LEBANON: ‘The world seems to be starting to forget Syrian refugees’

Serene Dardari resizedCIVICUS speaks about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon with Serene Dardari, Middle East Regional Communications Manager, and Mahmoud Abdullah, Lebanon Bekaa Area Manager of American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera).

Founded in 1968, Anera is a US-registered civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to helping refugees and others hurt by conflicts in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). Working with partners on the ground, it mobilises resources for immediate emergency relief and for sustainable, long-term health, education and economic development.

What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

The human rights situation of Syrian refugees is getting worse by the minute. Freedom to work is almost non-existent. Right from the start Syrians were officially not allowed to work in most sectors, so they typically rely on informal jobs in services, agriculture or construction, where they get no insurance or benefits and are exposed to all kinds of labour abuses.

While the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has always been difficult, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown hit them very hard economically. As well as affecting host communities, the pandemic impacted on Syrian refugees with extra severity. Because Lebanese labour laws relegate refugees to the informal economy, they are dependent on gig work and daily jobs, usually in the service sectors. So they were particularly affected by the shutdown of the entertainment and food industries. 

Because of school closures due to COVID-19 as well as ongoing teachers’ strikes to demand unpaid salaries, Syrian refugees have no place to study. Their freedom of movement has also been affected: everywhere in Lebanon there are notices warning that Syrians are only allowed to move around at certain hours. It’s starting to feel like full-blown segregation.

It should be noted that Lebanon is already extremely segregated politically and religiously and has an extremely toxic and traumatic relationship with Syria. The presence of a large, mostly Sunni Muslim, Syrian community only adds to the political tension, to the point that violent clashes could erupt any time.

With Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, the situation is hard for everyone, both locals and refugees. But on top of struggling economically, refugees are also facing growing xenophobia. Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular. When the Lebanese currency and politics were more stable, someone on an average salary could feed a whole middle-class family, but now they can barely get some petrol for their car. The idea that Syrian refugees are taking everything from Lebanese people is widespread, and reactions are becoming increasingly hostile and violent. When people see international funding going towards Syrian refugees, they get enraged.

Many people think refugees are taking away potential aid that should go to Lebanese people. So on top of the livelihood challenges, refugees also face stigma, negativity and hostility, all of which affects their psyches. This isn’t happening just in Lebanon. Turkey is another example of this. The scenario is the same throughout the region: Syrian refugees are being blamed for everything.

International factors such as fluctuations of the US dollar, political turmoil everywhere and the war in Ukraine are also affecting funding for Syrian refugees. So when it is most needed, funding is going to decrease. We have recently received a message that part of the assistance for Syrian refugees will be cancelled.

Which are the most vulnerable groups of refugees, and why?

Syrian women are for sure the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees, for several reasons. Their access to sexual and reproductive health centres, and to education, is truly low. There’s a general lack of knowledge and awareness of these issues and early marriage is frequent. In refugee camps such as those in Bekaa, Syrian women and girls are often exposed to gender-based and sexual violence. Those living in tent settlements know their chances of reporting sexual harassment and being heard are very, very low. Being a Syrian female refugee in Lebanon means dealing with toxicity and violence at all levels. 

Children and young people are next in terms of their vulnerability. We are talking about early marriage, child labour and no prospects of accessing education or future employment opportunities. They have no access to proper medical attention either. If they get into an accident, they will wait in line for hours to be seen by a doctor. The most dangerous thing, however, is their lack of prospects. 

What is Lebanon’s status regarding international refugee law?

Lebanon hasn’t even signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and is violating refugees’ rights by pushing them to ‘willingly’ go back to Syria. Lebanon should be bound by international law to protect these refugees, not to return them to unsafe territory.

Unlike Turkey, the tents and places where Syrian refugees mostly live in Lebanon are privately owned. These private owners are Lebanese people profiting from refugees, who they make pay rent. They must pay electricity to have one bulb they can switch on and off inside the tents. They must be the only refugees on the planet who have to pay rent for the space they occupy!

These rights violations are enabled by the fact that Lebanon has not signed the Refugee Convention. Syrian refugees are not officially considered refugees, which deprives them of their basic rights as refugees. This grey area is very dangerous.

Refugees themselves aren’t aware of the laws that could protect them. They come from a country where they were never encouraged to inform themselves about and claim their basic human rights – which was one of the reasons they left. Upon arrival in Lebanon, they aren’t informed about their basic rights, so they are mostly unaware of them. And even if they knew what their rights are under international law, they have no guarantee these rights are going to be protected in Lebanon because nothing binds the Lebanese state to that law. 

How does Anera promote the human rights of refugees?

Anera is a humanitarian and development organisation. We are not a rights-based organisation, but we contribute to the protection of the basic human rights of refugees. Our role is to fill in the gaps left by the government to help refugees access education, work and healthcare, among other rights. 

We work across several sectors, from livelihoods to food security. We try to create synergies between them to address several needs at once. We work with refugee families in both the north and south of Lebanon through agriculture support. We provide them with tools and technical education to grow and sell their produce. As for food security, we have programme in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Lebanon that provides hundreds of families with regular food parcels and cash assistance so they can purchase what they need. 

One of our biggest programmes distributes free medicine. Each year we help mobilise medical supply shipments worth millions of dollars from international partners around the world and distribute them to refugee centres.

We work to prevent child marriage through a cash transfer programme, using cash assistance as an incentive for families to keep their girls in school. And throughout our operations, we make sure all our partners abide by all humanitarian guidelines and standards when it comes to child protection and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Towards that end, we offer training and constantly do monitoring work. While we don’t directly provide safe spaces for victims and survivors, we work closely with other CSOs and grassroots groups that do so.

It is worth mentioning that we always take the community aspect into consideration so as to balance things. For instance, our food programme also distributes food to the Lebanese population. 

What challenges do you face?

The political situation in Lebanon is very challenging. The fact that the government often has a hostile attitude towards Syrian refugees and is trying to return them to unsafe territories is a big obstacle. Government corruption also has a negative impact on our work with refugee communities, as it affects us on an organisational and funding level. 

We also face challenges coming from the refugee communities where we work. An example of conflict happened recently in the context of a project on child marriage that we implemented due to the increase in child marriages among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Because of the economic crisis, more families are encouraged to marry off their daughters at a younger age. Our project faced pushback by the refugees themselves. It seems that toxic coping mechanisms such as child marriage are easier for them in the short term.

What support do organisations working with Syrian refugees need from the international community?

Everyone in Lebanon is vulnerable right now: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people. The situation of Syrian refugees is stagnant right now, but everything else is worsening. 

What’s needed is more advocacy and more funding for all communities to balance the help provided and avoid conflict. We need to calm things down and bring stability. We could also use some technical support at a government level when it comes to refugee management.

The narrative around Syrian refugees needs to change so they are not viewed as a burden but as human beings in need of help.

The question all Syrian refugees ask themselves is what’s next. If the situation in Syria doesn’t get better and Syrians are forced to leave Lebanon, they will try to get to Europe, or anywhere else offering some kind of opportunity. We need more global engagement to determine what will happen next. Collective work is vital.

The world seems to be starting to forget these refugees. The topic trended on social media for a while at the beginning but then attention was captured by floods in Nigeria, war in Ukraine and repression in Iran. No one is talking about Syrian refugees anymore.

So much is going on in the planet. There are so many crises erupting all at once. But the fact that new crises are happening doesn’t mean the situation of Syrian refugees has improved and the issue disappeared.

The international community must remember Syrian refugees and the Syrian crisis. Human rights defenders must advocate for the rights of Syrian refugees – because if they don’t, who will?

Please help us change the narrative and remind people of Syrian refugees.


Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Anera through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AneraOrg on Twitter.

 

SOUTH AFRICA: ‘We want to live in an environment that respects women and recognises our human rights’

AmandaNomnqa

As part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks with Amanda Nomnqa about civil society efforts to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.

Amanda is the founder of SheIsBrave, a South African civil society organisation that provides mentorship and empowers young girls and women to gain independence and overcome GBV.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

How big a problem is GBV South Africa?

GBV is the worst pandemic South Africa continues to face. The country exhibits very high rates of GBV that affect not only women but also children and LGBTQI+ people. The social, political and economic situation so many of them live in exposes them to GBV. This violence has robbed many of their lives, freedom, dignity and more. It is a human rights violation that has a huge impact on the social and development progression of survivors.

The criminal justice system doesn’t support victims and survivors. The national police systematically fails to help them: it doesn’t channel enough resources to help victims, and the available resources are misused due to lack of expertise in using them. Analysing DNA takes them too long and many police officers don’t know how to use a rape kit properly. All this perpetuates GBV and makes the fight against it even more difficult. And there is no political will to implement measures and policies to tackle the problem.

What work does your organisation do?

SheIsBrave is an organisation led by womxn and young people founded and registered in 2018, seeking to empower girls and young women by providing formal and non-formal skills so they can successfully compete in the job market and become independent. Most GBV victims become hopeless and we want to make sure they still feel valuable, can acquire skills and can use them to improve their lives. We want them to have access to socio-economic opportunities so they can overcome situations of GBV and escape their damaging consequences.

We also support survivors by helping them get counselling. Getting professional help is very important for mental wellbeing so we want to provide that kind of help.

We also have programmes for young girls and children to teach them about GBV. We provide activities for them to work on their talents and allow them a space to express themselves. Our aim is to show them that certain situations are not normal and are wrong, and empower them so they are confident enough to speak up if they are facing such situations. We also try to equip them so they can carry on the same kind of advocacy work in the future.

We also mobilise in protest to make noise and draw attention to the scourge of GBV in our communities so that those in power finally do something about it.

What challenges do you face?

Our main challenge is the lack of financial and material resources to work with our target communities. Lack of funding has limited the scope of our work because we are forced to focus mostly on zero-budget activities. We depend on fundraising and sometimes have to contribute funds from our own pockets.

There aren’t enough funds in place to support civil society in South Africa, and most of what’s available doesn’t reach the organisations doing the work due to mismanagement and corruption. During the pandemic we saw a rise in GBV cases but the government failed to provide enough funding for shelters, medical help and legal aid to victims and survivors. Lack of government funding affected most organisations that provide support to victims. Unfortunately, this is what most organisations including ours are still going through. Organisational growth has really been limited as a result.

What will you be doing for the 16 Days of Activism campaign?

This year we will be working on the ground. We are hosting public meetings with activists working on the same issues as us. We want to bring awareness about GBV in general and femicide in particular. SheIsBrave is based in a community that considered one of the top three biggest hotspots for GBV in South Africa. So we are taking advantage of this opportunity to share information among community members on how people experiencing abuse can report cases, seek medical attention and access shelters.

We hope that as a result more people will know what to do if they need help. We want them to know that help is available and they should never shy away from reaching out.

We also hope our work will inspire other organisations working on these issues to reach out so we can collaborate in the future. If we speak in one voice, we will be more consistent and more powerful and we stand a better chance of making the government and other stakeholders see that they must urgently address the problem.

We are aware that on this date many other organisations are mobilising to push the government to enact better laws and implement better policies to address GBV and we hope this year our voices will be heard. We want to live in an environment that respects women and recognises our human rights. Our government should commit to helping us in our struggle.


Civic space in the South Africa is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with SheIsBrave through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @sheisbrave_za on Twitter.

 

EUROPE: ‘Delays in dealing with gender-based violence cost women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives’

Eliana Jimeno and Charlotte CramerAs part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks about civil society efforts to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) with Eliana Jimeno and Charlotte Cramer of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).

Founded in 1994, WAVE is a network of organisations from across Europe working to prevent GBV and protect women and children from violence.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

What work does WAVE do?

WAVE is a network of 160 women’s rights civil society organisations (CSOs) working against GBV in European countries. Most of these organisations provide specialised services such as shelters, rape crisis centres and helplines. Some are umbrella organisations that include among their membership groups delivering specialist services to women, while others focus more specifically on research and data collection, and yet others focus on advocacy and campaigning for better legislation at the national level and at the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).

WAVE’s work focuses on three main areas: advocacy, capacity building and data collection. Regarding our advocacy work, we lobby and campaign for better legislation to help fight GBV against women. WAVE is pushing for women’s specialist services all over Europe to be better funded so more women have access to specialist support.

We also focus on capacity building. We provide training for our members so they are better equipped to support women and children exposed to violence. We do this through webinars, conferences and mutual learning exchanges.

We collect data on women’s specialist support services in the 46 countries we operate in and analyse it to identify gaps in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

What challenges have you faced?

We have faced several challenges. The main one has been dealing with the strong anti-gender movement pushing to block the accession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention. Because of the backlash, we have seen governments trying to get away with implementing it only partially, as in the case of Poland, or just completely walking out, as in the case of Turkey.

Anti-gender movements frame their narrative in ways that put feminist CSOs and institutions advancing women’s, children’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights under threat. At a country level, they argue that women’s rights organisations challenge the ‘traditional values’ of the family, for example by demanding access to accessible contraception, or claim they are exposing kids to ‘harmful’ information – a reference to comprehensive sexuality education – in schools. There are also security challenges. Many of our members work in hostile environments and some have been threatened for challenging governments and holding them accountable.

We also face issues regarding data collection and systematisation. Data is collected and codified in different ways in different EU countries, so it is very difficult to collect and compare information regarding women support services, access to sexual and reproductive rights or education. There is no standardised way of tracking GBV cases in Europe – particularly femicide, for which there is no common definition – so we are constantly trying to adapt to collect the data required to advance the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people more effectively.

A positive challenge is weaving our network together. We represent 160 organisations in 46 European countries, some of which are themselves umbrella organisations, which means we are talking about some 1,600 organisations. There is a lot of diversity within our membership, and this creates complexities when it comes to balancing what brings us together as feminist CSOs and our different perspectives due to our different national contexts.

What have you planned for the 16 Days of Activism campaign?

We have released a statement on femicides, one of the main topics of the campaign. We are also emphasising the need to adopt a standardised definition of femicide throughout Europe to better monitor the evolution of the phenomenon and push for the design and implementation of better policies to tackle it. We want to push key stakeholders to act right now, as every delay costs women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a directive to combat violence against women and domestic violence. The draft that was put forward, which resulted from consultations with selected CSOs, is rooted in a criminal law approach and fails to recognise GBV and domestic violence as human rights violations. It is also reactive, focusing on how states should act when violence has already happened rather than on preventing it happening in the first place. During the 16 days of Activism, we will campaign for a directive that enables victims of GBV and domestic violence to exercise their human rights. 

We also plan on having webinars and releasing podcasts to highlight the problem of GBV in Europe, the intersectional harm it causes and the need for better legislation and practices to fight it. Our expectation is that the podcast and webinars will help us reach a larger audience. We will also focus on how the media can tackle GBV through a more sensitive approach.

Additionally, WAVE has prepared a toolkit to make advocacy and campaigning more accessible to young people. The toolkit will serve as a resource to empower them and help them raise their own voices and run their own campaigns in a meaningful, sustainable and creative way.

What should international bodies, particularly the UN, do to contribute to eradicating GBV?

The UN has opened the space for specific conversations to take place on women’s rights, for example on the link between violence against women and child custody procedures. This has been really helpful because feminist CSOs all over the world run programmes and projects and provide specialist services for victims and survivors of violence with very limited resources. They seldom have the resources or logistics capacity to play such a global convening role. WAVE is one example of women’s grassroots organisations seeking to host conversations at a European level, but we are not a global network.

In contrast, the anti-gender movement has a lot of funding as well as a global footing. To be able to compete, we must work extra hard and are still at a disadvantage. So, by bringing in its resources for convening, supporting the work of feminist CSOs and data collection, the UN can to some extent help level the playing field.

In many countries the space for civil society is shrinking, and the UN can play a key role in creating the platforms where we, as feminist CSOs, can have these very important conversations, instead of just giving the space to national governments that are disseminating narratives not reflective of the experiences of survivors of GBV.

Further, we hope accountability will move at the centre of the UN’s work. The UN must hold perpetrators accountable to stop the culture of impunity, including UN staff, such as soldiers serving in UN peacekeeping operations. The UN must send a strong message that it does not tolerate GBV.

Finally, we hope that world leaders, governments, international institutions and CSOs will genuinely and meaningfully work together and take an intersectional approach to achieve the SDGs for world justice and leave no one behind.


 Get in touch with WAVE through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @WAVE_europe on Twitter.

 

GLOBAL HEALTH: ‘On World AIDS Day we remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over’

GastonDevisichCIVICUS speaks with Gastón Devisich, Head of Community Engagement of Fundación Huésped’s Research Department, about the role of civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS, both at the community level and in global governance bodies.

Fundación Huésped is an Argentinian civil society organisation (CSO) that has been working since 1989 on public health, including on the right to health and disease control. It is a member of the regional platform Coalición Plus and, represented by Gastón, one of the two Latin American and Caribbean organisations that are part of the NGO Delegation to the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board.

What have been the results of the latest round of pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and what will be their implications?

The primary goal of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is to make catalytic investments and leverage innovations to drive faster progress in reducing new infections, address structural barriers to improving outcomes for these pandemics and build equity, sustainability and lasting impact. Its new strategy places people and communities front and centre in all its work, challenging power dynamics to ensure that affected communities have a voice in the fight and opportunities for a healthy future.

The Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment has brought in a total of US$15.7 billion. It was the culmination of a successful campaign that began more than a year ago. It is a remarkable achievement, not only because several public and private donors increased their pledges, in many cases by more than 30 per cent, but also because a record number of implementing governments – at least 20 – have stepped up to become donors as well.

This support will be dedicated to saving 20 million lives, averting 450 million new infections and generating new hope for ending AIDS, TB and malaria. This investment will also strengthen health and community systems to increase resilience to future crises.

Given its central role in the fight against pandemics, the Global Fund also plans to continue contributing to the global pandemic preparedness agenda in coordination with the World Health Organization, the World Bank and other partners.

What role does civil society have in the governance of UNAIDS?

The Joint United Nations (UN) Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, was the first UN programme to have formal civil society representation on its governing body. The participation of CSOs on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board is critical to the effective inclusion of community voices in this key global policy forum in the area of HIV/AIDS.

The NGO Delegation is composed of five CSOs, three from developing countries and two from developed countries or countries with economies in transition, plus five more acting as alternate members. Our purpose is to bring the perspectives and experience of people living with HIV/AIDS and those populations particularly affected by the pandemic, as well as civil society, to ensure that UNAIDS is guided by an equitable, rights-based, gender-sensitive approach to ensuring access to comprehensive HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment, care and support for all people.

The existence of a community delegation within the highest governance body of a programme such as UNAIDS is critical to ensure the meaningful involvement of populations most affected by HIV at all levels of policy and programme development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Strengthening meaningful community engagement fosters a relationship of greater trust and respect with those of us who are the direct beneficiaries of any programme or policy.

The involvement of all stakeholders, provided it is transparent and based on mutual understanding, can minimise misunderstandings and reduce the likelihood of unnecessary conflict or controversy. This helps improve our access to rights and the provision of quality services necessary to ensure it, as well as addressing power inequalities between decision-makers and the community to establish more equitable and horizontal relationships.

Why is it important to incorporate the voices of communities in decision-making spaces?

There is an urgent need to develop additional strategies to address the HIV epidemic. A wide range of factors create, intensify and perpetuate the impact of the virus and its underlying determinants may be rooted in the cultural, legal, institutional and economic fabric of society.

To achieve a comprehensive response to HIV, it is essential to recognise power imbalances and address them by developing practices that prevent their inadvertent replication or reinforcement throughout the implementation of programmes and policies.

Local organisations have unique expertise to contribute to the HIV response. We have critical knowledge and understanding of local cultures, perspectives and language, the local dynamics of the HIV epidemic, the concerns of the most vulnerable or marginalised populations and local priorities that other stakeholders may not necessarily have. The community can help ensure that the goals and procedures of HIV response are appropriate and acceptable for them, in order to avoid reinforcing existing inequalities.

What does Fundación Huésped’s work consist of, both at the national level and within this global space?

Our comprehensive approach includes the development of research, practical solutions and communication related to public health policies in Argentina and Latin America. We seek to develop scientific studies and preventive actions and advocate for rights to guarantee access to health and reduce the impact of diseases, with a focus on HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, vaccine-preventable diseases and other communicable diseases, as well as sexual and reproductive health.

As representatives of civil society in UNAIDS, we actively seek the views of our communities on key issues related to UNAIDS policies and programmes, and advocate with governments and cosponsoring organisations – 10 UN organisations that make up the UNAIDS Joint Programme – for significant improvements in the implementation and evaluation of HIV/AIDS policies and programmes.

What challenges do organisations working on HIV/AIDS face and what support do they need to continue doing their work?

The HIV agenda is still current, with new challenges and the persistence of stigma, discrimination and rights violations. Forty years after the first cases of HIV were reported in the world, and thanks to scientific advances, the implementation of policies, plans and programmes, civil society activism and human rights achievements, there are more and better strategies available to control the virus, which could end AIDS today. Yet this year there were 1.5 million new HIV cases and 680,000 new AIDS-related deaths worldwide – including 110,000 cases and 52,000 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean.

World AIDS Day, 1 December, is our annual opportunity to remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over. Over the past 40 years science has generated much innovation, but these benefits do not reach all people equally. The best science in the world cannot compete with the debilitating effects of poor health systems. To end AIDS we need to correct the course of the HIV response, starting with ending inequities. A better response is needed today. We cannot afford to waste any more time.


Get in touch with Fundación Huésped through its website or Facebook page, and follow @FundHuesped on Twitter.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Civil society is an important pillar in work with the migrant population’

CarmenAidaFariaCIVICUS speaks with Carmen Aida Faria, director of Fundación Manitas Amarillas (Little Yellow Hands Foundation), about the difficulties faced by Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and the work being done by civil society to facilitate their access to rights.

Manitas Amarillas is a Colombian civil society organisation (CSO) formed in 2018, in the context of mass Venezuelan migration to Colombia, to provide humanitarian assistance, access to health services and counselling to migrants and refugees.

How has the situation of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia changed in recent years?

Migration flows into Colombia have changed over time. The 2015 wave of Venezuelan migration was very important, but the number of migrants increased over the following years, peaking in 2017. Compared to the previous wave, this one included a lot more people in vulnerable situation.

The new arrivals needed immediate healthcare and access to other fundamental rights that the system could not provide. Colombia did not have the infrastructure or the financial resources to respond, particularly in border areas, where local populations also experience deficits in access to education and healthcare, among other rights.

Migrants in vulnerable situations were also unable to receive monetary aid through the Colombian government’s social assistance programmes or enter the subsidised health system. To access social programmes, people must have a regular migration status.

In addition to a permanent migrant population, there is also the population in border areas that constantly crosses the border back and forth to access certain services. For instance, many children who live in Venezuela go to school in Colombia and are not included in school food programmes. There are organisations working specifically to ensure these children have access to food, as they arrive with significant nutritional problems.

These processes created a demand for the community, but above all for the Colombian state, to respond to. And the country began to operate under a logic of solidarity and gratitude: Colombians remember that in the past it was Venezuela that received Colombian migrants. Thus, the government began to grant special residence permits to regularise this population in some way. But the definite milestone was the Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPMV), approved in 2021 under an essentially humanitarian logic.

What did the implementation of this new policy entail?

The ETPMV implied temporary regularisation so that Venezuelans could benefit from the same rights and have the same duties as Colombian nationals. Upon receiving an identity document called a Temporary Protection Permit, migrants have the possibility of accessing the health system and the labour market, among other rights.

Theoretically, the mechanism is well thought out. However, putting it into practice has been hard. Many people have been left out: more than 2.4 million migrants have registered in the Single Registry for Venezuelan Migrants, but there are still more than a million who, having completed the full process, have not received their permit.

Some people applied for the permit in September 2021, more than a year ago, and have consulted Migración Colombia, the authority for migration control and monitoring, but still do not know what has happened to their application. Some have not received their permits due to logistical problems: this is a highly mobile population and when they change addresses it is often not possible to locate them to deliver the documentation.

But it is also the case that difficulties continue once the permit has been obtained. This is an indication of deeper problems. When Venezuelans go with their permit to open a bank account or register with the health system, they are often rejected. The Temporary Protection Permit is a new document and many institutions, both public and private, are not yet familiar with it. A lot of education is needed to make these rights effectively accessible.

The ETPMV was supposed to prioritise the most vulnerable population groups. The first to receive their permits were supposed to be people in need of immediate medical attention and children and adolescents who needed them to enter the education system due to lack of identity papers. This ultimately did not happen, to such an extent that legal appeals have had to be filed to ensure access to healthcare for people with chronic illnesses or other conditions in need of immediate attention.

How is Colombian civil society supporting Venezuelan migrants?

Since the last big wave of migration in 2017, many CSOs have emerged. It was the migrant community itself that first began to get together to help other migrants. We started giving food out on the street and providing humanitarian assistance to walkers, as we call the people moving on foot through Colombian territory, who did not have basic information or even warm enough clothing to withstand Colombia’s climate.

CSOs have become an important pillar in work with the migrant population, because we are on the ground and we know the problems migrants have.

Currently, many CSOs are working together in coordination with the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá and promoting several joint initiatives. We have launched public campaigns and signed a symbolic pact to promote integration, because Venezuelan migrants in Colombia continue to suffer from xenophobia and discrimination as a result of their poverty. We have asked the media to stop mentioning the nationality of crime perpetrators, because they only do so when the person involved is a foreigner, thus overstating the problem and contributing to discrimination against Venezuelans.

We are also participating, in collaboration with the Colombian government and international cooperation agencies, in the first ‘Entregatón’, a massive permit delivery operation aimed at distributing 40,000 permits in five days. Migración Colombia has sent messages via mobile phone to migrants whose documents are ready, notifying them of the date and place where they can pick them up.

But in addition to handing out the documents, as part of the operation, enrolment and biometric registration services are being provided for those who have not yet completed these stages of the process. People who have already received their permits are also offered vaccination services, access to healthcare providers, registration with the social assistance system, legal support and information on various other issues, from the transportation system to school access to programmes targeted at migrant women.

There is so much work and CSOs are contributing enormously. The government and international cooperation agencies should take us into account not only as sources of diagnoses of migration issues, but also as partners when it comes to jointly implementing public policies arising from those diagnoses.


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

Get in touch with Manitas Amarillas through its website or Facebook page, and follow @MANITASAMARI on Twitter.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Lack of regular migration status imposes barriers to accessing rights’

Jessica Corredor Villamil and Lina ArroyaveCIVICUS speaks with Jessica Corredor Villamil and Lina Arroyave about the situation of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia. Jessica is the director of and Lina a researcher in Dejusticia’s international team.

Dejusticia is a centre for legal and social studies based in Bogotá, Colombia, dedicated to promoting human rights in Colombia and the global south. It promotes social change through action-research, developing public policy proposals, advocacy campaigns and strategic litigation.

How has Colombia changed its legal framework to accommodate Venezuelan migration?

There are currently three ways in which Venezuelan nationals can obtain the status that allows them to stay in Colombia for extended periods: visas, refugee status and the Temporary Protection Status for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPMV).

The ETPMV was established in 2021 to address the situation of mass migration from Venezuela. It has two main objectives: to identify the Venezuelan migrant population and regularise their migratory situation. To this end, two mechanisms are envisaged. The first is the Single Registry of Venezuelan Migrants, which collects personal and socio-economic data of those who register, administered by Migración Colombia, the authority in charge of migration control and surveillance. The second is the Temporary Protection Permit, which authorises its holders to stay in Colombia for 10 years and allows them to access the health, social security, education and financial systems, validate their diplomas, work and leave and re-enter the country.

Those in Colombia who have regular status, who have requested refuge but have not yet received a response, who entered the country irregularly before 31 January 2021, who have entered the country regularly after May 2021, or do so before late May 2023 are all eligible for temporary protected status. After that cut-off date, it will only be available to children and adolescents.

Even so, people are not guaranteed temporary protected status if they meet all the requirements, since it is granted at the discretion of Migración Colombia.

How has the ETPMV system worked during its first year?

The process has taken longer than expected, falling short of the goal set by the previous government of delivering 1.8 million identification documents by 2022.

According to data from Migración Colombia, as of November 2022 about 2.5 million people have entered their data in the Single Registry for Venezuelan Migrants and 1.6 million permits have been approved.

This gap is worrying because lack of regular migration status imposes barriers to accessing fundamental rights and hinders the socio-economic integration of migrants.

In addition, many people did not register because they were unable to regularise their migration status. The ETPMV was only available to those in an irregular situation who had entered Colombia before 31 January 2021. This time limitation ignores the fact that irregular migration continues, largely because of the impossibility of obtaining official documents in Venezuela. Irregular status is assumed to be the result of individual decisions, when it is usually results from the impossibility of complying with the requirements imposed.

What integration barriers do Venezuelan migrants face in Colombia?

In a recent report we identified multiple barriers to accessing and remaining in the formal labour market, as well as for setting up a business.

The main legal barrier is lack of regular migration status. The thousands of people who continue to enter Colombia through informal border crossings are denied access to temporary protected status. This has an impact on both formalising their employment and access to entrepreneurship support funds, particularly from the state, but also from the private sector. A majority of self-employed migrant workers work in the informal sector.

Widespread ignorance among employers of migration legislation imposes additional barriers. For instance, many are unaware that the validation of university degrees is only required for professions that involve high social risk, such as medicine, or that are regulated by the state, such as architecture or law, for which all applicants must follow a process to validate their diplomas and have professional cards issued. This procedure requires an official certificate that must be obtained in Venezuela, and those who are already in Colombia face immense difficulties in securing this.

There are also social and cultural factors that can affect the employment situation. Negative perceptions of the Venezuelan migrant population affect recruitment processes. Xenophobia and discrimination deepen in situations of insecurity, although there is no evidence of links between migration and increased crime.

Lack of social capital – such as well-placed contacts and job references – is also a problem for migrants.

Additional obstacles make it difficult for migrant workers to remain in the formal economy. For example, many banks refuse to open savings accounts for Venezuelan migrants. They not only require them to prove their regular migration status but also demand an up-to-date passport, which they usually don’t have. Similar challenges come with some health insurers, pension funds and occupational risk insurance companies.

As a result, to earn an income many migrants are forced into precarious jobs and exploitative working conditions, including extremely long working hours, sub-minimum wages, mistreatment and changes in agreed working conditions. In 2019, the average monthly income of a Venezuelan migrant was less than the legal minimum wage, and the wage gap compared to Colombian nationals was more than 30 percentage points.

