BANGLADESH: “To address rape we need a thorough reform of the legal system”

CIVICUS speaks to Aparajita Sangita, a Bangladeshi human rights activist and an international award-winning independent filmmaker. Aparajita has worked on several films on discrimination against women and women’s rights and has been involved in various social activities including street children’s education and food banking. In response to her activism, she has been harassed by the police. She was also sued for harassment under the draconian Digital Security Act for her online activism. The case was withdrawn in the wake of widespread protests on the streets and online.

Aparajita Sangita

What triggered the recent anti-rape protests in Bangladesh?

On the evening of 5 January 2020, a student at Dhaka University (DU) was raped after getting off a university bus in the Kurmitola area of the capital, Dhaka. DU students were disturbed by this incident, which led to protests and the organisation of several other events.

Despite widespread protests against the rape, sexual violence against women persisted and even increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On 25 September, a woman who was visiting MC College in Sylhet with her husband was raped in a hostel on campus by political activists linked to the ruling party. As protests erupted over this, a video of a woman being abused in Begumganj, Noakhali on 4 October went viral on social media. The video clip showed a group of men entering the woman’s house, stripping her naked and physically assaulting her, while capturing it all on video.

These incidents are just a few of the numerous cases of rape and sexual violence against women that have been circulating on social media in Bangladesh. The perpetrators of this violence include fathers, close relatives, law enforcement officials, public representatives, political leaders and religious actors.

All of this led to the mass anti-rape protests of October 2020, when people from all over the country came together to protest against violence against women. The anti-rape protest movement started in Shahbag, known as the ‘Movement Square of Bangladesh’, but soon spread to every city, even villages, across Bangladesh. This includes Bogra, Brahminbaria, Champainababganj, Chandpur, Dhamirhat (Nowgaon), Faridpur, Gafargaon (Mymensingh), Gopalganj, Jaipurhat, Kurigram, Manikganj, Noakhali, Panchgarh, Rajshahi, Satkhira and Syedpur (Nilphamari).

People from different walks of life, including members of political parties, writers, cultural activists, online activists, national cricket team players, women’s rights activists and journalists, converged in the anti-rape protest movement. For the first time in Bangladesh, women marched against rape in the middle of the night. In Dhaka, they marched from Shahbag to Parliament House, carrying torches and shouting slogans.

What were protesters’ main demands?

The anti-rape protest movement raised nine demands to stop rape and sexual violence. They included the introduction of exemplary punishment for those involved in rape and violence against women across Bangladesh and the immediate removal of the home minister who had failed to deliver justice.

Protesters also demanded an end to all sexual and social abuse of tribal women; the establishment of a committee to prevent sexual harassment of women in all government and private organisations as well as in educational institutions, following High Court orders; and the full implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). They also urged the abolition of laws and practices that create inequality towards women.

Other calls included putting a stop to the mental harassment of victims during investigations and ensuring their legal and social security, the inclusion of crime and gender experts in Women and Children Repression Prevention Tribunals, and the establishment of more tribunals to ensure the quick processing of cases.

Finally, they urged the amendment of Section 155(4) and other relevant sections of the Evidence Act to end the admissibility of character evidence of complainants in rape trials and the elimination from textbooks of all materials deemed defamatory of women or depicting them as inferior.

How did the authorities respond to the protests?

On 6 October, protesters marched from Shahbag to the Prime Minister’s Office with black flags but were stopped by the police at the Hotel Intercontinental Junction. Several leaders and activists of a left-wing student body were injured by the police.

In addition, a section of a statement issued by the police headquarters on 10 October attempted to vilify the protesters. It stated that “vested quarters” were trying to use the protest “to serve their interests” by undermining law and order and “creating social chaos.” The police warned protesters to avoid any “anti-state activities” and announced that the police were committed to ensuring internal peace and order at all costs. This statement caused panic among protesters, who feared a crackdown.

Besides facing police repression, several women activists, including the leader of the Left Students’ Association, who participated in the anti-rape movement, were threatened with rape over the phone and on Facebook Messenger. Some of the activists were also threatened with criminal cases.

What has happened to the movement since? Has the campaign stopped?

After the protests against rape and sexual assault spread across the country, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Law was amended. The death sentence was imposed as the most severe punishment for rape. Previously, the maximum punishment for rape in Bangladesh was life imprisonment. The death penalty was only applied in cases of gang rape, or rape that resulted in the victim’s death.

Following this the protests halted, as many thought that the death penalty would see a reduction in rape crimes. However, many women’s rights campaigners insist the death penalty is not the answer and demand a thorough reform of the legal system and more education to address what they say is an epidemic of violence against women in Bangladesh.

What can the international community support the movement?

In the wake of the various cases of sexual violence and rape committed against women, we have seen an important protest movement emerge within the country. However, some protesters and activists have faced threats when they have raised their voices. The solidarity of the international community is essential for those protesting against human rights violations and making fair claims.

Bangladesh is an extremely patriarchal society, and there have been numerous attempts to restrict women’s lives and voices for years. Rape is an expression of this environment. It is a fundamental right for a woman to live in safety and it is the responsibility of all citizens, as well as the international community, to ensure this right.

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

 

MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Europe instrumentalises human suffering to deter migration’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece with Maya Thomas-Davis, an Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Legal Centre Lesvos AMKE, a Greek civil society organisation that provides free legal information and assistance to migrants who arrive by sea to Lesvos, where the Centre is based. The Legal Centre also documents violations of migrants’ rights, advocates for safe and legal migration routes and engages in advocacy and strategic litigation to hold the Greek government, member states of the European Union (EU) and European institutions accountable for their treatment of migrants.

Maya Thomas Davis

Photo: Legal Centre Lesvos @Instagram

What kind of work does the Legal Centre Lesvos do, and how have you managed under the pandemic?

The Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) is a civil non-profit legal and political organisation based on principles of solidarity, not charity. Since August 2016, it has provided access to legal information, assistance and representation to migrants arriving by sea on the Greek island of Lesvos. LCL also works towards collective justice and structural change as part of movements resisting Europe’s border imperialism on many fronts, including through advocacy and strategic litigation. LCL was founded following the March 2016 EU-Turkey statement, an agreement of questionable legality through which the European Union turned people seeking freedom, safety and dignity into commodities and bargaining chips: agreeing to pay 6 billion euros to Erdogan’s authoritarian regime in exchange for Turkey acting as a border guard to fortress Europe. This ‘deal’ transformed the island of Lesvos into a site of indefinite imprisonment for migrants. LCL provides access to legal information and assistance in solidarity with migrants trapped here, without losing sight of the fact that migration to Europe is intimately connected with the continent’s imperialist past and present and the interests of global capitalism; that the brutal violations witnessed here are always political choices; and that the people most affected are the most important political actors in challenging and resisting this.

LCL has an open-door policy, meaning that nobody is turned away or refused legal information or assistance because their case is not ‘strong’ enough, or is unsuitable for strategic litigation. We maintain this position because we believe that, as a bare minimum, everyone has the right to understand the legal framework they are subject to, particularly in the context of asylum law, where consequences can be a matter of life or death.

To facilitate access to information, prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions LCL had been running regular group information sessions about asylum procedures, in multiple languages. This is certainly one aspect of our work where the pandemic has created difficulties. In Lesvos lockdown measures have been in place since March 2020, varying in degrees of intensity. Group information sessions have been impossible due to limitations on office capacity mandated by restrictions. We have managed to keep the open-door policy in place with strict appointment schedules, with many of us working from home at least some of the time, and we are trying to continue to facilitate broader access to information through other means, such as through updates in multiple languages on our website and social media.

How did the situation of migrants and refugees evolve in 2020 as a result of the pandemic? 

The Greek state’s unlawful suspension of the right to asylum on 1 March 2020 and its violent border fortification – with the EU praising Greece as Europe’s ‘shield’ and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, providing increased material support – coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. Although the EU has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders for many years, including through pushbacks, it seems Greek and EU officials believed the pandemic would provide the perfect cover to escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean, with complete impunity.

Since March 2020, the official number of arrivals by sea to Greece has drastically dropped by a reported 85 per cent as compared to 2019. In the same timeframe, numerous reports and investigations have revealed a systematic practice of collective expulsions on the part of Greek authorities, carried out through a consistent modus operandi, with Frontex’s documented complicity. In every account shared with LCL by pushback survivors, Greek authorities have summarily expelled migrants from Greek territory without registering arrival or facilitating access to asylum procedures. Whether in the middle of the sea or following a landing on an Aegean island, Greek authorities forcibly transfer migrants towards Turkish waters before abandoning them at sea on motorless, unseaworthy dinghies or life rafts, with absolute disregard for whether they live or die. Despite numerous reports, statements, investigations and denunciations of this ongoing attack against migrants, pushbacks at the Aegean Sea border continue with impunity, functioning as an unofficial implementation of the EU-Turkey deal’s objectives while the Turkish border remains officially closed.

Meanwhile in Lesvos, pandemic-related restrictions have only compounded the situation of police violence, discrimination and effective mass detention for migrants. COVID-19-related restrictions, including curfews and the requirement to carry a justification for movement, have been applied in an unjustifiably discriminatory manner. Recently, on 15 February 2021, for example, the curfew for the general population of Lesvos was lifted from 6pm to 9pm, yet for migrants living in the camp a separate regime of restrictions remains in place: people are subject to a more stringent curfew starting at 5pm and only one family member can leave the camp once a week except for medical or legal appointments. Even with written justification, permission to leave the camp is often arbitrarily denied. The police disproportionately target racialised people in checking documents and justifications for movement as well as in imposing fines.

Meanwhile changes in the operations of the Regional Asylum Office and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Lesvos, which had been conducting remote interviews with applicants for international protection, have led to further procedural violations. These include obstacles in access to legal aid at first instance and to file appeals within deadlines due to pandemic-related movement restrictions and restricted access to EASO offices; failure to ensure the requisite confidentiality of interviews due to remote interviews via telephone or video being held in inadequate facilities; and inability to comprehensively present grounds for applications due to practical and technical disruptions of asylum interviews.

As for the sanitary situation, the state has systematically failed to evacuate individuals at risk from overcrowded, unsanitary camps in Lesvos, where distancing measures are impossible. Like the previous Moria camp, which burned down in September 2020, the new reception and identification centre in Mavrovouni/Karatepe – widely known as ‘Moria 2.0’ – is not fit for human habitation. As if conditions of inadequate shelter, healthcare, privacy, food, electricity, running water, hot showers, toilets and other hygiene facilities were not bad enough, since 1926 and until its hasty transformation into a camp in September 2020, the site of Moria 2.0 had been a military firing range, and the Greek government has admitted that a high concentration of lead has been found in samples taken from the site. Lead poisoning causes organ damage, cancer and developmental harm in foetuses and children. There is no level of lead exposure known to be without harmful effects. In such conditions, the Greek state’s failure to transfer people who are disproportionately exposed to danger and death in the inhumane conditions of Moria 2.0 to appropriate living conditions amounts to an attack on migrants’ lives.

Which would you say are main rights violations that migrants and refugees face in Lesvos?

That hundreds of people have been, and continue to be, forcibly transferred then abandoned in the middle of the sea by Greek authorities without means to call for rescue, on unseaworthy, motorless dinghies and life rafts, constitutes a spectacular form of state violence against migrants. Beyond rights violations, LCL’s position is that the constituent elements of the consistent modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean, along with the widespread and systematic nature of this attack, amount to crimes against humanity. The practice of systematic pushbacks with impunity reveals the extent to which fortress Europe treats migrants’ lives as disposable, in a manner that has historically accompanied the commission of atrocity crimes.

The same disregard for migrants’ lives is inherent in the conditions in camps and detention centres people are forced to endure in Lesvos, which are violations of the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment and torture, the rights to liberty and security, to private and family life, to effective remedy, to freedom from discrimination and to life. It is inherent in people being forced to wait in limbo for years, cut off from family, friends, community and purpose, without being able to move forwards or backwards. It is inherent in the EU increasingly prioritising and funding mass effective detention of migrants, through ‘hotspot’ systems, accelerated border procedures, forcible deportations, border militarisation and border externalisation through deals of questionable legality with third countries and by making aid and other financial packages conditional on border fortification.

While the violence of pushbacks in the Aegean is scandalous and should be treated as such, it is by no means an aberration from the logic of Europe’s border regime, which instrumentalises human suffering for the purpose of deterring migration, at any cost. Even if due process and reception standards mandated by the Common European Asylum System were complied with in Lesvos, many people would still be excluded, and the system would remain violent and fundamentally insufficient to secure the conditions of human flourishing that everyone deserves. For this reason, while the LCL will continue to document, denounce and seek redress for the systematic rights violations in Lesvos, we are conscious that we must simultaneously organise for systemic change: Europe’s human rights framework cannot fail people it was never designed to protect.

What is your position regarding refugee protests over living conditions in camps and blockages of asylum requests?

LCL has always acted and organised in solidarity with migrant-led resistance. Over the years this has taken many forms, including protests, hunger strikes, collective publications, assemblies and occupations. The state has responded with attempts to collectively punish organised resistance by migrants in Lesvos. A case in point is that of the Moria 35 a few years ago. But there are many more recent examples of this. Of course, such resistance can be understood as an exercise of human rights such as the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and as a legal organisation, this is always one way of viewing and supporting this kind of action. However, in Lesvos – where rights are systematically violated with complete impunity, where conditions of misery are deliberately imposed, where the situation always seems to get progressively worse just when it already seemed as bad as could be imagined – organised resistance is also in many ways often the only remaining option.

What kind of support would you need from international civil society to continue doing your work?

Over the past year, the Greek state brought in new legislation on the registration of civil society organisations, introducing onerous, complex registration and certification requirements that present unnecessary, disproportionate barriers for organisations working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. This will certainly make the work of LCL harder as, of course, it is designed to. The Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe has already expressed its concerns on these new requirements, and further challenges to these measures would be a welcome form of support from international civil society.

In general, international support and solidarity is needed in the struggle against the increasingly hostile environment for migrants and those working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. Far-right disinformation campaigns making allegations of criminality against migrants and migrant solidarity organisations are increasingly reflected in Greek state practice, such as in the Greek police’s identification of four human rights and migrant solidarity groups in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation; the Greek state’s systematic prosecution of migrants for facilitation of illegal entry/exit; its perverse decision to prosecute the father of a six-year-old child who tragically drowned in a shipwreck near Samos in November 2020 for endangering his son’s life; and its decision to bring criminal charges against a woman who set herself on fire in desperation in Moria 2.0 in February 2021. Such measures to frame migrants and those who act in solidarity with them as criminals and threats to the nation is a deliberate and effective tactic to obscure the fact that it is states that possess the monopoly on violence and to distract from their systematic violations of migrants’ rights. 

More broadly, it is clear from the legislative proposals contained in the ‘new’ EU migration and asylum pact that the EU will attempt to roll out the model that has been tested in the laboratory of Lesvos and the other Greek ‘hotspot’ islands, across Europe’s external borders – including detention on arrival; accelerated border procedures in detention based on nationality and asylum recognition rates; deportation sponsorship as a form of ‘solidarity’ between member states; and expanded use of migrants’ personal and biometric data. A new ‘controlled’ camp is set to be constructed in Lesvos this year, in a location that is a known forest fire danger zone and is intentionally remote. Internationalist solidarity will always be our best weapon to organise resistance from below to all these measures.

Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legal Centre Lesvos through its website or Facebook page, and follow @lesboslegal on Twitter and @legalcentrelesvos on Instagram

 

THAILAND: ‘Young people question the government abusing their rights and compromising their future’

CIVICUS speaks to Amnesty International Thailand’s executive director, Piyanut Kotsan, about the Thai pro-democracy movement and the repression of protests. Established in Bangkok in 1993, Amnesty International Thailand has more than 1,000 members across Thailand. Its work focuses on the promotion of the freedoms of online and offline expression and peaceful assembly, human rights education, abortion rights and the rights of people on the move, while denouncing torture, enforced disappearances and the death penalty.

 

SLOVENIA: ‘The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to restrict protest’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent right-wing shift in Slovenia with Brankica Petković, a researcher and project manager at the Peace Institute in Ljubljana. Founded in 1991, the Peace Institute-Institute for Contemporary Social and Political Studies is an independent, non-profit research institution that uses research and advocacy to promote the principles and practices of an open society, critical thought, equality, responsibility, solidarity, human rights and the rule of law. It works in partnership with other organisations and citizens at the local, regional and international levels.

 

INDIA: ‘CSOs that dare speak truth to power are attacked with politically motivated charges’

Mrinal Sharma

CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and researcher Mrinal Sharma about the state of civic freedoms in India. Mrinal works to help unlawfully detained human rights defenders, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in India. She worked as Policy Advisor with Amnesty International India until the Government of India forced the organisation to shut down in October 2020. Her work with Amnesty focused on people who are arbitrarily deprived of their nationality in Assam, the barriers against access to justice in Kashmir and the demonisation of minorities in India. Mrinal had previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Refugee Solidarity Network.

 

ECOCIDE: ‘Perpetrators of environmental destruction should be prosecuted just like war criminals are’

CIVICUS speaks with Jojo Mehta, co-founder and Executive Director of Stop Ecocide International and Chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation. The Stop Ecocide campaign seeks to establish ecocide as an international crime. To that end, the Netherlands-based Stop Ecocide Foundation works with international criminal lawyers, researchers and diplomats to develop an up-to-date, clear and legally robust definition of ecocide and advocate for states to propose an amendment to international criminal law.

 

GREECE: ‘We need a change in narratives as well as in policies towards migration’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece and the role of civil society in policymaking with Lefteris Papagiannakis, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Research at Solidarity Now and former Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs for the Municipality of Athens. Solidarity Now is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works with vulnerable groups, with a focus on migrants and refugee communities in Greece in order to help them achieve dignity and a better future.

 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘The existing human rights system must be criticised, while still being defended’

CIVICUS speaks with Brian Schapira, Director of Institutional Relations at the Center for Latin America´s Opening and Development (Centro para la Apertura y el Desarrollo de América Latina, CADAL), a foundation based in Argentina that works to defend and promote human rights. With a focus on supporting those who suffer severe restrictions to their civil and political liberties, CADAL promotes international democratic solidarity in collaboration with activists and civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world.

 

ETHIOPIA: ‘The June 2021 election is between democratic life and death’

CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.

 

MYANMAR: “If this coup is not overturned, there will be many more political prisoners”

CIVICUS speaks about the recent military coup in Myanmar with Bo Kyi, a former political prisoner and co-founder of the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP). Founded in 2000 by former political prisoners living in exile on the Thai-Myanmar border, AAPP has its headquarters in Mae Sot, Thailand and two offices in Myanmar that opened in 2012. AAPP advocates for the release of political prisoners and the improvement of their lives after their release, with programmes aimed at ensuring access to education, vocational training, mental health counselling and healthcare.

 

ANGOLA: “The ruling party sees local elections as a threat”

View the original interview in Portuguese here

Pascoal Baptistiny 1CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA  – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in the Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, MBAKITA defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.

What is the state of civic space in Angola, and what are the main constraints faced by Angolan activists?

The repression of civic space in Angola is one of the biggest challenges facing Angolan civil society today. Activists suffer arbitrary and illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, killings, harassment and disappearances by government forces, police and state intelligence services. This repression has made many Angolans careful about what they say in public. The few organisations that defend human rights in Angola often do so at great risk to the activists involved and their families.

Could you tell us about the restrictions you and your colleagues faced in 2020?

In 2020, my MBAKITA colleagues and I faced obstacles aimed at preventing, minimising, disrupting and reversing the impact of our organisation’s legitimate activities that focused on criticising, denouncing and opposing rights violations and ineffective government positions, policies and actions.

The various forms of restriction we experienced included arbitrary restrictions and the interruption of demonstrations and meetings; surveillance; threats, intimidation, reprisals and punishments; physical assaults; smear campaigns portraying MBAKITA members as ‘enemies of the state’ and mercenaries serving foreign interests; judicial harassment; exorbitant fines for the purchase of means of transport; burglary of our offices and theft of computer equipment; search and seizure of property; destruction of vehicles; the deprivation of employment and income; and travel bans.

In addition, 15 activists were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated during the COVID-19 prevention campaign. On 1 May my residence was invaded, and its guards were teargassed. On 16 November, two female activists were raped. Fatalities for the year included three of our activists and one protester.

What kind of work does MBAKITA do? Why do you think it has been targeted?

MBAKITA is an organisation that defends and promotes human rights. We work to promote, protect and disseminate universally recognised human rights and freedoms, and especially the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, the freedom of the press, the right to self-determination by Indigenous peoples, the rights to land, adequate food, clean water and the environment, and the fight against torture and ill-treatment.

We challenge violations of the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of Indigenous and migrant people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities.

My organisation uses peaceful and non-violent means in its activities. However, we have faced incalculable risks as a result of our human rights work in the southern provinces of Angola.

MBAKITA has been systematically attacked for several reasons. First, because in 2018 we denounced the death of four children during Operation Transparency, an action against diamond trafficking and undocumented migrants carried out by the Angolan police and armed forces in the municipality of Mavinga, in the Cuando Cubango province. Second, because in 2019 we denounced the diversion of funds intended to support drought victims in Angola’s southern provinces by provincial governments. Third, because in April 2019, two activists of the organisation denounced the illegal appropriation of land by political businesspeople – generals, legislators and governors – in territories belonging to the San and Kuepe Indigenous minorities and used for hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits, which make up the diet of these groups. Fourth, because in February 2020 MBAKITA denounced the diversion of funds designated for the purchase of biosecurity products for the prevention of COVID-19 and the diversion of food destined for the Basic Food Basket Assistance Programme for Vulnerable Groups. Fifth, because we participated in and conducted an awareness-raising campaign on COVID-19, which included the distribution of biosecurity materials purchased with MISEREOR-Germany funds. And finally, because we participated in all demonstrations held by Angolan civil society, including the most recent one on 9 January 2021, focused on the fight against corruption and the demand for local elections, under the slogan ‘Local elections now, 45 years in power is too long!’ and for the fulfilment of various electoral promises, including those of 500,000 jobs, the reduction of the cost of living for families and the socio-economic inclusion of Indigenous minorities.

Why were the elections scheduled for 2020 cancelled?

For one thing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But aside from this deadly pandemic, the government was never interested in holding local elections in 2020. The ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sees local elections as a threat to central power and fears losing its grip on power. It fears introducing an element of voter control over local government, that is, citizen participation and control over the management of public funds. The government thinks that the people will wake up to the idea of the democratic state and the rule of law, and that many people will become aware of their rights and duties. This would run counter to the MPLA’s intention, which is to perpetuate itself in power.

The promise of local democracy in Angola has been a failure. Three years into his term in office, President João Lourenço has failed to deliver even 10 per cent of his electoral promises, leaving 90 per cent of Angolans in a state of total scepticism.

In Angola, the party that has been in power for more than 45 years does not tolerate free people. Today, human rights defenders lose their jobs, are unable to feed their children, lose their careers and even their lives if they dare to be free, to desire democracy and to exercise their freedom.

What are the prospects that the situation will change in the near future?

For the situation to change, civil society has a lot of work to do. The most important and urgent actions are acquiring training in individual, institutional and digital security, learning English, obtaining observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, observing and participating in demonstrations and other public events, advocating and lobbying for the legalisation of human rights organisations, conducting prison visits, including interviews with prisoners and gathering evidence of torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment conditions, observing trials of activists in the lower courts, fundraising for the sustainability of human rights defenders’ activities, and monitoring the 2021 local elections and the 2022 general elections.

What kind of support do Angolan activists need from international civil society to be able to continue their work?

Needs are enormous and varied. Activists urgently need protection and security, including training in risk analysis, security planning and international and regional human rights protection mechanisms, as well as skills in investigating, litigating, documenting, petitioning and reporting human rights violations. Specifically, MBAKITA would like to receive technical assistance to assess what security arrangements could be put in place to increase the physical protection of the organisation’s office and my residence, as well as financial support for the purchase of such arrangements, such as a security system or a video surveillance camera.

Assaulted activists, and especially the 15 MBAKITA activists who have been direct victims of repression and torture at the hands of government forces, also need post-traumatic psychological assistance. Financial assistance would help us pay the fees of the lawyers who worked for the release of six activists who were imprisoned between August and November 2020. It would also help us replace stolen work equipment, without which our ability to work has been reduced, including two vehicles, computers, memory cards, a digital camera and a camcorder.

In the case of activists threatened with arbitrary detention, kidnapping or assassination, who have no choice but to leave the country or their region of origin quickly, we need support for transportation and provisional accommodation. Our activists would also benefit from exchanges of experience, knowledge and good practice, opportunities to strengthen their knowledge of digital security, training in journalistic and audio-visual techniques and the acquisition of English language skills.

Finally, the operation of organisations and their sustainability would be helped by obtaining support for the installation of internet services and the creation of secure websites, the acquisition of financial management software and resources to recruit permanent staff, so that staff members are able to support their families and fully dedicate themselves to the defence of human rights.

Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by the here.
Get in touch with MBAKITA through its Facebook page.

 

 

COSTA RICA: ‘The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Costa Rica with Carlos Berríos Solórzano, co-founder of Asociación Agentes de Cambio-Nicaragua (Association Agents of Change – Nicaragua) and member of Red Previos (Central American Youth Network). Along with others from Central America, he has recently founded the Centre for a Culture of Peace in Central America. Originally from Nicaragua, Carlos is a youth activist and a human rights defender. He has participated in research projects on migration, youth political participation, regional integration and human rights, and is currently studying towards a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Costa Rica.

Carlos Berrios

What triggered the wave of protests of late September 2020?

The main causes of the protests that began on 30 September 2020 were linked to the announcement by the government of President Carlos Alvarado, made public on 17 September, that it would request financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for US$1.75 billion to address the post-COVID-19 economic recovery and invest in the public sector. Costa Rica had not requested IMF financing for almost 20 years. The proposal would eventually entail a tax increase in a country where the cost of living is already high. In fact, recent public finance legislation had introduced a tax increase that made already high taxes even heavier.

In addition to an increase in income and property taxes, the proposed agreement with the IMF included new taxes on banking transactions and global income. It also proposed merging some public institutions and selling others, such as the Costa Rican International Bank and the National Spirits Factory.

The government announced its proposal unilaterally, without any consultation whatsoever, when a negotiation of such dimensions and with such implications by far exceeds the sphere of the economy and should be subjected to political negotiations with the participation of all major social forces. The consequences of reaching an agreement with the IMF must be subjected to public debate, which in this case initially did not take place.

Who came out to protest and what did they demand?

Mainly trade unions, working class people and public servants, as well as social and student movements, came out to protest. Their main demand was that the government suspend its proposal to request IMF financing and abandon the idea of privatising public companies and increasing the tax burden.

While the protests had a citizen component, it was its sectoral component that came to the fore both in terms of street presence and influence on the public agenda. Trade union organisations were faster than others to identify the impact of a financing agreement with the IMF on their agendas and their struggles.

Civil society denounced the executive’s intentions, warned of the consequences, worked to educate the public and to open debate, and supported mobilisation.

How did the government respond to the protests?

The government responded somewhat within the framework of international standards for the dispersal of mass demonstrations; in fact, many police officers were injured as a result of aggressions by protesters who closed roads in key places, including the main border crossings with Panama. As days passed, tensions escalated, vehicles were set on fire and sticks and teargas were used in clashes between protesters and police. The security forces responded in a fairly proportionate manner to violent demonstrations, so this was not a case of disproportionate use of force by the authorities.

To neutralise the situation in the face of unrelenting protests, the government first announced on 4 October that it would back down on its proposal, but demanded that protesters cease their blockades in order to engage in dialogue with them. The protesters, for their part, set conditions for lifting the blockades. Specifically, they demanded that the government commit in writing to not resorting to the IMF for the rest of its term in office and that it rule out selling state assets and raising taxes. Demonstrations continued, and in response to them the government made public its negotiating strategy with the IMF and opened its proposal to comments from all sectors. On 11 October, the government announced a national and local ‘social dialogue’, in which 25 representatives from various sections of society – business, labour, women, churches, university students, farmers and others – would submit their own proposals for resolving the economic crisis deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The question posed was very specific: “How can we achieve a permanent improvement of at least 2.5 percentage points of the GDP in the central government’s primary deficit and a short-term decrease in the amount of public debt (of about 8 percentage points of GDP), through a mix of revenue, expenditure and public debt management actions, in order to prevent the state from defaulting?”

Were any of the protesters’ demands met?

Despite the intense process of dialogue with various sectors and the valuable contributions brought into this process, substantive demands have not been met, although according to the government they are being considered within the institutional framework in order to give them the attention they deserve.

The protests resumed precisely because the dialogue process showed no results and the authorities demonstrated little political will in terms of compliance. This was reflected in the announcement that the government would move forward with its funding request.

Indeed, following the dialogue process, the executive remained firm in its proposal to request IMF financing. In retrospect, in view of these results, civil society assessed that the call for social dialogue had been nothing more than a demobilisation strategy.

Costa Rica is often presented as a model case of stability, order, social equality and democratic culture. How true is this?

While it is true that Costa Rica enjoys a robust institutional framework compared to its Central American neighbours, which has resulted in economic and social stability, it also continues to fail to address deep social inequalities in the country’s most vulnerable areas. Social problems are neglected because of a lack of political will and the existence of levels of corruption that, while not scandalous by international standards, permeate the country’s political and economic structures and allow the political class and the economic elite to collude and share the spoils of the state.

The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems in Costa Rica. They brought together unsatisfied immediate demands and structural problems related to the distribution of wealth, tax evasion by big business and the control of the economic elites over the state apparatus, which materialises in the social inequality of migrants, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and rural people.

Civic space in Costa Rica is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @CBerrios26 on Twitter.

 

 

NAMIBIA: ‘Protests against gender-based violence were triggered by collective hope’

CIVICUS speaks to Bertha Tobias about the recent protests against femicide and gender-based violence (GBV) in Namibia. Bertha is a youth leader and an international award-winning debater. A graduate of the United World College Changshu China, she is currently pursuing her post-secondary education at Claremont Mckenna College in California. She was the recipient of a Go Make A Difference award, which supports the implementation of community development projects, and has been an active participant in women´s rights protests in Namibia.

Bertha Tobias

Can you tell us of how the #ShutItAllDown protests against GBV started and how you got involved?

I got involved in the fight against GBV after news emerged that human remains had been discovered in a coastal town in Namibia. The remains were suspected to be those of Shannon Wasserfall, a young woman in her 20s who had gone missing in April 2020. This particular incident set off mass reactions. The release of the headline on the Twitter account of one of the major national news outlets spurred a lot of young people to action, to mobilise and organise ourselves to take to the streets. It injected urgency into the conversation around GBV and femicide in Namibia.

This was not isolated case, as young Namibian women continuously go missing. But when this case emerged, it revived the national conversation. Somebody on Twitter rightfully stated that something needed to happen, something needed to change, and I responded to this and got involved from the beginning because this is something I care about deeply, as I strongly believe that women matter equally and fully.

Together with other young people, we sent out emails, garnered the support we needed, and organised ourselves within less than 24 hours, mostly and primarily through social media. We made a flyer which was circulated widely, and people showed up to the protest. Young people took ownership and that was how it started. This was an example of both the power of the internet and the power of young people.

If I remember correctly, on the first day of the protests, a newspaper reported that slightly over 800 people attended the protest, and all subsequent protests had hundreds of people. Both young women and men were involved: the protests were led predominantly by women, but young men were present in considerable numbers. What is important to note regarding the demographics of the protests is that it was mostly young people. It was young people attending meetings with officials, drafting petitions and speaking to the media. And it was young women who were at the forefront, with young men providing support.

We believe that if young women in Namibia cannot walk to the shops to buy a carton of milk without fearing for their lives, then something is terribly wrong with us as a nation. The philosophy of #ShutItAllDown is quite radical: it means that everything needs to be brought to a standstill until we can re-evaluate what it is about Namibian systems of safety that is not working for Namibian women. Until we have answers to those questions, we do not believe it is right, healthy or in the best interest of anyone to continue doing business as usual. We don’t want economic activity of any sort to continue as usual if young women do not feel safe.

From your perspective, what made #ShutItAllDown different from previous women’s rights protests in Namibia?

There have been other protests for women’s rights in the past. In fact, earlier in 2020 we had a pro-choice protest that focused specifically on women’s sexual and reproductive health rights and advocated for the legalisation of abortion and the recognition of women’s bodily agency and autonomy. Under Namibia’s Abortion and Sterilisation Act of 1975, abortions are illegal except in cases involving incest, rape, or where the mother’s or child’s life is in danger.

There are feminist movements in Namibia that are active and work consistently; however, something practical we had to acknowledge is that a lot of feminist movements are led by young people who also have other obligations, such as full-time jobs. Civil society organisations also face challenges, particularly in terms of resources and institutional support.

The previous protest that took place in early 2020 was significant in paving the way and establishing an important foundation for #ShutItAllDown to have the collective confidence to go forth. Feminist organisers were at hand and were active in amplifying the voice of #ShutItAllDown. They were very present in terms of disseminating information, and they were crucial in mobilising their people to show up to the protests and keep the momentum going. Feminist organisers in Namibia do a lot of work behind the scenes but their work can only get so far because of insufficient resources. Hence, a lot of our petition demands were aimed at government and other institutions that do have the resources that we need to institute the changes that we seek.

The difference between #ShutItAllDown and previous protests is the fact that now the young people of Namibia are becoming increasingly involved in political affairs and are becoming vocal about holding government and other institutions accountable to their mandate and fulfilling their work and obligations towards the citizenry.

Additionally, the movement was able to grow more organically because social media are increasingly being used as a tool to have exchanges and push for accountability. Namibia has a fairly young population with tremendous digital abilities. The flexibility and capacity for self-organisation of young people eventually pushed us all to do something.

What were the demands of the #ShutItAllDown movement? What response did they obtain?

The biggest demand we had for the government of Namibia was the declaration of a state of emergency in respect to femicide and sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), simply because we believed the problem we are facing warranted this kind of action. We wanted this to be a message that femicide is a national crisis and that beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, women always, every single day, are fearful for their lives. We also demanded an immediate consultation with SGBV experts and for the Ministry of Justice to begin implementing a sexual offenders’ registry and sexual offences courts.

Several demands focused on accelerating existing methods to curb SGBV. New demands were also addressed to various ministries and other stakeholders, such as for 24/7 patrols around neighbourhoods, remote mobile GBV services and the implementation of school and university curricula to sensitise young people on SGBV.

Our petition recognised that there is violence both inside and outside the home. But it is our understanding that curbing violence inside the home is more difficult due to the years and generations of grassroots work that is necessary to undo normalised gendered abuse. We may not be alive to witness the fruits of this effort, simply due to how long it may take to transform a society and its culture, to overturn and collectively interrogate the traditional principles in which abusive norms are rooted.

Unfortunately, we did not obtain the declaration of the state of emergency for which we were hoping. But other demands, such as strengthening security through patrolling, implementing school curricula and establishing task forces or committees to revive efforts to curb SGBV were positively responded to. Another petition demand that was important and received a positive response was training for police officers to be more sympathetic and empathetic when dealing with cases and reports of GBV. We know that the reception that survivors get at police stations and the lack of attention and urgency with which their cases are handled is one of the major reasons why women do not report sexual violence.

Were other relevant issues brought to the forefront as a result of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

Yes, LGBTQI+ advocates and community members were consequential in mobilising people for the protest and amplifying the voices of the #ShutItAllDown movement. For me, it was important to see queer women and other LGBTQI+ individuals navigating a violently homophobic and transphobic society, protesting and highlighting the significance of intersectionality and collective advocacy. Out-Right Namibia, a leading LGBTQI+ human rights organisation in Namibia, used its momentum to propel #ShutItAllDown and create a strong, well-connected network for advocating for our collective rights as Black and/or queer women.

The #ShutItAllDown protests also brought to the forefront the illegality of abortion in Namibia and our reproductive health rights. We intensified our conversations about the issue of reproductive health rights of women in general. These were some of the vital issues that were highlighted by #ShutItAllDown, which made it apparent how much work still needs to be done so that the rights of all women are recognised and respected.

Is there room for intergenerational activism within the #ShutItAllDown movement?

Intergenerational activism has proved to be interesting territory, mostly because of the fiery and passionate nature of young people. A lot of the impact of the activism exhibited in the #ShutItAllDown protests relies on disruption and general inconvenience to spur the most indifferent of people to action. I believe that disruption creates important conversations. Our hope is for our actions to cause somebody who is unfamiliar with what we are doing to start asking themselves why we care so much about the safety of women, so much so that we are sitting in the middle of the road or shutting down a mall, and try to understand what is happening and what it is that we are doing. These questions would start a conversation and fuel important discussions on an urgent national ill in which women are dying. 

But many older people tend to question the disruptive tactics used by younger people. And another limitation that we have experienced recognises that disruptive tactics imply personal liability. As young people, we put a lot less at risk in terms of employability and general respectability. Many older people do agree with the causes we are mobilising for, but they generally don’t take the risk of standing side by side with us, or at least not explicitly. There are political and practical factors that limit even the degree to which they can publicly voice their support.

How do you see the future of the #ShutItAllDown movement?

