environments, particularly from air pollution.


    Get in touch withthe Global Pact Coalition through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@VictoriaLichet and@PactEnvironment on Twitter.

     

     

  • UNITED NATIONS: ‘The existing human rights system must be criticised, while still being defended’

    CIVICUS speaks with Brian Schapira, Director of Institutional Relations at the Center for Latin America´s Opening and Development (Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina, CADAL), a foundation based in Argentina that works to defend and promote human rights. With a focus on supporting those who suffer severe restrictions to their civil and political liberties, CADAL promotes international democratic solidarity in collaboration with activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world.

     

  • UNITED NATIONS: ‘The power of anti-rights groups is growing; difficult times lie ahead’

    CIVICUS speaks with Tamara Adrián, founder and director of DIVERLEX-Diversity and Equality Through Law, about the successful civil society campaign for the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations’ (UN) Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    Tamara Adrián is a lawyer and university professor, and the first trans woman to be elected to a national parliament in Latin America.

    DIVERLEX is a Venezuelan civil society organisation dedicated to research, training, advocacy and strategic litigation on issues of sexual diversity. Due to the complex humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela, most of its leaders are currently based outside Venezuela, where they continue to work to improve the living conditions of LGBTQI+ people in exile.

    Tamara Adrian

    Why is the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity so important?

    This is an extremely important figure. The weapon of choice of all bigots is to make certain groups and the violation of their rights invisible. This has been a constant in relation to women, Indigenous peoples, racial minorities and religious minorities. As long as the intolerant can say a problem does not exist, their power system remains active and nothing changes. In the universal human rights system, what bigots want to keep invisible is made visible through the work of independent experts and rapporteurs.

    The first Independent Expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was in office for a couple of years and produced a report on violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which he shared with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He kicked off the process of shedding light on the injustices, inequities and violence against LGBTQI+ people globally.

    The three reports submitted by the current Independent Expert, Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, pointed at many countries that are failing in their duty to protect all their citizens. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that states have a positive obligation to ensure equal rights to all people.

    We understand there is still a long way to go and that reports – those by the Independent Expert, the High Commissioner and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States – are important to this process.

    So important are they that this work triggered strong backlash from fundamentalist groups that reorganised in the form of ‘non-governmental organisations’. These sought to obtain consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council in order to interfere in their processes.

    How do these groups operate within the UN?

    Anti-rights groups have been changing their strategy. Rather than identify as religious organisations, they have sought to present themselves as defenders of religious freedom and, above all, of the freedom of expression. They have promoted strategies of religious unity, bringing together Catholic fundamentalists and representatives of the Holy See with neo-evangelical fundamentalists and the most regressive Muslim groups.

    They have also refined their arguments. First, they argue that the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity is a western concept and not a universal one, and therefore should not be protected by the UN. Second, they claim that no existing treaty or international instrument provides protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Third, they say that countries with traditional values should be able to maintain discriminatory laws or criminalise same-sex relationships or diverse gender identities.

    These three claims were implicit in the arguments of the countries that opposed the renewal of the Independent Expert's mandate and proposed amendments, alongside a fourth: that no country should protect criminals, and the determination of what is a criminal act is subject to the criminal law of each country and is not subject to verification before the international human rights system.

    Historically, this issue has been resolved on the basis of the recognition that everyone has a right to their own beliefs, but no one can impose their beliefs or deny others their rights on the basis of their faith. Fundamentalists want this situation reversed so that believers can discriminate against and deny rights to other people

    Have anti-rights groups grown in power in recent years?

    The power of anti-rights groups is growing, which is possibly linked to the regression that is taking place in the USA. Indeed, in the vote to renew the mandate we saw two groups of states putting up resistance: countries that have never made progress in recognising rights and where there is a lot of resistance to change, and countries that are moving backwards, such as the USA.

