BANGLADESH: ‘Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari project’

SharifJamilCIVICUS speaks about the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal-fired power plant project in Bangladesh with Sharif Jamil, General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water. He is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh and Council Member of Waterkeeper Alliance.

What is the significance of the cancellation of the Matarbari 2 project in Bangladesh?

The cancellation of the Matarbari 2 coal plant project is very significant because it shows global leaders living up to their commitment to fight climate change. Last year G7 countries reached an agreement to stop building coal plants and funding coal-related projects. If Japan continued to support this coal project, it would have undermined the global effort being made to tackle climate change.

We were happy to see a few contractors also pulling out of the project. Sumitomo Corporation, one of the biggest ones, decided to back out of the project on the basis that it contradicts their new climate policy. The Japanese-owned company decided to stop building and supporting coal plants. We believe this was a major step towards the cancellation of the project.

People living in the area where Matarbari 1 and 2 were implemented were affected by pollution caused by the projects. If it continued, people living near the coal plant would have been affected by air pollution. The coal plant also threatened to pollute water in surrounding areas, which would have also put people in danger.

How has civil society been involved?

Civil society made a lot of efforts to stop Japan financing the Matarbari coal project, and hard advocacy work finally paid off. We made sure to talk to community members in surrounding areas to get their views on the project. Because we listened to their concerns about the health issues the project might cause it was easier to carry out advocacy work in the communities. Environmental civil society organisations (CSOs) were able to put pressure on key stakeholders with the help of research institutions that studied and tracked global finance and investments.

It is encouraging to see G7 countries living up to their commitments. Japan taking a position against coal financing is a huge step towards protecting the environment in Bangladesh and the rest of world. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest contributors of carbon emissions and therefore one of the biggest obstacles to climate change mitigation efforts. As civil society we are happy to see that it is possible to hold governments and multinational corporations accountable.

However, while it is good news to see Japan backing away from coal plant projects in Bangladesh, it is also quite frustrating to see it headed towards liquefied natural gas, which is also a fossil fuel. It would be good if Japan could help Bangladesh move towards clean and renewable energies. They have the necessary technology to do so and sharing it with us would help us overcome the climate crisis we are all going through.

What role did your organisation play?

As an organisation we found it important to talk to scientists to understand the scientific impacts this project would have had on our environment. We also analysed the environmental impact assessment study provided by organisations that were monitoring the project. We communicated with the plant company and the government to understand their position on the fight against climate change and environmental issues in Bangladesh. Fortunately, they were willing to listen to our concerns and even invited us to their stakeholder meetings.

The problem we noticed with this project is that the parties involved did not consider the data provided by environmental organisations. It was understood that power plants would boost industrial activity, but our argument was that these projects had to be sustainable. Doing an environmental impact assessment was therefore key. Any project that is implemented should be carried out comprehensively, inclusively and on the basis of science so that it does not harm our environment. It was frustrating that the environmental impact assessment of Matarbari 1 did not do any modelling for harmful pollutants such as fine particles (PM 2.5) or mercury, letting the plant continue functioning subjecting it to scientific scrutiny.

In advocating against the Matarbari project we tried to let people be part of the development activities happening around them. It was important to make them understand that every development project happening in their communities had to be sustainable and promote their wellbeing, which was not the case with Matarbari 1 and 2.

What other actions are needed to combat climate change and environmental degradation?

Japan is a trusted partner of Bangladesh. Bangladesh has long received Japanese investment and development collaboration. We have worked for a long time with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, which has done a lot of good. We would like to see collaboration for development continue, but it should be of the sustainable and green kind.

The Matarbari plant project was detrimental to our environment and its activities would have polluted both our water and air. This caused unrest and protests. We want multinational corporations and governments to consider the environmental impacts of any project they intend to introduce. They should consider the long-term effects of every project as well as the country’s energy security.

Did you receive any support from international CSOs and activists?

Several environmental organisations in Japan and other countries helped us raise awareness about the negative impacts of the Matarbari project. Some of these organisations conducted studies and came up with recommendations on how projects could be made green and sustainable.

But we still need support to ensure that upcoming projects aim to promote the use of clean energy and live up to environmental standards. Our country also needs resources to help it transition to clean energies. Therefore, there is further need for collaboration with governments that can help us move in that direction.


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

Get in touch with Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon through its website or its Facebook page, and reach out to Sharif through Facebook.

 

‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’

HelenKidan.jpgCIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.

Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.

What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?

Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms: Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.

The report of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.

 

CAMEROON: ‘Indigenous people should be at the forefront of our own movement and speak for ourselves’

UnusaKarimuCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous peoples’ rights in Cameroon with Barrister Unusa Karimu, board member of Mbororo Social and Cultural Development Association (MBOSCUDA).

MBOSCUDA is a civil society organisation with ECOSOC Status that advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Cameroon. It aims to ensure that Indigenous peoples are integrated in the development of Cameroon by promoting their participation in decision-making processes.

What is the current situation of Indigenous people in Cameroon?

The situation of Indigenous people in Cameroon is not particularly good at the moment. There are people trying to get self-determination, and this has caused conflict in some parts of Cameroon. Unfortunately, the bulk of Indigenous people I work with, pastoralists, are in the English-speaking part of Cameroon, where calls for independence have led to conflict, and they have been caught in the middle of the violence.

They are being abused. There is no respect for their territories and their basic human rights, and the government has failed to protect them. Civil Society organisations have collected data that indicate gruesome acts are being committed against Indigenous peoples during the ongoing armed conflict in the Northwest and Southwest of Cameroon. Indigenous people are being killed and they cannot defend themselves.

Indigenous people in Cameroon still live below the poverty line. Most people in the community struggle to get employed because of limited opportunities in the labour market. Some of them end up engaging in small income-generating activities such as livestock farming and the sale of hunting products. But this is not enough to sustain their lives.

The reason it is sometimes difficult for Indigenous people to get employed is because they struggle to get access to education. There are not enough schools, teachers and educational resources in Indigenous communities. The government has tried to implement projects to address this problem, but these have not really been effective.

Much work still needs to be done for Indigenous peoples to gain full recognition in Cameroon. It is saddening that health services and other social facilities are not adequately provided to Indigenous people. The government needs to do a lot more to ensure that Indigenous people have access to healthcare in their communities.

The government has tried to give visibility to Indigenous peoples in Cameroon through the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, held annually on 9 August, but if their right to life is threatened then the visibility given to them is not having much of an impact. There is a need for structural changes to guarantee sustainable development for all people in Cameroon.

What human rights violations do Indigenous people experience in Cameroon?

One of the biggest human rights violations that Indigenous people face in Cameroon is the lack of legal recognition of their right to their territories and their right to life, especially in the conflict-ridden English-speaking regions of the country. Land legislation in Cameroon does not recognise Indigenous peoples’ land holdings and therefore does not protect their land and resources. It is challenging for Indigenous people to register their land because the activities they tend to carry out do not fall under the requirements set out by the government when it comes to effective occupation and exploitation, which is a condition sine qua non for land registration in Cameroon. Activities such as hunting and livestock grazing do not fall under the category of productive land use required for land registration. Commercial developments in Indigenous peoples’ territories affect their livelihoods, and their land is grabbed by people who are not part of the Indigenous community.

The implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples (UNDRIP) is supposed to provide Indigenous people with better living conditions and protection against losing their territories. However, I do not think the declaration has been well implemented in Cameroon.

UNDRIP urges governments to recognise and protect Indigenous peoples and their rights. Their land and territories should be protected by the government, but the government violates their rights on a daily basis. We understand that the declaration does not carry any legal obligations, but it should be used as guidance on how to respect Indigenous people and value their participation in the development of the country.

Cameroon still has land laws that were colonially inspired and do not recognise the rights of Indigenous peoples as far as territories are concerned. This might be the reason the government does not take UNDRIP into account.

Are Indigenous people well represented in policies?

Unfortunately, there is no binding legal framework that recognises Indigenous peoples in Cameroon. We have policies in place that serve as guidance for the recognition of Indigenous peoples but there has not been that much progress yet. The government has recently started doing things such as the appointing Indigenous people to decision-making positions. Forest dwellers are represented in decision-making. But these positions are often limited, and their people are not in high positions.

Pastoral people have a secretary general in the Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries, which is something positive, but it is very limited. It is safe to say that Indigenous people still lack political representation.

What should the Cameroon government do to help advance the rights of Indigenous people?

It would be good if the government met the requirements set by international legal instruments aimed at advancing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples. It should also revise the laws that discriminate against Indigenous people, along with its land tenure policies.

Indigenous peoples should be considered in decision-making. Enabling Indigenous people to participate in national politics would ensure inclusive development, taking into consideration the needs of everyone in Cameroonian society. Often the government puts development strategies in place without conducting proper research and consulting Indigenous peoples, and as a result development strategies do not benefit Indigenous peoples and their way of life.

In addition, administrative recognition of Indigenous communities would help preserve their cultural and historical heritage. When Indigenous peoples are mixed with neighbouring communities their culture becomes diluted and their history is easily neglected. Ensuring that they are not forcefully integrated with other communities would secure a future for the coming generation. The government should also promote land rights reform.

Hopefully, with time Indigenous peoples will get economic support and their participation in the development of the country will become noticeable. I believe all of the above can be achieved if the government ratifies the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, ILO Convention 169.

How is your organisation working to advance Indigenous rights?

MBOSCUDA is a community and membership-based organisation present in almost all regions of Cameroon. It was established in 1992 to promote proper living conditions for Mbororo pastoralists. We work to have the socio-cultural, political and economic rights of the Mbororo people recognised. We have consultative status with United Nations Economic and Social Council and had an observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

We collaborate with various ministries of the Cameroonian government. Our hope is that we can secure some of the services Indigenous people need to have a dignified life. These include, but are not limited to, civil status registration so they can get married, educational resources and healthcare facilities. We also undertake lobbying and advocacy work. To raise awareness of Indigenous peoples’ rights we participate in seminars on Indigenous peoples in Africa.

Unfortunately, the ongoing crisis in the Anglophone regions has reduced our activities in some parts of the country. There are places we cannot currently work in because of the conflict. If we decide to go regardless, the chances are high that we will not come back. In addition, some communities that act as if they own Indigenous peoples feel threatened by our work because they know they will not be able to continue exploiting them once Indigenous people have access to information and education.

How can Indigenous groups work together to promote their rights globally?

Indigenous people should collaborate and form a strong global alliance. Their voices will be stronger and the possibility of them getting recognised will be higher. We should offer each other a helping hand because we are all fighting the same battle, just in different territories.

The platforms that international organisations provide us should be used as a tool to hold our governments accountable. It is very important that we share our narratives and do not let people speak on our behalf. We know our struggles and nobody but us can elaborate on what our needs are, so we should be at the forefront of our own movement and speak for ourselves.


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

Get in touch with MBOSCUDA through its Facebook page.

 

SPAIN: ‘We demand legal and safe channels for migration; attempts to stop it will only cause more suffering’

CIVICUS speaks with Solidary Wheels about the deadly consequences of European governments’ anti-migrant policies, in light of the deaths of migrants at an attempted crossing of the Spain-Morocco border on 24 June.

 

Pakistan:‘International support to civil society must come with understanding of our political & societal context’

Rabia Mehmood

CIVICUS speaks about the political situation in Pakistan since the removal of its Prime Minister Imran Khan with journalist and researcher Rabia Mehmood.

Rabia Mehmood is the co-founder of a bi-lingual multimedia news outlet Naya Daur TV and a web-show host covering human rights and social justice stories. She is the former South Asia Researcher for Amnesty International. Her work focuses on state repression, impunity and persecution of religious minorities.

What led to the ousting of Imran Khan as prime minister through a no-confidence vote?

Khan was ousted from power in April through a constitutional vote of no confidence brought about by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a parliamentary coalition of multiple parties. The coalition secured 174 votes in the 342-member house in support of the no-confidence motion.

That was the tipping point after weeks of political upheaval. Khan’s administration was criticised by the opposition for failures in governance, soaring inflation and for plunging the country into a diplomatic crisis as his foreign policy distanced Pakistan from the USA.

To try to block the vote, Khan dissolved the lower house of parliament, but the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional. Following the parliamentary vote, Shehbaz Sharif, former Chief Minister of Punjab from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was appointed the new Prime Minister. Sharif is a long-time rival of Khan.

Since the July 2018 election, the opposition claimed that Khan’s ascent to power was enabled by political engineering by the country’s military establishment. His administration was termed a ‘hybrid regime’, in which Khan was the civilian face of the generals. The key reason behind Khan’s removal is believed to be his falling out with powerful forces within the military, often referred to as the ‘deep state’.

Regarding the involvement of the military in Pakistan’s political unrest, it is important to note that the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) is considered by many to be the most powerful position in Pakistan. The current COAS, Qamar Bajwa, appointed by Nawaz Sharif in 2016, is finally due to retire in November after six years.

Sharif was disqualified in 2017 and put behind bars following a corruption scandal. But after Khan won the election in 2018, he granted Bajwa an extension in August 2019. Bajwa was at the time known to be a great believer in the Khan project, along with the former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Faiz Hameed, now Commander of Peshawar Corps. But Bajwa, it appears, has now withdrawn support from Khan.

Hameed is known to have a different relationship with Khan, and Khan was reliant on him. He was deeply involved in the Khan administration’s repression, in addition to engineering unrest on the streets by an alt-right Islamist group in 2017, which led to further disruption of Sharif’s party.

It remains to be seen whether Bajwa is seeking yet another extension in November or a safe and comfortable exit, which would pave the way for a new COAS. Analysts estimate that Khan had to be got rid of due to these possible changes in November, and it was an easy task for the military to replace Khan because of his administration’s unsatisfactory governance and economic performance.

The military has repeatedly claimed to be a ‘neutral umpire’ during this political fiasco. In the run-up to Khan’s ousting and afterwards, Khan’s tactics, of slamming the armed forces and the current ISI chief, show his dissatisfaction with the military institution’s neutrality.

How has Khan responded?

In response to the vote of no confidence, Khan also accused the US government of orchestrating regime change in Pakistan. This allegation is based on a diplomatic cable that he claimed was ‘evidence’. When Khan dissolved the assembly ahead of the vote, he had resolved to present the diplomatic cable as evidence of foreign intervention.

It was later reported that the military explained to parliament’s National Security Committee in March that it had found no evidence of US involvement in regime change, something the White House concurred with.

In April, as soon as Khan was ousted, he and his party leaders began using terms like ‘American conspiracy’ and ‘international conspiracy’, online and offline. Khan called his opponents ‘thieves’ and ‘traitors’, and one of his close aides called in a public rally for the execution of the ‘traitor opposition’. During his public and press addresses, Khan has called for mutiny, incited his party supporters to commit civil disobedience and encouraged them to retaliate physically.

Since then Khan has held multiple public rallies across Pakistan and in July his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), swept by-elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and traditionally a PMLN stronghold. Now the already weak incumbent central government in the centre is facing further hostility from Punjab.

Khan has been calling for general elections. His narrative has a strong following in the country, and his support base appears to be in resurgence.

What is the current political and economic situation?

Pakistan is stuck in limbo due to a worsening political, legal and economic crisis. The leadership is divided between the Sharif-led coalition government and federal ministries led by the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), such as the ministry of foreign affairs. Provinces are also split between different parties, with Khan’s PTI leading in the two provinces.

The coalition government is weak and uncertainty over its immediate future looms large. Analysts assume that the ‘deep state’ will not allow for a strong civilian central government, and that a divided parliament is what it seeks to achieve.

The new government has taken over a fragile economy. Pakistan entered the International Monetary Fund programme in 2019, and the most recent funding was due in February, but fuel and power tariff caps imposed by the Khan administration halted the next cycle. The new government has now managed to negotiate and get clearance for another payment, but this has come at the price of tough economic decisions, with the burden impacting on the working masses and the salaried class.

Fuel prices have increased exponentially, which are causing a rise in commodity prices and exacerbating food inflation. Meanwhile, political and economic uncertainty is also causing the currency to depreciate quickly. In the budget for the current fiscal year, the government increased tax and hiked fuel prices. Pakistan’s foreign debt is US$6.4 billion, but at least the immediate risk of bankruptcy has reduced for now.

Access to basic services, free healthcare and education and adequate housing is increasingly out of reach of most of Pakistan’s 220 million people. Pakistan is essentially a poor country with some very rich families and an army with a massive budget. Instability is having severe repercussions for citizens in terms of their rights and the rule of law.

Civilian and military rulers have been too reliant on seeking bailout packages instead of focusing on long-term solutions such as taxing the rich and the corporate sector, or developing agriculture and increasing industrial exports. Economic stagnation, however, is not the fault of just one government.

Has the removal of Khan had a positive influence on Pakistan’s repressed civic space?

Pakistan’s track record on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression has been murky for decades. Civil society groups and activists have long been labelled as foreign agents, funded by anti-Pakistan forces. It is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist in. Religious minorities are persecuted and discriminated against through institutions, draconian laws and violence. Ethnic minorities are brutalised for demanding basic rights and protections from the state. The military establishment and security agencies operate with impunity.

In that context, the battle to defend civic space and media freedom is not new. But since the run-up to the July 2018 election, Pakistanis have been subjected to one of the most repressive eras of the country’s history. Press censorship has been widespread, curtailing any media attempts to question or report on significant issues such as Sharif’s disqualification, the role of the judiciary and military and reports of election rigging.

Khan established his place as a populist leader, and was called a press predator by Reporters Without Borders. During the Khan administration, journalists, human rights defenders (HRDs) and dissenting citizens were targeted with trumped-up charges of sedition, cyber terrorism and defamation of national institutions, along with arbitrary arrests, raids, disappearances, surveillance and beatings. Journalists were arbitrarily arrested for questioning and reporting on the alleged involvement in corruption of Khan’s wife, Bushara Bibi. Mainstream cable news networks were only allowed to attack opposition parties and their leaders, and portray Khan as the supreme leader. Civil rights movements, such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Mahaz, were subjected to a discriminatory crackdown. Their rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and expression, online and offline, have been continuously violated.

To a degree, Khan’s ousting has given slight breathing space to Pakistan’s repressed HRDs, civil society and journalists. The difference could be that reprisals can be documented in the press, by domestic rights monitors and be televised, with less fear. But this is only relative, as red lines for both the media and civil society still exist.

The threats and discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities continue. There are incidents of the use of force against peaceful protesting families of disappeared members of Baloch people, enforced disappearances and discriminatory harassment of Baloch students. A former journalist was arbitrarily detained over online criticism of the army chief. While peacefully protesting, civil society collectives, HRDs and families of the disappeared were shelled in the city of Quetta on 21 July.

Severely partisan journalists who acted as agents of disinformation and supported the Khan administration by actively targeting minorities, critical media, HRDs and the opposition are now on the receiving end of hostility from security agencies, as they are questioning the military over its alleged role in Khan’s ousting and lack of support for him.

What is the future of Pakistan’s democracy?

It appears to be bleak. Pakistan’s democratic process has been undermined severely by decades of dictatorships, the military establishment’s concealed intervention in civilian rule, the dubious role of the judiciary and a short-sighted, craven approach by civilian political parties.

Since its inception, Pakistan has been ruled by military dictators directly for 33 years, and they have controlled who gets to rule and how from behind the scenes. No civilian prime minister has ever completed their full five-year term. Real power lies in the hands of the generals, who set up hybrid regimes in collaboration with civilian leaders.

General Zia-ul-Haq overthrew the government of PPP’s charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in a coup d’état in 1977. In 1979, Bhutto was executed by a severely partisan Supreme Court, while Zia became president. Over the decades, the capitulation of the civilian ruling elite and the role of the judiciary in sanctioning coups have also contributed to the derailing of the country’s ever-fragile democracy.

For example, former Prime Minister Sharif’s disqualification was widely believed to have been a consequence of a ‘judicial coup’. The National Accountability Bureau chaired by a former Supreme Court judge was severely partisan and flawed, and used to victimise leaders of the PMLN and PPP.

Decades of conflict in the north-western region, the military’s reliance on militant groups as its proxies and the current resurgence of militant outfits at the border all pose a threat to Pakistan’s stability and consequently its democracy. Sectarian outfits are enduring. Nationalist ethnicities in Sindh and elsewhere are treated with extreme suspicion, which causes the growth of their young people’s resentment towards the state.

For example, the armed insurgency in Balochistan province has its roots in a lack of trust in the military and the state’s discriminatory policies. The people of the mineral-rich province are poor and have been subjected to human rights abuses and violence for years. Meanwhile, barely any efforts to build trust among Baloch people have been made by state institutions. The militarisation of multiple regions and violence perpetrated on citizens are contrary to democratic norms.

Unless the constitution and parliament are held supreme in the true sense of the word, and intervention by the powers-that-be isn’t kept in check, Pakistan’s democracy will not be able to address its many challenges and will remain at risk.

How has civil society engaged with political developments? What kind of international support does Pakistani civil society need?

Civil society and collectives of HRDs have responded to the political developments with caution but courage. Civil society and HRDs understand where the centre of power lies in Pakistan. Yet it has not stopped them from asking the right questions and leading human rights campaigns. Overall, from larger civil society organisations to smaller but critical collectives, civil society has stood in support of the primacy of parliament, the constitution and democratic processes.

Years of demonisation of civil society and labelling of HRDs and journalists as anti-state and servers of foreign, western agendas have made it easy for propagandists and authoritarian sections of the state to put targets on the backs of people. International solidarity is essential for Pakistani civil society. But now with disinformation and propaganda smear campaigns on the rise, the support must come with an understanding of the political and societal context of Pakistan.

Religious, ethnic, sexual and gender minorities, journalists, civil society workers and HRDs remain at risk, not only due to state reprisals but also the threat of violence from extremist groups.

Relief and protection of at-risk communities are not possible without the support and alliance of regional and like-minded international civil society networks. Exchange among civil society networks across regions must also continue to come up with new ways of fighting systems of oppression.


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

Get in touch with Rabia Mehmood through her Twitter account @Rabail26.

 

MONGOLIA: ‘The government makes decisions without proper consultation’

CIVICUS speaks with two civil society activists, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about restrictions experienced by civil society in Mongolia and proposed new laws affecting civil society.

Mongolia protest

Mongolian youth protest in Sukhbaatar Square (Photo Credit: Anand Tumurtogoo)

What’s the problem with the Associations and Foundations bills, currently under discussion in Mongolia?

The drafts of the bills on associations and foundations have been under discussion since 2019 and were submitted by the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs to parliament in November 2021. The bills are meant to govern the work of civil society organisations (CSOs), including the processes for registration and reporting and the types of activities allowed, among other issues.

If passed, these bills will impose undue burdens on CSOs, particularly regarding the ways they will have to report to meet government requirements. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of CSOs, three-quarters of which are non-membership CSOs, may have to stop operating because of failure to comply with various undue burdens. These include increased and burdensome reporting criteria that apply to all CSOs regardless of their size, capacities and activities as well as internal requirements related to management and organisational structures that are not suitable for many informal groups.

The provision establishing a Civil Society Development Support Council, an independent body to oversee CSOs, is also problematic because it comes with sweeping powers to dissolve organisations arbitrarily and allocate funding among CSOs, deciding which get government funding. This carries the potential of shrinking funding opportunities for many CSOs, particularly those working to further rights. The risk of arbitrary deregistration is also high, given the vast powers conferred on the Council and the broad and vague provisions on prohibited activities.

How has civil society reacted?

CSOs have tried to review and refine the bills several times to ensure they uphold fundamental civic freedoms, but to no avail. The attempt now is to block the laws.

In November 2021, Mongolian civil society, together with several international CSOs, launched a campaign calling for the bills to be scrapped immediately, given there had been no consultation with civil society and there was no time or space to do so. The campaign managed to halt the progress of the draft bills and parliament announced that further discussions would be held.

As of April 2022, it seemed likely the bills would be postponed and undergo further consultation. However, the speaker of parliament issued a decree to establish a working group to draft an alternative bill, the Professional Associations Bill.

This draft had also been circulated in 2019 and was deemed problematic because it would tarnish the independence of CSOs by requiring CSO workers to have professional licences. At the moment, the discussion of this bill is suspended.

What can the international community do to support Mongolian civil society?

Although parliament has said the bills are currently suspended, there is no guarantee they will be dropped. Past experience shows the government often makes decisions on policy matters without proper consultation. Therefore, continuous scrutiny, including at the regional and international levels, would be very helpful.

Access to resources and connection to international platforms such as the United Nations system would also be useful to help local civil society continue its struggle. 

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

 

TUNISIA: ‘The new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers, enabling further violations’

Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about Tunisia’s 25 July constitutional referendum with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). 

KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, through awareness-raising, capacity-building and documentation.

Why is President Kais Saied holding a constitutional referendum on 25 July?

Changing the constitution or revising it is part of the president’s private project – a plan he didn’t announce either when running for the presidency in 2019 or during his first two years in office. This all started with President Saied dismissing the prime minister and suspending parliament in July 2021.

At that time, he didn’t even announce the revision of the constitution. It was only in mid-December that the president had to spell out a roadmap under international and local pressure. At the heart of Saied’s roadmap is a new constitution.

Unlike the 2014 constitution, which was based on broad consensus, the process leading to a constitutional referendum didn’t gain public support. When people were asked their opinion on revising the constitution, as part of online consultation organised in early 2022, only around 30 per cent of respondents agreed. Still, the president has gone ahead with the constitutional review process, with a referendum campaign asking Tunisians to vote ‘yes’ to ‘correct the course of the revolution’.

To what extent has civil society engaged in the process leading to the upcoming referendum?

Civil society has gone through unprecedented times in recent months. When it comes to its stance on the issue, in broad terms civil society has mostly been either silent or supportive.

At the start of the president’s July 2021 power grab, some civil society activists who were fed up with problems we have encountered in the past few years, with an inefficient democracy, saw Saied’s move as a political attempt to correct the trajectory of our democracy. One of Saied’s early promises was to fight corruption and bad governance.

