repression

 

  • Nearly 70 human rights groups condemn state violence in Eswatini

    To the Government of Eswatini and the international community:

     

  • ‘Due to the communications blockade in Kashmir, news of protests went largely underreported’

    On 5 August 2019, the government of India revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed the autonomous status and rights of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The government also imposed a severe communications blockade that impacted on the daily lives of Kashmiri people, including by affecting access to medical care, basic necessities and emergency services. Hundreds of detentions of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been reported. CIVICUS speaks about this situation with Natasha Rather, Regional Campaign Officer for the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, linked to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation that focuses on enforced disappearances in the region, monitors the human rights situation and documents abuses.

    Natasha Rather interview

    What was the situation of civic freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir prior to the revocation of its special status under Indian administration?

    During the first half of 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (JK) witnessed continued and increased violence and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following a militant attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy on the Jammu–Srinagar highway that resulted in the killing of 48 Indian soldiers in February 2019. Following this attack, Kashmiri people living in various cities and towns of India became targets of hate crimes. Thousands of Kashmiri students were forced to flee from their colleges and universities and return back to Kashmir. People living in JK feared the attack would have dreadful consequences – which turned out to be true.

    The frequency of cordon and search operations (CASOs) and crackdowns increased in the aftermath of the attack. CASOs are a form of harassment that breach people’s right to privacy. According to a report by the APDP and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 177 CASOs were conducted by the Indian armed forced in JK, which resulted in the killing of at least 118 militants and four civilians and the destruction of at least 20 civilian properties.
    In February 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Kashmir Chapter of Jamaat-i-Islami were banned and hundreds of their leaders and workers were arrested.
    Ahead of the elections to the Indian Parliament, held in JK in April and May 2019, 100 additional companies of soldiers were deployed in Kashmir and mass arrests of political and religious leaders were carried out. During polling days there were complete shutdowns, violence and killings.

    The use of administrative detention under the provisions of repressive Public Safety Act (PSA) led to many arrests and detentions. Between January and June this year, at least 25 people were booked under the PSA.

    Internet shutdowns have also been a common practice in JK. Internet services were curtailed 51 times in the first half of the year.

    How did people in Jammu and Kashmir respond to the revocation of the state’s special status?

    Before revocation was formally announced by the Indian government, many rumours made the rounds and people guessed that something sinister was underway. Official orders by the state administration added to the apprehension. People prepared themselves for a complete lockdown, drawing from their previous experience when the Indian government imposed curfews and shut down phones and the internet.
    When revocation of the special status was announced amidst a complete blockade of communication and full restrictions on movement, people were not greatly shocked. The autonomy guaranteed to JK under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it had been greatly eroded before revocation of the special status, which downgraded JK from a state to a union territory, and there was nothing much left in it for the benefit of the people.

    There have been concerns attached to the revocation of Article 35a, which permits the local legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir to define who are permanent residents of the region. People have speculated that demographic changes might be underway, designed and strategised along the same lines as the occupation of Palestine, including the demographic changes introduced by Israel in Palestine. While there are fears of demographic changes, the majority’s response has been not to fight against revocation of the state’s special status, as this would have meant legitimising the occupation of the region. The larger struggle is for the right to self-determination.

    We have read reports of civic space restrictions, including a ban on meetings, restrictions on freedom of movement and arrests of leaders. Can you provide more information about this?

    The announcement of the revocation of JK’s special status was accompanied by widespread restrictions. There was an increased deployment of Indian armed forces at all roads and intersections across the valley, and the unyielding troops have strictly restricted the movement of people. For the first few weeks, people were not even able to reach hospitals and doctors. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings of more than four people, was imposed despite a curfew being in place since the night of 4-5 August. This prevented people from organising protest gatherings and meetings.

    According to a government report dated 6 September, more than 3,800 people had been detained since 5 August and only about 2,600 of them were subsequently released. Those detained include political leaders from both pro-India and pro-independence parties, civil society members, lawyers and protesters. Three former Chief Ministers of JK – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been detained since 5 August. On 16 September, Farooq Abdullah was detained under the PSA. Leaders and politicians like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Farooq Abdullah, Taj Mohiuddin and M Y Tarigami have been under house arrest. Hotels and government guesthouses have been turned into detention centres. Many leaders and civil society members have been lodged in jails in India.
    There has been an extensive use of the PSA to detain people, especially young people. Many young people were detained without being formally charged and were released only after the signing of community bonds. Many young people and most political leaders continue to be detained.

    Have people protested? How have the security forces responded to protests?

    Despite the severe restrictions imposed on the movement and assembly of the people, there have been many protests across the valley of Kashmir, with people taking to the streets and shouting slogans demanding freedom from the Indian state. The Indian media has claimed that there were negligible protests against the abrogation of Article 370, making it seem like there is normality and acceptance of the Indian state’s decisions. Since the local media has not been able to report on these protests, stories from them have not come to the fore. There were many protests in Kashmir valley, but due to the communication blockade and restrictions on the movement of journalists and media, news of protests from other districts went largely underreported.

    Protesters have been met with excessive force by the Indian armed forces. For instance, on 9 August, several people were injured during protests in the Soura area of Srinagar. A doctor confirmed that at least 53 young people were treated for injuries at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. Reports also emerged that five people have been killed in separate incidents as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the policing of protests since the start of the clampdown.

    How has the internet shutdown affected the work of activists and journalists?

    The communication clampdown has greatly affected the work of journalists and activists. Owing to the shutdown of internet services and curbs on the movement of journalists, it has been a huge challenge for journalists to collect and file stories. The administration set up a Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar where journalists are allowed to access the internet and email their stories. No such facilities are available in other districts of Kashmir. Newspapers in Kashmir have been publishing with a reduced number of pages. Journalists have been forced to rely just on state-issued press briefs once or twice a week, without any means to verify the stories. There has been news of journalists facing reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing situation.

    Also, since 5 August, civil society in JK has been under threat and dealing with a very precarious situation, as many civil society members have been detained and jailed under the PSA. In this way the Indian state has put pressure on Kashmiri civil society to remain silent about the current situation, and therefore their space is completely choked. There is a lot of resistance and criticism of the communications clampdown that is preventing civil society from carrying out its work.

    In this context, the support required from the international community is that they should increase their understanding of the Kashmir conflict and talking about it so as to prevent this human rights crisis from worsening.


    Civic space in India is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow @natasha_rather on Twitter.

     

  • ‘No abandonaremos nuestra lucha; las empresas y gobiernos que invierten en proyectos extractivos deben saber que se están comprando un problema’

     

    English

    Medardo Mairena Sequeira HRC

    CIVICUS conversa con Medardo Mairena Sequeira,Coordinador del Consejo Nacional para la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía, un movimiento social organizado en oposición al proyecto de construcción del Canal Interoceánico en Nicaragua. En septiembre de 2017 Medardo Mairena integró la delegación de CIVICUS en el 36ª período de sesiones del Consejo de Derechos Humanos de las Naciones Unidas y participó como orador en un evento paralelo sobre las restricciones del espacio cívico que enfrentan los movimientos indígenas y ambientalistas en todo el mundo.

    1. ¿Cuáles son las razones de la movilización contra el proyecto del Canal Interoceánico? ¿Qué consecuencias tendría la construcción del canal?

    La concesión para construir y operar el canal por 50 años, prorrogables por 50 más, fue entregada en junio de 2013 a la empresa china HKND (Hong Kong Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company). Fue otorgada mediante la Ley 840, conocida como “ley canalera”.

    El canal tendría unos 500 metros de ancho y 30 metros de profundidad, un área restringida de 10 kilómetros a ambos lados y 278 kilómetros de largo. Además incluiría un lago artificial de 400 kilómetros cuadrados y otro lago para una central hidroeléctrica, más aeropuerto y cantidades de comercios que ocuparían enormes extensiones de territorio.

    Se estima que los desplazados, es decir los afectados directos, serían más de 350 mil personas. Muchas más serían afectadas de manera indirecta, ya que los desplazados tendríamos un impacto allí donde nos moviéramos: tendríamos que ocupar otras propiedades, dado que ya no existen en Nicaragua tierras libres adonde pudiéramos ser reubicados, pese a lo que ha dicho el gobierno en algunas ocasiones.

    Las tierras que atravesaría el canal son las mejores tierras de Nicaragua: tienen agua, se pueden cultivar, y es donde vivimos los campesinos. El canal también atravesaría y arruinaría el Lago Cocibolca, que es el único reservorio de agua dulce que tenemos no solo en Nicaragua sino en toda Centroamérica. La contaminación de estas aguas es la muerte, porque miles de hermanos toman agua de ese lago.

    Yo vivo en una zona que está en el camino proyectado para el canal. Estoy en Punta Gorda, cerca de un territorio indígena y de la Reserva Indio Maíz, la Reserva Natural Punta Gorda, los humedales de San Miguelito y el Refugio de Vida Silvestre Río San Juan. Somos vecinos y tenemos muy buena relación con los hermanos indígenas, y al igual que a ellos nadie nos ha consultado. No nos han preguntado si estamos de acuerdo en vender, arrendar o entregar nuestras tierras. En los cuatro años desde que se vendió la concesión, el gobierno aun nunca ha pedido la opinión de los afectados directos. Todo lo que ha hecho es militarizar la zona, poner cantidades de militares y policías que reprimen al pueblo. Así, en la franja canalera encuentras campesinos humildes que han sido intimidados e incluso sufrido torturas.

    MedardoSequeira2Pero tenemos una posición muy firme: no entregaremos nuestras propiedades ni aceptaremos la destrucción que el canal causaría en el medio ambiente, y en cambio exigimos la derogación de la Ley 840. El artículo 12 de la ley dice que “es de interés público del pueblo de la República de Nicaragua la expropiación de cualquier bien inmueble o derecho sobre un bien inmueble que sea razonablemente necesario para efectuar todo o una parte de El Proyecto”. Pero obviamente no es en nuestro interés que nos quiten nuestras propiedades para que el gobierno pueda hacer sus negocios con los chinos.

    2. ¿Qué acciones realiza el movimiento anti-canal para exigir la derogación de la ley?

    Hemos hecho más de 90 marchas en diversos lugares del país, y seis marchas nacionales. Las marchas locales han tenido siempre entre 3000 y 7000 personas, mientras que las nacionales han juntado desde 18 mil hasta 30 mil.