The beauty of organic and spontaneous movements, as well as with movements that do not have a leader, is that anyone can wake up and decide to start #ShutItAllDown in their respective town, because the movement is leaderless and faceless. Right now, there haven’t been any protests since October 2020, but that does not mean that there won’t be any more protests in the future. GBV is an ongoing issue and unfortunately, a case that reignites the protest can surface anywhere, anytime.

Civic space in Namibia is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS MonitorFollow @BerthaJTobias on Twitter and bertha_tobias on Instagram.

 

 

PERU: ‘Constitutional debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the protests’

Rafael BarrioCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Peru with Rafael Barrio de Mendoza, a researcher on processes of territorial transformation from Grupo Propuesta Ciudadana, a consortium of 10 civil society organisations with a presence in 16 regions of Peru. Propuesta Ciudadana seeks to contribute to the formulation of policy proposals for an inclusive state and the adequate management of public resources. It promotes a vision of territorial governance that starts with the identification of and respect for diversity and in which democratic development is a key component.

What triggered the protests that broke out in Peru in November 2020?

The immediate cause was the decision by a parliamentary majority to force out President Martín Vizcarra, using a mechanism that had been scarcely used in the past and whose content and process involve a wide margin of discretion. The publication of accusations against Vizcarra was carried out in a sequence that proved to be planned, and a feeling prevailed that they were instrumentalised by the so-called ‘vacating coalition’. Although there is some controversy regarding the quality of the evidence brought forward about the crimes Vizcarra is accused of, allegedly committed during his term as governor of the Moquegua region five years ago, a consensus formed in public opinion that these accusations could have been credibly pursued after the end of his presidential term, given that general elections had already been called for April 2021.

But from a more structural point of view, the political crisis was the expression of the maturing of a crisis of political representation, which made it apparent that there were few organic links between politicians and citizens’ sensibilities and that we have a precarious and cartelised system of political representation, in which a myriad of illegal, informal and oligopolistic interests have resisted successive generations of reforms – educational, judicial, fiscal and political, among others – aimed at regulating them. Revelations of corruption involving much of the political establishment, including the Lava Jato/Odebrecht case and the White Collars case, which uncovered a widespread network of corruption within the judicial system, resulted in a consensus that the management of public affairs had irremediably deteriorated. At the same time, the relative effectiveness of the fiscal measures taken against the political leaders involved in these cases fuelled the prospect of a cleansing of the political class and the possibility of cultivating a transition to a better system of representation. To a certain extent, the populist link that Vizcarra established with this sensitivity – sealed with the constitutional dissolution of the previous Congress, in which former President Alberto Fujimori’s party had a majority – was the factor that sustained his government, which lacked parliamentary, business, media, or trade union support. Vizcarra’s removal was experienced as the comeback of a constellation of interests that had experienced a setback as a consequence of prosecutors’ work and recent education, political and judicial reforms.

How would you describe the institutional conflict that resulted in the removal and replacement of the president?

Institutional conflict arose due to the precarious character of a political system that included a new Congress with multiple caucuses but none of them of the president’s party and a president who enjoyed popular support but lacked institutional backing, and whose legitimacy was therefore sustained on his versatile management of public debate through a combination of political gestures, the recruitment of competent technicians in key positions and a calculated exercise of antagonism with Congress on key issues such as education, political and judicial reforms.

The majority coalition in Congress broadly took up the agenda and represented the interests of the former so-called ‘Fujiaprist’ majority – described in reference to the tacit alliance between the Aprista party and the political movement founded by former President Fujimori – on top of which it added new populist demands that put at risk the budgetary and macroeconomic management that enjoyed technocratic consensus. In this context, certain people who had survived the dissolution of the previous Congress managed to reposition themselves in the new one and conduct, alongside some media outlets, a campaign seeking to undermine Vizcarra’s popularity by levelling accusations of corruption in unclear cases. These were the dynamics that fed the institutional conflict.

For its part, civil society provided a unified response to the president’s removal and the new regime that resulted from it. Their response ranged from expressing concern and demanding accountability to openly condemning the establishment of the new administration. The mass protests and repression they faced fuelled this shift in most of civil society. Many civil society organisations played an active role in framing the conflict, producing a narrative for international audiences and putting pressure on the state actors with whom they interact.

Who mobilised, and what did they demand?

At first, demonstrators protested against the removal of President Vizcarra and against the inauguration of the president of Congress, Manuel Merino, as the new president. A subsequent survey by Ipsos showed that just over three quarters of the population agreed with the protest against President Vizcarra’s removal and that at least two million people mobilised in one way or another or took an active part in the protests.

The demonstrations were led mostly by young people, between 16 and 30 years old, who did most of the organising and produced the protest’s repertoires and tactics. The generalised mood of weariness was embodied by the so-called ‘bicentennial generation’, born after the end of the Fujimori regime, who are digital natives and, for the most part, disaffected with conventional politics. This is also a mesocratic generation – both in the traditional segments of the middle class and in the popular sectors – that is embedded in virtual communities mediated by digital platforms. This partly explains the speed with which organisational forms emerged that were efficient enough to produce repertoires, coordinate actions, document protests and shift public opinion. The mediation of social media and the use of micro money transfer applications led to a decentralised organisation of the protests, with multiple demonstrations taking place in different locations, a variety of converging calls and a diversity of repertoires and channels for the rapid transfer of resources.

The youth-led mobilisation was fed by a middle class willing to assume the cost of demonstrating. Around this nucleus coalesced, both sociologically and territorially, other segments of the population, more or less used to conventional protest strategies or simply distant from all public participation.

The protests began on 9 November, followed by daily demonstrations, and reached their peak on 14 November, when the Second National March took place. The so-called 14N mass mobilisation was fuelled by the sudden awakening of a fed-up feeling that ran through society and was particularly intense among young people. Hence its exceptional character in terms of its scope, magnitude, level of organisation and the rapid adoption of a non-partisan citizen identity, which could only be partly explained by the existing support for Vizcarra, as it far exceeded it.

14N culminated with the death of two young protesters who were hit by lead bullets. Merino had taken over on 10 November and formed a radically conservative government. The nature of his cabinet quickly revealed itself through the authorisation of severe repression of the protest, particularly in the capital, Lima. After the first days of police violence, the president of the Council of Ministers congratulated and guaranteed protection to the police squads involved. The deaths that took place on 14N resulted in overwhelming citizen pressure, triggering a cascade of disaffection among the few political supporters sustaining the regime. As a result, by midday on 15 November Merino had resigned.

The space generated by the mobilisation was populated by a number of heterogeneous demands, ranging from the reinstatement of Vizcarra to the demand for constitutional change to pave the way out of neoliberalism, including citizen-based proposals focused on the defence of democracy, the continuity of reforms, the injustice of the repression, and the insensitivity of the political class regarding the pandemic health emergency. Ferment for these demands continues to exist and it remains to be seen how they end up taking shape in the electoral scenario of 2021.

 

How did these protests differ from others in the past? Were there any changes related to the context of the pandemic?

In previous urban mobilisations, the coordination mechanisms provided by social media had already been tested, but these demonstrations had been led by conventional groups, such as social movements, political parties and trade unions. On this occasion, new activist groups were formed, including to deactivate teargas projectiles and to provide medical relief, which are similar to mobilisation techniques tested in other scenarios, such as the Hong Kong protests and the Black Lives Matter protests in the USA. This speaks of the emergence of global protest learning spaces.

In part, it was the health emergency that conditioned the composition of the protests, which were mostly made up of young people, while also encouraging the dissemination of new repertoires, such as ‘cacerolazos’ (pot banging), ‘bocinazos’ (horn blowing) and digital activism among those more reluctant to take to the streets. At the same time, the massive character of the protests can be explained by the fact that health indicators at the time suggested the end of the first wave of COVID-19 infections, and by the fact that the Black Lives Matter marches had not been linked to any relevant outbreaks, which encouraged a sense of safety among protesters.

Why did protesters demand constitutional reform, and what kind of constitutional reform do they want?

Proposals of constitutional change were among the demands of the mobilisation, but they were not its main demands. They did however gain new impetus in public debate. The history of these demands can be traced in two ways. Constitutional change through a constituent assembly has been one of the key demands of the left since the end of the Fujimori regime, which ruled from 1990 to 2001. Right after its fall, a congress was convened with a constituent mandate, but it was unable to produce a new constitution; since then this aspiration has come to live in the progressive camp, while it has lost popularity among more moderate and right-wing groups. The left often presents the mythical 1979 Constitution as an alternative, proposes new texts inspired by the Bolivian and Ecuadorian processes, and points to the illegitimate character of the current constitution, born after a coup d’état. The sustained economic growth of the post-Fujimori decades and a number of reforms of some constitutional mechanisms conferred legitimacy on the constitution, but many of the institutions and principles it enshrines have been rendered obsolete by the sociological and economic changes they helped bring about.

The second source of the demand for constitutional change is more organic and follows the realisation of the limits of the market model, apparent above all in the persistent lack of social protection, precarious and informal work and abuses by oligopoly interests in service provision, as well as in the crisis of the system of political representation. Vizcarra inaugurated a reformist stance in judicial and political matters, as well in the legal frameworks governing extractive industries and the pension system. He also continued with education reform. His reformist spirit – viewed by moderate groups as a path to a ‘responsible’ transition – was attacked by the political forces representing the sectors that had been affected by the reforms, creating a space in which reform aspirations can be promoted in the language of constitutional change.

Even so, this debate has taken on new relevance as a result of the 14N protests. However, the terms of the conversation and the content of the most significant changes are not yet clear, and neither is the existence of mature political actors capable of interpreting and implementing them. Danger lies in the possibility that, in a context of high uncertainty, the process may end up being defined by those whose motivations are foreign to the spirit of change.

Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Propuesta Ciudadana through its website or Facebook page, and follow @prop_ciudadana and @BarrioZevallos on Twitter.

 

 

#UN75: ‘Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access through accessible virtual platforms’

Laura Obrien

Following the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Laura O’Brien, UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now, a civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. Through direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant-making, legal interventions and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age.

To what extent is the UN’s founding Charter fit for the internet era?

For years civil society has encouraged the UN to modernise its operations to maintain its relevance in the digital age. In 2020, the UN met this harsh reality. The international organisation was forced to take the majority of its operations online, all the while trying meaningfully to reach the global community and advance international cooperation amid a global health crisis, systemic racism, climate change and rising authoritarianism. Commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary by revisiting its founding Charter – a document centred on inherent human dignity – could not have been more crucial.

The UN Charter was drafted long before the internet even existed. Nonetheless, its global outlook remains consistent with the universal nature of the internet, which at its best enables borderless knowledge societies grounded in fundamental human rights, while also amplifying the need to reduce risks, not solely through sovereign means, but also through international cooperation. Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations rightfully commits to improving digital cooperation worldwide. Through this formal commitment, the UN finally paid heed to the transformative impact digital technologies have on our daily lives, paving a path – or, as better captured by the UN Secretary-General, a ‘roadmap’ – to steer us through the promises and perils of the digital age.

While world leaders recognised the need to listen to ‘the people’ – as captured in the preamble of the UN Charter – civil society continues to remind those leaders to listen more actively. With missions rooted in extending and defending the fundamental human rights of all individuals, civil society remains an essential force to advance stakeholder accountability and ensure transparency in often opaque multilateral processes.

What challenges have you faced in your interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?

I stepped into my public-facing role as UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. As such, I was a new voice navigating the challenges civil society was facing at that time: how do we ensure that civil society partners, in all their diversity, are meaningfully involved in UN discussions as the UN transitions its operations online? At that time, we feared that the exceptional measures used to fight the pandemic could be cited to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN fora. So we mobilised. Several civil society organisations, CIVICUS included, worked together to provide principles and recommendations to the UN to ensure civil society inclusion in UN discussions during the pandemic and beyond. This helped us work together to present a united position on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and to remind the UN to put adequate protections in place to ensure accessible online platforms and sufficient safeguards to protect the security of those participating virtually.

What things are currently not working and would need to change? In what ways is civil society working towards that kind of change?

2020 was a humbling year of critical self-reflection both on an individual and collective level. Now, more than ever, the world is realising that the state-centric model will not propel us into a hopeful future. Problems in one part of the world have consequences worldwide. The decisions we make now, particularly regarding digital technologies, will impact on future generations to come. As the world recovers from the events of 2020, we need world leaders to build off the lessons learned and continue to engage in critical reflection. Solving global challenges requires interdisciplinary action that respects and protects rights-holders who come from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. We simply cannot continue to operate or tackle these issues top-down. Indeed, threats like disinformation often originate at the top.

Civil society worldwide is mobilising to spearhead global campaigns to raise awareness of the issues we face today, and their impact on future generations, while advocating for accountability across national, regional and international forums. From condemning internet shutdowns – #KeepItOn – to questioning the implementation of digital identity programmes worldwide – #WhyID – we are working to report, monitor and measure, and provide rights-respecting policy recommendations based on our diverse interactions with those most at risk.

Looking more broadly at the global multilateral system today, what do you think are its main weaknesses, and what lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The global multilateral system needs to stop operating and addressing global issues in silos. This requires not only better networked multilateralism – across the UN system in both New York and Geneva, and including regional organisations and financial institutions, among others – but also that global issues be addressed from a more interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, research suggests that over 90 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to international human rights and labour. Protecting human rights is therefore necessary to reach the SDGs. Why then do international actors continue to raise the SDGs only in tandem with discussions around development and not human rights?

Many lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to advance more inclusive international cooperation. In 2020 the UN was made acutely aware of the benefits of internet connectivity, reaching more diverse voices worldwide. People normally unable physically to access UN platforms based in Geneva and New York – due to a myriad of barriers – were now able to contribute meaningfully to UN discussions online. Yet simultaneously, online operations also made the UN formally acknowledge the severe impact for the approximately 4 billion people who continue to remain disconnected from the internet. Those individuals may suffer network discrimination, experience various barriers due to digital divides and inadequate digital literacy resources, or remain disconnected through targeted internet shutdowns.

Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access to UN discussions through accessible virtual platforms. Just as the UN is built to facilitate state-to-state interactions, the world would benefit from similarly secure and open venues for civil society to connect. Unfortunately, too many communities remain marginalised and vulnerable. People often face reprisals for raising their voices and telling their stories across borders. We strive to create this open civil forum at RightsCon – the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age – and similar events. In July 2020, RightsCon Online brought together 7,681 participants from 157 countries across the world in a virtual summit. The organisers overcame affordability and access barriers by launching a Connectivity Fund to provide direct financial support for participants to connect and engage online. These convenings should be considered integral to internet governance, but also to achieving the three pillars of the UN – development, human rights and peace and security – in the digital age. When carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of those engaging with the platform and removes barriers and resource constraints linked to travel. 

Overall, the international community must lean into the lessons of 2020. We must work in solidarity to advance open, inclusive and meaningful international cooperation in order to achieve a prosperous future for all.

Get in touch with Access Now through its webpage or Facebook profile, and follow @accessnow and @lo_brie on Twitter.

 

GUATEMALA: ‘The protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy’

Sandra MoraenCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Guatemala with Sandra Morán Reyes, an advocate of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. With a long history of participation in social movements, Sandra was one of the co-founders of the first Guatemalan lesbian group and the organiser of the first pride march in Guatemala, held in 1998 in Guatemala City. In 2015, she was elected as a national congressional representative, becoming the first gay congresswoman and politician to be elected to popular office in the history of her country. From that position, she promoted various initiatives to advance the rights of women and sexual minorities.

What was the background to the November 2020 protests and how did they begin?

A new government was inaugurated in January 2020, and soon after that we found ourselves locked up because of the pandemic. But by May or June some of our colleagues started to take to the streets again, partly to criticise the government’s attitude towards the needs of the population as the effects of the crisis generated by the pandemic began to be clearly seen. Suddenly white flags started to appear on the streets, on house doors and in the hands of people and families walking the streets or sitting in doorways. With the white flag people indicated that they did not have enough to eat, and solidarity actions began to take place, for instance in the form of soup kitchens, which did not previously exist in Guatemala. There was a great movement of solidarity among people. While organisations were busy attending to their own members, citizens made great efforts to provide person-to-person support. It became common for people to go out into the streets to give a little of what they had to those who needed it most. This was then repeated regarding those who were affected when hurricanes hit and lost everything.

At the state level, a lot of resources were approved to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, but these resources did not reach the people and the needs of the population remained unmet, so the question that people began to ask was, ‘where is the money?’

From 2017 onwards, we started denouncing what we called the ‘corrupt pact’ that brought together public officials, businesspeople and even church representatives in defence of their own interests. In 2015, after six months of sustained mass demonstrations, the president and vice president ended up in prison, but the governments that succeeded them ended up reaffirming the same old system. The government of President Jimmy Morales unilaterally ended the agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the current government led by President Alejandro Giammattei, following on from its predecessor, has made progress in controlling the judiciary, Congress and all state institutions in order to sustain corruption as a form of government.

The effects of the lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic and of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in October and November 2020, were compounded by attacks on the officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office who continue to fight against corruption. Discontent continued to accumulate until the early hours of November 2020 when Congress approved the national budget for 2021. It was a very high budget – the highest in the country's history – and it included obvious pockets of corruption, especially in the area of infrastructure contracts, which is where the bulk of corruption takes place, but paid no attention to health and education, in the context of a pandemic. Budget cuts even affected the national nutrition programme, in a country that has a huge problem of child malnutrition. That was the last straw. People who are not normally prone to protest – a professional chef, an artist, many well-known people in different fields – started writing on social media and expressing anger against this decision. That’s how the first demonstration was organised, and suddenly we were about 25,000 people out there, in the middle of a pandemic.

By that time all restrictions on movement and gatherings had been lifted, but the pandemic was still ongoing and the risk of contagion was still there. No one foresaw such a massive protest, and yet it happened. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but already during the second one there was violence and repression. A small group set fire to the Congress building, an event that is still under investigation. This was used to justify the repression: teargas, beatings, arrests and detentions, something that had not happened for a long time. In another demonstration, people set fire to a bus. From our perspective, these acts of violence were instigated to justify the need for more police control over demonstrations and ultimately the repression of protests.

Was the call for mobilisation made exclusively through social media? Who mobilised?

There were a series of calls through social media that appealed above all to the middle classes, but social movements and Indigenous authorities also made their calls. Indigenous authorities have played an increasingly important role in recent years, and in the context of this crisis they published a statement in which they proposed a governing council of the four main groups of peoples who make up Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna and Mestizo - to pave the way for a Constituent Assembly. They have been visiting territories and working to form alliances, and this was the first time that they have made steps towards the national government, as for now they have only had authority within their territories. The role they have played is important because the oligarchy has always been afraid of an Indigenous uprising; that fear is what moves them, just as they were moved by the fact that in 2019 the candidate for president of the People's Liberation Movement, a party founded by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), came in fourth place. A Mayan woman, a peasant, with little schooling, came in fourth place, and they found that very upsetting.

Four main actors mobilised: Indigenous peoples, women, young people and what are called ‘communities in resistance’ – local communities, generally led by women, who are resisting extractive mega-projects in their territories. The latest demonstrations also evidenced the results of the newly achieved unity of the university student movement: from 2015 onwards, students from the public university of San Carlos de Guatemala marched together with those from the two private universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, of middle-class students, and Universidad del Valle, which caters to the upper class. The motto under which the public university used to march, ‘USAC is the people’, turned into ‘We are the People’ as a result of this convergence. This was a historical event that marked the return of organised university students to popular struggles.

The role of young people can also be seen within the feminist movement, as there are many young feminist movements. In particular, the Women in Movement collective, a very important expression of university-based feminists, stands out. Sexual diversity organisations have also been present, and have been very active in denouncing femicides and murders of LGBTQI+ people.

These groups were joined by a middle class made impoverished by the severe impact of the pandemic. There were many middle-class people, many white-collar workers and professionals, in the demonstrations. Many people who did not belong to any Indigenous, student or women’s organisation or collective went out on their own, moved by the feeling of being fed up. Thus, the November 2020 protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy.

What did the mobilised citizenry demand?

Despite the fact that several sectors mobilised and many demands accumulated, there was an order to the protests’ petition list. Although each sector had its own demands, they all rallied around a few major ones. The key demand was that the president should veto the budget, since what triggered the mobilisation was the impudence of a Congress that made a budget that was clearly not to the benefit of the citizens of Guatemala but to their own, to feed corruption. The demonstrations were an immediate success in that regard, since a few days after the Congress building was burned, Congress backed down and annulled the budget it had previously approved. Along with the withdrawal of the budget, the protesters’ demand was the drafting of a new budget that would respond to the needs of the population, but this demand is still pending.

Following the repression of the protests, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior became a key demand, but this did not happen and this public official remains in office. The president’s resignation was also demanded but did not take place.

Finally, the demand for a new constitution, which has been on the agenda of social movements for several years, was raised again. In 2015, during the big demonstrations that led to the resignation of the entire government, social movements assessed that corruption was not only the fault of some individuals, as we had a corrupt system and therefore a change of system was needed. Indigenous and peasant organisations have their proposal for constitutional change, based on their demand of recognition of Indigenous peoples and the establishment of a plurinational state that would give them autonomy and decision-making power.

Other groups have more embryonic proposals. I was a member of Congress until January 2020, and when I was still in Congress I worked with women’s organisations, thinking that this situation could arise and we had to be ready. We started the Movement of Women with Constituent Power to develop a proposal for a new constitution from the perspective of women in all our diversity.

What are the main changes you propose?

We have a constitution that was drafted in 1985 and it has an important human rights component; it includes the office of the Ombudsman, which at the time was an innovation. But human rights are approached from an individual perspective; collective rights and peoples’ rights are absent, as are the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And so are the most advanced innovations in constitutional matters, such as the rights of nature. Ours is a political proposal for the emancipation of peoples, women and sexual diversity. It is based on the idea of an economy for life, which puts the community at the centre, and on a feminist economy that reorganises work and care tasks.

Do you think the protests will continue?

Yes, the protests will continue. With the year-end celebrations came demobilisation, but in recent days it has become public that CODECA has decided to take to the streets again. CODECA is an organisation that normally goes out alone, it doesn’t coordinate with other social movements, but it has a great capacity for mobilisation. If they go back on the streets, they will open a new phase of demonstrations.

Right now, the Minister of Finance is drawing up a new budget, which in a month’s time will have to be discussed again in Congress. It remains to be seen not only how much will be invested in health, education and economic revival, but also what they think ‘economic revival’ actually means. Until now the emphasis has always been on international private investment, which only generates opportunities for greater exploitation and mega-projects. A bill has been proposed to promote family farming; there is no way it can be passed. So the demands of rural populations, peasants and Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be expressed on the streets.

For the time being, this is a sectoral call, not a broad call to citizens. But it will not take much to revive citizen protest, since after the November demonstrations the president made a series of promises that he has not kept. The first anniversary of his government was 14 January 2021 and the levels of support it receives are extremely low. Congress also has little legitimacy, given the number of representatives who are part of the ‘corrupt pact’, which is large enough to hold an ordinary majority to pass legislation.

However, people may be afraid of mobilising because we are at a peak in COVID-19 infections. And another obstacle to the continuity of the protests is the absence of a unified leadership and the fact that coordination is quite limited.

Civic space in Guatemala is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @sandramorangt on Twitter.

 

 

#BEIJING25: ‘More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy’

For the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

CIVICUS speaks to Pakou Hang, Chief Program Officer at Vote Run Lead, an organisation dedicated to training women to run for political office and win, increasing women’s representation at every level of government. Founded in 2014, it has already reached over 36,000 women across the USA, nearly 60 per cent of whom are women of colour, and 20 per cent of whom are from rural areas. Numerous Vote Run Lead alumnae are now serving on city councils, county boards, statehouses, supreme courts and the US Congress.

Pakou Hang

A quarter century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into actual change?

A lot of progress has transpired since 1995, but there is still a lot to be done, and we are still far from equitable. In terms of political representation, there has been some progress, but it has also been slow: globally, 24.3 per cent of all national parliamentarians were women in early 2019, compared to just 11.3 per cent in 1995. Only three countries around the world have achieved or surpassed parity in their single or lower houses, but many more have reached or exceeded the 30 per cent threshold. As of last year, there were also 11 women serving as heads of state and 12 serving as heads of government, and women accounted for almost 21 per cent of government ministers – often in areas most associated with women’s issues, such as social affairs and portfolios dealing with family, children, young people, older people and people with disabilities. So the bottom line is mixed: a lot of progress has been made, but it has been slow and it is far from sufficient.

Also, there has been a lot of variation among regions and countries, from about 16 per cent female legislators in the Pacific to more than 40 per cent in Nordic European countries. The Americas averages about 30 per cent, but the USA is below average. Congress is still disproportionately male: although women make up more than half the population, we hold barely 24 per cent of seats. Congress is also less racially diverse than the overall population, with 78 per cent of members identifying as white, a much higher percentage than the population’s 60 per cent of white Americans.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, the situation is not very different in states across the country: 29.2 per cent of state legislative seats and 18 per cent of state governorships are occupied by women. There is fewer data about local executives, and the information mostly concerns major cities, 60 per cent of whose mayors are white men, although they make up just 20 per cent of the population of those cities. And even as more women ascended into local office in 2018, it was still not uncommon for city councils and county commissions to include just one woman or no women at all.

On the other hand, despite the relatively small number of women legislators, and especially women of colour, the current US Congress is the most diverse in history. And the group of candidates who ran for Congress in 2020 were also the most diverse we have ever seen. Of course, these candidates received a lot of backlash from the media and their political opponents. But I think we need to shift our perspective to understand the amount of change that has taken place. I surely was disappointed that we ended up with two older, white men leading the two major presidential tickets – but now we also have a Black, Indian American woman as our Vice President-elect, so there is progress.

I remember when the 2020 presidential election was called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I contacted my nine-year-old niece with the news. She was ecstatic. I was reminded that she belongs to a new generation of Americans who were born under President Barack Hussein Obama. And growing up, she will know that Donald Trump was the President, but she will also know that Trump was beaten by a Black, Indian American woman. As we were talking, my niece said to me, “We are almost there, Auntie.” And it dawned on me: yes, we are almost there.

Why is it important to achieve gender parity in political representation? Is it only a matter of women’s rights and equal opportunity, or would it also have positive effects on democratic institutions and policymaking?

A big reason why we need more women in public office is because they govern differently than men. Women in government are more collaborative, more civil, more communicative. They are more likely to work across the aisle to solve problems. They bring home more money for their constituents, pass more bills, and their bills focus more on vulnerable populations like children, older people and sick people. Women broaden the political agenda, well beyond traditional women’s issues. And the result is better policies for all of us, not just for women and girls but also for men and boys. Because they bring an entirely new set of perspectives and life experiences into the policymaking process, the presence of women also ensures that women’s perspectives are not sidelined, and issues such as gender-based violence or childcare are not ignored. All in all, women in public office tend to be more effective than their male counterparts. And given the current gridlock and hyper-partisanship in politics, we need to do things differently. More women in public office translates into better government and a more robust democracy.

Moreover, the need for women in power and politics has become even more critical in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This past electoral cycle, donors wanted to contribute to female candidates’ campaigns more than before, because the pandemic brought awareness not just about the many inequities that plague our society and the healthcare system, but also of the outstanding work women, and in particular women of colour, are doing in their communities to respond to urgent needs, fill in the gaps left by inadequate government policies, and address the needs of excluded populations who have been disproportionately impacted on by COVID-19 and the economic downturn. During this crisis, women have played major roles in keeping communities connected, collecting and distributing food and other staples to needy families, finding ways to support local businesses and providing pop-up community services, among other things.

Research that looks at the ways in which various countries have responded to the pandemic seems to show that countries with female leaders tended to have fewer cases and fewer deaths from COVID-19. It seems that women in power have embraced a transformative style of leadership, which may be better at handling crises. This type of leadership focuses on deep human relationships, investment in teams and sharing knowledge, and being a role model and motivating others. These qualities are very useful in our current context.

Why do you think the political representation of women in the USA is still so low?

There are many reasons why we do not have gender parity in our political representation. First, there are still too many structural reasons why women do not run nor get elected. Women still do a disproportionate amount of housework and child-rearing and there is still sexist media coverage that focuses on women’s appearances and personalities rather than their policies. Further, those in party structures and the people with political knowledge, networks and money still continue to be men, and often they determine who is politically viable; for example, a young man who studied community development at Harvard is deemed more viable than a middle-aged Black woman who has been a community organiser for the past 20 years.

Paradoxically, female candidates win at roughly the same rates as their male counterparts, and according to polls, voters are excited about getting women elected. But the second reason why women don’t get elected is simply that women don’t run at the same rate as men – and of course, you can’t win if you don’t run.

Why don’t women run for public office? Perhaps the most pervasive reason is that women are self-doubters. They do not believe they are qualified. They do not see other women who look like them or think like them in those positions of power, and thus it’s a self-fulfilling cycle. But it’s not just women who self-doubt. Outsiders do plenty of that too. In fact, if a woman has never filled a position of power, then a question that keeps coming up in the media, said in a doubtful tone, is: is a woman electable? We heard a lot of that during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race.

There’s also the fact that certain qualities that are deemed positive in men are given a negative connotation when applied to women, like assertiveness or ambition. While angry and vindictive men have surely been elected president, women who are perceived as ‘angry’, or ‘vindictive’ are deemed unlikeable, and thus disqualified. Women candidates are held to much higher standards of competency, sometimes by themselves, but more often by others, and as a result we do not have gender parity in our political representation.

When was it that you realised that, unlike men, women needed training to run for office?

Even though I had studied political science in college, I felt that American politics was dirty and corrupting and I never got involved in electoral politics. That was until 2001, when my older cousin, Mee Moua, decided to run for a State Senate seat on the East Side of Saint Paul in a special election. The East Side of Saint Paul was fast becoming a district where people from minorities were in the majority, and yet all its elected officials from the state level to the county and the city were all white, conservative-leaning men. My cousin was Ivy League-educated, had been a lawyer and the president of the Hmong Chamber of Commerce, and she decided to run for public office after having volunteered on numerous political campaigns over many years. However, as often happens with female candidates, she was told she needed to wait her turn. Well she didn’t, and since no one in the mainstream political community would help her, she looked to our 71 first cousins to become her volunteer army and recruited me to be her campaign manager because I was the only one of us who had studied political science. Against all odds, without any political experience, and in the middle of a Minnesota winter, we knocked on doors, made phone calls, mobilised voters using ethnic radio stations, drove people to the polls and won, making history by electing the very first Hmong state legislator in US and Hmong history.

Looking back, I realised that I managed that campaign purely based on instincts, honed from my childhood experience helping my non-English speaking parents navigate the mainstream world. And while we won, we could have just as easily been out-organised and lost. It was only years later, after having gone through a Camp Wellstone political training course, that I realised women candidates needed something for ourselves, something that uniquely spoke to us, and prepared us for the real issues we would face as female candidates.

What kind of training does Vote Run Lead provide, and how does it help break down the barriers that keep women away from power?

Vote Run Lead is the largest and most diverse women’s leadership programme in the USA. We have trained over 38,000 women to run for public office, including rural women, transgender women, young women, moms and Black and Indigenous women and women of colour. Over 55 per cent of our alumnae who were on the general election ballot in 2020 won their races, and 71 per cent of our alumnae who are women of colour won their races too.

The women we train often decide to run for public office because they see something wrong in their community and they want to fix it. But they do not see a lot of people who look like them in positions of power. Vote Run Lead offers a number of training modules that teach women the basics about campaigns, from delivering a stump speech to building a campaign team or crafting a message, to fundraising and getting out the vote. But what makes our training programme different is that we train women to run as they are. Women often need support to view themselves as qualified, capable and deserving candidates. We show them that they don’t need to obtain another promotion or degree and that in fact, their personal story is their biggest asset. Our Run As You Are training curriculum reminds women that they are enough and that they are the fierce leaders we need to elect to build the just democracy that we all deserve.

What’s the ‘typical’ profile of the women you help run for office? Do you support any women willing to run, regardless of their politics?

There isn’t a typical Vote Run Lead alumna. We are a nonpartisan organisation, so we train women from all walks of life, all professions, all political parties, and in all stages of their political development. Our values are deeply embedded in promoting intersectional, anti-racist women who are committed to building a just and fair democracy.

Given the widespread phenomenon of voter suppression in the USA, does your programming also focus on getting out the vote?

Traditionally, Vote Run Lead does not employ our own get out the vote (GOTV) programme because most of our alumnae are either running or working on a campaign. But in 2020, with the high levels of voter suppression fuelled by misinformation campaigns and health safety concerns, Vote Run Lead did launch a robust GOTV programme with our alumnae. This GOTV programme included eight GOTV-specific training modules, from how to respond to apathy and cynicism around voting, to which digital field and communication tools to use to get out the vote. We also activated over 200 volunteers, had 3,000 conversations, made 30,000 phone calls and sent out over 33,000 text messages to get our alumnae and their networks to go vote.

Prior to the summer, we also launched a series we called ‘Your Kitchen Cabinet’, where we trained women on how to raise money, do direct voter contact and even launch a digital plan while social distancing. Those guides and webinars can be found on our website and YouTube channel and offer real-time advice and fact-based information.

Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Vote Run Lead through its website or Facebook page, and follow @VoteRunLead on Twitter.

 

UNITED STATES: ‘The 2020 election is a political and moral mandate against fascism’

CIVICUS speaks about voter suppression and its implications for US democracy with Yael Bromberg, Chief Counsel for Voting Rights at The Andrew Goodman Foundation, an organisation that works to make the voices of young people – one of the most underrepresented voter groups in the USA – a powerful force for democracy. The Foundation was set up in 1966 to carry on the spirit and the purpose of Andy Goodman, who in 1964 joined Freedom Summer, a project aimed at registering Black Americans to vote to dismantle segregation and oppression, and who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan on his first day in Mississippi. The Foundation supports youth leadership development, voting accessibility and social justice initiatives in almost a hundred higher learning institutions across the country.

Yael Bromberg

It is confusing for outside observers to see a country that promotes itself as the paragon of democracy put barriers that limit the right to vote of millions of its citizens. Can you tell us more about voter suppression in the USA?

It's true that the USA has promoted itself as a beacon of democracy. As an immigrant and naturalised citizen whose grandparents survived the Holocaust and Soviet gulags, I appreciate some of the unique freedoms that are afforded in this country. For example, while our judicial system is currently under serious threat due to the politicisation and polarisation of the bench, it has generally withstood the type of corruption that is embedded in other countries. While our legal system is fraught and certain norms like extremist police impunity need to be tackled, our congressional system is able, if willing, to fill the gaps left by the judiciary. While big money, including dark money, has radically swamped our politics, serious advocates who have withstood far worse teach us that democracy is a long persistent journey and not a destination. Yes, we have systemic issues in this country that need serious repair, and real lives suffer due to the dysfunction of the tyranny of a minority. But we also have the founding American principles of freedom, liberty, and equality, and the possibility of fulfilling our ideal.

At this nation’s founding, only property-owning white men had the right to vote. Through the constitutional ratification process, slavery was abolished and freed men were enfranchised. Unjust laws persisted, such as literacy tests and poll taxes for racial minorities to prevent them from voting. This was coupled with other Jim Crow laws that created arbitrary reasons to imprison freed slaves and force them back into labour camps, and to disenfranchise them upon release. Popular resistance grew as the physical and political violence of Jim Crow segregation was laid bare in the 1960s, leading to stronger laws and new constitutional amendments.

Voter suppression today is the equivalent of the fox guarding the henhouse. Those who are privileged enough to define the laws determine who is in and who is out. For example, strict voter identification laws that go above and beyond standard proof of identification swept the nation after the election of President Obama. Alabama enacted strict voter identification, and then shut down driver licence offices where one could obtain such IDs throughout large rural sections of the state where Black people reside. Politicians draw district lines in efforts to secure their own party’s future, and their personal future bids for office. Polling places are not readily available on college campuses where young people are concentrated. Even during a global pandemic, vote-by-mail is not a universal right for all. While one state, New Jersey, offers at least 10 droboxes per town to collect vote-by-mail ballots, another, Texas, litigated the matter successfully to limit droboxes to only one per county. To make matters worse, when these laws are litigated, the courts do not always rule on behalf of the voters.

This 2020 election season has been particularly startling. The federal judiciary seems obsessed with the idea that last-minute changes to election rules lead to voter suppression, even where the law expands access to the ballot. This defies logic. If the law limits access, that is one thing. However, if the law simply expands access, the harm to voters is unclear.

The natural question that emerges from our paradigm is: if America truly is a beacon for democracy, then why are we so afraid to embrace the first three words in our Constitution – “We the People”?

Was voter suppression a crucial issue in the context of the 2020 presidential election?

Absolutely. The 2020 presidential election reveals at least five significant takeaways: 1) Our state governments are readily able to safely expand access to the ballot, including by extending early voting periods and vote by mail opportunities; 2) Voters across partisan lines take advantage of these mechanisms, and benefit from them, as demonstrated by the record-breaking voter turnout this year; 3) Expansion and election modernisation do not lead to voter fraud; 4) Voters were motivated to vote this year despite the discriminatory and arbitrary obstacles that were put in their way; 5) The myth of voter fraud, rather than actual systemic evidence of it, has emerged as a significant threat both to protecting access to the ballot and public confidence in our election systems.