    In the USA, links connecting white supremacism, neo-Pentecostal groups and the more radical segments of the Republican Party have been growing closer for at least a decade. Anti-rights groups have been taking up space in the courts, from the lowest levels to the Supreme Court, as well as in governorships and state legislatures, resulting in more and more anti-trans, anti-sex education and pro-religious freedom rulings, laws and policies. They have been outspoken in their plans to reverse abortion rights, reject the concept of gender and repeal sexual and reproductive education and contraceptive rights, and even women’s rights, equal marriage and protections against racial discrimination.

    The USA has also played a key role in the international funding of the anti-rights movement and the development of neo-Pentecostal churches around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It has also influenced the establishment of a phenomenon that has not been given enough attention: the movement of biology-fixated feminists, who deny the concept of gender with the same arguments used by the most conservative churches.

    This unity of argumentation is highly suspicious, and all the more so when one looks at the funding streams coming from the USA feeding biology-focused feminist groups in places including Brazil, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Spain and the UK. The target of these groups is not LGBTQI+ people generally, but trans people specifically. By upholding the biological and natural character of differences they seek to destroy the whole structure of gender-based protections.

    I honestly think this is a very well-thought-out plan. I understand that they have mimicked the strategy we initially adopted to give visibility to our struggles. However, they have the advantage of being in power. The number of states that have signed a ‘pro-life’ resolution at the UN and declared themselves ‘pro-life’ states shows that their aim is not just to oppose just LGBTQI+ rights but all rights based on the concept of gender.

    How was the campaign for the renewal of the Independent Expert’s mandate organised?

    The organisations that lobbied for the renewal of the mandate have worked together ever since the campaign for the appointment of the first Independent Expert. Every time, the process starts long before the appointment. In this case, we started working about three years ago: practically the year after the mandate was renewed we were already working to create the core group to work for a new renewal.

    With Latin American organisations, a recurrent limitation is lack of knowledge of the English language, which restricts the ability of activists to internationalise their struggles. To overcome this problem, our core group is made up of both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking activists. This was very important because the coalition was mainly made up of Latin American groups.

    It was a very difficult process, and while the vote eventually turned out to be favourable, over several months the outcomes of the sessions did not make us feel confident. We saw growing resistance from countries with fundamentalist positions that were increasingly embracing the idea of rolling back rights.

    What are the next steps following the mandate’s renewal?

    I believe we should not relax. Difficult times lie ahead. Many rights we thought had already been secured are likely to be reversed in the USA, including those linked to racial equality. It is no longer even a question of returning to a 20th century vision, but to a 16th or 17th century one.

    This will have a strong impact at the global level, especially in countries with less developed institutions. Countries with stronger institutions will probably be better able to resist the onslaught to roll back sexual and reproductive rights. 

    As next steps, I would emphasise organising. In many places people tell me, ‘don’t worry, that would never happen here’, but I insist we cannot relax. We must focus on forming coalitions and organising stronger alliances to stop advances by neoconservative groups and challenge them to gain back the spaces of power they have occupied.

    Get in touch with Tamara Adrián through herwebsite or herFacebook page, and follow@TamaraAdrian on Twitter. 

     

  • Upcoming UN review critical moment for Maldives to address civic freedom gaps

    CIVICUS and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) call on UN member states to urge the Government of the Maldives to protect civic freedoms as its human rights record is examined by the UN on 4 November 2020 as part of the 36th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

     

  • Urgent appeal for the release of Malak Al-Kashif

    FRENCH

    We, the undersigned human rights organisations, call on UN Special Rapporteurs, Members of the European Parliament, and representatives in national Parliaments of the European Union to urgently intervene and communicate with the Egyptian authorities to immediately release jailed activist Malak Al-Kashif, who was arrested for expressing her views on Facebook.

    Background

    On 6 March 2019, after expressing her opinions on her personal Facebook account about how the authorities addressed a train station accident in Egypt which killed dozens of citizens, 19-year-old Malak Al-Kashif was arrested in a dawn police raid of her mother’s home. Malak was disappeared; both her location and conditions of detention were undisclosed until she was brought before the State Security Prosecution on 7 March 2019.