But as soon as the president revealed his intention to change the constitution, political parties, influential people and some civil society groups started to oppose him. 

Civil society is not one group or in one position – of course there is some diversity. The most vocal and influential groups are critical of him, especially since the planned new constitution was shared with the public; they realised its aim is not to ‘restore democracy’, but rather attack it. Now many are trying to stop the referendum process happening.

How has civil society organised against the referendum?

Although civil society’s response is late, they have recently used a range of means to oppose the referendum. Coalitions have been built, civil society has published position papers, conferences have been held.

Some groups are calling for a boycott of the referendum while others are trying to bring a case to court, although they do so in the face of presidential attack on justice: in June the president fired 57 judges, accusing them of corruption and protecting ‘terrorists’. In protest against judicial interference, Tunisian judges went on strike, only returning to work very recently.

The Tunisian League of Human Rights, a prominent CSO, has called on the president to withdraw his proposal and instead enter a wider dialogue with Tunisian society. 

How free and fair might the referendum be?

When democratic transition took place in 2011 our country strived to create independent institutions such as the electoral commission and an anti-corruption body, among others. The proposed constitution dissolved almost all these independent bodies.

The only one it keeps is the electoral commission, which President Saied seized control of in May by firing its members and appointing new ones. In February he dissolved the High Judicial Council, as well as sacking the judges in June. 

Given that context, the independence of this ‘independent commission’ running the referendum, and the integrity of the whole election, must be questioned.

What are your expectations for the results, and what impact will they have on the quality of democracy?

By examining the latest polls on President Saied’s approval ratings, he still has huge public support. But this is the result of his populism. He is a populist president and populism – at least in its early years – has many supporters. But once a populist president fails to deliver on their promises, they lose popularity and support. In Tunisia, we are still going through the early stages of populism.

Despite his popularity, I believe that his upcoming referendum will have a very low participation rate. With a small turnout, the legitimacy of the result will be questioned.

But the president and his regime don’t care about legitimacy. For example, when the national consultation took place months ago, it was a complete failure in terms of the participation rate. Yet President Saied used it as a justification to hold this referendum. 

If the referendum is approved, it will be followed by parliamentary elections in December, according to his roadmap; parliament was dissolved in April. Meanwhile, there will probably be several ‘reforms’ and new laws. I am afraid to say that the next phase is quite scary because the president has the ultimate power to change laws without any checks and balances, in the absence of an independent judiciary, constitutional court and parliament. 

Democracy means the separation of powers, checks and balances, and participation, but all of these have been cancelled by the president since July 2021. He has tightened his grip over the entire executive body, the entire legislative body, and even part of the judiciary. With an attack on the judiciary, we can count less on judges to be the ultimate defenders of rights and freedoms. Our democracy is probably at its worst level since the 2010 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The human rights situation is worsening with the decline of democracy. We have witnessed several human rights violations, some of which reminded us of the kind of abuses that were committed during the early years of the revolution. The difference between that time and now is the absence of any accountability. The president hasn’t been held accountable for any decision he has made during the last year. 

From our side, civil society has condemned these violations, but it was not enough, so we have been trying to network with various defenders of democracy in Tunisia as well as abroad. In the next phase, civil society will continue its pressure and mobilise against any deviations from democracy, given that the new constitution will guarantee the president extensive powers and open the doors for further violations.

How has the international community responded? 

We feel the international community has left Tunisia behind. The international community is offering a very weak response to this attack on democracy and the loss of a democratic country. The community of democratic countries is not putting in much effort to keep Tunisia within its family.

Many of us are very disappointed by their reactions to the closure of parliament and what followed. The result is a very bad draft constitution that will probably cancel Tunisia’s democracy. But there has been no solid response from democratic friends of Tunisia.

In this way, they encourage the president to commit more violations. These countries are back to their policies of the past decades in prioritising security and stability over democracy and human rights in our region.

Civic space in Tunisia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KADEM through its website or its Facebook page. 

 

JAMAICA: ‘We must establish a republic – where the people are sovereign and not the Queen’

Rosalea HamiltonCIVICUS speaks about the movement to make Jamaica a republic with Professor Rosalea Hamilton, founding director of the Institute of Law and Economics and member of the Advocates Network.

The Advocates Network is a non-partisan alliance of individuals and organisations advocating for human rights and good government in Jamaica.

What are the goals of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

To understand the goals, let’s break down the concept of republicanism. It means different things to different people. Perhaps the most popular, widespread view of a republic is a state without a monarch. This is the view held by many countries across the region that have removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, Barbados being the most recent case, and declared themselves a republic. But the other concept of a republic, as a state in which the people are sovereign, is typically ignored or downplayed.

Since Barbados became a republic in November 2021, the republican conversation, which had started in Jamaica around 1995, gained momentum. Having learned from the experience of our Caribbean neighbours, many of us now view the concept of a republic as involving not just the removal of the Queen but also the establishment of a state where the people are sovereign and not the Queen.

Although we have a representative, democratic form of government, it does not effectively represent the will of the people. Therefore, a core objective in creating a republic would be to strengthen and deepen our representative democracy to ensure we have a government of, by and for the people.

So for those of us who are part of the Advocates Network, our goal is not just removing the Queen as head of state, which we see as a necessary first step, but also deepening our democracy and ensuring the establishment of a state where the Jamaican people are sovereign.

What explains the recent momentum of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

Most recently, the movement gathered strength in response to the royal visit to Jamaica in March 2022, which was viewed as inappropriate not only because it was during the throes of the pandemic, but because we were – and still are – grappling with pre-existing issues that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. These include high murder rates, undereducated children, child abuse, gender-based violence and inadequate housing. Many of us in the Advocates Network are actively involved in tackling these problems, which we view as rooted in our colonial past. We think it’s time not only to move away from the monarchy, but also fix these colonial legacy problems. 

The royal visit was therefore seen as a distraction. But it also provided an opportunity for Jamaicans to learn more about the royal family and their active role in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans. Jamaicans became more aware of the details of past atrocities and have begun questioning the role of the Queen as head of state after 60 years of independence. Social media has played a big role in helping to build awareness and deepen understanding.

But there are also several other factors at play. The world is changing. For us in the Caribbean and across the Black African world, something shifted with the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the entire world saw the video of a white man kneeling on the neck of a Black man, we found that our Governor-General – the official who represents the Queen in Jamaica – was wearing an insignia with a white angel standing on the head of a devil depicted as Black. It was a shocking reminder of the link between our colonial past and our institutions today.

That woke people up. The George Floyd murder, and the many racist incidents that followed in the USA, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, reminded us that we still live in a world where people are treated as less than human based on the colour of their skin. The unheard calls for reparations are becoming louder as we try to come to grips with a past that is still with us.

The movement for republicanism can therefore be seen as a rejection of our colonial past and its modern-day expressions in the form of racism, discrimination, inequity and more.

In light of the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, what do you think the relationship between Caribbean countries and the UK will look like going forward?

A lot will depend on how the UK responds to the growing calls of Caribbean people and our governments for a different relationship than we have had in the past. The formal position of Caribbean governments is to engage in a reparatory process. Governments may choose to be patient with this process, but increasingly many Caribbean people are demanding a formal apology and reparations, as was evident during the royal visits to the region. Many are saying it’s time!

The voices are getting louder, not only in the Caribbean but in the USA and other parts of the world. The rejection by the majority of the Commonwealth heads of government of Kamina Johnson Smith, the candidate for Secretary-General who was openly backed by the UK, is indicative of this changing relationship with the UK.

If the UK doesn’t respond positively and continues its racist, discriminatory policies, the relationship is likely to become more antagonistic.

But I am hopeful things will change. An important part of our response to the royal visit was an open letter listing 60 historical reasons for an apology and reparations from the UK and its royal family. It was a way to bring to their attention the horrors of the past, because we are not sure they understand our history.

It may be working. I noted that at a Commonwealth conference, Prince Charles said he’s still learning about the past. Most of us are still learning, and unlearning, what we were taught about the past.

The UK has a great opportunity to rebuild this historic relationship on less exploitative and more humane terms. Engaging in a meaningful reparatory justice process can create a framework to build a mutually beneficial relationship that puts the past behind us and enable us to build a better future for generations to come. 

How is the Advocates Network working towards these goals?

We are advocates for human rights and good governance, issues that are central to creating a people-centred republic. So we are actively engaged in public education and building public awareness about what it will take to create a republic where the Jamaican people are sovereign. Right now, we are organising online forums. We won’t stop until we are on the right path to creating a meaningful republic. As we say: ‘Wi Naa Ease Up!’

Public education is key! The 60 reasons appended to the open letter to the royals was to educate not just the royals about our history but also our fellow Jamaicans. We want Jamaicans to understand the many reasons we must remove the Queen as head of state. It’s simply unacceptable to have a head of state who refuses to formally apologise for an atrocity that the United Nations has labelled as constituting crimes against humanity.

The major obstacle to overcome is to shift the mindset of Jamaicans to see themselves as owners of Jamaica with sovereign responsibility to determine the future of Jamaica. If we make this shift, a meaningful republic that can better address the pressing issues facing Jamaicans will be within our grasp.

What international help do the movement and its people need?

The work involved in creating a meaningful republic as well as pursuing reparatory justice is indeed challenging. It’s a heavy burden. It’s a painful burden to confront our past and change our society. Unearthing the past to guide our future is heavy lifting.

Collaboration, especially in disseminating information, is important for our education campaign, including through interviews by a global south organisation based in South Africa, such as CIVICUS.

Financial resources are helpful, but in-kind support is as important and will certainly help us to reduce the burden. Access to research materials, educational opportunities, media facilitation, technological assistance and international forums will be helpful. We welcome opportunities to amplify our voices in collaboration with individuals and organisations with similar objectives in other countries.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @Advocatesnetja and @rosaleahamilton on Twitter.

 

TURKEY: ‘Civilian refugees should not be used as political bargaining chips’

Bassam AlahmadCIVICUS speaks with Bassam Alahmad, co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), about the Turkish plan to return one million refugees to Syria.

STJ is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to documenting human rights violations to contribute to the prospects for justice, as well as training human rights activists and building capacity in areas including digital security and civic engagement.

Why is the Turkish government making plans to return a million Syrian refugees to Syria?

We do not know the exact reason behind the plan to return a million Syrians to Turkish-administered regions of Syria. But there are several possible reasons we can think of. First, Turkey will hold general elections next year, and every time elections approach, the ruling Justice and Development Party will try to draw attention outside Turkey in any way possible – by attacking other nations, creating problems with neighbouring countries or groups of people – to hide domestic failures.

Second, the decision may be part of a wider strategy by the Turkish government concerning its engagement with northeast and northwest Syria, which aims to decrease the presence of Kurds and other populations who it doesn’t view as ‘Turkey’s allies’ – people that Turkey does not like having at its borders. To achieve this, Turkey will make claims that these populations are ‘terrorists’.

The decision announced to return a million Syrians from Turkey back to Syria therefore hits two birds with one stone. It would allow the Turkish government to show its domestic opposition that it is tackling the ‘problem’ while also using Syrians against Syrians in the northeast and northwest parts of Syria.

To sum up, there is no specific reason we know of, but we can assume that demographic engineering in northeast and northwest Syria and Turkey’s domestic politics are all at play.

How has this announcement impacted on Syrian refugees in Turkey?

This policy has really affected Syrian refugees in Turkey. Every single day there is at least one case of assault against a Syrian person – sometimes more. Incidents of racism and cases of deportation and violence at the border, and even of murder, have been verified. Hundreds of organisations and media outlets have verified racist attacks against Syrians.

Why are these attacks happening? Because the Turkish government is telling people that it has already spent too much on Syrians, and Turkish citizens are resenting it. The Turkish government is also telling people that it has freed areas in Syria from terrorists and they are now safe for return, so Turkish citizens are increasingly putting pressure on Syrian refugees to leave. Turkish public opinion turning against Syrians makes them vulnerable to racism and deportation.

The discourse that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is disseminating is affecting Syrian refugees very negatively. And the problem is that it is not true. The United Nations, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Amnesty International and many others have all said that Syria is not safe.

How do you assess Turkey’s immigration policy?

Many countries and organisations say that Turkey should be thanked for its treatment of Syrian refugees; however, Turkey’s 2016 agreement with the European Union was a really bad one, because as a result Syrian refugees were trapped or detained in Turkey so that the Turkish government could receive money for hosting them.

Syrian refugees and asylum seekers have been used as political game pieces ever since. Following this agreement, in which Europeans agreed to pay money to Turkey to keep Syrians from advancing through Greece and further into Europe, there have been multiple instances of disagreements between Europe and Turkey leading to threats against refugees.

This is not good. You can’t keep using civilian refugees as political bargaining chips, using them against Turkey, or against the Kurds in northeast and northwest Syria, or against the Americans in northeast Syria. But the 2016 agreement gave the Turkey government leverage to use refugees as a political card, and they have used it. And by the way, Turkey is not the only country using refugees this way, and Syrian refugees are not the only refugees who have been used. Afghan, Iraqi and other refugees have had similar experiences, but this is especially true for Syrian refugees.

Do you think the attitude of the Turkish government points to a broader European pattern?

Of course, the Turkish refugee policy has a lot in common with refugee policies around the world. I do not want to say that all European governments treat refugees the same way as the Turkish government, but occasionally there are similarities.

In particular, we all saw how European governments treated Ukrainian refugees – this was good. But they don’t treat Syrian refugees the same way. European countries gave Turkey money to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey, while they opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.

We do not want to paint all the Turkish and European politicians and policies with the same brush, but there are patterns of racist refugee policies and racist attacks against refugees that are important to recognise.

How has Syrian civil society responded to the announcement by the Turkish government?

Unfortunately, the civil society response has not been unified. Many Syrian CSOs that do not have employees or offices in Turkey have published reports about this plan; however, Syrian CSOs in Turkey have not been able to speak out, for a number of reasons. In some cases, organisations are politically aligned with Turkey and welcome these policies. But many others want to speak out against these policies – the racism, the deportations, the military actions against Syrians within Syria – but they are unable to for security reasons.

In other words, some people don’t want to speak up because they are essentially in agreement with Turkish policies, while others would want to but cannot because it is dangerous, as they are in Turkey, where speaking out may result in deportation or arrest. There are also some Turkish organisations that address these issues, but many do not have the interests of Syrian refugees in mind.

It is key for Turkish organisations to speak out and insist that Syria is not safe for refugees to return. There has been limited discussion about Turkey’s rights violations against Syrians, and this should not be the case. Both domestic and international civil society should speak out against violations occurring in Turkey and committed by Turkey.

Civic space in Turkey is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Syrians for Truth and Justice through its website or Facebook page, and follow @STJ_SYRIA_ENG and @BassamAlahmed on Twitter.

 

BURUNDI: ‘Our right to be recognised and represented as an Indigenous community is being violated’

Severin SindizeraCIVICUS speaks about Indigenous peoples’ rights in Burundi with Severin Sindizera, Global Coordinator of the Indigenous Peoples Global Forum for Sustainable Development (IPGFforSD).

IPGFforSD is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of Indigenous peoples in Burundi and monitors the implementation of the Sustainable Development Gaols (SDGs) in relation to Indigenous peoples at the national and international levels.

What is the situation of Indigenous people in Burundi?

The Batwa Indigenous people represent approximately two per cent of Burundi’s population. The context is disheartening because most of our rights are not recognised. Most Batwa people live in extreme poverty and are marginalised and discriminated against. They are often excluded from access to basic resources such as public services, education, land and healthcare. One common issue affecting Indigenous people across the globe is lack of access to land and decision-making bodies. 

The Batwa people are not exempt from this, as our land rights are not recognised in Burundi. We need land to survive – to build our houses, grow our crops, graze our animals and preserve our culture.

Batwa people are not well represented in decision-making processes, which explains why development strategies rarely cater to us and our needs. We have been excluded from the economic, social, political and cultural development of our country. It is quite unfair to have people make decisions on our behalf without consulting with our community. When projects are implemented, we are often sidelined. It would seem the government is trying to make people think it is helping Indigenous people while we are not really receiving the help we need.

The SDGs aim to eradicate many problems affecting societies globally, but their implementation in Burundi has not been inclusive of Indigenous people. The government must understand that our place in society is already under threat, so it needs to approach the SDGs in an intersectional manner to serve all people of Burundi equally.

The international community has also shown a lack of a solid plan to address the rights of Indigenous peoples during implementation of the SDGs. We want to know how international organisations aim to promote Indigenous peoples’ development through the SDGs. I had the privilege of attending the Forum on Financing for Development (FfD) in New York, but was disappointed I was the only member representing Indigenous peoples.

What are the main rights violations experienced by Batwa people in Burundi?

Batwa people in Burundi do not have access to education, healthcare and proper legal services. Many people have suffered and died due to being denied access to healthcare facilities in their communities. When we try to get legal help to hold accountable those responsible for negligence in healthcare centres, we do not qualify to receive it. We hope this will change one day and the Batwa people of Burundi will be inclusively integrated in their communities.

But Batwa people currently face serious discrimination. We are often called names such as witches and made feel unwanted by the wider society. Our dignity is looked down upon and we are forced to take a lesser place in society. Without access to good jobs, Batwa people have a high prevalence of poverty.

Batwa people are disproportionately affected by arbitrary arrests and rights violations, as well as by land grabbing from the government and international stakeholders. People take advantage of us because they know that the majority of us do not have identity cards, making it difficult for us to access justice. Whatever laws have been put in place to protect us are not really working.

Our right to be recognised and represented as a community is being violated. We need members of our community to advocate for our rights independently, without being associated with any political party. The history of this country should inform policymakers about the importance of cultural recognition. No one should be left behind because of their identity. We have a right to participate fully in public life without facing rights violations.

Has any progress been made in terms of representation in policymaking processes?

The Burundian government has launched an initiative to include Indigenous people in some governmental positions. There are now a few Batwa people in parliament. However, the fact that participation in public affairs requires association with a political party makes us uncomfortable. This restricts many Indigenous people from speaking out about their rights because they are controlled by their political parties.

Political representation is an opportunity for our needs to be heard but our people who are actively participating in public affairs do not necessarily speak on our behalf. Participation of ethnic minorities in Burundi still has a long way to go despite the efforts of the government. Batwa women are inadequately represented in political positions.

Our government focuses on development but fails to promote it in an inclusive manner. It recently setup a national strategy for Indigenous people, highlighting issues we are dealing with and stating its plan to advance Indigenous people’s rights. We hope that they will consult with members of our community and Indigenous leaders about our needs so the strategy actually benefits us.

How can Indigenous groups across the world work together to promote Indigenous people’s rights?

Indigenous groups must have regional and international forums to collaborate towards the achievement of our human rights, economic and social development, as well as civil and political rights. We must partner with international organisations that have experience with working on Indigenous people’s rights so that they can help us with our advocacy work and share strategies to make our work more effective.

Our organisation, IPGFforSD, works for Indigenous rights through international advocacy and innovative initiatives. We work in collaboration with Indigenous groups an encourage them to create and enhance their platforms in their respective countries from across the globe who face similar issues. We focus on monitoring SDG implementation because the rights and needs of Indigenous people are currently not well represented when SDGs are implemented. We have worked with the United Nations (UN) mechanisms, including the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to raise awareness of the plight of Indigenous people and the need to recognise them in both national and international policies. We advocate for national governments and international organisations to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

We also work to sensitise our leaders about Indigenous rights through workshops and seminars. Our aim is for them to be well informed so they can, we hope, help us in the battle of getting our rights recognised in Burundi.

Civic space in Burundi is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with IPGFforSD through its Facebook page and follow @IIpgfforsd on Twitter. 

 

TANZANIA: ‘The human rights of the Maasai people are violated through involuntary assimilation and relocation’

Josef_Moses_Oleshangay.jpgCIVICUS speaks about the unlawful eviction of Maasai people from their ancestral lands with Joseph Moses Oleshangay, a Tanzanian human rights lawyer and activist for democracy and Indigenous peoples’ land rights. Joseph is currently working with the Legal and Human Rights Centre to raise awareness of human rights violations and promote good governance in Tanzania.

Why are Maasai people being evicted from their land in Tanzania?

The Maasai eviction is largely caused by the government’s lust for money. The tourism and hunting business promises to bring a lot of capital, and unfortunately, that can only happen if the Maasai are removed from their native land. The government is currently planning to evict Maasai people living in Loliondo and Ngorongoro to establish a game-controlled area in Loliondo and potentially change the status of a conservation area in Ngorongoro to a game reserve.

The government has proposed to establish game reserves in every single district ancestrally occupied by Maasai communities. The way this project is being carried out is unethical and threatens many lives and the cultural survival of the Maasai.

Sadly, to gain public support and trust the government has created a narrative that this is a nature conservation project. But it has been scientifically proved that Maasai pastoralism is compatible with environmental and wildlife conservation. While the government generally accuses the Maasai as threatening tourism in Ngorongoro, 70 per cent of tourists in Tanzania in 2019 visited Ngorongoro, with the remaining 22 national parks and game reserves attracting only 30 per cent of the tourist inflow. Ngorongoro also contributes 52 per cent of the earnings from tourism. It is the only conservation area in Tanzania where humans – Maasai – are legally allowed to coexist with wildlife. As well as being by far the best tourism destination in Tanzania, it has the highest wildlife population density in the world. This shows that the government’s claim that the Maasai are threatening wildlife conservation and tourism is a completely false narrative.

In Ngorongoro over 80,000 people are facing the threat of eviction, which the government justifies by claiming the population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. But according to the latest census, Ngorongoro has a human population density of 10 people per square kilometre, compared to a national average of 60.

The tourism industrial complex is pushing the government to forcefully evict Maasai people from their land because they think the Maasai don’t add value to the business and will disrupt the activities they want to undertake in Loliondo, Ngorongoro and the neighbouring Serengeti National Park. The authorities know that wildlife massacre, one of the key businesses planned, won’t be possible under the Maasai’s watch and their pastoralism livelihoods will not fit the overall hunting and hotel aesthetic they are trying to create.

The government has an obligation to take care of the environment and ensure the safety of all who live in it. If Maasai people are allowed to stay in the newly created game reserves, they will witness wildlife massacre and will inevitably suffer harm. The government cannot risk this being exposed.

So without consulting with the Maasai community, the government has started its eviction plan in a manner that will force their integration with the majority community in the coastal region. To facilitate relocation, on 31 March the government withdrew all funds previously allocated to health, education and other key services. In 2021 the government threatened to demolish nine government primary schools and six health centres. In April 2022 the government’s chief spokesperson recognised that life-saving services were prolonging the Maasai presence in the Ngorongoro so there was a need to dismantle them.

What human rights violations have been reported?

Many human rights violations have been reported, and they are reaching a level we had not seen since our independence. They are more brutal than what our people experienced in the colonial era. Never before has our country witnessed a campaign targeting a specific community as we are now seeing in Ngorongoro. The Maasai are being portrayed as primitive people whose ancestral land is elsewhere, and the president has said they are new arrivals in Tanzania, so in case of a forceful relocation, the authorities can claim the Maasai have no attachment to Ngorongoro.

In early June, the authorities installed beacons in the place destined to become a game-controlled area, against Tanzanian law and in violation of an order issued by the East Africa Court of Justice in 2018. In 2017 a Maasai representative filed a complaint at the Tanzanian Human Rights and Good Governance Commission against the planned eviction and submitted a case to the East Africa Court of Justice seeking intervention against violent operations that ended with at least 349 Maasai homesteads being set ablaze.

Despite the temporary orders issued by the Court directing the government to halt relocation pending a final decision on the case, on 17 June 2022, just five days before the date set for delivery of a judgment, the government declared the contested land as a game-controlled area. Surprisingly, four days later the Court issued a notice that the decision would be delayed until September, giving the government leeway in executing atrocities in Loliondo.

The demarcated area includes not only village land, which is forbidden by the law, but also people’s homesteads. The police have used teargas and guns, wounding 31 Maasai people. Before beacons were installed, all elected political leaders were arrested and detained incommunicado for seven days before being arraigned in court on murder charges – for a murder that happened one day after they were arrested.

There are currently 27 Maasai people charged with murder and over 80 detained under the accusation of being unlawful immigrants. Some have been subjected to torture. Over 2,000 people have reportedly crossed the border with Kenya for security reasons.

Since June, Maasai livestock have been killed or impounded by security forces and a large-scale operation is ongoing to silence anyone who speak against the situation in Ngorongoro and Loliondo.

How will this eviction affect Maasai people?

To understand how Maasai people will be impacted upon, one needs to understand who the Maasai are. They are a semi-nomadic pastoral people who move from one place to another in search of their livelihood. They have lived alongside wildlife for centuries and know how to preserve their environment. They have established their cultural practices and spiritual sites that define them as a distinct society.

Relocation will disturb their culture. There is a place called Oldoinyo Lenkai (‘Mountain of God’) where the Maasai believe their god lives and usually conduct sacrifices during times of scarcity and crisis. If this land becomes a conservation area with restricted access their right to spirituality will be taken away. Ultimately, relocation has a strong chance of leading to their extinction as a people.

One of the government’s justifications of the relocation process is what they call the need for forced civilisation of the Maasai people, who would have a better life if they coexisted with people from different backgrounds. But this will force them to adopt a culture that is not their own. Involuntary assimilation and relocation are the greatest human rights violations and generally fall under the accepted meaning of genocide under the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court.

How are civil society activists and organisations fighting back?

We are fighting this in many ways. We are challenging the government by debunking its narrative. The government is spreading propaganda to get public support, so what we do is inform people about the dangers of these evictions and that they are founded on false narratives. We also use our various platforms to highlight that the Maasai add value to both nature conservation and tourism, providing accurate information to counter false claims.

We also have filed a court case against eviction. The law is one of the strongest tools we are using in fighting injustice in this battle. We can use the law to hold the government accountable and demand it halts the planned eviction. We are trying to make sure that the truth about what is happening is known not only internally but also by the international community.

We have been fortunate enough to have regional and international organisations such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and United Nations human rights experts publicly condemn the actions of the Tanzanian government and urge it to stop unlawful evictions.