In 2013, the Supreme Court eviscerated a key sunshine provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That safeguard mandated that states with a demonstrated history of voter suppression must get approval before changing their election laws. With the safeguard eliminated, the floodgates to voter suppression were open. The number of polling places shrank: 1,700 polling places were shut down between 2012 and 2018, including over 1,100 between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. Strict voter identification laws were passed, making it harder for poor people, people of colour and young people to vote. Other measures like the purging of state voter rolls and the rezoning of election districts further diluted voting power. It’s important to note that all of this happens on the back of the taxpayers – they foot the bill for the backlogged judiciary and the prevailing party’s litigation fees, and on the back of voters – they are forced to accept the results of a rigged election system even though the voter suppression law might be overturned in the future.

The thin, fake trumpet of voter fraud has caused a clamping down on rights across the board. There was no reason why, especially amid a pandemic, access to vote-by-mail should not be universal. Yet, eight states only allowed voters over a certain age to vote by mail, but not younger voters. The pandemic does not discriminate, and neither should our electoral system. Similarly, the United States Postal Service was suddenly politicised as it became increasingly obvious that voters would be voting by mail at unprecedented rates. Discussions were renewed about its privatisation, and expensive mail sorting machines were ordered to be dismantled for no reason other than to suppress the vote. In the wake of the election, the Trump campaign has done much harm to delegitimise the results, even though not one shred of evidence of voter fraud was revealed in the over 50 lawsuits challenging the outcome of the election. This has been an extraordinary disservice to the country, as it has convinced a substantial base within one political party to question the outcome of an election that the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has declared “the most secure in American history.”

As all of this has taken place, the pandemic has also driven an expansion of access in key respects. Even some Republican-led states demonstrated leadership in expanding the early voting period and access to vote-by-mail systems. We must use this as a learning opportunity to push for common sense election modernisation, so it is not a pandemic-related, one-off thing. COVID-19 has normalised election modernisation from a fringe progressive issue to a mainstream one that empowers voters across the political spectrum. Moreover, while the Trump campaign’s endless unsubstantiated lawsuits may play to a certain base of voters, one wonders if they will cause the judiciary to be finally convinced that voter fraud is not pervasive. This is important because invariably, we will see voter suppression state laws introduced in the wake of this election, just as we saw following the 2008 Obama election, and they will certainly lead to legal challenges. Perhaps the courts will respond to such challenges differently this time around in light of the audit of the 2020 race.

As much as voter suppression was present this cycle, the response was to overwhelm the system with voter engagement. As expected, election turnout was unprecedentedly high. Initial estimates indicate that youth turnout was even higher this cycle than when the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1971 and the base of newly eligible voters suddenly expanded. We simply cannot afford the voter apathy that we have seen in years past. In 2016, there were wins by razor-thin margins in three key states: Michigan, by 0.2 per cent, Pennsylvania, by 0.7 per cent and Wisconsin, by 0.8 per cent. Voter suppression can certainly be called into question with these types of slim margins. However, we cannot forget the power of voting: about 43 per cent of the eligible voter population did not vote in 2016. Current estimates indicate that approximately 34 per cent of the eligible voter population – about one in three voters – did not participate in 2020. How do we maintain this new record-setting voting rate, and even improve upon it, once fascism is no longer on the ballot?

Can you tell us about the work done by The Andrew Goodman Foundation on the intersection of the two major issues of voting rights and systemic racism?

The Andrew Goodman Foundation’s mission is to make young voices and votes a powerful force in democracy. Our Vote Everywhere programme is a national nonpartisan civic engagement and social justice movement led by young people on campuses across the country. The programme provides extensive training, resources and a peer network, while our Andrew Goodman Ambassadors register young voters, break down voting barriers and tackle important social justice issues. We are on nearly 100 campuses across the nation, and maintain a diverse docket of campuses, including People of Color Serving Institutions such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

What is powerful about youth organising and voting is that it crosses all lines – sex, race, national origin and even partisanship. This was born out of the history of the expansion of the youth vote in 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thereby lowering the voting age to 18 and outlawing age discrimination in access to the franchise. It was the quickest amendment to be ratified in US history, in large part due to its nearly unanimous support across partisan lines. There was a recognition that young voters help safeguard the moral compass of the country, as recognised by then-President Richard Nixon during the ceremonial signing of the amendment.

Andrew Goodman’s legacy is directly tied to solidarity struggles among and between communities for the betterment of the whole. Throughout the 1960s, Black college students in the south courageously sat at white-owned lunch counters in political protest for integration and equality. In May 1964, young Americans from across the country migrated south during Freedom Summer to register Black voters and overturn Jim Crow segregation. Three young civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan with the help of the county sheriff’s office: Andy Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, both Jewish men from New York who were only 20 and 24 years old, and James Chaney, a Black man from Mississippi who was only 21 years old. Their stories struck a public chord that helped galvanise support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is a story about the power of young visionaries fighting for their futures, allyship, and about the power of what can be accomplished when Americans from different backgrounds come together in unity.

Young activists led various social justice movements of the 1960s, just as they do today. When this country responded and enacted critical reforms, young people finally turned to their own enfranchisement as they were being sent to their graves early in endless war in Vietnam. Today, young people are leading the call for climate justice, for gun control, for human dignity for our Black and immigrant communities, and for affordable higher education. They have the most to gain and lose in our elections, because it is they who inherit the future. They recognise, particularly in light of the nation’s changing demographics, that the issue of youth voting rights is a racial justice issue. The more that we can look to the youth vote as a unifier – because all voters were young once – the more we can hope to inject some common sense into a contested and polarised system.

Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Andrew Goodman Foundation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AndrewGoodmanF and @YaelBromberg on Twitter.

 

 

#BEIJING25: ‘All efforts towards gender equality must be built upon intersectionality and power-shifting’

For the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

 

RUSSIA: ‘Human rights activism can be expected to increase in reaction to repression’

CIVICUS speaks with Leonid Drabkin, a coordinator with OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that documents and helps the victims of political persecution in Russia. Through a hotline and other sources, OVD-Info collects information about detentions at public rallies and other cases of political persecution, publishes the news and coordinates legal assistance to detainees.

 

UGANDA: ‘No candidate can possibly win the election without young people’s votes’

CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ndifuna, Executive Director of Justice Access Point-Uganda (JAP). Established in 2018, JAP aims to kickstart, reignite and invigorate justice efforts in the context of Uganda’s stalled transitional justice process, its challenges implementing recommendations from its first and second United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews and the backlash by African states against the International Criminal Court.

Mohammed is an experienced and impassioned human rights defender and peacebuilder with over 15 years of activism in human rights and atrocity prevention at the grassroots, national and international levels. He was awarded the 2014 European Union Human Rights Award for Uganda, has served on the Steering Committee of The Coalition for the Criminal Court (2007-2018) and the Advisory Board of the Human Rights House Network in Oslo (2007-2012), and currently serves on the Management Committee of The Uganda National Committee of Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

 Mohammed Ndifuna

What is the state of civic space in Uganda ahead of the much-anticipated 2021 elections?

Civic space in Uganda may be characterised as harassed, stifled and starved. It would seem like civil society has been on a slippery slope of sorts, with things turning from bad to worse. For instance, civil society organisations (CSOs) have witnessed a wave of brazen attacks against their physical space in the form of office break-ins and broad-daylight workplace raids. In the meantime, there seems to be no let-up in the waves of attacks against CSOs, and especially against those involved in human rights and accountability advocacy. Over the past few years, an array of legislation and administrative measures has been unleashed against CSOs and others, including the Public Order Management Act (2012) and the NGO Act (2016).

Ahead of the general and presidential elections, which will be held on 14 January 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs has ordered all CSOs to go through a mandatory validation and verification process before they are allowed to operate. Many CSOs have not been able to go through it: by 19 October 2020, only 2,257 CSOs had successfully completed the verification and validation exercise, including just a few that do mainstream advocacy work on governance.

Ugandan CSOs are largely donor-dependent and had already been struggling with shrinking financial resources, severely affecting the scope of their work. This situation became compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown that was imposed in response, all of which impaired CSO efforts to mobilise resources. Therefore, these three forces – harassment, restrictions and limited access to funding – have combined to weaken CSOs, pushing most of them into self-preservation mode.

The stakes for the 2021 elections seem to be higher than in previous years. What has changed?

The situation started to change in July 2019, when Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, announced his bid to run for president as the candidate of the opposition National Unity Platform. Bobi Wine is a singer and actor who is also an activist and a politician. As a leader of the People Power, Our Power movement, he was elected to parliament in 2017.

Bobi’s appeal among young people is enormous, and let’s keep in mind that more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30. This makes young people a significant group to be wowed. No candidate can possibly win the Ugandan election without having the biggest chunk of young people’s votes. In the upcoming presidential race, it is Bobi Wine who appears most able to galvanise young people behind his candidature. Although not an experienced politician, Bobi is a charismatic firebrand who has been able to attract not just young people but also many politicians from traditional political parties into his mass movement.

Bobi Wine, long known as the ‘Ghetto President’, has taken advantage of his appeal as a popular music star to belt out political songs to mobilise people, and his roots in the ghetto also guarantee him an appeal in urban areas. It is believed that he has motivated many young people to register to vote, so voter apathy among young people may turn out to be lower in comparison to past elections.

Given the ongoing cut-throat fight for young people’s votes, it is no surprise that the security apparatus has been unleashed against young people in an apparent attempt to stem the pressure they are exerting. Political activists linked to People Power have been harassed and, in some instances, killed. People Power’s political leaders have been intermittently arrested and arraigned in courts or allegedly kidnapped and tortured in safe houses. In an apparent attempt to make in-roads into the ranks of urban young people, President Yoweri Museveni has appointed three senior presidential advisors from the ghetto. This raises the spectre of ghetto gangster groups and violence playing a role in the upcoming presidential elections.

Restrictions on the freedom of expression and internet use have been reported in previous elections. Are we likely to see a similar trend now?

We are already seeing it. Restrictions on the freedoms of expression and information are a valid concern not just because of hindsight, but also given recent developments. For instance, on 7 September 2020 the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online needs to apply for and obtain a licence from the UCC before 5 October 2020. This will mostly affect online users, such as bloggers, who are paid for published content. Obviously, this is meant to stifle young people’s political activities online. And it is also particularly concerning because, as public gatherings are restricted due to COVID-19 prevention measures, online media will be the only method of campaigning that is allowed ahead of the 2021 elections.

There is also increasing electronic surveillance, and the possibility of a shutdown of social media platforms on the eve of the elections may not be too remote.

How has the COVID-pandemic affected civil society and its ability to respond to civic space restrictions?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response have exacerbated the already precarious state in which the CSOs find themselves. For instance, civil society capacity to organise public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in support of fundamental rights and freedoms or to protest against their violation has been restricted by the manner in which COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been enforced. This has resulted in the commission of blatant violations and onslaughts against civic space. For instance, on 17 October 2020, the Uganda Police Force and the Local Defense Units jointly raided thanksgiving prayers being held in Mityana district and wantonly tear gassed the congregation, which included children, women, men, older people and religious leaders, for allegedly flouting COVID-19 SOPs.

As the enforcement of COVID-19 SOPs gets intertwined with election pressure, it is feared that the clampdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association will be aggravated. Regrettably, CSOs already find themselves restricted.

How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

The situation in which Ugandan civil society finds itself is such that it requires the urgent support and response of the international community. There is a need to turn the eyes towards what is happening in Uganda and to speak up to amplify the voices of a local civil society that is increasingly being stifled. More specifically, Ugandan CSOs could be supported so they can better respond to blatant violations of freedoms, mitigate the risks that their work entails and enhance their resilience in the current context.

Civic space in Uganda is rated repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Justice Access Point through its website or Facebook page, and follow @JusticessP on Twitter.

 

SOUTH KOREA: ‘North Korean defectors and activists face increasing pressure to stay silent’

Ethan Hee Seok ShinCIVICUS speaks with Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Transitional Justice Working Group (TJWG), a Seoul-based civil society organisation (CSO) founded by human rights advocates and researchers from five countries. Founded in 2014, it is the first Korea-based CSO focused on transitional justice mechanisms in the world’s most repressive regimes, including North Korea. TJWG aims to develop practical methods for addressing massive human rights violations and advocating justice for victims in pre and post-transition societies. Ethan works on TJWG’s Central Repository project, which uses a secure platform to document and publicise cases of enforced disappearances in North Korea. He uses legislative and legal action to raise awareness about North Korean human rights issues.

 

Can you tell us about the work being done by South Korean civil society groups about the human rights situation in North Korea?

There is a rather broad range of CSOs working on North Korean human rights issues. TJWG has been working to prepare the ground for transitional justice in North Korea, in line with its core mission of human rights documentation.

TJWG’s flagship project has resulted in a series of reports mapping public executions in North Korea, based on interviews with escapees living in South Korea. We record the geospatial information of killing sites, burial sites and record storage places, including courts and security service facilities, by asking our interviewees to spot the locations on Google Earth. The report’s first edition was released in July 2017 and was based on 375 interviews, and its second edition was launched in June 2019 after conducting 610 interviews.

We are also currently in the process of creating an online database of abductions and enforced disappearances in and by North Korea, called FOOTPRINTS. This uses Uwazi, a free, open-source solution for organising, analysing and publishing documents, developed by HURIDOCS, a CSO. When launched to the public, FOOTPRINTS will provide an easily accessible and searchable platform to track individuals taken and lost in North Korea.

Other than documentation and reporting work, we have been active in international and domestic advocacy. Jointly with other human rights CSOs, TJWG drafted and submitted an open letter urging the European Union to strengthen the language and recommendations in the annual human rights resolutions adopted by the United Nations’ (UN) General Assembly and Human Rights Council on North Korea. We have also made case submissions to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and other UN human rights experts.

In July 2020, the South Korean government revoked the registration of two CSOs and issued a notice of administrative review and inspections of ‘defector-run’ groups working on human rights in North Korea. Why are these groups being targeted?

The direct catalyst was the June 2020 provocations by North Korea. On 4 June, Kim Yo-Jong, sister of supreme leader Kim Jong-Un and the first vice department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, criticised the ‘anti-DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] leaflets’ flown to North Korea by ‘North Korean escapees’ and threatened the cessation of Mount Kumgang tourism, the complete demolition of the Kaesong industrial region, the closure of the inter-Korean liaison office, or the termination of the 9/19 military agreement (the 2018 agreement to create demilitarised buffer zones) unless the South Korean authorities took ‘due measures’.

Just four hours after Kim Yo-Jong’s early morning bombshell, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced that it would prepare legislation banning the distribution of leaflets to North Korea. This was a complete reversal of the government’s longstanding position, which consistently avoided such legislation for fear of infringing upon the freedom of expression.

On 10 June 2020, the MOU announced that it would file criminal charges against Park Sang-Hak and Park Jung-Oh, two defectors from North Korea, for violating article 13 of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act, which requires prior approval of any inter-Korean exchange of goods, and would revoke the incorporation of their organisations, Fighters For Free North Korea (FFNK) and KuenSaem, for sending leaflets in air balloons and rice-filled PET bottles on sea currents to North Korea, as they did on 31 May 2020.

While the North Korean government eventually toned down its rhetoric, the South Korean government began to take actions against North Korean human rights and escapee groups, viewed as a hindrance to inter-Korean peace.

On 29 June 2020 the MOU held a hearing and on 17 July it announced the revocation of the legal incorporation of FFNK and KuenSaem for contravening incorporation conditions by grossly impeding the government’s reunification policy, dispersing leaflets and items to North Korea beyond the stated goals of their incorporation and fomenting tension in the Korean peninsula under article 38 of the Civil Code, a relic from the authoritarian era. 

The MOU also launched ‘business inspections’ of other North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups among the over 400 associations incorporated by MOU’s permission, possibly with a view to revoking their incorporation. On 15 July 2020, the Association of North Korean Defectors received a notice from the MOU that it would be inspected for the first time since its incorporation in 2010. The following day, MOU authorities informed journalists that they would first conduct business inspections on 25 incorporated North Korean human rights and escapee settlement support groups, 13 of them headed by North Korean defectors, with more to be inspected in the future. While acknowledging that the leaflet issue triggered the inspections, the MOU added that the business inspections would not be limited to those involved in the leaflet campaign.

How many groups have been reviewed or inspected after the announcements were made?

Because of the international and domestic uproar caused by the obviously discriminatory nature of the inspections targeting North Korean human rights and escapee groups, the MOU has somewhat toned down its approach, and has belatedly begun to argue that it is focusing on all CSOs registered under the MOU.

On 6 October 2020, the MOU told reporters that it had decided to inspect 109 out of 433 CSOs for failing to submit annual reports or for submitting insufficient documentation. According to the information provided, 13 of the 109 groups to be inspected are headed by North Korean escapees; 22 (16 working on North Korean human rights and escapee settlement, five working in the social and cultural fields and one working in the field of unification policy) have already been inspected and none has revealed any serious grounds for revocation of registration; and the MOU intends to complete the inspection for the remaining 87 CSOs by the end of 2020.

In any case, the government appears to have already succeeded in its goal of sending a clear signal to North Korea that it is ready to accommodate its demands in return for closer ties, even if it means sacrificing some fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The government has also sent a clear signal to North Korean human rights and escapee groups with the intended chilling effect.

How has civil society responded to these moves by the government?

Civil society in South Korea is unfortunately as polarised as the country’s politics. The ruling progressives view the conservatives as illegitimate heirs to the collaborators of Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945, and post-independence authoritarian rule up to 1987. The previous progressive president, Roh Moo-Hyun, who served from 2003 to 2008, killed himself in 2009 during a corruption probe, widely seen as politically motivated, under his conservative successor. The incumbent Moon Jae-In was elected president in 2017, riding a wave of public disgust at his right-wing predecessor’s impeachment for corruption and abuse of power.

Most CSOs are dominated by progressives who are politically aligned with the current Moon government. The progressives are relatively supportive of the human rights agenda but are generally silent when it comes to North Korean human rights because of their attachment to inter-Korean rapprochement. The same people who talk loudly about Japanese ‘comfort women’ – women forced into sexual slavery by Imperial Japan before and during the Second World War – or authoritarian-era outrages readily gloss over present North Korean atrocities in the name of national reconciliation.

Most North Korean human rights groups are formed around North Korean escapees and the Christian churches of the political right that passionately characterise leftists as North Korean stooges. Many are also generally hostile to contemporary human rights issues such as LGBTQI+ rights, which is rather ironic as Australian judge Michael Kirby, the principal author of the 2014 UN report that authoritatively condemned the grave human rights violations in North Korea as crimes against humanity, is gay.

The largely progressive mainstream CSOs have not been on the receiving end of persecution by the government led by President Moon; on the contrary, prominent civil society figures have even been appointed or elected to various offices or given generous grants. Some do privately express their dismay and concern at the government’s illiberal tendencies, but few are ready to publicly raise the issue because of the deep political polarisation.

Is the space for civil society – structured by the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression – becoming more restrictive in South Korea under the current administration?

The Moon government has displayed worryingly illiberal tendencies in its handling of groups that it views as standing in its way, such as North Korean human rights and escapee groups, who have faced increasing pressure to stay silent and cease their advocacy. 

President Moon has reopened a dialogue with the North Korean government to establish peaceful relations, neutralise the North’s nuclear threat and pave the way for family reunification, along with other estimable goals.

However, along with US President Donald Trump, President Moon has employed a diplomatic strategy that downplays human rights concerns. Notably, neither the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between North and South Korea nor the Joint Statement issued after the 2018 Trump-Kim summit in Singapore make any mention of the North’s egregious human rights abuses.

In the weeks before President Moon met North Korean leader Kim in Panmunjom, there were reports that North Korean defector-activists were being prevented from carrying out their activism. In October 2018, South Korea acquiesced to North Korea’s demand to exclude a defector journalist from covering a meeting in North Korea. On 7 July 2019, there was an extraordinary rendition of two defectors, fishers who were allegedly fugitive murderers, to North Korea five days after their arrival without any semblance of due process.

The Moon government has resorted to illiberal tactics on other perceived opponents as well. A man who put up a poster mocking President Moon as ‘Xi Jinping’s loyal dog’ (referring to the Chinese president) at the campus of Dankook University on 24 November 2019 was prosecuted and fined by court on 23 June 2020 for ‘intruding in a building’ under article 319 (1) of the Penal Code, even though the university authorities made clear that they did not wish to press charges against him for exercising his freedom of expression. Many criticised the criminal prosecution and conviction as a throwback to the old military days.

The government has also moved to exercise ever more control over state prosecutors. The Minister of Justice, Choo Mi-ae, has attacked prosecutors who dared to investigate charges of corruption and abuse of power against the government, claiming a conspiracy to undermine President Moon.

Another worrying trend is the populist tactic by ruling party politicians, notably lawmaker Lee Jae-jung, of using the internet to whip up supporters to engage in cyberbullying against reporters.

What can the international community do to support the groups being targeted?

In April 2020 the ruling party won the parliamentary elections by a landslide, taking 180 of 300 seats, thanks to its relative success in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. The opposition is in disarray. All this has emboldened rather than humbled the government, and its illiberal tendencies are likely to continue. Due to the severe political polarisation, ruling party politicians and their supporters are not likely to pay much heed to domestic criticism.

The voice of the international community will therefore be crucial. It is much more difficult for the government to counter concerns raised by international CSOs as politically motivated attacks. A joint statement or an open letter spearheaded by CIVICUS would be helpful in forcefully delivering the message that human rights in North Korea are of genuine concern for the international community.

Furthermore, South Korea will soon be submitting its fifth periodic report to the UN Human Rights Committee in accordance with the list of issues prior to reporting (LOIPR). Because North Korea-related issues and concerns are not included in the LOIPR, it would be extremely helpful if international CSOs joined forces to include them in the oral discussion with the members of the Human Rights Committee and in their concluding observations.

In the shorter run, country visits to South Korea by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders would be excellent opportunities to internationalise the issue and put pressure on our government.

Even progressives may support a reform of the outdated law on CSO registration, for instance, as a matter of self-interest, if not of principle, in case of change of government.

Civic space in South Korea is rated ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Transitional Justice Working Group through its website or Facebook page, and follow @TJWGSeoul on Twitter.

 

ITALY: ‘The Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics’

CIVICUS speaks to Andrea Garreffa, one of the founders of the Sardines movement (Movimento delle Sardine), a grassroots political movement that began in November 2019 in Bologna, Italy, in protest against the hateful rhetoric of right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini.

Andrea Garreffa

What inspired you to begin this movement?

Regional elections were scheduled for 26 January 2020 in Emilia-Romagna, our home region – and when I say our, I refer to me and the other co-founders of the movement, Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti and Giulia Trappoloni. On that moment there was a big wave towards the far right, represented by the League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. There were very scary signs about the general political situation in Italy, one of which was the lack of respect shown to Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz and was the only survivor in her family. From the 1990s she started to speak to the public about her experience and in 2018 she was named senator for life. Segre received so many insults and threats on social media that in November 2019 she was assigned police protection. The situation was very scary; I am not ashamed to admit that I would often cry when I read the newspaper reporting such episodes.

How was the first Sardines demonstration organised?

As the election approached, my friends and I started thinking of a way to speak up and warn the League that the game was not over yet. We wanted to make this extremely clear, both to the far-right parties and to all citizens looking for a stimulus to empowerment. The League party had just won in Umbria and was announcing itself as the winner in Emilia-Romagna as well; they counted on this victory to destabilise the coalition government and return to power. We wanted to do something to stop that narrative. We started to think about this on 6 or 7 November 2019, just a week before Matteo Salvini, along with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate to lead the regional government, kicked off their campaign with a rally at Bologna’s sports arena. We had in mind that the last time Salvini had come to Bologna he said that Piazza Maggiore, the main town square, could host up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to claim that was the number of people who attended his rally – something that is physically impossible, as only up to 30,000 very tightly packed people could actually fit into the square. In a way, we also wanted to draw attention to the information on the news and make sure he wouldn’t be able to cheat.

In short, our idea was to organise a flash mob-style demonstration on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, on the same day as Salvini’s rally, and we named it ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’ because our aim was to gather around 6,000 people and our tactic was to show we were many – so we used the image of crowds of people squeezed together like sardines in a shoal. In the few days we had to organise it, we set the main narrative and prepared some templates that could be customised so each person was free to express themselves and be creative. Ours was a message that anybody could understand, and the actions required were something that anybody could do. We wanted to get rid of all the negative feelings linked to existing political parties, so the initiative was inclusive from the very beginning. It wasn’t linked to any party but rather open to anybody who shared its core values of anti-fascism and anti-racism.

We sent out an invitation, not just through Facebook, which of course we did, but more importantly, we went out to the streets to distribute flyers and talk to people, so people could understand that the event was real and it was actually going to happen. It was surprising that just two days after we had launched the Facebook campaign, we were handing out flyers and people would say that they already knew about the event. Word of mouth worked incredibly well; in my opinion, this reflected a very strong need among people to do something to ensure Matteo Salvini did not win in Bologna and in Emilia-Romagna. People understood and felt the importance of this election. During the summer Salvini had destabilised the national government by ‘showing off’ in Milano Marittima, claiming pieni poteri – ‘full powers’, an expression used by Mussolini back in the day. Citizens could not stand the risk of such a poor show taking place again and really felt the call to action when the far-right propaganda started spreading messages such as ‘Liberiamo l’Emilia-Romagna’ (Let’s free Emilia-Romagna), as if people had forgotten their history lessons: the region had no need to be freed because that had already happened, at the end of the Second World War. People felt disrespected in their intelligence, and we stood up to make that visible and tangible. People are less stupid than what people in power tend to think.

How did you know people would come?

We had no clue. On the night of 14 November we found ourselves surrounded by this incredible crowd – the media reported there were 15,000 people – and we couldn’t quite believe it.

We had expected a number of people to attend; we started to believe in the success of the initiative when we saw that from day one we were achieving every goal we set for ourselves. For example, we set up the Facebook page with the initial goal of reaching a thousand people, and the next day we were already more than three or four thousand. That was mostly for two reasons: firstly timing, as people were ready for an initiative like this, and secondly, the fact that we live in Bologna, so we know a lot of people and could easily spread the message.

But on 14 November nobody knew what was going to happen. We told people there would be a surprise and managed to keep it secret until everybody had gathered, and at 8:30 pm we played a song by Lucio Dalla, Com'è profondo il mare, which translates as ‘how deep is the sea’. In one part of the song, the lyrics say that we are many, and we all descend from fish, and you cannot stop fish because you cannot block the ocean, you cannot fence it. This built up a lot of emotion, and people even cried because it was very powerful and could not believe it was happening for real. Older people felt young again, living emotions they thought lost forever in the 1970s. Young kids had the opportunity to participate in a massive and joyful party, which made them question the fact that politics is all boring and unemotional. I think the whole wave that came afterwards was born that first night. It built up from that initial emotion. We were not 6,000 but many more, and we sent out the message that the game was far from over and Salvini could not yet claim victory. This was key: whatever sport you play, if you enter the field thinking you are going to lose, you’ll lose. This was the general mood among left-wing parties and progressive citizens. We did what we could to make ‘our team’ believe in itself and its chances of victory. We may say that the Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics.

Who organised all the demonstrations that followed?

The emotion of the first demonstration spread thanks to an impressive picture taken from the municipality building, which shows a red minivan surrounded by thousands of people. The picture spread all over the internet and social media. It helped focus a lot of attention on the regional election. All the international media was there so we offered them the image and that was the start of everything. The picture reflected the fact that something big was going on, so when people from other cities and even from other countries started trying to contact us, we set up an email address so anybody could reach out to us.

We shared our experience and explained to anyone who contacted us how we set everything up in just six days: how we requested the permits for the gathering and for playing the music, how we took care of people, those things. We then organised all the information to share with whoever wanted to do something similar somewhere else. We also registered the name of the initiative, not because we wanted to own it, but to prevent its misuse and protect its underlying values. We spent hours and days on the phone with people from all around Emilia-Romagna, and then from other regions, until the movement was so big that we were able to announce a massive demonstration to be held in Rome in December.

For the Rome event we didn’t even have to do much, because there were people in Rome organising the demonstration by themselves, and we were invited to attend as guest speakers. That was actually a strength, because this wasn’t people from Bologna organising an event for Rome, but people from Rome organising themselves, mobilising their friends and neighbours and inviting people to join.

Right before the elections, on 19 January, we organised a big concert in Bologna, aimed at encouraging electoral participation. We didn’t want to pressure people to vote for this or that party, but rather encourage participation. Indifference had prevailed in the previous regional elections, and only 37 per cent of potential voters made use of their right. The higher turnout we achieved this time around, when 69 per cent of people voted, was by itself a victory of democracy.

You mentioned that the movement spread both nationally and internationally. Did it also establish connections with other justice movements around the world?

The movement reached an international scale in the very beginning, thanks to Italians living abroad who were reading the news, understood what was going on and got in touch with us. We reached out to people in dozens of major cities in countries around the world, including Australia, The Netherlands and the USA.

That was the first step towards reaching international scale, and also the reason why the four of us were then invited to participate in the Forum on European Culture, held in Amsterdam in September 2020. We attended the festival and had the opportunity to meet representatives from Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the French Yellow Vests, Million Moments for Democracy, a protest organisation in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong’s Demosisto and Black Queer & Trans Resistance, an LGBTQI+ organisation in The Netherlands. We connected with other realities and learned about other movements. We started talking and dreaming about an event to bring together a wide variety of protest movements in the coming months or years, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We are now open and curious to find out what others are doing, but we remain independent. We do our thing, they do their own, and we collaborate when we get the chance.

The 6000 Sardine Facebook page displays various expressions of solidarity with movements such as the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, #EndSARS in Nigeria and Black Lives Matter in the USA. Do you organise in solidarity with them?

What we have done is get in touch with those movements, if possible, and let them know that we are going to send out a communication of solidarity, but that’s about it. We are busy enough trying to set up an organisation of our own to invest energy in trying to follow and understand what others are doing to build their own.

We also have a common agreement that the movement is not the Facebook page, but a lot more. To us, Facebook is a communication channel and a useful way to spread messages, but it’s not the core of the movement. Sometimes it functions rather as a billboard where people share and exchange things, and not everything there is the result of a joint, organisation-level decision. To be honest, sometimes I open our Facebook page and I do not necessarily agree with everything that I see there. And this happens because of delegation of tasks and openness to participation.

What are the goals of the movement now, and how have they evolved?

We have given this a lot of thought because it all started as a spontaneous thing that was specifically related to the elections but then continued to grow. So we felt responsible for handling all this energy. We did our best to spread the right messages while not feeding illusion. We are still the same people we were last year, regardless of the experiences we went through, but we were not prepared for all of this. Day after day we learned how to deal with the attention, the media and everything that came with it. We focused on the need to set goals and a vision.

We were at it when then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On one hand it was very negative for us, as we couldn’t keep mobilising, but on the other hand it turned out to be a strange kind of positive, because it forced us to slow down. We took advantage of the lockdown to do the only thing that we could do: sit down and think. We managed to put together our manifesto, which was the result of multiple debates within our inner circle.

The manifesto was a milestone, and our next steps were to try and make each of its articles visible and tangible in real life, which is what we are focusing on now. Following the metaphor of the sea, after the high tide came the low tide, which is more manageable, and we are trying to nurture the movement so it grows from the roots, more slowly but less chaotic and unstable. We try to be a point of reference to anyone who is looking for progressive ideas, without being a party but pointing out the direction.

I would like to stress the fact that we started this movement with the idea that we should not point fingers at politicians or parties but ask ourselves what we are doing to bring into the world the change that we want. This means we don’t exclude approaches focused on little things such as taking care of your own neighbourhood. We include this kind of approach as well as more ambitious ones such us setting up the direction for progressive left-wing parties. We consider both approaches to be valid.

We don’t exclude any discourse that converges with ours and upholds our core values. For instance, right now there is a lot of talk about how progressive the Pope is, so we are inviting people to talk about that, not because we are a religious movement but to spread the kind of positive messaging that is currently quite difficult to find in the political arena.

A few months ago, we organised our first School of Politics, Justice and Peace. We held it in a small town, Supino, because it better fitted the model of local self-organisation that we want to promote. We invited people who are involved in the political arena to interact with activists in their 20s. The idea was to merge those worlds to create the kind of communication that social media platforms lack. We want to create opportunities for progressive people to meet with others and talk, not necessarily to find the solution to a specific problem but to make sure that there is a connection between people with decision-making power and people who are interested in participating and changing things, but don’t really know how.

How did you keep the movement alive while in COVID-19 lockdown?

We invited people all over Italy to focus on the local level because it was the only thing they could do. And we set the example to be credible to others. Many people in Bologna put their energy at the service of others, for instance by going grocery shopping for those who couldn’t leave their homes and getting involved in countless local initiatives, movements and associations. We encouraged this, because it was never our goal to replace existing organisations, but rather to revitalise activism and involvement in public affairs.

But we did ask people to stay in touch, so we would have calls and organise specific events. For example, for 25 April, Liberation Day, we launched an initiative in which we shared clips from movies showing resistance to fascism and Nazism during the Second World War and invited people to project them out of their windows and onto neighbouring buildings, and film the event. We collected the recordings and put them together into a video that we disseminated on social media. Our core message was that we could all be present even if we could not physically get out. 

In early May we also organised a symbolic flash mob in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore: instead of people we lined up around 6,000 plants, which we went on to sell online. Our volunteers delivered them by bike, and all the funds we collected went to the local municipality, which had committed to invest the full amount, matched one to one with their own funds, to support cultural events over the summer. Before delivering the plants, we staged an artistic performance on the square; then we moved the plants around to draw the shape of a bicycle on the floor. As a result of this initiative, we not only marked our presence in a public space but also channelled about €60,000 (approx. US$69,800) towards cultural events. Later on, people from all over Italy either replicated the initiative or told us they were interested in doing so; however, some couldn’t because it involved some complex logistics.

And then one day the municipality told us that they had some unused plots of land that could potentially be turned into garden blocks and offered them to us. We organised volunteers who wanted to work on them so now these have become garden blocks in which vegetables are grown. People who invest their time and effort to work in these gardens keep half the produce for themselves and give the other half to communal kitchens that help people who cannot afford to buy food.

Even under lockdown, we thought of Bologna as a lab where we could implement and test our ideas and encourage other people to do the same, by either replicating our initiatives or trying something different to see what happens. If you try things that are potentially replicable and easy for others to implement, and many people follow through, then you can achieve change on a considerable scale.

Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Sardines movement through its website or Facebook page.

 

 

ARGENTINA: ‘Cultural change enabled legal change, and legal change deepened cultural change’

Ten years after the Equal Marriage Law, a milestone for Latin America, was passed in Argentina, CIVICUS speaks with LGBTQI+ leader María Rachid about the strategies that the movement used and the tactics that worked best to advance the equality agenda – tactics that may well still be relevant today. María is the current head of the Institute against Discrimination at the Ombudsperson's Office of the City of Buenos Aires and a member of the Directive Commission of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People (Argentine LGBT Federation). In 1996 she founded a lesbian feminist organisation, La Fulana, and in 2006 she co-founded the Argentine LGBT Federation, which brings together various sexual diversity organisations and played a key role in getting the Equal Marriage Law approved.

maria rachid

What was the situation for sexual diversity organisations in Argentina when the equal marriage campaign kicked off?

It was a situation in which the organisations representing sexual diversity had a confrontational relationship with the state. It was the state where most of the discrimination, violence and harassment towards the LGBT+ community, and especially towards trans people, came from, through the security forces and through institutions more generally. Discrimination was permanent and the inability to access rights was a constant. That is why in the 1980s and 1990s we carried out escraches, or public shaming demonstrations, outside police stations, to denounce the police and the tools they used, such as misdemeanour codes and the criminal records law, and we got together with other human rights organisations that fought for the same cause. The state’s tools of discrimination were used against various groups; we were one of them, but there were others who were also harassed and persecuted with the same tools that the police used to obtain petty cash.

After the gigantic economic, social and political crisis of 2001, institutions weakened and social mobilisation became stronger. In a very timely manner, at that juncture, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA), one of the country’s oldest sexual diversity organisations, submitted a civil union project to the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires, the capital. The law that ended up being passed as a result was very short, less than a page long, and basically established that within the city of Buenos Aires same-sex couples should be treated in a way ‘similar’ to heterosexual marriages. Of course, the original project did not say ‘similar’, but the expression was introduced to get it passed. Nowadays this would be perceived as humiliating, but in that context, it was a huge achievement. Along with this law, other proposals were also passed that similarly reflected claims of social movements, such as the expropriation of a company that had been recovered by its workers and the establishment of norms to enable the work of cartoneros, or recyclable trash collectors.

Once the Civil Union Law was passed in Buenos Aires, we began thinking about next steps. Some organisations proposed to bring civil unions to other districts, as was later the case in the province of Río Negro and Córdoba City, and to try to extend it nationwide. But other organisations began to think about the idea of marriage, although at that time it seemed crazy, since it was recognised by only two countries in the world – Belgium and the Netherlands – which were also culturally very different from Argentina and lacked the main obstacle we faced to have our rights recognised, a politically powerful Catholic Church.