What is Dejusticia doing to promote migrants’ rights?

As a civil society organisation, we carry out research on migrants’ access to rights that we use to influence decision-making processes on migration policy and formulate public policy recommendations. In the research process leading to our report on the labour inclusion of Venezuelan migrants, for example, we organised an event to which we invited various stakeholders, including government agencies, to work on recommendations. Also, when a new government took office in August 2022, we produced a series of recommendations, in partnership with other organisations.

We also develop strategic litigation and communications campaigns, and work with other organisations, both nationally, regionally and in other regions of the global south, to address the migration phenomenon from a broader perspective.

What support from the international community do organisations defending the rights of migrants in Colombia need?

It is important for the international community to shed visibility on and support the processes that are taking place in relation to the rights of Venezuelan migrants. But it is also very important that the support of the international community covers other migratory flows and takes into account the problems happening on the Colombia-Panama border, crossed by migrants of various nationalities trying to head towards the USA.

It is also important for the international community to remind the Colombian government of the commitments it has made by ratifying treaties and adopting international standards on migration and refugees.


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

Get in touch with Dejusticia through its website or Facebook page and follow @DeJusticia and @JessCorredorV on Twitter.

 

MEXICO: ‘Legal change on LGBTQI+ rights does not bring instant social change’

Erika VenaderoCIVICUS speaks with Erika Venadero about the recent extension of same-sex marriage rights to all of Mexico’s states and the ongoing campaign to realise LGBTQI+ rights in Mexico. Erika is a sexual diversity human rights activist in the state of Jalisco and a member of the National Network of Diverse Youth (RNJD), a coalition of LGBTQI+ youth rights groups from across Mexico.

What work does RNJD do?

RNJD is a space that was born out of the 2019 Consultative Youth Parliament, where a Youth Law was discussed.

As young people we had no legal recognition. We had never been considered as subjects of rights. The people in charge of making the laws and dictating the rules according to which we should lead our lives are adults, even quite old adults, and mostly men. Not surprisingly, they do not understand and prioritise our interests and needs, and instead legislate for adults, and especially for adult men. Hence the need to demand that we be recognised as young people and, above all, as diverse young people.

Only recently has our network become formalised as a civil association. We are only three years old. Nevertheless, we have engaged in the recent process to legalise same-sex marriage.

While most of us don’t wish to enter into a civil union, proving our relationship to a public official with signatures and other formalities, we know there are people who wish to have this experience, and exclusion from this right is accompanied by many other forms of exclusions Even if we don’t want this, or don’t want it at this point in our lives, we know that other LGBTQI+ people do, and that the denial of this right is part of what makes LGBTQI+ people second-class citizens.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage like, and what role did civil society play in it?

The struggle for the recognition of the symbolic union between two people who love each other – simply two people, as the current law puts it, without any gender markers – began many years ago, and progressed thanks to the work of individuals and groups who pushed to extend this right to all people.

LGBTQI+ people are treated as second-class citizens simply because we do not comply with socially established norms that privilege heterosexual relationships. Laws are written and implemented, and all political and social spaces are created, occupied and run by heterosexual people. So this struggle began with a reflection about our lack of representation and visibility in various spaces: personal, political, social and work-related, among others. We have the right to live a full life, but the hegemonic practices that are imposed on us prevent us from living a free life due to the simple fact that we are who we are and love who we love.

The legalisation of equal marriage in Mexico has been a victory for civil society, and specifically for LGBTQI+ collectives and their allies working with LGBTQI+ people day in and day out. Through their daily work on the streets and in every space, they shifted opinions and reached agreements for the recognition of our rights to be taken forward to the political level of decision making.

That is why RNJD has been present throughout the process, from the early drafts of the law to parliamentary debates and votes. These are debates that can go on for a long time. As they deal with ‘sensitive’ issues, some political sectors will try to postpone votes indefinitely in the hope that the issue will fade into oblivion. That is why it was important for RNJD to stand firm to demand these bills be discussed and voted on. We will continue to stand firm for the laws to be implemented.

Have you faced anti-rights campaigns or any other form of backlash?

Every time LGBTQI+-related news comes out, the response is an avalanche of diversophobic comments. Our very nature makes some people uncomfortable. All our lives we have been forced to live under heterosexual norms, so we have faced anti-rights expressions for as long as we can remember.

During the recent process to change the law we have faced an intense anti-rights campaign. Not only do anti-rights groups insult and attack us, they also denounce our publications on social media and have sometimes managed to have them removed. We activists suffer constant personal attacks and our social media accounts are frequently blocked. In my case, for instance, an anti-rights group once attacked me so much and reported my profile so many times that Facebook took it down. It’s really hard to understand what it is that bothers them so much.

Lots of people express hatred towards us. Many keep close watch of everything we do and every single thing we upload, both on the RNJD page and on our personal accounts.

Clearly people already know who we are and what we do. The network is extremely active and visible in social, political and cultural spheres. We have had very tense internal discussions about the double-edge sword of visibility. Our work has made us visible to both those who hate us and those who are willing to get information, learn about our work, understand what we are about and eventually support us. I prefer to focus on those who come to us for information rather than those who throw their hatred at us.

To confront anti-rights movements and hate speech, our strategy is to generate alternative narratives. We even use humour to disarm their arguments. For instance, we suggest that they love the traditional heterosexual family so much that they feel like having two of those – a reference to infidelities and what is colloquially known in Mexico as the ‘big house’ and the ‘small house’. These response mechanisms have helped us provoke dialogue.

What are the next steps after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Jalisco?

The idea that equal marriage is now legal in all Mexican states and LGBTQI+ people can marry just about everywhere is simply not true.

Although the bill has been voted into law in Jalisco, the civil registry manual continues to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. As long as local legislators do not change this, many civil registry officials will continue to resort to this text to deny LGBTQI+ people access to equal marriage.

In addition, several Mexican states have passed and implemented equal marriage laws years ago, despite which many obstacles still remain. Legal change does not bring instant social change. Hence the importance of continuing to focus on cultural change. Laws can change very quickly, and they do change overnight, but culture does not, and we must not forget that those who manage civil registries are people who have been socialised in a certain culture. Even if they are public servants and must apply the rules emanating from the state, they may also have particular religious or moral convictions. Changing these takes time. The process of cultural change is extremely slow, but we need it to happen to unlock all the locks.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Mexico, and what else needs to change?

LGBTQI+ people in Mexico face many, many challenges, largely as a product of overlapping vulnerabilities and inequalities. For example, the same issues that affect women in general also affect LGBTQI+ women: the fact that we are lesbian, bisexual or transgender does not mean that we are not women and cannot become pregnant. But in most of Mexico it is still not legal to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, despite what the Supreme Court has said about it.

Another huge problem in Mexico is that of enforced disappearances. Jalisco, my state, is one of the states with the highest numbers of disappeared people – and LGBTQI+ people are among the disappeared.

Another pending issue is the Care Act, currently blocked in Congress. LGBTQI+ people need safe spaces to inhabit, grow up and grow old. All our research, all our statistics indicate that LGBTQI+ people in Mexico are alone and largely unsupported.

A specific problem for LGBTQI+ people is so-called ‘conversion therapies’. These consist of inhumane and degrading acts aimed at suppressing diverse sexual orientation, that is, aimed at eliminating our true selves. I have personally experienced ‘corrective rape’. My aggressors, people who claimed to be followers of the word of God, told me that they were ‘making me a woman’.

Centres offering ‘conversion therapy’ operate throughout Mexico and do so legally. Legislation is currently being discussed at the national level to put an end to these therapies, but in the meantime these places continue to operate. In Jalisco, the centres that carry out these practices only need to register and pay a monthly fee. A simple formality and payment enables them to commit countless atrocities.

Another pending issue is that of the recognition of gender identity, especially regarding children. Several states have laws granting trans people legal recognition of their self-perceived identity, but many more have not yet started moving in that direction.

As much as we continue to fight and mobilise, we may not see all these changes materialise, in which case we will have done it for the generations coming after us. We are creating spaces for the future in the same way that others did for us since the 1980s. We will make sure that things keep moving forward.


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

Get in touch with the National Network of Diverse Youth through its Facebook page and follow @RNJF20 and @kika_venadero on Twitter.

 

UK: ‘Women in ethnic minority communities are often treated like second-class citizens’

Halaleh TaheriAs part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks about gender-based violence and civil society efforts to eradicate it with Halaleh Taheri, founder and Executive Director of the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSo).

Founded in 2010, MEWSo is a London-based civil society organisation (CSO) run by and for women from ethnic minority communities of mostly Middle Eastern, North African and Asian backgrounds.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

What work does MEWSo do?

MEWSo was founded with the aim of supporting women, especially those displaced from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, in London. We help women who are vulnerable and have no access to resources that will help them. Our services include advice and support on issues of domestic abuse and violence. We offer women assistance to navigate court procedures and help them seek refuge. Over the past few years we have worked a lot with migrant women because their situation is very hard. When they are faced with domestic violence and want to leave their homes, we support them emotionally, with accommodation and with their status with Home Office.

We also offer free workshops to help improve women’s skills and empower them. We bring in specialists to give talks about mental and physical wellbeing so women can gain the confidence to leave the abusive spaces they find themselves in. Every year we tackle about 300 cases of domestic violence. We have five advisors working in different languages to accommodate those who struggle with English.

We have created three campaigns. One is Polygamy Matters, which we run jointly with Greenwich University. It is aimed at empowering women to be independent. Another one is End Virginity Myth. We first formed a coalition against virginity testing; now both virginity testing and hymenoplasty have been banned, but the reality is that communities still continue practising it, so the campaign continues.

A third campaign focused on the rights of LGBTQI+ people. LGBTQI+ issues are a big taboo in our communities and people suffer a lot of abuse from their families and community members. We have a range of projects to support them and ensure that they remain safe in their communities and live the life they deserve.

Finally, we are part of two coalitions, Solidarity Knows No Borders Network and Step Up Migrant Women, advocating for the rights of migrant women and providing protection to those in abusive situations.

What challenges have you faced in your work?

We have faced several challenges. One of them is that in our communities the government has for years left people in the hands of community leaders. These leaders do not have a proper connection with women and children because they are driven by patriarchal values. They tend to lead people based on the most oppressive traits of their culture and enforce religious practices that exclude women and children. Women are often treated like second-class citizens and find it difficult to exercise their freedom. We have seen women trying to get out of abusive marriages being denied their request by their communities’ leadership. Community leaders should not have that much power over people because they are misusing it.

Because of the nature of our work, community leaders have tried to make it difficult for us to reach certain vulnerable women and girls. They very rarely encounter someone who challenges them and if they see you as a threat, they immediately start making your work difficult. Nonetheless, we have been able to continue doing our work, finding ways to bring safety to women and children.

Another challenge is that some of the women we help end up going back to their abusive partners because they are under pressure or have been abandoned by family and community. Sometimes there is no support with accommodation available and they worry they may end up in the street. Despite all our efforts, loyalty to family and fear of punishment makes them want to stay in abusive relationships. When faced with these situations, we continue creating spaces so that women can gradually gain the confidence to be free.

Finally, we don’t have enough access to resources to help us carry out our work. Unfortunately, we can only offer limited support to women seeking safety.

What are you doing for the #16DaysOfActivism campaign?

This year, our efforts to raise awareness about women’s rights are focused on showing solidarity to the women’s liberation movement in Iran. Over the past two months Iranian women have spoken up and protested against the oppression they face, sacrificing their life for freedom. I am originally a Kurdish freedom fighter from the 1979 revolution in Iran. I have lived four decades in exile and rebuilt my life in different countries. I am passionate about and active in the women’s liberation movement, following all the news and analysis of the recent uprising in Iran. For this reason, we have organised an international event, Raise Your Voice International Women's Conference, that will be held on 28 November and will feature speakers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine, where women face similar issues as a result of religious restrictions.

What should the international community do to contribute to eradicating gender-based violence?

Countless women around the world are being discriminated against socially, economically and politically. Cases of abuse and femicide are on the rise and there are few mechanisms in place to stop them. Unaddressed issues range from forced marriage and female genital mutilation to unemployment and lack of health and educational resources.

We cannot stand it anymore; we need governments and international bodies to take action. The United Nations has many member states who are mistreating their citizens. These states attend meetings and are given a global platform although they are doing a miserable job at home. They shouldn’t have such privileges when they are torturing and executing women.

The protests in Iran and the actions of resistance in Afghanistan and elsewhere are showing that people, and specifically women, are taking charge and fighting for their freedom. Women in many places are connected because they carry the same pain and so it is only natural for them to unite to fight against their common oppressor. Women’s liberation movements are making it globally known that freedom is women’s natural right and they are willing to claim it. They are fed up with the empty promises that governments and international bodies have repeatedly made to fight against gender-based violence. This year cannot be one of further promises – it has to be one of action.

https://myanmar-now.org/en/news/election-officials-censor-parties-campaign-speeches-like-the-dictatorship-did


Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with MEWSo through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @MewsOrg on Twitter.

 

MALAYSIA: ‘Young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers

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CIVICUS speaks with Tharma Pillai, co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18.

A youth civil society organisation (CSO) born out of the student movement, Undi18 successfully advocated for the amendment of article 119(1) of Malaysia’s Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age, allowing people over 18 to vote in the 19 November 2022 election.

How did Undi18 start and what was your objective?

In 2016, my co-founder and I were both studying in the USA and that year’s election inspired us. I came from a sciences and technology background, where most people don’t really care about these things. But seeing democracy in action and our US classmates engage with the electoral process made us reflect on our inability to vote in our home country, Malaysia. It was quite interesting that because they had the right to vote, they felt the responsibility of helping choose the best possible leader for their country.

We started thinking of ways to replicate these practices and bring this kind of energy into Malaysian university campuses. It was only natural for us to focus on the right to vote because voting age in Malaysia was 21, which meant that a high proportion of college students were ineligible to vote. This did not happen in the USA, where the minimum voting age is 18. By 2016, some of our US classmates were voting for the second time in their lives, while I had never yet had the chance. We thought that would have to change 

When we did our research, we realised that our demand was not radical at all, and in fact it was long overdue. We were one of only eight countries in the entire world with a minimum voting age as high as 21. We launched Undi18 – which means ‘Vote18’ – as soon as we came back to Malaysia. Our single focus was on the amendment of article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

What tactics did you use to campaign for change?

To make sure we had a stronger voice, in the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.

At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story. We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings.

Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.

In addition to the digital campaign, we started off a petition and a memorandum to the prime minister. Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation. But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.

How did you engage with the parliamentary process?

As soon as the new government was inaugurated, we tried to convince them to introduce an amendment bill, but there were challenges. No constitutional amendment had ever been passed in Malaysia by a government without a parliamentary supermajority of two thirds, and this new government only had a simple majority. It took a year for the government to finally greenlight the
initiative.

But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.

Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

Were there any implementation challenges?

There were postponements and delays. The agreement with the opposition was that the law would be implemented within two years. The two-year timeline was unusual, but necessary due to the technical difficulties entailed by the new automatic voter registration system.

Repeated promises were made that this would be done by July 2021.But another change of government slowed things down, as the new government thought young voters would vote against it. In March 2021, it announced implementation would be postponed until September 2022 at the earliest, but it didn’t provide a clear date.

We campaigned against this postponement and held protests across Malaysia, which grew to include larger issues fuelling public anger, including the economic situation, the shutdown of parliament and the poor management of the COVID-19 health crisis. We also sued the government. We filed a judicial review against the prime minister, the Election Commission and the government of Malaysia for postponing the implementation of the UNDI18 Bill beyond the due date. The High Court decided in our favour and ordered the federal government to implement the bill by 31 December 2021. Due to public pressure that was sustained thanks to the protests, the government decided against appealing the verdict and complied. As a result, the bill was finally implemented on 15 December 2021, and when the updated voter rolls were published one month later an additional 5.8 million voters had been included in the system and 18-year-olds could officially vote in the next election.

What were the main elements of the amendment?

The amendment had three components. First, it lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Second, it also lowered the minimum running age to 18, meaning you could become an elected member of parliament at that age. And third, it established automatic voter registration for anyone turning 18.

The 2022 elections were the first in which people between 18 and 21 cast their ballots. An additional 5.8 million new voters were added to the electoral roll issued in January 2022. Malaysia being a country of 33 million, this was quite a number.

In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world – a 93-year-old man. Now for the first time, young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers. This is why youth turnout is a key element to watch when analysing the results of this election.

Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.

What more needs to be done to make policymaking more inclusive of younger people?

I think Malaysia needs political rejuvenation, and that can be done through education. Our society gives too much power to older people, who of course don’t want to let go of it, whether it’s in government, civil society, politics, or business. To change things, you must train young leaders – but nobody is doing this kind of work. At Undi18 we are doing our best to fill that gap so that young people can take up the space, gain power and get ready to be the country’s next leaders.

We strongly believe that informed voters are integral to democratic success, so we have been working with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to advance educational programmes to address this issue systemically. We want educational curricula to emphasise democracy so the democratisation process beginsin schools. Some topics such as constitutional rights, human rights and the functions of the parliament are already in the syllabus, but they’re not emphasised enough.

We also have our own programmes. We run outreach campaigns on social media platforms. We are quite active there as most of our target audience is there. We also run outreach programmes in schools and universities to educate students about their rights. And we have corporate, civil society, government and international partners to ensure we reach as many people as possible.


Civic space in Malaysia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Undi18 through its website and follow @UNDI18MY and @TharmaPillai on Twitter.

 

NAMIBIA: ‘There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies’

Screenshot 20221125 152931CIVICUS speaks with Rinaani Musutua of the Economic and Social Justice Trust (ESJT) about thee resistance of communities in the Okavango River Basin in Southern Africa against oil and gas exploration by the Canadian company ReconAfrica.

Founded in 2012, ESJT is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes social and economicr ights in Namibia and has been part of the coalition mobilising against ReconAfrica’s extractivep roject.

What are your concerns regarding ReconAfrica’s operations in the Okavango River Basin?

The Okavango River Basin, known in Namibia as the Kavango, flows from Angola through northern Namibia and empties out into the Okavango Delta in northwest Botswana. We first heard that ReconAfrica, an oil and gas company headquartered in Canada, had a petroleum exploration licence there in 2020. We were never informed when it sought and obtained its exploration licence and environmental clearance certificate. We looked it up and found it strange that the company received its environmental clearance certificate on a public holiday in Namibia. This makes us wonder who authorised its operations.

Communities in the Kavango region have never been consulted by ReconAfrica. This is worrying because, according to the law, to get to their environmental and clearance certificate companies must first consult with the people who live in the places they wish to operate in. But locals were never informed about the pros and cons of the project and had no idea what the project was about. Only recently did ReconAfrica hold one meeting with community members, after we complained. But even after this meeting, community members were confused about the project because the information provided wasn’t detailed or clear enough.

ReconAfrica decided to apply for land rights after civil society activists and organisations started questioning its legitimacy to operate and occupy land in the region. Prior to this it claimed to have received permission from traditional chiefs, but when media and activists approached them, the chiefs denied it. As it stands, the company is illegally occupying communal land and should be charged for it, but the government doesn’t seem to care.

How will local communities be affected if the project goes ahead?

The Kavango region is home to many communities, including the Indigenous San, who make their living from farming and fishing, and many more that rely on the water that flows from the Okavango Delta. ReconAfrica’s activities threatens the habitat of several wildlife species and could potentially contaminate the water people and animals depend on.

ReconAfrica has been drilling very close to the Omatako River, which is ephemeral due to the low average annual rainfall. It looks like there is not activity, but scientists have confirmed there is activity underneath the river.

When the company was conducting its seismic surveys, many local communities complained that their homes and croplands were damaged due to negligence by drivers. When people complained, ReconAfrica used local people to manipulate community members into signing papers without explaining the content. It was later found that the signed papers gave the company the right to pass through their crops and because of this those affected haven’t been compensated for their loss.

Unfortunately, works continue because our government supports the company. There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies at the expense of local communities. 

How is civil society mobilising against oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Kavango region?

As civil society we have held public meetings to inform people about the potential danger of this project. ESJT teamed up with other Namibian CSOs to petition the government to halt ReconAfrica’s activities immediately. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources conducted an investigation but didn’t do such a good job because it failed to go to affected areas. Most of its meetings were held in town and people from the affected areas weren’t able to attend because they don’t have resources to travel to town.

We have also written a lot of newspaper articles highlighting the dangers of ReconAfrica’s activity.

Since we are not able hold public meetings all over Namibia, we are hopeful that these articles will reach people so they can stay informed.

Together with other local and international CSOs we have released a joint statement calling on the Namibian government to examine the oil and gas exploration activities taking place in the Kavango region. We have also complained about ReconAfrica to the Canadian authorities authorities, who started investigating the company. What was disappointing, however, is that it did not investigate ReconAfrica’s environmental and human rights violations in the Kavango region, but only its potentially fraudulent stock market business.

Unfortunately, it seems like our demands are falling on deaf ears. People have accused us of being against development. This makes it difficult for us to unite against ReconAfrica and the government, because they know we don’t have everyone’s full support.

What kind of support from international civil society and the wider international community would help the movement?

Fortunately, international organisations such as Re:wild have expressed support for our fight and brought awareness to what is going on in the Kavango region. Prince Harry Harry has also shown support for our fight against ReconAfrica and its activities.

But beyond international support, we still need people in the Kavango region to also stand up and speak against this project. Right now, most people organising the resistance are based in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. People in the Kavango region should mobilise so the government can see this is an urgent matter that affects them. We need resources to continue delivering workshops to inform people about the dangers of this project. Our work is limited because we aren’t adequately equipped.


Get in touch with Economic and Social Justice Trust through its website or its Facebook page,and follow @esjtnam on Twitter.

 

CIVIL SOCIETY: ‘Music can be an entry point because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you’

Darcy AtamanCIVICUS speaks with Darcy Ataman, founder and CEO of Make Music Matter, a civil society organisation based in Canada that uses the creative process as a therapeutic tool to help empower excluded groups and people.

Music isn’t necessarily the first thing people associate with civil society work. How do you use music as part of your work?

We use music for two main purposes. One is the healing of trauma, and particularly of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The second is to create opportunities or vectors for advocacy. We do all this through our Healing in Harmony music therapy programme.

We work with groups, usually of 10 to 25 people. Working as a group brings safety, especially when you’re in the creative process of singing and writing. But we don’t work with groups so large that participation gets diluted and ceases to be effective.

We always recruit participants through local partnerships. All operational staff are local and Indigenous, wherever we work. And programmes are set up to fit into a larger care model. For example, our flagship site is at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Patients come to us from the hospital: women who come in for surgery get their physical healing and then get referred to us for mental, psychological and spiritual healing before going back to their villages.

In eastern DRC there are lots of survivors of sexual violence, due to way sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war there. But trauma can come in a multitude of ways and our results are always the same.

What we do is build little recording studios wherever we operate and insert our programme into a larger holistic care model. People come in twice a week. They work for about an hour with a local music producer in tandem with a local therapist.

It’s a four-month cycle: for the first three months they go through the creative process of writing and recording an album, just like any other artist. While that is happening, we interject cognitive behavioural therapy in a way that’s not particularly noticeable.

So people don’t come in thinking they are coming for a therapy appointment, which has a lot of stigma; they come in to do art in a fun setting.

That is why our attrition rates are almost nil. We’ve had at least 11,000 people go through the programme globally and you could count with one hand the amount of people who didn’t finish – and that was typically because they got a good economic opportunity.

We analyse the music that comes out of this process. A lot of experiences people have gone through are so overwhelming that talking about them directly would retraumatise and retrigger the brain. But through lyric writing and metaphor and music, it gets out of people’s heads in a way that doesn’t cause retraumatisation. And once it’s out of their head and articulated in one form or another, we can set a treatment pathway.

How did you get started?

Our origins were organic. While I have a psychology degree, professionally I started as a music producer. In 2009 I was in Rwanda for five weeks filming a documentary and recording an album. We had one day off and decided to give local kids a fun day of recording, so we took some equipment to this little school in a village three hours away in the hillsides. When we got there, we learned the entire village had been waiting for us for hours. The schoolroom was packed. There were kids literally crawling through the windows trying to get in. These were kids 12 to 15 or 16 years old, dressed in homemade hip-hop outfits. They knew the lyrics of all the latest rap songs, even though they didn’t have electricity at home.

They handed us the lyrics of the songs they had written for us to record, and it was all very heavy subject matter: about HIV/AIDS and what it does to communities, about they not wanting to sell their bodies to live another day, about their desire to go to school. There was not one frivolous song in there. We had given them no direction. We didn’t tell them what to write. This was simply what was on their minds, and we realised that for them music was an acceptable way to talk about taboo issues they couldn’t normally talk about.

I had the realisation that something special was happening and thought this was what I, as a professional producer, could do to help. And it was something that nobody else was doing.

How effective is the programme, and what do you think explains this?

We monitor and evaluate our programme very closely. We quantify everything. We analyse our impact on variables from school enrolment and permanence to adherence to drug recovery programmes. A year or two ago our first peer-reviewed study was published. It was terrifying, because we couldn’t ethically keep going if we found we were not achieving results. But the results showed that this was very much like a magic pill: it really worked better than anything else.

I think effectiveness lies in the programme’s insertion into a larger model. We want to be the last missing psychosocial piece. We don’t want to set people up for failure. For instance, we have another site in rural DRC that started in 2016 and even though we had the funding – we even constructed our own buildings for the studio – we paused and waited until our partners’ microfinancing programme was operational because we didn’t want to heal people psychologically, pump them up and then have them fail due to lack of opportunity to be financially independent. So we have these checklists we do before we start operating.

Our outcome is the healing, and our output is the music. We lead with music: it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s our passion. But behind the scenes is a very serious therapeutic intervention. We use music almost as a trick that attracts people and retains them. And in the meantime, we do other things, so at the end of each four-month cycle there’s an album done by this group.

The music they help create with the local producer comes back to us for mixing and mastering. We have a team of about 100 engineers from all over the world who do this as volunteers. And the music gets sent back to the community and disseminated in whatever ways the local community consumes music, be it AM radio, MP3 players or CDs. We also release the music globally on digital platforms.

People own the rights to all their music so they can get royalties. And it helps in terms of advocacy because this is how they tell their stories directly to the world. This gives power back to people on the ground and also helps rebuild their sense of self-worth. The final piece of that four-month cycle is a community concert where they perform the songs they have written.

For participants, it is a sort of symbolic graduation, and it also brings communities back together. Survivors of sexual violence who’ve been stigmatised or kicked out of their homes or villages now go on stage in front of a lot of people – we easily get over 1,000 people per show. They sing a song they wrote about their story. Shame is gone, agency is back. Owning your story changes the way the community sees you. I’ve seen husbands who kicked their wives out ask them back and wives say no and laugh at them. I’ve seen mothers of children born of rape start to take care of them for their first time, breaking the cycle.

Do you work exclusively in places where there’s collective trauma from war? Is your focus on violence against women, or do you also work with other target groups?

Our data demonstrates that our results are equal across the board, no matter what culture or context or reasons for trauma. We have six sites in the DRC, but we also work in Guinea, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa, Turkey and Uganda, and we’re just starting to work in Canada.

The idea started in Rwanda, where we worked with the trauma caused by HIV/AIDS, orphaned children and obviously the genocide. Our work took off in the DRC, where participants were primarily survivors of sexual violence, but also with former child soldiers and former sex slaves. In Peru we work with Venezuelan refugees, mostly young kids. In Turkey we work with Syrian refugees who not only have mental trauma from the war but also have physical injuries and disabilities on top of the stigma of being refugees. And in Canada we will be working with Indigenous communities; this work involves a lot of generational trauma that gets passed down.

The most decisive criterion is whether the community wants us there. We do not parachute in or force ourselves in. We start with community sensitisation aimed at the community taking ownership. We wait for them to ask us to come in, otherwise it just doesn’t work. There needs to be community ownership, because if it is just about the funding or the opportunities you are bringing to an impoverished community, on the first bad day you are going to lose them.

One of our sites in rural DRC is literally triangulated by three rebel groups. Sadly, this village gets attacked regularly. But we’ve been there since 2016 and haven’t lost a single cable. No one has ever touched the studio. In fact, quite miraculously we haven’t lost anything from any of our sites. Community partnerships really work.

Do you have any advice to give to other civil society groups about the value of incorporating art into their work?

Music plays a bigger role than you can imagine, simply because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you. If you’re in an active conflict zone, or you live in extreme poverty, or your community has shunned you, or you are in the hospital after being raped, you may have nothing, but you still have your ability to express yourself through art and music. It doesn’t require any equipment and it doesn’t cost anything: you only need to write some lyrics and a melody in your head to express what you feel.

I’ve spent a lot of time in some awful places, and it may sound silly but it’s true: music is the last thing people hold on to get up in the morning. It’s the one thing people hold on to no matter what. That makes it an entry point to so much work that civil society can do.

When I first started with this idea, I was ignored, I was laughed at, I was told point-blank that this was never going to work. But third-party, peer-reviewed research has proved that this works for healing trauma. It works better than literally anything else on offer. It is always hard when you come up with an original idea, but you should persevere.


Get in touch with Make Music Matter through its website or Facebook page, and follow @mmm_org on Twitter.

 

CUBA: ‘The only options available are prison, exile, or submission’

Carolina Barrero

CIVICUS speaks with Cuban activist  Carolina Barrero, who has been in exile in Spain since February 2022, about the circumstances driving increasing numbers of Cubans out of the country.

Carolina is an art historian and a member of the 27N movement, formed out of the protests held on 27 November 2020 outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana to denounce lack of freedoms, the repression of dissent and harassment against the San Isidro Movement, a protest group started by artists. She was forced to leave Cuba in reprisal for her activism in support of relatives of political prisoners held since the protests of 11 July 2021, known as 11J.

Why did you leave Cuba?

My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.

On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at a protest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of the trial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.

As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.

The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.

These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.

How different is the situation of political exiles from that of those emigrating for economic reasons?

In principle, there would seem to be a big difference between exile resulting from the use of systematic repression to punish or neutralise political dissent and emigration motivated by social and economic asphyxiation. However, this classification obscures the ultimate causes of the factors that lead people to leave Cuba.