    Además de marchar, trabajamos continuamente para dar a conocer la ley canalera. Hacemos foros en municipios, comarcas y distritos para explicarle a la gente la situación y nuestra lucha. Sucede que esta ley se hizo a espaldas del pueblo, y por eso la mayoría de los nicaragüenses no sabe lo que significa ni cómo los amenaza. A partir de los foros ellos han sentido la necesidad de organizarse, y así es como ha avanzado el movimiento.

    También hemos seguido todo el procedimiento legal que establece nuestra Constitución política para las iniciativas ciudadanas. La Constitución de Nicaragua dice que con las firmas de por lo menos 5000 ciudadanos se puede presentar una iniciativa ya sea para derogar una ley o para proponer una nueva. En abril de 2016 llevamos a la Asamblea Nacional un petitorio para derogar la ley canalera que tenía más de 28 mil firmas, pero la Asamblea se declaró incompetente diciendo que no tenía atribuciones porque la ley canalera tenía rango constitucional, y que por lo tanto no podía derogarla. Pero nosotros tenemos claro que los diputados están autorizados para hacer y deshacer, así que presentamos un recurso de revisión, pero este fue enseguida rechazado. Así que siguiendo los pasos que indica la Constitución presentamos un recurso de amparo ante la Corte Suprema de Justicia. Al cabo de ocho meses La Corte Suprema también falló en contra de nosotros los campesinos, violando así nuestros derechos constitucionales. Una vez que agotamos todas las vías legales en Nicaragua, demandamos al Estado ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) en Washington por violación de nuestros derechos humanos.

    El gobierno dice que el proyecto del canal es apoyado por la mayoría de los nicaragüenses, pero esto no es cierto. Esto se evidencia en la cantidad de gente que se ha unido a nosotros pese a que no contamos con recursos económicos para movilizarnos. Con los pocos recursos que tenemos hemos hecho enormes movilizaciones, y si tuviéramos más recursos quedaría claramente en evidencia que la realidad es exactamente la contraria de lo que el gobierno está diciendo.

    El gobierno no nos escucha, al punto que después de cuatro años de lucha todavía no nos reconoce como organización, pese a que hemos liderado grandes movilizaciones. Y de remate, acaba de reestructurar la ley para poder explotar los recursos naturales sin siquiera hacer estudios de impacto ambiental. Para la construcción del canal nunca pudo presentar ningún estudio de impacto ambiental ni socioeconómico, porque ha manejado todo a escondidas: hizo la ley, vendió nuestras tierras a un empresario y luego quiso justificarlo con supuestos estudios. Pero como no tiene los estudios que necesita, porque todos los estudios dicen exactamente lo contrario, finalmente modificó la ley y ahora puede construir sin hacer un estudio de impacto ambiental, lo cual es una violación más de nuestros derechos constitucionales.

    3. ¿Han tenido libertad para movilizarse contra el canal?

    Hemos encontrado muchos obstáculos para movilizarnos y hemos sido muchas veces reprimidos; por ejemplo el 29 de noviembre de 2016 intentamos hacer una marcha nacional y tuvimos que suspenderla ante la represión de la policía y el Ejército. Desde el día anterior el gobierno puso obstáculos en los caminos, organizó retenes y requisó vehículos en todas las entradas y salidas a la capital. Los manifestantes que intentaban llegar a Managua fueron atacados por la policía antimotines. Hubo infiltraciones, provocaciones y violencia; varios campesinos fueron heridos; uno de ellos, que tuvo heridas graves, sigue mal, ya ha tenido dos operaciones.

    La persecución y la criminalización son permanentes. La represión es cada día más fuerte y nuestras familias sufren. Cuando salimos de la casa los hijos piensan que algo nos puede pasar, porque el gobierno es capaz de cualquier cosa con tal de mantenerse en el poder, desde intimidar hasta asesinar. Algunos líderes que han luchado contra el régimen hoy están muertos, y nunca se ha sabido porqué, cómo ni por quién. La impunidad es total.

    4. Usted no solía dedicarse a la política. ¿Cómo llegó a liderar esta lucha?

    Nosotros nos organizamos por necesidad, porque los campesinos nos dedicamos a trabajar la tierra y no estamos acostumbrados a andar en estas cosas. Los que hemos emprendido esta lucha somos campesinos: es decir, somos autónomos, no dependemos de nadie más que de nosotros mismos. Nos organizamos por nuestros propios medios, aunque las organizaciones de derechos humanos nos han apoyado y ahora que hemos presentado nuestra demanda esperamos también el respaldo de la CIDH.

    5. ¿El movimiento anti-canal mantiene vínculos con otros movimientos sociales que también están siendo atacados y reprimidos?

    Hemos estado en contacto con otros movimientos y hemos tratado de hacer alianzas para fortalecernos. De hecho, el proyecto del canal se coloca en el marco de un modelo extractivista más amplio, que requiere de la entrega de grandes cantidades de tierras y trae mucha destrucción. Los movimientos que oponen resistencia contra la minería o la siembra de monocultivos y las comunidades indígenas que defienden sus territorios están en la misma situación que nosotros, ya que son amenazados por las mismas leyes que los exponen a la expropiación, y son reprimidos por el mismo gobierno.

    El gobierno hace negocios con proyectos extractivistas entregando concesiones sin consultar ni con las comunidades indígenas – no se han hecho las consultas previas, libres e informadas que exige la ley – ni con nosotros los campesinos. El gobierno solo quiere seguir enriqueciéndose para mantenerse en el poder. El proyecto del canal es tan innecesario que cabe pensar en las peores motivaciones: por ejemplo, que se busca dar movilidad sin controles a negocios oscuros, incluso ilícitos. Nosotros no estamos en contra del progreso, pero el progreso puede y debe ser amigable con el medio ambiente y respetuoso de los derechos humanos.

    6. Usted sufrió recientemente una instancia de criminalización. ¿Nos puede contar qué pasó?

    Yo había viajado a Costa Rica porque tenía a mi hijo enfermo allá; estuve cinco días hospitalizado con él. Cuando venía de regreso para Nicaragua, visé mi pasaporte en Costa Rica, pagué los impuestos, pasé la frontera, y luego del lado nicaragüense me sellaron el pasaporte, me requisaron la mochila como de costumbre – todo normal. Y cuando ya estaba por volver a abordar el bus me alcanzó alguien de Migraciones de Nicaragua para decirme que querían hablar conmigo. Llegaron dos antimotines, me pusieron las esposas y me llevaron a empujones. Yo pregunté porqué me detenían, si tenían orden de captura, qué delitos se me imputaban, y pedí que me dejaran hacer una llamada telefónica a mi familia para que supieran que estaba siendo detenido, pero nunca me explicaron nada: solo me decían que querían hablar conmigo. Primero me tuvieron unas dos horas ahí en la frontera, y después llegó una patrulla de policía y me llevaron a la estación policial. Cuando les preguntaba cuál era mi delito me respondían que era una investigación y que la ley les daba facultades para detener a una persona por 48 horas para hacer averiguaciones. Yo les decía que yo no soy una persona desconocida ni ando escondido, y que si me hubieran dado una cita yo hubiera ido a la estación de policía para una entrevista si querían hablar conmigo; no era necesario que me pusieran las esposas o me encerraran.

    Me llevaron a una cárcel de Managua que es una cárcel de tortura. Gracias a Dios a mí no me torturaron físicamente, pero torturaron psicológicamente a mi familia, porque desde el momento en que me desaparecieron sin dejarme hacer una llamada, considero que fue un secuestro. Mientras tanto me estuvieron interrogando; me hicieron preguntas ilógicas, me tuvieron dos días detenido y al final cuando ya me iban a liberar me dijeron que los disculpara, que no tenía ningún delito, que tenía razón, que lo que les había dicho era cierto…

    Yo creo que intentan intimidarnos para que dejemos esta lucha. Pero estamos seguros de que es una lucha muy justa, de modo que vamos a seguir. En mi caso hubo mucha presión de organizaciones de derechos humanos que estuvieron preguntando por mi desaparición, de campesinos que ya se estaban movilizando en toda Nicaragua para protestar, algunos medios de comunicación, las redes sociales… esta presión ayudó mucho para que el caso saliera a la luz.

    7. ¿Qué clase de apoyo necesita el movimiento de parte de la comunidad internacional?

    Necesitamos espacio en los medios para divulgar nuestra lucha. Queremos que el mundo entero sepa lo que está ocurriendo en Nicaragua.

    Queremos mandar un mensaje a las empresas y gobiernos que pudieran estar interesados en invertir en el proyecto del canal interoceánico. Ellos deben saber que las tierras sobre las que se piensa construir el canal no son de Daniel Ortega sino de los nicaragüenses, y que los nicaragüenses, y sobre todo los campesinos, estamos organizados y tenemos una posición muy firme en defensa de nuestra tierra. Nosotros vivimos en el campo y esta es la única forma en que sabemos sobrevivir. No podemos ir a la ciudad; allí nadie nos espera. Antes que morir de hambre, preferimos morir defendiendo nuestras tierras.

    Las empresas y gobiernos interesados no deben malinvertir su dinero y el de sus pueblos. Tienen que saber que estamos firmes en esta lucha y que vamos a llevarla hasta el final, de modo que si tratan de invertir aquí se estarán comprando un problema.

    El espacio cívico en Nicaragua es clasificado en elCIVICUS Monitor en la categoría “obstruido”.

    Visite el perfil deFacebook del Consejo Nacional para la Defensa de la Tierra, Lago y Soberanía.

     

  • Activism and the state: How African civil society responds to repression

    By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga

    In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders. African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

    Read on: Pambazuka 

     

  • AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’

    CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms

    Arzak Khan

    What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?

    On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.

    Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.

    Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.

    What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?

    In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.

    The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.

    Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.

    Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?

    To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.

    How have you been supporting civil society and activists?

    The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.

    Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.

    What do you think of the response by the international community so far?

    Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.

    On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.

    What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?

    Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.

    The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.

    For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.

    Civic space inAfghanistan is rated repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Arzak Khan through hisblog orFacebook page, and follow@arzakkhan on Twitter.

     

     

     

  • ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’

    Rachid AouineCIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.

    SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.

    What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?

    As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.

    The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.

    Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.

    Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.

    A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?

    The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.

    Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.

    Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?

    Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.

    Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.

    All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.

    The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.

    Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.

    What needs to change in Algeria?

    Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.

    If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.

    How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?

    Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.

    Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.

    Civic space in Algeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with SHOAA for Human Rights through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@shoaa_org on Twitter.

     

  • Algeria: Global Campaign urges authorities to lift restrictions on civic space

    CIVICUS joins 37 other organisations today in announcing a 10-day campaign against the increasing government repression of individuals and groups defending human rights in Algeria.

