BOTSWANA: ‘Anti-right groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains’

 

Dumiso GatshaAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Dumiso Gatsha, a young LGBT rights activist and founder of Success Capital Organisation, a youth-led civil society organisation (CSO) that supports civic action and promotes the rights of LGBTQI people.

How significant was the June 2019 court decision that decriminalised homosexuality in Botswana?

The High Court ruled that colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations are unconstitutional. The judges said penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not regulate private acts between consenting adults. One of the contested sections of the penal code, Section 164, is about ‘unnatural offences’, defined as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which essentially applied to gay sex, although it was up to the courts to define what unnatural acts meant, and it could theoretically also apply to heterosexual activities seen as ‘unnatural’.

This ruling is very significant on two fronts. The first is that this decision eliminates the risk of persecution altogether. Although the prohibition was not necessarily implemented by law enforcement agencies, it could have been, as it added elements of uncertainty and arbitrary treatment. The second is that it essentially provides an avenue for building protections and safeguards in health, employment, business, governance, service delivery and, more importantly, eliminating systemic stigma and discrimination.

Was civil society in Botswana instrumental in bringing about this decision?

Yes. Civil society, and LGBT civil society more specifically, has been very active since the 1990s. But when I started out there were still few activists that were well known. I came to Botswana in 2012 and there were only one or two notable activists, while now, only seven years later, there are five new LGBT-led organisations. A lot of them work on HIV/AIDS response, because a lot of funding goes to this kind of work.

Litigation for decriminalisation was led by civil society, on behalf of a young gay man. Procedurally, only an individual can bring such a challenge to the courts, not an organisation. The most progressive of recent court cases, in terms of gender marker changes, were led by people. Civil society partnerships helped ensure financial and technical assistance.

However, it is very difficult to bring the rest of the community along with these advances: yes, you achieve decriminalisation, but decriminalisation does not mean protection or mean it will be any easier for people to navigate difficult conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with family members or educators, or in the workplace.

Has the court decision prompted any backlash against LGBT rights?

I think society is divided, and attitudes may take longer than laws to change. In this context, a new opposition populist party has used this issue as a populist tool. The ruling political party initially said that it would abide by the court decision and it backed non-discrimination. The current president had previously released a statement commemorating 16 days against gender-based violence and spoke about discrimination experienced by people in same-sex relationships. This was the first time a sitting head of state publicly recognised and acknowledged the gay community affirmatively in an African country that criminalised same-sex intercourse. Previous administrations had maintained a position of not persecuting people. In that sense, the state was always perceived as being a bit more progressive than the social majority or the rest of Africa. I think the state has long resorted to silent diplomacy on issues considered ‘progressive’.

What changed after the High Court ruling, and lead to the state deciding to appeal, was that the new opposition party saw an opportunity to use the ruling to seek votes. They blamed the current president for singlehandedly decriminalising same-sex intercourse. Given the intolerance in public opinion, it was an opportunity to appeal to the majority. This turned into a political issue rather than one of rights, particularly because this new political party is backed by a former president. This was the first time ever in Botswana’s living history that LGBT issues were used within an intentionally populist narrative.

This did not happen in isolation. Since the court ruling, religious institutions, mostly evangelical groups, became more vocal in their intolerance of LGBT people. It was surprising to us. We didn’t quite expect this. Public statements were released, including some stating that they would be appealing against the court ruling. They perceived this court ruling as an avenue for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by LGBT people.

Why did this take you by surprise? Weren’t anti-rights groups present in the public sphere before?

Regarding the court case, which took almost two years, evangelical groups and other religious actors remained silent for the most part. They wouldn’t really talk about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them at all. They didn’t bother building a whole narrative around or against it. That is why it was surprising that when the court decision was made public, all this opposition materialised. Some churches that had never released public statements on anything are now doing so. It isn’t just evangelical churches, although they have been probably the ones taking the lead. Catholic and Methodist churches have become quite intolerant, and vocally intolerant, as well.

While some civil society actors, including human rights groups, that we thought would be supportive, remained quite passive, anti-human rights groups have been increasingly active, using LGBT rights as a populist tool, by taking advantage of the dynamics regarding ‘immorality’ that prevail among the public – in other words, of the fact that many people are simply anti-LGBT by default, with no critical thinking.

I think that populist anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains. This is the Trump era, with its atmosphere of nationalism and regressive thinking. Regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights, US right-wing organisations are exporting their ideas to other parts of the world, including Africa. Fortunately, however, Botswana has historically been a peaceful society where it has not been easy for populist discourse to grow, and we are not seeing the growth of the same political populist narrative that has gained ground in other African countries or, for instance, in Eastern Europe. Botswana’s political landscape does not include extremist parties, either on the left or right. Major parties are all in support of LGBT rights and their leaders are quite progressive. There was an assumption that the negative political use of LGBT issues would work, but it is not clear that it has. However, society itself isn’t very accepting, and religious institutions are indeed perpetuating homophobia and intolerance.

What’s next for LGBT civil society in Botswana, after achieving decriminalisation?

Even if the High Court ruling survives the appeals and any other further legal challenges, a gap will remain. There have been some fragments of civic action aimed at educating people on LGBT issues. There is an urgent need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people. More importantly, there is a lot of work needed in moving LGBT people from surviving to thriving, especially in issues of efficacy, agency and having an influence within their communities. We focus on the individual and their access to rights, because rights are not really effective if they cannot be exercised at key touch points of service delivery, such as in a police station or a clinic. The community needs healing, at individual and collective levels. There has been a lot of pain and harm, even within activism.

What challenges do LGBT civil society face in doing this work, and what kind of support does it need?

A lot of advocacy strategies and narratives are pre-determined and attached to funding. There is a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the narratives that are considered relevant and valid, and therefore granted access to funding and to policy-makers. The main narrative currently appears to be around public health, and it is very difficult for new organisations to establish new narratives and still gain access to funding. If you are not operating under the umbrella of a much larger body, it is difficult to scale up advocacy work. This structure of opportunities has a strong impact on how creative and collaborative civil society can be while remaining sustainable.

I think this has to stop. We need to move towards a community-led narrative. This is how we will get the best results in terms of transforming people’s hearts and minds. In that regard, there is a need to strengthen the intellectual body of knowledge of LGBT communities and decolonise our institutions, because a lot of our conversations are in fact based on Western narratives. We also need to rethink the narratives used for campaigning. The narratives that have been used so far are based on the assumption that the human rights-based approach works, without any reflection on the need to adapt the language in a way that resonates with people and makes issues easier for people to digest.

In sum, I would say it is very important to diversify both the forms of advocacy that are undertaken and the ways that they are being supported.

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

Get in touch with Success Capital Organisation through their webpage and Facebook profile.

 

HIV/AIDS: ‘We need a global civil society movement that stands together for all rights’

 

Alessandra NiloCIVICUS speaks to Alessandra Nilo, co-founder and Executive Director of GESTOS – HIV and AIDS, Communication and Gender, a civil society organisation (CSO) created in 1993 in Recife, Brazil. She is a member of the NGO Delegation to the Programme Coordinating Board of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), an institution that uniquely involves civil society in its governance board. Here, Alessandra discusses civil society’s important role in UNAIDS, her work on HIV/AIDS in the deteriorating political climate of Brazil and the growing challenge posed by anti-rights groups that oppose action on HIV/AIDS and human rights.

Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work on issues of HIV/AIDS?

I am a journalist, specialised in health and with a postgraduate qualification in diplomacy. I was also involved in student movements and workers’ and political movements. In 1993, a group of us created GESTOS. At that time, we didn’t know much about the epidemic. I lost a friend, whose family locked him in his house and wouldn’t allow us to talk to him. That was why GESTOS was born, to address the issues of people living with HIV/AIDS.

We knew that having an organisation to help people was not enough. We needed to exercise accountability. We needed to improve policies. We were pioneers because at that time we knew that gender was an important dimension, and also that without communication, we could not move forward, because it was important to involve the public and mobilise them for our cause. This is why we were named GESTOS – Seropositivity, Communication and Gender.

We started to engage with the national councils in Brazil. These are bodies established by the 1988 Federal Constitution, where government, civil society and interested parties sit together to define public policies. These were spaces where we could practise direct democracy and have direct participation. Through participation GESTOS became very close to the ministries of health and gender and we began to engage in social networks of the Latin American region.

What have been some of the impacts of the HIV/AIDS movement, in Brazil and globally?

In general Brazil’s HIV/AIDS movement is very strong. We have helped people take action to define their own responses to HIV/AIDS. Worldwide, the HIV/AIDS movement has been responsible for many breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS policies, and this happened in Brazil.

We were the first movement to start pushing that treatment was a right, rather than a commodity delivered by governments depending on whether they wanted to or had capacity. We were responsible for big discussions around sexuality that contributed to the sexual and reproductive rights movement. We built strong alliances with the feminist movement. We were the first movements to include people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers in a global resolution at the United Nations (UN). We also engaged in debates that led to the Sustainable Development Goals. The fact that in the Agenda 2030 resolution there is a mention of people living with HIV/AIDS is because GESTOS was there as part of the Brazilian delegation and Brazil proposed this at the last minute of negotiations in New York.

The bottom line is that people living with HIV/AIDS proved at local, national and international levels to have a strong capacity to advocate for amplifying the spaces and formal sites and mechanisms for civil society participation in general.

How did civil society’s role in UNAIDS develop?

UNAIDS created the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), UNAIDS’ governing body, in 1995 – it started operating in 1996 – and it is super innovative because it is the only governing body in the UN system that includes formal participation by civil society. It has 22 voting Member States, 11 co-sponsors, who are other UN bodies, and five civil society delegates plus five alternates, which means 10 people from civil society are involved. We have one member and one alternate per region, from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Asia and Europe.

The PCB is the place where the main global policies on HIV/AIDS have been discussed and formed, and these have informed other UN debates. More than that, it has informed and inspired the ways UN member states implement HIV/AIDS policies at national levels.

The rationale for civil society’s involvement lies in the fact that the HIV/AIDS movement was really based on participation. Since the beginning, people living with HIV and key populations pushed and insisted that politicians, scientists and affected people should come together and figure out how to create solutions together. We built this social movement where it was almost impossible to move forward any discussion without involving us. We were pressing since the beginning to have meaningful participation.

Because of this, when the PCB was formed, civil society was considered a very important player that had to participate. This was very innovative at that time and continues to be innovative today.

How does civil society’s involvement work in practice? How are the delegates selected and how do they connect with wider civil society?

The PCB NGO Delegation members have mandates for two years and depending on the performance of a delegate, the group can expand this mandate for one more year. Delegates are selected by current NGO PCB members. We put forward a public call, in response to which interested applicants make a submission. Shortlisted applicants are then invited to an interview panel. The panel, which consists of NGO delegates, as well as an external civil society partner or a former NGO delegate, makes a recommendation. Final deliberation and decision are done by the full Delegation.

We have a number of requirements for these candidates. One is that they should have the capacity to represent and communicate with their constituencies. It is essential to have the capacity for broader communication.

We have a very transparent process. We have a website where we publicise the calls, but also use social media to publicise the opportunity. We have a list of advisory groups, CSOs and activists who are always interested in issues of the UNAIDS PCB, and we communicate with them and involve them in preparations before, between and after the biannual PCB meetings. In recent years, we have been trying to reach out to other spheres, including groups working on issues such as sustainable development and financing for development.

Since 2008, there has also been an independent Communication and Consultation Facility (CCF) to support the NGO Delegation by providing technical, administrative and programme support. Since 2013, the CCF’s host organisation has been the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV, based in Thailand. The CCF is the backbone of the NGO Delegation. It is hard to imagine how the Delegation would function effectively without it. A key objective of the CCF is to facilitate communication among the delegates and consultation with wider civil society.

What have the impacts and challenges been?

The NGO Delegation has no right to vote, but can participate in every other aspect of PCB activities. There is a very fine line between participating in deliberations and taking part in decision-making, because traditionally the PCB does not hold votes but decides by consensus. There have been so many examples where the NGO Delegation has been able to table decision points during meetings for critical agenda items, and had its points approved. Most decisions that have come out of the PCB came in one way or another after strong civil society participation.

Civil society and communities are really strong players and our voice is considered in a very respectful manner. It has been proven that with civil society participation, policies, programmes and services are designed much more efficiently and with much higher chances of working and benefiting people.

In terms of the process, since 2012, the NGO Delegation has been trying to create connections with other groups working with the UN to show them how the experience of the UNAIDS PCB accepting us and having us as formal members can be transposed to other UN bodies. We think this would be a great achievement for civil society in general. We tried to push this while the UN was having a conversation about restructuring and reforms. We talked with so many people, but it seems there is not an appetite for the UN to become more democratic in terms of the participation of civil society in formal decision-making bodies.

To have formal spaces for civil society is important, but it is not enough. There is absolutely a need to be able to inform decisions and participate in the decision-making processes of the UN at this time when, at the national and international levels, we are every day being pushed farther away from spaces for participation because of the advancement of reactionary political forces.

Although our PCB NGO Delegation succeeded, gaining formal space to participate was challenging. This is why we value it so much. If you think about the face of our movement you see people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, LGBTQI people and women, people who have always led our movement but who have been marginalised in society. And even nowadays, stigma and discrimination continue to prevent us from reaching and accessing some places. While the HIV/AIDS movement has been successful in gaining public attention and claiming spaces, it has been very hard to do so, because stigma, prejudice and discrimination continue to fuel this epidemic.

With all these populist movements nowadays, the communities impacted on and affected by HIV/AIDS are not only the most marginalised but also the most criminalised. Criminalisation really impacts on the kind of organising we can do. In many countries in Africa and Asia, homosexuality, sex work and drug use are criminalised. There are real legal barriers for our communities that really impact on participation and engagement.

How is the restricted space for civil society in many contexts impacting on your work?

In the past decades we were fighting to improve the work that we were doing, but now we are working toward maintaining the rights we have, to resist, to recover from losses, and this is a very different game. In general, there is this trend of the space for civil society being increasingly restricted, and it is even more so for the HIV/AIDS movement because the forces opposing us are reactionary.

We are seeing different experiences in different countries. And, including in countries that were known as democratic, we have seen civil society dismantled, and colleagues in civil society forced to flee their places in order to keep some movements alive.

Besides this, in general, governments have used economic crises to justify cuts in programmes that used to have civil society participation. One very efficient way of diminishing civil society’s capacity is to cut funds, and this has happened to the HIV/AIDS movement. Until recently, we had countries investing in HIV/AIDS response, and that included investing in communities and civil society. This was working in a very progressive way, but now we have seen that resources for civil society, particularly international resources in middle-income countries, have decreased, and this has impacted negatively on our capacity to continue responding to HIV/AIDS and influencing governments.

In recent years we have seen the rise of fundamentalism and nationalism and a rejection of multilateralism in general. This has completely jeopardised the progress made in previous years in human, economic and environmental rights. Even in contexts where states had no interest in supporting civil society participation, we used to have an organisation such as UNAIDS and other international entities that could fund international networks and those networks could support national work, or could directly fund communities on the ground. This is not the case any longer. Formal space is being diminished, resources have been reduced and the groups that organise to provide support face increasing demands, because when democratic spaces shrink, public services and policies that benefit everyone in society usually suffer. And then the demand on us increases further. This equation simply does not work.

At the UNAIDS PCB itself, we see a political trend of some Member States becoming more aggressive towards CSOs, and some conservative governments questioning our model of participation. PCB meetings have seen attempts to challenge the existence of the NGO Delegation. In 2013 this was brought up by a couple of Member States that questioned the Delegation’s standing to participate in the meeting. In December 2018, a Member State questioned the recruitment process of the NGO delegates. I think the threat of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution that established the PCB being revised is always there, especially in the current climate of declining democracy in various parts of the world. If that resolution is revised, then anything can be revised.

What challenges do you now face under an extreme right-wing president In Brazil?

In Brazil, the federal government is really going after LGBTQI people, the indigenous population, people who use drugs, black people. In June the Senate approved a law to make the policy on drugs even more restrictive, going in the opposite direction to many other countries. LGBTQI people are much more scared of being visible now. Also in May, the new government issued a decree to basically shut down all civil society participation in national councils. All councils created by law will continue to function but their composition will be revised, and all councils created by decree were immediately cancelled.

The government spread confusion about civil society in relation to the Amazon Fund, which is a big international fund to which CSOs can apply to fight climate change. The government lied by stating that the fund was being misused, while what they really want is not to let civil society get funding.

Also, as soon as it took power, the government cut several contracts with CSOs. At this moment we do not know that will happen with women’s rights and human rights policies. All progressive agendas are being cut by 65 per cent, 85 per cent, 95 per cent. Can you imagine that the Environment Ministry’s fund for climate change was cut by 95 per cent? As well as being a fundamentalist and economically ultraliberal, the new President doesn’t believe in climate change, the Minister of International Affairs stated that "globalism is a cultural Marxist conspiracy" and they want to solve the violence problem by releasing weapons for the entire population. How do you deal with people like that?

 

Given challenges, what is needed to improve the impact of the NGO Delegation?

UNAIDS and Member States should improve the level of investment in the NGO Delegation. Because our delegation operates very differently from government delegations, we lack the resources we need to amplify our voices and our advocacy work. The reason why we have not done more structured advocacy work in other areas of the UN is that we never have funds for that.

We also need more support in terms of communications, because we would like to do more campaigns around the results of our work and publicise key debates happening at the PCB, including intensifying our communication about the unique role of the PCB and civil society’s role within it.

More generally, how can the challenges that HIV/AIDS-related civil society is facing be addressed?

We need to improve our capacity to communicate and amplify our voice. If we could do that, people would pay more attention and value more what we do. It would be helpful if people could understand that the HIV/AIDS movement is an important part of the development agenda.

We need to reshape the entire conversation about international cooperation and decision-making in terms of the allocation of funds for communities and civil society. Decisions not to support countries because of their income levels are flawed. Brazil, for example, is defined as a middle-income country; as a result, over the past 10 years or so international cooperation agencies have withdrawn from Brazil. As a consequence of the low capacity to respond to right-wing fundamentalism, repressive forces have flourished. We need to go back to the basics, to our peers, to frontline groups, to political education. Conservative forces were just hidden and waiting for the moment to rise again. And they did so with discourse filled with falsities, for instance claiming to oppose corruption, an issue that has dominated in Brazil in the past years.

In countries with repressive right-wing leaders – such as Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines – civil society is doing its best to respond on several fronts despite lack of funding. Luckily for humanity, some people are born activists and do this work whether there is money or not. But I truly believe that, in order to keep our movement sustainable, we have to engage more deeply in global discussions about how to fund an independent civil society, one that does not rely upon states to raise funds and therefore remains independent of government decisions.

Given the impossibility of engaging with the federal government, another response in Brazil is to engage more with sub-national authorities and parliament. More connections are needed at the sub-national level, where it is possible to identify many people who support our causes.

Another idea is to make more use of litigation: to use legal frameworks to maintain the agenda. But, again, we need funds to do that.

For the UN, we need to be mindful about institutional reforms that are taking place and be vigilant. We need innovative mechanisms and funds that can help make the UN more independent of Member States, and to increase civil society capacity to play a bigger part. There should not be such distance between the international and national levels. People on the ground can benefit from discussions at the global level, and international discussions should be informed by the desires of people on the ground. People on the ground need to know why multilateralism is important, what the UN is, what UNAIDS is, why they matter. But it is hard when international cooperation funds keep shrinking and most organisations are relegated to providing services rather than advocating for rights, developing capacity and enabling new activists.

The issue of restricted space for civil society connects us all, independently of our field of action. Therefore it is crucial to have cross-movement dialogues and open conversations, because this is where we can build resilience and solidarity and support each other. We need different sectors to come together to keep growing and not to be intimidated into silence by forces that are sometimes literally killing us. We cannot be isolated in our own agendas. We really need a global civil society movement that stands together for all rights.

We are in a very delicate movement for democracy where social media and education play a crucial role. Communication is also a major issue for social movements. At this point in history we should be able to communicate better. What is our role? What is our success story in terms of supporting and strengthening democracy? Well, if you look at history, you will see that our role is essential and that most existing rights resulted from civil society demands and victories. Because without meaningful community and civil society participation there is no sustainable development, there is no democracy, and it is unlikely that public policies can be translated into services and programmes that really serve the needs of people.

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

Visit the websites of GESTOS and the UNAIDS PCB NGO Delegation.

 

REFUGEE RIGHTS: ‘My status doesn't represent me’

 

Abdul Aziz MuhammatAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their human rights work, their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Aziz Muhammat, a Sudanese refugee who became an advocate for refugee rights while experiencing long-term detention at the Australian government detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In January 2019 he was awarded the Martin Ennals award for his tireless work on behalf of his fellow detainees.

How did you become a refugee, and why did you end up detained on Manus Island?

I am from the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2013, as today, Sudan was undergoing civil conflict, famine and drought, so I fled to Indonesia, where I boarded a boat bound for Australia. When I finally made it, I was sent, along with many others, to an offshore detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This is a notorious holding space used by Australia to detain those seeking refuge. Australia’s policy of detaining and processing refugees on Manus Island has resulted in the systematic violation of the rights of several hundreds of people. I was forced to stay there for four years. I was granted refugee status in 2015 but stayed on Manus Island until 2019 when I was granted asylum in Switzerland.

What were the main challenges you faced while detained on Manus Island?

The detention centre was deliberately designed to make our lives there as bad as hell, designed to take our humanity away and replace it with cruelty and inhumane treatment, and designed to push us as hard as possible, mentally and physically. For instance, you wouldn’t receive proper medical treatment if you were sick, physically or mentally, but rather people would point fingers at you or tell you to go back to where you come from. I personally went through a lot of physical and mental challenges.

It is extremely difficult to summarise the situation, because it really is beyond human understanding. I am afraid people without a personal experience of detention in a place like that wouldn’t ever understand how detention destroys the lives of vulnerable people, both physically and mentally.

The situation was so bad that nobody who would be able to bear witness – human rights researchers, social workers, civil society organisations – was allowed to enter the island. So I tried to expose the cruelty and inhumanity faced by refugees on Manus island. Over time, I sent a journalist over 3,500 WhatsApp messages documenting the conditions of the detention camp. These were later turned into a podcast, The Messenger, that was published by the Guardian in 2017.

I started doing advocacy back in 2013. As soon as the authorities realised, the harassment started, and never stopped. It began with physical abuse, then torture, and when I got sick either physically or mentally, I didn't always get treatment. Even when I did, all there was was a doctor whose job description seems to have been to be as bad as they could. Between 2013 and 2015 I was in a desperate need of medical treatment, physically and mentally. Within a month I lost six kilos and I nearly died, but I managed to pick myself up again. I realised that I could not rely on these people to help me or treat me, so I decided to look after myself and treat myself.

I started to read about psychology and psychiatry and how they deal with anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress. Reading and researching helped me to cope and to learn how to look after myself as well as to look after friends in similar situations. I became a sort of therapist or counsellor to them, helped them out of their mental crises by detecting their negativity and replacing it with positivity – in other words, by trying to raise hope. I know it's not good to give people false hope, but I just tried to be there for them, to talk to them and try to remain positive, and tell them that we would get out of there sooner or later but in the meantime we just needed to stay positive.

What were the main restrictions on people’s ability to organise or speak up while detained on Manus Island?

Restrictions were all over the place. In a prison, the main rule for prisoners is ‘say nothing, do nothing, stay quiet’. You are an animal in a cage – you only move when the cage is opened for you, you only eat or drink when you are given food or water, and you only speak when you are told to. A separate world is created, with its own rules, structures, authorities and boundaries that you are not supposed to cross, and if you do cross them you are subjected to a variety of punishments. Social workers, the case managers, advised their clients in the centre to not speak about their situation if they wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you would remain in detention for a very, very long time, as your process would be delayed and your name would be put on a blacklist. These were the kinds of verbal threats that we got.

When you are immersed in a world like that, you always think of alternative options. If you cannot dismantle the system, then you may try to manipulate it so that you are seen as complying with the rules even if you are not taking them seriously. I wanted to test the limits and check what the punishment for breaking rules would be, if it would be applied or not, so I took the risk to become an advocate and started speaking up about the situation. I knew that I was going to be punished but also wanted to be a role model for others follow, so that if we all spoke up together we would be heard and our situation would improve.

Unfortunately, due to our differences in cultural backgrounds, some of my friends refused to follow. I also blame the system for this, because it is deliberately designed to create passivity through fear. However, we did manage to highlight the core problems and shift public opinion from a negative to a positive perception of refugees. The Australian government proposed a law that would criminalise whistleblowers further, but despite this, many other people felt encouraged to speak up when they saw us, speaking up about our situation while incarcerated.

What were your demands to the Australian government?

We were not in a position to present our demands to the government directly. We were just people who had fled their homelands and were looking for a safe place to call home, and that would give us the opportunity to make a contribution to society. When we came to Australia we were just like every other asylum seeker. We did not want to get in any confrontation with the government or even talk about them and their policies. But when they sent us to Manus Island, they forced us to speak up and organise. As a result, we managed to learn resilience and the ability to think out of the box and to act despite our lack of resources.

We had one very clear message to the Australian government. We basically asked, ‘If you don't want us in your country, why do you rescue us from the sea in the first place? If you don’t want us, please stop taking us to Manus Island; there are other countries that are willing to take us’. We made it very clear to the Australian government that we did not want to come to Australia after what we had been through, and we wanted them to hand us over to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is designed specifically to deal with the problems of refugees.

How did the Australian government respond to your demands?

The Australian government was getting heat from all sides. The international community pointed fingers at Australia and Australian civil society pointed fingers at their government claiming this was cruel and inhumane treatment and accusing them of being fascists. In response, the Australian government claimed this was not actually happening in Australia but in Papua New Guinea – according to them, this was happening on Papuan territory and the Australians were only providing them with the logistics. Truth is, though, that Australia still acts like a coloniser and the Papuan government complies with whatever they say regarding the detention centre.

As Australia claimed they were not responsible, we ended up facing the authorities of Papua New Guinea, who had no idea how to deal with us. They said they knew nothing of the situation we were denouncing, and that they didn’t even have access to us or the authority to make any decision regarding us – they were waiting for the Australian parliament to decide what to do and where to send us. So we basically kept being sent back and forth and never got any response from either side.

As our demands were ignored by both governments, we found ourselves fighting not only for our freedom but also for something more basic, our human dignity. We were human beings who had been turned into numbers but fought back to turn ourselves back into human beings, so that then we could start thinking about freedom. That is when we thought, ‘What if we demand our fundamental rights, like proper medical treatment? We are talking about Australia, a Western democracy with top-notch medical services – why can't we just access equal medical services as Australian citizens?’. Still, the government kept ignoring us.

We then realised that if we were not able to get to the Australian authorities, we might still be able to use social media to challenge the government’s arguments. And so we did.

Did you get any support from civil society in Papua New Guinea, Australia or other countries?

To be honest, civil society in Papua New Guinea had no idea what they were dealing with, of what was going on. Civil society groups there are dealing with other crises – healthcare, insecurity, unemployment – that from their perspective are much worse. They just don’t have the time or resources to look into Manus Island.

As for Australian civil society, there has been a significant change over the past few years. Today, with the help of Australian civil society, we are managing to get our message around Australia. When we started talking about Manus Island in 2013, one organisation, Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, got in touch with us and connected us with many other civil society organisations. At the beginning, the position of civil society wasn't very clear or unified. Many thought their argument was weak because this was happening outside Australian territory. But we worked hard to shift their views, and now Australian civil society has a stronger, vocal position, and every time they get into an argument with the government they win it. We are very thankful to every individual and organisation in Australian civil society who contributed to spread the word about Manus Island.

Alongside Australian civil society, we succeeded in having the Medevac Bill passed in February 2019. This law gave us refugees not quite full access to our fundamental rights, but it gave us something rather than nothing. The newly-elected Conservative government is now desperately trying to repeal the Medevac Bill, but thank God we have managed to buy some time until November.

Are you aware of groups in Australia that oppose refugee rights?

I cannot say there are civil society groups organised to oppose refugee rights, but there are indeed politicians in parliament and in government who do. They claim that Australia has one of the best asylum processes and that the people on Manus are not refugees. They tell people: ‘these people are coming to take your job, to steal your welfare, they are criminals’. These are the politicians. There are just a minority of Australian society, but they are always there. There are always people who oppose your rights, and they do it by putting forward arguments that may not even be connected to what you're fighting for.

Do you think that people outside Manus recognised the work that you were doing?

Although I did a lot for my friends inside Manus and for many people elsewhere, while I was on Manus I never felt that my voice was being heard or my work recognised, up until February of this year, when I was given the Martin Ennals award. I am very thankful to everyone who stood beside me and shared my story and demands. I don’t have an academic background and I started from the grassroots, where I faced many challenges, but never thought that I should stop. I just want to keep doing the work that I’m doing. I’m not doing it for credit, but because this is who I am, and it’s what makes me feel good about myself. I want to represent the voice of refugees, because our voice is either completely missing or misrepresented by some organisations.

Over time, I witnessed some organisations working day and night on behalf of refugees, while others are fighting for their own interest or to further their own political agenda. Sometimes people contact you and ask you a comment, or to participate in an event, they use you for their fundraising and you never hear from them again, until they run out of funds and they come back to you. So it is important to tell apart those who are advocating or speaking on behalf of the missing voices of refugees or migrants because that is what they believe in, and those who are trying to get some gain out of it. It is important to identify those who do it out of their humanity or because they feel that something needs to be done.

Sometimes other people take credit for the work I do, fail to see me as my own advocate, or think I am going to put their work in jeopardy, and for that reason they keep undermining me. But they won’t stop me – I’m here to make unheard voices heard. All the while I’m dealing with a huge amount of trauma, as I spent six years incarcerated in a detention centre, in a parallel world with its own rules and restrictions, where people are kept under control and their humanity is taken away.

What difference did the Martin Ennals award make to you and your struggle?

Winning the Martin Ennals award gave me purpose, and a lot more. I never in my life thought that one day I would be coming to Europe, and particularly to Geneva. It was not even part of my dream, and it happened because of the Martin Ennals award. Above all, this award meant recognition, not just of the work I’ve done, which I wasn’t doing to be recognised anyway, but most importantly of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Manus Island, in Nauru, in Australia and around the world. It meant that despite what we've been through, or maybe because of it, we get to represent our own voice, to speak for ourselves and make the world know what is happening.

The award finally shone a light on the crisis on Manus Island. Not long ago, the Australian government came to Europe to talk about their successful migration policy. They didn’t speak about the atrocities they have committed and the suffering they have caused to kids, men and women who have been mentally and physically destroyed. But as a result of this award people are beginning to understand what happened. It was a crime against humanity. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but you don’t have to be one to see that locking up thousands of people for years and torturing them mentally and physically is well beyond the law, and any government that does that is acting above the law.

What are the next steps for you?

I want to continue amplifying the voices of migrants and refugees and to make people understand that we are equal human beings, you and me, that there is no difference between us. I want to advocate for refugees and migrants globally, not just in one place, because as we can currently see in Europe, some countries are acting beyond all limits, turning into evil. Italy and Hungary, for instance, have even passed laws to criminalise people who are saving the lives of others. So what I want to do next is help empower these embattled human rights defenders.

I also want to make people stop judging people based on their status. If you look at my status, my migratory status, I am a refugee. But my status doesn't represent me. I am Aziz, and I want people to treat me as Aziz – Aziz who has the ability and capacity to stand up and speak and participate and share his story, Aziz who also can be part of the community he is in, not Aziz the refugee you feel sorry for. 'Refugee’ and ‘migrant' have almost become offensive words, and it is our duty to change that, to prove to the world that they are not, and to remind people of history. It's not long ago when the world turned upside down in the First and Second World Wars, when many people became refugees and were not treated the way that we’re treating people right now. The fact that you were not there at the time is no excuse for ignorance. The history is there; if you can read, you can learn what happened. I will use the Martin Ennals award to share my story and other stories of struggle and resilience on Manus Island. I will use my personal testimony to give people the facts.

What support do refugees and refugee advocates need from the international community and international civil society?

We want the international community to understand fully that we are human and include us in the conversation and in decision-making. By talking about us, or representing us, be it from a legal or an academic perspective, you are not helping the victims, those actually experiencing torture and trauma. What we want is for the trauma and the torture to stop, and for that to happen, we need people who have been through the experience to come and testify, to be heard by the international community.

We want civil society to also include the voices of refugees and migrants in roundtable discussions, where they could convey the message that people do not choose to be refugees, but they are forced to. If I can take part in the discussion, I will say what is in my mind, I will tell what I have been through, and I will be a strong voice on behalf of people who remain in places that are out of sight, out of mind – where no one knows of their existence. I will be their voice. It will encourage them to stay strong, resist power and fight hard, even inside a detention centre, if they know a refugee is sitting at the table and speaking on their behalf.

Including refugees at the table provides legitimacy to civil society. When civil society speaks up, governments always undermine them by pointing out, 'You were not there, how do you know?'. In order not to be pushed into the corner that way, they need to bring in refugees or migrants that speak for themselves and who can say ‘yes, I was there, and I know how horrible that place is’.

To stay true to its mission, civil society needs to question its own motivations and scrutinise everything from that perspective, even human rights institutions and refugee agencies and staff. Many people view international institutions and civil society organisations as a source of employment rather than a platform to serve others, to help people that are in need of help. There is so much to be done in order to improve human rights and democracy around the world. We need everyone’s contributions, the only way we can do it is together.

Get in touch with Aziz on Facebook and follow him on Twitter

 

LGBTQI RIGHTS: ‘There is an ongoing desire among many to more closely regulate morality’

T King OeyAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to T King Oey, an Indonesian capacity development expert and a founder and board member of Arus Pelangi, the Indonesian Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Communities.

How does your network work, and what are the challenges you are addressing?

Our organisation, Arus Pelangi, which means the Flow of the Rainbow, was established in 2006. This was during the Reformasi era that followed the ousting of President Suharto in 1998 after three decades in power. After this there was much more freedom and many repressive laws were revised. At this time LGBTQI people felt we should come together to stand for our rights. Before then the only context in which people talked about LGBTQI people was in relation to the mitigation of HIV/AIDS. So we decided to form an organisation purely to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI people.

Arus Pelangi is a coalition of national and local groups of LGBTQI people. We network a lot with other human rights organisations, including those working on other aspects of diversity and legal reform. We have also been instrumental in the formation of a network across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries – the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. It is based in the Philippines and Arus Pelangi is an important member. At the same time we are reaching out to local communities around the huge country of Indonesia. There are still capacity challenges in enabling far-distant communities to make their voices heard.

What challenges have you faced in recent years?

The space for democracy in Indonesia is becoming more restricted, and it is harder for us to be visible. When we started in 2006 we saw it as strategic to raise our visibility as much as possible, so people could see and understand LGBTQI people and know who we are. So we took part in demonstrations, held flash mobs, held public discussions, made media appearances – anything to make us visible as a group.

From the very beginning there were all kinds of groups attacking us. But things got much worse in 2016, when all of a sudden there was this massive wave of attacks. Persecutions also began from 2016 onwards. The trigger was a pronouncement by the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Muhammad Nasir, that LGBTQI people should be banned from university campuses. Suddenly everyone joined in, saying that LGBTQI people should be banned from everywhere, that we should be criminalised.

These attacks came especially from hardline religious groups. These groups had always advocated for criminalisation, but suddenly they had momentum because of what the minister had said.

From then on it was no longer possible to be visible as an organisation, and to some degree even as individuals.

How have extremist groups been able to organise, and how have they mobilised support?

The Reformasi era created all kinds of freedoms for people to organise themselves, but the fundamentalists had the same freedoms, and they did very well in organising themselves. They have received lots of funding from Saudi Arabia.

There has been a two-track development in Indonesia. Indonesia has become more part of a global society, more integrated in terms of technology, but at the same time people’s minds have become more conservative, due to the influence of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists have had more chances to preach, and to organise in all kinds of groups and organisations. One of the most well-known is Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), which has been very vocal in attacking us, and they have been able to stop some of our activities.

The attitude of the police has been ambivalent. They haven’t stopped the FPI from attacking us. Rather they have said that for our safety it would be better if we disband. They always use this argument of safety. Since 2016 the police have also been proactive in outing and arresting people. People are arrested, paraded in front of the media and then released without charge.

This has had a huge effect on the whole community. People have become afraid. Since 2016 we have held hardly any public events. We have to keep things secret and do everything underground. We have also had to learn to take security measures. Many of our people became depressed and closed themselves away, stopped going out. It’s just like being back in the Suharto era. We aren’t free any more.

Fundamentalists reached the level of power that in 2017 they were able to put Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of our capital city, Jakarta, into jail for blasphemy. This was when the network of fundamentalist groups reached the height of their power. They were able to work together to do this. Indonesia has a blasphemy law, and once someone has been indicted, it is certain they will be convicted. I haven’t heard of any case when someone charged with blasphemy has walked free.

How has the government responded?

What is interesting is that this level of fundamentalism got to the point where it was threatening the position of President Jokowi. Only then did we see a concerted effort from the government to push back, and this process is still going on. The government has banned one of the fundamentalist groups, an international Muslim network that calls for the establishment of the caliphate, on the grounds that it does not adhere to the national ideology, known as Pancasila.

A law the government recently passed on civil society organisations enabled it to do this. Human rights organisations criticised this law for being too loose and flexible. It could potentially enable the government to ban any group. This is the first time it has been used. The same law could be used against any group. It’s a double-edged sword.

The government is considering banning the FPI. The government is also saying that it is coming to realise how many campuses have been infiltrated by fundamentalist groups, but it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes.

Has the April 2019 presidential election brought any changes?

President Jokowi won re-election in April, but it seems he felt he couldn’t do it without the support of the moderate Muslims, as he took an Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate. Ma’ruf is a fairly conservative cleric who has made all kinds of negative pronouncements against LGBTQI people. It’s a mystery for many people, even for supporters of President Jokowi, why he was chosen over all other candidates.

For LGBTQI people, now President Jokowi has won re-election, it remains to be seen whether the coming five years will bring any improvement. We don’t believe President Jokowi is against LGBTQI people, and on some occasions, he has said that the rights of LGBTQI people should be protected. But this is the kind of thing he has said when he has been interviewed by the BBC. It is a message for the outside world, rather than for a domestic audience.