But we have faced challenges, including the lack of functional legal processes in Tanzania. The 2018 court order requiring a halt to the operations have not been respected. Our government thinks it is above the law and this is affecting our progress in fighting the eviction. As activists our lives are in danger. The government threatens us and many activists had fled the country for safety.

What kind of assistance do you need from international civil society?

We need international organisations and activists to help us expose what is happening in Tanzania, because if this is known about internationally the government might be pressured to do better. International allies should use their platforms to highlight the gruesome violations of rights experienced by the Maasai people and keep people informed about our activities.

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

Follow @Oleshangay on Twitter.

 

ROHINGYA REFUGEES: ‘We want to go back home in peace’

Maung SawyeddollahCIVICUS speaks about the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and youth activism with Maung Sawyeddollah, founder and executive director of the Rohingya Students Network, a global network of Rohingya students and young people based in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

What is the Rohingya Students Network and what does it do?

The Rohingya Students Network is a global interconnected network of Rohingya students and young people. I founded it in December 2019 and it now has members in all 33 camps in Cox’s Bazar. We operate through WhatsApp and we arrange weekly meetings with all members to work towards our objective, which is to ensure the life, liberty and security of the Rohingya people.

We do two kinds of work. We work on community development by organising activities such as skills training and youth workshops. And we advocate for our people by talking to international media and working alongside the International Court of Justice (ICJ). As bringing justice to our people is very important for us, we help by collecting materials such as victims’ testimonies. We also oversee the overall situation of our people and collect data to share with our members.

We are bringing a case against Facebook because we believe Facebook used the genocide in Myanmar for business. We would normally send a letter to Facebook and ask them for help to fund Rohingya education camps. But they refuse to compensate for what they did, and so we had to take the legal way. Facebook is responsible for many human rights violations in Myanmar, so now we are legally pursuing the matter. We are getting help from Victim Advocates International, an organisation of lawyers.

What is the education situation in refugee camps?

The situation is bad. There are several schools in the camps but they all have a very dated system. One of them is the Rohingya Learning Centre. But all they do is give Rohingya students biscuits! Kids tell us, ‘We go to the Learning Centre to get biscuits, not to get education’.

There’s a lack of learning centres and qualified teachers inside the camps, even though we’ve been living here for five years. Teachers just teach basic things such as A is for apple, B is for ball. Our kids aren´t getting the quality education they deserve.

Have there been any changes in the situation of Rohingya people?

I would say there hasn’t been any change to our situation since 2017. It’s true there have been meetings about the Rohingya and many organisations and groups have issued statements regarding our situation. However, all these meetings and statements have brought no positive outcome. The solutions offered to end the conflict still equal zero.

There have been some minor improvements though. For instance, the USA has declared the Rohingya situation as genocide. The case has made some progress in the ICJ and the International Criminal Court. But still, solutions haven’t gone past an initial stage. Our crisis is a complicated one. 

The long-term scenario is complex. We left our country, Myanmar, in 2017 and are still facing systematic violence there. We were a minority and had to leave because of the violence towards us. We are now living in Bangladesh but continue to fight in various arenas to get the justice our people deserve.

There are many factors we need to consider to get our rights back. We can say there’s a civil war happening in Myanmar. There are two parallel governments competing to rule the country: the military government and the National Unity Government.

In Rakhine State – where Rohingya people are from – there are powerful groups such as the Arkan Army, which are also a challenge because they prevent people from getting back to their homes. These are challenges we need to address. And who knows, maybe someday we can get back home.

What challenges do you face when doing your work?

The threats and dangers are constant. For every single activity we want to do, there is some kind of opposition. A big part of society is opposed to the kind of work we do. We are respected by the government of Bangladesh and allowed to do our work freely, although I think they are now changing their minds. I think our Going Home Campaign, which we launched a few weeks ago, will make our relationship a bit harder.

There is also the fact that we continue to demand our rights, and many people speak up online and advocate for our rights, but the audience that we really need to listen to us, those responsible for the persecution we suffer, and those we need to sort out our situation, are sitting in government chairs in Myanmar and won’t address our demands because they simply don’t want us.

What international help do Rohingya people need?

We need as much international help as we can get. We need the international community to pressure the government of Myanmar so that they accept all of our demands for basic needs and rights. We need them to accept Rohingya people in Myanmar.

What we expect from the world is to help us create the right conditions to put pressure on Myanmar’s power holders, the main stakeholders to solve this crisis. There are many ways they can help us. For instance, as the USA helped us by declaring our situation as genocide; other big powers should do the same. We need the world to speak out and stand together with us. We want to go back home in peace!

Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @NetworkRsn and @M_Sawyed on Twitter. 

 

COLOMBIA: ‘People are tired of the long hegemony of political elites who are also economic elites’

Gina RomeroCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).

Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.

How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?

It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.

The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.

I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.

A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.

How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?

Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.

Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.

Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.

What was the campaign for the runoffs like?

It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.

Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.

The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.

Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.

Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.

Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.

Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.

For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.

Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.

What kind of voter backed the candidates?

There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.

The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.

The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.

What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?

Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.

There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.

Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.

Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.

For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.

Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with RedLad through its website or Facebook page, and follow @REDLADoficial on Twitter.

 

VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

What does The 88 Project do?

The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

What is the situation of political prisoners?

The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with The 88 Project through its website or Facebook page, and follow @The88Project on Twitter.

 

CAMBODIA: ‘No free and fair election can take place in the current political environment’

Lee Chung LunCIVICUS speaks about Cambodia’s communal elections of June 2022 with Lee Chung Lun, Campaign and Advocacy Programme Officer of the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL).

Established in 1997, ANFREL is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democratic, free and fair elections by conducting election monitoring, capacity building and civic engagement in member countries.

How free and fair were the recent local elections in Cambodia, and what were their results?

The official results of the elections for the commune and sangkat – an administrative subdivision – council held on 5 June 2022 gave the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 9,376 (80.7 per cent) of the 11,622 council seats and 1,648 (99.8 per cent) of the 1,652 positions of commune chief. The recently reactivated Candlelight Party gained 2,198 (18.9 per cent) of council seats and four commune chief positions. The remaining 48 council seats went to other small parties.

The CPP’s victory is no surprise given its tight control of politics and the pressures on the opposition, including the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. In such context, the CPP won over 3,000 more seats than it did in the 2017 elections, and its popular vote surged from 3.5 million to 5.3 million.

However, it was unexpected that the Candlelight Party only managed to secure four commune chief positions despite winning one-fifth of the popular vote. The disproportionate vote-to-seat translation warrants further investigation.

Overall, Cambodia still falls short of the benchmark for free, fair and inclusive elections, as assessed in ANFREL’s pre-election assessment mission. ANFREL’s member, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also noted various irregularities in the process.

The undemocratic elements of the existing legal framework continue to allow room for abuse. In recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, crackdowns on the media, CSOs and the political opposition have increased. Numerous opposition candidates and members of opposition parties, most notably from the Candlelight Party, became the target of harassment and intimidation throughout the election period. As long as threats against the opposition and civil society continue to be prevalent, there can’t be a genuine and legitimate election.

What role did civil society play in the election process? 

In July 2021, a coalition of 64 Cambodian CSOs launched a list of recommendations that they named ‘minimum conditions for legitimate commune and sangkat council elections’. These included enabling a free political environment and active participation in political activities and allowing the main opposition to review and select members of the National Election Committee (NEC). They also called for greater political neutrality of military forces and independence of the courts, as well as freedom for the media and CSOs to function. Regrettably, no significant changes have been made since then.

CSOs such as COMFREL recruited, trained and deployed citizen observers to monitor the election process. The NEC’s accreditation standards, however, are questionable, given that 93 per cent of the 74,885 accredited election observers came from organisations closely linked to the CPP. More than half of them came from the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia and Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, led by Cambodian prime minister’s son Hun Manet and deputy prime minister Men Sam An, respectively.

Cambodia is virtually a one-party state and now has a mostly closed civic space as a result of ongoing attacks on CSOs, independent media and the political opposition. Since 2017, the government has arrested, imprisoned, and harassed hundreds of activists, opposition figures and journalists. Some flee the country out of fear of retaliation.

The draconian provisions outlined in the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations continue to be in effect. The law forbids unregistered organisations from carrying out any activity and grants sole authority over the registration process to the Ministry of the Interior, while registered organisations must adhere to a broadly defined ‘political neutrality’ requirement. CSOs are frequently required to go through informal approval processes with local authorities to carry out their work on the ground, even though the law does not require them to do so.

Do you think the results of the communal elections will be replicated in the upcoming national elections?

The results of the commune and sangkat council elections can be regarded as a predictor of the results of the next National Assembly elections, scheduled to take place in July 2023. They confirm once again that no free and fair election can take place in Cambodia’s current political environment. If attacks on the opposition and civil society continue, the CPP will retain its power in the next election.

What support does Cambodian civil society need from international organisations?

Cambodian civil society needs more attention from the international community on critical human rights violations and the dwindling state of democracy. International organisations should keep up their efforts to monitor developments in Cambodia closely and extend solidarity with Cambodian civil society, which frequently faces threats and harassment while carrying out their work. Local CSOs also need funding to continue their advocacy and campaigning on the ground.

Civic space in Cambodia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Asian Network for Free Elections through its website or Facebook page, and follow @Anfrel on Twitter. 

 

GLOBAL CAMPAIGN: ‘The future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time’

Hazel GaviganCIVICUS speaks about the proposal for a four-day working week with Hazel Gavigan, Global Campaigns and Activation Officer of 4 Day Week Global.

4 Day Week Global is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for a move towards a four-day working week to improve both workplace productivity and the wellbeing of employees.

How would the proposed four-day week work, and why do you advocate for it?

At 4 Day Week Global, it’s our ambition to make a four-day week the new default and reduced working time the new standard. The four-day week that we advocate for is very much a flexible model, not a rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and is based on the general principle of the 100:80:100™ model – 100 per cent of the pay, for 80 per cent of the time and, crucially, in exchange for 100 per cent of the productivity or output.

The disruption to societal and workplace norms by the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the potential for very different models of work, for both workers and employers, and reinforced the need to rethink old, established patterns. We believe the future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time, as this is not an effective way to measure people’s contributions at work. Instead, we need to focus on measuring and rewarding collective outputs.

The four-day week we are campaigning for has countless cross-society benefits in terms of gender equality, sustainability and general improvements to health and happiness. Where implemented, it allows for better distribution of caring responsibilities, as reduced working time enables men to carry out a greater portion of labour within the home. This, in turn, helps remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work, taking on leadership roles and pursuing training opportunities.

Research also suggests that moving to a four-day week will reduce carbon emissions by around a fifth, by cutting back on commuting time and energy use in buildings. In her recent TED talk, one of our research partners, Professor Juliet Schor, also makes the point that when people are time-stressed, they tend to choose faster and more polluting modes of travel and daily life activities. Whereas when we get time rather than money, we tend to have a lower carbon footprint.

And crucially, with an extra free day in the week, workers report feeling happier and less stressed and are more productive. This alone is an excellent outcome, but it also has a positive impact on businesses. Employers find that productivity is maintained, or in some cases, increased and they also have less costs associated with employee sick leave due to stress and burnout, and recruitment and retraining, as workers are satisfied in their jobs and less likely to leave for elsewhere.

How are you advocating for the four-day week?

Previously, we established national campaigns to generate interest and conversation in a country and then built on that to run a pilot programme there. However, the pandemic has turbocharged an organic momentum and now our pilot programme is the main driver of the campaign.

Up to now, most case studies on the four-day work week were conducted at an individual company level, with a few exceptions, such as Iceland. The purpose of our pilot programmes is to demonstrate that the positive outcomes achieved by individual businesses we’ve observed can be replicated on a much broader scale in a variety of countries and industries.

If we can prove the positive impact of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working on business outcomes, employee wellbeing and society in general, those results will be the driver of change that will get more and more big corporations and governments interested.

So currently, the data and evidence our pilots produce is central to our approach in influencing the policy agenda.

4 Day Week Global is currently running coordinated six-month trials of the four-day working week in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the USA, with numerous others planned in the coming months.

As part of this, we have developed a package of support for employers who agree to participate in the pilot, which provides those organisations with access to the expertise, tools and resources they need to run a smooth and successful trial.

We offer a specialised training programme, designed and delivered by companies who already operate a four-day week. Companies receive mentorship and advice from a panel of experts and business leaders from around the world. There are networking opportunities with other companies participating in the trial and participants get access to world-class academic research and expert analysis.

Leading scholars work with each participating company to define and establish their research baseline and relevant productivity metrics for the trial. The economic, social and ecological impact of the four-day week is also monitored throughout, assessing productivity, employee wellbeing and gender and environmental impacts, both through direct carbon emissions and indirect behavioural changes. Ultimately, the key to success is recognising that time invested in work actually matters less than the results produced.

We also have hundreds of advocates who volunteer to help grow the movement, offering everything from starting a national campaign for a four-day week in their own country to simply sharing some content on social media. It’s through this network that we can sustain and expand our level of growth, so if anyone reading this article would like to join the cause, they can sign up here.

How did you win support for the four-day work week trial currently happening in the UK? What do you hope to get out of it?

There’s a 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK which has been active for a number of years and quite high profile in terms of commissioning research and engaging in debate in the public square. So that definitely played a role in priming the audience and generating interest and support for the trial that recently launched.

This is also an idea whose time has come and the support seen for the four-day week in the UK is largely down to an exponential growth in the conversation about how we work.

Business leaders are drawn to this for recruitment and competition purposes in the midst of the ‘great resignation’ – a time when many people are looking to switch jobs. Managers are more open-minded because they were forced to trust their workers during the pandemic and figure out how to measure actual output as opposed to how long employees were spending in the office. And workers now see that a four-day week is possible in a way that they previously didn’t.

What kind of challenges have you faced?

The biggest challenge is convincing business leaders that the four-day week can work for them. Many people like the concept but argue that it wouldn’t be possible in their organisation. However, almost all companies that move to a four-day week do three big things: radically shorten and reform meetings, use technology more thoughtfully and mindfully, and redesign the workday to build in distinct periods for focused work, meetings and social time.

Studies show that the average worker loses between two and three hours each day to useless meetings, poor technology implementation and just plain old distraction. So, the four-day week is actually already here; we just can’t see it because it’s buried underneath these old and thoughtless practices.

Sometimes when companies do commit to trialling a four-day week, they overthink it in the preparatory phase and try to come up with a solution to every potential problem, which is of course impossible. So, our advice in that situation is to trust your workers to solve issues as they arise. That’s what a trial is all about.

Are you receiving support from other CSOs?

Yes, we are. One good example of this is the 4 Day Week Ireland campaign, where a coalition of trade unions, businesses, environmentalists, women’s rights groups, other CSOs, academics and health practitioners all joined forces with 4 Day Week Global to start a national conversation about the widespread benefits of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working.

The results of this saw widespread media coverage on the issue which, in turn, primed the public for the launch of the Irish four-day week pilot programme, which got underway earlier this year. The coalition was also afforded the opportunity to present to key political stakeholders in an enterprise, trade and employment context, the outcome of which resulted in a government-sponsored research tender seeking to better understand the social, economic and environmental implications of reduced working time.

We’ve had great success up to this point with the rollout of our international pilot programmes. However, in order to secure widespread change, there are four areas which feed into the overall success of the movement: labour market competition, public demand, collective bargaining and government intervention. All four of these players have different degrees of influence depending on the sector, but we need collaboration from all parties if we’re to see a broad implementation of the shorter working week.

Get in touch with 4 Day Week Global through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @4dayweek_global on Twitter.

 

SUDAN: ‘We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution’

Nazik KabaloCIVICUS speaks about Sudan’s situation under military rule with Nazik Kabalo, a woman human rights defender (HRD) from Sudan. Nazik has worked in human rights advocacy, research and monitoring, with a focus on women’s rights, for the past 15 years.

What happened to Sudan’s transition to democracy?

Sudan is now facing the consequences of the major problems of the deal made by the military and civilian leaders in August 2019. Following the revolution, this deal initiated a transitional government in Sudan, a partnership between civilians and the military council. But this partnership was never equal: the military and former regime forces – including paramilitaries, militias, tribal militias and the security apparatus – had more economic and political power. They had controlled the country for 30 years, after all.

On the other hand, for 30 years political parties and civil society had been under so much pressure that they only managed to stay together with the momentum of the revolution, to defeat the former regime. But the Sudanese democracy movement has too many internal divisions.

Ours is an unfinished political transition that is missing transitional justice and mechanisms to limit the power of military and other armed groups. All armed groups had been involved in very severe human rights violations and remained partners with civilians in the new government. To be honest, I think the military coup was bound to happen. The political deal achieved in 2019 gave the presidency to the military for almost one and a half years. The coup happened on 25 October 2021, only few weeks before the date the military was expected to hand over the Supreme Council presidency to civilian leaders. But we always knew civilians didn’t really have a chance to lead the country.

How has the situation evolved after the coup?

Following the coup, the amount of violence and human rights violations was quite overwhelming. Violence is to be expected from the Sudanese military; it has led civil wars for 50 years and killing people is basically all it knows.

Seven months after the coup, at least 102 people have been killed in peaceful protests, more than 4,000 have been injured, and over 5,000 have been detained. There have been attacks on the freedoms of association and expression. Journalists are being attacked: at least three female journalists have been prosecuted or arrested in the past couple of days. The military coup has completely destroyed the civic space and freedoms created after the revolution. Our military is learning from our neighbour, Egypt, to effectively crush the civic movement.

For the past seven months we have lived under a state of emergency that was only lifted three weeks ago. But the lifting of the state of emergency made no difference to military practices on the ground. The international community has put some pressure on the government and the military but has not been able to stop the violence and civic space and human rights violations.

An aspect to consider is that Sudan has three conflict areas: Blue Nile, Darfur and Nuba Mountains. As well as western and southern Sudan, there’s also inter-communal violence in eastern Sudan. The coup hasn’t been able to provide security, although this is always the main excuse for the military to take power. Violence in urban areas, including the capital, has increased, especially for women. Members of the security forces, including the Central Reserve Police (CRP), have perpetrated gang rapes and sexual assaults against women; for this reason, the CRP has been recently sanctioned by the USA. A peace agreement was signed in October 2020 with several armed groups but hasn’t been effectively implemented. 

Sudan’s economy has been in a freefall since the coup. We expected to have our debt cancelled by this year, but because of the coup, the Paris Club, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank decided not to move forward. Instead, the IMF, the World Bank and international donors have frozen over two billion dollars in economic aid, which is directly affecting the general humanitarian situation. Recent reports from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimate at least half of Sudanese people will need humanitarian aid this year.

Another impact of the coup was the internet shutdown. For at least seven weeks, HRDs lived under a complete communications shutdown. This has now been partially lifted, but internet and phone communications continue to be cut off on every day of protest – which means it has happened every single day for several weeks. Internet access is under very harsh surveillance, so no Sudanese activist feels safe to use the phone for work. Sudan has one of the worst cybercrime laws in the world: you can be prosecuted, tried and sentenced to five years in jail just for posting something on Facebook. A couple of months ago, a female HRD who reported the sexual violence that took place during protests was sent to jail, accused of posting ‘fake news’. She may be punished with up to 20 years in prison. The military have used this law to threaten activists both inside and outside Sudan.

We are back to the situation that preceded the revolution. We feel that the old regime is back; in fact, the military has started appointing people from the former regime everywhere, from national television to the Humanitarian Commission, which is responsible for managing the work of civil society organisations (CSOs) inside Sudan. So CSOs are back to needing to request authorisation to hold meetings at venues outside our offices and are under constant surveillance. Activists, journalists and lawyers are being silenced because power went back to the military.

What are protesters’ demands?

Following the revolution, the deal reached between the military and civilians never satisfied the protest movement, which includes a high proportion of young people and women. They have never stopped protesting, not even during the transitional period, from August 2019 to October 2021. There have been at least 20 killings of HRDs since the transition began, but this hasn’t stopped them. So when the coup happened, people were instantly in the streets, even before an official announcement of the coup was made.

Since 2018, protesters have demanded real democracy and civilian rule. We have had military governments 90 per cent of the time since we became independent: 59 years out of 64. After the regime fell on 11 April 2019, people started a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters. This continued for two months and ended with the Khartoum Massacre on 3 June 2019, with attacks perpetrated by militias and security forces. Two hundred people were killed and at least 60 women were gang-raped. In August a deal was reached with the military, despite the massacre that literally happened outside their headquarters! This was a stab in the heart for many democracy groups.

Right now, the protest movement wants to make sure civilians are the ones ruling the country. Military leaders should go back to guarding the borders and shouldn’t have anything to do with running the government anymore. The 2019 deal didn’t work, which means our only option is demanding radical change that puts power in people’s hands. Resistance committees have a slogan of ‘three nos’: no partnership, no negotiation or compromise, and no legitimacy. A process of dialogue and negotiations led by some political parties is currently taking place, but resistance committees refuse to engage. Unfortunately, this has not been welcomed by some international actors, but it comes as a direct result of recent Sudanese experience.

Who are the people on the streets?

Protesters have built an amazing grassroots movement; resistance committees have formed in every neighbourhood, even every block. Those who participate in them are ordinary people who have nothing to lose, so unlike the civilian elites, they are willing to continue the struggle until the end. They organise street protests every single day and are creating new ways of protesting, such as strikes, stand-ups, music, movies and poems. They use every tool available, including recreating Sudanese traditions and bringing our cultural heritage to the streets.

Women and feminist movements are doing an amazing job, breaking so many norms. During the revolution, many young women were on the frontlines. The Angry, a protest group that stays on the frontlines of every protest, protecting other people and leading clashes with the police, includes lots of young women.

Women are also working to provide medical care and trauma support. After 50 years of civil war, you will definitely be a traumatised country, but this has intensified following the past five years of revolt. Before, one was able to distinguish between people from war zones and people from cities. Right now, the whole country is a war zone. There are machine guns everywhere, firing bullets into neighbourhoods, and children are dying inside their own homes because bullets go through their roofs.

Diaspora activism has also been key. Activists from the diaspora have been super effective in spreading the word, and during the internet shutdown they were online 24/7 to get information out to the world, not only sharing it on social media but also connecting people inside Sudan, who could receive international calls but not domestic ones.

 What kind of work are pro-democracy groups doing?

The pro-democracy camp is very diverse. There are longstanding CSOs that have always promoted and advocated for human rights and continue to document violations, advocate, engage and build capacity inside the democracy movements. There are also new grassroots groups, the resistance committees, thar right now are the key movement leaders: other CSOs will follow their lead since they express the majority view. Professional organisations and trade unions are also a major group; they are key in organising mobilisations in urban areas. Doctors, lawyers, engineers and similar roles play an important role in putting pressure through strikes and civil disobedience. 

Unfortunately, for the time being there’s not a single unified network or body that can represent the democracy movement in Sudan. This is the movement’s main weakness. Resistance committees are trying to produce a unified political declaration and how to unify this movement while including all of Sudan, even conflict areas, is being discussed.

What international support do Sudanese HRDs need?

Our country must not be forgotten. The international community must take action and support the democracy movement’s demands for fundamental change. International human rights bodies must put make Sudan a priority. Sudanese civil society is fighting to get Sudan on top of their agenda, especially since the war started in Ukraine and most attention is going that way.

Neglecting building democracy in Sudan and leaving power in the hands of the military would be a big mistake. What’s going on here isn’t disconnected from what’s going on in Ukraine. Reports indicate the involvement of the Sudanese military and militias in smuggling gold that supports the Russian economy during this conflict. Moreover, many reports have exposed the strong relations of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leaders with Russian leadership; they were in Russia the week the war started to ensure the flow of gold. RSF militias have relations with other African countries like Chad and the Central Africa Republic, which are sources of blood gold and blood diamonds entering Russia through Sudan. 

Sanctions would be an important tool. A couple of days ago, the International Bar Association called on the UK to apply Magnitsky sanctions in Sudan. International CSOs should move ahead with similar actions.

It’s understandably hard for the international community to deal with the people in the absence of an actual government or elite they could deal with. But young university students are the democracy movement’s leaders, and they represent us. Protests have continued for eight months now and will probably continue for many more, and activists need a lot of help.

Because of persecution and violence, many CSOs and local groups have had to move their operations outside Sudan, and activists have had to relocate. Those working inside Sudan are having a very low-profile and using all the digital and physical security strategies available. Access to funding has also been increasingly challenging. The military wants to find out where funding for the democracy movement is coming from and has therefore increased surveillance, which makes it very risky to receive funds inside Sudan. Organisations working at grassroots levels and in conflict areas are suffering the most.

Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @nazik_kabalo on Twitter. 

 

BELIZE: ‘Many laws remain that keep LGBTQI+ people as second-class citizens’

Caleb OrozcoCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Belize and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Caleb Orozco, the chief litigant in a case successfully challenging Belize’s discriminatory laws and co-founder of the United Belize Advocacy Movement (UNIBAM).

Founded in 2006, UNIBAM was the first LGBTQI+-led policy and advocacy civil rights organisation in Belize. Focused on dismantling systemic and structural violence that impacts on human rights, it uses rights-based approaches to reduce stigma and discrimination.

What was the process leading to the overturn of Belize’s so-called anti-gay laws?

The process of overturning the sodomy laws contained in Section 53 of the Criminal Code started with a preliminary assessment that guided the development of the University of the West Indies’ Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) led by Tracy Robinson, whose group initiated my case in 2010. In 2011 we worked with Human Dignity Trust, which joined as interested party, to engage on international treaty obligations.

In 2007, a conversation started at a meeting in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, organised by the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition. URAP engaged by email and Viper Messenger, with additional regional conferences to flesh out legal arguments. The process identified Lisa Shoman as local Senior Counsel and Chris Hamel Smith, who argued the case in 2013.

Meanwhile, we submitted reports for Belize’s Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council to test the government’s response to the challenge to the sodomy laws. We also resorted to thematic hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The response of the government was that it needed a ‘political mandate’. We worked with the subcommittee for policy and legislation of the National AIDS Commission to monitor legislative opportunities and gauge the position of the government and the prime minister. We knew the government would not significantly fight the process.

