POLAND: ‘People are more understanding and supportive of LGBTQI+ issues than politicians’

 

Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences in facing anti-rights backlash and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about recently established ‘LGBT-free zones’ in Poland with Bart Staszewski, a young LGBTQI+ activist. Bart works as a freelance videographer for various civil society organisations and is a co-founder and board member of the Lublin Equality March Association (LEMA), an organisation that he defines as ‘an LGBTI NGO inside the LGBT-free zone’. For the past eight years, Bart has also taken part in the struggle for marriage equality led by the Love does not Exclude Association.

Bart Staszewski

Photo by Przemyslaw Stefaniak

What challenges do the LGBTQI+ community and its organisations face in Poland?

I think the main problem is homophobia, which is growing due to the regressive government at all levels, from the national level to the very local. Governments at these different levels are using the same hate speech that we have already seen in Russia, in exactly the same wording, for example accusing LGBTQI+ organisations of disseminating ‘homo-propaganda’. We are also facing growing homophobia on public TV, which disseminates what are basically ‘fake news’ stories about us. They have even used our Facebook posts against us. For instance, during the campaign for parliamentary elections in 2019, some of us were not so positive about a candidate who happened to be the only gay candidate and wrote about it on Facebook. Quotes from our Facebook posts were then used in a campaign against this candidate, to show that even gay activists opposed him.

They also produced a documentary, ‘Invasion’, which stated that the Polish LGBTQI+ movement is sponsored by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who according to them is paying people to attend Pride events; this is why, according to them, so many people are attending our events. They filmed this thing by having people pose as volunteers with LGBTQI+ civil society organisations (CSOs) and bring a spy camera into Pride marches. According to Polish law, CSO volunteers have to get paid a small fee, somewhere between €5 and €8, when travelling outside the city. They used this to create a story that LGBTQI+ organisations are bribing people into attending Pride marches. They do this because while homophobia is on the rise, the LGBTQI+ movement is also growing, and our events are in fact getting the biggest turnout ever, so they are looking into new ways to defame us, including by saying that people are in it for the money.

But it is not just the government and the state media. The LGBTQI+ movement is not as afraid of the government as we are of anti-rights organisations like Ordo Iuris, a right-wing legal foundation that offers legal assistance to municipalities that are curtailing LGBTQI+ rights. They are a think tank for anti-LGBTQI+ rights and anti-women’s rights policies, supporting reinforcing marriage laws as pertaining to the union of a man and a woman, total abortion bans and divorce bans. This group is quite well connected to the government; for instance, one of its prominent members was Poland’s Secretary of State under the previous right-wing government. They are also connected to Agenda Europe, a pan-European, Christian fundamentalist network that seeks to restore ‘natural order’ and that offers an umbrella for many right-wing organisations across Europe. They say they receive no funding from the government, but they are very well funded.

They have people who teach in schools and universities and who are running a series of campaigns against us. All of their advocacy and campaigns have turned us into easy targets. Many activists, including myself, have received death threats for denouncing homophobia. Last year the police raided the home of a woman who had created rainbow marriage stickers, like it was such a big deal. I am getting used to the idea and getting ready for something like this to happen to me too. The government has unleashed this with its homophobic rhetoric but now does not take responsibility for its consequences.

What are the so-called LGBT-free zones, and how are they impacting on the LGBTQI+ community?

A third of Polish municipalities have adopted resolutions ‘against LGBT propaganda’ which are essentially unwelcoming of LGBTQI+ people and practices – although the way they put it, it is as if being an LGBTQI+ person was some ‘foreign ideology’. As a result, these municipalities have become so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’. Local governments in these municipalities have issued non-binding resolutions in which they pledge to refrain from taking any action to encourage tolerance of LGBTQI+ people. While they do not have material implications in practice, their symbolic effect is huge, as they stigmatise LGBTQI+ people in a way that legitimises further attacks against us.

In other words, ‘LGBT-free zones’ are the formalisation of homophobia, the institutionalisation of prejudice. They confirm homophobes in their beliefs and encourage them to turn them into action. The hooligans who throw stones at us during Pride marches every year will now feel empowered because the law now tells them that they are ‘protecting Christian values against homo-propaganda and ideology’. Families that don't accept their LGBTQI+ kids will now feel more confident about their hateful decisions. Teachers will feel uncomfortable when teaching content on LGBTQI+ issues in schools, now that they know that local politicians are against it – and they are the ones who make decisions on school funding. Some teachers have even asked us if they are allowed to teach anything at all related to LGBTQI+ issues after the new policies were put in place.

An increasing number of citizens are more confident than ever that homophobia is good and something to be proud of. The idea that is being disseminated is that there is something wrong with LGBTQI+ people and you’d better be careful around them. Homophobic billboards have gone up in major cities across Poland, accusing homosexuals of molesting kids, associating them with paedophilia.

Can you tell us about your campaign to challenge ‘LGBT-free zones’?

Last year, as local governments were declaring ‘LGBT-free zones’ one after the other, I started thinking about how else to call attention to this given that the media was definitely not interested in homophobia as a problem. Our first campaign was in Lubin, where we created a billboard campaign called ‘Love is Love’. While it received some attention, in the end nothing changed and more ‘LGBT-free zones’ were introduced. I thought we needed to try something new. I wondered what I could do to highlight this problem. Along with my boyfriend we came up with the idea to order signs to place in ‘LGBT-free zones’, but then thought that the signs would not be enough: we needed human stories behind them, we needed to show the real people behind this struggle and inside these zones.

So I came up with another, very simple idea. I asked LGBTQI+ individuals that I knew in municipalities that had been declared ‘LGBT-free zones’ to participate in the project. It was key that the participants were from those areas, either still living there or – if we could not find any LGBTQI+ resident – that they had at least grown up there. I asked them if I could take a few photos of them with the signs, and honestly, I initially thought that this would be just an art project, something for an exhibition. I took the first photos of LGBTQI+ people standing behind the ‘LGBT-free zone’ signposts in December 2019. I asked photographers and art people to participate in the project, but nobody seemed to be interested; they told me that it was repetitive and ‘nothing new’. In December the European Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to condemn Poland’s ‘LGBT-free zones’ and also the Polish Ombudsman made declarations about it. It was already January 2020 and I felt that nobody was interested in my project so I just uploaded some photos to Facebook page, and then created a webpage, in the hope of triggering some debate in Poland. I never imagined it would lead to a worldwide response.

Did you get any feedback from the people you photographed regarding the ways in which anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric and policies are affecting their lives?

Initial reactions depended a lot on how much interest in politics people had. Some of them had not really thought about the amount of homophobia they had been coexisting with. One of my project’s participants, Kate, who was about 18 years old, first told me she did not feel anything had changed after her town had been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’. But then I asked her how she felt in the small city that she lived in: could she hold hands with her girlfriend, go to a dance with her and dance together as a couple? And she said she could definitely not; she could not even imagine herself going out onto the street with her girlfriend. She was so deeply submerged in homophobia that she didn’t even notice it was happening.

Homophobia can be invisible, but statistics do not lie. Many young people are committing suicide, and two-thirds of them are LGBTQI+ people. Many members of the LGBTQI+ community have suicidal thoughts and depression. Some people are being kicked out of their homes and families for being gay; their own parents view them as diseased. And all of this is happening in silence. The people behind the hate campaigns against us would never know about it. 

Another person who joined my project later spoke to a foreign journalist that I put her in contact with, and just a week later she got death threats over Twitter and Facebook, because the name of the village she lives in appeared in the news report. Now people want to burn her house down. Such is the severity of hate.

As the ‘LGBT-free zone’ campaign took off, several politicians from right-wing parties, as well as Ordo Iuris, appear to have notified the Prosecutor’s Office that by running it I have committed a criminal offence, but I have not yet received any official notification. For the time being, it seems that they are focused on preparing lawsuits against the Atlas of Hate, a map of anti-LGBTQI+ government resolutions in Poland put together by other LGBTQI+ activists.

What kind of support from the international community and from civil society around the world do Polish LGBTQI+ activists need?

Of course financial support is something that we always need, because right-wing CSOs are quite well funded, and we are not. But besides funding, we also need to put pressure on our government and the European Union (EU). European countries that have already enshrined LGBTQI+ rights and equality should support us loudly rather than quietly. This is the only thing that is working with this government. They are scared of the EU and of what other countries will say. So we need diplomacy where ambassadors tell the Polish government that they will lose funding if Poland carries on in this way. They need to constantly ask the Polish government about this and put pressure on them.

We need a well-organised campaign. People can create petitions – I have seen quite a few, and it was a big surprise to me that many of them were launched by private individuals in France and Germany – but after one week, they are dead. In France, 10 CSOs sent a letter to President Macron to ask him to speak up loudly against ‘LGBT-free zones’ during his visit to Poland. But he didn’t say a word about ‘LGBT-free zones’ or the situation of LGBTQI+ people. Maybe he said something in private, but not in front of the media. We need big CSOs to do something about this.

Fortunately, we are already growing in solidarity. Last year we had the biggest turnout at a Pride march in Poland. My association conducted a survey that showed that even when homophobia is at its highest in Poland, people are more supportive than ever and are marching for equality and in support of same-sex civil unions. Our biggest problem is with the politicians and not the citizens. People have the internet, they have HBO and Netflix, they are more understanding and supportive than politicians. Things are slowly changing for the best, and we need to make sure they keep going that way. But we need international support to do so, or we will end up like Hungary or like Russia in the hands of Vladimir Putin.

Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Lublin Equality March Association through its website and Facebook page, or follow @marszlublin and @BartStaszewski on Twitter.

 

 

Letter from Jail: West Papuan activists speak about their prosecution in Indonesia

CIVICUS has received letters from Dano Anes Tabuni and Charles Kossay around their arrest and detention.

Political activists Dano Anes Tabuni, Charles Kossay, Ambrosius Mulait, Isay Wenda, Ariana Lokbere and Surya Anta Ginting - were accused of supporting separatism and arrested between 30th and 31st August 2019 by the Jakarta Regional Police Force after organising a peaceful pro-independence protest on West Papua in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

They were all subsequently charged with “rebellion” (makar) under Articles 106 and 110 of the Criminal Code. Article 106 of the Criminal Code authorises the authorities to sentence a person “to life imprisonment or a maximum of twenty years imprisonment for makar with the intent to bring the territory of the state in whole or in part under foreign domination or to separate part thereof”. Their trial is ongoing, and they are currently being detained at Salemba detention center in Central Jakarta

The Indonesian authorities have used these criminal code provisions to prosecute dozens of peaceful pro-independence political activists in West Papua over the last two decades. Despite continued promises by President Joko Widodo to address the grievances of West Papuans, they continue to face discrimination, exploitation and repressive actions by the Indonesian security forces.

Letters from Dano Anes Tabuni and Charles Kossay:


To all who are in solidarity with us everywhere in the international community.

Some time ago, in August [2019] while the Indonesian people were celebrating the annual Independence Day, at the same time all Papuans including Papuan students were hurled with racist remarks. These acts have hurt us and offended the dignity of the Papuan people.

In response to these remarks, all Papuans including students carried out peaceful actions in several regions in Indonesia, as we carried out in Jakarta.

But after expressing our opinions in public we were discriminated against, arrested and imprisoned. This occurred even though our demonstrations were peaceful and without violence, did not cause damage of public facilities and did not affect the government which operated as usual.

We have faced all forms of oppression as a people that are voiceless and have been weakened in all aspects of life.

Myself, as a Papuan political prisoner in Salemba prison, request for support from all actors so that the West Papuan problem that continues to affect our humanity can be resolved properly and all those of us in detention can be released.

-- Charles Kossay


The law in Indonesia can be bought with money, as long as we have a lot of money. The ‘Pancasila’ (state ideology) values that are admired by the world have never been implemented in our society. If I have a lot of money, then I can buy Indonesian law to defend all of Papuan political prisoners. Social justice is for all Indonesian people from Aceh to Ambon, so it is only natural that Papua political prisoners should also get justice.

I was imprisoned because there are causes and consequences. What about the perpetrators of racism in Surabaya who should have been punished by law in accordance with Law No. 40 of 2008, concerning the elimination of racial discrimination? Instead, I and my friends were accused of treason, and are facing a sentence of 20 years to a lifetime of imprisonment, even though we did not commit any crime.

I hope that the international community will be able to defend me together with my friends and all Papuan political prisoners because we want the violence to end in Papua. We defend justice, peacefully and with dignity. We also understand that ending racism, discrimination, terror, murder, rape, kidnapping, torture and injustice will on happen when there is independence for the people of West Papua. Because of that the international community as well as Indonesians who care about humanity must support the independence of the Papuan nation.

I believe all international and national engagement must lead towards the right of self-determination for the people of West Papua.

-- Dano Anes Taibuni


Civic space in Indonesia is rated as Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor

 

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘At this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach equality’

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

CIVICUS speaks with Serap Altinisik, Head of Plan International’s European Union (EU) Office and EU Representative. Previously, in her role as Programme Director at the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), Serap led EWL’s 50/50 Campaign, ‘No Modern Democracy without Gender Equality’, across Europe. She also recently became a member of the CIVICUS Board.

Serap Altinisik

A quarter of a century later, how much of the promise contained in the Beijing Platform for Action has translated into real changes? What needs to be done now so that Goal 5 on gender equality of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is achieved by 2030?

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most visionary agenda for girls’ and women’s rights. 2020 also marks the countdown of a decade left to achieve the SDGs.

Over the past decades there has been some clear, measurable progress towards gender equality. For example, 131 countries have enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms in support of gender equality, maternal mortality has decreased by at least 45 per cent, primary school enrolment for girls and boys has almost equalised and approximately 25 per cent of seats in national legislative bodies are held by women, a number that has doubled over the past few decades.

However, 25 years after UN member states committed to achieving gender equality and five years into the SDGs, no country has fully achieved the promise of gender equality. If governments continue at this pace, it will take us nearly a century to reach that goal.

To achieve SDG 5, I agree with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called for a decade of action on meeting the SDGs, and wants to make this the century of gender equality. Retrospectively, gender inequality is one of the things that will shame us the most about the 21st century.

Governments have to invest in consistent gender equality, which consequently means not only enacting laws and regulations but also implementing gender-responsive budgeting consistently. Research shows that where investments are consistent, girls’ and women’s rights are on the rise. However, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. When adopting regulations and laws, governments need to use a life-cycle approach to address the specific needs of women in each stage of a woman’s life. If we wish to measure and increase progress and learn from data, then data has to be disaggregated according to age, gender, disability and ethnicity, among other things.

Nonetheless, the most persistent factors that are holding back girls and women to lead, decide and thrive equally as boys and men are social norms, stereotypes and sexism. Studies and experiences of girls and women showcase that household-level practices in many countries subordinate women even when they are educated, even when they are in the workforce and even when they serve in government. Given that the personal is political, as the slogan from the feminist movement of the 1960s put it, gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights have to be a priority in politics, economics, practices and social norms – and this starts at home. It cannot be an add-on if the goal is to achieve the promise of gender equality fully by 2030.

Looking back on 2019, what would you say have been the main successes and challenges in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights?

The rise of authoritarian leaders and the establishment of right-wing governments are preparing a fertile ground for violence and discrimination against girls and women. Therefore, we have seen pushbacks, with attacks on hard-won gains in girls’ and women’s rights in both the global north and global south in recent years. Conflict and humanitarian crises have become more complex and protracted over the past years, and women and girls have found themselves facing the most risks. Unfortunately, discrimination, poverty and violence are still in the lives of girls and women worldwide. It seems that misogyny accompanied with racism is on the rise, while the space for civil society is being increasingly crushed.

Yet across the world girls and women are raising their voices, collaborating and showing solidarity, and are not willing to wait for change and gender justice any longer. In this, women’s rights organisations and feminist leaders are playing a vital role!

I am aware that by only mentioning a few successes, I might not do justice to so many other success stories. Nevertheless, for me the main successes have been diverse and inspiring, such as, for example, the first ever woman leading the European Commission since its existence; Sudan's female protesters leading the pro-democracy movement; young women leading the environmental movement; girls and women resisting across the continents. They are challenging the status quo and are at the forefront in highlighting that another world is possible.

Their actions are changing not only laws and regulations and bringing new deals to the centre – such as the European Green Deal by the EU and the ambition to have equal representation across EU institutions – but they are also shifting social norms and are contributing to the ‘new normal’ in which girls and women can shape the world, too.

You have been personally involved in the Fair Share initiative. What would be a ‘fair share’ of women representation and female leadership, and why is it important that we achieve it?

Fair Share of Women Leaders is a civil society organisation that seeks to test and showcase new forms of governance that reflect feminist values and principles and overcome some of the pitfalls of power imbalance, hierarchy and bureaucracy of traditional governance mechanisms. We push for proportionate representation of women in leadership roles in the social sector – a goal that we want to achieve by 2030 at the latest.