What is also disappointing is that in his first term, President Jokowi prioritised a focus on the investment climate, emphasising massive infrastructure projects, such as ports, roads and power plants, and reforming the bureaucracy to remove obstacles against investment. Just recently he has announced that his second-term priorities are the same. He said nothing about human rights. Many were hoping that he would be less cautious in his second term. It remains to be seen how committed he will be to human rights.

As well as LGBTQI groups, which other communities are subject to persecution?

Other groups particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses are minority Muslim sects, which have been heavily persecuted over the years, and communists and those associated with them. This goes way back to the mass killings of 1965-1966. Survivors and second and third-generation family members are still suffering from discrimination and threats.

The struggle for gender equality goes back many decades. Women are targeted by conservative groups. Shariah law applies in the province of Aceh, and they have introduced and are applying draconian punishments such as caning and stoning to death. Several LGBTQI people have been the victim of caning. There are attempts to criminalise non-normative sexuality elsewhere in Indonesia.

There is an ongoing effort and desire among many to more closely regulate morality. It is a continuous battle to try to prevent more repressive measures. For example, parliament is currently debating a law on domestic violence, and conservative law-makers are asserting that many things we would consider as sexual violence, like marital rape, are not included. The dividing line is between following a hardline interpretation of the Quran or not. Despite its secular appearance, Indonesia has become a de facto religious state.

How is civil society responding to these challenges, and what support could the international community and international civil society best offer to Indonesia’s LGBTQI community?

Civil society has been trying to respond through networking, joint statements, lobbying parliament and campaigning, including through Change.org. But it can feel like fighting an impossible war, because the conservatives always seem to be more powerful, better organised and better resourced.

We have to be careful when considering outside assistance, because one of the arguments that fundamentalists always use is about foreign influences and attempts to make Indonesia a liberal country. LGBTQI is characterised as a western concept that is incompatible with the culture. Of course if you look at the culture and history of Indonesia you see all kinds of expressions of non-binary gender, including in dances, songs, literature and rituals. This culture has been denied consistently by conservatives who say that the only culture is hardline Islam. The conservatives forget that Islam itself is an imported religion.

In 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, this created quite an uproar in Indonesia. Conservative groups always point to this and say that once they give in to one thing, this is what will happen. The global debate about same-sex marriage works both ways for us, because LGBTQI people in Indonesia have never suggested this – it seems too far away to even contemplate this, and we need to have our fundamental rights respected first – but at least it tells us we’re not alone.

So you have to be careful, but solidarity helps. It helps LGBTQI people here to know they are not alone and have not been abandoned. If people have any chance to speak to government officials from Indonesia, they should use that opportunity to speak up for LGBTQI people and other vulnerable groups.

At Indonesia’s United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session in 2017, many shadow reports pointed to the severe situation of LGBTQI people. There was quite a bit of criticism. The usual attitude of the Indonesian government is to cite social conservatism, but this time it was forced to acknowledge the need to take steps and it committed to hold a dialogue with the LGBTQI community. This was a concession that came because of international pressure. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen on the ground. We have to keep the pressure on.

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

Get in touch with T King Oey through Arus Pelangi‘s website.

 

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life’

Maria Angelica Penas DefagoAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recent Global Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.

Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?

We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.

With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.

A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.

During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.

In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.

Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?

As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.

The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.

What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?

Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.

For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.

The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.

If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.

Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?

The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.

In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.

I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.

In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.

What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?

Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.

To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.

Get in touch with María Angélica through her Facebook page and check her work on ResearchGate.

 

SRI LANKA: ‘People are scared of expressing themselves freely’

Ruki FernandoIn April 2019, more than 250 people were killed and hundreds injured in a terror attack in Sri Lanka that targeted three churches and three hotels. The following day, an emergency law came into effect, giving the police extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders. Over a hundred people are reportedly being held in custody in connection with the attacks. Since the attacks, civil society has reported a discriminatory ban on face veils, a spate of attacks against Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and houses in several parts of Sri Lanka and displacement, arrests and reprisals against refugees and asylum-seekers.

The following month, May 2019, marked a decade since the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal armed conflict. According to civil society groups, the government has failed to provide justice for the conflict’s many victims. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations were established following delays, but neither is fully functioning. There has been no progress on establishing a war crimes tribunal with international involvement.

CIVICUS speaks to human rights activist Ruki Fernando about the situation of civic space and civil society in Sri Lanka. Ruki Fernando has been involved in human rights and social justice issues for about two decades and is an adviser to INFORM, a human rights documentation centre in Colombo that was established in 1990 to monitor and document the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, in the context of ethnic conflict and the civil war.

How do you access the quality of democracy in Sri Lanka today?

We are heading for another crisis in democracy. I think very good indicators of democracy are how minorities are treated and how dissent is treated. We can see the gradual erosion of the way minorities are being treated in Sri Lanka, both ethnic and religious minorities. And more recently after the Easter Sunday bombings, we have seen a lot of hostility towards the Muslim population. A lot of the arrests were of people who later turned out to be innocent but who were detained on suspicion simply because they are Muslims. And there have also been reprisal attacks directed against the Muslim community.

At the same time, we have seen a crackdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression. For example, at the moment we have a writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, who is detained because of a story he wrote. We have other writers who have been threatened with arrests. We are seeing the misuse of laws that supposedly exist to protect human rights, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.

What has been the effect of the political and constitutional crisis that occurred in late 2018 between the president and prime minister?

The relationship between the president and the prime minister has become much worse since the end of the constitutional crisis in 2018 and I think this has very negatively affected the ability of the government to protect and ensure the security of its citizens. It seems the president and the prime minister are both accusing each other over who is responsible for the terror attacks and who was negligent.

What is the record of the current government in respecting and protecting fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Sri Lanka?

We have seen a large number of peaceful protests for rights by many groups such as students, farmers, families of disappeared people, people whose land is occupied by the military and people affected by the project such as landfills. In several of them, protesters have been attacked physically and people have been arrested and ill-treated in detention.

On the freedom of association, in 2018 the government tried to bring in an amendment to the existing laws that would enable them to exercise a lot of control and scrutiny over civil society organisations (CSOs) and other forms of civil formation, including civic movements, but due to outrage and criticism, this has since been withdrawn. Since then we’ve seen some alarming raids on the offices of human rights organisations, humanitarian organisations, particularly in the Northern Province (which was impacted on most severely by the conflict) in the last couple of months. The Easter Sunday attacks are being used as an excuse for these, but the real reasons could be attempts by the state, especially the security establishment, to exercise more scrutiny and control of civic mobilisation. These send a very alarming signal for the freedom of association.

What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict in 2009? What are some of the challenges civil society continues to face?

I would say after the end of the war in 2009 there were two distinct phases. One is the dictatorial regime of the Rajapaksa family, which ended in 2014. During this time there was a very little space for the freedom of association and assembly. From 2015 onwards, we saw an increase in the space for the freedoms of association and peaceful assembly. However, the gains we made from 2015 and 2016 are being rolled back and there is an increasing crackdown.

Why is this rollback of human rights happening?

The promises of justice – whether its transitional justice, gender justice, economic justice or environmental justice have not materialised in the way that people expected them to, after 2015. There is frustration among a lot of communities and a large number of communities are agitating now. With the government unwilling or unable to address and provide redress and solutions to the people, they have turned increasingly repressive. This government we have right now is a coalition government. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is linked to one major party, the Sri Lanka United National Party, and another section of the coalition is linked to the other major party, President Maithripala Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party. They have been in power together since 2015, and I think in 2015 there was a lot of hope that the parties had put aside their past repressive ways. However, I think those repressive ways are re-emerging, and it is not very surprising that these two parties, which have a history of repression, are resorting to it again.

Some activists and survivors continue to demand truth, justice and reparations for victims of the conflict. How far has this progressed?

Very little. I think we have seen some very minimal progress on truth processes in relation to some people who have disappeared. We have seen some progressive developments in a few cases and some truth being revealed in the courts through investigations, as well as a few people being arrested. However, just a couple of weeks back we saw the police personnel responsible being acquitted over the killing of a group of young people – the 'Trinco five' case – in 2006. So, although we have seen a few results of some investigations and some people being arrested, we have not seen convictions. We have not seen prosecutions in a majority of these cases. So there has been very slow progress.

One area where there has been some progress is with the release of land that was occupied by the military, though again, lots of land still remains to be released and community protests continue. Community protests and nonviolent direct actions prompted the release of some land in 2017 and 2018.

How have the recent terrorist attacks affected the situation for civil society?

In the months prior to the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a campaign and momentum building up against the anti-terror laws in Sri Lanka. We have a very draconian law that has existed for over 40 years, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the government had proposed a replacement for that, the Counter-Terrorism Act, which is equally repressive. There was a campaign against these for several months, but now it’s become very difficult to press forward with this campaign because of the overwhelming public opinion that the law should be used against terrorists. And then immediately after the terror attacks the government brought in emergency legislation that imposes many restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. Truthfully, we have seen a lot of repression using these various regulations in Sri Lanka. A lot of people are very scared now of expressing themselves freely. Many struggles for human rights and justice by affected communities, victim families and survivors of violations have been negatively affected in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

We have seen an increase in the use of the ICCPR Act in recent months. Why is this the case?

The ICCPR Act must be used against the people responsible for provoking and creating violence against the different religious communities, particularly minorities religious communities. We have not seen that for more than a decade but suddenly we have seen the ICCPR Act being used against the people expressing themselves. I think the most visible example was of a women who wore a symbol depicting a ship’s helm, which was deemed to look like a Buddhist symbol, and she was arrested and detained. More worrying is the detention of writer Shakthika Sathkumara. One of the problems is that under this law there is no bail allowed. So, anyone who is arrested under the ICCPR Act can be detained for months and months.

What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

I think it is important to extend support in whatever way possible for those who continue to wage various struggles and to challenge the present government in terms of human rights and social justice on a wide range of issues. The focus of transitional justice needs to be broadened to encompass social justice issues, such as the rights of tea workers, who are campaigning for a minimum wage, something that is yet to be realised. There are a lot of other socioeconomic issues that Sri Lankan communities and activists have been advocating for through their protests, writings and national-level advocacy, but these should be supported internationally as well. International support for human rights and social justice should not be limited only to transitional justice, although that it is an important dimension.

I think it is important for intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to stay engaged with the Sri Lanka government. Sri Lanka should be on the agenda of the Human Rights Council and there should be close scrutiny about the extent to which Sri Lankan has implemented commitments made nearly four years back in 2015 in the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1. Continuous international engagement by civil society groups internationally as well as by foreign governments and UN Officials is very important.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Follow Ruki Fernando @rukitweets on Twitter

 

ONLINE CIVIC SPACE: ‘We shouldn’t expect tech giants to solve the problems that they have created’

 

Marek TuszynskiAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Marek Tuszynski, co-founder and creative director of Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based international civil society organisation that engages with citizens and civil society to explore the impacts of technology on society and individual autonomy. Founded in 2003, in a context where optimism about technology prevailed but focus was lacking on what specifically it could do for civil society, Tactical Tech uses its research findings to create practical solutions for citizens and civil society.

Some time ago it seemed that the online sphere could offer civil society a new space for debate and action – until it became apparent that online civic space was being restricted too. What kinds of restrictions are you currently seeing online, and what's changed in recent years?

Fifteen years ago, the digital space in a way belonged to the people who were experimenting with it. People were building that space using the available tools, there was a movement towards open source software, and activists were trying build an online space that would empower people to exercise democratic freedoms, and even build democracy from the ground up. But those experimental spaces became gentrified, appropriated, taken over and assimilated into other existing spaces. In that sense, digital space underwent processes very similar to all other spaces that offer alternatives and in which people are able to experiment freely. That space shrank massively, and free spaces were replaced by centralised technology and started to be run as business models.

For most people, including civil society, using the internet means resorting to commercial platforms and systems such as Google and Facebook. The biggest change has been the centralisation of what used to be a distributed system where anybody was able to run their own services. Now we rely on centralised, proprietary and controlled services. And those who initially weren’t very prevalent, like state or corporate entities, are now dominating. The difference is also in the physical aspect, because technology is becoming more and more accessible and way cheaper than it used to be, and a lot of operations that used to require much higher loads of technology have become affordable by a variety of state and non-state entities.

The internet became not just a corporate space, but also a space for politics and confrontation on a much larger scale than it was five or ten years ago. Revelations coming from whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and scandals such as those with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are making people much more aware of what this space has become. It is now clear that it is not all about liberation movements and leftist politics, and that there are many groups on the other end of the political spectrum that have become quite savvy in using and abusing technology.

In sum, changes are being driven by both economic and, increasingly, political factors. What makes them inescapable is that technology is everywhere, and it has proliferated so fast that it has become very hard to imagine going back to doing anything without it. It is also very hard, if not impossible, to compartmentalise your life and separate your professional and personal activities, or your political and everyday or mundane activities. From the point of view of technology, you always inhabit the same, single space.

Do people who use the internet for activism rather than, say, to share cat pictures, face different or specific threats online?

Yes, but I would not underestimate the cat pictures, as insignificant as they may seem to people who are using these tools for political or social work. It is the everyday user who defines the space that others use for activism. The way technologies are used by people who use them for entertainment ends up defining them for all of us.

That said, there are indeed people who are much more vulnerable, whose exposure or monitoring can restrict their freedoms and be dangerous for them – not only physically but also psychologically. These people are exposed to potential interceptions and surveillance to find out what are they doing and how, and also face a different kind of threat, in the form of online harassment, which may impact on their lives well beyond their political activities, as people tend to be bullied not only for what they do, but also for what or who they are.

There seems to be a very narrow understanding of what is political. In fact, regardless of whether you consider yourself political, very mundane activities and behaviours can be seen by others as political. So it is not just about what you directly produce in the form of text, speech, or interaction, but also about what can be inferred from these activities. Association with organisations, events, or places may become equally problematic. The same happens with the kind of tools you are using and the times you are using them, whether you are using encryption and why. All these elements that you may not be thinking of may end up defining you as a person who is trying to do something dangerous or politically controversial. And of course, many of the tools that activists use and need, like encryption, are also used by malicious actors, because technology is not intrinsically good or bad, but is defined by its users. You can potentially be targeted as a criminal just for using – for activism, for instance – the same technologies that criminals use.

Who are the ‘vulnerable minorities’ you talk about in your recent report on digital civic space, and why are they particularly vulnerable online?

Vulnerable minorities are precisely those groups that face greater risks online because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. Women generally are more vulnerable to online harassment, and politically active women even more so. Women journalists, for instance, are subject to more online abuse than male journalists when speaking about controversial issues or voicing opinions. They are targeted because of their gender. This is also the case for civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on women’s rights, which are being targeted both offline and online, including through distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, website hacks, leaks of personal information, fabricated news, direct threats and false reports against Facebook content leading to the suspension of their pages. Digital attacks sometimes translate into physical violence, when actors emboldened by the hate speech promoted on online platforms end up posing serious threats not only to people’s voices but also to their lives.

But online spaces can also be safe spaces for these groups. In many places the use of internet and online platforms creates spaces where people can exercise their freedoms of expression and protest. They can come out representing minorities, be it sexual or otherwise, in a way they would not be able to in the physical places where they live, because it would be too dangerous or practically impossible. They are able to exercise these freedoms in online spaces because these spaces are still separate from the places where they live. However, there is a limited understanding of the fact that this does not make these spaces neutral. Information can be leaked, shared, distorted and weaponised, and used to hurt you when you least expect it.

Still, for many minorities, and especially for sexual minorities, social media platforms are the sole place where they can exercise their freedoms, access information and actually be who they are, and say it aloud. At the same time, they technically may retain anonymity but their interests and associations will give away who they are, and this can be used against them. These outlets can create an avenue for people to become political, but that avenue can always be closed down in non-democratic contexts, where those in power can decide to shut down entire services or cut off the internet entirely.

Is this what you mean when you refer to social media as ‘a double-edged sword’? What does this mean for civil society, and how can we take advantage of the good side of social media?

Social media platforms are a very important tool for CSOs. Organisations depend on them to share information, communicate and engage with their supporters, organise events, measure impact and response based on platform analytics, and even raise funds. But the use of these platforms has also raised concerns regarding the harvesting of data, which is analysed and used by the corporations themselves, by third-party companies and by governments.

Over the years, government requests for data from and about social media users have increased, and so have arrests and criminalisation of organisations and activists based on their social media behaviour. So again, what happens online does not stay online – in fact, it sometimes has serious physical repercussions on the safety and well-being of activists and CSO staff. Digital attacks and restrictions affect individuals and their families, and may play a role in decisions on whether to continue to do their work, change tactics, or quit. Online restrictions can also cause a chilling effect on the civil society that is at the forefront of the promotion of human rights and liberties. For these organisations, digital space can be an important catalyst for wider civil political participation in physical spaces, so when it is attacked, restricted, or shrunk, it has repercussions for civic participation in general.

Is there some way that citizens and civil society can put pressure on giant tech companies to do the right thing?

When we talk about big social media actors we think of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of which are in fact part of Facebook – and we don’t think of Google because it is not seen as social media, even though it is more pervasive, it is everywhere, and it is not even visible as such.

We shouldn’t expect these companies to solve the problems they have created. They are clearly incapable of addressing the problems they cause. One of these problems is online harassment and abuse of the rules. They have no capacity to clean the space of certain activities and if they try to do so, then they will censor any content that resembles something dangerous, even if it isn’t, to not risk being accused of supporting radical views.

We expect tech giants to be accountable and responsible for the problems they create, but that’s not very realistic, and it won’t just happen by itself. When it comes to digital-based repression and the use of surveillance and data collection to impose restrictions, there is a striking lack of accountability. Tech platforms depend on government authorisation to operate, so online platforms and tech companies are slow to react, if they do at all, in the face of accusations of surveillance, hate speech, online harassment and attacks, especially when powerful governments or other political forces are involved.

These companies are not going to do the right thing if they are not encouraged to do so. There are small steps as well as large steps one can take, starting with deciding how and when to use each of these tools, and whether to use them at all. At every step of the way, there are alternatives that you can use to do different things – for one, you can decentralise the way you interact with people and not use one platform for everything.

Of course, that’s not the whole problem, and the solution cannot be based on individual choices alone. A more structural solution would have to take place at the level of policy frameworks, as can be seen in Europe where regulations have been put in place and it is possible to see a framework shaping up for large companies to take more responsibility, and to define who they are benefiting from their access to personal information.

What advice can you offer for activists to use the internet more safely?

We have a set of tools and very basic steps to enable people who don’t want to leave these platforms, who depend on them, to understand what it is that they are doing, what kind of information they leave behind that can be used to identify them and how to avoid putting into the system more information than is strictly necessary. It is important to learn how to browse the internet privately and safely, how to choose the right settings on Google and Facebook and take back control of your data and your activity in these spaces.

People don’t usually understand how much about themselves is online and can be easily found via search engines, and the ways in which by exposing themselves they also expose the people who they work with and the activities they do. When using the internet we reveal where we are, what we are working on, what device we are using, what events we are participating in, what we are interested in, who we are connecting with, the phone providers we use, the visas we apply for, our travel itineraries, the kinds of financial transactions we do and with whom, and so on. To do all kinds of things we are increasingly dependent on more and more interlinked and centralised platforms that share information with one another and with other entities, and we aren’t even aware that they are doing it because they use trackers and cookies, among other things. We are giving away data about ourselves and what we do all the time, not only when we are online, but also when others enter information about us, for instance when travelling.

But there are ways to reduce our data trail, become more secure online and build a healthier relationship with technology. Some basic steps are to delete your activity as it is stored by search engines such as Google and switch to other browsers. You can delete unnecessary apps, switch to alternative apps for messaging, voice and video calls and maps – ideally to some that offer the same services you are used to, but that do not profit from your data – change passwords, declutter your accounts and renovate your social media profiles, separate your accounts to make it more difficult for tech giants to follow your activities, tighten your social media privacy settings, opt for private browsing (but still, be aware that this does not make you anonymous on the web), disable location services on mobile devices and do many other things that will keep you safer online.

Another issue that activists face online is misinformation and disinformation strategies. In that regard, there is a need for new tactics and standards to enable civil society groups, activists, bloggers and journalists to react by verifying information and creating evidence based on solid information. Online space can enable this if we promote investigation as a form of engagement. If we know how to protect ourselves, we can make full use of this space, in which there is still room for many positive things.

Get in touch with Tactical Tech through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Info_Activism on Twitter.

 

PERU: ‘The ultra-conservative tide is affecting democratic life and fundamental rights’

Eliana CanoAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Eliana Cano, founder of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Peru (Catholics for the Right to Decide – CDD-Peru), a Catholic and feminist movement committed to the pursuit of social justice and the change of cultural patterns that limit women's autonomy and their sexual and reproductive rights. CCD-Peru has recently been sued by the Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which wants to strip it of its legal status on the basis that, within the framework of an agreement between the Vatican State and Peru, it should not be using the term ‘Catholics’.

CDD-Peru is being sued to have its legal personality withdrawn and prevented from calling itself 'Catholic'. Who is suing you, what do they have against you, and what are they trying to achieve?

About a month and a half ago we were notified that the Santo Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which is a self-appointed representative of the Catholic Church, had brought a lawsuit against us. According to the lawyers who are advising us, this group began to look into the work done by our organisation about a year ago. They decided to sue us in the civil courts because they want to make this a long, tedious, tiring process, one of permanent appeal. The whole thing can take up to three or four years. Basically, their strategy is to drain us of energy in the process.

They want us to cease to exist as a registered organisation, recognised by the National Superintendency of Public Registries. In other words, they want us to lose our legal status and not be able to continue operating in Peru. They argue that, by calling ourselves what we do, we are disrespecting the Catholic Church and its parishioners. They say that, in light of the existing agreement between the Vatican State and Peru – which recognises the role of the Catholic Church – we are using the term 'Catholic', which represents an institution and a historical identity, in bad faith. They do not accept the interpretation we make of biblical texts on the basis of feminist theology in order to question dogma, imposed conscience and control of people in the name of God. It is important to note that our organisation is not registered with the Catholic Church as a faith group, and therefore is not subject to the internal mandate of the Church.

You have been around for a few years. Is this the first time you have faced such reaction?

Indeed, the project of Catholics for the Right to Decide is quite old in Latin America. It began in Uruguay and then spread to the USA, and from there it passed on to Mexico and other countries of Latin America. In Peru the organisation has had a legal existence since 2009. We organised ourselves because we identify as feminists with a Catholic identity. We see ourselves as Catholic women of faith, but we have a critical view of dogma, of static and closed thought, especially where issues related to sexual and reproductive rights are concerned, as body and sexuality are a terrain where political battles are fought. In Peru there has always been a very homogenous public voice around the Gospels and the right to command over the bodies and lives of women, and we, by questioning this from the position of our Catholic identity, have received a rather aggressive response by the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church and groups linked to it.

The first public attack happened on the occasion of the debate around the definition of a protocol for therapeutic abortion: abortion that is justified for medical reasons, when there are serious risks to the woman’s health or life. It was an attack tinged with the same resources these groups always use, based on defamation, vilification and lies. But in this case attacks basically took the form of verbal and written attacks on social media.

Conservative groups know how to manage social media and constantly attack us publicly for everything we do that deviates from dogma or homogeneous discourse. However, this is the first time we have faced a lawsuit, and we were not expecting an attack so direct and of such magnitude. Maybe we should have foreseen it, since in Latin America, and in Peru specifically, ultra-conservative groups have penetrated deeply into the political structure of the country and are affecting democratic life.

It would seem that these ultra-conservative groups are now larger and more emboldened than they used to be. Why is that?

When looking back you realise that for several decades a global and regional response has developed to discourage and weaken the liberation theology discourse, which put the emphasis mostly on poverty. With a questioning discourse within the Church that extended to other areas of life, liberation theology made the most hardcore conservative elements of the Church very uncomfortable. The reaction against it has been sustained. It has made a lot of progress, to the point that today a highly organic network has become visible, which has bases in various Latin American countries and its own publications, conferences and considerable economic resources. Its presence began to make itself felt strongly in 2005, when the Center for Family Promotion and Regulation of Birth (Ceprofarena) organised the Second International Pro-Life Congress in the capital, Lima. This congress produced a document known as the Lima Declaration, an expression of the agreement reached by conservative groups.

Ceprofarena has existed since the early eighties. It maintains close links to Human Life International, a powerful international conservative organisation, and among its members are renowned physicians and senior state officials, including former health ministers. The organisation acts within numerous medical and health organisations, both public and private. These actors put conservative ‘scientific’ discourse at the service of abuses such as the denial of emergency oral contraception, an issue on which they successfully took on the Ministry of Health. They sued the Ministry, bringing to court the right to information and choice of thousands of women, and succeeded in achieving the prohibition of the distribution of emergency contraception by all health services nationwide. Now they are campaigning to dismantle the therapeutic abortion protocol established during the 2011 to2016 period.

The network of conservative organisations in Peru also includes the Office for Latin America of the Population Research Institute, based in Lima; the Peruvian headquarters of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, which promotes classic family formats and produces and disseminates school books; of course older organisations such as Opus Dei, which does local development and support work and is deeply embedded in educational spaces, as well as within the bureaucracy of the Church; and the Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana, an organisation of lay people.

These groups have a lot of money that comes from the conservative business sector and have appropriated effective strategies and discourses. This lawsuit is a practical strategy that denotes a change in their way of organising. They no longer speak the language of the divine and the clerical because they know that it attracts fewer and fewer people; instead they have appropriated the discourse of democracy and human rights.

Are you thinking of new strategies to face this growing challenge?

In the present scenario we view ourselves as in need of strengthening our communication strategies. We also need to strengthen our resourcing, since we do not have funds to face a lawsuit of this magnitude. International funders do not necessarily provide support that can be used to develop institutional defence plans. But at present, this is a profound need of human rights organisations. In our case, fortunately the Legal Defence Institute, which had already taken on similar cases affecting journalists, became interested and decided to sponsor the case as part of its institutional priorities. They consider that this is an "ideological fight" and that questioning our name is a "pretext" to make us disappear as influential actors. Theirs has been a gesture that we are infinitely thankful for.

As far as discourse is concerned, however, we should not move from our positions, but rather show that the appropriation of the discourse of human rights and democracy by ultra-conservative groups is as superficial as disrespectful of democratic principles. As happened recently with the ‘Do not mess with my children’ campaign – against education about gender equality and respect for sexual identities – their discourse tends to become very aggressive every time they feel cornered. They seem to be desperate, because deep down they do nothing but react in the face of newly acquired rights.

And the situation has indeed progressed, because this is not just us – new generations are mobilised and lots of people who are respectful of freedom and diversity and who uphold guarantees for rights are gaining ground. It is not just three or four old-time feminist organisations that are active in Lima; there are also the voices and faces of young people organised in universities, people in communities in various regions of Peru who think critically, do not accept dogmas, even react in a sarcastic tone to that type of discourse and perspective.

Of course there is always a Catholic youth following that responds to the Pope and has decided to stay within the ultra-conservative field, but there is also youth social mobilisation around many issues, and with their help many aspects of the sexual and reproductive rights agenda are permeating the public debate. I think this is causing ultra-conservative groups to despair, and that is why they are reacting with such anger, frustration and, I would even dare say, hate. That is, they react with attitudes that are nowhere close to mercy, kindness, humility, understanding and non-judgement.

Why does the fact that you define yourselves as both Catholics and feminists cause this type of reaction?

We are women of faith and religion is part of our identity. We have been raised Catholic, and in that context the message that was instilled in us was one of obedience, prohibition and oppression. As we grew up, we rebelled against this and other aspects related to the control of our lives and their sexual dimension. We identify ourselves as Catholic on the basis of a renewed interpretation, but we do not renounce our faith. We are aware that Catholicism is not only a matter of faith, but it also operates within or materialises in an institution, and as such it includes both positive and negative practices that have an impact on the lives of many people, and specifically on its members.

At the same time, we all come from organisations with a feminist identity. We are feminists and we question patriarchy as a system of asymmetric power relations, but we do not renounce our faith. We always ask ourselves these questions: why should our religion have to have one single voice, uniform and unquestionable? Why obey in silence and validate sacrifice and suffering in our own lives and bodies? We find a foothold in feminist theology, which offers a deconstruction and reconstruction of the Gospel. These conceptual and political tools strengthen our conviction and our public struggle for sexual and reproductive rights.

High Church officials tell us: ‘you are not Catholic, who are you to speak in the name of Catholicism?’ We respond: ‘what makes you a Catholic, what allows you to trample rights in the name of God?’ We have claimed ownership of the language of the Gospel that focuses on the right of people to deliberate in conscience, to discern and to decide, and this bothers them. I am a Catholic, I was baptised and I am guided by feminist theology. You cannot question my faith, just as I cannot question yours. This is a very hard fight, because it is easy to fall in the face of a mass telling you that you are not one of them. From the beginning we knew that we would face disqualification, defamation and lies; we did not, however, think that the attacks would become as violent as those we are currently experiencing on social media, as well as in the form of a lawsuit.

Given that the experience of faith cannot be taken away from us, what they are trying to do is take away our legal status, make us disappear. We represent a danger because we are not just a few. In fact, more and more people are increasingly getting to know us and identify with us. We represent the position of many people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to articulate this strand of thought publicly, but who feel it and live by it. There is a wide and diverse congregation that does not think the same way as the Church hierarchy and considers that the ultra-conservative response to public policy is more suitable to Inquisition times than today. According to polls, most Catholics disagree with the Church hierarchy on many important issues, such as homosexuality, which they do not consider to be an illness or a divine punishment, or same-sex marriage. Choosing an abortion in specific life circumstances is a highly ethical and responsible decision, and it does not make you a bad woman, a lesser Catholic, or a bad mother. Using contraceptives to regulate motherhood and fatherhood or enjoying a sexual relationship without procreating is not prohibited by the Gospels. The state of virginity is losing its divine quality and this is freeing women from feelings of guilt, even in societies such as Latin America’s, where governments and the Catholic Church have always worked in concert to regulate people’s lives. Still today they support one another every time one of them loses credibility.

How else are you trying to encourage a distinction between private faith and public policy?

Ours is also a struggle for a secular state, a state that is separated from all churches. This is very difficult to achieve in practice, since the Catholic Church and the Peruvian state maintain strong institutional ties. However, short of achieving constitutional and legal separation between Church and state, there is another fight to be had in the sphere of collective attitudes. Many people – politicians, public officials, civil servants – reach the public sphere without giving a thought to the importance of separating religious beliefs from public function. As a result, many lawmakers and public officials make decisions based on their religious beliefs. It is very common to find crucifixes, chapels and religious images in ministry buildings. In our everyday lives religion surrounds us and limits us; there are no clear boundaries between religious practice and public functions.

Ultra-conservative groups set themselves on this ground and seek to further expand the dictates of a religion that presents itself as homogeneous, with the intention of forcing all citizens to live according to their own beliefs and mandates. The problem is not religion in itself; the difficulty lies with the political use of religion within the political-public sphere, where there is a duty to guarantee human rights.

 

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

Get in touch with Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Perú through their webpage and Facebook

 

HONG KONG: ‘We may have not achieved our demands yet, but we've built solidarity’

Millions of people took to the streets of Hong Kong in June 2019 to protest against a proposed Extradition Bill that would have allowed the government to send people, including foreigners, to face trial in mainland China, in courts controlled by the Communist Party. Many in Hong Kong see this proposal as eroding the special freedoms afforded to them under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model, established prior to Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. CIVICUS speaks to Wong Yik-mo, vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella body of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups, which has been among the organisers of the mass protests against the Extradition Bill.

What has driven the mass protests over the past few weeks? What are your demands?

The protests were part of a campaign to demand that the government withdraw the so-called Extradition Bill, which would amend the Fugitives Offenders Ordinance Bill to allow individuals, including foreigners, to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party. This is clearly a direct threat to the rule of law in Hong Kong.

The first march took place on 31 March 2019 and included only 12,000 protesters. We held five demonstrations in total, the biggest of which brought out one million people to the streets on 9 June and two million on 16 June.

During the demonstration held on 12 June, tens of thousands of protesters assembled around the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region building and its nearby roads. The police used beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, pepper spray and batons on overwhelmingly peaceful protesters, leaving dozens injured.

As things developed, we added new demands to the original one, which was focused basically on the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. We are now also demanding the dropping of all charges against protesters and the retractation of the characterisation of the 12 June protest as a ‘riot’, an independent investigation into the abuses of power committed by the police during the 12 June protest, the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam and free elections.

What were the tactics used to organise and mobilise the protests?

The Civil Human Rights Front has organised demonstrations the ‘traditional’ way, that is, by notifying the police and advertising our plans beforehand. But many other protesters, such as those surrounding the Police Headquarters, organised and mobilised through the internet. They did it very smartly and were able to mobilise without leaders. It happens often that netizens discuss strategies online and when some good ideas come up, people echo and support them, and that is how tactics are chosen. People then know what to do, without the need for clear instructions.

How have the government and the police responded to the protests?

The government did not respond to our demands at all! Even after one million people took to the streets on 9 June the government announced that the second reading of the bill would continue as scheduled. On 12 June, protesters tried to stop the second reading by surrounding the Legislative Council, mostly in a peaceful way. The police however used excessive force against protesters: they fired teargas canisters at them, causing some of their clothes to be burnt. Ten canisters were fired at the protest area designated by Civil Human Rights Front, without any warning. When canisters landed in the middle of the crowds, they caused panic and nearly resulted in a stampede. Rubber bullets were also fired at the heads or faces of protesters, and bean bag rounds were also used.

The police also targeted the press and fired teargas at first-aid stations where about 100 injured protesters had found refuge. In an effort to justify all this, the 12 June protests were subsequently referred to as ‘riots’ by the police and Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Do you think you have achieved anything so far and what are your next steps?

Despite the fact that many protesters were injured, and some even decided to end their lives, the fact remains that two million people – more than a quarter of our population – took to the streets. The Chief Executive had to announce the ‘suspension’ of the bill. Although that was not the full withdrawal we demanded and we continue to fight for, that’s what we have achieved so far. And more importantly, we have built solidarity.

From the 2014 Occupy Movement we learned that we should not blame each other, even if we tend to use different means of protest, such as peaceful demonstrations or some tactics such as storming buildings. In the course of the current campaign we have come to admit that all the protesters love Hong Kong, and that only by recognising each other’s effort can we be strong enough to fight against the government.

What is the situation of the civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Hong Kong? What is the likelihood of Hong Kong maintaining its own space distinct from China’s?

The freedom of expression is shrinking. In schools and universities, speech is censored. Academic institutions claim to be ‘neutral’ and non-political, but apparently just criticising the government can get you in trouble. Candidates for the Legislative Council have been barred from running just for expressing their political views, even on social media posts.

International best practice on the freedom of peaceful assembly is that notification should be provided to the police when protests are planned, for administrative reasons such as arrangements regarding traffic. In Hong Kong, however, one needs to obtain a Letter of No Objection in order to ensure that a protest is deemed ‘legal’. The police even have the right to issue a Letter of Objection, forcing protest organisers to require an authorisation rather than merely providing notification.

What support do activists in Hong Kong need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

We need the world to understand the special status of Hong Kong and create awareness globally, that we do not enjoy fundamental freedoms like we used to, and we don’t have democracy, unlike what most people would think.

Many governments have criticised China’s human rights record when handling regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, and Hong Kong deserves the same level of attention. We urge the international community to put pressure on China to make sure that Hong Kong gets back its freedoms and its democracy is protected, as stipulated in its Basic Law. Foreign governments should also take into consideration Hong Kong’s special status as the bridge between the free world and China. If one day Hong Kong becomes just like China, and its rule of law is completely destroyed, then communication between the west and China would become even more difficult.

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

Get in touch with Civil Human Rights Front through their Facebook page.

 

‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’

Sahar MoazamiAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?

OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.

In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.

While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.

In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.

Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.

The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.

Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.

Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?

I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.

The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.

Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?

I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.

So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.

But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.

Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.

From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.

How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?

I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.

People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.

Get in touch with OutRight Action International through its website and Facebook page, or follow @OutRightIntl on Twitter.

 

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights’

Teresa Fernandez ParedesAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Teresa Fernández Paredes, a lawyer specialising in International Public Law and one of Women's Link’s Managing Attorneys. With offices in Colombia, Kenya and Spain, Women's Link defends and promotes women's rights and seeks to create structural change through strategic litigation.

What does Women's Link do, and what are its main areas of work?

Women's Link is an international organisation that uses the law - most of us are lawyers - to promote structural social changes that advance the rights of women and girls, and especially of those in the most vulnerable positions, such as migrant women or women who find the exercise of their rights restricted due to their ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status, among other factors.

We work from our headquarters in Madrid, Spain and have offices in Bogotá, Colombia and Nairobi, Kenya. We apply a gender and an intersectional analysis to the law in order to expand and improve the rights of women and girls. We work in some areas, such as sexual and reproductive rights, where we collide head-on with anti-rights groups. We also focus on human trafficking, and especially on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation or domestic servitude and the violations of their rights suffered by women in migration or transitional justice contexts. We also focus on discrimination, as a cross-cutting issue. We use several strategies: in addition to strategic litigation, we conduct judicial training and produce publications, among other things.

What are currently your main areas of work in Latin America?

One of our main lines of work in Latin America is access to sexual and reproductive rights, broadly understood. In the context of the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis, we are working on the link between migration and lack of access to these rights. We examine issues such as the effects of irregular migration status on the enjoyment of these rights, and the situation of border areas as spaces that are not ruled by law.

Working in Venezuela has been a great challenge, given the country’s current situation. What we do, here and in all cases, is apply international legal standards to the local context. But it is important to bear in mind that generally speaking, law - and not just domestic legislation, but also international human rights law - is very centred on men. Over the years, norms and regulations have been developed around the image of the white man as a universal subject.