    A year ago, Algerian authorities shut down the “Hirak” pro-democracy protests in most of the country. Since then, the number of unfounded terrorism prosecutions has soared, problematic amendments to the Penal Code were adopted, legal actions were initiated against civil society organisations and opposition political parties, and the crackdown on human rights defenders and the media has intensified, while authorities have continued to obstruct independent unions’ registration and activity. 

    #NotACrime is an online campaign aiming to draw attention to the ways in which Algerian authorities have increasingly attempted to stifle dissenting voices and independent civil society. Launched by 38 Algerian, regional and international organisations, the campaign will be conducted between 19-28 May on the organisations’ respective social media accounts.

    The campaign calls on Algerian authorities to end their repression of human rights, immediately and unconditionally release those detained solely for the peaceful  exercise of their human rights and allow everyone to freely enjoy their rights. Those suspected of responsibility for grave human rights violations should be brought to justice in fair trials, and the authorities should provide access to justice and effective remedies for victims. The campaign calls on all individuals, organisations and relevant parties to contribute in collectively demanding an end to the criminalisation of the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Algeria, using the #NotACrime hashtag. 

    At least 300 people have been arrested since the beginning of 2022 (as of 17 April) for exercising their right to free expression, peaceful assembly or association, according to Zaki Hannache, a human rights defender, though some have since been released. Arrests and sentencing of peaceful activists, independent trade unionists, journalists and human rights defenders have continued unabated, even after the protest movement was shut down. Algerians jailed for their speech have repeatedly carried out hunger strikes - El Hadi Lassouli since 3 May for instance - above all to protest their arbitrary imprisonment. According to the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), these figures underrepresent the reality because many cases are not communicated due to fear of reprisal.

    The death in detention of Hakim Debbazi on 24 April, after he was placed in pretrial detention on 22 February for social media postings, shows what is at stake when people are detained  simply for exercising their human rights. 

    While international scrutiny has remained scarce, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in her update to the Human Rights Council on 8 March 2022 , expressed concern over "increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms" in Algeria and called on the government "to change course." Ahead of the examination of Algeria’s human rights record in November by the UN Human Rights Council, within the Universal Periodic Review process, the undersigned organisations express serious concern and hold Algerian authorities responsible for the dangerous backsliding in Algeria, notably in the rights to express one’s opinion, assemble and associate peacefully, and share and access information. 

    The campaign will extend until the anniversary of the death of Kamel Eddine Fekhar, a human rights defender who died in detention on 28 May 2019 after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment for expressing views critical of the government. He had been charged with undermining state security and inciting racial hatred. On 11 December 2016, a British-Algerian journalist, Mohamed Tamalt, also died in custody following a hunger strike during his imprisonment for Facebook posts deemed offensive by the authorities. Algerian authorities have failed to adequately investigate both of their deaths.

    Exercising the fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression, and defending human rights is #NotACrime. 

    Signatories

    1. Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-France)
    2. Action for Change and Democracy in Algeria (ACDA)
    3. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
    4. Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH)
    5. Amnesty International 
    6. ARTICLE 19
    7. Autonomous General Confederation of Workers in Algeria (CGATA, Algeria)
    8. Autonomous National Union of Electricity and Gas Workers (SNATEG, Algeria)
    9. Autonomous National Union of Public Administration Staff (SNAPAP, Algeria)
    10. Burkinabè Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CBDDH)
    11. Burundian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CBDDH)
    12. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) 
    13. Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME)
    14. Civil Rights Defenders (Sweden)
    15. Collective Action-Detainees (Algeria)
    16. Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA)
    17. Confederation of Trade Union Workers' Commissions (CCOO, Spain)
    18. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation 
    19. DIGNITY - Danish Institute against Torture
    20. Euro-Mediterranean Federation against Enforced Disappearances (FEMED)
    21. Euromed Rights
    22. Free Algeria
    23. Front Line Defenders
    24. General Confederation of Labour (CGT, France)
    25. Human Rights League (LDH, France)
    26. Human Rights Watch 
    27. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    28. International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggles
    29. International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF)
    30. Ivorian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CIDDH)
    31. Justitia Center for Legal Protection of Human Rights in Algeria
    32. MENA Rights Group
    33. Public Services International (PSI)
    34. Riposte Internationale (Algeria)
    35. Shoaa for Human Rights (Algeria)
    36. Syndicate Union – Solidaires (France)
    37. Tharwa N’Fadhma N’Soumer (Algeria)
    38. Trade Union Confederation of Productive Forces (COSYFOP, Algeria)

     Civic space in Algeria is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor 

     

  • ALGÉRIE : « Les autorités arrêtent les défenseurs des droits humains pour étouffer la société civile »

    Rachid AouineCIVICUS évoque la situation des droits humains et des libertés civiques en Algérie avec Rachid Aouine, directeur de l’organisation SHOAA for Human Rights.

    SHOAA for Human Rights est une organisation de la société civile (OSC) indépendante dont le but est de soutenir et de protéger les droits humains en Algérie. Fondée en 2020 et basée à Londres, au Royaume-Uni, elle fait un travail de sensibilisation à la question des droits humains et surveille, répertorie et dénonce les exactions commises contre les citoyens par les personnes au pouvoir.

    Quelle est la situation actuelle en matière de droits humains et d’espace civique en Algérie ?

    En raison de l’escalade des pratiques répressives de la part des autorités algériennes, la situation en matière des droits humains est extrêmement préoccupante. Les arrestations arbitraires se sont multipliées, ciblant des journalistes, des défenseurs des droits humains, des militants de la société civile et des militants politiques associés à des partis politiques liés au mouvement de protestation du Hirak. Tous se font arrêter pour avoir exercé leurs droits de liberté d’association, d’expression, de croyance et de réunion pacifique. Au cours des derniers mois, ils ont été incriminés comme jamais auparavant.

    Les autorités poursuivent injustement des personnes pour leur association présumée avec les mouvements d’opposition politique, à savoir « Rachad » et le Mouvement pour l’autodétermination de la Kabylie, qui ont été qualifiés en mai 2021 d’organisations terroristes par le Haut Conseil de sécurité, un organe consultatif présidé par le président algérien. Le Haut Conseil de sécurité a imputé à ces organisations la responsabilité des incendies de forêt dévastateurs qui ont ravagé le nord-est de l’Algérie en août 2021 et l’assassinat du militant et artiste Djamel Bensmaïl, alors qu’il était en garde à vue. Il a annoncé qu’il intensifierait ses efforts pour arrêter les membres de ces organisations jusqu’à leur « éradication totale ».

    Depuis le début de l’année 2021, les poursuites sous de fausses accusations de terrorisme se sont multipliées de manière alarmante. Pour les personnes reconnues coupables de ces accusations, le code pénal dicte des peines allant d’un an de prison à l’emprisonnement à vie et à la peine de mort.

    Bien entendu, les garanties de procédure et de procès équitable des personnes arrêtées et poursuivies ont systématiquement été violées.

    Une nouvelle vague d’arrestations a commencé en février 2022. Pourquoi les autorités ciblent-elles les défenseurs des droits humains en si grand nombre ?

    Les autorités algériennes arrêtent les défenseurs des droits humains pour étouffer la société civile. Les défenseurs des droits humains sont la seule limite à leur pouvoir, car ils sont les seuls à défendre et à promouvoir les droits humains en Algérie. Leur élimination permettrait de mettre fin dans la pratique aux flux d’informations concernant les violations des droits humains au reste du monde.

    Plutôt que de résoudre les problèmes que la société civile dénonce, les autorités s’en prennent à ceux qui prônent le changement, car elles considèrent le changement comme une menace et une limite à leur pouvoir. Pour dissimuler les violations continues des droits humains, elles ont recours à une répression systématique, ciblant spécifiquement les défenseurs des droits humains et la liberté d’expression.

    Trois ans après les manifestations du Hirak, les autorités continuent de restreindre les manifestations. Quelles tactiques de répression utilisent-elles ?

    En effet, trois ans après que le Hirak (qui signifie « mouvement » en arabe) a fait pression de manière pacifique pour un changement politique et a contraint le président Abdelaziz Bouteflika à démissionner, au moins 300 militants, dont beaucoup sont associés au Hirak, sont détenus par les autorités.

    Par le biais de décrets présidentiels, les autorités algériennes ont récemment promulgué une nouvelle législation hostile aux libertés d’expression et de réunion. En juin 2021, le code pénal a été modifié par décret présidentiel, ce qui a abouti à l’élargissement d’une définition déjà trop large de la notion de terrorisme. Des personnes sont désormais accusées d’infractions, telles que « l’offense aux organismes publics », « la diffusion de fausses informations », « l’appartenance à un groupe terroriste », « l’apologie du terrorisme » et « la conspiration contre la sécurité de l’État ». Une publication sur Facebook peut entraîner des accusations telles que « l’utilisation des technologies de l’information pour diffuser des idées terroristes » et « la diffusion d’informations susceptibles de nuire à l’intérêt national ». Même un simple envoi de fonds est considéré comme un acte de trahison.

    Tous les défenseurs des droits humains et les avocats qui tombent sous le coup de ces nouvelles lois, en particulier les articles 87 bis et 95 bis du code pénal, sont automatiquement visés par des accusations vagues, telles que « l’atteinte à l’unité nationale », et par de fausses accusations liées au terrorisme. Malgré la présentation de preuves de leur innocence par leur défense, les autorités judiciaires imposent les verdicts souhaités par les autorités.

    Les autorités accusent également les OSC pro-Hirak de mener des activités soi-disant contraires aux objectifs énumérés dans la loi sur les associations et dans leurs propres statuts. C’est ainsi que certaines de ces OSC ont été dissoutes, notamment le Rassemblement Action Jeunesse et l’association culturelle SOS Bab El Oued, dont le président a été condamné à un an de prison pour « atteinte à l’unité nationale et à l’intérêt national », en lien avec les activités de l’association.

    Les militants politiques et les dirigeants des partis liés au Hirak sont également sanctionnés pour des « délits » tels que « l’appel à un rassemblement », et les partis sont accusés de ne pas respecter la loi sur les partis politiques en organisant « des activités en dehors des objectifs fixés dans ses statuts ». C’est ce qui s’est passé, par exemple, après que plusieurs militants se sont réunis pour discuter de la création d’un front uni contre la répression.

    Que faut-il changer en Algérie ?