Although women make up nearly 70 per cent of the global social impact workforce, they hold less than 30 per cent of the top leadership positions in their organisations. This lack of diverse voices in key decision-making positions undermines the impact organisations have towards achieving SDG 5. In the wake of #MeToo and a number of sexual abuse scandals in civil society, many organisations have had to rethink their strategies. Our sphere needs to start systematically promoting women’s leadership as a lever of change.

Of course, I have to acknowledge that a lot is positively changing within civil society. Some civil society organisations have committed to developing an organisational and leadership culture that values gender equal representation, diversity and participatory decision-making, but we have still ourselves a long way to go to achieve gender equality. We have to live up to our values if we want to be legitimately asking for positive change in the world. We have to be the change if we wish to see it.

To push for this change, Fair Share monitors the number of women in leadership to hold civil society accountable, promotes feminist leadership and mobilises men and women to create feminist organisations, and seeks to create opportunities for women from diverse economic and social backgrounds, nationalities and ethnicities who are currently less likely to be in leadership positions.

Get in touch with Plan International and its European Office through its websites, and follow @PlanEU and @SeeRap on Twitter.

 

EGYPT: ‘There's been severe deterioration in the rule of law & respect for human rights’

CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Egypt and their repression with a woman activist and protester who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. The space for civil society in Egypt is severely restricted: laws limit legitimate civil society activities and detention and intimidation are routinely used to silence human rights defenders and journalists. The protests that took place in September 2019 resulted in mass arrests and the criminalisation of protesters.

egypt protest 1024x683

What were the main drivers of the September 2019 protests in Egypt?

The trigger for the September 2019 protests came in the form of a series of viral videos shared by the Egyptian actor and construction contractor Mohamed Ali, in which he accused the authorities and the armed forces of corruption and the squandering of public funds. While President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi ultimately addressed the videos in some form, more videos by Ali and others  followed; a broader conversation on the role of the military in Egypt’s economy also ensued.

On 20 September, and partly in response to Ali’s call for demonstrations against Sisi, hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Cairo, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities. As part of this wave of demonstrations, more protests took place on 20, 21 and 27 September. They occurred within a broader context in which many Egyptian citizens were also bearing the brunt of austerity measures and subsidy cuts and were increasingly affected by an escalating crackdown targeting independent, peaceful expression.

What was the response of the government to the protests?

Immediately following the protests and for days afterwards, the Egyptian authorities carried out a widespread arrest campaign that not only targeted people who were present at the demonstrations, but also lawyers, political activists and advocates more broadly. Local civil society organisations (CSOs) estimate that at least 3,763 people were arrested. Many of these people were ordered into pretrial detention in cases involving alleged charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and spreading false news; a number of them remain in detention.

In the wake of the protests, Netblocks reported restricted use around Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN (content delivery network) servers. In Cairo, the authorities blocked some roads and temporarily closed some metro stops, particularly those close to Tahrir Square.

What has been the state of democracy and human rights in Egypt under the current regime?

Increasingly since 2013, there has been a severe deterioration in the rule of law and respect for human rights in Egypt. Authorities are using the law to consolidate authoritarianism. This is reflected in new legislation that restricts rights and re-writes the relationship between civilians and the state; the prosecution of peaceful advocates using overly broad anti-terrorism legislation; and the introduction of amendments to the constitution allowing executive influence and interference in the functioning of what are meant to be independent state institutions, including the judiciary and the prosecution.

The use of extended pretrial detention periods as a punitive measure, the sentencing of individuals in mass trials, and a spike in death penalty sentences continue to take place. Detention conditions remain poor; instances of torture and deaths in detention as a result of inadequate access to medical care abound.

The situation of minorities leaves much to be desired. Though the authorities passed a Church Construction Law in 2016 and built the region’s largest church in the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s Christian minority population continues to suffer from sectarianism, finds it difficult to access justice amid reconciliation sessions that favour the majority faith, and often faces obstacles in building and licensing churches in the areas in which they actually reside. While the state has made some initial attempt to compensate the ethnic Nubian minority, their constitutionally recognised right to return to their ancestral lands remains unfulfilled.

Although Egypt is performing better on a number of economic indicators, austerity policies and subsidy cuts have impacted on the economic and social rights of particularly marginalised civilians, affecting key issues such as housing, education, health and work.

How has the new NGO law impacted on the freedom of association?

In August 2019, Egypt’s new NGO Law went into effect. However, its implementing regulations have not yet been issued, which is making it difficult to understand the degree to which the law is in force – and if it is not, which law and implementing regulations are – and to assess the implementation of the law and its impact on civil society. According to the law, implementing regulations were required to be issued within six months, but this deadline passed in February 2019. Media reports suggest however that the regulations are now expected to be issued in mid-March 2020.

Egypt’s 2019 NGO Law does away with penalties involving jail time, as well as the National Agency to Regulate the Work of Foreign NGOs, a security and intelligence-heavy body created by the 2017 NGO Law to approve and monitor foreign funding. However, the law furthers significant restrictions on the activities of CSOs, places bureaucratic constraints on registration and creates expansive oversight and monitoring authority for government actors.

While it may be early to report on the precise impact of the new law, there is no doubt that its passing has already contributed to some self-censorship, as CSOs have reported being uncertain regarding what legal schemes govern their work and have also raised concern about the law’s broad restrictions. The law was passed in an environment characterised by travel bans, asset freezes and the prosecution and arrest of members of civil society. These trends are only expected to continue. It is important to note that the NGO Law is not the only piece of legislation governing civil society: the media law, the cybercrime law, the counter-terrorism law and the Penal Code are all examples of laws that contain provisions potentially implicating associational activity as well.

At this point, what can international civil society do to support civil society in Egypt?

In some cases in the past, the Egyptian authorities have targeted CSOs engaging with international civil society and subjected them to various forms of reprisal. At other times, international connectivity, collaboration and work with networks has been a form of protection for Egyptian civil society. Accordingly, some organisations are able, willing, or well-positioned to engage with international civil society, while others may not be; this often ends up being a very contextualised and determined on a case-by-case basis.

In cases in which international support can be of benefit to a particular Egyptian CSO, there are a number of clear needs: the creation of long-term and technical training opportunities and resources; systematic network building to expand access to decision-makers; and the provision of in-kind and financial support. Together, this programming has the potential to amplify the voices of, strengthen and provide protection for domestic CSOs that can often be under-resourced, cut off from the international community and subjected to government restriction.

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

 

GHANA: ‘Work in the corner of your community has a potential to cause change at the top’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Perk Pomeyie, a climate organiser, environmental advocate and artivist affiliated with the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement (GYEM), a youth-led environmental group that advocates and campaigns for a sustainable environment and a just world for the current and future generations. GYEM seeks to build an inter-generational network to find solutions to environmental challenges and confront the climate crisis. It focuses on bottom-up solutions and encourages the co-production of knowledge through participatory approaches.

Perk has recently been selected to take part in CIVICUS’s Youth Action Lab, a pilot co-creation initiative that works on year-long projects with grassroots youth activists based in the global south to support their movements and help them become more resilient and sustainable by building solidarity and networks, strengthening capacities, engaging with policy processes and facilitating resources to support their movement.

Perk Pomeyie

 

Can you tell us more about the work that you do?

My work is part of the broader work of GYEM, a leading youth-led grassroots movement in Ghana. GYEM works by organising and coordinating young people from different backgrounds and empowering them with the tools, techniques and technology to run disruptive campaigns on environmental issues. GYEM addresses key ecological challenges such as poor waste management, various forms of pollution, deforestation and the impacts of climate change in different communities and regions of Ghana. It specialises in running high-impact training for non-violent direct action (NVDA) campaigns, which target state actors and decision-makers from both the government and business sectors.

GYEM is composed of a youth-led Steering Group that mobilises logistics creatively, forging partnerships with other grassroots activists and community-based organisations to influence environmental change from the bottom up. It employs digital organising via social media and other NVDA tactics to deliver campaigns that challenge the status quo and offer both transformational and incremental community-led solutions that bring together scientific and Indigenous knowledge systems. GYEM also hosts the largest annual youth-led environmental summit in Ghana, Power Shift, which brings together grassroots activists from across the country to share ideas and collaborate on campaigns in various parts of Ghana.

We do much of our work in collaboration with several other organisations, including Rocha Ghana, an environmental civil society organisation (CSO) focusing on practical conservation interventions in important ecological habitats and improving the ability of target communities to adapt to current trends in climate change; the Green Africa Youth Organisation, a youth-led gender-balanced advocacy group that focuses on environmental sustainability and community development; 350 Ghana, a leading environmental grassroots CSO affiliated to 350.org, aimed at mobilising and empowering young people in partnership with key stakeholders to champion the need to reduce our carbon emissions and promote renewable energy systems; and WaterAid Ghana, a CSO focused on providing people with clean water, decent toilets and sanitation.

I am based in Accra, Ghana’s capital, but I work with diverse communities in different locations depending on the environmental challenge being addressed. Some of these include low-income groups who reside in informal settlements and are disproportionately affected by the impacts of plastic pollution and flooding. Another group I work with are frontline communities who face the impacts of climate change, such as drought, water stress and food insecurity. I also work in high schools and university campuses with student volunteers, aged between 12 and 25, who are passionate about the environment and require training and capacity to take action. Finally, I engage with CSOs working on various Sustainable Development Goals nationwide. Most of these are youth groups with leaders and members between 18 and 35 years old, working on initiatives and projects in areas such as conservation, plastic recycling, water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and climate mitigation and adaptation.

What have been the biggest successes you have achieved?

We have had several high-profile victories. In 2016, the government backtracked on a project, proposed in 2013, to build a coal-powered plant in a community called Ekumfi Aboano. The plant was going to pose health and environmental risks to the people there, and especially to children and women. We designed campaign messages, organised the community for NVDA and marched repeatedly. As a result, the government engaged GYEM in a discussion and halted the coal plant project in 2016.

Secondly, in 2016, WaterAid Ghana approached GYEM in search of support to create awareness of WASH-based climate adaptation interventions. They wanted young people to design a campaign to draw the government’s attention to WASH issues in local communities and informal settlements, and tackle them as part of adapting to climate change. I contributed with my design work and communication strategies to a year-long campaign that reached more than 10,000 young people. This resulted in the National WASH Forum, which brought together local communities and political actors to work jointly towards the goal of addressing WASH problems as part of climate adaptation strategies.

In 2018, I worked with other activists in an urban poor settlement in an area called Pokuase, to raise awareness about a water source in the community that was being threatened by road construction and other building work. This water source was vital because it served the community during the dry season. For the first time, attention was drawn to the impact of human activities on the river.

Did you take part in the global climate mobilisations in 2019?

Yes, in late 2019 I championed the first #FridaysforFuture and #SchoolClimateStrike campaigns in the northern region of Ghana. I organised and coordinated strikes in Damongo and Tamale. I designed creative graphics and campaign materials, which attracted more than 200 schoolchildren and young people to these global campaigns. This was important because it was the first time that children and young people in that part of Ghana came out in large numbers to raise their voice on the impacts of climate change and demand urgent action from their leaders. Northern Ghana is currently experiencing the worst impact of climate change in the form of droughts and food insecurity.

Ours was one of the many #FridaysforFuture events that were held in Ghana. I think we’ve been successful in mobilising because we’ve used innovative approaches. Personally, I’ve used my skills in design thinking and graphic design and my expertise in non-violent communication and direct action. I communicate to reach my target on various social media platforms, while also mobilising communities for action on the ground with context-relevant messages to address specific environmental challenges.

Before that, in March 2019, I helped bring together hundreds of grassroots activists from Ghana and activists from the International Youth Climate Movement from other parts of Africa, to campaign for climate justice and urgent climate action, during the United Nations (UN) Africa Climate Week. I think this has been so far the most important achievement of my work as an activist. This high-profile conference was hosted in Accra and was attended by African governments, international organisations and business leaders. During this week, I coordinated an NVDA training session for hundreds of young people, while leading a mass rally of about 300 activists to the summit venue to deliver a strong message to heads of governments, businesses and stakeholders of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to act on the climate emergency.

I consider this as an important achievement because as a grassroots activist in Ghana, this was the first time I gained a strong personal conviction that my work in the little corner of my community has a potential to cause change at the top, if supported with the right tools, capacity and resources.

What support do activists like you need from international actors, including international civil society?

Personally, my work is self-financed. I use some income from my part-time self-employment as a graphic designer to support my activism. I design marketing materials for individuals and campaign banners for CSOs and get paid for it. I use a percentage of this to fund my work. Sometimes, family and friends also donate to support my work if I make a request. I have also financed my work through crowdfunding to help coordinate and implement projects and high-profile campaigns. So one area in which activists like me need support is in generating sustainable resources.

We also need more opportunities to connect and network with other activists from the global south who may share similar solutions to particular challenges in their respective contexts, to interact with multiple actors and to learn to navigate complex policy processes in the areas in which we work.

Civic space in Ghana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Ghana Youth Environmental Movement through its Facebook page and blog, and follow @gyemgh on Twitter.

 

ETHIOPIA: ‘For civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning’

In 2019, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” CIVICUS speaks with Bilen Asrat, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum (ECSF), about the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia. Established in 2013, the ECSF is a non-partisan, independent and inclusive civil society body comprising various civil society groups, networks and consortiums operating at the federal and regional levels, focusing on the common concerns and challenges faced by civil society in Ethiopia.

bilen asrat

 

What has been the progress towards democracy in Ethiopia in 2019? Has the space for civil society improved?

During 2019, there have been a lot of changes in the state of democracy and human rights, which has been reflected in a wider space for independent civil society and opposition political parties. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was appointed in April 2018 after his predecessor resigned as a result of anti-government protests. Although he was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the party in power since 1991, Prime Minister Ahmed pledged to reform the authoritarian regime, and repressive terrorism and media laws were repealed. Imprisoned journalists were released and the environment for the media improved. The new government also released political prisoners and legalised opposition parties, some of which had been labelled terrorist organisations and banned. In July 2019, a well-known human rights lawyer was appointed as the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Once political change became apparent, a lot of politicians that had been living in exile came back to Ethiopia.

The positive change that started in 2018 has continued. For Ethiopian civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning. In February 2019, the draconian 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation was amended. This law imposed a lot of restrictions on civil society, especially when working for human rights, democracy and good governance. The new law changed the classification of civil society organisations (CSOs) and only distinguishes between local and international CSOs. It lifted restrictions on funding for CSOs and allowed for the re-entry of international organisations into Ethiopia. The old law stated that organisations receiving more than 10 per cent of their funding from international donors were to be considered foreign international organisations, and could therefore not undertake any human rights-related work in the country.

The scope of action for CSOs has now widened because unlike the old law, the new proclamation does not provide an exhaustive list of the permitted activities of CSOs, so it does not set a limit to the activities that civil society can engage in, except for those that are against criminal law. This is more consistent with the right to the freedom of association, which means that anyone can form an association to pursue any legitimate objectives, without restriction.

Do limitations apply to CSOs promoting LGBTQI+ rights?

The scope of legitimate civil society activities does not include the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights, because this is considered to be against ‘public morals’. Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia; it is a crime under the Criminal Code and it is punished with imprisonment. It is also not accepted by the majority of the population, so there is not much of a perspective that the law will change in that regard.

In other words, restrictions do not apply anymore to CSO activities in the areas of human rights and democracy, but the establishment of CSOs to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people is still not allowed, because they would be promoting an activity that is considered a crime by our Criminal Code.

Was civil society consulted in the process of developing a new law?

Yes, we were consulted. Before the new law was passed, there were several consultations across Ethiopia’s nine regions, and over 1,000 CSOs were engaged in the process. In fact, the initial document for the draft law was produced by civil society itself. We submitted it to the former prime minister and various governmental offices, pointing out the challenges posed by the previous proclamation and recommending specific changes, and eventually it was our recommendations that were turned into law – including for instance the right to appeal against the decisions of the regulatory agency in front of a court of law.

We only have one objection to the new proclamation: we think that the agency that has the mandate to regulate civil society should be accountable to the legislative body, and not to the executive. We expressed this during the consultations, and when the Office of the Attorney General finalised the draft and submitted it to the Council of Ministers, we raised our concerns to parliament. But the government didn’t accept our recommendation and decided to keep the regulatory agency under the executive branch.

How did civil society receive the news that the Prime Minister had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

I think the news was well received. Prime Minister Ahmed got many congratulatory messages from civil society and communities, as the peace processes started to have visible effects both in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. Ethiopian military forces stationed abroad were brought back to the country, laws started changing and hellish prisons where horrible human rights abuses took place were shut down.

I think the Nobel Peace Prize is fulfilling two purposes. First, it is an acknowledgment of the Prime Minister’s contribution to ending the 20-year conflict between the two countries and an encouragement to continue along the peacebuilding path. 

Second, the award is an expression of support for the Prime Minister’s project to build a democratic nation, opening up political competition, allowing for the growth of an opposition and a multiparty system, promoting an active civil society, and striving for greater equality. Prime Minister Ahmed has brought women on board: he appointed a cabinet that was 50 per cent female and for the first time a woman was appointed as president of the Supreme Federal Court.

