2. Former heads of CIVICUS reflect on 25 years of citizen action
To celebrate a quarter of a century of organisation, mobilisation and participation, two of our past secretary generals share their lessons learnt for the next 25 years, and their hopes for “reimagining democracy”
“There’s no easy blueprint to this”
CONVENTION FISCALE DE L’ONU : « Le pouvoir populaire est notre arme principale pour lutter contre les inégalités »
CIVICUS échange sur le travail de la société civile pour lutter contre les inégalités en adoptant une approche ascendante, et discute des perspectives d’une convention fiscale des Nations Unies avec JennyRicks, coordinatrice mondiale de l’Alliance contre les inégalités.
L’Alliance contre les inégalités est une coalition mondiale en plein essor qui rassemble un large éventail de mouvements sociaux, d’organisations de base et communautaires, d’organisations de la société civile, de syndicats, d’artistes, et d’activistes individuels qui s’organisent et se mobilisent du bas vers le haut. Leur objectif est de trouver et promouvoir des solutions aux causes structurelles des inégalités afin de rééquilibrer le pouvoir et la richesse dans nos sociétés.
Existe-t-il un consensus mondial sur le fait que l’inégalité est un problème qu’il faut adresser ?
Depuis quelques années, il semble avoir un consensus sur le fait que l’inégalité a atteint de nouveaux extrêmes et qu’elle est préjudiciable à tous les membres de la société ainsi qu’à l’environnement. À l’heure actuelle, ce ne sont pas seulement les personnes les plus touchées par les inégalités qui s’y opposent, affirmant que c’est grotesque et que cela doit changer, mais même des organisations comme le Fonds monétaire international et la Banque mondiale l’envisagent comme un problème. Le pape dit que c’est un problème. Les gouvernements se sont engagés à réduire les inégalités dans le cadre de l’un des objectifs de développement durable.
En apparence, il existe un large consensus : tout le monde semble penser que la concentration du pouvoir et des richesses au sommet des sociétés est allée trop loin, que le fossé est trop profond et qu’il affecte la vie quotidienne et les moyens de subsistance des gens au point où c’est une question de vie ou de mort. Et ce n’est pas tout : les inégalités érodent aussi les démocraties. Lorsque les oligarques contrôlent les médias, achètent des votes, répriment les défenseurs des droits de l’homme et l’espace civique et saccagent l’environnement, tout le monde est concerné.
Mais sous ce consensus superficiel, je pense qu’il existe encore un profond désaccord sur ce que signifie réellement la lutte contre les inégalités. À l’Alliance contre les inégalités, nous travaillons pour démanteler les systèmes d’oppression à l’origine des inégalités, notamment le néolibéralisme, le patriarcat, le racisme et l’héritage colonial. Ce sont les racines structurelles profondes des inégalités qui expliquent pourquoi des milliards de personnes ont lutté pour survivre à une pandémie mondiale tandis que les plus riches du monde continuaient à s’amuser. C’est pour cela que notre plan d’action se centre sur la transformation de la nature de nos économies et de nos sociétés, et nous ne nous contentons pas d’apporter des modifications mineures au statu quo pour éviter les émeutes.
Comment s’attaquer à l’inégalité structurelle ?
Depuis le début de la formation de l’Alliance contre les inégalités, nous savions que le problème ne résidait pas dans le manque de solutions politiques. Nous connaissons déjà les solutions politiques pour lutter contre les inégalités : cela comprend notamment des mesures de lutte contre le changement climatique, des politiques fiscales redistributives, des politiques visant à garantir un travail décent.
Le problème était que la concentration écrasante de pouvoir et de richesse au sommet ne s’accompagnait pas d’une force compensatrice en bas de l’échelle. Les plus riches et les plus puissants sont organisés et bien financés. Ils poursuivent leurs intérêts et leur avidité de manière agressive et avec succès. Or, nous avons le pouvoir du peuple. Mais dans la société civile et au-delà, les groupes étaient très fragmentés, très cloisonnés, concentrés sur leurs agendas individuels et absorbés par les questions les plus cruciales pour leurs partie-prenantes. Il n’y avait pas assez de liens entre les luttes.
Le fait de s’organiser autour des inégalités permet de comprendre à quel point les luttes différentes sont interconnectées : sous les luttes quotidiennes, il y a des racines communes, et donc aussi des solutions communes à promouvoir. C’est là, ainsi que dans la transformation des discours sur l’inégalité, que nous avons trouvé notre mission. Nous devons changer ce que nous considérons comme nécessaire et possible dans nos sociétés et renforcer le pouvoir des visions alternatives pour lesquelles nous nous battons. Lorsque nous sommes limités par ce qui est perçu comme naturel ou normal selon le courant dominant, telle que l’idée fausse que les milliardaires sont des génies qui travaillent dur et méritent donc une richesse illimitée, cela limite nos énergies et nos capacités d’organisation pour un changement structurel.
Les personnes à la base connaissent bien leurs problèmes et leurs solutions. Les inégalités ne sont pas un problème à résoudre pour les économistes et les technocrates : il s’agit avant tout d’un combat qui doit être mené par les gens. Surtout, les voix des personnes qui subissent le pire des inégalités doivent être entendues. Ces personnes sont les véritables experts de cette lutte. Le pouvoir populaire est donc la plus grande arme que nous puissions utiliser dans ce combat. Les gouvernements et les institutions internationales veulent ramener ces débats dans les arènes techniques des organes de décision et des salles de conférence, en les enveloppant d’un langage technique qui les rend intentionnellement inaccessibles à la plupart des gens. Les inégalités, comme de nombreuses autres questions qui requièrent des changements structurels, sont vues dans les cercles économiques comme des éléments à mesurer, à rapporter et à discuter.
Mais l’inégalité est une tragédie humaine, pas une question technique. C’est une question de pouvoir. Et les solutions doivent venir des personnes dont la vie est la plus affectée par ces inégalités. Nous devons modifier l’équilibre des pouvoirs, dans nos sociétés et sur la scène mondiale, au lieu de discuter à huis clos sur la formulation d’un document technique. Cela passe par une organisation à grande échelle : le pouvoir du peuple est notre arme principale pour lutter contre les inégalités.
Pourquoi le régime fiscal est-il important dans la lutte contre les inégalités ?
La lutte contre les inégalités passe par une redistribution du pouvoir et des richesses, et les impôts constituent un outil majeur de redistribution.
Au cours des dix ou vingt dernières années, la société civile a fourni des efforts considérables pour remettre en question le fait que les personnes les plus riches et les plus grandes entreprises du monde ne paient pas leur juste part d’impôts. Le modèle économique est exploiteur, injuste et non durable, basé sur l’extraction de ressources, principalement du Sud, sur des pratiques de travail abusives, sur des travailleurs sous-payés et sur des dommages environnementaux considérables.
Lorsqu’il s’agit de budgets nationaux ou locaux, les gouvernements augmentent souvent les impôts indirects tels que la taxe sur la valeur ajoutée. Or celui-ci est le type d’impôt le plus régressif car au lieu de taxer davantage les riches ou les multinationales, il s’applique à tous les biens achetés, y compris les produits de première nécessité. Une industrie mondiale avec des systèmes d’évitement et d’évasion fiscale à grande échelle a été mise en place.
La redistribution actuelle se base sur l’extraction aux dépens des plus pauvres et la distribution aux personnes les plus riches du monde – milliardaires, actionnaires d’entreprises, etc. C’est ce que nous nous efforçons d’inverser, tant au niveau local comme au niveau mondial.
Comment une convention fiscale des Nations Unies pourrait-elle être utile ?
Le niveau actuel de concentration des richesses est tellement grotesque qu’il nécessite des solutions et des actions à tous les niveaux. Nous devons nous battre sur le front local, là où se trouvent les difficultés, tout en faisant pression pour un changement systémique dans des espaces tels que les Nations Unies. La discussion sur les règles fiscales mondiales semble assez éloignée des luttes quotidiennes pour lesquelles la plupart des gens, au sein de notre alliance et au-delà, font campagne. Mais les décisions prises à ce sujet ont des répercussions sur ces luttes.
Jusqu’à présent, les règles fiscales ont été fixées par l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE), une organisation intergouvernementale comptant 38 États membres : un club de pays riches. Comment les décisions sur les règles fiscales mondiales qui concernent tout le monde pourraient-elles être prises ailleurs qu’à l’ONU, qui, malgré tous ses défauts et toutes ses lacunes, est le seul organisme multilatéral où tous les États ont un siège ?
Néanmoins, comme nous l’avons vu avec les négociations sur le climat, il y a une énorme lutte de pouvoir qui doit être menée à l’ONU. Il faudra encore mener un énorme combat pour obtenir le type de règles fiscales mondiales que nous souhaitons. Mais si les règles fiscales mondiales sont élaborées au sein de l’OCDE, la majorité du monde n’a aucune chance. Ce n’est pas en demandant aux pays riches de mieux se comporter que l’on obtiendra le type de transformation que nous souhaitons.
En novembre 2022, une première étape positive a été franchie lorsque l’Assemblée générale des Nations Unies a adopté une résolution appelant à une coopération fiscale internationale plus inclusive et plus efficace et exhortant les États membres à entamer des négociations sur une convention fiscale mondiale. La résolution fait écho à un appel lancé par le Groupe des 77 (G77), le plus grand bloc de pays en développement au sein des Nations Unies, ainsi que par le Groupe africain. Elle donne aux Nations Unies le mandat de contrôler, d’évaluer et de déterminer les règles fiscales mondiales et de soutenir la création d’un organisme fiscal mondial.
Une convention fiscale mondiale mettrait les États du Sud sur un pied d’égalité avec les États du Nord, de sorte que la proposition s’est heurtée à des résistances. Les dynamiques de pouvoir mondiales étaient clairement en jeu. Il fallait s’attendre à de telles réactions : en effet, ce processus sera à long terme et à durée indéterminée. Rien ne garantit qu’il aboutira au cadre mondial solide dont nous avons besoin. Mais c’est un combat qui vaut la peine d’être mené, et les Nations Unies sont l’enceinte idéale pour cela, tout simplement parce qu’il n’existe pas d’autre espace pour mener ces négociations. Où d’autre le G77 ou le Groupe africain pourraient-ils renégocier les règles fiscales mondiales ?
Comment faites-vous campagne à la lumière de la résolution ?
Nous ne faisons pas directement campagne pour la convention fiscale des Nations Unies, mais nous essayons d’amener les gens à s’intéresser à cet agenda différemment. Nous avons beaucoup fait campagne sur la taxation des riches et l’abolition des milliardaires, ce qui est une manière plus attrayante de présenter le problème et de mobiliser les gens. Nous ne pouvons pas imaginer à ce stade que des centaines de milliers de personnes descendent dans la rue pour soutenir la convention fiscale des Nations Unies. Au lieu de cela, nous nous sommes organisés autour de la nécessité de taxer les riches, au niveau national et mondial, qu’il s’agisse de particuliers ou d’entreprises.
Cet appel a une grande résonance populaire parce qu’il est plus facile de le relier aux luttes principales individuelles telles que la recherche d’emploi, les dépenses en matière de santé, l’efficacité des services publics, le revenu de base, ou encore à la lutte contre les mesures d’austérité, les hausses d’impôts régressives ou les réductions de subventions. Grâce à notre organisation ces dernières années, cet appel a en effet été intégré à des campagnes d’un nombre croissant de mouvements à travers le monde. Cela a permis à de nombreux mouvements de base du Sud global de s’engager dans l’agenda fiscal, ce qui a le potentiel d’attirer l’attention des gens sur l’agenda plus large de justice fiscale. On ne peut pas commencer par l’organisation d’une réunion communautaire sur la Convention fiscale des Nations Unies : il faut partir des inégalités quotidiennes auxquelles les gens sont confrontés.