Under a dictatorship such as Cuba’s, the root reasons why people leave the country are always political. All waves of exile from Cuba, from the 1960s to the present day, have had a political background: repression by the ruling regime. Not only are political freedoms missing, but all the freedoms necessary for people to be able to manage their own destiny. In Cuba people have no agency over any aspect of their public or private lives; all aspects of life are controlled by the Cuban state, which is not merely authoritarian, but totalitarian.

No one flees paradise. No one decides to leave their life, work, career and affections to pursue the ‘American dream’. Although in some cases the forced character of exile seems clearer than in others, at the end of the day every exile from Cuba is a forced exile. We flee to survive and to have the opportunity to just be.

Many Cubans risk their lives at sea or cross jungles with their babies to get to a place where they don’t know the language or the culture, just to be a little freer. In Cuba, if you don’t fit the mould set by the Communist Party, the only authorised party, in power since 1965, you are treated as a potential criminal. Everything is politically determined, from access to education and healthcare to the possibility of earning a living. Economic suffocation also has political causes. So it is misleading to distinguish sharply between political exile and economic migration.

Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.

Like other Cuban activists in exile, you have conducted international advocacy ever since you left Cuba. Do you think this could prompt the Cuban state to rethink its tactic of offering exit instead of prison?

At the moment, the Cuban state is more concerned about us being inside, lighting the fire of protest, than outside, denouncing repression in international forums. But I think the regime’s calculations are wrong, because those of us who have gone into exile have not forgotten Cuba and are not going to abandon the cause of democracy. And international advocacy plays an important role in our struggle.

This, which may seem innocuous to the regime, is a fundamental part of activism to end the dictatorship because it attacks one of the fundamental pillars that have sustained the regime: the effectiveness of international propaganda. The Cuban state has allocated enormous resources to diplomacy so that every embassy is a propaganda centre that promotes the narrative, the epic and the myth of the Cuban Revolution.

To counter the effect of propaganda on international opinion, now Cuba also has a growing army of ambassadors who have witnessed and been part of the latest cycle of protests and can speak in international forums of what is really happening in Cuba. I firmly believe that, to a large extent, the fall of the dictatorship depends on the fall of the myth. This is an important task for us in exile.

What are the chances of a political transition in Cuba?

I do not dare to make predictions on such a delicate issue, and one so longed for by Cubans for decades. But I am able to highlight one fact: the Cuban regime has never been as weak as it is now. After the mass protests, the regime can no longer hide the extent of the discontent, which it has historically blamed on a few opponents who, according to its narrative, are funded by ‘the empire’. Social discontent is now evident and massive, reaching all corners of the island and all social groups. The dictatorship no longer has the support of the poorest or of those it claims to defend, but only of the military and bureaucratic leadership.

It also has a serious succession problem. Since Miguel Díaz-Canel assumed power after being appointed by Raúl Castro, he has not made a single administrative decision that has earned him praise. Everything has been a disaster and he will be remembered as an incompetent dictator with very little charisma. I think the regime spends 24 hours a day thinking of how to fill this power vacuum, since Díaz-Canel has no credibility whatsoever, even among officials, and even demoralises the repressive apparatus. The problem is that they have no one to replace him with, nor do they know how. They could stage a vote, but the situation is so delicate that they know it could easily get out of hand. They could even stage a self-coup, but this is also a very delicate path that could end up being lethal.

At the current international juncture, Cuba’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the Cuban dictatorship, the oldest in the western hemisphere, even more difficult to justify in the eyes of international opinion. Justifying Cuba has become a challenge even for those with a marked ideological bias. Added to these factors are the economic, social and humanitarian crises, all of which threaten the regime and its continuity. Faced with the energy crisis and shortages of basic goods, the Cuban foreign minister himself has requested support from the Biden administration, something totally unheard of. The irony is complete: in Cuba there are people in prison accused of ‘mercenaryism’ for having received US support, and now it turns out that the Cuban government itself has become a mercenary by its own definition.

What will happen or not, I dare not predict. I believe that the protests will not be silenced and our voices will continue to be heard. I only hope that the democratic transition will come about through a peaceful process rather than violence.

Beyond overthrowing the dictatorship, the goal – and the challenge – is to build a democracy. For this we will need the support of civil society organisations such as CIVICUS. After six decades of civic and political anaesthesia, in recent years Cuban civil society has awoken and showed that it has the capacity, the will and the determination to move towards democracy. We have an open window of opportunity and, as the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima would say, we have the power for change.


Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Contact Carolina Barrero through her Instagram page and follow @carolinabferrer on Twitter.

Photo credit: Fernando Fraguela

 

 

QATAR: ‘Labour reforms need to continue after the World Cup is over’

Vani SaraswathiCIVICUS speaks about the World Cup in Qatar with Vani Saraswathi, editor-at-large and director of projects at Migrant-Rights.org and the author of Stories of Origin: The Invisible Lives of Migrants in the Gulf.

Migrant-Rights.org is a Gulf-based civil society organisation that works to advance the rights of migrant workers in Gulf countries. It documents migrant narratives and promotes local discussion and campaigns to bring changes in policies, practices and attitudes towards migrant workers.

What human rights violations have you documented in construction works for the 2022 Qatar World Cup?

The economy of Qatar is heavily dependent on migrant workers, who make up over 93 per cent of the labour market. The construction sector is even more heavily dependent on migrant labour, and due to the nature of the work exploitation and rights violations are much more visible than in other sectors. This also happens in the hospitality sector, domestic work and fishing and agriculture, but tends to be more hidden.

Since 2000, Qatars population has grown very fast, from 700,000 people in 1999 to 1.7 million in 2010 to close to three million now. The infrastructure and the services needed to host such a large population have not kept pace: people were being recruited quickly, but support systems were not built fast enough.

Rights violations have shifted over the years from poor accommodation to crowded accommodation to rampant wage theft. As the scale of construction operations grew, corporations resorted to subcontracting, with worker recruitment, safety and welfare left in the hands of subcontractors and no effective legal mechanism for oversight, which enabled corruption.

Unfortunately, the narrative on corruption around worker recruitment focuses on origin countries because for one of the richest countries in the world it is easier to blame poorer countries than take responsibility for the problem. The fact that many of the kickbacks are filling the pockets of procurement officers and businesspeople in destination countries is overlooked.

This is the environment in which abuse takes place. Workers are entering the country already in debt and often do not receive the salary they were promised.

Certain steps have been taken to fix this issue. The Qatar Visa Centre, for instance, takes care of the last mile of recruitment so workers sign their contract and undergo medical testing before they come. Fees are also being paid in Qatar. But the bulk of the exploitation happens on the job, when people are not paid what they were promised, or they are made to work overtime with no extra pay. This is not being properly addressed.

Migrant workersmain concern is to be able to send money home, and as long as they get their money they are often willing to tolerate many abuses: social isolation, cultural exclusion, terrible living conditions and lack of access to justice. These issues are ongoing.

On other issues, such as workplace safety and heat stress, Qatar has been working on upping standards. There is still a lot to be done, but in the context of the Gulf, summer midday work bans and heat stress regulations are a big step forward. But it is not sufficient.

A pending issue is health deterioration. Most construction workers are recruited when they are in their early 20s and usually undergo stringent medical tests to ensure they are in best health. But their health deteriorates quickly post-arrival. Due to the inhospitable and unhygienic living and working conditions, they often develop various comorbidities including high blood glucose levels and hypertension. There are also several cases of unexplained deaths of previously healthy, young men, but their deaths are attributed to natural causes or cardiac arrests, and Qatar has failed to investigate the real causes. In contrast to those who have accidents, whose injuries are assessed and who may get a disability allowance or insurance, those developing severe health conditions receive no compensation. Instead, they suffer the consequences when their productivity diminishes, and the burden is passed on to their families and origin countries.

Do you think recent labour reforms will have a positive effect?

One of the main reforms has been the removal of the requirement for foreign workers to apply for an exit permit to leave Qatar. The other Gulf countries, except for Saudi Arabia, had already done the same, allowing for some freedom of movement.

Another important change has been the removal of the requirement of a no objection certificate. This means that all workers, including domestic workers, are allowed to change jobs at any point in their labour contract. This measure triggered a lot of pushback.

A new online system was set up that allowed people to search and apply for jobs. It initially went well, but employers started pushing back when they saw the prospects of an exodus and feared losing control of their workers. The Shura Council, the legislative body, also weighed in, following which Qatar introduced a new requirement: to go through the online process to change jobs, workers must submit a resignation letter stamped by their employer. This became a de facto no objection certificate. There are strong power dynamics at play. For instance, there have been cases of workers getting approval to change jobs after not having been paid for months, changing jobs and then having their authorisation withdrawn and made to go back.

A non-discriminatory minimum wage has also been introduced. Although pretty low, it is still a minimum wage. The basic monthly salary amounts to approximately US$275, or around US$500 if the company does not provide accommodation and food. It is not much in a country with a per capita GDP of above US$60,000, and hence applies only to low-income migrants from Asia and Africa.

Additionally, across Gulf countries there is a system in place for all workers to be paid electronically. Its aimed at preventing non-payment but has repeatedly failed to do so. The system should spot non-payment cases early on, rectify them and hold the employer accountable, but it does not. Non-payment cases typically arise when workers who havent been paid for several months file a complaint. Setting aside the problem of domestic workers, a persistent problem of non-payment results from smaller companies at the bottom of the supply chain being unable to pay if they are not paid on time by their client.

The government of Qatar also set up a work insurance fund to protect workers when employers fail to pay them. When a workers complaint is resolved by either a court or the dispute settlements committee, a mechanism that handles workerscomplaints, the fund must pay. There are certain criteria to qualify and there is a cap on how much a worker can receive that is lower than what most of them are owed. It doesn’t match the scale of abuse that happens, but its still something.

Finally, management-worker joint committees have been allowed within companies. This was presented as either a step towards allowing unionisation, or a substitute for it. But the power dynamics are so skewed there is very little scope for collective bargaining, and they do not remotely resemble unions, even if the joint committees have elected representatives.

What role has civil society played in raising awareness of these and other rights violations?

A transnational advocacy network comprising mostly trade unions and international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch was activated following Qatars designation as host of the 2022 World Cup.

The World Cup was a good entry point as it forced Qatar to allow for investigations. The network obtained access and produced reports. A lot of international journalists came in. This is something we must recognise, because other countries that held big events, such as the Dubai Expo or the Formula One race in Bahrain, didn’t allow this kind of scrutiny.

But Qatar hasnt always managed the attention well and sometimes got too defensive or complained that its efforts to open up and allow criticism were underappreciated. But while the government engaged with foreign or international trade unions speaking on behalf of Asian and African workers, it never allowed criticism to be voiced internally and never allowed those workers to organise. The same goes for civil society.

At the local level there are charitable institutions but there is not a rights-oriented civil society. The closest there is to this are organisations such as Migrant-Rights.org, working regionally. To nurture civil society, space would need to exist to speak about womens rights, LGBTQI+ rights, citizenship rights and many other issues people are grappling with but cannot currently express. But the government knows this is a Pandoras box. The most it will do is selectively open up some space for issues that are less threatening, such as the situation of migrants, as long as local activism around it remains suppressed.

The situation is different from what happens in Bahrain and Kuwait, where despite harsh oppression, there are still independent voices rising and fighting back. People are being jailed or forced into exile but there is still a civil society vibrancy that doesn’t exist in the open in Qatar. It is probably present behind closed doors and in smaller spaces. People are talking about these issues, but they are not speaking aloud. Qatar, however, recently held its first elections for the Shura Council, so things may be about to change.

Has there been any accountability for violations of workersrights?

The problem in Qatar is that laws have been enforced and reforms have been implemented only in response to criticism. This time around, it was in response to the attention brought by international organisations under the spotlight of the World Cup. The problem with this kind of response is that it tends to stay on paper because it is not the result of dialogue with the key stakeholders, namely employers and workers, and an understanding of the system on the ground.

Enforcement is difficult because local employers are pushing back: they feel that workersrights come at a cost that is being paid from their pockets. The government has made no attempt to talk to stakeholders on the ground, and it wont be able to implement any reform without them. Qatar is a tiny country. Were talking about a handful of extremely powerful families who are in business, in the security apparatus, in the Shura Council, everywhere. Some of their companies have a proven record of poor practices, including using short-term visas and not giving end-of-service payments, and they continue to be awarded new contracts over and over. They are not held to account.

What needs to be done so the rights of migrant workers in Qatar are not forgotten when the World Cup ends?

The World Cup is just one event and a starting point for limitless business ambitions. If you look at industry reports, it is clear that large-scale infrastructure projects are going to continue. I only hope that those who shone the spotlight on Qatar didn’t do it because of the sport, but because they really care about migrant workers. Because if that is the case, they should continue promoting reforms and monitoring their effective implementation after the World Cup is over.

Qatar needs to ensure workers get their wages and fair compensation and that nobody leaves the country in distress. Otherwise rights violations will continue to happen, and its not right. I hope the government at least realises that even when the World Cup is over, it doesn’t need that kind of bad publicity.


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

Get in touch with Migrant-Rights.org through its website or Facebook page, and follow @MigrantRights and @vanish_forever on Twitter.

 

TAIWAN: ‘China will do to us what it did to Hong Kong, and what it has long done to Tibetans and Uighurs’

MinHsuanWuCIVICUS speaks about the situation in Taiwan with Min-Hsuan Wu, known as ttcat, a social movement activist and campaigner and co-founder and CEO of a Doublethink Lab.

Founded in 2019, Doublethink Lab is a civil society organisation (CSO) focused on researching malign Chinese influence operations and disinformation campaigns and their impacts, bridging the gap between the democracy movement, tech communities and China experts, and facilitating a global civil society network to strengthen democratic resilience against digital authoritarianism.

What is the story behind Doublethink Lab?

Doublethink Lab was founded three years ago, in September 2019. Four years ago, we experienced a tremendous amount of disinformation influencing our 2018 local elections. After these elections, there were lots of signals and leads of information-related, mostly disinformation campaigns – all affiliated with or supported by China.

We realised that to tackle the challenge of strengthening and safeguarding our democracy we needed people to combine their talents and diverse professional backgrounds into a project focused on digital defence.

Our main mandate is to produce a better understanding of how Chinese external propaganda functions and effectively influences political processes and public opinion elsewhere, including in Taiwan.

Our strategy to combat disinformation differs from the usual fact-checking initiatives. Our work isn’t published in fact-checking reports. Instead, we follow the disinformation to try to understand who is spreading it and whether it is being spread by our citizens dynamically or by other kinds of actors funded by the Chinese state. Often, when analysing social media posts, it is possible to see the huge structure made up of Chinese bots liking, sharing and retweeting disinformation.

What is the likely outcome of rising Chinese aggression toward Taiwan?

It’s not news that tensions between Taiwan and China are increasing. China is increasingly using ‘grey zone’ tactics to push boundaries, increasing pressure and influencing people. Through various means, China is threatening Taiwanese people. This clearly increases the chance of the whole situation leading to China invading Taiwan.

Most military experts would agree that this won’t happen right now, with Xi Jinping having just secured his third term as chairman of the Chinese Communist Party and awaiting confirmation of a third term as president of China. Some say an invasion could occur in 2025 or 2027, but I think it will depend on how strongly the Taiwanese people can defend themselves from now on: if our resistance increases, the costs of an invasion for China increase accordingly. Our resistance might therefore postpone the crystallisation of China’s wishes for a bit longer.

On the other hand, China’s tactics may be backfiring: as China escalates militarily against us, the Chinese narrative is becoming less and less popular in Taiwan. More and more people have realised China is not a good neighbour. It is no longer thought of as a business opportunity for us but as a potent threat to our ways of life, our livelihoods and our lives. China’s aggressive attitude is pushing Taiwanese people towards embracing defence tactics to protect our country, which is a positive thing for us. We are much more aware of the need to build strong national and civil defence now.

Did the recent visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi make any difference, for better or worse?

Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation, but whether we see it as helpful or not depends on the perspective we look at it from. Her visit in August 2022 was meant as a show of support to Taiwan, and happened despite China’s threats of retaliation. It was the first visit by a US House Speaker in a quarter of a century. From a democracy or human rights perspective, it was quite beneficial. Pelosi spoke up against China’s human rights violations and the challenges posed by totalitarian regimes. Her presence brought visibility to our country’s situation regarding China. It put a spotlight on it, and now people see how China treats us and what a destabilising factor it is for the region. It clearly bothered China, judging by the way it reacted to it on the international stage.

From a geopolitical and military perspective, Pelosi’s visit didn’t produce any benefit. It didn’t – couldn’t – bring any kind of peaceful dialogue. China’s vision and military exercises won’t change. But Pelosi’s visit didn’t complicate the situation; it just brought it under the spotlight so more Western media are paying attention to Taiwan. This kind of attention is somehow opening up many windows of opportunity for Taiwan to collaborate with other countries and agencies. No one knows what will come out of this, but from what I’ve seen so far, increased opportunities of international collaboration may improve our chances of safety.

What would it take to bring peace and stability to the region?

That’s a huge question. For me, the ultimate solution would be the opening up of civic space and the democratisation of China, Russia and other totalitarian regimes in Southeast Asia. However, we know this is too big a hope and it’s not really up to us.

There used to be a civil society in China, but under Xi’s rule civic space has been continuously shrinking for 10 years. More and more activists are getting arrested. We all saw what happened recently in Hong Kong: China cracked down hard on civic movements and arrested people for even having a podcast –regular citizens were sent to jail just in case. China shut down all forms of civic expression, including news agencies. China will do to Taiwan what it did to Hong Kong, and what it has long done to Tibetans and Uighurs within China.

If you ask me, I would say peace would require the demise of the Chinese Communist Party, but people think I am crazy when I put it this way. But from our perspective, this is the only forever solution. If you have an aggressive, expansionist neighbour trying to invade you, attaining peace is quite hard because it is not up to you. There can’t be peace unless your neighbour changes.

Without justice there won’t be any peace. I’m not sure which kind of peace people wish to see: I think they are wrong if they define peace as just the absence of war. It that’s what they want, they can move to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is peaceful now – there are no mobilisations, no protests, no disorder. But is this really peace? It’s just an illusion: people are quiet because they lost their rights and freedoms. This is not the kind of peace we want for Taiwan.

We need to find a way to open up civic space and bring democracy to the region – that is the only way forward.

How is Taiwanese civil society working to make this happen?

Lots of Taiwanese CSOs are working to limit China’s influence in the region, especially in Taiwan. There is an organisation called Economic Democracy Union that conducts serious research about Chinese influence on our economy; their work show how Chinese collaborators pretend to be Taiwanese companies and penetrate very sensitive industries such as electronics or e-commerce – industries that capture lots of personal data. Economy Democracy Union brings these issues to the surface with the aim of promoting new regulations to protect us from these influence-seeking tactics.

There are also many CSOs working to strengthen civic defence, which isn’t just war-related, but rather focused on preparedness for disaster or any kind of military operation; their goal is to teach citizens how to react in these cases.

Right now, Doublethink Lab is doing an investigation on China’s information operations. We do election monitoring and try to disclose disinformation campaigns or far-fetched narratives flooding into Taiwanese media. We are building a global network to bridge the gap between academia and civil society on a global scale. We want people to know what Chinese influence looks like in different countries, the channels it travels through, its tactics and its final goals.

Doublethink Lab isn’t the only organisation advocating for digital defence. There are several others focusing on Chinese media influence, disinformation campaigns, fact-checking processes and civic education to identify fake news, among other related issues.

What support does Taiwanese civil society need from the international community?

We need resources. Most Taiwanese CSOs are small grassroots organisations. People tend to view Taiwan as a rich country with a very prosperous economy, but the truth is that civil society movements struggle a lot. Human rights CSOs and those working to counter Chinese influence usually have fewer resources than a regular charity. CSOs need more resources to be able to recruit new talent.

Right now is the perfect time to ask ourselves what we really need. I always ask my fellow activists what they need, and answers resemble a lot those of activists in Hong Kong or Ukraine. Something the international community can also help with is by exposing Taiwan’s struggle. We don’t want people to think our issues are disconnected from those of the rest of the world – we want to become closer and we want to be understood. We need more connections with CSOs in the rest of the world. We need all forms of help to prepare and get ready for what’s coming.


Civic space in Taiwan is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Doublethink Lab through its website and follow @doublethinklab and @TTCATz on Twitter.

 

EUROPE: ‘The Energy Charter Treaty is having a chilling effect on climate legislation’

Paul de ClerckCIVICUS speaks with Paul de Clerck, Economic Justice Coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, about the implications for climate action of the Energy Charter Treaty.

Friends of the Earth International was founded in 1971 by four civil society organisations (CSOs) from France, Sweden, the UK and the USA to campaign together on key issues such as nuclear energy and whaling. Over time it grew to become a federation of 73 groups across the world. Its European arm, Friends of the Earth Europe, is the continent’s largest grassroots environmental network, bringing together more than 30 national CSOs with thousands of local groups. In coordination with other European CSOs, it currently advocates for European Union states to withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty, which is preventing them from adopting and implementing effective policies to address climate change.

What is the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT)?

The ECT is a trade agreement that was established in 1994, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A large part of the 15 former Soviet countries had huge oil and gas reserves and western oil and gas companies wanted to ensure for themselves unrestricted access to invest in and extract those resources. So they agreed that the European Union (EU) and all its member states would grant these companies an investor-state dispute settlement system: a mechanism that allows companies to sue governments when they adopt new policies or laws that affect their financial interests. 

For example, if a state introduces a new environmental or labour law that could jeopardise current or future profits, a company can file a lawsuit. This is especially relevant when it comes to oil and gas projects because oil-extraction facilities are usually operational for about 40 to 50 years, and the expected profit over such a long time can be enormous. 

Such lawsuits are presented before investment tribunals, which are completely industry-biased as they don’t take human rights, labour rights, environmental rights or other public interest issues into consideration. As lawsuit processes are usually negotiated in secrecy, there is very little information available regarding the amounts of the settlements. 

These lawsuits have become increasingly frequent in Europe as states have adopted climate transition policies. Companies are resorting to the ECT to claim massive compensation, ranging from hundreds of million to billions of euros. This mechanism not only forces governments to pay for compensation, but also stops them introducing new sustainable energy policies. That is what we call the ‘chilling effect’: governments anticipate they will be sued so they either weaken their legislative proposals, delay them or discard them altogether.

The ECT is an old treaty that is out of line. Its main purpose is to protect fossil fuel companies, and it’s completely at odds with the Paris Agreement on climate change and the EU’s climate and sustainability agenda.

Several EU states have recently announced they will withdraw. What happens after a state quits the ECT?

France, Spain and the Netherlands have recently made such announcements, but the only state that has withdrawn so far has been Italy. Following the announcement, it takes one year for withdrawal to become effective. However, the treaty’s so-called ‘sunset clause’ states that if a country leaves the ECT, investors can continue to sue it for another 20 years. This gives an almost unlimited right to companies and investors and is one of the reasons why we are urging EU states to leave the treaty all together, in a coordinated way. If they did so, they could agree on passing EU-level legislation preventing further investor-state dispute settlement cases. About 90 per cent of current cases involve EU states, so they would gain much better protection this way.

Over the past two and a half years the ECT has been renegotiated, and in June 2022 member states reached an agreement to reform it. But from the civil society perspective, this is not good enough. First, because it extends protection for fossil fuels for another 10 years. And second, because it would extend its reach to other energy sources such as hydrogen production from biomass with carbon capture and storage, which would result in increasing rather than decreasing risk.

This is going to be decided within the next month, first by EU member states, and then by all ECT member states. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, wants EU states to remain parties to the ECT, and it is pushing for the EU as a whole to adopt the modernised agreement. Several states are in favour of adopting the reform as they assess this new treaty as a better protection than the old. Of course, these are states that have been less exposed to the legal risks posed by international investors. On the other hand, there are the states that have been sued, such as France, Italy, Poland and Spain. Earlier this year, Italy lost a case against an English oil company that cost it several hundreds of million euros. 

Has the war in Ukraine and Europe’s current energy crisis affected the negotiation process?

Even though Russia is not an ECT state party, there are possible implications to the fact that the EU has taken several measures to restrict the operations of Russian companies. These are partly based in other European countries, which means they could sue European states.

There could also be other impacts. Most European countries are persistently trying to find new sources of gas and hydrogen and are looking at African markets. Several African countries such as Nigeria are in the process of becoming ECT members, and it is suddenly in the interest of European states to bring them on board. This is having an impact on the negotiation process, although I am not sure it is a decisive one.

What should we expect to happen now?

The European Council, which brings together the heads of the 27 EU member states, needs to decide whether the reform will be adopted. It was supposed to decide by 25 October, but because of all the withdrawal announcements it has been unable to do so. Now a decision is expected by mid-November. If the European Council approves the reform, then the European Commission and its members will go to the annual ECT meeting, which will be held in Mongolia on 27 November. That meeting is the second step to move forward on the reform’s approval. The third and final step will be a vote by the European Parliament.

We are campaigning for the EU and its member states to reject the reform. If we lose, then we will shift our focus towards the European Parliament. For the past two years, its representatives have been completely left out of negotiations and several parliamentary blocs have been very critical about the treaty. So we are still hoping we will be able to stop the agreement in the European Parliament.

Along with other European CSOs, we have been doing a lot of joint advocacy with European institutions and coordinating actions, messages and strategies across Europe. We must put pressure on governments. The next few weeks will probably be decisive.


Get in touch with Friends of the Earth Europe through its Facebook page and follow @foeeurope on Twitter.

 

BAHRAIN: ‘This election is make-believe: its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy’

JawadFairoozCIVICUS speaks about the election being held today in Bahrain with Jawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).

Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.

Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian. In the 2010 election his political group, al-Wefaq, won 18 out of 40 seats, becoming the largest group in the Council of Representatives. They all resigned in repudiation of the repression of protests in 2011, and Jawad and another parliamentarian were arrested, tortured and ill-treated in detention. In November 2012, while he was visiting the UK, the government withdrew his citizenship, making him stateless. He became a campaigner against statelessness and for the rights of the stateless and founded Salam DHR in 2013.

What is the significance of today’s election?

Elections matter, or at least they should. In Bahrain, elections for municipal councils and the 40-seat parliament, the Council of Representatives, are held every four years, with possible runoffs where no candidate obtains a majority.

Between 2002 and 2010, these elections were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.

Far more than now, they showed elections are a pivotal moment for social and political renewal – for those who will shape society to engage with civil society and to accommodate differing social and political views. Elections can create a sense of shared ownership, and in a context of tolerance and acceptance they can foster a vibrant and responsible civil society. They can help build a culture of human rights.

But that is not the case with today’s election.

This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.

This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.

But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.

Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We need to start organising now so that global parliamentarians can help carry our voices and those of international civil society to the heart of Manama.

We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent. We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace. We are looking forward.

Have further restrictions been imposed on civic space in the run-up to the election?

Not really, as most of the damage was already done.

In December 2014, the authorities imprisoned Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the largest political association. He was arrested for protesting against the parliamentary elections, which al-Wefaq boycotted because promised reforms had not been implemented. In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges such as inciting hatred, disturbing the peace and insulting public institutions, but he was acquitted of the most serious charge, of inciting political change, which could carry a life sentence.

He appealed, but so did the prosecutor, who demanded a stricter sentence, and in 2016 his prison sentence was increased to nine years. Further charges were subsequently added and in 2017 he was accused and tried for the crime of ‘spying for Qatar’. For having tried to mediate in Bahrain’s conflict with Qatar, the authorities handed him a life sentence.

In July 2016, a court in Bahrain dissolved and banned Al-Wefaq after accusing it of fostering violence and ‘terrorism’. In May 2017, the main non-sectarian political association, Wa’d, was shut down as well, also under accusations of advocating violence, supporting terrorism and inciting crimes.

In advance of the 2018 parliamentary election, the government amended the NGO law, extending restrictions on who could establish or be on a CSO board, irrespective of the organisation’s nature – this applies even to organisations working on sports, working with the community or providing charitable services. It also forbade all those linked to banned political parties from engaging with CSOs.

In addition, anyone sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment, even if subsequently pardoned by the King, convicted in error or provided with a ‘no objection certificate’, is now deprived for life of voting rights and the right to stand for election. Likewise, all those who for whatever reason did not take part in the previous election have been banned from taking part in the next.

Having crushed civic space for years, in the run-up to the 2022 election the authorities only needed to ensure that calm persisted. To that effect, in September the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs issued vaguely worded regulations that appeared to link electioneering and religion. Among other things, these regulations banned the holding of meetings in public religious centres and other public places such as educational facilities. They appeared aimed at the majority Shi’a community for whom such centres have often become the only places where they – we – are allowed to gather.

What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?

In Bahrain, the very existence of a civil society – let alone an independent one – depends on the political will and whim of the government: the Ministry of Labour and Social Development controls the licensing of all CSOs.

The newly amended NGO Law redefined who could establish and run a CSO and prohibited members of banned political bodies from setting up a CSO. These new rules were applied in January 2022 to forbid two peaceful women activists, Zainab al-Durazi and Safia al-Hasan, taking up the board positions to which they had been freely elected in a women-focused CSO. The two women had been linked to the banned group Wa’d.

Do some of the activities of CSOs whose directors are demonstrably loyal to the state help and support society’s needs? Of course they do. We need them and we commend such organisations. But they are not independent.

Those perceived as not personally loyal to the government and its leaders do not get licences to operate any CSO and are not allowed to be on supervisory boards, in any sector, in total contravention to international law and practice, and completely against the wishes of Bahraini people. A thorough vetting process ensures this remains the case.

All CSOs must obtain permission to engage in any way with non-Bahraini bodies such as foreign or international human rights groups or to meet with foreign Bahrain-based diplomats. If they get permission and the meeting takes place, the government requires the participation of a Foreign Ministry representative and the preparation of notes for the meeting, subject to approval. If this is not done, the representative of the CSO risks criminal charges or the closure of the organisation.

The absence of an independent civil society means that any consultation that does take place is performative – just for show. The authorities don’t typically take the limited civil society that is loyal to the government into account, so independent voices are simply not even in the picture.

If the government only consults those of whom they approve, and even then, only barely, how will that shape government policy? How can it capture the concerns and wishes of the wider population? How is this sustainable? Well, it isn’t. It is unwise and risks creating conditions similar to those that resulted in a national crisis in 2011.

What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?