How was it that the impossible became an achievable goal?

In that context of institutional violence, in which there had been only a small step forward thanks to which we as couples would be treated in a ‘similar’ way to heterosexual couples in some districts of the country, some things began to change, both domestically and internationally, that placed the aspiration of equality within the realm of the possible.

One of those things was the fact that, in 2003, the recently inaugurated government led by Néstor Kirchner repealed the so-called ‘impunity laws’, which prevented the prosecution or the implementation of sentences against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity under the dictatorship. This was a shift in the human rights paradigm in Argentina, and at first we wondered if this time we would be included. Since the restoration of democracy, people in our country have talked about human rights a lot, but human rights never included us. Trans people continued to be persecuted, detained and tortured in police stations. But as impunity laws were repealed, we thought that things might change.

Soon after, in 2004, we were invited to participate in the development of a national plan against discrimination. It was the first time that the state called on diversity organisations to develop a public policy plan that would have a specific chapter on diversity. We attended with distrust, thinking that our proposals were going to stay in some public official’s desk drawer. We made a diagnosis and proposals, participated in a lot of meetings in various provinces and thought that everything would come to nothing. But before long, they called us again and asked if we could review the plan before it was published, because they wanted to make sure we approved its content. We started looking at it, thinking that everything we had written would surely have been erased, but it was all there, nothing was missing. Equal rights, the recognition of the gender identity of trans people, everything was there except for equal marriage, and that’s because in 2004 not even diversity organisations spoke of equal marriage in Argentina. We had never raised it in our meetings, and this is why, although it did include the objective of ‘equating the rights of same-sex couples with those of heterosexual families’, the plan did not explicitly mention equal marriage. The National Plan against Discrimination was issued through a presidential decree: thus, our historical demands translated into public policy plan and it was the president himself who told public officials what they had to do in matters of sexual diversity, which was exactly what we had demanded.

In the midst of this change in the human rights paradigm that for the first time seemed to include sexual diversity, a gigantic change took place at the international level: in 2005 equal marriage was recognised in Spain, a country that is culturally similar to ours and where there is also a strong presence of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Spanish Church had rallied 1.5 million people on the streets against equal marriage, and still, the law had passed. In such a favourable context both domestically and internationally, a group of sexual diversity organisations came together to fight for equal marriage in Argentina.

What role did the Argentine LGBT Federation play in promoting equal marriage?

The Argentine LGBT Federation was created precisely at that time, as a result of the convergence of a number of longstanding organisations based not only in the city of Buenos Aires but also in several provinces, to advocate for an agenda that initially included five points. First, equal marriage allowing for adoption; we specifically demanded the recognition of adoption rights because we saw that in other countries the right to adopt had been relinquished to achieve equal marriage. Second, a law recognising gender identity. Third, a nationwide anti-discrimination law. Fourth, the inclusion of diversity in a comprehensive sex education curriculum. And fifth, the repeal of the articles of misdemeanour codes that were still used in 16 provinces to criminalise ‘homosexuality’ and ‘transvestism’ – in their words.

The Federation brought together almost all relevant sexual diversity organisations; only two longstanding organisations stayed out, the CHA and SIGLA (Gay-Lesbian Integration Society), which were very much at odds with each other and led almost entirely by men, with very little female participation. However, SIGLA supported the Federation throughout its work towards equal marriage, while the CHA disagreed with equal marriage because it thought that in Latin America, given the strong presence of the Catholic Church, it would not be possible to achieve, which is why it continued placing their bets on civil union.

What were the main strategies and tactics that you used?

The first thing we did was call on activists active in various professions and in a variety of fields. We put together a team of lawyers and a team of journalists, we organised a journalists’ roundtable and put together a variety of teams that could contribute to the campaign in different ways.

We believed that what we had to do was go down all possible paths at the same time. We first looked at the various paths through which these laws had been passed elsewhere. For example, by the time we filed our first judicial appeal, equal marriage had already been recognised in South Africa through the Supreme Court. We also analysed the debates that had taken place in various countries around the world, not just on equal marriage, but also on other issues such as the feminine vote, civil marriage, divorce and sexual and reproductive rights. The arguments used to deny rights were always the same, and they were based on religious fundamentalism.

As a result of this analysis, we concluded that we needed to go simultaneously through the executive, legislative and judicial routes. At the same time, we needed to reach out to the media and bring out the issue to the public. This became clear to us after a meeting we had with the then-minister of the interior, who told us that we had executive backing, but that we needed to create proper conditions so we would not lose the congressional vote. Since then, we went through years of work to reach out to public opinion and thereby create the conditions to turn the scales of Congress in our favour.

In 2007 we submitted our first amparo petition for equal marriage; we came to submit more than a hundred. As a result of an injunction, in 2009 a gay couple managed to marry with judicial authorisation in Ushuaia, and in 2010 eight more couples, including a lesbian couple, were able to marry in the city and province of Buenos Aires. By then our strategy had changed: we initially litigated in the civil family jurisdiction, where the Opus Dei, a hard-line Catholic institution, had a very strong presence. Many civil family judges are Catholic Church activists, and specifically belong to Opus Dei, so it was very difficult to obtain a favourable ruling in that jurisdiction. Change occurred when we realised that, as we were making a judicial claim against the Civil Registry, dependent on the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, we could resort to the contentious, administrative and tax courts, which can be appealed to when the state is a part in the conflict. As this is a jurisdiction that mainly deals with tax-related issues, and in Argentina the Catholic Church is exempt from paying taxes, we were not going to find activist judges belonging to the Catholic Church or Opus Dei, since this jurisdiction is of no political interest to them. Following this change in strategy, we only obtained positive rulings in the city and province of Buenos Aires.

Although at first we thought of the amparos quite literally, as a way to obtain judicial support for our claims, they ended up being above all an excellent communication strategy, because each of these amparos became a story that we told the public about why equal marriage was just, necessary and timely. For that purpose, we provided a lot of coaching for the couples who were submitting amparo petitions, especially the first ones, who we knew would get a lot of media exposure. So this ended up being a communication strategy rather than a judicial one.

How did you win over public opinion?

We worked a lot with the media. We had breakfasts with journalists, at first with just a few ones that were our allies, but later these meetings expanded. We worked so much in this area that in the last months of debate you could no longer find signed op-eds against equal marriage, not even in the traditional newspaper La Nación, which only opposed it through its editorials, since all the articles signed by its journalists were also favourable to it. In other words, even in hostile media, journalists ended up being our allies. We prepared a booklet for communicators explaining what the bill was about, why it was important, what our arguments were. We also prepared advertising spots, but since we didn’t have any money to broadcast them, we asked journalists and media managers to pass them on as content in their programming, and truth be told, they did this a lot. These were amusing spots that attracted a lot of attention.

To gain further support, we needed to exhibit the support we already had in respected sectors and from well-known individuals. So we started to publish our list of supporters, which at first was very short, but ended up being a huge newsletter containing the names of all the trade union federations, countless unions, political leaders from almost all parties and personalities from the art world, the media and religions.

As the congressional debate approached, we began to hold events, generally in the Senate, to show the support we received from various sectors. These events had great media repercussions. The event ‘Culture Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ featured musicians and artists; the ‘Science Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event included academics and scientists, and we gathered 600 signatures from academia, research and professional associations of psychology and paediatrics, among others. Unlike the other ones, the ‘Religion Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event was held in an evangelical church in the Flores neighbourhood, and was attended by Catholic priests, rabbis – both male and female – evangelical pastors and leaders of other Protestant churches. Regardless of what we as individuals might think of religion and the separation of church and state, we wanted to show to people that they did not need to choose between their religion and equal marriage, as they could be in favour of equal marriage no matter what their religion was. Some Catholic priests were expelled from the church the next day, for having participated in this event.

How were these demonstrations of support used to help change the attitudes of legislators?

From the beginning we embraced the strategy of lobbying by exhibiting this support, as well as the support that emerged from public opinion polls. The first survey on this issue was carried out by the newspaper Página/12 and showed that in the city of Buenos Aires approval rates exceeded 60 per cent. Shortly after, the government funded a very important survey, which even included focus groups in the provinces, that allowed us not only to know if people were for or against, but also which arguments were more effective. We presented a variety of arguments in favour of equal marriage to the focus groups and we observed people’s reactions to identify the arguments that worked best.

Of course, we always showed the segments of the surveys that suited us best, because answers depended a lot on how the question was asked. For instance, when we asked people if they believed that homosexual and heterosexual people had the same rights, around 90 per cent said yes; but if we asked them if they agreed that they should be able to get married, the percentage dropped to 60 per cent, and if we asked about the right to adopt children, the approval rate would drop to 40 per cent. However, if we informed them that gay people in Argentina were in fact already legally authorised to adopt children individually, and then we asked them if they would want to take that right away from them, the majority said no. While only 40 per cent were in principle in favour of allowing adoption by same-sex couples, more than 50 per cent refused to prohibit it if it was already allowed. Therefore, part of the discussion consisted in informing people and explaining to them that children adopted by homosexual persons would enjoy half their rights, because since their parents could not marry, one of them would not be able to, say, leave them a pension. When we asked them whether they thought that these people should be able to marry so that their children would have all their rights, more than 80 per cent would say yes.

As a result of our working on the argumentation, support grew steadily throughout the campaign, to the point that we began to receive unexpected shows of support, such as from the Student Centre of a Catholic university that called to join. In the end, I would say that all public figures from art, culture, trade unions and journalism supported us. All those who continued to stand against represented some religion, but among our supporters there were also many religious figures. With the numbers of public opinion and the lists of our supporters in hand, we toured the parliamentary committees and the houses of Congress, and we operated politically during the debates until the very moment the law was passed.

I think that the strategy of going along all possible paths, maintaining a high capacity for dialogue and coalition-making and seeking out all possible allies, was very successful. Even in politically polarised times, we sat with all the parties, with youth and feminist groups within all the parties, with some LGBT+ allies of the parties, and later on, with parties’ diversity areas as they emerged. It was very difficult, but in our struggle towards equal marriage we managed to get the impossible photo of politicians from both the government and the opposition all standing for the same cause.

To change the law it was necessary to change social attitudes first. Do you think that the passage of the law resulted in further, deeper social and cultural change?

The approval of the law created a certain climate in society – I would say even a feeling of pride for being the 10th country in the world to enshrine equal marriage. The political sector that had voted against the law felt left out and did not want this to happen again; this was reflected in the 2012 approval of the Gender Identity Law, which was in fact more revolutionary than the Equal Marriage Law, but was passed practically unanimously. This is a state-of-the-art law at the global level, and even the senators who had been the biggest opponents of equal marriage defended it and voted for it.

These laws had great institutional impact, and institutional action deepened cultural change. After their approval, all the ministries, many municipalities and many provincial governments set up areas of sexual diversity. As a result, there came to be a lot of state agencies at various levels that were making public policy on diversity, which had an impact on many spheres, including schools. This resulted in an important cultural change, since it modified the perception of our families. Of course, there are pockets of resistance and acts of discrimination occur, but now these acts of discrimination are pointed out and repudiated by society, with social condemnation being amplified by journalists and through the media. Discrimination, which used to be legitimised by the state, now lacks all legitimacy. The state not only no longer upholds it but also produces public policy regarding diversity. The law was never our final goal, nor is it a magic bullet to end discrimination, but it is a tool without which ending discrimination is impossible.


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

Get in touch with Mar’ia through her website or Facebook page, and follow @Defensorialgbt on Twitter.

Get in touch with the Argentine LGBT Federation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @FALGBT on Twitter.

 

COVID-19: ‘This is not just a health crisis but also a justice crisis’

CIVICUS speaks to Abigail Moy, Director of the Legal Empowerment Network, the largest community of grassroots justice defenders in the world. Convened by the international civil society organisation (CSO) Namati, the Network brings together 2,343 organisations and 8,761 individuals from over 160 countries, all working to advance justice for all people. Around three years ago it launched Justice for All, a campaign to increase financing and protection for justice grassroots defenders worldwide.

Abigail Moy

What kind of work does the Legal Empowerment Network do?

The Legal Empowerment Network is a global and multidisciplinary network that convenes grassroots justice defenders worldwide. We are more than 2,000 grassroots organisations from approximately 160 countries around the world. Everyone in the Network is united by a dedication to helping communities to understand, use and shape the law. So whether they are working in environmental justice, women’s rights, health, education, or in any other sector, these justice defenders help communities to understand how policies, the law and governmental behaviour affect them and how they can be empowered to engage in these processes, use them and when necessary reform them to create a more just society.

Our work is based on three key pillars. The first is learning: we are a learning hub where grassroots organisations exchange experiences and learn from each other about their methods and the impact of their legal empowerment work. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, every year we designed and executed learning events that helped members explore practical solutions to justice problems. These offerings included an annual leadership course, in-person learning exchanges, online webinars and e-learning opportunities that we are further developing during the pandemic.

Our second pillar is advocacy and collective action. We work with our members to transform the policy environment to address injustices and promote legal empowerment at the national, regional and global levels. We often mobilise around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a means of addressing justice needs on the ground. Two of our central calls for advocacy and collective action include increasing financing and protection for justice defenders at all levels. These two priorities affect our members no matter what country are they in, and as such, financing and protection are the focus of our Justice for All campaign.

The third pillar is community building. We seek to build a stronger community amongst grassroots justice defenders so they can support and learn from each other. We aim to develop a stronger leadership core for the movement and find ways for people to improve their work by connecting, developing their thinking and working collaboratively.

All three pillars – learning, advocacy and community – feed into our ultimate vision, which is to cultivate a global movement for legal empowerment that mobilises millions of people to tackle collectively the greatest injustices of our time.

What is the role of Namati in relation with the Legal Empowerment Network?

Namati is the organisation that convenes the Network. It functions as its secretariat in many ways. We think of ourselves as an active member of the Network that happens to take care of aspects such as finances, coordination and maintaining infrastructure. We work with the Network Guidance Committee, a council of network members, to decide on the priorities and strategies of the Network and to organise learning and advocacy opportunities. Every year we survey Network members on what they want to do, and this information serves as a guidepost for planning. As a Network member, Namati feeds into this process, but we are one voice among many.

Namati also has country programmes. While members of the Network take on a wide range of justice challenges around the world, Namati works in close partnership with some of these members to take on three urgent issues – land and environmental justice, health justice and citizenship justice – in six countries: India, Kenya, Mozambique, Myanmar, Sierra Leone and the USA.

Can you tell us more about the Justice for All campaign?

We launched the Justice for All campaign almost three years ago. Our prior campaign, called Justice 2015, was a call to integrate justice in the SDGs. We succeeded, but after the SDGs were adopted there was nobody focusing on making good on the commitment in Goal 16 to ensure equal access to justice for all. In response, we launched the Justice for All campaign, which focuses on the fact that funding and protection for justice defenders are necessary foundations to meet Goal 16, and indeed any of the goals, and that legal empowerment must be supported.

Network members promote the Justice for All campaign in different ways in their countries and regions and at the global level. Some members have hosted meetings with their governments, other members of civil society and other stakeholders to discuss these issues and try to find policy solutions to increase funding and protection for grassroots justice defenders. Other members have focused on the global arena, approaching global donors and attending global events such as the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the SDGs. Yet other members have focused on their respective regions, looking at regional bodies or agreements that they can influence.

As a Network member with strong global connections, Namati connects member experiences at the national level to the global level. We have done a lot to highlight grassroots experiences in our advocacy at the HLPF, the UN General Assembly and other high-level conferences and events, and have worked with major donors around the world to recognise the value of legal empowerment and the need for funding.

Have you needed to make any changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?

During the pandemic, the Legal Empowerment Network pivoted to respond directly and comprehensively to the crisis-driven needs of its members. To understand what their most urgent needs were, we administered a survey. We asked Network members how the pandemic was affecting them, how they were adapting, what kind of resources they needed to remain effective, what types of policy interventions were necessary to ensure a just response, and how we could help them.

Regarding the challenges faced by Network members, we classified survey responses into four categories: remote work challenges, financial challenges, logistics and mobility challenges, and safety, security and health challenges. Remote work turned out to be a huge problem for Network members, as did finances, due to both increased expenses and reduced revenues.

In response to the survey, we put together resources adjusted to their needs. First, we set up an online hub that offers multilingual resources to help legal empowerment groups understand the pandemic, get truthful and reliable information and identify ways to mitigate harm. We put together a brief that answers common questions about COVID-19, with useful advice on how grassroots justice organisations can prepare and protect themselves. We tailored this information to address challenges faced by specific subsets of Network members, such as those living or working in crowded areas. The information was sourced from key public health authorities such as the World Health Organization and compiled by public health experts.

Second, we published a policy brief, ‘Grassroots Justice in a Pandemic: Ensuring a Just Response and Recovery’, that makes recommendations to policy makers, donors and multilateral institutions on how to fund and protect grassroots justice defenders during and after the pandemic. We shared it widely with stakeholders such as governmental and philanthropic donors.

Third, we facilitated a number of conversations among grassroots practitioners, examining legal empowerment work during the pandemic, via a series of conference calls and webinars. These have been taking place over the past few months. Hundreds of members participated in these conversations. The ensuing thematic and regional conversations served as venues for discussion on best practices and learning around how members are adapting their efforts, tracking and responding to human rights violations arising from the crisis, and accessing financial support and other needed resources. In these conversations, we also explored what we can do together to help each other move forward. We compiled best practices of remote working and are preparing more materials on resources, services and techniques that can be used for working during the pandemic.

We realised that in a crisis such as this you can’t do business as usual, so we got rid of our annual plan and started from scratch to do what we needed to do.

What has the Justice for All campaign achieved so far?

The campaign has helped to weave a common narrative that highlights grassroots perspectives at high-level global events, encourages dialogue and public understanding, and urges action on the two key themes of financing and protection for grassroots justice defenders.

At the national level, it has helped people articulate their needs and translate them into longer-term advocacy efforts. Network members said that the campaign’s policy brief was incredibly useful in their discussions with their national governments about why there should be local funding for community paralegal groups.

At the global level, we have shifted ongoing dialogue and norms. Before, there had never been any talk about what was needed to advance access to justice and achieve Goal 16; there was no acknowledgement that justice services required funding and that the people doing the work needed to be safe. Right now, these issues are being taken up and addressed at a high level, and have been integrated into reports and major agendas. So we feel that we have influenced the international dialogue around justice defenders, and while there is more work to be done, that in itself is a victory.

In the financial front, the Justice For All campaign has influenced donors to commit new resources to access to justice and legal empowerment. During the pandemic, the campaign adjusted its focus and established a COVID-19 Grassroots Justice Fund, and successfully rallied a number of donors to make contributions. This was in response to our members’ desperate need of funding when the pandemic hit. We realised that the funding that they needed wasn’t massive; a lot could be done with just a small injection of money, for instance in the form of one-time grants of a few thousand dollars. Relatively modest funds could make a difference and help address urgent justice issues that are entwined with the pandemic. We launched this fund in July with the aim of raising US$1 million, and we think we are going to get there. We have received a lot of support, we have already accepted the first applications, and the money should be distributed within the next month. These are small requests, of between US$3,000 and US$20,000, for grassroots justice groups to cover supplies, training, salaries and anything else needed to keep them afloat. The idea behind the fund is that the pandemic is not just a health issue; it is also a justice issue and we need to sustain the defenders that are helping communities to face the justice crisis.

What kind of support from international civil society would you need to be able to continue your work?

Our survey asked our members exactly that question, and 58 per cent answered that they needed technological support. The nature of legal empowerment work is very much a trust-building exercise that usually calls for face-to-face interaction. Most of the grassroots groups we work with are used to going out to talk to with community members, convening face-to-face community meetings and educating people. They are not used to working remotely. They are not familiar with working with apps and they don’t have enough devices to do so. Additionally, 67 per cent responded that they need capacity-building support. This support is needed both to adapt to technology and to reimagine ways to do their work remotely or while social distancing. Last but not least, 88 per cent responded that what they need from international civil society is financial support. And they made it clear that it is not just about more funding now, but rather about more sustainable and more reliable funding going forward.

Get in touch with the Legal Empowerment Network through Namati’s website or Facebook page, and follow @GlobalNamati on Twitter.

 

MYANMAR: ‘Opposition parties complain that the election body censors their messaging'

Cape DiamondCIVICUS speaks to award-winning journalist Cape Diamond (Pyae Sone Win) about the upcoming elections in Myanmar. Cape is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar, covering issues of human rights, crisis and conflict. Currently freelancing for the Associated Press (AP), he has provided critical coverage during the Rohingya crisis and contributed to numerous international outlets, including Al Jazeera, ABC News and CBS. He also contributed to the BAFTA Award-winning documentary Myanmar’s Killing Fields and New York Film Festival gold medal award-winner The Rohingya Exodus.

 

Scheduled on 8 November 2020, the election will be Myanmar’s first since 2015, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), and only the second competitive election since 1990, when the military annulled the NLD’s overwhelming victory.

What is the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

The situation for the freedom of speech is very concerning. Over the years, journalists and rights activists in Myanmar have been criminally charged for their work. Restrictive laws, including the Telecommunications Law, the Unlawful Associations Act, the Official Secrets Act and defamation provisions in the Penal Code, continue to be used to prosecute activists and journalists. The Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law has been used against those protesting.

Many political parties have raised complaints that the Union Election Commission (UEC), the electoral body, has censored the messages that are set for broadcast on national TV ahead of the elections. For example, Ko Ko Gyi, chairman of the People's Party, said that the edits that the UEC made to his election campaign speech prevent him from airing the party's full political stance ahead of the elections. Two parties – the Democratic Party for a New Society and the National Democratic Force – cancelled their election broadcasts in protest against censorship.

At the same time, critics say that the electoral body is biased in favour of the ruling party, the NLD led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s something that we should keep our eyes on and speak out about to ensure credible elections.

Has the electoral body engaged with civil society?

I’ve been hearing that the current UEC is not that actively engaging with civil society. They initially barred the People’s Alliance for Credible Elections (PACE), one of the largest election monitoring groups in the country, from monitoring the election. The UEC accused PACE of not being registered under the law that applies to civil society organisations and of receiving funding from international sources. Even though the UEC subsequently allowed PACE to operate, the organisation is struggling to proceed due to the newly imposed COVID-19 restrictions.

What are the main issues the campaign will revolve around?

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing civil war across the country are the main issues for us at the moment. It’s very clear that the ruling party and the government are not paying enough attention to the situation of minorities in regions experiencing civil war. 

It’s worrying that the country is undergoing a pandemic, which I believe it does not have enough capacity to handle. As of 29 September 2020, we have had a total of 11,000 reported cases and 284 deaths due to COVID-19. A surge of infections over the last few weeks has been worrying, as we only had around 400 confirmed cases in August. I am concerned about whether the environment will be safe for people to go out and vote on the election days. 

More than 20 political parties have sent requests to the electoral body to postpone the elections due to the pandemic, but they were rejected. The ruling party is not willing to have the elections postponed.

Will it be possible to have a ‘normal’ campaign in this context? 

I don’t think it’s possible to have normal campaign rallies such as those of the previous election in 2015, because we are in a pandemic. The government has taken several measures to combat the spread of the disease, including orders against gatherings of people. Political parties are not allowed to organise their campaigns in semi-lockdown areas.

Major cities like Yangon and the Yangon Region, as well as some townships in Mandalay, are under semi-lockdown, which the government calls the Stay-At-Home programme. At the same time, the whole of Rakhine State, which is experiencing civil war, is also on semi-lockdown. I am afraid people in the civil war zone will not be able to go out and vote.

Candidates are using both mainstream and social media to reach their audiences. However, as noted earlier, some opposition parties have been censored by the UEC. Some opposition members have denounced unfair treatment by the UEC and the government, while the ruling party is using its power to expand its popularity. This will clearly harm the electoral chances of the opposition.

What specific challenges do candidates face in Rakhine State?

As the whole of Rakhine State is under COVID-19 restrictions, candidates are not able to campaign in person. Therefore, they are mostly campaigning on social media. At the same time, a long internet shutdown has been in place in many townships in Rakhine State, imposed due to ongoing fighting between the Arakan Army and the military. I am concerned about whether people will be able to get enough information around the elections.

The Myanmar government is also using the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law and the Election Law to disenfranchise Rohingya people and block them from running for political office. Election officials barred Kyaw Min, head of the Rohingya-led Democracy and Human Rights Party (DHRP), from running. He was disqualified along with two other DHRP candidates because their parents were allegedly not citizens, as required by election law. This is one of the various tools used to oppress the Rohingya population.

In October, the UEC released a smartphone app that was criticised over its use of a derogatory label for Rohingya Muslims. The mVoter2020 app, aimed at improving voter awareness, labels at least two candidates from the Rohingya ethnic group as ‘Bengali’, a term that implies they are immigrants from Bangladesh, although most have lived in Myanmar for generations. This label is rejected by many Rohingya people. Additionally, none of the one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and another several hundred thousand dispersed in other countries will be allowed to vote.

Civic space in Myanmar is rated asrepressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @cape_diamond on Twitter.

 

UN75: ‘Civil society needs to be the conscience of the global community’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Keith Best, Interim Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy (WFM/IGP), a non-profit, nonpartisan organisation committed to the realisation of global peace and justice through the development of democratic institutions and the application of international law. Founded in 1947, WFM/IGP works to protect civilians from the threat of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; facilitate transparency in governance; increase access to justice; and promote the application of the rule of law.

Keith best

What kind of relationship has civil society maintained with the UN over its 75-year history?

The relationship of civil society towards the UN has been mostly that of a critical friend throughout its history and WFM/IGP’s experience mirrors that. Often, the feeling has been mutual. I recall vividly when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was UN Secretary-General (UNSG) that in a meeting with civil society organisations (CSOs) he publicly appealed to us all to help him secure the outstanding dues from the USA – which were promptly paid when the US needed support for the Gulf War! Former Executive Director of WFM/IGP, Bill Pace, also wrote that “Kofi Annan was a very important Secretary-General, whom I was fortunate enough to develop both a professional and personal relationship with. Though his legacy is still being debated I think he was committed to standing up against to the big powers and corruption of the principles set out in the charter.” It was through Kofi Annan that the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was unanimously adopted.

In which ways has the UN made a positive difference? 

There is a tendency to think of the UN only in its peacekeeping role and more visible efforts in seeking to maintain world peace while neglecting the less heralded but sometimes more effective work of its agencies. I shall mention only three. Despite the recent controversy over COVID-19, where the main issue may have been its lack of powers and coordination, the World Health Organization (WHO) has achieved lasting success. It was officially established on 7 April 1948 to achieve “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” with health being not just the absence of illness or infirmity but the complete physical, mental and social wellbeing of the individual. Its greatest triumph was the eradication of smallpox in 1977; the global efforts that it has led to end polio are now in their final stages. In the past few years, the WHO has also coordinated battles against viral epidemics of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zika in Brazil. It will be a disaster if the USA withdraws from it instead of helping it assert a better warning mechanism and distribution of medicines following a pandemic of which, assuredly, there will be more.

Another unsung hero is the Food and Agriculture Organization, which has done much to enhance the lot of small farmers, conservation and improvement in agricultural methods and report on biotechnologies, among other things. Also the UN Development Programme, founded in 1965, promotes technical and investment cooperation among nations and advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life for themselves; it provides expert advice, training and grants support to developing countries, with increasing emphasis on assistance to the least developed countries. Some of these agencies have been criticised not so much for the work that they do but for the manner and actions of some of their officials. The way in which some are selected is unfinished business for WFM/IGP.

Largely though the work of the UN we now have the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Responsibility to Protect – both major advances. The ICC, building on the recommendations of the International Law Commission and the Nuremberg, Tokyo, Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals, has enshrined for the first time in history the individual accountability of heads of state and others for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide and, more recently, the crime of aggression. In the colder light of reflective history this will be seen as a major development in global responsibility which, hitherto, had attached only to states but not to individuals. The concept of Responsibility to Protect, endorsed overwhelmingly in 2005 at the UN World Summit – the largest gathering of heads of state and government in history – turned on its head centuries of obligation of the citizen to the state – an obligation not just to pay taxes but, ultimately, to give one’s life – by reversing that responsibility onto the state to protect its citizens. Its potential is to end 400 years of the inviolability of the state to answer to its peers as enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia, while the concept of non-intervention has not survived the last century.

What things are currently not working and would need to change, and how is civil society working to make it happen?

The disappointment, of course, has been the inability of the UN to reform itself effectively from within and, mostly through the major powers having vested interests in maintaining the status quo, rendering itself unfit for purpose in the modern world, exemplified particularly by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the use or threatened use of the veto. The P5, its five permanent members, still represent the victors of the Second World War, with the People’s Republic of China substituted for Taiwan/Republic of China in 1971, and, until Brexit, two seats held by member states of the European Union. Neither the world’s most numerous democracy, India, nor the third-largest economy, Japan, are there. In recent years the use or threat of use of the veto have made the UN unable to prevent conflict in many situations. In a recent book, Existing Legal Limits to Security Council Veto Power in the Face of Atrocity Crimes, Jennifer Trahan explains that this abuse of power is, in fact, contrary to the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. There is mounting pressure from other states to curtail such abuse, and we hope that a civil society campaign can bring such change to fruition.

Another thing that needs to change is the way in which the UNSG has been appointed, which in the past has been secretive and arguably failed to canvass all suitable candidates. But thanks to the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign, in which WFM/IGP was active alongside many others, including governments, the process by which the UNSG is selected has arguably changed forever, as the previous arrangements conducted by the major powers were wrested away from the UNSC to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The present UNSG, António Guterres, has frequently praised and supported the new process by which he was selected. This was the result of a number of organisations led by an informal steering committee of Avaaz, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York, United Nations Association-UK and WFM/IGP, supported by over 750 CSOs with an estimated reach of over 170 million people, coming together. Many of them are now hoping to breathe new life into a renewed campaign to consolidate and improve on the gains so far. One of the delicate issues is that the original campaign favoured a lengthier single term for UNSGs rather than two potential terms, and this will remain an objective but, hopefully, without the current incumbent thinking it a threat to his own position.

Many are now calling for a review conference under article 109 of the UN Charter, but we should be careful what we wish for. In the current climate dominated by narrow nationalism and populism we might well end up with a watered-down version of the current Charter. Far better to encourage evolutionary and incremental change which is likely to be more long-lasting.

Do you think it is both necessary and possible to make the UN more democratic?

Indeed. The main weaknesses in the UN system are not only the much-needed reform of the UNSC so that its permanent members – and many argue that there should be none or at least no new permanent members – more accurately reflect the economic and diplomatic power in the world but also its often lack of transparency and accountability and the absence of a democratic element, hence the 1 for 7 Billion campaign.

For the foreseeable future the UN is likely to be based on the nation state – the equality of which in the UNGA is one of its more endearing features – but increasingly there is a call for greater democracy to give effect to “we the peoples of the united nations” as opposed to just the governments. Hence the call for the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly, perhaps created under article 22, which would start not as a legislative body but a scrutineer of the UN and its agencies, given that any attribution of legislative powers would ensure its failure through states’ opposition at the outset. When so many international organisations and treaties have a parliamentary assembly – with varying powers – attached to them, there should be no reason, other than electoral mechanics, why it should not happen at the global level.

What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change in the aftermath of this crisis?

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has concentrated minds, but it remains to be seen whether it is sufficiently cataclysmic to become a main driver for change, of which the stimulus in the past has been world wars. The pandemic has emphasised that we are ‘all in this together’, that an animal-human crossover or the development of a new virus in a remote part of the world can soon translate everywhere, and no national borders will stop it. It has highlighted that the most affected are the already most vulnerable, poorest, most ill-prepared and most medically ill-equipped societies. It is telling that the pharmaceutical companies are teaching ethics to the politicians in the way of equitable distribution of remedies and ensuring that it is not wealth that should determine availability. That is a lesson that has a wider application. It has highlighted the need for enforceable global decisions in the interests of humanity as a whole – a message, again, that has wider relevance in the environmental and climate change context.

Much of the idealism of the 1960s and 1970s, which were exciting times for those of us involved, has been translated into a realism of the current era. There is no harm in that as these matters need to stand up to adverse scrutiny and a hard-nosed approach. Technology has brought home the fact that wars are now fought against civilians and not uniformed soldiers and that cyber attacks on energy and water supplies are more likely to achieve the incapacity of a foe than armaments, which are now so expensive as to be both limited in their sustainability and only useful to those states that can afford them. The world has indeed shrunk to a situation in which we are more likely to know what is happening on the far side than in our neighbour’s home. Through digital means the voices of the people are ever more articulate and widespread and the people want their voices to be heard. Satellite technology enables not only precision take-out of individuals but also the observation of actions down to that level: there are now no places to hide. If used in an accountable way in the furtherance of international justice according to universally accepted norms, such modern technology can be a force for good – but if misused, it can also lead us to destruction.

The challenge of multilateralism today is to spread these messages of interdependence and make clear that, increasingly, to achieve their desires and the aspirations of their citizens states have to work in combination, partnership and common understanding. That realisation in itself will lead inevitably to the need for enforceable mechanisms of managing our climate and our behaviour, in the knowledge that my action will have a reaction elsewhere which is likely to haunt us. Whether it is the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest or the impoverishment of a people through rapacity and failed autocracy, these will impact on the rest of humanity. Poverty destroys markets for manufacturing nations, which then creates instability, resulting in increased expenditure on conflict prevention or resolution. The answer to migratory flows is not encirclement and strengthened borders but addressing the causes of migration in the first place.

We live in the fastest-moving age in history in which still recent certainties become questioned and outmoded. That is disruptive but can also open new opportunities and ways of doing things. In such a political climate the capacity of WFM/IGP and civil society to be the conscience of the global community and to point to a better federalist form of governance, giving voice to the people at the basic level, is greater than ever.

Get in touch with the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy through its webpage or Facebook profile, and follow @worldfederalist on Twitter.

 

LEBANON: ‘This crisis should be handled with a feminist vision’

CIVICUS speaks to Lina Abou Habib, a feminist activist based in Beirut, Lebanon, about the civil society response to the emergency caused by the explosion on 4 August 2020. Lina teaches Global Feminisms at the American University of Beirut, where she is affiliated with the Asfari Institute, and chairs the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action, a regional feminist organisation working in the Middle East and North Africa. She also serves on the board of Gender at Work and as a strategic Middle East and North Africa advisor for the Global Fund for Women.

Lina Abou Habib

Would you tell us about the moment of the explosion?

The Beirut explosion happened on 4 August 2020, at around 18:10 Beirut time. I was at home and I had known for an hour that there was a huge fire at the Beirut port. When the fire started getting bigger the sky was blackened by fumes. I was looking out, and the first thing I felt was a very scary earthquake-like feeling, after which it took a split second for a huge explosion to happen. Glass shattered all around me. It took me a couple of minutes to understand what had just happened. The first thing everyone was call our family and close friends just to make sure that they were okay. Everybody was in a state of disbelief. The explosion was so powerful that each one of us felt like it had happened right next to us.

What was civil society’s immediate response?

It is important to note that alongside the civil society response there was also an individual response. Individuals took to the streets in an attempt to help others. Nobody trusted that the state would help in any way. The state was responsible for what had happened. People took the responsibility for helping each other, which meant addressing immediate problems such as clearing rubble from the streets and talking to people to find out what they needed, including shelter and food. About 300,000 people had become homeless and lost everything in a split second. There was an extraordinary reaction by ordinary people to help: people with brooms and shovels started clearing rubble and distributing food and water. Anger turned into solidarity.

This was an amazingly empowering moment that still continues. As we speak, there are volunteers and civil society organisations (CSOs) who are basically holding the fort and not only engaging in immediate relief but also providing all sorts of support to distressed populations.

However, these acts of solidarity and care have also been criticised. The main criticism has been that such acts are unhelpful because they relieve the state from fulfilling its obligations and performing its duties. I understand this critique, but I don’t agree with it. To me, the acts of solidarity performed by civil society and ordinary people were our main success stories: stories of power and resistance that we should talk about. We need to highlight the immediate response provided individually by people who themselves had been hurt or had lost a lot. Migrant worker communities, who live in dire conditions of exploitation, racism and abuse, went out there to clear the rubble and help others. I don’t think we should ignore the significance of these acts of solidarity.

Lebanon was already undergoing deep economic crisis, which was further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion. Which groups were impacted upon the most?

The worst effects were felt by those who were already in the most vulnerable situations. A clear example of multiple forms of discrimination overlapping and reinforcing one another is the situation of female migrant workers in Lebanon. This is not new; this situation is decades old. First, migrant women work in the private sphere, which makes them even more invisible and vulnerable. Second, there are absolutely no rules that need to be followed to hire them, so they are basically at the mercy of their employers. They are kept in quasi-slavery conditions based on so-called ‘sponsorship contracts’. The air that they breathe is dependent on the will of their employers and they are completely bound to them. In sum, this is a population of women from poor countries of the global south who work as domestic workers and caregivers, positions that make them incredibly vulnerable to abuse. There are no laws that protect them and that has always been the case. Therefore, they are the ones left behind when there is a security issue or a political crisis.