What do you think are the main challenges ahead?

The main challenge is that communities have been unable to exercise their rights and their power for too long, and when all these spaces suddenly open up there is a danger that they will be put at the service of power struggles. Political competition in Ethiopia takes place mostly along ethnic lines, as political parties tend to represent specific ethnic groups, so groups are still competing with each other. Democratisation is moving forward in a context in which conflict persists. There are some states that are still under a state of emergency, experiencing internet blackouts and ethnic clashes. The social situation is also delicate because of the high unemployment and poor economic performance.

What role can society play in overcoming those challenges?

Civil society has a great role to play in bringing democracy to Ethiopia, especially in terms of building peace by establishing dialogue and reaching some form of consensus among religious leaders and local communities. If a certain degree of peace is not achieved internally, democratic elections become impossible. So the first task for civil society to undertake is internal peacebuilding.

Most CSOs are developing these kinds of activities. They are starting to engage, but it’s taking time, because we are still in trauma due to our past experiences. Until very recently civil society was not allowed to work on peacebuilding or reconciliation, and it was a very dangerous thing to do. Over time, most of the experienced people with the right skills for the tasks ahead migrated to the private sector or left the country. This opening is a new phenomenon and to be up to the task we need to reassess the situation, revise our strategic plans, gain new skills and produce training materials.

We are building up our own resilience while trying to engage in these very necessary activities. This is where our allies in international civil society could help us. Ethiopian civil society needs support for capacity building and training, developing advocacy tools and learning about best practices and replicable successful experiences. International organisations could also help us to bring different stakeholders to the discussion and reach a consensus about the democratisation process and the required human rights protections. National elections will be held in August 2020, so we only have a few months to work to ensure elections are a peaceful democratic process. 

Would you say the upcoming election will be a key test for the democratisation process?

Yes, because we have not yet had a free and competitive election. Prime Minister Ahmed was appointed by the parliamentary body that resulted from the 2015 election, which was tightly controlled by the ruling party and marred by coercion and intimidation.

In August 2019, parliament – whose current members are all from the ruling coalition – passed a new election law, and opposition parties complained that some of the changes made things more difficult for them and threatened to boycott the election. So the process is by no means without obstacles, and it will be a test for all of us, including for civil society, which needs to work to keep the authorities accountable to the community and make sure that the democratisation process succeeds.

But first and foremost, the election will be a test for the government and the ruling party to keep their promise that if they lose, they will relinquish power. Even before we get to that point, it is already testing their willingness to open up the media space and make sure that fair conditions for competition are met.

Progress is being made in that regard. The Electoral Board now has a new structure and is chaired by a former opposition party leader, a woman, who had been imprisoned and exiled for her political ideology and came back after reforms were initiated.

How hopeful you are about the future?

I believe the best is yet to come. But as civil society, we have a lot of work to do to make it happen. We need to work hard to build a democratic, transparent and accountable system in Ethiopia. We need to keep watching and make sure the government remains committed to protecting democracy and human rights. We need to watch closely and make sure it includes women’s issues in their agendas. We expect these elections to be the most democratic and peaceful that we have ever had, with more female candidates than ever before, and we expect the losing and winning candidates to shake hands and accept the people’s will.

I also think this change has happened because of the sacrifices many people have made. Many people have died for this to happen. Now it’s time to use only our hearts, not weapons, to achieve change. We will not be able to do all of this by ourselves, so we need solidarity and support from regional and international organisations. An authoritarian regime could be held together in isolation, but democracy will need a lot of help to grow and survive.

Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum through its website and Facebook page.

 

#UN75: ‘There is often a lack of transparency on how civil society’s inputs are reflected in UN work’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to John Romano, Coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) Network, a broad network of civil society organisations that works to ensure that open, inclusive, accountable and effective governance and peaceful societies are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that civil society actors are recognised and mobilised as indispensable partners in the design, implementation of and accountability for sustainable development policies. The TAP Network engages specifically around Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

 john romano

 

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

Overall, I think that the UN has remained a steady, positive influence on maintaining a relative state of peace around the world since its inception, and it provides for a useful venue for addressing international issues in a concerted way. In many ways, the UN has succeeded in its first objective of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and objectively I think it has played an influential role in this achievement to date.

The establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also another crowning achievement of the UN, as well as the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

The meeting of the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, which was held in July 2019 under the theme ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’, and included an in-depth review of SDG 16, and the SDG Summit, held in September, were two highlights of 2019. They helped to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to explore ways to help advance the SDGs on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

There are many things the UN can do better, and in many ways this is no fault of the UN itself, but instead represents a failure of its member states and reflects on the state of multilateralism today. The UN is often very good at being responsive to crises and big international issues that represent immediate threats faced by the international community. However, it severely lacks more proactive and preventative measures to help make sure that efforts are being made to ensure that some of these crises or issues do not arise in the first place.

There are also many governance-related issues that the UN should tackle to improve its effectiveness in ensuring that international issues are addressed in ways that prevent conflicts of interest, and shield decisions from being co-opted due to an imbalance of decision-making structures or representation.

I’ve only noted two initiatives focused on issues around multilateralism and pushing for that kind of change lately: the UN2020 Initiative, a civil society coalition calling for government leaders and civil society to come together on occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary and work to come up with concrete proposals to revitalise the organisation, and the Alliance for Multilateralism, a government-led network seeking to strengthen a rules-based multilateral order that has the UN at its centre. Launched by the French and German foreign ministers, this informal network seeks “to protect and preserve international norms, agreements and institutions that are under pressure or in peril; to pursue a more proactive agenda in policy areas that lack effective governance and where new challenges require collective action; and to advance reforms, without compromising on key principles and values, in order to make multilateral institutions and the global political and economic order more inclusive and effective in delivering tangible results to citizens around the world.”

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

There are many challenges related to how inclusive the UN itself is to the engagement of civil society and citizens. Currently, participation in UN processes is extremely limited throughout many important processes that civil society engages with, including around the SDGs. Entry points into many processes are scarce, but when opportunities for engagement arise, there is often an overall lack of transparency and clarity on how civil society’s inputs and engagement are reflected in the work of the UN and different processes. This can be very frustrating for many groups that work around the UN, and often getting any inputs reflected depends entirely on who you know, which inherently presents a bias towards larger organisations. The resulting lack of diversity sometimes also prevents new ideas from being injected into these spaces.

We have found ways to work around this by partnering with governments and UN missions, to have them champion our ideas, bringing them as their inputs into various processes. Given that the UN is responsive to its member states, finding governments to push your points and issues is a way to help ensure that these inputs are taken up. However, this type of engagement really is often limited to larger organisations that have the capacity to engage with UN missions, and particularly those that are based in New York. This in itself presents a clear bias in terms of who can engage and does not allow for a more broad and inclusive set of actors to contribute.

Get in touch with the TAP Network through its website and Facebook page, and follow @TAPNetwork2030 on Twitter.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘The protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with a young Colombian student, active in the climate movement, who for security reasons asked to remain anonymous. In addition to mobilising in the context of the #FridaysForFuture movement, the interviewee is part of Post-Conflict Children (Hijos del Posconflicto), a recently created group that seeks to render the experiences of people on the ground visible and defend the peace process in Colombia. On the crossroads of various struggles, the interviewee emphasises the defence of the peace process as a key to preserving Colombia’s environment and biodiversity.

colombia protests

From your perspective, what is the most urgent environmental problem in Colombia?

The most urgent environmental problem is deforestation. Deforestation rates in Colombia are very high, and the situation has not improved following the signing of the peace agreements. That is because, in times of armed conflict, the Colombian guerrillas, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), controlled much of the jungle territory of Colombia. Of course, no one dared get into that territory: multinationals and oil companies did not have a presence there; nor did the industry of cattle-raising. After the peace agreements were signed and the guerrillas withdrew, the problem that has plagued Colombia since the 1950s – land distribution – increased.

Colombia has extremely regressive land distribution, with land property concentrated in very few hands. With the withdrawal of the guerrillas and the arrival of multinational corporations, land grabbing has increased. Lands are privately appropriated, deforested and used for raising livestock, while the local population continues to be displaced.

At the same time, there are still active armed groups operating outside the law, particularly far-right paramilitary groups, alongside the smaller guerrilla force of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and some FARC dissidents who refused to engage with the peace process. These armed groups are fighting over the territory with the aim of taking control of coca crops and expanding them, causing greater deforestation.

Therefore, both the continuation of the conflict in some territories and its termination in others are having a direct influence on deforestation. The peace process contains a series of mechanisms to counteract deforestation, but its effects will depend on whether it is effectively implemented. In that sense, the protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process.

What mechanisms in the peace agreements would help stop deforestation?

The peace agreements include two specific mechanisms to stop deforestation. The first one is comprehensive rural reform, aimed at distributing land in the Colombian countryside and enforcing respect for the uses assigned to the land – for example, by ensuring that if land is for agricultural use, it is not used for raising livestock. The second mechanism is the Programme of Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use, aimed at tackling the drug problem. It is important to understand that many poor peasant families have had to grow coca in order to survive; through this programme, the state is offering them economic incentives to transition towards other sustainable crops.

How does youth activism contribute to the effective implementation of the peace agreements?

The struggle for peace is taking place on all fronts. We do three things: we mobilise on the streets in defence of the peace process; we do educational work so that people understand why the peace process is so important; and we do advocacy in various spaces.

The context in which we do this work is quite difficult. As soon as he took office, President Iván Duque objected to the peace process and tried to modify all aspects that he did not agree with or that he claimed were not fair. If he succeeds, this would ultimately mean a deactivation of the process that resulted from the agreements and the need to start over from scratch. This was no surprise: his entire campaign revolved around the peace process and was based on the dissemination of lies about it. He won the elections by manipulating people’s fears; he told people that the agreements would enshrine impunity. He tried to scare us by telling us that if the left won, we would become a second Venezuela. He also lied regarding his plans for extractive industries: he stated that oil exploration and exploitation through fracking would not be authorised, but in late December 2019 he drafted a decree that would allow fracking.

As an activist for peace and the environment in Colombia, have you had any participation in the global movement for climate justice?

Yes, along with a small group, I joined the Fridays for Future initiative. But our participation was limited to a series of actions and strikes aimed at launching the climate movement in our country.

It has been quite difficult for us to elicit mobilisation around the global climate crisis. First of all, there is much ignorance. In Colombia, most people have no idea what it is being done to them; the current president took advantage of this to spread lies, run a disinformation campaign and win the elections. In a country where public education is of very low quality and only rich people are able to further their studies, it is very easy to lie to people and make them believe you. So, the first problem is ignorance. Add to that fear: in Colombia people are afraid to speak, organise and protest. Colombians live in a state of incredible anxiety due to the systematic murders of social and environmental leaders. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders in general and for environmental leaders in particular.

All of this has limited climate mobilisation. Some isolated actions have been held, but there has not been a big national, high-impact demonstration. That is why we were surprised to find out that a massive school mobilisation took place in the south of the country, in the department of Huila, where we least expected it to happen due to the complex security dynamics in those territories. We managed to get in touch with the young people who mobilised in Huila and together we took part in a national meeting held in the department of Caquetá, also known as the golden door to the Colombian Amazon. At that meeting we managed to coordinate our work with the communities that live in Amazonian territory and so far we are in the process of raising the cause of the Amazon and initiating a resistance to defend our forest.

We are currently starting to bring all the environmental groups together into a single climate front. We hope this will inspire those who are afraid to join as well.

Have you had any participation in international climate forums?

We have been to a Latin American meeting of Fridays for Future that was held in Chile with the support of 350.org. It was a meeting of climate advocates to build a Latin American network and take the movement to the regional level. It helped us a lot to meet other young people from other parts of the region who were also mobilising, to discover that we could get together and feel that we had international support to do our job. It gave us some hope.

Right after that meeting, we began to try to form a national environmental network, travelling to as many territories as possible and enlisting young people from other Colombian regions. There is still a lot to be done, but we are growing exponentially because when a new group joins in, they reach out to three or four other groups. Throughout 2019 we focused on this process, touring territories, communicating our message to people and creating links. We believe that the next time we may be able to mobilise at the national level. We will do so on 24 April 2020, on the occasion of the next global strike.

What kind of support would you need to be able to hold in 2020 the mobilisation that was not possible in 2019?

Right now our window of opportunity is the national strike, the series of protests that have taken place in several Colombian cities since November 2019. In a country where people are afraid to speak, on 21 November last year millions of people took to the streets. It was one of the largest mobilisations Colombia has witnessed over the past 40 years. This is a unique opportunity. Within the framework of these protests, the environmental movement has also put forward its proposals and demands. We may not be able to mobilise people specifically around climate, but we can take advantage of these mass mobilisations and put our issues out there. If there are people willing to mobilise, we can approach them, tell them what is happening to the environment and communicate our demands so that they understand that our issues also concern them and they start mobilising for them as well. By doing this, we succeeded in getting the national strike committee to include the declaration of a climate emergency in Colombia among its demands. This has been a very big breakthrough.

Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Fridays for Future through its website, and with the Colombian campaign by email or through its Facebook page, and follow @FutureColombia on Twitter.

 

ARMS CONTROLS: ‘Greater women’s participation in male-dominated mechanisms would increase prospects for peace’

CIVICUS speaks with Aaron Lainé, Policy and Government Liaison Officer, and Raluca Muresan, Programme Manager at Control Arms, a civil society coalition that advocates for greater controls in the international arms trade to end the human suffering caused by the irresponsible arms trade, and to stop arms transfers that fuel conflict, systemic armed violence, poverty and serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Aaron Laine

It was quite surprising to hear that the 2019 Conference of States Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would focus on gender. What is the connection between gender and weapons, and between women’s rights and gun control?

The thematic focus of the Sixth Conference of States Parties to the ATT (CSP6) on gender and gender-based violence (GBV) was the result of long-term efforts by progressive governments and civil society who called for more integration in the areas of sustainable development, women, peace and security and arms control. Building on the fact that the ATT is the first legally binding instrument to recognise the link between GBV and the international arms trade, efforts were concentrated on ensuring that governments recognise the importance of stopping arms transfers that perpetuate GBV and creating gender-sensitive arms control policies and programmes.

A gender perspective in arms control requires governments to examine how socially constructed gender roles affect policy decisions, particularly related to arms exports and controls. It also requires a better understanding of the gendered impact of armed violence and conflict, including of how women and men are impacted on, due to their sex or prevailing expectations about gender. It must be noted here that gender is not limited to women and girls but also includes men and boys and LGBTQI+ people.

While the body of evidence that connects women and peace and security with arms control policies is continually growing, several studies outline the disproportionate effect of irresponsible arms transfers and arms proliferation on women and children and the gendered impact of modern armed conflicts. While men and boys are both perpetrators and the primary victims of armed violence and conflict, women and girls bear a substantial and differentiated burden, including because of GBV, displacement and lack of access to medical care during pregnancy and childbirth due to the destruction of medical facilities. Research on the gendered impact of conflict also indicates that bombs, missiles, mortars and rockets, when used in populated areas, result in disproportionate casualties among women and children.

Therefore, Control Arms – along with other civil society organisations following the ATT process – has been urging governments to go beyond examining the risks that transferred arms may be used to commit violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, and look at the gendered impact of the use of weapons as part of a thorough examination of the potential for GBV facilitated by transferred arms. This is an essential component in reducing human suffering, the key purpose of the ATT.

While gender and GBV are beginning to be receive proper recognition by various United Nations mechanisms, including in disarmament forums, what is more important is to see meaningful action on the ground. In the case of the ATT, Control Arms hopes that states parties will base arms export control decisions on the recognition of the risk of commission or facilitation of GBV. The Control Arms practical guide on how the ATT can address GBV was specifically designed to help states parties implement GBV criteria effectively when conducting a risk assessment before authorising an arms export, and help push for meaningful change by using the ATT to address GBV.

Can you tell us more about the ATT and the role played by Control Arms in its negotiation and implementation?

The ATT, which was adopted in 2013 and entered into force on 24 December 2014, is part of the international response to the tremendous human suffering caused by the widespread proliferation of conventional weapons and poorly regulated trade in them. The ATT sets common international standards for the transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, with the express purpose of reducing human suffering. The ATT represents a significant paradigm shift in the world of arms control through its prohibitions on certain arms transfers (Article 6) and the establishment of a detailed export risk assessment mechanism (Article 7). Under these articles of the Treaty, states parties must determine if an arms transfer would violate specific international obligations or arms embargos or if the arms would be used to commit or facilitate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, serious human rights or humanitarian law violations, to enable terrorism or organised crime, or to commit or facilitate GBV, and stop it in case it risks having any of these consequences. With the inclusion of Articles 6 and 7, for the first time in history, states are required to place international human rights and humanitarian law at the core of their arms export decisions.

The Treaty also sets out guidelines for importing, transit and transhipment states, requiring them to cooperate and share the information necessary to conduct the mentioned assessment.

