• SYRIA: ‘The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare’

    CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Syrian civil society’s role in eliminating gender inequality with Maria Al Abdeh, executive director of Women Now for Development (WND), a Syrian civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fostering a democratic, free and just society in which women can play meaningful roles and reach their full potential.

     Maria Al Abdeh

    What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Syria?

    The pandemic has definitely had a disproportionate impact on Syrian women and girls. Champa Patel and I analyse these impacts in a recent paper, ‘COVID-19 and Women in Syria‘. Under the pandemic, women’s health issues were taken less seriously, especially those related to sexual and reproductive health, such as pregnancy. Women lost access to hospitals – access that was already diminished by war and displacement. The pandemic added another layer to women’s diminished access to healthcare services and facilities.

    We have also seen a huge psychosocial burden on the Syrian women we interviewed. Women spoke about the panic their children experienced when schools closed. In children’s minds, school closings are linked to bombings and displacement, so when schools closed yet again it triggered traumatic memories. Mothers had to calm their children and explain there were no bombs but there was now a new danger, the pandemic. Displaced women also reported on the traumatic impact of displacement on their mental health.

    Additionally, most interviewees told us that they were giving more tasks to girls than boys. But we found something interesting: during the first months of the pandemic, when fear was at its highest, Syrian girls were quite creative in finding ways to support their community, such as by organising activities for children in camps.

    Other women reported that it was challenging to keep their families healthy, which according to established gender roles is a woman’s job as a caregiver. The pandemic clearly took a toll on everyone, but as is also the case with violence and conflict, it had intersectional effects that made it worse for women.

    The pandemic worsened an economic situation that was already fragile. Eighty per cent of Syrians are below the poverty line and 60 per cent of households are led by women. As a result of the pandemic, an additional economic burden was placed on women’s shoulders. For the sake of their husbands and children, women are the last ones to eat, which has huge health consequences. Even those who do not live in camps usually have no way of storing food, so they can only afford food when the breadwinner brings money in every day.

    While the conflict in Syria may have already altered women’s roles in both family and society, the pandemic has reinforced an unjust gender divide.

    How has civil society, and WND more specifically, worked to support Syrian women during the pandemic?

    Civil society has supported women in many ways, from raising awareness to providing humanitarian aid and psychosocial support. Most of this support, however, was provided during the first year of the pandemic. As time passed, the pandemic itself stopped being a priority for Syrians, who instead focused on its economic impacts. Despite the growing death toll of the pandemic inside Syria, priorities changed.

    As for WND, our main areas of work are protection, empowerment, participation, research and advocacy. The research we conducted during the first months of the pandemic informed our programmes, which we modified to match the needs of Syrian women in the new context. As a result, we supported more small businesses led by women.

    We also reinforced our psychosocial support programme and we shifted our empowerment programmes online – which we had done before in response to bombings, but only for shorter periods. By shifting online, we were able to reach further. On the negative side, we lost personal contact with women, and could not reach the most vulnerable ones, who have no access to technology.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Syria? What would need to happen for them to be effectively tackled?

    This is quite a difficult question. Rights, freedom and dignity are a very basic need for all Syrians, both women and men. But for women, there is a huge list of unfulfilled rights.

    The war has deepened inequalities and reinforced patterns of violence. Gendered impacts need to be taken into account in any discussion around accountability, justice or peace. This is why, as women and feminists, we are calling for transformative gender justice, which means addressing the root causes of harm and crimes to prevent their recurrence.

    Take for example enforced disappearances. This is huge issue in Syria, where more than 100,000 men and women – but mostly men - have forcibly disappeared. In addition to loss and psychological pain, many women have had to deal with an unjust law that deprives them of custody of their children or access to their husband’s property. Many women whose husbands had gone missing told us that education was their biggest need, as they had to take care of the whole family by themselves and were not well prepared.

    Another example is the condition of female detainees. Some have been killed by their families after getting out of detention centres because they were viewed as ‘dishonoured’ for being raped. Instead of being considered victims, they were treated as sinners. 

    But our basic rights won’t be realised as long as the Syrian regime remains in power. The pandemic was just another indicator that the Syrian regime doesn’t care about its people, who were left on their own, without even basic medical care.

    For gender inequality to be tackled effectively, the war needs to end and criminals mustn’t be allowed to take over the country. We need the kind of peace that brings democracy and accountability. Unfortunately, crimes and human rights abuses are currently being committed not only by the Syrian regime, but by other parties in the conflict as well.

    So-called ‘honour crimes’ against women are on the rise because the violence and impunity of war have started to take root in society. The Syrian authorities couldn’t care less about tackling these violations. The gender impact of war is not even considered and women’s perspectives are not taken seriously at any level. That’s why WND works so hard to highlight the impact of conflict and displacement on women as well as their perspectives through a feminist lens, and insists on the importance of including women at all levels of decision-making. 

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How are you organising around it in the communities you work with?

    For this year, WND has decided to celebrate our success following years of war and the pandemic. This IWD, our organisation’s focus will be on shedding light on acts of solidarity by Syrian women’s CSOs, as a feminist approach to empower women, claim space and fight violence.

    On 11 March we will hold an online seminar, ‘The Power to Change: Women and Feminist Organisations as Transformative Actors in Syria’, which will revolve around the findings of a report recently published by WND, Global Fund for Women and Impact.

    Civic space in Syria is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Women Now for Development through its website and follow@WomenNowForDev on Twitter.

  • Syria: Rights groups condemn extrajudicial execution of human rights defender and software engineer Bassel Khartabil

    The family of Bassel Khartabil, a Syrian-Palestinian software engineer and free speech activist, confirmed that he had been subjected to an extrajudicial execution in October 2015. The undersigned human rights organisations condemn the extrajudicial execution of Khartabil and call for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death.

    On 1 August 2017, Noura Ghazi Safadi, Khartabil’s wife, announced on Facebook that her husband has been killed. She wrote: “Words are difficult to come by while I am about to announce, on behalf of Bassel's family and mine, the confirmation of the death sentence and execution of my husband Bassel Khartabil Safadi. He was executed just days after he was taken from Adra prison in October 2015. This is the end that suits a hero like him.”

    On 15 March 2012, Military Intelligence arrested Bassel Khartabil and held incommunicado for eight months before moving him to Adra prison in Damascus in December 2012. During this time he was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment. He remained in Adra prison until 3 October 2015, when he managed to inform his family that he was being transferred to an undisclosed location. That was the last time his family heard from him.

    His family subsequently received unconfirmed information that he may have been transferred to the military-run field court inside the Military Police base in Qaboun in Damascus. These courts are notorious for conducting closed-door proceedings that do not meet minimum international standards for a fair trial.

    Before his arrest, Bassel Khartabil used his technical expertise to help advance freedom of speech and access to information via the internet. He has won many awards, including the 2013 Index on Censorship Digital Freedom Award for using technology to promote an open and free internet, and was named one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012 “for insisting, against all odds, on a peaceful Syrian revolution.”

    Since his detention, human rights groups at a national, regional and international level campaigned for his immediate and unconditional release. On 21 April 2015, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared his detention a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and called for his release, yet the Syrian authorities still refused to free him.

    The signatory organizations express the deepest sorrow at the death of Bassel Khartabil and believe that his arrest and subsequent execution are a direct result of his human rights work and his efforts to promote freedom of speech and access to information.

    We urge the Syrian authorities to:
    • Immediately disclose the circumstances of the execution of Bassel Khartabil;
    • End extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrests, and torture and other ill-treatment;
    • Release all detainees in Syria held for peacefully exercising their legitimate rights to freedom of expression and association.

