United States of America
‘Democracy is a struggle that never ends’
As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to US activist and CIVICUS board member Jesse Chen of Powerline about the growing popularity of citizen activism in the United States. Since the start of 2017, an unprecedentedone in five US citizens have marched in the streets. But, Jesse points out, the growing number of people’s movements hasn’t come from nowhere: they are part of a longer trajectory that has seen political activism rising on both the left and right in the United States for at least a decade.
1. Given the unprecedented numbers of US citizens taking to the streets, including in the 2018 March for Our Lives movement, do you think that there is a new moment in political activism in the United States?
When Trump won in November 2016 and took office in January 2017, we witnessed an entire movement and energy on the left, but also on the right. People have been marching in the streets from the resistance and women’s marches over the first weekends of the Trump presidency to the science marches that came shortly after. On the right, the energy has been rising as well, not only with Donald Trump beating 16 other candidates for the Republican nomination, but also, for example, his rallies as well as the Charlottesville marches, a display last August of white nationalism and threatened white patriarchy.
The students participating in the March for Our Lives had plenty of recent context, fresh in their minds, that they could look to and say, “We’ve seen people marching very recently. Agree or disagree, it’s irrelevant. Being an activist is normal, socially-acceptable behaviour. I’m going to do this, too.” That said, I think it’s unwise to draw conclusions from a snapshot in time. To me, this moment that we are in right now, with students forming mass protests for gun reform, is naturally aligned with a trend line that can be traced back over the last 10 years at least.
In my view, this trend started in the early years of the Obama administration when many on the left realised that Barack Obama was not as far to the left as they had hoped. I believe this realisation partly led to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. As much as the left liked Obama, he was far more centrist and establishment than they had hoped. When financial reform and healthcare reform opportunities came and went, the left realised that Barack Obama wasn’t nearly as progressive as he had looked at the time compared to Democratic establishment forerunner and primary candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Fast-forward a few years and we saw the Dreamers, we saw Black Lives Matter and, of course, we saw Bernie Sanders, among others on the left. A clear thread of anti-establishment energy can be seen across each of these movements. Similarly, at the same time, on the right the conservative Tea Party movement was forming with rallies and marches across the country in response to the loss of the 2008 election. The Tea Party would go on to win several seats in Congress in 2010, leading not only to control of Congress and a number of government shutdowns, but also, indisputably, to the remarkable rise of Donald Trump a few years later.
Throughout this same period, we have gone through several mass shootings. Of those, we had the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, 14 years after Columbine. Six-year-olds, children no higher than your thighs, were gunned down in an elementary school, and this country’s government and its people did nothing. That was a moment of collective failure for this country where people suddenly realised that, if we can’t act on something so tragic as that, then maybe there actually is no way to act feasibly on guns. So, I definitely think that there was a feeling of hopelessness after the years of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the failure of our government to do something meaningful about it. That hopelessness seems to have given way, at least partially, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Also, now that we have the Trump administration, all issues are back on the table, both open and closed.
2. What do you think that the March for our Lives Movement has learned from these other movements that have emerged over the past 10 years, including Black Lives Matter?
One important thing that Black Lives Matter shows is that translocal movements work. The notion of centralised control under a civil society organisation’s campaign or under some iconic leader is one of the reasons, in my view, why progressive movements aren’t as successful on the whole as a lot of conservative movements. Conservatives know that you don’t need to march on Washington to affect change - you can march in your own town, in your own city, in your own neighbourhood. Comparatively speaking, liberals over-extend and over-invest their trust in government as the solution and fail to get involved at the personal and local level. This is something that Black Lives Matter really helped bring out of the shadows and into the mainstream for those on the left. I think Black Lives Matters’ leadership really deserves credit for positively disrupting progressive activism in the United States in that way because that hyperlocal, translocal model can be extremely effective, especially for systemic change.
The cofounders of March for Our Lives from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become iconic, but the movement also includes people here at Public School 123 in Brooklyn or Hoboken High School in New Jersey. The leaders in those translocal spaces are leaders, too - and they are not being ‘controlled’ by a central leadership just like how the Black Lives Matter activists are not being ‘controlled’ by the leadership at the Black Lives Matter network or at any of the other facilitating networks. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to think about this too - movements are too centralised in CSO offices in too many parts of traditional civil society.
Of course, the elephant in the room for the difference between Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives is that the students are a diverse group of citizens. So to many bystanders, there appears less of a direct challenge to the existing power structure and the white patriarchy with the March for Our Lives Movement versus the Black Lives Matter movement. I look at Black Lives Matter and I see a story of fundamental oppression that has literally been both part of the DNA of this country and the driver of an enormous movement. It tells me a number of things, but number one is that democracy is a struggle that never ends. That struggle includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the 1984 Democratic primary and the election of Obama as President in 2008. But we don’t win democracy with new laws, with elections, or even with revolutions. Democracy is something that you need to keep on fighting for. I think what Black Lives Matter teaches us is that, in general, this fight is a fight that never ends. I hope our educators within school spaces are walking the student activists through this process because, as those students have undoubtedly already learned in the last months, it’s not enough for people to feel sorry for you over a tragedy in order to get people to change what is a remarkably ingrained injustice in our system.
3. Movements like March for Our Lives both rise and fall on social media. Does this make it difficult for them to be sustained?
Social media networks were never designed for democracy. There is no question that social media and the major social networks have had a democratising effect, but we’re being pushed against our limits in terms of what current social media can and cannot do for society. That’s because current social networks were never intentionally designed for the needs and nuances of democracy. The design of the platforms has led to echo chambers and ideological bubbles. They’ve led to the sort of trolling problems that we see, the sorts of privacy problems that we see, the fake news, and many more problems. The situation is currently evolving as we work through the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, so it is against that context that I make the claim that we are between states on this as people awake to this flawed system. Of course, we can’t deny the role that Twitter is playing in helping these March for Our Lives activists organise and activate. The problem is that eventually there becomes a sustained engagement problem because, at their cores, these platforms were not designed to support real mass engagement over time. The students have had the benefit of physical co-location in their schools to anchor their local organising even as they use Twitter to connect translocally, and this has been helpful for sustaining for the last few months. Personal hopes aside, it remains to be seen how much the students stay active, energised and focused as the school year ends and summer break begins.
4. Are you hopeful about the trajectory of activism in the United States? Do these student activists show that it is ‘cool’ to be an activist now?