Our approach to the law is to stretch it to accommodate the experiences of women, because within the human rights framework, women's issues are often left aside. In the context of Venezuela, we work a lot with the inter-American human rights system. For example, we recently requested a precautionary measure for a maternity clinic where many mothers and children had died. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued the precautionary measure, but in the current context it would seem difficult to implement it. However, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the specific situation of women and girls. And all this work also helps encourage understanding why women leave Venezuela: what drives them, as women, to migrate; and what needs they have when they are in transit and when they arrive at their destination.

In addition to working in Venezuela, several of our projects focus on ensuring that women’s lived experiences and voices are heard in the context of the peace process in Colombia. We do this mainly from our office in Bogotá, and always jointly with community organisations, so as to try to make heard the voices of people at the margins who are not reached by decision-makers.

Over the past years anti-rights groups have been on the rise, in Latin America and beyond. Have you faced backlash from these groups in the course of your work?

The context in which we work is strongly marked by the rise of anti-rights groups that say they are mobilising against what they call ‘gender ideology’. But this is not a new phenomenon: anti-rights groups have been busy building connections and expanding since the 1990s. They have a lot of money and there is one thing they do better than groups on the left: they are very effective in creating connections and coalitions among themselves; even when they work on different issues they are able to find common ground. For instance, all of them have coordinated to place the gender ideology theme on the table and raise it everywhere, as a result of which something that was not even a concept ended up as a global issue. They have managed to position this on the agenda, which is more difficult to do for groups located on the left, where there is more discussion around the issues and it is more difficult to coordinate and speak with one voice. That is why we still do not have a unique and conclusive response to the attacks we face in the name of gender ideology.

Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights. And they are doing it by using the same discourse that has been successfully used by human rights groups. They talk about human rights and they position themselves as victims. They even depict feminists as diabolical agents, giving feminism more power than you would think it has. Due to the fact that Women's Link is based in three regions, we can clearly see that the same strategies are being used in different places. These groups are using coordinated strategies, they have lots of money and they enjoy global support. As they use the language of human rights, they have increasing legal representation, and they have begun to occupy spaces in strategic forums, where decisions are made, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

How can progressive civil society act to curb these advances?

Faced with these attacks it is important to act quickly through the law. We must continue working to strengthen the human rights framework and shield rights against these attacks. We must design not just defensive strategies, but also proactive strategies to expand the human rights framework, or at least to take away some of the spaces in which anti-rights groups move.

There are still unresolved discussions we need to work on, such as the tension between the freedom of expression and hate speech. Paradoxically, in order to spread their message anti-rights groups are leaning on one of the left’s favourite themes, the freedom of expression.

However, if we want to create lasting social change we cannot remain in the realm of the law and the courts. What we need are cases that cause people to mobilise, generate public debate and produce real social change. In that sense I see positive developments, like the #MeToo movement and the so-called Green Tide in Argentina. That is, we are seeing two opposing processes: on the one hand, anti-rights groups are growing; on the other, strong mobilisation around these issues is happening from the ground up and with a strong youth component. Such was the case with the Green Tide, which created unprecedented mobilisation while a proposal to legalise abortion was being discussed in the Argentine Congress. No doubt the two processes are very likely connected, and one is a consequence of the other.

These social movements are good reason for hope. In the face of attempts to cut back on acquired rights, there is a very active movement that says, look, this is an acquired right, you cannot take it away anymore. There is no going back: looking forward, you can only expand the rights framework, but you cannot diminish it.

In addition to attacks from anti-rights groups, what other challenges do civil society promoting women’s rights face?

For grassroots organisations, lack of resources can be a great limitation. And in contexts of great urgency, such as those of massive movements of people, we are presented with the challenge of how to coordinate our work with that of grassroots organisations.

Women's Link is dedicated to identifying structural situations where women's rights are violated and to designing legal strategies to generate structural, transformative change. Meanwhile, grassroots organisations - for example, those in border areas between Colombia and Venezuela - are increasingly taking on, in conditions of urgency, functions that should be performed by the state. In these contexts, most of the response is coming from civil society organisations.

These grassroots organisations are responding to a very serious situation, and the needs of the women they work with are very urgent, and yet all we can do at Women's Link is support them through strategic litigation, which usually takes a long time.

Difficulties of working with scarce resources aside, it is vital to build relationships, connect and coordinate, because the potential contribution that Women's Link has to offer would be useless if it weren’t for the work that is being done by grassroots organisations and for the voices and support of women themselves.

 

Get in touch with Women’s Link through its website and Facebook page, or follow @womenslink on Twitter.

 

‘People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away’

 

Uma Mishra Newbery1As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Uma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global, a network of chapters and members mobilising to advance women’s rights around the world. Women’s March Global was formed to give continuity to the momentum of the January 2017 mobilisations, when millions of women and allies in the USA and around the world poured out on to the streets to make themselves seen and heard. Its vision is one of a global community in which all women — including black women, indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, women with disabilities, lesbian, queer and trans women, and women of every religious, non-religious and atheist background — are free and able to exercise their rights and realise their full potential.

You recently witnessed anti-rights groups in action at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women. Are we seeing a new generation of more aggressive anti-rights groups active at the global level?

I don’t think this is new. These groups have always been around, always in the background. But there is a massive resurgence of anti-rights groups underway. Following changes in political leadership in some countries, including the USA, they have become more vocal and more deeply involved. And they have become much more strategic and better coordinated. If we look at the funding of these groups, it is coming from very well-established family foundations that are deliberately working to undermine women’s rights. But they are doing it under the disguise of gender equality.

During the 63rd session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March 2019, the Holy See organised a side event under the title ‘Gender Equality and Gender Ideology: Protecting Women and Girls’. On the surface, this could appear as super progressive – they are trying to give the impression that they are promoting women’s rights. But you walk into the event and it’s extremely transphobic, as they outrightly reject the concept of gender identity and insist on biological sex, therefore refusing to consider trans women as women. They claim to know better what it means to be a woman and what all women feel and need, and this brings them to condone violence against trans people and reject sexual and reproductive rights.

The way these groups have morphed and shifted, I think they have become more deliberate in the ways they show themselves in public. They have also become more sophisticated and are using information and communication technologies, as resistance movements always have, in order to organise and disseminate their views.

Why do you think they are trying to appear to be progressive and who are they trying to fool?

One would hope that they were trying to fool the UN, which should filter out hate groups, but truth be told, the UN still lets the National Rifle Association (NRA) keep its ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) status, and the NRA actively lobbies against any trade treaty regulating weapons – weapons that are killing people in the USA at an astonishing rate. The UN should understand that these groups exist to undermine democracy and human rights – but more than ever, the UN has become biased on this issue. At the same time there are grassroots organisations that are being denied accreditation in unprecedented numbers – and these are all organisations working on issues that powerful states don’t want to see brought to the forefront.

So I don’t think they are trying to fool anybody – at this point, they don’t really need to.

You mentioned the foundations that support these anti-rights groups. Why are all these foundations providing funding? What is there in it for them?

We have to look at the web of interests that keep these groups active within these spaces, because there are a lot of political and monetary interests keeping them at the UN and within the CSW space.

If we look at, say, the Heritage Foundation in a space such as CSW, speaking out against what they call gender ideology, what is their point there? Digging deeper, we find that the Heritage Foundation was funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation. And Betsy DeVos is currently the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education. She and her family are very deeply embedded within the US government, and they have their own political interests back in Michigan, where they are from. What Betsy DeVos has done in Michigan, essentially destroying the public education framework, is deeply troubling. We need to go through all these layers to understand why these groups exist, how sophisticated they are and why they are so difficult to remove.

How are these groups affecting progressive civil society, in general, and specifically at forums such as CSW? How do they create disruption?

We are currently seeing the phenomenon of governments working together to deny women’s rights, as opposed to the situation a few decades back, when collaboration among various development players, including states and their aid agencies, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots groups, led to a widening of these rights.

These new regressive partnerships are very clear at the UN. While some states continue to challenge sexual violence in conflicts, for instance, you have other member states – including the US government – that have shifted and now threaten to reject anti-rape measures because the language in the documents includes terms and considerations related to sexual and reproductive health. These states are working together to strip women – and not only women – of their rights.

In this context, progressive CSOs are singled out as the ones speaking up against regressive governments and depicted as if they were the ones trying to undermine democracy. These delegitimising attacks against CSOs open up the space for further attacks. They are a signal for anti-rights groups, which are increasingly emboldened as a result of what their governments are doing. When your government is literally saying ‘we don´t care about women´s sexual and reproductive rights, we don´t care about what women experience as a result of conflicts – conflicts that we finance’, anti-rights groups hearing this know they are being given free rein to exist and act openly in these spaces. It’s exactly the same with white supremacists, in the USA and in other countries around the world. These groups are emboldened by a public discourse that gives a green light for fascists, racists and white supremacists to step forward. And this is exactly what they are doing by entering civil society space.

As well as being emboldened by governments that promote their ideas, do you think anti-rights groups are also emboldened because they are becoming more popular among the public? If so, why do you think their narratives are resonating with citizens?

They are possibly becoming more popular too – what once seemed like fringe ideas, or too politically incorrect positions to state aloud, are now becoming mainstream.

As for why this is happening, at the risk of sounding like a ridiculous cliché, I think it is because it is easier for people to hate than to love. When we talk about human rights what we are saying is that, at a very basic level, every single person on this planet should have the same human rights. This is a message that everyone should be able to step behind. But of course, many of those who have held power for hundreds of years and benefited from patriarchy and white supremacy are going to try to defend what they see as their right to continue exercising that power. This includes governments as well as anti-rights non-state groups.

This was apparent at that panel organised by the Holy See at CSW. The Holy See is an active, very vocal state at the UN. We reported live on their event on Twitter, and you cannot imagine the way we were trolled online. Anti-rights groups accused us of promoting trans rights over women’s rights. But we are an intersectional organisation: we understand that forms of oppression are interconnected, and so by fighting for trans women’s rights we are fighting for all women’s rights, in the same way as by fighting for women’s rights we are fighting for the rights of all people. Because the fight for the most marginalised is a fight for us all. But how can you explain this to people who have had their rights so protected, who have lived in such privilege for so long?

Is there something that progressive civil society could learn from the ways anti-right groups are pushing their narratives?

We definitely need to be able to work together towards a common purpose the way they do, and use social media for progressive purposes as cleverly as they are using them to undermine human rights. In many countries, Facebook is undermining democracy. In Myanmar, the genocide of the Rohingya people was incited on Facebook, and how long did it take Facebook to ban Myanmar’s military? In New Zealand, the Christchurch shooter tried to spread footage of the shooting live on Facebook, and how long did it take for Facebook to take it down?

As civil society, we know that if we don’t actively use the tools that are being used by other groups and governments to undermine human rights, then we are failing. We have to work in a coordinated way, in coalitions. In the past, CSOs have tended to compete for funding – we need to really get better at sharing resources, being collaborative and bringing our strengths to the table.

We are trying to move in that direction. Recently, we worked in Cameroon with one of our strategic partners, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, on social media training for peace. In this case, we focused on enabling social media campaigns to promote voting for politicians who support women’s rights and human rights.

For our Free Saudi Women Coalition we have partnerships with six other CSOs, CIVICUS included, and we work actively as a coalition. The wins that we have had have been the result of working together. For instance, in mid-2018 the government of Iceland obtained, for the first time ever, a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and went on to lead a joint initiative that publicly called on Saudi Arabia to improve its human rights situation. The joint statement that Iceland delivered on behalf of 36 states was a direct result of behind-the-scenes advocacy by a civil society coalition.

What do you think progressive civil society needs to keep up the fight?

I think that people need to understand that CSOs have always been on the ground, that they have always worked at the very grassroots level to hold governments accountable and to push forward human rights agendas. People need to know that 90 per cent of the time there is a high level of coordination that goes on behind the scenes and that CSOs are furiously working to push forward. But many people don’t see all the behind-the-scenes work. And in a lot of places, we cannot be very explicit and provide too many details about our advocacy work, because for security reasons we cannot reveal the names of activists or journalists.

People need to understand that, in the fight for human rights, grassroots activists and organisations, as well as bigger CSOs, are doing really important and necessary work and more than ever need real support from them. We need people to get invested at the grassroots level. People cannot stay on the sidelines when their rights are being taken away. If your government is taking away your rights, you need to get involved before it’s too late. If you live in a free and stable democracy you have a duty to use your voice and speak up on the human rights abuses happening around the world. This work needs all of us at the table.

Get in touch with Women’s March Global through its website and Facebook page, or follow @WM_Global and @umajmishra on Twitter.

 

'Global policy-making can greatly benefit from the expertise of regular citizens'

Antoine VergneCIVICUS speaks to Antoine Vergne, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Missions Publiques, an impact-driven organisation that seeks to improve policy-making at the local, national and global levels by bringing the voices of citizens into policy discussion and negotiations. Missions Publiques is guided by the conviction that collective intelligence will emerge from constructive, non-partisan forums when winner/loser mentalities are put aside and everyone is given the chance to access balanced information on a topic, speak out and share their perspectives with fellow citizens to form an opinion.

 

Ghana: “People want CSOs to stay and thrive, not to shut down”

FRENCH

This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.

Omolara WACSIThe West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) has been tirelessly promoting the sustainability of civil society organisations (CSOs) for the last five years, after seeing valuable CSOs in this region having to close doors due to financial constraints.

CIVICUS spoke with Omolara Balogun, head of the Policy Influencing and Advocacy unit at WACSI, about their efforts to support the resilience of CSOs in West Africa, which include conducting relevant research and establishing collaborations with regional and international actors, including the Affinity Groups of National Associations (AGNA) supported by CIVICUS, to raise awareness, disseminate knowledge, build capacity and advocate together for better conditions that help civil society sustain their work and thrive.

 

How did WACSI become involved in advancing the sustainability of CSOs in West Africa?

Our interest began in 2014. We noticed a clear change in the aid and development landscape, specifically dwindling funding to the civil society sector by traditional aid givers. Previously, WACSI had enough resources to deliver its services for free (capacity building, advocacy support, research and documentation of civil society’s work, etc.). However, when donor funding started to decrease, that ‘free’ approach was no longer sustainable. We decided to request for a small contributory fee for attending our capacity building trainings, but, to our surprise, many people and organisations could not afford it. We heard recurrent complaints about donors giving less funds, having stricter funding conditions, increasing projectisation of grants, and unwillingness to provide ‘core funding’ to cover organisation’s overheads/administrative costs and staff development. As this trend continued, our interest increased, and we decided to facilitate a sector-wide debate about the sustainability of CSOs in West Africa.

One of your first steps was doing research about the financial situation of CSOs in Ghana. What were the key findings?

The same year, we received seed-funding from STAR-Ghana and commissioned a pilot research on “The State of Civil Society Organisations’ Sustainability in Ghana,” published in 2015. The research engaged different categories of CSOs to identify and understand who was striving, surviving and thriving in terms of financial, operational, intervention and identity sustainability. The results showed that the minority of CSOs were thriving in all areas and these were the ones with sustained access to international traditional funders. The majority were just surviving with enough funds to cover their administration costs and run activities in the present, but unsure of what would happen tomorrow; if they will get new funds or grant to run activities, keep relevance etc. Lastly, a significant amount were striving to even complete implementation of ongoing projects, pay rent or salaries. In fact, we saw partners with an amazing mission and recognized interventions in peace and conflict areas, who had to close doors.

Findings revealed that CSOs suffer sustainability challenges in diverse areas. Some suffer identity crisis, as they’ve dumped their original mission, vision, strategy, partnerships and settled unto another, chasing after money in available areas. At a sector level, the competition over the little funds between CSOs increased, weakening collaboration opportunities and reducing collective impact. Not addressing these dynamics possess a major threat of extinction to many more organisations.

The conversation about sustainability of CSOs has now gained ground in the region. How did WACSI help engage different actors in a positive and proactive agenda?

We developed a comprehensive sustainability programme to engage diverse CSOs in systematic dialogues between our sector, local and international donors, and the government about our sustainability threats, prevailing challenges and opportunities, and to design a robust capacity strengthening programme for all CSOs, especially those surviving and striving. Engagement in the Ghana pilot phase has been positive. The loud feedback is that people want CSOs to stay and thrive, not to shut down. Donors, communities, constituencies, the private sector and even the government recognise the work and value that we bring to the development sector. They are all interested in CSOs’ sustainability.

WACSI received support from the AGNA network to establish national dialogues on domestic resource mobilisation, how has this helped your efforts?

The support from AGNA has been instrumental in engaging CSOs, donors, the private sector and, soon, government authorities to explore what is needed to enable domestic resource mobilisation as an alternative source of income to support CSOs’ financial sustainability.

The dialogues with CSOs allowed us to map their main sources of income, see what options they could explore to diversify their resources, and what skills, knowledge and tools are needed. Promoting more local philanthropy and pursuing the social enterprise model (some CSOs are already trying this) were strong options. However, there are many challenges: most CSOs have operated under charitable models for decades and are frustrated with this change , others highlight the lack of capacity in the sector to explore new avenues, while some advocacy, human rights and policy-centered organisations say that generating their own income goes against their focus, mission and identity.

We spoke with private sector representatives to understand how they define their Corporate Social Responsibility and foundations strategies and how CSOs can access part of those resources. We learned that private entities largely focus on impact investments, therefore, to access private funding, CSOs must build business skills, understand their sector, develop a profit mentality, and find ways to provide visibility when partnerships are established. Furthermore, CSOs must make a stronger case to educate and convince private entities about the role of civil society in facilitating social stability, justice, peaceful and enabling environment that allows companies to do business without impediments.

We also had honest conversations with “traditional” donors (bilaterals, multilaterals, embassies) about their funding cuts, changing priorities and stricter conditions, and expressed the sectors’ concerns about the increasing use of intermediaries (such as northern consulting firms) that pushes local CSOs to play secondary roles as subgrantees and represents waste of money for CSOs. In feedback, the represented donors explained that these changes are government decisions aligned with the foreign policy agendas of the home countries. It was also mentioned that the majority of CSOs are unable to access available funding due to lack of capacity to absorb or push for innovative ideas in the proposals. Thus, civil society must invest in strengthening its capacity and accountability systems to improve their chances to access traditional and new funds.

What will be the focus of the dialogues with the Government?

We’ll speak mostly about legislative frameworks needed to enable the environment for domestic resource mobilisation. First, to remove laws that are repressive and against the operational and financial sustainability of CSOs and, second, to advocate for a comprehensive legislation that allows them to diversify their income base without legal contradictions or bottlenecks. It’s important to have a legislation for social entrepreneurship adapted to CSOs because, with the prevailing law, CSOs would lose their non-for-profit status and registration if they engage in profitmaking services or mobilise certain funds, or can be requested to register social enterprises as profitable companies and pay taxes on profit before rechanneling to charity. We also need tax incentives to promote local philanthropy for CSOs. Finally, we have to discuss how the government can directly provide more resources to CSOs and stop competing against us for traditional funding, as donors sometimes prefer giving money to governments than to CSOs because they get more visibility.

Social entrepreneurship is becoming trendy, but can it really be an alternative for most CSOs?

This possibility is more suitable for organisations focused on service delivery. It is harder for CSOs working in policy influencing, advocacy and human rights to sell services, and they are the most worried about compromising their mission and values by generating income. This is a challenge we must address collectively - these organisations are the ones promoting critical social changes and should be sustained.

What are the key next steps to advance the sustainability agenda?

Fixing the conflictive legislation about social enterprise, creating tax incentives and promoting resources (like seed capital) so that CSOs can venture into social entrepreneurship are key steps. For CSOs, the priority is to build knowledge and capacity in social enterprise, innovation, impact investment, and corporate partnerships, and change the charitable mindset to start working viable plans for income diversification. Additionally, to mobilise local resources and support, we must focus on building relationships with the constituencies that we represent – most of which have been neglected after years of prioritizing the donor agenda. People will find it difficult to support civil society if they cannot connect with our mission, vision, work and the value that we bring to improving the living conditions of citizens.

WACSI is walking the talk too. Please, tell us about your efforts to generate alternative resources.

WACSI has adopted an asset-based approach to help us cut costs and generate income. For example, we’ve been renting our conference rooms and interpretation equipment to other organisations at subsidised rates, and we are saving thousands of dollars in translations in the last 3-years thanks to a partnership with the Ghana Institute of Languages, through which their students participate in a one-month immersion programme with WACSI to gain work experience while help us with translations and interpretations. These initiatives are not enough to stop WACSI from seeking external support, but it is a bold step in the right direction.

Get in touch with WACSI through their website or Facebook page, or follow @WACSI on Twitter

 

CHINA: ’30 years after Tiananmen, the world witnesses the consequences of nurturing China’

4 June 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in China when hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed peaceful pro-democracy protesters were killed in Beijing and tens of thousands of demonstrators in cities across China were arrested.

In May 1989, people gathered in Tiananmen Square, in Central Beijing, to call for political and economic reform. Hundreds of student protesters went on hunger strike to put pressure on Communist Party leaders. An estimated one million people joined the protests to support the students and demand reform. The Chinese authorities responded with overwhelming repression. Military units were deployed and unarmed protesters and onlookers were killed en masse. The Chinese government never acknowledged the events surrounding the Tiananmen massacre. It remains a contentious topic to this day, and all mention of the protests is banned in China, both online and offline.

 

THE GAMBIA: ‘I use my art to effect change, and that is why I am being targeted’

Killa Ace

On his way to participate in International Civil Society Week (ICSW) in Belgrade, Serbia, the Gambian rapper and activist Killa Ace was detained at the Gambia-Senegal border on flimsy excuses, causing him to miss his flight and making him unable to attend the gathering. He speaks to CIVICUS about his experience, the reasons why governments are trying to silence activists who voice criticism through art, and the overall context in The Gambia since its democratic change of government in January 2017.

You were recently detained at the Gambia-Senegal border on your way to ICSW, the global civil society gathering convened by CIVICUS. Can you tell us more about this experience?

In early April 2019 I was on my way to Belgrade, where ICSW was being held, and when I arrived at the Senegal-Gambia border, officials on the Senegalese side called me in for screening. At first, I was searched by a drug squad officer. He searched me with confidence and bitterness, only to find nothing. I got handcuffed and all the papers that I had on me were taken. I wasn't allowed to make calls and I was held in detention for five hours. I was finally released at 8.30pm, and my flight was at 10.00pm, so it was impossible for me to make it to Dakar airport in time.

In an attempt to justify my detention, the officer explained that they were allowed to keep me detained until the legal time was up. This gave me the impression that this was a calculated delaying tactic aimed at depriving me of the opportunity to participate in an international civil society forum abroad and express concerns about corruption, governance and the daily problems of citizens in The Gambia and Senegal.

Why do you think you were targeted?

I think I was targeted for being an activist. I’m a well-known partner of the Y’en a marre (‘I’m fed up’) movement in Senegal, which opposes the current Senegalese government. This group was formed by rappers and journalists in 2011, to protest against ineffective government and to call on young people to vote, which was done very effectively and helped oust former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade. I believe that my affiliations and connections with Y’en a marre, in addition to me being very vocal on corruption and other major issues, led to further intimidation and the prolongation of my detention.

Other members of Y’en a marre have faced similar restrictions. A group of Y’en a marre activists were held for hours at the border in December 2018, on their way back to Dakar from a joint event we organised in The Gambia.

I think my detention was based on profiling and used as an intimidation tactic. Based on the manner in which I was detained and what transpired during my detention, I've come to realise that at the beginning I was suspected of having drugs; in fact, the officer who conducted the search seemed very confident that I had illegal substances on me. But after a thorough search and as nothing was found, my documents, including my bank card, were confiscated for a few hours. What was most alarming was that when he returned with my documents, the officer said, “We know that you’re Killa Ace and you are part of this movement,” while pointing at a bag of t-shirts that I had with me. The t-shirts had the phrase ‘Get involved in entrenching The Gambia’s future’ printed on them and were part of the advocacy material for the Get Involved project my organisation is currently working on in partnership with the Constitutional Review Commission. The t-shirts were for distribution among fellow ICSW participants.

Have you experienced similar restrictions in The Gambia after the country underwent democratisation?

I have recently experienced similar restrictions in my own country. In October 2018 I was profiled, arrested and severely brutalised by members of the Gambia Police Force, and more precisely, officers from the notorious, newly established Anti-Crime Unit. I was detained at the Anti-Crime Unit camp and later charged with bogus accusations, including assaulting a police officer and breaking the peace, and taken to court. I am still being prosecuted and am next in court in May 2019.

Do you think this is an ongoing trend affecting other civil society activists as well?

I do believe that this is part of an ongoing trend. Mine was just one case among many. The first victim of abuse under the administration of President Adama Barrow, inaugurated in January 2017, was Dr Ismaila Ceesay, a lecturer and public commentator. He was arrested in January 2018 for speaking out about the fragility of the security sector in The Gambia. He was never charged, and he was only released following pressure from civil society. Another prominent activist who was arbitrarily arrested was Dr Amadou Scattred Janneh, an environmentalist who was also slapped with fictitious and frivolous charges. As well as these cases of well-known activists, countless anonymous civilians have been assaulted and unlawfully arrested.

How much real change has taken place after the 2017 inauguration of a democratically elected government?

During President Yahya Jammeh’s authoritarian government, I left the country and moved to Senegal. I returned full of expectations after Jammeh’s rule was over, but I continued to speak up about issues affecting ordinary Gambians under the new regime, including police abuses and corruption.

It is now apparent that the new regime is using the same intimidation tactics as its predecessor in an effort to silence activists and critical opponents. The change of government has been a major disappointment to me, as the same system and laws are still in place and being enforced. None of the promised institutional reforms ever truly materialised. The security sector hasn’t been reformed and still harbours brutal and cruel officers, many of whom perpetrated human rights abuses under the former dictatorial government. Following the case of Dr Ceesay, in February 2018 The Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (TANGO), the national civil society network, issued a resolution condemning the growing trend of abuse and police brutality under the Barrow administration, and demanded the accountability of all officers responsible for arbitrary and unlawful arrests and detentions. But those responsible for systematic intimidation and abuses remain unpunished.

In sum, nepotism, corruption, selective justice and police brutality are still common in today’s ‘new democracy’. The freedom of assembly is still not guaranteed, and the administration has warned citizens against participating in demonstrations and protests. In 2017 we organised a protest, Occupy Westfield, to express our dissatisfaction with lack of water and electricity, and were dispersed by groups of heavily armed security personnel.

In 2018 I helped organise a peaceful demonstration under the hashtag #Defadoy (‘enough is enough’), calling for the end of police brutality, corruption and environmental exploitation. And while the new government was being accused of corruption, I recorded a song titled ‘Combat Corruption’. So I can see why the government views me as an enemy.

I am often targeted, stopped and screened when I go out. Recently the security forces have been raiding recording studios in the hope that they will catch me doing something illegal that they can use to pin me down. With all the harassment going on, I don’t feel safe any longer.

Would you tell us more about your work?

I’m a rapper and activist. I use my art to effect change, sensitise people and address social issues. I think messages are all the more effective when delivered in a language that young people understand, as is the case with hip hop. I also host a radio civic education programme called The Gambia Tonight. And I am the founder and president of Team Gom Sa Bopa (‘Believe In Yourself’), a youth empowerment civil society organisation dedicated to raising awareness among young people through art and arousing their interest in national development. The movement engages artists and influencers to play an active role in civic education, to build community at the local level and play the role of national watchdogs, keeping our government and public officials accountable.

We are doing a lot of work that is necessary for democracy to work, and we would welcome any support we could get from international civil society, including funding to support projects, protection and risk mitigation initiatives, help to cover legal fees and capacity building. That is why attending ICSW was so important to us, and that is exactly why we encountered insurmountable obstacles to attend.

Civic space in The Gambia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Killa Ace through his Facebook page or follow @killaace1 on Twitter, and watch his latest video, I’m a Victim, on YouTube.

 

SINGAPORE: ‘Making politicians the arbiters of truth invites abuse’

Ja Ian ChongCIVICUS speaks to Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, about the so-called ‘anti-fake news law’ currently under discussion in Singapore, which is expected to be passed in 2019. The bill has raised fears that understandable concerns about the deliberate spread of misinformation are being used to restrict free speech arbitrarily. Professor Chong has published several articles and authored a book on international security and foreign policy, with a specific focus on Northeast and Southeast Asia and China. 

What are the overall conditions for civil society in Singapore?

Civil society in Singapore is small. Much of this has to do with a common belief in Singaporean society that being active in civil society invites trouble from the state. Civil society groups complain of systematic pressure from the state when they perform their legitimate functions and activities; however, they often do so in private. As a result, corroborating what exactly happens can be challenging. Still, there are individuals and groups that are highly active despite these concerns.

The main restrictions that civil society currently faces in Singapore are limited space for pluralism in the media, constraints on the freedom of peaceful assembly and fear of lawsuits, including through the application of defamation laws. Singapore has a very high legal bar for setting up printing and broadcasting services and there is apparent state involvement in the running of print and broadcast media. In recent years, someone was convicted of illegal public assembly and processions merely for organising a meeting in a private space via Skype with Joshua Wong from Hong Kong. Another person was convicted of organising an illegal public procession after holding a mirror and walking in front of Parliament House on his own. The state claims that these restrictions are necessary to maintain order and social harmony in Singapore.

The government recently proposed an ‘anti-fake news’ law. What do you think its intent is, and why has it caused concern in civil society?

The stated intent of the Protection against Online Falsehood and Manipulation Act is to address the threat of disinformation campaigns. That is an objective around which there is little disagreement, including from civil society. The concern in civil society in Singapore, as I understand it, is that the law is vaguely worded and gives sweeping powers to politicians. The way the text defines what a “falsehood” is seems tautological; any government minister can define a statement as false based on “public interest,” including considerations such as friendly relations with foreign states, public tranquillity and the diminution of public confidence in state agencies. Additionally, the law appears to be based on a rather simplistic view that the ability to discern between what’s true and what’s false, or to determine what is ‘fact-like’, is stable across time. But that is not the case: in fact, knowledge progresses when scholars destabilise and challenge what many people deem to be established facts.

There is concern that making politicians who will have to stand for election the arbiters of truth invites abuse. Even when the courts have the last word on whether a statement is false, the minister responsible for declaring whether a statement is false is also the first instance of appeal. Even the Minister of Law, whose Ministry oversees the bill, recently admitted in an interview that he is unable to vouch for the actions of future governments.

Section 61 of the bill seems to have been particularly controversial. What is it about?

Section 61 would allow a minister to exempt any person or class of people from the restrictions imposed by the bill. There is significant uncertainty over why the clause was included in the bill. Officials state that such clauses are common in Singaporean law. Still, that does not explain why it would be necessary in this case. After all, not all laws have such a clause. As far as I know, the Penal Code does not. This raises questions over who the exemption is meant for, and under which conditions it may be used. What seems clear is that this clause creates potential for abuse. A future ruling party facing a tough electoral battle, for example, might want to exempt its own agents from charges of engaging in disinformation.

What can we learn from Singapore that could help us in the battle against misinformation?

The Singaporean experience suggests that efforts to address ‘fake news’ and disinformation may benefit from greater precision, including in the drafting of any legal texts. It is also critical to put the responsibility for addressing ‘fake news’ in the hands of an agency that not only is independent but is also widely viewed as independent. One reason ‘fake news’ and disinformation can be effective is because they create the impression that state entities and politicians are self-interested rather than public-minded. Efforts that do not take this consideration seriously enough can undermine their own ability to address disinformation. Crucial as well is to have a public education system that inculcates critical thought in assessing information and independent factchecking sources that can verify the veracity of information free from the influence of partisan, corporate or parochial concerns.

The Singapore experience also suggests that addressing disinformation and ‘fake news’ requires many allies, from the state to civil society to academia, the media and citizens. States are usually tempted to take charge of everything at the expense of other groups. This approach can be counterproductive, given that it easily plays into a narrative that powerful elites engage in when addressing ‘fake news’ for political gain. When this happens, the fact that academia, the media, civil society and citizens have been marginalised results in society having fewer defences against disinformation and ‘fake news’. Done inappropriately, well-intentioned attempts to address disinformation and ‘fake news’ can inadvertently increase the risk a society faces from such phenomena.

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

 

BRAZIL: ‘This is a moment of fragility for civil society’

Pedro StrozenbergCIVICUS speaks with Pedro Strozenberg, Ombudsman of Rio de Janeiro, about the situation of human rights and the regression of space for civil society in Brazil. The Ombudsman's Office is a public body that functions as a link between the state and civil society. Pedro Strozenberg is a lawyer specialising in conflict mediation who defines himself as an activist in matters of public safety, an area in which his office works to defend the rights of citizens against police abuse and brutality.

You come from civil society. How did you become the Ombudsman, and what kind of work do you do?

All my career has been in civil society. I am a lawyer specialising in conflict mediation within the framework of public security. I consider myself an activist in the field of security. For 15 years I worked in a civil society organisation (CSO), Viva Río, on issues of youth, rights, public safety, drugs and police. And for the past 10 years I have worked with the Institute for Religion Studies, an organisation more focused on research and with a strong component of public policy advocacy.

My role at the head of the Ombudsman's Office is a temporary function that derives from my work in civil society. Under a federal law passed in 2009, the Ombudsman’s position must be occupied by someone coming from civil society. In each state, the office holder is picked by the members of the Superior Council of the Public Defender's Office out of a list of three names submitted by civil society. This federal law has been in force for 10 years, but the system is being established at variable paces and with a lot of delays. To date, only 14 offices have been created; there seems to be strong resistance by the justice system to this element of external control. In Rio de Janeiro the mechanism was established in 2015 and I was elected in 2016. In 2017 I was re-elected, and as soon as my term ends, I will go back to civil society.

What are the main human rights challenges that you have faced at the Ombudsman’s Office?

Rio is a very complex city and experiences pronounced oscillations. When I started getting involved in these issues, in the second half of the 1990s, we were going through a situation similar to today’s: a context of high insecurity, economic crisis and very high levels of police violence. Between the decades of 2000 and 2010 there was an important innovative agenda, with a focus on prevention, which produced a temporary reduction in the levels of lethal violence in Rio. Unfortunately, over the past 30 years Brazil has maintained very high levels of lethal violence, which certainly vary from one place to the next, but overall present unacceptable patterns of violence. While for a decade the numbers of victims of lethal violence decreased in Rio, in other cities - especially in the northeast and the north of Brazil - the levels rose a lot, and the baseline remained between 50,000 and 60,000 people killed every year. Today we have surpassed 60,000. The widespread presence of firearms and disputes over the control of territories are important causes of this lethality.

In recent years, Rio experienced a frightening growth in deaths caused by state security forces, and more precisely by the police. This is the most emblematic trademark of the last period. In places like Rio and São Paulo, almost a third of the deaths are the result of police intervention.

We have a police force that is absolutely lethal, and what is most dramatic is that this is provided legitimacy by the political orientation of the state and federal governments, which is based on the logic of confrontation and the exchange of bullets. We are living through a dramatic period marked by narrative disputes. These police practices are not based on the law, which is much more restrictive, but on the political discourse of the incumbent rulers.

My role in the Ombudsman's Office includes upholding the pre-eminence of the law and acting as guarantor of people’s rights, in such a way that the law embodies protection for the people, rather than a threat to the poorest part of the population. It is necessary to follow legal processes, comply with legal requirements and guarantee everybody their right to defence, to freedom of expression, to the protection of life. Unfortunately, in many cases the understanding that institutions should be guided by the principles of the democratic rule of law does not prevail, and interpretation and scope vary according to territorial, ethnic and gender criteria. We all live in the same society, but not under the same legal guarantees. Today, we experience a time of legal instability, where the irresponsible and prejudiced discourse of Brazil’s rulers and of an important section of the legal system disrespects the National Constitution on a daily basis, introducing legal setbacks that in the near future will increase even more the number of deaths and the prison population. We need a narrative that takes the law as a point of reference, rather than the will of a punitive and exclusionary elite.

Do you think that the strong-arm discourse against crime disseminated from the top has resonated in Rio?

This discourse has indeed resonated, and that is because we live in a time of hopelessness in terms of public security policies, and unfortunately it is only natural for people to seek radical and immediate solutions, becoming vulnerable to emotional appeals that rarely entail genuine solutions. Electoral discourses rely heavily on emotional and inconsequential appeals. Many people want to hear something that, although not true, might create expectations that the situation will improve. And what’s dramatic is that many times it is the poorest population - the most affected by strong-arm discourse, in the sense that it is the part of the population where most of the victims come from - that most easily accepts the logic that the harshest the state action, the safer we will be. We believe the exact opposite: that the more rights we have, the more capable we will be of producing a culture of nonviolence.

Unfortunately, the electoral manipulation of fear and insecurity is part of the world that we live in. It is only one phase of the cycle, but a phase in which the poorest people are indeed supporting strong-arm policies, even if they are applied against them. The situation is quite surprising, not to say frustrating

Do you think that the dominant narrative has encouraged further police violence?

I would rather say that the logic of the election emboldened people who believe in violence as a way to confront violence. In Brazil there is a strong culture that encourages people to follow a reference of brutality rather than a reference of legality. The more brutal an effort to build a security policy, the more recognition it will gain.

A recent case clearly illustrates the moment we live in. Two favelas were involved in a full-blown territorial dispute, creating a situation that was quite dramatic for their inhabitants. The police decided to intervene. It was what they were supposed to do, since that is their role. But while in three days of fighting no deaths had occurred, the three-hour-long police operation led to 13 deaths, to which two more were added later. An operation causing 15 deaths cannot be considered successful in any way and must be the object of an investigation. Many residents said that several of the people who ended up dead had already surrendered and were in fact executed by the police. We are monitoring the investigation of the case, and there are reasons to think that the evidence was manipulated. Despite having caused so many deaths, the police operation still received the approval of part of the population. People say: ‘they were not citizens, they were thugs’. We are losing our humanity, our capacity for empathy and compassion.

Let me provide another example of the effects of this narrative. In his eagerness to make the headlines, the governor of Rio said that if someone threatens a police officer or is armed, the police should "point to the head and shoot." A governor should not be able to say something like that. Incredible as it may seem, soon afterwards it was reported that in Manginhos, a rather violent favela in Rio that is located near a police station, five people had been killed over the course of a few months - two so far this year. Although investigations to find out where the shots came from are ongoing, residents claim - and it is very likely that this is the case - that police officers made holes for machine guns in the tower of an old factory that is now converted to police offices and shot passers-by through them. One of those killed was a worker from a nearby university, and his death caused great commotion. If the one dying is a black boy who lives in the favela and is perceived as close to drug traffickers, discourse prevails that he was just a black man from the favela. But if it is a worker with a respectable job, death becomes unacceptable. For us at Ombudsman's Office, the idea that the police can climb up a tower to shoot and kill people is dramatic.