    1. Access Now

    2. Amnesty International (AI)

    3. Arab Digital Expression Foundation (ADEF)

    4. Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI)

    5. Article 19

    6. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

    7. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation

    8. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

    9. English PEN

    10. Euromed Rights

    11. Front Line Defenders (FLD)

    12. FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of

                Human Rights Defenders

    13. Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR)

    14. Hivos International

    15. Index on Censorship

    16. Iraqi Network for Social Media (INSM)

    17. Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada (LRWC)

    18. Maharat Foundation

    19. Metro Centre to Defend Journalists in Iraqi Kurdistan

    20. Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (MADA)

    21. PAX for Peace

    22. PEN International

    23. Sisters' Arab Forum for Human Rights (SAF)

    24. SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom

    25. Social Media Exchange (SMEX)

    26. Syrian Centre for Democracy and Civil Rights

    27. Syrian Center For Legal Studies and Researches

    28. Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM)

    29. Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ)

    30. Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR)

    31. Vigilance for Democracy and the Civic State

    32. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the

                Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders



  • Syrian civil society not being heard by international donors

    CIVICUS asked Nibal Salloum, program manager at the Syrian peace-building organisation Nuon, about the situation for civil society in Syria and the challenges faced working in a conflict area. Nuon is a Syrian civil society organisation that works on peace building from a human rights approach in Southern Syria and with Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

  • Thousands of Bangladesh garment workers fired for demanding better wages
    • Almost 5,000 workers producing clothes for international brands were sacked for participating in protests and strikes for improved pay
    • At least one person was killed, and hundreds injured after police used excessive force against protesters
    • Almost 100 have reportedly been arrested and charged for participating in labour actions

    The firing of almost 5,000 low-paid garment workers in Bangladesh in reprisal for participating in protests and strikes for higher wages is a clear violation of fundamental freedoms, global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today.

    Condemning the reported dismissals by factory bosses as disturbing, CIVICUS has called for the sacked workers to be reinstated immediately and for the charges against those arrested to be dropped.

    Last September, the government promised garment workers an increase in their minimum monthly wage from 8,000 taka (US$100). Workers walked out in protest on January 6 and held demonstrations demanding decent wages after rejecting this offer. During the protests, Bangladeshi police used excessive force including firing rubber bullets and tear gas, which left one worker dead and at least a hundred others injured. There have also been reports of widespread arrests.

    In an attempt to contain widespread anger over police violence as well as calls for further protests, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed a tri-partite committee consisting of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporters Association (BGMEA) representatives, trade union leaders and government ministers, address the issues. Although workers rejected the committee’s findings proposing minimal increases, on January 13 they returned to work in the face of union demands to end the strike and under threat of lockouts and further police repression.

    Although the tri-partite committee agreed that no action would be taken against the workers, many learned they were sacked after arriving at work to see notices bearing their names and images attached to factory gates.

    “These actions are clearly a retaliation by the companies against those speaking up and is an attempt to silence their voices,” said Josef Benedict, a CIVICUS Civic Space researcher.

    “The Bangladesh authorities must put to a stop to this, in accordance with their international human rights obligations and hold these companies accountable for their actions,” Benedict said. 

    The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that businesses must respect internationally recognised human rights, including the right to expression and peaceful assembly which are provided for under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They should also refrain from reprisals against those exercising their civic freedoms, and protest against the business or its interests.

    Bangladesh is home to some 4,500 clothing factories employing 4.1 million workers, who have been fighting for a 16,000 taka (US$200) monthly minimum wage since 2016. Many have suffered unfair dismissals, brutal police violence and fabricated criminal cases for their involvement in protests and strikes. In most cases, there has been a lack of accountability.

    In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing clothing manufacturing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and workers’ rights activists were being targeted.

    Instead of sacking the workers for exercising their civic freedoms and demanding better wages, businesses should instead engage in dialogue with them and their representatives. Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh should also press these companies to reinstate these workers,” Benedict said.

    It is extremely worrying to hear reports that some workers have been arrested and charged in round ups by the police for their involvement in the protests. The authorities must release these workers immediately and drop all charges against them,” he said.

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh as Repressed.


    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

  • TUNISIA: ‘Civil society is not yet under direct threat, but we believe that our turn is coming’

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy in Tunisia following the president’s July 2021 power grab with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at promoting civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider region, through awareness-raising, capacity-strengthening and documentation. 

  • TUNISIA: ‘The new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers, enabling further violations’

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about Tunisia’s 25 July constitutional referendum with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). 

    KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, through awareness-raising, capacity-building and documentation.

    Why is President Kais Saied holding a constitutional referendum on 25 July?

    Changing the constitution or revising it is part of the president’s private project – a plan he didn’t announce either when running for the presidency in 2019 or during his first two years in office. This all started with President Saied dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament in July 2021.

    At that time, he didn’t even announce the revision of the constitution. It was only in mid-December that the president had to spell out a roadmap under international and local pressure. At the heart of Saied’s roadmap is a new constitution.

    Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was based on broad consensus, the process leading to a constitutional referendum didn’t gain public support. When people were asked their opinion on revising the constitution, as part of online consultation organised in early 2022, only around 30 per cent of respondents agreed. Still, the president has gone ahead with the constitutional review process, with a referendum campaign asking Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ to ‘correct the course of the revolution’.

    To what extent has civil society engaged in the process leading to the upcoming referendum?

    Civil society has gone through unprecedented times in recent months. When it comes to its stance on the issue, in broad terms civil society has mostly been either silent or supportive.

    At the start of the president’s July 2021 power grab, some civil society activists who were fed up with problems we have encountered in the past few years, with an inefficient democracy, saw Saied’s move as a political attempt to correct the trajectory of our democracy. One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance.

    But as soon as the president revealed his intention to change the constitution, political parties, influential people and some civil society groups started to oppose him. 

    Civil society is not one group or in one position – of course there is some diversity. The most vocal and influential groups are critical of him, especially since the planned new constitution was shared with the public; they realised its aim is not to ‘restore democracy’, but rather attack it. Now many are trying to stop the referendum process happening.

    How has civil society organised against the referendum?

    Although civil society’s response is late, they have recently used a range of means to oppose the referendum. Coalitions have been built, civil society has published position papers, conferences have been held.

    Some groups are calling for a boycott of the referendum while others are trying to bring a case to court, although they do so in the face of presidential attack on justice: in June the president fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting ‘terrorists’. In protest against judicial interference, Tunisian judges went on strike, only returning to work very recently.

    The Tunisian League of Human Rights, a prominent CSO, has called on the president to withdraw his proposal and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society. 

    How free and fair might the referendum be?

    When democratic transition took place in 2011 our country strived to create independent institutions such as the electoral commission and an anti-corruption body, among others. The proposed constitution dissolved almost all these independent bodies.

    The only one it keeps is the electoral commission, which President Saied seized control of in May by firing its members and appointing new ones. In February he dissolved the High Judicial Council, as well as sacking the judges in June. 

    Given that context, the independence of this ‘independent commission’ running the referendum, and the integrity of the whole election, must be questioned.

    What are your expectations for the results, and what impact will they have on the quality of democracy?

    By examining the latest polls on President Saied’s approval ratings, he still has huge public support. But this is the result of his populism. He is a populist president and populism – at least in its early years – has many supporters. But once a populist president fails to deliver on their promises, they lose popularity and support. In Tunisia, we are still going through the early stages of populism.

    Despite his popularity, I believe that his upcoming referendum will have a very low participation rate. With a small turnout, the legitimacy of the result will be questioned.

    But the president and his regime don’t care about legitimacy. For example, when the national consultation took place months ago, it was a complete failure in terms of the participation rate. Yet President Saied used it as a justification to hold this referendum. 

    If the referendum is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in December, according to his roadmap; parliament was dissolved in April. Meanwhile, there will probably be several ‘reforms’ and new laws. I am afraid to say that the next phase is quite scary because the president has the ultimate power to change laws without any checks and balances, in the absence of an independent judiciary, constitutional court and parliament. 