Recent history has shown that democratic institutions are difficult to build and easy to lose. In Bahrain and the Gulf, the human rights movement does not call for removal of X so that they be replaced by Y. Instead, we build case studies from each country to show the inequities of laws and practices, and we campaign on that. The reform of specific practices, in certain areas – the administration of justice, the freedom of assembly – is achievable if the authorities in Bahrain and across the Gulf actually engage with human rights groups and United Nations human rights bodies.

We need the Bahraini authorities to provide some genuine representation of the people by the people. We are ready to have a real, genuine dialogue with the authorities, but there needs to be a level playing field. If, despite the restrictions placed on them, the parliamentarians elected in this election step up, then we will have a chance to make a difference going forward. But just as we dare to dream and act, they need to do so too.

What kind of support does Bahraini civil society need from the international community?

We need more engagement. We need states and friends in international civil society to step up and explain the character and vision of the democratic society that the majority of Bahrainis seek; to explain that it does not represent a threat but rather an unlocking of potential.

We need international civil society counterparts to engage in international fora, not only to reflect and project our voice but also to emphasise the role and inherent legitimacy of Bahraini civil society to the Bahraini authorities.

We need our international partners to put pressure on the government’s human rights oversight bodies – the Ombudsman’s office, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights – to provide real rather than cosmetic redress, accountability and reform. Some of these oversight bodies have helped migrant workers facing abuse, but even then, their scope has been limited as they have failed to address underlying unjust laws or practices.

We need help and expertise to collate evidence to mount realistic claims for accountability in jurisdictions that have provisions for sanctioning, such as the Global Magnitsky Act that the US government uses to sanction foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders,

We need international civil society to press the government of Bahrain to explain why it has failed to adhere to the international conventions to which it has acceded, or why it has not acceded to additional standards such as optional protocols, or been clearer about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.


Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Salam for Democracy and Human Rights through their website and follow @SALAM_DHR and @JawadFairooz on Twitter.

 

INDONESIA: ‘Communities have the right to have their opinions heard and considered’

Kahar S CahyonoCIVICUS speaks about the recent protests triggered by rising fuel prices in Indonesia with Kahar S Cahyono, vice president of communications of Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia (KSPI), a trade union organisation that promotes social justice and the welfare of workers.

What triggered recent protests in Indonesia?

Workers’ protests were triggered by several government policies deemed to be detrimental for workers. The most recent was the increase in fuel prices, which lead to the increase of prices of basic necessities.

Previously, to determine the minimum wage for 2022, the government had used the regulations of a very problematic law, the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. As a result, the wage increase was at the minimum level. For workers in many areas there was no increase at all. The national average wage rise was roughly one per cent, while the inflation rate in September 2022 reached almost six per cent. In other words, wage increases could not accommodate the sudden increase of prices. The situation worsened due to the increase in fuel prices.

In this context, the government announced it would continue to use the same mechanism provided by the Omnibus Law on Job Creation to calculate the wage increase for 2023. On top of that, the government recognised that in 2023 there will be a global recession. When this happens, workers will likely be the main victims, not least because there will be massive layoffs.

In sum, the purchasing power of workers’ salaries, which already declined because the wage increase has been lower than inflation, will plunge further due to the fuel price rise. The situation will worsen even more because next year’s wage increase will also be the minimum, and will also likely be overcome by inflation. On top of all this, workers will also be haunted by the fear of losing their jobs due to a global recession. 

What are your demands, and what tactics are you employing to put them forward?

KSPI has made four demands: cancellation of the increase in the fuel price, repeal of the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, a 13 per cent increase in the minimum wage for 2023 and measures to avoid job losses in a context of global recession.

On top of these four, KSPI has conveyed two additional demands: the implementation of agrarian reform and the adoption of the draft Law on the Protection of Domestic Workers.

Agrarian reform is important to achieve food sovereignty. If Indonesia is able to satisfy its food demand without depending on imported goods, it could avoid the worst impacts of a global recession. The draft Law on the Protection of Domestic Workers is key because domestic workers are typically employed in the informal sector and lack any protection.

KSPI employs a ‘CLAP’ strategy, which stands for concept, lobby, action and politics. Concept refers to developing thought and arguments regarding the issues, through discussion, seminars and other exchanges. Lobbying refers to conducting meetings with relevant officials to convey our position on each issue.

Action is conducted both through litigation – for example, we submitted a petition for judicial review to the Constitutional Court on the Law on Job Creation, as well as a petition to the Administrative Court on the determination of the minimum wage – and peaceful protest at both local and national levels – for instance, by demonstrating outside parliament or the office of the mayor or governor.

Finally, politics refers to campaigning so that people will not vote for a political party that supports measures that hurt workers, such as the Omnibus Law or the increase in fuel prices. This is in addition to establishing a political party representing workers, that is, the Labour Party as a tool for class struggle.

KSPI uses all these tactics jointly with organisations of farmers, fishers, young people, students, women, people living in urban poverty and academics.

Have protesters experienced any human rights violations?

Major human rights violations were recorded during the protests against the Omnibus Law on Job Creation in 2020. An investigation by Amnesty International Indonesia documented at least 402 victims of police violence in 15 provinces and at least 6,658 individuals arrested in 21 provinces. People who protested online were also intimidated. Between 7 and 20 October 2020, at least 18 people in seven provinces were criminalised for allegedly violating the Information and Electronic Transactions Law. 

As for workers, when KSPI urged a nationwide strike against the Omnibus Law, security force officers came to several factories, even entering production areas, to prevent workers joining the protest. Buses rented by workers to join the protest in Jakarta were suddenly cancelled for no reason, possibly as a result of intimidation or prohibition.

Rather than with repression, the government should respond to labour action by implementing mechanisms for meaningful participation, enacting the right of the community to have their opinions heard and considered and to receive reasoned responses to the opinions provided.

How did KSPI react to the football stadium disaster on 1 October?

More than 130 people died and more than 300 were injured on 1 October as a result of the violence that erupted at Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang during an Indonesian league soccer match when supporters from the losing team invaded the pitch and police fired teargas, provoking a stampede. 

When this happened, we conveyed our deepest condolences to the victims’ families and to those who were injured. We also examined the facts and concluded there were procedural failures in handling the crowd, and condemned the unprofessional behaviour that led to the tragedy.

KSPI published a media release with a series of calls. First, we urged the head of Indonesian Police to strip the police head of Malang from his position due to his failure to police the incident adequately.

Second, we called for this case to be handled by the Indonesian Police Headquarters so that it is thoroughly investigated and those found responsible are punished through either criminal or administrative proceedings, according to laws and regulations.

Third, we urged the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) to suspend league matches until after the conclusion of the investigation of the tragedy. The PSSI should also ensure this won’t happen again by tightening its security protocol for football matches.

Fourth, we urged the public to raise the Indonesian flag at half-mast in their homes as a symbol to express condolences. And finally, we urged society to promote a healthier, more peaceful sports culture.

At KSPI we thought it was important for us to convey our position on this issue, not only because many football supporters are also workers, but also because we realise that the use of excessive force by the security forces is very easily directed against workers. Security forces also often use teargas to dissolve workers’ protests. We hope incidents such as this will not be repeated either inside or outside stadiums, in any mass protest attended by thousands of people.


Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages.

 

NORTH KOREA: ‘Many women escape to experience the freedoms they are denied’

Kyeong Min ShinCIVICUS speaks with Kyeong Min Shin, researcher with Korea Future, about the situation in North Korea and the challenges faced by North Korean women in exile in South Korea.Korea Future is a civil society organisation that investigates human rights violations in North Korea and works with governments, national commissions, parliamentary bodies, civil society, diaspora groups and legal experts and organisations across the world to hold those most responsible accountable for their crimes.

What proportion of North Korean exiles are women, and what specific challenges do they face due to their gender?

Of the 33,834 North Koreans who have escaped the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), most of whom have found refuge in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), 72 per cent are women and girls, and around 60 per cent are women in their 20s and 30s.

South Korea is a liberal democracy. However, women continue to experience structural, direct and indirect discrimination across the political, economic and social spheres. For North Korean women exiled in South Korea, these challenges are magnified. Our research has found that 43 per cent of exiled North Korean women had experienced identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices, in addition to gender-based and indirect forms of discrimination. This has led to the social, economic and political marginalisation of exiled North Korean women in the diaspora and wider South Korean society.

What kind of conditions are these women escaping from, and how do they manage to escape?

In North Korea, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea implements policies and oversees practices that are openly hostile to women. Legislation designed to protect women is inadequate and unenforced. Acts of sexual and gender-based violence are perpetrated against women of every class, age and status. The persistence of economic violence targeted at women forces many to adopt perilous activities, which in turn leads to further and more severe human rights violations, including human trafficking, forced marriage, forced abortions and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.

While individual motives to escape North Korea differ, I would highlight two distinct patterns. First, many women have told me they escaped to experience the freedoms they were denied in North Korea, to reunite with family members in South Korea who had previously escaped their homeland, and to be able to earn a living and feed their families. Second, we found that many women are forced to enter China through economic necessity. There, many fall victim to human trafficking and are sold into either prostitution or forced marriages in rural areas. While escape is difficult owing to China’s policy of returning refugees, some are successful and travel through China and southeast Asia before finding sanctuary in South Korea.

How are they received in South Korea, and what challenges do they face?

Upon their entry into South Korea, North Korean exiles often receive South Korean citizenship and are not considered refugees. However, exiled North Koreans who have settled in South Korea face unique forms of identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices about North Korea as dangerous and communist and North Korean exiles as disloyal, idle, unthankful or ill-mannered. According to our survey, 43 per cent of respondents have experienced at least one form of identity-based discrimination since arriving in South Korea. Across the diaspora, 18 per cent of North Korean women and men experienced discrimination in South Korea in 2020.

North Korea maintains clandestine agents in many countries, including South Korea. If the presence of exiles in South Korea is established by these agents, remaining family members in North Korea can be subject to extortion and punishment under the principle of ‘guilt by association’. There have also been cases where exiles in South Korea have been coerced by North Korean state agents to return to North Korea, although this is less common.

How is your organisation working to respond?

Korea Future is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation investigating human rights violations in North Korea in support of justice and accountability. We were founded in London in 2017 and expanded from a long-running civil society and diaspora collective that had documented human rights violations and provided assistance to North Korean refugees who were exiled in Europe. Today, we are a diverse team of professionals with over 30 years of combined experience working on North Korea with offices in Seoul, London and The Hague.

We primarily undertake detailed in-person interviews with North Korean survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of human rights violations and advocate for justice and accountability. We also source internal documents and photographic and video evidence from inside North Korea as part of our ongoing investigations. More recently, we used digital modelling to recreate the internal architecture of a North Korean detention centre. This was the first time anyone had been able to see inside a North Korean penal facility.

Much of our information is stored in the North Korean Prison Database, a growing and comprehensive archive of international human rights law violations and atrocities that have transpired in the North Korean penal system. The database is freely available to legal practitioners, policymakers, researchers, civil society organisations, journalists and more.

We also engage in capacity strengthening of exiled North Korean women to increase their involvement in and leadership of human rights investigations, documentation and organisations. I recently completed a two-year project with exiled women, exploring how the human rights movement, particularly grant-makers, can deploy their resources to better support the active participation and leadership of exiled women and exiled women-led organisations.

How should the South Korean government engage with North Korea? And what should the international community do?

We encourage and support all states and the wider international community to work toward justice and accountability solutions for North Korea. It is well established that crimes against humanity are ongoing in North Korea, and this should inform how states approach the situation. Human rights cannot be divorced from other diplomatic initiatives or approaches to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. The reality today is that there are no international mechanisms to investigate North Korea, nor are there any ongoing international or domestic court cases. It is too easy to assume that a problem like North Korea is too difficult to solve. A solution has to start somewhere, and failing a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court or the formation of an international tribunal, we encourage the examination of other approaches, such as investigation under the principle of universal jurisdiction and targeted human rights sanctions. While North Korea is probably the largest crime base in modern history, it should be seen as remarkable that it remains the least documented and understood as well.


Civic space in North Korea is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Korea Future through its website and follow @KFuturexhr on Twitter.

 

COP27: ‘The participation of civil society is important because it represents the voices of communities’

Chibeze EzekielCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 climate change summit with Chibeze Ezekiel, coordinator of the Strategic Youth Network for Development (SYND).

SYND is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes youth participation and advocacy for environmental sustainability in Ghana.

What are the environmental issues that you work on?

SYND works for environmental sustainability by promoting youth participation in policymaking and project implementation. We focus on four thematic areas: climate change, biodiversity, forests and energy. In May 2019, with support from the World Bank and United Nations Development Programme, we established the Youth in Natural Resources and Environmental Governance platform. It is a platform for young people to share and exchange learning on their respective actions and help them embark on joint, coordinated campaigns.

To help build capacity so that young people can better advocate for environmental sustainability and help the government fulfil its climate obligations, we have also developed capacity building projects. As part of our efforts to empower students to become climate activists and environmentalists, we have also worked with schools. For instance, through our Children for Climate (#C4C) Action campaign we are empowering children to become climate champions. And we publish reports that highlight our activities and their impacts in the communities we work in.

Have you faced any restrictions when conducting your work?

Fortunately, we have not faced any restrictions working in Ghana. We believe that this might be because of our approach. We confront the government and question public officials on their policies, but we do it in a manner that will not jeopardise the work relationship we have built or put ourselves in harm’s way. This has worked for us, because our work relationship not only with the government but also the private sector has strengthened over the years, which has helped us continue doing our work.

How do you connect with the global climate movement?

We work in connection with similar organisations in other African countries as well as with international organisations advocating for environmental rights. In the African region, some of the organisations we work with include the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, 350 Africa, African Climate Reality Project and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance. We are also the West Africa Regional Node for ACCESS Coalition, a global network with about 70 members advocating for people living in poverty to have access to safe, reliable and affordable energy, and for environmentally sustainable and efficient energy systems globally.

Working with all these organisations has allowed us to transcend the local level and connect to the global. To contribute to this global work, we produce position papers and give input on policies, among other things.

What issues would you like to see addressed at COP27?

Over the years global leaders have made pledges and promises but they have not fulfilled them. We hope at this year’s COP more serious commitments will be brought forward. Global leaders shouldn’t be making promises they won’t keep and should instead get to work.

Climate finance is still an outstanding issue. There should be a clear understanding of how the mitigation and adaptation measures to climate change will be rolled out. Global leaders must provide communities with resources to adapt to climate change and assist them with mitigation plans. All of this will only be possible if adequate climate finance is provided.

Another priority is loss and damage. We are aware that vulnerable people and those living in underdeveloped communities are the ones suffering the most as a result of climate change. Many people have lost their homes, land and source of livelihood, and it is only fair they are compensated for the irreparable damage caused to them.

A few weeks back we travelled around Ghana to analyse how climate change has affected communities and what demands people had for the government. We conducted interviews and asked people about the situations they are going through and the solutions they would like to see implemented. We plan to present our video documentary at COP27 to show world leaders the real situation on the ground. This will give a clearer picture of what we mean by loss and damage, and hopefully put pressure for urgent action.

Energy transition, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energies, is also an issue we expect to see discussed. Especially since there are industrialising ambitions in Africa, it will be interesting to see how leaders plan to make energy available and affordable during this transition. Africa has plenty of resources such as wind, solar and hydro, but its progress towards renewable energies has been very slow. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, only two per cent of global investment in renewable energies is invested in Africa, and only three per cent of jobs in the continent are in the sector. We want to know how global leaders plan to use their resources to help Africa with its energy transition.

Why is civil society participation in climate talks important?

The participation of civil society in COPs is important because it represents the voices of communities and is best placed to articulate people’s concerns and propose polices that will improve the lives of citizens. CSOs are also accountable to their communities, so when we attend global conferences such as COPs, we all go back to our respective countries to provide feedback and confront decisions made at the global level with the realities that people continue to live in. This pushes us to continue with our advocacy work. We continue carrying out engagement activities at the local, regional and international levels, holding our leaders accountable to their commitments and supporting their work to implement the policies agreed in global forums.

Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?

Because of the role we play, there is a space for CSOs to participate in COPs, although improvements in access could certainly be made. It is, however, unfortunate that CSOs only have observer status and cannot take part in negotiations. If they were offered an opportunity to interact with negotiators, they would get a better chance to convey their priorities and share their ideas.

COP27 in particular is tricky because it’s taking place in a closed civic space environment. But that is what the situation is in Egypt. More could have been done to offer a conducive environment for civil society, but we will have to work with what we are presented with. I believe there is still some room to have a discussion with the Egyptian authorities so they allow some form of demonstration and civil society can make the voices of people heard. The government should allow its citizens to participate without any restriction because their views are also important.


Civic space in Ghana is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Strategic Youth Network for Development through its website or Facebook page, and follow @SYNDGhana and @chibeze1 on Twitter.

 

COP27: ‘We shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks’

Ayisha SCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit with Polluters Out co-founder Ayisha Siddiqa.

Polluters Out is a global coalition founded in 2020 in reaction to the negative experience of COP25, when young and Indigenous activists were removed from the venue. Its aim is to put pressure on world leaders to adopt policies to fight climate injustice and hold them accountable.

What key environmental issues should be addressed by the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change?

A key issue is loss and damage finance. I would like to see COP27 mobilising the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage, a multi-stakeholder coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) and governments launched at COP25 in 2019 to facilitate and support the efforts of global south countries to address loss and damages associated with the adverse impacts of climate change.

A large number of those are affected by climate change are Indigenous people and people in the global south, who contribute proportionally little to environmental problems. Global north countries should use their resources to help those that have been put in these unfortunate circumstances. They should pay up the US$100 billion they committed to at COP26 so global south countries can develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies, as well as early warning mechanisms to help people get life-saving information in time.

We also need to start thinking about taxing the money corporations make by exploiting emergency situations such as wars, natural disasters and economic fluctuations and channel those funds towards climate financing.

My work currently focuses on raising awareness about the issue of tax havens. Governments have pledged a lot of climate financing but most of that money comes from taxes. Estimates show that every year around US$600 billion – six times the current climate finance target – are lost because corporations and high-net-worth individuals are using tax havens to escape their responsibilities to give back to the communities that make their profits possible. They should instead be made pay their share, and the additional funds should be used to help communities affected by changing climatic conditions.

Have you faced any restrictions as a result of your work?

Prior to working on climate finance, I worked on fossil fuel de-proliferation. According to a report by the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, coal, oil and gas account for 86 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. This means governments should adopt strategies to phase out fossil fuels and adopt clean energies. But this would affect very powerful interests. Due to my work on this issue, I have faced challenges both in my home country, Pakistan, and abroad.

I also advocate for a UN conflict-of-interest policy so that COP hosts cannot take money from the fossil fuel industry when organising the summit and lobbyists cannot influence COP outcomes. So far, every single COP has been sponsored by the very same people causing the climate crisis. As a result, the outcomes of these events have been diluted and have failed to address the key issues.

For this work I have faced multiple restrictions traveling. I am from a tribal community in northern Pakistan where fighting against dams and coal and pipelines puts people’s lives in danger.

Why is civil society participation in climate talks important?

Having people from the global south and members of Indigenous communities participate in climate talks is very important not just because they are the most affected by climate change but also because they are the main drivers of ambition for climate commitments.

As civil society, our aim is to advocate for the good of people and the environment and hold those in power accountable. Civil society doesn’t only offer diversity – it also offers the tools, the language and the practical lens to push all of this forward. At the end of the day, every decision made in COPs affects everyone. Our lives are on the line so we should have a say. It is not only our right but also our duty to protect the earth. Quite frankly, we shouldn’t even be discussing why civil society needs to have a seat in climate talks.

Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?

I don’t. COP27 has been labelled as the ‘African COP’ and one would think that African environmental organisations and activists would be given a platform to participate freely and make their voices heard. This was an opportunity for the global south to speak for itself and it would be a shame if that was limited. Many young people have been unable to get accreditation while others don’t have the funding to attend.

Holding a COP in a country with closed civic space such as Egypt is problematic, and the reality of a restricted civil society cannot be ignored.

Climate change is an urgent matter that must be addressed with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, who should be able to play their part without any restriction on free speech or the freedom of assembly, among many other indispensable freedoms. But many restrictions have been placed on Egyptian CSOs and activists – even on organisations outside of the country. As a result, there will most likely not be meaningful civil society participation at COP27.

The situation we are now in is the responsibility of both the UN and the African governments that nominated Egypt to host COP27. They have let COP become an obstacle to climate justice so states who bid to host the COP make money from tourism and get media attention without caring the least about the crisis at hand and the policies needed to tackle it.

The process leading to COPs is very opaque: for instance, we don’t know who the official sponsors are until the COP president announces them. And when civil society shows up with all of the hard work it has done, it can easily be erased with one vote from one state party.


Get in touch with Polluters Out through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Ayishas12 and @pollutersout on Twitter.

 

 

COP27: ‘We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26’

CIVICUS speaks with Sohanur Rahman, Executive Coordinator of YouthNet for Climate Justice, about civil society’s aspirations and roles in the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change. YouthNet for Climate Justice is a global platform of youth-led organisations of the global south that aims to promote climate action among young people.

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What environmental issues do you work on?

YouthNet focuses on climate justice, the new human rights frontier. We want to hold global leaders accountable for the climate crisis we are currently in. We work on climate justice because we understand that young people, people from the global south and Indigenous people are bearing a disproportionate share of the consequences of the climate crisis, while not being responsible for what is going on.

Climate change must be addressed through an intersectional and intergenerational lens because vulnerable groups are the ones experiencing its worst consequences. The climate crisis is rooted in capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. This makes the struggle for climate justice inseparable from the struggle for human rights.

We are now specifically working on the issue of loss and damage. We want world leaders to support adaptation and financing for loss and damage and provide funding facilities to help developing countries deal with the climate crisis.

What issues would you like to see addressed at COP27?

COP26 failed young people and vulnerable communities. It made clear to us that global leaders are not treating climate change as the global emergency it is. But sadly, we are currently facing one environmental catastrophe after the other. Most recently, there were massive floods in Pakistan and floods and a cyclone in Bangladesh. What else needs to happen so leaders realise we need urgent solutions to these problems?

The COP26 presidency asked state parties to submit new climate plans and nationally determined contributions (NDCs), because the previously submitted ones were not ambitious enough, and would not reduce emissions to the extent needed to stay within the 1.5°C targets. However, Only 23 of the nearly 200 countries that signed the Glasgow Climate Pact have submitted enhanced NDCs. Rather than strengthening headline targets, most of these offered more policy detail. We need commitment from all parties involved to ensure that the climate crisis is addressed effectively.

We can see the progress achieved in previous COPs is very limited. In the run-up to COP27, our major priority is loss and damage financing. Before we can pursue adaptation, we have to support communities with loss and damage. We are not asking developed countries for charity or debt, but for reparations for their historical responsibility in this climate crisis.

In 2019, developed countries pledged US$100 billion towards adaptation and mitigation but they are not disbursing this. Everything at this point is theoretical – no practical mechanism has been put in place to ensure the money is paid up. And when the funds finally come, we would like to see a 50/50 split between adaptation and mitigation, because both require equal efforts. Finally, we would like to see the financing of locally led adaptation addressed at COP27. Communities should be given a platform to develop and implement solutions that will work for them, rather than implementing universal strategies that don’t fit everybody.

This COP should be one where the focus shifts to implementation. We no longer want to hear promises that will remain unfulfilled. We want action towards solving our problems.

Why is civil society participation in climate talks so important?

Civil society participation in COPs, and specifically the participation of young people, is important because they are there to hold leaders accountable. The global community is making empty promises and commitments and not taking action. Civil society’s mission is to hold governments and companies accountable, including by making polluters pay for the loss and damage they are causing to people and the environment.

Because the current systems are failing, civil society must advocate for systemic change. To achieve such transformative change, we must be united. Those joining COP27 should use the platform to advocate for change; those observing from home countries should mobilise in their own countries to highlight the crisis we are in. We must all put pressure on decision-makers to deliver on their promises. COP27 will only bring a breakthrough if civil society is allowed to participate without any restrictions and a decision is made to start paying out climate reparations.

Do you think COP27 will offer enough space for civil society participation?

We are very frightened about the situation in Egypt. The government of Egypt should release all arrested activists before COP27 takes place. Without our participation, it will be just more greenwash. And we cannot archive climate justice if human rights are ignored. The global community should stand up and speak against what Egyptian environmental activists are going through.

COP26 was labelled as ‘inclusive’, but it was very exclusive. The pandemic came on top of persistent systemic barriers, notably the lack of resources that excludes many young people. World leaders negotiated on issues affecting us, but they did not include us at discussion tables. Unfortunately, the situation for civil society participation at COP27 will be even worse.

The government of Egypt does not respect or support human rights defenders. This was clear in the multiple arrests of activists that have taken place over the past few months. Civil society can expect to experience several barriers during the conference, and LGBTQI+ activists have expressed their concerns regarding their safety while in the country. We fear that our presence, digital footprint and communications will be monitored. We doubt that we will be able to mobilise as we did around COP26 in Glasgow where we held a climate strike.

Even though labelled ‘the African COP’, COP27 doesn’t truly represent African people. Many young African activists are still struggling to get accreditation and sponsorship. Rising hotel prices will affect the participation of people from less developed countries. There will be limited participation of young activists, Indigenous people and organisations from the global south. This event was never meant to be inclusive at all. The most affected people will be excluded. This raises the alarm that, instead of addressing the real issues people are dealing with, it may turn into a greenwashing event.


Get in touch with YouthNet for Climate Justice through its website or Facebook page, and follow @YouthNet4CC and @SohanBMYP on Twitter.

 

HAITI: ‘Civil society must get involved because political actors cannot find a solution to our problems’

MoniqueClescaCIVICUS 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 the Montana 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 the CIVICUS Monitor.

Contact the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis through its Facebook page, and follow @moniclesca on Twitter.

 

SPAIN: ‘The main challenge is to consolidate legally recognised rights and prevent backsliding’

CarmenAcostaCIVICUS speaks with Carmen Miquel Acosta, gender lawyer at Amnesty International Spain, about the recently passed Organic Law on the Guarantee of Sexual Freedom, known as the ‘Only Yes is Yes Law’, and the role of civil society in advancing women’s rights.

What was civil society’s role in the process leading to the approval of the ‘Only Yes is Yes Law’?

The ‘Only Yes is Yes Law’ is a clear example of the joint work done by the women’s movement, and particularly the feminist movement, present in all spheres, including civil society and government, to respond to a situation.

One of its triggers was the ‘La manada’ (‘The herd’) case, a case of gang rape that happened in Pamplona in 2016. The judicial response to that case was a perfect example of patriarchal justice, or rather injustice. It exhibited the way in which stereotypes operate and the principle of not believing the victim.

In 2018 the court decided that what had happened had not been rape but just ‘sexual abuse’, and sentenced the five members of the ‘herd’ to nine years in prison for that crime. Outrage at the verdict triggered huge protests and the women’s movement grew in numbers. Many young women who were getting acquainted with feminism mobilised for the first time.

It was also at that time that Amnesty published a report highlighting the lack of specific public policies on sexual violence, the lack of data and the absence of a legal framework to address this violation of fundamental human rights. We have called for a law to address the issue ever since.

Participation in the legislative process was massive and civil society provided a great deal of input, as a result of which the draft was improved.

The process took quite a long time, not only because it enabled participation, but also because in Spain the process of developing organic laws that deal with fundamental rights requires mandatory reports from the General Council of the Judiciary and the Council of State. All these reports informed the draft law and allowed for a more rigorous treatment of the issue.

What were feminist organisations’ main issues of concern during the development of the law?

The first issue was the lack of a diagnosis. This was an issue that concerned Amnesty because we see a tendency to deal with problems without a prior diagnosis and to skip an evaluation of the effectiveness of the public policies adopted.

With this law the government sought, among other things, to implement the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, which requires Spain to adopt public policies of prevention. This requires a diagnosis and systematic data.

Another important issue was that of the judiciary. Spain received a judgment from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women for a case of stereotyping by a female judge. In this process, a central discussion was how to deal with the use of stereotypes by the judiciary, what training should be given to judges and to what extent it should be compulsory, without being seen as interference in the independence of the judiciary.

Another issue that was also of concern to us, but which was not included in the law, was that of the use of sexual violence as torture. In Spain sexual violence has been used this way in places of detention, especially against foreigners. The law does not go so far as to establish a crime of torture, which is not subject to a statute of limitations and entails a different type of investigation as it is a crime under international law.

Another issue that in our opinion was not adequately addressed is that of foreign women in an irregular migratory situation. Although the Istanbul Convention establishes that it is not necessary to file a complaint in order to access gender-based violence services, in cases where women file a complaint, if for whatever reason no conviction ensues, their expulsion files can be reopened.

Finally, there were some issues, such as sex work, that generated debates within feminist circles that remain unresolved. Amnesty’s position is that sex workers have human rights and the criminalisation of sex work not only does not help them, but exposes them to stigmatisation. Unfortunately, sex workers’ collectives were not consulted in the process.

What difficulties will the implementation of the law face?

This is a very ambitious law, the implementation of which requires a lot of resources. It will have to be implemented across the whole territory of Spain, which includes 17 autonomous communities, each with its own jurisdiction on social services and justice, among other areas involved in the implementation of the law. All this raises the question of how the text of the law will be translated into effective reality.

What are the next challenges for women’s rights?

The main challenge is to consolidate legally recognised rights and prevent backsliding. At the moment a reform of abortion legislation is on the table to remove barriers to access this right, and it is going to be a controversial issue in the parliamentary debate.

Opinion is very polarised and there is a prevailing narrative that demonises the other, something that is very apparent in the use of the ‘gender ideology’ label. Freedom of expression enriches democracy and must be protected, especially when things are said that we do not like. But attacks on human rights defenders and hate speech, both of which are on the increase, are an entirely different thing.

In relation to women’s rights we are seeing setbacks in nearby countries such as Hungary and Poland. Rights gains that we had come to take for granted are not being consolidated or are experiencing setbacks. Hence the importance of increasing human rights awareness and citizen participation. In the midst of this ideological battle, the democratisation of the language of rights is now more urgent than ever.


Civic space in Spain is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Amnesty International Spain through its website or Facebook page, and follow @amnistiaespana on Twitter.

 

COP27: ‘Climate justice requires debt cancellation, reparations and non-debt climate finance for small island developing states’

Tariq Al OlaimyCIVICUS speaks with Bahraini social entrepreneur Tariq Al-Olaimy about the upcoming COP27 summit on climate change.