COP26 : « De fausses solutions sont utilisées pour détourner notre attention des responsables »
À la veille de la 26ème Conférence des parties des Nations unies sur le changement climatique (COP26), qui se tiendra à Glasgow, au Royaume-Uni, du 31 octobre au 12 novembre 2021, CIVICUS a interrogé des militants, des dirigeants et des experts de la société civile sur les défis environnementaux auxquels ils sont confrontés dans leur contexte, les actions qu’ils entreprennent pour y faire face et leurs attentes pour le sommet à venir.
CIVICUS s’entretient avec Lia Mai Torres, directrice exécutive du Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) - Philippines, une organisation de la société civile (OSC) qui aide les communautés philippines à relever les défis environnementaux. Fondée en 1989 à l’initiative d’organisations représentant les pêcheurs, les agriculteurs, les peuples autochtones, les femmes, les personnes en situation de pauvreté urbaine et les secteurs professionnels, le CEC s’engage dans la recherche environnementale, l’éducation, le plaidoyer et les campagnes. Elle est également membre du secrétariat du Réseau Asie-Pacifique des défenseurs de l’environnement (APNED), une coalition d’organisations travaillant de manière solidaire pour protéger l’environnement et ses défenseurs.
Quel est le principal problème climatique dans votre pays ?
Le principal problème environnemental auquel les Philippines sont confrontées aujourd’hui est la prolifération de projets et de programmes destructeurs de l’environnement. Cette situation a persisté et s’est même aggravée pendant la pandémie.
Le gouvernement actuel a récemment levé un moratoire sur l’exploitation minière, arguant que cela aiderait l’économie à se redresser après avoir été durement touchée par la mauvaise réponse à la pandémie. Cela permettra de réaliser une centaine d’opérations minières dans différentes régions du pays. De nombreuses communautés se sont opposées à cette démarche en raison des impacts négatifs des projets miniers déjà en cours. Un exemple est le village de Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, dans le nord des Philippines, où un accord minier avec la société australo-canadienne OceanaGold a été renouvelé pour 25 années supplémentaires. Les communautés autochtones de Bugkalot et Tuwali souffrent déjà du manque d’approvisionnement en eau dû à l’activité minière et craignent que cette situation ne s’aggrave si l’activité minière se poursuit.
Les projets d’infrastructure sont également une priorité pour le gouvernement, qui affirme qu’ils contribueront à améliorer l’état de l’économie. Cependant, il existe des projets financés par des prêts étrangers coûteux qui ne feront qu’aggraver la situation de la population locale. Un exemple est le barrage de Kaliwa, financé par la Chine, dans la province de Rizal, dans le sud de l’île de Luzon. Le réservoir empiètera sur les territoires ancestraux du peuple autochtone Dumagat, y compris sur leurs sites sacrés, ainsi que sur une zone protégée.
Un autre exemple est celui des plantations en monoculture que l’on retrouve principalement dans les provinces de Mindanao. Les terres ancestrales des peuples autochtones Lumad ont été converties en plantations de bananes et d’ananas. Certains résidents font état de maladies causées par les produits chimiques de synthèse utilisés dans les plantations, et beaucoup sont déplacés de leurs terres agricoles.
Ce sont là quelques exemples de projets prioritaires promus par le gouvernement pour nous conduire à ce que l’on appelle le développement. Cependant, il est clair qu’ils n’améliorent pas vraiment la situation des communautés locales, dont la plupart sont déjà en situation de pauvreté. En outre, la plupart des ressources naturelles du pays ne sont pas exploitées au profit de ses citoyens, les produits extraits étant destinés à l’exportation. Quelques entreprises locales et internationales en bénéficient. Les ressources naturelles sont utilisées pour le profit et non pour le développement national.
Avez-vous été confrontée à des réactions négatives pour le travail que vous faites ?
Le CEC travaille avec les communautés locales, car nous croyons que les luttes environnementales ne peuvent être gagnées sans les efforts conjoints de ceux qui subissent les impacts environnementaux. Le vrai pouvoir provient des organisations de base. Les OSC comme la nôtre et d’autres secteurs doivent soutenir leurs efforts, en reliant les luttes locales pour construire un mouvement environnemental national et international fort.
En raison de notre soutien aux communautés locales, nous avons subi des représailles. En 2007, Lafayette Mining Ltd, une société minière australienne, a intenté un procès en diffamation contre le directeur exécutif du CEC de l’époque parce qu’il avait dénoncé les impacts des activités de la société. En 2019 et 2021, notre organisation a été victime d’une pratique courante par laquelle le gouvernement déclare des individus et des organisations comme étant terroristes ou communistes. Il l’a fait en représailles aux missions humanitaires que nous avons menées à la suite d’un typhon et pendant la pandémie.
Nous avons également été menacés d’une descente de police dans nos bureaux, en représailles au fait que nous avions offert un refuge aux enfants autochtones Lumad qui avaient été contraints de quitter leurs communautés en raison de la militarisation, des menaces et du harcèlement. Nos actions de protestation pacifiques sont souvent violemment dispersées par la police et les forces de sécurité privées, et en 2019, un membre du personnel de notre organisation a été arrêté.
Derrière toutes ces attaques se cachent les forces de sécurité de l’État ainsi que les forces de sécurité privées des entreprises. La police et l’armée sont clairement devenues des forces de sécurité des entreprises, utilisant des mesures répressives pour assurer le bon déroulement de leurs opérations.
Quel lien entretenez-vous avec le mouvement international pour le climat ?
Étant donné que de nombreux pays, notamment dans le sud du monde, connaissent des problèmes environnementaux similaires, nous reconnaissons la nécessité d’établir des liens avec des organisations d’autres pays. En 2015, le CEC a fait partie des organisateurs de la Conférence internationale des peuples sur l’exploitation minière, qui a offert aux défenseurs de l’environnement la possibilité d’apprendre de leurs expériences respectives et de coordonner des campagnes locales.
Le CEC a également contribué à la création de l’APNED, un réseau de campagnes de solidarité qui fournit un soutien mutuel pour les campagnes, soulève des questions au niveau international, plaide pour une plus grande protection des défenseurs, organise des formations et facilite les services. Nous pensons que la solidarité entre défenseurs est importante pour aider à renforcer les mouvements locaux ainsi que la lutte internationale pour nos droits environnementaux.
Quels sont vos espoirs que la COP26 débouche sur des progrès, et quelle utilité voyez-vous à de tels processus internationaux ?
Même avant la pandémie, l’inclusion des défenseurs de l’environnement de la base ou de première ligne dans les processus internationaux tels que les négociations sur le climat suscitait des inquiétudes. Le manque d’inclusion est devenu plus évident avec la pandémie, car de nombreuses OSC ont trouvé difficile d’y participer en raison des exigences et des dépenses supplémentaires. En outre, seules les organisations accréditées peuvent participer aux événements officiels, et très peu sont accréditées. Et les rapports gouvernementaux sont souvent très éloignés de la réalité. L’aggravation de la crise climatique est la preuve que les gouvernements n’en font pas assez.
Malgré cela, nous continuerons à participer aux événements officiels et parallèles de la COP26, dans le but d’attirer l’attention sur la manière dont de nombreux pays développés et les grandes entreprises aggravent la crise climatique en s’emparant des ressources et en exploitant les ressources naturelles des pays pauvres, exacerbant ainsi la pauvreté existante, et sur la manière dont de fausses solutions sont utilisées pour détourner notre attention de leur responsabilité et de leur manque de responsabilisation. Nous souhaitons également souligner l’importance des défenseurs de l’environnement dans la protection de notre environnement et la défense de nos droits environnementaux, et donc la nécessité de veiller à ce qu’ils ne subissent pas de nouvelles violations de leurs droits humains pour des raisons politiques qui les empêchent de mener à bien leur important travail.
Quels changements souhaiteriez-vous voir se produire pour commencer à résoudre la crise climatique ?
Nous espérons que le cadre capitaliste axé sur le profit changera aux Philippines. Cela permettrait de s’assurer que les conflits liés aux ressources sont réglés, que la protection de l’environnement est maintenue pour assurer l’équilibre écologique, que de véritables programmes d’adaptation au changement climatique sont mis en place et que les groupes vulnérables reçoivent l’attention dont ils ont besoin. Il s’agit également de demander des comptes aux pays et aux entreprises qui aggravent la crise climatique, et d’aider les pays pauvres à s’adapter.
L’espace civique aux Philippines est classé « réprimé »par leCIVICUS Monitor.
Contactez le Center for Environmental Concerns - Philippines via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook, et suivez@CEC_Phils sur Twitter.
COP26 : « Mon espoir est que les gens se rassemblent pour demander justice »
À la veille de la 26ème Conférence des Parties des Nations Unies sur le changement climatique (COP26), qui se tiendra à Glasgow, au Royaume-Uni, du 31 octobre au 12 novembre 2021, CIVICUS a interrogé des militants, des dirigeants et des experts de la société civile sur les défis environnementaux auxquels ils sont confrontés dans leur contexte, les actions qu’ils entreprennent pour y faire face et leurs attentes pour le sommet à venir.
CIVICUS s’entretient avec Mitzi Jonelle Tan, une jeune militante pour la justice climatique basée à Metro Manila, aux Philippines, membre des Young Climate Champions Philippines et participante active du mouvement international Fridays for the Future.
Quel est le principal problème climatique dans votre communauté ?
Les Philippines subissent de nombreux impacts du changement climatique, qu’il s’agisse de sécheresses plus longues et plus chaudes ou de typhons plus fréquents et plus intenses. Outre ces impacts climatiques - auxquels nous n’avons pas été capables de nous adapter et qui nous laissent sans soutien pour faire face aux pertes et aux dommages - nous sommes également confrontés à de nombreux projets destructeurs de l’environnement, souvent entrepris par des multinationales étrangères, que notre gouvernement autorise et même encourage.
Young Climate Champions Philippines, la version philippine de Fridays for Future, milite pour la justice climatique et pour que les voix des personnes issues des communautés les plus touchées soient entendues et amplifiées. Je suis devenue militante en 2017, après avoir travaillé avec des leaders autochtones aux Philippines, car ce travail m’a fait prendre conscience que la seule façon de parvenir à une société plus juste et plus verte est une action collective menant à un changement systémique.
Avez-vous été confrontée à des réactions négatives face au travail que vous réalisez ?
Oui, comme pour toute personne qui s’élève contre l’injustice et l’inaction, notre gouvernement, par l’intermédiaire de ses agents rémunérés, désigne les militants comme des terroristes : pour résumer, il nous traite de terroristes pour avoir demandé des comptes et poussé au changement. Être militant du climat s’accompagne toujours de la peur aux Philippines, le pays qui, pendant huit années consécutives, a été classé comme le plus dangereux d’Asie pour les défenseurs et militants de l’environnement. Nous ne vivons plus seulement avec la peur des impacts climatiques, mais aussi avec celle que la police et les forces de l’État s’en prennent à nous et nous fassent disparaître.
Comment établissez-vous des liens avec le mouvement international pour le climat ?
Je collabore beaucoup avec la communauté internationale, en particulier par le biais de Fridays for Future - MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), l'un des groupes de Fridays for Future dans le Sud. Nous y parvenons en ayant des conversations, en apprenant les uns des autres et en élaborant des stratégies conjointes, tout en nous amusant. Il est important que le mouvement mondial des jeunes soit très bien mis en réseau, uni et solidaire, afin de s’attaquer réellement au problème mondial de la crise climatique.
Quels sont vos espoirs que la COP26 débouche sur des progrès, et quelle utilité voyez-vous à de tels processus internationaux ?
Mon espoir ne réside pas dans les soi-disant dirigeants et politiciens qui se sont adaptés au système et l’ont géré pendant des décennies au profit d’une minorité, généralement issus du Nord global. Mon espoir repose sur les gens : sur les militants et les organisations de la société civile qui s’unissent pour réclamer justice et dénoncer le fait que le système axé sur le profit qui nous a conduits à cette crise n’est pas celui dont nous avons besoin pour en sortir. Je pense que la COP26 est un moment crucial et que ce processus international doit être utile, car nous en avons déjà eu 24 qui n’ont pas donné grand-chose. Ces problèmes auraient dû être résolus lors de la première COP et, d’une manière ou d’une autre, nous devons veiller à ce que cette COP soit utile et débouche sur des changements significatifs, et non sur de nouvelles promesses vides.