Activism is less nerdy than it used to be. The popular response in the past used to be ‘I’m not into politics.’ But try ‘not being into politics’ in Donald Trump’s America, and you’re seen as both uninformed and uncool. We’re seeing a ton more engagement in civic space, and this is one of the best non-partisan things Trump has done for the United States given its years-long declining citizen participation. Now, people are talking civics again, and they’re even talking politics in sports arenas. This is fundamental for a democracy. We can’t just keep going along on autopilot, holding an election every four years and expecting our leaders to do the right things for us. We must learn to organise, channel and sustain pressure between elections translocally and at scale on the government we do have, not the one we wish we had. These students are showing us ways in which that can be done, and I can’t be the only one that thinks that’s pretty cool.
From the student perspective, it gives us great hope that these kids will not have to wait until they’ve gone through a couple of years of college and ‘come out of their shell’ for a fraction of them to become activists as young adults. You have kids that were marching in the streets of their own towns, in some cases much to the chagrin of their own school administrations and city councils, and they were out there standing up for themselves. Good for them. Youth are the future in human form. They deserve to have their voices heard just like the rest of our citizens.
With activism being popular in high school now, we’ve got more people joining the ranks of active citizenship and, hopefully, they’re not going to wait five years until they are in college to get involved. If we look at the larger trend line, this gives all of us an opportunity to reconnect with the grassroots and to reconnect on issues that even some of us, despite best intentions, may have given up on in the past. So yes, I am hopeful at where this larger trend will eventually lead.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
See also ourinterview with Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch from March for Our Lives.
‘Democracy is not failing the American people - politicians are’
Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch, from March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration held on 24 March 2018 in Washington, DC, with hundreds of sibling events throughout the USA and around the world, in demand of tighter gun control. The march was organised in reaction to the February 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
1. Is democracy failing the American people, and young Americans in particular?
JC: I don’t think democracy is failing Americans, but I do think we need to remember what democracy really is, because right now our politicians are not embracing its true definition.
MD: There are parties that are actively trying to obstruct democracy; there are people trying to suppress voters, whether by voter ID laws, or through registration procedures. The change towards automatic registration in several states is a big step in the right direction, allowing anyone to vote who is eligible. Mass incarceration is also a form of voter suppression, so there are things happening in the US that do suppress democracy. And nobody is free until we are all free, so we need to step up and fight for those who have their power taken away by this unfair system.
JC: It is just a matter of Americans taking advantage of their democracy, because a lot of people don’t realise that they do have a lot of rights. One of them is the right to vote, and many people don’t take advantage of it. So it is a matter of showing people that one vote can make a difference, even though the prevailing thought has long been ‘I’m only one person, I can’t do anything’.
2. What was different about the Parkland shooting? Why do you think it was this particular event that sparked a movement like #NeverAgain, in a context in which mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, have become almost routine?
JC: When this happened, and we were there, we weren’t even that surprised. I remember being in the classroom and thinking ‘this makes sense’. Because I grew up seeing mass shootings, they were all over the place on television. I wasn’t even alive during Columbine, which was one of the most memorable mass shootings in American history. So it was just a matter of us being tired of seeing that happening all the time. It was really important for young people to stand up, because with every mass shooting before this one, either nobody stood up, or they were too quiet and nobody listened to them. This time, there were 16, 17 and 18-year-olds appearing on TV screens, screaming at the very people that they were meant to ‘respect’. We were yelling at them, and people were just intrigued by our fierceness.
MD: The National Rifle Association (NRA) has practised something that is sometimes referred to as ‘normalisation’, where they create a narrative that is not grounded in reality, but this story is told so many times that it becomes fact to some people. So we immediately knew that what we needed to do is just speak with the truth on the matter. They have of course been trying to discredit this truth, but they have been unable to. When it came to Parkland, I was personally terrified for my brother and sister, and when they came home, my sister – it was her birthday – was pretending like everything was fine, but my brother was visibly angry. At that point we thought that only three people had died, and my brother was like ‘I need to find out if so-and-so is OK’, and he was so angry, he looked at me and said ‘I’m not traumatised, I’m pissed. I’m pissed because something needs to happen’. He was saying this 20 minutes after getting home, and we felt then that we could do anything.
JC: Yes, the fact that we didn’t even have time to mourn shows how messed up the system is. In a way, we were prepared for this to happen.
MD: The media was outside almost every funeral, if not at all of them. Every funeral I attended, I walked out and there was a camera on my face. So they give you a choice: you can either mourn and internalise that anger about the need for change, or you can voice it. We then took advantage of the eyes on us and voiced a very powerful message. It’s not that other mass shooting victims or other gun reform advocates have had less powerful messages – what made the difference is that we did something that people were not used to seeing: we broke the cycle that happens when there’s a crime: the families on TV, the funerals, the graduation - it’s almost like watching an exhibit. And we didn’t allow ourselves to be turned into an exhibit. There was something that someone said – Joaquin’s dad, actually – that stuck with me: he said ‘when reporters call me, I tell them I’m not news. What we are doing may become news, but we are not news anymore. The shooting in Parkland happened, and it’s done. We need the news to be something better, positive, something that produces change’. He told me this a week after his son’s funeral, and his message really inspired me. We are not telling people what happened – everyone knows what happened. They may be twisting their own version of it, but everyone knows what occurred. It’s just about making sure that we don’t have to go through something like this again, and that no family feels the way these amazing families now feel.
3. How were you able to move past the ‘thoughts and prayers’ phase, and into the policy-making arena?
JC: The idea of ‘policy and change’ instead of ‘thoughts and prayers’ only came with us after speaking to politicians directly. But what we were getting was just an illusion of change, because it didn’t really do anything: they raised the age to buy firearms, but it wasn’t enough. They proposed a programme to arm teachers, which was exactly the opposite of what we wanted, because that pours even more money into gun corporations.
MD: There’s no scientific evidence that more guns in any situation will make you safer.
JC: Exactly. And there have been hundreds of local laws implemented since Parkland, and 25 across 15 states at a state level, but that’s not nearly enough because what really needs to happen is federal change. Especially when it comes to universal background checks. No matter how strict a state may be, there’s always a state that is less strict and it’s so easy to move firearms around that it just doesn’t change anything.
MD: For instance, Chicago has strict gun laws, but they still have high gun violence, because they are next door to Indiana, which has no gun laws, and there is nobody at the border checking the guns that come through. And we have no federal registry, no way of tracking where guns come from, who owns them or what they are being used for. We need this to enforce individual responsibility for gun ownership.
4. What do you think your chances of success are, and why?
JC: We think our chances are incredibly high; it’s just a matter of time. The easy stuff is going to come first: for instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now will be able to research gun violence on a funded level; a digitised register may be created - all that is going to come first. It’s going to be a longer push for assault weapons and high capacity magazines to be banned. But it’s going to happen, because we are not going anywhere until it’s done.