Tariq is Managing Director of 3BL Associates, an ecosystem of social and planetary enterprises working towards regenerative, inclusive and wellbeing-centred economies.

What was the purpose of the Greenpeace United for Climate Justice ship tour you recently took part in?

Greenpeace is sailing throughout Egypt together with climate leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to put climate justice high on the agenda in the lead-up to COP27, which will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The ship tour is a platform for climate leaders living in some of the world’s most affected regions to promote systemic change around climate adaptation, justice, access to energy and response to the loss and damage associated with the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis. They are representing the voices of people from across the region, focusing on both climate impacts and the many solutions already at hand.

It's important to spread these leaders’ messages around the world and to make sure their voices are not forgotten during COP27, especially in highlighting the need for climate justice for the global south. For these leaders, this is a collective fight for justice for their countries and communities.

Young people from the across the global south in particular are among the most affected and most marginalised, but also among the most powerful voices. They are not victims, but collectives of solidarity and hope working for a brighter future for all.

What issues should be prioritised at COP27? 

COP27 must raise the call of climate justice for the most vulnerable, and also the least responsible for climate change: the people in Africa, in the South-west Asia and North Africa region, and on small islands, among others.

I am from Bahrain, which makes me one of 65 million people who live in small island developing states, representing roughly one per cent of the world’s population. Climate justice, mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage strategies require consistent and regular resources. Small islands typically lack those resources and, being particularly vulnerable to extreme climate events, often face reconstruction costs that lead to more borrowing and debt, which in turn increases their vulnerability.

All small island states together only received US$1.5 billion in climate finance between 2016 and 2020. In the same period, 22 small island developing states paid more than US$26 billion to their external creditors – almost 18 times as much. Climate justice requires debt cancellation, reparations and non-debt climate finance for small island developing states.

COP 27 is framed as an ‘implementation COP’, and the climate finance gap and unequal distribution of finance between countries are critical barriers to implementation.

Are you hopeful meaningful commitments will be made at COP27?

The window of opportunity to act is closing. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report offers an even clearer picture of the remaining carbon budget available to stay within a 1.5°C temperature rise and therefore avoid the worst impacts of climate change. While enhanced mitigation ambition is critical, the urgency of implementation is a key concern. Taking into account the pledges fully implemented as of 31 December 2021, total greenhouse gas emission levels are still projected to be 10 per cent higher than 2012 levels.

To truly scale mitigation ambition, it is important that governments don’t just negotiate the text and numbers of pledges but negotiate the very system within which we implement climate action. We need degrowth of the most ecologically harmful sectors of our economy, a global and just transition and transformation towards a post-growth economy.

In a context characterised by short-term political calculations we are completely missing the need for urgent and radical change. I do not expect COP27 to address all this. But there are still some issues that could be meaningfully advanced – in particular, the establishment of the basis for the operationalisation of a Loss and Damage Finance Facility, the details of which could be finalised at COP28 next year.

This is an issue of climate justice towards the many countries in the global south that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change yet have done little to contribute to the crisis. At the same time, these countries do not have the financial or technological capacity to address these impacts, adapt and pursue a post-extractivist and low-carbon transition. Loss and damage financing can force a rethink around financial commitments and contributions, and pressure for both debt and tax reform as well as renewed financial commitments for mitigation and adaptation.

How concerned are you about the conditions for civil society participation at a COP held in a country with highly restricted civil space?

Civil society participation is always a critical concern at COPs. It’s clear that we can’t have a green and peaceful future without justice, equity, civil rights and empowered communities. That includes the full inclusion of independent civil society as a key stakeholder in climate negotiations. This is why business and civil society organisations have stressed the crucial importance of a rights-based approach to climate action.

As the world transitions toward net zero, protecting the human rights of civil society, workers and communities is key to achieving a just transition. There is significant danger of pledges being made to close the emissions gap while irresponsible implementation strips the rights of civil society. Green transitions in rich countries and ‘green growth’ require significant mineral resources, supplied from the global south, so there is a risk of a neo-colonial mineral rush and a regression of labour rights. It is essential to develop norms, standards and safeguards so that the transition strategies implemented by governments and businesses comply with international human rights and labour standards.

In the context of the COP, this starts with the United Nations taking a much stronger stance regarding the enabling of safe, inclusive and meaningful civil society participation throughout the negotiation process. The COP agenda is largely dominated by global north governments and interests, and civil society perspectives, especially those from the global south, need to find their way into the mix, bringing forward alternative pathways, experience and knowledge.


 Get in touch with the 3BL Associates through its website and follow @tariqal on Twitter.

 

LEBANON: ‘The main culprits of the current crisis are bank owners and their greed for profit’

Alaa KhorchidCIVICUS speaks about Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis and the situation of depositors who are unable to access their savings with Alaa Khorchid, head of Depositors’ Outcry Association. 

Depositors’ Outcry Association is a citizens’ group that formed in 2019 to support depositors’ attempts to withdraw their savings from Lebanese banks after their accounts were frozen in response to the financial crisis.

Who is to blame for the situation Lebanese depositors are currently in?

Lebanese depositors are desperate because their savings have been frozen, so they cannot withdraw them from banks. The way they are being mistreated is outrageous. If a depositor simply complains loudly, bank staff call the police on them. Even if they have a million dollars in the bank, depositors are unable to get medical treatment or pay for their kids’ university fees. Banks are only allowing them to withdraw US$140 a month, and are told if they have an issue with that limit, they can go ahead and file a lawsuit.

The main culprits of the current crisis are bank owners, whose greed for profit got us to this point. What they did was a scam. They sent representatives abroad to convince Lebanese expatriates and foreigners to invest their money in Lebanese banks even though they knew we were heading into a crisis, while they smuggled their own money to France, the USA or the Gulf countries, where their investments amount to billions.

Also responsible are state authorities, starting with Riad Salameh, governor of the Banque du Liban (BdL), Lebanon’s central bank. He should have regulated banks and held them accountable three years ago, but he didn’t.

The government is responsible for not applying the laws on banks owners. They should have forced them to return depositors’ money out of their own pockets, but instead allowed them to smuggle their money abroad.

The courts also have their share of responsibility, as they have thousands of cases pending, years after they’ve been filed. When cases filed by depositors in Lebanon reach a certain point they are shelved, while in France and the UK depositors managed to win their cases and get their money back.

How have people organised to get their money back?

People got together to fight collectively through organisations such as Depositors’ Outcry Association, which formed in 2019. As an association, we have filed lawsuits against the BdL governor as well as the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) and one bank, the Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL), that smuggled US$1.2 billion out of the country. All these lawsuits have been pending for years because most of the judiciary has been bribed by the banks. 

We also support depositors by mediating between them and the banks. For example, we have a list of cancer patients that we shared with the banks to try and convince them to release some of their funds to enable people to pay for treatment. Some banks, but not all, have responded positively.

Some depositors have gone the banks to get their money by whatever means. One of them was Sali Hafiz, whom we supported. Hafiz asked for our help; a lawyer and members of the association went inside the bank with her and over 100 members were outside the bank to cheer for her and ensure her safety. We also helped a retired serviceman in Chtoura retrieve some of his savings from the bank. The association’s lawyer follows up with depositors, and when a depositor enters a bank to try to get some of their money back, we spread the word among our supporters so people gather outside in support and make it harder for others to enter the bank or for security to kick them out.

It is worth noting that not all the organisations out there are supporting depositors. There are several organisations funded by ABL or SGBL, which obviously always side with the banks. The same applies to local media, which continues to accept money from the banks in the form of advertising. Depositors have had their accounts blocked for three years on the grounds that there is no money to give them back, but the banks still find money to pay for advertising.

What needs to change so the situation can be resolved?

We don’t have a functioning governance system. Banks have retained people’s savings for three years and the BdL has allowed this to continue, while the judiciary has protected the banks by withholding thousands of cases without reaching a conclusion. Many judges have a financial incentive to behave this way: they got bank loans worth millions of US dollars, which they are now repaying in Lebanese lira at a ridiculous exchange rate – they will end up paying 10 per cent of the original amount. This is a real scandal.

The first change needed is to replace the BdL governor. He is the one behind the financial policies issued in 2017 and 2018. He brought cash in from correspondent banks and loaned it to the state without any guarantees. He spent US$100 billion without ever being held accountable. He considers himself above the law: he faces multiple lawsuits but he simply refuses to show up in court. 

What are the implications of the recently passed Banking Secrecy Law?

Parliament passed an amended Banking Secrecy Law that will lift secrecy on the bank accounts belonging to public officials and major bankers. We find the new law acceptable, although we hoped it would apply retroactively. As we told the head of the Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, we want to clarify what happened to the funds the political and financial elite transferred abroad after 17 October 2019, estimated at between US$13 and 15 billion. We want to understand who smuggled them and where to. But the new law won’t solve all the issues as there is no trust in the banking system.

Another bill, the Capital Control Law, is set to be discussed in parliament, but there is still no final draft to comment on. Unfortunately, it is a bit too late to discuss capital controls, once capital has been massively smuggled abroad. Capital controls should have come a week, even a month into the crisis, but not after three years. Banks have smuggled the funds of the elite abroad because there were no legal impediments. The latest update we heard regarding the capital control law is that there will be no separate capital control law and it will be part of a larger recovery roadmap consisting of many changes in addition to capital control. We consider the potential recovery roadmap as a death sentence to depositors.

What do you think about the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for approving a US$3 billion loan?

According to the government, one of the IMF’s main conditions is to write off US$70 billion of depositors’ funds. If that is what the IMF wants in exchange for giving the state a US$3 billion loan, then of course we are against it. The IMF can’t ask the state and BdL to write off as much funds to ensure they get repaid for their loan. Some members of parliament promised us they would refuse to pass any legislation to that effect.

But a reform requested by the IMF that is most important to us, and which ABL rejects, is the restructuring of banks. We hope that banks will be restructured and a timeline for repaying depositors will be released.

At the beginning of the crisis, BdL had US$34 billion. Today, it has US$8 billion. Those billions are gone due to governance failures. If the same policies remain in place, nothing will work, regardless of whether the IMF gives the state a loan of US$3 or 10 billion. The first step to get out of this crisis should be to guarantee deposits, because the crisis wasn’t the depositors’ fault.

In the past 15 years banks made over US$35 billion in profit, which was transferred abroad. We demand a forensic audit of each bank to find out which had profits, and how much. There are 40 banks in Lebanon. Why are they being treated as one? We should examine each separately. 


 Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Depositors’ Outcry Association through its Facebook page.

 

BURKINA FASO: ‘For a major segment of civil society security is a more urgent concern than democracy’

KopepDabugatCIVICUS speaks about the recent military coup in Burkina Faso with Kop'ep Dabugat, Network Coordinator of the West Africa Democracy Solidarity Network (WADEMOS).

WADEMOS is a coalition of West African civil society organisations (CSOs) that mobilises civil society around the defence of democracy and the promotion of democratic norms in the region.

What led to the recent coup in Burkina Faso, and what needs to be done for democracy to be restored?

The current head of Burkina Faso’s ruling junta, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, cited persistent insecurity as a reason for the military takeover – as did his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Attacks by armed groups are said to have greatly increased in the months following the first coup led by Damiba, in January 2022. According to analysts, Burkina Faso is the new epicentre of conflict in the Sahel. Since 2015, jihadist violence by insurgents with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State has resulted in the death of thousands of people and displaced a further two million.

The coup also revealed the presence of a schism in the Damiba-led junta. It was orchestrated by military officers who were part of the coup that installed Damiba as head of state, but who now claimed that Damiba did not focus on reorganising the army to better face security threats, as they had expected. Instead, he stuck with the military structure that led to the fall of the government under President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and began to display political ambitions.

The security question remains the first challenge that needs to be addressed to make Burkina Faso a democratic state. The foremost role of a state, and more so of a democratic one, is to guarantee the safety of its citizens. A united Burkina Faso army will be necessary to achieve this.

The other thing that must be done is to see through the existing transition programme for the country to return to civilian rule by July 2024, to which the new junta has agreed.

Beyond the transition, the need to build a strong state and political institutions cannot be overemphasised. The challenges of corruption and economic marginalisation should be tackled in earnest. The need for stronger institutions is not peculiar to Burkina Faso: it is familiar to all the region, and particularly to those countries that have recently come under military rule, notably Guinea and Mali.

What was civil society’s reaction to the recent military coup?

In line with the disunity that characterises civil society in Burkina Faso, the civil society response to the coup has been mixed. But a notable section of civil society seemed to welcome the most recent coup because they saw the Damiba-led junta not only as authoritarian but also as aligned with politicians from the regime of President Blaise Compaoré, in power from 1987 to 2014. They saw the real possibility that those politicians could regain power and shut all doors on victims of the Compaoré regime ever seeing justice.

As a result, the view of the recent coup as a significant setback for the democratic transition agenda is not unanimously held among civil society. Additionally, for a major segment of civil society security appears to be a more urgent and priority concern than democracy, so the element that prevailed was the seeming incapacity of the Damiba-led junta to address the security situation.

The effort of the traditional and religious groups that negotiated a seven-point agreement between the Damiba and Traoré factions of the military, ending violence and forestalling further bloodshed, however, deserves commendation. That effort seems to have established a baseline of engagement between the Traoré-led junta and civil society. Such constructive engagement with the new government seems to have continued, with the notable participation of civil society in the 14 October 2022 National Conference that approved a new Transitional Charter for Burkina Faso and officially appointed Traoré as transitional president.

What is the situation of human right CSOs?

Burkinabe CSOs in the human and civil rights space have grown increasingly concerned about the victimisation of politicians and members of the public perceived to be pro-France as well as by the marked upsurge of pro-Russian groups demanding that France and all its interests be kicked out of the country.

On top of their concern about the raging jihadist insurgency, human and civil rights CSOs are also concerned about the stigmatisation and victimisation of citizens of Fulani ethnicity. This victimisation stems from the fact that many terrorist cells recruit Burkinabe people of Fulani extraction. There have been reports of arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings of Fulani people due to their alleged complicity in terrorist violence. Besides these two, no other notable cases of human rights abuses threatening civilians have been identified besides the ones already mentioned. Hence, even though it is still early in the Traoré-led government, it may be safe to rule out any consistent pattern of heightened human rights abuses under its watch.

How has the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded to the military coup?

In accordance with the letter of its 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, the initial response of ECOWAS was to condemn the coup strongly and unequivocally, calling it an unfortunate and retrogressive development, especially in light of the progress made with the Damiba-led junta in preparing the ground for elections and democracy. ECOWAS also called for the junta to guarantee human rights and ensure stability.

Despite the ongoing sanctions against the country, following his meeting with Traoré, Mahamadou Issoufou, the former president of Niger and mediator sent to Burkina Faso by ECOWAS, said he was satisfied and that ECOWAS would remain by the side of the people of Burkina Faso. In what is the ECOWAS way to respond to military governments, ECOWAS will work closely with the junta to restore democratic order. The timeline stands and the deadline remains July 2024.

How have other international institutions reacted, and what should they do to support civil society in Burkina Faso?

Other international institutions have reacted similarly to ECOWAS. The African Union condemned the coup and said it was unfortunate in light of the progress already made towards the restoration of democracy. The coup was similarly condemned by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

If the international community wants to assist CSOs in Burkina Faso, what it first and foremost needs to do is support the junta’s efforts to stamp out the jihadist insurgency that continues to hold the country hostage. It should also assist the authorities in tackling not only the current refugee crisis but also the challenge of climate change, which is a contributing factor not just to the refugee crisis but also to the spread of terrorist violence.

The international community must also continue to mount pressure on the junta to deliver on its promise to adhere to the agreements the former junta reached with ECOWAS, to put an end to the victimisation of people on account of their political affiliations and ethnicity, and to set free anyone who has been imprisoned for political reasons.


Civic space in Burkina Faso is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with WADEMOS through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @WADEMOSnetwork on Twitter.

 

IRAN: ‘Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation’

sohbraCIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the current women-led protests, the state of civil society and the prospects for change in Iran.

VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.

What is the situation of Iranian civil society today?

Civil society in Iran has become weaker over the past few years. Civic activism has grown but organised civil society has become weaker and has been marginalised. Following President Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to power in 2021, civic space has shrunk dramatically. The establishment and operation of CSOs has been legally obstructed and any CSO not following the policies of Iranian authorities has been eliminated.

Following significant teachers’ protests in May 2022 there was a major crackdown against the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association and many of its leaders and activists were arrested. This was just one example of many.

The ongoing crackdown follows a predictable sequence: first, the authorities exploit toxic narratives and disseminate false accusations to malign civil society and create internal conflict within civic movements. Then they repress the smaller remaining groups, arresting and detaining their leaders and activists.

The authorities have attacked all institutions and organisations that are the expression of social power, eliminating the possibility of further organising. To fill up the space, they set up fake CSOs organised and led by government officials, often affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are often local, community-oriented organisations that involve local communities by approaching the mosques and charities that support them.

What made the death of Mahsa Amini a turning point?

Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation. She was a young member of an ethnic minority who was visiting Tehran, was violently arrested by the morality police and died under custody. All these elements together made her case relatable for many Iranians. She was only 22 years old, a woman, a member of an ethnic minority and a Sunni Muslim, which is a religious minority in Iran. Many Iranians identify with at least one and possibly many of these elements of Mahsa’s identity and resent the policies aimed at suppressing them. As a result, large groups that feel discriminated against and suppressed mobilised.

This happened in a context of high poverty and repression, with a government that acts with impunity because it knows it won’t be held accountable. For years, instead of trying to meet the needs of their citizens, the authorities have cracked down on all sorts of protests. With Raisi coming to power, any hope for change was gone.

In what ways have these protests been different from previous ones?

The current protests are very different from previous ones, including recent protests that took place in 2017 and 2019. First, protesters are mostly between 15 and 25 years old. This is possibly their first engagement in a civic movement. They have grown up in the digital world and are using in the real world what they learned playing video games – only that in the real world, there is no respawning! So many are getting killed.

Second, protesters are primarily women and students. And some of their acts of protest, such as female protesters burning headscarves and cutting their hair, are unprecedented. Their demands are also different from those of previous civic movements. Whereas in 2017 and 2019 demands were mostly economic, now they are cultural: their main demand is for freedom to lead a different lifestyle than the authorities allow them to have. The shout ‘Women, Life, Liberty’ has become a protest cry and a slogan of solidarity both inside Iran and internationally.

Third, support from Iranians in the diaspora and media coverage have both drastically increased. This time the events have received major media coverage since the outset, with the protests on front pages all over the world. For the first time, on 23 October, 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora gathered in Berlin to support protesters and demonstrate against the Iranian regime. This support is unprecedented. 

Finally, public discourse about the protests has shifted. In the past, dominant discourse highlighted the non-violent character of the protests, but this time there have been calls for retaliation and to use violence to defend the protests. Violence is no longer taboo: some elites and influencers inside and outside Iran are advocating for it. This is extremely concerning, considering that it may legitimise violence by the Iranian authorities, which could resort to even more violence in response.

How has the government cracked down on the protests, and why have protests continued regardless?

The government has used multiple tactics. First, it deploys riot police and security forces that use violence to physically prevent and dissolve protests. As a result, over 7,000 protesters have been arrested, many have been beaten and over 200 have been killed. Second, it has restricted internet access for over four weeks now, limiting the free exchange of information while increasing the circulation of disinformation and official propaganda. Third, it has used the same narrative tactics it normally uses against civil society, linking the protests to foreign intelligence forces.

The government’s reaction has been as repressive as towards previous movements. However, these protesters are more resilient, so the crackdown has not been as effective as previous ones. Two sources of this resilience are decentralisation and spontaneity: protests are held locally rather than in a central place, and they are not centrally organised – they are organised by small groups and happen rather spontaneously during the day or night at random hours, with protesters quickly dispersing afterwards.

Additionally, the fact that there are so many children and young students among protesters has somewhat limited the violence. Many children and adolescents have been killed, but the death toll would likely have been much higher had they not been among protesters. And many of these young people are students, therefore part of the middle class – which means there is a cultural middle class that continues to support the protests.

What is the likelihood of these protests leading to change?

We can identify five possible scenarios – and only one of them leads to regime change.

In the first scenario, the crackdown succeeds and protests end. This would result in widespread hopelessness and disappointment.

In the second, the authorities make concessions and the mandatory hijab rules are repealed. This would lead to the recognition of some limited freedoms, but not to regime change.

In the third, neither the authorities nor the protesters prevail, leading to continuing violence and bloody conflict. Protesters go into an armed offensive and the situation escalates into a civil war-like situation.

In the fourth, military groups seize power and suppress both protesters and established authorities to pursue their own goals.

In the fifth scenario, mass mobilisation leads to regime change.

What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.

In the current situation, scenarios one to three are the most likely. The movement has not entered a revolutionary stage. There are not massive gaps in the regime – neither in its repressive machinery nor in its will to crack down on protests. And the protests have not been massive nor widely representative of the make-up of society. We have not seen hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands on the streets, and we have not seen protests by various ethnic or religious minorities, and by different social classes. Strikes are typically the heart of social movement action in Iran, and we have not yet seen strikes by major branches and sectors of the economy.

What can women’s rights supporters and democracy activists from around the world do to support civil society in Iran?

International civil society as a collective should be more vocal. We need a unified collective of civil society echoing the voices of Iranian activists and advocates for democracy and human rights in Iran. In addition, actions of solidarity are needed as well as networks to exchange knowledge, experience and skills so Iranian activists can learn from civic movements internationally and be more effective.

Regarding the immediate response, there are various needs, such as juvenile justice support, including legal support, wellbeing and mental health support, as well as training and awareness raising on civic activism in Iran.

The main goal should be to support Iranian protesters and activists so their voice is heard and the crackdown does not succeed, while supporting the victims of the crackdown. International pressure is instrumental, not only from governments but also from civil society as a change leader. A close connection between international civil society, Iranian activists in diaspora, Iranian civil society and the media is also essential.


Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through its website.

 

LIBERIA: ‘Anyone who committed crimes during the civil wars should be prosecuted, wherever they are’

kunti

CIVICUS speaks about the current war crime trial against former Liberian rebel commander Kunti Kamara with Adama Dempster, Secretary General of Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.

Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia is a civil society network that brings together human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) across Liberia to advocate for human rights and bring justice and redress to the victims of human rights violations.

What is the significance of the ongoing trial of Kunti Kamara?

Kuinti Kamara’s trial is significant because it offers hope to the victims and survivors of Liberia’s civil wars, and especially to the direct victims of the atrocities he committed. It is also an indication that no one is above the law regardless of the position of power they occupy.

Kamara is the former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy. a rebel group active in the early 1990s. He stands accused of imposing a state of terror on the population of Lofa, a county in north-western Liberia, during the first civil war from 1989 to 1996, which left a quarter million people dead.

Widespread atrocities – unspeakable crimes – were committed in Liberia. Kamara is charged with crimes against humanity, torture and acts of barbarism. He appears to have been involved or complicit with the forced recruitment of child soldiers, gang rapes, sexual slavery, looting, extrajudicial executions and even cannibalism. Nobody who commits such crimes should be able to avoid judgment.

Kamara is among the second group of people to be prosecuted for their role in the civil wars. His trial has recently begun at a French Court of Appeals in Paris, where he is being prosecuted under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, according to which crimes against humanity know no borders.

This means that no matter where the perpetrators find themselves, whether in the country where they committed their crimes or anywhere else, they can still be held accountable, and justice can be served. CSOs on the ground have had the opportunity to speak in trials involving Liberians abroad and victims and survivors have had their say. The international community is helping us seek justice by bringing the accused to trial. That makes it unique and important to the quest for justice in Liberia. 

How does civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, work for justice and accountability?

Since the civil wars ended in Liberia in 2003, civil society has played a leading role in seeking justice by investigating and documenting human rights abuses committed during the time of the conflict, advocating against the culture of impunity and helping victims, including by raising their voices.

To live in an environment that recognises human rights, we must first deal with unaddressed human rights violations that happened in the past. While we advocate for improving the current human rights situation, we also advocate for past human rights violations to be addressed so we can move forward.

Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia is a coalition of human rights CSOs. Along with the Global Justice Resource Project, a global digital platform that connects local CSOs seeking justice around the world, we document war-related atrocities committed in Liberia and work to make sure those responsible are prosecuted.

We understand that our society is still traumatised by the civil war, so we work to create awareness, educate and sensitise local communities on human rights issues. We train local human rights community-based CSOs across Liberia so they can also carry out advocacy work and help victims and survivors.

Advocacy is one of the strong elements of our work, which we use to shift the understanding of human rights issues at the national and regional levels so violations can be addressed. Our advocacy involves engaging with stakeholders from relevant institutions, the government and the international community. We specifically work with foreign governments so that any individual who committed crimes in Liberia during the civil wars can be prosecuted regardless of where they are in the world. Diaspora advocacy is also part of our work.

Over the years we have engaged in the follow up of the recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), issued in 2009 and not yet implemented. We also conduct workshops with university students so they can learn about the importance of the TRC’s recommendations and measures the government should adopt to implement them.

We have had the opportunity to engage with the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process by submitting a shadow report on the human rights situation in Liberia, and with the UN Human Rights Committee, where we participated in the review of the implementation of the TRC’s report.

Have you faced any challenges in the course of your work?

We have faced several challenges in doing our work. As human rights defenders we face continuous risk and are threatened by the very fact that we live among the people who committed the unspeakable crimes we work to bring justice over.

We have been placed under surveillance, followed and monitored by various groups that feel targeted by our work. People working on war crime cases have been threatened directly or indirectly through text messages and on social media. There is no law or policy to protect human rights defenders in Liberia. But because we want to see human rights recognised and respected, we continue to take the risk and carry on our work regardless of the threats.

Following up on the recommendations of the TRC report for more than a decade has also been challenging due to lack of political will and technical and funding support for advocacy around their implementation. Most organisations involved urgently need technical capacity to be able to continue their work. 

What are the chances that Kamara’s trial will bring justice?

The Kamara trial has given Liberians hope that when crimes are committed, there is a possibility of justice being done. The fact that charges were brought and Kamara was put on trial made us believe justice will be served. It is also an opportunity for the accused to prove his innocence.

The trial also made us more hopeful that the Liberian government will realise it must urgently implement a mechanism capable of bringing justice in the country. We understand this might take time due to lack of resources and capacity, but a plan should be put in place towards that end. Kamara’s trial highlights the importance of establishing a mechanism in Liberia so that other people who stand accused can be brought to justice and victims and survivors can receive justice no matter the time or place.

The recent visit to Liberia by the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack, was a strong signal of support for our efforts to bring accountability and has given us a sense of hope and of being on the right path to challenging the culture of impunity.

What kind of support does Liberian civil society need from the international community?

We need the international community to encourage our government to live up to its responsibility to bring accountability and justice to its citizens when their human rights are violated. Our government has not shown the required political will so far, but we believe pressure from the international community will make it see the urgent need to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable. The government should request support from the international community, including technical and financial support to establish a court to that end.

Funding is also needed to set up programmes to support victims and survivors. Most people who were sexually exploited during the wars have not even had the opportunity to seek medical help. So we also need the international community to help us put together and fund programmes bringing trauma counselling for victims, survivors and their families.

Read more here.


Civic space in Liberia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia through its Facebook page.

 

MALDIVES: ‘We have come a long way, but more needs to be done to further open up civic space’

SaafathCIVICUS speaks about the situation of women’s rights in Maldives with Safaath Ahmed Zahir, founder and president of Women & Democracy (W&D). 
 
Founded in 2016, W&D is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s economic and political participation and good democratic governance in the Maldives through research, advocacy and awareness-raising activities. 
 
What led you to become an activist and found a women’s rights CSO?
 Growing up in Maldives, a small island developing nation, the disparities between men and women became evident to me. I came from a majority-women family and witnessed the personal upheavals that my mother endured and how much my family battled for my education. Returning home after studying abroad was an eye-opener for me. In interviewing for a job, I experienced first-hand the deep-rooted patriarchal culture and the double standards women face on a daily basis. So I decided to put my education to good use: to push for women’s rights and empowerment in my country.

I first played a role in creating Women on Boards, a CSO promoting gender diversity in the workplace. This inspired me to try to contribute further to building the organisational infrastructure and community to support women’s economic and political participation in Maldives. The organisation I founded, W&D, is now one of the most prominent in Maldives, with over 300 members, 200 of them aged between 18 and 29.

What are the main women’s rights challenges in Maldives?

Maldives ranked 106 out of 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. Women are marginalised in the political sphere due to institutional barriers, discriminatory cultural practices and social norms. Despite being roughly half of the population, having a 98 per cent literacy rate and actively participating in political parties, in 2009 only 6.5 of members of parliament were women. The proportion fell to 5.9 per cent in 2013, and again to 4.6 per cent in 2019. Currently, only four out of 87 parliamentarians are women, and few women hold senior public sector roles.

With the passing of the Decentralisation Act, which allocates 33 per cent of local council seats to women, there has been some progress in local governance. The Maldives’ women development committees are an important platform for women to enter into politics and to participate in the decision-making process at local and national levels. But many barriers still limit their fulfilment of their mandate. They should be empowered to achieve true decentralisation.

Women continue to take on the burden of childcare and domestic chores, which makes it difficult for women to engage in economic activities on a par with men. Female labour force participation in Maldives is higher than in other South Asian countries, but women tend to be clustered in low-growth sectors and in lower-paying positions, and they earn less than men. While tourism is the lifeblood of our economy, women make up only seven per cent of the tourism labour force.

Women’s entrepreneurship is generally underdeveloped, and women’s economic contribution tends to be rendered invisible, particularly in major sectors such as tourism, fisheries, construction and wholesale and retail trading. Gendered economic inequalities were exacerbated under the pandemic, reversing what little progress had been made over previous years.

Gender-based violence also remains an entrenched problem. One in three women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. There is a great need for more and better infrastructure to support survivors.

In sum, a clear female disadvantage persists. Regulatory institutions must be strengthened to solidify existing gender equality gains and mitigate gender inequalities.

How is civil society in general, and W&D in particular, working to address these challenges?

Women’s rights CSOs have been working to address these challenges for several years, through capacity development workshops, advocacy campaigns, movement-building and creating opportunities for women and girls.

Six years on from its founding, W&D has become a leading CSO working to protect the rights and improve the lives of women. We particularly advocate for women’s safety, economic and political leadership and for inclusive democratic governance.