In late 2010 we filed a challenge to Section 53 and a fight with the group of churches ensued. UNIBAM’s role was eventually reduced to that of an interested party, with the churches relegated to the same role, and I remained as the sole claimant.

We did not have a communications strategy, so we developed one. Nor did we have a security strategy, but we got help from the Human Dignity Trust. We participated in around 300 media interviews, collectively, over the years. The process included the derailment of the government’s revised national gender policy of 2013, with hundreds protesting across the country. Also, in Jamaica, 25,000 people protested to demand the removal of Professor Brendon Bain, an expert witness in my case in support of the churches, from his job at the University of the West Indies. 

The case was heard by the Supreme Court in May 2013. We submitted personal experiences of discrimination and tried to strike out the churches, but we failed. Three years later, on 10 August 2016, the judge ruled in our favour, establishing that Section 53 was unconstitutional, which effectively decriminalised consensual same-sex activity held in private by consenting adults.

The Attorney General launched a partial appeal focused on the freedom of expression and non-discrimination on the grounds of ‘sex’, but the Court of Appeal’s judgment was reaffirmed in December 2019, with the expectation that the sodomy law had to be modified by parliament after the Court reaffirmed its unconstitutionality. Over time, the political tone changed: from claiming a political mandate was needed to change our sodomy law, to supporting 15 out of 17 Universal Periodic Review recommendations on LGBTQI+ rights in 2018. We are now waiting for parliament to modify the law as per the instruction of the Court of Appeal.

Did you experience backlash?

I experienced a lot of backlash throughout the process. This included character assassination and death threats, to the point that a personal security plan had to be put in place for me to go to court in 2013 and for my daily movement. Christian TV stations pushed negative propaganda and social media platforms buzzed with homophobia and threats. 

How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? 

The LGBTQI+ rights movement became part of a National Working Group, in which I helped draft a cabinet note to advance the Equal Opportunities Bill and Hate Crime Legislation, with support from the Human Dignity Trust. Even though the Equal Opportunities Bill was endorsed by the cabinet, it didn’t reach parliament before the 2020 general election, because the evangelical ‘Kill the Bill’ campaign succeeded in derailing it just in time. We are not giving up in 2022!

I run the only LGBTQI+-led observatory of human rights in Belize, which provides litigation support to clients. We produce knowledge products on systemic and structural violence that feeds into a national and transnational advocacy framework that includes LGBTQI+ economic inclusion and livelihoods. 

The process influenced and inspired the development of several niche organisations focused on LGBTQI+ families, health, trans issues and lesbian and bisexual women. It helped launch the global mandate of the Human Dignity Trust’s campaign on decriminalisation. Ours was in fact their first case back in 2011.

What challenges do LGBTQI+ people continue to face in Belize? How can challenges be addressed?

There is the denial of gender markers for trans people. Violence against us can take place in the family and the workplace. Kids experience discrimination in schools. In addition, family insecurity for LGBTQI+ parents is a huge deal. We endure economic rights violations and economic exclusion, as well as unequal access to economic benefits such as social security and government pensions. 

LGBTQI+ Belizeans experience daily deficits in the police’s work that deals with us as victims of violence and detainees. If you’re of African descent and gay, expect police harassment.

We need resources to advance 20 amendments to laws that exclude LGBTQI+ Belizeans as citizens, which attack our dignity and rights and keep us as second-class citizens. The functions of the Human Rights Observatory, which provides redress to LGBTQI+ Belizeans and marginalised women, should be strengthened.

What kind of international support does Belizean LGBTQI+ civil society need? 

International allies can support us with donations through our GoFundMe page. We also really value offers of pro-bono legal support for the work of our Human Rights Observatory, including legal research, legal defence,  protection work, bill drafting, litigation support, and branding strategies, as well as offers of pro bono support to produce investigative or victim advocacy training.

Civic space in Belize is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with UNIBAM through its website and follow @UNIBAMSupport on Twitter.

 

UGANDA: ‘Hate speech against LGBTQI+ people comes from religious, traditional and political leaders’

CIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Opio Sam Leticia, founder and Executive Director of Queer Youth Uganda (QYU).

QYU is a civil society organisation founded in 2006 that advocates for the rights of young LGBTQI+ people.

Opio Sam Leticia

What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Uganda? 

The absence of laws that protect LGBTQI+ people makes for a delicate situation in Uganda. The LGBTQI+ community faces discrimination in many aspects. People are still being denied their right to housing in some places because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. They continue to suffer assaults, sexual violence and ‘corrective rape’ as a way of trying to change them into what those perpetrating abuses think is the African way of life, with the LGBTQI+ ‘lifestyle’ still viewed as an imposition of ‘western ideology’. We have had several cases of LGBTQI+ activists who have been evicted by their landlords as a result of their community advocacy work.

Discrimination in workplaces is still rampant: many people who openly identify as LGBTQI+ find it challenging to get employed. The unemployment rate in the LGBTQI+ community is high because there are not enough job opportunities. In addition, some LGBTQI+ people do not have the skills needed for the job market due to their higher school dropout rates. Parents play a significant role in this because when they discover their kids’ sexual orientation they often deny them access to education and even throw them out of their homes.

The breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the underlying issues that people in the LGBTQI+ community deal with. During the pandemic, several homeless shelters for LGBTQI+ people were raided by the police. As a result, many people were left homeless and others were jailed for three months, sometimes more than once.

Despite the work done to ensure access to health services as a need, there is still discrimination at public health centres meant to provide free healthcare for all people in Uganda. Discrimination in access denies LGBTQI+ people this basic right.

Does Ugandan legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

The Ugandan constitution stipulates equality for all people, but every single day there are cases of assault and rights violations of LGBTQI+ people.

The law is used as an instrument to oppress LGBTQI+ people instead of promoting their human rights. Same-sex marriage is illegal and same-sex relations are criminalised with harsh penalties, including life imprisonment under Penal Code Act 145. Despite the existence of mechanisms such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunities Commission, it is clear that the rights of LGBTQI+ people continue to be systematically violated.

The government of Uganda continues to enforce the 1950 Penal Code, which prohibits same-sex relations and threatens to imprison LGBTQI+ activists. Parliament has continued to pass bills against sexual minorities, such as the recent Sexual Offences Bill 2021. The current legislation threatens our work environment and our very existence as an LGBTQI+ organisation in Uganda.

To what do you attribute the recent tightening of legislation criminalising LGBTQI+ people?

Uganda is a highly religious country where traditional cultural beliefs or norms take centre stage. LGBTQI+ people see their basic human rights violated because of deeply embedded cultural and religious beliefs. That is why political advocacy does not have an impact: politicians are quick to play the morality card to please their constituencies and sideline the issues raised by LGBTQI+ organisations.

The government should work to integrate the LGBTQI+ community into Ugandan society, not least because we can play a pivotal role in the country’s economic and social development. We can contribute by paying taxes and creating jobs, among other things.

But instead, the LGBTQI+ community faces hate speech coming from religious, traditional and political leaders who promote homophobia. Far from receiving mass support and recognition from the state and citizens, LGBTQI+ activists and organisations have faced increasing human rights abuses and attacks.

What work does your organisation do?

QYU is an LGBTQI+ youth-led community-based organisation that advocates for the rights of young LGBTQI+ people in rural and peri-urban areas of Uganda. QYU operates in the four regions of Uganda: the Eastern, Southern, Western and Bunyoro Kitara/Albertine regions. We have five key programmes that we run in communities to offer safe spaces and promote the participation of LGBTQI+ people in human development: human rights awareness and advocacy, sexual reproductive health rights and services, emergency housing and accommodation, economic empowerment, and advocacy, alliance building and partnerships.

Through implementing these programmes, we want to create a legal and policy environment where the rights of LGBTQI+ people are upheld and respected. The high numbers of rape cases and arbitrary arrests have pushed us to advocate for equal and inclusive reproductive health rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services and to set up safe spaces at community health centres so that LGBTQI+ people can access healthcare facilities without the trauma of being harassed.

In addition, QYU responds to urgent housing needs of LGBTQI+ people who are victims of social stigma and discrimination from their families and the public. We also mobilise and empower LGBTQI+ people, particularly young people, by providing them with practical skills, knowledge and appropriate information regarding employment and social entrepreneurship and developing their personal and professional skills for the labour market. Through partnership building, advocacy and referral, we work with like-minded organisations to advocate for and advance the rights and freedoms of LGBTQI+ people at both the national and international levels.

But we have faced several challenges that make it difficult to carry out our work. We have continued to suffer office break-ins from unknown individuals, causing fear among our staff members. We also have limited funding, which impacts the scope of our work because we can only do so much with the funds we have.

What should Commonwealth states do to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

Commonwealth states should work together since most have the same codes that criminalise LGBTQI+ people, dating back to the colonial era. So many years later, they are still making daily life miserable for LGBTQI+ people in the countries that are part of the Commonwealth. I think member countries should use the various organs of the Commonwealth to provide a platform for LGBTQI+ voices. Those that have decriminalised same-sex relations should support those fighting toward that goal.

The international community fighting for similar causes should also use their platforms to raise awareness on the kind of struggles we are facing. Their mobilisation will hopefully pressure our governments to create policies that will benefit all members of society regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Queer Youth Uganda through its website or Facebook page, and follow @QueerYouth2006 on Twitter. 

 

THE GAMBIA: ‘Civil society works to ensure Jammeh and other perpetrators of human rights violations face justice’

Adama JallowCIVICUS speaks about the prospects of The Gambia’s former dictator Yahya Jammeh being put on trial with Adama Jallow, National Coordinator of the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations (Victim’s Center).

Founded in 2017, the Victims Center is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks justice and reparations for victims of human rights violations under the dictatorship. It has successfully pressured the government to recognise the Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).

What are the main conclusions of the TRRC report?

After consulting with victims of Yahya Jammeh’s inhumane treatment, the TRRC’s report concluded that Jammeh should be brought to justice and victims must receive help and support to recover from the atrocious experience they endured under the former dictator’s rule. The government has released a white paper in which it accepts the recommendations made by the TRRC. We believe this is huge, considering the amount of work civil society put into advocating for the establishment of the TRRC.

The TRRC report is a sort of roadmap we can use so that justice can be served in The Gambia. Out of the 265 recommendations made by the TRRC, the government rejected only two, while marking the rest for implementation. Many atrocities were committed under Jammeh’s dictatorship and were highlighted by both perpetrators and victims before the TRRC. These include sexual and gender-based violence, torture, enforced disappearances and killings, arbitrary detention and crimes in which the victims were accused of witchcraft.

The TRRC’s report states that The Gambia’s society and government institutions have a responsibility to prevent the reoccurrence of the crimes it documented. Its recommendations focus basically on the well-being of victims, who are expected to receive individual and collective reparations, and the prosecution of perpetrators. 

We initially did not think the government would agree to implementing the TRRC’s recommendations. It came as a shock to us when the government agreed to it, because it is a new experience for civil society to be seen and heard by the government. It is a positive indication that our government is prepared to work together with us. The fact that only two of the recommendations were rejected surpassed our expectations. Now we will focus on pushing the government to implement the recommendations.

What does the Victims Center do?

The Victim’s Center was established in 2017, right after the regime change. Under Jammeh’s rule citizens lived in an oppressive state that restricted their rights and freedoms, and there was no freedom of association, assembly and expression. Many human rights violations and abuses occurred, including killings, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, sexual violence and the indiscriminate and illegal use of force. Many civil society activists and organisations were arrested because of the work they did – basically for speaking up against the regime and pushing for democracy.

When Jammeh was overthrown, and we got a new government, civil society and victims felt the need to seek justice and hold Jammeh accountable for the atrocities committed under his rule. We formed the Victims Center to offer a platform for victims to express their issues, seek support and assistance and advocate towards the government.

Part of our mission is to advocate for the TRRC report. We have been fortunate enough to receive international support. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch have released letters in solidarity with the victims and to demand the government responds to our advocacy asks. We have also worked closely with other CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure that the government takes its duty seriously, recognises victims and provides reparations. We want to make sure the government provides reparations to all victims, without discriminating against anyone.

We have also seen a need to go out and sensitise people on transitional justice processes, victims’ rights and the cases submitted to the TRRC. The Victim’s Center has always been at the forefront of advocating and engaging with the Ministry of Justice and mobilising media to ensure victims are getting the help they need. Despite the challenges we have faced, such as intimidation and lack of capacity, we remain committed to helping victims get justice.

How has civil society advocated for prosecution?

The Gambia’s civil society has been very active throughout the process. We understood the importance of engaging with the government because it will play a key role in ensuring that justice is served. We had meetings with the Ministry of Justice staff to find out how they intend to support victims.

We have also disseminated press releases demanding that justice take place at the societal level. We think it is important to inform victims, their families and society at large about the contents of the TRRC report and how The Gambia’s society will benefit from it, so we have held conferences. We have also formed partnerships with other local and international CSOs to reach a wider audience and to put additional pressure on our government.

We know that our laws present obstacles. We were supposed to have a new constitution to replace the 1997 one, but the new text was rejected by the National Assembly. The legislation presently in place does not consider enforced disappearance or torture as crimes, which is something civil society advocates for. We now hope the National Assembly can adjust the old constitution to ensure the possibility of litigation in such cases. In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice has promised to form a body to handle cases involving crimes that are not codified in our legislation.

In essence, civil society has engaged extensively to ensure that Jammeh and other perpetrators face justice.

Do you foresee any challenges in the implementation of the report’s recommendations?

We foresee several challenges, one of them being the Ministry of Justice’s lack of capacity to handle cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance and torture. We need experts to oversee these cases so that everyone who is prosecuted is brought to justice.

Another challenge lies with our constitution, as neither the old nor the current draft recognises enforced disappearance and torture. These are some of the human rights violations victims experienced and we need them to be recognised so that victims can receive help and perpetrators can be tried.

We are also concerned about whether Jammeh can be brought to trial outside The Gambia, given that he is not currently residing in the country. We are trying our best to see how we can work with other organisations to address this issue.

But all these challenges have not discouraged us. We continue advocating with partners to ensure the TRRC’s recommendations are implemented. We are also putting pressure on the Ministry of Justice to come up with a realistic timeframe that will convince us that the government is really committed to implementing the recommendations. We encourage the government to work closely with CSOs and victim-led organisations to ensure they implement the white paper with an inclusive approach.

What kind of support does civil society in The Gambia need from the international community?

Local CSOs and victim-led organisations need funding to continue their advocacy work, build capacity and support victims. International CSOs should partner with us and advise us on a way forward in terms of what types of cases could be brought, and how they can be brought if the constitution is not changed or amended. We also need them to use their resources to put pressure on the Gambian government to make sure justice prevails.

Civic space in The Gambia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Gambia Center for Victims of Human Rights Violations through its Facebook, and follow @gambia_vc on Twitter. 

 

TURKEY: ‘Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis’

Dilan AkbayırCIVICUS speaks with Dilan Akbayır, a social worker who works with Syrian refugees, about Turkey’s plan to send refugees back to Syria and the rise of anti-refugee sentiment and racism against Syrians in Turkey.

Dilan collaborates with several Istanbul-based civil society organisations (CSOs), including the Women’s Health and Planning Foundation.

What prompted the Turkish government to announce a plan to send a million Syrian refugees back to Syria?

I think the change in the government’s position on immigration has a lot to do with the 2023 general elections and the context of severe economic crisis that Turkey is going through, with very high inflation and the Turkish lira falling to its lowest level in history. Both the ruling party and the opposition have already started their campaigns, which are also taking place in a context of increased restrictions on personal rights and freedoms, severe inhibition of the freedom of expression, and the use of unlawful evidence in judicial proceedings.

Turkey is the country with the world’s highest population of migrants and refugees. More than six million Syrians were forcibly displaced after the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, and most of them flew to neighbouring Turkey. The official number of Syrian refugees in Turkey is over 3.7 million, but the total is estimated to be over five million.

It is not surprising that migration and the future of refugees have become the main agenda item in Turkish politics. Refugees are the perfect scapegoat in times of crisis. Politicians are using the issue to redirect people’s anger towards refugees instead of blaming the politicians who have not been able to address their concerns. Opinion polls are showing that the only thing that unites Turkish society is anger towards refugees – anti-refugee sentiment is the glue that keeps the new Turkey together. People are driven to believe refuges are responsible for everything that is wrong in the country and given the illusion that everything will be okay if refugees are taken out of the way.

In the context of an election campaign, any politician who most believably promises they will take care of this issue is likely to win. This is not exceptional to Turkey: we are seeing similar situations throughout Europe, as was recently the case with the French elections. Far-right politics are rising globally thanks to hostility towards refugees, immigrants and other minorities.

Are there any legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy?

There are no legal grounds for the new anti-refugee policy. The international conventions to which Turkey is a state party, and Turkey’s domestic legislation, all stipulate the prohibition of refoulement. This means that refugees should not be sent back to countries where there is a danger of persecution, war, crisis, ill-treatment or torture. If this is not legal, then why have Turkish authorities and politicians announced a plan to return a million Syrians back to their country?

There is a lot of confusion about the legal situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey, which has been under discussion for years. When the mass flow of Syrians began there was a legal gap that was later filled by two new laws: the 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection and the 2014 Temporary Protection Regulation. As a result, Syrians’ presence in Turkey began to be referred to as ‘temporary’. People started saying that Syrians are just passing by, waiting to move on to a third, more developed country.

For the past decade, politicians have systematically emphasised the ‘temporary’ status of refugees living in Turkey – but in the meantime, refugees have made a life here, and they want to stay. Moreover, even if they remain under temporary protection, it still holds that certain conditions must be met before they can be sent back to Syria. The United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency has established that the return of asylum seekers must be dignified, safe and voluntary.

For refugees to be returned, the UN should declare the region a safe zone for return, which has not happened. The UN considers Syria to be unsafe due to the ongoing violence, human rights violations and desperate humanitarian situation: 14.6 million people need humanitarian assistance and more than 12 million are struggling to find enough food. Ninety per cent of the population is below the poverty line and the country is on the verge of famine.

As reported by Amnesty International, between 2017 and 2021 some Syrians were returned from Jordan and Lebanon, and returnees faced serious human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, kidnapping, torture, sexual assault and extrajudicial killings. Returnees may even be charged with treason or terrorism for having fled. Although armed conflict has decreased, the environment is still not safe.

Do you think this is part of a broader pattern?

It is not only in Turkey that migration and refugees have become highly charged political topics; this is happening in many European countries. More developed countries in particular were supposed to side with human rights and take much more responsibility in hosting refugees fleeing wars in Syria and other Middle East countries. But their policies have been mostly exclusionary and discriminatory.

We just saw the rise of far-right politics hostile toward refugees, immigrants and minorities in the 2022 French election. In Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, only 35,000 of 500,000 refugees are Syrian, but in 2021 the Danish government decided not to renew their residence permits claiming that parts of Syria are safe. It is also planning to start processing asylum petitions in Uganda, in a plan very similar to the British government’s plan to process theirs in Rwanda.

Following a UN resolution, the international community agreed to share responsibilities for the resettlement of refugees, but numbers tell a different story: the rate of resettlement in European countries is quite low compared to Turkey. This exposes the European Union’s externalisation policy, aimed at preventing irregular migration into Europe by ensuring that refugees stay in Turkey. This is not fair and causes more problems for developing countries such as Turkey, which experience more pronounced economic, social and political crises.

How has the announcement of the new policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Turkey?

A majority of Syrians in Turkey don’t want to return to their country. Even as they are being increasingly scapegoated, over the years they have changed their view on a possible return. In 2017, 60 per cent of Syrian refugees surveyed in Turkey said they wanted to return to their country as soon as the war is over. Currently, 80 per cent say they do not want to go back because they have already established life in Turkey, and they think life will not go back to normal in Syria even if the war ends.

However, many do not feel so safe in Turkey anymore. The political rhetoric around sending back Syrian refugees goes hand in hand with growing anti-refugee sentiment fuelled by the increased visibility of Syrians in Turkish society. The majority live in big cities such as Ankara and Istanbul, and as the refugee population grows, they start to be seen as a problem or a threat.

In contrast, when Syrians started to arrive in Turkey in 2012, society welcomed them. At that time, a major factor leading to acceptance was emphasis on their ‘temporary’ status, supported by the authorities’ discourse referring to them as ‘guests’. Eleven years later, growing socio-economic problems that the government has not taken seriously began to reflect on Syrian refugees.

As exclusionary nationalist discourse spiked, Syrians were placed at the root of domestic problems. According to a recent report by the Center for Migration Studies at Ankara University, 85 per cent of surveyed people in Turkey want Syrians to be returned or isolated, as they view them as potentially causing more problems in the future.

Moreover, anti-refugee groups are using the media to disseminate xenophobic propaganda. They stir feelings of national and racial superiority and raise concerns regarding cultural integration, presenting attacks on refugees as a way to defend the homeland. They insist the presence of Syrians is having negative effects on public safety and the country’s demography and economic prospects. Syrian refugees are blamed for growing restrictions on women’s freedoms and increasing rates of murder and rape. These issues are easily used to manipulate the public.

How has Turkish civil society responded?

In the face of increasing anti-refugee rhetoric, some civil society groups and activists, including women’s rights organisations, artists and academics, have expressed solidarity through public statements and by holding events such as anti-racist panels.

However, given the wider anti-refugee political climate, many CSOs did not make any statements against anti-refugee discourse. Sadly, some institutions working with refugees stopped their activities in response to increasing hostility. Others decided to continue their work more quietly. Civic space in getting narrower for us.

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

 

USA: ‘The Starbucks unionisation campaign has sparked the imagination of workers across the country’

Theresa HaasCIVICUS speaks about unionisation efforts at Starbucks with Theresa Haas, director of global strategies of the labour union Workers United. Workers United coordinates the Starbucks Campaign in the USA. It is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, which has members in both the USA and Canada.

What role did Workers United play in the process leading to Starbucks’s first union vote in 2021?

When Starbucks partners – as the company calls its employees – in Buffalo, New York first started thinking about organising, they researched what they needed to do and how to go about doing it. Knowing that the Rochester Regional Joint Board, an affiliate of Workers United, had successfully organised another coffee chain in upstate New York, they reached out to that affiliate. Pretty soon, it was clear that the values held by Starbucks partners seeking to join a union aligned closely with the values of Workers United. Workers United and its predecessor unions have worked for more than 100 years to build a strong middle class, advancing the social, economic and political welfare of our members by empowering them to use their voices in their communities.

Workers United has a long history of standing in solidarity with low-wage workers across global supply chains and taking on powerful multinational corporations to demand that workers have respect and dignity on the job.

On the international platform, Workers United is deeply invested in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers across the globe through our work with IndustriALL. We actively campaigned for US brands and retailers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, now the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, a ground-breaking programme that has dramatically improved safety conditions in the country’s garment industry. In 2019, Workers United fought for and became a signatory to an agreement with major denim corporations and local unions to address gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho garment factories.

As with all campaigns Workers United is involved with, this Starbucks Workers United campaign has been driven by the recognition that Starbucks partners are seeking corporate accountability and a voice in their workplace. Since the beginning, Workers United’s role has been simply to empower Starbucks partners through guidance and support.

What progress has been made since then?

Since a store in Buffalo filed the first petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for the right to form a union in August 2021, more than 280 stores in 37 states across the USA have filed petitions to join Workers United. We continue to assist many other stores that have yet to announce publicly their intent to form a union.

The first store to win its election was in Buffalo. Since that win in December 2021, more than 120 other stores have won their elections to join Workers United. There have been more than 140 elections held so far – ten are pending based on challenges, and 12 stores voted not to join the union by slim margins.

It should be noted that there are only six Starbucks Reserve stores in the world – three in the USA, one in China, one in Japan and one in Italy. Two of the three in the USA have voted to join Workers United.

This campaign has sparked the imagination of hourly wage workers across the country. It derives its strength from being fuelled from the bottom up by workers who have found solidarity among each other. Working together, across the country, they are building strength, and with each election victory their collective voice grows.

Workers around the world, including unionised Starbucks workers in several countries, have also expressed solidarity with Starbucks workers fighting to organise in the USA.

What challenges does Workers United face in southern states?

Like every other union, we must overcome the anti-union history of the US south, which makes any organising campaign much more difficult. Stores in the south have had a tougher win-loss record compared with other parts of the country. Overall, Workers United has won 90 per cent of all Starbucks elections. In the south, our win rate is 67 per cent. We are still very happy with this win rate, considering this is the traditional south we are working in.

Starbucks’ anti-union activities are also pervasive in the south. There have been more firings in this region than any other place – in Estero, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh, North Carolina. We know the company does this to chill organising efforts, as a way to scare people so they will be too afraid to support the union.

In response to the company’s aggressive anti-union actions, Workers United has filed numerous unfair labour practice charges against the company for actions such as holding captive audience meetings, intimidation and unjust firings, which the union alleges are illegal under the US National Labor Relations Act.

The NLRB recently declared illegal the actions of the company to fire seven workers in Memphis, and is petitioning the courts to make the company reinstate them.

How has Starbucks responded to unionising efforts across the USA?

Starbucks has aggressively fought against letting their partners have a voice in the workplace. Partners have a very simple ask: they want the right to form a union so they can have a voice in their workplace. They are the ones who interact with customers and the ones brewing the coffee and providing the service the company prides itself on. So they are the ones who know first-hand the issues that need to be fixed and the improvements that need to be made.

Starbucks has waged an aggressive anti-union effort, going as far as holding captive audience meetings, providing false and misleading information, cutting partners’ hours so they don’t qualify for certain benefits, and even firing workers for engaging in union activities. The company has hired a team of lawyers known for their aggressive anti-union stance to fight its partners every step of the way, to slow the momentum of this movement.

Despite its stated values and mission, the company has shown through its actions that it is not what it claims to be – a warm and welcoming company that encourages growth within its workforce, challenges the status quo, conducts itself with transparency, dignity and respect, and holds itself accountable for results and through a lens of humanity.