This is the model promoted by the state government: a model that leaves a trail of dead people and indelible pain. The dispute of narratives is very important for those who live in the favelas and for those who believe in human rights.

Generally speaking, what is the state of civil society freedoms in Brazil?

While we live in a democracy, within a democratic and legal institutional setting, in practice it is difficult for CSOs to have a voice and express themselves freely, autonomously and sustainably. First of all, economic sustainability is failing us. There are no public, transparent and accessible funds for the strengthening of civil society. For reasons of funding, structure and advocacy capacity, civil society is quite weak. There are no interlocutors in the state. This is a moment of fragility for civil society, so it is important that we manage to reinforce it.

Second, although strictly speaking there is no official censorship, there is an atmosphere of fear that restricts the freedom of expression, as there are lots of investigations of human rights defenders and civil society activists. The president's discourse, which depicts activists as communists threatening the Brazilian social system, aims to eliminate activism. There are very strong signs of political control, which were clearly expressed in the decision to put a military minister in control of CSOs. We live in a democracy, but not quite.

Third, there are risks and physical threats to activists. We really do not know to what extent it is currently safe to work on rights issues in Brazil.

What risks do civil society activists and human rights defenders face, and what can be done to mitigate them?

We defenders are fewer than we should be, but even so we are enough. However, the March 2018 assassination of Marielle Franco caused fear and led to the withdrawal of many activists from the favelas, notably black and women activists. The case of Marielle was at the same time representative of the context we live often, and also very particular. Marielle was a very visible person - she was one of the representatives in Rio who received the highest numbers of votes - and her murder, which took place in the city centre, was a real attack on democracy. It was not personal; it was a reaction to her political activity. Brazil does not have a tradition of politically motivated attacks. On the other hand, the case was typical because she was a black, bisexual woman from the favela. She belonged to a whole series of categories of very vulnerable and threatened people, who are often targeted not because of their political actions, but because of their identity, their practices and ideologies.

Marielle’s murder occurred when Rio was under federal and military intervention, and now it is known who her executors were: they belong to a group of for-hire assassins linked to the militias and formed by former police officers. However, we still do not know who ordered her killing or why. The case has not been solved and meanwhile impunity and fear prevail.

What support does rights-oriented civil society need in Brazil?

First and foremost, we must be vigilant and provide visibility to situations of rights violations. For this it is very important to speak with the international media and international organisations.

Second, international cooperation between CSOs is very important. In this context it is particularly important that organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and CIVICUS put Brazil in the forefront.

Finally, it is also important to strengthen public organisations so that they liaise with civil society. In this sense, ombudspeople are particularly important, since they are, among the arms of the state, the most capable of supporting social movements in various spheres. In Rio, at least, we are trying to do so in different ways. For instance, we carry out an activity called ‘favela journey for rights’, in which we listen to the concerns of favela inhabitants on issues of rights violations. Each week a group of 15 to 20 people - public defenders, CSOs, academics, public administrators - go to a different favela and walk through it while listening to people tell their stories of rights violations. We systematise the stories and use them to try to exert influence on the police so that they pay attention to the ways they operate in the favelas. As part of the state, we work from within to turn this into a key issue and make sure the rights of the population are respected.

Civil space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Ombudsman’s Office of Rio de Janeiro through its website, YouTube channel and Facebook page.

 

CHINA: ‘Crackdown on Jasic labour struggle seeks to eliminate unrest during economic downturn’

China JasicIn July 2018, police in Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, China detained and used physical violence against several workers at Jasic Technology, a welding equipment manufacturer, after they attempted to form an autonomous union under the auspices of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the sole legal vehicle for workers’ rights in China. The workers had long complained about low wages, poor working conditions and management abuses.

 

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: ‘Human rights defenders are ordinary people doing extraordinary things’

Michel ForstCIVICUS speaks to Michel Forst, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, about key challenges and responses, and the role of civil society organisations (CSOs) in his mandate.

What do you see as the three biggest challenges faced by human rights defenders around the world today?

Human rights defenders around the world face multiple challenges but if I had to pick three of them I would say:

First, there is currently a general backlash against the idea of human rights in the world and countries are more and more turning their backs on justice and solidarity. Human rights defenders are not valued. Their work and role are not recognised, although they are the ones advancing democracy and the rule of law. I see in a growing number of countries campaigns of defamation and vilification of the work of human rights defenders.

Second, since the adoption in 1998 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the term ‘human rights defender’ has been increasingly used but too many people still don’t understand it or understand it as something negative while many defenders don’t identify themselves as such.

Third, often perpetrators of attacks are non-state actors that don't necessarily speak the ‘human rights language’ or over whom states have not much power or willingness to act. In this context human rights defenders are increasingly attacked.

How is the #TogetherWeDefend campaign planning to address the above challenges?

#TogetherWeDefend is a mainly online campaign that seeks to change the narrative around human rights defenders. We want to show that the work done by human rights defenders is positive. They fight so human rights can be a reality for all of us!

We also want to show that they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things and explain that everyone can be a defender.

The notion that anyone can be a human rights defender is a powerful one. Would you explain what it means?

Human rights defenders are identified in the UN Declaration as anyone who is promoting and protecting human rights. This means that you might be already defending human rights by signing a petition, writing an article, raising your voice when you witness an injustice, participating in a protest, taking a solidarity action and so on. Human rights in a nutshell are the idea that everyone, no matter who they are, from where they come, what they believe, what they prefer and how they look, have rights and should be treated with respect and dignity. The moment you defend this, you become a human rights defender. You don’t need to have a long trajectory behind you, to be part of an organisation or do it for a living; it’s what you do that defines you as a defender.

How are you working with civil society? What more can CSOs around the world do to support your mandate?

CSOs have been fundamental for my mandate. We have tried jointly to organise consultations in several countries to listen to human rights defenders and to understand their needs in order to support their work in the best way we can. CSOs are also a key element for my mandate when they invite me in countries in which my mandate has not been officially invited. It gives me the opportunity to meet with defenders who don't or can't travel abroad, which also helps to increase the level of engagement of CSOs with the UN.

Get in touch with Michel Forst through his website and Facebook page, or follow @ForstMichel on Twitter.

 

UNITED STATES: Voices of vulnerable groups are suppressed if their votes are not counted

USA InterviewDuring the US midterm elections held in November 2018, great numbers of eligible voters, particularly from historically marginalised groups, were prevented from voting due to a number of barriers that were deliberately erected to deny them a voice in politics. CIVICUS speaks about voter suppression and its implications for democracy with Karena Cronin, Vote Everywhere Programme Director, and Ryan Spain, David Rudenstine Postgraduate Public Service Legal Fellow, both at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, a civil society organisation that supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives on campuses across the USA.

What is voter suppression, and how is it affecting the practice of democracy in the USA?

Voter suppression is hardly a new phenomenon in American politics. What is new, however, is the recent resurgence of these efforts to discourage or prevent certain groups from exercising their right to vote. In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, 19 states passed 25 laws making it harder to vote. This legislation marked a dramatic shift away from the widely held belief that political disenfranchisement is un-American and significantly eroded gains made since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Then in 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County vs. Holder case opened the floodgates for voter suppression even wider. The decision, by five to four votes, removed the requirement that certain jurisdictions with a history of racialised voter suppression must obtain clearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws. Since this ruling, there has been a slew of restrictive voting laws coming out of state legislatures all over the country.

These laws have consistently, negatively and disproportionately affected three main groups of people: young people, racial minorities and people who come from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. Individuals who fall into all three of these categories feel the effects most acutely. Whether it be by placing onerous voter ID requirements, complicating absentee ballot policies, enacting burdensome proof of residency requirements, or even shutting down entire voting sites, there has been a clear, consistent effort on behalf of partisan state legislatures to accomplish one task: depress the vote of citizens who do not belong to the same party as them.

These actions range from the easier-to-see aforementioned voting requirements, to the more systemic exercises of power such a gerrymandering - whereby state officials draw legislative district lines to either pack as many opposing party voters into one district, thus making all surrounding districts easy wins, or break up and separate dense areas of voters into multiple districts, thus diluting their vote and making the ensuing neighbouring districts uncompetitive.

The 2016 elections also laid bare the vulnerability of American elections to voter suppression from external actors. Various reports have documented how Russian campaigns took advantage of racial faultlines in the USA and employed racialised tactics aimed at discouraging the black vote.

Regardless of which form these policies or tactics take, the result is the same: the voices and votes of certain groups - specifically, young people, racial minorities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds - are not fully counted in American democracy, leaving the goal of political equity unrealised.

How is civil society pushing back against these restrictions?

Although these facts taken together paint a grim picture for the prospects of having a well-functioning democracy, civil society is mobilising in powerful and innovative ways to reclaim voting rights and have a more representative government. This movement is being led by both veteran civil rights organisations as well as dynamic, new organisations founded within the last few years in response to heightened voter suppression. While the exact focus and methodology of these organisations range from litigation to youth peer-to-peer activation to policy advocacy, all of these actors, including The Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF), are committed to ushering in a more inclusive democracy: one where Americans are empowered and enabled to vote. And there are promising signs that these efforts, and those of concerned and engaged citizens across the country, are paying off.

During last year’s midterm election, Florida voters approved a ballot initiative that restored voting rights to 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions. Desmond Meade, a formerly homeless returning citizen and architect of the successful movement, advocated for felon rights restoration back in 2010, when few organisations, including progressive ones, thought this change was possible. In January 2019, the State of New York passed historic voting reforms including early voting, primary consolidation and pre-registration for 16 and 17-year olds, which propelled New York’s antiquated voting system into the 21st century. These gains come after years of advocacy by a multitude of civic society actors, and more recent leadership by the Let NY Vote Coalition, a non-partisan, state-wide coalition of groups and citizens fighting to make voting more accessible and equitable for every eligible New Yorker.

The AGF was proud to support these efforts, as well as many other initiatives across the nation through Vote Everywhere (VE), the Foundation’s flagship, non-partisan civic leadership development programme, active on 59 college and university campuses in 24 states and Washington, DC. The AGF was founded in 1966 to honour the legacies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi for registering African-Americans to vote during Freedom Summer in 1964.

The AGF’s greatest asset is its network of VE student Ambassadors who take action in their communities to ensure that the voices and votes of young people are a powerful force in democracy. Throughout the academic year, VE student Ambassadors remove youth voting impediments and expand political participation among their peers through long-term voter engagement, civic education, organising and voting rights advocacy. The VE student Ambassadors have successfully championed legislation in Louisiana that requires public universities to ensure that student IDs are also valid voter IDs, helped out-of-state students in Ohio overcome burdensome residency requirements, removed modern-day poll taxes in Alabama, expanded access to voter registration on countless campuses and brought the ballot box closer to students through on-campus polling sites.

Just last year, the AGF was a co-plaintiff along with the League of Women Voters of Florida in a lawsuit that proscribed the Florida Secretary of State from prohibiting college campuses and universities from being used as early voting sites. The lawsuit was inspired by a former VE Ambassador, Megan Newsome at the University of Florida, who in 2017 published an op-ed demanding equal access to early voting sites for students. The legal victory came in 2018 in the United States District Court in the Northern District of Florida and, thanks to the efforts of many civil rights and student voter engagement groups, it led to the placement of 12 early voting polling sites on college and university campuses across Florida, facilitating access to the ballot box for 60,000 Floridians.

While there is much more work still to be done to ensure that no one’s vote is suppressed, it is clear that there is a renewed commitment throughout civil society at the local, state and national levels to counter voter suppression and empower every eligible American to vote.

Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with the Andrew Goodman Foundation through its website and Facebook page, or follow @AndrewGoodmanF on Twitter.

 

G20: ‘Global activism must reconnect with the real experiences of people on the ground’

Corina Rodriguez EnriquezIn December 2018 thousands of people marched against neoliberal policies in Argentina, where the Summit of the G20 Heads of State was being held in the capital, Buenos Aires. Both during the summit and in the process leading up to it, Argentine, Latin American and global civil society worked in institutional participation spaces while organising autonomous actions and holding street protests to make their discontent heard. CIVICUS speaks about action around the G20 with Corina Rodríguez Enríquez, an Argentinian economist, researcher and member of the Executive Committee of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), a network of feminists from the global south working for gender, economic and ecological justice, and for democratic and sustainable development. 

Who came out to protest against the G20 summit in Argentina? What tactics did they use?

Street protest during the G20 summit was not an isolated event. It has to be viewed in continuity with the reactions provoked by the meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that was also held in Argentina the previous year. It was not organised specifically before the G20 but was part of a broader resistance led by coordinated social organisations that raise their voices against the process of financial globalisation. I belong to a feminist organisation of the global south, DAWN, and therefore I was involved in particular in the work done by what we call the Feminist Forum, a subgroup within this network of organisations. What we organised on the occasion of the G20 was very similar to what had been done before the WTO - a week of action that was initially thought of as action vis-a-vis the G20 but ended up being action against the G20. Various kinds of actions and interventions were staged. We at the Feminist Forum took advantage of the context to hold a specific day of training in feminist economics, so among other things DAWN led the School of Feminist Economics. There were a couple of days in which more academic debates were held, which took place at the School of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. Roundtables were organised dealing with the various topics that are discussed in these multilateral forums, from extractivism to the digital economy. And then there were a couple of days of street action: on the first full day, debates and panel discussions were held in tents pitched on the street, one of which was the Feminist Forum’s. In there we held a discussion, staged a tribunal where cases were presented of human rights violations perpetrated by transnational companies, and held a Feminist Forum meeting to discuss strategy and perspectives. Tribunals are forms of public actions similar to the ones staged by the Global Alliance for a Binding Treaty on Transnational Corporations and Human Rights: a forum where complaints are presented and it is made clear how justice should be done about it.

On the last day of the week, when the G20 summit was already underway, we marched in protest, and we did so in a rather restrictive context, since the Argentine government, which presided over the summit, had militarised the city of Buenos Aires and established an exclusion zone, forcing the protest to remain quite far away from the summit site.

In very general terms, the mottoes of the week of action focused on denouncing the implications for human rights of the type of policies promoted by the governments of the countries that make up the G20, and fundamentally the impacts of the decisions made by concentrated capital and the actions of multinational companies on the ground. We affirmed that current global dynamics are leading to a scandalous increase in inequalities and to the systematic violation of human rights, and provided clear evidence, mostly from cases related to the actions of extractive companies. The other overall message is one of resistance: we need collectively to resist the policies driven by G20 countries and collectively build an alternative economy and a different society.

Were these protests by local organisations and social movements, or were they global protests?

Resistance is global. Although in the case of Argentina there was greater participation by foreign organisations and activists during the WTO meeting than the G20 summit, I attribute this to the fact that the G20 involves fewer countries. In addition, the G20 is not on the radar, and therefore on the agenda, of that many organisations, not only in Argentina but also in the region and around the world. But the global coalition that mobilised on this occasion was the same coalition that takes to the streets during meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, among other global finance governing bodies.

Both during the WTO and G20 summits, both of which I was able to participate in because they were held in Argentina, there was a strong Argentine and Latin American presence. I think this can be explained by two factors: the physical distance that separates us from the rest of the world and the strength that activism around these issues has in Latin America.

Regardless of which activists were for whatever reason able or willing to attend, what makes protest against the G20 global is precisely the nature of its target. The G20 includes the largest and most concentrated economies in the world. Including the countries that form the European Union, which are collectively a member of the G20, it accounts for 85 per cent of the world’s gross product. The decisions made and agreements reached by the governments of its member countries affect the entire world. It is therefore only natural for resistance against the G20 to have a global character, even though it takes its local colour and its composition varies according to where the annual summits are held.

In that sense, even though obviously not all of us are always everywhere, we become part of the resistance when the G20 meets in our country, and we hope that the organisations and social movements of other countries will do the same when their turn comes. DAWN is an organisation of the global south and has members in Argentina, so it was only natural for us to get involved when the G20 meetings were held in Argentina. But we are not in the least contemplating mobilising next year as the G20 gathers in Japan. This time around it was easy for us to participate, and not doing so would have been a wasted opportunity to be an active part of this resistance coalition in which we had already been taking part in other ways and on other occasions. We thought we needed to take advantage of the fact that this was happening in Buenos Aires so that our public resistance would serve to inform citizens about what the G20 is and what its implications and impacts are, as well as countering the narrative of success disseminated by the Argentine government. But action against the G20 is not among our strategic priorities: we will not be following the G20 around the world. In fact, this year's summit was a relative anomaly, because few countries of the global south are members of the G20. We hope that next year Japanese civil society will take over; it would only be natural for resistance against the G20 to be led by Asian organisations and activists. While some larger organisations are based in the global north and have the means to go everywhere, logic indicates that in each case mobilisation will be primarily local and regional.

In addition to resorting to street action, how did you take advantage of institutional spaces for civil society participation within the G20?

Members of the resistance movement against the G20 don’t have a unified position regarding those spaces. DAWN's decision is to take advantage of them, and as a representative of DAWN I participated in the Observatory of Women’s Rights Human Rights Defenders, which was led by Mabel Bianco, president of the feminist organisation Foundation for Studies and Research on Women (FEIM). Throughout the year when the government of Argentina presided over the G20, the aim of the Observatory was to monitor compliance with the implementation plan for the basic agreement points approved the previous year by the W20 (Women20) group in Berlin, Germany. We held some local and national-level activities and produced policy briefs and other written materials to influence those who would participate in the meetings and negotiate the G20 statements. We mainly worked with the G20 affinity groups, and in particular we deployed a lot of activity around the meetings of the working groups and summits of the C20 (the civil society meeting) and W20. There was also feminist participation in a third affinity group, the T20 (of think tanks), which included a gender taskforce.

Participation in the W20 in particular was very controversial within the feminist movement, and it was hard. We did not attend as delegates, although we did participate from within to set our positions in the W20. This provoked many discussions with colleagues who believed that inside participation has a legitimising and validating effect. These are worthy arguments, but my conclusion after having been both inside and outside these spaces is that it was a good idea for us to stay within and for some colleagues of other organisations to accept the role of delegates, because otherwise the W20 statement would have been much worse than it actually was. It was very important that there were feminist voices in there, and that those voices were ours, because the person that the Argentine government appointed to lead the W20 was a businesswoman with a perspective that was not only not in the least feminist, but also quite paternalistic and completely divorced from the reality in which most people live.

In sum, the result of the work of these affinity groups depends largely on who leads them, and it was not surprising that work was much more productive within the C20, which eventually issued a much better statement regarding women’s rights than the W20 itself.

At a time of rising economic nationalism and right-wing populism, how can civil society offer a progressive critique of globalised neoliberalism that resonates with the angry citizens currently embracing populism?

I wish I had an answer to that. I think global activism, and particularly the kind that unfolds in these multilateral spaces, is strongly disconnected from people’s experiences on the ground. Generally speaking, progressives have great difficulties in understanding people's experiences and choices, such as why people in Brazil voted for Jair Bolsonaro, or why people in the Philippines continue to support Rodrigo Duterte. People who live in a position of relative privilege are usually unable to imagine how people live in the slums of our metropolis. We should make an effort to understand the mentality of a woman whose son is being killed by drugs and wants the military to come in and take drug traffickers out. In short, global activism must reconnect with the real experiences of people on the ground.

Generally speaking, the current environment is hostile and resistance is the priority. I do not think we are yet at a proactive stage in which alternatives are built; our number one imperative is to resist and protect the small achievements that we secured through so much effort over decades and that have strengthened rights and institutionalised equality policies. Although in the final analysis the preservation of these achievements will depend on whether an alternative narrative is built that allows us to bring regressive forces to a halt, unfortunately we have not yet reached that point. As we are now, any effort to build an alternative narrative would be extremely superficial. Progressive movements, at least in Latin America, and possibly elsewhere where the extreme right is on the rise, urgently need to do a critical self-assessment, without which they will hardly be able to move in any direction. Given experiences like those of the Workers’ Party in Brazil, which initially inspired so much hope but ended up creating fertile ground for people to turn to someone like Jair Bolsonaro, progressives should at least wonder what was done wrong, as a prerequisite for putting together a new progressive narrative.

As a feminist and a Latin American woman, I have my hopes set on the fact that in our region feminism has been working on the ground for years and, as a result, today more than ever it is nourished by the diverse life experiences of real women, and of people more generally. That is why it is much more plural and less class-biased than ever before. If there is one social movement that still has a vitality that is practically incomprehensible in this bleak context, it is feminism. That is turning it into one of the most relevant social actors both to sustain resistance and to build an alternative.

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

 

PAKISTAN: ‘The environment for civil society is suffocating’

Aasim SaeedThroughout 2018, the space for civil society continued to deteriorate in Pakistan, particularly in the context of July’s election. CIVICUS speaks about the increasing restrictions on criticism and dissent with Aasim Saeed, a Pakistani blogger who in 2017 was abducted and tortured for his online posts. After his release, Aasim was granted asylum in the UK, where he now lives.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Pakistan over the past year?

I would describe it as suffocating. The government uses harassment, threats, abduction, blackmailing through family members, torture and in certain cases death to curb dissent. Restrictions on the freedom of expression have increased and a lot of media houses have resorted to self-censorship. Newspapers are being forced not to give coverage to dissenting voices. For instance, Express Tribune, the Pakistani version of the New York Times, was recently forced to leave blank spaces when an interview with the leader of the Pushtoon Protection Movement, Manzoor Pashteen, was published in its international edition.

Behind these restrictions are most certainly the military, who abuse the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) and the Anti-Terrorism Act. They have started to apply PECA against anybody who tries to raise their voices through social media, as this is the only remaining outlet available for people to raise their concerns.

The most threatening part is when Pakistan’s intelligence agencies use electronic, print and social media to accuse activists of sedition. It gets life-threatening when religion is used as a tool and accusations of blasphemy are levelled against activists. Articles 295-C and 298 of the Penal Code make the death penalty mandatory for those found guilty of blasphemy. Scarily, those accused hardly ever make it to court, because they are often lynched by street vigilantes.

The politically motivated use of blasphemy laws is widespread. Professor Junaid Hafeez, a former lecturer in English Literature, has spent years behind bars, often in solitary confinement, due to false blasphemy accusations that were politically and personally motivated. His legal case has not progressed from the District Court in years. Every time a verdict is expected, judges get themselves transferred, while one of Junaid’s key lawyers was shot dead in the early days of the case.

The situation worsened as the July 2018 elections approached, as opposition parties were challenging the military-backed party that went on to win the elections. Opposition parties weren’t given much coverage on mainstream media and on election day their results were delayed. Serious allegations of large-scale vote rigging were raised as the electronic result transmission system was made to look like it had failed when it hadn’t; the delay was caused intentionally so that ballot papers belonging to various opposition parties could be manually voided. In several districts the number of rejected votes was much larger than the margin of defeat. The number of rejected votes was higher than ever before, even in districts where the total number of votes cast was lower than in the past. In some places a recount was done and the opposition gained a number of extra seats; however, no recount was allowed in key districts, where it was ensured that the military’s puppets got elected.

Many people don’t give up and still raise their voices, but it’s increasingly dangerous to do so, because people are getting abducted for their Facebook posts or tweets against the powerful military junta or their ‘selected’ prime minister. They have recently started to react if you make online criticisms of the prime minister or any minister. Calling the prime minister a crook can land you in jail. They used to allow criticism of politicians but they are not allowing it anymore.

You have experienced persecution for exercising online free expression. Can you tell us more about your case?

In 2017 I was living and working in Singapore, but in early January that year I was in Pakistan for my brother’s wedding when I was abducted from my family home, in broad daylight, by several men in plainclothes who I believe were elements of the security forces. At the time I administered a Facebook page critical of the military establishment, Mochi, and I had been accused repeatedly on mainstream media outlets of promoting blasphemy on social networks.

Three other bloggers and activists who were also critics of the military and religious establishment were abducted at about the same time. Our websites and blogs were shut down as we were abducted, suggesting the two things were connected.

Initially I was interrogated about Mochi and ordered to hand over the passwords to my email accounts and mobile phone. Then I was moved to a secret detention facility where I was held alongside people who I think were religious terrorists. I was beaten until I lost consciousness, and moved several times. At another detention facility closer to the capital, Islamabad, I was subjected to polygraph tests while being repeatedly questioned about alleged links to the Indian intelligence service, which of course I don’t have. My interrogators also analysed my Facebook posts and interrogated me about the reasons why I was critical of the army. Several times I thought I would be killed.

I was gone for about three weeks and was extremely lucky to be released, because many missing persons never return home. Fortunately, there were protests and solidarity actions in Pakistan and around the world, and the Pakistani government was pressured into providing information and eventually releasing me and other kidnapped bloggers and activists. At the same time, a counter-campaign was held by right-wing religious clerics and TV anchors who kept accusing us of blasphemy. But for once, pressures to hold the government accountable for its human rights violations had a positive effect.

In late 2017 I applied for asylum in the UK, where I am now based.

What actions should the Pakistani government take to safeguard democratic space?

At a very basic level, the Pakistani government should adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and respect United Nations resolutions. Citizens should be allowed to speak up and freedom of speech or dissent shouldn’t be equated with treason, which is currently the case. For instance, if you criticise any government institution, and the military or the army in particular, you will be called a traitor and are likely to be booked under charges of treason or sedition, and in certain cases blasphemy. The space for civil society has gradually been reduced and even members of parliament have been abducted for expressing criticism of the government in their parliamentary speeches.

What support should international civil society give to Pakistani civil society?

Most international civil society organisations have been forced to close their offices in Pakistan and are not allowed to work in the country. I believe international civil society should engage Pakistani activists in international forums and venues where the issues that affect them can be raised and attention can be drawn to their cases. I personally feel that the current level of engagement is very low.

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

Get in touch with Aasim through his website or Facebook page, or follow @AasimSaeedPPP on Twitter.

 

CAMBODIA: ‘We need to bring back to life the spirit of the Paris Peace Agreement’

Flag map of Cambodia.svgThe conditions for civil society in Cambodia have continued to deteriorate. In 2018, the government imposed further restrictions on the right to the freedom of expression and grew increasingly intolerant of public protests in the run-up to elections, ahead of which the main opposition party was banned. CIVICUS speaks about these restrictions with a civil society representative who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns. Our interviewee reflects on the conditions that should be met so that Cambodia can evolve from a one-party state to a functioning democracy.

What restrictions were imposed around the July 2018 elections, and to what extent was civil society able to work around them?

Cambodia held an election of representatives for the National Assembly on 29 July 2018. This was an election without an opposition, because after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made unprecedented gains in the June 2017 local elections, it was dissolved by the Supreme Court on the grounds that it fostered dissent with the assistance of foreign powers. As was expected, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won nearly all the 125 seats that were at stake.

The government had initially invited international civil society organisations (CSOs) to take part in the election monitoring process. However, most declined when they confirmed that there were structural issues, including the dissolution of the opposition party and the lack of independence of the National Election Committee, that would make the elections unfair and non-inclusive.

There was very little space for civil society to engage with the government. Due to the vague requirement of ‘political neutrality’ imposed by the 2015 Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (LANGO), CSOs are supposed to be politically neutral even when they take part in dialogue forums related to political processes. The political neutrality clause has been repeatedly used to shut down independent CSOs or deny them registration. On top of this, the informal election monitoring platform run by civil society was banned the government. The government-approved monitoring groups, which went on to endorse the results, had close ties to the ruling party.

A number of laws and regulations were used against civil society, including but not limited to the LANGO, the Anti-Corruption Law and the Taxation Law. Anti-corruption charges against CSO activists, the shutdown of media channels and various forms of intimidation introduced additional restrictions on the operations of civil society. The government applied a regulation, Notice No. 175 - which was rescinded afterwards, in November 2018 - that required CSOs to notify the local government three days in advance of conducting any field activities. Seeing regulations being introduced and strictly enforced, civil society also resorted to self-censorship around the elections.

Additionally, a document produced by the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit, the White Paper on the Political Situation in Cambodia, singled out several CSOs as being linked to an allegedly foreign-backed attempted ‘Colour Revolution’. Pro-government media also disseminated the idea that some CSO leaders had engagements with the Colour Revolution and the CNRP. On top of this, some CSO leaders moved from civil society into the political arena. All of these had a negative impact on the visibility of civil society to the public.

Most independent media channels were shut down or suspended. As a result, civil society lacked the appropriate channels to voice its concerns. Alternative spaces on social media also declined, as cases proliferated of social media activists being arrested for their online posts or blogs. There was a crackdown on online freedoms before the elections, and internet censorship increased. Surveillance technology was used to monitor digital communications. Lots of conversation clips involving opposition party members, civil society activists and CSO leaders were released and used as proof to support accusations against civil society.

In sum, the already-reduced space for civil society shrank even further around the elections, due to the existence of extremely limited opportunities for multi-stakeholder dialogue, the intensive use of a repressive legal framework, attacks against the image of civil society and a reduced public visibility, and lack of access to traditional media along with online restrictions and digital security issues.

What needs to happen so that Cambodia can advance towards democracy?

In my personal opinion, in order to become a democratic state with a plural regime, the government of Cambodia should, first of all, provide opportunities for the leaders of the former opposition party to resume their activities, even through new political parties. If votes could be cast for individuals rather than political parties, that could help.

Second, it needs to bring back the culture of dialogue between the ruling party and the former opposition party and see how best they can understand each other and ensure that their activities cause minimal harm to each other and to the nation.

Finally, the government should request support from the international community, and particularly from the signatory states of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement (PPA) that put an end to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War. As well as providing for a ceasefire, the end of outside military assistance and the withdrawal of foreign forces, the PPA included provisions to ensure the exercise of the right of self-determination by the Cambodian people, through free and fair elections, and on national reconciliation. We need to bring back to life the spirit of the PPA.

How is the international community helping, and what more should it do to help?

It is my general understanding that various actors of the international community have adopted different positions. Western states such as European countries, the USA and Australia have shown concern about the lack of progress towards democracy in Cambodia, as well as the lack of guarantees for the electoral process. They have made some key asks and put some pressure on the government to address their concerns. They have pressed the government by placing conditions on future collaboration, suspending Cambodia’s preferential trade benefits under the European Union’s (EU) Everything But Arms (EBA) free trade scheme and withdrawing support from specific sectors.

At the same time, China and other countries maintained their full support of the government during the electoral process and, more recently, as the EU initiated procedures to suspend Cambodia’s trade preferences temporarily. Overall, Cambodia is seen as standing between two powers and need not take either side.

It is very important to note that, besides hurting the government, any diplomatic or trade conflict between Cambodia and other countries would also have a lot of negative impacts on the public, including civil society. For example, the suspension or elimination of EBA benefits would cause several challenges as a result of its effect on the trade balance, employment and investment.

I would like to see the international community establish effective coordination mechanisms among its various parties in order to have a unified voice on the situation in Cambodia. They should use an existing powerful mechanism such as the PPA, which is still in effect, and which makes it binding for all signatory states to support Cambodia in its path towards full peace and prosperity.

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

 

ECUADOR: ‘Today better conditions exist for the exercise of democratic freedoms’

Daniel BarraganCIVICUS speaks about apparently improving conditions for civil society in Ecuador with Daniel Barragán, Executive Director of the International Centre for Research on the Environment and Territory (CIIAT) at Universidad de Los Hemisferios. Formed in 2015 as an institution linking the university with the community, CIIAT pursues the objective of promoting scientific research and continuous training on issues of environmental management and law, climate change, conservation and land management.

To what extent are the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression guaranteed in Ecuador?

Over the past two years an environment of greater freedom and respect for these rights has become apparent in Ecuador. Change has taken the form of a government policy of openness to dialogue and in reforms of the regulations that apply to civil society organisations (CSOs) and the Organic Communications Law.

Decrees 16 and 739, which used to regulate CSOs, were repealed in late 2017. Decree 193, which replaced them, has not been used as a political tool to restrict rights or limit the ability of CSOs to act. The risk, however, remains latent insofar as the possible causes for CSO dissolution can still be interpreted discretionally and could in the future be applied arbitrarily by the incumbent government.

The Organic Communications Law was amended in December 2018. After the reform was partially vetoed by the president, some changes remained that are aimed at guaranteeing rights and imply a change of the logic of its predecessor: communication is no longer considered a public service but a right, the right to freedom of expression is conceptually broadened, media control is eliminated and self-regulation is promoted, the figure of media lynching – which criminalised the repeated dissemination of information aimed at discrediting or destroying someone’s credibility - is repealed, and administrative sanctions are eliminated, among other things. These points were analysed in a technical report issued by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that set out its observations on the reform proposal.

Another relevant fact was the recent signing of the Declaration of Chapultepec. This declaration was adopted in 1994 by the Hemispheric Conference on Freedom of Expression, and signed by the government of Ecuador in February 2019, coinciding with the promulgation in the Official Gazette of the reforms to the Organic Communications Law.

On these issues in particular, it is important to emphasise the current political will to make changes in the enabling environment for CSOs and the media. While it has not always been possible to achieve the best possible regulations and the margin of discretion allowed by the current legislation is still a pending issue, the changes point in the right direction.

What is the situation of indigenous and environmental activists and organisations in Ecuador?

Although there are cases in which land rights defenders are criminalised for their work, the situation in Ecuador is different from that of other countries in the region in terms of the level of risk to which environmental and land rights defenders are exposed. In the 2007 to 2017 period, the criminalisation of social protest was the main tool that was used to neutralise and silence activists and environmentalists, and mechanisms remain that do not allow them to carry out their work within a framework of freedom and guarantees for the exercise of their rights. In late 2018, the Ombudsperson's Office spoke out against the attacks suffered by several human rights and environmental defenders in the Pastaza province, including through the misuse of criminal law, harassment, threats, and arson against the home of one of them. Given these facts, the Ombudsperson urged the state to adopt “a comprehensive policy of promotion and protection of human and environmental rights independently from the current system for the protection of victims and witnesses.”

On the other hand, at the regional level we now have the Escazú Agreement, which is the first environmental human rights treaty and the first internationally binding treaty that regulates the protection of environmental defenders. The agreement explicitly recognises a growing problem in Latin America, where about 60 per cent of all murders of environmental and land rights defenders take place, according to Global Witness data for 2017. And it also recognises the role of states in guaranteeing a safe environment and its obligation to protect, prevent and punish attacks against and threats to the rights of human rights defenders in environmental matters.

The present challenge is to achieve progress in the process of signing and ratification of this instrument. To date, the agreement has signatures from 16 states: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Lucia and Uruguay.

What significance did the February 2018 constitutional referendum have?

The February 2018 referendum addressed issues as diverse as the fight against corruption, the restructuring of the main official participation body, the Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control (CPCCS), the elimination of indefinite re-election, the protection of children and the non-prescription of sexual crimes, and the prohibition of mining in urban centres and protected areas. It also included two popular consultation questions about the repeal of the Organic Law to Prevent Speculation on the Value of Land and Taxation, also known as the Capital Gains Law, and the re-demarcation of the Yasuní National Park so as to increase the size of its protected area and reduce the area where oil exploitation is allowed.

The referendum resulted in important institutional change, particularly as a result of the reform of the CPCCS, and its implications to date in terms of the evaluation and removal of around 27 officials in supervisory bodies, accompanied by new appointments - some of them temporary and others permanent - to those positions, as has been the case with the Constitutional Court. The CPCCS had been established by the 2008 Constituent Assembly and was conceived of as a ‘fifth power’ in charge of auditing control mechanisms, encouraging citizen participation and fighting against corruption. It also plays a role in appointing officials, which made it a target of major criticism.

On the legality of what has been done on these issues, perspectives diverge; what is certain however is, as far as I can tell, that the workings of the temporary CPCCS enjoy social and citizen support.

What progress has been achieved in terms of the enforcement of democratic freedoms?

From my point of view, today better conditions exist for the exercise of democratic freedoms. Proof of this is the existence of an environment of dialogue, tolerance of divergent opinions and respect for the rule of law.

A clear example of the progress made is the decision for Ecuador to join the Open Government Partnership. This was one of the measures taken not only towards citizen participation but also regarding the fight against corruption. For Ecuador, it is essential to advance towards the creation of a climate of trust based on the transparency of the actions of the authorities and officials, as well as on a logic of citizen co-responsibility in public affairs. At the moment we are making progress towards the design of our first Open Government National Action Plan. Additionally, last week the Consultative Council of Open Government in Quito, the capital city, gave the mayor a city-level action plan to be implemented in 2019. I am participating in both processes and I can attest to the fact that when there is political will, coordinated work among different sectors and actors is possible.

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

Get in touch with CIIAT through its website and with the Universidad de Los Hemisferios through its Facebook page, or follow @uhemisferios on Twitter.

 

Dominican Republic: Big Opportunities, Bigger Challenges for Civil Society Domestic Resourcing

This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.

AddysThe term sustainability is being used maybe more than ever by civil society organisations (CSOs) in Latin America and the Caribbean, as they are feeling increasingly challenged by constant changes in the funding architecture that supports the region. First, the global financial crisis that engulfed the world a decade ago significantly reduced international aid - the main source of funds for most of the sector. Then, the new realities of their developing economies have also taken a toll on the amount and type of funds CSOs can access. Last, but not least, the rise of populism in many countries is further threatening funding. Under these circumstances, more and more CSOs wonder if they will be able to secure a future.  

 

SUDAN: Demands for political change are fuelled by brutal state response to protests

Abdel Rahman El Mahdi Sudan2Following a year that was marked by the violent repression of any kind of opposition and dissent in Sudan, a situation that has continued unchanged into 2019, CIVICUS speaks to Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, a civil society activist and founder of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA). SUDIA is a civil society organisation that works toward stability, development and good governance in Sudan. With over 20 years of experience in international development, Abdel-Rahman specialises in organisational management and programming, with a thematic expertise extending to peacebuilding and human security, and civic engagement and democratic transformation. 

What is driving the current wave of protests in Sudan?