    Democracy means the separation of powers, checks and balances, and participation, but all of these have been cancelled by the president since July 2021. He has tightened his grip over the entire executive body, the entire legislative body, and even part of the judiciary. With an attack on the judiciary, we can count less on judges to be the ultimate defenders of rights and freedoms. Our democracy is probably at its worst level since the 2010 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

    The human rights situation is worsening with the decline of democracy. We have witnessed several human rights violations, some of which reminded us of the kind of abuses that were committed during the early years of the revolution. The difference between that time and now is the absence of any accountability. The president hasn’t been held accountable for any decision he has made during the last year. 

    From our side, civil society has condemned these violations, but it was not enough, so we have been trying to network with various defenders of democracy in Tunisia as well as abroad. In the next phase, civil society will continue its pressure and mobilise against any deviations from democracy, given that the new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers and open the doors for further violations.

    How has the international community responded? 

    We feel the international community has left Tunisia behind. The international community is offering a very weak response to this attack on democracy and the loss of a democratic country. The community of democratic countries is not putting in much effort to keep Tunisia within its family.

    Many of us are very disappointed by their reactions to the closure of parliament and what followed. The result is a very bad draft constitution that will probably cancel Tunisia’s democracy. But there has been no solid response from democratic friends of Tunisia.

    In this way, they encourage the president to commit more violations. These countries are back to their policies of the past decades in prioritising security and stability over democracy and human rights in our region.

    Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KADEM through itswebsite or itsFacebook page. 

  • Tunisia: release LGBTQI+ activist Rania Amdouni and stop violence against peaceful protesters


    The sentencing of human rights defender and LGBTQI+ activist Rania Amdouni to six months in prison by a court in Tunis on 4 March 2021 for participating in peaceful protests calling for social and economic justice is an attack on the rights to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia. Rania is a member of Damj,

    the Tunisian Association for Justice and Equality, and was sentenced on charges of “insulting police and abuse of morals,” after participating in ongoing protests. 

    A decade after the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East, Tunisia is still suppressing fundamental democratic freedoms.  Ongoing protests that have swept Tunisia since 15 January 2021, calling for an end to corruption and policy brutality, and urging the government to implement social and economic reforms. More than 1600 protesters have been arrested so far with major concerns that security forces are specifically targeting members of the LGBTQI+ community.  

    Rania had been monitored and targeted by security forces after she became a visible part of the protests, before finally being arrested on 27 February 2021.

    “Ten years after the Arab Spring that led to major changes in the political dynamics in Tunisia, the Tunisian authorities are still trampling on the same rights protesters demonstrated.  The arrests of protesters and unlawful sentencing of activists like Rania Amdouni is an indication that not much has changed in terms of human rights over the last ten years,” said Masana Ndinga-Kanga, CIVICUS Advocacy Lead for the Middle East and North Africa, “Rania Amdouni and all those arrested in relation to the protests should be released immediately.”

    Many of those arrested for their role in the protests have been subjected to physical abuse, threats and intimidation during the protests or in detention centers.  Those in detention centers are kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions, exposing them to COVID-19. Many others have fled the country or have been forced to self-censor to avoid violent repercussions.

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on the Tunisian authorities to release Rania Amdouni and other activists immediately, and to stop violently suppressing protests.


    Demonstrations in Tunisia started on 15 January 2021 as protesters raised concerns over increasing levels of corruption and inequality and called for social and economic reforms.  The protests spread in response to the violent attacks against demonstrators by security forces.  Some activists have resorted to self-censorship due to an increase in online harassment and civil society groups are calling on the Tunisian authorities to investigate all allegations of violence against protesters.

    For more information on civic space violations, visit the Tunisian country page on the CIVICUS Monitor

    Photo: Flickr/Amine GHRABI

  • TUNISIE : « La nouvelle Constitution confèrera au président des pouvoirs étendus et ouvrira les portes à de nouvelles violations »

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS échange sur le référendum constitutionnel du 25 juillet en Tunisie avec Amine Ghali, directeur du Centre de transition démocratique Al Kawakibi (KADEM).

    KADEM est une organisation de la société civile (OSC) qui, à travers la sensibilisation, le renforcement des capacités et la documentation, promeut la participation de la société civile dans la démocratie et la justice transitionnelle tant en Tunisie comme plus largement dans la région du Moyen-Orient et de l’Afrique du Nord.

    Pourquoi le président Kais Saied organise-t-il un référendum constitutionnel le 25 juillet ?

    Le changement ou la révision constitutionnelle relèvent du projet privé du président, qu’il n’a annoncé ni lors de sa candidature à la présidence en 2019 ni pendant ses deux premières années au pouvoir. Cela a commencé lorsque le président Saied a révoqué le premier ministre et dissout le Parlement en juillet 2021.

    À cette époque, il n’avait même pas annoncé la révision constitutionnelle. Ce n’est qu’en mi-décembre que, sous pression internationale et locale, le président a dû énoncer un plan d’action. En son sein se trouvait une nouvelle Constitution.

    Contrairement à la Constitution de 2014, qui reposait sur un consensus large, le processus menant à un référendum constitutionnel n’a pas obtenu le soutien du public. Lors d’une consultation en ligne organisée en début 2022 pour recueillir les avis sur la révision de la Constitution, seul environ le 30 % des interrogés la soutenait. Pourtant, le président a poursuivi le processus de révision constitutionnelle, avec une campagne de référendum encourageant les Tunisiens à voter « oui » pour « corriger le cours de la révolution ».

    Dans quelle mesure la société civile a-t-elle participé au processus menant au référendum ?

    La société civile a vécu des moments sans précédent ces derniers mois. En ce qui concerne sa position sur la question, elle s’est généralement montrée silencieuse ou favorable.

    En juillet 2021, au début de l’abus de pouvoir du président, certains militants de la société civile mécontents à cause des problèmes rencontrés ces dernières années dans le cadre d’une démocratie inefficace, ont vu dans la démarche de Saied une tentative politique de corriger la trajectoire de notre démocratie. L’une des premières promesses de Saied était de lutter contre la corruption et la mauvaise gouvernance.

    Mais dès que le président a révélé son intention de modifier la constitution, les partis politiques, les personnes influentes et certains groupes de la société civile ont commencé à s’y opposer. 

    La société civile n’est pas constituée d’un seul groupe ou d’une seule position - il existe bien sûr une certaine diversité. Les groupes les plus visibles et les plus influents le critiquent, surtout depuis que le projet de nouvelle Constitution a été communiqué au public ; ils ont compris que son objectif n’est pas de « restaurer la démocratie », mais plutôt de l’attaquer. Maintenant beaucoup tentent d’empêcher le processus de référendum.

    Comment la société civile s’est-elle organisée contre le référendum ?

    Bien que la réponse de la société civile ait été tardive, elle a récemment utilisé une série de moyens pour s’opposer au référendum. Des coalitions ont été créées, la société civile a publié des prises de position, des conférences ont été organisées.

    Certains groupes appellent au boycott du référendum tandis que d’autres tentent de porter une affaire devant les tribunaux, mais celle-ci se mène contre les atteintes à la justice menées par le président : en juin, il a révoqué 57 juges, les accusant de corruption et de protection des « terroristes ». En mode de proteste les juges tunisiens se sont mis en grève et n’ont repris le travail que très récemment.

    La Ligue tunisienne des droits de l’homme, une importante OSC, a fait appel au président à retirer sa proposition et à entamer un dialogue plus large avec la société tunisienne.

    Dans quelle mesure le référendum pourrait-il être libre et équitable ?