Today, the ATT’s membership comprises 105 states parties and 33 signatories.

The Control Arms Coalition formed and launched a campaign in 2003 that tirelessly pushed for states to accept the idea of and negotiate the first global treaty to regulate the conventional arms trade. Since the adoption of the ATT in 2013, Control Arms has continued to push, first, for the 50 ratifications required for its entry into force, and then to hit a target of 100 states parties and for effective implementation. Through each stage of the ATT process, the role of civil society has evolved from primarily one of advocacy and awareness-raising to where we are today – where civil society plays an instrumental role in shaping the discussions and agenda of the Conferences of States Parties, advancing the Treaty’s universalisation and implementation, and ensuring transparency and accountability in the ATT through mechanisms such as the Control Arms’ ATT Monitor Report.

What does the Arms Trade Treaty say about GBV, and how could its provisions be used to protect women and children?

According to ATT’s Article 7.4, ‘[t]he exporting State Party, in making this [risk] assessment, shall take into account the risk of the conventional arms covered under Article 2.1 or of the items covered under Article 3 or Article 4 being used to commit or facilitate serious acts of GBV or serious acts of violence against women and children’.

The aim of Article 7.4 is to ensure that an exporting state party takes into account the risk that the arms transferred will be used to commit or facilitate acts of GBV, when conducting its export assessment outlined in Article 7.1. It is an explicit requirement aimed at reducing the historical tendency to overlook GBV.

In practical terms, if applied correctly, the ATT will help deprive human rights abusers of the arms that help facilitate violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including acts of GBV and violence against women and children.

What kind of advocacy work has Control Arms been doing in the area of GBV?

The Control Arms Coalition played a key role in advocating for the inclusion of Article 7.4 in the Treaty. Since then, Control Arms has sought to raise awareness about the importance of this provision, through bilateral and regional meetings, social media campaigns such as 10 Reasons to #StopGBV, and interventions and statements in ATT-related meetings.

Control Arms also produced a range of resources such as the Practical Guide on how to use the ATT to address GBV, a paper that provides interpretations on key terms from Article 7 and a factsheet on gender in the ATT. These resources were used in the first-ever training programme for export control officials on the implementation of the GBV criteria. Organised by Control Arms and the government of Latvia, the training session brought together representatives from 12 Central and Eastern European governments to learn in greater detail about the links between GBV and arms transfer decisions and the application of the ATT risk-assessment criteria that take these risks fully into account.

Do you think women’s participation in disarmament and arms control negotiations and processes could increase the prospects for peace?

Greater women’s participation in male-dominated disarmament and arms control mechanisms would without a doubt contribute to greater prospects for peace. Several studies, for example by the Council on Foreign Relations and a 2018 study by Jana Krause, Werner Krause and Piia Bränfors, highlight the positive impact of women in conflict resolution, concluding that “women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution can improve outcomes before, during, and after conflict.” Similarly, gender equality among participants in international multilateral mechanisms can lead to more inclusive, effective and sustainable policy outcomes. This is relevant particularly for disarmament and arms control forums that have remained largely male-dominated and are stuck in an ideological window characterised by aggression, dominance, egotism and other characteristics of toxic masculinity.

A recent study by the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Still Behind the Curve, outlines the state of gender balance in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy. Its main conclusion is that “the proportion of women participating in arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament diplomacy… has grown steadily over the last four decades, but women remain underrepresented.” This applies to the ATT as elsewhere: only 27 per cent of representatives at the 2018 Conference of States Parties were female.

Get in touch with Control Arms through its website and Facebook page, or follow @controlarms and @AaronLaineRicoy on Twitter.

 

AGAINST DISINFORMATION: ‘Enabling each to tell their story offers an opportunity to share our truths’

CIVICUS speaks to Chris Worman, Vice President of Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup, a non-profit international network that provides technical support and technological tools to civil society organisations (CSOs). TechSoup facilitates civil society access to donated or discounted software, hardware and services; supplies CSOs with the information they need to make smart decisions about technology; connects like-minded people, online and in person; and works on the ground to create social good solutions.

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What is TechSoup and what does it do?

TechSoup is a complicated beast. We are a network of civil society capacity-building organisations working together to help ensure civil society has the resources it needs. We are also a community builder and philanthropic infrastructure. Founded in 1987, TechSoup is primarily known for the first part, for helping CSOs get and use technology. To date, the TechSoup Global Network has helped more than 1.2 million organisations, primarily grassroots community-based organisations, access roughly US$12 billion in technology products and services and millions of hours of free training and support. We also sometimes build technology with civil society through the organisation’s apps division, Caravan Studios.

TechSoup then works through partnerships to help understand technology in context and community. This manifests differently depending on particular needs. The TransparenCEE programme brings together technologists and civil society to build tools and campaigns to encourage participatory democracy. A myriad of other projects through the TechSoup Network address everything from increasing internet access for rural farmers in Colombia’s demilitarised zone, to working on STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) skills with teachers in rural Romania, to developing tools to support social services for Australia’s homeless people.

Finally, as philanthropic infrastructure, we provide a variety of tools and services, such as NGOsource, which leverages our network and community to help US foundations meet their regulatory requirements related to grantmaking across borders. Used by nearly 400 US foundations and common infrastructure for grantmaking abroad, in its first six years of operations NGOsource has helped lower the cost of international grantmaking by more than US$60 million and saved CSOs and funders more than 120 years of human labour by reducing duplicative due diligence processes.

What makes TechSoup necessary in the current tech environment?

We have been dwelling on two trends of the current – and coming – tech environment: contested digital space and the shift of technology to the cloud.

In terms of contested digital spaces – another way of saying ‘closing digital space’, manifesting as a combination of anti-civil society narratives, digital surveillance and policies that challenge rights online, or the lack of any relevant policy at all – TechSoup believes there is an urgent and critical need for CSOs to secure and build their digital reputations, and have the opportunity to join or lead digital campaigns that help build positive, pro-civil society narratives across digital media. The collective impact of individual CSOs that are more able to raise their voices online offers some hope of undermining anti-civil society narratives that would paint us all as foreign intermediaries intent on undermining culture and national identity instead of what we are – an important part of society, locally rooted and locally driven by community-based organisations intent on leaving the world better than they found it.

While increasing the capacity of individual organisations, we need to offer better tools to those who would join or lead digital campaigns. Our work with civil society to design and build the kinds of campaigns and tools they might hope to use to organise their communities from online to offline has shown that through such work, organisations that adopt digital tools for campaigning purposes become more savvy consumers of technology in general, and more committed stakeholders in and advocates for building and preserving rights online – a critical element in bringing in organisations that might not be policy-focused into the struggle for better digital policies.

Finally, these tools, campaigns, practices and communities need to be carefully considered and crafted to ensure safety. As a colleague from a context with closing space recently noted, with the internet came easy surveillance. This is an important point and dovetails into the other main shift we see, the shift to the cloud. All on-premise tools – think everything that isn’t Google Suite or Microsoft O365 –will go away in the coming years. This is both really good and really less good news. On the less good side, most CSOs are not ready to be fully in the cloud due to connectivity issues. Further, for many the cloud is not a safe place due to issues relatred to bad policies or no policies, such as who can access data in the cloud and on what terms.

On the good side, moving to the cloud can lower costs while opening opportunities for CSOs to link data for evidence, to drive advocacy and support new tools. One good example of this is a project conducted by our Irish partner, Enclude, who worked with Irish social service organisations to design a fit-for-purpose case management solution. The tool they built together met, for the first time, the needs of participating organisations, thus lowering their costs to provide services. Perhaps of equal or greater importance, it allowed organisations to pool data and use that data to learn from each other and build evidence for advocacy.

So, whether we like it or not, we are all going to the cloud. This offers opportunities but also necessitates increased capacity to represent and build our communities online, and work to ensure the cloud is a safe place for us all. TechSoup has been working to address these issues in a variety of ways and is in the middle of growing our programmes in these areas from pilot phases to our entire global community, effectively building the infrastructure upon which we can link the million-plus organisations we serve to partners who have technology or policy training capacities and interests and might want to engage the grassroots organisations we reach.

What are the barriers that CSOs experience to access existing technologies?

For more than 30 years, our mantra has been ‘democratising access to technology’. The main barriers to doing so seem related to CSOs choosing and being able to use the best tools for their work. TechSoup tries to lower that barrier in two main ways. First, by being a trusted source for curation and education, helping CSOs know what technologies are available and how to use them through online communities and courses. Though historically we have been quite focused on corporate technologies, this is fast expanding into ‘tech4good’ through projects like our Public Good App House, where CSOs can begin exploring tools that are specific to each Sustainable Development Goal and were built for CSOs and audited for security purposes by us.

Second, we lower access barriers by helping reduce the price point. Through our technology donation programme we are able to offer technologies at an extreme discount – what our French partner used to call ‘solidarity pricing’. The discount makes technology accessible at a price point most can afford – more than 80 per cent of the CSOs we have served have fewer than five staff – while generating revenues that help us provide free or steeply discounted training and support.

 

What does the data that you have collected through your work tell you about the ways CSOs use or don’t use technology?

The data tells us CSOs use technologies in about as many ways, and at about as many levels, as there are shapes and sizes in civil society. Some organisations are incredibly advanced and teach us new things they have learned or developed every day. Many could use some guidance and support on things that could improve their operational efficiencies so they can spend more time on their programmes. Most, let’s face it, don’t care about technology as long as it works. And that is fine!

The challenge, perhaps, is that very few organisations are fully aware of the ramifications of their technical choices. For instance: do you know where all your data is right now? Who has access to it? When did you last change your passwords? Few are also aware of how deeply we rely on technological infrastructure that is owned, operated and accessible by actors who may have interests contrary to our own. This lack of understanding, and the potentially negative ramifications of it, are exacerbated by the acceleration towards the cloud and increasing digitalisation of society. There are excellent thought leaders in this space – such as The Engine Room and the Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society) and its Digital Civil Society Lab – and I think we are beginning to understand and work on how we can partner, contextualise and bring civil society into critical discussions about digital access and rights – individually, collectively and in relation to digital policy.

We have to. Technology does not seem to be going away and as the world digitises, civil society needs to understand, craft and advocate for digital rights. Civil society is and always has been the champion of human rights. We must do so in the digital space. It will take all of us but it must be done.

What are the typical needs of advocacy CSOs that you seek to respond to?

We primarily help in choosing and using tools, but also we are increasingly providing training on digital storytelling, digital marketing and analytics to make sure stories are reaching their intended audiences, and training on how to work in an online environment cluttered with misinformation. These skills are certainly important for advocacy but are equally relevant for digital community-building and fundraising – both helpful in building a local base in the face of closing spaces.

Digital security is another big area for many. We provide some tools and guidance but those who are truly threatened need a much more personal level of support to map risks and develop plans than we can easily do en masse. We are working on more there but are always happy to recommend partners.

A third area is supporting base-building needs. We are piloting a variety of ways to connect advocacy organisations to the ‘rest’ of civil society – at least the million-plus CSOs in our community. Doing so, however, presents an interesting exercise in framing, communications and community building. Very few of the community we reach would consider themselves advocacy organisations. Fewer still sit around dwelling on rights-based frameworks. Regardless, they do their best to support, defend and enable their communities in their own ways. They can be reached and invited to engage in solidarity with those who are more particularly vocal about rights but it takes work to meet them where they are. We have seen some incredibly encouraging examples of broader bases of support and hosts of unlikely allies when advocacy organisations have the tools to appeal to the broader community, and look forward to more work in this area.

You mentioned the fact that the online space is increasingly cluttered with misinformation. Why do you think misinformation is so easily propagated on social media, and what tools can civil society use to stop it?

A funder recently asked me: ‘won’t we soon have a tool that simply tells us what is fake news?’ Sure. But a lot of disinformation is either fun or empowering to those who propagate it, or both. Our job in civil society will be to help educate voters and policy-makers about why facts are important and disinformation is a threat. We could do that by spending all of our time trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Some people think that is the way to go and not they are not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, technology platforms across which misinformation is spread are much more able to do that than we are. They can incorporate tools that spot deep fakes, monitor stories that are going viral around key words and work with civil society to interpret and distinguish what is harmful and threatening and what is not. They already have human moderators doing much of that work around obvious issues, but they are not trained to know that, for instance, a certain cat meme or dumpling joke is actually a political smear. We know and need partnerships – some of which are emerging around elections in particular countries – to help platforms and civil society meet in the middle.

Another approach, and one that we work with through our programmes, is described earlier: helping CSOs have the tools to build their own narratives, better use analytical tools to understand when their narratives are working and whether they are reaching their intended audiences, and helping to form narrative communities. There are hundreds of trolls, thousands who spread their lies and millions who see it. There are millions of CSOs, hundreds of millions who follow or ‘hear’ them on social media. Enabling each to tell their story, and enabling the collective to coordinate in solidarity, offers an opportunity to flood the digital space with our truths. Once all are moving, we will have more messaging, more quickly, and tapped into more local realities than a handful of trolls could ever manage. If we incorporate analytical tools to understand what messages are working and coordinate around successful messaging across our communities, our collective weight will overwhelm opposition. Until the government shuts off the internet… worth trying until then!

We are building a repository of specific tools and successful campaigns, such as the one we have built at TransparenCEE, focused on digital campaigning. But there are a lot of great resources out there, produced by JustLabs, MobLab and others.

Can you tell us a success story from your recent work?

One of my favorite stories – one that opened my eyes – happened nearly 10 years ago when I was living in a small town in Romania. I had launched TechSoup Romania through a community foundation I had started a few years before. Some funders had supported us to run a convening of technologists and CSOs we were calling the ‘Local Philanthropy Workshop’, through which tech people and CSO people worked on digital storytelling, tools and projects.

On one of the first afternoons, the leader of a local environmental CSO and a tech guy were talking. The environmentalist was sharing that he wanted to make a map of illegal garbage dumps in the county. The technologist asked if he had them in a spreadsheet with geocoordinates. The environmentalist emailed him the list and three minutes later the technologist showed him a googlemap version of what he had been hoping for. The environmentalist walked it across the street to the newspaper and it ran on the front page the next day with an article about illegal dumping.

Three minutes of tech and advocacy campaign came true because the right skills came together at the right time. It is a simple story compared to some of the much larger and more complex ones that have come since, but perhaps more indicative of what success might look like for most of us. Big data and artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning, digital ID and quantum are all good and shiny and important for those who have the data, tools and resources to work with them. For most of us, I believe, simpler solutions supporting the resolution of local challenges – where communities and civil society come together – are perhaps more in reach and perhaps, in aggregate, more meaningful as we seek collectively to come to grips with the influence of technology on society, and learn how to navigate the good and the bad of it as the world digitises.

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

 

 

BANGLADESH: ‘Protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Sharif Jamil, an environmental activist and the 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, and he is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

 sharif jamil

 

What is the key environmental issue that you work on?

The Waterkeeper Alliance is a global platform and network that now includes over 400 organisations in 40 countries across the globe. We protect the water bodies that we all need and use, but that cannot speak for themselves. We call for people to respect water bodies and defend their rights, so when a waterkeeper speaks it is as if a water body spoke.

We focus on water, but we don’t work only on water, because if there is no rainforest there is no water, if there are no mountains there is no water: if you don’t preserve the environment and ecology as a whole, then the water is also in trouble. So our water protection movement is not limited to protecting water bodies. 

We have launched a global campaign because water does not respect borders, so it needs to be protected globally. Climate change and global warming are threatening the entire planet, and we need the planet to come out of this crisis as a whole.

While thinking globally, you are also acting locally. Can you tell us about the work you are doing in Bangladesh?

I started my activism 20 years ago. BAPA was formed in 2000 at an international conference on the environment in Bangladesh. The conference was held to discuss what we could do for the environment from the civil society level. It was agreed that civil organisations were doing good work but a platform was still needed for all of them to act as a unified pressure group, to bring the conflict to the table and apply pressure to come up with a solution. When BAPA started, we prioritised the issues directly affecting the environment in Bangladesh, but as rivers do not follow political boundaries, we realised that protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations. That is why I also got involved with human rights organisations and members of a human rights group based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and we are now tracking human rights violations related to ecological degradation.

Specifically in Bangladesh, in recent times, we are focusing our work on the conflict between fossil fuels, the energy system and environmental degradation. In 2010 the government updated a power system master plan required for the country to grow economically. The government decided to focus on industrialisation, so it formed a special economy zone authority and declared more than 100 special economic zones across the country. These were meant to attract investment from foreign investors and to facilitate the establishment of multinational companies in the country. Industry requires energy, so to foster industrialisation the government came up with a plan to produce the power that it estimated would be required up to 2030. In order to meet the requirement, it decided to increase dramatically the share of energy produced from coal, from 2.5 per cent of total electricity to over 50 per cent. The government made this decision just as the world was shifting away from coal because of global warming.