The current wave of protests was initially sparked by the rising cost of living and the increasing difficulties the Sudanese people are facing in meeting their basic needs. Poor economic and fiscal policy coupled with unbridled corruption had led to record high inflation rates, widening poverty and causing critical shortages in basic commodities and services. Shortages of fuel and bread across the country had people standing in long queues for hours to get these basic living commodities. A chronic liquidity crisis where banks and ATMs were only dispensing up to 2,000 Sudanese pounds a day (approximately US$40) to account holders was also making things worse and fuelling a lack of confidence in the banking system and the overall situation of the country.

 

ESCAZÚ: ‘The work of civil society made a huge difference’

After several years of negotiations, in March 2018 the first environmental treaty for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, known as the Escazú Agreement, was approved. CIVICUS speaks about the significance of this agreement for civil society with Aída Gamboa, specialist in Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR). Founded in 2004, DAR is a civil society organisation that is committed to building and strengthening environmental governance and promoting the exercise of human rights in the Amazon Basin. DAR focuses on issues of environmental policy and legislation, indigenous peoples’ rights, climate change and investment and good governance in the areas of infrastructure and extractive industries. It participated in the process leading to the Escazú Agreement, and currently works for its ratification by the state of Peru.

What is the Escazú agreement? What is its significance for environmental rights defenders and civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean?

The Escazú Agreement is the first environmental human rights treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was approved in March 2018 after a negotiation that lasted about six years. It develops Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which seeks to ensure access to information, citizen participation and access to justice in environmental matters. The Escazú Agreement develops these three rights and aims to promote better governance of natural resources in the region. Twenty-four states approved its final text in March 2018, in the Costa Rican town of Escazú, where the last of the nine meetings of the Negotiating Committee was held.

Escazu 1

The Escazú Agreement incorporates several innovative elements. First, it has a specific provision on environmental human rights defenders (HRDs) that is unprecedented in the region. Second, it enshrines a rights-based approach toward indigenous peoples and vulnerable populations, with provisions to favour access to information, participation and access to justice by these groups. Third, it also responds to the spirit of the United Nations’ (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights regarding companies’ specific obligations to respect human rights in the context of their activities.

For the part of civil society that has been involved in the process, this agreement is the result of many years’ worth of work to promote access to information and environmental transparency, in a context where lack of participation and information about the environmental impacts of extractive and infrastructure projects are at the heart of much of the region's many socio-environmental conflicts. One of the main conflict hotspots is the Amazon region, where affected populations demand greater participation in decision-making, from the planning stages onwards, regarding any natural resource exploitation activity - an element that is addressed in the Escazú Agreement. In addition, two key elements of the agreement are the use of translators into other languages and cost-free guarantees to ensure access to justice, which is essential in these conflicts.

As repeatedly highlighted by Amnesty International, CIVICUS, Front Line Defenders and Global Witness, dozens, even hundreds of environmental and indigenous HRDs are killed every year in Latin America. According to the most recent Global Witness report, out of the 207 murders of HRDs documented worldwide in 2017, 60 per cent took place in Latin America. That was the deadliest year on record for Latin American socio-environmental HRDs. The Escazú Agreement seeks to reinforce the rights that are at the centre of the conflicts, repression and threats, coming both from governments, private companies and other actors, faced by HRDs the region.

In many countries of the region, legislation is used not to protect rights but to criminalise the communities and activists who mobilise in reaction to the violation of their rights to be consulted when projects that affect them are implemented. In Peru, for example, cases are still open against leaders of the Baguazo, an indigenous mobilisation the repression of which yielded dozens of fatalities in June 2009. Another tragic case was the murder of Edwin Chota, an indigenous leader who for 10 years had denounced the threats that he received for speaking up against illegal activities such as logging. The Escazú Agreement seeks to respond to this context. In this sense, it is worth noting that on the last day of the negotiations a tribute was paid to Berta Cáceres on the second anniversary of her murder, as well as to all HRDs who died defending their rights to territory and the environment.

How was civil society involved in the development of the agreement?

In November 2014, the 10 states that had signed the Declaration on the application of Principle 10 in 2012 decided to begin negotiating a regional agreement. To this end, a Negotiating Committee was established, which was eventually formed by the 24 signatory states of the agreement. In 2014, the decision that established the Negotiating Committee mandated public participation in the process. To make participation possible, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which functioned as the Technical Secretariat of the negotiation process, established and coordinated the Regional Public Mechanism. More than 2,000 individuals and organisations registered with the mechanism to receive periodic information about the process and participate in the virtual and face-to-face meetings of the Negotiating Committee.

DAR participated through the Public Mechanism since 2015, first virtually and since 2016 more intensively, taking part in the face-to-face meetings. In March 2015, all of us who were registered voted electronically for the election of representatives for the Public Mechanism. Two representatives and four alternates were elected for a two-year term and had the right to participate in the meetings of the Negotiation Committee, working groups and any other spaces that might be established. This form of participation has been recognised internationally as a high standard of participation in international negotiations.

The Public Mechanism gave civil society a voice but no vote: civil society representatives could participate in the meetings alongside country delegates, but they did not get to vote in the decision-making process. However, in practice civil society had a lot of influence, as it was able to bring to the table the proposals previously agreed among a large number of organisations, distribute them to the delegates and present them in the meetings. Civil society was able to influence the positions of many government delegates, and many of its proposals, although not all of them, were incorporated.

Thanks to the financial support of international foundations, it was possible to institutionalise a network of more than 30 civil society organisations (CSOs), known as the LACP10 network. In 2016, a first meeting was held in Panama to contribute strategically to the base text proposed by ECLAC. It was during that year that more in-depth discussion of the articles on access to information, participation and access to justice began, so discussions were more intense. All of us who participated in the face-to-face meetings had the right to speak on behalf of the public and to participate in all spaces. This was achieved thanks to close coordination work between civil society and elected representatives.

The civil society network made comments and observations on all the articles of the text proposed by ECLAC, as well as on its later versions. The text was also distributed to all contacts and allies of the network’s member organisations and their contributions were collected. Therefore, when they participated in the negotiation meetings, civil society representatives brought comments from all the organisations of the region that had been involved. We also had a communications and alliances strategy with international CSOs to make the agreement more widely known and discussed.

The work of civil society with the governments that participated in the process had continuity and went beyond interaction with government delegates in the course of the negotiations. In each country, civil society focal points met periodically with officials of their respective governments. In Peru, DAR and the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law worked closely with the ministries of the Environment and Foreign Affairs to bring them the proposals of national and regional civil society and ensure that Peruvian delegates integrated them within the national proposal. This resulted in more consistent positions at negotiation meetings. In general, there was a lot of interaction between civil society and various governments, although public officials in some countries were more reluctant to receive proposals from civil society.

Did society make a difference to the final agreement? What is in the agreement that would not be there if it were not for civil society advocacy?

The work of civil society made a huge difference. The issue of HRDs was a civil society proposal that was not present in the first version of the agreement. This has undoubtedly been the greatest achievement and a historic milestone for environmental democracy, because no other international treaty has provisions for the protection of HRDs. The same goes for the inclusion of people in situations of vulnerability: we worked hard on a definition and pushed for its inclusion in the text of the agreement.

It was also civil society that promoted standards of socio-environmental information that should be disseminated to the wider public. We fought hard because there were many points states did not want to include, such as the registration of polluting agents or the dissemination of information on risks and environmental impact assessments, which were eventually included. It was also civil society that promoted the incorporation of preventive, precautionary and non-discrimination principles. In addition, a lot of work was done so that the definition of the public was as wide as possible. And civil society pushed so that the agreement would not allow for reservations. While we did not get everything we wanted, we are satisfied with the results we achieved.

It must be recognised, however, that the negotiation process was typically characterised by the presence of more or less large CSOs from each country, while the participation of the communities and HRDs whose rights the agreement seeks to protect was very limited. We would have wanted more indigenous leaders to have a voice in the negotiations, but there were great limitations on funding for participation in the regional process, which we were only partially able to counter by seeking greater participation in national processes and through virtual networks.

A Peruvian indigenous leader and Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Ruth Buendía, participated in the fifth round of negotiations, held in Chile in 2016. Another indigenous leader, Lizardo Cauper, president of the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle, was present at the celebration event of the agreement, held in New York in September 2018. Their participation was itself the result of civil society’s coordination efforts. During the ratification process, we want to move in that direction and continue to involve not only more organisations and activists, but also specifically more grassroots organisations, local social movements and indigenous leaders.

Escazu 2Escazu 3

How is civil society now campaigning for states to ratify the agreement?

All participating CSOs pledged to promote the signature of the agreement by the governments of their countries and its ratification by their legislatures. In September 2018, civil society participated in an event with ECLAC to celebrate the agreement and mark the beginning of the signing period. Fifteen states signed the agreement in September 2018 and Bolivia joined in November.

Soon we will set up an advocacy strategy so that the process of signature and ratification, which will be open for the next two years, proceeds faster. So far, each country’s CSOs are working domestically according to their possibilities, in connection with the coordinated strategy that we are already starting to prepare through virtual exchanges. In Peru, we have already had meetings with officials from the Environment and Foreign Affairs ministries, as well as with congresspeople involved in the process. Our country signed the agreement in September 2018 and we hope that the congressional committee of Foreign Affairs will examine it soon so that the plenary can go on and debate and ratify it. The same is happening in other countries, with communication campaigns for dissemination of the agreement and advocacy actions with the executive and legislative branches of government. Progress varies from one country to the next: in Argentina, for example, the process has been faster and a ratification bill has already been drafted; the government of Costa Rica in turn has already publicly indicated that it will ratify the agreement.

What else is needed to ensure the rights of environmental rights defenders?

This agreement will help guarantee the rights of environmental HRDs and we hope that in the course of the next two years at least 11 states will ratify it so that it can be fully implemented in every country. However, it will take more than an international agreement to guarantee the rights of environmental HRDs effectively.

In 2018 Peru approved a National Human Rights Plan that has strong links to the Escazú Agreement, since it includes several procedures for the protection of HRDs, such as a national complaints registry and an early warning system. We also have a specific national plan on business and human rights. Many of these points are contemplated not only in the Escazú Agreement, but also in proposals made by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and various UN agencies.

In every country, the work of the judiciary will be key. In Peru, with the support of DAR and other CSOs, the judiciary has been carrying out various initiatives to strengthen environmental justice, such as training programmes on environmental issues, international congresses on environmental justice, the creation of an Environmental Justice Observatory on environmental crimes and the establishment of courts specialised in environmental matters. The process began in the Amazonian regions, where there is a greater prevalence of environmental conflicts, and will integrate intercultural elements.

In sum, there are many mechanisms that countries can implement independently of the Escazú Agreement to identify who are the people and communities suffering from human rights violations, follow up, take preventive and sanctioning measures against the threats they face, and disseminate a human rights perspective in the business sector.

What support do environmental rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean need from the international community?

DAR is currently supporting the Programme on Indigenous HRDs of the Amazon Basin implemented by the Coordination of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin. This programme combines documentation, training of leaders, advocacy in regional and international human rights organisations and legal counselling for criminalised HRDs.

The international community can support this work from different angles: amplifying reports of abuses, carrying them to forums such as the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and following up on the implementation of the recommendations made to states by international agencies. It is important to involve international human rights bodies in these processes and have them present on site.

For instance, in March 2017, DAR and five other CSOs requested a hearing on transparency in the extractive sector in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Nicaragua. The hearing documented restrictions on access to information in specific cases of investment projects, included testimonies of those affected by violations of the right to access to information, and emphasised that these restrictions in turn affected the exercise of rights to consultation, participation, health and a safe environment, among others. As a result of this hearing, a collaborative effort now exists between civil society and the IACHR, and the IACHR has committed to producing a document with recommendations on access to information in extractive contexts. Alerted by the reports of violations of rights made at the hearing, when the IACHR visited Guatemala, the commissioners travelled to the area where the reported violations were taking place.

Coordination of efforts is key to achieving greater impact. A good example of this has been the Escazú process, where international support and the coordination between regional and domestic processes consolidated civil society work. In addition, several UN rapporteurs called on all states in the region to sign and ratify the agreement soon, which may have influenced several states that signed it.

In the context of the ratification process, it will be essential for international civil society to contribute to disseminating the efforts of civil society in each country and at the local level. In Peru we are working so that citizens know the contents of the agreement. We believe there is a need to expand participation and we are making efforts to bring the agreement contents and the ratification process to the subnational level.

Get in touch with DAR through its website and Facebook page, or follow @ONGDAR on Twitter

Read our interview with Marcos Orellana, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch about the significance of the Escazú Agreement

 

ESCAZÚ: A milestone on the road to ending Latin America’s environmental conflicts

Marcos OrellanaAfter several years of negotiations, the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement, was adopted in March 2018. CIVICUS speaks about its significance with Marcos Orellana, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.

What is the Escazú agreement?

The Escazú Agreement is a new treaty that deepens the link between environmental protection and human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. It has the potential to reduce the conflicts that lead to the murders of so many environmental defenders in the region.

At its core, Escazú sets standards for informed participation in environmental decisions and access to environmental justice. The agreement guarantees the public's right to information on environmental issues, while at the same time ensuring their right to informed participation in the environmental approval process for investment projects. The agreement also eliminates obstacles to environmental justice and requires support for people or groups in vulnerable situations.

What is its significance for environmental defenders and civil society more generally?

Escazú recognises the right to live in a healthy environment and requires each participating state to guarantee that right in its steps to comply with the treaty. This recognition gives environmental rights defenders legitimacy in their efforts to secure a healthy environment for all. Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean has great hopes that a binding agreement such as Escazú, in which the environment and human rights go hand in hand, can be a milestone on the road to ending the region’s environmental conflicts.

How was civil society involved in the development of the agreement, and what did it achieve?

The road to Escazú was marked by more than five years of hard work following Rio +20, the 2012 United Nations (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development. The process was one of intense dialogue between the governments of participating countries and civil society groups in the region. It is rare for international negotiations to open up like this to allow the public to take the floor in real time and enrich the debate with their ideas and proposals. The effort paid off, as Escazú provides tools to strengthen democracy so that the promise of sustainable development can be realised in practice.

Civil society was instrumental not only in influencing the content of Escazú, but also in setting in motion the negotiations process. Already in the lead up to Rio+20, organisations collaborating under the umbrella of The Access Initiative - a coalition working to advance participatory rights - advocated for the strengthening of the international normative framework for Principle 10 (P10) rights. P10 is the principle of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development adopted by the Earth Summit back in 1992 that enshrines the rights to information, participation and justice in environmental matters. Civil society persuaded key countries to take up the call for a regional instrument, and during the actual negotiations, civil society organised in working groups to analyse and influence the main themes of the regional instrument.

What difference did civil society make to the final agreement?

Owing to concerted civil society advocacy, Escazú is the first international treaty that includes specific protections for environmental defenders. As made clear by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the threats, acts of aggression and fatal attacks against environmental defenders are often a direct result of the exploitation of natural resources that does not take into account the legitimate demands and concerns of local communities.

Measures to protect environmental defenders are a step in the right direction, offering hope to individuals and groups that defend the environment and their communities in the region, and that are currently under threat.

What’s next for Escazú in the region?

Now that the Escazú Agreement has been adopted, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean should sign and ratify it and take robust steps to implement it. This would signal the region’s real commitment to sustainable development, human rights and democracy.

Get in touch with Human Rights Watch through its website and Facebook page, or follow @hrw and @MOrellanaHRW on Twitter

 

IRAN: ‘Women are the thorn in the sides of hardliners’

Jasmina RamseyFollowing a year in which women’s rights protests made headlines worldwide - including in Iran, where women’s struggles were symbolised by the resurgence of protests against the mandatory use of hijab - CIVICUS speaks to Jasmin Ramsey, communications director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). Based in New York, CHRI is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit civil society organisation (CSO) of journalists, researchers and human rights advocates who collaborate with an extensive team of independent investigators, civil society activists and human rights defenders inside Iran, which allows CHRI to report on and document real-time, on-the-ground human rights conditions in Iran. CHRI also advocates with governments and international organisations and partners with activists around the world to keep them informed about the state of human rights in Iran and hold the Iranian government to account on its international obligations.

What were the frustrations that provoked the 2018 anti-hijab protests in Iran?

Women in Iran have been fighting for their rights since the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Shortly after Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s first supreme leader, took power from the ousted monarchy that year, the hijab was gradually enforced on women until it became law. For the past 40 years, women in Iran have not been allowed in public without covering most of their bodies and hair. If a woman is caught without a veil, she could be subject to various forms of punishment. She could be shamed in public. Men, clerics, sometimes even other women may condemn and insult her for walking around with her hair uncovered. She could also be arrested by various agencies, one of which is the so-called anti-vice or morality police, which is particularly vigilant during summer when it’s very hot and people want to wear less to stay cool. They could pick her up, take her in, charge her and even imprison her.

Shortly after the compulsory hijab was implemented in Iran, many women - thousands by some estimates - went out into the streets to say they did not support it. Some marched arm in arm with their hair flowing freely demanding that the hijab be a choice, not a requirement. So right away we saw that regardless of what the Iranian government said was best for women, many had the courage to say they should be able to control their bodies and the ways they expressed themselves. But the hijab was enforced anyway with great force until the cost of resistance became very high.

But women in Iran haven’t backed down. For the past four decades, they have been challenging this law in various ways, including indirectly. For example, in the beginning of the revolution, women had to observe the hijab strictly, barely showing any skin apart from their face and hands. But as the years passed, while some devout women continued to wear the hijab strictly, many others started pushing it back further and further, so today if you walk through the streets of the capital, Tehran, you can see a lot of hair showing at the front and even a little at the back. Women are also now wearing more form-fitting clothing and showing a little more skin as well. Women wear the hijab very fashionably and try to integrate it within their sense of style; they keep on pushing the envelope. It’s very interesting to look at the ways the hijab has been creatively challenged and reformulated by Iranian women throughout the years. Those who wear the hijab by choice also have their own ways of expressing themselves while keeping themselves covered.

More recently, in 2018, several women - at least 30 - went out into the streets, took off their hijabs in public and waved them either on a stick or with their hands. Some men also did this to support these women. This became the beginning of what appeared to be a new movement - admittedly, a very small one - with women engaging in civil disobedience against the country’s compulsory hijab law, including by walking in the street without a hijab, and then posting pictures of themselves doing so on social media. The vast majority of these women have not shown any desire to make the hijab illegal; instead they are saying it should be a choice. So generally speaking, these are anti-compulsory-hijab protests, not anti-hijab protests.

How did the protests organise, and how did they get their message out? Was social media important?

This particular movement was started by Masih Alinejad, an Iranian activist living in exile in the USA. A few years ago she started a social media campaign, #MyStealthyFreedom, to encourage women in Iran to walk freely without their head covered and submit photos of themselves doing so. It’s not clear whether those women who waved their hijabs in public during the first few months of 2018 and who were arrested for doing so were part of Masih’s campaign. Some said that they were not, and that they did this independently because they wanted to make a statement about something they have believed in all along. Others said they were directing Masih, not the other way around as some judicial officials claimed.

Masih’s Facebook campaign had been around for a few years, and in late December 2017, a photo of one woman, Vida Movahed, waving her white hijab while standing on a utility box in a busy street in Tehran went viral on social media and she and protesters like her came to be known as the Girls of Revolution Street. She did this one day before mass protests broke out in various cities throughout Iran against a range of other issues. It seems that after that photo went viral, several followed her example. It happened over the course of several weeks and months. Social media played a role in spreading that image, and the image compelled others to go out, but I can’t quantify the extent to which social media propelled things forward.

How did the authorities react to the protests?

Women protesters engaging in peaceful acts of civil disobedience came head to head with government hardliners. The security forces - high-ranking officials in the Revolutionary Guards, the Intelligence Ministry and the highest levels of the judiciary - are typically made up of hardline conservatives who tend to support the compulsory hijab for all women. So it is not surprising that protesters were harassed by security agents and some were arrested. At least three were prosecuted and faced suspended prison sentences from three months to two years.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, was arrested and jailed shortly after representing some of these women as their attorney. When she was defending one of the arrested protesters, a prosecutor lodged a complaint against her. It is extremely easy to make up a complaint: it is enough to say that by defending a client who questioned a state policy a lawyer is engaging in propaganda against the state. She’s now been charged with many other different things and faces several years in prison.

Nasrin’s husband, Reza Khandan, and a fellow activist, Farhad Meysami, were also sentenced to six years in prison. One of the pieces of so-called evidence that was used against them were badges that read ‘I oppose compulsory hijab’, which security agents confiscated when they raided their houses. These men who stood by women fighting for their rights now face six years in prison each and have been banned from leaving the country and going online.

On the other hand, the state is not homogeneous and other sectors have more moderate positions. It is clear that in the long term, faced with such clear-cut civil rights and human rights issues, the state doesn’t really know how to react and is relying on old methods of repression for what it sees as quickly growing problems. It doesn’t have any new solutions to these new issues. Interestingly, there are recent studies commissioned by the government showing that at least half of the Iranian population opposes the compulsory hijab. In one of those studies, conducted by the research group of the current government headed by President Hassan Rouhani, almost half of respondents, women and men, said wearing the hijab should be a choice. A parliamentary group did another study that ultimately offered different scenarios on how to deal with the growing desire for hijab to be a choice, including less strict enforcement. All this indicates that the government is well aware that a significant and increasing part of the population does not stand by this policy, and may be contemplating other options.

Did the protests experience backlash from conservative groups?

There were reports on social media of people, both men and women, publicly reprimanding women who were not wearing a hijab. There was also a lot of backlash from conservative media, which published stories accusing protesters of being directed by outside powers. But these are not independent media; they are affiliated with the security agencies. And one group held a ‘Girls of the Revolution (or Revolutionary Girls) Convention’, its name playing on the anti-compulsory-hijab ‘Girls of Revolution Street’ movement. This convention was held in July 2018 at the Shahid Hemmat religious centre in Tehran, and was attended by ‘martyrs’ families’, according to right-wing state media, and also featured a speech by a conservative speaker by the name of Ali Akbar Raefipour.

Backlash also came from hardliners within the government, both in the executive and the legislative branches, who accused the women of protesting against the hijab law not because they made a choice but because they were being misguided and directed by others. These people refused to acknowledge these women as independent people with minds of their own.

Besides the compulsory hijab, what other key challenges do women face in Iran? Have women led other protests?

There are many issues related to the way the legal system treats women. The law views a woman as having half the value of a man, and this comes through in various ways. To begin with, women cannot be Supreme Leader, they can’t be president, or members of the Guardian Council, or even judges. This issue also manifests in their personal lives. For instance, a married woman can’t travel abroad without her husband’s permission. She doesn’t have equal rights when she files for divorce. She can’t pass on citizenship to her children. Women’s inheritance rights amount to half of those of men: a woman will get half the inheritance that her brother receives. In Iranian law, the testimony of a man is often valued at twice the weight of that of a woman. And when it comes to blood money - the financial compensation provided to next of kin in cases of wrongful death or murder - it’s provided at half the rate for female victims. So women are quite literally considered second-class-citizens.

At the same time, there have been significant improvements since the revolution, and these have happened because women have been fighting for their rights. Getting a divorce isn’t easy for women, but the divorce rate is now higher than it has ever been in Tehran province. We are also now seeing women in big cities who are now able to live alone - not many, but their number is increasing. What we’re also seeing is that women are at the forefront of all the protests, not just those against the compulsory hijab or for women’s rights more generally. For instance, in the face of a government crackdown against lawyers - in an attempt to stop them from defending detainees who had been targeted by the state - female lawyers such as Nasrin Sotoudeh led the peaceful resistance. Nasrin is now in jail for doing so. Women have protested against the state for a variety of reasons, from unemployment to the compulsory hijab. They truly are the thorn in the side of the state, which is possibly why the state goes to such lengths to make sure women stay in their place.

Iranian women are highly educated and are increasingly taking professional positions. But unemployment among women is much higher than among men, and many women are only employed part-time because they are expected to stay at home and take care of the home and kids. Women also make up a much smaller portion of the skilled workforce and the government ranks. There are currently only 17 women in parliament; this means that less than six per cent of parliamentarians are women. Despite President Rouhani’s promise, there are no female ministers in his government. Women are often advisors or assistants, but they never get the high-level jobs.

So improvements are happening, but they are uneven and any assessment of these depends on the points of comparison, over time and also regionally. For example, until recently, women couldn’t drive in Saudi Arabia. But women in Iran can drive - and they not only drive cars, but also buses and even big cargo trucks. Of course, there are just a few women all over Iran doing the truck driving, but they are leading, showing others that it can be done. These women are taking on these jobs because they want greater economic rights, which leads to greater independence. This is all part of an ongoing process of change in Iran that’s occurring because of the current conditions and whether the government wants it to or not.

Much of the change going on is happening on the sidelines rather than on the big stage. And some of these changes are making the Iranian government very nervous. That’s why it’s responding to many of these protests like they’re political threats, because that’s an easy flag to wave. But these are not political issues; these are human issues, issues of human rights. Wearing a hijab is an issue of freedom of expression and religion. Whatever side of it you are on, it should be a choice, plain and simple, say the women protesters in Iran. Protests for labour rights in Iran are not orchestrated by the outside as judicial and security officials claim. They are a reaction to the economic conditions in the country that are driving people onto the streets, say the workers protesting in Iran. No amount of propaganda or spin will get rid of those conditions and the longer the government ignores the roots of the problems, the worse they will get.

Given the restricted space for civil society in Iran, how best can the international community - including international civil society - show support and solidarity for Iranian women activists?

It is important to understand that the women’s movement in Iran is independent and has been around for decades. The women who are leading it from inside Iran and taking all the risks to do so say that change has to be brought about by the Iranian people themselves. Iranian activists do not need my or your guidance. What they need is to have their voice and actions amplified, and the human rights abuses committed against them documented and protested against. That is the kind of work that we do at CHRI: we amplify the voices of activists inside Iran and provide coverage of their issues. There is need for nuanced coverage highlighting not just the bad but also the good things that are going on in Iran, so people get a good understanding of the country and its issues and are able to discuss them in a constructive and intelligent way.

Awareness and constructive advocacy are key. When public officials, businessmen or celebrities engage with Iranian officials, including Iran’s counterparts from other countries and international organisations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU), they should bring up human rights issues there that are being protested about by activists and people in the streets. They should ask: why are women being arrested for taking off their hijabs? Why are women kept as political prisoners and denied the right to see their families as punishment for engaging in peaceful protest for their basic rights in prison? Why are people told not to talk to media after their family members have been imprisoned? Why is the right to peaceful protest prosecuted as a national security crime?

If Iran’s international counterparts don’t bring up these issues, they are giving a green light to anyone inside the country engaged in human rights violations to continue violating these rights. Some of Iran’s international counterparts are already speaking up to some degree: the European Parliament, for instance, recently passed a resolution on Iran, and notably on the case of Nasrin Sotoudeh, and the UN Human Rights Council has been doing so for years. There needs to be more much more done though - more discussion, more engagement, more constructive pressure - because the Iranian government is listening. It does care about its international image, and there is a good chance that it will respond to pressure from institutions such as the UN and EU where there are already channels of communication.

It is also important that the people of Iran be allowed and enabled to engage and communicate and experience the world outside their country’s borders in the same ways you and I are able to. The government does not allow internet freedom, so other countries should not implement mechanisms that prevent Iranians from accessing tools and services that enable them to bypass online censorship. Iranian authorities do not want activists and others targeted by the state to travel outside the country, and in some cases even outside their provinces, and speak about their issues, so other countries should not help these state actors by doing the same thing and banning Iranians from entering their countries. Most crucially, Iranians should not be blocked from accessing basic humanitarian goods and medicines due to reinstated sanctions. The entire international community must come together to ensure these channels remain open.

When Iranian people go out into the streets and protest, or protest individually by waving a hijab or calling for the country to revise a policy in a tweet or Facebook post, they are taking major, life-changing risks. Many have been imprisoned for years for doing these things. It is our responsibility, as people who take these rights for granted, to listen, learn and amplify their voices. They are leading the way so we can follow.

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

Get in touch with CHRI through its website or Facebook page, or follow @ICHRI and @JasminRamsey on Twitter

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘All positive developments have been driven by civil society’s persistence’

Cristina PalabayFollowing a year that saw further deterioration of the rule of law and rising impunity for rampant human rights violations in the Philippines, CIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of the Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights, a national alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatan has 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member CSOs. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in the Philippines over the past year?

Spaces for civil society in the Philippines have continued to shrink as the climate of impunity has worsened. Over the past year, several developments have negatively impacted on civic space.

First, militarisation has deepened and intensified. Policies consistent with the government’s counterinsurgency programme enabled increased military deployment to civilian communities and the use of civilian agencies for combat or military operations. In November 2018, through Memorandum Order #32, President Rodrigo Duterte directed the deployment of more soldiers and police officers in Bicol, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental and Samar regions to “suppress lawless violence and acts of terror.” In what amounts to de facto martial law, it also reinforced guidelines for the implementation of a national emergency. Issued in December 2018, Executive Order #70 has weaponised the government’s civilian bureaucracy to take part in combat or military operations in communities.

Second, policies and laws are increasingly being used against civil society organisations (CSOs). In November 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued Memorandum Circular #15, which at first glance seemed like an innocuous set of guidelines to protect CSOs against being used as covers for money laundering and terrorist financing. But in a context of worsening human rights violations and impunity, a closer look revealed a severe infringement of the rights to free speech and political thought, the right to hold religious beliefs, the right of civil society to form associations and conduct advocacy, and the right to privacy of CSO officers, members, clients and beneficiaries. The memorandum gave the SEC unchecked discretion to identify CSOs considered to be “at risk” on the basis of information provided by government agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP). This puts at risk all progressive organisations, and particularly those that the PNP and the government have openly threatened. The memorandum also gave the SEC and government authorities the power to compel the disclosure of information from CSOs without a court order. There is an express provision in the SEC’s powers to enlist the aid of and deputise any enforcement agencies of the government, civil or military, to conduct investigations and gather information. This poses the danger that the SEC will be used for profiling, intelligence gathering, surveillance, harassment and other possible violations of CSO rights.

A third element that is expected to impact gravely on people’s rights and civil liberties is the proposed amendment of the anti-terrorism law, the Human Security Act of 2007. If passed, the new law will remove all provisions and language pertaining to the duty of the state under international law to protect people from terrorist acts in a manner that is consistent with and that respects and promotes human rights. It will allow the state to disregard due process and the right to privacy when putting suspected terrorists under surveillance and to impose disproportionate, cruel and unjust punishments, including prison terms and life imprisonment, to individuals alleged to have committed broadly and vaguely defined terrorist crimes. Additionally, it will remove protections, and therefore allow for gross violations of the right against illegal and arbitrary detention, torture and cruel and degrading treatment. It will open the way to gross violations of the rights to the freedom of movement and due process through provisions allowing for the suspension or cancellation of passports, the issuance of hold departure orders and the imposition of limits on the right to travel of individuals, even on mere suspicion of terrorism. Finally, it will remove provisions that impose penalties on or lower penalties for state authorities that violate basic civil and political rights.

What obstacles do human rights defenders (HRDs) face in doing their work? Are certain categories of activists specifically targeted?

HRDs face constant and increasing threats and direct attacks, including extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture and other horrible violations of human rights. HRDs work to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. Unfortunately, being an HRD in a country like the Philippines means putting oneself in the line of fire, as the same rights violations that HRDs rise up against are committed against them. The most frequent targets are grassroots activists, farmers, workers, indigenous peoples and members of people’s and mass organisations. The prevailing impunity for crimes committed against them perpetuates non-accountability for human rights abuses.

In the course of the government’s sham drug war, its counterinsurgency programme and the continuity of martial law in Mindanao region, extrajudicial killings committed or incited by state forces have been on the rise. From 2001 to December 2018, Karapatan documented the killing of 760 HRDs, most of them rural and indigenous HRDs, along with trade union leaders and members. Under the Duterte administration, at least one HRD is killed every week. Karapatan has lost 47 of our human rights workers, who were killed in the course of their work to document and investigate rights violations.

Among the most recent assassinated HRDs was Sergio Atay, a member of the local peasant group Magbabaul, who was found tied up, with signs of torture and five bullets to his head on 29 January 2019. He and his wife had been under surveillance and had been visited by the military several times over the past year for their active involvement in Magbabaul. The next day peace consultant Randy Felix Malavao was shot dead, allegedly by a death squad, despite the protections granted by the Joint Agreement on Safety and Immunity Guarantees (JASIG) signed by the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines. On the same day, two farmers from the Lumad indigenous group, Emel Tejero and Randel Gallego, were found dead after going missing when military troops indiscriminately fired at them and other peasants while on their way home two days earlier.

Mass killings of land rights activists are common, as is the killing of human rights lawyers working pro bono for peasants, environmentalists, activists, political prisoners and social movement organisations, as was the case of Benjamin Ramos, who was shot dead in November 2018. No category of HRDs has been spared. Victims have also included Mariam Acob, a grantee of the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights and a paralegal of Kawahib Moro Human Rights Alliance, a member organisation of Karapatan, who was killed in her home in September 2018, and Danny Boy Bautista, a unionist in the Sumifru company in Compostela Valley, who was shot dead in October 2018.

Journalists are also systematically harassed and killed: at least 12 have been assassinated under the Duterte administration so far, the latest being Joey Llana, a radio anchor from Albay who was ambushed and shot dead in July 2018, after being the target of repeated death threats.

Short of getting killed, HRDs routinely see their offices raided, burned and subject to surveillance. This achieves the aim of sowing terror among them and the communities they serve. Most of them are subjected to surveillance, stalked, harassed, have their photos taken and receive threatening phone calls and text messages. This is facilitated by the fact that they are systematically targeted by vilification campaigns, both offline and online, that label them as ‘communist fronts’, ‘terrorist lovers,’ ‘anti-development’ and even ‘lazy and home-wreckers’.

Also on the rise is the use of illegal arrests and the detention and prosecution of peace advocates and HRDs on the basis of trumped-up criminal charges. These are used to instil fear and silence HRDs or prevent them from doing their work. New tactics are now being applied on top of subsisting repressive jurisprudence, some of which dates back to the Marcos dictatorship of 1971 to 1982.

A recent case was that of two Lumad peasant leaders, Datu Jomorito Guaynon and Ireneo Udarbe, who went missing on 28 January 2019 and resurfaced in custody the next day, facing accusations of attempted murder and illegal possession of firearms and explosives. Barely two days later, four farmers who were tagged by the police as being leaders of the outlawed New People’s Army (NPA), but who denied being leaders or members of the group, were arrested for illegal possession of guns and explosives during a police raid. In December 2018, 67-year old peace consultant Rey Casambre and his 72-year old wife were arrested under charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives and murder.

Arrests of peace consultants, which are a serious violation of JASIG, are fairly common and always follow a similar pattern, as seen in various cases over the past few months, including that of Vicente Ladlad in November 2018. But trumped-up charges are also used against other categories of HRDs, including women’s rights advocates such as Nerita de Castro, who was arrested and accused of murder and attempted murder in May 2018, and trade unionists such as Rowena and Oliver Rosales, former members of a government workers’ organisation who were forcibly taken by armed men and arrested in August 2018 for the alleged illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Often, fabricated charges are packaged as common crimes, conveniently to hide the political nature of the alleged acts, deny bail, make a conviction on simulated evidence easier, or even scoff at the advocacy work that HRDs do. It was therefore no surprise that, although President Duterte was initially open to the unconditional release of all political prisoners, he later backtracked and instead arrested and detained 225 more. There are now approximately 540 political prisoners in the Philippines, most of them HRDs.

Recently, the names of at least 657 individuals, including those of at least 80 HRDs and peace advocates, were included in a court petition proscribing the Communist Party of the Philippines and the NPA as terrorist organisations. The fake terror list included United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. This emphasised the spurious use of the vague, arbitrary and draconian provisions of the Anti-Terror Law not only to justify attacks against defenders, but also as a form of reprisal for their criticism of the human rights record of President Duterte.

Additionally, immigration laws and policies are being used against non-Filipino HRDs such as Patricia Fox, an Australian nun who angered President Duterte by joining anti-government protests and was kicked out of the country.

How has civil society responded to human rights violations? What kind of work is Karapatan Alliance doing?

Karapatan monitors and documents human rights violations through fact-finding and search missions, key informant interviews and community research. We provide direct services to victims and their families. This includes raising and providing resources for legal, paralegal and medical expenses and independent autopsy and forensic examinations, and help to organise former and current political prisoners, relatives and friends of those killed and disappeared. We also work on education, for instance through know-your-rights seminars, and provide training on paralegal and documentation work, evidence gathering and preservation, digital security and advocacy, and engaging with international human rights mechanisms. In terms of public information, we regularly release urgent alerts, statements and appeals for action on specific cases of human rights violations. We also release quarterly and annual reports on the human rights situation in the Philippines. We carry out public advocacy and organise mobilisations for justice and peace alongside other CSOs and people’s organisations.

Last but not least, we work to strengthen local and national networks of HRDs and advocates. We co-convene the Ecumenical Voice for Peace and Human Rights in the Philippines and the Philippine UPR (Universal Periodic Review) Watch, which are Philippine-based platforms for engagement with international human rights mechanisms. We are among the convenors of the Movement Against Tyranny, a national alliance of groups and individuals working amid Duterte’s tyrannical ways. We have lobbied for the passage of laws pertaining to human rights, such as an anti-torture law, anti-enforced disappearance law and a law regarding the indemnification of martial law victims; we are currently lobbying for the enactment of national legislation or local ordinances on the recognition and protection of HRDs. We are members of CIVICUS, Forum Asia, and the World Organisation Against Torture SOS-Torture network, and our officers are part of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development and the Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Rights.

And of course we are not the only ones who are active in human rights causes. Filipino civil society has persevered in pursuing justice and accountability for victims and survivors of human rights violations. In a very adverse context, all positive developments have been driven by civil society’s persistence. Those included the cases of the highly unusual convictions of police officers for killing a teenager in the course of their ‘war against drugs’, and of a retired general accused of kidnapping and serious illegal detention over the enforced disappearance of two students more than 12 years ago.