MD: David Hogg, one of the movement’s founders, was asked on TV whether he thought we would be successful. He said yes, and the reporter said: ‘but the people against you are very powerful, they are a large organisation, they are training leaders every day, and they have tons of money’. And David goes: ‘yeah, but we are going to outlive them’. It’s that simple: young people are coming together to save each other’s lives. The selfish older generation, including the NRA leadership, is going to crumble. It’s bound to happen, because they have been a part of the corruption of our democracy and of America’s freedoms for so long. We are calling their bluff, exposing their façade, for stepping on the flag and using it as a podium instead of representing what that flag means.
JC: There are very few people on the other side compared to ours because young people have a more open mind now, in the 21st century, compared to ever before, and that makes us optimistic. Our open minds stem from the education we have received and the fact that we are aware that we have so much more to learn.
MD: This generation is better educated than most generations before. We were born in the internet age. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to look things up online when I had a question, and that ability to have all our questions answered is something that we have taken for granted - now we understand why it means so much. We can use that ability to communicate with loads of people to continue this education and produce policy that makes sense. A true democracy can only work in an educated society, so being an educated voting force is key to tackling the corruption that seems to have taken over the US, especially in recent years.
5. How did you personally become involved in this movement, and what was your source of inspiration?
MD: We model a lot of what we do after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage and the women’s liberation movements: all the movements that expanded democracy. We are getting the same sort of message out. It worked – we didn’t have a democracy in America until everyone was granted the right to vote. In fact, America has only been a democracy for around 50 years! And we talk about being a free country, but even now, with the trend of mass incarceration, voter ID laws, registration requirements – all tactics of voter suppression – we are not actually a true democracy. We are using the same methods that worked in the past to expand our democracy.
JC: The movements that were most successful in the US had defined goals. Movements that are scattered about and lack one major thing they are striving for end up dwindling away. The fact that we have five main goals makes for a very clear finish line that is achievable. The first one is funded research on gun violence by the CDC – because until recently, as a result of the 1996 Dickey amendment, the CDC was not allowed to receive money to research the effects of gun violence in our country. This legislative provision was changed recently, but the CDC was still given no money – so what we need is categorised grants to fund this research. The second goal is a single digitised registry of files for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Currently there is no single place where you can find who owns a particular gun, and sometimes it is impossible to find out, because so many guns are bought on the black market or in private sales. We have the technology to fix this, but it hasn’t happened because people think it is a violation of their Second Amendment Rights – which has been completely taken over by the NRA lobby, with a definition that makes no sense, as it treats the reasonable regulation of the exercise of a right as an infringement. But the truth is, even if all our demands were made into federal law, people would still be able to go through a screening process and buy a firearm intended for protection, which is what the Second Amendment is for.
MD: The third goal is universal background checks. For instance, in no state should a domestic abuser be allowed to purchase a gun legally. Domestic abuse is the number one indicator for a mass shooter; it has a higher correlation with mass shootings than mental health issues. But that’s not in the law in most places. In some places there are no checks at all. In 12 states a concealed carry permit only requires you to sign a piece of paper. If you are on the terrorist watch list you cannot get on a plane, but you could still purchase an assault weapon. There are places where you need to go through background checks if you want to adopt a cat, but not if you want to buy an assault weapon! This makes no sense. Background checks should be required for every single gun purchase.
JC: It is important to emphasise that background checks should be mandated by federal law, so that every jurisdiction has the same requirements and procedures, and there are not places where regulations are less strict, creating loopholes that can be taken advantage of. Lastly, our fourth and fifth goals are longer term, as they are the hardest to swallow for conservatives. According to polls, they are still supported by a majority of public opinion, but less than the previous three, for which approval rates are around 80 to 90 per cent. Goals four and five are a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles. The shooter in our school fired 180 rounds in less than six minutes, while walking around and taking the time to go to classroom after classroom. When he was firing, it was like rainfall. No person should have the ability to shoot that many bullets in such short amount of time. Most hunting ranges have banned this type of weapon – which in fact are not really meant for hunting animals; they are meant for hunting people. This kind of firing power can only be in the hands of highly trained individuals, and has no place in our homes and streets. This is what so many veterans are telling us: these weapons are a danger not only to other people, but also to their owners and the people close to them, because they don’t know how to handle them, store them and take care of them.
6. In which ways could international civil society and like-minded movements elsewhere help you achieve your goals?
JC: A lot of other countries, like Australia and most European ones, have laws like the ones we advocate for, and their levels of gun crime are incredibly lower than ours. This proves there is a way to fix this, and we should stop ignoring the fact that we have a gun problem and blaming it all on mental health. Other countries have mental health problems but these problems don’t cause the same amount of damage as here, so the argument doesn’t hold. If the international community could add their voices in support of the idea that these laws do work, it would be of a lot of help.
MD: The international community could help a lot in promoting an educated democracy, saying how important it is for young people to not only vote, but also become educated in the voting process, given that our political system has clearly failed us when it comes to protecting us. This is important not only for the US but also for the world, because others emulate the US, as we can see with the current administration and how it has played out in the rest of the world in terms of the increase in intolerance and hate crimes. By promoting education and democracy, the international community would be helping us.
Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with March for Our Lives through their website or Facebook page, or follow @AMarch4OurLives, @JaclynCorin and @MattxRed on Twitter.
‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toUma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of theJanuary 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.
You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?
I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.
During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.
The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.
Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?
One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.
So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.
You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding?What is there in it for them?
We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.
If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.
How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?
We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.
These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.
In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.
As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?
They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.
As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.
This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?
Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?
We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?
As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.
We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.
For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.
What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?
I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.
People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.
“Fake news” violates citizens’ right to be informed
CIVICUS speaks to Lyndal Rowlands, United Nations Bureau Chief at Inter Press Agency on what is “fake news”, its effect on civil society and how civil society can respond to it.
1. How would you define fake news? How is this different from propaganda and established forms of political campaigning?
Fake news only very recently became a part of our collective vocabulary. During the 2016 United States of America presidential election “content mill” websites created articles which mimicked the real news but were in fact entirely made up with the sole intention of going viral to make money from “clicks” or people visiting their websites. Yet before most of us had even begun to wonder what exactly fake news was, the term was co-opted by the very people who arguably benefited from fake news in its original form, and I think that it is important for civil society to pay attention to this later shift in how the term fake news has been employed.