Three consecutive events have affected their situation. The first is the revolution that started on 17 October 2019, an incredibly important moment that was the culmination of years of activism, including by women migrant workers, who were supported, nurtured and mentored by young Lebanese feminists. As a result, in the midst of the revolution there were migrant workers who revolted against the sponsorship system, which deprives them of their humanity and exposes them to working conditions that amount to slavery, and demanded dignified work and a dignified life.

And then there were the economic breakdown and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which hit as the protests were still ongoing. As a result of the economic crunch, some people choose to not pay their migrant and domestic workers’ salaries, or even worst, simply disposed of them on the streets during the pandemic.

And then the Beirut port explosion happened, which again affected migrant workers in particular. It was a succession of crises that hit migrant workers first and foremost, and particularly women, because they were already in precarious conditions in which they were abused, their labour taken for granted and then thrown away on the streets, forgotten by their embassies and ignored by the Lebanese government. 

As an activist and a feminist, how do you view the government response to the explosion?

There hasn’t been any responsible government response. I would not even call what we have a government, but rather a regime. It is a corrupt dictatorship, an authoritarian regime that continues to pretend to be democratic and even progressive. The regime says it embodies reforms, but it never follows through. For instance, 10 days into the revolution, in October 2019, the president addressed the nation and promised an egalitarian civil family law, which feminist activists have been demanding for decades. This came as a surprise, but it turned out that it wasn’t serious, as nothing has been done about it. The authorities just say whatever they think people want to hear, and they seem to be convinced that the public is too ignorant to notice.

So we need to position the response to the explosion against the background of the recent uprising. The government’s response to the revolution has been to not acknowledge the problems that people were pointing at: that it had emptied the public coffers, that it continued to exercise nepotism and corruption and, worst of all, that it was dismantling public institutions. The only government response has been to close the space for civil society and attack the freedoms of association and expression and the right to protest. I’ve lived in this country for most of my life, including through the civil war, and I think there hasn’t been a crackdown on freedoms of the magnitude we are seeing right now under this regime. We have never witnessed people being summoned by the police or general security because of something they said or posted on social media. This is exactly what the regime is doing and continues to do. The president is acting as if there was a lèse-majesté law and is not accepting any criticism; people who criticise him are paying with their freedom. It is the first time we hear about activists being detained for this reason.

In short, the regime hasn’t done anything significant in response to the explosion. Sending the army to distribute food aid packets is in no way significant. They are even refusing to give food aid items to non-Lebanese people who were affected. This exposes the various layers of corruption, bigotry and mismanagement that are at interplay here.

Following the explosion, people took to the streets again to protest. Do you think protests have made an impact?

On the Saturday following the explosion there were people protesting on the streets. I was there and I was scared because of the deployment of violence by the security forces.

In the face of so many calamities, the only reason why people are not massively on the streets is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been a gift for the regime. It has imposed curfews, broke up the tents set up by the revolutionaries at Martyrs’ Square and arrested and detained people, all under the guise of wanting to protect people from the virus. But of course, nobody is duped. The levels of contagion are increasing rather than decreasing. It doesn’t help that the regime is so corrupt that we basically don’t have any functioning health services.

The constraints created by the pandemic and the fears for one’s health are seriously limiting people’s actions against the regime, but I don’t think this is going to stop the revolution. People have had enough. People have lost everything. And when you push people’s backs to the wall, there is nowhere else to go but forward. The regime will continue to use brutal force, it will continue to lie and mismanage funds and resources, but this is becoming totally unacceptable to an increasingly larger proportion of the population.

I believe that street mobilisation has been successful on several levels. One can disagree and point out that the regime is still in power, and this may be true; it will take a long time for it to fall. But one immediate success of the protests is that they shattered a taboo. There was a kind of halo or sanctity around certain leaders who were believed to be untouchable. Now it's obvious that they don’t enjoy that protection any longer. Although the regime is not ready to concede, they are just buying themselves some time.

The way I see it, a major gain has been the leadership role played by feminist groups in shaping the country that we want, the rights and entitlements we are claiming and the form of government that we want. Alongside 40 feminist organisations we have released a charter of demands. We put our heads together and have stated what humanitarian reconstruction needs to look like from a feminist perspective and are using this as an advocacy tool for the international community. The way we are intervening indicates that this crisis should be handled with a feminist vision.

Additionally, for the first time the LGBTQI+ community has been part and parcel in shaping the reform process, the transition process and again shaping the country we want, regarding both the form of state and human relations. And the voice of the migrant community has been amplified as well. To me, these gains are irreversible.

What support does civil society in Beirut and Lebanon need from the international community?

There are a number of things that need to be done. First, we need tangible forms of solidarity in terms of communications to amplify our voice. Second, we need to lobby the international community on behalf of the Lebanese feminist movement so that the Lebanese regime is held accountable for every cent it receives. To give an example, we received about 1,700 kilograms of tea from Sri Lanka, and the tea has disappeared; it appears that the president distributed it among the presidential guards. We need influence and pressure from the international community to hold this regime accountable. Third, we need to bring these voices to the attention of international mainstream media.

I want to emphasise the point that international aid should not be without conditions, as the ruling regime lacks transparency and accountability. Of course it is not up to civil society to rebuild, or to reconstruct the infrastructure. But if any cent has to go to the regime, then it must be given with conditionalities of transparency, accountability and due diligence. Civil society must be empowered to play a watchdog role. This means that CSOs must have the voice and the tools for monitoring. Otherwise nothing is going to change. International aid will vanish; it will only help the regime prolong its rule while the city remains in ruins.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective for Research and Training on Development-Action through its webpage, and follow @LinaAH1 on Twitter.

 

KAZAKHSTAN: ‘The quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society’

CIVICUS speaks to Asya Tulesova, an environmental and civic rights defender from Kazakhstan. On 8 June 2020, Asya was arrested and detained after taking part in a peaceful rally in the city of Almaty. She was released on 12 August 2020, but with restrictions on her freedom. Asya was profiled in CIVICUS’s #StandAsMyWitness campaign, launched on Nelson Mandela Day, 18 July, to call for the release of human rights defenders who are imprisoned, persecuted, or harassed for standing up for freedom, rights and democracy and calling out corrupt governments and multinational companies.

Asya Tulesova

Would you tell us about your background and your environmental activism?

For the past few years, I have worked for a civil society organisation, the Common Sense Civic Foundation, that focuses on community development. We work on environmental and educational projects aimed at improving the quality of life of local communities. In 2015 we launched our air quality monitoring project in Almaty with the aim of giving give people access to free, up-to-date air quality information in the city. The project had a considerable effect on people's understanding of the importance of the issue.

As I realised that air quality is a political issue, I tried running for the local council. However, my candidature was withdrawn due to minor discrepancies in my tax income declaration. This same reasoning was used to take down hundreds of independent self-nominated candidates all over Kazakhstan. We sued the central election commission but were unable to persuade the court to restore my candidacy regardless of the fact that we had all the evidence to support my case. My case is now being considered by the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

We continued our environmental activism by publishing articles, doing research on air pollution, participating in public events and organising public talks on the issue. In April 2019 my companion, activist Beibarys Tolymbekov, and I were arrested for holding a banner at the annual Almaty marathon; our friends Aidos Nurbolatov, Aigul Nurbolatova and Suinbike Suleimenova were fined for filming us holding the banner. As a part of a young activist movement, we wanted to draw people’s attention to the unfairness of the upcoming presidential elections and the lack of independent candidates. Beibarys and I received 15 days of administrative arrest; while under arrest I went on a hunger strike to protest against the court’s decision, and at some point I was punched in the stomach by my cellmate for refusing to comply with her demands to end my hunger strike. Our detention resulted in a series of protests around the country and a rise of youth political engagement. We continue our work in the hope that our efforts will bring more independent candidates to the elections. 

Being an activist in Kazakhstan is associated with a certain degree of constant pressure from the government and so-called law enforcement authorities. Many activists and human rights defenders, as well as journalists, live under intense scrutiny and are under constant surveillance and intimidation by or on behalf of law enforcement agencies.

What happened during the protest in June 2020 that led to your arrest? 

During the protest on 6 June 2020 I witnessed police brutality towards peaceful protesters. This wasn’t the first time; every ‘unauthorised’ peaceful rally we have had so far has been accompanied by the excessive use of force by the police. But this time, I decided to stand in front of one of the police vans filled with people unlawfully detained by the police in an attempt to prevent the van from leaving. I was attacked by several officers, who dragged me away from the van and, after I attempted to return, pushed me down to the ground. In such emotional state, I then knocked off a police officer’s cap in protest against the unlawful police actions and detention of peaceful protesters. It’s hard to articulate what was going through my head at that moment. I was definitely in a state of shock.

This was captured on video, and I was charged with “publicly insulting a representative of the authorities” under Article 378, part 2 of the Criminal Code, and with “non-dangerous infliction of harm to a representative of the authorities” under Article 380, part 1.

What was it like to be imprisoned? Were you afraid of contracting COVID-19?

I was in prison for more than two months. The detention facility I was placed in was located on the northern edge of Almaty. I was brought in at night and first placed in a quarantine cell for newly arrived detainees, where I spent over 10 days getting acquainted with the internal rules of the facility. After that I was relocated to a different cell.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits from family members and friends were forbidden. I was only able to speak to my mother twice a week for 10 minutes through a video call and receive visits from my lawyers every other week. The conditions in the facility were much better than those in the temporary detention facility at the police department where I spent two days prior to that. The cell was relatively clean and had two bunk beds for four people, a washbasin and a toilet. We would take turns cleaning the cell. Two of my cellmates smoked, in the toilet. We were fed three times a day, mostly porridge and soup. We were taken for ‘strolls’ five times a week in a specially designed facility, a cell with no windows and no roof. Our strolls would usually last 15 to 20 minutes so I had to write a complaint to the facility authorities so they would comply with their own internal regulations and allow a full hour for our strolls. We took showers once a week, 15 minutes per person.

A few times a week I would receive care packages from family and friends. Their support was very helpful in keeping my spirits up. I received a radio from Marat Turymbetov, also an activist, whose friend, activist Alnur Ilyashev, had been detained in the same facility for his criticism of the ruling party, Nur Otan. We would spend a lot of time listening to the radio waiting for news, but most news was about COVID-19. We would also hear occasional rumours about COVID-19 cases in the facility but nothing certain, so I wasn’t particularly afraid of contracting the virus. My mother, however, was very concerned about it and would send medicine to me every now and then. The pandemic has been very tough on our country, taking the lives of many.

This time around I personally haven’t experienced any major violations while in detention, apart from the non-observance of some internal rules by staff. I know other detainees spent months in the facility with no visits from their investigator, lawyer, or family members. I was suspicious at first when in the temporary detention facility, I was placed in a cell with the same woman who was with me in the special detention facility for administrative detainees a year earlier.

I can’t say that I feel I have been detained for a long time, but it was long enough for me to grow appreciation and compassion for activists and other people who have spent months and years in prison. For instance, human rights defender Max Bokayev has been in prison for over four years for supporting a peaceful rally against an illegal land sale to Chinese companies. During the quarantine, many activists and politicians were subjected to searches and detention, so the quarantine became a sort of cover for the government to persecute civil society. Among the detained activists were Sanavar Zakirova, who has been persecuted for her attempts to register a political party, and activists Abay Begimbetov, Askar Ibraev, Serik Idyryshev, Askhat Jeksebaev, Kairat Klyshev and many others.

What is your reaction to the outcome of your case?

I do not agree with the sentence I received, which is why we are going to appeal. The court should take into account the degree of danger to society that the acts I committed pose, which hardly constitute a criminal offence. I am, however, sorry for the lack of self-control and rudeness I showed. I am a firm believer in non-violent protest and my case is a great opportunity for us and the government to condemn violence on both sides.

What sort of support do activists like yourself need from the international community?

I am very grateful that my case has received international attention and support. It was an honour to be represented in the CIVICUS #StandAsMyWitness campaign. I am also very grateful to my mother, my lawyers, my family, friends and supporters from Kazakhstan and around the world, who came up with a lot of creative ideas to raise public awareness and bring much-needed attention to my case and the issue of police brutality in Kazakhstan. I personally was very inspired by one of the initiatives launched by my good friends Kuat Abeshev, Aisha Jandosova, Irina Mednikova and Jeffrey Warren, Protest Körpe, a simple and visually beautiful way of showing one’s demand for justice and human rights in a very gentle, caring and loving way. It is easy to join. Most of Protest Körpe messages are universal and relevant to many countries. So let’s make our messages heard! I feel that we can learn new creative tactics from Protest Körpe and other initiatives and adapt them to our local context. Wouldn’t it be great if such campaigns and movements could establish a network to share and build on each other’s experience?

Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Asya through Facebook.

 

 

POLAND: ‘The crisis of democracy and human rights will deepen’

CIVICUS speaks with Małgorzata Szuleka about Poland’s recent presidential elections, held under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling party’s use of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to mobilise its electorate. Małgorzata is a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland, one of the largest and oldest human rights organisations in Poland and the region. HFHR Poland represents victims of human rights abuses in court proceedings, conducts research and monitors human rights violations. Since 2015 it has actively monitored the increasing rule of law violations in Poland. It works with partners in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the European Union (EU) and the USA.

Małgorzata Szuleka

After rescheduling, the Polish elections were held in June and July 2020. What was civil society’s position on having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 and organising them posed a huge legal problem because there was no legal mechanism to postpone them. The only way to reschedule them was to announce a state of emergency, as provided for by the constitution. No elections may be organised during a state of emergency or within the next 90 days of it ending. From a constitutional perspective, an official declaration that the country was experiencing an epidemic would give the government the prerogative to introduce the state of emergency. This would automatically extend the term of office of the president until after regular elections could be scheduled, once the epidemic was over. However, the government did not follow this process. The elections were rescheduled and the run-off vote between the two leading candidates was held on 12 July 2020 on very dubious legal grounds. However, this wasn’t questioned by neither the government majority, nor the opposition.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) first pushed the government to organise the elections in a proper way, urging it to announce a state of emergency. Once this didn’t happen, CSOs tried to raise the issue of international monitoring, mainly in terms of fairness and financing of the campaign. The problem was that the election was expected to be free but not fair. Public media was biased towards the candidate supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, President Andrzej Duda, and extremely critical and unprofessional towards any opposition candidate. Even though no state of emergency had been declared, many fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and access to information were limited. These were major concerns.

There was also the problem of the Supreme Court confirming the validity of the elections. On 12 July, President Duda was re-elected for a second term by a tight margin. He received 51 per cent of the vote while the opposition Civic Coalition contender received 49 per cent. Turnout was barely above 68 per cent, and more than 5,800 complaints were submitted regarding irregularities in the process. The Supreme Court ruled that 92 of those complaints were justified but had not influenced the final result, so it declared the results valid. Sadly, this decision completely ignored the problem of the constitutional and legal grounds for organising the elections in the first place.

Were measures adopted to protect people during the campaign and voting process? Did the pandemic have any impact on turnout?

The organisation of the campaign involved sanitary measures regarding social distancing and mask use. But these provisions were not fully respected on both sides. For campaigning purposes, the government loosened some restrictions; for example, even though face mask use was mandatory, pictures were published of the prime minister not wearing one in public. Also of concern was the fact that many public authorities engaged in political campaigning alongside President Duda. Public institutions were instrumentalised by ruling politicians. The government security centre, responsible for coordination and information in case of natural calamities or danger, sent out mass text messages on election day. Every voter received a message that said that people over 60 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities could vote without waiting in line. This might have been used to mobilise the core electorate of the ruling party. This is just one example, but it could be an indication of the role played by official institutions to tilt the playing field in favour of the PiS party.

Was media coverage during the election fair?

Public media coverage was absolutely unfair. The rest of the coverage, mainly by private media, was relatively good; it definitely was not as bad as public media coverage, which was used for propaganda and enhanced President Duda’s campaign.

One of elections complaints brought to the Supreme Court specifically referred to media coverage. It stated that public television supported the incumbent while systematically discrediting his rival, and that public institutions and officials repeatedly violated correct conduct by supporting only one of the candidates. But the problem with the entire institution of election complaints is that you need to prove not only that the alleged irregularity happened, but also that it had an impact on the election results. In presidential elections such as this one, this is very difficult to prove. Additionally, the electoral code doesn’t regulate the work of the media, so it’s hard to make the legal claim that the media should operate differently. And if you do, it is also difficult to prove that particular coverage of a particular candidate, or the lack of coverage, resulted in a particular election result. We can intuitively assume this, particularly in view of such tight results, but it is very difficult to create a solid legal case.

What does President Duda’s re-election mean for democracy and human rights in Poland?

It is a continuation of a very worrying trend. Out of all possible campaign issues, President Duda chose to focus on stoking homophobia. The campaign took place in a context of a years-long backsliding of the rule of law, in the middle of a crisis of relations between Poland and the EU, during a huge healthcare challenge and on the verge of an economic crisis that will affect everyone in Poland. But none of these issues were the focus of the political campaign and public discussion. President Duda mainly spoke about LGBTQI+ people posing a threat to our Christian traditional heritage, equating homosexuality with paedophilia. The issue was narrowed down to this divisive, outrageous and dehumanising narrative by the PiS party. It was a very pragmatic move from PiS spin doctors because it mobilised the very core of the electorate. All of a sudden LGBTQI+ groups and communities became the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in Poland. It is outrageous how much this issue was politicised and how it was used to dehumanise this minority group. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch.

And the campaign was far from the end of it. President Duda is just a representative of the ruling PiS party, so he will say whatever he needs to keep them aligned. This is just a matter of calculation and internal power struggles. In June, the PiS party targeted LGBTQI+ people. In July, it targeted victims of domestic violence by starting discussion on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. In August, it proposed to register CSOs that are financed from abroad. Now I don’t know who is going to be their next enemy. It’s not only about being homophobic but rather about this governing majority always needing an enemy to confront or blame.

We just entered a phase in which there will be no elections for the next three years so we can expect a huge consolidation of power and the government doing everything that it dreams of, such as creating pressure on CSOs, further polarising the media, targeting specific minority groups and escalating the conflict with the EU. We can expect all of this to happen over the next three years. The only thing that can stop them is pragmatic evaluation about whether this is needed at this time or whether there might be something more important to do. But I think the crisis of democracy and human rights in Poland will deepen.

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

Get in touch with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights-Poland through its website or Facebook page, and follow @hfhrpl and @m_szuleka on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic showed that multilateral institutions are essential’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to the UN advocacy lead of an international civil society organisation (CSO), who responded on condition of anonymity, about the opportunities and challenges faced by CSOs engaging with various UN bodies.

UN photo

In which ways do you think the UN has made a positive difference?

The UN has made many positive differences over its 75 years, and it’s making a difference now. From my perspective, a significant recent reaffirmation of the UN’s importance, which is a kind of inverse reflection of recent failures or shortcomings, is that the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has quickly responded to the human security aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of my longstanding critiques of the UN has been its lack of public leadership at the top. It’s been the approach of the current UNSG, who’s chosen backdoor diplomacy over outspoken advocacy. I won’t deny he’s in a difficult situation, but nonetheless he hasn't been forthright enough in holding major states to account for human rights violations.

I think the pandemic changed things in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. The UNSG finally did what he should have been doing as a general rule, which is to say that this is not about politics or having to tiptoe around the sensitivities of certain member states – this is about telling the world that the only way we will overcome this crisis is by coming together, and that this requires an immediate suspension of hostilities globally. That is aspirational and idealistic, but it’s also technically correct. 

Also the World Health Organization (WHO), despite obvious challenges, essentially showed what it’s there for and its relevance to the general public. Of course the UN Security Council (UNSC) let the UNSG down as a political body, but still the pandemic showed that UN agencies and multilateral institutions more generally are essential and that we need them, both in the context of a public health crisis and to organise a global response to any global crisis.

The obvious long-term success of the UN has been to build multilateralism and establish an international rules-based framework for human rights, sustainable development and the protection of civilians. The framework is there, and the challenge is its implementation. Not only are we currently not seeing implementation, but we are also seeing a steady erosion of these international norms and standards, which has taken place over the past few years. China and Russia are becoming more active in conflicts around the world, either directly or indirectly, and have become emboldened in eviscerating the UN or remoulding institutions to serve their visions, while those states that would traditionally protect and even champion these norms are either less willing or less empowered to do so. The UN made much progress over six or seven decades in building this framework, but now it’s under severe stress.

How have you engaged with the UN, and what challenges have you encountered?

Our work focuses on protecting civilians in armed conflicts, so our UN engagement is almost entirely in relation to the UNSC, and UN agencies with a focus on security and peacebuilding. We tend to engage with the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly (UNGA), mostly when we identify that the UNSC is completely paralysed, which unfortunately is happening increasingly often. But in previous roles I have worked across a wide range of UN agencies, including the UNHRC, the UNGA and other agencies that work on climate change and education, so I’m aware of the comparative opportunities available for civil society engagement.

The means of civil society engagement with the UNSC are much more informal than those with the UNHRC. And I think there are quite a few advantages to not having formal processes for civil society engagement, because the absence of a formal process can result in more effective engagement. At the UNHRC, there is an agenda item and 500 CSOs queue up to give a two-minute statement, which no policy-maker listens to, and you end up with this process of artificial participation that is not very productive. With the UNSC, many CSOs don’t see where the opportunities lie; they think it’s not for them. This means there are fewer CSOs looking for an entry point, so it’s a less crowded field.

Working at the UNSC requires you to build direct relationships with the states that are on the UNSC. You don’t maintain a high public profile. You build relations with the missions, and through that process you often end up having more direct and meaningful influence. So the absence of a formal process can often result in more effective CSO engagement. True, it may also be more difficult, although it varies depending on the composition of the UNSC when it comes to the elected members. Some of them don’t have a long history of engagement with civil society, are not very interested in listening, or have very little capacity. But there’s always some states that prioritise civil society engagement and recognise that the only way the UNSC has legitimacy is by reflecting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. I would emphasise that one of the successes of the UNSC in the past 20 years has been to open up space for civil society briefers, particularly on women, peace and security issues. Fewer speakers means they tend to have more weight: you get the 15 UNSC members to listen to this one person whose time is unlimited and who is very focused on the protection of civilians or other issues. In terms of public participation, that is a sign of progress.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we have to engage with the five permanent UNSC members whether we like it or not, because they are there to stay and they have the veto. And in that respect the situation is currently very bad. From our perspective, the current US administration is not on the right side of things and is not consistently championing accountability for war crimes. France and the UK are inconsistent across countries, and China and Russia are at least consistent in their positions, but for all the wrong reasons. China is opening up to international engagement with civil society, which I think is part of a wider strategy. Five or six years ago, China wouldn’t think it needed to engage with civil society and appeared not to recognise the legitimacy of international human rights CSOs, but now its ambassadors have started agreeing to meet with civil society groups collectively. It may be a public relations exercise, or China may have gained enough confidence to confront international CSOs directly. It’s a clear shift in its foreign policy. Russia, to its credit, has long done the same, and sees value in engagement to some extent, although the dynamic can be a difficult, adversarial one.

How have you managed these challenges?

Collective advocacy often works best with the UNSC. When civil society can form quick coalitions of humanitarian organisations, human rights organisations, local partners, faith leaders and youth representatives and present a few key asks that are consistent across these groups, it builds credibility with UNSC members and increases the chances that it will act promptly. There are about 30 CSOs that work consistently on the UNSC. They have different priorities and a variety of messages, so they certainly engage individually as well. But the message is more powerful when it’s expressed collectively. For instance, if something goes wrong in Yemen and the UK is the penholder it is way more powerful when 12 organisations engage the UK on the same points collectively than the 12 organisations complaining individually. 

What things are currently not working and would need to change?

The one thing that needs to be reformed fundamentally, which is the very core of the UN and has been a problem since day one, is the veto. The UNSC is clearly not fit for purpose in this regard; its composition and balance of power doesn’t reflect the world we now live in. There is no reason why France or the UK should have a veto – or any state for that matter. The inherent problem of the UN is that it was built as part of an agreement amongst the winning powers after the Second World War that they would hold the reins of power, and there is no way to dismantle that without their collective agreement. That is not going to happen with China, Russia, the USA or even the UK. France, to its credit, is at least openly supportive of voluntary processes to check misuse of the veto.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and I wouldn’t if I were speaking about other things, such as progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But the UNSC is power politics in its purest form and no amount of citizen participation will change it. The only way to circumvent the veto would be to dismantle the UN and start from scratch – unless somehow we found ourselves in a parallel world in which these five countries were led by enlightened leaders who at the same time realised they should give up that power for the sake of humanity. But that couldn’t be farther from our current reality, when the veto power is actually being misused, by China, Russia and the USA, as a weapon to discredit the UN.

Apart from this unsurmountable problem, other things have been changing for good. For instance, we are now seeing climate change and security on the UNSC agenda. While China, Russia and the USA seek to block use of the very words ‘climate change’, Germany, Niger and a number of other states went on to create an informal working group on climate change, although to place the issue on the UNSC agenda, they agreed to call it ‘environmental degradation’ instead. This obviously should have happened decades ago, but at least it’s happening now and it’s progress.

What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change so we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes?

During the pandemic, civil society supported and coordinated engagement towards an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire. The initial statement by the UNSG was highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic, but he was absolutely right both in terms of what should happen in the world and in taking that leadership and not consulting first with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, or anybody else. It was courageous and correct. It momentarily reinvigorated the role of the UNSG and the UN as a whole.

While the UN institutional response from the top down was good, the UNSC was an absolute failure. China and the USA and engaged in hostile and juvenile behaviour at a time when the world’s future rested on the UN being effective.

On the other hand, the UNGA responded reasonably well, taking the initiative despite not being able to meet physically. In early April it passed a resolution calling for international cooperation and multilateralism in the fight against COVID-19. Mexico was also very strategic in pushing a resolution on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19, adopted by consensus in late April. In view of the challenges that the UNGA experienced, however, I think one procedural lesson learned was the need for the UN be better prepared to work virtually in the event of another crisis.

An assessment of the performance of other multilateral institutions like the WHO lies outside my area of expertise, but we all read about the allegations that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive with China early on. This is currently under independent review, which suggests as least that basic checks and balances are in place.

 

COVID-19: ‘We need a new social contract founded on rights and the principle of shared prosperity’

Owen Tudor

CIVICUS speaks about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency measures on labour rights, and the civil society response, with Owen Tudor, Deputy General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Recognised as the global voice of the world’s working people, the ITUC works to promote and defend workers’ rights and interests through international cooperation among trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within major global institutions. The ITUC adheres to the principles of trade union democracy and independence and encompasses three regional organisations in Africa, the Americas and Asia and the Pacific, while also cooperating with the European Trade Union Confederation.

What have been the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on labour rights?

The ITUC surveyed its national trade union affiliates regularly in the first few months of the pandemic, and we quickly identified that, while many countries were seeing positive engagement between governments and unions, others weren’t. In many countries, like those in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and often building on existing forms of social dialogue, governments, employers and unions worked together to develop measures to tackle the pandemic and its effects on workplaces. That also happened in some countries where such cooperation has been less common, such as Argentina, Georgia, Nigeria and the UK. At a global level, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stressed the importance of social dialogue as one of its four pillars for action on the pandemic, alongside stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, and protecting workers in the workplace.

But in some countries, rogue employers and neoliberal governments thought they could use the pandemic to restrict workers’ and unions’ rights, such as limits on working time, or security of employment. In countries such as Croatia and Lithuania, we campaigned in support of our affiliates to push back against those changes, but we weren’t successful everywhere. In India, for example, state governments implemented a widespread deregulation of employment protections.

Has this led to any changes in union organising?

In far too many countries, jobs have been lost and unemployment has soared. That has an inevitable impact on union organising. But in several countries, including those that have seen membership reductions in the recent past and those where membership is already strong, the key role played by unions in defending employment and wages and campaigning for decent health and safety at work has led to membership gains. Bluntly, working people have seen more clearly the importance of union membership to protect them against management inadequacies and violations of their most fundamental rights.

In some cases, the pandemic has accelerated the experience of virtual organising – over Zoom or other internet platforms. And that technology has in some cases led union organisers to change their point of view, from explaining the benefits of membership to listening to what potential members want. Again, this just accelerated a trend, from offering people a model that solves their problems to letting workers define what works for them. As one Australian union leader put it, “finally we started contacting our members the way they wanted to be contacted.”

How have unions worked to defend rights and help their members and communities during the pandemic?

The daily work of unions intensified with the pandemic. Unions represented workers threatened with being laid off, pushed for adequate severance pay, sought expanded access to social protection and raised the concerns of women workers who faced even greater discrimination and of migrant workers denied equal access and equal treatment. In many cases unions won breakthroughs previously not thought possible, and we now need to defend those gains for the long term.

Unions have been actively involved with international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organisation (WHO), with national governments on every continent and with employers from the workplace to the multinational boardroom to ensure that workers and their jobs are protected. From negotiating national short-term working schemes in Germany, to ensuring contracts are honoured in the global garment industry, and arranging sectoral policies for the safe return to the workplace in Belgium, unions have been busting a gut to ensure workers’ interests were recognised. Sadly, whenever we hear about community transmission of COVID-19, it’s often a workplace that people are talking about, such as in hospitality, healthcare or meat processing plants. Unions have been emphasising the need for occupational health to be as important as public health, including the provision of personal protective equipment as well as access to paid sick leave.

Unions have also been negotiating fiercely with employers to stop redundancies, which have taken place, disgracefully, even in companies that were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. In some countries, employers have been prevented by law from laying workers off. We have negotiated arrangements for homeworking, which is becoming more common than ever, even after the pandemic has subsided. A new teleworking law in Argentina was negotiated with unions, providing innovations like workers deciding if they want to revert to working in their workplaces.

What has the pandemic told us about underlying economic and labour problems and the changes that need to happen?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, massive inequality – including income disparities, racial injustice and gender discrimination – was already driving an age of anger, characterised by civil unrest and distrust in democracy. Along with the destruction resulting from extreme weather events due to climate change, the risks to economies and societies were already clear. Added to that, we face the choices associated with the best and worst impacts of technology, devoid of a rights base.

The pandemic has highlighted the cracks that were already present in the social contract. Inadequate healthcare provision made the early weeks of the pandemic particularly worrying, with fears that hospitals would be overrun. Similar funding gaps in care for older people and appalling employment arrangements required workers to shuttle between residential facilities, unable to take sick leave when they showed symptoms. Insecure employment and inadequate social protection forced many to keep working while infectious to put food on their families’ plates. The failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment was just the most visible sign of occupational health and safety shortcomings.

For the economy as a whole, the ILO’s dire predictions for hundreds of millions of job losses among the formal labour force were dwarfed by the number of informal sector workers whose livelihoods were wrecked. In each of these areas of systemic failure, it was women whose jobs were most vulnerable and whose health was least protected, with lockdowns forcing many into additional unpaid childcare and some into the trap of violence and abuse.

We need to build back better, including a new social contract for recovery and resilience that provides job protection and a universal labour guarantee whether you’re a full-time employee at Amazon or a precarious Uber driver. Occupational safety and health must become a fundamental right at work, like freedom from slavery or the right to strike. We need adequately funded, quality public healthcare, education and water, as part of universal social protection. And we need to regulate economic power, with the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, minimum living wages and mandated due diligence in supply chains for human rights and environmental standards.

Unions and the millions of members we represent can help deliver all these through collective bargaining with employers, social dialogue with governments and engagement in international and multilateral institutions.

What do governments and businesses need to do to work better with unions, and what role can the international community play?

Governments and businesses need to recognise the vital role that unions play in representing working people – not just at elections, or when pay deals are negotiated, but all year round, and in every corner of the economy. They need to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms that unions need to operate, including the freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. When they make decisions that affect millions – if not hundreds of millions – of people, they need to abide by the slogan of ‘nothing about us, without us’ – and that means working positively with unions.

At the same time, we face a crisis of multilateralism, often driven by nationalist, populist politicians but in part the result of the collapse in public trust for globalisation driven by the rapacious profit-seeking behaviour of global multinational corporations and powerful technology companies.

The world is facing a convergence of crises, yet global institutions established to underpin and reinforce rights, equality, inclusive growth and global stability are at their most fractured. They need to be reinforced and refocused on responding to the needs of people and the planet.

The WHO has proved itself a necessity in the global response to COVID-19, but even so, science must be the basis of managing health risks and ensuring universal access to treatment, without political compromise.

The World Trade Organisation presides over a global model of trade that has failed both people and their environment. And Bretton Woods institutions have strayed far from their mandates by promoting neoliberal structural reform and austerity, the interests of dominant countries and corporate greed. This must change.

The ILO, with its unique tripartite system, is as necessary today as it was when it gave birth to the social contract based on a mandate of social justice. Its constituents need to be as committed to ensuring a global floor of rights and shared prosperity as its founders were 100 years ago in 1919, and as was reaffirmed in the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944.

Working with our allies in broader civil society, unions want to construct a new social contract founded on those principles. If we can do that, we can create a better economy, a better society and a better world.

Get in touch with the International Trade Union Confederation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ituc and @Owen4ituc on Twitter.

 

SERBIA: ‘The political crisis will deepen as a large number of people lack representation’

CIVICUS speaks with Ivana Teofilović about the causes of recent protests and the government’s reaction to them, as well as about the elections held in Serbia under the COVID-19 pandemic. Ivana is public policy programme coordinator at Civic Initiatives, a Serbian citizens’ association aimed at strengthening civil society through civic education, the promotion of democractic values and practices and the creation of opportunities for people’s participation.

Ivana Teofilovic

Why did protests erupt in Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did the government react?

The immediate reason for the mass and spontaneous gathering of citizens in July 2020 was the announcement of the introduction of a new curfew, that is, another 72-hour ban on movement. After the president’s press conference ended, dissatisfied people began to gather in front of the National Assembly in the capital, Belgrade. Although the immediate reason was dissatisfaction with the management of the COVID-19 crisis, people also wanted to express their unhappiness about numerous other government measures and their impacts, and particularly with the conditions in which the recent parliamentary elections were held.

In response, the security forces used unjustified force in dozens of cases and exceeded the powers entrusted to them by law. Their violent response to spontaneous peaceful assemblies was a gross violation of the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and an unwarranted threat to the physical integrity of a large number of protesters. The protests were marked by the use of a huge amount of teargas, which was indiscriminately thrown into the masses of peaceful demonstrators. As a result, many protesters had health issues for days afterwards. Apart from the fact that unjustifiably large quantities of teargas were used, the public's attention was captured by the fact that the teargas fired was past its expiry date.

The media and citizens also reported and documented many cases of police brutality, including that of three young men who were sitting quietly on a bench and were repeatedly beaten by a gendarmerie officer with a baton. In another incident, a young man was knocked to the ground and hit with batons by 19 officers, even though two members of the Ombudsman’s Office were on duty near the scene, precisely to control the conduct of the police. Additional disturbances and acts of violence were perpetrated by a large number of individuals in civilian clothes. At the time it could not be determined whether they were police in civilian clothes, or members of parapolice forces or criminal groups, but many clues point to them being members of hooligan groups connected with the authorities and working on their orders.

Media representatives also played a very important role in the protests. In this context, many media workers behaved professionally and reported objectively on the protests, often becoming victims of police brutality or attacks by members of hooligan groups infiltrated among protesters to incite rioting. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS), as many as 28 journalists were attacked while covering protests, and 14 suffered bodily injuries, which in six cases required urgent medical attention. According to a statement issued by NUNS, the most seriously injured was Zikica Stevanovic, a reporter of the Beta news agency.

However, media outlets that are close to the government either ignored or distorted the real picture of the protests by disseminating lies about who organised, funded and participated in them and by ignoring or denying cases of obvious police brutality. Journalists, analysts and civil society activists who publicly supported the protests and spoke critically about the government and the president were often the target of tabloid campaigns, and were smeared by the holders of high political office in an attempt to discredit their work.

Bureaucratic measures were also used against them, for example through their inclusion on a list compiled by the Ministry of Finance’s Directorate for Prevention of Money Laundering, which required banks to look into all the financial transactions they made over the past year. The associations and individuals who were targeted published a joint statement with over 270 signatures to call on the authorities to urgently make public the reasons for any suspicion that these organisations and individuals were involved in money laundering or terrorist financing. They also made clear that these pressures would not deter them from fighting for a democratic and free Serbia.

Violent police reaction, indiscriminate brutality, non-objective reporting and government retaliation further motivated people to protest. As a result, people took to the streets in even greater numbers in the following days. Protests also began to take place in several other Serbian cities besides Belgrade, including Kragujevac, Nis, Novi Sad and Smederevo.

Has civil society experienced additional challenges to continue doing its work under the pandemic?

Under the state of emergency imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also after the state of emergency was lifted, civil society organisations (CSOs) faced numerous difficulties that greatly hindered their work. During the first weeks of the state of emergency, some CSOs that provide services to vulnerable people were unable to perform their activities due to the ban on movement, a difficulty that was only gradually and partly overcome over time as special permits were issued to certain categories of people.

Another challenge was posed by the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits, adopted in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. This regulation did not extend exemption from value-added tax (VAT) to food, consumer goods and services donated to the non-profit and humanitarian sector to support socially vulnerable groups. For this reason, a group of CSOs sent the Ministry of Finance a proposal to extend the VAT exemption.