Despite restrictions, civil society has continued to mobilise in the face of injustice, staging mass protests on various occasions throughout 2018, including during the president’s State of the Nation Address in July, the commemoration of the 46th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in September and on International Human Rights Day in December.

Is President Duterte becoming, or has he become, a dictator? How much room is there left for dissent?

In a society with all the trappings of false democracy, President Duterte is quickly treading the path of a dictator. While a supposed democratic form of government exists, with the continuing existence of the three branches of government, Duterte’s control and influence is felt in the three branches, through his political connections and placement of active or retired military officials in the civilian bureaucracy. What has yet to happen is an open declaration of nationwide martial law. In general, there is very little room for dissent, especially in the far-flung rural areas where the majority of the population live, because it is there where militarisation is rampant and there is more active and open suppression of dissenting voices.

President Duterte’s approval ratings recently fell. Why did this happen? Does this bring hope of an imminent reversal of his most regressive anti-right policies?

President Duterte’s recent survey ratings have varied, from a drop of his approval ratings to an alleged increase in trust ratings. These survey results can be interpreted in various ways. One view is that survey companies tend to be influenced by political conditions, including the dominance of a political faction in government and economic interests. Another view is that Duterte’s approval ratings have dropped because his tax policy package resulted in one of the highest inflation rates in recent history and therefore affected the poor and middle-class majority. A further view is that his approval ratings went up because of his fear-mongering. When a head of state creates an atmosphere of fear, propounded by incidents of alleged terrorist acts or acts that supposedly give the biggest iron-fisted blow to threats to peace and public order, his ‘strongman’ response is most welcomed by those from the middle or upper class who benefit from such situations.

On the whole, Duterte’s most regressive and suppressive policies will only be reversed through regime change. Duterte’s policies have only heightened already existing institutional and systematic problems, so what is required is systemic and institutional change.

What is the government’s position toward international institutions?

The Duterte government actively engages with international institutions or foreign states that support its policies and, in turn, benefits from such relations. It continues to have strong diplomatic relations with the USA, because of its continuing advisory and technical support and financial aid for the Philippines’ military and police, and also due to US investments in the Philippines and in South East Asia, and with China, because of numerous onerous debt packages and projects.

In contrast, those who raise their concerns about the state’s noncompliance with international human rights instruments and obligations, including UN experts, other states and international CSOs, are at the receiving end of the Duterte government’s public admonitions. The Philippines’ threat to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) is among the various manifestations of such a position. All indications that withdrawal will take place are already out there: official notice has been given, a non-cooperative attitude is on display and ICC prosecutors have been threatened.

How can international civil society support Filipino activists and CSOs and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the Philippines?

For one, international civil society must not relent in expressing solidarity with Filipino HRDs and CSOs, in every possible way, in every possible venue. Each violation of human rights by the Duterte government, including its campaign to enact and implement laws and policies that further constrict civic space, should be condemned by the international community. Each step towards the struggle for justice and accountability should be supported, including the filing of cases and the push for policy reform for the recognition and protection of HRDs. There should also be support to push for the initiation of an independent international investigation through UN mechanisms. Diplomatic initiatives by parliaments and governments the world over should be pressed towards the withdrawal of financial aid for the Philippines’ military and police. More importantly, long-term solidarity links with civil society and activists should be pursued to enable international support for the Filipino people’s legitimate exercise and enjoyment of our rights.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with Karapatan through its website or Facebook page, or follow @karapatan and @TinayPalabay on Twitter

 

TANZANIA: ‘Despite threats, we will not retreat from defending the rights of our communities’

CIVICUS speaks to Joseph Ole Parsambei, Executive Director of the Tanzania Pastoralist Community Forum (TPCF), about the threats faced by environmental, land and indigenous rights activists in Tanzania. TPCF is non-partisan, not-for-profit civil society organisation (CSO) that advances the rights of Tanzania’s pastoralist peoples - the Maasai, the Barbaig, the Akie, the Taturu and the Hadzabe.

 

BRAZIL: ‘The new government has come to establish a regressive, anti-rights agenda’

Paula Raccanello Storto

Portuguese

In the October 2018 elections, Brazil elected as president a former military officer and far-right populist, Jair Bolsonaro, who ran a particularly aggressive campaign against women’s and LGBTI rights. CIVICUS speaks to Paula Raccanello Storto about the impact that the Bolsonaro administration, which began in January, is already having on civil society. Paula holds a master’s degree in Law from the University of São Paulo and is a lawyer with a long experience in providing services to civil society organisations (CSOs). She is also a researcher at the Catholic University of São Paulo’s Centre for Advanced Third-Sector Studies (PUC-SP-Neats), where she works on issues related to the legal framework for CSOs in Brazil and Latin America and restrictions on the freedom of association.

Based on what has happened in the few weeks since its inauguration, how would you describe the relationship between the Bolsonaro administration and Brazilian civil society?

Brazilian civil society is heterogeneous enough to have all kinds of relations with the new government, but if we focus on the subgroup of the most representative rights advocacy organisations it is safe to say that their relationship with the Bolsonaro government has been bad from day one, which has not been exactly a surprise.

We already knew what Bolsonaro thought of civil society organisations (CSOs). During the campaign he said that if he became president there would be no public money for CSOs and attacked organisations by saying that “those good-for-nothings will have to work.” In the same speech he also said that if it were up to him, “every citizen will have a firearm in their house” and “there will not be a single centimetre of demarcated land for indigenous reservations or quilombola communities” [settlements founded by people of African origin, most of them runaway slaves]. All these statements were clearly contrary to the historical agenda of organised Brazilian civil society, which feels threatened not only by the potential actions of the government to create obstacles that hinder its free action, but also by possible opponents emerging from within society itself, which have viewed the president’s statements as an encouragement to use physical or symbolic violence against the organisations defending those causes. The new government has come to establish a regressive, anti-rights agenda.

It was for no other reason than this that before the runoff election a group of more than a thousand lawyers and jurists, myself included, signed a manifesto to support then-candidate Fernando Haddad. Regardless of our programmatic differences, all the signatories to that letter knew that in the second round of elections Haddad was the only candidate capable of ensuring continuity and a deepening of the democratic regime with respect for human rights in an environment of peace and tolerance.

The violence that permeated the latest electoral campaign was striking. A survey conducted by the polling organisation Public, in partnership with Open Knowledge Brasil, revealed that over just 10 days of the campaign there were at least 50 attacks, most of them perpetrated by Bolsonaro supporters against opponents. This legitimation of violence is a particularly worrying fact in a country like Brazil, which has a violent society and a record-breaking number of femicides and murders of environmental leaders and LGBTI people, and is marked by police violence and precarious conditions of imprisonment, with a system that incarcerates mostly black and poor people.

So the decisions that Bolsonaro made in those first weeks were predictable, although at times we have had difficulty believing our own eyes. One of the first measures of the Bolsonaro government, Provisional Measure (PM) 870/2019, which dealt with the structure of the new Federal Administration, entrusted the Secretariat of the Presidency with the new role of “supervising, coordinating, monitoring and following the activities and actions of international organisations and non-governmental organisations within the national territory.”

Under the democratic rule of law it is assumed that individuals are free to meet and associate, and they may perform any lawful activity free from state monitoring. The text of PM 870 reveals a clear disregard for the constitutional principles of the rights to the freedom of association and free enterprise. In addition, the idea of creating government structures with broad powers over CSOs is in and by itself a risk because it may lead to the establishment of an undue architecture of state control of private activities. In this regard, PM 870 is unconstitutional and should be modified by the National Congress.

Do these measures target civil society in general, or are there any specific groups that the government seeks to control?

PM 870 deals with organisations in general and is therefore an undue interference by the state in the work of international organisations and CSOs. The measure is also of concern because it can result in the monitoring of expressions of independent thought and of civil society’s actions to hold the government accountable, counterbalance political power and defend public freedoms.

Bolsonaro was elected on the basis of a superficial government programme. He did not participate in any debate with the other candidates and his public statements to friendly TV networks and on Twitter conveyed a developmentalist discourse that was liberal regarding the economy and conservative regarding the advancement of rights, and which resonated with contemporary Brazilian society. His supporters have massively spread fake news through social media to attack certain agendas considered to be progressive, and particularly those related to environmental protection and the rights of minorities.

After he was elected, Bolsonaro appointed a Minister of Foreign Affairs who has stated that he does not believe in climate change and considers it a Marxist plot. At the head of a so-called Ministry for Women, Family and Human Rights he placed an evangelical preacher who is publicly opposed to abortion for religious reasons. The task of demarcating indigenous lands was moved from the Indian Support Foundation to the Ministry of Agriculture, an agency with interests completely opposed to land demarcation. After backtracking on his previously announced decision to merge the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture - which caused much controversy and many negative reactions - he put the cherry on top of the cake by celebrating the fact that environmental organisations criticised his appointee to the Ministry of the Environment, a representative of agro-industrial interests who has declared global warming “a secondary issue” and dismissed environmental fines as forms of “ideological persecution.”

One of the first measures of the new Minister of the Environment was directed against environmental organisations. He issued a resolution that suspended for 90 days the execution of agreements and partnerships with CSOs. Contrary to the notion of sustainable development, the current administration’s approach to environmental issues dates back to a time when environmental preservation and economic and social development were viewed as conflicting goals. But sustainable development is a priority of the global agenda and is enshrined in the Brazilian Federal Constitution and domestic legislation, and therefore it is not up to any particular administration to decide whether its chosen model of national development is to preserve the environment and take care of its population.

Moreover, since 2014 Brazil has had a law - No. 13,019 of 2014 - that defines the legal relationship between the state and civil society, which was unanimously passed by the National Congress when Jair Bolsonaro was a national representative. This law does not provide for the possibility of a suspension in the way that it was done. The decision by the Minister of the Environment violates the principle of legal certainty, since it disregards contractual relations that have been formalised on the basis of a law. It also defies administrative efficiency, as it cancels activities in which the Brazilian state has invested public resources, including the time and work of public servants.

In what other ways has the space for civil society in Brazil been affected since the election of Bolsonaro?

The administration has not been up and running long enough for us to assess the impact of the measures it has taken. The Bolsonaro government is only completing its first month now. But I would point out some issues that even at such an early stage already draw my attention. One is the choice of people who are notoriously opposed to certain agendas to lead politically and administratively the agencies that are key to their implementation - a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse, as the popular saying goes. Another issue is the lack of recognition of LGBTI people as holders of rights and subjects of human rights policies, and the extinction of spaces for civil society participation in public policy, such as the National Council for Food and Nutrition Security, a space for social participation adopted by Brazil in the area of food and nutritional security that has been held up by many other countries as an example.

It is also important to note that the government has issued decrees on issues that bring significant setbacks to CSOs’ agendas, such as easing the purchase and possession of firearms and weakening the Access to Information Act by expanding the opportunities for public information to be classified as confidential and delegating more power to public officials than in the past, clearly hampering effective transparency.

How has civil society reacted to these setbacks?

Civil society is alert, closely following all the decisions made by the new government and organising to seek the reversal of measures that are contrary to human and environmental rights.

Soon after the publication of the resolution by the Ministry of the Environment, in view of its very negative repercussions and the mobilisation of civil society, the Minister backtracked and issued a new order stating that the implementation of contracts already underway would continue and only new ones would have to keep waiting for approval. However, this change cannot be credited to civil society’s reaction alone, since this kind of behaviour has so far been a trademark of the Bolsonaro administration, which from the campaign onwards has adopted communication strategies inspired by Donald Trump’s. It is clearly possible to identify the intention, at times, to confuse public opinion by creating factoids so that disputes do not happen based on technical analysis, but rather on the basis of a chain of news about absurd measures, social reactions and changes of course by the government, seeking to convey to a section of the population the idea that there is ideological criticism on the part of the left while in contrast the government is willing to correct its mistakes.

Civil society mobilised against the decision to establish a system of state monitoring of CSOs set out in PM 870, and a diverse and representative collection of Brazilian organisations signed an open letter requesting the rectification of PM 870 in line with the Constitution.

Soon, in early February, the National Congress will resume work and civil society is getting ready to call on representatives to respect the Constitution and therefore amend the text to strip the government of the power to monitor international bodies and CSOs. The possibility of seeking the protection of the judiciary if Congress keeps the text of the legislation as proposed by the government is also under consideration, as well as resorting to international mechanisms in the event that domestic institutions fail to protect these rights, which are ensured by international treaties of which Brazil is a signatory state party.

Why is it important for Brazilian civil society to be able to continue doing its work, and what kind of help does it need from international civil society?

CSOs are key institutions for democracy, as they ensure plurality, diversity, the freedom of expression and respect for minorities. Moreover, only a free and strong civil society provides secure enough foundations for the change in the development model that our country requires.

The work of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, points in the same direction, emphasising the connection between development and the freedom for organisations to operate, something that is not always apparent to the wider public.

In her celebrated work Governing the Commons, which earned her the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics, scholar Elinor Ostrom analysed several case studies on the management of common goods and determined that these are better managed by the community than by the state working in isolation. Her research shows that the management of potentially scarce common goods is more efficient when done by a group formed by people who are directly affected by that good, by means of rules created by the very same group and adapted to local needs and conditions. Within the type of economic arrangement that was the object of Ostrom’s study, the management of common goods was typically carried out by CSOs formed at the community level and aimed at promoting development compatible with the preservation of the environment and the populations that inhabit it.

Unfortunately, in recent days we saw in Brazil yet another demonstration of the accuracy of Ostrom’s thesis, in the form of the tragic collapse of a dam owned by the Vale mining company in the municipality of Brumadinho, state of Minas Gerais. This environmental crime took place three years after the collapse of a dam in Mariana, which literally killed the Rio Doce, carrying toxic minerals and destruction more than 500 km down the river, between the disaster site and the sea. News about the Brumadinho case points to the fragile implementation of existing inspection instruments. In this context, it is highly telling that about a month earlier the State Environmental Council had voted favourably, by eight votes to one, to grant new environmental licences to expand Vale's operation of the soon-to-collapse dam. The dissenting vote was cast by the sole environmental organisation with a seat on the Council, which had warned the supervisory bodies about the risks.

Examples such as this underscore the important role of civil society in ensuring the model of sustainable development that the world currently needs. Brazilian society needs to realise that loosening environmental regulations and attacking organisations that advance unpopular causes - those of people and territories with scarce financial resources standing up against huge corporations - is exactly what it takes to bury us in the mud of environmental devastation, violence and inequality.

Right now, it is essential to expand our exchanges with international civil society to understand and seek answers to face the expansion of the forces of this conservative right that simply denies on social media the worth of multilateral mechanisms, the need to reverse climate change and the rights of minorities. What is happening in Brazil should be kept in context, as it is part of the same global movement that is causing setbacks to the rights agenda elsewhere, through a repressive collection of customs and liberal economic policies that fail to take into account the limits to the development process set by human rights and environmental protections.

Increased coordination of Brazilian organisations with international public and private mechanisms, including those within the justice system, will help ensure the monitoring and visibility of the Brazilian situation, as well as access to international courts, if necessary.

Investment in international cooperation programmes for joint action among organisations, states, universities and experts will also certainly help to promote enabling environments that are more hospitable to civil society and democracy.

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

Get in touch with Paula Raccanello through her email, .

 

IRAN: A new generation of civic-minded, courageous activists is rising

Sohrab Razzaghi IranFollowing a year that was characterised by a continued crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Iran, CIVICUS speaks to Sohrab Razzaghi, Executive Director of the Volunteer Activists Institute (VA) a not-for-profit, non-partisan, 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 peace-building 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. After fleeing Iran, Sohrab now lives in exile.

Volunteer Activists recently published a comprehensive new study on civil society in Iran. What were its main findings?

Our latest report, ‘Civil society in Iran and its future prospects’, which came out in September 2018, analyses the major developments that have taken place since the last previous comprehensive study of Iranian civil society was published in 2010.

Not only does civil society in Iran currently face problems and challenges different from those of the past, but a whole new generation of Iranian activists has also become engaged, and they have fundamental differences with previous generations. As a result of a lack of understanding of such new phenomena, experts, policy-makers, donors and other stakeholders have not been able to understand and assess the situation accurately. The Volunteers Activist Institute (VA) took it upon itself fill this gap by undertaking a study that seeks to describe and explain major trends, challenges, opportunities and prospects of Iranian civil society, including the current situation of Iranian CSOs, their position within Iranian society and the challenges and restrictions they face.

Among our main findings is the acknowledgment that Iranian civil society has various facets and faces, and is far from coherent and homogeneous. It comprises both traditionally structured and modern associations, including charities and CSOs focusing on health and hygiene. This branch of civil society has a long history and an extensive social base. CSOs working in these areas usually adapt to government policies and programmes. The government also favours them and encourages their expansion and development. In addition, the Iranian government uses some CSOs that focus on service delivery to advance its policies while it marginalises independent and advocacy CSOs.

A significant recent development in Iranian civil society has been the emergence of a new generation of civil society activists in fields such as women’s and young people’s rights, community solidarity and the environment. Although their numbers are not large, this new generation has taken upon itself to expand civil society and challenge government policies on the matters they care about. They have launched a number of creative civic initiatives, both online and offline, such as I am Lake Urmia, which mobilised huge efforts to raise awareness of environmental degradation and push for action to prevent northwest Iran’s Lake Urmia from completely drying out. Another initiative, Wall of Kindness, created wall spaces across neighbourhoods where citizens could hang unneeded clothes to be taken by those in need. The Campaign to Change the Masculine Face of Parliament called attention to the scarcity of women legislators and urged for more women to be elected to parliament.

And then there are the Girls of Enghelab Street, a series of more spontaneous women’s protests against the compulsory use of hijab. These protests were inspired by a woman who in late December 2017 stood on a box in Enghelab (‘revolution’) Street, tied her hijab to a stick and waved it at the crowd as a flag. She was arrested and remained in custody for about a month, but other women later re-enacted her gesture of defiance and started posting their photos on social media, so the protest movement grew from the ground up.

Civic courage and audacity are two significant characteristics of this new generation of activists who have successfully torn into the power myths of the past. Social protest, including union and labour rights protests, has steadily increased in recent years, and particularly since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Their cumulative effect is changing the landscape of Iranian civil society.

 What major changes is civil society currently experiencing in Iran?

After President Rouhani’s inauguration, Iranian socio-political dynamics gradually started to change. Some marginalised social groups have experienced a limited and controlled comeback, and an atmosphere of societal hope started to take shape. Small openings have appeared through which a discourse on democracy, civil society and civic rights is beginning to make itself heard, although in areas that are deemed sensitive, such as women’s, labour and minority rights, the situation is still very tense and closed.

These very minor changes have nonetheless created an atmosphere of hope, and civil society is cautiously coming back onto the social stage. But as in the 1990s, the civil society development model is still top-down, as the driving forces behind civil society are governmental agencies that view civil society as a useful tool rather than a force for social change.

Independent civic action has increased around some issues, including the environment, youth issues and social inequalities. Organised civic action is also in the process of replacing the small, closed-group and underground activism of the period when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President from 2005 to 2013, and recent years have seen the rise of CSOs and networks throughout the country. Some associations and networks, notably environmental ones, that had been blocked during the previous period are now regenerating and regaining force. On the other hand, the social movements that were suppressed following the controversial 2009 election, including women’s rights, student and labour movements, are still being obstructed.

What is the current state of the freedom of expression?

While the Constitution of Iran recognises the freedom of speech, several laws list a number of restrictions. The most important laws restricting the freedom of speech are the Islamic Penal Code and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law. Articles 498, 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, among others, subordinate the freedoms of speech and association to security considerations. Article 500 of the Penal Code considers any activity that is deemed detrimental to the Islamic Republic or benefits any other group or organisation as a national security offence. Articles 498 and 499 establish that any gathering of more than two people inside the country or overseas, under any name, with the aim of disrupting Iran’s national security, or attendance at such a gathering, constitute national security offences.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law also introduces many restrictions on the freedom of speech. In order to be able to publish newspapers, magazines or any other publication in either print or digital form, individuals and organisations first need to acquire a licence, which is issued by a supervisory board led by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to Article 9 of the Press Law, anyone who wishes to apply for such a licence must pledge allegiance to the Constitution of Iran. Chapter 4, article 6 of the Press Law introduces restrictions on the freedom of speech in the press, specifying areas that are disruptive to the foundation of Islam as well as to general and private rights. According to this article, the press cannot spread news of depravity, corruption, or contents contrary to public virtues. The restrictions far exceed these, however, as they include insult and defamation, falsehoods and rumours. Nevertheless, the law does not define any of these categories. The most problematic category is that of rumours, which applies to any lead that journalists normally follow to get to the core of the truth. Article 6, paragraph 6 also bans the publication of news on confidential issues, which go well beyond military documents to include unlicensed coverage of closed-door sessions of parliament or the courts and judicial investigations. Paragraph 1 of this article also clearly states that the publication and dissemination of so-called pagan news 0 that is, news that goes against Islamic criteria - or news that harms the foundation of the Islamic Republic is not allowed.

All these bans restrict civil society activists in their quest for transparency and accountability in society and politics, because they are unable to voice the concerns of their stakeholders.

What is the relationship between Iranian and regional and international civil society and human rights actors?

Iranian activists and CSOs have been banned from joining regional and international civil society networks for decades, and therefore they have been unable to form strong coalitions and participate fully in exchanges of knowledge, experience and support. There are currently only 25 Iranian CSOs with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and most of them are quasi-governmental entities pursuing government policies rather than advancing citizens’ concerns.

Legal restrictions and the dominant security environment prevent Iranian activists and CSOs from joining regional and international civil society networks. The Iranian government and its security apparatus are extremely sensitive towards any attempts by activists to connect with global networks and punish them with charges that go as far as espionage.

Frail regional and international connections have also resulted from, and in turn intensified, activists’ lack of familiarity with regional and international frameworks and limited language and networking skills.

As a result, representatives of independent civil society from inside Iran rarely attend regional and international conferences or voice civic opinions. The only CSOs that are allowed to attend gatherings such as the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the conferences of the International Labour Organization and the annual summit of the Commission on the Status of Women are quasi-governmental or government-sponsored non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) and those that are connected to the Iranian government’s security apparatus, which operate to promote government policies.

In contrast, civil society activists, including teachers and factory workers who have tried to connect with regional and international networks, have faced severe penalties for doing so, including long-term imprisonment. Over recent months, eight environmental activists have been arrested and charged with espionage and security offences.

It is worth noting that it is not just reaching out internationally that is penalised - the security apparatus also criminalises networking among Iranian CSOs inside the country and uses its power to either prohibit such networks from forming or weaken and neutralise existing ones.

What needs to change for civic space to improve in Iran, and what should global civil society do to help?

Global civil society should urge the government to establish a simple and transparent procedure for the establishment and operation of CSOs in Iran, and not to interfere in the lawful operation of CSOs.

We need to find ways to include and engage independent Iranian civil society, as opposed to quasi-governmental civil society, with existing global networks. The initiative on this should be taken by the international civil society community. Two very helpful measures in this regard would be the provision of updated information and knowledge to Iranian activists, and the design and implementation of capacity-building and accelerator projects addressing the specific needs and shortcomings of Iranian civil society.

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

Get in touch with Volunteer Activists Institute through its website or Facebook page, or follow @sva_nl on Twitter

 

DRC: ‘The 2018 elections carried the hope of change’

Felix Tshisekedi DRC1

French 

Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. In the aftermath of the December 2018 election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which led to a new president being elected, CIVICUS speaks to Pascal Mupenda, Programmes Director of Partnership for Integrated Protection (PPI), a not-for-profit, non-partisan and non-religious civil society organisation that seeks to protect human rights defenders and promote peace. Pascal is also the national rapporteur of New Dynamics of Civil Society in the DRC (NDSCI), a network of organisations established in 2013 to strengthen citizen action in the DRC. It currently has 103 local member associations, including two citizen movements.

Félix Tshisekedi has just been inaugurated as President of the DRC. What were the major challenges encountered in the DRC between the elections of December 2018 and the inauguration?

General elections were held in the DRC on 30 December 2018 to elect the successor of President Joseph Kabila, as well as to fill the 500 seats of the National Assembly and 715 Provincial Council seats. The post-election situation has been marked by four major elements.

First, there was the assessment of appeals that some presidential candidates submitted to the Constitutional Court. The electoral law allows dissatisfied candidates to submit such appeals following national presidential and legislative elections. The final results are only proclaimed once the Constitutional Court has issued a ruling. It should be noted that, ever since the Constitutional Court was established in 2006, the Congolese people in general, and human rights defenders (HRDs) in particular, have decried its composition, given that several of its members have very close ties to the government. By way of illustration, the rulings on the appeals lodged with the Constitutional Court after the 2006 and 2011 elections did not satisfy the applicants and were at the root of the violent post-election conflicts between the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, and the candidates who claimed to be his legitimately elected successor.

After the elections held on 30 December 2018, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) provisionally proclaimed the victory of Félix Tshisekedi, the candidate of the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition. In response, supporters of Martin Fayulu, the Lamuka coalition candidate, began demonstrating and faced bloody police repression. In the meantime, Martin Fayulu filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court to contest CENI’s provisional results and request a vote recount at all polling stations. Several electoral observation missions, such as those of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), the Catholic Church, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union (AU) and Congolese civil society organisations (CSOs) also supported this approach, claiming that they hold evidence in that regard.

Notably CENCO, which had deployed the largest number of election observers - around 40,000 - said that its data did not confirm Félix Tshisekedi’s electoral win. On this basis, Martin Fayulu has consistently called for the intervention of the national and international community to ensure that votes are counted and the popular will is respected. Thus, on 17 January 2019, AU heads of state requested the Constitutional Court to postpone its ruling, scheduled for 19 January, and offered to send a delegation that would arrive on 21 January, to try to solve the blossoming crisis. Their mission was cancelled as the Court went on to issue a ruling on 19 January as planned.

As expected, the Constitutional Court confirmed and proclaimed Félix Tshisekedi as President of the DRC, after rejecting Martin Fayulu's request on the basis that it was unfounded. As soon as the decision was made public, Martin Fayulu held a press briefing saying that he rejected the ruling and considers himself the sole legitimate president, urging Congolese citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations to demand “the truth of the polls.” But apart from some demonstrations in a few places, overall a precarious calm persisted over the country. However, at the last minute the inauguration ceremony, initially scheduled for 22 January, was postponed, eventually taking place on 24 January.

Second, there is the fact that the results of provincial and national elections were also challenged in several provinces across the country. CENI proclaimed these results when most of the paper ballots remained in the various localities and had not yet been compiled. Therefore, people wonder where CENI got those results from, given that the law does not allow for electronic voting, let alone electronic transmission of the results. Demonstrations around this issue are now taking place almost daily in various parts of the DRC. In the provinces of Kasai, North Kivu and South Kivu, for example, the population has continued to march to say ‘no’ to the election results. The vast majority of Congolese citizens, who voted for change, find it inconceivable that, although President Kabila's nominated successor failed miserably in his bid for the presidency, his Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition seems to have won an overwhelming majority of provincial elections and the majority of national legislative seats in 23 of DRC's 26 provinces.

Third, the context has been marked by the violation of the Congolese people's right to access information. Indeed, for more than three weeks, the internet connection and signals from foreign media such as Radio France Internationale (RFI), TV5 Monde and France 24, as well as the text messaging system, were interrupted. To access the internet, listen to foreign radio, or watch foreign television, one had to resort to foreign internet providers. The shutdown of communications, along with the restrictions on the freedom of assembly following the elections, were aimed at creating an environment in which the civil and political rights of the Congolese citizens could more easily be violated.

Finally, threats against HRDs, which had been massive before the elections, have not relented. The South Kivu artivist known as Cor Akim recently went missing and was found unconscious three days later. I was harassed and arrested during an observation mission and kept overnight in the Bukavu police headquarters. Several activists from the Lutte pour le changement (LUCHA) social movement were arbitrarily arrested. These are just a few of the many cases that PPI published in its monthly newsletter’s December 2018 edition.

What was the significance of these elections for Congolese citizens?

For Congolese people, the 2018 elections carried the hope of change, on hold since 2016, when the second and last term of incumbent President Joseph Kabila ended without him stepping down. For the first time in history, our country could now have both an outgoing living president and a living incoming president. All our previous presidents were either murdered before leaving power or driven out and forced to live in exile before being eventually murdered.

But the elections would have been more interesting if the process had been inclusive. Some candidates were excluded as a result of politically motivated prosecution. In addition, CENI greatly undermined the credibility of the elections, especially because of the way it compiled results. Today most elected officials are young, but at the same time many are also from the FCC, which means that voters’ expectations of change will not necessarily be fulfilled.

In sum, the elections were more significant in terms of voter aspirations than because of their results.

What roles did civil society play in trying to make the elections as free and fair as possible?

In the face of the elections civil society launched several campaigns calling for the renewal and rejuvenation of the political class. These included the ‘We, the Youth Can' campaign carried out by PPI alongside other CSOs. Numerous young people ran as candidates.

Civil society also worked hard to raise awareness of the importance of elections. It contributed with awareness campaigns and programmes to encourage people not only to demand elections, but also to make a useful and responsible use of their vote to achieve the desired change. Thanks to the work done by CSOs, the population had a relatively good understanding of the voting method and how to use a voting machine, although it was not possible to guarantee total mastery of the voting machines by a population that is more than 80 per cent illiterate.

In addition, many CSOs denounced the human rights violations orchestrated during the election campaign. They also collaborated with CENI to make sure the electoral calendar was respected, and everything was done in conformity with the Constitution and electoral laws.

Civil society has continued to play an important role during the examination of the candidates’ appeals to both the Constitutional Court for the presidential race and to the Courts of Appeals for the national and provincial legislative elections, providing evidence that the results from polling stations diverged from the provisional results that were proclaimed.

Do you think the state of democracy in the DRC will improve in the short term?

An improvement of the state of democracy in the DRC is possible, but some preconditions are necessary for it to happen. First, there needs to be systemic and systematic change of government personnel. If CENI would proclaim the actual results yielded by the ballot it would help avoid a popular uprising. It would also be wise for the Constitutional Court and the provincial courts of appeals to manage properly the cases surrounding national and provincial legislative seats so that the door to violence does not open.

Second, local and municipal elections should be held, as provided for by the electoral law, in order to bridge the gap between rulers and ruled.

Third, the justice sector should be reformed, including by strengthening its technical and managerial capacities.

Fourth, bilateral partnerships between the technical bodies of ministerial cabinets and CSOs should be formed so that joint approaches are adopted to face the challenges of democracy.

Finally, fundamental freedoms must be respected and tolerance encouraged, so that public space gradually opens up.

What should the international community do to help improve democracy in the DRC?

The international community can contribute in many ways. First, it should provide sufficient financial resources to CSOs involved in the protection and empowerment of HRDs and pro-democracy activists. It should also support the participation of Congolese civil society in the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and their advocacy to question the Congolese government’s human rights record and demand that it respects the fundamental notions of democracy.

Second, it should promote accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for economic crimes committed by Congolese political and economic actors, often with the complicity of international partners.

Looking to the future, it should also support government plans for security reform and national development, with an emphasis on strengthening relations between civilians and the military in a way that enhances the protection of democratic gains.

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

Get in touch with PPI and NDSCI through their websites.

 

VENEZUELA: Crisis demands a combined humanitarian and human rights response

Beatriz BorgesVenezuela has been immersed in a political crisis for some time now. In May 2018, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan citizens were leaving the country to flee hunger and political persecution, President Nicolás Maduro was re-elected in an election questioned by many in civil society and the international community as dubious. CIVICUS speaks about the current situation with Beatriz Borges, Executive Director of the Justice and Peace Centre (Cepaz), a civil society organisation focused on the promotion and defence of democratic values, human rights and a culture of peace in Venezuela. 

 

CHILE: Protests reveal lack of accountability of the Catholic Church

Cristian Leon GonzalezIn 2018, protests broke out in Chile, and then spread to other countries, in reaction to revelations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. CIVICUS speaks about the response to this issue with Cristián León González, spokesperson of Fundación Voces Católicas, a Chilean civil society organisation dedicated to disseminating the views of the Catholic Church in the press and other public forums. Although it does not represent the Church in an official capacity, Voces Católicas is supported by its authorities, and seeks to represent the points of view of the institution in all their breadth and diversity. Inspired by a similarly named organisation in the United Kingdom, it was established in Chile in 2012. 

 

VIETNAM: ‘We hope UN member states will listen to civil society’

 

Ahead of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Vietnam’s human rights record at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on 22 January 2019, CIVICUS speaks to Anna Nguyen from VOICE, a civil society organisation that promotes civil society development and advocates for human rights, including refugee protection, and the rule of law in Vietnam. Founded in 2007, VOICE’s mission is to empower individuals to build a strong, independent and vibrant civil society.

A Vietnamese-Australian lawyer, Anna Nguyen is VOICE's Director of Programs. She oversees a training programme for Vietnamese activists in Southeast Asia, a refugee resettlement programme in Thailand and advocacy efforts, including at the UN, to raise awareness of the human rights situation in Vietnam.

Along with VOICE, Civil Society Forum, Human Rights Foundation and VOICE Vietnam, CIVICUS made a UPR submission on to the Human Rights Council in July 2018.

What is the current situation for human rights and civil society in Vietnam?

The human rights situation in Vietnam is dire. While the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are supposedly protected by the constitution, they are not respected in practice. In 2018, 88 human rights defenders (HRDs) were arrested, and at least 194 remain in prison for peacefully exercising their civil and political rights. This is a staggering number and surely shows that the government of Vietnam is doing as much as it can to stifle political dissent.

Civil society in Vietnam has been steadily growing since mass protests over territorial disputes with China were held in Hanoi and Saigon in 2011, and thanks to the increasing use of social media such as Facebook and YouTube. There are more independent civil society groups now than there were seven years ago, and more people are willing to speak up on Facebook and attend protests to raise awareness of atrocities committed by the government, as well as attend training programmes relating to human rights. On the other hand, the Vietnamese government has used many tactics to stifle the development of an independent civil society movement, including the brutal suppression of protests, the physical harassment and imprisonment of HRDs and its refusal to pass a law on association.

How is the government persecuting online and offline dissent?

Peaceful protests are subject to brutal suppression, and their participants are victims of harassment and continuous surveillance. In June 2018, following a mass protest opposing proposed cybersecurity and Special Economic Zones legislation, the authorities cracked down heavily on peaceful protesters by using teargas and excessive force to prevent and punish participation, resulting in a range of human rights violations, including torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.

Peaceful dissidents are often harassed, physically assaulted, criminalised with vague national security laws and imprisoned. In 2018, nine of the many peaceful activists imprisoned received the longest prison terms available, ranging from 12 to 20 years.

Bloggers in Vietnam who have been at the forefront of exposing abuses by the state, including human rights violations, corruption, land grabbing and environmental issues have faced intimidation, threats and imprisonment.

Prominent blogger and entrepreneur, Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, was sentenced to 16 years jail for “conducting activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration in January 2010 while Hoang Duc Binh, a blogger and environmental activist, was sentenced to 14 years after being convicted on two separate charges of “resisting officers acting under their duty” and for “abusing freedoms and democratic rights”

In July 2017, Tran Thi Nga, a blogger and labour rights activist was convicted of “anti-state propaganda” and sentenced to 9 years’ imprisonment for sharing articles and videos online highlighting ongoing rights abuses tied to environmental crises and political corruption.

A draconian Cybersecurity Law, inspired by China’s, entered into force on 1 January 2019. This law tightens the government’s control of information and its ability to silence its online critics. Among other things, it allows the government to demand the removal, within 24 hours, of any posts that are deemed critical.

Why is the UPR process important for civil society?

The UPR process is open to all actors, not just states, which is why it is a great opportunity for civil society, and especially unregistered civil society groups, to get involved in the process by bringing in a perspective that is different from that of governments. It gives civil society an opportunity to highlight a state’s human rights record, as well as to provide recommendations to improve it.

Has Vietnamese civil society been able to participate in the UPR process? Has it encountered any challenges in doing so?

While the Vietnamese government held national consultations during the UPR process, it did not include independent and unregistered groups such as VOICE. This has been a challenge, because we haven’t had an open dialogue with the state.

In addition, reprisals are a big factor. Some HRDs who have been involved in the UPR process have faced difficulties upon returning home to Vietnam, including the confiscation of their passports and continuous surveillance and harassment. Reprisals are just another tactic that the government uses to stifle the growth of a civil society movement and punish civil society for peacefully raising its voice about the state’s failure to meet its human rights obligations.

What are some of civil society’s key recommendation to states participating in the upcoming review of Vietnam at the Human Rights Council?

Civil society is calling on states to urge Vietnam’s government to amend the Penal Code to ensure that ambiguous provisions relating to national security - notably articles 79 (109), 87 (116), 88 (117), 89 (118), 91 (121), 257 (330) and 258 (331) - are clearly defined or removed so they cannot be applied in an arbitrary manner to stifle legitimate and peaceful dissent and the freedom of expression.

We also want states to recommend that the government amend or repeal legislation specifically related to the freedoms of expression and information, and related to privacy and surveillance, in line with international standards such as articles 17, 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are particularly concerned about the Press Law, the Law on Publications and the Cybersecurity Law, as well as about Decree No. 72/2013/ND-CP on the management of internet services and information and Decree No.174/2013/ND-CP, which imposes penalties for the violation of post, telecommunication, information technology and radio regulations.

State representatives at the Human Rights Council should also call on Vietnam to ensure that civil society activists, HRDs, journalists and bloggers are provided with a safe and secure environment in which to carry out their work. They should also conduct impartial, thorough and effective investigations into all cases of attacks on and harassment and intimidation against them and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Finally, there should be recommendations to ensure the independent and effective investigation of and implementation of remedy for arbitrary detention and physical or mental abuse by the state, with special attention to the protection of HRDs. Specifically, the government of Vietnam should be urged to release, unconditionally and immediately, all HRDs, including journalists and bloggers, detained for exercising their fundamental rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and drop all charges against them.

What would you like to see come out of the UPR review?