Quels changements souhaiteriez-vous voir se produire pour commencer à résoudre la crise climatique ?
Le seul changement que je demande est un grand changement : un changement de système. Nous devons changer ce système qui donne la priorité à la surexploitation du Sud et des peuples marginalisés au profit du Nord et de quelques privilégiés. Un développement bien compris ne devrait pas être basé sur le PIB et la croissance éternelle, mais sur la qualité de vie des gens. C’est possible, mais seulement si nous nous attaquons à la crise climatique et à toutes les autres injustices socio-économiques qui en sont la cause.
L’espace civique auxPhilippines est classé « réprimé »par leCIVICUS Monitor.
Contactez les Young Climate Champions Philippines via leursite web ou leur pageFacebook, et suivez Mitzi Jonelle surTwitter etInstagram.
COP26: ‘False solutions are brandished to divert our attention from those responsible’
In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.
CIVICUS speaks with Lia Mai Torres, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) – Philippines, a civil society organisation (CSO) that helps Filipino communities address environmental challenges. Founded in 1989 through an initiative of organisations representing fisherfolk, farmers, Indigenous peoples, women, people living in urban poverty and professional sectors, CEC focuses on environmental research, education, advocacy and campaigning. It is also part of the secretariat of the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED), a coalition of organisations working in solidarity to protect the environment and its defenders.
What’s the key environmental issue in your country that you’re working on?
The main environmental issue that the Philippines is currently facing is the proliferation of environmentally destructive projects and programmes. This situation persisted or even worsened under the pandemic.
Just recently, the current administration lifted a moratorium on mining, based on claims that it will help the economy recover, after it was hard hit by the poor pandemic response. This will usher in around 100 mining agreements in different parts of the country. This was opposed by many communities due to the negative impacts of existing mining operations. An example is in the village of Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, in the northern part of the Philippines, where a mining agreement with the Australian-Canadian company OceanaGold was renewed for another 25 years. The Bugkalot and Tuwali Indigenous communities are already suffering from a lack of water supply due to the mining operations and they fear that this will worsen with the continuing operations.
Infrastructure projects are also a priority of the government, which claims that they will also help the economy. However, there are projects that are foreign funded under onerous loans that will worsen the situation of residents. An example of this is the China-funded Kaliwa Dam in Rizal province, in the southern part of Luzon island. It will encroach on the Dumagat Indigenous people’s ancestral domain, including sacred sites, as well as a protected area.
Another example are the monocrop plantations that can be found mostly in the provinces of Mindanao. Ancestral domains of the Lumad Indigenous people have been converted into banana and pineapple plantations. Some residents report illnesses from the synthetic chemicals used in the plantations and many are being displaced from their farmlands.
These are a few examples of priority projects that are pushed by the government to bring so-called development. However, it is obvious that these do not genuinely improve the situation of local communities, most of which are already experiencing poverty. In addition, the natural resources of the country are mostly not exploited to the benefit of its citizens, since the products extracted are destined for export. Only very few local and international corporations benefit from them. Natural resources are used for profit and not for national development.
Have you faced backlash for the work you do?
CEC works with local communities, since we believe that environmental struggles cannot be won without the united efforts of the people who are experiencing environmental impact. The real power comes from the organisations on the ground. CSOs like ours and other sectors should support their efforts, connecting local struggles to build a strong environmental movement at the national and international levels.
Because of our support to local communities, we have faced reprisals. In 2007, Lafayette Mining Ltd, an Australian mining company, filed a libel case against CEC’s then-executive director for exposing the impacts of the company’s operations. In 2019 and 2021, our organisation was targeted through red-tagging, a practice by which the government declares individuals and organisations as terrorists or communists, in retaliation for our humanitarian missions following a typhoon and during the pandemic.
We also received information of a threat of a police raid in our office for providing sanctuary to Lumad Indigenous children who were forced out of their communities due to militarisation, threats and harassment. Our peaceful protest actions are often violently dispersed by the police and private security forces, and a member of our staff was arrested in 2019.
Behind all these attacks are state security forces alongside the private security forces of corporations. The police and military have seemingly become part of the corporations’ security forces, using repressive measure to ensure that their operations run smoothly.
How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?
As many countries, especially from the global south, are experiencing similar environmental problems, we recognise the need to connect with organisations in other countries. In 2015, CEC was among the conveners of the International People’s Conference on Mining, in which environmental defenders were able to learn from each other’s experiences and coordinate local campaigns.
CEC also helped establish APNED, a solidarity campaign network that provides mutual support to campaigns, raises issues at the international level, advocates for greater protection to defenders, conducts capacity-building activities and facilitates services. We believe that it is important to have solidarity among defenders to help strengthen local movements as well as the international struggle for our environmental rights.
What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?
Even before the pandemic, there were concerns regarding the inclusion of frontline or grassroots environmental defenders in international processes such as the climate talks. Lack of inclusivity became more evident under the pandemic, as many CSOs have found it difficult to attend due to additional requirements and expenses. In addition, only accredited organisations can attend formal events, and these are only very few with accreditation. Further, governments’ reports are usually far from reality. The worsening climate crisis is proof that governments are not doing enough.
Despite this, we will still participate in the formal and side events of COP26, aiming to bring attention to how many developed countries and big corporations are worsening the climate crisis through resource grabbing and the exploitation of the natural resources of poor countries, exacerbating existing poverty, and how false solutions are brandished to divert our attention from their responsibility and lack of accountability. We also want to highlight the importance of environmental defenders in protecting our environment and upholding our environmental rights, and therefore the need to ensure that they do not suffer more politically motivated human rights violations that hinder them from doing their important work.
What one change would you like to see that would help address the climate crisis?
We hope that the profit-oriented capitalist framework will be changed in the Philippines. This would ensure resource conflicts will be addressed, environmental protection for ecological balance upheld, genuine climate adaptation programmes established and due attention given to vulnerable groups. This also includes holding countries and corporations that contribute to the climate crisis accountable and providing support for poor countries to adapt.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CEC_Phils on Twitter.
COP26: ‘My hope lies in the people coming together to demand justice’
In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.
CIVICUS speaks with Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a young climate justice activist based in Metro Manila, Philippines, who organises with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and is active in Fridays for Future International.
What’s the key climate issue in your community?
The Philippines is plagued by several impacts from climate change, from droughts that are getting longer and warmer to typhoons that are getting more frequent and more intense. Aside from these climate impacts – that we have not been able to adapt to and leave us with no support when it comes to dealing with the loss and damages – we also face numerous environmentally destructive projects, often undertaken by foreign multinational companies, that our government is allowing and even encouraging.
Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for Future of the Philippines, advocates for climate justice and to make sure that voices of people from the most affected communities are heard, amplified and given space. I first became an activist in 2017 after working with Indigenous leaders of the Philippines, which made me understand that they only way to achieve a more just and greener society is through collective action leading to system change.
Have you faced backlash for the work you do?
Yes, just like anyone who speaks up against injustice and inaction, our government through its paid trolls red-tags and terror-tags activists – it basically calls us terrorists for demanding accountability and pushing for change. There is a fear that comes along with being a climate activist in the Philippines, which has been characterised as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders and activists for eight years in a row. It’s not just the fear of the climate impacts, it’s also the fear of police and state forces coming to get us and making us disappear.
How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?
I organise a lot with the international community, especially through Fridays for Future – MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), one of the global south groups of Fridays for Future. We do it by having conversations, learning from each other and creating strategies together, all while having fun. It’s important for the global youth movement to connect with one another, unite and show solidarity in order to truly address the global issue of the climate crisis.
What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?
My hope doesn’t lie with the so-called leaders and politicians who have continued business as usual for decades for the profit of the few, usually for the global north. My hope lies in the people: activists and civil society coming together to demand justice and to really expose how this profit-oriented system that brought us to this crisis is not the one that we need to bring us out of it. I think COP26 is a crucial moment and this international process has to be useful because we’ve already had 24 too many. These problems should have been solved at the very first COP, and one way or another we have to make sure that this COP is useful and brings meaningful change, not just more empty promises.
What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?
The one change I ask for is a big one: system change. We need to change our system from one that prioritises the overexploitation of the global south and marginalised peoples for the profit of the global north and the privileged few. The way we view development, it shouldn’t be based on GDP and everlasting growth, but rather on the quality of people’s lives. This is doable – but only if we address the climate crisis and all the other socio-economic injustices at its roots.
Civic space inthe Philippinesis rated as ‘repressed‘by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines through itswebsite or Facebook page, and follow @mitzijonelle onTwitter andInstagram.
COSTA RICA : « Les mobilisations ont révélé des problèmes structurels non résolus »
CIVICUS parle des récentes manifestations au Costa Rica avec Carlos Berríos Solórzano, co-fondateur de l’Asociación Agentes de Cambio-Nicaragua et membre deRed Previos (Réseau de la jeunesse d’Amérique centrale). Avec d’autres activistes d’Amérique centrale, Carlos a récemment fondé le Centre pour une culture de la paix en Amérique centrale. Originaire du Nicaragua, Carlos est un jeune activiste et défenseur des droits humains. Il a participé à des recherches sur les migrations, la participation politique des jeunes, l’intégration régionale et les droits humains, et est actuellement étudiant en Master de Sciences Politiques à l’Université de Costa Rica.
Quelles sont les causes qui ont déclenché la vague de manifestations de fin septembre 2020 ?
Les principales causes des manifestations qui ont commencé le 30 septembre 2020 étaient liées à l’annonce du gouvernement du président Carlos Alvarado, rendue publique le 17 septembre, qu’il demanderait un financement au Fonds monétaire international (FMI) de 1,75 milliard de dollars pour faire face à la reprise économique post-COVID-19 et investir dans le secteur public. Le Costa Rica n’avait pas demandé de financement au FMI depuis près de 20 ans. La proposition impliquait une éventuelle augmentation des impôts dans un pays où le coût de la vie est déjà élevé. D’ailleurs, une législation récente portant sur les finances publiques avait déjà augmenté les impôts, qui étaient déjà élevés.
En plus de l’augmentation des impôts sur le revenu et sur la propriété, l’accord avec le FMI proposé par le gouvernement comprenait de nouvelles taxes sur les transactions bancaires et le revenu mondial. Il a également proposé de fusionner certaines institutions publiques et d’en vendre d’autres, comme la Banque internationale du Costa Rica et la Fábrica Nacional de Licores (FANAL).
Le gouvernement a annoncé sa proposition unilatéralement, de manière totalement incohérente, alors qu’une négociation de cette ampleur et avec de telles implications dépasse largement le cadre économique et devrait faire l’objet de négociations politiques et de la participation des principales forces sociales. Les conséquences d’un accord ou d’un désaccord avec le FMI devraient faire l’objet d’un débat public qui, dans ce cas, n’a pas eu lieu.
Qui est venu protester, et qu’ont-ils demandé ?
Ce sont surtout les syndicats, la classe ouvrière et les fonctionnaires, ainsi que les mouvements sociaux et étudiants qui sont venus protester. La principale demande était que le gouvernement suspende la proposition de demander un financement au FMI et abandonne l’idée de privatiser les entreprises publiques et d’augmenter la charge fiscale.
Bien que les manifestations aient eu une composante citoyenne, tant dans la rue que dans l’agenda publique, leur composante sectorielle a été mise en avant. Les organisations syndicales ont été plus rapides que les autres à identifier l’impact des accords de financement du FMI sur leurs programmes et leurs luttes.
La société civile a également dénoncé les intentions de l’exécutif, mis en garde contre les conséquences d’un potentiel accord, et s’est concentrée sur l’éducation de la population et l’ouverture du débat, tout en soutenant la mobilisation.
Comment le gouvernement a-t-il répondu aux mobilisations ?