Since 2018, we have conducted an annual capacity development programme to advance women’s leadership and political empowerment in partnership with the International Republican Institute. In three years, more than 680 women aspiring to public office and political leadership have taken part in our training activities. In the 2021 elections for local councils and women’s development committees, 83 women who successfully completed our training were elected.

During the pandemic, we launched a rapid response programme for vulnerable women and girls. In response to the dramatic increase in reports of domestic abuse, we established a domestic violence and mental wellness helpline to help women seek the assistance of the relevant authorities, undertake safety planning and connect them with wellbeing resources. We provided survivors with psychosocial counselling and referred the most urgent cases to emergency shelters or other safe spaces. With a grant from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) we were able to assist 130 women.

Also with QCT support, we worked to improve access to menstrual materials for vulnerable women and girls. Approximately 10,500 sanitary materials were distributed as part of our rapid response programme. We have just received additional support to continue our rapid response programme. We expect to assist at least 240 more women and girls within the next eight months.

Additionally, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation we have hosted multi-stakeholder discussions and consultations with vulnerable populations, relevant government bodies and CSOs to offer policy reforms to address the needs of the most vulnerable.

This year we implemented a project to help strengthen the capacity of CSOs and community-based organisations working towards women’s empowerment and social development in Maldives. We brought together more than 160 people from various organisations.

How has civil society in Maldives joined the recent global mobilisation wave against gender-based violence?

Over the past seven years there have been many street mobilisations, mainly condemning rape and demanding justice for sexual crimes against women and girls and children in Maldives. Protection gaps in rape laws and barriers to accessing justice have perpetuated the prevalence of sexual violence and the lack of justice for survivors. The dire state of women’s safety in Maldives was highlighted by the 2016 Demographic Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, which showed that one in every four women in relationships had faced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. In recent years, the Maldivian community has become more outspoken on the issue, particularly amidst the #MeToo movement, where a lot of Maldivian women came forward with their experiences.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were multiple street mobilisations spurred by cases of sexual violence and injustice. In early 2020, following a case of sexual abuse of a two-year-old girl by her relatives, outraged citizens protested against rape and urged the government to protect children from predators. The authorities again came under criticism in mid-2020 after a foreign woman was sexually assaulted and the suspects were released from custody, with reports soon following that one of them was in a position of influence. People gathered outside parliament to protest against rape and impunity.

Following the exacerbating effects of the pandemic on violence and abuse against women and girls, protesters rallied again in 2021 The government has taken steps to address these problems. It ratified the First Amendment to the Sexual Offences Act to improve the definition of rape and strengthen investigations, including by removing burdensome evidence requirements. In 2021, it also criminalised marital rape, marking a significant milestone for the women’s rights movement. But there is still a lot of progress to be made in combating the violence and abuse faced by women and children.

How has the space for civil society action evolved over the past few years?

As a relatively new democracy, the Maldives has taken significant steps towards ensuring civic space freedoms, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Following the November 2018 elections, Maldives has experienced legislative reforms and a relative opening up of civic space. A commission was established to probe unresolved disappearances. Maldives drastically improved its position in the World Press Freedom Index, moving from 142 to 87 out of 180 countries. This was made possible by reforms such as the repeal of the 2016 defamation law.

While Maldives has come a long way since its first democratic election back in 2008, more needs to be done to further open up civic space. Over the years, human rights defenders have been targeted and subjected to verbal attacks, including hate speech and death threats, while women activists have faced online vilification and threats due to their work for women’s rights.

CSOs are also under pressure from extremists and hate groups, whose influence in limiting the social and cultural lives and roles of women has persisted. There have been instances of religious scholars advocating for girl child marriage and female genital mutilation, and attempts to suppress women advocates who speak out against these grave violations of women’s rights. Women human rights defenders are specifically targeted and face additional and gender-specific challenges, including threats of sexual violence and rape.

What kind of international support does the Maldives’ women’s rights movement need?

We need the continued support of international partners and collaborators to maintain and advance our work to empower women. As our movement is mainly composed of CSOs, we rely on the generosity of international organisations that identify with our mission to be able to continue to run the projects that are making a difference in Maldives.

We also need continued opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with the international community. The exchange of ideas and information among countries and cultures is inspiring and empowering for women and girls in Maldives, particularly in the areas of business and politics.

International support for Maldivian civic space also plays a significant role in furthering women’s empowerment. This is largely achieved by developing the skill sets of CSOs through workshops and programmes run by our international partners and collaborators.

Vocal support from the international community for the Maldives women’s rights movement is also crucial. While we have faced obstacles, CSOs in Maldives have persevered in promoting women’s rights and we will continue to do so alongside our international partners and supporters.


Civic space in Maldives is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Women & Democracy through its website or Facebook page, and follow @wdmaldives on Twitter.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Get in touch with Dibussi Tande through his website or Facebook page, and follow @dibussi on Twitter.

 

MEXICO: ‘The problem of insecurity is paramount, but it cannot be solved with militarisation’

CIVICUS speaks about the militarisation of security in Mexico and its implications for civil society with Sofía de Robina, a lawyer with Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín pro Juárez-Centro Prodh.

Centro Prodh is a Mexican civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 1988 by the Society of Jesus with the aim of defending victims of serious human rights violations and promoting structural changes to allow all people in Mexico to enjoy and exercise the full range of their human rights equally. Its work focuses specifically on Indigenous peoples and groups, women, migrants and victims of repression.

SofiadeRobina

What trends do you see in the militarisation of public security in Mexico?

At Centro Prodh we have seen that starting in 2006, with the deployment of the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking, there has been an increased focus on the use of force by elements of the military sector instead of on strengthening the civilian police with a focus on prevention and prioritising access to justice and the fight against the corruption of authorities linked to organised crime. Consequently, rather than decreasing, violence increased, as did human rights violations.

The presence of the army and its responsibility for human rights violations dates a long way back – it was involved in the so-called ‘dirty war’ of the 1960s and 1970s. However, this trend deepened under the administration of President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party, continued under President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and further intensified under the current government of MORENA’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Over 80 per cent of the current members of the National Guard – created in 2019 through a constitutional reform and initially under the civilian command of the Ministry of Public Security – come from the military. According to the National Guard Law, the institution performs tasks of migration review and supervision, surveillance and investigation. This is extremely worrying as it is becoming a military body. Practically all of its commanders, both administrative and operational, come from the Ministry of National Defence (SEDENA), which means the National Guard is increasingly subordinate to the army.

Congress recently approved an executive initiative to reform the National Guard Law, transferring its operational and territorial command to SEDENA. This is contrary to the constitution, which establishes that public security should be the responsibility of civilian institutions, as ratified by the Supreme Court.

In addition, in 2020 it was established that the armed forces could continue to carry out tasks related to public security, without making clear how they would comply with the principles of exceptional, extraordinary, subsidiary, complementary and supervised intervention. Initially it was agreed that they would do so until 2024, but Congress has just approved a reform to extend the deadline until 2028, without providing any justification.

All these decisions are evidence of the government’s commitment to militarised security instead of strengthening civilian police forces and state and federal prosecutors’ offices, which we believe would be more appropriate if the objective is to investigate crimes and human rights violations.

Moreover, military presence has been strengthened not only in the area of public security, but also in other areas of public administration, such as customs and ports, as well as in the construction of public works. The armed forces have one of the largest budgets in the public administration and are not subject to adequate controls, even though they have historically been characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability.

The National Human Rights Commission has shown no signs of true autonomy when it comes to military oversight. This is evidenced by the small number of recommendations it has issued despite the abundance of complaints involving the National Guard, as well as its refusal to challenge the unconstitutional legal changes.

The attorney general’s office has also failed to carry out relevant investigations into the matter, perpetuating impunity. Oversight bodies are clearly not a sufficient counterweight to SEDENA’s growing power.

Why has this trend developed?

It is undeniable that the current context is one of unprecedented violence and that organised crime carries great weight in Mexico. It is responsible for many human rights violations, often in collusion or at least with the acquiescence of authorities at all levels. In some places, removing the armed forces overnight would not be the most appropriate measure to take.

It is understandable that both the government and society are concerned about security: it is one of the problems that most affects Mexicans. However, the government has opted for militarisation, indicating that there are no other options available. Meanwhile, it has not taken any steps to strengthen adequate investigations to dismantle corruption and organised crime networks.

The militarisation of security has not yielded good results. It has failed to reduce violence and has perpetuated human rights violations. For this reason, international organisations promote a ‘programmatic’ or gradual withdrawal of armed forces, while civilian forces and access to justice are strengthened. However, these recommendations are not being heeded and the role of the armed forces continues to be increased.

We can’t emphasise enough that action must be taken to tackle insecurity. But it is important to discuss what measures should be employed. We believe it should be done by strengthening the civilian police and improving access to justice, and not by means of militarisation.

How is Centro Prodh working on the impacts of militarisation?

Centro Prodh defends and supports people who have been victims of serious human rights violations, mostly enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. We work from a comprehensive defence perspective that includes legal defence, organisational and educational support for communities and organisations, international litigation, campaigns and public policy advocacy.

Militarisation is one of the main focuses of our work because it has a great impact on human rights, especially for people in vulnerable situations and historically excluded people who are at the centre of our attention: poor people, migrants, Indigenous people and women.

Although militarisation has deepened in recent years, Centro Prodh has long worked on cases of serious rights violations due to military involvement in public security. These types of abuses have always occurred, and we do not foresee them stopping any time soon.

It is common that, as in the Tlatlaya case – where it’s alleged senior army officers ordered soldiers to kill suspected members of criminal gangs and survivors were tortured, and which remains unpunished – the armed forces carry out detentions making a disproportionate use of force and resort to torture to fabricate evidence, without being held accountable for it.

We have worked on cases that have reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), such as the case of the Campesinos Ecologistas (‘environmental peasants’), two peasants who were defending their land and were arbitrarily detained and tortured by military forces. In 2010, the IACtHR ordered the Mexican state to redress the violations suffered by the two activists and implement structural changes to eradicate the causes of the abuses: to maintain an updated register of detainees with accessible information and control mechanisms, investigate allegations of torture and reform the Code of Military Justice to ensure that military jurisdiction does not apply to cases of human rights violations.

We have also worked domestically on case of torture committed the armed forces – and specifically by SEDENA and the navy – which have often included sexual violence against women, including cases brought by Claudia Medina and Korina Utrera, Denis Blanco and Charly Hernández.

In working with the families of the 43 students who were disappeared in Ayotzinapa in 2014, we have also observed the resistance of the armed forces to hand over information and be held accountable.

In short, our concern about the militarisation of public security stems from our work to document and support action on cases of serious human rights violations committed by the armed forces.

How is civil society responding to militarisation?

Civil society has mobilised against militarisation for many years, and not just under the current government. This has been a longstanding and ongoing concern.

Organisations working on the ground throughout Mexico have documented the impacts of militarisation. The Women’s Human Rights Centre in Chihuahua has done crucial work documenting violations, particularly disappearances perpetrated by the armed forces, and obtained a recent IACtHR ruling in the case of Alvarado v. Mexico, which established that ‘the intervention of the armed forces in public security activities must be based on criteria of strict proportionality, exceptionality and due diligence to safeguard the guarantees established in the Convention, because the fundamental role of the military forces cannot be conciliated with the essential functions of the civil authorities’.

Organisations such as Tlachinollan have highlighted the repercussions of the presence of the armed forces in Indigenous and poor territories. They have worked on cases such as that of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, two Indigenous women who survived sexual torture by the armed forces, which led to a ruling by the IACtHR.

Many local organisations, such as Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Centre in the south of Mexico and Casa del Migrante de Saltillo in the north, have expressed concern about the militarisation of the borders and the National Guard’s conduct in migration-related tasks .

International human rights organisations have expressed similar concerns. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been vocal on the issue since its first visit to Mexico in 1996. It has issued constant recommendations to successive governments ever since.

So have various United Nations’ (UN) human right experts, such as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The Committee on Enforced Disappearances recently visited Mexico and referred to militarisation as one of the main reasons why we currently have more than 105,000 disappeared people.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also consistently and emphatically expressed its concern about the military presence and resulting human rights violations.

What alternatives is civil society proposing?

Civil society stands in line with the recommendations made by international organisations, which are very clear: a programmatic withdrawal of the armed forces should be undertaken and civilian institutions should be strengthened – by means of training, funding and a public security strategy that addresses the root causes of the problem – alongside investigative institutions to ensure access to justice.

Unfortunately, instead of following these recommendations, the government has deepened militarisation not only de facto but also de jure, through the creation of a dense legal and institutional framework. This indicates that the trend will be difficult to reverse and will have long-term consequences. SEDENA has always resisted controls and will not voluntarily give back the power it has gained, and it will not be easy for future governments to take it away from it. The possible erosion of the military’s subordination to civilian power opens up a question mark over the future of democracy.

What kind of support could the international community provide?

It is very important for the international community to keep an eye on what is happening in Mexico, monitor the decisions being made, defend civil society in the face of a government that has repeatedly restricted its work and that of independent journalists, and offer support to victims. We need their help so that human rights are placed at the centre of our politicians’ decisions.

Our criticisms are not personal or partisan attacks. Over the years we have looked at the faces of people who have suffered the consequences of militarisation first-hand. The work we do is indispensable in any democracy.


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

Contact Centro Prodh through its website or Facebook page, and follow @SofiadeRo and @CentroProdh on Twitter.

 

LESOTHO: ‘We must work hand in hand to promote democracy and hold our leaders accountable’

LESOTHO ELECTIONCIVICUS speaks about the 7 October election in Lesotho with Libakiso Matlho, executive director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA). 

WLSA is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Southern Africa and working to promote women’s leadership and eradicate gender-based violence. It contributed to the recent election process by providing voter education. 

How would you assess the recent election   in  Lesotho in terms of its   transparency   and fairness?

Looking at the overall proceedings I would say they were transparent and fair. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) did a good job. All candidates were given a  platform to share their manifestos as well as their campaigning approaches at different  levels, including through the media  and public gatherings. Independent candidates did not face any threats. Nobody experienced any restrictions in terms of the exercise of their right to reach out to members of the community and potential voters. Voters were free to attend candidates’ forums and political party rallies.

There were two major challenges, however. One concerned voter civic education, which started a bit later than normal and therefore lasted only about three or four weeks, so it was not as broad as should have been.

 The other challenge had to do with the dynamics of the campaign, which was affected by conflict among candidates during public forums. Some participants invited to take part in the discussions also caused chaos. This  unfortunately led to a few discussions being cancelled before all the candidates could present their manifestos in some areas, especially those that were marked as hotspots.

Do you foresee any election-related conflict?

It is hard to predict, but this election seems to have been a bit different from others in the past, which makes me wonder.

Around 65 political parties and 2,560 candidates competed in the 7 October election. For a small country with a population of two million, that is a huge number of people. And many might find it difficult to accept the outcome if things do not happen according to their expectations. 

The election itself was peaceful, but political tension mounted as votes were counted over the following days. The results were announced on 11 October: the opposition Revolution for Prosperity party came first but was short of a majority, with 56 of 120 seats, while the incumbent All Basotho Convention party (ABC) came second. It is not clear whether ABC will contest the results and its supporters will take to the streets in protest. If this happens, clashes with rival parties might occur and security force repression could follow.

I would not rule conflict out but rather consider it as likely to happen as not.

Do you think the failure to pass constitutional reforms had an impact on the election results?

I think the failure to pass the Omnibus Constitutional Bill, which had been years in the making, probably had a strong impact on the electoral process, and will definitely have an impact on what happens next.

The bill sought to amend key provisions regarding political parties, candidate selection, floor-crossing in parliament, the appointment of senior officials and the role of the prime minister, whose removal would require a two-thirds majority. In May, all major parties in parliament committed to pass the bill by the end of June, but disagreements held it up much longer.

One of the key issues of contention concerned the electoral law, which only allows party leaders to submit a proportional representation party list. With the current system, 80 members of parliament are elected in constituencies and 40 are elected through a proportional division of votes. Small parties are negatively affected because to get some proportional representation seats, they are forced to come together into a list with larger parties, and if they are unable to merge with other parties they are left out.

Another key issue was the politicisation of the security sector, which contributes to political instability. The reforms proposed a way to deal with this.

The reforms were eventually passed as parliament was reconvened for an urgent session but, following a series of legal challenges, the Constitutional Court declared them null and void at the last minute before the election.

The failure to pass the reforms will also contribute to continuing difficulties in maintaining coalition governments. Lesotho has had coalition governments since 2012 that have never served a full five-year term due to conflicts that led to their dissolution. In 2017 ABC formed a six-party coalition government, but because of internal conflict Prime Minister Tom Thabane was forced to resign in 2020 and was replaced by Moeketsi Majoro.

Coalitions have not made for stable and effective governments. The coalition-forming process also confuses voters because ideologies are not a big factor when putting them together. This makes voters a bit sceptical that their parties will remain faithful to their mandate.

These were some of the issues the reform was meant to address, but unfortunately they remain unaddressed to this day.

What did voters expect from the election?

One of the expectations voters place on political parties is that they will work on improving service delivery. This includes fixing infrastructure and providing access to water and electricity, among other things. Lesotho also has high rates of unemployment and widespread problems of gender-based violence and femicides, as well as high crime rates that people hope will be addressed by the new government.

Basotho people are not happy with the way the public sector has been managed over the years. Employment is mostly driven by nepotism and political affinities. People are uneasy because political parties on the campaign trail are quick to promise they will fix these things but once in power they fail to deliver.

We have also seen a lot of instability in a key industry, the textile industry, with COVID-19 only making things worse. People were already dealing with bad working conditions and when the pandemic hit many were fired unfairly. This led to worker strikes and has negatively affected foreign investment. Elected leaders need to find means of retaining foreign investment while ensuring good work conditions.

How can the international community support civil society’s work to strengthen democracy in Lesotho?

During the election, civil society faced the challenge that almost all funding for civic education came from the IEC, that is, from the government budget. This could potentially compromise civil society’s watchdog role. Additionally, these funds are never sufficient to allow civil society to conduct its work thoroughly.

The international community should support capacity building so that civil society can conduct robust advocacy during and after the election period. Collaboration between international and local CSOs is also important. For the recent election local CSOs took on voter education alone, without any involvement by international CSOs. We must work hand in hand to promote democracy in our countries and hold our leaders accountable.


Civic space in Lesotho is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with WLSA through its website or Facebook page.

 

ITALY: ‘We anticipate hostility towards civil society working on human rights’

OizaObasuyiCIVICUS speaks about the recent Italian election with Oiza Q Obasuyi from the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights (CILD).

CILD is a national network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working to protect and expand civil rights and freedoms by running public campaigns for policy change, advocating with governments and international bodies and taking cases to court.

What are your main takeaways from the recent Italian election?

The first thing to note is that a significant number of people – one in three – did not vote. One big reason for this is the increasing lack of trust in political institutions. This is important to consider in the face of Giorgia Meloni’s claim that she won thanks to the vote of all Italian citizens – which is not true.

I personally think that left-wing parties have become increasingly distant from the masses, and especially the working class, which is now significantly underrepresented. The left should be working not only on civil rights but on social rights too: if the far right manages to convince even part of the working class to vote for it by using racist and anti-immigration propaganda, this means the left is not doing what it is supposed to do: campaigning for the social and civil rights of the worse-off, including working class people, low-wage earners, students, women and LGBTQI+ people.

We are experiencing an economic crisis that is affecting the lower classes deeply. Inequalities have become unbearable and political institutions keep ignoring protest demands, be they from the Insorgiamo (‘We are rising up’) movement for workers’ rights or Fridays For Future Italia, which continues to call out the government for its inaction on climate change.

In a context where there is no political force on the left reacting to these demands and promoting policies to protect and promote these basic rights, the fact that people have voted for a far-right candidate such as Giorgia Meloni shouldn’t surprise us.

How did civic space conditions evolve in the run-up to the election?

Hate speech and disinformation played a significant role during the campaign. Meloni’s entire propaganda is based on ultraconservative beliefs that she pushes by instrumentalising half-truths, a distortion of the facts and outright lies.

Even though she has said she would not repeal Law 194, which protects the right to abortion, Meloni has repeatedly joined so-called ‘pro-life’ conferences organised by ultra-catholic and conservative associations, along with her League party colleague Matteo Salvini. She has often stated that children need a father and a mother and that’s the only type of family that has the right to exist, to the detriment of LGBTQI+ couples who continue to fight to have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

To back her claims, Meloni often passes off prejudice as scientific fact and brings up conspiracy theories about ‘gay lobbies’ trying to indoctrinate children with their so-called ‘gender agenda’.

In addition, during her campaign Meloni referred to drugs and alcohol as ‘youth deviations’. I think she will use these issues as yet another way to curb citizens’ civil rights. This can be expected in the light of her framing of drug-related issues as criminal rather than, say, health issues, particularly when the people concerned are of foreign descent.

How significant is it that Giorgia Meloni downplayed her fascist heritage?

I don’t think that makes her less of a threat. She has strong links with Hungarian far-right president Viktor Orbán, who is well known for his racist and illegal anti-migrant policies that systematically push migrants back at the border and his hostility towards LGBTQI+ people and more generally, towards any CSO working for the protection of human rights.

Meloni’s entire propaganda was based on similar grounds, with a strong sense of nationalism and conservatism that derives from her party’s fascist past – not to mention her belief in the so-called ‘great replacement’ theory, a conspiracy theory that believes there is an ongoing plan to bring in more and more immigrants until white Europeans disappear from the continent. That is why, according to her, immigration must be stopped.

How do you think the advances made by the far right will impact on the rights of excluded groups?

I think we will face a situation in which it will be extremely hard to push for positive laws and policies that protect everybody’s social and civil rights.

Italy is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not have a law that specifically protects LGBTQI+ rights. A proposed bill against homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and lesbophobia, popularly known as DDL Zan, was not passed.

There is also a possibility that migrants’ right to request asylum could be further restricted, given Meloni’s hostility towards immigration and the current situation with the decreti sicurezza – decrees on security and immigration – issued by Matteo Salvini when he was Minister of the Interior between 2018 and 2019.

Even though the current Minister of the Interior introduced ‘special protection’ for migrants, humanitarian protection was abolished and access to accommodation was extremely restricted by Salvini. His successor made some revisions to his policies, but various elements continue to raise concerns. The decision to allow the revocation of Italian citizenship of foreign-born Italians deemed a threat to national security was not questioned, although the process was amended.

For 30 years, civil society has demanded citizenship law reform to guarantee access to Italian citizenship for people of foreign descent who were born or raised in Italy. There are over 800,000 such people, many of them children. They are de facto Italian citizens, but they’re not legally recognised as such. Although there have been left-wing governments that could have pushed toward reform, we still have an obsolete law based on jus sanguinis, or citizenship by blood, and it is very unlikely that a Meloni-led government would change that.

As for our work, we anticipate hostility towards CSOs working on human rights, if the government goes down the same road as her ally Viktor Orbán did in Hungary.

What kind of domestic and international support does Italian civil society need to continue doing its work?

We need active support from European and international civil society as external observers, especially when international institutions are involved and called to scrutinise potential human rights violations and civic space restrictions.

Economic support is also important: during their previous government, right-wing parties proposed to economically support police forces through 5x1000 funds, which is one of the fundamental ways in which CSOs fund their work, thanks to part of the money citizens voluntarily donate when filing their tax declarations. If this proposal becomes reality, then many CSOs will suffer budget cuts.

Civil society must also stay vigilant on women’s reproductive rights, under the constant threat of new patriarchal and sexist laws to either make access to abortion more difficult or ban it completely. We must also ensure that civil rights protection goes hand in hand with social rights protection: poverty, unemployment and low wages are major problems that affect many vulnerable communities.


Civic space in Italy is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Cild2014 and @OizaQueensday on Twitter.

 

IRAN: ‘Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women must face just to go about their daily lives’

KylieMoore GilbertCIVICUS speaks with Kylie Moore-Gilbert about the current women-led protests in Iran, sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the so-called ‘morality police’.

Kylie is a British-Australian women’s rights advocate and academic specialising in Islamic studies. She has extensively researched political issues in the Middle East, including the ‘Arab Spring’. In 2018 she was falsely charged with espionage and remained in prison in Iran for more than two years before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. She speaks about this experience in a recently published book, The Uncaged Sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison.

What are the demands of the protesters currently mobilised in Iran?

In contrast to previous outbreaks of protest and civil unrest in Iran, from the very first day the current protesters adopted slogans calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic regime. Their slogans include ‘Death to Khamenei’, the Supreme Leader, ‘Down with the dictator’ and ‘No to the Islamic Republic’.

While the trigger for the unrest was the senseless death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, the issue of forced hijab and the harassment of women by regime officials due to their clothing and behaviour has become a symbol of the protesters’ desire to remove this regime altogether. Protesters are demanding freedom, equality between women and men and an end to the tyranny imposed on them by Iran’s regime of ageing clerics.

The protests are happening countrywide and have involved Persian and ethnic-minority communities, irrespective of language, religion or class. To further their demands, protesters are using overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, such as rallies and marches, organised hijab-burnings and hair-cuttings, and general strikes.

How have the authorities responded to the protests so far?

The protests have faced a rolling crackdown since their inception. Many protesters, including several young teenagers, have been shot dead in the streets by security forces. Thousands have been rounded up and arrested. Sharif University of Technology was besieged for several days, with its students rounded up, beaten and imprisoned.

The regime has cut off internet access to most of the country in a bid to contain protests. This is why it is so important for the international community to keep up the pressure on Iran and continue to shine a light on its human rights abuses. It must help prevent a massacre of innocent protesters and hold the regime to account for its crimes.

Has Amini’s case helped reveal underlying women’s rights issues?

Yes, most definitely. One reason why Amini’s arrest and murder touched such a nerve in Iran is that nearly all Iranian women, and many men too, have had similar encounters with the morality police at some point in their lives. What happened to Mahsa could have happened to any one of them.

Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women in Iran must face just to go about their daily lives. Women are routinely harassed in public by regime officials and pro-regime sympathisers for ‘bad hijab’ and are even banned from singing and dancing, hugging or touching men who are not their relatives, among too many other things. Many Iranian women are tired of the constant policing of their appearance and behaviour. They want to be free to get on with their lives as they see fit.

What needs to change for women’s rights to gain recognition in Iran?

For women’s rights to be recognised, the regime would have to change. I do not believe the Iranian government is capable of reforming itself. Forced hijab and discriminatory laws against women are a core pillar of the regime’s ideology. If it granted women equal rights, it would cease to exist.

My hope is that the protests will make a difference well beyond women’s rights. As the protests are now entering their third week, my hope is that they will eventually lead to the downfall of the regime altogether. Iranians deserve a democratic government that respects gender equality and freedom of speech and is truly representative of the will of the people.

What kind of assistance does Iranian civil society need from the international community?

Iranian civil society desperately needs its voices to be amplified internationally and for attention to continue to be focused on what is happening inside Iran. The full glare of international media and foreign governments will act as something of a brake on the worst excesses of the regime’s crackdown.

The international community could also assist in trying to keep Iran’s internet functioning, so protesters can communicate with one another and get news, photos and videos out of Iran so the world knows what is happening there.

Foreign governments could also impose sanctions on Iranian officials responsible for the crackdown and other human rights abuses, and should cease all negotiations with Iran over sanctions relief and unfreezing Iranian assets abroad.


Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @KMooreGilbert on Twitter.

 

CAMEROON: ‘The international community hasn’t helped address the root causes of the Anglophone conflict’

MoniqueKwachouCIVICUS speaks with Cameroonian feminist researcher and writer Monique Kwachou about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and education grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in the Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.

Monique is the founder of Better Breed Cameroon, a civil society organisation (CSO) working on youth development and empowerment, and the national coordinator of the Cameroonian chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists.

What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalation of the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions?

The crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon has internally displaced close to 800,000 English-speaking people, according to monitoring by humanitarian organisations. Many people are also emigrating to other countries in search of safety. Unfortunately, civilians have been used as a weapon so the only way they are able to protect themselves is by fleeing to safer regions within the country or fleeing the country altogether.

People are also becoming increasingly hopeless and are no longer investing in the Anglophone regions as they used to. As a clear indication of how unsafe it is right now in the Anglophone regions, before stepping out of my house I have to do a risk assessment and decide whether what I have to do is worth taking the risk.

Unlawful killings and kidnappings are now rampant and somewhat normalised: they no longer shock us as they once did and there is a general trauma fatigue that breeds apathy, which is dangerous.

As we speak, some are trying to get a hashtag trending for Catholic clergy and worshippers who were recently kidnapped in the Northwest region. The kidnappers are demanding a ransom of 30 million CFA francs (approx. US$45,000) but the church is hesitant to pay because they know if they do it once, more people will be kidnapped and they will have to continue paying. Yet most social media comments on the news encourage payment based on the idea that there is nothing else that can be done. Apathy is the result of having heard too many such stories.

Given that the security forces have a reputation for violence and contributed to the development of the crisis with their burning down of whole villages earlier on, people don’t have faith in them either.

As a teacher I think one of the saddest impacts of this crisis has been on education. I don’t think anyone is receiving quality education. Many people have migrated to other regions, particularly to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, and Yaoundé, the capital. As a result, schools there have become overpopulated. The teacher-to-student ratio has gone up and the quality of education has dropped. In the crisis regions, the future of students is put on hold with each and every strike and lockdown and their psychological wellbeing could be affected.

What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

I think the government already knows what needs to be done for the situation to de-escalate. Edith Kahbang Walla, of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party, has outlined a step-by-step process of de-escalation and peaceful political transition. But the problem is that the ruling party does not want a transition. However, as it looks like their plan is to stay in power forever, it would be better for them if they made changes to benefit all regions of Cameroon.

Extreme measures have been adopted to bring attention to the problems faced by English-speaking Cameroonians. The Anglophone regions continue to observe a ghost town ritual every Monday, taking the day off to protest against the authorities. On those days schools don’t operate and businesses remain closed. The original purpose was to show support for teachers and lawyers who were on strike but it is now having a negative impact on the lives of residents of the Anglophone regions.

If the government could consider a better strategy to negotiate with secessionists, the situation could be dealt with effectively. Unfortunately, the government has made negotiation impossible since the crisis began, as it arrested those who took part in the protests. Who is the government going to have a dialogue with now? They claim they won’t negotiate with terrorists while forgetting that they created the monster. They should acknowledge the root causes of the problem or otherwise they won’t be able to fix it.