    Malak was interrogated under State Security case no. 1739 on trumped-up charges of joining a terrorist group under Article 12 of the Anti-Terrorism Act 2015, exposing her to severe penalties including the maximum imprisonment penalty. Malak was also charged with using her Facebook account to commit a crime punishable by law under Article 27 of the Electronic Crimes Prevention Act of 2018, which could result in an additional sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of no less than LE100,000 (approximately $5,970 USD). On 7 March 2019, the Prosecution gave Malak 15 days of pretrial detention, which she spent in solitary confinement at Al-Haram police station in Giza. On 19 March, the Prosecution extended her pretrial detention for another 15 days, which she spent in solitary confinement in the El-Zeraa section of Tora Prison. Malak is a transgender woman undergoing the advanced stages of gender reassignment treatment and requires continuous physical and physiological treatment due to an accident she had last year, as documented in medical reports in her possession at the time of her arrest.

    A repressive trend in Egypt

    Malak was one of many persons recently arrested by the Egyptian authorities for expressing opinions on social and political issues in the country, including the train station accident and the proposed constitutional amendments. ECRF has documented 116 persons arrested from 27 February until 2 March 2019. Some were forcibly disappeared and others were sent to the prosecution on charges of “joining a terrorist group” and “publishing fake news.”This recent surge in arrests was enabled by an oppressive legislative framework deployed by the Egyptian authorities against individuals who express opinions on any national issue; this framework includes repressive laws that do not comply with the Egyptian Constitution and international human rights laws, such as the 2015 Anti-Terrorism Act and 2018 Cybercrime Law.

    The Egyptian authorities have increasingly used pre-trial detention as a punishment for political prisoners, especially since 2013. Although pre-trial detention violates the legal principle of the presumption of innocence of the accused person, Article 143 of the Code of Criminal Procedure permits prolonged pre-trial detention that can go on for two years in some cases.

    Transgender and imprisoned

    As a transgender woman, Malak is outspoken about her identity and conditions, and has advocated for the rights of transgender people in Egypt using social media platforms. Consequently, Malak’s arrest for expressing her opinion on the train accident has enabled the Egyptian state to silence her on all issues for which she has advocated, including transgender rights.

    In addition, Malak’s identity has made her a target of cruel and humiliating treatment by the Egyptian authorities. Malak’s gender is classified as “male” in official documentation, compounding the state’s discrimination against her as a transgender woman, and placing her in male detention facilities where she is vulnerable to further mistreatment on the basis of her gender.

    Malak testified that she had been subjected to a forced anal examination and sexual harassment in one of the government hospitals, as documented by ECRF. Malak also informed her lawyer that she was prevented from going to the toilet for long periods of time, and was bullied in the police station because of her gender identity. The police station administration also refused to provide Malak with essential healthcare requirements for her diabetes.

    Malak’s arrest and treatment violate human rights laws and standards

    Egypt is a part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the UN
    Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT), which prohibit the treatment to which Malak has been subjected, as well as protect her right to express her views.

    Article 7 of ICCPR and articles 2 and 16 of the 1984 Convention against Torture prohibit torture and all other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, with no restriction on these prohibitions. Article 19 of ICCPR also states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference.

    In addition, the High Commissioner for Human Rights has recommended the prohibition of coercive medical procedures imposed by some countries on transgender people, as well as guaranteeing their right to obtain identity papers reflecting their self-defined gender identity.

    ECRF considers the treatment and examinations to which Malak has been subjected as a flagrant violation of privacy and human dignity, which fall within a pattern of discrimination and violence against sexual minority groups in Egypt, and qualify as a form of cruel and inhumane treatment amounting to torture.

    This is not the first time that Egypt has violated international human rights laws and standards. In its 2002 report, the Committee against Torture recommended that Egypt take the necessary steps to end all forms of degrading treatment during physical examinations. In 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that the forced anal examinations carried out by the Egyptian authorities had no medical value in determining whether a person had engaged in any homosexual practices, and that they violated international human rights law and contravened the prohibition on torture under the 1984 Convention against Torture.