As comedian John Oliver has said, audiences need the press to help them to sort out fact from fiction and yet now that same press finds itself under attack. Even small mistakes made by journalists, have been seized upon by political figures as a way to discredit and delegitimise the so-called fourth estate. In light of this, I think it’s important to try and restore trust in the vast majority of the media who do uphold the professional standards that differentiate them from fake news.
So, rather than trying to define fake news, I think that it’s better to focus on how we can discern which news audiences should trust and why. A few things that I would suggest would include making sure that you get your news from a wide variety of sources, finding out who owns the media companies you are getting your news from, and making sure that you double-check check anything that seems unusual against a primary source.
2. Why do you think we are seeing a rise in fake news?
The motivation for the initial rise in fake news was advertising revenue, however the disinformation that we are now seeing shared is more complex. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that the spread of disinformation can help benefit a political side because it makes it more difficult for undecided voters to find out the truth. These undecided people may hear so much shouting and disagreement going on that they decide that it’s simply easier to go about their everyday lives, than to try and work out exactly who is telling the truth.
This may explain why USA President Donald Trump’s team have now referred to three separate incidents which haven’t happened: namely Trump’s reference to “last night in Sweden”, Kelly Anne Conway’s reference to the Bowling Green Massacre and White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s three references to a terrorist attack in Atlanta.
As professor Rosen says, many of the Trump/Republican administration’s policies are not necessarily popular so by surrounding them with “fog and confusion” the administration “can get a lot more done”. However it’s also another reason why it’s so important that we all commit to not add to that fog and confusion ourselves, by making sure we don’t inadvertently share disinformation.
3. Why do you think some citizens believe fake news?
Sometimes we may believe a fake news story because it confirms our world view. We may then not be corrected, because for most of us, our world view has become increasingly polarised because of social media bubbles, which mean that we now almost exclusively see news which confirms our pre-existing opinions and values.
4. How does fake news impact on civil society and human rights defenders?
Attacks on press freedom affect civil society and human rights defenders because it is the job of the media to hold the powerful to account. If the vital democratic role of a free press is endangered through accusations that they are fake news and should be censored, then who will be there to report when the government or others in positions of power attack people demonstrating in the street or imprison them?
Those who spread disinformation may also use it to discredit human rights defenders and civil society organisations. They may make up information about how many people attended a demonstration or argue that protestors are “paid”. Disagreements have begun to emerge over which protestors are violent, and whether they have been planted by the opposition, in order to discredit one side or the other. This may lead eventually to a curtailing of the right to protest, if peaceful protestors are successfully discredited.
5. How should civil society respond to fake news?
Sadly, the same people who seek to curb the freedoms of civil society organisations often also seek to control the media, so I definitely think that civil society and the media should work together to address these issues. Many media organisations are now also set up to serve the public interest as non-profit organisations, and many journalists are also freelancers, so there are other things that the media and non-profits have in common. If you rely on high quality journalism to get your story out, don’t forget to also support the journalists who produce these stories. If you can’t afford to buy a subscription, find other ways to support journalists, even through messages of support. Foundations and other funding organisations should also seriously consider supporting public interest journalism.
In countries where the media is not free or where due to ownership interests they only partially or incompletely cover civil society issues, civil society organisations have also successfully begun using social media to tell their own narrative. By telling their stories directly to the public civil society organisations can also counter the sharing of disinformation. However, I would also encourage civil society to work together with the media, since there are many journalists who are committed to accurately representing issues on a wide range of topics in the public interest from human rights to climate change.
•Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter at @lyndalrowlands
#BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’
For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.
CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.
A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?
A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.
Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.
On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.
I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.
Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?
A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.
Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.
Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.
Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?
There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.
Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.
Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.
There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.
When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?
Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.
Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.
What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?
Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.
The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.
What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?
There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.
Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?
Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.
Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.
5 Ways New Movement Leaders Are Effecting Change
By Michael Silberman, Global Director of Mobilisation Lab, a network that equips social change-makers and their organisations to deliver more effective, people-powered campaigns in order to win in the digital age.
The publication of this piece was facilitated by CIVICUS as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations.
The Parkland students and others are reinventing models for people-powered activism that adapts to today’s rapid pace of change.
Read on: Yes Magazine
As the climate crisis intensifies, so does the crackdown on environmental activism, finds new report
New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor examines the crackdown of environmental activism and profiles important victories civil society has scored in the fight for climate justice.
- Environmental protests are being criminalised and met with repression on all continents
- State authorities and private companies are common perpetrators of violations to civic freedoms
- Despite the risks and restrictions, activist groups continue to score important victories to advance climate justice.
As world leaders meet in Glasgow for the UN Climate Change Negotiations (COP26), peaceful environmental activists are being threatened, silenced and criminalised around the world. The host of this year's meeting is one of many countries where activists are regularly facing rights violations.
New research from the CIVICUS Monitor looks at the common tactics and restrictions being used by governments and private companies to suppress environmental movements. The research brief “Defenders of our planet: Resilience in the face of restrictions” focuses on three worrying trends: Bans and restrictions on protests; Judicial harassment and legal persecution; and the use of violence, including targeted killings.
As the climate crisis intensifies, activists and civil society groups continue to mobilise to hold policymakers and corporate leaders to account. From Brazil to South Africa, activists are putting their lives on the line to protect lands and to halt the activities of high-polluting industries. The most severe rights abuses are often experienced by civil society groups that are standing up to the logging, mining and energy giants who are exploiting natural resources and fueling global warming.
As people take to the streets, governments have been instituting bans that criminalise environmental protests. Recently governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to disrupt and break up demonstrations. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor indicates that the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities are becoming more prevalent.
In Cambodia in May 2021, three environmental defenders were sentenced to 18 to 20 months in prison for planning a protest against the filling of a lake in the capital. While in Finland this past June, over 100 activists were arrested for participating in a protest calling for the government to take urgent action on climate change. From authoritarian countries to mature democracies, the research also profiles those who have been put behind bars for peacefully protesting.
“Silencing activists and denying them of their fundamental civic rights is another tactic being used by leaders to evade and delay action on climate change” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor. “Criminalising nonviolent protests has become a troubling indicator that governments are not committed to saving the planet .”
The report shows that many of the measures being deployed by governments to restrict rights are not compatible with international law. Examples of courts and legislative bodies reversing attempts to criminalise nonviolent climate protests are few and far between.
Despite the increased risks and restrictions facing environmental campaigners, the report also shows that a wide range of campaigns have scored important victories, including the closure of mines and numerous hazardous construction projects. Equally significant has been the rise of climate litigation by activist groups. Ironically, as authorities take activists to court for exercising their fundamental right to protest, activist groups have successfully filed lawsuits against governments and companies in over 25 countries for failing to act on climate change.