The biggest challenge for CSOs was financial sustainability, which was especially endangered by the suspension of the competition for co-financing projects of public importance, both at the national and local levels. In addition, while the provisions of the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits were insufficiently clear when it came to CSOs, they unequivocally excluded informal citizens’ initiatives, and thus jeopardised their survival.

In addition, the right to the freedom of expression was especially endangered during the pandemic. Challenges included restrictions faced by the press to attend and ask questions at Crisis Staff press conferences, the disregard of media representatives by officials in government bodies and institutions, and the persecution of media outlets that pointed to negative consequences during the pandemic. These restrictions opened up opportunities for the dissemination of unverified information. The lack of timely and factual information led to the further spread of panic and it became clear that in addition to the pandemic, Serbia also faced an ‘infodemic’.

What are the views of civil society about the government response to the pandemic, including the conditions under whichthe recent elections were held?

Despite the very unfavourable position they found themselves in, CSOs played a significant role during the COVID-19 crisis. CSOs had a significant role to play in correcting government failings, as they put forward numerous quality proposals for overcoming the crisis. In many situations it was CSOs, due to better training, that took over the roles of certain civil services. The general impression is that the state was not ready for the crisis, and therefore did not have enough capacity to provide a better response. 

Due to its closed nature, the government used the need of urgency and efficiency as a pretext to bypass dialogue. In adopting some measures, there were frequent violations of laws and the constitution, and of people’s rights, particularly the right of journalists to do their work. Economic measures were not adopted in a timely and effective manner, which endangered many CSOs and their activists, ultimately having their greatest impact on people as users of CSO services.

Regarding the parliamentary elections, which were held on 21 June after being postponed from their original date of 26 April, there is still an unanswered question regarding the government’s responsibility for conducting an election process under the pandemic. There is suspicion that the decision to hold the election was politically motivated and irresponsible. This was reinforced by the fact that in the weeks following the election, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths drastically increased. It seems that the efforts made by some CSOs to create conditions for free and democratic elections have not yielded the desired results.

What were the main issues that got in the way of a free and fair election?

Beyond the pandemic, the major concern about the elections was that they were dominated by the ruling party, including through pressure on critical journalists and media outlets and control of mainstream media, which lack a diversity of opinions and balanced coverage and are used for campaign purposes.

Media coverage during the election campaign was slightly more balanced than in previous elections, because the government wanted to prove that complaints from the public and the political opposition regarding poor election conditions and the captivity of the media were baseless. In principle, candidates were treated equally by public media, although public officials campaigning on a daily basis also received a lot of additional coverage. On top of this, members of the opposition who had decided to boycott the elections and therefore did not present candidates did not have room to present their arguments on national television.

The unequal treatment of candidates was especially visible in national commercial television channels, which provided logistical support to the ruling party and its coalition partners. This problem was exacerbated by the passive stance adopted by the Electronic Media Regulatory Body (REM), which played an almost imperceptible role during the election campaign. In May 2020, REM changed its methodology of monitoring the media representation of political actors, counting every mention of a political option as proof of media representation. This led to the conclusion that the opposition Alliance for Serbia was the most represented party. But in reality, the Alliance for Serbia, which boycotted the elections, did not receive any media coverage on national television; rather it was the most frequent target of attacks by the ruling party and its allied media. In this area, another problem is the uneven normative framework: REM’s regulations relating to public media services are legally binding, but those relating to commercial broadcasters are drafted in the form of recommendations and have no binding effect, and there are no effective safeguards against violations.

What are the implications of the election results for human rights and democracy in Serbia?

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party, truly a right-wing party, won over 60 per cent of the vote, claiming approximately 190 seats in the 250-seat parliament. Their coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, came second with about 10 per cent of the vote, adding approximately 30 seats to the coalition. As a result, the National Assembly was left without opposition representatives, opening additional space for unlimited and legally unhindered exercise of power by the ruling party. The past four years are proof that the mere presence of the opposition in parliament is not a sufficient barrier to arbitrariness, as the government has perfected mechanisms to make parliamentary procedures meaningless and restrict the freedom of speech of opposition representatives. But some opposition legislators, through their initiatives, public appearances and proposals, managed to draw attention to numerous scandals and violations of the law by state officials.

The protests that came after the elections seem to point towards further political polarisation and a deepening of the political crisis, as a large number of people lack representation and feel deprived of the right to elect their representatives without fear through free and democratic elections. The latest attempts to deal with civil society, journalists and prominent critical individuals by promoting investigations of money laundering or terrorist financing speak about deepening polarisation. The development of human rights requires coordination and cooperation of CSOs and state bodies as well as social consensus and political will, so this is certainly not contributing to an improvement of the human rights situation in Serbia. On the contrary, it is leading to an increasingly serious crisis, the aggravation of inequalities and injustices and more frequent protests.

Civic space in Serbia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Civic Initiatives through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @gradjanske on Twitter.

 

CHILE: ‘This historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens’

CIVICUS speaks with Marcela Guillibrand De la Jara, Executive Director of the Chilean Volunteer Network (Red de Voluntarios de Chile) and General Coordinator of Now It’s Our Time to Participate (Ahora Nos Toca Participar). The Volunteer Network is a national platform that brings together Chilean civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote voluntary action. Now It's Our Time to Participate is an initiative of social organisations gathered in the New Social Pact (NPS-Chile) that seeks to contribute to strengthening democracy and social cohesion by promoting citizen participation in the plebiscite on a new constitution scheduled for October 2020 and in the constituent process that the plebiscite is expected to trigger. The campaign focuses on citizen training, the creation of spaces for dialogue and the generation of proposals to feed into the constituent process.

Marcela Guillibrand

In late 2019, a referendum was called in order to trigger a constituent process. To what extent was this the victory of a mobilised society?

In October 2019, Chile reactivated its political and social life, collectively and throughout its territory. Citizens took to the streets to meet, to speak and take part in politics, as they had not done for a long time. This is how specific and unconventional participatory experiences emerged, locally rooted and with a local identity, mixed with expressions of discontent and frustration towards the structural inequality that had developed and manifested in our country for a long time.

All this was initially motivated by young people’s dissatisfaction with an increase of 30 pesos (approx. US$0.33) on the price of the ticket used in the Chilean capital’s transportation system, the Metro. In reaction to the increase, demonstrations took place, initially in the form of fare evasion but eventually embracing slogans such as ‘It's not 30 pesos, it's 30 years’, a reference to the time that we have been living in a democracy – since our democratic transition took place in 1990 – and the feeling, shared by a large part of the population, that we have not been included in the decision-making process. This was fuelled by high levels of mistrust in institutions, great political disaffection and the reaction against a model that pushed our country towards more individualistic views and forms of participation in all areas.

Faced with a level of mobilisation that did not relent, on 15 November 2019 political parties across the spectrum signed the ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’. As a result, citizens were given the opportunity to decide if they want a new constitution through a plebiscite that will be held on 25 October 2020. In the plebiscite, citizens must also select the mechanism that would be used to draft a new constitution: a constitutional convention, a body fully elected for the purpose of drafting the constitution; or a mixed constitutional convention, which would include both current Congress members, who would make up 50 per cent of the body, and representatives elected exclusively for this task, who would make up the other 50 per cent. A large part of society views this process as opening up a unique opportunity for us to choose freely the Chile we want. Although technically what gave rise to this opportunity was an agreement between various political groupings, this historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens.

Within this process, civil society has also made historic progress on gender issues. Various social organisations that have long worked very hard to promote and defend women’s rights pushed the demand for gender parity in the constituent process, and managed to impose it thanks to the echo they found among various political groups represented in Congress. If the option in favour of drafting a new constitution wins in the plebiscite, the gender parity rule will apply in the election of constitutional delegates. The rule, however, will only be fully operational if the constitutional convention alternative prevails, since in that case all members of the constituent body would be elected in a single election. If the mixed constitutional convention alternative is chosen, the parity rule would apply to the half of the body that will be elected, but not to the half that will be made up of legislators who already occupy congressional seats.

What stance has Chilean civil society taken regarding the prospect of a constitutional reform process?

As the plebiscite date approaches, interest on the subject has increased. We have had localised quarantines for more than five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organisations with which we interact have had their attention focused mainly on the survival of their programmes and supporting their target populations, since economically the pandemic has hit them very hard. Even so, little by little they have shown growing interest in constitutional issues. For our part, we have stayed connected with them and we have worked together to offer them a platform that contains citizenship training materials that they can use and to coordinate various spaces to conduct training through digital platforms and other mechanisms suited to reach a variety of territories, such as radio and text messaging.

It is in this context that we launched Now It’s Our Time to Participate, an initiative of the New Social Pact (Nuevo Pacto Social) network, which brings together just over 700 CSOs. The initiative seeks to guarantee the training of citizens and citizen participation in the context of the constituent process that will likely take place. Our focus is on activating citizens, providing them with training tools and jointly generating spaces for participation and dialogue to regain prominence in decision-making in our country. For this, in the run-up to the plebiscite, we have organised a range of key content in several sections – citizen participation, constitution and constituent process – that we have made available to citizens and CSOs through our web platform, www.ahoranostocaparticipar.cl, as well as on social media and through other means. On the basis of this content we have developed a range of training options that include accessible materials in various languages, such as Aymara, Mapudungun and Rapa Nui, as well as in Creole. The idea is that all the people who wish to can find answers in these materials about the constitution and the likely constituent process, in order to be able to take part in the plebiscite in a free and informed manner and thus contribute to achieving the most massive vote in Chilean history.

The plebiscite had originally been planned for April before being postponed to October due to the pandemic. Have there been any conflicts or disagreements regarding the postponement and the new date?

The health scenario created by the pandemic forced the relevant institutions to move the date of the plebiscite to October. The section of civil society with which we interact understood that this change was necessary based on a higher common good, people’s health. At the moment we take for granted that the plebiscite will take place in October, since the institutions that could make the decision to change the date have not yet done so, so we continue to work based on that date. Currently, issues related to the implementation of the plebiscite are being discussed. They focus firstly on health safeguards, but also on how to promote citizen participation in this process, which will undoubtedly have very different characteristics from what we are used to. Intersectoral working groups have been set up to work on the issue. First, the Senate set up a forum to receive recommendations and analyse the comparative experiences of other countries that have been in the same situation. Then the Electoral Service kept the forum to continue working along the lines of guaranteeing a safe and participatory plebiscite. Various CSOs have been invited to participate, including Now It's Our Time to Participate. Jointly with these organisations, we have produced a document with recommendations that range from health issues to campaign regulations, and also includes issues such as access to information and citizen capacity development, which is what we work on. This space continues in operation.

Are measures being taken so that people’s participation in the campaign and vote is not undermined by the effects of the pandemic?

The current pandemic scenario is naturally forcing us to adopt safeguards. The electoral advertising phase kicked off on 26 August, so now it is possible to disseminate campaign materials in public places that are expressly authorised by the Electoral Service, as well as on the media. Debate is taking place with great force on social media, which given the need to take precautions, avoid crowds and physical contact and respect sanitary restrictions decreed by the authorities, is currently the main space to gain visibility.

What to do to guarantee everyone’s right to participate on the day of the plebiscite is something that has been under discussion. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, some places in our country remain under confinement, multiple sectors are quarantined due to the presence of active cases, and there are municipalities that had initiated a deconfinement plan but then had to back off due to new outbreaks of the virus.

How do we guarantee the right to participation of those people who are infected with COVID-19? What alternatives do we have? These are the kind of questions that are being debated by both the public and the relevant authorities who are in a position to respond to these demands.

Along these lines, alongside various CSOs we are promoting a series of recommendations that address not only the sanitary aspect – so that COVID-19 patients can vote – but also issues such as ensuring access to timely information and citizen capacity development to all those people who have historically been excluded from participation for multiple reasons, including due to not having adequate information channels to receive content, or content not being available in a variety of languages. In this sense, it is important that every effort be made to guarantee the right to participation, not only to those who at this particular time might not be in a position to exercise it for health reasons, but also to those who have historically found themselves in a more vulnerable situation, such as older adults, Indigenous peoples, rural populations, women, LGBTQI+ people and migrants.

Civic space in Chile is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Now It’s Our Time to Participate through its website, Instagram or its Facebook page, and follow @ahrnostoca and @marbrandd on Twitter.

 

 

NIGERIA: ‘The global anti-racist protests renewed the call for police accountability’

CIVICUS speaks to Nelson Olanipekun, a human rights lawyer and the founder and team lead of Citizens’ Gavel, a Nigerian civic tech organisation that works to increase the pace of the delivery of justice by promoting access to justice, citizens’ engagement and the use of digital technologies. Citizens’ Gavel was founded in 2017 in reaction to the lack transparency and accountability in the justice sector.

Nelson Olanipekun1

What kind of work does Citizens’ Gavel do?

Citizens’ Gavel is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Nigeria. It was established three years ago to tackle the slow pace of the delivery of justice, promote accountability, and provide legal support. Our main goal is to increase the effectiveness of the delivery of justice through tech, advocacy, and strategic lobbying, and to reduce human rights violations through policy and legal advocacy. At the moment we are working jointly with other CSOs on legal reform. In doing so, we are trying to become a major player in policy-making processes that affect the fundamental rights of Nigerians.

We work with cases involving issues that range from mass incarceration to the lack of digitised processes in the justice sector. The justice delivery process in Nigeria is one of the slowest in Africa and it results in a high percentage of people incarcerated while awaiting trial. About 70 percent of the people who are in prison are awaiting trial; only 30 percent have been convicted. In 2017 we filed a class action suit for more than 500 people who were awaiting trial in prison in Oyo State. These people had already spent several years in prison, although the law establishes that people can be held for a maximum of 28 days before being taken to court. We also digitised cause lists in over 30 courts across Nigeria, and focused on improving cooperation among stakeholders in the justice sector.

We provide pro bono legal representation for pre-trial detainees who can’t afford a lawyer. We have developed programmes and apps for human rights abuse victims and their families to reach out for legal help easily. One of them is Podus, a tech platform that enables victims of pre-trial detention to connect with the pro bono lawyer nearest to their location. This platform was created specifically for young people, who don’t have easy access to lawyers or justice programmes. We have over 160 lawyers across 24 states in Nigeria and a rapid response legal team of seven lawyers. So far we have resolved 1,500 cases. Another tech-for-justice app we developed is Justice Clock, a tech platform that helps calculate the amount of time inmates spend in detention and the number of days suspects spend on trial vis-a-vis the appropriate provisions of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act and other laws. The platform also offers a space where actors in the justice sector – the judiciary, the police, prosecutors and prison officials – can stand at par with international best practices, and in doing so can make their work easier. We have worked hand in hand with Ogun State to successfully deploy the Justice Clock so that the justice sector, specifically the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Commissioner for Justice of Ogun State, ensures that it respects the constitutional time limits for which inmates awaiting trial can be imprisoned.

We track cases that involve sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), take cases of police brutality, monitor anti-corruption campaigns and anti-corruption cases to provide relevant information to the public, and advocate for people living in extreme poverty and connect them through tech. Our concern about this population originally arose from the growing number of poor people who are imprisoned while awaiting trial. If they don’t receive any help, poor defendants spend a long time in jail for minor offences, just because they cannot afford to either pay bail or bribe the police. They are also vulnerable and can be coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit and end up spending even longer periods in prison.

Citizens’ Gavel also works on police brutality. What is the situation in Nigeria, and how did the global protests triggered by the death of George Floyd in the USA resonate locally?

Police brutality is a big issue in Nigeria and we have worked on it for some time. In April 2019, for instance, we challenged the Nigerian Police Force to conduct mental health assessments on officers who had committed abuses or killings, or otherwise face legal action.

The global protests triggered by the death of George Floyd renewed the call for police accountability in Nigeria and people started sharing stories of their encounters with police officers. Coupled with pre-existing local issues, the US incident that resonated globally enhanced the local voices who were speaking up against police brutality. We were able to contribute by addressing the complaints that citizens reported to us and continuing to work to ensure culpable officers are held accountable.

In what ways have human rights issues worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As the pandemic started there was an increase in police brutality related to the enforcement of lockdown measures and compliance with sanitary protocols. Interactions between citizens and police officers increased and resulted in more complaints against police officers. By April 2020, it appeared that police officers had killed more people than COVID-19. Additionally, the brutalities committed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad Unit of the Nigerian Police Force continued during the pandemic, and the authorities continued failing to prosecute officers who committed torture and violent crimes, mostly against young men from low-income backgrounds.

Another longstanding epidemic, that of SGBV, flourished under the pandemic. Before the pandemic, about 30 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 had experienced sexual abuse. While preventing outbreaks of the virus, lockdown measures represented a heightened threat to the safety of girls and women, as victims of SGBV remained locked in with their abusers. Between March and April 2020, reports of SGBV increased by 149 percent. The lockdown also compromised the availability of and access to services, as many centres and shelters for victims of SGBV closed or reduced the range of services they provided. As a result, these essential services were lacking precisely when survivors needed them the most.

In response to this situation, Citizens’ Gavel increased the number of SGBV cases we manage. We are doing as much as we can, taking into account that physical meetings and legal interventions were suspended and our team members had to work remotely for several months. Fortunately, this was relatively easy to pivot to because we are a civic tech organisation and our staff had already been trained to use online tools.

What kind of support from international civil society would help your work?

We would appreciate training opportunities to enhance our skills to better serve the local communities we work with. We would also like to know about the strategies that work best to curb human rights abuses in other environments.

Citizens’ Gavel is big on using tech to solve some of the local justice issues and has been able to develop some tech tools; however, we would like to learn more about technologies that work in other contexts. Accessing international platforms through which we can hold the government accountable is also key to our strategy.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Citizens’ Gavel through its website or Facebook page, and follow @citizen_gavel on Twitter.

 

 

POLAND: ‘We invented new forms of protest because we had to’

CIVICUS speaks to Klementyna Suchanow, an activist, author and researcher based in Warsaw, Poland, about the recent announcement by the Polish government that it will begin the process to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention on Violence against Women. Klementyna is one of the founders of the Polish Women’s Strike and the International Women’s Strike. The Polish Women’s Strike is a grassroots feminist movement founded in 2016 to defend women’s rights against the government's plan to ban and criminalise abortion. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement has remained united and active via a Facebook group and continues to mobilise for women’s rights in Poland.

Klementyna Suchanow

What has the situation of gender rights in Poland been over the past few years?

We are under a conservative government and while I would never say it was paradise five years ago, the situation for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights has recently worsened. Every day you witness more verbal and physical attacks against marginalised groups. Divisions have been created along political lines and the main targets of aggression have been immigrants and LGBTQI+ people. During the campaign for 2019’s European Parliament election and this year’s presidential election the main focus has been on hate against LGBTQI+ people. The wave of hatred is very intense and dealing with it is a challenge. 

The situation of women and women’s rights movements is slightly different. Our new strand of popular feminism is very inclusive and pragmatic. This is why so many young people have joined us in recent months. We see younger generations become more politicised and aware. So the women’s movement is in a very strong position. It is the only movement that has succeeded in forcing the government to take a step back from its idea to ban abortion in 2016, and then later around other issues. It looks like our anger scares them, but they still keep doing things to worsen our situation.

In sum, women are experiencing setbacks in our legal situation but our power keeps growing. I am not sure if this is the case with the LGBTQI+ community, because they are a minority group and are more exposed. The situation of LGBTQI+ people is definitely getting worse on all fronts.

Have there been further regressions on gender rights during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Taking advantage of the pandemic, the government and other groups have made several attempts to roll back women’s sexual and reproductive rights. In May 2020, the Polish parliament proposed a bill that would remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to other facilities if they refuse to provide abortion care based on their staff’s personal beliefs. Under current Polish law, a legal abortion can only be performed if the mother’s life is at risk, the pregnancy is a result of rape, or the foetus has a serious deformity. About 98 per cent of abortions fall under the latter category, but a bill was proposed in May to eliminate this clause. In June, new provisions in the Criminal Code imposed harsh prison sentences on those who support women by providing them with abortion care.

The amendments to abortion laws during the pandemic came about through a civic project submitted by a fundamentalist organisation. We organised protests, which was a slightly crazy thing to do, because how do you protest during a pandemic when you are not allowed to gather? That is why we got creative: we invented new forms of protest because we had to. We staged ‘queueing protests’, standing two metres apart in a queue outside a shop close to the parliament building, to comply with lockdown regulations, while holding signs and umbrellas. This happened in several cities, not just in the capital, Warsaw. As we were not allowed to walk freely, we also organised ‘car protests’. We interrupted traffic and blocked Warsaw’s main square for about an hour.

These protests were quite effective. The amendments did not proceed and are now ‘frozen’. They were sent to a parliamentary commission, but the commission is not working on them. They have been neither rejected nor approved. But this also means that they might come back suddenly at any point in the future, and we will have to deal with them again.

From the very beginning this government has been clear that it does not support women’s rights and does not care about violence against women. Since the government came into power, funding to centres that help women has been cut and these centres have had to resort to crowdfunding or are surviving on private donations, because they have no access to state funding anymore. However, some progress has also taken place, as with a recently passed law, which was proposed by a leftist party, that empowers police officers to issue an order to forbid perpetrators of violence from entering the household of the victim for 14 days. This has helped immediately separate victims from perpetrators.

On the other hand, over the past several months we have seen announcements from the authorities that they are thinking about pulling Poland out of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as the Istanbul Convention. In the beginning we didn’t take it too seriously. But it is always like this: first they test the waters to see how far they can go, and if they don’t find too much resistance they start pushing forward. During the presidential campaign and election, the topic was not raised, but only a week afterwards it became an issue. Many serious developments, such as arrests of activists, took place right after the election.

Now the situation is becoming serious. Announcements have been made by several ministers and the president has approved the idea to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. There is also a lot of propaganda on state media to convince people that this Convention is about so-called ‘gender ideology’. However, surveys show that over 60 per cent of the population is against leaving the Convention compared to only 15 per cent who support the idea. Half of those who oppose leaving the Convention voted for the ruling party. It is weird that they are pushing this so far because it’s against the views of their own voters.

As someone who was at the forefront of the2016 women’s strike in Poland, how do you feel about the current situation?

We are so used to hearing bad news that we weren’t surprised with this latest announcement. The situation in Poland is such and so many bad things happen every day that you become immune to bad news.

During the pandemic everything has been highly political. Instead of focusing on taking care of people’s health, everything became politicised. The presidential election was supposed to be held in May, and there was a lot of discussion about whether it should be held; it was finally postponed to late June. The ruling party knew that it was losing popularity because the health system is not efficient enough and the minister of health himself made huge money by supplying masks and medical equipment. This is why the ruling party pushed to have the election as soon as possible, before it lost too many votes. And instead of taking care of our safety and lives, the ruling party focused on its own political agendas. The attempts to ban abortion were very upsetting and disappointing because you expect more responsibility from your government at such a critical time.

I knew people were tired of mobilising, so I was surprised to see so many come out to defend the Istanbul Convention, which became a national topic of discussion in the media and everywhere. A lot of positive energy has been created around this and is giving us the strength to try and stop it.

We have been protesting for five years now. Protest has its own dynamics: you have to feel the moment and decide how to react; sometimes you give it a try and it doesn’t work out. It’s always an experiment. But right now, we feel that there is real energy and a momentum we need to ride on. There is a lot of interest from foreign media, and this topic has become the focus of attention. This is slightly strange because every time we tried to do something on violence against women in the past, it was very hard to get people to mobilise on the streets. There is something about violence that makes it difficult to translate feelings into street action. While many people experience it or know somebody who has been a victim, they don’t like to react to it. Many times in the past we failed when organising things on the topic of violence, but this time people took it up. We might now have a chance to defend the right to a life free from violence and make this a problem for the government.

Do gender rights activists in Poland currently experience any restrictions on their right to organise, speak up and mobilise?

I am a writer and artist, and as a result of my activism I am cut off from state grants. There are no state institutions that want to work with me right now because if my name shows up on their list, it becomes a problem for them. You could also be arrested or be taken to court by a right-wing legal foundation such as Ordo Iuris. Of course, there is also hate speech: the government uses your name and your image for propaganda on state media, and you can also be attacked by trolls on social media. Police can hurt you, as happened to me at one protest in 2018. This situation came about gradually, but at this point there is a wide range of forms of repression that you can experience. For the time being, however, I haven’t heard of feminist activists facing physical attacks from civilians.

I am one of the activists who started taking direct action against the government, so there are a lot of things that I am being accused of. Ordo Iuris does not like me because I wrote a book exposing the international fundamentalist network that it is part of. I am on the list of their enemies, but so far, I have not been sued by them. They say they are working on their list of accusations against me, because there are so many. During our latest protest, members of Ordo Iuris approached a police officer and tried to convince him that I should be requested to show my identification. But the police in Warsaw know us, they know our faces, they knew that I had not done anything illegal during the protest and refused their request.

In which ways can civil society hold accountable an increasingly authoritarian government such as Poland’s, and what support from international civil society does it need to do so?

Regarding the Istanbul Convention, we are trying to convince the international community that European funds should be allocated bearing in mind the actual human rights compliance records of each member of the European Union (EU). A new instrument introduced in the EU established that funding should be linked to adherence to democratic principles and practices. We are trying to convince the Council of Europe, the source of the Istanbul Convention, to introduce similar measures towards the governments that are relinquishing their people’s rights. It’s all about linking funding to human rights compliance. Money is the only language governments will understand. Six Polish cities are currently not receiving European funds following their declaration of so-called ‘LGBTI-free zones’, which is considered an act against human rights. We would like to raise this question, together with Turkish women, who are facing a similar battle against their government’s initiative to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. You cannot be destroying human rights, like Hungary and Russia are doing, and still be treated by the Council of Europe like anyone else, as a partner in the conversation. So, this is a new approach that we are trying to make people understand.

We want international civil society organisations to lobby local politicians so they become aware that the issues of human rights and funding need to be considered together. The Council of Europe also needs to understand this so we can set a precedent and in the future women here and in other countries will be protected. If we have an authoritarian government that does whatever it wants, even if citizens don’t agree, we need to have some protections from abroad. All we find in Poland is repression, so we need somebody from outside to be on our side and not leave us alone.

Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Polish Women’s Strike through its Facebook page and follow @strajkkobiet and @KSuchanow on Twitter.

 

HONG KONG: ‘The National Security Law infringes on freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship’

CIVICUS speaks with Patrick Poon, an independent human rights researcher, on the human rights situation in Hong Kong after a new National Security Law (NSL) was passed in June 2020. Patrick is a PhD researcher at the University of Lyon, France, and has previously worked as a China Researcher at Amnesty International and in various positions at China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Independent Chinese PEN Center and China Labour Bulletin. 

Civic space in Hong Kong is under renewed attack since mass protests for democratic freedoms, sparked by a proposed Extradition Bill, began in June 2019. The CIVICUS Monitor has documented excessive and lethal force by the security forces against protesters, arrests and the prosecution of pro-democracy activists as well as a crackdown on independent media.

   Patrick Poon

Why has the NSL been imposed in Hong Kong and what have its impacts been so far?

The NSL, imposed by the Chinese government on 20 June 2020, without any consultation or legislative oversight, empowers China to extend some of its most potent tools of social control from the mainland to Hong Kong. The law includes the creation of specialised secret security agencies, allows for the denial of the right to a fair trial, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media and weakens judicial oversight.

The new law undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and the human rights guarantees enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. It contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in its Bill of Rights Ordinance.

The Chinese government’s intention is to use the NSL to curb advocacy and support for independence as more people, especially young people, have increasingly embraced Hong Kong’s autonomy and their identity as Hongkongers. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines a high degree of autonomy, the Chinese government apparently regards calls for autonomy and self-governance as a ‘danger to national security’.

The NSL has seriously infringed Hong Kong people’s freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship in the city. Under the NSL, people who advocate for independence, as well as politicians and prominent figures who support foreign governments’ sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are responsible for enacting the NSL, have been the target of the arbitrary arrests. The government is obviously attempting to scare off others not to follow these people’s calls. 

Independent media have also been affected by the crackdown. The arrests of Jimmy Lai, media mogul and founder of popular local paper Apple Daily, and senior executives in his company, signify the government’s attempt to punish news media that are critical of it. Reports about criticism against the NSL and calls for sanctions by foreign government officials become the excuse for the crackdown on independent media. This will have long-term impact on Hong Kong media, even further intensifying self-censorship for some media outlets.

How have civil society and the pro-democracy movement responded?

Civil society has reacted strongly against the law because the process to enact it violated the principle of the rule of law and procedural justice in Hong Kong, and the vague and broad definitions of various provisions of the law exceed the normal understanding of law in the city. Pro-China politicians and government officials have been trying hard to justify the law, but their arguments are preposterous. 

How have the opposition and civil society reacted to the government’s decision to postpone the legislative election due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

The 2020 Hong Kong Legislative Council election was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020, but in July the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, cited an upsurge in COVID-19 infections and used her emergency powers to postpone it for a whole year, so now it’s expected to take place on 5 September 2021. She denied that the change was due to any political speculation, but it was in fact a blow for pro-democracy activists, who were seeking a majority on the Legislative Council. 

In the midst of massive protests, pro-democracy candidates had already won by a landslide in the 2019 District Council election. Along with the new NSL, the postponement of the election was viewed as part of the government’s strategy to neutralise the pro-democracy movement. Just prior to the announcement that the election was being postponed, 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running, and four young former members of a pro-independence student group were arrested under the NSL for their pro-independence posts on social media.

The postponement of the election created some conflict among the pro-democracy camp, with some calling for keeping up the fight in the Legislative Council and others urging a boycott over the government’s decision to postpone the elections. From the government’s decision to disqualify some pro-democracy candidates for their political views, it is clear that the government doesn’t want to hear any opposition voices in the legislature.

What can the international community and international civil society organisations do to support civil society in Hong Kong?

Civil society in Hong Kong needs to work together to ensure that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government will not abuse the NSL to curb all dissenting views and closely monitor if the government abides by the principle of the rule of law and international human rights standards.

The international community should continue speaking up against the Chinese and Hong Kong government’s crackdown on  civil society and keep raising concerns about the NSL, which is being forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in the name of national security, but in fact is no more than an attempt to silence dissenting views in the city. The international community should send a clear message that national security should not be used as an excuse to crack down on the freedom of expression.

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

 

#BEIJING25: ‘We are outraged at discrimination and are turning our claims into action’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality. 

CIVICUS speaks to Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and a member of the Secretariat of the Gqual Campaign, a global initiative seeking to promote gender parity in the composition of international organisations.

viviana Krsticevic

How much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has been translated into actual improvements?

We still have a long way to go to ensure that women can live autonomously without the burden of discrimination. Clearly, there are disparities and different effects among women due to age, economic situation, skin colour, ethnicity, migrant status, rural condition and several other situations that partly define our experience. Global figures for disparities in education, access to health, property and positions of power show the enormous disadvantage that women are at in most societies and the differential weight of inequality.

For instance, according to data from UN Women updated to the first semester of 2020, only 6.6 per cent of heads of government worldwide are women, as well as 20.7 per cent of those in ministerial positions; likewise, women hold 24.9 per cent of all parliamentary seats. The under-representation of women is also reflected in other areas, such as access to education: globally, 48.1 per cent of girls are not attending school. It is also visible in the labour market, since women receive 23 per cent less income than men. The same can be said about the prevalence of gender-based violence: the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 87,000 women were victims of femicides worldwide in 2017, and that more than half – 50,000, or 58 per cent – were murdered by their partner or a member of their family.

In other words, there is a long way to go, but we have made significant progress in the 25 years since the Beijing Conference. Some important examples are the progress, made both through legal channels and on the streets, in rejecting sexist violence and femicide, the recognition of the differential effects of violence affecting Afro-descendant women, the policy changes aimed at tackling maternal mortality, advances in gaining access to government or legislative positions, the greater valuing of care tasks and the development of legal frameworks to deal with workplace harassment, among others.

In part, these advances were possible thanks to synergies between national-level change processes and international goal-setting and rights-recognition processes. In this sense, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG5) on women's equality, agreed globally at the UN level, is one of the key tools to achieve respect for individual autonomy and the collective development of communities. To advance this goal agreed upon by governments, there are a series of institutional spaces that promote it at the international and regional levels.

In addition, there is the fact that many women from various sectors, in Latin America and the world, are outraged at discrimination and structural violence and are turning our claims into action. Initiatives such as #NiUnaMenos, #SayHerName and #LasTesis, among many others, have been examples of this. Engaging in analysis, protesting and making proposals are key to ensuring that discriminatory structures are overcome.

Why is equal gender representation important, and what is the situation in international institutions?

One of the most significant arguments of women and other movements in search of representation is that of equality, since often the absence of women in decision-making sites is not the result of their own choice but the effect of glass ceilings, implicit discrimination and the segmentation of labour markets, among other factors. On top of this, there is the argument of the impact of equal participation in terms of enriching debate, innovation and due diligence in decision-making and improving the legitimacy and sustainability of certain processes, among other possible beneficial effects of the inclusion of women in decision-making spaces. In the same spirit, several innovative international conventions have included clauses to promote gender equality and representation. UN General Assembly Resolution 1325 on peace and security also includes language on the need for women’s participation in peace processes.

This recognition stands in contrast with the limited participation of women in decision-making sites, both nationally and internationally. The norms and mechanisms established in most of these spaces do not ensure the participation of women in conditions of equality or equal representation.

At the international level, in the spaces where decisions are reached on war and peace, the evolution of international criminal law, the scope of human rights, economic law and environmental law, and various other key issues, women are underrepresented at extreme levels. For instance, the International Court of Justice currently includes only three female judges (19 per cent) and historically it has only included four women out of a total of 108 magistrates (3.7 per cent). Only one of the seven current members of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is a woman (14.3 per cent), and in the International Criminal Court there are only six women out of a total of 18 members (33 per cent). Finally, 10 of the 56 special mechanisms of the UN to date have never been led by a woman.

In other words, women are on the fringes of the decisions that are made on most of the issues that are most significant for the future of humanity in the areas of politics, justice and peace. This reality contrasts with the recognition of the right to participation in the international arena under conditions of equality enshrined in Article 8 of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, widely ratified worldwide, and with the aspirations of balanced or equal participation proposed in various spaces of the UN system and other institutions.

How did the Gqual Campaign originate, what are its goals and what has it achieved so far?

Taking into account the reality of glass ceilings and the drastic regressions that have occurred recently in the composition of some bodies, a group of women and men convinced of the value of gender-balanced and diverse spaces joined in an initiative to promote gender parity in justice and monitoring institutions at the international level. With this objective in mind, we launched the Gqual campaign in September 2015. From this platform we promote individual and institutional commitments to gender parity in international representation, the development of research, standards and mechanisms to promote gender equality in international monitoring and justice institutions, vibrant and timely debate on the issue to advance the equality agenda, and the creation of a community of discussion and action around the issue.

Among the campaign’s actions are the monitoring and distribution of information on available positions in the sphere of international justice. We send letters and post information on networks calling attention to opportunities and disparities, we promote academic research, and we make proposals to modify the procedures for the nomination and selection of those who occupy positions in justice and monitoring institutions at the national and international level. Among our most interesting initiatives is a ranking that includes the number of men and women in these positions, by country. We also hold meetings of experts to contribute to the development of specialised documents. Additionally, we create synergies with selection processes in judicial spaces at the national level and participate in debates on representation at the national and international levels, in order to advance the broader agenda of political and social change towards equality.

I would like to invite you to join the online campaign and to follow and interact with it on social media. Since the launch of the campaign, we have made progress in debating the issue and have had several significant achievements, including resolutions by the UN and the Organization of American States on gender balance in the composition of international bodies, the systematisation of information on the composition of positions at the UN level disaggregated by gender, and excellent research that supports the international obligations of states and international organisations, among several others. By working for women's access to international spaces in conditions of parity, the Gqual Campaign promotes several of the commitments expressed in the SDGs: equality, access to justice, the fight against poverty and commitment to peace.

What support from international civil society is needed to continue promoting the campaign?

The greatest support that international civil society could give to the campaign would be to join the debate on the importance of ensuring women’s equal participation in international monitoring and judicial institutions. Depending on their possibilities, each person, organisation or institution might help advance more specific agendas at the local or international level in synergy with the campaign’s objectives. They can do so, for example, by encouraging their country’s government to monitor its nationals who occupy elected positions, doing field research on selection processes, writing about constitutional obligations or those derived from international law to guarantee equal access to international representation, running public awareness campaigns, or contributing to the campaign’s blog or writing about it in local newspapers. Given the structural inequality and the inertia that makes some governments reluctant to act, civil society and citizens must demand that the authorities ensure that women are nominated and considered for decision-making positions at the international and national levels. Civil society can also help drive the debate by collecting data and publishing analyses and studies.

I want to emphasise that due to the nature of the campaign – which arose from the initiative of women who advocate for equality and who mostly donate their time to move it forward – we are grateful for any contribution of time or donation aimed at supporting the campaign’s work and initiatives. We want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and for that we need women to intervene on an equal footing in making the decisions that concern us all.

Get in touch with Gqual Campaign through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GqualCampaign, @cejil and @mundopenelope on Twitter.