Le gouvernement a réagi dans une certaine mesure dans le cadre des normes internationales pour la dispersion des manifestations de masse ; en effet, de nombreux policiers ont été blessés à la suite d’agressions de manifestants qui avaient fermé des points importants de certaines rues, y compris les principaux postes-frontières avec le Panama. Au fil des jours, les tensions se sont intensifiées et il y a eu des brûlures de véhicules et des affrontements avec des bâtons et du gaz lacrymogène entre les manifestants et la police. Les forces de sécurité ont répondu de manière assez proportionnée aux manifestations violentes, il n’était donc pas question d’un usage disproportionné de la force par les autorités.
Pour neutraliser la situation face aux manifestations incessantes, le gouvernement a d’abord annoncé le 4 octobre qu’il reviendrait sur sa proposition, mais a exigé que les manifestants cessent les blocages comme condition de dialogue avec eux. Les manifestants, pour leur part, ont fixé des conditions pour la levée des blocus - en particulier, que le gouvernement s’engage par écrit à ne pas s’adresser au FMI pour le reste de son mandat et qu’il exclue de vendre les actifs de l’État et d’augmenter les impôts. Les manifestations se sont poursuivies, et en réponse, le gouvernement a rendu publique sa stratégie de négociation avec le FMI et s’est ouvert aux commentaires de tous les secteurs. Le 11 octobre, le gouvernement a annoncé un « dialogue social » national et territorial dans le cadre duquel vingt-cinq représentants de divers secteurs - entreprises, syndicats, femmes, églises, étudiants universitaires et agriculteurs, entre autres - présenteraient leurs propres propositions pour résoudre la crise économique aggravée par la pandémie de COVID-19. La question posée était très précise : « comment parvenir à une amélioration permanente d’au moins 2,5 points de pourcentage du PIB du déficit primaire de l’administration centrale et à une diminution à court terme du montant de la dette publique (d’environ 8 points de pourcentage du PIB), grâce à une combinaison de mesures de gestion des recettes, des dépenses et de la dette publique, pour éviter que l’État ne se trouve en situation de défaut de paiement ? »
Les manifestants ont-ils obtenu que certaines de leurs demandes soient satisfaites ?
Malgré l’intense processus de dialogue avec les différents secteurs et les précieuses contributions apportées à ce processus, les demandes fondamentales n’ont pas été satisfaites, bien que, selon le gouvernement, elles soient examinées dans le cadre institutionnel afin de leur accorder l’attention qu’elles méritent.
Les manifestations ont repris précisément parce que le processus de dialogue n’a donné aucun résultat et que les autorités ont fait preuve de peu de volonté politique en termes de respect des engagements. Cela s’est traduit par l’annonce selon laquelle le gouvernement allait poursuivre la demande de financement.
En effet, à l’issue du processus de dialogue, l’exécutif est resté ferme dans sa proposition de demander un financement au FMI. Rétrospectivement, au vu de ces résultats, la société civile a estimé que l’appel au dialogue social n’avait été rien d’autre qu’une stratégie de démobilisation.
Le Costa Rica est souvent présenté comme un cas modèle de stabilité, d’ordre, d’équité sociale et de culture démocratique. Est-ce seulement un mirage ?
S’il est vrai que le Costa Rica bénéficie d’un cadre institutionnel solide par rapport à ses voisins d’Amérique centrale, qui a permis d’instaurer une stabilité économique et sociale, il n’en reste pas moins qu’il ne parvient toujours pas à remédier aux profondes inégalités sociales dans les zones les plus vulnérables du pays. Les problèmes sociaux sont négligés en raison d’un manque de volonté politique et de l’existence de niveaux de corruption qui, bien que non "scandaleux" selon les normes internationales, imprègnent les structures politiques et économiques du pays, et permettent à la classe politique et à l’élite économique de s’entendre afin de se partager le butin de l’État.
Les manifestations ont mis en évidence des problèmes structurels non résolus au Costa Rica. Elles ont rassemblé des demandes immédiates insatisfaites et des problèmes structurels liés à la distribution des richesses, à l’évasion fiscale du grand capital et au contrôle des élites économiques sur le système étatique, qui se matérialise par l’inégalité sociale dont sont victimes les migrants, les peuples autochtones, les personnes d’origine africaine et les ruraux.
EL SALVADOR: ‘Patriarchal justice persecutes, tortures and abuses women’
CIVICUS speaks with Sara García Gross about the recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) against the Salvadoran state, and the struggle of Salvadoran women for the right to abortion.
Sara García Gross is advocacy coordinator of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador. Founded in 2009, the organisation promotes public awareness to change abortion laws, provides legal support to women who have been convicted or charged with abortion or related crimes and disseminates information on the importance of women receiving adequate sexual and reproductive healthcare to prevent them resorting to unsafe, life-threatening abortions.
What is El Salvador’s feminist movement demanding when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights?
As feminists we are fighting to change the law that criminalises abortion under all circumstances. In El Salvador women are unjustly persecuted. Women’s reproductive rights are violated, especially for younger women and those who live in poverty and in the country’s rural areas. In this sense, we in the feminist movement are fighting to change a restrictive, absolutist and absurd regulatory framework.
We are also fighting for women’s freedom. There are currently 12 women in prison serving sentences that are extremely unjust. Our fight is for women’s freedom and women’s lives. We want abortion to be legal in El Salvador. We fight for women to have the right to build our own lives. We denounce forced pregnancies; this is a form of torture. There are girls as young as 10 years old who face forced motherhood. There are young women who have not received any sexual education and do not have access to contraceptive methods. We are fighting for the right to comprehensive sex education.
We also fight for the recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people, because hate crimes are another cruel form of torture that the state imposes or condones.
What tactics does the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion use?
In our struggle for women’s freedom, we have pursued multiple strategies, starting with strategic litigation to obtain everything from commutations of sentences to sentence reviews. Our focus is on achieving freedom, putting into practice the feminist slogan ‘I believe you sister’. We fight for the recognition of the innocence of women facing unjust and absurd sentences.
But the legal route has not been our only key strategy; social mobilisation at national and regional levels has also played a major role. The feminist movement has organised and spoken out in relation to the cases of criminalised women. Sit-ins have been organised in front of embassies in El Salvador and other countries, letters have been sent to the courts and campaigns for reproductive justice have been carried out, including the ‘We are missing 17’ campaign.
Another very important strategy has involved the Inter-American human rights system. We brought the case of a woman known as Manuela to the IACtHR, which recently condemned the Salvadoran state for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Strategic litigation in the Inter-American system has allowed us to address the problems of persecution, torture and judicial and police abuse faced by women in El Salvador. Justice in El Salvador is patriarchal justice.
Another strategy has focused on collecting evidence. We have carried out an investigation called ‘From hospital to prison’, which allowed us to make this problem visible. Through a review and analysis of case files, sentences and investigations, we have been able to understand who anti-abortion legislation targets and who it persecutes: young and poor women living in rural areas. This constitutes intersectional discrimination.
The campaigns, dialogues and debates we promote in academia as well as grassroots communities have also been part of our strategy. Advocacy processes are key, so that when we are able to identify windows of opportunity in the Legislative Assembly or other state institutions, we can promote the submission of new initiatives.
In the past, several bills were submitted to reform article 133 of the Criminal Code to decriminalise abortion on four grounds. These bills were far from getting passed; in some cases they were quickly shelved and in others they languished for years in legislative committees. Women’s organisations were met with great hostility. However, our advocacy strategies allowed us to place the issue of abortion on the public agenda.
What does Salvadoran public opinion think about abortion and what work are you doing to present an alternative narrative to criminalisation?
Among public opinion, there is broad acceptance of abortion when it’s needed to save a pregnant woman’s life: more than half of the population has said so in various surveys.
We live in a conservative country, with some fundamentalist groups calling themselves ‘pro-life’. The reality is that they are in favour of clandestine abortion, criminalisation and women dying. These groups maintain a double standard that we, as organised feminist civil society, work to expose. While women living in poverty are criminalised, those with economic resources are able to travel and access safe abortions. This double standard is unacceptable.
For us, it is important to visualise other narratives and make women’s realities known. Reducing stigma requires showing, humanising and talking about life stories. These are women who had hopes and plans for their lives that state violence prevented them from realising.
Talking about the issue in different places, humanising this reality and questioning this system that imposes the mandate of motherhood – a gender stereotype – allows us to address the issue without stigma or prejudice and, above all, from a human rights perspective.
What are the implications of the IACtHR ruling in Manuela’s case?
This ruling came after years of work and struggle. We started working on the case in 2011, providing psychosocial, political and legal support to Manuela’s family.
Advocacy in the Inter-American system was key. The ruling in Manuela’s case is historic: the IACtHR has recognised that Manuela was innocent, that she really faced an obstetric emergency and that gender stereotypes, starting with the mandate of motherhood, permeated the entire process. The IACtHR has understood that the absolute ban on abortion results in criminalisation and obstacles to access to reproductive rights.
The judgment will have both national and regional effects. The main regional effect is the establishment of jurisprudence that obliges both El Salvador and the rest of the countries in the region to take a series of measures. First, to guarantee professional secrecy of health personnel so that no woman seeking reproductive health services is denounced for alleged abortion-related crimes. Second, to ensure that gender stereotypes are not applied in the judicial sphere, including those claiming that women must act according to a reproductive role and, therefore, with maternal instinct. Third, to implement adequate protocols to attend to obstetric emergencies with accessible and quality health services.
The Salvadoran state will have to carry out some additional actions in compliance with the IACtHR ruling. First, while it is in the process of regulating the obligation to maintain medical professional secrecy and the confidentiality of medical records, it must eliminate the practice of medical professionals denouncing women who seek reproductive health services. Second, it must provide full reparations to Manuela’s family. Third, it must make legislative and policy changes to ensure non-repetition, so that no one else goes through a similar experience, for instance by guaranteeing comprehensive care in cases of obstetric emergencies and adapting pre-trial detention so that it is only used in exceptional cases.
We continue to fight so that women are never again criminalised. There are still 12 women who remain in prison, but we believe that Manuela’s case shines a light on these injustices and gives us the strength to continue fighting. For us, Manuela means justice and hope.
What kind of support do abortion rights groups in El Salvador need from their peers around the world?
We believe feminist solidarity is key. We want to make this issue visible in the region and the world. We want people to talk about what is happening here. We want people to talk about the consequences of the absolute prohibition of abortion. We want people to talk about how this punitive system does not solve anything.
It is not acceptable for the exercise of a reproductive right – a right to health – to be treated as a crime entailing prison sentences. We need to shine the spotlight on El Salvador and make the Salvadoran state feel it is being watched. Every chance we get, we must demand freedom for women, freedom for the 12 who are still in prison and reparations for all the women who have faced this kind of criminalisation. We must demand that abortion be legally recognised as a right.
Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AbortoPORlaVIDA on Twitter.
GHANA: ‘Work in the corner of your community has a potential to cause change at the top’
Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Perk Pomeyie, a climate organiser, environmental advocate and artivist affiliated with the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement (GYEM), a youth-led environmental group that advocates and campaigns for a sustainable environment and a just world for the current and future generations. GYEM seeks to build an inter-generational network to find solutions to environmental challenges and confront the climate crisis. It focuses on bottom-up solutions and encourages the co-production of knowledge through participatory approaches.
Perk has recently been selected to take part inCIVICUS’s Youth Action Lab, a pilot co-creation initiative that works on year-long projects with grassroots youth activists based in the global south to support their movements and help them become more resilient and sustainable by building solidarity and networks, strengthening capacities, engaging with policy processes and facilitating resources to support their movement.
Can you tell us more about the work that you do?
My work is part of the broader work of GYEM, a leading youth-led grassroots movement in Ghana. GYEM works by organising and coordinating young people from different backgrounds and empowering them with the tools, techniques and technology to run disruptive campaigns on environmental issues. GYEM addresses key ecological challenges such as poor waste management, various forms of pollution, deforestation and the impacts of climate change in different communities and regions of Ghana. It specialises in running high-impact training for non-violent direct action (NVDA) campaigns, which target state actors and decision-makers from both the government and business sectors.