CIVICUS at Human Rights Council: Civil society helps fulfil human rights commitments
35th session of the Human Rights Council
Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education
7 June 2017
Thank you Mr. President,
CIVICUS welcomes the reports of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on the right to education. We again commend the former Special Rapporteur, Maina Kiai, for his steadfast support for civil society across the world. We also welcome the new Special Rapporteur, Annalisa Ciampi, and remain committed to supporting the mandate to undertake its essential work.
The Special Rapporteur’s report on mapping the achievements of civil society articulates an unassailable case for why civil society should be seen as an ally, rather than an adversary. As expressed by the mandate holder, civil society has played a crucial role in shepherding and realizing scores of progressive values and rights. The report provides a wealth of examples of these achievements, including through pursuing accountability, supporting participation and empowerment, driving innovation and fostering sustainable development. We urge all states to explicitly acknowledge the integral role that civil society plays in ensuring that states can actualize their domestic and international human rights commitments.
We further reiterate the recommendations raised by the Special Rapporteur in his report on the United States. National and public security concerns must not be misused to suppress freedom of assembly. The continued use of excessive force by police departments across the United States against peaceful protesters requires a concerted and proactive federal response. We also regret that immigrant workers face the specter of official harassment and deportation for attempting to exercise their right to freedom of association, including joining labor unions.
In the United Kingdom, we remain equally concerned by recent reports that Prime Minister Theresa May is willing to forfeit human rights in the pursuit of countering terrorism. Such a wholesale forfeit of human rights undermines the United Kingdom’s international obligations as well as efforts to address the roots causes of terrorism.
We urge all States to pledge their support to the Special Rapporteur including by providing all necessary informational and financial resources to discharge the mandate and to work closely with civil society.
We thank you.
On Saturday, 21 January 2017, millions will gather in Washington D.C. and in hundreds of other cities around the world to take part in the Women’s March. CIVICUS stands in solidarity with the demonstrators who in the spirit of democracy, seek to honour the champions of human rights, dignity, and justice, and reject the sexist and bigoted rhetoric used during the US election against minorities and excluded groups.
Globally, the sister marches carry a message of solidarity in celebration of our multiple, diverse and intersecting identities and reject all forms of patriarchy and the discriminatory systems that support them worldwide. We will not rest until women have parity and equity at all levels of leadership in society.
Civil society letter to U.S. State Dept on Human Rights Defenders
80 civil society organisations from 30+ countries urge Honarable Secretary of State, Antony Blinken to strengthen U.S. government foreign policy to support human rights defenders globally
Hon. Antony Blinken Secretary of State
United States of America
CC: Senator Robert Menendez, Chairman,Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator James Risch, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Representative Gregory Meeks, Chairman,House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Representative Michael McCaul, Ranking Member, House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Dear Secretary Blinken:
We, the undersigned organisations, work to promote human rights, democracy, media freedom, environmental sustainability, and an end to corruption around the world. The protection of human rights defenders — such as activists, lawyers, and journalists — is critical to each of our missions. We are deeply concerned by the unabated rise in reprisals against human rights defenders, both globally and within the United States, and the chilling effect that these attacks have on fundamental freedoms and civic space.
We would like to request the opportunity to begin a discussion with the incoming State Department political leadership on the role that the Biden Administration will play in protecting human rights defenders.
As the Administration prepares to re-engage the U.S. government at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, we encourage you to elevate the protection of human rights defenders as a U.S. foreign policy priority and commit to play a global leadership role on this issue.
- Access Now
- Accountability Counsel
- African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies Al-Haq
- Alliance of Baptists Amazon Watch
- American Jewish World Service
- Amnesty International USA
- ARTICLE 19
- Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP)
- Balay Alternative Legal Advocates for Development in Mindanaw, Inc (BALAOD Mindanaw)
- Bank Information Center
- Business and Human Rights Resource Centre
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- Center for Civil Liberties
- Center for Human Rights and Environment
- Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
- China-Latin America Sustainable-Investments Initiative Church World Service
- Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach Committee to Protect Journalists
- COMPPART Foundation for Justice and Peacebuilding Nigeria
- Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd, U.S. Provinces
- Crude Accountability
- DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
- EarthRights International
- Ecumenical Advocacy Network on the Philippines Equitable Cambodia
- FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders FORUM-ASIA
- Freedom House
- Freedom Now
- Front Line Defenders
- Gender Action
- Global Witness
- Green Advocates International (Liberia)
- Human Rights First
- Inclusive Development International Indigenous Peoples Rights
- International International Accountability Project International Rivers
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Jamaa Resource Initiatives Kenya
- Japan NGO Action Network for Civic Space Just Associates (JASS)
- Kaisa Ka (Unity of Women for Freedom) KILUSAN
- Latin America Working Group
- Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
- National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd
- Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala - NISGUA
- Network Movement for Justice and Development
- Odhikar – Bangladesh OECD Watch
- Oil Workers Rights Protection Organization Public Union Azerbaijan
- OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
- Open Briefing
- OT Watch
- Oxfam America
- Peace Brigades International - USA (PBI-USA)
- Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies
- Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA)
- Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights)
- Project HEARD
- Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER) - Latin American NGO
- Protection International
- Rivers without Boundaries Coalition Mongolia Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
- Sisters of Mercy of the Americas Justice Team Somali Journalists Syndicate (SJS)
- Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network Swedwatch
- Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP)
- Transparency International
- United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights
- Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)
- Witness Radio – Uganda
Civic space in United States of America is rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor, see country page.
Civil Society Responses to US Withdrawal From UN Human Rights Council
Following the announcement of the United States withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a number of civil society organisations with offices in Geneva, the headquarters of UNHRC, offer their opinions on the resulting impact on the work of the Human Rights Council. For media enquiries, please contact
CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance
“The USA did not engage in the Human Rights Council under the Bush administration and only returned under the Obama Administration. The Council survived then and it will survive now. The worrying part is that global power dynamics have shifted significantly since then and with the US withdrawal, the vacuum will certainly be filled by Russia and China who have not demonstrated commitment to advancing the human rights discourse. This could negatively impact on Council priorities. Democratic states committed to protecting and promoting human rights will need to show increased commitment to safeguarding human rights norms.”
- Susan Wilding, Head of Geneva office, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance
“Once again President Trump is showing his complete disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms the US claims to uphold. While the Human Rights Council is by no means perfect and its membership is frequently under scrutiny, it remains an important force for accountability and justice.