    La société civile doit être préservée tant qu’il en reste quelque chose. Elle joue un rôle majeur dans tout mouvement en faveur du changement. Lorsque les OSC sont absentes ou dissoutes, les personnes se retrouvent sans protection ni conseils. Cela est particulièrement vrai s’agissant des efforts de lutte contre la violence et les violations des droits humains : lorsqu’il n’y a pas d’OSC, les personnes ne sont pas renseignées sur les mesures à suivre pour faire valoir leurs droits et les violations des droits humains ne sont pas comptabilisées. Les associations, centres et organismes de la société civile sont essentiels pour encadrer le mouvement de protestation - pour lui donner une structure, une stratégie et un objectif.

    Si rien n’est fait, les autorités continueront à réprimer la société civile indépendante et la situation des droits humains s’aggravera. Si rien n’est fait, l’objectif de la démocratie et du respect des droits humains s’éloignera de plus en plus, jusqu’à devenir complètement hors de portée.

    Comment la société civile internationale peut-elle soutenir la société civile algérienne dans sa lutte pour les droits humains et les libertés démocratiques ?

    La société civile algérienne ne peut atteindre ses objectifs à elle seule ; elle a besoin de la coopération et du soutien de la communauté internationale. Pour lutter contre les violations des droits humains et promouvoir les libertés démocratiques en Algérie, la société civile nationale doit établir des rapports de coopération et travailler conjointement avec les organisations internationales.

    La société civile algérienne peut développer une stratégie efficace en ouvrant des lignes de communication internationales et en devenant une source majeure d’informations sur la situation réelle des droits humains sur le terrain. En s’appuyant sur ces informations, les organisations internationales peuvent contribuer à activer les mécanismes internationaux de surveillance et faire pression sur les autorités algériennes pour qu’elles changent.

    L’espace civique en Algérie est classé comme « réprimé » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Prenez contact avec l’organisation SHOAA for Human Rights via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook, et suivez@shoaa_org sur Twitter.

     

  • BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’

    CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.

     

  • Cambodia Human Rights Crisis: The UN Human Rights Council Should Act Now

    To Members and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council

    The undersigned civil society organizations are writing to draw your attention to the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia and to call for your support at the upcoming 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council (the “Council”) to ensure that the resolution on Cambodia effectively reflects the significant deterioration of the human rights situation in the country and enhances the monitoring and reporting by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

    The human rights situation in Cambodia has continuously worsened since 2017, as the government-controlled courts dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and barred its co-founders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha and more than a hundred CNRP politicians from politics, while replacing over 5,000 locally elected officials with members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

    The situation has further deteriorated since the last Human Rights Council resolution on Cambodia was adopted in September 2019. Judicial harassment against opposition members has sharply increased, including through the conduct of mass trials against them in more recent months. Human rights defenders, activists, independent media and media workers, and trade unionists have continued to be relentlessly persecuted through judicial harassment and legal action. Environmental human rights defenders and youth activists have specifically been targeted: recently, six members1 of Mother Nature - a grassroots environmental group - were detained under serious charges including “plotting” to overthrow the government and face up to 10 years in prison. A highly politicized judicial system renders the prospect of fair trials for those deemed a threat to the interests of the government virtually non-existent.

    The government has used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to significantly expand its powers through an over-broad and vague state of emergency law2 ; a similarly broad Covid-19 law that allows for up to 20-year prison sentences for violations of Covid-19 measures; and the selective prosecution of political opponents who criticized the government’s Covid-19 efforts. The government also failed to protect human rights in its Covid-19 response. The government’s lockdowns were imposed without ensuring access to adequate food, medical, and other humanitarian assistance, and authorities took insufficient steps to prevent major Covid-19 outbreaks among the prison population in a penal system plagued by chronic overcrowding.

    Laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict human rights, undermine and weaken civil society, and criminalize individuals for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. The authorities continue to adopt repressive legislation, with complete lack of oversight. In the past year, the government has taken drastic measures to further increase online surveillance, clamp down on freedom of expression online and erode privacy rights. In February 2021, the authorities adopted the “Sub-decree on the Establishment of a National Internet Gateway” which aims at forcing all web traffic and internet connections through government controlled and monitored gateways by February 2022. The pending “Draft Law on Cybercrime” and the “Draft Law on Public Order” would provide further tools to criminalize freedom of expression or behaviors in the digital, print, and public spaces, in addition to legislation already denounced by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia and other UN Special Procedures3.

    Noting the announcement of Commune Council elections to be on June 5, 2022, we are deeply concerned that there has been no meaningful progress to restore human rights.

    The Council has a critical role to play in addressing the ongoing human rights crisis in Cambodia. It is imperative that the Council takes robust action with regard to the government’s escalating repression by sending a strong signal at its 48th session - the last opportunity within the context of the biennial Human Rights Council resolution to address the human rights crisis in Cambodia before the Commune Council elections in 2022 and the National Assembly elections in 2023. For this reason, our organizations urge the Human Rights Council to:

    • Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, so as to allow the mandate to continue to work on long-term issues.

    • Request the OHCHR to monitor and report on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, and in particular in the context of the electoral process, and to present to the Human Rights Council an oral update with recommendations at the 49th session, to be followed by an interactive dialogue, and to present a written report at the 51st session in an enhanced interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia.

    • Highlight escalating repression and restrictions on human rights, including persecution of human rights defenders, media workers and trade unionists, and misuse of legislation to restrict human rights.

    We further urge your government, during the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, to speak out clearly against ongoing violations in Cambodia.

    We remain at your disposal for any further information.

    Sincerely,

    1. Amnesty International
    2. ARTICLE 19
    3. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    4. CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    5. Human Rights Watch
    6. International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
    7. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)


    1In May 2021, the authorities convicted and sentenced three Mother Nature activists to 18 and 20 months in prison. Two others were convicted in absentia.
    In June 2021, the authorities arrested four Mother Nature activists, released one, and maintained the other three in pre-trial detention.
    2The Law on the Management of the Nation in State of Emergency (April 2020)
    3See, for example, Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO), Law on Trade Unions, Law on Political Parties

     Civic space in Cambodia is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • CAMEROON: ‘The Anglophone discontent must be addressed through meaningful discussion with all parties’

    DibussiTandeCIVICUS speaks with the Cameroonian writer and digital activist Dibussi Tande about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and educational grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.

    Dibussiis the author ofScribbles from the Den. Essays on Politics and Collective Memory in Cameroon. He also has a blog where he shares news and analyses of the situation in Cameroon.

    What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalating conflict in Cameroon?

    The main humanitarian issue is the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, by August 2021 there were 712,800 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although some have since returned, there are still over half a million IDPs spread across Cameroon.

    The priority needs of IDPs and returnees today are housing and access to healthcare, food, water and education. However, help has not been readily available, which explains why this conflict has repeatedly been classified as one of the most neglected displacement crises since 2019.

    Let’s not forget that the UN Refugee Agency has an additional 82,000 Cameroonian refugees registered in Nigeria. Add the millions of people trapped in conflict zones and caught in the crossfire, and you have the recipe for a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

    What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

    It’s quite simple. First, the parties involved in the conflict must be willing to look beyond the military option, which so far has not resolved anything, and seek a peaceful resolution instead. There can be no real de-escalation until they give meaning to the now derided calls for an ‘all-inclusive dialogue’ that have become a platitude and an excuse for inaction. That said, I think the onus lies primarily with the government of Cameroon, which is the party with the resources to at least initiate real dialogue.

    Second, the international community needs to revise its approach to the conflict. All attempts thus far at international mediation – for example, the ‘Swiss Process’ in which the government of Switzerland convened talks – have either dragged on for years or simply failed. The international community must step up the pressure on all factions, including the threat of individual and collective sanctions for their continued obdurateness. Without this two-pronged approach, there will not be a de-escalation anytime soon.

    What kind of challenges does civil society face when advocating for peace?

    Civil society faces numerous challenges. For starters, civil society organisations (CSOs) have limited access to conflict zones. They must also walk a fine line between government and Ambazonian groups – those fighting for the independence of Ambazonia, a self-declared state in the Anglophone regions – who both routinely accuse them of supporting the other side. Even when civil society gains access to conflict zones, it operates with very limited financial and other resources.

    That said, the most serious challenge to their operations is government hostility. Local CSOs have routinely complained about intimidation and harassment by Cameroonian authorities as they try to work in conflict zones. In 2020, for example, the Minister of Territorial Administration accused local CSOs of colluding with international CSOs to fuel terrorism in Cameroon. He claimed that these ‘teleguided NGOs’ had received 5 billion CFA francs (approx. US$7.4 million) to whitewash the atrocities of separatist groups while publishing fake reports about alleged abuses by the Cameroonian military.

    International humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have also faced the wrath of the government. In 2020, Cameroon suspended MSF from carrying out activities in the Northwest region after accusing it of having close relations with separatists. And in March 2022, MSF suspended its activities in the Southwest region after four of its workers were arrested for allegedly collaborating with separatists. MSF complained that the government confused neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian aid with collusion with separatist forces.

    What were the expectations of English-speaking Cameroonians for 1 October, proclaimed as ‘Independence Day’ in the Anglophone regions?

    English-speaking Cameroonians come in different shades of political ideology, so they had different expectations. For independentists, the goal is simple: independence for the former British Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons. As far as they are concerned, any negotiation with the government must be about how to end the union and not about whether the union should continue.

    But other segments of the population still believe in a bilingual Cameroon republic, albeit under new political arrangements. Federalists believe that Anglophone expectations will be met if the country returns to the federal system that existed between 1961 and 1972. This system gave the former British Southern Cameroons constitutional protections within a federal republic, including the right to its own state government, an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a vibrant local government system and state control over the education system.

    The government of Cameroon has accommodated neither the radical demands of independentists nor the comparatively moderate demands of the federalists. Instead, it is forging ahead with a ‘decentralisation’ policy that gives nominal power to the regions but does not even begin to address the fundamentals of the so-called ‘Anglophone problem’.

    What should Cameroon’s government do to ensure the recognition of the rights of English-speaking Cameroonians?

    For starters, the government should abandon its stopgap and largely cosmetic approach to resolving the conflict, because it only adds to the existing resentment. This is the case, for example, with the much-maligned ‘special status’ accorded to the Northwest and Southwest regions, supposedly to recognise their ‘linguistic particularity and historic heritage’, but which does not give them the power to influence or determine policies in key areas such as education, justice and local government, where this ‘particularity’ needs the most protection.

    The historical and constitutional origins of the Anglophone discontent within the bilingual Cameroon republic are well documented. This discontent must be addressed with a holistic approach that includes meaningful discussions with all parties, from the federalists to the independentists. Dialogue is a journey, not a destination. And the time to start that journey is now, no matter how tortuous, frustrating and challenging, and despite the deep-seated distrust, resentment and animosity among the parties.