We hope that UN member states in the Human Rights Council will listen to civil society and our recommendations, and that a diverse range of civil society’s human rights concerns, including the rights of women, young people and LGBTQI people, and civil and political rights, will be addressed by strong recommendations - by recommendations that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. This will allow civil society groups and other stakeholders to monitor easily whether the government of Vietnam follows through with their implementation.

We would also like Vietnam to have more dialogue with unregistered and independent groups, to ensure there is a balanced representation of civil society in national dialogues for future reviews. This will strengthen the impact of the UPR process and improve the integrity of the mechanism.

What are you plans following the UPR review, and what support is needed from the international community and international civil society?

VOICE will raise awareness of the commitments made by Vietnam through translation and dissemination among the public, media, parliamentarians, embassies and civil society.

We will make sure to follow up on the recommendations made to Vietnam to ensure they are being followed through by holding regular stakeholder meetings, including with other civil society groups and embassies in Hanoi. We will continue to update the states that have made specific recommendations during advocacy meetings, to let them know whether progress has been made and urge them to put some additional pressure if it has not.

We would like the international community, including international civil society organisations, to keep up the pressure so the government of Vietnam follows through with the recommendations they have received, and to provide a platform for civil society groups and HRDs to raise awareness about the state’s progress or lack of progress in human rights.

Civic space in Vietnam is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with VOICE through their website  or Facebook page, or follow @VoiceVietnam on Twitter

 

ARGENTINA: ‘Change is inevitable. It is just a matter of time’

Twitter: Edurne Cárdenas

In 2018, after years of civil society efforts, Argentina’s congress discussed an initiative to legalise abortion for the first time. While the ban on abortion in most cases remains, those campaigning for reform believe the debate has progressed. CIVICUS speaks about the campaign to Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer with the international team of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights organisation. CELS was founded in 1979, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, to promote human rights, justice and social inclusion. In its early years, CELS fought for truth and justice for the crimes committed under state terrorism, before expanding its agenda to include human rights violations committed under democracy, their structural causes and their relationship to social inequality. CELS advances its agenda through research, campaigning, alliances with others in civil society, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation in both national and international forums.

When did CELS, a classic human rights organisation, start working on sexual and reproductive rights, and why?

CELS has had great capacity to work in tune with the times and therefore to enrich its agenda progressively, always in alliance with social movements and other organisations. The idea of women’s rights as human rights was explicitly articulated at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, and more precisely in 1996 I believe, the CELS annual report included contributions by women’s rights activists on reproductive rights. Over the following years, often in partnership with other organisations, CELS took part in submissions to human rights bodies: for instance, in 2004 we contributed to a shadow report submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was formed in 2005 and CELS joined in 2012. Shortly after those first articles were published in our annual report, our concerns about human rights violations gradually widened to encompass access to non-punishable abortions, as they are referred to in the Criminal Code - abortions that can be performed legally when the woman’s life or health are in danger or if the pregnancy in question is the product of rape. The issue was also incorporated as a result of the sustained work of feminist activists within our organisation.

In sum, CELS works on this issue because we understand that the criminalisation of abortion has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by women. CELS’ key contribution was to place the abortion debate within the human rights sphere and to put into circulation human rights arguments to feed debate around the issue. CELS does not specialise in health issues, but we work in partnership with other organisations that examine the problem from that angle. From our point of view, this is an issue in which freedom and equality are at stake, and that is cross-cut by another theme - institutional violence - that was historically central to our work.

In 2018 the debate over legal abortion progressed in Argentina more than ever before, but not far enough for legal change to happen. What lessons do you draw from this experience?

In 2018, for the first time ever, an initiative to legalise abortion was debated in Congress. It was the seventh time that an initiative of this nature was introduced, and it was drafted and promoted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. This is a network bringing together more than 500 organisations that form the women’s movement; it is well coordinated, horizontal and has 13 years of experience in this struggle. Before 2018, initiatives had not progressed, even within the congressional committees that had to issue an opinion to allow for debate to proceed to the full house. Argentina has a tradition of highly mobilised feminism and, since 2015, the campaign has had a lot of street presence and has made a clear demand for legal abortion. 2018 began with a novelty: in his opening speech of that year’s legislative session, the president raised the issue, which alongside feminist pressure enabled parliamentary debate. This was absolutely unprecedented. Regrettably, after being passed by the House of Representatives - the lower house - in June 2018, the initiative to legalise abortion was rejected by the Senate in August.

The whole process was led by the women's movement. All other movements and organisations aligned behind their leadership. In the House, the initiative succeeded because the strategy was multi-partisan and diverse, there was strong social movement participation and street pressure made itself heard. In the Senate, a more conservative chamber, additional work was required. Our alliances failed us, as we couldn’t make them as cross-cutting as they were in the House. A question that remains on the table, then, is how to reach out to the most conservative chamber of Congress with a demand that must necessarily be processed through it.

In addition, the defeat in the Senate made it clear that we need to work more to understand and counter the ‘post-truth’ discourse of our opponents. We are seeing conservative advances that put institutional quality, and ultimately democratic institutions, at risk. What was interesting in the process was that all citizens were able to find out and take note of what their representatives think and how they vote.

The results of this particular struggle could be called bittersweet. How much of a defeat, and how much of a victory were they, and why?

The pictures of disappointment on 9 August 2018, when the Senate rejected the initiative, do not tell the whole story. When we take stock, the list of what we won is much longer than the list of what we lost. Losses of course include a missed opportunity - but we only missed one opportunity, that of 2018, because I really believe that change is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time. I do not know if it will happen in 2019, but it will eventually. But one thing does need to happen in 2019: with elections due, all the issues that were put on the table during this process have to be part of the presidential campaign agenda.

We undoubtedly gained in terms of mass participation and public presence - both in the streets and in public opinion. In 2018 abortion was discussed like never before, so silences and taboos broke. But the process also had a negative side effect: because the issue that was placed on the agenda was so divisive, and mobilisation became so massive and acquired such centrality on the political scene, a strong reaction from the most conservative sectors ensued. These sectors gained a level of organisation and visibility that they did not have in the past.

As these conservative voices emerged, the debate on abortion rights also brought back into the discussion some things that we thought were long settled and part of a basic, untouchable consensus. These sectors began to say out loud certain things that they wouldn’t have dared say only a few years ago. Such was the case with the campaign ‘Do not mess with my children’ (Con mis hijos no te metas), against the implementation of the law mandating comprehensive sex education, which called into question the role of the state in education.

What role did CELS play in the legalisation campaign?

Throughout the process, the women’s movement’s leadership, and that of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was undisputable. As a member of the Campaign, and alongside other human rights organisations, CELS made an important contribution in terms of organisation, coordination and argumentation.

Our history and experience give CELS much legitimacy. The fact that CELS speaks about abortion can make a difference when it comes to reaching broader audiences. Starting in 2014, when it seemed likely that the legalisation initiative would eventually be discussed in congressional committees, CELS began putting together input for the legislative debate, by revising jurisprudence and current standards and providing a justification as to why the debate on abortion had to be carried out from a human rights perspective.

At the same time, CELS participated as amicus curiae - friend of the court - in various court cases. Although we think that our ultimate goal, and the only one compatible with the recognition of women’s autonomy as full subjects of rights, is the legalisation of abortion, we have deemed it necessary to ensure in the meantime that the abortions that are already legal can be performed effectively, along the lines established for non-punishable abortions. In 2012, in its ruling in the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court made very clear the conditions under which legal abortions can be performed and the obligations that this confers on the state. This ruling reflected the great work done by women’s rights and human rights movements on the streets, in hospitals, in academia and in the courts. But nonetheless, access remains very uneven, and even in more ‘advanced’ provinces barriers to legal abortions still exist. To a large extent, this reflects the structural limitations of a system that establishes a restrictive set of grounds allowing abortions, which inevitably fails because it depends on someone certifying the presence of those grounds. In addition, the current system ignores the most important among all possible grounds for abortion: the pregnant person’s will. This is precisely what the bill that was passed by the House put in the spotlight.

During the 2018 debate, CELS made several presentations in support of the initiative at public hearings in both houses of Congress. Our executive director and I presented at the House of Representatives - significantly, both at the opening and the closing of the debate - and our litigation director spoke at the Senate. At the beginning of the debate, we issued a publication that was endorsed by a large part of the women’s movement, feminists and organisations alike, with arguments, legislation and jurisprudence, to bring clear information to legislators.

We were also present on the streets, not only sharing the vigils that were held during the voting sessions, but also in organising, providing support and coordinating with the women's movement, with the other organisations within the Campaign for Legal Abortion and with high school students, health professionals and other mobilised groups. This coordination and the sustained presence of the movement on the streets were what made the difference during 2018. Finally, we defended the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, since throughout this process the groups mobilised against legal abortion perpetrated various acts of violence against legalisation activists.

You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of anti-rights groups. Do you think these groups are on the rise? If so, what can progressive civil society do to protect the rights already conquered and keep moving forward?

Anti-rights groups have indeed grown and are organised under a common umbrella, against what they call ‘gender ideology’. They saw this debate as an opportunity to organise like never before. Now they are more numerous: there used to be groups linked to the Catholic Church, but now there are also numerous groups with links to evangelical churches, well-organised and well-funded, alongside other groups that are not necessarily faith-based. Their presence demands our attention because their goals run against the rights of a large part of the population, as they seek to limit access to rights by children, women, lesbians, gays, transvestites and trans people. They are appearing throughout Latin America and their existence also raises questions about their alliances and goals: how and when did they arrive in Argentina? What are their demands? How far are they willing to go? We have seen that behind their ‘no to abortion’ they bring along a broader agenda that is linked to their rejection of so-called ‘gender ideology’, sexual education in schools, even vaccination, and who knows what else.

The progressive movement needs to think of a strategy to face them. The strength of the human rights movement is our use of creativity and the strategy of reason. On the other hand, what anti-rights movements do is mirror the strategies of the human rights movement. Now, although creativity and innovation give us an advantage, the anti-rights movement is making us waste our time discussing things we thought were long settled. To top it all, what we get into is not even an honest discussion, since the statements they make and even the data they use do not withstand the slightest fact check. The result is not actual debate - that is, a genuine exchange of arguments and reasons. Still, we have no alternative but to respond. So, when we engage in such ‘debate’, we do not really discuss with them or try to convince them, but we share our reasoning before an audience, in order to try and convince that audience. We take advantage of that simulation of a debate to make our point before public opinion. For this task, social media are key, although they have clearly been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was during this debate that we were able to see first-hand the way so-called ‘fake news’ operates, particularly when they find an echo in influential voices outside social media, who disseminate them elsewhere. It so happened, for instance, that totally fake data found on social media were quoted by legislators during the congressional debate. In that area, there is a lot of work for us to do.

Leading the debate agenda is one of the challenges that our movements face. To do this, we need to always be a step ahead in the discussion. We should not ‘debate’ with the anti-rights groups but speak to larger audiences and engage in discussion with elected representatives, whose obligation it is to pass laws for our common good and to ensure the state’s compliance with its obligation to enforce human rights. The debate over the legalisation of abortion was a spearhead to think about other issues. The system of limited grounds for legal abortion, similar to the one that has just been adopted in Chile, has been in place in Argentina since 1921. The transition from a system of grounds to a system of deadlines requires a simple legislative decision to amend the Criminal Code. Why such big fuss then? Because this debate puts other discussions on the table, including what we think the role of women is, what the role of the state should be, to what extent and regarding what issues the state should get involved - and this is where conservative sectors exhibit their contradictions: they want the state to get inside your bed to criminalise your behaviour, but when it comes to education or vaccination, they want it not to interfere.

We cannot stay on the defensive. We need to go on the offensive and place secularism and the role of the state on the agenda. And we are forced to do so in a very regressive sub-regional context. Brazil, our biggest neighbour and partner, has just elected a president who is committed to advancing the agenda of its powerful evangelical caucus and who has just appointed to lead the Ministry of Human Rights an evangelic minister who says that women are born to be mothers.

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

Get in touch with CELS through their website and Facebook page, or follow @CELS_Argentina and @EdurneC on Twitter.

 

BOLIVIA: Increasing reduction of spaces immune to state co-optation or repression

CEDLA: Javier Gómez

Bolivia was home to a series of protests in 2018. CIVICUS speaks about these to Javier Gómez Aguilar, Executive Director of the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Founded in 1985, CEDLA is a non-profit research centre dedicated to producing and disseminating critical knowledge about labour issues in order to influence public debate. CEDLA works directly with workers and their organisations, and with development institutions, financial counterparts, other social organisations and regional and international networks.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Bolivia over the past year?

Our normative framework is that of a multiparty liberal democracy with periodic elections and separation of powers; however, there is an ongoing trend, which is apparent not only in Bolivia, towards a dominant party regime and the personal concentration of power. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by President Evo Morales, is deeply rooted in Bolivia’s popular sectors, and over the course of 12 years in power it has taken over civil society space. It has done so through very different mechanisms: by criminalising protest, persecuting opponents, dividing social organisations, putting pressure on civil society organisations (CSOs), harassing them by applying tax or labour standard compliance regulations, acquiring media outlets, denying official advertising to independent media and monitoring social networks.

The use of these mechanisms has increased as the ruling party, despite remaining the biggest party, has lost support. As the government controls the four branches of government, it uses them to counter its progressive loss of legitimacy. Discontent has increased and so have protests, albeit not in the same proportion. The government continues controlling the streets and retains the capacity to mobilise its supporters, particularly public servants and sectors of the population who depend on funds transfers or state subsidies.

If any CSO denounces violations of environmental rights or norms, the government responds very aggressively and denounces the spokesperson, accusing them of having links to unspeakable political interests, notably those of US imperialism. CEDLA recently published a report on the situation in state-owned companies, and the government aggressively attacked us. They did not discuss content. After all, we used information that was already public, and all we did was analyse it. Instead they just sought to discredit the source. They may try to link us to the radicalised left, while at the same time, as we receive European funding, accusing us of representing the right-wing ideology that has won power in Europe. They do whatever it takes to build a narrative in which we appear as actively conspiring against a progressive government.

In addition, in November 2018 an audio clip was leaked in which the police commander informed the authorities about actions undertaken to “monitor” journalists and opponents on social media, and said something that was very revealing: that actions were being taken to both “inform and misinform.”

As a result, many lean towards self-censorship or self-restraint, and the public agenda weakens as a consequence. In the face of persisting activism, the government resorts to stigmatisation, treating activists as liars and subjecting them to fiscal persecution and criminalisation, even including judicial persecution. This has happened to all the social movements that mobilised in recent years. The most extreme case, throughout 2018, has been that of the Yungas coca producers, whose demands to expand production have been systematically denied by the government. Instead the producers of Chapare, the other coca region, where President Morales comes from, were allowed to expand. The Yungas coca producers have mobilised for years, but it was in mid-2018 that the government began to denounce their alleged links to armed sectors, and in August 2018 a mobilisation ended with a strange episode that resulted in the death of a police officer, and the main leader of the movement was arrested.

This situation invariably repeats itself with each sector that mobilises and in one way or another represents a threat to the government: their protests end with their leaders denounced for violence, prosecuted in the absence of due process guarantees and detained preventively for prolonged periods. It is quite common that, as protest leaders are let go with some form alternative measure, they choose to leave the country. Demobilisation ensues.

 

What caused protests by students in 2018, and how did the government react to them?
Student mobilisations were triggered by the limited budget allocation to El Alto Public University (UPEA), a new university that was born out of the popular struggles of 2000, which caters to a lot of students but is quite poor. UPEA mobilisations started in early 2018, and in March a student, Jonathan Quispe Vila, was killed in a protest. The government immediately claimed that the student had been killed as a result of the impact of a marble of the sort that students were throwing, although available home videos appear to show that he was hit by a police-issue bullet. In any case, there was no clear investigation of what happened, and although initially further demonstrations were held to protest against the death, the ultimate effect of repression was demobilisation due to fear of confrontation with the police.
Another relevant mobilisation of 2018, which started in late 2017, was that of medical doctors. Health professionals held a long strike and staged numerous protests against a new article in the Criminal Code that introduced sanctions of between five and nine years in prison for medical negligence and malpractice, following what was barely more than an administrative process. Health workers mobilised over the end-of-year holidays of 2017 and up to 21 February 2018, the day when citizens mobilise to keep on the agenda the fact that in 2016 President Morales lost a referendum that should have denied him the prerogative of running for another term in office. In the process of the health workers’ protests, several instances of confrontation, violence and persecution took place. In January 2018, the police violently broke into the Convent of San Francisco in La Paz and arrested doctors and medical students who had found safe haven there following the repression they faced when trying to block the passage of the Dakar Rally, which was routed through Bolivia. This was extraordinary: historically, the church in Bolivia protected various protesters, including those involved in hunger strikes against the dictatorship, and up to now there had never been any such intervention. There are almost no spaces immune to state repression anymore. In the case of the doctors, mobilisation gave way when the Criminal Code was repealed.
In the face of every mobilisation, the state apparatus behaves in the same way. Even when it faces sectoral demands that in themselves do not necessarily imply a political challenge, the government allows conflict to grow, feeds polarisation, waits for scuffles and confrontations with the police to arise and then accuses the leaders of mobilised groups of being behind the violence and has them arrested and prosecuted. Opposition members side with these movements, arguing that the government is not listening to them, and then conflicts that were initially sectoral or territorial end up being treated as destabilisation attempts orchestrated by the opposition.

 

When and why did protests against presidential re-election reignite? Why was this issue not solved once and for all with the 2016 referendum?

The February 2016 referendum was organised by the president himself, with the intention of getting a green light to change the Constitution - a Constitution that had been passed under his administration - in order to enable a further re-election. The referendum mechanism gives citizens the last word, so that the issue of re-election should have been resolved for good with the ‘no’ victory, and the president should not have been able to run again.

The current Constitution allows for only one re-election, but President Morales is already in his third term; the first one was not taken into account because it took place under the previous Constitution. After 12 years in power, the dispute over re-election reflects the ruling party’s institutional fragility. A prohibition on re-election would not amount to a ban against the party: the MAS could present another candidate. But at this point there is no successor to Evo Morales because, instead of acknowledging at an earlier stage that there would be no re-election, and therefore focusing on producing an alternative leadership, the government devoted itself to finding alternative ways to overcome the re-election ban.

Given that the ‘no’ option won by a very narrow margin, it has been said that the vote was ‘almost’ a draw, and therefore the result was not conclusive. In the judicial arena, two pro-government representatives filed a claim of unconstitutionality, invoking the Pact of San José de Costa Rica (the American Convention on Human Rights), which has a status higher than the Constitution. They say that because the Convention guarantees the full right of citizens to vote and be voted for, the prohibition on re-election would be a violation of the president’s political rights.

In December 2017, just days before its term ended, the Constitutional Court accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and authorised Evo Morales to seek a further re-election. It should be emphasised that Constitutional Court judges are elected and serve five-year terms, and the judges who issued that ruling are all public officials now. In other words, the judiciary is not an independent power. We are currently awaiting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ pronouncement on the subject.

The government retains about 30 per cent electoral support and mobilises a lot of people on the streets. So while fighting on the judicial front, it has also tried another way, through the approval of a new political parties bill that mandates that primary elections be held in January 2019. Right after the law was passed, the Electoral Tribunal enabled the president and vice-president to run in the primaries. Participation in these elections is mandatory for parties that want to present candidates in the general elections, but is voluntary for voters, and restricted to party members. Registries are in very bad shape: when the lists of registered voters were published, many of us found ourselves listed as members of parties that we had never been affiliated with. The opposition has insisted that this election is unnecessary, since all the parties - including the incumbent - have registered single candidates. However, the Electoral Tribunal ratified it for 27 January. Now that President Morales has been proclaimed as a candidate, it will be increasingly difficult to turn back, because this move changed the focus of the discussion: from discussing President Morales’ political rights and whether they would be violated by a re-election ban, we have moved onto a discussion of the right of MAS members and activists to vote for their favourite candidate.

 

Is civil society divided over the re-election issue? Would you say that Bolivian citizens are polarised around the issue?

There are demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, expressions in favour of and against the re-election. President Morales retains a very important level of support, particularly among public servants. There are organised sectors that receive abundant state resources and mobilise systematically against any anti-re-election protest. At the same time citizen platforms - groups of women, young people, students and sections of the middle class - have mobilised under the 'Bolivia said no' banner to demand respect for the results of the referendum. During one of the recent marches by university students the front of the Electoral Court building in Santa Cruz was set on fire. According to the students, the fire was caused by infiltrators who also caused much other damage. But the government immediately arrested the protest leaders, one of whom was indicted in a single day: he was given an abbreviated trial, pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended prison sentence - something quite extraordinary in the context a very slow judicial system, in which 80 per cent of prisoners have not been sentenced. The student was freed with alternative measures, but the objective of creating fear among mobilised sectors was achieved. It clearly showed that if you mobilise, you can end up in jail.

 

What are the long-term changes that have been seen in Bolivia?

No matter who wins the next election, scheduled for October 2019, the next government will be transitional in nature. The social transformations of the past 12 years have been profound and, I believe, irreversible. Inclusion may have been achieved through the market, but the policy changes have nonetheless been enormous, and they have taken place without any dramatic social conflict. We could have had a bloody revolution, but instead we had a very institutionalised process of social change. The fact that there are representatives, senators, mayors and governors of indigenous descent has become a natural occurrence. Out of the eight presidential candidates competing in the upcoming primaries, four are of indigenous descent - Aymara or Quechua - and each represents a different political and ideological strand, including one on the far right. Inclusion and the realisation of the rights of indigenous people was originally a leftist cause and was indeed pushed from the left, but nowadays being indigenous no longer equates with supporting alternative causes or political renewal. Being indigenous is compatible with a diversity of ideological options and no longer represents anything close to a position of moral superiority: it has become part of the mainstream, and therefore encompasses all the complexities and contradictions of society. That alone reveals how much this country has changed.

 

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

Get in touch with CEDLA through its website or Facebook page, or follow @cedlabo on Twitter.

 

ISRAEL: There is a lack of political will to end the occupation

 

Twitter: Amit Gilutz

After a tough year for dissent in the occupied Palestinian territories, CIVICUS speaks to Amit Gilutz, spokesperson of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, B’Tselem (which means ‘in the image of’, pointing to the universal moral edict to respect and uphold the human rights of all people) strives to end Israel’s occupation, which it sees as the only way to achieve a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It does so by documenting and publicising acts of injustice, violence and human rights violations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and by challenging the legitimacy of the occupation regime both in Israel and internationally.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Israel over the past year? Has it worsened or improved?

The recent Israeli governments - each more extremely right-wing than its predecessor - have for years engaged in a campaign aimed at silencing criticism of their policies in general and specifically stifling any debate about the occupation. Not only are human rights organisations such as B’Tselem targeted: anyone critical of the government, whether they be journalists, academics, or artists, easily becomes the target for incitement through smear campaigns and legislation designed to narrow the space available for political or even cultural action. At the same time the government is engaged in intensive international lobbying aimed at cutting funding for civil society organisations (CSOs). This process, widely referred to as ‘shrinking democratic space’, is the predictable consequence of the prolonged occupation itself, now in its 51st year. It is paralleled with another push to erase the occupation, namely the formal annexation of the territories, which the current government seems to be keener on than previous ones.

What effects have the turn towards right-wing populism abroad, and particularly in the USA, Israel’s most powerful ally, had in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been joining forces with other reactionary and populist governments around the world, aiming to create new alliances that would diminish the ability of the international community to act effectively against the occupation. These alliances, together with the green light Israel sees coming from Washington, including through a series of unilateral measures the US administration has taken against Palestinians, has emboldened the pro-settlement camp in Israel, as well as the government to step up its efforts in the dynamic process of gradually taking over more and more Palestinian land and resources, while pushing Palestinians onto enclaves that are detached from one another and from resources needed for a sustainable future.

A case in point is the plan to forcibly remove the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, which is a war crime under international law. For decades Israel has created a coercive environment for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank, hoping they will give up and leave, as if by their own volition, while stopping short of directly loading them onto trucks and dumping them elsewhere. These are the kinds of images that would damage the PR efforts of a state that purports to be a democracy, while at the same time controlling millions of subjects with no political rights. In the current political climate, Israel seems to be nearing a point in which this consideration will no longer stop it, although the planned forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents is for now on hold, thanks to international pressure.

How significant was the Knesset’s decision to pass the contentious nation-state bill into law, declaring Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”?

Although significant, none of the laws passed recently should be seen in isolation because it is their totality that matters. Their combined purpose is to mark any opposition to the occupation as illegitimate, as lying beyond the border of acceptable politics, and to further marginalise the Palestinian citizens of Israel. That said, the opposition to the nation-state bill has been quite exceptional, and one can only hope that this opposition can be sustained.

How do you work in the occupied territories, and what challenges do you face in doing so?

B’Tselem field researchers are Palestinians who work in the communities in which they live, all across the Occupied Territories. The reality of the occupation is something that they experience on both the personal, as well as the professional, level. Take for example the B’Tselem field researchers based in blockaded Gaza: together with two million Palestinians they live under this reality. On a personal level, it’s part of their lives. On a professional level, the fact that they never get a permit from Israeli authorities to leave the Gaza Strip means that it’s almost impossible for them to meet with colleagues from the B’Tselem team. A permit to exit the strip would also mean some relief from the inhumane conditions that the blockade Israel imposes on Gaza has created. In the occupied West Bank, our field researchers and volunteers have been arrested, strip-searched and harassed, have had their equipment confiscated and otherwise prevented from doing their work.

On the other side, in Israel proper, life of course is much more ‘normal’ – as exposed as our team is to the ongoing hate speech and government incitement. Specifically, Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, has once again recently been a target of incitement. In October 2018, when he appeared for the second time in front of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Israel’s Envoy to the UN, Danny Dannon, boasted in English about Israeli democracy, while addressing Hagai in Hebrew and accusing him of being a traitor.

What extra help, including from international civil society, does progressive civil society in Israel need to help create a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist and enjoy equal human rights?

We need civilians around the world to demand that their representatives do nothing short of decisive action in order to bring an end to the occupation. What we lack is not political solutions but political will, and meanwhile an unbearable toll is taken on Palestinians.

Civic space in Israel is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with B’Tselem through their website or Facebook page, or follow @btselem and @amit_gilutz on Twitter

 

INDIA: When justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting

Flickr: Anand Grover

After years of civil society campaigning and legal action, gay sex was decriminalised in India in 2018. CIVICUS speaks to Anand Grover, Senior Advocate and Director of Lawyers Collective, a civil society organisation that led the campaign. Lawyers Collective seeks to empower and change the status of marginalised groups through the effective use of law and engagement in human rights advocacy, legal aid and litigation. Founded in 1981, Lawyers Collective uses the law as a tool to address critical issues such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTI rights and access to medicine and healthcare. Anand is known for his legal activism around homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. From 2008 to 2014 he was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and is currently an acting member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Homosexuality is still criminalised in about 70 countries around the world, but no longer in India. What is the significance of this change?

In September 2018, when the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual adult sex in private, it meant a lot to many people in India. Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalised all forms of so-called ‘unnatural sex’, that is, penal non-vaginal sexual acts. Section 377 ostensibly applied to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and to gay men and lesbian women, but it was mostly used as a tool in the hands of the police to harass, extort and blackmail gay men. It prevented gay men from seeking legal protection from violence, for fear that they would end up being penalised for sodomy. Criminalisation resulted in stigma and prejudice, which in turn perpetuated a culture of silence around homosexuality and resulted in rejection at home and discrimination in the workplace and public spaces.

Not surprisingly, when we first challenged Section 377 in 2001, nobody wanted to become a petitioner; homosexuality was so stigmatised that nobody wanted to come forward. It was only in 2009, when the High Court of Delhi first decriminalised it, that people started coming out into the open.

The recent Supreme Court ruling lifted such a heavy burden from many people that we call it the second independence of India – the independence of all these groups that were still criminalised by a British law. Section 337 was imposed in 1861, under colonial rule. Before the British came, sexual practices were not criminalised in India.

As an immediate result of the legal change, people now can be open about their sexualities. People who got married abroad are now throwing receptions to celebrate their marriages. This was unheard of in India before September 2018. It is quite new for people to declare willingly that they are gay and be seen as a normalised part of society. The other day I interviewed somebody for a job, and she said she was bisexual – and nobody had asked her about it, we asked her about her aspirations, her thoughts about society, and she just said, ‘I’m bisexual and I am happy about all that is happening’, and that was that. We will, hopefully, become a more pluralistic society, at least in terms of sexuality.

 

Can this change be claimed as a victory for Indian civil society? What role did the Lawyers’ Collective and other civil society organisations (CSOs) play in the process?

This was indeed a big and hard-won victory for civil society. The process was kicked off by the Lawyers’ Collective in 2001 - or even earlier, because it all started with HIV. We began advocating for the rights of people with HIV in the late 1980s, and lost many times, but got our largest victory in 1997, when the Bombay High Court ruled against discrimination in public sector employment on the basis of HIV status.

After we won the HIV case, many gay men started coming to our office in Mumbai to seek legal advice. And that’s when I realised that the main issue for them was Section 377. It was the biggest impediment to the full expression of sexuality and personhood of LGBTI people.

We, in the Lawyers Collective, first decided to challenge Section 377 in 1999 or 2000 but couldn’t file a petition because no gay men were ready to come forward. In the meantime, someone else filed a petition in Delhi and it was dismissed. We then had to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377 in Delhi High Court. The Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based CSO working on HIV prevention amongst homosexuals and other men having sex with men, had also reached the same conclusion: Section 377 was one of the biggest obstacles to access to health services by gay men, who tried to stay under the radar due to fear of prosecution.

In the Delhi High Court, we argued that Section 377 made it difficult for the Naz Foundation to do their job of providing sexual health advice to gay men. We also challenged Section 377 on the grounds that it violated the rights to equality, non-discrimination and freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, which included the rights to privacy, dignity and health.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court declared that Section 377 was unconstitutional, and therefore decriminalised adult consensual same-sex relations in private. However, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) against the Delhi High Court’s decision were filed in the Supreme Court, mostly on behalf of faith-based and religious groups, and the government did not file an appeal. Among other interventions in support of the judgment, the Lawyers Collective filed a comprehensive counter affidavit against the SLPs, on behalf of the Naz Foundation. In 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the judgement of the Delhi High Court on the grounds that amending or repealing Section 377 should be in the hands of parliament rather than the judiciary. The Naz Foundation, through the Lawyers Collective and others, then submitted curative petitions. In the meantime some other petitions were filed and in September 2018 the Supreme Court eventually revised its 2013 judgment and concluded that Section 377 was indeed unconstitutional. They basically said: oh, we made a mistake, sorry.

What are they key lessons you learned from this experience that could help people in other countries who are fighting similar battles?

The lesson is quite simple: you need to realise that when justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting and you will eventually win. That is what happened here: we knew that this law, that was arbitrarily imposed by the British, was unjust. We encountered lots of challenges, the fight was a long one, but we were ultimately victorious.

Are you experiencing backlash? Do you expect anti-rights groups to challenge these gains?

Not really, not this time. In fact, from 2001 to 2018 we developed a lot of advocacy through the media, and over time the public started understanding the issues, so there’s hardly any backlash now. The process took a long time, so it also gave us time for changes to catch within the mindset of the people.

I think anti-rights groups are weak on this particular issue, because all major religious groups eventually took sides against criminalisation. We will eventually see backlash when the issue of marriage equality is raised, but not around the decriminalisation of gay sex. And even gay marriage will eventually happen, because it is the logical next step.

What should be the next agenda item to work on?

Now we need to move to the next stage in terms of equality between LGBTI people and the rest of the population, including equality and non-discrimination in the private sector, regarding employment, education, health services and so on. Also, laws about sexual assault and rape need to be gender-neutral. This also applies to marriage – it should be defined as a relationship between two people, and so the definition should be gender-neutral. The same goes for inheritance and other things.

We approach change from two sides: public opinion and the courts. The reason why we choose to work through the courts rather than parliament is that the judiciary is more empathetic to these causes, whereas the parliament is packed with right-wing politicians, so these reforms wouldn’t pass.

Civic space in India is rated as ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with Lawyers Collective through their website or Facebook page, or follow @LCHIVWRI and @AnandGroverRepo on Twitter

 

MIGRATION: ‘The way our countries are treating refugees –this isn't the Europe we want’

SeaWatchCIVICUS speaks to Giorgia Linardi, spokesperson for Sea-Watch in Italy, and Julian Pahlke, chairperson of Jugend Rettet (‘Youth Rescues’) and former crew member of the Iuventa ship. Sea-Watch and Jugend Rettet both conduct civil search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean, a route by which migrants and refugees seek to enter Europe. In the face of an ongoing humanitarian crisis, they provide emergency relief, push for rescue operations by European institutions and stand up for legal escape routes and the removal of the root causes of migration and flight.

Photo: Sea-Watch.org

When did you decide to organise to help migrants and refugees, and why?

Julian Pahlke (JP): Jugend Rettet was founded in early 2016 by a couple of young people in Berlin. As young Europeans, we couldn’t let Europe become a mass grave. Ours is such a rich continent. Why would we leave less fortunate people to drown at sea? We might be geographically disconnected from the Mediterranean, but as Europeans we cannot be disconnected from the issue, because if you look at the way our countries are treating migrants and refugees, this is not the Europe we want.

 

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE: Congolese doctor and Iraqi survivor recognised for efforts to end wartime sexual violence

Susannah SirkinOn the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict, CIVICUS speaks to Susannah Sirkin, director of policy and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises. Susannah oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.

Who are Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, and why were they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

Let me start with Denis Mukwege, whom I know personally. Dr Mukwege is an incredibly skilled and experienced gynaecologic surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He is not only a clinician but also has a PhD in Medicine and has become, unfortunately due to the wars in the DRC, an expert in treating victims of mass sexual violence in the context of the decades of brutal conflict in his country. His medical specialty therefore became treating patients with traumatic fistula – women who were sexually assaulted so violently that various functions of their internal organs were damaged and destroyed, causing pain, incontinence and many other problems. In sum, Dr Mukwege’s surgical expertise is repairing fistulas and treating damage to the genital and reproductive organs in women and girls. In the course of treating hundreds of victims of mass rape in Eastern Congo, he started to speak out, as a doctor, against the atrocities and the culture of impunity that continued to be the norm in his country, and he began to analyse and denounce the use of mass rape as a weapon of war and to bring the voices of survivors to the fore in the global context.

Dr Mukwege is eloquent, courageous, creative and imaginative. He is equally capable of speaking to heads of state and the UN Security Council as he is of talking to the people of Panzi, the small town where his hospital is located in the South Kivu province of eastern DRC. He has also mentored dozens of young professionals working to support survivors in DRC and beyond. He is a huge advocate for a holistic model of treating survivors of sexual violence: he recognises that medical care is not just about the immediate needs of survivors or rape – which are many, including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and dealing with possible pregnancy and mental health trauma – but also about supporting access to justice and social and economic reintegration and, above all, about restoring dignity and ending the stigma and shame that has silenced so many survivors.

Nadia Murad is a young woman who was a victim herself - but she did not remain a victim and instead became a powerful and outspoken survivor. She comes from Sinjar, in northern Iraq, and belongs to the Yazidi people, a very small ethnic and religious minority that Islamic State (ISIS) targeted for extermination because they viewed them as pagans. In 2014 ISIS overran the area, rounded up people from her village, and committed unspeakable atrocities. They killed thousands of them, including six of Nadia’s brothers, and took the women into slavery. More than 6,000 Yazidi women were kidnapped by ISIS and held as sexual slaves, and more than 3,000 are still missing. So essentially, Nadia is a survivor of what was clearly a genocide - the deliberate destruction of a people’s culture and community, their homes, the killing of men and boys, mass abductions and disappearances, the sexual slavery of women and girls. In this case, as in the cases of most survivors of sexual violence in conflict contexts, rape is just one of the many horrific atrocities inflicted on them.

What is remarkable about Nadia is that she came out of captivity, which involved unbelievable suffering – beatings, burning, rape – as a leading voice describing and denouncing the plight that she experienced along with thousands of women, and bearing witness to the genocidal violence against her entire community. She overcame enormous trauma, transformed her brutal experience into witness, testimony and advocacy, and has become a voice for her people and against violence against women, and to demand accountability for the Yazidi genocide. Hers is also a call to look at survivors as whole persons and recognise their dignity as human beings and not just as victims of one crime or another. In fact, both she and Dr Mukwege, the survivor and the doctor, testify to this deep understanding of the whole person that demands our response. And they both call for addressing the continued global impunity for these crimes and ensuring that survivors not only have a voice, but they are respected and listened to, that they recover their dignity and eventually receive a full measure of justice – including reparation.

Do you think the Nobel Prize will make a difference in terms of the visibility of wartime sexual violence and holding perpetrators accountable?

This is the most visible and prestigious global prize for peace and human rights, and the eyes and ears of the world are focused on its announcement. The laureates get the opportunity to address the global community in their Nobel speeches delivered from Oslo on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. As long as the media captures these moments and focuses on these individuals, they have an extraordinary platform to speak to governments, to the international agencies doing work in conflict zones and to all of civil society. So this is a terrific opportunity for them to continue to raise the issue and to point policymakers and others in the direction of the concrete actions that are needed, because they are activists, they know their communities, and they know what needs to be done.

Additionally, the very fact that somebody like Nadia, who went through those experiences, can have a voice sends a powerful message to other survivors. Nadia was very young, and she was not a trained organiser or activist, but she was able to overcome trauma and become a global spokesperson so that people like her could have a voice. This is very validating not just for the Yazidi people, who have suffered unspeakably, but also for women and girls anywhere who have suffered assault. She specifically calls attention to the phenomenon of slavery – which includes rape but is not limited to it. And in her case, attention also focuses on the vicious, depraved crimes committed by ISIS.

As for Dr Mukwege, it’s worth noting that this is a time of a possible, long-awaited transition in the DRC, where there may be long-delayed elections, and where dozens of unresolved mass atrocity cases await justice. The Nobel Prize to Dr Mukwege calls attention to the very critical role played by doctors who believe that you cannot just treat the victims of mass crimes but must also use your experience and expertise to bring about change and stop these crimes from happening in the first place. In the view of PHR, this transformation of Dr Mukwege from a doctor who treats each patient individually to a doctor who creates and advocates for peace and justice on the global stage is an extremely important model for doctors everywhere, and especially for those who are witnesses of human rights violations.