“The US should urgently reverse this decision, which places it squarely on the wrong side of history. It is wilfully choosing to undermine the human rights of all people everywhere, and their struggles for justice.”
- Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International
International Commission of Jurists
"The withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations Human Rights Council is unlikely in itself to have much impact on the Council, or human rights in the world. The real issue is the Trump administration's broader rejection of multilateralism and rule of law (international or otherwise), and how it acts in practice, both at home and abroad.”
- Matt Pollard, Senior Legal Adviser, International Commission of Jurists
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
"The withdrawal of the US is deeply regrettable. The constructive engagement of States with a genuine commitment to human rights and the rule of law is essential for peace, security and sustainable development."
‘While the Human Rights Council is far from perfect, it makes a significant contribution to protecting human rights, providing justice to victims, and promoting accountability for perpetrators."
- Phil Lynch, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) Director
"The Trump administration decision to turn its back on the UN's top human rights body is childish, hypocritical, and self-defeating. Today, only the enemies of human rights, some of whom sit on the Council, are pleased.
“Nature abhors a vacuum, and the same goes for multilateral fora. While the US will lose voice and influence, China, Russia, Egypt will likely try and assert greater control over the Human Rights Council's agenda and dynamics."
- Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the UN for DefendDefenders
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
"By withdrawing the US put appeasement of Israel before the need to protect and support those struggling for human rights and democracy around the world."
- Jeremie Smith, Director, Geneva Office, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: ‘When social trust has been eroded, people don’t know what to believe’
As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet,an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.
You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?
Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?
Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.
The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.
We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.
Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?
I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.
In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.
In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.
Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.
Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.
In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.
Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?
There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.
Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?
There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.
In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.
Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.
In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.
How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?
I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.
Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”
Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.
It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?
Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.
Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.
In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.
You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
COP26: ‘The global north must remain accountable and committed to tackle climate change’
As 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 undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the summit.
CIVICUS speaks with Lorena Sosa, Operations Director at Zero Hour, a youth-led movement creating entry points, training and resources for new young activists and organisers. At Zero Hour, Lorena has supported the work of activists in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore, looking to create immediate action and bring attention to the impacts of climate change.
What’s the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?
Zero Hour is currently committed to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies in US policy and filling the gap in climate-organising resources. We have recently accomplished this by organising the virtual End Polluter Welfare Rally, featuring Senator Majority Lead Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ro Khanna, and the People Not Polluters Rally in New York City, and assisting with the organisation of the People vs Fossil Fuels mobilisation in Washington, DC. We are currently working on revising a series of training activities to help our chapters learn how to organise local campaigns unique to their communities.
A lot of our actions demonstrate our desire to connect and collaborate with others involved in the movement, to uplift one another’s actions because it is hard to get coverage and attention on the actions that we are all organising. It is a beautiful thing to witness when organisers support each other; love and support is really needed to improve the state of the movement and the progress of its demands.
Have you faced backlash for the work you do?
Backlash to activist work certainly ranges on a case-by-case basis, especially for our international chapters, who face limits on protest and rallying because of government restrictions. Within the USA, the biggest backlash against the work we do is tied to the burnout of working and seeing no action from leaders who have the power to initiate action for our planet’s well-being. Burnout is really common in the youth climate space, especially because so many of us are trying to juggle between our academic, social and organising lives while trying to stay hopeful about the change that is possible.
In terms of staying well and safe from the impacts of burnout, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is engage with the climate community I’m in; I know I’m not alone in the concerns I have because my fellow friends and organisers and I constantly express our concerns to one another. There is no be-all and end-all remedy to burnout, but I’ve learned that taking time to care for myself and connect with my family and friends back home is incredibly helpful in staying grounded.
How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?
Our Global Outreach team and Operations team, which are led by Sohayla Eldeeb and myself, have worked together to shape communications with our international chapters in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore. We have held one-on-one office hours with our international chapters to help them work through any conflict in their campaign work and provide support in any way possible.
In terms of international campaigns, our Partnerships Deputy Director, Lana Weidgenant, is actively involved in international campaigns that bring attention to and foster education and action on food systems transformation to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and protect our environment. Lana served as the Youth Vice Chair of Shifting to Sustainable Consumption Patterns for the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, is a youth leader of the international Act4Food Act4Change campaign that has gathered together the food systems pledges and priorities of over 100,000 young people and allies around the world, and is one of the two youth representatives for the COP26 agriculture negotiations this year.
What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress in tackling climate change?
I would want to see the global north remain accountable and committed to including US$100 billion for the global south to be able to implement their own climate adaptation and mitigation measures successfully.
So many of our perspectives at Zero Hour are centred around justice, rather than just equity, because we know that the USA is one of the largest contributors to this crisis. Leaders of the global north, especially stakeholders in the USA, need to end support of the fossil fuel industry and start committing to solutions that prioritise people and not polluters.
I would love to see all leaders attending COP26 take serious and impactful action to combat and eliminate the effects of climate change. Worsened weather patterns and rising sea levels have already proven that inaction is going to be detrimental to the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants.
The recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated sufficient evidence for our leaders to treat climate change as the emergency it is. I am hoping that all the global leaders speaking at the conference take the IPCC report’s statements into great consideration when drafting the conference’s outcomes.
Don't lecture the Americans about our values. Demonstrate them.
By Danny Sriskandarajah and Julia Sanchez
There has never been a better time for Canada to show progressive leadership globally in support of inclusive and open societies that respect human rights. As the government prepares a new budget and a new approach to international assistance, the stage is set for Canada to put its money where its mouth is and support its values, at home and abroad.
Read on: iPolitics
HAITI: ‘Civil society must get involved because political actors cannot find a solution to our problems’
CIVICUS speaks about Haiti’s ongoing crisis and calls for foreign intervention with Monique Clesca, a journalist, democracy advocate and member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis (Commission pour la recherche d’une solution haitienne a la crise, CRSC). CRSC, also known as the Montana Group, is a group of civic, religious and political organisations and leaders that got together in early 2021. Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, it promoted theMontana Accord, calling for a two-year provisional government to take over from acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry and hold elections as soon as possible, as well as a road map to reduce insecurity, tackle the humanitarian crisis and respond to social justice demands. The Monitoring Office of the Montana Accord continues to follow up on this roadmap.
What are the causes of Haiti’s current crisis?
People seem to associate the crisis with the assassination of President Moïse, but it started way before that, because there were various underlying issues. It is a political crisis but also a much deeper social crisis. The majority of people in Haiti have suffered the effect of profound inequalities for many decades. There are huge gaps in terms of health and education so there is a need for basic social justice. The problem goes far beyond the more visible political, constitutional and humanitarian issues.