In response to the company’s activities, in recent months Workers United has filed more than 180 unfair labour practice charges with the NLRB.

NLRB regional offices have been investigating Starbucks’ anti-union conduct across the USA and have so far issued nine1 complaints charging it with violating labour laws. In Memphis, Tennessee, the NLRB has charged that the company fired five of six members of the union organising committee and is now prosecuting the company. In Buffalo, New York, the NLRB found ‘serious and substantial’ misconduct by Starbucks, and has charged it with over 200 violations of US labour laws in one of the largest complaints in US history.

How do your efforts relate to unionising efforts at Amazon?

Both Starbucks and Amazon are companies that have tried to portray themselves as responsible, ethical corporate citizens that care about our planet and society – even as they blatantly mistreat and exploit their employees.

We are hopeful that the grassroots efforts driven by workers who are tired of their exploitative and unjust working conditions have set in motion a push towards transformative change for improved conditions for hourly wage workers to include dignity and respect in the workplace.

Workers all over the world should be afforded the right to organise, seek improvements and speak up against injustice and inequality wherever they see it.

How can the international community best support Workers United’s Starbucks campaign?

We face a company that has proven to be determined to silence its partners’ voices at whatever cost and by whatever means. It does not seem to recognise that partners are fighting to improve the company rather than seek its demise. Partners are seeking to help make the company the progressive employer it claims to be. They want to improve the climate and culture of the company, which they say has deteriorated over the years.

In return for these efforts, the company is seeking to squelch their voices, and international civil society and the wider international community should recognise the company’s actions for what they are.

Partners who are organising should be recognised as courageous champions of the working class. They are buoyed by acts of solidarity, through words and actions.

We need international civil society and the broader international community to amplify partners’ calls on Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder and chief executive officer, and Mellody Hobson, chair of the Board of Directors, as well as the entire Board of Directors of Starbucks to stop their union-busting practices. They are threatening workers, firing them, threatening to withhold raises and waging a war on their own employees. The international community should call out Starbucks for not being a progressive company and let workers at Starbucks stores in the USA know they support them.

Let them know that the world is watching and cheering them on. Show your support online by following the organising effort on Twitter and check for the latest news coverage of this historical movement on the Workers United website.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Workers United through its website and follow @WorkersUnited and @sbworkersunited on Twitter. 

 

PALESTINE: ‘They label us antisemites or terrorists to silence us and paralyse our human rights work’

NadimNashifCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s online activism against repression and oppression in Palestine with Nadim Nashif, executive director and co-founder of 7amleh: The Arab Center for the Advancement of Social Media.

7amleh is a civil society organisation that advocates for Palestinian digital rights. With the aim of creating a safe, fair and free digital space for Palestinians, it researches digital rights, provides training to Palestinian activists and organisations and leads local and international advocacy campaigns.

What is the focus of 7amleh’s work?

We focus on digital rights and digital activism. Palestinian people have been living under occupation for the past seven decades. This kind of occupation obviously involves lots of violence, repression and oppression.

As technology progressed and the internet became part of our lives, the same power relations were replicated in the online world. Palestinians live under siege from the Israeli government. This siege is not only physical; it has also migrated to the virtual world.

There are frequent attempts to prevent Palestinians from exercising their freedom of expression online. This is done by pressuring companies to exclude Palestinians. For instance, many social media platforms are biased in their policy toward Palestinian content and many digital payment platforms don’t allow Palestinians to use them under various excuses due to Israel’s pressure. PayPal, for instance, is available to Israelis but not Palestinians. Palestinians’ freedom of expression is also limited because they can be arrested for what they post on social media. There’s an evident practice of discrimination against Palestinians.

Our organisation is recording all these cases of restriction and documenting them to fight for the rights and freedoms of Palestinians.

How have Palestinians worked around these restrictions to make themselves heard?

The Palestinian identity is under attack. For instance, the Israeli army doesn’t let the Palestinian flag be raised. But Palestinians have tried to find creative ways to express their identity. For example, to represent their flag while not raising an actual flag, they have chosen to display the flag’s colours. These are the colours that can be found in watermelons, so they will instead draw a watermelon.

Social media platforms use the available technology, their algorithms and search engines, to cooperate with the Israeli authorities by monitoring speech and deleting content when certain keywords come up. For example, Palestinian political movements are considered by Israel and the USA to be terrorist organisations, so their names are banned from social media. But digital activists are finding ways to write them that trick artificial intelligence, such as by adding full stops between letters. This is how they can still express themselves and find ways not to be banned entirely online. Those are some tactics Palestinians are using to refuse to play by the rules of those who want to limit them and tell them how to think, write and express their national identity.

Digital activism is key. When you experience human rights violations on a daily basis, the camera becomes a tool of resistance. For many Palestinians, it is the only defence from soldiers and violent settlers attacking them constantly. In many cases, home evictions were prevented because they were livestreamed. That’s why the Israeli government initiated legislation to criminalise photography and video-making.

Online global solidarity is also key, as shown by the 2021 case of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem, in which online solidarity movements applied pressure to prevent house evictions. As a result, the Israeli government’s plan didn’t succeed.

How have the authorities reacted to this activism?

They have constantly tried to silence the Palestinian narrative and raise the Israeli one, by criminalising Palestinian activists and sending them to jail. There are cases in which you don’t even understand why someone is in jail.

I remember the case of a young teenager from Jerusalem who posted on Facebook some phrases about Palestinians needing to go to Al-Aqsa Mosque to defend it from Israeli settlers. He spent one and a half years in jail because of this, which was not a call to violence at all. He just said, ‘Hey, this is our holy place, we need to protect it’. You can be sent to jail for saying something about protecting a place! This example is just one of many.

The Israeli government is pushing many laws and regulations to be able to do this. One of them is the so-called ‘Facebook law’ it is trying to pass. Officially, it’s meant to help deal with harmful content. But it aims to grant Israeli courts the power to demand the removal of user-generated content on social media platforms that can be perceived as inflammatory or as harming the security of the state, people or the public. It is so vague that anything the Israeli authorities don’t like will be sent to the courts, without those affected being able to defend themselves. Using ‘secret evidence’, Israel can order companies to take down content they consider to be illegal. This would obviously be used exclusively against Palestinians.

Many tactics of online repression are already being used, including lots of online brigading – coordinated actions by groups constantly reporting social media content to the Cyber Unit. Palestinians are under surveillance 24/7, especially on social media. Accounts are continually under surveillance and reported to social media companies. These companies are taking down almost 90 per cent of what the Israeli government asks them to.

How can international civil society and the international community best support Palestinian civil society?

I think they must take a firm stand when human rights violations happen. There’s an ongoing attempt to silence Palestinian civil society by labelling us as antisemites or terrorists. These accusations have profound effects: they aim to paralyse Palestinian civil society and prevent it recording human rights violations and atrocities – war crimes – committed against Palestinians.

Internationally recognised Palestinian human rights organisations have been on the ground for more than four decades and have recorded everything. They clearly have nothing to do with terrorism or antisemitism – all they care about is human rights and democratic values. But many governments around the world fail to reject the accusations against them. Why?

Any outstanding personality or activist standing up for Palestinians faces a smear campaign. We are trying to develop tools that help us deal with this, but it’s not simple. Palestine is not the only place where this is happening. We’ve seen shrinking civic space and civil society activists and organisations stigmatised as terrorists or terrorist supporters in many other countries in the global south, with many countries of the global north cooperating and supporting the regimes that oppress them.

No human being would accept having their freedoms taken away without fighting back, as Palestinians do; it’s a natural human reaction. We hope allies and friends from global rights movements, political movements and civil society organisations will stand up for us and raise their voices on our behalf.

Civic space in Palestine is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with 7amleh through its website or Facebook page, and follow @7amleh and @NadimNashif on Twitter.

 

 

ZIMBABWE: ‘Society is only starting to open up to the idea of living harmoniously with LGBTQI+ people’

Samuel MatsikureCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Samuel Matsikure, programmes manager at GALZ-Association of LGBTI people in Zimbabwe.

Founded in 1990, GALZ is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to promote and protect LGBTQI+ rights in Zimbabwe through advocacy, research, education and service provision.

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Zimbabwe?

We have seen a slight improvement with the recent change of government. In the previous years, the late President Robert Mugabe would contently throw in homophobic statements whenever he addressed the nation. He openly attacked the LGBTQI+ community on both the local and global stages. The current government, in contrast, is not proactive in targeting LGBTQI+ people to push its political agenda. We are seeing fewer rights violations committed by the state against LGBTQI+ people across the country.

Nonetheless, the government’s relative silence and shift of focus do not mean things are now okay for LGBTQI+ people. In fact, this shift has left us with many unanswered questions because we do not know if the government really supports LGBTQI+ rights or if they do not want to deal with what is considered a very controversial issue.

Organisations advocating for LGBTQI+ rights continue to question politicians about their strategies to integrate LGBTQI+ people in the community. During the 2017 elections we reached out to political parties to make a couple of questions regarding the inclusion of LGBTQI+ issues in their agenda. Unfortunately, we only received responses from two parties, including the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

ZANU-PF has recently become quite open about engaging with us on matters concerning the LGBTQI+ community. We see this as a milestone because it previously would not have a dialogue with the LGBTQI+ community. This has helped us to have more conversations with the government and look at the possibility of changing laws and policies. This has also made the public more open about having conversations with us than before. People now hear about LGBTQI+ rights and their responses are more positive than negative.

How do laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people in Zimbabwe?

There are some provisions that promote inclusion, but the reality is quite different. Zimbabwe still has draconian laws that impede the rights of LGBTQI+ people. The current constitution has a bill of rights that aims to promote people’s right to health, privacy and freedom of association. The constitution recognises diversity and includes a non-discriminatory clause. But LGBTQI+ people still have their rights violated regardless of what the constitution says. The laws are there but their interpretation by various parties leads to discrimination.

According to the experiences we have collected from the LGBTQI+ community, discrimination in the health sector is widespread, although efforts are being made to sensitise and train healthcare workers to improve access for LGBTQI+ people and other key populations. Until recently, by law people were required to reveal their HIV status to their partners, and failure to do so was a criminal offence. 

The recent decriminalisation of HIV transmission under the Marriage Amendment Bill will be a great milestone for the LGBTQI+ community. It was difficult for LGBTQI+ people to reveal their status to partners or healthcare workers because they did not have easy access to healthcare facilities and feared being reported to the police or arrested. So with the support of new policies and our HIV/AIDS national strategy, the result has been the provision of a comprehensive programme giving LGBTQI+ people the right to access these facilities. This shows that the state is willing to create a space in which people can access these resources; the question is whether they will monitor those spaces to ensure people are not harassed.

Discrimination against LGBTQI+ people is also present in the workplace. We have dealt with several cases of people being unfairly dismissed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Most businesses involved justify their decisions by saying their companies are founded on Christian values so they cannot work with or support LGBTQI+ individuals. This goes against labour laws banning discrimination in the workplace. Sadly, such cases cannot be taken to court and challenged because the legislation does not recognise LGBTQI+ rights. There are legal loopholes that allow the public to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people.

Unfortunately, we still have laws inherited from colonial times that cause segregation in our society. The law that criminalises same-sex practices dates back to when we were a British colony. As a result of this law, men who engage in same-sex activities risk a year in prison. The Immigration Act still discriminates against homosexuals and prostitutes. These laws were drafted during colonial times and are no longer applicable: we are a democratic country with a constitution that has a comprehensive bill of rights.

What work does GALZ do, and what challenges have you encountered?

For around 30 years, GALZ was the only organisation in Zimbabwe focusing on LGBTQI+ issues. But over the past years, we have seen the emergence of new organisations that are either LGBTQI+-led or are working with the LGBTQI+ community. Because of this, we have been able to reorganise ourselves and prioritise the things we want to focus on while letting other organisations deal with remaining issues.

GALZ’s work currently stands on four pillars. The first is community and empowerment. Our mandate here is equip LGBTQI+ people with life skills. We also want them to understand their human rights and to freely participate in economic and social activities. We inform them of the processes related to the development agenda and their role in it.

The second pillar is knowledge, documentation and ideas. The third is policy and law and the fourth is human rights and access to justice. We want to develop strong institutions that will ensure the participation of LGBTQI+ people in communities and uphold their rights. The third and fourth pillars are related to human rights and internal governance and their use is to raise the visibility of the community and provide services related to the rights to property, family and participation.

We want to build a technical hub for distributing information that will help LGBTQI+ CSOs and guide LGBTQI+ people in building CSOs in a hostile environment. Zimbabwean LGBTQI+ CSOs have been able to develop their own LGBTQI+ advocacy plan. This gives us the chance to speak as a collective and support each other’s advocacy work. By working together, we have been able to provide safe spaces for LGBTQI+ people in our country, including recreational spaces, internet access, support to complete academic studies, and support for students willing to pursue research on LGBTQI+ issues.

Given the importance of family, GALZ has built a portfolio for parents and friends of LGBTQI+ people, P-Flag. We bring them together to promote the acceptance of LGBTQI+ people within families and communities and share their experiences.

But we have faced some challenges. Zimbabwean society is starting to open up to the idea of living harmoniously with LGBTQI+ people but has not fully accepted us. We still face harassment from community members. LGBTQI+ activists are arrested for their advocacy work. In the recent past the state used to disrupt our activities and question our legitimacy. In addition, the proposed Private Voluntary Organisation (PVO) Bill threatens our work: there is fear we may not be allowed to register once the bill is passed. Human rights violations make it difficult for people to participate actively in LGBTQI+ movements.

How can Commonwealth countries work together to promote LGBTQI+ rights?

We need to acknowledge that many of these laws in Commonwealth countries are a legacy of the British empire. The laws we still have are repressive in nature and fail to acknowledge diversity and human rights. It is time for us to include the principles and practices of human rights in our laws. As organisations fighting for LGBTQI+ rights we need to pressure our governments to reform regressive policies and abolish laws that enforce discrimination and exclusion in our societies. We should pressure them to respect the constitution and hold people and institutions accountable for disrespecting people’s rights.

We should pool our resources to mobilise and form a global alliance to bring LGBTQI+ issues to the forefront. By working together we can defeat the discrimination that is embedded in our systems and challenge the laws that perpetuate the violation of human rights.

Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GALZ through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @galzinf on Twitter.

 

JAMAICA: ‘Laws that discriminate against LGBTQI+ people send a signal about our place in society’

Glenroy MurrayCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Jamaica and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Glenroy Murray, Executive Director of J-FLAG.

J-FLAG is a human rights and social justice organisation that advocates for the rights, livelihood and well- being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Jamaica.

What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Jamaica?

We continue to face challenges even as we note that there has been progress in the form of moderately increasing positive attitudes towards the community. Based on the 2019 Awareness, Attitude and Perception Survey commissioned by J-FLAG, there was a small but noticeable increase of five percentage points in tolerant and positive attitudes towards LGBTQI+ Jamaicans, from 20 to 25 per cent. A 10-year analysis of the human rights violations being reported to J-FLAG shows a decline in mob violence, arson and murder.

However, there continues to be reports of verbal harassment, threats, physical violence and displacement of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans by their family and members of their community. According to the 2019 Community Needs Assessment commissioned by J-FLAG, one in five LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have been displaced at some point in their lives, and 46.8 per cent of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans have experienced discrimination.

That being said, there has been a noticeable increase in the willingness of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans to be more visible and a decline in openly homophobic rhetoric among politicians and key decision-makers, and in violently homophobic lyrics in popular music genres. These qualitative shifts suggest that we are slowly moving in a positive direction as a society, even though the most vulnerable members of the community often continue to face the most severe manifestations of homophobia.

Do you think there are enough mechanisms in place to address homophobia in Jamaica?

Quite the opposite: there are specific legislative provisions that are discriminatory. For example, section 76 of the Offences Against the Person Act criminalises anal sex regardless of consent and section 79 generally criminalises male-to-male intimacy. Although these laws are hardly enforced, they send a signal about our place in society. In addition, same-sex couples are deliberately excluded from laws that recognise unmarried couples and provide benefits and protections, including against domestic violence, to people in those relationships.

Jamaican law does not prohibit discrimination by private people and groups, including companies, on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. While some steps have been taken to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in policy, this has not always translated into better protection for LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. In addition, there continues to be a reticence among community members to report crimes and violence against them to the police because of experiences of discrimination that they’ve had or are aware of.

It is critical for the Jamaican government to do more to ensure the inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans. A 2020 study done by the Caribbean Policy Research Institute revealed that billions of dollars are lost because of discrimination against the community. Beyond this economic burden, the continued exclusion faced by the community puts Jamaica at odds with its international human rights commitments and obligations. The success of our national development plan, Vision 2030, is endangered by this exclusion.

What work does J-FLAG do, and what challenges has it faced?

J-FLAG uses a range of approaches to advocate for greater inclusion of LGBTQI+ Jamaicans within society. We continue to agitate for law and policy reform so that criminalising and discriminatory laws are changed and protective laws and policies are introduced. Recognising the need to engender cultural change, we do online and traditional media campaigns to promote tolerance and inclusion.

We have also invested heavily in building the capacity of members and allies so they can do their personal advocacy independently from us. This has led to increasing visibility among community members, contributing to our efforts to change hearts and minds.

We also do research around issues facing the community to ensure our advocacy is evidence-based and we are able to act as a repository of knowledge for those who would like to support our work. Additionally, we do capacity building training and sensitisation sessions for a range of public and private groups to improve their engagement with members of the community. Finally, we have hosted seven incident-free PrideJA celebrations since 2015 and are now planning the eighth.

The major challenge we have faced is fear among a wide range of stakeholders to openly or quietly engage with our work. There are low levels of political will to effect legal and policy change. Community members are reticent to engage with us openly because of fears of discrimination. Various public and private organisations prefer not to work with an openly LGBTQI+ organisation. There has been consistent, though in recent years not as visible, opposition by extremist religious groups.

Within Jamaican society there are mixed views about our work, but support for it has grown significantly over the last five to 10 years. Some people are curious, others are willing to engage and learn, but among a significant mass there continues to be distrust or outright opposition. 

How can Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

Given the similarities across many Commonwealth countries, there is an opportunity for dialogue and experience-sharing, particularly with countries such as Bahamas, Belize and Trinidad and Tobago, which have taken different routes to decriminalisation.

As a body, the Commonwealth has a majority of countries from the global south, which while it presents its own challenges, also affords the opportunity to discuss and do work around LGBTQI+ rights with respect for each country’s cultural experiences. Within such a space, there is less potential for global north and western countries to be regarded as pushing ‘a foreign agenda’, and it is more likely for honest and difficult conversations about LGBTQI+ inclusion to happen and for collaboration to emerge. The only challenge will be whether the heads of government of these countries are willing to engage in these conversations.

International organisations should maintain lines of communication with local organisations such as J-FLAG and TransWave Jamaica, which works on trans health and wellbeing, to develop an informed understanding of LGBTQI+ issues in the Jamaican context and use their various platforms to share that understanding with a wide range of actors. It would also be useful for them to assist in forging partnerships among organisations and movements in places like Jamaica and other parts of the world and offer support to ensure that the Jamaican movement is sustained.

Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with J-FLAG through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @EqualityJa on Twitter.

 

 

NIGERIA: ‘People experience gross rights violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’

Olaide Kayode TimileyinCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Nigeria and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Olaide Kayode Timileyin, executive director of Queercity Media and Productions.

Queercity Media is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes the rights of LGBTQI+ people in West Africa through advocacy and communications.

What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Nigeria?

Nigerian LGBTQI+ people are marginalised. They experience gross violations of their rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including extortion perpetrated by state actors such as the police and military as well as non-state forces such as local boys, landlords and bosses. Other violations include blackmail, mob attacks, assault and battery.

It is very traumatic to live in an environment that discriminates against you and puts your life in danger. Homophobia is a huge problem. It is disheartening to see cisgender heterosexual people threaten the lives of LGBTQI+ people.

Does Nigerian legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?

Yes, Nigerian laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people. Two major laws criminalise LGBTQI+ people: the Criminal Code Act and the 2013 Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Under these laws LGBTQI+ people are not allowed to get married or carry out their advocacy activities. In addition, their way of life is not considered to be normal because it goes against social norms. As a result of these laws, members of our communities are arrested and their rights systematically violated by the police.

A few states, such as Lagos, also have local laws that criminalise LGBTQI+ people. In the past year Queercity Media has recorded two murders of LGBTQI+ people that were clearly linked to homophobia. In response to these we have held a nationwide digital campaign, with over a hundred people signing our petition on one of the cases.

It is very unfortunate that we have not seen any form of government response in these cases, or any other hate crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, rights violations against the Nigerian LGBTQI+ community have only increased. For example, a recently proposed cross-dressers bill further targets and aids the targeting of queer people.

It is clearly necessary to work on the integration and reintegration of LGBTQI+ people as active members of Nigerian society. Criminalisation not only cripples the socio-economical capacity of this population but also disempowers LGBTQI+ people from active participation in nation-building.

What does Queercity Media do, and what kind of backlash have you faced?

We are a community-based media organisation whose four cardinal points are productions, events, campaigns and archiving. These represent our strategic departments, namely Queercity Productions, GLOW UP Pride, Queercity Campaigns and The Nigerian LGBT+ Museum of Arts.

As well as the rights violations that some of our staff, myself included, have experienced at the hands of the Nigerian police because of our work, the comments section of our Facebook page can sometimes be quite scary. This is one of our main ways of being in direct contact with everyday Nigerians, and it is mostly filled with negative comments or aggressive arguments among strangers.

Sometimes we learn from these reactions to better design our campaign language and approach. However, funding is a major problem for us and many LGBTQI+ organisations in West Africa, as no one seems to be interested in LGBTQI+ people, organisations or businesses, so we are often self-funded. Lack of access to proper funding also massively limits the reach we have compared to mainstream media organisations.

How can the international community support LGBTQI+ people fighting for their rights in Commonwealth countries?

Sadly, partnerships across Commonwealth countries on LGBTQI+ rights and movement-building is slow, and I do not know the reason for this. But I believe if we could find organisations doing the same work we are doing in other Commonwealth countries, it should be easy to create networks and partnerships to foster each organisation’s strategic goals in their home countries.

The international community and international civil society could help by recognising the socio-political nuances of working with local LGBTQI+ organisations and the need to be more flexible with their partnership and funding approach. That way, the advocacy work of organisations and activists living in contexts of restricted civic space will be enhanced and they will be able to better promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Queercity Media and Productions through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @PrideInLagos on Twitter. 

 

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

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

Marta Maria Ramirez

Photo by María Lucía Expósito

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other problems do you see?

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

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

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

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

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

 

ZIMBABWE: ‘We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights’

Ernest NyimaiCIVICUS speaks about a proposed NGO bill and the threat it represents for Zimbabwean civil society with Ernest Nyimai, the Acting Executive Director of Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO).

NANGO is the umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in Zimbabwe, mandated by its membership to coordinate CSO activities, represent the sector and strengthen its voice.

How do you think the proposed NGO bill would affect civic space in Zimbabwe?

In our view as the umbrella body of CSOs operating in Zimbabwe, the proposed Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Amendment Bill presents the danger of further shrinking civic space should it sail through in its current form. The bill will put at further risk the fundamental freedoms that civil society is supposed to have to be able to do its work to improve people’s lives. This is due to quite significant proposed amendments that in our view are repressive. 

Currently, more than 60 per cent of NANGO members are legally registered as trusts, and some are registered under Common Law Universitas. If this bill is passed as it is, they will be automatically deregistered and required to apply for re-registration under the new proposed PVO guidelines.

The PVO Amendment Bill proposes to criminalise CSOs that support, oppose or finance a political party or candidate. The clause does not clearly specify what supporting or opposing a political party or candidates entails. If a CSO opposes a party’s policy or governance practice, does this amount to opposing a political party? If a CSO gives legal support in an election challenge, does this amount to supporting a political party or candidate? This provision can be abused, especially against CSOs that work on democracy, governance and human rights issues. This provision is contrary to the right to the freedom of association provided for in section 58 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The imposition of harsh penalties such as imprisonment for violation of this provision without any justification or regard to civil remedies or administrative fines is grossly arbitrary.

Another reason the PVO bill can affect civic space is that it is phrased in a way that would make room for selective application during its administration. If an organisation is deemed to be operating outside its mandate, its board can be immediately suspended and an interim one can be appointed to act in its stead while a final decision is made. But procedures are not clear, so there is room for the responsible minister, the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, to arbitrarily suspend an organisation’s board due to personal interests. This kind of interference in the operation of CSOs would limit their independence and autonomy. 

The PVO bill was prompted as a way to ensure compliance with Recommendation 8 of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which requires governments to review the adequacy of laws and regulations that govern non-profit organisations so that these organisations cannot be abused for money laundering and financing of terrorism. But in my view, the government deployed an omnibus approach to pursue many other interests besides the fulfilment of FATF Recommendation 8 requirements.

The bill in fact violates the FATF’s balanced approach, which stipulates the need to maintain an enabling operating environment to fulfil FATF requirements. The government has not concluded a risk assessment indicating which CSOs are at risk of being used for money laundering and financing terrorism. This is the ideal procedure as required by FATF to ensure the application of the risk-based approach to mitigating vulnerabilities to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

How would the PVO Bill, if implemented, affect NANGO’s work?

NANGO is registered under the existing PVO Act. But if the amendment bill goes into effect, many of our members will be automatically deregistered, which will have immediate repercussions on NANGO, whose greatest strength is precisely our membership. Besides, there are various clauses that impose sanctions and restrictions in terms of programming areas and NANGO is of no exception to this potential criminalisation of CSO work.

The new legislation will also weaken our eligibility for funding due to increased government interference in the operations of CSOs. The donor agencies we work with require recipient organisations to be independent and autonomous for the purposes of grant compliance. But the implementation of the new proposed PVO Amendment bill will potentially affect our independence and limit our autonomy. Development partners and donors may decide to stop funding CSOs in Zimbabwe if they view it as becoming too risky.