    Lors de la transition démocratique en 2011, notre pays s’est efforcé de créer des institutions indépendantes telles que la commission électorale et l’organisme de lutte contre la corruption, entre autres. La Constitution proposée dissout presque tous ces organes indépendants.

    Le seul conservé est la commission électorale, dont le président Saied a pris le contrôle en mai en renvoyant ses membres et en en nommant de nouveaux. En février, il a dissout le Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, dont il a licencié les juges en juin. 

    Dans ce contexte, l’indépendance de cette « commission indépendante » chargée d’organiser le référendum, ainsi que l’intégrité de l’ensemble de l’élection, doivent être remises en question.

    Quelles sont vos attentes quant à ses résultats, et quel impact auront-ils sur la qualité de la démocratie ?

    Si l’on examine les derniers sondages sur la cote de popularité du président Saied, on constate qu’il bénéficie toujours d’un énorme soutien public. Mais cela n’est que le résultat de sa politique populiste : le populisme - du moins pendant ses premiers stades- compte de nombreux partisans. Mais une fois que le président populiste ne parvient pas à tenir ses promesses, il perd sa popularité et son soutien. En Tunisie, nous en sommes encore aux premiers stades du populisme.

    Malgré sa popularité, je pense que son prochain référendum aura un taux de participation très faible, d’où la légitimité du résultat sera remise en question.

    Mais le président et son régime ne se soucient pas de la légitimité. Par exemple, lorsque la consultation nationale a eu lieu il y a plusieurs mois, elle a constitué un échec total en termes de taux de participation. Pourtant, le président Saied s’en est servi pour justifier l’organisation de ce référendum.

    Si le référendum est approuvé, il sera suivi d’élections parlementaires en décembre, conformément à son plan d’action ; le parlement a été dissout en avril. Entre-temps, il y aura probablement plusieurs « réformes » et de nouvelles lois. Je crains que la prochaine phase soit assez effrayante car le président a le pouvoir ultime de changer les lois sans aucun contrôle, en l’absence d’un système judiciaire, d’une Cour constitutionnelle et d’un Parlement indépendant.

    La démocratie signifie la séparation des pouvoirs, des poids et contrepoids, et la participation, mais tout cela a été annulé par le président depuis juillet 2021. Il a resserré son emprise sur l’ensemble de l’organe exécutif, l’ensemble de l’organe législatif, et même une partie de l’organe judiciaire. Avec une telle attaque contre le pouvoir judiciaire, nous pouvons moins compter sur les juges pour être les ultimes défenseurs des droits et des libertés. La qualité de notre démocratie est vraisemblablement à son pire niveau depuis la révolution de 2010 qui a chassé l’autocrate Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

    La situation des droits humains s’aggrave avec le déclin de la démocratie. Nous avons été témoins de plusieurs violations des droits humains, dont certaines nous ont rappelé le type d’abus commis pendant les premières années de la révolution. La différence entre cette époque et aujourd’hui est l’absence de toute responsabilité. Le président n’a été tenu responsable d’aucune des décisions qu’il a prises au cours de cette dernière année.

    De notre côté, la société civile a condamné ces violations, mais ce n’a pas été suffisant. Nous avons donc essayé de créer un réseau avec divers défenseurs de la démocratie en Tunisie et à l’étranger. Dans la prochaine phase, la société civile continuera sa pression et se mobilisera contre toute déviation de la démocratie, étant donné que la nouvelle Constitution confèrera au président des pouvoirs étendus et ouvrira les portes à de nouvelles violations.

    Quelle a été la réaction de la communauté internationale ?

    Le sentiment partagé est que la communauté internationale a abandonné la Tunisie. Elle a offert une réponse vacillante face à cette attaque contre la démocratie et la perte d’un pays démocratique. La communauté des pays démocratiques ne fait pas beaucoup d’efforts pour garder la Tunisie entre eux.

    Beaucoup d’entre nous sommes très déçus par leurs réactions face à la dissolution du Parlement et tout ce qui a suivi, dont le résultat a été un projet de Constitution qui va vraisemblablement annuler la démocratie tunisienne. Mais il n’y a pas eu de réponse solide de la part des amis démocratiques de la Tunisie.

    Par ces moyens, ils encouragent le président à commettre davantage de violations. Ces pays font un pas en arrière envers leurs politiques des dernières décennies, donnant la priorité à la sécurité et à la stabilité et les faisant primer sur la démocratie et les droits humains dans notre région.

    L’espace civique en Tunisie est considéré comme « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Prenez contact avec KADEM via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook. 

  • TUNISIE : « La société civile n’est pas encore directement menacée, mais nous pensons que notre tour arrivera »

    Amine GhaliCIVICUS s’entretient des perspectives de démocratie en Tunisie après le coup de force du président de juillet 2021 avec Amine Ghali, directeur du Centre de transition démocratique Al Kawakibi (KADEM). KADEM est une organisation de la société civile (OSC) qui vise à promouvoir la contribution de la société civile à la démocratie et à la justice transitionnelle en Tunisie et dans la région, par la sensibilisation, le renforcement des capacités et la documentation.

    Quelle a été la position de la société civile tunisienne face au coup de force du président Kais Saied ?

    En juillet dernier, le président Saied a limogé le premier ministre et suspendu le parlement, tout en promettant un processus de révision constitutionnelle. Depuis lors, il s’est octroyé des pouvoirs étendus et a supprimé les contrôles sur ce pouvoir.

    Les réactions ont été variées, car la société civile tunisienne a toujours été très diverse. Une partie a soutenu les actions de Saied, ou du moins les a vues d’un bon œil, tandis qu’une autre s’y est complètement opposée. D’autres personnes ont été plus sélectives au sujet de ce à quoi elles s’opposent : peut-être n’étaient-elles pas satisfaites de l’arrangement politique précédent ou même de l’actuel, mais pensaient néanmoins que les actions de Saied ouvriraient de plus grandes opportunités de changement et de réforme.

    Une diversité similaire a été visible dans la société en général, mais nous n’avons pas connu de polarisation malsaine parce que les gens ne se sont pas divisés entre des positions aux deux extrémités du spectre.

    Et bien que je ne dispose pas de véritables chiffres ou statistiques, j’ai récemment remarqué une opposition croissante de la société civile face aux événements de juillet. Au début, il y avait une sorte d’euphorie, mais maintenant, la société civile est plus critique sur ce qui s’est passé, peut-être parce que les gens ont commencé à remarquer que Saied n’a pas encore tenu ses promesses.

    Qu’est-ce qui a fait évoluer les positions de la société civile ?

    L’une des premières promesses de Saied était de lutter contre la corruption et la mauvaise gouvernance, ce qui ne s’est pas encore produit. En outre, il a pris des mesures et des décisions qu’il n’a pas annoncées le 25 juillet. Ses actions - principalement contre le parti Ennahda et d’autres partis politiques importants - étaient initialement conformes à la Constitution, mais il a ensuite commencé à agir contre la Constitution et à inverser les étapes de notre transition démocratique.

    Selon le discours officiel, repris par certains acteurs politiques, notre Constitution actuelle est si mauvaise que nous en nécessitons une nouvelle. Mais à mon avis - et à celui de la société civile - elle n’est pas si mauvaise. Plus important encore, le processus d’élaboration de la Constitution à la suite des soulèvements de 2010 a fait l’objet d’un large consensus, et la nouvelle Constitution a été approuvée par beaucoup plus que la majorité requise des deux tiers de l’Assemblée nationale constituante - elle a reçu les voix de 200 députés sur 217. Mais maintenant, nous semblons passer d’un processus participatif à un processus restrictif.

    En termes de gestion électorale, il est difficile de savoir si les prochaines élections et le référendum seront organisés par un organisme indépendant. De plus, Saied a remis en question un autre acquis démocratique majeur, l’indépendance du pouvoir judiciaire.