At this point there were civil society reactions, but initially we did not know enough. We lacked information, expertise and funding. But we worked hard to understand how much this master plan would impact on water and climate. With the collaboration of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2015 we organised an international conference in Dhaka, ‘Coal energy in Bangladesh: impact on water and climate’, and we came to understand that coal is more of a problem than a solution. The government’s plan identified three major hubs to establish coal-based power plants in the coastal region, and each of those hubs is threatening a unique ecological treasure.

One of them is the Sundarbans, a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site, is the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world. It covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometres in both Bangladesh (60 per cent) and India (40 per cent) and it is the last habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger. The Sundarbans protects the entire nation from cyclone and storm surges because Bangladesh is a densely populated country and is highly vulnerable to global warming, climate change and extreme weather hitting the land from the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh is almost a flat country and is therefore affected by floods. The Sundarbans is a lot more than just a huge forest – it is also a barrier that protects all of our country’s land.

So we started protesting against the Rampal and Orion coal power-plant projects, located only around four kilometres away from the Ecologically Critical Area of the Sundarbans. We first started protesting against the coal-based power developments that were closest to home and then found out that on the other side of the Sundarbans, there were also huge numbers of coal-based power production plants going on in and around Payra, which were also threatening the Sundarbans as well as one of the rarest sea beaches where you can see the sunrise and sunset. And more importantly, thinking about the food security of our nation, the pollution that it causes threatens our national fish, hilsa. This is a fish that migrates from sea to freshwater and from freshwater to sea. The region is one of the major landing stations for this migratory fish and would be entirely destroyed by the coal plants.

What we are trying to do is to reach a balance and understand what we should do and how we can protect this environment while keeping development moving onwards, that is, how we can make development sustainable. But the most urgent thing to do is protecting our water and air from this kind of pollution. We have been organising people’s movements. We are trying to convince our government, doing research and presenting global data and studies to our policy-makers. We are also inviting global investors like China, Japan and the UK to review their strategies. Some of the biggest investors are phasing out coal in their own countries while funding its use in this poor, overpopulated nation. We want the global community to influence and engage global investors to keep development progressing while ensuring that it is done with renewable energy. The global community should understand that producing 5,000 megawatts in Australia is not the same as producing 5,000 megawatts in Bangladesh. We are an overpopulated deltaic country, with more than 1,084 people per square kilometre. 

Have you participated in global climate mobilisations?

I was the national coordinator of the climate march in Bangladesh in 2015, when the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) was held in Paris, France. We took people out on the street and had a very good turnout. We held a procession together with other civil society organisations in the capital, Dhaka, and more than 30,000 people participated in the march.

More recently, in September 2019, we mobilised in the context of the global climate strike called by Greta Thunberg. Waterkeepers Bangladesh, Waterkeepers Nepal, the Nepal River Conservation Trust and BAPA jointly organised a series of events and activities in solidarity, including a mobilisation to protect the Himalayas by the banks of the Sunkoshi River in Nepal, near the source of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, on 23 September, and another focused on protecting the Sundarbans, held at Katka Beach in the Bay of Bengal, near the source of the sea, on 29 September.

I also took part in COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and joined the European Union’s 21st EU-NGO Human Rights Forum in Brussels, Belgium, both in December 2019. Discussions there revolved around building a fair environmental future.

So yes, Bangladeshi people are the victims of climate change, which they face every day, but they are also protecting themselves with their own knowledge and capacity, and reaching out to the global community.

A big problem is that many in the global community are ready to help people with adaptation, but no one is putting enough attention on mitigation. So we request help for Bangladesh not only regarding adaptation to climate change, but also for mitigation, to keep our forest, to protect the Sundarbans, to protect the water bodies. The truth is that if you don’t keep this place alive, the entire region will be in trouble.

The situation is urgent because water is depleting and there are no shared protocols. So we have started efforts within civil society, with people-to-people communication. We are working on the five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal – to manage the entire Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna basins together on the basis of equity and trust. These countries should come up with a treaty or some form of consensus to deal with the problem of melting Himalayan glaciers. Bangladesh is a water-scarce country as we get only 20 per cent of total water over half of the year from upstream during the lean period. When a neighbouring country blocks all the water, water bodies die, agriculture collapses and the economy is destroyed.

Do you think international climate forums provide a useful space for civil society?

I have participated in many global talks; in September 2018 I was even invited as a speaker to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, USA. The problem with these forums is that sometimes good things are said, but actions do not match words. The government of California was one of the organisers of the summit in San Francisco, but California’s policies are all about protecting themselves while exporting fossil fuels to other countries. It’s irrational to think that you can save yourself alone. What you have to do to protect the planet from climate change is to keep fossil fuel underground. You cannot exploit mines in poor nations and then organise a nice summit to come up with recommendations to solve the problem you have created and that you do not have any intention to implement.

Still, we are invited to these forums and we attend. The former BAPA general secretary was a member of the Bangladeshi government team for the climate negotiations at three successive sessions of the COP. We try to help our government in the negotiations, for instance by providing data and analysis. True, our government still needs to change its mindset and understand that economic growth needs to be sustainable. Our government needs to conduct itself diplomatically while being firm in searching for funding for sustainable development. 

But we support our government in international negotiations because Bangladesh is a poor nation and there are many things that our government is not in a position to do or decide by itself; we depend on developed nations in many respects. We understand that responsibility falls on our government when it comes to changing its mindset and becoming more inclusive in its decision-making processes, but it is the responsibility of the global community to come up with a holistic approach to deal with a global problem.

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

 

 

DISINFORMATION: ‘The fact that profit drives content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy’

CIVICUS speaks with Rory Daniels about the 2019 elections in the UK and the dangers that disinformation poses to democracy. Rory is a student, activist and writer intent on promoting the voices of those left behind by governments and globalisation. In the 2017 general election, he stood as a 19-year-old parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency of Llanelli. Since September 2019, he has been a member of Amnesty International's first Global Youth Task Force.

rory daniels

What role would you say disinformation has played in the recent elections in the UK?

As a candidate myself during the 2017 UK general election, I saw first-hand the role disinformation played throughout the campaign. Prominent newspapers often printed misleading headlines, biased websites attacked real journalists uncovering the truth and advertisements created by political parties lacked sources for statistics, featured heavily edited video footage and virtually never presented balanced arguments.

Then the 2019 general election saw all this take place again, plus more. There were doctored videos, highly misleading websites and even signs of foreign interference. A doctored video came from the Conservative Party, which later admitted to editing a clip of a speech given by Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer. The video they released made it look like he had struggled to answer a question about exiting the European Union, while in fact he had answered the question. The same party then changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to ‘FactcheckUK’. Twitter responded by warning the Conservatives that this effectively constituted an act of deception, as the account was not impartial as users may have been led to believe. Clearly not satisfied with deceiving videos and social media accounts, the Conservatives then bought ads on Google that appeared as the top result for anybody seeking the Labour Party’s manifesto. These criticised the proposals in a heavily biased fashion.

The Labour Party also succumbed to disinformation. For example, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, cited documents suggesting that the Conservatives would sell off large parts of the National Health Service to the USA in a post-Brexit trade agreement. It later transpired, however, that these documents were linked to a Russian disinformation campaign.

Which platforms do you think are the most vulnerable to disinformation?

It’s hard to say which platforms are more vulnerable to disinformation than others. In November 2019, I attended the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. The whole event revolved around the question of whether democracy is ‘in danger’ in the information age. It didn’t take long for me to see that vulnerabilities exist on any platform that possesses many users and is constrained by little regulation.

In addition, with disinformation it’s often more about the content than the platform. For example, I remember reading a recent analysis conducted by BuzzFeed which found that during the final months of the 2016 US election campaign, fabricated news stories reached a greater online audience than actual news stories.

What are the impacts of disinformation on democratic freedoms?

All democracies depend upon facts, truth and scrutiny. Voters need reliable information in order to vote rationally – that is, to have good reason to vote for a certain politician or policy instead of others – to challenge their own worldview or preconceptions, and ultimately to hold power to account.

In an age of disinformation, facts become indistinguishable from fiction, truth becomes impossible to discern among all the lies and scrutiny gets entangled in ideological polarisation. Where once there was the traditional media to keep the populace informed, now there is the internet – an unregulated mess of opinions, corporations and agendas.

On the internet, the business model is simple: more clicks equal more revenue. This means that often, websites will only seek facts and the truth if they bring greater profits. If not, they may decide to prey on fear, stereotypes, insecurity, hatred and division. Authors know that readers achieve greater levels of satisfaction when they read opinions that confirm their worldview, rather than challenge it. This leads to greater polarisation, as empirical evidence is disregarded in favour of the ‘facts’ that confirm readers’ previously held views.

We’ve already seen that if this occurs in a democracy, politics suffers. Voters develop apathy, because as they become overwhelmed by confusion and conflicting viewpoints, they switch off from political developments, while ‘establishment’ candidates lose out to populists who pedal quick solutions to complex problems. In short, rational, informed debate all but dies.

What are the forces behind disinformation?

Disinformation can be created by anybody at any time. State actors may intervene in foreign elections to tip the scales in their favour, while domestic activists may sow news stories that build support for far-right or populist actors. In other words, the ‘information war’ is fought from all sides.

Since the creation of the internet, we’ve also seen what some people call the ‘democratisation of disinformation’ unfold. This means that anybody, whether in place A or with budget B, can create and share intentionally misleading content with ease. As a result, what only a few years ago was seen as a tool that was largely positive for democracy – the 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ came to be known as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ – is today perhaps its greatest threat.

What is being done to combat disinformation, and what have the successes and challenges been so far?

A few months ago, I spoke at UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy (MIL) conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. I did so because I believe that education can play an enormous role in addressing disinformation, and I also wanted to share some lessons I had learned from my 2017 parliamentary campaign. The conference was no doubt held in Sweden due to the country’s incredible push for MIL education in recent years, and after meeting many Swedish activists throughout the week, I can only applaud the valuable work they are doing in the field.

I’m also looking to address some of the negative consequences of disinformation. For example, as a member of the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, I’m part of a team of young activists planning a ‘Unity Day’ celebration to take place in London on 19 May 2020. Crucially, in a time of increasing division and hatred, this will see politicians, thought-leaders, community organisations and others come together to champion values and ideas that unite us. I urge you to visit the Unity Day website if you’re interested in pledging to take an action, no matter how big or small, that celebrates unity and combats division.

Of course, trying to inform the debate about disinformation has not been easy. Still today, MIL education is woefully underprovided, sensible media regulations are too often labelled as censorship or attacks on free speech and social media platforms continue to constitute dangerous echo chambers.

What more is needed to combat disinformation?

Many of the causes of disinformation are structural by nature, and therefore I believe that many solutions must be too. We must finally recognise that the profit incentive driving content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy and ultimately unsustainable, while tabloids that spew out sensationalist clickbait should be heavily regulated and severely fined if caught breaking the rules.

In addition, I’m of the opinion that media and information literacy is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable strategy to countering disinformation and restoring our trust in democracy. MIL education should be offered far beyond schools, also targeting older generations who are less likely to identify disinformation and more likely to share it in the first place. Ultimately, readers must know how to spot and avoid disinformation, or else all the regulations and structural changes in the world will not solve the problem at hand.

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

Get in touch with Rory through LinkedIn if you’re interested in the regulation of big tech companies, London Global Shapers’ Unity Day or his work more generally.

 

G20: ‘Civil society is treated as a second-class partner; its recommendations often go unheard’

CIVICUS speaks with María Emilia Berazategui, Transparency International’s Global Advocacy Coordinator, about the role of civil society in international and inter-governmental forums and the degree to which it can influence decision-making processes, and the successes achieved and challenges encountered in 2019 by the C20, the engagement group for civil society within the G20. Before joining Transparency International, María Emilia led the area of Political Institutions and Government at an Argentine civil society organisation, Poder Ciudadano. In 2018 she was appointed C20 Sherpa under the presidency of Argentina. In 2017 and 2019 she was a member of the C20 Steering Committee, and in 2018 and 2019 she was the co-Chair of the C20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.

Emilia Berazategui 

What is the C20, and why does it matter?

The C20 (Civil-20) is one of the G20’s official engagement groups, and it the natural space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to advocate at the G20 level.

There are two additional ways in which CSOs can participate in G20 processes: by attending the G20 Working Group meetings, as guests, to present thematic recommendations, and by being present at the G20 International Media Center when summits take place, which allows them to engage directly with the media covering the G20 summit and disseminate their messaging around key themes.

The C20 is a global civil society space, without a permanent structure and with a presidency that rotates annually, in line with that of the G20, for CSOs from all over the world – from grassroots and local groups to large international CSOs – to influence the G20 collectively. According to the recently adopted C20 Principles, its aim is to ensure that world leaders listen not only to voices representing the government and business sectors, but also to the proposals and demands of civil society, and that they are guided by the core values of human rights, inclusion and sustainable development.

Civil society engagement with the G20 matters because we are only 10 years away from the 2030 deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and the gap between the actions taken by governments and the measures that need to be taken to achieve them is immense. Most of the challenges we face – political polarisation and extremism, human rights abuses and civic space restrictions, extreme inequality, systemic corruption, gender disparities and gender-based violence, intersectional discrimination, the lack of decent employment, the health crisis and the negative impact of digitalisation and technology in our lives – not only remain unanswered but continue to deepen.

Governments and multilateral institutions have a central role to play in finding shared solutions to common challenges. World leaders need to come together urgently to find those solutions, and despite all of its challenges, the G20 is one of the few spaces that provides them with the opportunity to do so.

Sadly, in the last few years we have seen little evidence of any real progress from G20 leaders. Commitments are made in front of the world’s media but are quickly forgotten and rarely implemented once they return home. A recent report by Transparency International exposing issues of money laundering and anonymous company ownership found deeply troubling weaknesses in almost all G20 countries.

What can civil society contribute?

Civil society engagement with the G20 can help because civil society brings a set of unique skills to the table.

First, in trying to make sure that policy outcomes serve the common good, we hold governments accountable. So when governments commit to something, we will hold them to their promises. Sometimes they resist, but other times we succeed in strengthening champions inside governments who really want to get things done.

Second, we contribute our expertise. Civil society groups are not just watchdogs. We are innovators, technologists, researchers and policy experts who can help support policy implementation to achieve the best possible results. Civil society can also contribute to increased transparency and the credible evaluation of outcomes.

Third, civil society functions as a bridge, helping translate technical jargon into language people actually use, explaining what change means and bringing citizens’ perspectives back to decision-makers. Governments should talk to civil society about their plans so we can provide feedback on how those plans will impact on people.

Last but not least, civil society provides much-needed balance. One of the greatest weaknesses of the G20 is the lack of openness to having civil society represented at the same table where business interests sit. This raises the question of whether the G20 values the interests of corporations more than those of citizens. This certainly does nothing for trust, and it shows why people around the world believe that governments are too close to business or only act for the benefit of a few private interests.

How much space do international forums such as the G20 offer for civil society to influence policy-making in reality?

The G20 is often described as elitist, as a group of economic powerhouses – although not all the largest economies take part in it – trying to rewrite the rules of global economic governance, operating largely behind closed doors in an opaque way. It’s no wonder that many in civil society instinctively feel that we should oppose the G20 rather than engage with it.

The G20 invites a variety of guests to take part in its meetings, including representatives from different regional groupings, guest states and international organisations. However, its record of speaking to citizen groups and civil society is mixed at best. Despite all that we have to offer, we do not sit at the same table; we are treated as second-class partners and our recommendations and ideas on important issues often go unheard.

Experiences vary widely across the various working groups that comprise the G20. For instance, despite all the knowledge that civil society has on financial issues, the G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group has systematically closed its doors to civil society participation. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a standing item on the agenda of the Anti-Corruption Working Group, in which governments speak to business and civil society on the same footing. Still, while we appreciate this, we think that both this working group and the G20, in general, need to improve their engagement with civil society significantly.

Despite all these limitations and challenges, during 2019, when the G20 presidency was in the hands of Japan, civil society managed to influence the G20 in some areas including the protection of whistleblowers, making infrastructure spending more transparent and on gender and corruption.

In 2019, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group adopted two important documents: the High-Level Principles for the Effective Protection of Whistleblowers, which was much in line with civil society’s recommendations and included an unprecedented recognition by the G20 of the gender-specific aspects of whistleblowing, and a Compendium of Good Practices for Promoting Integrity and Transparency in Infrastructure Development, also aligned with civil society recommendations.

Through the Compendium, the G20 also recognised that transparency regarding who the ultimate owners of companies are is critical to the fight against corruption. In line with civil society suggestions, they recommended implementing company beneficial ownership registers to reduce the possibility of public funds being used to favour specific individuals or companies, and to identify conflicts of interest.

Overall, what would you say were the main successes of civil society engagement with the G20 during 2019?