What challenges does civil society face while advocating for peace?

Civil society is a victim of both sides of the ongoing conflict. CSO activities geared towards development have been greatly affected by the crisis, as CSO work is now geared mostly toward humanitarian action.

On one hand, the government is undermining Anglophone activism through arrests and restrictions on online and offline freedom of speech. Anyone who speaks up against the government and what the military are doing in the Anglophone regions may be in danger. For example, journalist Mimi Mefo was arrested for reporting on military activity and had to leave Cameroon because her life was threatened.

On the other hand, peace activists advocating for children to go back to school are also being attacked by secessionist groups who think their activities are being instrumentalised by the government. Hospitals have been attacked by both the military and secessionist armed groups because they helped one or the other.

Aside from the challenge of danger that CSO members face in the course of their work, there is also the challenge of articulating messages for peace and the resolution of the crisis without being branded as pro-government nor pro-secessionists, particularly as the media tries to paint the conflict as a simply black-or-white issue. This has not been an easy task. Limited resources also make it difficult to carry out peacebuilding work.

How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society?

Humanitarian organisations started becoming visible in the Anglophone regions during the crisis. They are giving humanitarian aid, but it is like a plaster on a still-festering wound, because it happens after the damage has been done: it is in no way addressing the crisis.

I have not seen the international community help Cameroon address the root causes of the conflict. It could help, for instance, by tracing the sale of arms to both sides of the conflict. Our main international partners could also use their influence to pressure the government to move towards actual inclusive dialogue and ensure the adoption of effective solutions to the crisis.


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

Get in touch with Monique Kwachou through her website and follow @montrelz on Twitter.

 

EGYPT: ‘We are dealing with an extremely elaborate, very creative repressive machinery’

alaaCIVICUS speaks with Egyptian activist Mona Seif about the international campaign for the release of  her brother, British-Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah, ahead of the COP27 climate summit  taking place in Egypt in November. Alaa played a leading role in the protests that led to the downfall of  former dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, but since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in  2014,  he has spent most of the time in prison or police detention. He has been jailed since December  2021 on a five-year sentence for sharing a Facebook post denouncing abuses against imprisoned  activists. Following the 2011 uprisings Mona has been part of the No Military Trials for Civilians Group. Alaa and Mona’s father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, is also a prominent human rights lawyer.

What is Alaa’s situation in prison?

He’s been denied both a British consular visit and his lawyer’s visits. So on 2 April he went on a hunger strike in protest.

It has been nearly 200 days now. To sustain his strike this long, he has been ingesting around 100 to 150 calories per day. Last time I saw him, before I travelled outside Egypt in June, he had already lost a lot of weight and looked quite frail. When I visited him again more recently it shocked me. I had never seen him so weak, so emaciated. He has become a skeleton with a lucid mind.

 As his demands are still not being addressed, he is considering going back to a full hunger strike, when he relied only on water and salts. That means his health may deteriorate much faster.

What are his demands?

Alaa’s demands have evolved since he first went on his hunger strike. In the early days, he requested an independent judge to investigate all the human rights violations he had endured since September 2019, which our family reported.

Alaa has been systematically deprived of his basic rights as a prisoner, and while in the Tora maximum-security prison he witnessed horrific crimes. He saw officers preventing detainees accessing any kind of medical care and saw inmates dying after calling for help for hours.

As a British citizen, he demanded access to the British consulate and his lawyers in the UK. He waited for this to happen for four months before he started a hunger strike.

In a recent family visit, Alaa handed my mother and sister a new list of demands concerning the situation of all prisoners and political prisoners, arguing that there is no room for ‘individual salvation’. He now demands the release of all those detained or imprisoned in national state security detention facilities and headquarters after exceeding the two-year maximum pretrial detention period, as well as all people imprisoned for expressing their ideas, convicted for political reasons, or tried by emergency courts.

What tactics are the Egyptian regime using to silence dissent?

We are dealing with an extremely elaborate repressive machinery, which is very creative in coming up with new tactics of repression and shifting them when necessary.

For instance, between 2013 and 2015 the government mostly dug up old assembly laws and used them to crush protests. Since 2015 there has been a steep rise in enforced disappearances: people are simply kidnapped and disappeared, possibly kept in a military-run detention facility. We continue to lack sufficient information about these sites. Then there was a wave of prosecution of protesters on terrorism charges.

Since 2019 people have been increasingly detained on state security accusations, with detention being renewed over and over without detainees being referred to the courts for as long as the government sees fit. They are doing what we now call ‘recycling’ detainees: people are kept in detention for some time, then released but soon slapped again with the exact same charges – but as there is now a new case against them, they press the reset button and keep them for yet another period of preventive or pretrial detention.

How have international allies helped raise human rights issues?

International civil society is our main lifeline. Most of the media platforms are blocked in Egypt. Many lawyers have been harassed and targeted, and some are in prison. A lot of human rights defenders have been pushed into exile, or are continuously threatened and harassed, or have been thrown in prison. So it is increasingly hard to find someone who will speak up on our behalf.

The few civil society organisations that are still operating domestically, and definitely international organisations based abroad, are the main channels through which the families of prisoners and other people in Egypt can voice their concerns, call for help, try to gather some attention and put on some pressure to at least try to alleviate some of the abuses.

Over the past two years, we have increasingly relied not just on international organisations abroad, but also on the Egyptian diaspora. Within their capacity, those who have had to leave Egypt try to bring attention to what is happening in the country.

But we must bear in mind the regime also harasses Egyptians living abroad, often through retaliation against family members who remain in the country. Egyptian embassies in some countries, such as Germany, are complicit with state security services. They send people to harass activists and report on them, so many are afraid of participating publicly in peaceful protests.

We have relied on allied civil society organisations for reporting purposes. The number of rights violations and crimes committed on a weekly basis is enormous, and tactics of repression shift so much that it is sometimes hard to keep up.

I experienced all these changes in tactics first-hand, as a sister of a detainee. But keeping up and documenting everything is overwhelming. Most people doing human rights work in Egypt are burnt out and exhausted. This has been going on for years and everyone has dealt with trauma in one form or another.

How do you view the Egyptian government’s initiative to release some political prisoners ahead of COP27?

The Egyptian regime has released only 500 detainees over the past few months. But there are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt.

The recent releases are part of the regime’s international public relations strategy in response to concerns expressed by the international community about the deteriorating human rights situation. The authorities claim they are opening a new chapter in its relationship with domestic civil society, the opposition and the international community.

But this is far from the truth. They are not willing to do the bare minimum. Alaa’s case makes clear that the regime is not serious about resolving the situation of political prisoners. Alaa continues to be denied his basic rights both as an Egyptian and a British citizen. I’m worried this may continue up until a point the damage will be irreversible.

If such a high-profile prisoner is subjected to these kinds of human rights violations, including torture, one can only imagine what is happening to other prisoners without Alaa’s support and visibility. I think the release of a few people is the best we can hope for.

Needless to say, no one is being held accountable for the torture or ill-treatment of prisoners. Since 2019 the General Prosecutor has not addressed any complaints concerning the situation in prisons. Whenever a particularly serious human rights violation gets some attention, the PR machinery sets in motion to smear the detainees and their families. And for most families, the focus is on stopping ongoing violations that endanger the lives of their loved ones rather than holding perpetrators accountable. In the long run, it will be a problem that we are all so focused on trying to save as many people from this prison system as possible that nobody is paying enough attention to seeking proper justice and accountability.

Do you think COP27 will provide an opportunity for international solidarity with Egyptian civil society?

The reality is that most governments don’t care what the ruling regime is doing in Egypt. They are willing to turn a blind eye to El-Sisi’s atrocities because he fits into regional arrangements and is easily brought into mega business deals and arms deals that involve a lot of money. Who cares how big a debt he is accumulating on the shoulders of Egyptian people.

This makes it much harder for people working on documenting and exposing the regime’s crimes to try to stop them. At the end of the day, business deals sustain the facade of mutual respect between western governments and the Egyptian government.

The Egyptian government is increasingly aware and taking advantage of the fact that it can get away with so many crimes as long as it keeps satisfying the economic interests of France, Germany, the UK and the USA.

This is all working very well in the run-up to COP27, which the Egyptian regime is clearly using as a whitewashing PR stunt. In doing this, they are being assisted not just by the Gulf countries, which was to be expected, but by many western governments. Despite the recent talk of the USA withholding some of its military aid, if you look at it, the reality is that El-Sisi is getting all the support he needs.

All we can do about this is what we are already doing, which is try as much as possible to make enough noise to bring attention to the crimes and rights violations the Egyptian regime does not want the world to know about. This may come at an extremely high price, but it is what it is. This is the reality of living in Egypt in 2022, under El-Sisi’s rule.


Civic space in Egypt is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @Monasosh and @FreedomForAlaa on Twitter and sign this petition for Alaa’s release.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘The seizure of sovereign assets will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster’

ArashAzizzadaCIVICUS speaks with Arash Azizzada, co-founder and co-director of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Afghans for A Better Tomorrow is a grassroots civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to bringing about transformative change for Afghans in the USA and beyond. It has recently advocated for the release of Afghanistan’s frozen assets.

Why is civil society calling for the return of Afghanistan’s frozen assets?

Before August 2021, when the USA froze Afghanistan’s assets, Afghanistan’s western-backed government was heavily reliant on foreign aid and was spending most of its revenue on the conflict with the Taliban. Since the Taliban took over, the entire country has essentially found itself sanctioned economically and Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), its central bank, had all its assets frozen.

Since the DAB serves as collateral insurance for private banks to be able to operate, the entire banking system has been paralysed as of August 2021. The same goes for the whole Afghan economy: businesses and people cannot access their own hard-earned money to buy food at the market down the street. Philanthropic foundations have trouble sending funds into Afghanistan. This has contributed to soaring inflation, worsened by the rise in food and commodity prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a record-breaking drought.

As a result, Afghanistan has become ‘hell on Earth’, as the director of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme put it. Over 21 million Afghans don’t know where their next meal will come from. Every women-led Afghan household currently faces poverty and hunger as the country’s healthcare system teeters on the brink of collapse.

The consensus among Afghan civil society, both within and outside the country, is that the seizure of sovereign assets that belong to the Afghan people is a violation of international norms and will worsen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Through grassroots organising, high-level advocacy and litigation, the Afghan American community has stepped up to bring the frozen assets back to their rightful owner: the Afghan people.

At the same time, following the blocking of Afghan assets, a group of families in the USA who had secured rulings against the Taliban connected to its role in the 9/11 attacks filed a civil case in a federal court to enforce those rulings using the frozen DAB funds. In February 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order allocating half of the more than US$7 billion that the previous government of Afghanistan had placed in the New York Federal Reserve for humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and leaving half subject to litigation brought by some of the 9/11 families.

As part of a broad coalition of Afghan-American groups representing the community, we filed an amicus – friend of the court – brief stating that the court should oppose this for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the Taliban are not recognised as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan by its people or the international community. The money belongs to the Afghan people, not the Taliban. And although 9/11 families deserve compensation, doing it this way would harm Afghans and not the Taliban.

What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?

While the Taliban might be the de facto rulers of most of Afghanistan, they remain untrustworthy and illegitimate. But the DAB continues to be function as a technocratic body, so frozen funds should be returned as long as there is proper ring-fencing and enhanced safeguards such as electronic auditing records to ensure the reserves are not interfered with by the Taliban.

Our proposed plan recommends an initial trust-building process in which a conditional amount of US$150-200 million a month is released so that the DAB is allowed to perform its core functions. The funds ought to be used to regulate the Afghan currency and run US dollar auctions to inject liquidity into the struggling economy and ease the pain of the Afghan population. Not one cent of these funds should be used for humanitarian aid purposes.

What should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?

International philanthropy and the international community should support a fledging Afghan civil society, and especially the women’s groups that remain operational within the country, by ensuring wide-ranging sanctions relief.

As it stands, the entire Afghan population is on the receiving end of collective punishment due to the sanctions imposed on the Afghan state. As the world has become hostile to doing business in the country, the World Bank and other international institutions should continue to focus on funding economic development projects and ensure the healthcare system remains functional.

The international community should work hard to differentiate between targeted sanctions that focus on individuals within the Taliban and projects that ensure Afghans have a chance at survival. As one example, direct cash assistance to the Afghan population remains a much more effective and equitable method of assistance than trying to truck in food for a population of over 21 million people and helping circumvent Taliban attempts at interfering with aid.

The UN appeal for humanitarian aid for Afghanistan still remains US$2 billion short of its target. There is a strong need for donor countries to fill that gap. Much of it should be filled by the NATO member countries that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years.

 

What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights and support civil society in Afghanistan?

A core demand remains the non-recognition of the Taliban government, which is deepening its repression and remains unrepresentative of the Afghan population. It is important that the international community listens to the voices of Afghan civil society, and specifically those of Afghan women leaders and the minority Hazara and Shia communities.

The most vital thing at this moment is a strengthened mandate by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to document and monitor human rights violations as well as support accurate and free media in the country. Significant UN presence on the ground will be key as Afghanistan faces a deteriorating human and women’s rights situation.


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

Get in touch with Afghans for a Better Tomorrow through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AfghansTomorrow on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Lack of dialogue and punishing sanctions are undermining the promotion of human rights’

HadiyaAfzalCIVICUS speaks about the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan with Hadiya Afzal, programme coordinator of Unfreeze Afghanistan.. Unfreeze Afghanistan is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) formed by women from Afghanistan and the USA. It advocates for the release of Afghan assets frozen following the Taliban takeover to enable the state to pay salaries owed to public sector workers, including teachers and doctors, and tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Why is civil society calling for the release of frozen assets of the Afghan state?

When over US$9 billion of Afghanistan’s Central Bank reserves were frozen in August 2021, it had a devastating impact on the economy. Central Bank assets are the people’s money, used to hold currency auctions in the country, safeguard against inflation and control price stability. Afghanistan needs its Central Bank reserves back to stabilise its economy and perform centralised banking functions again.

The assets frozen also included private monies, that is, accounts held by private individuals, companies and CSOs. People were unable to withdraw their own money from banks for months, with many still unable to do so due to lack of cash. Many Afghans sold off anything they owned to afford essential goods, the prices of which skyrocketed.

Over the past year, leading CSOs, humanitarian organisations and more than 70 economists, including Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, have advocated through meetings, protests, letters and media appearances for the return of Afghanistan’s money to get its economy back on its feet, independently of whatever global aid funding is provided. United Nations (UN) experts have also called for the USA to unblock Afghanistan’s frozen assets to ease the humanitarian situation.

What kind of safeguards should be put in place if the frozen assets are returned?

The USA has signalled that funds could be returned to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), the country’s central bank, as long as three conditions are met: the establishment of independent monitoring mechanisms, the implementation of credible anti-money laundering regulations and controls to combat the financing of terrorism and DAB’s insulation from political interference – which meant replacing its top leadership, in the hands of Taliban officials, one of whom is under US and UN sanctions, with professionals.

DAB has already agreed on independent monitoring conditions, and experts have set out how pre-existing independent monitoring and electronic auditing could be restored. US claims that the new Afghan government lacks expertise and that capacity building is needed for the state to be able to perform central bank functions could be addressed by assistance from the international community. The law that outlines DAB’s function as a technocratic institution charged with responsibilities such as currency auctions and oversight of banks is still in place. DAB continues to have the same audit oversight committee, with the same members it had under the previous government. And the chair of the audit committee has been an outspoken advocate for the return of DAB’s reserves.

The Afghan government should ensure that the DAB law remains in place and that the institution will function separate from political considerations. Advocacy experts highlighted that the USA does not apply audit conditions as strictly to other countries as it does to Afghanistan. It does not seize their foreign assets due to limited monitoring capabilities.

What else should the international community do to contribute to improving the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan?

The international community should focus on supporting a strong, independent Afghan economy that can run on its own, the first step in which should be to return the full assets of the Afghan people to its central bank.

Another measure the international community can take is to provide global aid raised by the UN and other international bodies. Human Rights Watch alerted that without sustained humanitarian aid donations, Afghanistan’s upcoming winter could be even worse than the last one.

Last year, UN emergency funding staved off experts’ worst fears of a devastating winter, but the people of Afghanistan cannot continue to depend on global kindness after a year marked by war, the pandemic and rising inflation. Afghanistan’s assets must be returned to its central bank to bring stability to the lives of ordinary Afghans, and the international community should invest in the infrastructure necessary to ensure its success.

What alternative measures, other than financial sanctions, can the international community implement to promote human rights, and specifically women’s rights, and support civil society in Afghanistan?

Sanctions have had a devastating impact on Afghanistan, and the resulting humanitarian crisis has disproportionately affected the average Afghan. The Center for Economic and Policy Research stated that financial sanctions on Afghanistan amount to a form of ‘collective punishment’ of the Afghan people for the actions of a government they did not choose.

The sanctions are not helping. In the words of Jamila Afghani, founder and president of the Afghan chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, ‘we are not supporting Afghan women by starving them’.

In fact, sanctions are only making things worse. The cultural practice of forced marriages and what effectively amounts to the sale of girls is reinforced by socio-economic factors. Even under the previous government more than 70 per cent of marriages were forced. These are expected to increase as a result of the humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, Islamic scholars such as Daisy Khan have highlighted Quranic evidence supporting women’s independence, education and liberation. The promotion of human rights and specifically women’s rights is best fostered in a stable economic environment with sustained international diplomacy and interfaith dialogue.

Lack of dialogue between the international community and the government of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan compounded by punishing sanctions is undermining the promotion of human rights. Human rights can only be promoted through constructive dialogue while addressing the drivers of wellbeing – rebuilding financial stability, economic independence and global cooperation.


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

Get in touch with Unfreeze Afghanistan through its website or Facebook page, and follow @UnfreezeAfghan on Twitter.

 

SOUTH AFRICA: ‘We were denied the right to give or refuse our consent, so we took Shell to court – and won’ 

SineguguZukuluCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s recent court victory against Shell in South Africa with Sinegugu Zukulu, programme manager of Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC). SWC is a South African civil society organisation that works with coastal communities of Eastern Mpondoland, South Africa, to protect their land, livelihoods and culture. 

What inspired you to become an environmental activist? 

My personal story made me become an environmental activist. I grew up on communal land, where people shared everything and people could depend on each other. People in my community had little education. I was one of the few lucky ones who were able to attend university. However, people were good at sharing. They practised ubuntu, a concept that refers to our shared humanity and the way we see our humanity reflected in each other. Among us everything is shared, from the water we drink to the land where we grow our crops. 

 The fact that I grew up in a community where we all took care of each other and shared everything made me who I am. As I got an education while most didn’t, I found I could use it to give back to my community. Because people in communities like mine were so poorly educated, governments could do whatever they wanted. So I decided to step up for my people and help them understand their rights and protect themselves. 

It was only natural for me to focus on environmental rights, as I got my degree in environmental studies. When the government started a project to build a highway cutting through my community, I brought a case to the High Court. Unfortunately, this was not successful and we are now renegotiating to have the road rerouted. 

 Why is it important to protect South Africa’s Wild Coast? 

All our coastal communities rely on the Wild Coast for their livelihoods. For most coastal communities, the Wild Coast is also their source of income: they sustainably profit from the environment, for instance by catching fish and selling it in villages and to tourists. The tourism industry employs many people, so this is another way in which people depend on the coastline. 

Additionally, the Wild Coast holds spiritual meaning. People training to become traditional healers go to the coast to get in contact with their ancestors. We believe the ocean is our final resting place, so our ancestors lay there. Saltwater is used in most healing practices. 

Due to the number and diversity of its marine species, the Wild Coast is also a marine protected area. The extraction of fossil fuel has the potential to destroy it, on top of contributing to climate change when it’s burned. So we should also protect the Wild Coast from extraction for the sake of the Earth. 

What challenges did you face when campaigning against Shell? 

Just like any other government, South Africa’s wants to attract investment, particularly by multinational corporations such as Shell, with which it has a great relationship. That’s why our court case set us not just against Shell but also against our government. 

A big challenge was the government’s delegitimising narrative. The Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy labelled us as ‘anti-development’. The government refused to listen to us and to have an open dialogue about Shell’s potentially negative impact on coastal communities. 

We wanted to have Shell’s exploration permit revoked because we saw it as a threat to our livelihood and to a safe environment. You just need to google what happened with Shell in Ogoniland in Nigeria and you will understand our concerns. We don’t want an oil spill on our coasts.  

South Africa has good environmental legislation, but much of it is lacking in implementation, so that is what the environmental movement focuses on. The law is very clear; our constitution says we have the right to a safe and healthy environment. If someone wants to do something on our land, we should be consulted, and we weren’t. We were denied the right to give or refuse our consent, so we took Shell to court – and won. 

South African civil society enjoys the freedoms needed to challenge the government in court. But financial resources were critical. We had no money to travel to communities and mobilise them, so we did all our mobilisation work through social media, where we provided information, published press releases and shared videos. We had to look for a law firm that was able and willing to take this matter to court, and that would agree to take the risk even if there were not enough financial resources. Fortunately, we were able to find several legal firms that were willing to come to our rescue. These are firms that prioritise human rights issues and support litigation by Indigenous communities, and fortunately the judges required Shell and our government to pay our litigation costs.  

What does this victory mean for South Africa and the environmental movement? 

This victory means a lot in terms of our right to self-determination as guaranteed by the United Nations, as it made it clear that free, prior and informed consent must always be sought. It also ratified our constitutional right to a safe and healthy environment. 

It is a victory not just for us but also for future generations. We are working so that their right to a safe and healthy environment will also be protected.  

We are now working on a documentary about our struggle, which we plan to launch at the upcoming conference of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) in Egypt, although we lack the resources to travel there. We would love to inspire Indigenous communities elsewhere to also rise up and defend their territories. By doing so we will be ensuring life on this planet continues to be possible.  

What kind of support do South African environmental activists need from the international community? 

The most important thing we need right now are financial resources to continue doing our work. 

We also need international partners and support. Shell is a British company, but the UK government has no problem with it going around the world searching for more fossil fuels, in the middle of a climate crisis. These first-world multinational companies are going to third-world countries to extract ever more profit at the cost of compromising our livelihoods and worsening climate change. As always, the real victims are the poorest people. 

This has got to stop. Organisations from the countries where these companies come from should work with us and pressure them to stop. Corporations should move to safer energy sources; fossil fuels are not the answer anymore. 


 Civic space in South Africa is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with Sustaining the Wild Coast through its website or Facebook page. 

 

BRAZIL: ‘If Bolsonaro continues as president, it is a threat to the Amazon and therefore to humanity’

DanielaSilva

PORTUGUESE 

CIVICUS discusses the state of environmental activism in Brazil with Daniela Silva, a socio-environmental educator and co-founder of the Aldeias Project, an education, art, culture and environment project for children and young people in the municipality of Altamira, in the Brazilian state of Pará.

What inspired you to become an environmental activist?

I live in a territory that has suffered great social and environmental impacts following the establishment of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant on the Xingu River. And like thousands of people, including riverbank dwellers, fishers, Indigenous people, farmers, boat people, women and young people, my family and I also had our lives strongly impacted on by the project.

We lived in a neighbourhood called Aparecida, in a community where neighbours supported each other and children and young people played in the streets without fear. When a mother went out, she would leave her children in the custody of her neighbour. One of my best memories is our backyard. It looked like a farm: we had many fruit trees. We didn’t need to spend money to eat fruit. Solidarity was strengthened by a sense of community, which I think was intrinsically linked to the sense of belonging to a territory. All this was destroyed by a ‘development’ approach that disregards the subjectivity of peoples and populations.

The displacement caused by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant pushed families far away from the Xingu River and separated communities that had lived together for decades. It fragmented community ties. A negative consequence of these impacts on the territory and people’s sense of self was their disconnection from nature and the loss of the Amazonian sense of belonging. Not feeling part of the Amazon is dangerous, because generally speaking, people only defend what they love, what they know and what they feel a part of.

Before the construction of the dam, my father worked as a potter. Together with my mother, who worked as a civil servant, they raised eight children. This was all over when the dam was built. My father became unemployed and so did my brothers. My father began to fight for the right to a ridiculously small pension. My brothers were forced to look for odd jobs around town. It was a difficult time! I realised that adapting to an imposed reality is one of the worst forms of violence against human dignity.

I am an activist for socio-environmental rights and against racism. Since adolescence I haven’t had much choice but to fight. We are one with nature, so we need to fight for nature to ensure a better present and future for ourselves and our children.

How is Brazilian civil society mobilising on behalf of the environment and what challenges does it face?

There are many environmental movements in the Amazon mobilising to denounce the environmental crimes of the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, but unfortunately our country’s judicial institutions have not been functioning according to the law, and have left us in a vulnerable position.

There are many civil society organisations that have been working for a long time in the Amazon and other areas that face great challenges to sustain themselves since there is little availability of financial resources. Most of those that manage to survive do so with international funding, since there is little incentive in Brazil to mobilise resources for civil society. Financial suffocation is one of the tactics used by the current government. In addition, we live in a very unstable and negative economic context, with high inflation and a fall in real wages. The fact that Brazil is a country lacking a culture of giving makes it even more complicated. It all results in a shortage of resources for the sustainability of organisations and the security of environmental defenders.

Even so, new groups and collectives – including the one I lead, Aldeias Project – continue emerging to defend the Amazon. There are many young people in leadership positions in the movements to defend their territories.

Our challenge is to create a safe space, since we are under constant threat. To be able to carry out our work, we have established partnerships with more experienced organisations that are able to advise us on best practices for taking care of our staff, partners and the communities we serve. Networking helps us see the big picture and build powerful links.

What do you think about the recent verdict by the Brazilian Supreme Court to recognise the Paris Agreement as a human rights treaty?

The Paris Agreement is undoubtedly an important legal instrument, and it is good that, as a human rights treaty signed by the Brazilian state, it has acquired constitutional status. But like all of Brazil’s legal documents, including the Federal Constitution, it must be fully implemented, especially by public managers who keep on violating human and environmental rights regardless of what is stated in the Brazilian Constitution.

For the Paris Agreement to be implemented and make an impact on the daily life of Brazilians, it must be disseminated among the people who suffer the climate crisis the most: Indigenous populations, riverside dwellers and Black communities in city outskirts. It is also important for the international community to take decisive action and put pressure on the Brazilian government for it actually to fulfil the agreement.

Will the result of the upcoming election make any difference to your struggles?

The October elections are perhaps one of the most important in Brazil's history. There is a lot at stake when it comes to the Amazon region. Bolsonaro, the incumbent, has unleashed uncontrolled deforestation, land grabs and illegal mining on Indigenous lands. He is also encouraging violence against human and environmental rights defenders in the Amazon.

With Bolsonaro there is no possibility of dialogue or engagement of organised civil society in decision-making on environmental matters. If Bolsonaro continues as president of Brazil, it is a threat to the Amazon and its peoples, and therefore to humanity. We are experiencing a global climate crisis and we need world leaders focusing on working alongside civil society, scientists and the international community to put together short, medium and long-term solutions to tackle it.

The advances of deforestation in the Amazon should be a key factor driving a Bolsonaro defeat in this election, but unfortunately it is not. Brazilian society remains very oblivious to the reality of the Amazon. Brazil’s large urban centres do not recognise the everyday reality of the forest and its peoples. The consequence of their ignorance is their lack of active concern about the current ecocide being committed by the Bolsonaro government. Fortunately, many Amazonian environmental movements are trying hard to pierce their bubble so Brazilian society gets to know what is happening and takes a stand.

Now, while acknowledging the utmost importance of defeating Bolsonaro in the upcoming election, we also have strong criticism of his main rival, the Workers’ Party (PT). Like right-wing governments, PT governments, led by the current PT candidate, Lula da Silva, and his successor as president, Dilma Rousseff, also pushed initiatives that were environmentally destructive: the Belo Monte project was built under PT administrations, without any respect for the law and international agreements on human and environmental rights.

However, we believe that with Lula we would be able to have a dialogue and there could be more space for civil society engagement in environmental decision making.

What do you think should happen at the forthcoming COP27 climate summit, and what do you think will happen?

Firstly, I think it is very important that COP27 is taking place in Africa, because African nations are among those that are suffering the most due to a climate crisis that has been caused by a small powerful group of white millionaires. They now have the opportunity to have a greater involvement at COP27 and demand more assistance from the richer nations that have caused the climate crisis. I hope that this edition of COP27 will enable the implementation of the promises and targets already agreed upon. And that women, children and adolescents will play an active role in this struggle for social and environmental justice.

Although that is what I hope for, we all know that COPs are a space where difficult conversations must take place and the governments of big nations lack the will to face the reality of climate change, especially when it comes to financial investments and taking it upon themselves to counter the damage their developmentalist approach continues to cause. So we will be closely watching the negotiations and agreements. We are at a critical point regarding climate, and there is no time to lose.

What kind of support do Brazilian environmental activists need from the international community?

The international community is our ally in our struggle for climate, social and racial justice. One way to help is by shedding light on activists’ work and directly and indirectly supporting their struggles. Another is to put pressure on genocidal and ecocidal governments such as Bolsonaro’s so that they respect human and environmental rights. Be aware of our struggles and listen to the voices of those on the ground in the countryside, on the peripheries of cities and on the forefront of this war we wage on a daily basis.


Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Daniela through LinkedIn and follow @projetoaldeias on Instagram.

 

MYANMAR: ‘The ruling military junta uses fear as a domination tool’

Myanmar coup protests 3 Gallo

CIVICUS speaks about the human rights situation and prospects for democracy in Myanmar with a civil society activist based in Myanmar, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

What is the current situation in Myanmar, a year and a half on from the military coup?

Myanmar has been in turmoil since February 2021. The coup halted the fragile democratisation process. All branches of government – legislative, executive and judiciary – were concentrated in the hands of the junta and fundamental rights were suspended.

The rule of law has been significantly degraded at every level. In the business sector, the junta’s inconsistent regulations make it impossible for investors to make decisions. Foreign investors are increasingly withdrawing from Myanmar, and the telecom sector fell into the hands of the junta’s cronies. The junta has questionable capacity to manage the economy, and inflation has pushed up the prices of essential commodities.

The degradation of the rule of law puts people’s everyday life and livelihood at risk. Repression and fundamental rights violations make everyone feel unsafe and spread fear. The junta uses fear as a domination tool. Even once-peaceful villages in central Myanmar have become conflict zones where the junta’s troops have destroyed tens of thousands of people’s humble homes.