    Comment la société civile a-t-elle réagi à la feuille de route que le Président Saied a dévoilée en décembre 2021 ?

    Je pense que c’est la pression exercée par la société civile, les partis politiques et la communauté internationale qui a poussé le président à définir une feuille de route à la mi-décembre. Pendant les trois ou quatre premiers mois qui ont suivi la suspension du Parlement, il s’y était opposé.

    Une partie au moins de la société civile continuera à plaider pour que des mesures plus nombreuses et plus efficaces soient incluses dans la feuille de route, notamment une élection présidentielle, que nous pourrions être amenés à organiser puisque la feuille de route prévoit la rédaction d’une nouvelle Constitution, qui entraînera une nouvelle répartition des pouvoirs entre le président et le chef du gouvernement. Nous ferons également pression pour une approche plus participative, car l’organisation d’un référendum sur la Constitution n’est pas suffisante, dans la mesure où elle ne permettra aux gens que de répondre à une question par oui ou non.

    Ce sont des points qui seront probablement soulevés dans les prochaines semaines ou les prochains mois. Nous avons des OSC fortes travaillant sur les élections, qui se réunissent déjà pour discuter de la manière de maintenir la commission électorale comme acteur principal, et de celle d’aborder le passage du vote pour des listes au vote pour des individus, comme annoncé par les partisans du président.

    Je m’attends à ce que nous assistions bientôt à la formation de nouvelles coalitions pour agir sur le nouvel agenda politique. En fait, certaines de ces coalitions se sont déjà formées, incluant des éléments de la société civile et politique, comme Citoyens contre le coup d’État. D’autres coalitions de la société civile travaillent à l’amélioration des mécanismes de protection des droits humains. À mon avis, cette nouvelle dynamique va se développer au cours des prochains mois.

    Y a-t-il des possibilités d’engagement de la société civile autour du prochain référendum constitutionnel ?

    Malheureusement, l’une des principales caractéristiques de ce nouveau système de gouvernance est le manque de consultation, non seulement avec la société civile mais aussi avec les partis politiques. Jusqu’à présent, l’espace réservé au processus de consultation n’a pas été assez large. L’une de ses caractéristiques est la consultation en ligne, qui n’est pas le type de consultation auquel nous nous sommes habitués ces dix dernières années.

    Même si beaucoup de choses n’ont pas fonctionné comme elles étaient censées le faire, il y avait au moins une forme de consultation, une forme de donnant-donnant, entre les politiques et la société civile, les experts et la communauté internationale. Cet écosystème que nous avions autrefois n’existe plus. Les OSC feront pression pour obtenir de meilleures formes de coopération entre les décideurs et la société civile.

    Quelle pression subit l’espace civique en Tunisie ?

    L’espace civique se réduit. Bien que la société civile ne soit pas encore directement menacée, nous pensons que notre tour va arriver. Nous avons remarqué que les décideurs tunisiens détestent les corps intermédiaires. Ils ont donc fermé le parlement, attaqué le système judiciaire et boycotté les médias. Nous sommes probablement les prochains sur leur liste, nous devons donc être très vigilants. Des rumeurs circulent selon lesquelles les politiciens introduiront des changements juridiques qui affecteront les OSC, ce que nous n’accepterons pas. Nous devons défendre l’espace civique tant que nous avons encore un peu d’espace pour interagir avec les décideurs en l’absence du parlement, le corps intermédiaire traditionnel.

    Les récentes arrestations d’opposants politiques s’inscrivent-elles dans une tendance inquiétante ?

    Nous n’avons pas connu d’arrestations massives d’opposants politiques - en fait, il y en a eu très peu. Pour autant que nous le sachions, ces arrestations n’étaient pas fondées sur des raisons politiques, mais plutôt sur des activités illégales commises par des politiciens pendant leur mandat. Nous avons condamné les procédures et les circonstances des arrestations, qui n’étaient pas appropriées, mais personne n’est au-dessus de la loi, alors s’il existe des preuves suffisantes contre ces personnes, arrêtons-les et traduisons-les en justice selon les procédures judiciaires et non sur la base de décisions de l’exécutif.

    Quelles sont les perspectives de consolidation démocratique en Tunisie, et comment la communauté internationale peut-elle y contribuer ?

    Je pense que si nous la livrons à elle-même, le sort de la démocratie en Tunisie sera plutôt sombre. La société civile, la société politique, la communauté internationale et les amis de la Tunisie devront donc intensifier leurs efforts de plaidoyer, non pas pour restaurer la démocratie mais pour la maintenir. Nous avons besoin des efforts de tous les acteurs pour maintenir la pression afin de s’assurer que la Tunisie est sur la voie de la démocratie. Si nous ne nous engageons pas et nous contentons de regarder le spectacle, cela ne nous mènera probablement pas vers plus de démocratie et une meilleure démocratie, mais bien dans la direction opposée.

    Tant que les acteurs internationaux reconnaissent qu’il y a une menace pour la démocratie et s’engagent, cela nous aidera. La communauté internationale ne doit pas nous traiter comme elle l’a fait avec l’Égypte en 2013 - c’est-à-dire qu’elle ne doit pas privilégier la sécurité et la stabilité au détriment de la démocratie. Nous avons besoin que la communauté internationale maintienne la pression sur les décideurs en Tunisie pour s’assurer que l’achèvement de la transition démocratique est notre objectif commun. De cette façon, la Tunisie deviendra un exemple majeur de transition démocratique réussie dans la région arabe.

    L’espace civique en Tunisie est classé « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contactez KADEM via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook.

  • TURKEY: ‘Civilian refugees should not be used as political bargaining chips’

    Bassam AlahmadCIVICUS speaks with Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), about the Turkish plan to return one million refugees to Syria.

    STJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to documenting human rights violations to contribute to the prospects for justice, as well as training human rights activists and building capacity in areas including digital security and civic engagement.

    Why is the Turkish government making plans to return a million Syrian refugees to Syria?

    We do not know the exact reason behind the plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions of Syria. But there are several possible reasons we can think of. First, Turkey will hold general elections next year, and every time elections approach, the ruling Justice and Development Party will try to draw attention outside Turkey in any way possible – by attacking other nations, creating problems with neighbouring countries or groups of people – to hide domestic failures.

    Second, the decision may be part of a wider strategy by the Turkish government concerning its engagement with northeast and northwest Syria, which aims to decrease the presence of Kurds and other populations who it doesn’t view as ‘Turkey’s allies’ – people that Turkey does not like having at its borders. To achieve this, Turkey will make claims that these populations are ‘terrorists’.

    The decision announced to return a million Syrians from Turkey back to Syria therefore hits two birds with one stone. It would allow the Turkish government to show its domestic opposition that it is tackling the ‘problem’ while also using Syrians against Syrians in the northeast and northwest parts of Syria.

    To sum up, there is no specific reason we know of, but we can assume that demographic engineering in northeast and northwest Syria and Turkey’s domestic politics are all at play.

    How has this announcement impacted on Syrian refugees in Turkey?

    This policy has really affected Syrian refugees in Turkey. Every single day there is at least one case of assault against a Syrian person – sometimes more. Incidents of racism and cases of deportation and violence at the border, and even of murder, have been verified. Hundreds of organisations and media outlets have verified racist attacks against Syrians.

    Why are these attacks happening? Because the Turkish government is telling people that it has already spent too much on Syrians, and Turkish citizens are resenting it. The Turkish government is also telling people that it has freed areas in Syria from terrorists and they are now safe for return, so Turkish citizens are increasingly putting pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Turkish public opinion turning against Syrians makes them vulnerable to racism and deportation.

    The discourse that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is disseminating is affecting Syrian refugees very negatively. And the problem is that it is not true. The United Nations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Amnesty International and many others have all said that Syria is not safe.

    How do you assess Turkey’s immigration policy?