    How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society and help find a solution?

    Cameroonian civil society needs financial, material and other resources to adequately provide humanitarian and other assistance to displaced people and people living in conflict zones. This is where the international community comes in. However, international aid is a double-edged sword, given the Cameroon government’s suspicion and hostility towards local CSOs that have international partners, especially those that are critical of how the government has handled the conflict so far. Civil society also needs resources to accurately and adequately document what exactly is happening on the ground, including war crimes and violations of international human rights laws.

    To be able to play a pivotal role in the search for a solution to the conflict, CSOs will have to figure out a way to convince the government – and Ambazonian groups that are equally suspicious of their activities – that they are honest brokers rather than partisan actors or trojan horses working for one side or the other. This is a Herculean, if not virtually impossible, task at this juncture. So, for now, civil society will continue to walk a fine line between the government and the independentists, all the while promising more than it can deliver to the people affected by the conflict.

    As for international support to finding a solution, there has been a lot more international handwringing, from the African Union to the UN, than real action. The international community has so far adopted a largely reactive stance towards the conflict. It issues statements of distress after every atrocity, followed by hollow calls for inclusive dialogue. And then it goes silent until the next tragedy. Hence, the parties have little incentive for dialogue, especially when each believes, rightly or wrongly, that it is gaining the upper hand militarily.


    Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Dibussi Tande through hiswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@dibussi on Twitter.

     

  • CAMEROUN : « La communauté internationale n’a pas contribué au traitement des causes profondes de la crise anglophone »

     moniqCIVICUS échange avec la chercheuse et écrivaine féministe camerounaise Monique Kwachou au sujet de la crise actuelle dans les régions anglophones du Cameroun. Le conflit a émergé en 2016 à travers une série de griefs juridiques et éducatifs exprimés par la population anglophone du pays, minoritaire au niveau national mais majoritaire dans les régions du Nord-Ouest et du Sud-Ouest du Cameroun.

    Monique est la fondatrice de Better Breed Cameroon, une organisation de la société civile (OSC) travaillant sur le développement et l'émancipation des jeunes, et coordinatrice nationale de la section camerounaise du Forum des éducatrices africaines.

    Quelles ont été les conséquences humanitaires de l’escalade du conflit dans les régions anglophones du Cameroun ?

    La crise dans les régions anglophones du Cameroun a entraîné le déplacement interne de près de 800 000 personnes anglophones, selon lesuivi des organisations humanitaires. De nombreuses personnes émigrent également vers d’autres pays en quête de sécurité. Malheureusement, les civils ont été instrumentalisés et utilisés comme une arme. En conséquence la seule manière pour eux de se protéger est de fuir vers des régions plus sûres, à l'intérieur comme en dehors du pays.

    De même, de nombreuses personnes sont de plus en plus désespérées et n’investissent plus dans les régions anglophones comme elles le faisaient auparavant. Pour vous donner une idée claire de l’insécurité qui règne actuellement dans les régions anglophones, avant de sortir de chez moi, je dois évaluer les risques et décider si ce que je dois faire en vaut la peine.

    Les exécutions illégales et les enlèvements sont désormais monnaie courante et quelque peu normalisés : ils ne nous choquent pas autant qu’autrefois, et il existe une lassitude générale liée au traumatisme qui peut engendrer une apathie dangereuse.

    Actuellement, certaines personnes essaient de faire circuler un hashtag à propos d’un enlèvement récent de membres du clergé et de fidèles catholiques dans la région du Nord-Ouest. Les ravisseurs exigent une rançon de 30 millions de francs CFA (environ 45 000 dollars), mais l’Église hésite d’accepter ces demandes, craignant que si les kidnappeurs sont payés une fois, d’autres personnes seront enlevées dans le futur. Pourtant, la plupart des commentaires sur les réseaux sociaux à propos de cette nouvelle soutiennent le paiement de la rançon puisqu’il n’y a rien d’autre à faire. C'est la récurrence de telles histoires qui provoque cette apathie.

    Étant donné que les forces de sécuritéont une réputation de violence et qu’elles ont contribué au développement de la crise en brûlant des villages entiers, les gens ne leur font pas confiance non plus.

    En tant qu’enseignante, je pense que l’un des impacts les plus tristes de cette crise est au niveau de l’éducation. Pour l’instant, je pense que personne ne bénéficie d’une éducation de qualité. De nombreuses personnes ont émigré vers d’autres régions, notamment vers Douala, la plus grande ville du Cameroun, et Yaoundé, la capitale. En conséquence, les écoles y sont surpeuplées. Le ratio élèves- enseignants a augmenté et la qualité de l’enseignement a baissé. Dans les régions en crise, chaque grève et chaque couvre-feu met en suspens l’avenir des élèves et affecte potentiellement leur bien-être psychologique.

    Que faudra-t-il faire pour désescalader la situation ?

    Je pense que le gouvernement sait déjà ce qu’il faut faire pour que la situation s’apaise. Edith Kahbang Walla, du parti de l’opposition Parti du Peuple Camerounais, a présenté un processus de désescalade et de transition politique pacifique, étape par étape. Mais le problème est que le parti au pouvoir ne veut pas de transition. Or, vu qu'il semblerait qu'ils prévoient de rester perpétuellement au pouvoir, ils feraient mieux d’apporter des changements qui conviennent à toutes les régions du Cameroun.

    Des mesures extrêmes ont été adoptées pour attirer l’attention sur les problèmes rencontrés par les Camerounais anglophones. Les régions anglophones maintiennent les journées de « ville morte » tous les lundis, arrêtant les activités pendant un jour pour protester contre les autorités. Ces jours-là, les écoles ne fonctionnent pas et les entreprises restent fermées. L’objectif initial était de montrer du soutien aux enseignants et aux avocats en grève, mais cette pratique commence à avoir un impact négatif sur la vie des habitants des régions anglophones.

    Si le gouvernement envisageait une meilleure stratégie pour négocier avec les sécessionnistes, la situation pourrait être traitée efficacement. Malheureusement, le gouvernement a rendu la négociation impossible depuis le début de la crise en arrêtant les manifestants. Avec qui le gouvernement va-t-il alors dialoguer ? Ils soutiennent qu’ils ne négocieront pas avec les terroristes, tout en oubliant que c'est eux qui ont créé le monstre. Ils doivent reconnaître les causes profondes du problème, sinon ils ne pourront pas le résoudre.

    À quels défis la société civile doit-elle faire face en plaidant pour la paix ?

    La société civile est doublement victime du conflit en cours. Étant donné que les OSC se concentrent en ce moment sur l'action humanitaire, leurs activités axées sur le développement ont été grandement affectées par la crise et laissées de côté.

    D’une part, le gouvernement est en train de saper l’activisme des populations anglophones par le biais d'arrestations et de restrictions de la liberté d’expression, tant sur Internet comme hors Internet. Il est dangereux de dénoncer le gouvernement et l'action des militaires dans les régions anglophones. Par exemple, la journaliste Mimi Mefo a été arrêtée pour avoir fait un reportage sur l’activité militaire et a dû quitter le Cameroun parce que sa vie était menacée.

    D’autre part, les militants pacifistes qui préconisent le retour des enfants à l’école sont attaqués par des groupes sécessionnistes qui pensent que ces demandes seront instrumentalisées par le gouvernement. Des hôpitaux ont été attaqués à la fois par les militaires et par les groupes armés sécessionnistes parce qu’ils ont aidé l’un ou l’autre.

    Outre le défi du danger auquel les membres des OSC sont confrontés dans le cadre de leur travail, un autre défi est celui de l'articulation de messages pour la paix et la résolution de la crise sans être identifié comme pro-gouvernemental ou pro-sécessionniste. Cela s'accentue par le fait que les médias tentent de dépeindre le conflit comme si c'était tout noir ou blanc. Cela n’a pas été une tâche facile. Les ressources limitées rendent également difficile le travail tendant à la consolidation de la paix.

    Comment la communauté internationale peut-elle soutenir la société civile camerounaise ?

    Pendant la crise, les organisations humanitaires ont commencé à se rendre visibles dans les régions anglophones. Cependant, l’aide des organisations humanitaires ne répond qu'aux symptômes du problème, et non à sa cause profonde : ce n'est pas une façon de résoudre la crise. Je n’ai pas vu la communauté internationale aider le Cameroun à s’attaquer aux causes profondes du conflit. Ce serait constructif, par exemple, d’aider à tracer la vente d'armes aux deux camps. Nos principaux partenaires internationaux pourraient également utiliser leur influence pour faire pression sur le gouvernement afin qu’il s’oriente vers un véritable dialogue inclusif et garantisse l’adoption de solutions efficaces à la crise.


     L’espace civique au Cameroun est classé comme « réprimé » par leCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contactez Monique Kwachou sur sonsite internet et suivez@montrelz sur Twitter.

     

  • CAMEROUN : « Le mécontentement de la communauté anglophone doit être abordé à travers des discussions sérieuses avec toutes les parties »

    DibussiTandeCIVICUS échange avec l’écrivain et activiste numérique camerounais Dibussi Tande au sujet de la crise actuelle dans les régions anglophones du Cameroun. Le conflit a commencé en 2016 dû à une série de griefs juridiques et éducatifs exprimés par la population anglophone du pays, minoritaire au niveau national mais majoritaire dans les régions du Nord-Ouest et du Sud-Ouest du Cameroun.

    Dibussi est l’auteur deScribbles from the Den. Essays on Politics and Collective Memory in Cameroon. Il tient également un blog où il partage des nouvelles et des analyses de la situation au Cameroun. 

    Quelles ont été les conséquences humanitaires de l’escalade du conflit au Cameroun ?

    Le principal problème humanitaire concerne le déplacement de centaines de milliers de personnes fuyant le conflit. Selon l’Agence des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés (HCR), en août 2021 on comptait 712 800 personnes déplacées internes (PDI), à savoir déplacées à l’intérieur du pays. Bien que depuis certaines soient retournées, il reste encore plus d’un demi-million de PDI à travers le Cameroun.

    Aujourd’hui, les besoins prioritaires des personnes déplacées et des rapatriés sont le logement ainsi que l’accès aux soins de santé, à l’alimentation, à l’eau et à l’éducation. Cependant, l’aide n’a pas été facilement accessible, ce qui explique pourquoi ce conflit a été classé à plusieurs reprises comme l’une des crises de déplacement les plus négligées depuis 2019.