In one word, the main success of civil society engagement during 2019 was its continuity. Civil society was able to maintain a similar degree of engagement with the G20 as it had in 2018, when Argentina chaired the G20. In 2018, and for a short period of time, civil society won access to some G20 Working Group meetings, although unfortunately, not to the working groups that are part of the so-called G20 Finance Track, and to the G20 Media Center. This allowed civil society to access, for the first time ever, some sessions that used to be held behind closed doors. In addition, we got G20 local representatives, including the G20 Sherpa, to attend the C20 in-person meetings.

Civil society's 2018 call for G20 delegates to move from words to action passed from Argentina to Japan. This had an echo on social media, through the hashtag #G20takeaction. In order to continue strengthening civil society participation and ensure an increasing impact within the G20, in 2019 the C20 agreed a set of principles that enshrined transparency, collaboration, independence, internationalism, inclusiveness and respect for human rights and gender equality as central pillars of the engagement group’s practice. This was a very important milestone in the C20’s history.

And what were the challenges and what needs to improve?

Despite these successes, there is an urgent need for the G20 to change the way it engages with civil society. At the G20, governments discuss policies that have a huge impact on our lives. As civil society, we should be allowed to bring to the table the voices of citizens, real and diverse. These are the people who will be affected by the public policies promoted in this forum.

The few times we have managed to gain access to G20 meetings, the experience has usually not been positive. We make great efforts to be there. After finding the resources and traveling many hours, we wait – sometimes for a very long time – outside the meeting room until they finally let us in. Once inside, we  share our ideas and recommendations as quickly as possible in order to ensure there is time for dialogue with the delegations, which itself is rarely an open and honest conversation. After a short while, we are diplomatically ushered out of the room so that, having ticked the civil society participation box, negotiations can continue.

The G20 still has a long way to go to ensure effective civil society participation. G20 leaders need to stop thinking that inviting civil society representatives to a couple of meetings amounts to the fulfillment of their obligation to consult widely and open themselves to scrutiny. They need to acknowledge the unique skills that civil society brings to the table and move towards more meaningful and sustained engagement with civil society.

They can do this in many ways. First, they can, and should, invite civil society as well as business representatives to additional sections of various Working Group meetings, to provide insights and guidance on a thematic basis, and not just during a single, short session dedicated to listening to all of our concerns. Additionally, they should share the agenda of those meetings with us. It may sound crazy, but more often than not we are invited and go to meetings without knowing what is being discussed, so we are not necessarily sending the most appropriate person or preparing the most relevant or detailed contribution.

Second, the G20 delegates should consistently meet with domestic civil society throughout the year, both prior to and after G20 Working Group meetings. This already happens in some G20 countries but not all of them.

Third, G20 representatives need to be more open and honest in their exchanges with civil society. When G20 delegates speak to civil society, mostly they only share limited information on what they are doing to address major global challenges, which sometimes simply amounts to propaganda. How about they asked us what we want to discuss and what information we’d like to receive? Or how about they provide honest and direct feedback on the proposals and recommendations we shared with them?

G20 leaders seem to be unaware that good communication and access to information are key. There is no permanent G20 website. Instead, every presidency establishes its own, which isn’t updated afterwards. The digital landscape is littered with redundant G20 websites. This makes documents hard to find for civil society, media and researchers seeking to inform themselves about G20 activities. In 2017, when Germany chaired the G20, the German government took an excellent initiative: it compiled all existing anti-corruption commitments in one location. This should be normal practice. For transparency and accountability, all G20 Working Groups should publish minutes and agendas of their meetings. And they should systematically consult with civil society so we provide an input into the draft documents they are planning to adopt and suggest key topics the G20 should focus on.

What changed in terms of civil society engagement when the G20 presidency passed on to Saudi Arabia for 2020?

Despite its limitations and weak engagement with civil society, the G20 has been a relevant space to bring our concerns directly to governments and advocate with them to tackle the most critical issues we face. Unfortunately, in 2020 the space for civil society engagement became significantly reduced when the presidency of the G20 and all its Engagement Groups, including the C20, passed to Saudi Arabia – a decision taken by G20 governments in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Saudi Arabia is a state that provides virtually no space for civil society and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated. It systematically suppresses criticism from the media, regularly arrests and prosecutes human rights defenders, censors free speech, limits free movement and tortures and mistreats detained journalists and activists. This makes civil society participation ethically dubious.

In addition, the C20 principles emphasise a series of elements that the Saudi presidency is unable to provide, such as inclusion of a variety of truly independent civil society actors, from local to global, the transparency of decision-making procedures and the guiding values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. By participating in the very limited space that the Saudi government would be able to provide, we would only help launder Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The Saudi government has already recruited expensive Western public relations advisors and spent millions of dollars to polish its tarnished image.

In response, an overwhelming number of CSOs from all over the world have joined their voices together and decided to boycott the C20 hosted by Saudi Arabia this year. At Transparency International we are looking forward to re-engaging fully with the C20 process next year, when the presidency will pass to Italy.

Civic space in Saudi Arabia is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Transparency International through its website and Facebook page, and follow @anticorruption and @meberazategui on Twitter.

 

 

PHILIPPINES: ‘If we don’t fight against the system, people will continue to die’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Jhewoung Capatoy, a young climate defender from the Philippines. Jhewoung is a community youth organiser with Young Bataeños Environmental Advocacy Network, a youth environmental organisation that promotes environmentally sustainable development and seeks to create awareness among youth to act to conserve the environment.

jhewoung capatoy

Why did you become an activist?

I come from the Lamao Limay Bataan community, which is about three hours away from the capital of the Philippines, Manila. I decided to get involved because local communities are suffering as a result of the establishment of coal-fired power plants. People are suffering from health issues and are dying as a result of environmental disasters. And people who speak up against this are also getting killed. Being an activist is dangerous, but if no one speaks up and acts against this, the situation will become normalised. If we don’t fight against the system, things will continue to be the way they are: people will continue to die and the impacts of the climate crisis will become unbearable to our communities. Most likely, a lot more people will die.

Deep down, one reason why I’m doing this is that I have lost people who were very dear to me. I went through an experience that marked me for life when I was in first grade, about seven years old, in 2004. A flash flood killed two neighbours who were also my close friends. Flash floods were caused by the construction of an energy plant in the area. Later on, when I started high school, I got in touch with a youth organisation that worked to protect Mother Nature. I got involved because I didn’t want to lose anyone else. I had realised that my friends had been killed by a corporation that only cared about making money, and by our own government, which colluded with the corporations and allowed everything to happen. Together, corporations and government are too powerful and if nobody stood up against them, they would be able to kill whoever they want. If nobody fought for it, our community would likely be gone in the near future.

However, being an activist also meant that I would continue to lose people. Soon after I got involved one colleague, a well-known climate defender, Gloria Capitan, was killed. She led the fight against coal-fired power plants because the pollution caused by these corporations in her area were causing people serious respiratory problems and other issues. We believe that both the corporations we were protesting against and our local government are responsible for her killing. We know who shot Gloria Capitan, but the police did not listen. They tried to cover everything up and have the case dismissed.

Can you tell us more about the work that you do?

We organise campaigns to educate people about the effects and impacts of dirty industries and how corporations are threatening our right to a secure environment. We organise people and we protest, mostly against coal-fired power plants. We also try to reach policy-makers and bring human rights violations to the attention of human rights bodies. We were once able to reach the Philippines Commission on Human Rights, which investigated what was happening and issued a resolution that acknowledged that these corporations were causing human rights violations in our community, as well as in other communities that have dirty industries in the Philippines. That was one of our greatest achievements because if the resolution is eventually disseminated to the public, we can find a way to hold corporations accountable and bring some reparation to the affected communities.

Did you take part in the global climate mobilisations in 2019?

Yes, our youth organisation, Young Bataeños for Environmental Advocacy Network, participated in the global climate strike in September 2019 by holding a local event. There also was a mobilisation in Manila, but we decided to protest locally, staying in the place where the coal-fired power plants are having their worse effects. The reason why we mobilised is that we want to hold these corporations, as well as the government that lets them have their way, responsible for what they are doing to our communities.

We had been mobilising and protesting since before the global strike, but the global climate strike was a good opportunity to put our issues out there. It was very useful as a framework because it was a global call to make corporations responsible for emissions. But we chose to participate in this global call from our own local communities, without going to demonstrate in Manila, in order to communicate that the reason why we are fighting is that the people in these communities are suffering the worst effects of global warming and the climate crisis. It is the rich of the global north who profit from these big corporations that emit carbon gases, but it is always us, the poor communities of developing countries, who suffer the worst environmental impacts of these industries.

True, people in developed countries are striking and mobilising, and it is good that they have called attention to what is happening, but let’s always remember that the impacts of the climate crisis are extremely unequal. The impacts that people in the global north are facing are not as devastating as the ones we are suffering in the Philippines. That’s the reason why we are mobilising: because it is us who are experiencing the consequences of their actions. It is not even a matter of choice really. We are a poor country in which people are dying due to the climate crisis, so we are fighting for our lives.

Have you had any participation in global climate forums?

Our youth organisation has not been able to take part in any international gathering. We basically have no access to that kind of spaces. Our organisation is local and no one has yet given us the opportunity to be under the spotlight. It would have been good if we had been invited because that would have meant an opportunity for us to represent people at the grassroots level. It is important to advocate for the environment, but you also have to make sure that you are representing the people who are most vulnerable. It is not enough not be there just because you believe that the climate crisis is happening. People should represent the real experiences and those who are negatively impacted by climate change.

The very people who are suffering the most from the climate emergency should be given the opportunity to speak for themselves. They should be invited to these forums so they can tell the world about their experiences. Those forums are big and impersonal and it would be important for participants to hear the stories of the people who are living in the areas where climate change and dirty industries are having their strongest impact. They are the ones who can really tell what’s happening, beyond what the media is covering, which is far from enough.

What support does your movement need from international sources, including international civil society?

Taking part in global networks is very useful for us. For instance, we’ve asked young people from Taiwan, who were participating in the 2019 Climate Action Summit, to send letters to our national and local governments to urge them to stop giving permits for corporations to increase their operations. Our government has planned to authorise two dozen new coal-fired power plants by the year 2030, so we are asking young people from other countries who are better connected to put pressure on our government. Letters coming from outside the country would mean a lot because they would show that our stories are not staying inside the country, that people from the outside world are listening and reacting to the pain and the suffering of the people in the Philippines.

International organisations like CIVICUS could also help amplify our stories and attract the attention of our government. This then could make our government rethink the path they have taken in generating energy.

It would be an even bigger help if the international community could help us financially in order to continue with our work. As climate activists, working with the local communities that are directly affected by climate change is always a challenge. I have had to leave my comfort zone, drop out of school and be away from my family. I stay in a community where there is little internet access or transportation. I go to work kilometres away from my house, to organise people, to give them updates and reassure them that I am with them for real. I do it because people need someone they can lean on, someone they can trust their stories with, someone they feel could help them.

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

Get in touch with the Young Bataeños for Environmental Advocacy Network through its Facebook page.

 

LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’

CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND Programmes Manager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered. ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.

Ziad Abdel Samad Zahra Bazzi

What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?

The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.

Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.

Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.

How did the government react to the protests?

Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.

Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.

The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.

On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.

Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.

Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.

Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.

Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.

When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?

The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.

Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.

What role have CSOs played during the process?

CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.

It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?

While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.

Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.

The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.

The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.

Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”

What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?

Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.

First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.

Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.

Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.

Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.

The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.

How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?

Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.

In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.

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

Get in touch with the Arab NGO Network for Development through its website and Facebook page, or follow @ArabNGONetwork on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘The UN cannot afford to miss opportunities for civil society engagement’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Angie Pankhania, Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its actions are based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

Angie Pankhania

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

The UN was set up primarily to prevent another world war. This, by far, is the UN’s biggest success in its 75-year history and in doing so the UN has saved millions of lives, and also helped humanity progress in so many other ways, such as by fostering technical advancement it has achieved economic prosperity and advances in health in addition to reducing world poverty and preserving everyone’s basic human rights.

Beyond that, the UN makes positive differences every day, from the UN Mine Action Services clearing thousands of landmines every year to the dozens of war criminals who have been brought to justice through UN processes – including, in 2019, Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda – to the thousands of people the UN feeds and houses every day, and the most important – but least measurable –  work of providing a forum for the nations of the world to resolve their differences diplomatically rather than resorting to wars.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

At a time of global uncertainty, the UN is needed now more than ever. Public support for the UN is vital if our ambitions for a better, more sustainable and fairer world are to be realised. The UN must do all it can to protect civil society space, both inside and outside the UN. Determined work here will not only help strengthen public understanding and support for the UN but also motivate individuals, society and businesses to play their part to help us collectively take action to avert global challenges such as climate crisis, protection of everyone’s human rights, end poverty and hold our world leaders to account. For these reasons, the UN cannot afford to miss opportunities to strengthen engagement with civil society.

There are several civil society initiatives focused on strengthening citizen engagement. Among them is Together First, a campaign led by a coalition of over 150 civil society organisations, launched in 2018. It is a fast-growing movement of global citizens, experts, practitioners, civil society activists and business leaders from all regions of the world. The campaign calls for ideas on global governance reform and brings new voices to the decision-making table. Those ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions will be taken forward with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges. UNA-UK provides the secretariat for Together First.

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

The main challenge is always that the UN is a collection of individuals representing member states, and some of those states don't always have the greater good at the heart of their actions. This is often the bottleneck when it comes to solving some of the world’s problems and it is important to bear this in mind when communicating why the UN can sometimes be seen to underperform. The famous US ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said that blaming the UN itself when it fails is like blaming the stadium when a sports team loses.

As for the staff who keep the organisation running: we generally find them to be hardworking, diligent and idealistic – doing wonderful work, day after day, despite near-impossible demands and woefully insufficient resources. But of course, it's not without its frustrations. We've come across situations such as parts of the UN contacting us because they want to get in touch with other parts of the UN and don't know how, or UN staff acting in an entitled manner. And of course, in our campaigning work we've come across very serious issues, particularly the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, which is the subject of our ongoing Mission Justice campaign.

These issues cannot be downplayed, but nor must they obscure the good work that the UN does, particularly at a time when multilateralism is very much under threat as a result of the dissemination of a sceptical political culture. But as a critical friend to the UN, we feel that the best way we can help the UN is not to sweep these issues under the carpet, but to help them resolve the underlying problems. We do feel that the UN needs to change – in its recruitment processes, in its accountability mechanisms, in its diversity, in how it measures and rewards success and above all in how it involves civil society. Our Together First Campaign aims to take forward ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions for change with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges.

Get in touch with UNA-UK through its website and Facebook page, follow @UNAUK on Twitter, and get involved in the Together First campaign.

 

COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’

CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.

alexandra gonzalez zapata

What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?

Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.

The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.

What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.

How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?

From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.

In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.

What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?

The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.

On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.

On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.

So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.

How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?

On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.

In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.

Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.

Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”

During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.

Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.

The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.

In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.

Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.

How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?

In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.

Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?

First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.

Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?

I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.

However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.

Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through its website and Facebook page, or follow @CSPP_ on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through its website and Facebook page, or

 

 

SDGs: ‘Gaps in data coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people’

Claire MelamedCIVICUS speaks to Dr Claire Melamed, CEO of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, an open, independent, multi-stakeholder network aimed at harnessing the data revolution for sustainable development. Its network includes hundreds of data champions representing the full range of data producers and users from around the world, including governments, statistics agencies, companies, civil society groups, international organisations, academic institutions and foundations.

Why is data important?

Data can help governments improve policy-making and service delivery, including aligning budgets with needs. It can also help citizens and civil society groups to have a voice: to make better decisions and hold leaders accountable for their actions. Private companies use data to build capacity and drive entrepreneurship and innovation. In other words, data is a major potential driver of sustainable development. The problem is that very important decisions affecting development around the world are often based on incomplete, inaccessible, or simply inaccurate information.

If you’re missing in the data, then you’re missing in the decisions on budgets and policies that are made with that data. A government is not going to build a road or a school or a hospital for people that it doesn’t know are there, and it’s not going to solve a problem it can’t see.

Of course, not all governments want to solve those problems, and data is also an important tool for civil society advocates who want to highlight problems or put a spotlight on inequality. We’ve all been asked ‘show me the numbers’, and it’s really important that advocates can do that.

What is the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and what work do you do?

The Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data is a growing network of hundreds of partners from governments, multilateral institutions, civil society, the private sector, the United Nations (UN), and academia. What they have in common is a desire to use data to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We’re coming up to our fifth birthday in September 2020.

We help governments, civil society groups and others who want to use data to improve their work to find the best solutions to their problems, and then put them into practice. Data is not only about numbers and platforms, it’s also about people, relationships and institutions. So we put a lot of effort into working with governments, the UN and others over the long term, so that good innovations are adopted in a sustainable way that builds trust and respects people’s rights, while also solving practical problems and helping governments deliver.

One of the things we focus on is how data can better represent the lives of the people who are the least powerful. This is partly about making sure that everyone is represented in the data. Through the Inclusive Data Charter we bring together a wide range of actors to make specific plans and commitments to improve their data on the most marginalised people.