    Many countries and organisations say that Turkey should be thanked for its treatment of Syrian refugees; however, Turkey’s 2016 agreement with the European Union was a really bad one, because as a result Syrian refugees were trapped or detained in Turkey so that the Turkish government could receive money for hosting them.

    Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political game pieces ever since. Following this agreement, in which Europeans agreed to pay money to Turkey to keep Syrians from advancing through Greece and further into Europe, there have been multiple instances of disagreements between Europe and Turkey leading to threats against refugees.

    This is not good. You can’t keep using civilian refugees as political bargaining chips, using them against Turkey, or against the Kurds in northeast and northwest Syria, or against the Americans in northeast Syria. But the 2016 agreement gave the Turkey government leverage to use refugees as a political card, and they have used it. And by the way, Turkey is not the only country using refugees this way, and Syrian refugees are not the only refugees who have been used. Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees have had similar experiences, but this is especially true for Syrian refugees.

    Do you think the attitude of the Turkish government points to a broader European pattern?

    Of course, the Turkish refugee policy has a lot in common with refugee policies around the world. I do not want to say that all European governments treat refugees the same way as the Turkish government, but occasionally there are similarities.

    In particular, we all saw how European governments treated Ukrainian refugees – this was good. But they don’t treat Syrian refugees the same way. European countries gave Turkey money to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, while they opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.

    We do not want to paint all the Turkish and European politicians and policies with the same brush, but there are patterns of racist refugee policies and racist attacks against refugees that are important to recognise.

    How has Syrian civil society responded to the announcement by the Turkish government?

    Unfortunately, the civil society response has not been unified. Many Syrian CSOs that do not have employees or offices in Turkey have published reports about this plan; however, Syrian CSOs in Turkey have not been able to speak out, for a number of reasons. In some cases, organisations are politically aligned with Turkey and welcome these policies. But many others want to speak out against these policies – the racism, the deportations, the military actions against Syrians within Syria – but they are unable to for security reasons.

    In other words, some people don’t want to speak up because they are essentially in agreement with Turkish policies, while others would want to but cannot because it is dangerous, as they are in Turkey, where speaking out may result in deportation or arrest. There are also some Turkish organisations that address these issues, but many do not have the interests of Syrian refugees in mind.

    It is key for Turkish organisations to speak out and insist that Syria is not safe for refugees to return. There has been limited discussion about Turkey’s rights violations against Syrians, and this should not be the case. Both domestic and international civil society should speak out against violations occurring in Turkey and committed by Turkey.

    Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Syrians for Truth and Justice through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@STJ_SYRIA_ENG and@BassamAlahmed on Twitter.

  • TURKEY: ‘Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis’

    Dilan AkbayırCIVICUS speaks with Dilan Akbayır, a social worker who works with Syrian refugees, about Turkey’s plan to send refugees back to Syria and the rise of anti-refugee sentiment and racism against Syrians in Turkey.

    Dilan collaborates with several Istanbul-based civil society organisations (CSOs), including the Women’s Health and Planning Foundation.

    What prompted the Turkish government to announce a plan to send a million Syrian refugees back to Syria?

    I think the change in the government’s position on immigration has a lot to do with the 2023 general elections and the context of severe economic crisis that Turkey is going through, with very high inflation and the Turkish lira falling to its lowest level in history. Both the ruling party and the opposition have already started their campaigns, which are also taking place in a context of increased restrictions on personal rights and freedoms, severe inhibition of the freedom of expression, and the use of unlawful evidence in judicial proceedings.

    Turkey is the country with the world’s highest population of migrants and refugees. More than six million Syrians were forcibly displaced after the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, and most of them flew to neighbouring Turkey. The official number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is over 3.7 million, but the total is estimated to be over five million.

    It is not surprising that migration and the future of refugees have become the main agenda item in Turkish politics. Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis. Politicians are using the issue to redirect people’s anger towards refugees instead of blaming the politicians who have not been able to address their concerns. Opinion polls are showing that the only thing that unites Turkish society is anger towards refugees – anti-refugee sentiment is the glue that keeps the new Turkey together. People are driven to believe refuges are responsible for everything that is wrong in the country and given the illusion that everything will be okay if refugees are taken out of the way.

    In the context of an election campaign, any politician who most believably promises they will take care of this issue is likely to win. This is not exceptional to Turkey: we are seeing similar situations throughout Europe, as was recently the case with the French elections. Far-right politics are rising globally thanks to hostility towards refugees, immigrants and other minorities.

    Are there any legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy?

    There are no legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy. The international conventions to which Turkey is a state party, and Turkey’s domestic legislation, all stipulate the prohibition of refoulement. This means that refugees should not be sent back to countries where there is a danger of persecution, war, crisis, ill-treatment or torture. If this is not legal, then why have Turkish authorities and politicians announced a plan to return a million Syrians back to their country?

    There is a lot of confusion about the legal situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has been under discussion for years. When the mass flow of Syrians began there was a legal gap that was later filled by two new laws: the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection and the 2014 Temporary Protection Regulation. As a result, Syrians’ presence in Turkey began to be referred to as ‘temporary’. People started saying that Syrians are just passing by, waiting to move on to a third, more developed country.

    For the past decade, politicians have systematically emphasised the ‘temporary’ status of refugees living in Turkey – but in the meantime, refugees have made a life here, and they want to stay. Moreover, even if they remain under temporary protection, it still holds that certain conditions must be met before they can be sent back to Syria. The United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency has established that the return of asylum seekers must be dignified, safe and voluntary.

    For refugees to be returned, the UN should declare the region a safe zone for return, which has not happened. The UN considers Syria to be unsafe due to the ongoing violence, human rights violations and desperate humanitarian situation: 14.6 million people need humanitarian assistance and more than 12 million are struggling to find enough food. Ninety per cent of the population is below the poverty line and the country is on the verge of famine.

    As reported by Amnesty International, between 2017 and 2021 some Syrians were returned from Jordan and Lebanon, and returnees faced serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture, sexual assault and extrajudicial killings. Returnees may even be charged with treason or terrorism for having fled. Although armed conflict has decreased, the environment is still not safe.

    Do you think this is part of a broader pattern?

    It is not only in Turkey that migration and refugees have become highly charged political topics; this is happening in many European countries. More developed countries in particular were supposed to side with human rights and take much more responsibility in hosting refugees fleeing wars in Syria and other Middle East countries. But their policies have been mostly exclusionary and discriminatory.

    We just saw the rise of far-right politics hostile toward refugees, immigrants and minorities in the 2022 French election. In Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, only 35,000 of 500,000 refugees are Syrian, but in 2021 the Danish government decided not to renew their residence permits claiming that parts of Syria are safe. It is also planning to start processing asylum petitions in Uganda, in a plan very similar to the British government’s plan to process theirs in Rwanda.

    Following a UN resolution, the international community agreed to share responsibilities for the resettlement of refugees, but numbers tell a different story: the rate of resettlement in European countries is quite low compared to Turkey. This exposes the European Union’s externalisation policy, aimed at preventing irregular migration into Europe by ensuring that refugees stay in Turkey. This is not fair and causes more problems for developing countries such as Turkey, which experience more pronounced economic, social and political crises.

    How has the announcement of the new policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Turkey?

    A majority of Syrians in Turkey don’t want to return to their country. Even as they are being increasingly scapegoated, over the years they have changed their view on a possible return. In 2017, 60 per cent of Syrian refugees surveyed in Turkey said they wanted to return to their country as soon as the war is over. Currently, 80 per cent say they do not want to go back because they have already established life in Turkey, and they think life will not go back to normal in Syria even if the war ends.