GYEM is composed of a youth-led Steering Group that mobilises logistics creatively, forging partnerships with other grassroots activists and community-based organisations to influence environmental change from the bottom up. It employs digital organising via social media and other NVDA tactics to deliver campaigns that challenge the status quo and offer both transformational and incremental community-led solutions that bring together scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems. GYEM also hosts the largest annual youth-led environmental summit in Ghana, Power Shift, which brings together grassroots activists from across the country to share ideas and collaborate on campaigns in various parts of Ghana.
We do much of our work in collaboration with several other organisations, including Rocha Ghana, an environmental civil society organisation (CSO) focusing on practical conservation interventions in important ecological habitats and improving the ability of target communities to adapt to current trends in climate change; the Green Africa Youth Organisation, a youth-led gender-balanced advocacy group that focuses on environmental sustainability and community development; 350 Ghana, a leading environmental grassroots CSO affiliated to 350.org, aimed at mobilising and empowering young people in partnership with key stakeholders to champion the need to reduce our carbon emissions and promote renewable energy systems; and WaterAid Ghana, a CSO focused on providing people with clean water, decent toilets and sanitation.
I am based in Accra, Ghana’s capital, but I work with diverse communities in different locations depending on the environmental challenge being addressed. Some of these include low-income groups who reside in informal settlements and are disproportionately affected by the impacts of plastic pollution and flooding. Another group I work with are frontline communities who face the impacts of climate change, such as drought, water stress and food insecurity. I also work in high schools and university campuses with student volunteers, aged between 12 and 25, who are passionate about the environment and require training and capacity to take action. Finally, I engage with CSOs working on various Sustainable Development Goals nationwide. Most of these are youth groups with leaders and members between 18 and 35 years old, working on initiatives and projects in areas such as conservation, plastic recycling, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and climate mitigation and adaptation.
What have been the biggest successes you have achieved?
We have had several high-profile victories. In 2016, the government backtracked on a project, proposed in 2013, to build a coal-powered plant in a community called Ekumfi Aboano. The plant was going to pose health and environmental risks to the people there, and especially to children and women. We designed campaign messages, organised the community for NVDA and marched repeatedly. As a result, the government engaged GYEM in a discussion and halted the coal plant project in 2016.
Secondly, in 2016, WaterAid Ghana approached GYEM in search of support to create awareness of WASH-based climate adaptation interventions. They wanted young people to design a campaign to draw the government’s attention to WASH issues in local communities and informal settlements, and tackle them as part of adapting to climate change. I contributed with my design work and communication strategies to a year-long campaign that reached more than 10,000 young people. This resulted in the National WASH Forum, which brought together local communities and political actors to work jointly towards the goal of addressing WASH problems as part of climate adaptation strategies.
In 2018, I worked with other activists in an urban poor settlement in an area called Pokuase, to raise awareness about a water source in the community that was being threatened by road construction and other building work. This water source was vital because it served the community during the dry season. For the first time, attention was drawn to the impact of human activities on the river.
Did you take part in the global climate mobilisations in 2019?
Yes, in late 2019 I championed the first #FridaysforFuture and #SchoolClimateStrike campaigns in the northern region of Ghana. I organised and coordinated strikes in Damongo and Tamale. I designed creative graphics and campaign materials, which attracted more than 200 schoolchildren and young people to these global campaigns. This was important because it was the first time that children and young people in that part of Ghana came out in large numbers to raise their voice on the impacts of climate change and demand urgent action from their leaders. Northern Ghana is currently experiencing the worst impact of climate change in the form of droughts and food insecurity.
Ours was one of the many #FridaysforFuture events that were held in Ghana. I think we’ve been successful in mobilising because we’ve used innovative approaches. Personally, I’ve used my skills in design thinking and graphic design and my expertise in non-violent communication and direct action. I communicate to reach my target on various social media platforms, while also mobilising communities for action on the ground with context-relevant messages to address specific environmental challenges.
Before that, in March 2019, I helped bring together hundreds of grassroots activists from Ghana and activists from the International Youth Climate Movement from other parts of Africa, to campaign for climate justice and urgent climate action, during the United Nations (UN) Africa Climate Week. I think this has been so far the most important achievement of my work as an activist. This high-profile conference was hosted in Accra and was attended by African governments, international organisations and business leaders. During this week, I coordinated an NVDA training session for hundreds of young people, while leading a mass rally of about 300 activists to the summit venue to deliver a strong message to heads of governments, businesses and stakeholders of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to act on the climate emergency.
I consider this as an important achievement because as a grassroots activist in Ghana, this was the first time I gained a strong personal conviction that my work in the little corner of my community has a potential to cause change at the top, if supported with the right tools, capacity and resources.
What support do activists like you need from international actors, including international civil society?
Personally, my work is self-financed. I use some income from my part-time self-employment as a graphic designer to support my activism. I design marketing materials for individuals and campaign banners for CSOs and get paid for it. I use a percentage of this to fund my work. Sometimes, family and friends also donate to support my work if I make a request. I have also financed my work through crowdfunding to help coordinate and implement projects and high-profile campaigns. So one area in which activists like me need support is in generating sustainable resources.
We also need more opportunities to connect and network with other activists from the global south who may share similar solutions to particular challenges in their respective contexts, to interact with multiple actors and to learn to navigate complex policy processes in the areas in which we work.
INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation.
Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.
Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools?
The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.
Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.
Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus.
How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India?
The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.
Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.
Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences.
The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women.
What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?
The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion.
Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.
The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.
How has civil society responded to the ban?
There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting.
In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women.
Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.
Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.
Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.
In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.
INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).
Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.
Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?
Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.
While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.
And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.
Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?
Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.
There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.
How has civil society responded to the ban?
Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.
As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.
What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?
Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.
In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.
As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.
INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).
Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.
How did the hijab row start?
The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.
From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.
The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.
What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?
The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.
Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.
However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.
To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.
How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?
The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.
We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.
As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.
What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?
As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.
Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.
But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India.
And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.
How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?
Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.
Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game.
All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.
IRAN: ‘The severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement’
CIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the situation in Iran on the anniversary of the anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police.
VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.
What is the situation in Iran one year on from the start of the protest wave?
The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.
Moreover, while the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement had an appealing chant and vision, it lacked a long-term plan that could lead to change. Over the past year, it has been unable to translate its slogan into a political programme and was therefore unable to mobilise other social and political forces around its goals.
But despite the authorities’ success in regaining control, we have continued to see acts of civil disobedience across Iran. Activists, artists and academics express themselves through social media and make public displays of protest not wearing hijab. The fact that the voices of protesters have not been silenced sustains hope for change.
A concerning development, however, is the increasing gap between established civil society and the protest movement. CSOs were hesitant to participate in the protests when they began, and this gap has only increased since. There is even a lack of a common vocabulary in calling for mobilisation and articulating demands. Established CSOs disagree with what they view as radical moves by the protest movement, as they have a more conservative view of society and the future. A possible explanation for this divergence may be the generation gap, as the protest movement is formed by much younger activists.
To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.
Internationally there was a huge wave of support for the protest movement from governments, civil society and media, particularly early on. This was extremely helpful for echoing the voices of Iranian protesters and pressuring the authorities to meet their demands. But as the authorities regained control of the streets, we have seen a change in the approach of western governments. They are returning to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, slowly normalising their relations. This has boosted the Iranian regime’s confidence, re-legitimising it and giving it space to spread its propaganda.
What tactics has the government used to limit further mobilisation?
The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.
The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.
To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.
To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.
What forms has resistance taken in response?
Iranian activists have pursued two strategies in response. First, the protest movement sought to widen its scope to increase its resilience. By mobilising excluded ethnic groups such as Baloch and Kurdish people, the protest movement expanded to more cities and communities, making the crackdown more difficult. Second, the protest movement tried to stay on the streets for as long as possible, hoping to create division among crackdown forces.
Internationally, the movement’s main strategy was to try to isolate the regime by forcing the severance of as many diplomatic connections as possible. For example, it successfully advocated for Iran to be removed from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and it also sought to force the closure of Iranian embassies in western states.
How have Iranian organisations from the diaspora or in exile supported the protest movement in Iran?
We have observed two phases in the involvement of the diaspora and exiled Iranian organisations in the protest movement. In the first phase, they organised large-scale solidarity mobilisations and projects in support of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests in Iran. Over 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora participated in the solidarity protest in Berlin in Germany, for example.
After this initial phase, however, each political group in exile tried to present itself as the leader of the protest movement. This broke the solidarity and unity of the movement. Instead of fighting against the regime, some diaspora groups mostly fought each other. Independent activists and organisations in the diaspora that didn’t want to be caught in this fight decreased their involvement. For the protest movement to succeed, opposition groups and political movements need to get better at resolving their conflicts, reaching compromises and building a unified anti-regime coalition.
Has the crackdown intensified as the first anniversary approaches?
Civil society activists have continued to be arrested and organisations put under pressure and shut down. But as the first anniversary approaches, we are seeing repression increase, particularly in universities and among journalists. Universities have recently fired more lecturers and professors and expelled more students who participated in last year’s protests. Student associations have been shut down long ago and any form of student organising is banned.
Journalists are also being heavily repressed. The authorities are disrupting reporting and coverage of protest actions and calls for protests around 16 September. They are threatening and arresting journalists, prosecuting them and handing them heavy sentences.
Independent lawyers, who have been instrumental in supporting arrested and imprisoned activists, are also being threatened. Lawyers have played key roles in defending activists in court and spreading information about their trials, informing the public on the authorities’ repression. As a result, they are being threatened with losing their licences or being arrested.
Is Iran closer to change now than a year ago?
I think we are multiple steps closer to change than before. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.
We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.
What needs to happen for political change to take place?
Iranians need to realise the power of being together. Change comes from power, and power comes from organising and acting together. To bring about change, we need social power and to create social power, organising is essential. By forming associations, organisations and networks, Iranians can demand and achieve change.
For this to happen, three types of changes are required. First is a change in attitude. Iranian activists need to think positively and constructively instead of negatively and destructively. Second is a change in behaviour. We will only achieve democracy if we also act democratically and use democratic tools. This means avoiding any form of violence and understanding that democracy does not rise from bloodshed and fire. Third is a change in context. It is key to empower society to say no and resist the regime.
The international community could support change by helping to increase the resilience of the social movement and its activists, both online and offline. The pursuit of meaningful and sustainable change is a marathon and it’s instrumental to echo the voices of activists and provide sustainable support. A coalition of international civil society organisations could help by providing strategic support to Iranian activists.
Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.
MALAYSIA: ‘Young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers
CIVICUS speaks with Tharma Pillai, co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18.
A youth civil society organisation (CSO) born out of the student movement, Undi18 successfully advocated for the amendment of article 119(1) of Malaysia’s Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age, allowing people over 18 to vote in the 19 November 2022 election.
How did Undi18 start and what was your objective?
In 2016, my co-founder and I were both studying in the USA and that year’s election inspired us. I came from a sciences and technology background, where most people don’t really care about these things. But seeing democracy in action and our US classmates engage with the electoral process made us reflect on our inability to vote in our home country, Malaysia. It was quite interesting that because they had the right to vote, they felt the responsibility of helping choose the best possible leader for their country.
We started thinking of ways to replicate these practices and bring this kind of energy into Malaysian university campuses. It was only natural for us to focus on the right to vote because voting age in Malaysia was 21, which meant that a high proportion of college students were ineligible to vote. This did not happen in the USA, where the minimum voting age is 18. By 2016, some of our US classmates were voting for the second time in their lives, while I had never yet had the chance. We thought that would have to change
When we did our research, we realised that our demand was not radical at all, and in fact it was long overdue. We were one of only eight countries in the entire world with a minimum voting age as high as 21. We launched Undi18 – which means ‘Vote18’ – as soon as we came back to Malaysia. Our single focus was on the amendment of article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.
What tactics did you use to campaign for change?
To make sure we had a stronger voice, in the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.