Over the past decade, we have had governments that tried to undermine state institutions so that a corrupt system could prevail: there have not been transparent elections and no alternation of power, with three successive governments of the same political party. Former president Michel Martelly postponed the presidential elections twice. He ruled by decree for more than a year. In 2016, fraud allegations were made against Moïse, his successor. In his time in office, Moïse dissolved parliament and never organised elections. He fired several Supreme Court judges and politicised the police.
He also put forward a constitutional referendum, which has been repeatedly postponed, that is clearly unconstitutional. The 1987 Constitution defines how it should be amended, so by trying to rewrite it, Moïse went the unconstitutional way.
By the time Moïse was killed, Haiti was left with his legacy of weak institutions, massive corruption and the lack of elections and renewal of the political class. After Moïse’s assassination the situation worsened further, because now there was no president and no functioning judiciary and legislative body. We had, and continue to have, a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Ariel Henry, the current acting prime minister, clearly has no mandate. Moïse selected him as the next prime minister two days before he was killed and didn’t even leave a signed nomination letter.
What has the Montana Group proposed as a way out of this crisis?
The Montana Group formed in early 2021 out of the realisation that civil society must get involved because political actors could not find a solution to Haiti’s problems. A forum of civil society then put together a commission that worked for six months creating dialogue and trying to build consensus by speaking to all political actors, as well as to civil society organisations. As a result of all this input, we came up with a draft agreement that was finalised and signed by almost a thousand organisations and citizens: the Montana Accord.
We put together a two-part plan: a governance plan and a social justice and humanitarian roadmap, which was signed as part of the agreement. To get consensus with wider participation, we proposed the creation of a checks and balances body that would carry out the role of the legislative branch and also an interim judiciary during the transition. Once Haiti can have transparent elections, there would be a proper elected legislative body and the government could go through the constitutional process to name the high-level judiciary body, the Supreme Court. That is the governance that we’ve envisioned for the transition, one that is closer to the spirit of the Haitian Constitution.
Earlier this year, we met several times with Henry and tried to start negotiations with him and his allies. At one point, he told us he didn’t have the authority to negotiate. So he closed the door to negotiations.
What are the challenges to holding elections in the current context?
The main challenge is the massive insecurity. Gangs are terrorising the population. Kidnappings are rampant, people are being assassinated. People can’t go out of their homes: they can’t go to the bank, to the stores, to the hospital. Children can’t go to school: classes were supposed to start in September, then in October and now the government is silent on when they will start.
There is also the dire humanitarian situation, only made worse when gangs blocked the main oil terminal of Varreux in Port-au-Prince. This impacted on power supply and water distribution, and therefore on people’s access to basic goods and services. Amid a cholera outbreak, health facilities were forced to reduce their services or shut down.
And there is political polarisation and massive mistrust. People don’t only mistrust politicians; they also mistrust one another.
Because of the political pressure and gang activity, citizen mobilisations have been up and down, but since late August there have been massive demonstrations calling for Henry’s resignation. People have also marched against rising fuel prices, shortages and corruption. They have also clearly rejected any foreign military intervention.
What is your position regarding the prime minister’s call for foreign intervention?
Henry has no legitimacy to call for any military intervention. The international community can help, but it is not up to them to decide whether to intervene or not. We first need to have a two-year political transition with a credible government. We have ideas, but at this point, we need to see a transition.
Civic space in Haiti is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
HAITI: ‘There is opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people’
CIVICUS speaks with Ellie Happel, professor of the Global Justice Clinic and Director of the Haiti Project at New York University School of Law. Ellie lived and worked in Haiti for several years, and her work continues to focus on solidarity with social movements in Haiti and racial and environmental justice.
What have been the key political developments since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021?
As an American, I want to begin by emphasising the role the US government has played in creating the present situation. The history of unproductive and oppressive foreign intervention is long.
To understand the context of the Moïse presidency, however, we have to at least go back to 2010. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the USA and other external actors called for elections. People did not have their voting cards; more than two million people had lost their homes. But elections went ahead. The US government intervened in the second round of Haiti’s presidential elections, calling for candidate and founder of the PHTK party, Michel Martelly, to be put into the second round. Martelly was subsequently elected.
During the Martelly presidency we saw a decline in political, economic and social conditions. Corruption was well documented and rampant. Martelly failed to hold elections and ended up ruling by decree. He hand-selected Moïse as his successor. The US government strongly supported both the Martelly and Moïse administrations despite the increasing violence, the destruction of Haitian government institutions, the corruption and the impunity that occurred under their rule.
Moïse’s death is not the biggest problem that Haiti faces. During his tenure, Moïse effectively destroyed Haitian institutions. Haitian people rose up against the PHTK regime in protest, and they were met with violence and repression. There is evidence of government implication in mass killings – massacres – of people in areas that were known to oppose PHTK.
Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, a prominent activist and a widely known journalist were murdered in Haiti. Diego Charles and Antoinette Duclair were calling for accountability. They were active in the movement to build a better Haiti. They were killed with impunity.
It is clear that the present crisis did not originate in Moïse’s assassination. It is the result of failed foreign policies and of the way the Haitian government repressed and halted opposition protests demanding accountability for corruption and violence, and demanding change.
What currently gives me hope is the work of the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which was created prior to Moïse’s assassination. The Commission is a broad group of political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) that came together to work collectively to rebuild the government. This presents an opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people.
What is your view on the postponement of elections and the constitutional referendum, and what are the prospects of democratic votes taking place?
In the current climate, elections are not the next step in addressing Haiti’s political crisis. Elections should not occur until the conditions for a fair, free and legitimate vote are met. The elections of the past 11 years demonstrate that they are not an automatic means of achieving representative democracy.
Today, there are many hurdles to holding elections. The first is one of governance: elections must be overseen by a governing body that has legitimacy, and that is respected by the Haitian people. It would be impossible for the de facto government to organise elections. The second is gang violence. It’s estimated that more than half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs. When the provisional electoral council was preparing for elections a few months back, its staff could not access a number of voting centres due to gang control. Third, eligible Haitian voters should have voter ID cards.
The US government and others should affirm the right of the Haitian people to self-determination. The USA should neither insist on nor support elections without evidence of concrete measures to ensure that they are free, fair, inclusive and perceived as legitimate. Haitian CSOs and the Commission will indicate when the conditions exist for free, fair and legitimate elections.
Is there a migration crisis caused by the situation in Haiti? How can the challenges faced by Haitian migrants be addressed?