    However, many do not feel so safe in Turkey anymore. The political rhetoric around sending back Syrian refugees goes hand in hand with growing anti-refugee sentiment fuelled by the increased visibility of Syrians in Turkish society. The majority live in big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, and as the refugee population grows, they start to be seen as a problem or a threat.

    In contrast, when Syrians started to arrive in Turkey in 2012, society welcomed them. At that time, a major factor leading to acceptance was emphasis on their ‘temporary’ status, supported by the authorities’ discourse referring to them as ‘guests’. Eleven years later, growing socio-economic problems that the government has not taken seriously began to reflect on Syrian refugees.

    As exclusionary nationalist discourse spiked, Syrians were placed at the root of domestic problems. According to a recent report by the Center for Migration Studies at Ankara University, 85 per cent of surveyed people in Turkey want Syrians to be returned or isolated, as they view them as potentially causing more problems in the future.

    Moreover, anti-refugee groups are using the media to disseminate xenophobic propaganda. They stir feelings of national and racial superiority and raise concerns regarding cultural integration, presenting attacks on refugees as a way to defend the homeland. They insist the presence of Syrians is having negative effects on public safety and the country’s demography and economic prospects. Syrian refugees are blamed for growing restrictions on women’s freedoms and increasing rates of murder and rape. These issues are easily used to manipulate the public.

    How has Turkish civil society responded?

    In the face of increasing anti-refugee rhetoric, some civil society groups and activists, including women’s rights organisations, artists and academics, have expressed solidarity through public statements and by holding events such as anti-racist panels.

    However, given the wider anti-refugee political climate, many CSOs did not make any statements against anti-refugee discourse. Sadly, some institutions working with refugees stopped their activities in response to increasing hostility. Others decided to continue their work more quietly. Civic space in getting narrower for us.

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

  • Urgent Appeal: Civil Society Call for Moroccan Authorities to Cease Intimidation of Journalist Omar Radi


    The undersigned civil society organisations call for an immediate and unconditional end to the intimidation and harassment of independent Moroccan journalist, Omar Radi, who has been summoned by police to appear for interrogation seven times over the past several weeks. Radi has been targeted by the authorities for his critical investigations and reporting, as one of the few journalists in Morocco who covers the corruption and business relations of the monarchy and its networks. Radi had been subjected to a sophisticated spyware attack, whereby his private communications were intercepted by a third party as documented in a public report by Amnesty International. Since the release of the report, the Moroccan government has undertaken an intimidation and harassment campaign, and has accused Radi of working with Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, among other unsubstantiated allegations.

  • Why Bahraini rights activists need international support

    By Tor Hodenfield

    Last month - specifically, 14 February - marked the seventh anniversary of the peaceful protests that swept across Bahrain in 2011, calling for an end to authoritarian rule. Since the popular uprisings, however, intense and sustained state repression has left the Bahraini human rights movement increasingly challenged, amid dwindling international support.

    Read on: Middle East Eye

  • Why we are not engaging with the G20’s civil society process in 2020


    The annual G20 summit often seems like a talking shop for the world’s most powerful governments. The leaders of 19 of the largest national economies plus the European Union get together, shake hands in front of the cameras, and make vague agreements, many of which they don’t implement. The summits draw the attention of the world’s media, and – frequently – protesters from around the world who want to hold those governments to account.

    Less well known is the extensive cycle of preparatory meetings leading up to the G20 leaders’ summit. Despite the many limitations and challenges of the process, for many voices from outside government –especially trade unions, rights groups and civil society – these are rare opportunities to make policy recommendations directly to national authorities and to influence the global agenda on issues that affect billions of people. For the last few years, there has even been a dedicated stream of meetings for civil society within the G20, known as the Civil 20 (C20).

    In 2020, however, we as civil society organisations will be keeping our distance from the official C20 process, which will be hosted by and in Saudi Arabia.

    G20 host Saudi Arabia has tried to promote an image of itself as a modern country attractive for foreign investors. The government has recruited expensive Western PR advisorsand spent millions of dollars to polish its image and suppress criticism from international media. Meanwhile, at home the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia regularly arrests and prosecutes human rights defenders, censors free speech, limits free movement, and tortures and mistreats detained journalists and activists. Vaguely worded counter-terror laws are used to silence government critics, including through the imposition of the death penalty. In October 2018, the world was shocked by the brutal murder of journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Women face systematic discrimination in law and practice. In addition, women human rights defenders who dare defend the rights of women are subjected to judicial persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention.

    Instead of real reform, the Saudi government has been trying to whitewash its dire human rights record by holding major international events in the country. This includes the G20 and – through a government-authorized NGO – the C20. As leading civil society organisations present in most countries around the world (but notably not Saudi Arabia), we cannot participate in a process that seeks to give international legitimacy to a state that provides virtually no space for civil society, and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated.

    In June 2019, the C20 established a set of principles, including a basic structure and operating mechanisms, to ensure its sustainability and effectiveness. The C20 principles emphasize inclusion of a variety of civil society actors, from local to global; transparency of decision-making; freedom and independence from undue influence by any non-civil society actors; inclusiveness and diversity; and the guiding values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. Most of these principles will be absent in 2020, and more alarmingly we are already seeing the Saudi G20 presidency undermining these principles.

    Virtually no domestic civil society actors will be able to participate in the upcoming C20 in Saudi Arabia, other than a token number of organisations working on issues deemed inoffensive by the Saudi government, since the Saudi authorities do not allow the existence of political parties, trade unions or independent human rights groups. Most progressive civil society activists are on trial or serving long prison sentences for speaking up, or have been forced into exile in order to avoid prison or worse. Returning to the country is not an option, as it will put them at risk. Without these independent and critical voices in the room, the credibility of the C20 is severely compromised.

    Foreign and international civil society actors would also face significant challenges in freely participating in a Saudi-organised C20 event.

    Existing laws and policies in Saudi Arabia not only directly affect the rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly, but also create a chilling effect that acts to silence certain categories of activists who, if they were to speak out, would be jeopardizing their own safety. Moreover, in November 2019, Saudi Arabia’s state security agency categorised feminism and homosexuality as crimes. While the announcement was rectified, Saudi Arabia’s leading women human rights defenders are still behind bars and prosecuted for their human rights work. These laws and practices contradict C20 principles on diversity, gender equality and the empowerment of women, and they would stifle freedom of expression in discussions on women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and LGBTI rights.

    This is compounded by a serious lack of press freedom in Saudi Arabia. Strict media controls, censorship and surveillance of social media, mean any discussions held at a Saudi-led C20 would never reach the wider Saudi population beyond a state-sanctioned narrative. Even if any such discussions were possible, without free media all meaningful discussions at the C20 would benefit only a limited audience. This is inconsistent with the C20’s guiding principles of inclusiveness, openness, transparency and participation.

    Previous G20 summits have seen protests by activists from the host state and elsewhere. Freedom of peaceful assembly is a right, but in a country where all gatherings, including peaceful demonstrations, are prohibited, there is no possibility that this fundamental right will be respected.

    The Saudi-led C20 process is lacking in many respects, most notably in guaranteeing the C20’s fundamental principles. Even this early in the 2020 C20 process we have observed a marked lack of transparency from the C20 hosts. The appointment of the Chairs of working groups and various committees was opaque and non-consultative, while arbitrary decisions have excluded experienced international groups. The C20 process led by the King Khalid Foundation, which is connected to the Saudi Royal Family, cannot be considered as transparent, inclusive and participatory, as required by the C20 Principles.

    At a time when the world is facing a wide range of challenges, independent voices are needed more than ever. A state that closes civic space until it is virtually non-existent cannot be trusted to guarantee the basic conditions for international civil society to exchange ideas and collaborate freely on any issue, let alone those issues it deems sensitive or offensive.

    While we will not participate in the C20 this year, we commit to work together to make sure those voices are heard in 2020.