What effects has the coup had on civil society?

The post-coup setting is very challenging. The coup set back civil society, which had been slowly growing since the late 2000s, when young democracy and human rights activists who had survived the military dictatorship started getting together and organising to pursue common objectives.

Our organisation came into existence in the early days of Myanmar’s political transition. There were limited freedoms and rights and limited space for civil society organisations. Our objective was to create a gathering space and provide support for political and civic activists. Within a decade, we adopted the broader objective of promoting civic space in Myanmar. We use technology to reach the right audiences and promote civic awareness, participation and engagement.

Right now our work is severely restricted. A few organisations have relocated their offices to border areas or neighbouring countries, but we continue operating inside Myanmar. Since speaking out entails security risks, along with many other activists and organisations we have changed our approach, keeping a low profile. We are also conducting research as a tactical response to understand the challenges and find possible ways out.

For some of Myanmar’s local civil society activists, life under a repressive regime is not a new experience: they operated under similar conditions before the 2010s. They continue to take numerous risks to serve their communities. Some organisations have also managed to channel international humanitarian assistance to conflict areas and vulnerable populations.

What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing and what backlash do they face?

Restoring democracy is hard work. Pro-democracy groups are working to force a return of power to an elected government. They discuss things such as interim arrangements, political pacts for federalism and a transitional constitution. On the ground, they promote rights and freedoms and defend people from the junta’s repression.

Having expressed their wish for democracy in the 2020 general election, the public supports pro-democracy groups in various ways, such as by taking part in peaceful demonstrations and campaigns for the suspension of tax payment, boycotting the junta’s products and brands, and joining in so-called ‘social punishment’, a form of protest that consists of doxing members of the junta and their family members – revealing information about their businesses and family connections. Many people inside Myanmar and in the diaspora also contribute financially to support the security of people in conflict areas and provide emergency humanitarian supplies.

The vital goal of pro-democracy protests is to sustain awareness of fundamental rights and freedoms, provide encouragement and show determination to take action rather than be the junta’s victims. In the earlier days, the protests were joined by people from all walks of life, including young people, students, members of civil society and political parties, government staff and celebrities. Even as the junta used lethal force and arbitrary arrests and committed atrocities, they continued to demonstrate daily in some rural regions and hold occasional flash mobs in urban areas.

The junta keeps trying to clear out pro-democracy groups and to get the endorsement of the international community. As it finds the latter quite hard, it increasingly focuses on the former. They apply the so-called ‘four cuts’: they try to cut off financial support, rations, information and recruitment by pro-democracy groups. They arrest high-profile businesspeople suspected of supporting them and strictly regulate financial transactions. They deploy police and troops at every crossroads, equip their supporters with weapons and train informants. They have banned numerous news agencies and publications that could counter their propaganda and torched villages that were believed to host pro-democracy groups.

What will be the consequences of the recent executions of pro-democracy activists?

In late July the military executed four pro-democracy activists. It was the first time the death penalty was imposed in Myanmar in decades.

For the junta, this means there is no turning back. They meant it as a message to shock and paralyse people and comfort their hard-line supporters. But it backfired: it fuelled robust determination among pro-democracy groups.

Internationally, the executions showed that the junta will not play by the rules to gain international recognition. In fact, it has continued to show muscle, using hostage diplomacy. A former British ambassador, recently jailed, became one of the victims of this.

When they lose power, they will have to face justice. Any transition will have to contemplate transitional justice arrangements to hold everyone who committed crimes against humanity and war crimes accountable in domestic and international courts. They shall not enjoy impunity anymore.

How can the international community help Myanmar’s civil society?

Myanmar needs attention and practical coordination. The international community must listen to our people’s voices and reflect on their agendas by following up with quick and responsive actions. Paying attention to local concerns and voices and developing effective international assistance will make people feel more hopeful and maintain their resilience.

Meanwhile, the junta is trying to boost its legitimacy by holding a controversial election. Elections under its iron fist will never be free and fair. The international community must be clever enough not to recognise such elections, which are a rotten trick the military have used for decades. Endorsing the junta as a legitimate ruler will only prolong the crisis.

So we ask the international community: please listen to and amplify Myanmar people’s voices!


Civic space in Myanmar is rated ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Getting a strong Ocean Treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic’

EllieHooperCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Hooper of Greenpeace Aotearoa about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards the development of a United Nations Ocean Treaty. Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that create a green and peaceful future.

What is the significance of the proposed Ocean Treaty?

A strong global treaty on the oceans could revolutionise the way oceans are managed, putting an end to fragmented governance that has failed to protect our blue planet the way we need to.

If done right, one of the key things the Ocean Treaty could deliver is the creation of fully protected marine areas on the high seas. These areas would be off limits to destructive human activities such as industrial fishing and mining. At the moment there is no legal mechanism to create fully protected areas outside of national jurisdictions, which has become a real problem. The ocean is under threat from all sides and to protect it we need to take a holistic view tackling multiple risk factors.

Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. A strong treaty would give us the mechanism to do this. The ocean is a huge carbon sink and has absorbed a great deal of global warming to this point. It’s also home to amazing biodiversity, produces the oxygen we breathe, stabilises the climate and is a food source for millions around the world.

In short, keeping the ocean healthy is vital to our survival and the entire functioning of our blue planet. But more and more research shows it is in decline. To turn this around we need to step up and protect it by reducing the multiple pressures on the system.

Science shows that fully protected marine areas are one of the best tools we’ve got to help the ocean recover and thrive. When these are put in place in the right areas – places known to be high in biodiversity, migratory pathways or unique ecosystems – ocean health improves and marine life flourishes. This has positive impacts across the board, from the number of creatures in the sea to how well the ocean can absorb carbon.

Why is the treaty process taking so long?

We’re talking about a hugely ambitious conservation effort. Getting a treaty across the line involves countries around the world agreeing to its terms, and that is not an easy feat.

While it’s disappointing that leaders failed to reach a conclusion on this at the latest round of negotiations held in August, this doesn’t mean an agreement isn’t going to happen. At the last meeting a great deal of progress was made, with countries showing more flexibility and a real sense of urgency. They ran out of time, but we are not giving up hope that this historic agreement is on the horizon. What needs to happen now is for countries to come together without delay and thrash out their remaining discrepancies.

How has civil society in general, and Greenpeace specifically, advocated for the treaty?

There’s been a great deal of civil society pressure for this treaty, with many organisations around the world pushing hard for its best version to materialise.

Greenpeace has been actively involved in the treaty process since the beginning. It sends a team to each round of negotiations and has run a global campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing the ocean and how a treaty could counter them. Our approach has been twofold: to build public momentum around the agreement while doing all the behind-the-scenes work, talking to ministers and other public officials in all the regions where we’re active.

As a consequence, millions of people around the world have joined the campaign for a strong treaty. They’ve done that in various ways, from signing petitions, sending letters and recording video messages to attending marches. Many people around the world are invested in this issue and their engagement has been critical to getting this far.

For us here at Greenpeace Aotearoa, it’s been inspiring to see the number of people willing to stand up for ocean protection, and we know that their voices have been heard. It’s fair to say that their repeated calls on New Zealand’s leaders to support a strong treaty has resulted in New Zealand supporting a far more progressive position at negotiations. That’s really people power in action. When we work together, we can make real change happen.

We’ve also met regularly with the New Zealand delegation to the treaty negotiations, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we consistently communicate with them about what this treaty needs to look like in order to protect the ocean for the future.

What can environmental civil society organisations and activists do to ensure the treaty is adopted?

Treaty negotiations need to urgently resume. At the latest round, countries ran out of time to agree on all its terms, but they’re almost there. So it’s up to civil society activists and organisations to keep pushing world leaders to prioritise reconvening and getting this done. We don’t want it to fall to the bottom of the agenda – it’s simply too important.

In more practical terms, making noise about the need for this treaty is really important. That could look like sharing content online, signing petitions, or writing to your country’s minister of foreign affairs to show how important getting this treaty done is. None of us can survive without a healthy ocean, so we all need to up to protect it.


Get in touch with Greenpeace Aotearoa through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GreenpeaceNZ and @EleanorRowena on Twitter.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Ocean Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society’

JohnPaulJoseCIVICUS speaks John Paul Jose about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards a United Nations (UN) High Seas Treaty. John is an environmental and climate activist from India who currently serves as one of the youth ambassadors of the High Seas Alliance (HSA) and a member of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance. The HSA is a partnership of more than 40 civil society organisations (CSOs) plus the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It aims to build a strong common voice and constituency for ocean conservation.

What is the significance of the proposed treaty?

Seventy-one per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered by ocean, 64 per cent of which are high seas. The ocean regulates the global climate and sustains life on the planet. It sequesters much of the historic and cumulative carbon emissions: phytoplankton, marine forests and whales, in particular, play a significant role in locking carbon in the ocean. However, the ocean has been systematically ignored in efforts to address the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity, which have focused almost exclusively on the land.

As the high seas are a global commons, it is largely governed by the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency responsible for regulating shipping that was established in 1948, and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its autonomous intergovernmental body, the International Seabed Authority, established in 1994.

But high seas are experiencing unprecedented threats that were not foreseen when those agreements were reached, such as the accumulation of plastics, chemical and industrial waste, acidification, deep sea mining, bottom trawling and, last but not least, the overall impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and the overexploitation of marine habitats and species increase the danger of ocean collapse.

This is why it is urgent to develop a global treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – a High Seas Treaty. This would provide the legal basis for the conservation of marine ecosystems and the protection from extinction of countless species yet to be discovered. Only one per cent of the high seas are currently protected, and the treaty aims to make it 30 per cent by 2030.

This would be the equivalent of the Paris Agreement for the oceans. Through marine conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources, it will preserve the carbon cycle. By creating marine protected areas, it will contribute to the restoration of marine habitats and the replenishment of the marine resources on which many communities around the world rely for their livelihoods. It will further contribute to global climate resilience. Once it comes into effect, many practices harmful to the ocean will cease to exist within the protected areas.

Why is the treaty process taking so long?

It has been 15 years since the negotiations started, but cooperation has been lacking regarding many aspects of the treaty. Differences would need to be resolved in between sessions, and a treaty should be finalised to include all the aspects where agreements have been reached, leaving space for future amendments as differences over more contested elements are subsequently resolved. And intergovernmental conferences should definitely happen more often.

One element being discussed is the equitable distribution among states of marine genetic resources, which are essential in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and other industries. The current overemphasis on benefit sharing is an illusion, as we don’t know enough about such benefits, since much of the ocean is still unexplored. But it is a fact that 10 countries account for 71 per cent of global fishing and 98 per cent of patents of genetic codes of marine life in the high seas. Those few countries’ greed and unwillingness to share benefits and marine technology and knowledge, and the obvious concerns this creates among less powerful countries, are one big reason for the deadlock.

There is also a stalemate on defining criteria for environmental impact assessments and the implementation of marine protected areas. What is at stake here are the interests of deep-sea mining industries and industrial fisheries.

However, the treaty process has seen a lot of success in convening discussions and negotiations. As of now, more than 100 states are highly committed to backing the treaty as it stands and some, such as Costa Rica, are leading by example by pushing forward regionally, opening up additional avenues for conservation.

The treaty is likely to be finalised at the next session, so further efforts should be put into funding delegations from global south countries so they can be a stronger voice and bring more balance into negotiations.

How has civil society in general, and the HSA in particular, advocated for the development and adoption of a treaty?

Since its inception, the HSA has advocated for protecting at least 50 per cent of the ocean, engaging decision-makers, experts and civil society. We are now focused on keeping up the momentum of the intergovernmental conferences, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a legally binding treaty to protect the planet by changing the way we govern the high seas. This process has created a lot of awareness about the importance of the high seas, so governments that used to be unfamiliar with them are now supporting a robust treaty.

That said, it should be noted that only states are considered as parties to the treaty, so non-state voices have no space in the negotiations. Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society and experts. Many of us cannot even witness live negotiations and documents are only made available once discussions have been closed.

There are also clear inequalities among participating states. Many states with limited resources bring very small delegations and lack the expertise to engage productively in the discussions. It would make a difference to all parties involved if civil society were able to bring its expertise into the process.

What can environmental CSOs and activists do to ensure the treaty’s adoption?

There are clear limits to what we can do to expedite the treaty’s adoption. We believe it is crucial to have a treaty as soon as possible, and it is better to have an incomplete one than to have none. So states should move forward on all the issues where agreements have been reached and design an amendment process to integrate further issues and stakeholders’ concerns in the future.

CSOs and activists can contribute to the process by bringing diverse perspectives to the table. As current negotiations are closed discussions among states in which civil society, scientists and the private sector don’t have a seat, we only can do so by advocating with receptive states that do have a seat at the table.

We can also campaign to bring bottom-up pressure into the process, by bringing the concerns the treaty tries to address into the discussion of the global climate movement and getting the wider public engaged. Resources such as the HSA’s Treaty Tracker provide access to useful information regarding the treaty and negotiations. This information should reach across the globe and empower people to demand that world leaders finalise the treaty, and to call on their own governments to hear them in environmental policy process.

A treaty would provide a legal basis for action, but even without one, states, communities and corporations can act to protect the high seas. Many countries already have marine protected areas within their national jurisdictions, and more can be established with public participation. Civil society should engage in these processes but should not be limited by national boundaries. It’s time for us to transcend borders and advocate for the global commons as well.


 Get in touch with the High Seas Alliance through its website or Facebook page, and follow @HighSeasAllianc and @johnpauljos on Twitter.

 

ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’

PORTUGUESE

CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.

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 What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?

Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.

A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.

In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.

The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.

On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.

As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statement indicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.

What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?

There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.

The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.

People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.

Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.

How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?

The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.

The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.

The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.

The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.


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

Get in touch with Mudei through its Facebook page, and follow @MovCivicoMudei on Twitter.

 

SIERRA LEONE: ‘Civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws’

BernsLebbieCIVICUS speaks with Berns Lebbie, lead campaigner and national coordinator of Land for Life (LfL) in Sierra Leone, about two new laws aimed at improving the ability of communities to protect their land rights and the environment. LfL brings together civil society organisations (CSOs) in four African countries: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It aims to contribute to the formulation and implementation of policies on land governance and agricultural investment consistent with international standards, and specifically the human right to adequate food.

What prompted Sierra Leone’s parliament to pass new environmental and land rights legislation?

Sierra Leone’s parliament has finally debated and passed the Land Commission and Customary Land Rights Bills, which are pending presidential approval. The new laws aim to address the problems of the country’s dual land tenure system. More than 95 per cent of Sierra Leone’s land is under customary rules preventing private ownership. Customary rules are often ambiguous and inconsistent, allowing for arbitrary and discriminatory application.

The need to rethink the land tenure system came to the forefront following a rush for large-scale land acquisitions for biofuel production between 2010 and 2013. The government was not prepared to handle multinational investment, as existing laws were obsolete. As a result, tensions grew between private sector investors and community land holders, and legal reform became a must.

The new laws came after years of progress in implementing legal and policy changes advocated for by civil society and the international community. It all started in 2010 as the government became aware of the importance of investment. Through an initiative funded by the United Nations (UN) Development Programme, Sierra Leone had its first version of a national land policy in 2011. Policies then underwent several updates.

In 2013, the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests were introduced in Sierra Leone. This internationally agreed framework guided the review process of Sierra Leone’s policy, which was finalised in 2015 and launched in 2017.

One of the key policy recommendations to emerge from the review process was that the government should enact new land legislation, so in 2018 consultants were hired to draft model bills. These were drafted with input from national stakeholders, local authorities, traditional chiefs, CSOs and the private sector. Our network participated in the process by producing policy papers representing the views of community landowners and local authorities. We ensured their perspectives became an integral part of the documents that accompanied the model bills.

Once they were presented to the public, however, the model bills sparked a lot of debate. The National Council of Paramount Chiefs rejected them entirely in a letter to the president. The private sector sent a list of concerns to the Minister of Land, while civil society raised some concerns through a parliamentary brief. In response, the minister engaged separately with each interest group, paving the way for parliament to continue with the reform process.

How significant is the new legislation?

Although they are only first steps in a long road to organise and modernise Sierra Leone’s land governance sector, the two laws offer distinct benefits.

The 2022 National Land Commission Act establishes a land commission that will function as an operational arm of the Ministry of Land, as well as several decentralised level structures. It takes an inclusive, gender-sensitive and participatory approach. As a result of this law, all lands will be titled and registered through a state-run real-time information and cadastral system.

The 2022 Customary Land Rights Act is aimed at protecting customary land rights, organising and harmonising customary land governance in the provinces. To address the problem of gender-based discrimination, it establishes women’s right to own and use family land on an equal footing with their male relatives.

Regarding investment processes, the law mandates investors to seek landowners’ free, prior and informed consent. All customary lands must be registered before they can be acquired for investment. The law also seeks to ensure the responsible use of natural resources and protected areas. Citizens now have a 10 per cent minimum share in all large-scale land-based investments. When government sets a floor price for land leases, families still have the right to renegotiate lease fees.

The law also states that no investment should take place on ecologically sensitive areas such as wetlands, swamps, lagoons and protected areas. Under certain conditions, only sustainable development projects approved by the authorities will be able to proceed.

Any commitment or agreement of private companies with regulatory agencies or funders will automatically form part of their land lease agreements. In this way, the land law will strengthen the enforcement of other laws, such as those on environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

What’s next for the civil society groups working on land and environmental rights in Sierra Leone?

Parliament now needs to pass the final reviewed versions of the bills to the president so he can sign them into law. At this stage, civil society plays a key monitoring role to ensure the contents of the bill sent to the president for signature are the ones debated and agreed upon.

Once the bills are signed, we will take part in their formal launch at a national land conference that we will co-organise with the Ministry of Land. Following that, we will organise a national-level training of trainers targeting CSOs, the media and others. To make the laws accessible to the public, we will produce a simplified compendium. For instance, we will work with telecom agencies to break down the key contents of the laws into text messages. We also plan to launch an app with a search function for easy referencing.

How can international allies support land rights groups in Sierra Leone?

Sierra Leonean civil society needs international support to monitor the implementation of the new land laws. First and foremost, we need financial support.

Our CSO network is currently funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through the German CSO Welthungerhilfe, but that funding is quite limited. Although the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has overseen the reform process, we have not received any funds from them, as all its funding goes directly to the government. It is the same with other UN agencies, the World Bank and other international financial institutions. As there is no hope for Sierra Leonean CSOs to get any funding from them, we really need international civil society to step in.


Civic space in Sierra Leone is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with LfL Sierra Leone through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Land4LifeSalone on Twitter.

 

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

Victoria Lichet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should civil society do next?

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

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

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

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

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


Get in touch with the Global Pact Coalition through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @VictoriaLichet and @PactEnvironment on Twitter.

 

 

ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’

PascoalBaptistiny

Portuguese 

CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential and National Assembly election in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment.  MBAKITA is a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, it defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.

What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?

The political climate was very unfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was already characterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.

Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.

Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.

 

CHILE: ‘The million-dollar question is how society will react if a new constitution does not come out of this’

JulietaSuarezCaoCIVICUS speaks about Chile’s impending constitutional referendum with Julieta Suárez Cao, PhD in Political Science and Associate Professor of Comparative Politics at the Catholic University of Chile. Julieta played a leading role in the design and promotion of an innovative electoral system that ensured a gender-parity outcome in the 2021 election for Chile’s Constitutional Convention, for which she received the American Political Science Association’s 2022 Public Engagement with Research Award.

What do you think have been the most novel elements of the Chilean constitutional process?

A novel element has been the formation of the Constitutional Convention itself. While in other parts of the world there had already been experiences such as reserving seats for Indigenous peoples and allowing non-party candidates, in Chile these two elements were combined with a third, gender parity. This had been implemented in Mexico City but had never been done at the national level.

Another novel element has to do with the fact that it this a change of constitution, not a simple reform. It is a profound change starting from scratch, without any kind of agreement having set parameters that determine what can and cannot be changed. The only predetermined things were three key procedures: the two-thirds rule for voting on the norms that would go in the constitution, the so-called entry plebiscite to enable the convening of a constitutional convention and the so-called exit plebiscite, meant to have the new constitution approved.

It is also worth noting that this is a constitutional change taking place in a democratic context, and not in a moment of transition. Although a response to the social and political crisis that Chile is going through, it has not been a hasty reaction to a fleeting situation; the discussion about constitutional reform started long before the 2019 social outburst. Former president Michelle Bachelet had already tried to carry it forward during her last term in office, from 2014 to 2018, but did not succeed. The right wing, which ruled the country under Sebastián Piñera over the following period, warned that it would shelve any constitutional reform initiative, and so it did – until the social outburst forced it to re-evaluate this position, given the need to channel social demands institutionally, by means of a constitution-making process.

What are the divides in the run-up to the 5 September plebiscite on the new constitution?

The way dividing lines have been drawn in the face of the constitutional plebiscite is very interesting. The Constitutional Convention has been extremely transparent, perhaps too transparent, because according to some literature, politics sometimes needs a certain opacity. This, on the other hand, became a sort of constitutional reality TV, a show that was broadcast every day, 24 hours a day. Clearly, the news that made it into the media tended to be about inconsequential and even ridiculous issues, so it did not represent what was really going on there. For example, one convention member proposed to dismantle all state institutions; of course, this never even made it out of the commission, but still made headlines for a long time. Such things created an adverse climate around the Convention, which I think affected the campaign.

Seen in perspective, it was a very dynamic process that in just one year managed to produce a full document for a new constitution. The process was a good one, even if it made public opinion focus on some absurd debates that were magnified by the media.

This climate of opinion ended up shaping two camps. On the one hand, the rejection camp, which includes not only the right wing, but also many centre-left personalities, including many current senators. These are people who have joined the rejection camp for several reasons, and not only because they do not agree with many of the proposed reforms.

In short, the rejection coalition ranges from the far right – which not only exists in Chile, but also reached the second round of the presidential election less than a year ago – to some individuals in the political centre. But it was the latter who became the visible face of the campaign against the constitution.

This has been the result of a good communications strategy that consisted in delegating spokespeople roles to moderate figures while keeping extremists out of sight. They have held almost no marches or public events, because in the run-up to the initial plebiscite such demonstrations included weapons, Nazi flags, swastikas and other images that provoke strong rejection.

For its part, the coalition in favour of the new constitution includes numerous former convention members, most of whom have campaigned in favour of it, deputies, senators and many popular artists. The government is not allowed to participate in the campaign or speak directly in favour of one or other option. For this reason, it only intervened by providing information: in particular, it collaborated with the printing of the new constitution, which is now one of the best-selling books in Chile.

Is Chilean society similarly divided?

Public opinion polls show that Chilean society is not polarised, unlike the elites.

What we see in Chile is asymmetric polarisation, a phenomenon that also occurs in countries such as Brazil and the USA. What creates asymmetrical polarisation is the presence of right-wing extremism. The extreme left is very small: it collects very few votes and has no media presence and no national visibility. The far right, however, has almost been normalised.

What is happening now is that it a referendum is by its very nature polarising, simply because it only provides two opposing options. If a plebiscite takes place in a context where the elites are polarised, it deepens division. For the time being, however, I think its effects have not reached deep into Chilean society.

A few months ago opinion polls appeared to show a majority in favour of approval, but now the opposite seems to be the case. Has the consensus for reform shifted?

I wouldn’t say that reformist consensus has been eroded. Practically nobody defends Pinochet’s Constitution: almost everybody who promotes rejection does so with the argument that rejection must be followed by reform. In other words, almost nobody advocates for keeping the current constitution, although if rejection wins, that is precisely what will happen, at least in the short term. Given the lack of agreement within the rejectionist coalition, its victory would open up a period of enormous uncertainty.

While reformist consensus has not been eroded, a distorted climate of opinion has been created by disinformation campaigns, presenting implausible interpretations of debates and fake news to sow doubts about the contents of the constitutional text. For example, the claim that the new constitution does not protect private property or that Indigenous people would have ‘privileges’ was widely circulated. All of this has interfered with public debate and cast doubt over the viability of the proposal.

What do think are the most positive and the most negative aspects of the new constitution?

Personally, I like the new constitution very much. It establishes a political system with less presidential powers and a better balance between the executive and legislative branches. The current constitution is an authoritarian text that is very biased in favour of the ‘strong man’.

I also like the definition of Chile as a regional state, a sort of intermediate form between the unitary and federal state. Chile is one of the most centralised countries in Latin America and the most centralised among democratic Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.

The whole agenda of rights and the social state embraced by the new constitution also seems very positive to me. The incorporation of gender parity, a gendered perspective and multiculturalism are great advances. It was high time for plurinationality and Indigenous peoples to be recognised.

The doubts I have concern some issues that are outside my area of expertise, related to some aspects of plurinationality, such as the implementation of differentiated justice systems and Indigenous autonomies. This is also one of the issues that has highest levels of rejection among public opinion, for reasons that include racism, classism and a complex context in the south of Chile, where there is an ongoing conflict between the state and some Indigenous Mapuche communities.

But the truth is, most of these issues are only stated in the constitution and will be subject to ordinary legislation that must come from the current Congress, which has no reserved seats for Indigenous peoples. Therefore, in my opinion, positions on these issues will be tempered and there won’t be any radical changes.

Among the public, it is social rights that have the most support. Few people defend the neoliberal or subsidiary state that Chile currently has, although certain sectors of elites are concerned about the cost of changes: they wonder where the money will come from to finance all these rights, as if this were a good argument for deciding whether or not to recognise a right!

What will happen if the new constitution is approved, and what will happen if it is rejected?

If the constitution is approved the process will continue, as many provisions in the new constitution require additional ordinary legislation. In that case, a process of intense legislative activity will begin to give form to the new constitution’s mandates.

If rejection wins, much will depend on how big its win is. If it wins by a large margin, it will be more difficult for the constitution-making process to continue. If the rejectionist option wins, the government will immediately submit a bill to call for a new election to select convention members. But the approval of such a bill requires over 57 per cent of the votes in both chambers, a majority the government does not have, so it will need the right wing’s votes. The right’s willingness to sit down and negotiate will depend on its margin of victory.

If it wins narrowly, it will try to design a more inoffensive constitution-making process, with a smaller convention, a shorter mandate, no gender parity and no Indigenous peoples or very few reserved seats. If it wins by a landslide, there will be no constitutional convention, but a reform passed through Congress or designed by a commission of experts. We would be back to square one and absolutely everything would have to be renegotiated.

The million-dollar question is how society will react if a new constitution does not come out of this and the process does not continue or continues in a deficient way. I do not dare to venture an answer to this question.


Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @jujuchi on Twitter.

 

PALESTINE: ‘Colonial powers of the global north have normalised murder and devastation in the global south’

CIVICUS speaks with a Palestinian civil society activist, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about the use of online activism to raise awareness about the situation in Palestine and seek international support.

Protest for palestine Tunis Kassba 17 05 2021 By Brahim Guedich 4023

What is the current state of civic space in Palestine?

Palestinians do not have their rights and freedoms recognised. Civic space is so narrow that anything we say regarding Israeli settler colonialism can cause us to go to prison. Administrative detention is frequently used: even though it is illegal according to international law, we have seen a number of people go to prison without any trial. Because of this, we have to be extremely careful about the kind of content we put up on our social media accounts, as it can be used against us in court.

These restrictions also affect Palestinians living abroad. The majority find it difficult to return to their home country due to the restrictions.

Recently Israel classified six organisations that advocate for children’s rights, women’s rights and Palestinian prisoners’ rights as terrorist organisations. As a result, their funding was cut and their staff members were sent to prison under administrative detention. People are being sent to prison without charges and remain there for years.

Is there a shift towards digital activism in Palestine?

People in Palestine have been using social media since its inception. However, Israel has tried to prevent Palestinians sharing their stories: on Facebook and Instagram, for instance, they censor anything related to Palestine. When we post sensitive images of people being beaten or shot, our social media accounts can get suspended for months and we risk going to jail. Even international human rights organisations have been censored for releasing videos of Israelis attacking Palestinians.

But this has not stopped us showing the world our reality. The work I do includes making videos of the situations Palestinians face on a daily basis and sharing them on social media. With this I hope to raise awareness of what we are dealing with and show people we need urgent help.

Palestinians have had to find innovative ways to inform the world about events happening in our country. For instance, to share information on social media about the situation without it being removed, we have changed the way we write ‘Palestine’: we write it as either ‘Pale Stine’ or ‘Pale@stine’ or ‘Isr@el’. It is still a challenge because when it comes to Palestine or Israeli violations international media are biased, but we have been able to reach a larger audience and keep them informed about our issues.

Civil society also raises awareness about the terminology used – for example, so that people understand that what is happening between Israel and Palestine is not a war. It is our position that it is not just an occupation but also qualifies as colonialism. Indigenous people are being removed from their land to make way for Europeans to settle. Israel has claimed this is a religious war, which is not at all the case: people in Palestine face torture regardless of their religion. This is why as part of our advocacy work we share accurate information about the situation in our country.

When trying to investigate the war crimes Israel has committed in Palestine, the United Nations has had difficulty accessing information and even entering the country. International human rights organisations face the same problem. So we try to contribute to their work by providing information about what is happening in Palestine.

What kind of support do you need from the international community?

The only thing that Palestinians need right now is peace. What has happened to us through the 74 years of Israeli occupation has been brutal. We have seen on many websites, including CIVICUS’s, that the prevailing narrative is in line with the one promoted by the United Nations and other international organisations, which is the one approved by Israel and the USA; that is totally wrong.

We lived in Palestine before 1948. In the 19th century Jews started migrating to Palestine as refugees, and Palestinians hosted them. The British occupied Palestine in the early 1920s and until the late 1930s and early 1940s, during which time they helped non-Palestinian Jews to migrate to Palestine in mass numbers.

Colonial powers of the global north have normalised murder and devastation in the global south. Those colonial regimes continue to strengthen their relations with Israel and in return they enhance their security and military capabilities. In Africa they are taking over natural resources, namely gas and oil, at bargain prices; this is in fact the reason why they deliberately never bring up African human rights issues in earnest.

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

 

PANAMA: ‘Protests reflect structural inequalities and frustration at blatant corruption’

Eileen Ng FabregaCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Panama with Eileen Ng Fábrega, Executive Director of the Panamanian Chamber of Social Development (CAPADESO). CAPADESO is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote social development in Panama. Its main aim is to highlight the contributions of civil society, strengthen civil society and foster alliances to influence public policies.

 

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