As CSOs we exist to protect the rights and dignity of people. If the new bill forces many CSOs to stop operating, the vulnerability of communities they serve and human rights abuses will likely increase. We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights in an enabling operating environment. CSOs promote and protect human rights, but through the increased surveillance of CSO operations by security agencies, many activists, human rights defenders and civil society members will be abducted and tortured, and the security threat will increase.

How is civil society responding to this threat?

We have used a multifaceted approach, taking advantage of the various strengths we have as a large and diverse group of organisations. In the initial stages, we tried to push back against the PVO bill in many ways, including through litigation to expose the ways in which it would violate constitutional provisions. We also assessed the bill against the core humanitarian standards that we adhere to as CSOs.

Unfortunately, the bill has nonetheless progressed, so we are currently conducting scenario planning in which the law might be passed. Most of our efforts are focused on engaging, having a dialogue and negotiating with government officials for revision of repressive clauses of the bill. The bill is currently being debated in parliament following its second reading, so we are also advocating with parliamentarians to get them to really understand how this bill is going to affect the work of CSOs and those they work with.

We are also engaging with the body that administers the PVO Act, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, which played a key role in drafting the bill. We are trying to engage it in discussing the potential political, social and economic impacts of the bill. CSOs are a significant contributor of foreign currency in Zimbabwe: close to one billion dollars per year are coming in the form of official development assistance that is channelled towards various programmes implemented by CSOs. CSOs employ around 18,000 people. If they shut down or their activities are limited, barriers to overcoming unemployment will rise. Our desire and hope is to have an enabling instrument guaranteeing the space for civil society to continue its good work.

How can the international community help Zimbabwean civil society?

Zimbabwe is a member of various regional and continental organisations, which we have used to our advantage. We have engaged with regional and continental pressure groups, and especially the FATF, and they have shared their technical expertise on advocacy and lobbying, while also leveraging their convening power to help us engage with our government.

The international community should continue to assist us as mediators, especially in light of the hostility and limited confidence and trust between civil society and the government. It is very important that they highlight how the bill will affect the general role of CSOs in Zimbabwe. There is also politicisation of CSO work due to misinterpretation of the general role of CSOs in the national development discourse. For example, civil society has the key responsibility of holding the government accountable and advocating for people’s rights, and this bill threatens our ability to fulfil it. We need regional, continental and global organisations to help us advocate with the Zimbabwean government to ensure an enabling operating environment for civil society in line with the ‘whole of society’ approach that the government subscribes to.

Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with NANGO through its website or Facebook page, or by emailing , and follow @ErnestNyimai and @nangozimbabwe on Twitter.

 

KENYA: ‘The government has put all the burden of addressing homophobia on civil society’

Stephen OkwanyCIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Kenya and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Stephen Okwany, programme director of Talanta Africa.

Talanta Africa is a civil society organisation (CSO) that uses art to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people and advocates for an inclusive society in which LGBTQI+ and young people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Kenya?

The Kenyan LGBTQI+ community continues to celebrate amazing gains brought by progressive organising and its focus on opening conversations around queer lived realities, discussing bodily autonomy and deconstructing cis hate.

This has been met with mixed reactions from different quarters. Our gains have elicited organised opposition from anti-gender and anti-rights movements highly resourced by illiberal populists and very active in the religious, cultural and legal arenas. These movements perpetrate organised rights violations against LGBTQI+ people, including by promoting conversion therapy practices, profiling LGBTQI+ people and queer activists, deliberately denying access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education, perpetrating online attacks and outing queer people, and even through the murder of queer people, the most recent case being that of Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian who was attacked, sexually assaulted and killed in her home on 17 April.

How does legislation discriminate against Kenyan LGBTQI+ people?

The Kenyan government recognises the existence of queer people in the country. However, there are still regressive laws in place that threaten the existence of the queer movement, such as Sections 162-165 of the Penal Code, which discriminate against consensual same-sex relationships and criminalise those who live on the proceeds of sex work, limiting the independence of LGBTQI+ sex workers in Kenya.

Additionally, queer people and collectives face restrictions on their freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, as the government shies away from registering queer collectives and the police typically use excessive force to disrupt queer parades.

The government has not put in place mechanisms to address homophobia. The burden to do so has been left to civil society. Queer survivors of deliberate homophobic attacks have been denied justice by a judicial system built upon cis hate and in violation of the provisions to integrate LGBTQI+ community members as equal participants in the Kenyan development process. No progress can be achieved if a section of the population continues to be excluded on the basis of prejudiced perceptions.

How does your organisation work to counter those perceptions?

Talanta Africa is an artivist collective of queer human rights defenders. We put the power of strategic communications tools such as arts, culture, media and tech at the service of queer storytelling to promote a change in narratives and improve the civic space of LGBTQI+ people.

Our organisation is largely a strategic communications platform that convenes queer people who believe that silence is too high a price to pay in the face of injustice and inequality. We believe that conscious art and culture play a key role in shaping narratives and telling stories while also countering regressive narratives that advance cis hate.

Not surprisingly, our work has been met with extreme opposition and has been branded as a queer ‘recruitment’ process. This has resulted in attacks on our offices, the intimidation of our artivists, the profiling of our work and intentional exclusion from activist spaces and platforms.

How can Kenya and other Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

Commonwealth countries should establish multilateral instruments to affirm and advance the bodily autonomy of LGBTQI+ people. These could provide a platform for auditing legal instruments at a country level and assessing the development and implementation of new legal frameworks to replace regressive legal provisions.

International organisations have a mandate to raise human rights awareness, including of the human rights of LGBTQI+ people, and denounce human rights violations, including those faced by LGBTQI+ community. To do so, they must promote progressive queer narratives. They must be deliberate in resourcing queer-affirming spaces through the equal rights and equal opportunities framework.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Talanta Africa through its website or Facebook page, and follow @TaAfrika on Twitter.

 

SRI LANKA: ‘They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others’

CIVICUS speaks with Hejaaz Hizbullah, a human rights defender who was kept in detention for 22 months under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Based in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, Hejaaz is an attorney and a minority rights advocate who fights hate speech against the Muslim community. He began his career at the Attorney General’s Department and started his own law practice in 2012. He has litigated in several important cases before the Supreme Court and is among the lawyers who challenged the dissolution of parliament in 2018.

Hejaaz

What kind of work were you doing when you were arrested and why do you think you were targeted?

In 2012 a hard-line Buddhist group emerged in Sri Lanka calling itself ‘Bodhu Bala Sena’, or Buddhist Force. The group began a nationwide campaign against Muslims that was based on lies, Islamophobia and hate speech. They sought to stir up Sinhala Buddhists, Sri Lanka’s majority, against the Muslim minority. Similar groups soon proliferated. As a result, there were incidents of violence against Muslims all over Sri Lanka. Muslim girls got their hijabs ripped off, Muslim businesses were attacked and torched, and Muslims were harassed everywhere.

I began my human rights work in response to these very extraordinary circumstances. With two colleagues I launched an anti-hate hotline, a telephone helpline to assist victims of hate speech and hate crimes. We helped people protect themselves and assert themselves against racism and hate by using the tools provided in the law. We also monitored these incidents and prepared reports to bring the situation to the attention of the government.

This work led to me appearing in cases involving human rights and constitutional law issues. One of the earliest cases I appeared in was the case of a Muslim schoolgirl who wanted to go to school in a uniform approved by the Ministry of Education that also respected her cultural and religious norms, which school authorities objected to. The case concluded with the Attorney General upholding the student’s right to wear an approved uniform of her choice that met her cultural and religious norms.

In 2018 the then-president dissolved parliament, sacked the prime minister and appointed another one, and called for general elections. This was challenged by political parties and by a member of the Sri Lankan Elections Commission, whom I successfully represented before the Supreme Court.

This was the kind of work I was doing when I was arrested, and there are various theories regarding why I was targeted. My arrest may have been part of an attempt to scapegoat selected Muslims who were critical of the government’s treatment of Muslims and blame them for the Easter Sunday bombings, a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings in April 2019. They tried to silence us personally and as a community. In that sense, my arrest is no different from so many arrests of lawyers all over the world. They arrest us to stop us, silence us and instil fear in others.

How were you treated while in detention?

During the first 10 months I was a detainee, so I was under police custody; then I was produced before a judge and I became a remand prisoner. For the following year I was in the custody of the Prisons Department, and my experience was radically different.

As a detainee you are in the custody of those who are trying to frame you and fix you for an offence you did not commit. For 24 hours, seven days a week, you are exposed to your tormentors and under their control – for everything, including food, sleep and family and lawyer visits. Remand prison was different because the guards just knew I was a special case but beyond that they did not care much about me.

As a detainee I was locked up 24 hours a day: the cell was opened only to let me use the toilet or go for questioning. In remand prison we spent around six hours a day outside in the yard, which was good. However, both places degrade you and seek to destroy you mentally and psychologically. I am happy that I survived without too many scars; many are not that lucky.

Were you aware of the international solidarity around your case and how does it feel to be out on bail?

As a detainee I knew very little, just what my wife would tell me when I met her on Saturdays for around 15 minutes. It was only after I was remanded that I learnt more about the support I was receiving from the international community. This gave me real hope and made me even more determined to fight back, so it was incredibly helpful. I am grateful for the support I received and for the international and local pressure that forced the Attorney General to agree to release me on bail.

Being free is like being born again. I am slowly trying to rebuild my life. My imprisonment had deep effects on the lives of my family: everybody’s life was on pause for almost two years. But being on bail is not easy: I am always looking behind my shoulder and concerned about the progress of my case.

What are your thoughts on the use of the PTA law?

In its judgment on my case, the Court of Appeal described the PTA as a ‘draconian law’ leading to a cycle of abuse. That is precisely what it is. The PTA puts detainees into a legal blackhole from which they find it almost impossible to get out. I am a lawyer and had lots of legal backing, support and attention, and still found it tough. Many others don’t have a fighting chance.

The government has recently made some amendments to the PTA, but they have not changed some of the worst aspects of the law, such as the use of confessions against those who are co-accused. Whilst amendments have been cosmetic, they have in fact opened a window for judges to intervene, and if they do, the situation of detainees may improve. I think the judiciary will grab this opportunity.

What is the current state of civic freedoms in Sri Lanka?

My answer to your question would have been different if not for what I am seeing today. It seems freedom is what we carve out for ourselves through courage. Desperate times have pushed people to desperate measures, and they have now overcome their fears and are fighting for their freedom. They are fighting in the legal space that has been created through years of jurisprudence. The theoretical space has now been occupied in real time and I feel is also being expanded. All good news! However, this is not due to any state intervention but due to the actions of people responding to the dire circumstances they find themselves in.

How can international civil society and the international community support criminalised human rights defenders?

When human rights activists are arrested, the state would like the whole world to forget them. They hope grand allegations and prolonged detentions will suffocate everyone’s will and resolve to fight. Civil society and the international community can help us by keeping us alive outside the prison walls: by asking the important questions and putting pressure on the government to justify its actions.

Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @hejaazh on Twitter 

 

BERMUDA: ‘A right that the LGBTQI+ community enjoyed for four years has been stripped away’

Adrian Hartnett BeasleyCIVICUS speaks about the recent court decision on same-sex marriage in Bermuda with Adrian Hartnett-Beasley, a founding board member of OUTBermuda.

OUTBermuda is a civil society organisation that promotes and supports the wellbeing, health, dignity, security, safety and protection of the LGBTQI+ community in Bermuda. It provides educational resources on issues of diversity, inclusiveness, awareness and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, and advances human rights, conflict resolution and equality and diversity in Bermuda.

 

What is the significance of the recent court ruling declaring the ban on same-sex marriage constitutional? How has it affected LGBTQI+ people in Bermuda?

In March 2022, Bermuda’s highest judicial body, the Privy Council’s Judicial Committee, sided with the government of Bermuda, stating that it may regulate and restrict marriage licences only to unions between a man and a woman. According to the judgement, this does not violate the Bermudian Constitution. It would have violated the Human Rights Act of 1981 if the Bermuda Government had not amended it to allow discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation.

This judgement reversed previous decisions that starting in 2017 made it possible for same-sex couples to get legally married in Bermuda. As a result, a right that we as a community enjoyed for four years was stripped away.

We don’t have survey data, but the general feeling of disappointment is palpable. Our community and our allies are disappointed that this fundamental human rights issue was ever made political in the first place, first with an irresponsible referendum held in 2016 – a non-binding consultation that failed due to low turnout – and then again by successive administrations who used our community as leverage in two electoral campaigns.

We are still reviewing the case, but overall, we have concerns that our constitution has failed us and what this means, if people are paying attention, is that our constitution is not fit for purpose anymore.

How was OUTBermuda involved in the case, and what will it do next?

OUTBermuda was heavily involved throughout the process. We ran very successful arguments at the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, with the guidance and hard work of our legal teams. We believe our leadership and standing helped bring together a consortium of plaintiffs, which together supported the novel and intricate legal arguments being made before the courts, including two churches and a couple of individuals – together encapsulating a broad range of perspectives, as reflected in the evidence we submitted to the courts.

In its former life, that is, before it became a registered charity, OUTBermuda was known as Bermuda Bred and successfully sued the Bermuda government in 2015 to secure some immigration rights for non-Bermudian same-sex partners to live and work on the island. As a result of that victory, its members pivoted the organisation into OUTBermuda and registered it as a charity. The organisation has been leaning into the empty space in which the LGBTQI+ community had no voice ever since.

This adverse ruling does not change that. We will continue to advocate for equality, justice and dignity for all LGBTQI+ Bermudians. If anything, the negative decision of the court highlights that OUTBermuda must continue its work.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Bermuda?

The issues we face are as diverse as the community itself. At the core of all of it is acceptance; without acceptance, our community is subjected to unfair and illegal housing discrimination, which alongside family disapproval results in young people having nowhere to live and having higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Not surprisingly, this leads to members of our community staying in the closet longer, or at least being less comfortable about being themselves in public. All of this ends up resulting in our community not reaching its collective full potential.

OUTBermuda gets requests for help regularly, and this is the typical story we hear over and over. Marriage has been one, very public, issue but it’s by no means the only one – probably not even the most important one. We will continue working to educate people, including our political leaders, about the human rights of LGBTQI+ people. The next government must re-amend the Human Rights Act to reinstate the full protection of sexual orientation.

How much progress has the LGBTQI+ rights movement achieved so far? Have you experienced any anti-rights backlash?

We have made a lot of progress. When we started litigating for same-sex marriage, polls showed a slight majority of Bermudians were against it, and within five years, when same-sex marriage became legal, a clear majority supported it.

A poll we conducted in 2020, three years into same-sex marriage being legal, showed that 92 per cent of Bermudians believed that LGBTQI+ people deserved human rights protection, 95 per cent believed we deserved civil rights protection, 53 per cent were in favour of same-sex marriage and 72 per cent thought that a church should be allowed to perform a wedding between two consenting adults. An overwhelming majority of 75 per cent opposed the government spending more money on litigation to ban same-sex marriage, while a mere three per cent claimed they had been negatively affected by same-sex couples being able to marry, adopt or live together.

But this progress was met with backlash, particularly by organisations such as Preserve Marriage, which grew markedly since the early days of the public debate on marriage equality. They are well-organised and well-funded and are reacting quite violently to the evidence that public perceptions on all LGBTQI+ issues is increasingly more accepting.

What kind of support would Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society need from their international counterparts?

Bermudian LGBTQI+ civil society, while physically isolated – more than 600 miles away from North Carolina – is fortunate to have great internet accessibility, so resources are easy to access and connections are easy to make. OUTBermuda as an organisation has been fortunate to receive the support of comparable – but larger and more sophisticated – organisations overseas in the form of resources, ideas and solidarity. As we have just hired our first employee – a part-time executive director – we are looking forward to building out those relationships and capitalising on the great work that has already been done in other jurisdictions – while still doing it the uniquely Bermudian way.

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

 

LEBANON: ‘The political youth movement was a major pillar of the opposition to the ruling class’

MarwanIssaCIVICUS speaks about the recent general election in Lebanon with Marwan Issa, research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What was the political and economic context of Lebanon’s 15 May general election?

The election was held while Lebanon faced one of its worst economic crises in recent history. People were experiencing severe hardship due to lack of essential items, including medicines. On election day, the currency exchange rate skyrocketed, with the US dollar going from 1,515 to around 30,000 Lebanese pounds. Not surprisingly, the majority held deep-seated anger against traditional ruling parties. This led many voters, and especially those in the diaspora, to elect new independent opposition parties and candidates.

However, the intensity of the crisis also led many people to despair and crippled their desire or motivation for action. As a result, the revolutionary feelings stirred by the protests of 17 October 2019 largely died down, and many people felt their vote would not make any difference, which explains the low turnout.

But this did not mean that people were not searching for alternatives: in fact, a solution-focused, rational debate has also emerged that is clearly different from the tribal methods of traditional political parties, which instrumentalise sectarianism, clientelism and fearmongering. New opposition groups have developed that criticise the traditional division between those who blame all the country’s problems on the presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, and those who believe the presence of resistance against a potential threat from Israel is necessary. Both are viewed as serving the interests of the current political elite.

In the face of this, the new opposition offers an alternative discourse focused on both sovereignty and economic justice. This debate about alternative economic and social solutions is very promising for the years ahead.

How did youth-led groups engage with the election process?

There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada, the Network of Secular Clubs. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the Network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.

In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.

Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change), and the 17 October Coalition.

So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.

How free and fair was the election?

The electoral process was plagued with violations that made the competition unfair. For instance, although there are strict caps on campaign spending, ruling class candidates violated the law and poured millions of dollars into their campaigns. This huge financial advantage allowed them to reach vast audiences, while opposition campaigns had much more limited resources.

Bribery and clientelism were also rampant. In addition, smear campaigns and direct threats on opposition candidates were widely noticed. One of them, Ali Khalife, received direct threats following a smear campaign by pro-Hezbollah electronic armies. A few days before the election there were attacks by Tashnag party supporters on opposition groups in Metn and the beating of volunteers.

On election day many violations were recorded, but they were highly dependent on the context. In the southern region, for example, violations included brawls, fights, and politically affiliated electoral assistants going inside voting booths alongside voters. In areas controlled by armed or powerful parties, such as Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the south, many people did not dare turn up to vote.

How do you assess the election results?

All the above combined, plus the fact that the ruling class also very carefully crafted the electoral law to suit its sectarian and partisan quota system, made for a tilted playing field. Under the circumstances, the results were promising and can be built upon.

The election resulted in around 12 or 13 new opposition faces in parliament, plus a couple more who could be counted as part of the opposition but were in parliament already. The presence of 15 opposition, mostly new, legislators is great news. They have clear views regarding both the presence of an armed militia and the responsibility of banks and bank owners in the economic crisis. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Ibrahim Mneimneh, of Beirut Tuqawem, who got the most preferential votes among all new opposition candidates, has a progressive economic and social discourse and took a clear stand on issues related to security and arms.

In contrast, candidates traditionally linked with the Syrian regime lost their seats, including Assaad Herdan in the south, Weeam Wahhab and Talal Erslan in Mount Lebanon, and Elie Ferzli in Bekaa. This was a huge victory against people who were puppets in the hands of the Syrian regime during the period in which Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon, between the 1990s and 2005.

Following the election, pro-change political forces must continue pushing for change in and outside parliament, supporting the newly elected members of parliament and holding them accountable for the implementation of their programme.

What kind of international support does Lebanese civil society need?

Youth-led groups have been at a significant financial disadvantage, and I believe they are the ones that need the most support. It only makes sense that the new generation be supported since waves of emigration keep rising as students and young people more generally lose hope in Lebanon. Financial support, however, should be conditional on the credibility of the opposition group receiving it; it must be directed towards groups with a proven commitment to democracy, social justice, and non-sectarian values.

International organisations, embassies, and other entities could also express their support by including the perspectives of opposition groups in designing policies and humanitarian aid mechanisms because Lebanon’s ruling class has proven highly skilled at transforming aid into clientelism and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for political gain.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter. 

 

LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’

Lina Abou HabibCIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.

The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.

What change resulted from the 15 May general election?

Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.

Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.

By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.

It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.

How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?

There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.

Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.

In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.

What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?

The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.

We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.

The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.

Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS monitor.
Get in touch with the Asfari Institute through its website and follow @AsfariInstitute on Twitter.

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in the Philippines with Marinel Ubaldo, a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines (LLS).

Founded by Catholic lay people, LLS began in 2018 as an interfaith movement calling on Filipino financial institutions to divest from coal-related operations and other environmentally harmful activities. It aims to empower people to adopt lifestyles and attitudes that match the urgent need to care for the planet. It promotes sustainable development and seeks to tackle the climate crisis through collective action.

Marinel Ubaldo

From your perspective, what was at stake in the 9 May presidential election?

The 2022 election fell within the crucial window for climate justice. As stated in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will suffer terrible consequences, such as a rise in sea levels that will submerge much of the currently populated land, including the Philippines. Upcoming leaders will serve for the next six years –and possibly beyond. They have the immense responsibility of putting a climate change mitigation system in place for our country and urging more countries to do the same.

As shown by Super Typhoon Rai that hit the Philippines in December 2021, climate change affects all of us. Whole communities lost their loved ones and their homes. Young people will reap the fruits, or pay the consequences, for whatever our incoming leaders do in response to this crisis. This is why climate anxiety is so prevalent among young people.

How did young people mobilise around this election?

Young people campaigned house to house. We also went to grassroots communities to educate voters on how to vote wisely. Alongside other organisations that form the Green Thumb Coalition, our organisation produced a Green Scorecard and we used our social media platforms to promote the ‘green’ candidate.

One of the biggest youth initiatives around the elections was ‘LOVE, 52’, a campaign aimed at empowering young people and helping them engage with candidates and make their voices heard in demand of a green, just, and loveable future through better governance. We wanted to shift the focus from candidates’ personality and patronage politics to a debate on fundamental issues, and to help young people move traditional powerholders towards a people-centred style of policymaking.

We called this initiative ‘LOVE, 52’ in reference to the fact that young people – people under 40 – comprise 52 per cent of the Philippines’ voting population. We sought to appeal to younger voters’ emotions, and our central theme was love because a frequent response to the question ‘why vote?’ is to protect what we love: our families, our country, and our environment. The main element of this campaign was a ‘love letter’ drafted by several youth organisations and addressed to the country. It contained young people’s calls to incoming leaders, including those of prioritising environmental and social issues, coming up with a coherent plan to address the climate crisis, and supporting a vibrant democracy that will enable climate and environmental justice. We gathered all the love letters people wrote, put them in one envelope, and delivered them physically to the presidential candidates’ headquarters.

What are the implications of the election results for civil society and civic freedoms?

The results of these elections will have a lot of implications for the Filipino people. They will have a direct impact on civil society and our freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.

The winning candidate, senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a former dictator, has said that he will include his family in his administration. Just today, I saw the new president’s spokesperson on the news saying Marcos will make his own appointments, bringing in the people he trusts. I think he will really try to control the government with people who follow him unconditionally. He will put such people in all the positions available, so everyone will tell him what he wants to hear and no one will disagree with him. I think this is the scariest part of it all.

I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.

It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.

This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.

Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership. Needless to say, he never mentioned any policy to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis.

Against all signals, I keep hoping the new administration will be receptive to people’s demands. I really hope our new president listens to the cries of the people. Our leaders must reach out to communities and listen to our issues. I doubt Bongbong Marcos is capable of doing that, but one can only hope.

What support does Filipino civil society need from international civil society and the international community?

We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives. We have doubts about how receptive and accepting the new administration will be toward civil society. 

Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts, and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system. If she had won the elections, she would have been the third woman to lead the Philippines after Cory Aquino and Macapagal Arroyo.

Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation. Our system sadly enables disinformation. This is something that needs to be urgently tackled, but the next administration will likely benefit from it so it will hardly do what’s needed.

We now fear every day for our lives and for the future of our country.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Living Laudato Si’ Philippines through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @LaudatoSiPH on Twitter and @laudatosiph on Instagram

 

INDONESIA: ‘The Sexual Violence Bill is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children’

Nuril QomariyahCIVICUS speaks with Nuril Qomariyah, coordinator of Perempuan Bergerak, about the Sexual Violence Bill recently passed in Indonesia and the key roles played by civil society.

Founded in 2016, Perempuan Bergerak is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s rights in local communities, striving for the values of equality, justice and human rights, and providing support for both women and men to build more equal gender relationships.

What is the relevance of the newly passed Sexual Violence Bill?

The Sexual Violence Bill that Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed on 9 May 2022, formally known as RUU TPKS, seeks to protect victims of sexual violence crimes and help them with the recovery process. 

The bill deals with nine types of criminal acts of sexual violence regulated in article 4, paragraph 1: non-physical sexual harassment, physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and electronic-based sexual violence. Perpetrators proven guilty of these crimes will be subject to imprisonment.

It is interesting that the inclusion of electronic-based sexual violence received some criticism. In the early stages, when the bill was being drafted, it was not included. However, CSOs and activists advocated for its inclusion because sexual violence cases, especially among young children, are increasingly happening in or in connection with cyberspace.

How might the new law change things for the better?

The main outstanding thing about this bill is that it focuses on the victims and seeks to create an environment that will help them recover from acts of sexual violence. According to a study conducted by the Indonesia Judicial Research Society, the law should be appreciated because it clearly takes sides with sexual violence victims by mandating the establishment of mechanisms to support their recovery.

In its article 30, paragraph 1 the bill states that victims are entitled to services such as restitution and counselling. If the perpetrator is unable to pay restitution the state will compensate the victim in accordance with the court’s decision. Further, victims are recognised as having the right to receive the necessary treatment, the right to be protected and the right to recovery.

Community-based service providers such as the police are required to receive and follow up on reports of sexual violence and provide assistance to the victims. Under the new law they are no longer allowed to dismiss sexual violence cases, and instead must conduct the investigation needed to help the victims. The role of families, communities and central and local governments in preventing sexual violence is also emphasised. The new law seeks to make victims of sexual violence feel comfortable enough to report their perpetrators and open legal cases against them. We consider this bill fundamental in helping victims and survivors of sexual violence.