At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story. We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings.
Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.
In addition to the digital campaign, we started off a petition and a memorandum to the prime minister. Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation. But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.
How did you engage with the parliamentary process?
As soon as the new government was inaugurated, we tried to convince them to introduce an amendment bill, but there were challenges. No constitutional amendment had ever been passed in Malaysia by a government without a parliamentary supermajority of two thirds, and this new government only had a simple majority. It took a year for the government to finally greenlight the
But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.
Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.
Were there any implementation challenges?
There were postponements and delays. The agreement with the opposition was that the law would be implemented within two years. The two-year timeline was unusual, but necessary due to the technical difficulties entailed by the new automatic voter registration system.
Repeated promises were made that this would be done by July 2021.But another change of government slowed things down, as the new government thought young voters would vote against it. In March 2021, it announced implementation would be postponed until September 2022 at the earliest, but it didn’t provide a clear date.
We campaigned against this postponement and held protests across Malaysia, which grew to include larger issues fuelling public anger, including the economic situation, the shutdown of parliament and the poor management of the COVID-19 health crisis. We also sued the government. We filed a judicial review against the prime minister, the Election Commission and the government of Malaysia for postponing the implementation of the UNDI18 Bill beyond the due date. The High Court decided in our favour and ordered the federal government to implement the bill by 31 December 2021. Due to public pressure that was sustained thanks to the protests, the government decided against appealing the verdict and complied. As a result, the bill was finally implemented on 15 December 2021, and when the updated voter rolls were published one month later an additional 5.8 million voters had been included in the system and 18-year-olds could officially vote in the next election.
What were the main elements of the amendment?
The amendment had three components. First, it lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Second, it also lowered the minimum running age to 18, meaning you could become an elected member of parliament at that age. And third, it established automatic voter registration for anyone turning 18.
The 2022 elections were the first in which people between 18 and 21 cast their ballots. An additional 5.8 million new voters were added to the electoral roll issued in January 2022. Malaysia being a country of 33 million, this was quite a number.
In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world – a 93-year-old man. Now for the first time, young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers. This is why youth turnout is a key element to watch when analysing the results of this election.
Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.
What more needs to be done to make policymaking more inclusive of younger people?
I think Malaysia needs political rejuvenation, and that can be done through education. Our society gives too much power to older people, who of course don’t want to let go of it, whether it’s in government, civil society, politics, or business. To change things, you must train young leaders – but nobody is doing this kind of work. At Undi18 we are doing our best to fill that gap so that young people can take up the space, gain power and get ready to be the country’s next leaders.
We strongly believe that informed voters are integral to democratic success, so we have been working with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to advance educational programmes to address this issue systemically. We want educational curricula to emphasise democracy so the democratisation process beginsin schools. Some topics such as constitutional rights, human rights and the functions of the parliament are already in the syllabus, but they’re not emphasised enough.
We also have our own programmes. We run outreach campaigns on social media platforms. We are quite active there as most of our target audience is there. We also run outreach programmes in schools and universities to educate students about their rights. And we have corporate, civil society, government and international partners to ensure we reach as many people as possible.
Civic space in Malaysia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
MALDIVES: ‘We have come a long way, but more needs to be done to further open up civic space’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of women’s rights in Maldives with Safaath Ahmed Zahir, founder and president of Women & Democracy (W&D).Founded in 2016, W&D is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s economic and political participation and good democratic governance in the Maldives through research, advocacy and awareness-raising activities.What led you to become an activist and found a women’s rights CSO?Growing up in Maldives, a small island developing nation, the disparities between men and women became evident to me. I came from a majority-women family and witnessed the personal upheavals that my mother endured and how much my family battled for my education. Returning home after studying abroad was an eye-opener for me. In interviewing for a job, I experienced first-hand the deep-rooted patriarchal culture and the double standards women face on a daily basis. So I decided to put my education to good use: to push for women’s rights and empowerment in my country.
I first played a role in creating Women on Boards, a CSO promoting gender diversity in the workplace. This inspired me to try to contribute further to building the organisational infrastructure and community to support women’s economic and political participation in Maldives. The organisation I founded, W&D, is now one of the most prominent in Maldives, with over 300 members, 200 of them aged between 18 and 29.
What are the main women’s rights challenges in Maldives?
Maldives ranked 106 out of 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. Women are marginalised in the political sphere due to institutional barriers, discriminatory cultural practices and social norms. Despite being roughly half of the population, having a 98 per cent literacy rate and actively participating in political parties, in 2009 only 6.5 of members of parliament were women. The proportion fell to 5.9 per cent in 2013, and again to 4.6 per cent in 2019. Currently, only four out of 87 parliamentarians are women, and few women hold senior public sector roles.
With the passing of the Decentralisation Act, which allocates 33 per cent of local council seats to women, there has been some progress in local governance. The Maldives’ women development committees are an important platform for women to enter into politics and to participate in the decision-making process at local and national levels. But many barriers still limit their fulfilment of their mandate. They should be empowered to achieve true decentralisation.
Women continue to take on the burden of childcare and domestic chores, which makes it difficult for women to engage in economic activities on a par with men. Female labour force participation in Maldives is higher than in other South Asian countries, but women tend to be clustered in low-growth sectors and in lower-paying positions, and they earn less than men. While tourism is the lifeblood of our economy, women make up only seven per cent of the tourism labour force.
Women’s entrepreneurship is generally underdeveloped, and women’s economic contribution tends to be rendered invisible, particularly in major sectors such as tourism, fisheries, construction and wholesale and retail trading. Gendered economic inequalities were exacerbated under the pandemic, reversing what little progress had been made over previous years.
Gender-based violence also remains an entrenched problem. One in three women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. There is a great need for more and better infrastructure to support survivors.
In sum, a clear female disadvantage persists. Regulatory institutions must be strengthened to solidify existing gender equality gains and mitigate gender inequalities.
How is civil society in general, and W&D in particular, working to address these challenges?
Women’s rights CSOs have been working to address these challenges for several years, through capacity development workshops, advocacy campaigns, movement-building and creating opportunities for women and girls.
Six years on from its founding, W&D has become a leading CSO working to protect the rights and improve the lives of women. We particularly advocate for women’s safety, economic and political leadership and for inclusive democratic governance.
Since 2018, we have conducted an annual capacity development programme to advance women’s leadership and political empowerment in partnership with the International Republican Institute. In three years, more than 680 women aspiring to public office and political leadership have taken part in our training activities. In the 2021 elections for local councils and women’s development committees, 83 women who successfully completed our training were elected.
During the pandemic, we launched a rapid response programme for vulnerable women and girls. In response to the dramatic increase in reports of domestic abuse, we established a domestic violence and mental wellness helpline to help women seek the assistance of the relevant authorities, undertake safety planning and connect them with wellbeing resources. We provided survivors with psychosocial counselling and referred the most urgent cases to emergency shelters or other safe spaces. With a grant from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) we were able to assist 130 women.
Also with QCT support, we worked to improve access to menstrual materials for vulnerable women and girls. Approximately 10,500 sanitary materials were distributed as part of our rapid response programme. We have just received additional support to continue our rapid response programme. We expect to assist at least 240 more women and girls within the next eight months.
Additionally, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation we have hosted multi-stakeholder discussions and consultations with vulnerable populations, relevant government bodies and CSOs to offer policy reforms to address the needs of the most vulnerable.
This year we implemented a project to help strengthen the capacity of CSOs and community-based organisations working towards women’s empowerment and social development in Maldives. We brought together more than 160 people from various organisations.
How has civil society in Maldives joined the recent global mobilisation wave against gender-based violence?
Over the past seven years there have been many street mobilisations, mainly condemning rape and demanding justice for sexual crimes against women and girls and children in Maldives. Protection gaps in rape laws and barriers to accessing justice have perpetuated the prevalence of sexual violence and the lack of justice for survivors. The dire state of women’s safety in Maldives was highlighted by the 2016 Demographic Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, which showed that one in every four women in relationships had faced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. In recent years, the Maldivian community has become more outspoken on the issue, particularly amidst the #MeToo movement, where a lot of Maldivian women came forward with their experiences.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were multiple street mobilisations spurred by cases of sexual violence and injustice. In early 2020, following a case of sexual abuse of a two-year-old girl by her relatives, outraged citizens protested against rape and urged the government to protect children from predators. The authorities again came under criticism in mid-2020 after a foreign woman was sexually assaulted and the suspects were released from custody, with reports soon following that one of them was in a position of influence. People gathered outside parliament to protest against rape and impunity.
Following the exacerbating effects of the pandemic on violence and abuse against women and girls, protesters rallied again in 2021 The government has taken steps to address these problems. It ratified the First Amendment to the Sexual Offences Act to improve the definition of rape and strengthen investigations, including by removing burdensome evidence requirements. In 2021, it also criminalised marital rape, marking a significant milestone for the women’s rights movement. But there is still a lot of progress to be made in combating the violence and abuse faced by women and children.
How has the space for civil society action evolved over the past few years?
As a relatively new democracy, the Maldives has taken significant steps towards ensuring civic space freedoms, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Following the November 2018 elections, Maldives has experienced legislative reforms and a relative opening up of civic space. A commission was established to probe unresolved disappearances. Maldives drastically improved its position in the World Press Freedom Index, moving from 142 to 87 out of 180 countries. This was made possible by reforms such as the repeal of the 2016 defamation law.
While Maldives has come a long way since its first democratic election back in 2008, more needs to be done to further open up civic space. Over the years, human rights defenders have been targeted and subjected to verbal attacks, including hate speech and death threats, while women activists have faced online vilification and threats due to their work for women’s rights.
CSOs are also under pressure from extremists and hate groups, whose influence in limiting the social and cultural lives and roles of women has persisted. There have been instances of religious scholars advocating for girl child marriage and female genital mutilation, and attempts to suppress women advocates who speak out against these grave violations of women’s rights. Women human rights defenders are specifically targeted and face additional and gender-specific challenges, including threats of sexual violence and rape.
What kind of international support does the Maldives’ women’s rights movement need?
We need the continued support of international partners and collaborators to maintain and advance our work to empower women. As our movement is mainly composed of CSOs, we rely on the generosity of international organisations that identify with our mission to be able to continue to run the projects that are making a difference in Maldives.
We also need continued opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with the international community. The exchange of ideas and information among countries and cultures is inspiring and empowering for women and girls in Maldives, particularly in the areas of business and politics.
International support for Maldivian civic space also plays a significant role in furthering women’s empowerment. This is largely achieved by developing the skill sets of CSOs through workshops and programmes run by our international partners and collaborators.
Vocal support from the international community for the Maldives women’s rights movement is also crucial. While we have faced obstacles, CSOs in Maldives have persevered in promoting women’s rights and we will continue to do so alongside our international partners and supporters.
Civic space in Maldives is rated ‘obstructed’by the CIVICUS Monitor.
MYANMAR: ‘The ruling military junta uses fear as a domination tool’
CIVICUS speaks about the human rights situation and prospects for democracy in Myanmar with a civil society activist based in Myanmar, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
What is the current situation in Myanmar, a year and a half on from the military coup?
Myanmar has been in turmoil since February 2021. The coup halted the fragile democratisation process. All branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary – were concentrated in the hands of the junta and fundamental rights were suspended.
The rule of law has been significantly degraded at every level. In the business sector, the junta’s inconsistent regulations make it impossible for investors to make decisions. Foreign investors are increasingly withdrawing from Myanmar, and the telecom sector fell into the hands of the junta’s cronies. The junta has questionable capacity to manage the economy, and inflation has pushed up the prices of essential commodities.
The degradation of the rule of law puts people’s everyday life and livelihood at risk. Repression and fundamental rights violations make everyone feel unsafe and spread fear. The junta uses fear as a domination tool. Even once-peaceful villages in central Myanmar have become conflict zones where the junta’s troops have destroyed tens of thousands of people’s humble homes.
What effects has the coup had on civil society?