 

BURUNDI: ‘The election of new leaders is not synonymous with democracy’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in Burundi with a civil society activist who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections were held in Burundi on 20 May 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, two months before the elections, the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi launched an appeal to the international community, including the UN Security Council and regional institutions, to join forces to encourage the government of Burundi to reopen democratic, civil and political space. On the day of the elections, the president of the Commission of Inquiry stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. As reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, opposition members faced death threats and physical attacks, as well as administrative hurdles, as several candidacy applications were rejected. The leader of an opposition party was murdered and other candidates were arrested on bogus charges. Independent reporting was systematically impeded through the arrest of journalists and the blockage of social media platforms.

Burundi Elections

 Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Has the government of Burundi’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic further restricted the space for civil society?

Civic space in Burundi has been closed since April 2015, due to the political unrest caused by the decision of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, recently deceased, to run for a controversial third term. This led to widespread violence that left at least 1,200 people dead and forced 400,000 to flee the country. Surprisingly, in March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading in almost all African countries, the Burundian authorities opened space for political campaigns to be held ahead of the May presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. But one can conclude that civic space is still closed in terms of being able to express any open criticism about how the country is politically run, including criticism regarding the way the government handled the pandemic during the electoral period.

What were the views of civil society about holding elections during the pandemic?

The decision of the Burundian authorities to allow election campaigns to proceed during a period in which many other African countries were taking measures of confinement to stop the spread of COVID-19 was viewed as denial of the reality of the pandemic to save the political interests of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy), to the detriment of the public’s health.

Despite fears of mass COVID-19 contamination, the elections were rushed, at least in part, due to the opportunity to hold an electoral process in the absence of a sizeable number of independent and international observers who could denounce any irregularities. By doing so, given that the National Independent Electoral Commission was mostly composed of members of the ruling party, the government ensured that it could manipulate the election results as much as it wanted.

Was the outcome of the election accepted by majority of Burundians?

On 20 May 2020, CNDD-FDD candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye was elected president with 71 per cent of the vote. The ruling party also won 72 of the 100 seats at stake in the National Assembly.

As soon as the Electoral Commission announced the results, opposition parties such as the National Council for Liberation, which came a distant second, stated in foreign media that the official numbers were not credible and were the result of massive fraud. The truth is that the elections were held in a context of continuing repression of the political opposition, independent media and civil society. No international observers were present because the government had warned that due to the pandemic they would have to be quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.

Low-key criticisms were made by others, including the Catholic Church, regarding incidents that marked the election processes. Others whispered, as it’s not easy to make open criticisms, that election results were rigged. But that was it. Powerful members of the international community such as the governments of Belgium and the USA were fast to congratulate the elected president, and the East African Community congratulated Burundi for holding a “peaceful and successful” election.

In my personal view, the outcomes of the elections were eventually accepted because many feared that bloodshed could follow if an open rejection of the election results by the opposition was followed by street protests.

How likely is that the elections result will lead to an improvement of democracy and civic space?

Some pretend to believe that the election of new leaders is synonymous with democracy. The outcome of the May 2020 elections helped Burundi change the faces of top leaders and show that the dictator who ruled us for 15 years is no longer leading the country. However, the human rights violations that took place during the electoral campaign, the appointment of officials under European or US economic sanctions for the human rights abuses they had committed and the political rhetoric describing some countries and their leaders as colonialists all show that democracy in Burundi still has a long way to go.

However, some measures to fight against corruption and others abuses that President Ndayishimiye has taken since assuming office have allowed us to believe that the impunity that some local authorities enjoyed during Nkurunziza’s administration might come to an end.

Many had argued that the plan was for former President Nkurunziza to remain the power behind the scenes. Have prospects changed as a result of his death?

Former President Nkurunziza died unexpectedly in June, before his successor had even been inaugurated. As a new president had already been elected, the Constitutional Court decided that he should be sworn in two months early.

Many believed that Nkurunziza’s passing would allow President Ndayishimiye to rule with total independence, and his inaugural speech seemed to confirm it, as he vowed to enter into dialogue with anyone, on any issue. It is too soon to say whether the fact that Nkurunziza is out of the equation will allow the new administration to open up civic space and whether the new president will seize this opportunity. However, it is encouraging to see that the new president has already met with the leaders of other political parties, former Burundi presidents and Anglican and Catholic bishops, and has promised to promote dialogue. We are expectant to find out whether his words will turn into actions.

At the same time, however, the Minister of Home Affairs has recently issued a note to halt the registration of all new civil society organisations and churches and the recognition of newly elected authorities of organisations, pending a new order. Such decisions are inconsistent with the change that is being sought. If maintained, they will hinder civil society from growing and becoming a legitimate and publicly recognised sphere.

What should the international community do to help improve civic space in Burundi?

It is hard to set just a few priorities, as many things need to be put in place for Burundi to become a place of freedoms. However, it would be vital to engage the government of Burundi in multidimensional dialogue. International cooperation needs to be relaunched in a way that helps the Burundian government to end endemic poverty. The international community should advocate the repatriation of all refugees, including those who are under an arrest warrant from the Burundian government, and ensure their protection. And it also should offer its mediation to solve conflict between Burundi and its neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda, in order to facilitate the movement of people and goods and the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.

If the suggested priorities are pursued, the Burundian authorities might come to realise that Burundi is not isolated and that the international community is not acting to sabotage its interests, but rather to strengthen the positive aspects of globalisation in all domains.

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

 

SRI LANKA: ‘Media control gave the government a definite advantage’

CIVICUS speaks to Sandun Thudugala, Head of Programmes at the Law and Society Trust (LST), about the legislative elections held in Sri Lanka on 5 August 2020, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. LST is a legal research and advocacy organisation founded in 1982 in Colombo, Sri Lanka, with the goal of promoting legal reforms to improve access to justice, the justiciability of rights and public accountability.

Ahead of the August 2020 elections, the CIVICUS Monitor documented that human rights lawyers and journalists in Sri Lanka faced arrests, threats and harassment. A report by the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, published in May 2020, also showed that civil society faced challenges in registering and operating along with various barriers to protest.

Sandun Thudugala

What was the situation for civic freedoms and civil society ahead of the elections?

As in many other countries, the situation of civic freedoms and the space for civil society has always been in a vulnerable situation in Sri Lanka. Even under the previous government, which was supposed to be more supportive towards civil society and the human rights agenda, efforts to introduce new draconian laws to control civil society and the undermining of basic freedoms in the name of counterterrorism continued.

The situation got worse with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new president in November 2019. His election campaign, which was built on the ideas of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy, disciplined society and enhanced national security, was supported by an overwhelming majority, especially from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This result was seen as a mandate given to the government to undermine basic freedoms and civic space in the name of national security and development.

There have been signs of an increased militarisation of every aspect of society and the undermining of democratic institutions, such as the appointment of members of Presidential Task Forces – which are accountable only to the president – to handle key governance functions. There has also been a clear message of unwillingness to cooperate with the state’s international obligations, including by complying with UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, which the previous government had co-sponsored and which was aimed at promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka after the 1983-2009 internal conflict, as well as with local human rights mechanisms.

There have been increased surveillance of civil society activities and arrests of social media activists. This has clearly reflected a trend of undermining civic freedoms and civic space before the elections. The situation was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The need to deal with the virus has been used as an excuse to increase militarisation and the concentration of power in the hands of the president.

What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

The government led by newly elected President Rajapaksa, of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), was seeking a two-thirds majority in parliament to be able to amend the current constitution and give the president additional powers. That’s been the major election campaign goal of the SLPP. The need to have a strong government to protect the aspirations of the Sinhala Buddhist majority, defend national sovereignty and foster economic development were therefore among their major campaign themes. The popularity the president gained after winning the presidential election was used to mobilise voters to support the SLPP.

The main opposition parties were divided, and their internal conflict was more prominent in the election campaign than their actual election messages. One of their major promises was to provide economic assistance for poor people who were most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.

Issues such as the need to strengthen democratic governance systems, justice for war victims, longer-term solutions to ethnic issues or the root causes of rural poverty, indebtedness and inequality were not highlighted during the election campaign by any of the major parties

Was there any debate around whether the election should be held during the pandemic? 

The government wanted to conduct the election as soon as possible. It was willing to hold the election in April 2020, as planned, even at the height of the pandemic. Almost all opposition parties were against holding the election in April. The Election Commission subsequently decided to postpone it to August 2020 due to the health risks it might entail. By August, the situation had got considerably better and there was no major opposition to conducting the elections, which took place on 5 August.

As far as I know, online voting was not considered as an option for this election. I do not think that Sri Lanka has the infrastructure and capacity to adopt such an option at this moment. More than 70 per cent of eligible voters cast votes and apart from the people who are still in quarantine centres, people experienced no major barriers in casting their votes. There were however incidents of some private factories denying leave for their employees to vote.

Was it possible to have a normal campaign in the context of the pandemic?

Health guidelines were issued by the Election Commission, which imposed significant controls on election campaigning. No major rallies or meetings were allowed, but the government and the main opposition parties violated these health guidelines by convening public rallies and other meetings openly, without any repercussions. It was clear that the parties with power had a clear advantage in overstepping certain rules. Additionally, candidates from major political parties, who had more money to use for electronic and social media campaigns, had a definite advantage over the others.

Due to its control over state media and the support it received from most private media, both electronic and print, the government had a definite advantage over the opposition during the election campaign. The smaller opposition political parties were at the most disadvantageous position, as they did not get any significant airtime or publicity in mainstream media.

This surely impacted on the election results, in which the SLPP, led by President Rajapaksa and his brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, won 145 seats in the 225-member parliament. The opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya party, which was established in early 2020 as a breakaway from the right-wing United National Party, won 54 seats. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi party, which represents the Tamil ethnic minority, won 10 seats, and 16 other seats were split among 12 smaller parties. As a result, on 9 August, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time.

Was civil society able to engage in the election in a meaningful way? 

Apart from being engaged in election monitoring processes, the engagement of independent civil society in the election was minimal. This is a drastic change when compared to the 2015 election, in which civil society played a key role in promoting a good governance and reconciliation agenda within the election campaign. Divisions within the opposition and the COVID-19 context made it difficult for civil society organisations to engage effectively in the process. Some organisations tried to create a discourse on the importance of protecting the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which curbed presidential powers while strengthening the role of parliament and independent institutions and accountability processes, but didn’t get any significant spaces within the media or any other public domains to discuss these issues.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Law and Society Trust through its website or Facebook page and follow @lstlanka and @SandunThudugala on Twitter.

 

COVID-19: ‘Refugees paid a heavier price during a crisis that many believed impacted on us all equally’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of climate refugees and increasing challenges under the COVID-19 pandemic with Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees. Founded in 2015, Climate Refugees defends the rights of people displaced and forced to migrate, including across borders, as a result of climate change. It documents their cases to shed light on protection gaps and legal voids and advocates for human rights-based solutions and the creation of legal norms and policies that protect people affected by climate-driven migration and displacement.

Amali Tower

Your organisation is called ‘Climate Refugees’, although the term is currently not supported by international law. Why is that? Do you think this is something that should be officially recognised?

You’re right, the concept does not exist in international law, but drivers of migration are increasingly intertwined, as has been the case in the context of refugee flows and internal displacement resulting from conflict and persecution. It’s no different in the context of climate migration, except that for so many millions, this isn’t purely an environmental issue – it’s a justice issue. For many populations dependent on the land, climate changes have impacts on survival and livelihood, with impacts beyond the individual, to the family, community, local livelihoods, business and so on. If climate is a factor that contributes to migration, it is likely after years of causing deep losses and suffering, intertwined with economic losses and impacts as well as political ramifications. For instance, we can see this playing out among subsistence farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and many other regions. In this context, someone displaced by the impacts of climate change is also displaced by economic and political factors because the political situation and economic systems in many of these countries are deeply embedded in the environment.

Further, it’s important to remember that climate change impacts and climate migration and displacement aren’t future risks. They are a reality for many right now, and that reality is playing out in some of the most fragile places in the world for the most impoverished and vulnerable populations who had very little to role in contributing to climate change in the first place.

This is why we approach this as an issue of equality and justice. Coming from a refugee protection background where I interviewed and provided services to countless refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, based on the legal definition, I’m wholly aware of the controversy and backlash this may cause. I agonised about this decision, but ultimately, I couldn’t reconcile the definition with years of testimonies from people fleeing multiple drivers, who referred to years of environmental devastation at home more than to the war we all knew was ongoing.

So ultimately, I settled on the term ‘climate refugees’ to provoke conversation. To emphasise the political responsibility of climate change. To raise awareness of its ability to impact on, one might even say persecute, some people more than others. To contribute, provoke and challenge policy. To highlight the needs by giving voice to those affected and to help seek their legal protection. Ultimately, to present this as an issue of equality.

There’s a lot of discussion, and some might even say confusion, in the migration field about terminology. There is no consensus on appropriate terms so there are many terms being used, like climate-induced migration, environmental migrants and others.

I think we have to be cautious to not simplify the message. Nor be too clinical in our terminology about the underlying issues and very real suffering millions are bearing. We need to help policy-makers and the public understand there are mixed drivers in complex situations. Refugees have often moved as a result of conflict and drought – just look at Somalia. Others may move to seek safety and better livelihood opportunities, as we are seeing in Central America.

We need to make clear that the line between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration is often misunderstood, if not false.

In sum, we use the term ‘climate refugees’ to draw attention to the political responsibility of rich countries, certain industries and others to ensure fairness, compensation, protection and equality on many levels, because the solutions must also be multi-faceted.

What kind of work does Climate Refugees do? 

Climate Refugees is a research and advocacy organisation that generates field reports and engages in policy-making to view climate change through a human lens and help include and amplify the voices of communities whose livelihoods and security have been impacted on and who have been displaced or forced to migrate. The climate change conversation can otherwise remain largely abstract and clinical, rather than focused on its impacts on real human beings and entire communities.

Alongside producing field reports from climate displacement hotspots, we provide education and raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on human mobility right now and in ways not necessarily always explored, through two publications: SPOTLIGHT: Climate Displacement in the News, which, as the name implies, is a roundup of global news and expert analysis of climate change impacts on migration, human rights, law and policy, conflict, security and so on, and PERSPECTIVES: Climate Displacement in the Field, which includes features on a variety of topics related to climate-induced migration and displacement, featuring expert commentary and stories from people on the move.

Our aim with these publications is to be informative and provide stories from people on the move and expert analysis through a climate justice lens that highlights the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalised and disenfranchised populations who are the least responsible for climate change. I think a large part of why I formed this organisation is to have the conversation I think many of us want to have – that this is primarily an issue of justice and equality and our solutions need to keep that focus front and centre.

Have climate refugees been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions? What is being done about it? 

The COVID-19 pandemic provides a good example of rights violations increasing during a crisis – and an emphatic disproof of the assertion that ‘we are all in this together’. Refugees and migrants certainly paid a heavier price during a global pandemic that many believed impacted on all human beings equally. Social distancing is hard to achieve for displaced persons who live in crowded settlements, whether formal or informal, urban or rural, refugee camps or crowded migrant housing. Refugees and migrants were denied the freedom of movement, the right to health and the right to information to a higher degree than other populations and experienced more impediments to access their rights.

It’s not about pointing out any one country, because the point is that vulnerable populations that we should have been further protecting in a pandemic actually became more vulnerable just about everywhere. In Lebanon, refugees were held to tighter curfew restrictions that even impeded access to health treatment. Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar refugee settlement in Bangladesh were forced into an encampment and denied their rights to communication and right to health. Many countries where migrants are grouped in crowded housing, like Malaysia, detained migrants. The USA denied asylum-seekers the right to seek asylum and violated the principle of non-refoulement, returning them at the border with no hearings, deported COVID-positive asylum-seekers, and in the process, also exported the virus to Haiti and Central American countries. The USA also continues to detain thousands more people, mostly from Central America, who are fleeing climate change impacts in addition to violence and persecution, denying their freedom of movement, and arguably in some cases, denying rights to seek asylum, due process and the right to health.

As cyclone Amphan was about to hit the Bay of Bengal in May 2020, at the height of the pandemic, we saw populations in affected areas being relocated ahead of the disaster, which saved lives, but also meant that social distancing could not be enforced during displacement, and vulnerability to the virus became a major concern.

I am afraid the situation will be no different as the climate crisis worsens. It will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations in the world, and once again, a situation where it should be pertinent to think that ‘we are all in this together’ will make us realise that some of us l have the means to escape the worst of the impacts of climate change while some will limited social protections and many others, already in extreme poverty and on the margins of society, will fall in deeper and will have no escape from multiple levels of impacts.

Is the issue of climate displacement receiving enough attention? Has any progress been made in shaping an international legal framework to protect people who are displaced by climate change?

We’re certainly seeing more media attention paid to climate change impacts, including migration. But as the issue becomes part of everyday conversation, there’s also a chance that important nuances are lost. I would say some advances have been made in the area of climate displacement – that is, displacements as a result of disasters like floods and storms. We have data that tells us how many people are displaced each year by disasters – an average of around 25 million – and the nature and type of these displacements are less murky in terms of causal factors.

But climate migration is far trickier, since drivers of migration, whether internal or across borders, are increasingly intertwined. And when there are multiple drivers it’s hard to disentangle what role a single driver plays, or how much of the resulting phenomenon – in this case migration – can be attributed to one cause, namely climate change. Science and technology in the area of climate attribution are improving, increasingly enabling experts to determine just how much climate change is a factor in every situation. But generally speaking, in many parts of the world the environment is also an economic and political issue, so at this point it’s fair to say that climate change is certainly contributing to migration.

That said, much of the discussion of a legal framework is stalled in conversations that revolve around migration being largely internal, as well as doomsday displacement projections. The international system is hesitant to push conversations that will securitise migration even further and states are reticent to take on commitments that increase migrant or refugee protections even further.

So for now, advancements are limited to non-binding commitments by states in the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which includes some measures dealing with environmental migration across borders. The Platform on Disaster Displacement is a state-led initiative doing good work on the protection of people displaced across borders by disasters and climate change.

Earlier this year, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee also looked at the case of an individual from Kiribati who claimed to be a ‘climate refugee’. He took his case to the human rights body on the basis that the denial of his asylum claim by the government of New Zealand violated his right to life under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The UN found that countries may not deport individuals who face climate change-induced conditions that violate the right to life.

What else should be done so that the problem is not only recognised but also mitigated? 

Some fear that talking about a looming migration crisis due to climate change runs the risk of fuelling current hostility and xenophobia towards migrants and refugees. I definitely see the point and acknowledge that risk, but I also think it’s equally true that to those who are xenophobic towards migrants and refugees, what drives their migration is not the issue. So we have to be careful to find that delicate balance when we talk about these things, because we truly don’t know how it will play out, but what we do know is that the trajectories and outlooks are generally not so great, there’s a lack of political will, and the conversation isn’t too focused on a human rights framework that protects affected communities, including migrants. So on this latter point, it’s not about being an alarmist about the numbers – it’s about sounding the alarm about our need to do better to fill some vital gaps in rights and protections.

There’s a lot of focus on what we shouldn’t call people, how we shouldn’t frame the issue, but not enough focus on how we should protect vulnerable populations.

Countries that are already struggling with extreme poverty are now struggling with extreme weather, and there is an inherent unfairness at play here in not recognising that climate change was not created by all equally, and nor will the impacts of it be felt by all equally.

A lot more could be done in the way of adaptation. Adaptation is very costly, and the countries bearing the burden of climate change impacts now don’t have the capacity to also bear those financial costs. Many regional experts tell us that much of the international finance and response directed at them is focused on climate mitigation, rather than climate adaptation.

We need to build community resilience to withstand the effects of climate change, and in some contexts, this might also mean building up stronger public and governance institutions and strengthening capacities to withstand the complex stresses that climate change impacts are placing on societies.

Adaptation can entail innovation, infrastructural development and social changes, all of which can be very costly, and adaptation planning needs to respect human rights and enable choices, including the choice to migrate, which may not necessarily present as a totally voluntary choice. The point is that safe pathways for migration, when conditions don’t allow people to stay, are part of how we safeguard the human rights of climate change-impacted populations.

Are there enough connections being made between advocacy efforts on behalf of migrants and refugees and climate activism?

From my vantage point, it feels like there are few connections between these two movements and I feel like there is great potential for stronger advocacy together. For example, just broadening the climate migration conversation to discussions of a movement, rather than being largely a research and policy conversation, would be a welcome step to engage the public in something that I fear many feel is too large to understand, let alone address. 

At the same time, there are many who are concerned and interested and desire to be a part of the solution. So we keep in mind that, yes, we are trying to inform policy, but we also want to make information more easily accessible to engage and bridge that movement with the public to approach this as an issue of climate justice because that’s how we see it.

Get in touch with Climate Refugees through their website, Instagram and Facebook page, and follow @Climate_Refugee and @TowerAmali on Twitter.

 

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘We are part of a global anti-racist movement’

CIVICUS speaks with Elena Lorac, coordinator of Reconoci.do, an independent and plural civic network made up mainly of young Dominicans of Haitian descent. Reconoci.do defends human rights and promotes the real, full and effective integration of Dominican people of Haitian descent into Dominican society. With a presence throughout the Dominican Republic, Reconoci.do upholds the vision of a multicultural country where diverse people coexist with dignity, without stigma or discrimination, and their fundamental rights are respected by society and protected by the state.

Elena Lorac

When and why was Reconoci.do founded, and what are the organisation's goals?

Reconoci.do is a movement of Dominicans of Haitian descent, mostly young, fighting for our right to nationality and for access to all the rights that derive from this belonging: civil, political and social rights, and rights as basic as the right to work, to housing, to education and health, which are systematically denied to us.

Our movement was formed in late November 2011, in reaction to a resolution by the Central Electoral Board that suspended “temporarily” the validity of our birth certificates and identity papers, that is, in a context in which, instead of seeing progress in the recognition of our rights, setbacks were taking place and historical exclusion was being institutionalised 

Until 2010, the Constitution of the Dominican Republic recognised as nationals all persons born in the country’s territory, with the exception of diplomats and persons considered to be ‘in transit’, an expression that in principle referred only to those who had been in the country for a few days. For eight decades, under these definitions, the state provided a Dominican birth certificate, identity card and passport to the children of Haitians born in the country. However, in the 1990s nationalist groups began to promote a restrictive interpretation that was eventually translated into a new Migration Law. Under this law, passed in 2004, temporary foreign workers and undocumented migrant workers were classed as foreigners ‘in transit’, meaning that their children would no longer have access to Dominican nationality because of having been born in the country. The Central Electoral Board, the body that manages the civil registry, began to apply this law retroactively, and in 2007 it institutionalised this practice through two administrative decisions that prevented the issuance or renewal of identity documents to children born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian immigrants who were in an irregular migratory situation. In 2010, the new constitution denied the automatic right to nationality to children born in the country to immigrant parents in an irregular situation. Finally, in September 2013, ruling 168-13 of the Constitutional Court established that people born in the country whose parents had been undocumented had never had the right to Dominican nationality. The ruling was applied retroactively to all people born between 1929 and 2007, effectively stripping four generations of their Dominican nationality, mostly people of Haitian descent, who for eight decades had been registered as Dominican.

These legal changes institutionalised a historical exclusion that was perpetuated by policies of hatred, racism and xenophobia promoted by nationalist groups. From the dominant perspective, everything that comes from Haiti is foreign, alien and impossible to assimilate. Thus, people like me, born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, are treated as foreigners. Because we were born in the Dominican Republic, the Haitian state does not consider us Haitians either. And in any case, we are talking about people who may have never been to Haiti, who have grown up here and speak Spanish; many younger people in fact don’t speak any Creole at all. Lack of recognition is excruciatingly painful.

To resolve the situation created by the Constitutional Court, and in response to domestic and international advocacy efforts, in 2014 Law 169-14, the Special Naturalisation Law, was passed. This law established a special regime for people considered “descendants of foreigners in irregular migratory status,” based on the distinction between two groups. For members of ‘Group A’, which included those who in the past had been registered in the Dominican civil registry, the law recognised their Dominican nationality and ordered the Central Electoral Board to hand over or return their identity documents. On the other hand, those in ‘Group B’, who, although having been born in the country, having always lived there and maintaining no link with their parents’ country of origin, had never been registered, were given a period of 90 days to register as foreigners, with the possibility of obtaining Dominican nationality through naturalisation within a period of two years. This distinction is completely arbitrary, and it is common to find families with siblings belonging to either group, as well as families that, having registered their children, lost their papers as a result of some natural disaster and could not initiate the naturalisation process due to economic hardship, being located far away from administrative offices and unable to pay the fees that the process involved. Only a few thousand people in Group B have managed to achieve nationality in this way. There are currently some 133,000 young people who are stateless.

I have obtained my identity card as a result of Law 169-14; it was given to me when I was 27 years old. My years of personal development and education and the early years of my productive life were cut short because I did not have an ID and therefore could not attend university. Several of my fellow activists are in the same situation. Some have been able to advance through college and even graduate, while others were not so lucky.

Have you brought the issue of Dominicans of Haitian descent to the attention of regional or international human rights forums?

For decades the international community and domestic civil society have been advocating at both the national and international levels, to denounce abuse, discrimination and structural racism in the Dominican Republic.

Jointly with other civil society organisations (CSOs), we work assiduously within the inter-American system, for example participating in hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2014, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to members of our movement who had been threatened or attacked. Also in 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that forced the state to give us our nationality back. But the Constitutional Court did not recognse this ruling. The Dominican state does not abide by the decisions of the Court.

The state does not recognise that there is a problem to be solved. Today our struggle is much more complex than it was at the beginning because now there is a feeling that the situation has been resolved, but it has not. The vast majority of young people in this situation come from bateyes, which are ghettos or communities that were established during the time of sugarcane production around the end of the 19th century, when the Dominican Republic and Haiti reached an agreement to bring Haitian braceros to work in the country. These people, sometimes by deception and even by force, were taken directly to the bateyes, small villages located in the vicinity of sugarcane plantations. Young people who come from these places, which are located far from the cities, are in a very vulnerable situation. The vast majority have nothing; we are talking about families who have not had legal documents for generations, and without papers they cannot study or work. Those of us who manage to finish high school and intend to go to university usually encounter what I experienced: it was when I decided that I would go to university that I found out that, although I did have my birth certificate, I did not qualify because I was the daughter of Haitian parents. This was a huge blow for me, and it is just the same for tens of thousands of young people. You are suddenly told that you do not exist, and this entails enormous psychological trauma. The state blames our parents or grandparents, when in fact it was the state that brought them to work in sugar production – but given that the industry no longer exists, they want us to disappear as well.

These injustices block our prospects. They leave us without a future. That is why our movement arose from places like this.

What were the implications of this situation in the context of the health crisis caused by COVID-19?

The lack of recognition of something as basic as nationality creates enormous difficulties in accessing other basic rights such as health and social aid. The pandemic has magnified the difficulties faced by these vulnerable populations, confined in bateyes where there is no production or work. Many of these young people are chiriperos, that is, day workers, employed sporadically to do whatever is available, and the pandemic left them with nothing. They do not have access to any of the social aid programmes developed to alleviate the effects of the pandemic because they do not have IDs and do not appear in government records.

To what extent is the situation faced by people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic the result of racism?

This situation is the result of structural racism from beginning to end. The problem of access to nationality in the Dominican Republic has exclusively affected people whose parents or grandparents came from Haiti; this is not a general problem for foreigners. It is a reflection of structural racism because it is the Dominican people of Haitian descent, or those who are perceived as such due to the colour of their skin, who experience this violation of their human rights. This was recognised by the IACHR after a visit to the country, when it confirmed that it had not received any complaint from a descendant of non-Haitian foreigners who had experienced difficulties in being recognised as nationals, getting registered in the civil registry or receiving identity papers.

In the Dominican Republic it is believed that all blacks are Haitians. If I am black and have curly hair I am constantly questioned even if I have identity papers, and if I am unable to produce an ID, I can be deported because I am assumed to be Haitian. There have been cases of black Dominicans who have been deported because of their skin colour. Dominican women of Haitian descent who do not have papers and go to a hospital to give birth are treated as foreigners, fuelling the myth that Haitian women are occupying all beds in our hospitals, when most of these women are not Haitians but Dominican black women of Haitian descent.

Dominicans are a black population that does not see itself as such. There is obviously a problem of systemic, state-sanctioned, and unrecognised racism.

Thus, with the passing of time, as a movement we realised that the problem of nationality that mobilised us in the first place was not just a problem of papers, IDs and registry records, but also and more deeply a problem of identity and racial discrimination that goes back to the historical context of our ancestors.

We are therefore a movement that not only fights for the recognition of nationality and the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, but also shares the struggles of all anti-racist movements and mobilises against all forms of discrimination. This is why we stand in solidarity and support all kinds of expressions seeking to guarantee the rights of women, of sexual minorities and of all minorities who are stigmatised and discriminated against.

 

How did the US Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd resonate in the Dominican Republic?

In reaction to events in the USA, we joined other CSOs to organise a commemoration. It was not strictly a protest demonstration, as restrictions on public gatherings had been imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we respected the mandated quarantine. And it was not only a demonstration of solidarity either, as George Floyd’s death had resonated in our context, where we have experienced similar situations of police abuse.

Along with other CSOs we organised an activity in memory of George Floyd. The idea was to make a ritual gesture, a collective wreath. Our convening slogan was ‘A Flower for Floyd’, and it was a call for each person to bring, whenever possible, a flower and place it as part of the offering. Our account of Floyd’s death also made reference to police and institutional violence many black people, both migrants and Dominicans, experience in the Dominican Republic, so as to highlight that this is a situation we are also going through.

 

Have you received threats or experience aggression from anti-rights movements?

There are several ultra-nationalist groups that are mobilising in reaction to our demonstrations and events, basically to intimidate us and boycott our activities. Ever since the Constitutional Court ruling was issued, the climate has become more favourable for hate speech and numerous acts of hostility against us have taken place. Many members of our movement and other organisations that fight for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to attacks, both verbal and physical, which have been reflected in numerous human rights reports. As a result, in some cases we have had to request IACHR protective measures for some colleagues. Even Dominican people who are not of Haitian descent but express solidarity with us are treated as traitors to the homeland. These expressions have become more common because they have not been firmly condemned by the authorities.

Every time we demonstrate on the issue of nationality and racism, there are always counter-demonstrations, and since the police never protect us, these groups generally prevail and we are forced to suspend or terminate our activities. This was the case with the event we planned to honour George Floyd.

Since the moment we announced the Flower for Floyd event, several ultra-nationalist groups threatened us through our Facebook page. They accused us of wanting to generate violence and of boycotting the country by bringing up issues that are not of its concern. We received such levels of threats that many people thought that we would not be able to carry out the activity. Days before the event, the leader of one of these anti-rights groups, Antigua Orden Dominicana, threatened us through a video in which he warned that if we carried it out there would be bloodshed, since the event would take place in Independence Park, dedicated to the Fathers of the Nation, which they would not allow.

On the day of commemoration, 9 June, these groups were present. It was not the first time that this happened. In 2017, during an activity that we carry out every year to mark the anniversary of ruling 168-13, they also showed up and a similar situation ensued.

On 9 June, these groups came to attack the activists that were taking part in the event, and when the police finally intervened it was to detain our fellow activists Ana María Belique and Maribel Núñez, along with another person who was participating in the event. Every time we hold a protest related to the issue of nationality and racism, the state comes in and represses us.

What kind of support would you need from international civil society and the global anti-racist movement?

We consider ourselves part of a global movement. Many times we have been told that the Black Lives Matter movement was caused by something that happened in the USA and that it was not our concern; however, as vulnerable and stigmatised people we understand that this is an issue that directly affects us and that we must address.

What we need is more support to disseminate information about the current situation in our country. The state has been consistently telling the world that there are no stateless people here, that there is no racism or xenophobia, that everything we say is a lie and that we are on the payroll of international CSOs who want to harm the country. What we seek is visibility and help to denounce the terrible realities experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent. We do not have enough resources to publicise our cause, and international solidarity is what allows us to carry out our struggles and make them known worldwide.

International support is one of the things that has helped us get ahead. We have had support from groups of the Dominican diaspora in New York. One of them, We Are All Dominican, has supported us since 2013. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they helped us ensure food and other basic needs for more than 250 families for three months. All support is welcome, whether it be expressions of solidarity, contributions to dissemination or protection for human rights defenders.

Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Reconoci.do through their website or Facebook page, and follow @reconoci_do and @juagemis on Twitter.

 

COVID-19: ‘We need public policies that reduce and redistribute unpaid care work’

CIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender inequalities and civil society responses with Gala Díaz Langou, director of the Social Protection Programme of the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento, CIPPEC). CIPPEC is an Argentinian civil society organisation dedicated to producing knowledge and recommendations towards the advancement of public policies aimed at fostering development, equity, inclusion, equal opportunity and solid and effective institutions.

 

BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’

CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.

 

TURKEY: ‘If we withdraw from Istanbul Convention, it means we don't believe in gender equality’

In the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, due in September 2020, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women (VAW), ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN) Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

 

MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’

CIVICUS speaks with Michael Kaiyatsa, acting Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), about the recent presidential election in Malawi, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and led to a change of government. The CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.

MichaelKaiyatsa 

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a political crisis, the presidential election was held in Malawi in June 2020. What was the role of civil society and the judiciary in ensuring that the election took place?

I think it is fair to say that judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held. The election that was held on 23 June 2020 was a rerun ordered by Malawi’s Constitutional Court, which ruled on 3 February 2020 to overturn the 21 May 2019 presidential election, citing massive irregularities.

In the May 2019 presidential contest, the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was declared winner, in the first-past-the-post system, with 38.57 per cent of the vote. However, the opposition claimed the poll had been fraudulent. They cited, among other things, the alleged use of Tippex correction fluid to change vote tallies. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Dr Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the presidential election results. The two cited widespread irregularities, including the use of Tippex and missing signatures on some result sheets.

The Constitutional Court’s historic ruling, later validated by the country’s Supreme Court, represents a noteworthy illustration of the independence of the judiciary in Malawi’s maturing democracy. However, key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led mass demonstrations. The protests were so sustained and vigorous that they could not be ignored by key democratic institutions like the judiciary. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society grouping, courageously brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the botched outcome of the May 2019 election. This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing.

This is not to underrate the role played by the judiciary. The judges really stood up to defend democracy. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling there had been several attempts to bribe the judges to ensure that the ruling went in former President Mutharika’s favour: one prominent banker was arrested in connection with the bribery case. There were also numerous threats to the independence of the judiciary prior to the rerun, including a government attempt to force out senior Supreme Court judges through early retirement just days before the rerun. The judges could have easily succumbed to such intimidation and ruled in favour of Mutharika, but they did not. Instead, they stood firm and delivered a radical judgement that has changed the way Malawi is governed.

Civil society successfully challenged a decision by the former government to impose a lockdown. Why did civil society object to it when other countries around the world were implementing similar measures?

Civil society wanted the lockdown to be put on hold until the government could come up with some way to protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Civil society groups were unhappy that the government did not outline a social safety net for vulnerable people during the lockdown, which prompted the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and other CSOs to seek a stop order from the court. It is a fact that many people in Malawi operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.

It is also important to note that the civil society challenge came after thousands of informal traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu and in districts like Thyolo had taken to the streets to protest against the lockdown with placards that read, ‘We’d rather die of corona than die of hunger’. Many of these vendors are daily wage earners and a lockdown could have badly affected them. There was also growing suspicion among civil society and the citizenry that the government was trying to use the lockdown to justify the cancellation or postponement of the elections.

How was the election turnout? Were there worries that Malawians would not come out to vote for fear of contagion?

There were worries that Malawians would not come out in their numbers to vote because of health concerns caused by the pandemic. It was feared, for example, that with the need for limited exposure to large groups and social distancing, citizens might be less likely to leave their homes to vote because of concerns for their own health and that of their family members. There was also a major risk that those deterred from voting would be disproportionately from older age groups or people with underlying health conditions. The legitimacy of the contest might therefore be undermined by unfair restrictions placed on certain segments of society and thus by their uneven participation. 

These fears were partly realised. The voter turnout was lower than in the previous election. Of the 6,859,570 Malawians registered to vote in 2020, 64.8 per cent voted. This was down from May 2019, when 74.4 per cent of registered voters participated. But the low turnout could also be attributed to inadequate voter and civic education campaigns. Unlike in previous elections, most CSOs were unable to conduct civic and voter education due to resource challenges. The uncertainty of polling dates made it difficult for CSOs to mobilise resources. The previous Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) did not give people confidence that the elections would take place within the stipulated 150 days. The official date for the polls was fixed only around two weeks before the elections, so mobilising resources to conduct civic and voter education at such short notice was not easy.

However, it is also true that some Malawians may have avoided the polls because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. By election day, there were 803 documented cases and 11 recorded COVID-19 deaths in Malawi so some people – possibly older people and those with pre-existing health conditions – may have stayed away.

What were the challenges of organising elections during a pandemic?

The experience in Malawi has shown that organising elections during a pandemic can be very challenging. The prevention measures outlined by the government do not allow gatherings of more than 100 people. However, most political parties ignored this restriction and held campaign meetings exceeding this number.

A key challenge faced by the MEC during this fresh election was the need to put the health and safety of voters first while ensuring the integrity of elections. The MEC usually has a voter education budget that is utilised ahead of each election. However, given that this fresh election was not budgeted for earlier, the MEC faced financial challenges, which deepened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the procurement of personal protective equipment, adding further budgetary constraints.