  • Worldwide attack on rights: over three billion people living in countries where civic freedoms are violated

    French | Spanish

    • Global impact laid bare by the CIVICUS Monitor, a new online research tool that rates civic space around the world and documents violations of rights
    • Governments shutting down civic space and shutting up dissenting voices

    Johannesburg, 24 October 2016 –More than three billion people live in countries where the rights to protest, organize and speak out are currently being violated according to the CIVICUS Monitor, the first-ever online tool to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.

    The new tool, launched in beta today by the global civil society alliance CIVICUS, rates countries based on how well they uphold the three fundamental rights that enable people to act collectively and make change: freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

  • Yémen : Plus de 150 ONG demandent l'annulation de la condamnation à mort de quatre journalistes

    Les organisations de défense des droits humains, de la liberté de la presse et des journalistes appellent les es mécanismes des Nations Unies et ses États membres à aider à sauver la vie de quatre journalistes qui ont été condamnés à mort en avril 2020 dans la capitale Sanaa pour "espionnage" et "diffusion de fausses nouvelles". Sur les six autres journalistes de la même affaire dont le juge a ordonné la libération après cinq ans de détention, un seul a été libéré à ce jour. Les autorités en exercice à Sanaa, les Houthis, doivent annuler immédiatement les condamnations à mort et de libérer les neuf autres journalistes qui ont été condamnés en violation de leur droit à la liberté d'expression.

  • YEMEN: ‘Women are completely absent from decision-making bodies; politically we don’t exist’

    CIVICUS speaks about gender inequalities in Yemen and the role of Yemeni civil society in tackling them with Bilkis Abouosba, founder and chairperson of the Awam Foundation for Development and Culture, a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2008 to support women’s political participation. Bilkis Abouosba is former vice-chair of the Supreme National Authority for Combatting Corruption in Yemen.

    Bilkis Abouosba

    What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on women and girls in Yemen?

    Yemeni society had been going through a terrible humanitarian crisis since 2015, when war broke out, resulting in unprecedented numbers of casualties and refugees and millions of displaced people. The pandemic only added fuel to the fire. The war had already had a catastrophic effect on the education and healthcare sectors, among others, and the pandemic made the situation worse. It impacted on society at large, but specifically on women.

    Due to the war, women’s political participation in decision-making bodies decreased; for the first time, relevant political bodies had no female representatives at all. Politically, Yemeni women do not exist, as they are completely absent from the decision-making process. This preannounced a bleak future for Yemeni women.

    Many female political leaders had to flee the country. On the positive side, it has been noted that women’s participation in online events has risen despite Yemen’s poor internet infrastructure and frequent power cuts. The internet has offered Yemeni women, especially those living in rural areas, a venue to participate and express their views around peacebuilding. First, it helped break down societal barriers on women’s participation in political events, and then it helped bypass pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings. The internet brings the world closer to Yemeni women and Yemeni women closer to the world.

    On the economic front, after war began many women became their families’ primary breadwinners, but when the pandemic broke out many lost their jobs or could not go to their workplaces. Moreover, enforcement of COVID-19 regulations was selective and discriminated against women. For instance, hair salons for women had to close but their counterparts for men remained open, which negatively affected female owners of small businesses.

    How has civil society, and Awam Foundation more specifically, supported Yemeni women during the pandemic?

    In the absence of government policies to help people cope with the pandemic – especially in the north of Yemen, where public officials didn’t even acknowledge the reality of COVID-19 – many lost their lives. But CSOs immediately stepped in and played a significant role. Many women-led CSOs, including Awam Foundation, launched COVID-19 awareness campaigns and distributed facemasks among locals and people living in rural areas.

    In the early months of the pandemic, CSOs shifted their focus into combatting COVID-19. They relied heavily on online communication to reach affected communities. I was part of an international group fighting COVID-19 that registered available Yemeni doctors for consultation inside the country as well as abroad.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Yemen? What would need to happen for them to be tackled effectively?

    In my opinion, our biggest loss is in the area of political rights and participation in political decision-making processes and opinion formation. For the first time in 20 years, the current Yemeni government was formed with a total absence of women. Women’s exclusion has spread further across sectors, including in peacebuilding efforts.

    Political negotiations between rival groups have been held without female representation. Only one woman took part in the last round of negotiations in Stockholm, which resulted in an agreement brokered by the United Nations (UN) between the Yemeni government and the Houthi group Ansar Allah.

    But public opinion polls on the peace process have in fact included a small sample of Yemeni women, and since 2015 both UN Women and the office of the UN special envoy have created mechanisms for Yemeni women’s inclusion, such as the Yemeni Women’s Pact for Peace and Security (known as ‘Tawafuq’), a consultative mechanism consisting of a group of 50 women consultants, and a group established in 2018 comprising eight women, among them me, also aimed at channelling female voices to international society. However, neither the current nor former UN special envoys have made use of these groups to bridge gender gaps, as planned. Women are still not part of UN-supported peace negotiations.

    Despite this, several feminist coalitions have been formed during the transition period, including the Women Solidarity Network, which I played a key role in establishing. These coalitions succeeded at transmitting women’s voices to international organisations, including the UN Security Council. We advocate for the implementation of UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in the Yemeni context. This means that women must be included as equal partners in any upcoming round of peace negotiations.

    The government just made a step forward concerning the implementation of UN Resolution 1325. On 8 March the Minister of Social Affairs and Labour announced the institutional structure and terms of reference of a national plan to implement the Resolution. 

    But overall, we are still concerned about setbacks on women’s rights in Yemen. Women cannot move freely anymore; they’re required to have a male companion to move from one place to another or to apply for a passport.

    What would need to happen for gender inequality to reduce in Yemen?

    International organisations can significantly help narrow the gender gap in Yemen by bringing Yemeni women to the negotiation table. As a result, women’s participation in the political process will grow in the post-conflict period.

    As CSOs we are doing our part by holding workshops on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Security Council resolutions on women, peace and security. In 2021, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women discussed Yemen’s report – a report Awam Foundation contributed to, and which revealed huge gender inequalities. We are now developing mechanisms aimed at narrowing these gaps.

    Although political rivals continue to refuse to integrate women until after the war ends, we continue working in this regard. On International Women’s Day, we highlighted the need to include women in the peace process and shed light on the toll of gender-based violence on Yemeni women. I am sure our efforts will finally start to pay off.

    Civic space in Yemen is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Awam Foundation for Development and Culture through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @FoundationAwam on Twitter.

  • Yemen: Más de 150 ONGs exigen que se anulen condenas de muerte contra cuatro periodistas

    Organizaciones que apoyan a los derechos humanos, la libertad de prensa y los periodistas están exigiendo a los mecanismos de las Naciones Unidas y a sus miembros que ayuden a salvar la vida de cuatro periodistas condenados a muerte en abril de 2020 en la capital, Saná, acusados ​​de "espiar" y "difundir noticias falsas". De los otros seis periodistas en el mismo caso que el juez ordenó que fueran liberados tras cinco años de detención, solo uno ha sido liberado hasta el momento. Las autoridades de facto en Saná, los hutíes, deben revocar de inmediato las condenas de muerte y que liberen a los otros nueve periodistas que han sido condenados en violación de su derecho a la libertad de expresión.

  • Yemen: Over 150 NGOs appeal for death sentences of four journalists to be overturned


    Organisations which support human rights, press freedom and journalists are calling on United Nations mechanisms and member states to help save the lives of four Yemeni journalists who were sentenced to death in April 2020 in the capital Sana’a on charges of “spying” and “spreading false news.” Of the six other journalists in the same case whom the judge ordered to be freed, after five years in detention, only one has been released so far. The de facto authorities in Sana’a, the Houthis, must immediately overturn the death sentences and free the other nine journalists who have been convicted in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

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