    N’oublions pas que l’Agence des Nations Unies pour les réfugiés compte 82 000 réfugiés camerounais supplémentaires enregistrés au Nigeria. De plus, il y a des millions de personnes piégées dans des zones de conflit et prises entre deux feux, ce qui pourrait conduire vers une crise humanitaire catastrophique.

    Que faut-il faire pour désescalader le conflit ?

    C’est très simple. Tout d’abord, les parties impliquées dans le conflit doivent être prêtes à oublier l’option militaire, qui n’a jusqu’à présent rien résolu, et à rechercher plutôt une solution pacifique. Il ne peut y avoir de véritable désescalade tant qu’elles n’auront pas donné un sens aux demandes aujourd’hui ridiculisées tendant à un « dialogue national inclusif ». Or celles-ci, sont devenues banales et constituent désormais une excuse pour l’inaction. Cela dit, je pense que la responsabilité incombe en premier lieu au gouvernement camerounais, qui dispose des ressources nécessaires pour au moins entamer un véritable dialogue.

    Deuxièmement, la communauté internationale doit revoir son approche au conflit. Jusqu’à présent, toutes les tentatives de médiation internationale, telles que le processusde facilitationsuisse dans le cadre duquel le gouvernement suisse a organisé des pourparlers, ont stagné pendant des années ou ont tout simplement échoué. La communauté internationale doit intensifier la pression sur toutes les parties, y compris en menaçant tant avec des sanctions individuelles comme collectives si l’obstination persiste. Sans cette double approche, il n’y aura pas de désescalade à portée du regard.

    A quels types de défis la société civile s’affronte-t-elle dans le cadre du plaidoyer pour la paix ?

    La société civile est confrontée à de nombreux défis. Tout d’abord, les organisations de la société civile (OSC) ont un accès limité aux zones de conflit. Elles doivent également faire face à une situation délicate entre le gouvernement et les groupes ambazoniens qui luttent pour l’indépendance de l’Ambazonie, un État autoproclamé dans les régions anglophones, dans laquelle chacun des deux camps les accuse régulièrement de soutenir l’autre. Ainsi, même quand la société civile accède aux zones de conflit, elle opère avec des ressources (financières et autres) très limitées.

    Cela dit, l’hostilité du gouvernement constitue le principal obstacle à leurs activités. Les OSC locales se plaignent régulièrement d’intimidation et de harcèlement de la part des autorités camerounaises lorsqu’elles tentent de travailler dans les zones de conflit. En 2020, par exemple, le ministre de l’Administration Territoriale a accusé les OSC locales de coopérer avec les OSC internationales pour alimenter le terrorisme au Cameroun. Il a affirmé que ces « ONG téléguidées » avaient reçu 5 milliards de francs CFA (environ 7,4 millions de dollars) pour minimiser les atrocités commises par les groupes séparatistes tout en publiant des informations fabriquées sur l’armée camerounaise.

    Les groupes humanitaires internationaux tels que Médecins sans frontières (MSF) ont également subi la colère du gouvernement. En 2020, le Cameroun a suspendu MSF de ses activités dans la région du Nord-Ouest après l’avoir accusé d’entretenir des relations de complicité avec les séparatistes. En mars 2022, MSF a suspendu ses activités dans la région du Sud-Ouest suite à l’arrestation de quatre de ses employés pour avoir prétendument collaboré avec des séparatistes. MSF s’est plaint de la confusion du gouvernement entre l’aide humanitaire neutre, indépendante et impartiale, et la collusion avec les groupes séparatistes.

    Quelles étaient les attentes des Camerounais anglophones pour le 1er octobre, proclamé « Jour de l’indépendance » dans les régions anglophones ?

    Les Camerounais anglophones avaient différentes attentes en fonction de leur idéologie politique. Pour les indépendantistes, l’objectif est tout simplement l’indépendance de l’ancien territoire sous mandat britannique, le Southern Cameroons. De leur point de vue toute négociation avec le gouvernement doit donc porter sur les modalités pour mettre fin à l’union et non sur la question de savoir si l’union doit continuer.

    Mais d’autres segments de la population croient toujours en une république camerounaise bilingue, bien que sous d’autres accords et agencements politiques. Les fédéralistes pensent que les attentes des anglophones seront satisfaites si le pays revient au système fédéral qui existait entre 1961 et 1972. Ce système offrait à l’ancien Southern Cameroons britannique des protections constitutionnelles au sein d’une république fédérale, notamment le droit d’avoir son propre gouvernement, un corps législatif élu, un système judiciaire indépendant, un système de gouvernement local dynamique et le contrôle étatique du système éducatif.

    Le gouvernement camerounais n’a accédé ni aux demandes radicales des indépendantistes ni aux demandes comparativement modérées des fédéralistes. Au lieu de cela, il va de l’avant avec une politique de « décentralisation » qui, en accordant un pouvoir symbolique aux régions, finit par ne même pas aborder le soi-disant « problème anglophone ».

    Que devrait faire le gouvernement camerounais pour assurer la reconnaissance des droits des Camerounais anglophones ?

    Dans un premier temps, le gouvernement devrait abandonner ses politiques palliatives et largement cosmétiques pour résoudre le conflit, car celles-ci ne font qu’ajouter au ressentiment dans la région. Tel est le cas, par exemple, du « statut spécial » accordé aux régions du Nord-Ouest et du Sud-Ouest, qui était censé reconnaître leur « particularité linguistique et leur patrimoine historique ». Cependant, cette approche hautement critiquée n’accorde pas le pouvoir d’influencer ou de déterminer les politiques dans des domaines clés tels que l’éducation, la justice et le gouvernement local, où cette « particularité » a le plus besoin d’être protégée.

    Les origines historiques et constitutionnelles du mécontentement des communautés anglophones au sein de la république bilingue du Cameroun sont bien documentées. Ce mécontentement doit être abordé par le biais d’une approche holistique qui inclut des discussions sérieuses avec toutes les parties, allant des fédéralistes aux indépendantistes. Le dialogue est un voyage, pas une destination. Il est maintenant temps de commencer ce voyage, même s’il est tortueux, frustrant et difficile, et malgré la méfiance, le ressentiment et l’animosité qui sont profondément ancrés entre les parties.

    Comment la communauté internationale peut-elle soutenir la société civile camerounaise et aider à trouver une solution ?

    La société civile camerounaise a besoin, entre autres, de ressources financières et matérielles pour fournir adéquatement l’assistance humanitaire aux personnes déplacées ainsi qu’aux personnes vivant dans les zones de conflit. C’est dans ce cadre que la communauté internationale peut participer. Cependant, l’aide internationale est une arme à double tranchant étant donné que le gouvernement camerounais est suspicieux et hostile envers les OSC locales qui ont des partenaires internationaux, et en particulier celles qui critiquent la façon dont le gouvernement a géré le conflit jusqu’à présent. La société civile a également besoin de ressources pour documenter de manière précise et adéquate ce qui se passe sur le terrain, y compris les crimes de guerre et les violations des lois internationales relatives aux droits humains.

    Les OSC devront trouver un moyen de convaincre tant le gouvernement comme les groupes ambazoniens, qui se méfient également de leurs activités, qu’elles sont des intermédiaires honnêtes. Si elles parviennent à prouver qu’elles ne sont pas des acteurs partiaux, cela leur permettrait de jouer un rôle central dans la recherche d’une solution au conflit. À ce stade cela représente toutefois une tâche herculéenne, voire impossible. Pour l’instant, la société civile demeurera sur la corde raide entre le gouvernement et les indépendantistes, tout en faisant des promesses qu’elle ne peut pas tenir aux personnes touchées par le conflit.

    En ce qui concerne la recherche internationale d’une solution, il y a eu beaucoup plus de tergiversations, tant de la part de l’Union Africaine comme de l’ONU, que de véritables actions. Jusqu’à présent, la communauté internationale a adopté une attitude essentiellement réactive face au conflit. Des déclarations de détresse suivies d’appels creux à un dialogue inclusif ont été publiées après chaque atrocité. Cela s’ensuit par du silence jusqu’à la prochaine tragédie. Les parties sont donc peu incitées au dialogue, surtout lorsque chacune d’entre elles croit, à tort ou à raison, qu’elle prend le dessus sur le plan militaire.

    L’espace civique au Cameroun est classé « réprimé » par leCIVICUS Monitor.

    Prenez contact avec Dibussi Tande sur sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook, et suivez@dibussi sur Twitter.

     

  • CHILE: ‘There's radical discontent with how the country's been ruled for decades’

    Nicole Romo

    Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Nicole Romo, director of the public policy area of ​​the Community of Solidarity Organisations (Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias), a network of more than 200 Chilean civil society organisations that work to combat poverty and exclusion. Together, its member organisations work with more than 900,000 people, mobilising around 11,000 staff members and over 17,000 volunteers.

     

    Why did protests break out in Chile, and what made them escalate as they did?

    The social outbreak in Chile came after decades of the promotion of a development model that focused on creating wealth, which for years was distributed with no fairness or justice. Individualistic, short-term and assistance-based social policies that deeply damaged social cohesion and the community and collective sense of wellbeing were implemented. Alongside this there were housing policies that segregated Chileans into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ territories where access to goods and services was distributed in the same way, a pension system that impoverishes senior citizens, lack of access to healthcare in a timely manner and with adequate quality standards, and an education system that also segregates and grants diametrically opposed opportunities to the rich and the poor.

    In this context, the motto ‘it is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years’, which was heard a lot during the protests, expresses quite well the feeling that prevailed among the citizenry. Although this social movement began with students massively evading payment of public transportation fares, after a rise of 30 Chilean pesos in the cost of a metro ticket, deep-seated malaise has been accumulating for over 30 years. There have been several protests to advance various social demands over the years, but this profound discontent had never been heard or even made visible. The social eruption of 18 October 2019 was the result of the accumulation of radical discontent with the government and the way the country has been ruled for several decades.

    How have people and civil society organisations reacted to the protests?

    The national state of mobilisation that we are experiencing has clearly shown that two Chiles coexist within the same territory – two Chiles that do not know each other and do not intersect. This division is the brutal expression of the difference in the quality of life between those who have privileges and those who don’t. Our country spent the past few decades convincing itself that achievements are based on individual merit, that each person’s efforts are the only guarantee of social mobility, which in fact, as shown by a variety of studies, is absolutely untrue.

    In the face of this, data from various surveys show a high rate of approval of social demands among citizens. On the other hand, people are more divided when it comes to violence, and especially the forms of violence that have resulted in damage to public and private infrastructure, such as looting, the destruction of stores and the burning of commercial premises and other types of services, as well as regarding violence by state agents, who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.

    How has the government reacted to the protests?