Do you see it as a civil society victory?

Indeed, we consider this a civil society victory because we have been involved in the whole process and have long advocated for the bill to be passed. CSOs working closely with victims and survivors of sexual violence understand how important this bill is, which is why we were at the forefront of the efforts that resulted in its approval. 

It took us 10 years to get here. This is quite a long time. During the past decade, we have organised and made sure we built a unified front pushing for this law. Sexual violence is an offence that affects those who constitute the majority in our society; it is women and children who experience it the most. So getting this law passed is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children, including their right to live in a safe and secure environment. 

The new law empowers victims because it provides tools to respond to cases of sexual violence. We are very happy to see this kind of progress. A victory like this provides confirmation of the great influence our work has on society. 

What tactics did you use to encourage the passage of the new legislation?

Perempuan Bergerak is based in Malang, the second-largest city in the province of East Java. We provide safe spaces for people, and especially women, to get together, exchange with one another, learn and organise. We also provide space for men to learn about equality in human relations so they are able to see women as fully autonomous human beings, rather than weak creatures of lesser value who are under their dominion.

The Sexual Violence Bill is crucial for this work because it has the potential to provide the same kind of safe space, with legal guarantees, for women and children all over Indonesia. This is why we collaborated with various community groups in Malang, including students, academics and activists, to raise wide awareness about the importance of the bill. Perempuan Bergerak has a large virtual community on social media platforms, so we created content to promote the bill and shared it on these platforms. The young generation is very active on social media, so we channelled much of our activism there. 

In addition to social media activism, we did a lot of work on the ground, including organising discussion forums, making as many appearances as we could on television and local radio stations, and demonstrating on the streets alongside other organisations and activists.

We are also part of Koalisi Masyarakat Sipil Anti Kekerasan Seksual (KOMPAKS), a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups fighting against sexual violence. As a coalition, we share the same vision and have worked together to push the government to pass this bill. We mobilised in unity throughout the whole process. 

What challenges do you see moving forward, and how does civil society plan to address them?

The main challenge we anticipate is implementation. We know we will have to be very vigilant, monitor each implementation stage and make sure local governments respect the law. We have known this would be a challenge all along, so throughout our advocacy and campaigning in the process to get the bill passed we acted together as civil society to create awareness at the community level about the importance of this bill’s implementation. Now that our strategy to get the bill has worked, we will need to keep moving together to ensure a successful process of implementation. We believe that through collaboration with as many stakeholders as possible, including with the government, educational institutions and civil society, we can make the implementation stage progress smoothly.

Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Perempuan Bergerak through its Instagram page.

 

PANDEMIC TREATY: ‘States hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe and must be held accountable’

Barbara StockingCIVICUS speaks with Dame Barbara M Stocking about the need to develop a new pandemic treaty anchored in solidarity, transparency, accountability and equity.

Barbara Stocking is chair of the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, former president of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, former chief executive of Oxfam Great Britain and former chair of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel.

 

 

What is the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, and what prompted its launch in April 2021? 

The University of Miami decided to survey experts across the world about the topic of pandemics. This happened before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. We needed to know if we were prepared for a pandemic and what issues needed to be tackled. I was among the experts in 2015: I chaired the Committee on Ebola that assessed the performance of the World Health Organization (WHO). An article summarising the experts’ views was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet a few months later.

By then the COVID-19 pandemic was well underway, and University of Miami’s president, Julio Frank, proposed doing more than publishing a report. The Panel for a Global Public Health Convention was founded in 2020 to advocate for new ways of governing and undertaking outbreak control and response, and I was asked to chair it.

The Panel is an independent, high-level advocacy coalition. It includes former presidents such as Laura Chinchilla from Costa Rica and John Mahama from Ghana, and former Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Angel Gurría. These are all people who can have influence with the WHO, its member states and other bodies. We are not campaigning publicly because we do not have the resources or the people, but we operate at the highest political level.

In December 2021 the World Health Assembly agreed to launch the process to develop a global treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Our panel will keep watching as the idea unfolds to make sure it accomplishes the things we think are needed to stop outbreaks turning into pandemics.

What shortfalls in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic made the need for a treaty apparent?

The need for a convention became obvious to everybody as a result of COVID-19, but it is not just about COVID-19. For the last 20 years, every single report concluded that we were not ready to deal with a pandemic. COVID-19 just confirmed this in the most horrifying ways.

Preparedness is key. Governments have tried to be prepared, but they were clearly not. Why is that? For some countries it was a matter of resources, and in those cases we must ensure they get the resources to have health surveillance systems in place. However, many countries with abundant resources and excellent health systems were not ready either. One of the reasons for this is that very few countries practice preparedness. When I was in the UK health service, each hospital would practice a major incident every three years. We need the same approach in public health preparedness. Practice is key and must include not just health systems but the whole government, because if anything that big happens, ministries and heads of state must also get involved.

The public was not prepared either. We need to make sure we deliver the right messages and we engage communities, which we know are so important.

When it became clear that there was a virus circulating, and it was not yet clear what it was, and the WHO made the call for a public health emergency of international concern, not much was done. February 2020 was a key moment for action, yet very little happened.

It all boiled down to a fundamental lack of understanding about what being precautionary means in the case of a pandemic. With most things in life, you can ask yourself whether a situation is going to get worse and make a realistic assessment. But with a pandemic, especially at the beginning, you don’t know how the virus will replicate, and you must move fast. But with COVID-19, states did not. They also had objections to WHO guidelines because, they said, the WHO ‘had no authority’.

The next fundamental problem is that although we have international health regulations, people tend to not comply, and there are no enforcement and accountability mechanisms. Clearly, there is also work to be done to update international health regulations, but the biggest issue is countries agreeing to be accountable to each other. The expression we use is ‘mutual assurance’: for a state to make difficult decisions, it needs to know other states will do the same. This should sell the idea of accountability.

There is no point in having a pandemic treaty or convention unless people are willing to be accountable. But this is often ignored because it is difficult. States are sovereign over their territories and are responsible for the health of their people, but also hold a shared responsibility to keep the world safe. This is why we need a treaty or convention.

How could the treaty help solve these problems? 

The principles of equity, transparency and accountability must be built into this treaty. We need to think what needs sorting out or making right, because these are the things we will be held accountable for.

For example, on the preparedness side, there has begun to be progress, but only through peer reviews of countries to determine whether they are ready. This system would have to be scaled up. Independent reviews would be a positive thing for the treaty or convention. We need somebody other than the WHO to conduct the assessments for preparedness and response, which can be done within a treaty structure. The WHO should set the standards and provide support in the role of ‘friend of the country’. We could set up a small body. As the WHO has pretty much all the data, there is no need to start from scratch. But it must be a body with the required experience and expertise. It may have to report up, through treaty structures, to heads of state, whom we hope would form the conferences of parties overseeing this treaty or convention.

All these things can be built in. They will not take away WHO’s powers but rather add to them.

How has civil society participated so far in the treaty process?

Civil society is clearly asking for more say in health issues and in the development of the pandemic treaty, and I think this is truly necessary.

At the WHO level, the civil society participating comes mostly from international bodies and local partners, which often have a health background – and I mean ‘health’ in the broader sense, including mental health.

When hearings were held, civil society participated actively and the scope of participating civil society organisations (CSOs) broadened to include human rights CSOs, not only because of the freedoms affected by lockdowns but also because governments were using the pandemic as an excuse to violate human rights. As a result, more and more human rights CSOs wanted to have a say in the treaty.

In terms of participation in the treaty process itself, the WHO has a category for civil society, as ‘official observers’. But civil society should have much more influence in the discussion. At the top level, the WHO is setting up two-day events to provide evidence to stakeholders beyond member states. They held a two-day event in April, in which the Panel participated and gave its view on the topic. Another event is coming up in June.

One major problem I have seen is centralised pandemic management. We need to engage communities, and this includes civil society. When handling a pandemic, engagement of people and organisations at the local level must be built in. This can’t be done by central government alone; local authorities must play their role to engage with these groups. 

Expanding the treaty’s governance to include civil society would be quite challenging because member states will own the treaty they will be signing up for, either by consensus or by government ratification. There has got to be more debate on how, even if there is a conference of parties, we can include civil society more and engage with it. 

What are the main challenges you foresee for the near future, regarding the implementation of an eventual treaty?

The first challenge is to produce a Global Public Health Convention with strong accountability. States must accept that they are to be held accountable towards each other and the world. And although it may be tough for states to accept the idea of being assessed by independent people, we need assessments to be conducted by an independent body. We can have states overseeing its work, but it needs to be able to work independently.

The notion of ‘shared sovereignty’ is still hard for countries to accept fully. But we are a globe; we need people working together. We are all related to each other, so we need to have the willingness to cooperate and see how we can build together. People will worry about the loss of sovereignty, but we need to help them understand how critically important this is, in both a moral and a self-interested way. It is in each one’s own interest to have others behave well towards them. These are some of the blocks we need to get over to have a very good treaty.

In sum, states have already agreed to produce some sort of treaty or convention and are already working on it. But the question is, is it going to be the right one? If everything goes well, we will have an agreement by 2024, and then there needs to be some time for countries to ratify it – or not.

But we must not let the momentum pass because we really must be prepared. People keep asking if we might have another pandemic in the next 10 or 20 years. Well, frankly, we might have another one next year. There is a real urgency because habitats are changing; animals and humans are getting closer and closer together.

I see everyone relaxing a bit since COVID-19 seems to be somewhat under control. But we must not go to sleep on this. It is almost certain that this will happen again in the future. The one thing we don’t know is how soon.

Get in touch with the Panel for a Global Public Health Convention through its website. 

 

NIGERIA: ‘The federal government and ASUU at some point made it feel like our education doesn’t matter’

Benedicta ChisomCIVICUS speaks with Benedicta Chisom about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Benedicta is a student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and a creative writer. Being directly affected by the ASUU strike, she has worked on social media to create awareness about it and its underlying issues.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The #EndASUUStrike started with students’ protests at the University of Benin and Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and then snowballed into an online movement. Its message is simple: we want to go back to school.

Students just want to voice their grievances over the strike. Both the federal government and ASUU at some point made us feel like our education doesn’t matter. They keep going back and forth with the matter while our academic year is wasted. Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators, just waiting on them to decide when to end it. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.

The protest was our way of demanding that the federal government and ASUU come to a final agreement so that teachers stop going on strike every single academic year. As a result of the strikes that have happened since 2020, we have lost more than 12 months of our academic career.

It would be a shame if the students that come after us continue to face the same challenges. Recurrent strikes need to end with us, this year. We want a five-year course to take five years of schooling, not more.

How has the government responded so far?

In February, President Mohammed Buhari mandated a trio composed of his chief of staff, the minister of education and the minister of labour and employment to address the disagreement with ASUU over the strike. The Minister of Labour met with the other unions – the National Association of Academic Technologists, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions – which went on strike in support of ASUU. He assured the public that the government is tackling disputes in the educational sector holistically and acknowledged that some issues causing the crisis are economic, including funding for the revitalisation of universities and workers’ welfare.

But ASUU and the students are angry at the government’s undivided focus on the upcoming 2023 general election, as though students and their education did not matter. The union also condemned the rush to purchase the ruling All Progress Congress party’s presidential nomination forms by politicians even though money is one of the reasons for the strike. It accused the ministers of labour and education of insensitivity.

According to Independent Electoral Commission, more than half of registered voters, 51.1 per cent, are between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of them are students, and how will students believe in the government if their voices aren’t heard by the people they vote for? At some point we had hopes for change but now that the strike has been extended by 12 weeks, I can’t say much. But we are positive the mobilisation will drive home our grievances to some extent.

What do you think striking teachers should do?

For students, the strike is frustrating and disheartening. We are told to stay home without any idea of when we will return to school. I have spent a whole semester at home, and what was supposed to be a five-year course increased to six years. Our lives are put on hold; this affects not only our academic progression but also our life plans. Education workers should be more flexible with their demands and have more empathy towards students.

What should the government do?

There are many things the federal government can do to ensure that both the needs of students and education workers are met. The government must offer a good agreement to ASUU and begin to implement it immediately. It must also start paying unpaid allowances and salaries. This will give students back their right to education and stabilise the economy. The strike has done a lot of damage already.

One of the first things the government could do is adopt the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a preferred payment option instead of the system currently used. UTAS was created by Nigerian experts and must be run and maintained locally, so it will encourage local innovation and provide employment. It has passed the test and ASUU has agreed to improve it. It has become a bone of contention, so there is a big chance the strike will end once it is adopted.

Most significantly, the government must set out a strategy and timeline to come up with the billion-dollar funding required to revitalise universities. This will show ASUU and students that they are indeed working towards restoring public universities.

What kind of support do you need from the international community? 

Social media has made the world a global village, so I am sure people in other parts of the world are aware of the protests and strikes in Nigeria. We need more voices to put pressure on our government to take immediate action. It would be of great help if students in other countries and Nigerians in the diaspora could help share the #EndASUUStrike hashtag, repost our posts and share our tweets to add momentum to the movement.

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

 

NIGERIA: ‘The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists than with striking teachers’

Olorunfemi AdeyeyeCIVICUS speaks with Olorunfemi Adeyeye about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU). 

Olorunfemi is a student activist and member of the Fund Education Coalition, which works to raise awareness about the importance of Nigerian public universities and is currently supporting teachers by taking part in the #EndASUUStrike movement.

How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?

The origins of the campaign are in the Fund Education Coalition movement, a coalition of Nigerian student groups advocating for education rights. #EndASUUStrike started when student organisations came together and called for students to be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights to quality public education. It uses the grievances of the ASUU strike to highlight what students need to have on their respective campuses.

The demands of the ASUU strike include several issues that concern Nigerian students directly. For instance, the union has raised the need to revitalise public universities. This is of great importance to students, who are the direct victims of underfunding. The campaign to properly fund education demands the revitalisation of laboratory equipment, which is in poor state, and fixes to the problems of overcrowded lecture halls and moribund campus health centres, among other key aspects. The union also frowns at the proliferation of universities and seeks an amendment to the 2004 National Universities Commission Act. The establishment of more universities, while existing ones are poorly funded, has become a constituency project for Nigerian rulers. Almost everyone in the ruling class wants to have one in their backyard. This is just unacceptable. We are fully in support of the strike, which also highlights issues surrounding the poor remuneration of lecturers.

What the Fund Education Coalition wants is for the Nigerian government to accede to workers’ demands in the educational sector. And not just to ASUU’s: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the National Association of Academic Technologists are also on strike. With all education workers currently on strike, it was only rational for students to join them.

Have you established any connections with student movements facing similar challenges in other parts of the world?

Social media platforms have made it easy for us to share information about the #EndASUUStrike movement, reaching a vast audience across the world. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet had the chance to get in contact with any international student organisations facing similar issues.

As student activists, when things happen in other countries we lend voices to help each other – for instance, when the #FeesMustFall movement erupted in South Africa the Alliance of Nigerian Students against Neoliberal Attacks, an organisation I led in 2018, released a statement of support. We hope the same will also happen with the #EndASUUStrike. International solidarity among all the oppressed people in the world is key.

To counter the government’s propaganda that ASUU is on strike because it feels it can gain some concessions due to the approaching elections, it should be noted that this isn’t a new problem. Interestingly, there are no new problems in Nigeria. Our issues date back a long way. Strikes similar to the current one have been happening since the 1980s and the issues they point to continue to affect generation after generation of Nigerians.

We are still dealing with the same issues, as the government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions. Our issues are perennial and endemic, but even though they may be different from those faced by young people in other countries, we are still open to collaboration with as many organisations from around the world as possible.

How has the ASUU strike affected you?

As students it is very unfortunate that we must go through this again. It is an endless cycle of spending very little of your time in class and most of it on the streets fighting for your right to education.

When ASUU goes on strike, it not only affects academic activities, but also the economic and social life of everyone in the academic community. There are students who depend on universities being open because they sell academic textbooks, stationery or equipment to make a living. There are also people who run businesses within universities as a means of providing for their families. All these have been disrupted. The strike has affected everyone.

As student activists, some of our activities have been affected and we have not been organising as we normally would on campuses. We hope the federal government will agree to ASUU’s demands so things can go back to normal.

What do you think education workers should do?

First, I need to clarify that students have a good relationship with ASUU and the other educational workers’ unions. We are all partners in the education sector. As students, we have been able to present some of our ideas and thoughts to ASUU.

An issue we discussed recently was that they should come out with a clear message against the government’s propaganda. The government has tried to convince people that it cannot accede to ASUU’s demands because there is no money to fund education. This is misinformation and propaganda, so we have asked ASUU to counter it with their own narrative and make it public. Everyone should understand why ASUU is striking and support their struggle. This will not only benefit teachers, students and their families, but it will also help us save public universities and ensure they are well equipped for ordinary citizens to attend.

How has the government responded so far to both the ASUU strike and the #EndASUUStrike movement?

The federal government has not responded to ASUU’s and students’ demands. Faced with strikes by other unions, such as the Airline Operators of Nigeria, the government reacted fast to prevent the suspension of airline services. But ASUU has been on strike for almost three months and the government has not even called them to a meeting. This serves as an indication that education is not really a priority for them. The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists and bandits than to sit down and negotiate with academic workers.

As a result, ASUU has decided to extend the strike by three more months, which means students will have spent close to six months without attending school.

We hope we can put more pressure on the government so it will react to what is happening. We want the government to agree to a meeting with ASUU representatives and commit, this time, to solving the issues brought up at the meetings.

What kinds of support do you need from the international community?

As someone who is at the frontline of the struggle to protect a public education, I would say that the international community should put pressure on the Nigerian government to prioritise education.

The government has been telling us it does not have money to fund education, but yet there is serious capital flight from Nigeria to other countries. The president has donated one million US dollars to Afghanistan and oil theft has grown. Who is stealing the oil? Not ordinary people. Who are contributing to oil theft, money laundering and massive capital flight, if not foreign nations? These monies are mostly not kept in our banks. We need our international allies to put pressure on the government to stop capital flight and instead invest in education. 

International organisations should also help us put pressure on foreign governments, corporations and parastate actors to stop aiding and abetting the thievery in Nigeria. Nigeria has plenty of resources that should be put to the correct use, such as funding education.

In addition, we need the international community to help us push our narrative through social media so that more attention is paid to the situation Nigerian students are dealing with.

Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @activistfemi on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘We have achieved a historic labour rights win for female Dalit workers’

Jeeva MCIVICUS speaks about a recent labour rights victory in India’s garment industry with Jeeva M, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).

TTCU is a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers that represents 11,000 female workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Jeeva, who hails from the Dalit community, has worked for more than five years in the Tamil Nadu textile industry, including at Eastman Exports. She is a founding member of TTCU and has led struggles for decent work and violence-free workplaces in the garment industry for more than a decade.

What is the Dindigul Agreement, and how significant is it?

The Dindigul Agreement was signed in April 2021 by TTCU and Eastman Exports, one of the largest textile producers in India, which supplies knitwear, apparel and accessories to major global clothing brands. Its aim is to end caste-based and gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at Eastman factories and spinning mills in Dindigul, a city in India’s Tamil Nadu state.

This is a historic labour rights win for around 5,000 mostly female Dalit workers, who are placed at the bottom of India’s caste system.

The Dindigul Agreement includes an enforceable brand agreement (EBA), a type of legally binding agreement in which multinational companies commit to use their supply chain relationships to support a worker-led or union-led programme at particular factories or worksites. In this case, TTCU, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) have signed an EBA with the multinational fashion company H&M, which requires H&M to support and enforce the Dindigul Agreement. If Eastman Exports violates its commitments, H&M must take steps to penalise the company, including by reducing business, until it comes into compliance.

This agreement is the first of its kind in India, the only EBA to cover spinning mills and the first to include explicit protections against caste-based discrimination, a problem that intensified during the pandemic.

The Dindigul Agreement is in line with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace. It creates structures that will empower female workers, supported by their union, to monitor and seek redress for GBVH. It also provides a new model for brands, suppliers and trade unions to cooperate to prevent and respond to GBVH in garment supply chains.

What tipped the balance in favour of the agreement after so many years of efforts?

Civil society has advocated for better working conditions for Dalit workers for many years, but it was not until the murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman garment worker and member of TTCU, that we succeeded in addressing the extreme problems of GBVH pervasive in this industry. The killing of Jeyasre by her supervisor in January 2021 prompted TTCU to shed light on the situation at the factory where she was killed.

In response, TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF formed a unique partnership and launched the #JusticeforJeyasre campaign in India and other Asian countries as well as in Europe and the USA. Over 90 international unions, labour groups and women’s rights organisations joined to urge international brands and Eastman Exports to sign a binding agreement to end GBVH.

A year-long campaign ensued, including an international vigil for Jeyasre held across 33 countries and an 11-city speaking tour across the USA to raise awareness about her case and the need to address GBVH in global supply chains. This enabled the civil society coalition to lead the negotiations that concluded with the historic agreement.

What other challenges do Dalit workers face in India, and what needs to be done to improve their situations?

Caste discrimination permeates every aspect of society. Due to its systemic nature, workplaces and supply chains are likely to be affected by it unless special measures to counter it are put in place.

For instance, Dalit workers experience poorer working conditions than non-Dalits, including longer working hours, sexual harassment, lower wages, dirtier or more hazardous tasks and abusive language and gestures. We also face discrimination at the hiring stage – for instance, qualified applicants from Dalit communities are not considered for skilled jobs – and encounter discrimination in accessing services and utilities offered by the employer, such as housing, healthcare and education and training.

With approximately 80 per cent of the bonded workforce coming from the Dalit community, strong measures need to be put in place to address bonded or forced labour and to ensure that employment in this sector is not forced.

Important measures to advance Dalit workers’ labour rights include ensuring the freedom of association and collective bargaining, improving working conditions, paying living wages and implementing binding agreements such as the Dindigul Agreement to address caste-based discrimination and GBVH in sectors where the workforce is mostly made up of Dalit women.

What’s next for the civil society groups involved in the Dindigul Agreement?

Through the campaign and negotiation process, TTCU built strong forward momentum and gained respect from the factory and brands. TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have built a powerful coalition of unions, women’s rights groups and Dalit rights advocates, among others. Now the agreements have been signed, we need to keep that momentum. We will continue to keep our allies engaged in the implementation phase and as we work to drive industry-wide change.

We see the Dindigul Agreement as part of a regional movement against GBVH in garment supply chains. We plan to use it as a model for organising against GBVH across the industry and the region. We are already calling on more brands to join this agreement and working with them to expand it. There will surely be challenges, but we are confident we will overcome them.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with AFWA through its website or Facebook page, and follow @asia_floorwage, @tamil_labour and @GLJhub on Twitter. 

 

INDIA: ‘Muslim girls are being forced to choose between education and the hijab’

ZakiaSomanCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Zakia Soman, a women’s rights activist and co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (Indian Muslim Women's Movement, BMMA).

Founded in 2007, BMMA is an independent, secular, rights-based civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for the rights of women and the Muslim minority in India.

Why have girls wearing the hijab been banned from school in Karnataka state?

Girls in hijab were denied entry into classrooms in the name of the school uniform rules, with the authorities citing a circular that states that each student must comply with the uniform requirement in school. Both the Karnataka government and the high court played the uniform card to justify preventing Muslim women wearing the hijab from entering the college campus.

While educational institutions undeniably have the right to set their own rules, these cannot infringe the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution. According to Article 25 of our constitution, all citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion.

And under no circumstance can a dress code for schoolgirls be more important than education itself. Muslim girls have the right to be in school with or without the hijab, which is why I oppose those who promote the court’s verdict as a decision that empowers women. Although I don’t believe in the hijab, I think it is wrong to discriminate against girls wearing it. Our nation will only progress when girls have access to education regardless of their religious affiliation.

Does the hijab row indicate the rise of anti-minorities voices in India?

Although it may sound like an internal disciplinary matter over girls wearing the hijab, the wider context of the hijab row is one of religious polarisation and politics of hate towards Muslims. The hijab row is an integral part of the politics of religious hate in India’s polarised milieu, where Muslims are the target of the growing anti-Islam propaganda aired on TV as well as on social media platforms.

There is a spiralling nationwide campaign against the Muslim community under the garb of religious festivities. Journalists and other monitors have found deliberate, concerted violence against life, property and businesses of India’s Muslim community carried out by hooligans claiming to celebrate religious festivals in the states of Delhi, Gujrat, Karnataka and many others. But ultimately, the Indian state must be held responsible for the terrible living conditions experienced by millions of Muslims.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

Civil society has extended solidarity to the affected girls and has supported them. However, civil society’s response has so far failed to impress the government and the high court, which sadly ruled to uphold the hijab ban inside classrooms in Karnataka state.

As for opposition parties, they have been unable to run a sustained campaign to challenge the climate created by hate speech and open calls for the genocide of Muslims. This is why it’s so important for the international community to stand up and support the voices of sanity in India.

What have pro-hijab protests achieved so far?

Peaceful protests have been held in support of Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab in educational institutions. However, I am afraid that conservative elements of the Muslim community got involved in the protests in a way that aggravated matters, making Muslim girls and their families even more vulnerable to political onslaught.

In my understanding, neither the hijab nor the burqa, a full body covering, is mandatory in Islam; however, patriarchal elements would like to put every Muslim girl and woman behind a burqa or hijab. The matter could have been easily resolved through dialogue between college authorities and parents. Instead, it got politicised, with different religious and political outfits jumping in the fray with their radical and antagonistic positions.

As a result, Muslim girls found themselves in a tough position, being forced to choose between education and the hijab, which is outright unfair to them. Since many Muslim parents will not allow girls to go to school without the hijab and schools will not give them entry into class with the hijab, many girls have dropped out of their studies and have not sat their exams.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with BMMA through its website and follow @BMMA_India on Twitter.

 

HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

What did civil society do to secure their release?