We also believe that people can represent themselves through data. We recently worked with a group of civil society organisations to publish a guide on citizen-generated data (CGD), which is about people collecting data that represents their own experiences and what they think is important, and then feeding that into government systems to influence decisions about budget and policies. It’s already being tested in Kenya, working with the National Statistical Office, and we would love to work with other groups to use it and make it better.

How available is the data required to monitor progress towards the SDGs?

The availability of data on the SDGs is highly variable. In general, issues such as health and education, which were included in the monitoring framework of the Millennium Development Goals, have better data coverage than new issues such as the environment or governance. However, even for those issues where there is some data, it is often out of date or has gaps in coverage. Gaps in coverage are most likely to exclude the poorest people.

A large number of the indicators relating to civic space and participation are still ‘tier 2’, meaning that the data is not yet regularly produced. This is the case with SDG 16.7 (‘ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision making at all levels’), 16.10 (‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’) and 17.17 (‘encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships’). There has been progress in developing methodologies, but the next step is for countries to begin to collect the data regularly and use it to inform their policy-making.

We have been working with civil society groups to increase the use of CGD for the SDGs. The guide to CGD that I mentioned is being tested in Kenya is one example of a tool that will be useful in increasing civil society voice in SDG monitoring and delivery.

How would you assess state reporting on SDG commitments, given their universal and interdependent nature?

It is highly variable. No country is yet collecting all the data that is needed, and in some cases there are gaps that are limiting the ability of civil society to hold governments to account.

Over the past couple of years, we have provided support to a number of countries, including Costa Rica, Kenya, the Philippines and Sierra Leone, to define their priorities and make plans to improve their data in key areas. We’re already seeing improvements in how governments are using data for agriculture, environmental management, water and other areas.

We are working with the World Bank Group, the UN and the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on the ‘Data For Now’ initiative to scale up the use of real-time, dynamic, disaggregated data to achieve and monitor the SDGs. We aim to put tested methodologies to use to give governments and civil society groups the information they need to make the right decisions to achieve the SDGs. ‘Data For Now’ is working with governments to increase the timeliness of data in different sectors, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, Mongolia, Nepal, Paraguay, Rwanda and Senegal.

Are current pressures on multilateralism impacting on progress on SDG commitments?

Most definitely. The crisis of multilateralism is having a negative impact, in two ways. There are some goals, such as those on climate, which can only be achieved through multilateral action, which is particularly difficult in the current political climate. Additionally, if multilateralism is seen as less important, then the effect of peer pressure and the influence of global norms will be reduced, weakening government incentives to take actions on the SDGs.

Get in touch with the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data through their website, where you can also sign up to the newsletter ‘Our World in Data’, or follow @Data4SDGs and @clairemelamed on Twitter.

 

LGBTQI+ RIGHTS IN UGANDA: ‘Intolerance is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders’

Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks with Pepe Julian Onziema, Programme Director at Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). Formed in 2004, SMUG is a civil society umbrella organisation focused on advancing LGBTQI+ rights and supporting and protecting LGBTQI+ people in Uganda. SMUG advocates for policy reform and helps to coordinate the efforts of 18 LGBTQI+ organisations in the country. These organisations provide a variety of services to the LGBTQI+ community, including medical attention, counselling, guidance and economic empowerment programmes. SMUG works closely with local, regional and international human rights organisations and activists to end discrimination and ensure equal treatment of and respect for all LGBTQI+ people in Uganda.

pepe Onziema

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Uganda?

I would say it’s very unpredictable, but also not okay. At some level everything is mixed up; you can’t just look at one thing and say, okay, we are making this progress, because somehow when you make progress you also move backwards on another front. So generally speaking, I would say the situation is confusing and unpredictable. The only aspect in which we have made consistent progress is in the area of HIV/AIDS, working through the Ministry of Health.

The situation of LGBTQI+ people is difficult, and I wouldn’t be able to say whether it’s because of social attitudes or discriminatory laws. People’s social attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people are affected by the law, but on the other hand the law is what it is because of people’s religious views and the influence of religion over politics. But if I had to say which the biggest problem is, I’d say it’s social attitudes and widespread lack of acceptance. If this changes, I am sure the law would follow.

In Uganda, LGBTQI+ people experience all kinds of attacks and violence, but this depends much on where you live. In popular areas trans women and gay people, or people thought to be gay, both male and female, are attacked from motorbikes or taxis. In the suburbs and expensive urban areas there is a bit more safety. However, a lot of new apartments have been built and many people are moving in, and then if your neighbour finds out or suspects that you are an LGBTQI+ person, then they can go tell the landlord, who will usually feel the pressure to throw you out without even paying back your rent. Everything is based on suspicion, spying and resentment. There is no need for any evidence of someone being gay, so people panic. There is a lot of gay panic because if anyone just mentions that someone else is LGBTQI+, it is to be expected that action will be taken, including physical violence. They can beat up the accused person or use extortion and blackmail. This is especially common with trans people, who are accused of impersonating someone else, adopting a fake identity.

We’ve worked a lot to raise awareness, informing people that even under our regressive laws, being gay is actually not a crime. It’s subtle, but the law talks about acts that are not permitted, rather than about identities that are not allowed to exist. There is more awareness of this now, but this awareness has made intolerant people more clever: they know they cannot denounce someone just for being gay, so they go on and invent stories. They tell the police false stories about things that gay people have done, so the police have to come and arrest them.

Although the law does not ban the existence of gay people, there is certainly no law that protects the rights of gay people. While laws guarantee the right to life, to the freedom of association, and so on, when it comes to LGBTQI+ people those do not fully apply. We don't have access to all those rights as anyone else.

Are LGBTQI+ civil society organisations allowed to function, or do you face restrictions? How do you manage to get your work done?

LGBTQI+ organisations are not allowed to register. They are denied formal recognition as civil society organisations (CSOs). That is the case with my organisation, Sexual Minorities Uganda, which was founded in 2004, so it will soon be turning 16 years old, and is still unregistered. Our right to associate is limited in several ways, but we’ve been persistent and consistent in challenging the government. We take advantage of legal loopholes and organise ourselves as a loose group. We have sued the government on the basis that the constitution grants us the right to the freedom of association. We’ve found the court system is not terribly fair, but still, it does not always work against us, and we have won several cases.

In the past few years, the High Court has issued several progressive rulings, stating that the fundamental rights recognised in the constitution, such as the right to personal liberty, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the right to privacy, apply to all citizens. As a result of a High Court ruling on discrimination, it is now possible for LGBTQI+ people to file cases against employers who have fired or harassed them, or landlords who have evicted them. So we’ve seen some progress within the justice system, and this has given us the courage to continue going to the courts to fight when the government wants to impose further restrictions.

As well as the lack of legal recognition, we face restrictions in our daily work. For instance, when we hold a workshop or some formal function for the community, we are usually raided by the police. The Minister of Ethics and Integrity has been particularly notorious and shameless in shutting down our meetings. He has gone on radio and other media to say that he would never allow LGBTQI+ organisations. So we try to keep up our work by doing it through collaborations with other CSOs, but there’s only so much we can do, because when they learn that we are working with us then somehow they also become targets by association.

Who is behind these restrictions? Is discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people fuelled by political or religious leaders?

Absolutely. The intolerance enshrined in the law and expressed in social attitudes is fuelled by anti-rights groups and leaders. This backlash was particularly intense around 2009, when right-wing evangelical groups from the USA came to Uganda and helped our government draft a law, the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, that would have criminalised same-sex relationships and introduced the death penalty for serial offenders, HIV-positive people who engage in sexual activity with people of the same sex, and people who engage in same-sex sexual acts with minors. The law also sought to punish the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights with fines, imprisonment, or both.

We fought this bill for years. The proponents of the law said that we are after children, that we were recruiting them and needed to be stopped. They wanted to turn people into spies – our own neighbours, our parents, teachers, doctors and priests. Anyone who knew a gay person had to report this fact to the authorities or they would also become a criminal.

A modified version of the bill was passed in 2013, and it punished ‘aggravated homosexuality’ with life in prison instead of the death penalty. In reaction, the US State Department announced several sanctions against Uganda, and in 2014 the Constitutional Court annulled the law on a technicality. But its effects are still there, in the form of ingrained discrimination against LGBTQI+ people. And the root causes of such laws being proposed in the first place are also still there. It all comes down to the idea of turning people’s religious belief into law.

So the most homophobic piece of legislation that Uganda has ever seen was actually a foreign import. Do you see an international anti-LGBTQI+ rights coalition at work here?

Absolutely, and curiously enough – because anti-LGBTQI+ rights groups keep saying things like homosexuality is a foreign custom, and that it runs counter to national culture and morals, while in fact it is homophobia who is most foreign. Homosexuality was accepted and quite common in pre-colonial Ugandan society; we even had a king who was gay. Laws punishing homosexuality were first introduced in colonial times, under British rule, and they stayed in place after we gained independence. Something similar happened with Christianity, which was an import but took deep roots.

And the churches that were brought from the USA and started proliferating are of the most intolerant kind. You can find these evangelical churches every 500 meters in Uganda, and people preaching all over the place, even outside the churches, on every street corner. The evangelical movement is huge and has spread fast across the country. In most cases, they focus their preaching on sexuality, abortion, how women dress, things like that. They deliberately use their Bible to discriminate against LGBTQI+ people and women.

Have you seen any change, for better or worse, over the past year?

It is difficult to tell. For instance, in 2018 we thought we were making a bit of progress, but then we started seeing more murders, at least three or four, so we felt in danger and we panicked because we thought, we’ve made progress in dialogue with governmental officials, we have done training the police, and it really shocked us – the idea that we were trying to educate people, we are trying to have a conversation, and this is the kind of response that we get. This cast doubt on the progress we were making.

Still, I would say that the fact that we are able to have some form of dialogue with the government is a proof of progress. The fact that when people are arrested we are able to negotiate the release of some is something that we wouldn’t have seen even three or four years ago, so there is some progress.

How do you account for the differences between Uganda and, say, Botswana, which is currently experiencing significant positive change?

I think we are not experiencing the same kind of progress because religion is so deeply rooted in Uganda. If you speak to Ugandans, the first thing that they will tell you, even before introducing themselves, is that they are Christians. And our president has been able to turn religion into law. Ugandan politicians have manipulated religion to divert attention from corruption and mismanagement, so they focus on homosexuality instead. This political use of religion, and the fact that religious beliefs have been made into law, that’s what sets us apart from Botswana.

What are LGBTQI+ organisations in general, and SMUG in particular, doing to change both legislation and public attitudes?

SMUG focuses on four areas: advocacy for reform, capacity strengthening, research and safety and protection. The four areas are connected: in the area of safety and protection, for example, we take care of victims and survivors of violence, but we also document, collect and analyse data and use it as evidence in our advocacy work. We also make sure that police officers are trained so they know how to treat LGBTQI+ person in case they are arrested, so they change their attitudes and the ways they handle them. We work with magistrates and the judiciary services institute and try to educate them on LGBTQI+ issues, because otherwise when a gay person is arrested, most of the time cases are based on hearsay and they don’t even ask for evidence; they make decisions based on prejudice. We do a lot of campaigning and awareness-raising across Uganda. We have regional focus groups where we train people on how to deal with safety and security.

We also do international work at the United Nations human rights bodies, in Geneva, as well as at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well: we have a document that came out of there, Resolution 275, that we did with activists and organisations from across Africa, which prohibits any country from violent attacks towards LGBTQI+ people. Of course we are trying to get that implemented in our own countries so our human rights bodies can take on that Resolution as guidance on the protection of LGBTQI+ people.

Is there any evidence that people’s attitudes might be changing?

We put most of our work on social media, and about 10 years ago, we would find out on Facebook that 98 or and 99 per cent of Ugandans were against homosexuality. Ninety-nine per cent – it’s crazy, because it would mean that even gay people – who are definitely more than one per cent of the population - rejected homosexuality.

But now we’ve come to the point where both sides appear to be more balanced. We post something on our website or our social media platforms, and find reactions are split approximately in half. So I think there has been a change of attitudes, especially among young people, because there are a lot of young people on social media who really don’t care about this whole debate over sexuality. They are just trying to live their lives.

To what extent is Ugandan civil society as a whole standing with LGBTQI+ civil society?

There definitely are divisions within civil society. You have to remember that we all come from the same society and have the same background, which is religious, and we are talking about a society and a religion that consider homosexuality as an abomination. However, there are a few – fewer than 10 – CSOs that stand with us. Most of our allies are organisations working on health, and a couple of them do legal work. They have all come from a long way educating themselves about LGBTQI+ issues, and when they do not know something, they ask.

You mentioned that anti-right groups have international connections and support. Do LGBTQI+ rights organisations enjoy similar connections? What kind of support would you need from international civil society?

If you had asked me this question five years ago I would have told you to please give human rights organisations money because we are able to work with them. But now I would respond differently: what we need most urgently is to empower more LGBTQI+ people to occupy positions of influence. We’ve experienced violence and discrimination from within the movement, from our own allies, so we need to start having more honest conversations and better accountability for the work that human rights organisations do on LGBTQI+ issues, and see if they really understand what they are doing. To me, it’s about power coming back to the LGBTQI+ community, and the LGBTQI+ community being able to use those positions of power to speak up and negotiate for our own freedom. So my main advice would be, don’t fund other people to speak for us, because we can speak for ourselves.

It is important that you consult us. There certainly are organisations that are good to us. So if you want to support us, talk to us and we’ll tell who work we best with us, and use this as guidance rather than deciding according to what works best for you as an international organisation.

Civic space in Uganda is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Pepe through Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram, contact SMUG through its website and Facebook page, and follow @Opimva and @SMUG2004 on Twitter.

 

DIGITAL DIVIDE: ‘The uncritical adoption of technology is particularly risky in humanitarian crises’

CIVICUS speaks to Barnaby Willitts-King, Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Established in 1960 and currently working in 50 countries around the world, ODI is a global non-partisan, non-profit and evidence-driven think tank. Barnaby’s latest research with ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) focuses on the effects of the adoption of information and communications technologies in the humanitarian sector.

BarnabyWillitts King DIGITAL

Which would you say have been the biggest humanitarian crises of 2019, and how effective and efficient has the humanitarian response been?

The crises in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Yemen have affected the most people in 2019 and look set to continue through 2020. In the majority of these crises, and the many more affecting over 160 million people, there are major funding challenges and problems of access to people in need due to conflict. Despite these challenges, international humanitarian assistance from the United Nations (UN), the Red Cross movement and civil society organisations (CSOs) supported 64 per cent of those it was aiming to reach in 2019 and is reaching more people than ever before.

However, huge challenges remain to reforming the international system of humanitarian action to make it more effective, efficient and appropriate, while confronting the largely political blockages to solving the underlying causes of such crises. The space for neutral humanitarian action remains under pressure from increasingly polarised geopolitics and a retreat from multilateralism.

Concerns about national security, migration and terrorism have led donors belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) to introduce laws and policies that have had significant knock-on consequences for the ability of CSOs to support people in crisis. Such was the case with UK legislation, subsequently amended, which would have criminalised aid workers in some conflict zones.

What have you learned from your research about resource flows to countries affected by humanitarian crises?

There is a mismatch between the global picture of humanitarian response and funding flows from major DAC donors, and what is visible in countries and communities affected by crisis. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit launched the Grand Bargain initiative, an agreement between donors and agencies that included a commitment to increase the flow of resources to local and national humanitarian actors. However, the flow of resources to such local actors still remains far below the 25 per cent target , as seen for instance in evidence from Somalia and South Sudan.

Beyond resource flows to local organisations and administrations, HPG’s recent research based on field studies in Iraq, Nepal and Uganda on the resources that households use to cope with crisis has revealed the narrow way in which humanitarian agencies have been looking at resource flows.

This shows that the international community undervalues the role of locally led response, which starts in affected communities, and the resources they mobilise and make use of, including community support mechanisms, remittances from the diaspora, government and private sector funding and faith-based giving. These funds and other resources are not easily measured or tracked and are not sufficiently understood by local and international humanitarian actors.

Globally, this study estimated that international humanitarian assistance comprises as little as one per cent of the total resource flows to countries affected by humanitarian crises. Remittances are one clear example of a major resource flow that is potentially significant in crises but insufficiently understood or factored in; others include faith-based flows and local community resources.

What should the international community do to put the affected countries and local communities at the centre of the planning and funding of responses?

There are many things that the humanitarian community needs to do in order to achieve this reorientation of international humanitarian assistance. First, it should focus on the household perspective in resource analysis and tracking by investing in household economy, market and political economy analysis. Second, it should design programming specifically for each crisis. Third, it should use aid smartly to focus on gaps and catalyse the right kind of investments and flows – for example, through supporting entrepreneurship or facilitating remittances. Fourth, it should develop better humanitarian needs assessments that incorporate livelihoods and political analysis and involve government. Fifth, it should strengthen data literacy and data. Sixth, it should build a community of practice on tracking the wide range of resources in crises, from private flows to humanitarian, peace and development funding.