    The government has handled this conflict in a quite regrettable way, by mainly emphasising its security agenda, criminalising protests and furthering a legislative agenda focused on punishing protesters, which reveals their lack of understanding of the nature of the protests, their demands and their urgency.

    The social agenda proposed by the government is quite weak. It does not seek to make radical changes to existing structures that deepen inequality and does not guarantee the rights of all people. The changes and the contents of the social agenda led by the government are not up to the protesters’ demands and their urgency. Its numerous initiatives and measures involve limited improvements, which are necessary but will not affect the structures that reproduce unfairness in our country; therefore, they only duplicate the same old short-term public policies that are not based on a rights approach and focus on the individual rather than on the needs of the thousands of families in vulnerable conditions.

    The latest reports speak of dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Could you describe the extent of the repression and human rights violations committed during the protests?

    Since the protests broke out in Chile, numerous human rights violations have been committed by state security agents. These violations have been denounced by national and international organisations, but the state has tended to downplay them.

    It is essential for us to reiterate that at all times unrestricted respect for human rights must prevail, and that each case of violation must be investigated, resulting in punishment for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims. Civil society is key in monitoring and watching over these processes, to ensure that they remain transparent and foster accountability of the state.

    Data from the National Institute of Human Rights indicate that in 48 per cent of the observed cases of detention, detainees were protesting peacefully, regardless of whether or not they were occupying roads. Likewise, gases were used indiscriminately in 56 per cent of recorded cases, and in 60 per cent of the cases observed, force was not used in a graduated way, and was instead applied without prior notice and in the absence of any kind of dialogue. There were 2,727 documented cases of injured adults who were treated in hospitals, as well as 211 children and adolescents, and 241 people with eye injuries. There was also a series of human rights violations against people detained and held in police stations. The most frequent of these was the excessive use of force during detention, with 751 cases. Overall, 190 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were recorded, 171 of them being cases in which detainees were stripped naked.

    How have people and civil society organisations responded to the state repression and rights violations that occurred during the protests?

    We have responded without fear. Entire cities have shouted fearlessly in protest at the human rights violations that occurred during the past months. Many people have compiled testimonial material to make visible the level of exposure and violence they experienced during the protests.

    From civil society organisations the responses have been diverse, but generally speaking all organisations have called for non-violence and the establishment of new spaces for dialogue leading to the strengthening of a society based on social justice and fairness. Without a doubt, civil society organisations have played a prominent role, promoting the establishment of meeting spaces and helping present the demands of the citizenry. This was done through the creation of a large network of networks called the New Social Pact, which brings together more than 600 civil society organisations that have worked tirelessly to search for real solutions to substantial demands.

    The Community of Solidarity Organisations supports the principle of nonviolence and since day one of the protests we voiced the need for unrestricted respect for human rights. Even if it is not our field of work, we believe that this outbreak revealed how urgent it is to restructure the police forces. We faithfully believe in the data published by the National Institute of Human Rights, and we know that their work is conscious and rigorous, as is the report delivered by Amnesty International, so as civil society we will support from our field of work all actions aimed at bringing reparation for the rights violated during the protests.

    What immediate measures should the Chilean government take to overcome this crisis? What are the chances of this happening and a lasting solution being reached?

    A lasting solution would require a long process of construction and change including short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.

    The short-term and medium-term measures are related to the social agenda, which has three dimensions. The first consists in improving the quality of life through measures on issues such as health, education and pensions. The second dimension includes measures to end abuses by economic and political elites and close the gaps in justice administration between cases involving members of the economic elite and ordinary citizens, who face completely different sanctions for committing crimes: ‘ethics classes’ for the former and effective jail terms for the latter. The third dimension involves raising the resources that the state needs to implement a deep and powerful social agenda. Chile requires a tax reform to increase revenue and needs a much more efficient tax management system.

    The long-term axis refers to a constituent process whose main milestones have already been established: an initial referendum, the election of representatives and a ratification referendum. However, conditions guaranteeing participation by a cross section of people, equitable representation, gender parity, minority quotas and independent candidacies have not yet been achieved. Without these conditions in place, the legitimacy of the constitutional process will severely weaken.

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

    Get in touch with Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@ComunidadOrgSol and@nromo_flores on Twitter.

     

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

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

    alexandra gonzalez zapata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk’

    CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Colombia with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation (FCSPP) and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions. FCSPP is an organisation that promotes respect and enforcement of the human rights of all people in Colombia, with a focus on the rights to life, liberty, physical and moral integrity, dignified treatment, fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and tried for participating in protests. The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.

    What are the main causes of recent protests in Colombia?

    From our perspective, the reasons behind the protests in Colombia are diverse. In addition to tax injustice, reflected in the proposal submitted by the national government to collect more taxes, the government's poor handling of the health crisis and the economic, ecological and socio-environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic is also a cause. In the context of the pandemic, a key demand was related to the inefficient management of the Colombian health system and the need for a reform focused on protecting those working in the health sector and providing comprehensive and preventive care to the general population. The inefficient management of the public pension system and the lack of public policies to promote equitable access by Colombia’s young people to free, quality education and quality employment also came to the fore.

    In addition to the socio-ecological injustices caused by a mining and energy policy promoting predatory extractive megaprojects, the lack of commitment by the national government to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights has been accompanied by an unabated wave of murders and other attacks against social, community, environmental, territorial, community and human rights leaders. This violence is perpetuated by the impunity guaranteed by the judicial system to those within the security forces and more generally the state apparatus responsible for human rights violations.

    The protests have also highlighted the absence of guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest, which instead of being protected is being stigmatised and attacked by the state.

    How do these protests connect to those that took place in previous years?

    The current protests are in direct continuity with the protests of 2020, given that the pandemic resulted in an extended hiatus during which social protest was prevented from taking place physically. During this period, however, the structural issues that motivate social protests were not forgotten, let alone did they disappear, but on the contrary they often deepened and worsened.

    How have the authorities responded to the protests?

    The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July 2021 this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD) and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence. These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.

    Rights violations not only occur during protest itself, but are also compounded when it comes to the institutions that are supposed to pay attention, gather data and follow up on violations. We have documented cases of injured people who have not been attended to in hospitals and medical centres. Likewise, the records of missing persons kept by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor's Office diverge widely; as of 5 June, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded 89 people missing in the context of the protests, while the Prosecutor’s Office recorded 129. This shows a lack of clarity and coordination between the state institutions that should play a key role in documenting, attending to and providing efficient and timely follow-up to human rights violations.

    What were the effects of repression on protesters?

    After the media publicised some cases, especially of killings and sexual violence allegedly committed by the security forces, citizens continued to demonstrate in acts of solidarity and collective memory. Further, with the aim of coordinating actions, informing citizens, debating and establishing clear common demands, three National Popular Assemblies were held, two in person – one in Bogotá, from 6 to 8 June, and another in Cali, from 17 to 20 July – and a third virtually, on 15 August. All of them were widely attended by popular organisations and social movements. Discussions were also held in localities, municipalities and cities to build an understanding of interests, needs and proposals. This demonstrated the willingness of citizens who had been protesting to engage in permanent dialogue with government bodies to put forward their demands.

    How was it possible to sustain mobilisation for several months, and are protests expected to continue?

    In some territories, protesters found a series of conditions that allowed them to meet peacefully and originate new organisational processes through the exercise of their right to the freedom of association. These processes were based on previously established relationships of solidarity, not only among organisations but also within less formal civil society, which mobilised in peaceful marches and by donating non-perishable goods, basic medical supplies, items for protection and other forms of support to the young people who mobilised on what is now known as ‘the frontlines’.

    The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters. The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.

    It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations. Commemorative dates are coming that will surely generate mobilisation, perhaps not on a daily basis as happened between April and July, but with actions that will keep alive the demands made visible both by the National Roundtables of the National Strike Committee and by other spaces promoted by civil society at the local and municipal levels.

    How have attacks by armed civilian groups affected demonstrations?

    The Campaign has documented multiple situations in which armed civilians attacked protesters, mainly in the departments of Cundinamarca, Risaralda, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and the city of Bogotá. Several of the aggressions recorded were committed by civilians accompanied by members of the security forces, who did not take any action to stop them but rather supported them. Many of these civilians call themselves ‘defenders of private property’.

    A clear example of this, taken from the records of the Campaign’s Information System of Aggressions against Social Protest (SIAP), occurred in Cali on the afternoon of 9 May, when agents of the National Police, together with several civilians mobilised in pick-up trucks, attacked the Indigenous Guard, a civil resistance group mobilised in defence of the territory and the life plan of the Indigenous communities. The attack left 10 people injured, one of them in serious condition with a double bullet wound to the stomach. Another case recorded by SIAP occurred in Cali on 6 May; on this occasion, armed persons in civilian clothes got out of a truck and shot at protesters. As a result of citizens’ demands that the army stop them, the interior of the truck was searched and a police jacket was found, and when its number plates were checked, the vehicle was identified as police property.

    In other cases, armed civilians act without police being present. It is important to mention the presence of paramilitary groups: in places where mobilisation increased, graffiti and pamphlets from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were found, aimed at intimidating the population to dissuade people from participating in protests.

    How has the government responded to the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?

    In public statements referring to the IACHR recommendations, President Iván Duque once again stigmatised the exercise of the right to social protest and highlighted the effects of protest roadblocks on the rights to free movement and work. The government invoked the constitution to reject the proposal to separate the National Police from the Ministry of Defence and was defensive about the possibility of creating a mechanism to monitor human rights.

    Despite the recommendations, human rights violations continued unabated. As of 7 July 2021, the day the IACHR recommendations were made public, the Campaign registered 152 detentions, most of them arbitrary, 92 people injured by the actions of ESMAD, the National Police and armed civilians, four cases of gender-based violence, 29 attacks on human rights defenders, 72 complaints of police abuse and violence, and 29 raids. This occurred despite the fact that mobilisations had decreased in intensity and frequency; a large part of these violations happened on a single day, 20 July. But a change in repressive strategy was observed, as the number of raids increased dramatically.

    How can international civil society support Colombian civil society?

    International civil society can support us through campaigns such as SOS Colombia, but on a more permanent basis, and not limited to peak moments of repression. They could also help us by assisting the countries that act as guarantors of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord in doing an exhaustive review of the execution of peacebuilding resources, and by supporting those organisations that have denounced police and state abuses through investigative, communicative and political advocacy strategies in international human rights forums and advocacy spaces, thus giving more visibility to the social, humanitarian and ecological crisis facing Colombia.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CSPP_ on Twitter. Contact the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@DefenderLiberta on Twitter.