The post-coup setting is very challenging. The coup set back civil society, which had been slowly growing since the late 2000s, when young democracy and human rights activists who had survived the military dictatorship started getting together and organising to pursue common objectives.
Our organisation came into existence in the early days of Myanmar’s political transition. There were limited freedoms and rights and limited space for civil society organisations. Our objective was to create a gathering space and provide support for political and civic activists. Within a decade, we adopted the broader objective of promoting civic space in Myanmar. We use technology to reach the right audiences and promote civic awareness, participation and engagement.
Right now our work is severely restricted. A few organisations have relocated their offices to border areas or neighbouring countries, but we continue operating inside Myanmar. Since speaking out entails security risks, along with many other activists and organisations we have changed our approach, keeping a low profile. We are also conducting research as a tactical response to understand the challenges and find possible ways out.
For some of Myanmar’s local civil society activists, life under a repressive regime is not a new experience: they operated under similar conditions before the 2010s. They continue to take numerous risks to serve their communities. Some organisations have also managed to channel international humanitarian assistance to conflict areas and vulnerable populations.
What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing and what backlash do they face?
Restoring democracy is hard work. Pro-democracy groups are working to force a return of power to an elected government. They discuss things such as interim arrangements, political pacts for federalism and a transitional constitution. On the ground, they promote rights and freedoms and defend people from the junta’s repression.
Having expressed their wish for democracy in the 2020 general election, the public supports pro-democracy groups in various ways, such as by taking part in peaceful demonstrations and campaigns for the suspension of tax payment, boycotting the junta’s products and brands, and joining in so-called ‘social punishment’, a form of protest that consists of doxing members of the junta and their family members – revealing information about their businesses and family connections. Many people inside Myanmar and in the diaspora also contribute financially to support the security of people in conflict areas and provide emergency humanitarian supplies.
The vital goal of pro-democracy protests is to sustain awareness of fundamental rights and freedoms, provide encouragement and show determination to take action rather than be the junta’s victims. In the earlier days, the protests were joined by people from all walks of life, including young people, students, members of civil society and political parties, government staff and celebrities. Even as the junta used lethal force and arbitrary arrests and committed atrocities, they continued to demonstrate daily in some rural regions and hold occasional flash mobs in urban areas.
The junta keeps trying to clear out pro-democracy groups and to get the endorsement of the international community. As it finds the latter quite hard, it increasingly focuses on the former. They apply the so-called ‘four cuts’: they try to cut off financial support, rations, information and recruitment by pro-democracy groups. They arrest high-profile businesspeople suspected of supporting them and strictly regulate financial transactions. They deploy police and troops at every crossroads, equip their supporters with weapons and train informants. They have banned numerous news agencies and publications that could counter their propaganda and torched villages that were believed to host pro-democracy groups.
What will be the consequences of the recent executions of pro-democracy activists?
In late July the military executed four pro-democracy activists. It was the first time the death penalty was imposed in Myanmar in decades.
For the junta, this means there is no turning back. They meant it as a message to shock and paralyse people and comfort their hard-line supporters. But it backfired: it fuelled robust determination among pro-democracy groups.
Internationally, the executions showed that the junta will not play by the rules to gain international recognition. In fact, it has continued to show muscle, using hostage diplomacy. A former British ambassador, recently jailed, became one of the victims of this.
When they lose power, they will have to face justice. Any transition will have to contemplate transitional justice arrangements to hold everyone who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable in domestic and international courts. They shall not enjoy impunity anymore.
How can the international community help Myanmar’s civil society?
Myanmar needs attention and practical coordination. The international community must listen to our people’s voices and reflect on their agendas by following up with quick and responsive actions. Paying attention to local concerns and voices and developing effective international assistance will make people feel more hopeful and maintain their resilience.
Meanwhile, the junta is trying to boost its legitimacy by holding a controversial election. Elections under its iron fist will never be free and fair. The international community must be clever enough not to recognise such elections, which are a rotten trick the military have used for decades. Endorsing the junta as a legitimate ruler will only prolong the crisis.
So we ask the international community: please listen to and amplify Myanmar people’s voices!
Pakistan:‘International support to civil society must come with understanding of our political & societal context’
CIVICUS speaks about the political situation in Pakistan since the removal of its Prime Minister Imran Khan with journalist and researcher Rabia Mehmood.
Rabia Mehmoodis the co-founder of a bi-lingual multimedia news outlet Naya Daur TV and a web-show host covering human rights and social justice stories. She is the former South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. Her work focuses on state repression, impunity and persecution of religious minorities.
What led to the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote?
Khan was ousted from power in April through a constitutional vote of no confidence brought about by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a parliamentary coalition of multiple parties. The coalition secured 174 votes in the 342-member house in support of the no-confidence motion.
That was the tipping point after weeks of political upheaval. Khan’s administration was criticised by the opposition for failures in governance, soaring inflation and for plunging the country into a diplomatic crisis as his foreign policy distanced Pakistan from the USA.
To try to block the vote, Khan dissolved the lower house of parliament, but the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional. Following the parliamentary vote, Shehbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was appointed the new Prime Minister. Sharif is a long-time rival of Khan.
Since the July 2018 election, the opposition claimed that Khan’s ascent to power was enabled by political engineering by the country’s military establishment. His administration was termed a ‘hybrid regime’, in which Khan was the civilian face of the generals. The key reason behind Khan’s removal is believed to be his falling out with powerful forces within the military, often referred to as the ‘deep state’.
Regarding the involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political unrest, it is important to note that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is considered by many to be the most powerful position in Pakistan. The current COAS, Qamar Bajwa, appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2016, is finally due to retire in November after six years.
Sharif was disqualified in 2017 and put behind bars following a corruption scandal. But after Khan won the election in 2018, he granted Bajwa an extension in August 2019. Bajwa was at the time known to be a great believer in the Khan project, along with the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed, now Commander of Peshawar Corps. But Bajwa, it appears, has now withdrawn support from Khan.
Hameed is known to have a different relationship with Khan, and Khan was reliant on him. He was deeply involved in the Khan administration’s repression, in addition to engineering unrest on the streets by an alt-right Islamist group in 2017, which led to further disruption of Sharif’s party.
It remains to be seen whether Bajwa is seeking yet another extension in November or a safe and comfortable exit, which would pave the way for a new COAS. Analysts estimate that Khan had to be got rid of due to these possible changes in November, and it was an easy task for the military to replace Khan because of his administration’s unsatisfactory governance and economic performance.
The military has repeatedly claimed to be a ‘neutral umpire’ during this political fiasco. In the run-up to Khan’s ousting and afterwards, Khan’s tactics, of slamming the armed forces and the current ISI chief, show his dissatisfaction with the military institution’s neutrality.
How has Khan responded?
In response to the vote of no confidence, Khan also accused the US government of orchestrating regime change in Pakistan. This allegation is based on a diplomatic cable that he claimed was ‘evidence’. When Khan dissolved the assembly ahead of the vote, he had resolved to present the diplomatic cable as evidence of foreign intervention.
It was later reported that the military explained to parliament’s National Security Committee in March that it had found no evidence of US involvement in regime change, something the White House concurred with.
In April, as soon as Khan was ousted, he and his party leaders began using terms like ‘American conspiracy’ and ‘international conspiracy’, online and offline. Khan called his opponents ‘thieves’ and ‘traitors’, and one of his close aides called in a public rally for the execution of the ‘traitor opposition’. During his public and press addresses, Khan has called for mutiny, incited his party supporters to commit civil disobedience and encouraged them to retaliate physically.
Since then Khan has held multiple public rallies across Pakistan and in July his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and traditionally a PMLN stronghold. Now the already weak incumbent central government in the centre is facing further hostility from Punjab.
Khan has been calling for general elections. His narrative has a strong following in the country, and his support base appears to be in resurgence.
What is the current political and economic situation?
Pakistan is stuck in limbo due to a worsening political, legal and economic crisis. The leadership is divided between the Sharif-led coalition government and federal ministries led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), such as the ministry of foreign affairs. Provinces are also split between different parties, with Khan’s PTI leading in the two provinces.
The coalition government is weak and uncertainty over its immediate future looms large. Analysts assume that the ‘deep state’ will not allow for a strong civilian central government, and that a divided parliament is what it seeks to achieve.
The new government has taken over a fragile economy. Pakistan entered the International Monetary Fund programme in 2019, and the most recent funding was due in February, but fuel and power tariff caps imposed by the Khan administration halted the next cycle. The new government has now managed to negotiate and get clearance for another payment, but this has come at the price of tough economic decisions, with the burden impacting on the working masses and the salaried class.
Fuel prices have increased exponentially, which are causing a rise in commodity prices and exacerbating food inflation. Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty is also causing the currency to depreciate quickly. In the budget for the current fiscal year, the government increased tax and hiked fuel prices. Pakistan’s foreign debt is US$6.4 billion, but at least the immediate risk of bankruptcy has reduced for now.
Access to basic services, free healthcare and education and adequate housing is increasingly out of reach of most of Pakistan’s 220 million people. Pakistan is essentially a poor country with some very rich families and an army with a massive budget. Instability is having severe repercussions for citizens in terms of their rights and the rule of law.
Civilian and military rulers have been too reliant on seeking bailout packages instead of focusing on long-term solutions such as taxing the rich and the corporate sector, or developing agriculture and increasing industrial exports. Economic stagnation, however, is not the fault of just one government.
Has the removal of Khan had a positive influence on Pakistan’s repressed civic space?
Pakistan’s track record on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression has been murky for decades. Civil society groups and activists have long been labelled as foreign agents, funded by anti-Pakistan forces. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist in. Religious minorities are persecuted and discriminated against through institutions, draconian laws and violence. Ethnic minorities are brutalised for demanding basic rights and protections from the state. The military establishment and security agencies operate with impunity.
In that context, the battle to defend civic space and media freedom is not new. But since the run-up to the July 2018 election, Pakistanis have been subjected to one of the most repressive eras of the country’s history. Press censorship has been widespread, curtailing any media attempts to question or report on significant issues such as Sharif’s disqualification, the role of the judiciary and military and reports of election rigging.
Khan established his place as a populist leader, and was called a press predator by Reporters Without Borders. During the Khan administration, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and dissenting citizens were targeted with trumped-up charges of sedition, cyber terrorism and defamation of national institutions, along with arbitrary arrests, raids, disappearances, surveillance and beatings. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested for questioning and reporting on the alleged involvement in corruption of Khan’s wife, Bushara Bibi. Mainstream cable news networks were only allowed to attack opposition parties and their leaders, and portray Khan as the supreme leader. Civil rights movements, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Mahaz, were subjected to a discriminatory crackdown. Their rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and expression, online and offline, have been continuously violated.
To a degree, Khan’s ousting has given slight breathing space to Pakistan’s repressed HRDs, civil society and journalists. The difference could be that reprisals can be documented in the press, by domestic rights monitors and be televised, with less fear. But this is only relative, as red lines for both the media and civil society still exist.
The threats and discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities continue. There are incidents of the use of force against peaceful protesting families of disappeared members of Baloch people, enforced disappearances and discriminatory harassment of Baloch students. A former journalist was arbitrarily detained over online criticism of the army chief. While peacefully protesting, civil society collectives, HRDs and families of the disappeared were shelled in the city of Quetta on 21 July.
Severely partisan journalists who acted as agents of disinformation and supported the Khan administration by actively targeting minorities, critical media, HRDs and the opposition are now on the receiving end of hostility from security agencies, as they are questioning the military over its alleged role in Khan’s ousting and lack of support for him.
What is the future of Pakistan’s democracy?
It appears to be bleak. Pakistan’s democratic process has been undermined severely by decades of dictatorships, the military establishment’s concealed intervention in civilian rule, the dubious role of the judiciary and a short-sighted, craven approach by civilian political parties.
Since its inception, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators directly for 33 years, and they have controlled who gets to rule and how from behind the scenes. No civilian prime minister has ever completed their full five-year term. Real power lies in the hands of the generals, who set up hybrid regimes in collaboration with civilian leaders.