Can you tell us more about the work that PHR has done in partnership with Dr Mukwege as well as in northern Iraq, including the area where the violations against Yazidi people took place?

Over the past seven years, PHR has worked very closely with Dr Mukwege and his staff to build capacity for the forensic documentation of sexual attacks and to bring health professionals to work more closely with law enforcement, lawyers and judges, so that survivors can gain access to justice safely and with dignity. This is fundamental because unfortunately, it is still very common for medical humanitarian workers to feel that their job is limited to providing medical care, and as a result, they set up a firewall between medical care and justice, as if the two were in competition or even incompatible with each other. In the model we promoted along with Dr Mukwege, medical support to survivors includes forensic documentation and, if the survivor so wishes, also support towards and all the way through a justice process. This requires a multidisciplinary collaboration that in far too many contexts is currently still not happening.

In Iraq, as in the DRC, we are developing a model of multi-sectoral capacity building to support access to justice for survivors of sexual violence and torture. In Iraq, this was not restricted to the Yazidi people, as these human rights violations are taking place in the context of the various crises unfolding in Iraq. We are training doctors, nurses, psychologists, law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges on forensic documentation of sexual violence and torture, and we are working to help support greater communication and collaboration across these sectors so that survivors of these crimes have safe and dignified access to justice in the full sense of the term.

We are very concerned that to date the prosecutions and trials to hold ISIS accountable for mass crimes in Iraq, which have definitely not met any recognised international standards for fair trials and treatment of detainees, have also not involved any criminal charges related to sexual violence or sexual slavery. All the ISIS detainees are being prosecuted under anti-terror laws, not for the crimes of rape or sexual slavery. The justice system has so far not met the needs of the Yazidi people or any other victims of slavery and sexual violence.

In Iraq we are adapting the model used in the DRC, because there are legal as well as cultural differences between the two countries. A big difference is that DRC is a party to the Rome Statute - the International Criminal Court - and has incorporated it into domestic law, so we were able to use those standards, procedures and understandings of mass crimes within the Congolese legal system. That is not the case in Iraq, where there are no laws that recognise or allow for the prosecution of genocide or crimes against humanity. This huge legal gap makes it nearly impossible to prosecute genocide, mass rape and mass sexual slavery in Iraq.

Across the world, what needs to be done to ensure that sexual violence is recognised and treated as a major human rights violation?

There are things to be done at every step of the way. In too many places, everything conspires against victims coming forward. Sexual violence is often perpetrated by very powerful people who control a person’s physical, economic or social environment, their jobs and even their social standing in the community. In many parts of the world women who have been raped are considered unmarriageable. In sum, there are many factors conspiring against a victim coming forward or even seeking medical care, let alone justice.

In almost any country, the biggest initial obstacle is the lack of confidence that survivors have in the law enforcement and justice system. So first, there needs to be safe access to reporting. Opportunities need to be provided for reporting to a person who is well trained to respect the survivor’s physical and emotional needs, understand the trauma that that person has been exposed to and master all the technical aspects to ensure that the case is properly documented, both clinically and forensically, to facilitate access to justice. This also requires a support network to provide assurances of safety and confidentiality, as well as a context where the survivor is not judged or stigmatised, or has their integrity questioned. More often than not, it is the victim who ends being interrogated instead of the perpetrator.

Second, there are failures of the justice system to address, including delays, lack of proper procedures to allow survivors to tell their stories safely and confidentially, and an inadequate understanding of the ways trauma affects memory or even the ways in which someone presents in front of a court of law. A lot of our training seeks to address these issues. Third, there is the limited supply of the economic and psychosocial support that survivors need. And last but not least, at the highest international level, there is the failure to prosecute the worst perpetrators, which makes it much more difficult for survivors to deal with the day to day crimes of rape and sexual assault.

What further support does civil society need to combat wartime sexual violence, including from international civil society and the international community?

One of the biggest problems that we have is the insufficient communication and coordination among all the entities working on these issues. When there is a crisis – the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, Iraq, Syria – many organisations come in to do their very well-intentioned work, but they do so in a far too uncoordinated way. We hear constantly from the legal side that gathering testimonies without the proper training can actually harm the case, and we see that some survivors are interviewed way too many times by too many people without a clear purpose. In other words, two things that are critically needed are training and coordination.

The third thing we need is for the international community to be more intentional about referring cases to international justice mechanisms, and not just drop them if, say, the Security Council fails to refer some case to the International Criminal Court. We now have investigation mechanisms – for Iraq, for Myanmar, for Syria – but they don’t have any judicial authority. We need to address the fact that the system is broken: we are giving people hope, we tell them that if they report they might get justice - but that is in fact not happening.

Get in touch with PHR through their website or Facebook page, or follow @P4HR and @susannahsirkin on Twitter

 

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: ‘Counter-terrorism is devouring international law’

CIVICUS speaks to Agnes Callamard, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, about her latest report, Saving lives is not a crime, which goes beyond documenting attacks on civil society to show how closing civic space also affects people who need life-saving help.

Your latest report presented to the UN General Assembly is titled Saving lives is not a crime. Why did you choose this topic as the theme?

This particular report initially grew out of outrage. Outrage over the repeated examples that I came across of people acting in solidarity with others and being threatened with legal action, such as in Europe and the USA in the context of anti-migration policies. Outrage as well over the criminalisation of humanitarian organisations and assistance because of the counter-terrorism and sanctions regime. So, outrage is the initial driver for this particular report. My subsequent research into empirical evidence and international law applicable to these situations showed that governments were violating their obligations to protect the right to life whenever they prevented or criminalised people from intervening in situations characterised by or leading to arbitrary killings or deprivation of life.

In which areas did you find the most direct examples of such actions leading to deprivation of life?

The greatest direct impact I found was on migrants at borders, whether in the Mediterranean or in desert areas. It’s very clear in the case of the Mediterranean that the number of refugees and migrants killed or murdered has increased due to the fact that there are no longer any humanitarian actors engaged in search and rescue of those who are taking the risk of crossing the sea. The data is not so clear in the case of the border between Mexico and the USA, but one can only extrapolate that if people are prevented from dropping food and water in desert areas, it’s likely that someone will lose their life as a result of not being able to find these life-saving resources. Another example is related to counter-terrorism. Security Council resolutions and national laws on counter-terrorism have led to a significant decrease in humanitarian aid for critically endangered populations. For example, funding to humanitarian organisations operating in Somalia declined by half between 2008 and 2011, and it is estimated that half a million people died in the famine of 2011.

Additionally, there is evidence of people losing their lives as a result of the global gag rule and related policies. [The global gag rule prevents US government funding from going to organisations that provide abortion services, including the provision of information and counselling, and advocacy to decriminalise abortion.] Organisations working to assess the impact of the global gag rule have noticed an increase in mortality rates in countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, particularly among vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV and AIDS. Because of the way the policy is implemented, and because of civil society organisations (CSOs) providing integrated health services, the global gag rule is having a negative impact on many people beyond women, and many services beyond the provision of safe abortion. And regarding the latter, experts are saying that the global gag rule is in fact increasing the number of women seeking abortions, as a result of the decrease in access to family-planning services.

How have governments engaged with your report? Do you see any opportunities for civil society to build upon?

Most governments are giving a polite nod to my report, and a few attacked it but they don’t really engage with the substance of it. There are exceptions. I believe some governments are truly troubled by the criminalisation of humanitarian and medical assistance to civilian populations in armed conflicts. Some steps have already been taken to mitigate the effects of counter-terrorism and others are being explored and considered.

Civil society needs to use every possible opportunity to question the legal framework of counter-terrorism and national security more generally, for what it is doing to civil society and to society more generally. It’s essential for civil society to go on the offensive because this global discourse has become a monster that is devouring international law and ethically-based global governance. We cannot afford to be on the defensive and to accommodate the security language. Security is a human rights issue but not in the way it’s being currently approached, including through counter-terrorism measures that do not have much respect for established legal standards such as those of the Geneva Conventions or international human rights law as they relate to the right to life and many other rights.

What advice do you have for CSOs and activists that are interested in using the findings of your report to protect and promote their life-saving work?

Far more must and can be done to protect life-saving interventions by national and international civil society. I hope that CSOs and activists will be able to use my report and its recommendations for their advocacy work with government and UN bodies such as the Security Council. For instance, civil society could advocate for the principle of ‘humanitarian exemption’ to be fully recognised by international bodies and states, and implemented in the context of both counter-terrorism and migration policies. More empirical evidence is needed on the impact of counter-terrorism, migrations or other measures on beneficiaries’ human rights, including their right to life. Civil society could research and report regularly on the impact of counter-terrorism, migration or sexual and reproductive health policies on the human rights of beneficiaries, including their right to life.

I hope civil society can also rely on the legal analysis and interpretation in my report to strengthen the protection of their work, including for litigation purposes.  

They can use it to back the argument that it is not just their right to the freedom of association that is being threatened, but also the rights of the people they are serving: in the first place, their right to life; their right not to be arbitrarily killed. The services those CSOs provide help fulfil state obligations, and if the state is unable or unwilling to provide those services, at least it should not stop others from doing what it should be doing in the first place. I hope that CSOs, whatever their field of work, will be able to use those arguments not only in strategic litigation but also to raise awareness with the public. Solidarity is not a crime. Acts of solidarity should be protected, should be put forward as a model for societies, and should never be criminalised. Brotherhood and sisterhood are values that we need to protect. That’s what really prompted this report: I was outraged by the fact that acts of decency, acts of profound humanity, life-saving acts – that such acts could become the targets of criminal action. I hope the report also helps raise the alarm about the misuse of the law. Its purpose is not to prevent or prosecute good behaviours, but to encourage them. Saving lives is not a crime.

Get in touch with Agnes Callamard through her UN email address at: , her website, or follow @AgnesCallamard on Twitter. For her upcoming report, UN Special Rapporteur Callamard would like to hear from disability rights organisations with expertise on institutional violence.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

 

HAITI: The conditions for democracy are not being met

French

Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jean Marc-nel Etienne, president of the Union of Brothers for Alternative Integrated Development (UFADI), a Haitian civil society organisation that works to promote human rights, particularly in the areas of health and education.

What are the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy and an enabled civil society? Are those conditions being met in Haiti?

Democracy guarantees rights and duties to all people without exception, regardless of their origin, skin colour or culture. Rights can be summarised as follows: the right to education, the right to food, the right to housing, the right to the freedom of expression and all other civil rights. As far as duties are concerned, I would say that the beneficiaries of rights must, in return, respect the norms and principles that society imposes on them in order to guarantee its smooth operation.

In the early 1990s, Haiti chose to become a democracy. Three decades later, however, the country finds itself in chaos. What caused this situation? Do the Haitian authorities fulfil their duties towards the population? Is democracy effectively in place in Haiti?

If we take into account the reality of Haiti, and particularly the level of social inequalities, we can say that the conditions for democracy are not being met. They have been flouted by our own leaders. The Haitian population has been left to its own devices. Many measures seemed to have been taken to improve our situation, but they all remained on paper without any impact whatsoever on the daily lives of the population.

Should we really specify the main limits of democracy in Haiti, where opposing parties have used democracy without keeping any limit or respect for others? Democracy is about behaviour - it requires the actual enjoyment of a full set of civil, social and political rights. This is in essence what constitutes the cornerstone of citizenship: the right to choose a leader, the right of expression – these rights cannot be denied to any individual no matter how low their rank or class. As a result of claiming their citizenship rights, over the past three decades the Haitian people have acquired a political conscience that is irreversibly their own and that no one can take away from them. But when the people's rights are not democratically respected, there will always be a struggle against the functioning of the government in place, either to overthrow it or to claim rights. And in Haiti the political parties both in the government and in the opposition do not respect democracy: all they do is protect their own interests while the situation of the population remains critical.

What other major challenges does domestic civil society face in Haiti?

The challenges that civil society faces in Haiti are revealed by an analysis of the national economy, which raises burning issues that must be approached with policy positions and strategies. These are growth, institutionalisation and good economic governance. The global context has led to the development of a weak local economy that over time has become vulnerable because of the inadequacy of the elements necessary for its reproduction, the absence of vision and objectives, the lack of concern for sustainability, and the inability to self-correct. This has resulted in major challenges for civil society.

First, civil society faces the challenge of contributing to the development of strong socioeconomic foundations for future generations. Haiti has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, and today’s 15-year-olds are unlikely to be able to take care of the older generation 20 years from now.

Second, civil society must do its work in a politically and economically unstable society. Funding is low compared to needs, and when credit is available, it is only for carrying out profitable short-term activities that don’t improve local productivity, which would require longer-term efforts. Imports account for more than 50 per cent of the country's overall supply, while exports represent barely 20 per cent of aggregate demand, which has been mostly the result of an excessive liberalisation of foreign trade in the absence of remediation measures. The vulnerability of the economy puts civil society in a precarious situation. In order to obtain sufficient means to implement its projects, it is forced to become externally dependent.

Third, to implement its projects fully, civil society requires adequate infrastructure in sufficient quantities. This is the 21st century and we don’t even have an adequate electric supply. But poorly enforced taxes, dubious customs supervision, poorly designed liberalisation, various exemptions and hidden forms of protectionism, have developed risk aversion among capital holders, who therefore remain confined to activities that have nothing to do with what is required for national production. Additionally, the state is unable to generate the resources it needs because most economic activities take place in the informal sector, which makes the tax base very narrow. The taxes levied on the few activities that operate formally leave the state with no room for manoeuvre to produce and provide the necessary services and ensure equity in their distribution.

Finally, there is the challenge of putting institutions at the service of development and collective well-being. Civil servants should not be confused with the state; on the contrary, they should steer the state towards the fulfilment of the collective well-being.

What were the key issues that sparked the recent anti-corruption protests in Haiti? What has been the response to the violence that left a number of protesters dead?

Demonstrators asked: ‘Where is the Petrocaribe fund?’ - that is, they demanded an investigation into the embezzlement of funds from the Venezuelan Petrocaribe programme, which supplied crude oil to Caribbean and Central American nations on very generous terms. Last year the Haitian parliament published a report blaming former senior officials for irregularities in the use of these funds, but no prosecutions followed, so demonstrators demanded punishment for those who embezzled Petrocaribe funds. In other countries in the region these were used for infrastructure projects, while in Haiti they ended up in somebody’s pockets.

According to several analysts, the Petrocaribe affair is the largest operation of corruption and misappropriation of public funds and the biggest financial crime in the history of Haiti. Those responsible must be tried and sent to prison. Haiti will or should cease to exist as a state if there is no trial in the Petrocaribe case. Many young people have mobilised to demand action. While the struggle to shed light on the fraudulent use of the Petrocaribe fund was not born on social media, but rather was triggered by a parliamentary report, the movement grew considerably thanks to online activism, with the #PetrocaribeChallenge hashtag trending.

This challenge moved beyond social media and took a new dimension by taking to the streets. In multiple locations in Haiti - including Port-au-Prince, Port-of-Peace, Fort-Liberté, Hinche, Mirebalais, Jérémie, Jacmel, Gonaïves, Saint Marc, Ouanaminthe, Cap-Haïtien and Les Cayes - and among Haitian diaspora abroad - in Montreal, New York and Paris - thousands of demonstrators marched, with numbers increasing dramatically by the day. Armed with signs, posters and banners, chanting remarks hostile to political and judicial authorities, they vehemently challenged the incumbent government to shed light on the use of the Petrocaribe funds.

The #PetroChallenge movement culminated on 17 October, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated, mostly peacefully, in almost every major city in Haiti. The event brought together a wide range of people, including children, adults, older people and young people, high school students and university students. There were violent clashes between the police, who fired several times with live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas, and protesters, who responded by throwing stones and bottles and setting up burning barricades. And again in mid-November, demonstrations took place day after day, again with violent clashes with the police. This time, the demonstrations also became a kind of referendum against the president, as many members of the political opposition took advantage of the mobilisations to demand the president’s ousting.

On 18 November unspeakable crimes were committed. Many people were killed, in addition to those already killed in previous protests, including young children, and several people were killed even in their homes.

The gigantic demonstrations that took place across the country on those days, involving several hundred thousand people, perfectly illustrate the classic axiom of Sun Tzu, which goes that if you roll a ball along a steep slope, the force required is minimal, but the results are incalculable. 17 October and 18 November thus became doubly historic - both because of the reason they were summoned, to protest against the misuse of public funds, and because they were the most massive in decades.

Is this a pre-revolutionary situation? If so, who will it benefit? If we scrutinise carefully a few pivotal periods in the history of revolutions, we note that, unlike the revolutions of the past, modern revolutions are made by a minority against the majority. Indeed, when people talk about ‘mobilising the masses’, they have only one goal: to immobilise them. When agitators, instigators, leaders, self-proclaimed ‘leaders of the people’, charlatans, demagogues and false prophets have succeeded in the name of democracy, that is to say, when this majority has been struck by general paralysis, petrified on the spot, the fruits of the revolution have fallen into their hands like a loose stone.

What kind of support does Haitian civil society need, including from international civil society organisations and international organisations?

In Haiti more than a third of children are out of school. The government lacks the capacity and the will to engage in a policy of struggle against extreme poverty. The strongest support that Haitian civil society needs from the international community is to help provide education as a public good that the state has not been able to provide in the country. But the question of the role of Haitian civil society in the face of a humanitarian crisis is too complex. It will take a struggle for hegemony, for a logical and distributive change of resources which is now a challenge. We have seen that the motives of political actors of the country are uniform, so we must strictly conceptualise civil society strategically as a competitive space. This will require the political actors of civil society in Haiti to work in favour of a democratic society.

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

Get in touch with UFADI through their website.

 

PAKISTAN: ‘Democratic forces have become weak due to prolonged military regimes’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Peter Jacob, the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, a civil society organisation (CSO) engaging in research and advocacy on human rights, the democratic development and social justice. He has been an activist, researcher and freelance journalist for over 30 years.

In Pakistan’s July 2018 elections, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party led by Imran Khan, emerged as the largest party in parliament, breaking the decades-long dominance of the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The election was overshadowed by hundreds of political arrests, a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the powerful military covertly backed Imran Khan.

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Pakistan against those standards?

Just as anywhere else, a functioning democracy should have democratic norms, including constitutions and traditions, democratic institutions, including parliament and an opposition, basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and a robust civil society that advocates for exercising these freedoms. Pakistan is struggling to become an inclusive and vibrant democracy after transitioning from a military-led government, even though direct military rule ended 10 years ago.

Pakistan faces an inherent challenge on account of having a constitution that provides for both a theocracy and a democracy, or a mix of religion and politics, posing specific risks to the rights of religious minorities.

How would you assess the conduct of the July 2018 elections? To what extent do you feel they were free and fair? What were the key challenges encountered and lessons learned?

The elections were held at a time when the previous government was facing trials on corruption and other charges, so there was a lot of speculation and allegations of gerrymandering. The government and the opposition have agreed to form a parliamentary commission to probe into these allegations. Whatever the outcome, one expects that it will help bring maturity and stability into the politics and governance of the country.

Until recently Pakistan has faced enormous challenges such as terrorism and lawlessness, low economic performance and an expanding population. It is understandable that the government system is weak and recovery is expected to be incremental. Additionally, the electoral system is not strong enough to have full transparency of the electoral process.

Nevertheless, one can say that there was wide participation by citizens in the recent elections and therefore the continuation of the democratic process presents hopes for building a fuller democracy. The decision of the opposition to become part of parliament has at least ensured that there isn’t a political crisis in the immediate post-election phase.

How did conditions for civil society change in the run-up to the elections?

A section of government has been always sceptical of CSOs; therefore, action against both international and domestic CSOs started back in 2015, largely through registration laws that were used to curtail their operations or their role in the social and public spheres. A smear campaign has also been going on, particularly against rights-based groups, which has pushed them to justify and maintain their own existence. CSOs also became victims of terrorism, and even though terrorist attacks have gradually decreased since 2015, a recovery from that situation has not come about. Therefore, the July 2018 elections did not do much to change the conditions for the civil society for the better.

To what extent was civil society able to mobilise around the elections?

Owing to these existential threats, during the recent elections, there were few organisations that could participate or even prepare to mobilise opinion around the elections.

However, due to popular human rights campaigns in the past and present, all political parties were obliged to incorporate a section on human rights in their election manifestos, which provides space for CSOs engagement in the future.

What are your key hopes and fears for the new administration that has come to power following the elections, and what should its priorities be?

The new government presents hope as it has come up with a rather holistic version of a development agenda, so besides a capitalist or neoliberal agenda they have laid an emphasis on environmental conservation, austerity and fighting corruption. Pakistanis, including the opposition, want this agenda to succeed as much as the government does. But Imran Khan has assumed power for the first time at the federal level and is therefore prone to mistakes. The biggest fear is that this team might land themselves in a trouble politically or take on a challenge bigger than they can handle. For example, the government made high claims about reducing its dependence on foreign lending yet it was obliged to approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. This indicates some miscalculations or poor assessment of the challenges in the economy and the way forward.        

Some delicate issues may serve as on-the-job training for the government. For instance if the government can handle religious extremism where they have shown some tendency to perform - as in the well-known case of Asia Bibi, a victim of blasphemy laws - there is a pretty good chance that they will take the country forward.

Besides focusing on economic challenges, the government should also pay attention to the quality of education and cultural rights. At the moment, public education is mere indoctrination, and cultural and creative expressions are suffocated by censorship of various kinds, so they need to be unshackled.

Are there other key challenges for civil society’s fundamental rights and democratic freedoms in Pakistan?

The country is still passing through multiple transitions, such as in its external relations and the economy, which for too long have depended on US military aid and the World Bank’s financial assistance. The country needs to free itself economically and politically. Democratic forces were weakened by prolonged military regimes. The government is inclined to learn from the Chinese model, which is not a democratic one.

The media is facing curbs on its freedoms and CSOs are facing severe restrictions including a clampdown on receiving foreign funding, although CSOs are fighting back. Given its tradition of struggle against autocratic regimes, civil society might still make a comeback; however, there is currently a lot of confusion as to how civil society space will be reclaimed. But since Pakistan is setting up human rights institutions for women’s, children’s and human rights more generally, these institutions may help to disseminate a stronger discourse and bring attention to fundamental standards of freedoms and rights.

What support does Pakistani civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?

Human rights are all about internationalism and multilateralism, and countries must give and receive support from international actors, including international civil society, in their struggle for freedoms, which we strongly believe are interrelated. I would therefore like to encourage the international community and international CSOs to visit Pakistan, take stock of the ongoing developments and engage with the Pakistani people as well as the government.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with the Centre for Social Justice on Pakistan through their website

 

FIJI: ‘In a democracy, the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box’

Abdul Mufeez ShaheedAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Mufeez Shaheed, a youth activist from Fiji and a member of CIVICUS-Counterpart International’s Innovation for Change programme in the Pacific Youth Hub.

Elections will be held in Fiji on 14 November 2018. Over the last few years, the authorities have used restrictive legislation to stifle the media and curtail the rights to peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression for civil society, including trade unions. During a visit to Fiji in February 2018, then United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated that civil society groups faced a "narrow civic space and the suppression of dissenting voices".

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Fiji againt those standards?

Key components of democracy include people power, checks and balances, separation of powers, citizens’ rights and government accountability. A democracy is where the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box. Inclusivity is key to any democracy. So are dissent and varied opinions. Respect for basic human rights is also important, including the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. People should be able to protest in a non-violent manner, to strike and form movements and unions. The exercise of these freedoms ensures the checks and balances that are needed for a functioning democracy.

Fiji has a Bill of Rights enshrined in its Constitution. The 2013 Constitution has made some strides in ensuring these basic rights. Certain groups of people who used to face discrimination are now protected by anti-discrimination laws. Of concern, however, is the equally long list of limitations that came with the Bill of Rights. For instance, the public cannot assemble and protest without a police permit, and there have been instances when permits to hold a march or a rally have been denied on the grounds of national security. The problem is that the Constitution allows rights to be limited in the interest of national security, public safety and public order. While there are generally no restrictions against joining civil society organisations (CSOs), the government has a lot of power to regulate trade unions, strikes and lockouts in the interest of the economy. Recently, unions in Fiji - which have been a strong voice for workers’ rights - feel their collective bargaining power is being threatened and powers weakened with government moves to introduce individual, fixed-term contracts for civil servants, including teachers, rather than through a collective bargaining agreement.

Additionally, new legislation that regulates social media, such as the Online Safety Bill to “deter harmful online behaviour,” gives cause for concern. CSOs had raised strong reservations about the bill, including about the Bill’s lack of guiding principles to define and determine the scope of powers and discretion of the Commission when receiving, assessing and investigating complaints. While it has yet to be tested in courts, only time can tell how it will impact on free speech online. Another problem is the failure of the government to consult relevant bodies such as trade unions and associations when making policy decisions, including on contracts for civil servants.

What are your views on the upcoming election in Fiji? Do you think it will be free and fair?

Fiji’s system of government is parliamentary, so the upcoming general election will be held to fill the 51 seats of Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected in a single national district with open list proportional representation. The election will be carried out under the Electoral Act. A Multinational Observation Group (MOG), including representatives from Australia, India and Indonesia, will monitor the work of the Fiji Elections Office (FEO) in administering the electoral process. For the moment, everything seems to be in order. The previous election, held in 2014, was deemed by the MOG as free, fair and reflective of the will of the Fijian people.

The current electoral climate, however, includes some worrying trends. While there have been efforts to remove communal voting in elections, it seems the mindset of some people and parties is still ethnically and racially motivated. Time and again, there have been comments made by politicians that are racially motivated.

There is lots of engagement from people on social media about the elections which has come to play a big role in information sharing and allowing people to engage with official profiles of parties. However, as election day comes closer, with less than one week before polls, social media has become rife with anonymous accounts that have taken to spreading false information.

Is civil society working to promote democratic practices and human rights around the elections?

There has been lots of voter education carried out by CSOs, often in partnership with the FEO. However, CSOs are not allowed to have an active participation in the political-electoral processes. The Electoral Act prevents foreign-funded CSOs from engaging in election-related campaigns and vests the power of voter education in the Supervisor of Elections. Heavy fines of up to FJD$50,000 (approximately US$23,000) can be imposed on those breaching the Electoral Act, along with prison sentences of up to 10 years. Therefore, when CSOs such as women’s groups hold sessions on elections and women’s participation they often invite the FEO to participate so as not to breach the law.

Civil society has also organised various events to get the population up to speed with the current election processes. Women’s groups have released a women’s manifesto that states what they want from political parties. The Citizen’s Constitutional Forum, a CSO, has undertaken research on a ‘State of the Youth’ report regarding elections. Local civil society has also sought engagement with stakeholders such as international CSOs.

What are your hopes and fears regarding the government that will be elected, and what do you think its key priorities should be?

There are seve political parties running in the 2018 elections with differing opinions on a wide range of issues. These include the independence of the FEO and the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, media regulations, minimum wages, indigenous issues, education scholarship conditions, land property issues, military spending, pay and allowances for Members of Parliament and whether VAT should be paid on basic necessities, among other things.

What support does Fiji civil society need from the international community and international CSOs to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms in Fiji?

There needs to be a concerted effort by international CSOs to speak out when local CSOs in Fiji raise issues of democratic freedoms and human rights. There are freedoms as well as limitations to what CSOs can achieve and if we come with a collective mindset that Fiji’s issues are everybody’s issues, we may see some progress.

Civic space in Fiji is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Follow @abdulmshaheed on Twitter

 

Burundi bans international NGOs

Burundi’s National Council for Security in September announced a blanket 3-month ban on international NGOs. CIVICUS speaks to a human rights defender who asked to remain anonymous on why this ban has been imposed and the situation in Burundi for civil society.

Can you detail the recent ban by the National Security on NGOs?

The decision to ban international NGOs for a three-month period starting 1 October 2018 was announced on 27 September 2018 on national radio by the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, an organ chaired by Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza. In the communique read by General Sylas Ntigurirwa, the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, there was little detail on why this three-month ban was being applied. Rumors that circulated on social media such as WhatsApp in the following hours listed almost 130 INGOs, which in majority (99%) are of European and American origin.

On 28 September, the Minister of Home Affairs invited all the representatives of the banned NGOs for a briefing to discuss the details of the ban at Hotel Source du Nil in Bujumbura, but this meeting was postponed. It eventually took place on 2 October and some more details on the ban were leaked. The banned NGOs were accused of not implementing ethnic quotas in employing their workers as dictated the Arusha Peace Agreement.

The Burundi Minister of Home Affairs, Pascal Barandagiye has insisted that NGOS have to re-register with his ministry and listed four documents that NGOs must provide prior to their reopening. The documents are a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a memorandum on the implementation of the provisions of the law on foreign NGOs and the national development plan; a commitment to the Ministry of Finance on compliance with financial regulations; and a plan for the progressive correction of ethnic imbalances in the staff of these NGOs. Also, only NGOs that support the health and education sectors are currently authorised to continue their operations.

How does this ban affect ordinary Burundians?

This is a very interesting question. Such a kind of measure taken by the Security Council has enormous negative consequences on the ordinary citizens. Although there are no accurate statistics, International NGOs in Burundi have more than 4 000 direct employees who have families and relatives they support. Some of those NGOs support vital sectors such as agriculture, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, health, education etc. If their work is banned, one can imagine the consequences.

Another level at which this ban affects not only the ordinary citizen but the entire nation, is the fact that those NGOs, are for the moment the only source foreign currencies on which the economy of Burundi depends since the economic sanctions were imposed because of human rights violations committed by government officials since 2015. We cannot ignore the taxes also being payed by NGOs to the state. This kind of ban on NGOs is clumsy and clearly not well thought clearly.

What is the current situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Burundi?

The situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of association has not improved since the 2015 political crisis. Civil society organisations, human rights defenders and political opposition actors continue to face threats including imprisonment or death threats. No one dares to criticise the government or government officials or challenge any government decision. A most recent example is the interruption of a live radio show at Radio Isanganiro on 25 September 2018 by police forces. Discussants on the radio show were unpacking the upcoming fifth round of inter-Burundi dialogue set for 18-24 October 2018 and among interviewees were the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and some opposition politicians.

What needs to be done for the situation in Burundi to improve?

Different measures such as economic sanctions targeting some top government officials have not produced the desired results in resolving the situation in Burundi. To date, different voices of the international community have had no effect on Burundi’s authorities and the inter-Burundi dialogue facilitated by former Tanzanian president, Benjamin William Mkapa and chaired by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the president of Uganda are not seemingly bringing results to the situation.

Others have suggested a regional economic embargo. This measure worked well in the late 1990’s, when the government of Burundi was refusing to participate in negotiations to end the civil war. A regional economic embargo prompted the government to accept to negotiate. However, imposing an economic embargo will likely worsen the living conditions of the ordinary Burundians this time, so such a decision must be diligently taken.

But, in my opinion, some strategies that may work could include to lobby some of the regional leaders who have influence on the Burundi situation such as the president of Uganda, the president of Tanzania or the president of South Africa so that they put pressure of the authorities of Burundi to accept an inclusive dialogue in which all stakeholders are involved in finding sustainable solutions to the crisis that Burundi is going through

Any other information you would like to add on the situation in Burundi?

The situation of human rights in Burundi is worsening by the day. We are continuously witnessing forced disappearances, ransomed kidnappings and an ever-increasing number of people fleeing the country despite the movements of refugees returning from Tanzania. People live in extreme poverty and have limited access to health care as hospitals lack enough financial resources to purchase medicines. Burundi is in a dire humanitarian and political situation and is a danger to the whole Great Lakes region. A solution must be agreed on as a matter of urgency to prevent the further loss of lives.

 

VENEZUELA: ‘Venezuelans are not emigrating in search for better opportunities, but to save their lives’

CIVICUS speaks to Alicia Pantoja, co-founder Venezuela 3of Manos Veneguayas. Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, Manos Veneguayas is a civil society organisation (CSO) run by Venezuelans that offers support to Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. It works in alliance with other organisations and with the contributions of Uruguayan citizens and Venezuelans living in Uruguay. Since 2014, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, escaping from political repression, scarcity of food and medicines, street violence and a lack of opportunities. While some countries in Latin America have rejected Venezuelans at their borders, others – notably Uruguay and other Mercosur member states – have maintained an open-doors policy. More than 8,000 Venezuelans have now become legal residents in Uruguay. 

How do you see the situation in Venezuela, and how is it driving migration?

I think the situation in my country is critical: literally, people are starving to death. Malnutrition has increased; there are more and more cases of children who are nothing but skin and bones. Older people are dying, and children in hospitals are dying as a result of completely preventable infections, just because hospitals are contaminated. I see a very tough future. It will be difficult for this generation that is growing up in Venezuela today to have the strength to push the country forward.

It is no secret to anyone that Venezuelans are not migrating in search of better opportunities; they are migrating to save their lives. From 2014 to the present, the quality of life in Venezuela has deteriorated to unimaginable levels. For those of us who still have families there, this is very hard. When you are at home at night and the telephone rings, your heart stops. You always fear that call in which you will be told that so-and-so died, or so-and-so has been killed.

Instead of trying to get other countries to open their arms to receive a massive influx of migrants from Venezuela, something needs to be done to change the situation that is causing people to flee their country. But in the meantime, we at Manos Veneguayas are trying to help Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay.

How does your organisation help?

Since November 2016, Manos Veneguayas has been active as a support organisation for Venezuelan migrants in Uruguay. We are a team of nine founders and nearly 40 volunteers. We have autonomy in our decision-making, but we receive support from other organisations. Two long-established CSOs, the Instituto de Estudios Cívicos (IEC) and Idas y Vueltas, help us. IEC lends us their headquarters and supports us at each event we organise. With Idas y Vueltas we have learned to work together. They continue to work on supporting all migrants more generally, while we focus on Venezuelans. Of course, although we are an organisation of Venezuelans working for Venezuelans, we serve all migrants who arrive at our doors looking for a helping hand. We do not deny anyone our help.

Initially our idea was to provide emotional support. People were arriving who ignored lots of important things about this country, such as that summers are hot and winters are cold. They had no idea what it is like to live in a country with four seasons. Newcomers did not even know how to dress for the low temperatures or how to protect themselves from the sun, and they often did not have the right clothes either. Many had arrived with nothing, so we collected and distributed necessities such as warm clothing.

The initial idea was to help newcomers adapt to Uruguay, so that they felt that they were not alone throughout the migration process. As the main urgency for new arrivals is to get a job, the first thing we did was create a jobs bank, which we named Clasificados Veneguayos.

At first, we tired ourselves out hunting for job offers online, but we soon got lucky when at one of our first job fairs a newspaper did a great interview with us, which was widely disseminated, putting Manos Veneguayas on the radar of many businesspeople. After that, offers began arriving directly to us, and we now have a database with hundreds of resumes that we provide to potential employers. And while many people come to us with requests for domestic help, we try to get people jobs within their professional areas of expertise. But our priority is to make sure that at least one member of each household receives an income, and we think that all jobs dignify. We give talks so that newcomers learn about their rights regarding healthcare and work, and we help them prepare a resume or get ready for a job interview. We also provide them with support so that they can obtain their legal papers.

We have done a survey, mostly through Facebook, to better understand the needs of Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. For those who are arriving right now, housing is an additional problem on top of finding work. Increasing despair is causing whole family groups to leave Venezuela, making the process all the more difficult. In the past, the head of the family, usually a man, often came first, stayed in a residence and focused on working, so three or four months later they would be able to provide the required deposit to rent a small apartment so that he could bring his wife along to work, and eventually rent a bigger place together. But now it’s families of four or five people arriving, and residences and even rental rooms are out of their reach. Legally, rental collaterals can only be obtained after being employed for a minimum of three months. Otherwise, you need to pay a lot of money up front, and in the case of recent Venezuelan migrants, if I told you that one per cent are bringing a sizeable amount of money, it would be an exaggeration. Shelters are overflowing because not only are Venezuelans currently arriving, but also Cubans and Dominicans.

The Venezuelan exodus has sparked some cases of discrimination and xenophobia in the region. Have you experienced this in Uruguay?

A sociologist who I spoke to recently told me about some cases. But I think they have been isolated cases. I have been in Uruguay for four years and I have not personally seen any kind of discrimination based on skin colour or nationality.

Of course, there are people who think that Venezuelans are coming to take job opportunities from Uruguayans. But that is obviously not true: there is simply a range of offers that fit some people and not others. While there are many Venezuelan professionals working as Uber drivers, waiters, vendors and delivery people, there are also professionals employed within their area of expertise: nurses, physiotherapists, engineers, even some architects who have been able to validate their college degrees. In fact, the migration of Venezuelan professionals has been very important for Uruguay, since it has allowed the country to tap into a high-quality pool of professionals while not investing a cent in their training.

We know that as far as migrants are concerned, it is common for the reputation of the whole national group to be put into question as a result of the actions of just a few individuals. If one Venezuelan makes a mistake, it will be said that all Venezuelans are dishonest or unreliable. Therefore, we are very careful in helping people prepare to find a job. When people arrive and tell us that they are desperate and want a job no matter what, we ask them to identify their own limits, because they need to commit to whatever job they get; they cannot stay in a job for two weeks and then leave. Something similar happens with the rhythm of things. In Venezuela, if you stand still you risk being ran over. In Uruguay, everything happens more slowly, and Venezuelans are not used to it. So we try to calm down all those young people who come here with this attitude of wanting to swallow the whole world, because in Venezuela they were eating air. We need to calm them down and show them that this is a wonderful country that has opened its doors to us, but that we also need to move at its pace.

Do you think Venezuelan migrants are here for good, or do they plan to return to Venezuela some day?

This is one of the things we always discuss among ourselves. There are some who consider that their life is here now, and they are here to stay, but a high proportion of us are of the view that we are here to learn, because our plan is to go back and help rebuild our country. I want to go back, and I believe most people think that this is just temporary, that our country is going to move forward and will eventually need us. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to leave a deep mark in this country that has hosted us, so that tomorrow they can say that Venezuelans have indeed played their part.

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

Get in touch with Manos Veneguayas through its Facebook page.

 

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