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Young people experience a feeling of wanting to change everything’

    CIVICUS speaks about the protests that began in Colombia in April 2021, triggered by proposed tax increases, with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. The interviewee belongs to a network of youth organisations and young activists that promotes solidarity, organisation and the struggle of excluded groups and that works in the capital, Bogotá, and in the city of Medellín.

    What were the causes of the protests, and what are protesters’ demands?

    The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Iván Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.

    But despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. I think that, in economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.

    Students – also young people but more intellectual, some from the middle class – were also a significant force in the protests, but tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.

    How do these protests differ from those of previous years, and are there any lines of continuity with them?

    Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.

    Perhaps one difference is that the latest protests have received greater international attention, which reflects the strength with which the Colombian people took to the streets. The protest had broad legitimacy among social groups that do not usually mobilise. The economic and political crisis and suffocation was such that groups such as medium-size and even large business owners supported the protests. The massive character of the protests also forced everyone, from artists to congresspeople, to take sides.

    There were Colombians abroad who protested in their respective countries, speaking up about what their relatives back home were telling them. Some may think that this increased international attention was due to the repression, but I tend to believe that what magnified the message was the size of the middle-class groups that mobilised. Repression has been very present in previous cycles as well as in the face of protests by groups of peasants. I think what was decisive in this case was the diversity of social strata that supported the protest.

    How has the government reacted to the protests?

    Generally speaking, it reacted first by violently repressing them, then by delegitimising them by using the media to attack some groups, and in particular young people, and finally by trying to divide them in order to demobilise some social groups and isolate young people from the lower classes. For the latter, the government engaged in several negotiations with a self-proclaimed National Strike Committee, and also carried out negotiations at the local level to try to contain or calm down some social groups.

    Particularly at the local level, even in localities with so-called centrist and independent governments, the government set up dialogue roundtables that do not solve anything, where demands are listened to but nothing specific is offered in response to those demands. Many local governments washed their hands of the repression, blaming it on the central government alone, but they did everything in their power to demobilise the protests, sending representatives to calm down protesters and promising people that if they stopped protesting they would listen to their demands, something they had not done during the whole previous year.

    Violence by some groups seems to have become a problem. How did activists and civil society organisations deal with this?

    Violence has often been a spontaneous reaction to repression. Confronting the young person who is throwing a rock with judgement and scolding serves no purpose except to radicalise them further and earn their distrust. In order to change this violence, we must begin by understanding it and distinguishing it from the violence that comes from the state, rather than putting them on the same level. This is not to say that violence is desirable; indeed, it diverts the initiative of many young people. But getting between them and the Immediate Response Command (Comando de Atención Inmediata) – the police unit that operates in urban perimeters – to try and stop them ends up having more of a reverse psychological effect than a deterrence or educational one.

    In my experience, civil society organisations that do not reach out to these young people and offer them alternative spaces for politicisation and awareness-raising end up isolating them and losing the ability to influence them. Our organisation has dealt with this through the strategy of avoiding negative judgement and, instead, approaching them with understanding and trying to create alternative spaces for political participation and the organisation of young people.

    What roles has your organisation played in the protests?

    Our organisation played an active role: we organised the participation in the protests of young people and families in the neighbourhoods where we carry out community work and promoted a solidarity campaign with protesters to collect economic support and other resources, such as first aid, support through community kitchens and human rights advocacy, to help various protest points in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín.

    In Bogotá, we provided support to find information on missing persons and participated in solidarity campaigns with people who had been injured. In Medellín we established community kitchens and repaired roofs and other damage caused by protests in neighbourhoods close to the major protest hotspots in the city. Finally, throughout the protests we developed awareness-raising activities and promoted the involvement of young protesters in more lasting processes of social and community building.

    What impacts do you think this cycle of protests and repression will have on the upcoming elections?

    In my opinion, the protests increased the political capital of the former mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate for the left, Gustavo Petro. The government did not give any real response to protesters’ demands and people are still looking for alternatives, and – although our organisation has no interest in campaigning for him or intention to do so – I think Petro is the only available option. In the next elections I would expect a higher rate of youth participation, and I would not be surprised at all if Petro wins.

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

     

  • COP26 : « Nous devons nous régénérer et régénérer ce que nous avons détruit »

    Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAlors que la 26ème Conférence des parties des Nations unies sur le changement climatique (COP26) débute à Glasgow, au Royaume-Uni, CIVICUS continue d’interviewer des activistes, des dirigeants et des experts de la société civile sur les défis environnementaux auxquels ils sont confrontés dans leurs contextes, les actions qu’ils entreprennent pour y faire face et leurs attentes pour le sommet.

    CIVICUS s’entretient avec Daniel Gutiérrez Govino, fondateur de la Brigade des incendies d’Alter do Chão, un groupe qui s’emploie à prévenir, combattre et promouvoir la coordination sociopolitique contre les incendies dans la forêt amazonienne de l’État du Pará, au Brésil. Daniel est également cofondateur de l’Instituto Aquífero Alter do Chão, une institution qui promeut des projets sociaux dans la ville d’Alter do Chão, municipalité de Santarém, État du Pará.

    Qu’est-ce qui vous a amené à devenir un défenseur de l’environnement ?

    J’ai ressenti l’urgence de travailler pour que la planète reste viable pour les humains et les autres espèces. J’ai été ému, et je le suis encore aujourd’hui, par la possibilité pour les humains d’inverser leurs actions et leur réflexion sur notre rôle dans la nature. Nous devons nous régénérer et régénérer ce que nous avons détruit.

    Que fait la Brigade Alter do Chão ?

    Nous travaillons depuis 2017 à la prévention et à la lutte contre les feux de forêt à Alter do Chão, dans la municipalité de Santarém, au nord du Brésil. Nous avons réuni un groupe de volontaires communautaires qui, avec beaucoup de courage, a œuvré pour protéger la biodiversité, la population d’Alter do Chão et la région contre les feux de forêt. À cette fin, nous avons reçu une formation de la part du corps des pompiers militaires, de la défense civile et du secrétariat municipal de l’environnement et du tourisme de Belterra. Nous avons formé de nouveaux brigadistas et promu la coordination sociopolitique et la communication avec les communautés locales.

    Quelles sont les restrictions auxquelles vous avez été confronté en réponse à votre activisme environnemental ?

    Dans le cas de la brigade d’Alter do Chão, trois brigadistas et moi-même avons été arrêtés en 2019 sur la base d’accusations infondées, soi-disant pour avoir allumé des feux dans une zone de protection environnementale. Notre travail a été criminalisé parce qu’il propose des solutions et exige une transformation du contexte politique local.

    En outre, le contexte national actuel est hostile à la société civile organisée. Nous avons servi de bouc émissaire dans un récit qui visait à criminaliser les organisations de la société civile, à un moment où le président du pays et ses partisans tentaient de rendre la société civile responsable de l’augmentation spectaculaire des feux de forêt.

    J’ai également rencontré des résistances lorsque j’ai essayé de promouvoir des changements dans les politiques publiques actuelles dans le microcosme de Santarém. Le conservatisme politique et social sape tout mouvement qui cherche à faire avancer les programmes progressistes. Le gouvernement, la police civile et l’élite locale rejettent l’activisme environnemental en attaquant notre travail. Nous avons eu de la chance et nos privilèges nous ont permis de rester en vie, mais les militants en Amazonie sont constamment menacés de violence et de mort. Ce n’est pas une région sûre pour ceux qui luttent pour la liberté et la justice.

     

    Quel type de soutien avez-vous reçu lorsque vous avez été criminalisés ?

    Lorsque nous avons été arrêtés, nous avons reçu toutes sortes de soutiens, tant au niveau national qu’international. Le principal soutien est venu des avocats pénalistes pro-bono de Projeto Liberdade (Projet Liberté), qui nous accompagnent jusqu’à aujourd’hui. Mais nous avons également reçu le soutien d’institutions nationales telles que Projeto Saúde e Alegria (Projet Santé et Joie) et Conectas, ainsi que d’organisations internationales telles que WWF Brésil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders et bien d’autres.

    Nous avons été libérés de prison quelques jours plus tard grâce à l’action de ces réseaux de défense et de protection. Cependant, la procédure pénale à notre encontre s’est poursuivie et dure depuis deux ans maintenant, bien qu’il n’y ait aucune preuve à l’appui des accusations portées contre nous. Au niveau fédéral, l’enquête de police a été classée; cependant, les autorités de l’État du Pará ont insisté sur leurs accusations. Récemment, le bureau du procureur fédéral a contesté la compétence du tribunal, mais depuis des mois, la procédure se poursuit dans le système judiciaire brésilien. Certains de nos équipements sont encore confisqués à ce jour. Je n’ai plus aucun espoir que justice soit faite.

    Malgré tout, je pense que la société civile brésilienne en sort renforcée. Notre partenaire Caetano Scannavino, du Projeto Saúde e Alegria, qui travaille également à Alter do Chão, affirme qu’il s’agit d’une sorte d’effet boomerang. Je pense que c’est brillant. Ils nous attaquent, et leurs attaques nous rendent plus forts.

    Quels sont les moyens dont disposent les militants de votre région pour demander protection et soutien ? De quel type de soutien avez-vous besoin de la part de la société civile et de la communauté internationale ?

    L’essentiel est de connaître les réseaux de soutien disponibles et de se coordonner avec eux avant que quelque chose de grave ne se produise, c’est-à-dire de se coordonner de manière préventive. Cela inclut les institutions nationales et internationales telles que celles qui nous ont soutenus. Mais surtout, il est essentiel de connaître les réseaux de soutien locaux.

    Les types de soutien nécessaires sont spécifiques et dépendent beaucoup de chaque région. Le Brésil est de la taille d’un continent et les besoins du sud, par exemple, ne sont pas les mêmes que ceux de l’Amazonie. On ne peut même pas dire que l’Amazonie soit une région, car il s’agit en fait d’un continent avec des particularités dans chaque région. Mais ce sont ces réseaux qui mettront en relation ceux qui ont besoin de soutien et ceux qui peuvent les aider.

    L’espace civique au Brésil est classé « obstrué » par leCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contactez la Brigade des incendies d’Alter do Chão via sonsite web ou sa pageFacebook.

     

  • COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’

     Portuguese

    Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.

    CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.

    What made you become an environmental defender?

    I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.

    What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?

    We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.

    What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?

    In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.

    In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.

    I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.

    What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?

    We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.

    We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.

    Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.

    What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?

    The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.

    The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.

    Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

     

     

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

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

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What other problems do you see?

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

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

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

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

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

     

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