During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

What are the challenges ahead?

The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Learn more about the Guapinol case on its website and follow @Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

 

KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

What is the potential for electoral violence?

Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Africa Platform through its website.

 

INDIA: ‘An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights’

Quill FoundationCIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Aiman Khan and Agni Das of the Quill Foundation. 

Founded in 2015, the Quill Foundation is an Indian civil society organisation (CSO) engaged in research and advocacy. Its work focuses on the human rights issues faced by underprivileged people, especially Adivasis, Dalits, Muslims, women, sexual minorities and differently abled persons.

Why was the use of the hijab banned in Karnataka schools? 

The hijab ban should be seen in the wider socio-political context of India. Since the beginning of 2022, Indian Muslim women have been subjected to violence and discrimination carried out by multiple offenders. It started with an app called ‘Bulli Bai’ that placed vocal Muslim women in an online auction. This violated their privacy, as it used their photos and information without their consent.

Shortly after that, girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a couple of colleges in Karnataka state in southwest India because the administration deemed the hijab a violation of the dress code for schoolgirls. This was followed by a Karnataka government order on 5 February. While this government order did not specifically ban the hijab, it did say that such ban would not violate Article 25 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of conscience as well as freedoms to profess, practise and propagate religion. As the girls who were restricted from wearing the hijab filed petitions in the high court, the verdict decided against them and chose to impose what they should wear. Both the state government and the high court used the excuse of maintaining ‘uniformity’ in educational institutions to impose restrictions on Muslim women wearing the hijab.

Following that order, several incidents of discrimination and violence against Muslim women were reported. They could not enter their educational institutions if they did not remove their hijab. Although the order did not include teachers, Muslim teachers were also asked to remove their hijab or burqa, a full body covering, at the gate of the campus. 

How does the hijab ban relate to the overall status of minorities in India? 

The hijab ban is arbitrary. it goes against India’s constitutional promise of secularism and fits into the trend of authorities using the law to criminalise minority communities. For instance, Karnataka’s anti-conversion law set barriers on converting to Islam or Christianity and made it more difficult for interfaith couples to marry. Following this law, the Christian community faced rising threats and violence as well as increased attacks on their places of worship.

Generally speaking, minority communities are subjected to vilification because they are framed as ‘the other’. The Muslim minority is a specific target of persecution. At mass assemblies of the Hindu community, calls are often made for the genocide of the Muslim community and the mass rape of Muslim women. Calls for social and economic boycott of Muslims have been repeated frequently over the past few years. This has included taking mass oaths to boycott Muslims.

Muslim business owners have suffered the full brunt of this incitement. In the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, some Muslim-owned shops have been set on fire by rioters or demolished by the very same authorities that should protect them. The perpetrators of such communal violence enjoy impunity and face no consequences. 

The restriction on the use of the hijab was introduced in the context of this rising culture of intolerance. Even though the court limited the restriction to within the classroom, it has been implemented far and wide, including to suspend Muslim women teachers and other working Muslim women. 

What are the implications of the hijab ban for women’s rights?

The high court’s verdict, which kept the ban on the basis that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam, erased Muslim women’s free will to choose for themselves and violated not only their right to education but also their freedom of practise their religion. 

Several studies suggest that due to systematic discrimination against the Muslim community, Muslim women in India encounter extreme hurdles in accessing education, especially higher education. In this context, the hijab ban is patriarchal and regressive in nature, because it makes decisions on behalf of Muslim women regarding what to wear and how to practise their faith.

The decision further pushes Muslim women out of educational spaces and places them under threat in any public space. More than 400 Muslim girls have already been not allowed to appear for their exams and are facing distress, and attacks on Muslim women wearing hijabs and burqas have also increased across India. But the authorities have still not acknowledged the violence that Muslim women are going through.

How has civil society responded to the ban?

There have been protests on two fronts. The girls who have been directly affected by this restriction are protesting outside their college gates and holding demonstrations in other public spaces. But they are facing intimidation and threats by Hindutva vigilante groups while also being warned that they will be criminally charged for protesting. 

In bigger cities, protests are also being organised by human rights CSOs and Muslim groups, and particularly by Muslim women. 

Following the Karnataka high court ruling, CSOs have played an important role in raising awareness about the implications of the verdict. Several CSOs rejected the court order while also producing analysis to help the public understand its intricate legal language.

Civil society has been able to respond in a tangible and timely manner, offering unconditional solidarity and support to the schoolgirls affected by the order and experiencing trauma resulting from violence, discrimination and harassment in the aftermath of the high court order. Some CSOs have offered mental health counselling and other services.

Other CSOs have offered litigation support, in two forms: first, by representing individual cases of religious discrimination and providing legal support to those who missed out on exams due to the ban; and second, by petitioning on larger issues before courts of law. There have been several petitions before the Supreme Court of India to challenge the Karnataka high court order.

In short, the civil society response has been key because of its capacity to play a full range of roles to drive change, from the micro to the macro level. An effective civil society is essential for advancing human rights in India, and the international community can play a vital role in reinforcing the work of local CSOs to amplify marginalised voices.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @aimanjkhan and @AgniDas26 on Twitter.

 

INDIA: ‘The hijab ban is just another tool used by right-wing politicians to remain in power’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent ban on the hijab, a headscarf worn by Muslim women, in educational institutions in the Indian state of Karnataka with Syeda Hameed, co-founder and board member of the Muslim Women’s Forum (MWF).

Founded in 2000, MWF is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the empowerment, inclusion and education of Muslim women in India. Its primary goal is to provide Muslim women with a platform for expressing their aspirations and opinions on matters directly affecting their lives.

Syeda Hameed

How did the hijab row start?

The controversy started in the town of Udupi, a small secular district of Karnataka state in southwest India, where girls wearing the hijab were not allowed to enter a college campus because the administration deemed it a violation of uniform rules. Some students protested against the ban, and protests escalated into violence.

From this tiny part of Karnataka, the hijab row spread to other parts of the country. In response to Muslim women wearing the hijab on campuses, many Hindu students took to wearing saffron shawls, a colour seen as a Hindu symbol.

The matter reached a Karnataka high court as some Muslim students filed petitions claiming that they have the right to wear the hijab under the guarantees provided by the Indian Constitution. But the high court’s verdict kept the ban, arguing that the hijab is not an essential part of Islam. Surprisingly, the bench in Karnataka includes one Muslim woman judge.

What triggered the decision by Karnataka’s educational institutions?

The decision to ban Muslim students from wearing the hijab in colleges’ premises came as a surprise. Such a ban is strange to our society. Unlike in France, where it has long been under the spotlight, the hijab had until very recently never been prohibited in India.

Karnataka state is known for its diverse society and pluralistic culture, with the two major religious groups, Hindus and Muslims, historically coexisting, along with a wide spectrum of other religious groups.

However, the roots of the Karnataka hijab controversy are quite deep, and are linked to growing Islamophobia. Those in power have ignited a sectarian fuse all over India in every possible way. Right now, Karnataka state also has a right-wing government, which has created fertile ground for strain in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

To them, the hijab ban is just another tool to remain in power. It is tied to current political events, notably the upcoming December election. Right-wing politicians fabricate issues that target Muslims, who are depicted as the ‘disruptive other’, to divert people’s attention from dire economic conditions. The hijab ban did the job well, as it captured media attention. Sensational media coverage only added fuel to the fire.

How do you view the hijab ban from a gendered perspective?

The hijab ban is a complete violation of women’s rights to express their own identities. It should be my choice alone whether to wear the hijab or not. I am a believing and practising Muslim and I don’t wear the hijab. Muslim women of my generation usually did not wear the hijab, but younger generations of Muslim women across the globe do. I see it as a search for an identity in the face of the charged atmosphere created by Islamophobia. Indian Muslim women have worn the hijab for about a quarter of a century.

We don’t oppose school uniforms because there is good reason for them, especially in a country such as India and all other South Asian countries, where both religious diversity and social inequality lead to differences in dress. But the use of the hijab in educational institutions had never been put to debate before the current Karnataka right-wing government suddenly considered it a violation of the school uniform rules.

As I said, in my generation very few girls wore the hijab, and therefore my uniform was skirt and blouse, which was acceptable at the time. Later, when girls started wearing the hijab, the situation escalated from establishing that their hijab should match the school uniform colours to starting to throw them out of schools.

What is the overall status of Indian Muslims as a minority?

As a former member of government, I observed the status of minorities change over time. From 2004 to 2014 I was a member of a now-extinct Planning Commission that was entrusted, among other responsibilities, with bringing minorities up to mark with society in every way possible. For ten years, we devised all kinds of schemes in the areas of education, employment and health, and tried to ensure minorities made the most of them. Our main tasks were to make these plans and ensure their implementation across the country by persuading the governments of India’s states to embrace them.

Change was slow because we did not have the power to force implementation. A key moment was when the government commissioned a report on the status of Muslims that provided a very candid conclusion by a retired Supreme Court judge. It stated that India’s 200 million Muslims, the second largest Muslim population in the world, had the lowest status on all social and economic parameters when compared to other religious groups. It should have been a wake-up call for the Indian government.

But since then, it has only got worse. Recent so-called ‘Hindu religious gatherings’ include a call for the genocide of Muslims. Some have suggested that the saffron flag should replace India’s national flag. Many decisions have been made in violation of the constitution. This is an extremely difficult moment for Muslims in India. 

And the hijab ban is very much part of Muslim marginalisation. Muslims are being driven to a corner and targeted by a right-wing government that demonises them to boost their support and remain in power.

How has civil society responded to the ban controversy?

Many CSOs have raised the issue and protested against the ban. Voices have also raised internationally, both from civil society and from influential individuals, as was the case of US congressional representative Ilhan Omar. Maybe if they became louder, these voices could drive positive change in the lives of India’s Muslims, which are becoming exceedingly difficult.

Frankly, at times I feel it is a losing game. 

All international attention that was paid to the ban has damaged the image of India without really making a dent on those in power, who only care about the upcoming general elections.

Civic space in India is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Muslim Women’s Forum through its website and follow @syedaIndia on Twitter.

 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’

CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.

Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.

Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests, especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.

Horia Mosadiq

Why did you establish your organisation?

Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.

But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.

What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?

We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.

The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.

Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.

Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.

Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.

How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?

Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.

What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?

Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.

Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.

What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?

I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination. 

More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.

Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.

Civic space in Afghanistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow SRMO Afghanistan via its website and follow @AfgSrmo on Twitter 

 

UZBEKISTAN: ‘Advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint’

Allison GillCIVICUS speaks about the recent civil society victory in eliminating state-imposed forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry with Allison Gill, a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).

GLJ-ILRF is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labour migration corridors. It coordinates the Cotton Campaign, which since 2007 has fought against state-imposed forced and child labour in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

What prompted the Cotton Campaign to lift the boycott on Uzbek cotton?

We have advocated for an end to child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector for almost 15 years, and the 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.

Despite this landmark achievement, significant labour risks continue to exist. We continue to warn against the use of coercion and threat of penalty in labour recruitment as well as about the interference of local officials in recruitment and cotton production. We are also worried about restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression, and specifically about the ability of independent groups to register and operate. In addition, farmers in the cotton sector continue to be subjected to exploitative conditions.

The situation is quite different in Turkmenistan, the other country covered by our campaign, where the government has systematically used forced labour during the most recent harvest season, in autumn 2021. It maintains total control over the cotton sector, and forcibly mobilises civil servants, including teachers, medical workers and others, to pick cotton or make them pay for a replacement picker. It forces farmers to meet official production quotas under threat of penalties, including loss of their land. Worse yet, it exerts control over all aspects of civil society work and has taken harsh action against those who report abuses in the sector.

What advocacy tactics has your campaign used, and what lessons have you learned?

Over the past 15 years, we have used a wide range of advocacy tools, including direct actions, policy engagement, accountability tools and support for civil society and labour rights monitors.

A centrepiece of our work and strategy is independent monitoring through our partner, the Uzbek Forum, which is based in Berlin but operates a network of independent monitors on the ground in Uzbekistan. Our advocacy has therefore been shaped by direct information collected from the ground through in-depth interviews with cotton pickers, people in forced labour, local officials and other stakeholders.

Another key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.

We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.

We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.

What are the conditions for independent civil society monitoring in Uzbekistan?

There are activists inside Uzbekistan who have tried to form their own organisations, but they have faced many obstacles. The ILO, which has included civil society monitors for several years, has concluded its monitoring of the cotton harvest with the intention of transitioning monitoring to local civil society organisations (CSOs).

Unfortunately, local CSOs are unable to register to operate. One of the monitors that had previously partnered with the ILO and intended to carry on monitoring work was denied registration nine times and was ultimately forced to register as an enterprise instead of a CSO.

Civic space in Uzbekistan remains tightly restricted. The authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent CSOs, in violation of their freedom of association. They have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights CSOs, including those that monitor forced labour.

Although Uzbekistan ratified the 1948 ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in 2016, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuse by cotton companies (known as ‘clusters’) as well as local officials. They are not represented by independent labour unions or other representative organisations.

In March 2021, cotton workers held the first democratic union election in Uzbekistan, organising hundreds of cotton workers at Indorama, an international company growing and spinning cotton. The union faced harassment and intimidation around the time of its formation and, experiencing significant barriers against registration, ultimately took the decision to affiliate with the government-aligned trade union federation, which is far from independent.

All these impediments leave Uzbekistan with one million hectares of land under cotton production and no independent local CSOs with the skills, capacity and legal status to conduct credible independent monitoring, which is ultimately necessary to provide assurances to international buyers in line with their obligations.

How can the international community best support labour activism in Uzbekistan?

Companies interested in sourcing cotton products from Uzbekistan must do so responsibly, in a way that meets their obligations and ensures that labour rights are respected at every tier of the supply chain. The Cotton Campaign has developed a Framework for Responsible Sourcing that provides for co-governance, independent monitoring and reporting, access to grievance and remedy, and a space for workers to ensure their interests are represented.

Uzbekistan must undertake reforms to allow workers and farmers to exercise their right to the freedom of association, particularly to organise and form representative organisations. It must also lift restrictions, both in law and in practice, which prevent civil society groups from operating. International stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and multilateral development banks, must urge Uzbekistan to follow through with these reforms.

Civic space in Uzbekistan is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with GLJ-ILRF through its website or Facebook page, and follow @GLJhub and @cottoncampaign on Twitter.

 

UGANDA: ‘Our government cares only about profit, not people’

Nyombi MorrisCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Nyombi Morris, founder of Earth Volunteers.

Established in 2020, Earth Volunteers is a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people who are passionate about planting trees, protecting forests and standing up for climate justice. Earth Volunteers advocates for climate justice and promotes climate education in local schools.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a pipeline project that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, for export through the Tanga port on the Tanzanian coast. It will travel through hundreds of miles, flowing oil through sensitive environments, including the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda.

The project is led by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and TotalEnergies, a French company, and funded by Standard Bank, among others. Ever since it kicked off in 2015, it has caused numerous activists to lose their lives and has put many natural resources on the verge of disappearing.

Local communities are already being affected by the pipeline. While pipeline construction itself hasn’t yet started, a process has begun to acquire the land required for the pipeline and related facilities. Those who own land on the projected pipeline’s path or in its vicinity are already unhappy because of the mistreatment they are experiencing and the lack of transparency in the process. They say they were not consulted about the project before it was approved and they are now being pressured to sell off their farms, homes and land at cheap prices and forced to leave to make way for the pipeline.

How is civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, mobilising against the pipeline project?

I have not seen any established CSO come out to oppose or even challenge the pipeline project. It is only us, individual activists loosely connected through informal networks, who are trying to sensitise people and mobilise them against the danger of allowing money-makers to exploit our land to take away the oil and get rich off it. We can’t drink or eat oil, and this will only make us poorer and less healthy.

As one of those activists, I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me.

How has the government reacted so far?

Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.

Personally, I do not expect my government to listen to my concerns. The problem is, if they do not, this is a death sentence for many people in both Uganda and Tanzania. We already face the challenge of inflation and we may be heading towards famine and insecurity because people are being forced to sell off their properties in western Uganda and the capital, Kampala, is their next destination. This is one of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, with a population that has already hit four million.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We need three different support structures. Firstly, we need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.

Secondly, we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.

Finally, we need protection. I am constantly receiving threats, and since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.

Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.

Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Earth Volunteers through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @earthvolunteers on Twitter.

 

TANZANIA: ‘The government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline’

Baraka LengaCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Tanzanian climate justice activist Baraka Lenga.

Baraka is a young climate scientist and sustainability consultant, currently volunteering with Fridays for Future to raise awareness of climate change and pressuring businesses and government leaders to act urgently to address the climate crisis.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a massive crude oil pipeline that will involve the transportation of crude oil from Hoima in Uganda to a Tanzanian port located in Chongoleani village, in Tanga region. It will cover 1,445 kilometres in Uganda and Tanzania, but 80 per cent of the land it will go through is in Tanzania.

Local communities depend on land as the crucial resource to support their livelihoods, which consist mostly of farming and livestock keeping, so if their land is taken or ruined by the pipeline, they will be seriously affected. The project is therefore going to affect the development of many communities and impact negatively on any effort to create a sustainable and liveable local environment.

But EACOP will not only affect people; it will also pose a threat to the animals that depend on the land that will be taken up by this project.

Further, it has been estimated that once operational the project will emit 34 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This means it will amplify climate change and local communities will become poorer, more vulnerable and less resilient.

How has civil society organised to resist this project?

Very unfortunately, in my country, Tanzania, most civil society organisations (CSOs) are not organising against EACOP. One contributing factor may be the limited understanding of the pipeline project in Tanzania. Little information has been shared about the project and the consequences it will have on communities, contributing to Tanzanian civil society’s limited response.

I have been working in my capacity as a freelance activist to raise awareness about the pipeline’s consequences and explaining why it needs to be stopped. I find it crucial for local communities to know and understand the extent to which EACOP could damage their environment and impact on their lives. Fortunately, I have been receiving support from colleagues from various parts of Africa who are using their resources to amplify our voices against EACOP.

How has the government reacted so far?

As most activists and CSOs have noticed, the government is trying to silence those who are against the pipeline. Some of us have raised our concerns since the very beginning of the project but our questions have not been addressed and the project has continued regardless.

But we have continued campaigning because we cannot overlook the damage this project will have on local communities; it comes with a lot of investment that is allegedly meant to develop East African nations but in reality is going to bring more harm to innocent lives.

What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

We would like environmental activists and CSOs from across the globe to join us in raising awareness about EACOP and pressuring the governments involved to put an end to this project. We want people to understand that the companies leading the project, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and TotalEnergies – along with the governments of Tanzania and Uganda, which have brought in both countries’ national oil companies into the project – are endangering wildlife, tipping the world closer to a climate crisis and affecting the livelihoods of our people.

We have seen various multinational cooperation funds pull out of the project in compliance with their obligation to protect the environment and we hope more will do the same. Hopefully, a lack of funding will ultimately force the governments of Tanzania and Uganda to stop EACOP. 

Civic space in Tanzania is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @lenga2020 on Twitter.

 

EAST AFRICA: ‘The pipeline project would open up critical ecosystems to commercial oil exploitation’

OmarElmawiCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (#StopEACOP).

#StopEACOP is a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and calls for its cancellation.

What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

EACOP is a project to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to Tanzania, led by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and French energy conglomerate TotalEnergies alongside the Uganda National Oil Company and Tanzania Petroleum Development Cooperation.

If it goes on, EACOP would have disastrous consequences for local communities, for wildlife and for the entire planet. In other words, it will affect humans, nature and climate. It threatens to displace thousands of families and farmers from their land. It poses significant risks to water resources and wetlands in both Uganda and Tanzania – including the Lake Victoria basin, which over 40 million people rely on for drinking water and food production.

Additionally, EACOP would increase the severity of the global climate emergency by transporting oil that, when burned, will generate over 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. The pipeline would also open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Central and Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation.

It would also rip through numerous sensitive biodiversity hotspots and risk significantly degrading several nature reserves crucial to the preservation of threatened species, including elephants, lions and chimpanzees.

How are you mobilising against EACOP?

Civil society came together under a global campaign that we have called #StopEACOP, aimed at sharing news related to the pipeline project and distributing resources to help people organise and take action against it.

#StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global civil society organisations (CSOs). Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.

Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oil fields in Kingfisher and Tilenga, several cases have been filed against the EACOP pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.

We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.

How have the governments involved responded to the #StopEACOP campaign?

The governments of both Tanzania and Uganda are committed to seeing this project through despite the fact that each will receive only 15 per cent of the proceeds from the crude oil going through the pipeline. TotalEnergies and CNOOC hold 70 per cent of the pipeline’s shares, so they will be the ones pocketing 70 per cent of the proceeds from crude oil.

Additionally, TotalEnergies and CNOOC both get tax benefits, including a waiver on payment of corporate tax for 10 years once the pipeline becomes operational and on the value-added tax on imported products and materials needed for the pipeline. They are required to pay only five per cent in withholding tax instead of the required 15 per cent.

We haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.

What kind of support do you need from international civil society and the wider international community?

Allied organisations, activists and regular people are welcome to visit our website and click on our action page, which suggests a variety of actions addressed at the companies involved and governments and their funders and insurers. Please take as many of the actions listed as you can, prioritising those targeting insurance companies and banks. This is key because the EACOP project will need multi-billion-dollar loans to proceed, as well as numerous insurance policies covering every component of the project.

People can also donate to the cause. All the resources we receive are shared with our community partners and support any security and legal needs that may arise, including legal representation fees.

You can follow us on our social media pages to get updates on the campaign and subscribe to receive email updates on the progress of the campaign and upcoming actions that you can endorse or take part in.

Civic space in both Tanzania and Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with #StopEACOP through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter. 

 

SRI LANKA: ‘The ongoing protests have put the government on the defensive’

RukiFernandoCIVICUS speaks about protests in response to deepening economic crisis in Sri Lanka with Ruki Fernando, a human rights activist, writer and consultant to the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.

How significant are the current protests in Sri Lanka?

This protest movement is the biggest and most diverse one I have ever experienced in Sri Lanka. The protests are largely driven by angry, frustrated, disappointed citizens. Mainly the protests have been triggered by the ramification of the economic crisis that reached its peak with shortages of fuel, electricity, gas and medicines among many essential items that either disappeared from the market or had their prices hiked.

Most protests have taken place around Colombo, the capital, and its suburbs. Still, there have been protests all over the county. A large continuous day and night protest has been happening at the Galle Face Green in Colombo adjoining the Presidential Secretariat and similar initiatives have appeared in other districts. In addition to the streets, social media has been an important battleground. 

Protesters are also now demanding the truth about people who disappeared during Sri Lanka’s civil war and even before. Their demands have expanded beyond the severe financial crisis to call for those in power to be held accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, disappearances and killings, disappearances and assaults on journalists.

The protesters are demanding long-term legal and institutional changes to the current governance system that must start with the resignation of the Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Rajapaksa family, the ruling family. Others call for the abolition of the 20th amendment to the constitution, which expanded the president’s executive powers.

Protest slogans calling on the president to ‘Go Home’ are now evolving into ‘Go to Jail’ and ‘Return Stolen Money’.

Do you think the protests will make a difference?

These protests have put the government on the defensive. As a result, the cabinet resigned and the government lost its majority in parliament when more than 40 lawmakers abandoned the ruling coalition to become independent members of parliament. These mass resignations are quite significant, as it proves that small groups can influence the political system. However, I believe we are still long way from any real change and meeting all people’s aspirations, especially for poor people and marginalised groups, including ethnic and religious minorities.

Repressive measures did not last in the face of the ongoing protests. The authorities had to release arrested protesters and revoke the declaration of emergency, the curfew was not extended, and the social media shutdown was withdrawn.

I believe that when President Rajapaksa revoked the declaration of a state of emergency on 5 April, it was because he realised, he was not able to sustain the necessary parliamentary majority that was needed for its continuation.

Most importantly, these protests, which are largely being led by young and students, represent a political awakening of various groups of our nation. Many women, older people, LGBTQI+ people, lawyers, religious clergy, artists and well-known people such as former cricketers have been part of the protests. They have enriched the spirit of defiance, resistance, courage and creativity unleashed by youth, on an unprecedented scale.

How has civil society responded to the arrest of protesters?

More than 50 people, including journalists and bystanders were arrested after the protest had marched on the evening of 31 March to the president’s residence. Other arrests since have led not only to fear, but also outrage. As a result, the protesters have received much public sympathy and support from lawyers, journalists and the public. Some civil society groups support and stand with the protesters, but most significant roles in the protest movement is by ordinary people, especially young people.

Do you think repression will dissuade people from protesting in bigger numbers?

We cannot deny that the proclamation of a state of emergency, curfew and the shutdown imposed on some social media platforms led to fears. At the same time, the curfew was challenged by tens of thousands of protesters who came to the streets to protest despite the curfew. Overall, these repressive measures galvanised more people to join, organise and support protests.

Aside from that, there is fear and uncertainty about what the future may hold for our country. There are many concerns about a potential military–police crackdown, especially after the shooting at protesters in Rambukkana that had led to at least one death and several others injured. There have been other incidents of concern, such as the presence of police trucks at the key protest site, special training for the military at army camp in Ganemulla and police reporting about the main protest site to courts. There are also worries about sustaining the protests and a lack of clear political alternatives. But it has been an inspiring, heartening moment to see so many people, especially young people, standing up, creatively and courageously. As I said earlier, this is a moment of political awakening for many.

How can the international community best support Sri Lankan civil society?

They must show solidarity for our struggles for justice, including economic justice, ethnic justice, gender justice and environmental justice. In that sense, the international community must defend and protect protesters and those criticising, questioning and challenging the government.

On the economic level, international financial institutions, foreign governments and multinational corporations must not engage in exploitative and opportunistic practices in Sri Lanka. They should refrain from going ahead with investments that will negatively affect economic justice, economic democratisation and labour rights.

Civic space in Sir Lanka is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Ruki Fernando through his website and follow @rukitweets on Twitter. 

 

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