General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of PPP’s charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état in 1977. In 1979, Bhutto was executed by a severely partisan Supreme Court, while Zia became president. Over the decades, the capitulation of the civilian ruling elite and the role of the judiciary in sanctioning coups have also contributed to the derailing of the country’s ever-fragile democracy.
For example, former Prime Minister Sharif’s disqualification was widely believed to have been a consequence of a ‘judicial coup’. The National Accountability Bureau chaired by a former Supreme Court judge was severely partisan and flawed, and used to victimise leaders of the PMLN and PPP.
Decades of conflict in the north-western region, the military’s reliance on militant groups as its proxies and the current resurgence of militant outfits at the border all pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability and consequently its democracy. Sectarian outfits are enduring. Nationalist ethnicities in Sindh and elsewhere are treated with extreme suspicion, which causes the growth of their young people’s resentment towards the state.
For example, the armed insurgency in Balochistan province has its roots in a lack of trust in the military and the state’s discriminatory policies. The people of the mineral-rich province are poor and have been subjected to human rights abuses and violence for years. Meanwhile, barely any efforts to build trust among Baloch people have been made by state institutions. The militarisation of multiple regions and violence perpetrated on citizens are contrary to democratic norms.
Unless the constitution and parliament are held supreme in the true sense of the word, and intervention by the powers-that-be isn’t kept in check, Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to address its many challenges and will remain at risk.
How has civil society engaged with political developments? What kind of international support does Pakistani civil society need?
Civil society and collectives of HRDs have responded to the political developments with caution but courage. Civil society and HRDs understand where the centre of power lies in Pakistan. Yet it has not stopped them from asking the right questions and leading human rights campaigns. Overall, from larger civil society organisations to smaller but critical collectives, civil society has stood in support of the primacy of parliament, the constitution and democratic processes.
Years of demonisation of civil society and labelling of HRDs and journalists as anti-state and servers of foreign, western agendas have made it easy for propagandists and authoritarian sections of the state to put targets on the backs of people. International solidarity is essential for Pakistani civil society. But now with disinformation and propaganda smear campaigns on the rise, the support must come with an understanding of the political and societal context of Pakistan.
Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, journalists, civil society workers and HRDs remain at risk, not only due to state reprisals but also the threat of violence from extremist groups.
Relief and protection of at-risk communities are not possible without the support and alliance of regional and like-minded international civil society networks. Exchange among civil society networks across regions must also continue to come up with new ways of fighting systems of oppression.
Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Rabia Mehmood through her Twitter account@Rabail26.
PANAMA: ‘Protests reflect structural inequalities and frustration at blatant corruption’
CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Panama with Eileen Ng Fábrega, Executive Director of the Panamanian Chamber of Social Development (CAPADESO). CAPADESO is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote social development in Panama. Its main aim is to highlight the contributions of civil society, strengthen civil society and foster alliances to influence public policies.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA: ‘If we allow seabed mining everyone is at risk’
Following a year marked by massive mobilisation around the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks withJonathan Mesulam, spokesperson for the Alliance of Solwara Warriors and a campaigner on issues relating to experimental deep-sea mining, climate change and logging in Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is an anti-mining alliance of local communities in areas affected by deep-sea mines in PNG and across the Pacific. It has organised theresistance against seabed mining since 2009, when the controversial deep-sea mining project Solwara 1 was proposed to mine mineral-rich hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Bismarck Sea. The alliance also launched alegal case against the project in PNG's courts. In November 2019, the company behind Solwara 1, Nautilus, was declared bankrupt and it is uncertain if the project will continue.
Can you tell us about the Alliance of Solwara Warriors and how it was formed? What are its main objectives and why is it opposed to seabed mining?
The Alliance of Solwara Warriors was formed in 2016 by representatives of communities along the Bismarck Sea who are threatened by seabed mining. The members of the Alliance also include the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, international and local environmental civil society organisations (CSOs), educated elites, local community-based organisations and a few politicians who support the call to ban deep-sea mining. Our main objective is to ban deep-sea mining in PNG waters and the Pacific and we also call for the cancellation of exploration and mining licences.
Seabed mining is a new frontier for the mining industry and is very risky as our understanding of the seabed is very limited. The first discovery of deep-sea minerals was in 1979 and we have no idea how the seabed ecosystem operates. If we allow seabed mining, then we may just call for the end of humanity, as the complexity of the food chains on which humans depend will be affected, putting human life at risk. I think we should all stand in solidarity to ban deep-sea mining in our area because the sea has no boundaries and when the marine ecosystem is affected, everyone everywhere is at risk.
Environmental and legal groups have urged extremecaution around seabed mining, arguing there are potentially massive – and unknown – ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities, and that the global regulatory framework is not yet drafted, and is currently deficient.
How has the campaign against seabed mining progressed? What have you achieved?
The campaign against seabed mining has been very challenging and at times we almost lost hope because of the heavy presence of Nautilus, the company behind the Solwara project, at the project site for the last eight years. However, there has been growing opposition from coastal communities, local and international CSOs and churches, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches. An environmental law firm, the Centre for Environment and Community Rights, filed a legal case and we were able to stop this project from going into full-scale mining operation. Every concerned individual and organisation has played a very important role in their respective areas of work, such as finance, the environment and politics, to stop this project.
During the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum, held in Tuvalu in August 2019, the Pacific Island leaders also called for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining. But that is not what we wanted. We arecalling for a total ban on deep-sea mining.
What challenges has the alliance faced in recent years?
Funding activism is a big challenge. To travel to a community to talk to people you need to pay for a bus. You have to raise funds to enable mobility and communication. The second major challenge is capacity development. As members of an alliance we deal with that by distributing challenges; we then help each other and strategise in our workshops so that we can learn from each other. Networking helps with this a lot, and the support of partners such as Bismark Ramu Group, Caritas PNG and the PNG Council of Churches.
We have also received a lot of support from CSOs and individuals outside the country. People and organisations including Sir David Attenborough, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Mining Watch Canada and Caritas New Zealand, just to name a few, have really supported the campaign in terms of funding, providing information on the campaign and lobbying with banks and financers not to support such a project. As a result, we have seen positive results in our work on the ground.
Another challenge we face is that some people in the community support deep-sea mining, and this creates division. We have had to work hard at times to really convince people that this project is not good. It's only through persistent, dedicated work and making information available so that people have all the facts, not just the perspective that the company wants people to know, that people will really support you. Once people know the truth, then you get the support.
What is the state of civic freedoms – the freedom of association peaceful assembly and expression – in Papua New Guinea?
The media in PNG is controlled by the state and they only publish stories that are good for the government. Sometimes our stories are not covered, and we end up publishing them through social media. The right to the freedom of association in PNG really depends on the kind of issues that are being addressed. On some very sensitive issues, the police will not allow people to organise and take part in protests. Our ability to carry on our work alsodepends on the kind of companies we are dealing with. Some companies have spent millions of Kina – the PNG currency – to stop environmental human rights defenders, and going against them is obviously risky.
Civic space inPapua New Guinea is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor
Get in touch with the Alliance of Solwara Warriors through itsFacebook page.
SRI LANKA: ‘By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democracy’
CIVICUS speaks about protests in Sri Lanka in response to the country’s deepening economic crisis and civil society’s role in supporting protesters with human rights lawyer Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).
CPA is a Sri Lankan civil society organisation (CSO) and leading public policy research think tank. It advocates for policy alternatives of non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance to facilitate post-war recovery in Sri Lanka.
How significant are the current economic protests in Sri Lanka? What are the main demands?
The protests are spontaneous and come as a direct result of the current economic crisis, which is imposing a heavy burden on the people. They have been suffering from severe hardships due to a lack of essential items, including medicines, long power cuts and skyrocketing prices. Such a catastrophic situation manifested in several citizens dying while waiting in fuel queues. In response, people have taken to the streets in peaceful protests across the country for more than a month.
It is important to state that the widespread protests are not linked to any political party. The opposition held their own protests weeks ago and continue to protest currently. But the ongoing protests that are catching global media attention are largely driven by angry citizens who oppose the involvement of politicians and members of parliament in their peaceful protests. The reason behind this is that there is frustration with existing political parties, including the opposition; people denounce them for not doing enough as representatives of the people.
In line with that, the thousands of people who have continued to protest in recent weeks demand a radical change. They call for the President and government to step down, a peaceful transition of power, and for structural reforms including the abolishing of the executive presidency. There is also a loud call to address immediate needs such as shortages of essential items, livelihoods and rising cost of living, among the many other calls from the protesters.
The impact of the peaceful protests was evident when there were mass-scale resignations from the cabinet on 3 April. But the call for the resignation of the President and Prime Minister has yet to materialise. As the protests expanded and became extremely vocal, people sent a clear message to the regime that a real change is needed. Protesters insist on the resignation of the president and the prime minister. They chant on the streets ‘Go Home Rajapaksas’ and ‘Go Home Gota’ – referring to the president – and post on social media under the hashtag #GoHomeGota2022.
Sri Lanka has not seen this scale of protests in recent years – none that I can remember. Even the older generations are saying that they have not seen a similar movement. As most of these protests are peaceful, they are making a difference by raising the profile of our domestic issues across the region and internationally. As a result, there is a recognition that the situation is quite bad in Sir Lanka.
What do you think the resignation of the cabinet means for the prospect of political change? What role is the army playing?
The country is also seeing a political crisis with the mass resignation of the cabinet, which is extremely significant. It shows there is an unstable government ruling the country under mounting pressure from both protesters and the economic crisis.
A few weeks ago, the country was ruled by a powerful family, the Rajapaksas, but now there are only two members of this family who remain in power, the president and the prime minister. We are going through a very unprecedented time that raises many questions about the future of Sri Lanka, including the question of whether this government can continue in the way of ruling it has been doing it so far.
Regarding the possible drift towards militarisation, the military institution is a powerful force, and its influence has increased sharply in recent post-war years with former military officials holding various positions in government with an active role in governance. In that sense, the drift toward militarisation is a great concern for the Sri Lankan people as the political vacuum may be an opportunity for military rule.
What is the scale of arrests among protesters?How have CSOs, including your organisation respond?
The authorities responded to the protests with arrests even though most of these protests were peaceful. For instance, security forces arrested around 50 people near the president’s residence when a protest became violent. But according to reports most of those arrested weren’t involved in that incident; we found out later that the violence was orchestrated by certain groups. There were random arrests of people who are now before the court.
Also, when the state of emergency was declared, there were several arrests of people for breaking the curfew.
From our side, CPA and other CSOs have issued several public statements commenting on the situation and reminding of the rights guaranteed in our constitution. Personally, I have been protesting for a month now and my colleagues have joined the peaceful protests. We are protesting because it is a democratic right. In this regard, civil society and citizens have taken a stand on the need to uphold constitutional democracy because we are now confronted by an unprecedented political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka. By peacefully protesting, we hope to protect our democratic rights and our democracy.
Overall, the mobilisation of lawyers and of civil society to offer solidarity and support are quite high. Over 500 lawyers turned up to support those who were arrested on 31 March, and many other instances have seen lawyers appearing to protect the rights of citizens.
How have protests mobilised despite the arrests and social media shut down?
I do not think that arrests of the protesters prevented others from joining protests. Not at all. In fact, I think the violence unleashed on peaceful protests coupled with the economic crisis prompted more to join the protests. Despite the curfew on the first weekend of April, there were thousands who came to the streets that Sunday to protest peacefully. This was a large-scale civil disobedience from the citizens, unprecedented in Sri Lanka because it is the first time, we have seen such large numbers of people coming to peacefully protest during a curfew.
Regarding the social media shutdown, it is now being challenged in court, and we will see how it goes. Sri Lanka’s people are highly creative and resilient, and many used virtual private networks (VPNs) to continue to use social media to communicate and protest against the government. Every attempt used by this government to stop people from protesting, from speaking out, has failed.
Generally, I believe that it is amazing how people are stepping out, creating ways of protesting despite the challenges and hardships.
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