The MEC also experienced significant challenges with the production and distribution of voting materials. Malawi imports many election materials from other countries. As Malawi was gearing up for the fresh election, many countries were on full or partial lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. This impacted on election preparations, as some suppliers found it difficult to transport goods internationally. Because of all this, there were significant delays in the printing of ballot papers, which was done in Dubai.

Another challenge was that political parties were not able to monitor the ballot printing process, as has always been the case, due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. A further important consequence of the pandemic was the absence of international election observers. With international travel restrictions imposed worldwide, the ability of international observers to observe the election was dramatically restricted. And as already mentioned, the pandemic affected voter turnout.

Now that the rerun election has led to the ousting of the incumbent and a new president, what does civil society expect from the new government?

Civil society has many expectations of the new government. One of the key expectations is that the new government will place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of its agenda and strengthen the fundamental freedoms of all Malawians in line with international human rights standards. It is also hoped that the government will move to protect the space for civil society. The fresh presidential election took place amidst concerted government attacks on civil society and the judiciary. It is our expectation that the new government will fulfil its election promise to protect civic space and allow CSOs to operate freely.

In its 2019 election manifesto, the Malawi Congress Party, which leads the Tonse Alliance (‘Tonse’ meaning ‘all of us’), a grouping of nine political parties formed weeks before the fresh poll to unseat Mutharika, promised to support the operations of local and international human rights CSOs through a permissive and enabling policy and institutional and legislative framework and to facilitate the progressive development of a civil society that is fully capable of holding the government accountable and defending citizens’ rights. It is our hope that the new administration will walk the talk on this promise and withdraw the oppressive NGO Act (Amendment Bill) of 2018, which contains a number of provisions that could pose a threat to CSOs’ ability to operate. The proposed legislation would raise the penalty fee imposed on a CSO in breach of the law from the current US$70 to US$20,000. It would also impose a seven-year jail term on CSO leaders found in breach of the law. So, for example, if you delay submitting a report to the NGO Authority, you could be fined US$20,000 and the directors of the organisation could be sent to prison for seven years. This is a ridiculous provision. It is a provision that can only be found in authoritarian states. We also hope the new administration will scrap the new fee regime, which is repressive and quite high for CSOs, and revert to the old fees. The new fees that CSOs have to pay to the NGO Board were increased in January 2018 from US$70 to US$1,400.

What support will civil society in Malawi need from international civil society to help sustain Malawi’s democracy?

One thing that is urgent now that elections are out of the way is for civil society to sit down and develop an action plan and roadmap, which can include a robust mechanism to check on the government's actions. In this regard, CSOs need the support of international CSOs, particularly to develop their capacities to hold the new government to account on its commitments. CSOs also need financial support to reinforce their role in local governance and accountability. Financial sustainability is crucial for local CSOs if they are to become resilient, effective organisations. International CSOs and donors have a key role to play in helping local CSOs become more sustainable. Finally, CSOs need moral support from international CSOs to be more effective. During the campaign for electoral integrity, local CSOs received overwhelming support from international CSOs through media statements and letters to authorities. It is our hope that this support will continue as we embark on the arduous task of checking the new government’s actions, especially in addressing corruption and the longstanding culture of impunity for human rights violations.

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

Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CHRRMalawi on Twitter.


 

 

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘The times ahead may bring positive change’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in the Dominican Republic, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hamilk Chahin, coordinator of the Citizen Manifesto for Electoral Transparency, and Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG. The Citizen Manifesto, a civil society-led multi-stakeholder initiative, was launched in December 2019 to monitor the 2020 municipal, legislative and presidential elections and foster the consolidation of democratic institutions. Alianza ONG is a network that encompasses 40 Dominican civil society organisations (CSOs). Founded in 1995, it is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through initiatives to strengthen civil society, intersectoral dialogue, training and dissemination of information, political advocacy and the promotion of solidarity and volunteering.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral landscape was quite complex. What was the situation as of March 2020?

DominicanRepublic FlagIn recent years, the ruling party, the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), accumulated a lot of power in all state institutions, affecting the quality of democracy. The PLD was re-elected for several terms and political elites settled into their positions and got used to exercising power for their own benefit and to the detriment of the interests of the community. Little by little and inadvertently, society also accepted this situation. In this sense, the exceptionally efficient handling of communication mechanisms by successive governments helped a lot. In addition to good international alliances and good luck in managing the economy, advertising and propaganda structures made the perpetuation of the government easy.

Fortunately, in every society there is a seed that is practically impossible to uproot: that of civil society. At times it may lay dormant or in hibernation, but at some point something happens that causes it to get moving. In our case, it was the extreme confidence of our rulers in having their power assured, which led them to increasingly blatant practices, to the point that the citizenry, which for the most part had long tolerated them, at one point said ‘enough’ and went into a state of effervescence. The first important manifestation of this change was the Green March Movement, which began in January 2017.

Born out of popular outrage over the Odebrecht scandal, which involved senior officials from three successive Dominican governments, the Green March Movement encompassed a broad spectrum of CSOs and focused on street mobilisation. It all started with a modest protest walk that we organised through a CSO called Foro Ciudadano (Citizen Forum), which kicked off a great mobilisation phenomenon whose main achievement was to end citizen indifference, to force the middle class out of its comfort zone, in which people expressed criticism without taking action. Opposition parties began to ride on these dynamics. Given that it thought it controlled all power resources, the government initially paid little attention. But the phenomenon far exceeded marching: signatures were collected, community meetings were held, various forms of mobilisation were promoted. It was a state of awakening driven by dignity. Citizens lost their fear of speaking up and this puzzled the government.

How did the 2020 electoral process begin, and how did Citizen Manifesto form?

The beginning of the electoral process was also the beginning of the end of the incumbent government. In October 2019, parties held their primary elections; they were the first primaries to be carried out under new electoral and political party legislation and were managed by the Central Electoral Board (JCE). While the PLD opted for open primaries, allowing the participation of all eligible voters, the main opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), held closed primaries, allowing the participation of its members only. The candidacy of Luis Abinader, who would eventually be elected president, emerged clearly from the PRM primaries. In comparison, as a result of the PLD primaries, Gonzalo Castillo became the official candidate only by a small difference over three-time president Leonel Fernández.

The primary elections of the ruling party were much more than a candidate selection process: what was at stake in them was the power of the president, Danilo Medina. In office since 2012, Medina had been re-elected in 2016, and had made some unsuccessful attempts to reform the constitution to be re-elected again. Leonel Fernández, as party president, had opposed these manoeuvres, so Medina did not endorse him when he decided to run in the primaries. It became apparent that the government resorted to state resources to support Medina’s designated heir; as a result, the PLD underwent division and Fernández joined the opposition. The primaries were highly contested and there was a lot of manipulation. They left a bitter taste among the citizenry: faced with the possibility that fraud had been used to thwart a primary election, many wondered what would become of the national election.

It was then that many CSOs began to think about what to do: we connected with each other and with political actors, we shared information and our assessments of the situation. We decided to express our concern and demand fixes from the institutions and entities responsible for organising the elections, starting with the JCE and also the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office, which are responsible for prosecuting crimes and irregularities. This is how the Citizen Manifesto initiative began to form. It included actors from the business, religious, labour, union and peasant sectors. We campaigned to draw the attention of society to the need to defend and monitor the process of democratic institutionalisation ahead of the elections. And above all, we advocated with political figures. We met with party representatives, and as a result the Citizen Manifesto had the support of all sectors. This turned us into direct interlocutors of the JCE.

When were the elections originally scheduled?

The electoral cycle included a series of elections: municipal elections, scheduled for February, and national elections, both presidential and legislative, initially scheduled for May. In the municipal elections, a new dual voting system was used for the first time, which consisted of a fully electronic voting system for urban areas with a higher population density and a manual system for rural areas. As a consequence of the Citizen Manifesto’s requests to bring some guarantees and certainty to the process, the electronic voting system also had a manual component in the stage at which the ballots were counted; we also successfully demanded that the vote counting process be recorded and a fingerprint and QR code capture system be introduced.

Although security measures were strengthened, there were serious problems with the implementation of the new software. On 16 February, several hours after the vote had started, the JCE discovered that there was a problem with around 60 per cent of the electronic voting machines and decided to suspend the municipal election across the country.

This caused a crisis of confidence, and thousands of people took to the streets in almost daily protests. On 17 February, a demonstration outside the JCE headquarters demanded the resignation of all JCE members. Discontent also affected the government, as many protesters believed that it had tried to take advantage of machines not working properly. On 27 February, Independence Day, a massive demonstration was held to demand the investigation of what happened and urge greater transparency in the electoral process. The Dominican diaspora in several countries around the world organised solidarity demonstrations in support of democracy in their country.

Municipal elections were rescheduled and held on 16 March, and the electronic voting was not used. By then the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun but suspending the election a second time was not an option. That is why the Dominican Republic declared its state of emergency quite late: the government waited for the elections to take place and three days later it passed a state of emergency and introduced a curfew.

In April, as the situation continued, the electoral body decided to postpone the national elections until 5 July, after consulting with political parties and civil society. There was not much margin for manoeuvre because sufficient time was needed for the eventuality of a run-off election, which would have needed to take place before 16 August, when the new government should be inaugurated. Of course, there was talk of the possibility of a constitutional amendment to postpone inauguration day, and civil society had to step in to deactivate these plans and help put together an electoral process that included all necessary sanitary measures. Fortunately, the media provided the space that CSOs needed for this; we had a good communications platform.

As elections took place during the pandemic, what measures were taken to limit contagion risks?

As civil society we tried to force the introduction of adequate sanitary measures. We urged the JCE to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States to convey the certainty that the necessary measures would be taken and the elections would take place. It was a titanic effort, because we have not yet had an effective prevention and rapid testing policy in the Dominican Republic; however, it turned out to be possible to impose sanitary protocols, including disinfection and sanitation, the distribution of protective materials and physical distancing measures.

The truth is that the great outbreak of COVID-19 that we are experiencing today has not happened exclusively because of the elections; it seems to be above all the result of two-and-a-half months of disorganised and irresponsible campaigning carried out mainly by the incumbent party. The government tried to profit from the pandemic and the limitations imposed by the state of emergency. However, this may have played against it. The waste of resources in favour of the official candidate was such that people resented it. It was grotesque: for instance, just like in China, the measure of spraying streets with disinfectant was adopted, but while in China it was a robot or a vehicle that went out on the streets at night and passed through all the neighbourhoods, here we had an 8pm parade by a caravan of official vehicles, complete with sirens, flags, music – a whole campaign show. People resented it, because they saw it as wasting resources for propaganda purposes instead of using them to control the pandemic effectively.

Was the opposition able to run a campaign in the context of the health emergency?

The conditions for campaigning were very uneven, because public officials enjoyed a freedom of movement beyond the hours established by the curfew and opposition parties complained that the incumbent party could continue campaigning unrestricted while they were limited to permitted hours. Access to the media was also uneven: propaganda in favour of the official candidate was ubiquitous, because it was one and the same as government propaganda. In this context, a specific ad caused a lot of discomfort: it said something like ‘you stay home, and we will take care of social aids’, and included the images of the official candidates for president and vice-president.

The pandemic was used politically in many ways. At one point the fear of contagion was used to promote abstention; a campaign was launched that included a drawing of a skull and said, ‘going out kills’. While we were campaigning under the messaging ‘protect yourself and get out to vote’, the government’s bet was to instil fear among the independent middle class, while planning to get their own people out to vote en masse. The negative reaction they provoked was so strong that they were forced take this ad down after a couple of days.

Likewise, the state was absent from most policies implemented against the pandemic and left the provision of social aid and prevention in the hands of the ruling party candidate. Often it was not the government that carried out fumigations, but the candidate’s companies. It was jets from the candidate’s aviation company, not state or military planes, that brought back Dominican citizens who were stranded abroad. The first test kits were brought from China by the candidate, with of course large propaganda operations.

With everything in its favour, how was it possible for the government to lose the elections?

The PRM candidate, Luis Abinader, prevailed in the first round, with more than 52 per cent of the vote, while the official candidate came second with 37 per cent and former President Fernández reached only nine per cent. The division of the incumbent party as a result of the allegations of fraud in the primaries had an effect, because if the party had been united and not affected by this scandal, the results could have been different.

Faced with the fact that a single party had ruled during 20 of the past 24 years, citizens showed fatigue and searched for alternatives. Citizens expressed themselves not only through mobilisation and protest, but also through a process of awareness raising that took several years. Very interesting expression platforms emerged, such as the digital medium Somos Pueblo (We are the People), whose YouTube broadcasts played a very important role. With the government campaigning on the streets and citizens isolated by the pandemic, creative strategies were also employed to overcome limitations and protest without the need to leave our homes, such as through cacerolazos (pot-banging actions).

The interest in participating to bring about change was reflected in the election turnout, which exceeded 55 per cent. Although well below the 70 per cent average recorded in the elections held over the past decade, the figure was noteworthy in the context of the pandemic. Given the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, people have high hopes in the new government. If we can overcome this challenge, the times ahead may bring positive change in terms of strengthening institutions and deepening democracy.

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

Get in touch with Manifiesto Ciudadano through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @ManifiestoCiuRD on Twitter.

Get in touch with Alianza ONG through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @AlianzaONG and @AddysThen on Twitter.

 

SINGAPORE: ‘Opposition parties were given unfavourable coverage by the state media and had difficulty accessing voters’

CIVICUS speaks to human rights defender Jolovan Wham about the recent elections in Singapore, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CIVICUS Monitor has documented the use of restrictive laws in Singapore against civil society activists, human rights defenders, lawyers, independent online media outlets and members of the political opposition, who face prosecution, including through defamation suits and contempt of court charges.

Jolovan Wham

 

Has there been any disagreement around whether elections should be held, when, or how?

Yes. Opposition parties were largely against it as the COVID-19 pandemic had not abated and holding the elections might pose a public health threat. They were also concerned that physical rallies and door-to-door visits would be disallowed, which would hinder their campaign efforts.

And indeed, it was more difficult to connect face to face with voters when a one-metre distance had to be maintained during walkabouts and door-to-door visits. Everyone had to give their speeches and connect with voters online.

Some changes were introduced so elections would proceed in the context of the pandemic. Voting time was extended by two hours to take the longer queues caused by social distancing into consideration. But the possibility of online voting was not discussed. And older people and those who were frail may have not participated for fear of getting infected with COVID-19.

What was the state of civic freedoms ahead of the elections?

The ruling People’s Action Party’s (PAP) control of all public institutions is a major civic freedom issue. It means it gets to shape the political discourse according to its agenda and set the rules of the game to its advantage. For example, the elections department, which draws electoral boundaries, reports to the prime minister himself. Most civil society groups are afraid of engaging in the elections in a meaningful way for fear of being seen as ‘partisan’. If a civil society association is associated with an opposition party, it may lose funding, support and patronage for its work.

A recent report by the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights documented structural flaws that prevented the election from being fair, including the prime minister’s broad powers over the entire electoral process without any effective oversight. The environment in which the Singaporean people were able to exercise their right to participate in public life was heavily restricted. Key opposition candidates had been targeted with lawsuits by members of the PAP, and voters in opposition-led constituencies fear reprisals for not voting for the PAP. Fundamental freedoms, which are intrinsically linked to free elections, are limited as the government controls the media and uses restrictive laws against dissenting and critical voices.

How did this affect the chances of the opposition?

Opposition candidates and parties had to rely solely on social media to get their message out, because of unfavourable coverage by state media. They also had difficulty accessing voters because of the PAP’s monopoly, manipulation and control of national grassroots groups, unions and organisations, on top of the difficulties involved in holding physical rallies in the context of the pandemic.

The elections were held on 10 July. The PAP secured 83 parliamentary seats but faced a setback as the opposition made minor but historic gains. The Workers’ party, the only opposition party in parliament, increased its seats from six to 10 – the biggest result for the opposition since independence. The PAP popular vote dipped to 61 per cent.

What were the main issues the campaign revolved around?

For the PAP, the campaign revolved around smearing opposition candidates, accusing them of peddling falsehoods and of having nefarious agendas and engaging in character assassination. Scaremongering tactics were also used: the electorate were told that only the PAP could get Singaporeans out of the COVID-19 pandemic and that having more opposition members in parliament would thwart these efforts.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, focused on telling the electorate that they were in danger of being wiped out of parliament as they held fewer than 10 elected seats out of almost 90. Issues such as the high cost of living and immigration were other key issues raised by the opposition.

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

 

ARGENTINA: ‘We must stop attempts to go back to the injustices of the pre-pandemic era’

CIVICUS speaks about the COVID-19 crisis and civil society responses with Sebastián Pilo, co-director of Civil Association for Equality and Justice (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, ACIJ), a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to defending the rights of the most disadvantaged groups and strengthening democracy in Argentina. Founded in 2002, ACIJ aims to defend the effective enforcement of the National Constitution and the principles of the rule of law, promote compliance with the laws that protect disadvantaged groups and the eradication of all discriminatory practices, and contribute to the development of practices of participatory and deliberative democracy.

Sebastien Argentina

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on people’s rights in Argentina?

Notwithstanding the good results in terms of health yielded by lockdown measures, the pandemic has hit the most vulnerable populations especially hard. To cite just a few examples, the impact of contagion has fallen significantly on the inhabitants of informal settlements. Institutionalised older adults have also suffered the pandemic in a particularly cruel way. In addition, cases of domestic violence have presumably increased under lockdown conditions.

The fact that people whose right to adequate housing is not being fulfilled are being asked to ‘stay home’ is a clear example of the gap between constitutional promises and reality, as well as the interrelation between the right to health and other fundamental rights. In this regard, in mid-March, as mandatory lockdown had just begun, alongside other CSOs we submitted a document to the City Government of Buenos Aires warning of the lack of adequate public policies for people living on the streets, a group especially vulnerable to the pandemic. Although the city government announced measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the actions were mainly aimed at controlling the circulation of this population, but not at guaranteeing their access to adequate hygiene and health conditions. The causes that lead to people becoming homeless are structural and linked to the lack of public policies guaranteeing all people access to decent housing. The actions taken during this emergency should be a starting point to build long-term policies to change the precarious conditions in which thousands of people live in our city.

More generally, in the context of the pandemic the multisectoral initiative Habitar Argentina has called for the implementation of a national emergency policy on habitat, aimed not only at improving the living conditions of people who are already on the street, but also suspending – for six months or until the pandemic is over – all evictions and judicial decisions that may expel more people onto the streets or worsen their sanitary conditions, as well as implementing specific policies for families who rent, have mortgages or live in precarious housing. It also calls for the implementation of protection mechanisms for women, children, adolescents and sexual minorities or gender non-conforming people who experience violence regardless of the type of housing or territory they inhabit.

What obstacles has ACIJ faced to continue operating in this context, and how have you overcome them?

Our biggest obstacle was linked to lockdown measures and the consequent impossibility of maintaining, under the same conditions, our territorial presence in the communities with which we work. This forced us to increase our efforts to continue in contact – virtually or through authorised sporadic physical presence – with community leaders and promote actions aimed at providing the special protection that the context required.

Thus, for example, along with Fundación Huésped and TECHO, we organised a series of training sessions targeted at grassroots leaders, who have historically been key to solidarity networks in their neighbourhoods. Staring on 5 June, we held five meetings to provide them with information on prevention measures against COVID-19 and other diseases present in their neighbourhoods, legal information pertaining to compulsory lockdown, guidance in the event of institutional or gender-based violence and prevention measures for community soup kitchens, and to let them know about the public assistance programmes that were established during the pandemic. More than 90 social leaders from the provinces of Buenos Aires, Chaco, Córdoba and Tucumán took part in these meetings.

A virtual assistant with specific information was also developed to answer queries from inhabitants of poor neighbourhoods and a series of communication pieces were distributed through community WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

What other actions have you undertaken to defend the rights affected under the pandemic, and what have you achieved?

Among the most relevant actions that we have undertaken during these months, I would highlight the following.

First, regarding the inhabitants of slums and informal settlements, we promoted a special protocol of action against COVID-19, the creation of a web platform that geo-references resources and helps identify the urgent needs of these inhabitants and a precautionary measure so that the state would provide free internet access for the duration of lockdown measures.

The internet access development came in response to a lawsuit that we filed with other CSOs in order to enable the continuity of schooling for all students within the framework of distance education measures established during the emergency. The precautionary measure issued in early June forces the Government of the City of Buenos Aires to provide all students who attend public schools or privately operated schools with zero fees and who are in a socially vulnerable situation – those on city or federal welfare, scholarships, subsidies, or social programmes, or those who live in slums – an adequate device – a laptop, notebook, or tablet – to access the internet and carry out schoolwork in order to guarantee the continuity of learning. Likewise, the government is obliged to install in all the slums and informal settlements within the city the required technological equipment for wireless internet transmission, similar to that which it currently maintains in squares and public spaces, in sufficient quantity and adequate locations in order to provide a minimum standard of free wireless connectivity. In the event that there are technical impediments to this, the local government must provide a mobile device with data to allow internet access to every family including children or adolescents who attend primary-level educational establishments.

This measure is key because not only does it seek to reverse the existing inequality in terms of access to educational equipment, but it also recognises internet access as a fundamental right that is instrumental – and, in this context, essential – for the exercise of other rights such as rights to education, health, information or access to justice.

Second, regarding people with disabilities, among other things, we denounced the reduction in assistance coverage, carried out a campaign to show the effects of confinement on people secluded in mental hospitals and launched a web platform to foster access to rights.

The discapacidadyderechos.org.ar platform was launched in early July and seeks to help people with disabilities demand the fulfilment of their rights to health, education, work, independent living and social protection. The platform centralises information regarding rights, benefits and services recognised by current regulations, and outlines how to claim these rights in cases of noncompliance by insurance and prepaid medicine companies and the state and where to go for free legal advice and sponsorship. The site has a total of 120 document templates, including administrative notes and document letters, that each user can adapt to their situation. In addition, it has a specific section that provides information on the rights of people with disabilities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It should be noted that the process to develop the site included the participation of people with disabilities and their families, who tested the platform and made suggestions for its improvement. It was also based on the advice of specialists in digital accessibility and usability.

Third, for vulnerable groups in general, alongside a coalition of academic institutions and CSOs, we started an initiative to disseminate legal information to clarify the scope and impacts of emergency regulations and contribute to the legal empowerment of various disadvantaged groups, and we made a regional call to highlight the role of justice in the face of the crisis. We also prepared a document highlighting key information about injustice in tax matters and ideas to contribute to a fiscal policy that respects economic, social and cultural rights in the context of the pandemic.

What would you say has been the key to obtaining these achievements?

I believe that the achievements obtained in this context are fundamentally explained by the combination of three variables: first, the entire ACIJ team was mobilised by the need to make a significant contribution from our institutional role, and adopted the necessary flexibility to react to the crisis in an appropriate way. Second, for a long time we have worked closely with affected communities and groups in relation to the issues that are at the core of our work, and this has been key to us knowing first-hand the obstacles that people in vulnerable situations face in accessing their rights. Finally, the combination of strategies of public policy advocacy, court action on collective conflicts and community empowerment resulted in larger impacts than those that would have been obtained in the absence of this interconnection of strategies.

What role should civil society play in overcoming the pandemic and building a better post-pandemic ‘new normal’?

The first thing that civil society must do in this context is to show very clearly the injustices that characterised the world that we had before the pandemic: political inequality as a structural condition of low-quality democracies; economic inequality as underlying violations of economic, social and cultural rights; and a model of production of goods and organisation of territories that was environmentally unsustainable.

Given that the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and has had greater impacts on the lowest-income people, the current priority should be to strengthen public systems for the protection and promotion of human rights of the groups most affected by the pandemic. In this context, it is essential to guarantee resources to fund adequate health and social protection policies. Hence, together with other CSOs in the region, we published a statement urging states to implement mechanisms to achieve a globally progressive tax system; evaluate existing tax exemptions to determine which ones should be eliminated because they are unjustified and inequitable; not to approve new tax privileges, except in urgent cases, where effectiveness is proven and preferably for the benefit of vulnerable populations and small businesses; and reform and streamline the process of approval and review of tax expenditures, increasing transparency, identifying beneficiaries, adding impact evaluations and subjecting them to independent scrutiny.

It is essential for civil society to help us imagine a new direction: the moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity if it stimulates our ability to think of different ways to relate to each other as a political community, and to instil new values for the reconstruction of fairer societies.

Finally, we must accompany those who will go through the most difficulties to find survival strategies and satisfy their basic needs, while also looking for participation spaces to make our voices heard in public decision-making spheres and countering the foreseeable attempts to go back, in the post-pandemic stage, to the injustices and privileges that characterised the pre-pandemic era.

Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with ACIJ through its website or Facebook page, and follow @ACIJargentina and @piloofkors on Twitter.

 

HUNGARY: ‘Trans people are having our rights being taken away’

 

A new law in Hungary, passed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, prevents trans people from legally changing their gender. CIVICUS speaks to Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Vice-President of the Transvanilla Transgender Association, a Hungarian organisation that advocates for trans people’s rights. Founded as a grassroots initiative in 2011, Transvanilla is the only organisation registered in Hungary with an exclusive focus on transgender rights and gender non-conforming issues. It drives advocacy on gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare at the national level. It also monitors discrimination and violence based on gender expression and gender identity and facilitates community gatherings and other events to raise the visibility of transgender issues and transgender people in Hungary.

Krisztina Kolos Orban

What has been the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Hungary over the past few years?

In 2012, ILGA Europe ranked Hungary ninth among 49 European countries regarding the rights of LGBTQI+ people, but in 2019 we had regressed to 19th and in 2020 we have further dropped down to 27th. This past year Hungary’s rating has declined the most, and there are various reasons. In 2012 things looked pretty good on paper, but since then new measures were introduced as the human rights landscape has changed. Hungary has not moved forward or followed international recommendations. The other factor has been the huge backlash that we have experienced over the past couple of years. Previously this government had not taken rights away from people, although it had certainly tried, and we knew that it was not LGBTQI+-friendly. But now we are having our rights being taken away. 

If we focus on transgender rights, gender identity is a specific ground mentioned in our legislation on both anti-discrimination and hate crimes, which appears to be rather good. But this only exists on paper, as no hate crimes based on gender identity have been taken to court thus far. Similarly, there have been very few cases focused on anti-discrimination because the law is not being implemented. There is no national action plan to combat discrimination based on gender identity.

Therefore, transgender rights were never guaranteed by law. When it comes to legal gender recognition and trans-specific healthcare there were no laws or national guidelines. However, practices had improved. Since 2003, transgender people have been able to change their birth certificates, gender markers and first names based on a mental health diagnosis; no other medical intervention was required. Back then this was amazing. The government promised to create legislation but failed to do so. Until now, no government even addressed the issue. As a result, no legislation backed these administrative procedures, which were not even published on the government's website. But for the time being things were okay because the practice was reliable and procedures were rather trans-friendly. Those who provided the required documentation were able to change their birth certificates and it was relatively easy and fast. But the fact that the practice was not protected by legislation was not a minor detail. We see it now that the practice has become illegal. It has been a huge step backwards. 

In 2020, new regulations that only recognise the sex assigned at birth and prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender and obtaining new documentation were passed by parliament by a 133 to 57 vote margin. They are contained in article 33 of an omnibus bill that was introduced on 31 March and approved on 19 May. Article 33 contradicts not just international and European human rights standards but also previous rulings by the Hungarian Constitutional Court, which has previously made it clear that changing your name and gender marker is a fundamental right for trans people. The Commissioner for Fundamental Rights issued a report in 2016 and another in 2018 that stated that the authorities need to enact proper legislation because this is a fundamental right.

This law change fits into the fight against gender led by the Christian Democratic party, which is part of the governing coalition. This party has already banned gender studies and has argued that there is no such thing as gender, as in the Hungarian language there are not even separate words for ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. But in the past year, it has resorted to using the word ‘gender’ in English so as to be able to attack gender as a concept. So this is part of a larger attack against so-called ‘gender ideology’. The protection of what the new law calls ‘sex at birth’ is a part of this. For the past six years we have worked to come up with legislation on these issues, and initially we thought the authorities wanted to tackle it as well, but after a while it became obvious to us that our initiatives were being blocked along the way. 

It is difficult to engage with the authorities. We don’t get much information from them. We cannot get to those with decision-making authority; we can only talk to low-ranking officials, who are obviously afraid to give us information. There is no public discussion and civil society is not involved. We were not consulted regarding these specific changes to the Registry Act. The proposal came from the government, and specifically from the Christian members of the government coalition, and was supported by civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote so-called ‘family values’. Timing also raised a lot of questions. Why was it so important to address this issue in the middle of a pandemic? Why now, and why in this way?

What are the main restrictions that the Hungarian LGBTQI+ community experiences on their freedoms to organise, speak up and protest?

In Hungary there is an NGO law that requires CSOs to register if they receive foreign funding, if their income is above a certain amount. The threshold is relatively low, so many CSOs, including us, must register. There is a list of foreign-funded CSOs that is published and publicly available. It is no secret that we seek foreign funding because we cannot access funds in Hungary. The government refers to CSOs, and particularly to those that criticise the government, as ‘enemies’ of the Hungarian people. This has obviously affected LGBTQI+ organisations too. 

This is not just rhetoric. In practice, the government does not consult with CSOs that are independent or that they don’t like, including us. Instructions to marginalise these organisations come from the top levels of government, and while some lower-level officials might want to try to engage with us, they are not allowed to do so. How can CSOs conduct advocacy or engage with the authorities if public officials are banned from any contact with us?

Additionally, most media are controlled by the government, and the rest tend to have a neoliberal perspective, which usually makes them difficult to access for organisations that do not follow their agenda, like Transvanilla.

Our freedom to conduct our legitimate activities is also being challenged. Last year, for instance, there were several attacks against events organised around Pride month. A speed-dating event for pansexual people that had been organised by Transvanilla was interrupted by far-right activists. We couldn’t continue the event and the police didn't protect us. Far-right activists video-recorded participants for over an hour and we were not allowed to close the door. They were obviously acting illegally but the police took no action against them. In other instances, venues were ruined or damaged by far-rights activists. This was a new development – in the past, our events had received police protection when such things happened. 

Year after year there have also been attempts to ban Pride events, but the courts have declared that these events cannot be banned. It’s a constant fight. The authorities have fenced off Pride routes on the pretence of protecting marchers, but this was obviously an attempt to restrict their movement.

How did the LGBTQI+ community react when the new law was passed?

It was a traumatic event because it was a clear attack against us. This amendment only affected trans and intersex people who would like to change their gender markers and trans people who don’t want to change their gender markers but would still like to change their name, which is no longer possible in Hungary. But the whole community now feels like second-class citizens, like outcasts who the government does not respect. 

Personally, as a non-binary person, it had a huge effect on me, because I was already far from being recognised in my documents and now I am a lot further away from that. Many of my friends who were in the process of changing their legal gender recognition are in a limbo.  At least a hundred applicants’ cases had already been suspended in the past two and a half years, as requests were not being evaluated. Those people have now lost all hopes. They are frustrated and devastated. 

There is also fear because we don’t know what is next, what else is coming to us. Even though the law can be challenged, it might require many years. And even if we get rid of this law, the situation may not improve. Some people are suicidal, and many people want to leave the country. A big part of the community is just suffering silently and has no voice. While some activists have emerged from this situation and these activists are gaining visibility, the vast majority are suffering at home, alone. People were already isolated before, and it will not get any better. From now on, more people will hide their identity.

Since 2016 there have been problems with administrative procedures, so increasing numbers of people who began to transition may look different from the sex registered in their documents. And if someone is openly and visibly transgender it becomes difficult to find a job; discrimination is part of everyday life. And now it is becoming more serious. We have seen a rise in discrimination, not just in employment but in everyday life. In Hungary you often must present your ID papers, so you have to out yourself all the time. People don’t believe you and you are questioned. For example, recently a trans person was trying to buy a house and the lawyer who was drawing up the paperwork raised questions about their ID document because it didn’t match their gender description.

Given the restrictions on peaceful assembly imposed under the COVID-19 pandemic, what sort of lobbying and campaigning have you been able to do to stop Article 33?

Transvanilla is very strategic: we only engage in activities that might have an impact. Therefore, we did not focus on the Hungarian context. In parliament the opposition is powerless because Fidesz, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s party, has two thirds of the seats and can thus win any vote. We also knew that we could not mobilise enough people – the masses would not be out on the streets because of the pandemic, so this wasn’t even an option. If this had not happened during the pandemic, other organisations might have tried to organise protests. Until the amendment was introduced, Transvanilla was not publicly highlighting the issue of legal gender recognition because we were doing silent advocacy. On 1 April, when we found out about the initiative, we called on international actors to raise their voices publicly and to engage in multilateral dialogue with our government on this issue.

We grabbed international attention and many international voices were vocal against the proposal. In April 2020 we also turned to Hungary’s Commissioner on Fundamental Rights and we asked him to do whatever he could to stop the amendment. We of course engaged with international and national media. We launched a petition and managed to get more than 30,000 signatures. We now have another petition that is addressed to the European Union (EU) and we hope it will have an effect.

So, we resorted to the ombudsperson, who could have intervened but didn’t, and we put international pressure on the government, which sometimes works but this time did not. The law was passed, and the day it came into effect we launched two cases at the Constitutional Court. The court could turn them down for whatever reason, but we hope that it will not. At the same time, we are putting pressure on the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights because he has the power to request the Constitutional Court to look into the law, and if he does, then the court must do so. Pressure is very important, and many international actors are helping, including Amnesty International Hungary, which has launched a campaign. We have 23 cases before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), all of which deal with gender recognition, and the applicants are represented by our lawyer. The government and the other parties involved were given time until June 2020 to settle these cases, and if they didn’t, the Court would move forward for a decision. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for the government was pushed to September 2020, which is not good news for us. But based on ECHR practice, we are confident that it will respect transgender rights. We will also take more cases to this court and represent people who are specifically affected by this law. We want to put pressure on the Court to make a decision as soon as possible.

We also continue to engage with EU human rights mechanisms, the Council of Europe and the United Nations. We got CSOs to sign a statement to put pressure on the European Commission (EC), which so far has been silent on this. We want to make sure that what happened in Hungary doesn’t happen in other countries, so we have created a civil society alliance to convey the message that if other governments try to do the same, they will face huge resistance. And of course, we keep trying to engage with the ministries, although we have sent them letters and have received no response. 

How can an increasingly authoritarian government like Hungary’s be held accountable for its actions? 

We have tried to engage directly with the government to hold it accountable, but it has not worked so far. We represent a minority group and cannot fight this government alone. But international institutions do sometimes influence the government's actions. We hope that a court decision from the ECHR or the Constitutional Court would have an effect. 

Unfortunately, what we have seen since 2010 is that the way it is designed, the EU cannot take definitive action against a country, especially if it is not alone. And this is the case here, as Poland and Hungary always back each other. People believe that the EU lacks political will to take action. We cannot repeat often enough that the EU should cut off funding, because Hungary is living on EU money and if it cuts off funding the government would start to behave differently. But the EU refuses to do it. 

The EU should act not only on this specific legislation but also on other, bigger issues related to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary. It should do something about its own member states, or else it should not pass comment on any non-EU country. The fact that the EC fails to mention Hungary explicitly is outrageous. When the Authorisation Act was passed in late March, giving Prime Minister Orbán extra powers to fight the pandemic, EC President Ursula von der Leyen made a statement that was clearly about Hungary, but did not mention it by name, and then Hungary was a signatory to the statement. The EC’s Commissioner for Equality was recently asked to condemn Hungary for the anti-transgender amendment and she refused to do so; instead, she decided to speak about trans rights in general. This is something that we cannot accept.

The EU should not just speak up, but also act on Hungary and Poland. If the EC keeps refusing to address the situation on the ground, then we really don’t know where else to go. Thus far, the government has followed ECHR decisions, but it has stopped following Hungarian court decisions just this year, which is very worrying. In 2018 there was a Constitutional Court decision in the case of a transgender refugee that required parliament to enact legislation on legal gender recognition for non-Hungarian citizens, which it has not yet done.

What support do Hungarian CSOs need from international civil society?

It is important to attempt to unify the different movements and to act as bridge between them and I think international CSOs can play a role in this. As a trans organisation we are responsible for trans people, but trans people come in all sizes and shapes – there are migrant trans people, Roma trans people, disabled trans people – and we all have to come together. Also, while trans people are currently under attack in Hungary, we don't know which vulnerable group is next on the list, and I think international CSOs should focus on everyone. They also need to assist in raising awareness in international institutions – in Hungary, for example, international pressure is important because Orbán still sometimes cares about how Hungary is perceived. So the engagement that comes from the international community is helpful. International civil society can also assist in presenting good examples, because the better the situation is in other countries for trans people, the more shame it can bring to the Hungarian government. But if other EU countries start to follow Hungary, then the government will get away with this. Organisations like CIVICUS can bring CSOs together.

Civic space in Hungary is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Hungary also currently features on our Civic Space Watchlist.
Get in touch with the Transvanilla Transgender Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @Transvanilla on Twitter and @transvanilla.official on Instagram.

 

 

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