    Request for urgent intervention by UN Special Rapporteurs, Members of the European Parliament, and representatives in national Parliaments of the European Union

    In consideration of the information above, we respectfully appeal to you to raise Malak’s case with the Egyptian authorities. We request immediate protection for Malak and other transgender individuals, by treating them accordingly to their gender identity and holding them in the corresponding detention facilities, without exposing them to sexual harassment and cruel, humiliating procedures that amount to physical and psychological abuse. The ultimate objective is Malak’s release, along with that of all other political detainees in Egypt imprisoned for expressing their opinions.

    If you have any additional questions about Malak’s case, please do not hesitate to contact us.

    Thank you for your consideration,

    Sincerely,
    • Arab Network for Knowledge about Human-rights
    • Adil Soz
    • Albanian Media Institute (AMI)
    • Association Adala pour le droit à un procès équitable
    • Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)
    • Associazione Ricreativa Culturale Italiana
    • Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    • Centre national de coopération au développement
    • Circolo Cultura Omosessuale Mario Mieli
    • CIVICUS
    • Committee for Justice
    • DIGNITY
    • EGYPTIAN COMMISSION FOR RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS
    • EuroMed Rights
    • FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    • Free Media Movement (FMM) - Sri Lanka
    • Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI)
    • Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR)
    • Ifex
    • Independent Journalism Center (IJC) - Moldova
    • Index on Censorship
    • Initiative Franco-égyptienne pour les Droits et les Libertés
    • Ligue des droits de l’Homme
    • Media Institute of South Africa (MISA)
    • Media Rights Agenda (MRA)
    • Mediacenter Sarajevo
    • Norwegian PEN
    • Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)
    • PEN America
    • SOLIDAR
    • South East Asia Press Alliance (SEAPA)
    • Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)
    • World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’

    CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.

    Feliciano Reyna

    How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?

    A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.

    As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.

    An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.

    There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.

    The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.

    While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.

    What is the context in which civil society works?

    There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.

    Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.

    Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.

    But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.

    One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.

    As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.

    Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.

    How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?

    In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.

    The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.

    The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.

    The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.

    Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.

    Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.

    How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?

    A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.

    What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.

    The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.

    For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.

    The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.

    Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.

    The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.

    What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?

    What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.

    Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.

    The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.

    If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.

    Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AccionSolidaria and@fjreyna onTwitter.

     

     

  • Venezuela: Continued deterioration of human rights

    Statement at the 47th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    CIVICUS thanks the High Commissioner for her report, which shows the continued deterioration of the human rights situation in Venezuela and lack of effective implementation of the recommendations made in the last report.

    We are deeply concerned about recent legislation that unduly restricts the right to association in Venezuela. A new ordinance of May 2021 introduces concerning elements which may be used to criminalise civil society work. A new draft law introduced in the National Assembly would limit international funding to civil society. This legislation would continue to restrict the operation of CSOs in the country, and would particularly have a devastating impact on those organisations working to provide much needed humanitarian assistance in the country.

    Restrictions on freedom of expression continue in Venezuela, with recent examples of attacks against media outlets like the raid and seizure of newspaper El Nacional and the case of CNP in Sucre whose office was set on fire. Digitals attacks continue to increase in the country with 153 media outlets affected by digital censorship in Venezuela in 2020.

    As people continue to take to the streets in the context of a terrible socioeconomic situation, security forces continue to use excessive force against protesters. Local organisations reported that during the first trimester of 2021, 23 demonstrations were repressed, andone person killed.

    We echo the High Commissioner’s remarks in her March statement that ‘shrinking civic space has ‘a paralysing effect on all those engaged on legitimate and essential activities’. We ask the High Commissioner in the context of her ongoing reporting to set out concrete ways in which the international community can support those on the ground.


    Civic space in Venezuela is rated Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.