What we call the ‘migration crisis’ is a strong example of how US foreign policy and immigration policy towards Haiti have long been affected by anti-Black racism.
Many Haitians who left the country following the earthquake in 2010 first moved to South America. Many have subsequently left. The economies of Brazil and Chile worsened, and Haitian migrants encountered racism and a lack of economic opportunity. Families and individuals have travelled northward by foot, boat and bus towards the Mexico-USA border.
For many years now, the US government has not allowed Haitian migrants and other migrants to enter the USA. They are expelling people without an asylum interview – a ‘credible fear’ interview, which is required under international law – back to Haiti.
The US government must stop using Title 42, a public health provision, as a pretext to expel migrants. The US government should instead offer humanitarian assistance and support Haitian family reunification and relocation in the USA.
It is impossible to justify deportation to Haiti right now, for the same reasons that the US government has advised US citizens not to travel there. There are estimates of nearly 1,000 documented cases of kidnapping in 2021. Friends explain that anyone is at risk. Kidnappings are no longer targeted, but school kids and street merchants and pedestrians are being held hostage to demand money. The US government has not only declared Haiti unsafe for travel, but in May 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, allowing eligible Haitian nationals residing in the USA to apply to remain there because Haiti cannot safely repatriate its nationals.
The USA should halt deportations to Haiti. And the USA and other countries in the Americas must begin to recognise, address and repair the anti-Black discrimination that characterises their immigration policies.
What should the international community, and especially the USA, do to improve the situation?
First, the international community should take the lead of Haitian CSOs and engage in a serious and supportive way with the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. Daniel Foote, the US special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest eight weeks into the job; he said that his colleagues at the State Department were not interested in supporting Haitian-led solutions. The USA should play the role of encouraging consensus building and facilitating conversations to move things forward without interfering.
Second, all deportations to Haiti must stop. They are not only in violation of international law. They are also highly immoral and unjust.
Foreigners, myself included, are not best placed to prescribe solutions in Haiti: instead, we must support those created by Haitian people and Haitian organisations. It is time for the Haitian people to decide on the path forward, and we need to actively support, and follow.
Importance of protest in a Trump United States
By Elizabeth Stephens
In a speech shortly after the November election, President Barack Obama urged anti-Trump protesters not to be silent. Yet, the number and attendance of events meant to challenge the values embodied by a Trump presidency dwindled exponentially months after election night. Why is this?
Read on: Capitol Hill Times
Law enforcement agencies and decision makers must respect the right to protest in the US
Over 10,000 protesters have been arrested in the #USA.— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) June 4, 2020
Law enforcement agencies and decision makers must respect the right to protest.
Statement: https://t.co/BTn0voaqSv#GeorgeFloyd #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/N25Sx3Ebpw
- CIVICUS expresses solidarity with US protesters in their struggle for justice
- We defend the right to peaceful assembly and condemn violent police force
- National and global protests highlight the need to address institutionalized racism, and police impunity and militarisation
Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, condemns violence against protesters by law enforcement officials over the past few days, and stands in solidarity with those protesting against deep-rooted racism and injustice.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the United States (US) to protest the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on 25 May. Their demands for justice for George Floyd and other Black people unlawfully killed at the hands of police have been met with force. Law enforcement agencies have responded to protests using rubber bullets, concussion grenades and tear gas.
CIVICUS reaffirms that the right to protest, as enshrined in international law, must be protected. We call for an end to police violence against Black communities.
Earlier this week, as law enforcement agencies suppressed protests in Washington DC, President Trump threatened to deploy the National Guard to crush demonstrations:
“President Donald Trump is stoking violence by threatening to forcibly deploy military units in states and cities to crush the demonstrations and restore order in a constitutionally questionable manner,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief of Programmes at CIVICUS.
There are reports that over 10,000 protesters have been arrested since protests began. CIVICUS is concerned by the arbitrary arrests of thousands of protesters, including 20 members of the press. There are numerous cases of journalists being deliberately targeted by law enforcement agencies and at least 125 press freedom violations have been reported since the start of the protests.
Demonstrations have broken out across the world in solidarity with the US protesters and their demands for justice and accountability. Our recently released State of Civil Society Report 2020 highlights the importance of people’s movements in demanding change. CIVICUS supports the right of protesters around the globe to peacefully and safely assemble during lockdown:
“These protests are a call to action to address systemic racism and unprovoked violence experienced by the Black community in the US and beyond. A systemic reckoning with unaddressed notions of white supremacy is needed,” Tiwana continued.
As a matter of urgency, CIVICUS calls on authorities to respect the rights of freedom of assembly and expression. We urge systemic reforms to address police impunity, militarisation and institutional racism. The deliberate targeting of journalists must also end, as must the incendiary language used by President Trump and other politicians.
We also call on law enforcement agencies to stop using violent methods to disperse protesters and call for an investigation into the unwarranted use of force.
CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. We have over 9000 members across the globe. The CIVICUS Monitor is our online platform that tracks threats to the freedoms of assembly, association and expression across 196 countries. Civic space in the United States is currently rated as narrowed by the research and ratings platform.
No country is above scrutiny -- resolution needed for human rights emergency in USA
Statement at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Like so many, we have watched with horror as protesters seeking justice and equality in the US have been met with state-sanctioned violence and their attackers with impunity. Journalists, protest monitors and medical teams alike have been deliberately targeted by law enforcement officials.
We are inspired by worldwide solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests to end systemic racism, and by the changes that the protests have already brought about. Laws have been introduced at the local level. Overdue conversations have begun. But piecemeal modifications are no substitute for systemic change.
Protests worldwide are routinely brutally suppressed, and accountability for violence by law enforcement is rare. This is not unique to the US; nor is systemic racism. But racism and white supremacy are entrenched in the country. Similarly entrenched issues of police violence, impunity and militarization impact harmfully and disproportionately the Black community in the US.
The Human Rights Council has a role to play in addressing both the systemic racism that plagues our institutions, as well as its implications – from over-policed communities, to violence meted out on peaceful protesters, to murder with impunity.
The credibility of the council is at stake. It must show that human rights are universal and no country is above scrutiny for grave human rights violations.
CIVICUS supports a resolution mandating an independent investigation into systemic racism in the US, and into excessive use of force against peaceful protests in US cities since the murder of George Floyd. These measures would bring accountability, justice and equality one small but necessary step closer. As we heard with such power yesterday, individuals, their loved ones, and whole communities have been failed by the national institutions that are supposed to protect them. The international community must step up.
Civic space in the United States is currently rated as Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor
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