This shift in perspective is critical to better reflect local agency and a more diverse set of resources that people in crisis rely on. Aid should be used not just to respond to gaps in need but to catalyse better and more effective use of flows beyond aid, which may be the best way to ‘localise’ the response.

 Your latest research focuses on the effects of the rapid adoption of digital technologies in the humanitarian sector. What problems has technology helped to solve, and what new challenges has it created?

Digital approaches are certainly transforming humanitarian action in a number of ways, and there are examples of them making aid more effective, efficient and transparent: for instance, in collecting and analysing data, such as using drones to map disaster sites, volunteer ‘crowdmappers’ to process the data and machine learning to analyse large and complex datasets to improve targeting. Humanitarian programming can be streamlined through the seamless and secure transfer of digital payments to recipients or by using biometric verification of aid recipients for efficiency and security. Technology also connects and gives agency to affected people – for example through apps enabling them to contact first responders directly, or for aid recipients to give feedback to aid agencies and for volunteer networks to fundraise on social media with crowdfunders.

However, there are increasing concerns about the dominance of technology in development and humanitarian assistance, and the risks such technologies can present in situations of armed conflict. The uncritical adoption of the latest technology fad is increasingly seen as particularly risky in humanitarian crises where more traditional methods of aid distribution may still make more sense. The vulnerability of people’s data when it is being generated in ever greater quantities is of paramount concern where people are in situations of conflict, with risks they could be targeted by hostile governments.

Do you think that the use of technology has led to more inclusive and participatory processes? If not, what should be done so that technology lives up to its full potential?

Inclusion is an important goal for the humanitarian sector, but it has proved difficult to achieve in practice, as we explore in our research. The careful adaptation of existing tools has indeed been used to increase coverage and inclusion – for instance by enabling participatory mapping of communities by residents of informal settlements, training drone pilots pilots in affected countries and using messaging applications to disseminate to displaced people. However, these benefits are still too often assumed as a natural consequence of adopting technology-based approaches. In reality, differences in the access to and the use of technology, often along gender, income or racial lines, constitute a ‘digital divide’. This means that the benefits of these approaches are not evenly distributed and leave many excluded.

Inclusion is also limited by in-built biases in many applied technologies – for instance facial recognition software, whose ‘coded gaze’ has not been taught to recognise diverse datasets of faces, or automated mapping technologies that lack the contextual understanding to recognise houses in disaster-affected areas.

The uncritical adoption of technologies in crises may reinforce the ingrained power dynamics of the sector or violate humanitarian principles, either through a shift to digital registration that unintentionally excludes those most in need, or humanitarian independence being compromised through partnerships with the private sector, including the surveillance and security industry.

Instead, these new tools will require active correction and contextual knowledge to be adapted to particular humanitarian crises, in order to include and protect the people humanitarian assistance is intended to serve. In some cases, tools such as biometric registration or mapping of improvised settlements may not be appropriate, with poor data protection practices presenting unacceptable risks to populations made vulnerable by persecution, conflict, or displacement.

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

 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: ‘If we allow seabed mining everyone is at risk’

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation around the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Jonathan Mesulam, spokesperson for the Alliance of Solwara Warriors and a campaigner on issues relating to experimental deep-sea mining, climate change and logging in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The Alliance of Solwara Warriors is an anti-mining alliance of local communities in areas affected by deep-sea mines in PNG and across the Pacific. It has organised the resistance  against seabed mining since 2009, when the controversial deep-sea mining project Solwara 1 was proposed to mine mineral-rich hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Bismarck Sea. The alliance also launched a legal case against the project in PNG's courts. In November 2019, the company behind Solwara 1, Nautilus, was declared bankrupt and it is uncertain if the project will continue.

Jonathan Mesulam

Can you tell us about the Alliance of Solwara Warriors and how it was formed? What are its main objectives and why is it opposed to seabed mining?

The Alliance of Solwara Warriors was formed in 2016 by representatives of communities along the Bismarck Sea who are threatened by seabed mining. The members of the Alliance also include the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches, international and local environmental civil society organisations (CSOs), educated elites, local community-based organisations and a few politicians who support the call to ban deep-sea mining. Our main objective is to ban deep-sea mining in PNG waters and the Pacific and we also call for the cancellation of exploration and mining licences.

Seabed mining is a new frontier for the mining industry and is very risky as our understanding of the seabed is very limited. The first discovery of deep-sea minerals was in 1979 and we have no idea how the seabed ecosystem operates. If we allow seabed mining, then we may just call for the end of humanity, as the complexity of the food chains on which humans depend will be affected, putting human life at risk. I think we should all stand in solidarity to ban deep-sea mining in our area because the sea has no boundaries and when the marine ecosystem is affected, everyone everywhere is at risk.

Environmental and legal groups have urged extreme caution around seabed mining, arguing there are potentially massive – and unknown – ramifications for the environment and for nearby communities, and that the global regulatory framework is not yet drafted, and is currently deficient.

How has the campaign against seabed mining progressed? What have you achieved?

The campaign against seabed mining has been very challenging and at times we almost lost hope because of the heavy presence of Nautilus, the company behind the Solwara project, at the project site for the last eight years. However, there has been growing opposition from coastal communities, local and international CSOs and churches, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches. An environmental law firm, the Centre for Environment and Community Rights, filed a legal case and we were able to stop this project from going into full-scale mining operation. Every concerned individual and organisation has played a very important role in their respective areas of work, such as finance, the environment and politics, to stop this project.

During the Pacific Islands Leaders Forum, held in Tuvalu in August 2019, the Pacific Island leaders also called for a 10-year moratorium on deep-sea mining. But that is not what we wanted. We are calling for a total ban on deep-sea mining.

What challenges has the alliance faced in recent years?

Funding activism is a big challenge. To travel to a community to talk to people you need to pay for a bus. You have to raise funds to enable mobility and communication. The second major challenge is capacity development. As members of an alliance we deal with that by distributing challenges; we then help each other and strategise in our workshops so that we can learn from each other. Networking helps with this a lot, and the support of partners such as Bismark Ramu Group, Caritas PNG and the PNG Council of Churches.

We have also received a lot of support from CSOs and individuals outside the country. People and organisations including Sir David Attenborough, the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, Mining Watch Canada and Caritas New Zealand, just to name a few, have really supported the campaign in terms of funding, providing information on the campaign and lobbying with banks and financers not to support such a project. As a result, we have seen positive results in our work on the ground.

Another challenge we face is that some people in the community support deep-sea mining, and this creates division. We have had to work hard at times to really convince people that this project is not good. It's only through persistent, dedicated work and making information available so that people have all the facts, not just the perspective that the company wants people to know, that people will really support you. Once people know the truth, then you get the support.

What is the state of civic freedoms – the freedom of association peaceful assembly and expression – in Papua New Guinea?

The media in PNG is controlled by the state and they only publish stories that are good for the government. Sometimes our stories are not covered, and we end up publishing them through social media. The right to the freedom of association in PNG really depends on the kind of issues that are being addressed. On some very sensitive issues, the police will not allow people to organise and take part in protests. Our ability to carry on our work also depends on the kind of companies we are dealing with. Some companies have spent millions of Kina – the PNG currency – to stop environmental human rights defenders, and going against them is obviously risky.

Civic space in Papua New Guinea is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with the Alliance of Solwara Warriors through its Facebook page.

 

CHINA: ‘Its international role both originates in and enables domestic political control’

CIVICUS speaks about China’s growing international role with Sharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), Adjunct Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and Professor of Law Emerita at the City University of New York School of Law. Founded in 1989 by overseas Chinese students and scientists, HRIC is a Chinese civil society group that promotes international human rights and advances the institutional protection of these rights in the People’s Republic of China. Through case and policy advocacy, media and press work, and capacity building, HRIC supports civil society as the driving force for sustainable change in China. HRIC has offices in New York and Hong Kong, and is active on local, regional, and global platforms.

Have there been any recent changes in the ways China engages in the United Nations (UN) system?

China has been increasingly active and sophisticated in its engagement with the UN human rights system. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council – where it formally replaced Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC) in 1971 – China has invoked its ‘One China Policy’ to block the recognition and admission of the ROC by other international bodies. At the same time, the shift of key players within the UN human rights system, and particularly the withdrawal of the USA from the Human Rights Council (HRC), has weakened principled leadership by Western democratic governments. This is especially concerning in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive, multi-pronged and sophisticated challenges to international standards and norms. A key element of China’s strategy has been essentially to counteroffer a model of governance that it refers to as human rights, democracy and rule by law ‘with Chinese characteristics.’

In addition to the HRC, China is active on human rights-related issues before various UN General Assembly committees, including the Third Committee, on social, humanitarian and cultural issues, and the Fifth Committee, on administrative and budgetary issues. Some key issues it engages in include counterterrorism, information security, treaty body strengthening processes and other human rights mechanisms and procedures, and civil society participation.

China Interview SharonHom

As part of the party-state’s overarching strategy to expand and strengthen China’s influence internationally, China has been promoting the appointment and influence of Chinese nationals to key UN bodies and UN specialised agencies. For example, Mr Zhao Houlin was the first Chinese national to serve as Secretary-General of the 150-year-old International Telecommunication Union (ITU), from 2014 to 2018 and 2019 to 2020. As a key agency for information and communications technologies promotion, collaboration and standardisation, the ITU was a leading UN agency involved in the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). Endorsed by UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 of 21 December 2001, the WSIS was convened in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003 and the second in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005. China was active in pushing back against the inclusion of human rights-focused language in the outcome documents of phase one – the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Geneva Plan of Action – and opposed the accreditation of what it perceived to be hostile civil society groups, including HRIC.

In addition, Mr Liu Zhenmin, appointed in 2017 as UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, advises the UN Secretary-General on social, economic and environmental issues and guides the UN secretariat’s support for follow-up processes under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Chinese nationals have also served on the International Court of Justice, including Ms Xue Hanqin, who has served as a jurist since 2010 and was named Vice President of the Court in 2018.

The appointments of nationals of a UN member state to key positions in UN bodies and agencies is not, of course, inherently problematic. Issues from a human rights perspective only emerge when any member state challenges existing standards regarding the rule of law as ‘inappropriate’ or advances a model of development that rejects a rights-based framework, as China now does.

What are the Government of China’s motivations in its international engagements? What agendas is it particularly pursuing?

The Chinese party-state’s motivations in its international engagements are primarily aimed at advancing the ambitious vision of President XI Jinping to see China take a leading role on the global stage, as laid out in part in his vision for the realisation of a ‘China Dream.’ Internationally, the party-state wants to ensure the narrative of China is ‘properly’ told, without questioning of or pushback against some of the more problematic elements of its model of governance.

Specific objectives include limiting civil society engagement with and input into UN human rights mechanisms to government-approved civil society groups; redefining the foundational principle of the UN human rights system from one of the universality of human rights to that of the ‘conditionality’ of human rights; and shifting human rights protection from state accountability to a cooperative enterprise among member states. If achieved, these objectives will undermine the integrity and efficacy of the existing human rights system and enable states to become the arbiters of what human rights to confer on their people, the ‘operators’ of their respective human rights systems, and the overseers of accountability.

Is one of the benefits of China's increasing international role that there is less oversight of its domestic human rights record?

The international role of the Chinese party-state both originates in and enables its agenda for domestic political control. China’s increasing efforts to undermine and redefine fundamental human rights and specific human rights mechanisms on the international stage limits the protections and redress available to Chinese people for violations of international rights guarantees. Its agenda for international influence also serves to legitimise as well as decrease scrutiny of its domestic policies and practices. In addition, the tendency for international actors to either appease or otherwise act in complicity with the Chinese state has also led to serious consequences both for Chinese people as well as others around the world.

One of the most vivid examples of China’s attempts to redefine human rights accountability and the lack of pushback by governments is the passage of the China-led resolution A/HRC/37/L.36 in March 2016 at the HRC. The resolution, ‘Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights’, which included language of the so-called ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, passed with 28 votes in favour and 17 abstentions; the only vote against came from the USA.

What kind of alliances or partnerships is China making with other states to work internationally?

One of China’s most ambitious and formidable global development strategies in recent years is the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, an international infrastructure and investment programme that has already involved almost 70 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe. Proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013, the Initiative is aimed at connecting major African and Eurasian nations through infrastructure development and investment, including a ‘digital silk road’ of Chinese-built fibre-optic networks. The Initiative has raised serious political and economic concerns among an increasing number of states, including Japan and the USA, about the Chinese political and strategic ambitions embedded in these economic partnerships. More recently, even some member states, the putative beneficiaries, are starting to push back against the ‘win-win’ arrangements that are now clearly ending up with them as client or debtor states.

In addition, as one of the leading states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a regional multilateral organisation with the primary goal of coordinating counterterrorism efforts and economic and military cooperation – China has been deployed in troubling joint military exercises, including simulated rescues of hostages being held by Muslim or Chechnian separatists. In accordance with SCO member and observer obligations, member states have returned Muslims to China to face uncertain fates, an action very much in conflict with the international non-refoulement obligations of all states. The SCO consists of eight member states and four observer states. However, though all the members of the multilateral regional organisation have incredibly troubling domestic human rights records, the SCO has been warmly welcomed by the UN as an observer at the UN General Assembly since 2005.

What are the impacts of China’s involvement on international institutions and on the space for civil society in those institutions?

China’s increasing involvement and influence in international institutions such as the UN poses a steep and growing challenge to the meaningful participation of civil society organisations (CSOs). As a member of the UN NGO Committee, China and ‘like-minded’ states act in concert to block UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) accreditation to CSOs they deem critical or disparaging of China. When CSOs legitimately seek to participate as part of partner or league organisations, China has sought to challenge their participation. For example, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) often participates as a member of the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation. However, China has attempted to block interventions by the WUC in the HRC sessions and even to ban them from the buildings and grounds. China once even branded the WUC President Mr Dolkun Isa as a terrorist in an effort to block his participation in side events at the HRC in Geneva, and at General Assembly side events in New York. Ironically, these unfounded smear efforts served only to increase interest in various events.

How is civil society working on issues around China’s international-level engagement, and what support does civil society need to be able to work effectively on this issue?

Despite the many and significant challenges inherent in this work, CSOs around the world are increasingly working together to address China’s efforts to distort and subvert human rights norms on the international stage, and to address serious rights abuses. This includes collaborations between local, regional and international civil society groups to issue joint letters, briefings and submissions for UN human rights mechanisms and procedures, interventions at HRC sessions and side events and other targeted activities.

The key support that civil society needs, especially smaller CSOs, is two-pronged: financial support to continue to carry out their missions and conduct the necessary research and projects related to understanding and responding to China’s actions on the international stage; and for governments of other states to act more aggressively and effectively to counter China when it acts inappropriately, and in particular to ensure a safe and enabling environment for domestic CSOs.

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

Get in touch with the Human Rights in China through its website and Facebook page, or follow @hrichina on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘Commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda are going unfulfilled’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Sally Chin, Head of the New York Office at Oxfam International, a global confederation of 20 affiliates working on humanitarian and development issues with the aim of tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality around the world. Oxfam is present in more than 90 countries and works with thousands of partners, allies and communities to save and protect lives in emergencies, help people rebuild their livelihoods and campaign for genuine, lasting change, with an approach centred on women's rights. In New York, Sally oversees Oxfam's work with the UN.

sally chin

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

It would be impossible to sum up all of the successes or challenges of the UN in one response given how many issues the UN deals with. Nevertheless, one thing I can say is that one of the biggest successes of the UN in its 75-year history has been the countless lives saved through its humanitarian efforts. At its best, the UN has acted as a place of refuge, a voice that speaks out and defends the rights of all the people whose rights would otherwise be violated or forgotten. When we reflect upon the roots of the UN, the fact that we now have these standards, agreements and norms of how we act and expect others to act is truly remarkable. UN peacekeepers have protected people seeking safety at their bases, and UN humanitarian agencies and their partners have got aid to some of the most difficult to reach locations. Fundamental treaties, resolutions, structures and frameworks have been agreed and created that protect people’s rights and at times allow them to participate in processes that affect them, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Human Rights Council with its Special Procedures and Universal Periodic Review, to name a few. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the architecture of the UN system put in place, is one of the key multilateral mechanisms for defending both the full human rights of people worldwide and the civic space for people to exercise the three fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

The UN has also been indispensable in bringing together the world to tackle problems that are bigger than any one member state can handle. One example of this is the climate crisis –this generation's existential threat. Through economic policies that devalue people and planet, we have become our own greatest enemy. To the UN's collective credit, over the course of three decades, countries have established the framework for a global governance regime to address the climate crisis. Now they must match their actions to the scale of the problem. If every nation – led by big polluters and wealthy nations – implemented these already-agreed commitments, we would be able to solve the climate crisis!

And with the inclusion of Goal 10 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), inequality has been officially recognised as a constraint to development and poverty eradication and an intergovernmental space has been created for countries to make voluntary commitments and track progress on ending inequality at home and globally. However, a binding system and institutional mechanisms overseeing Goal 10's implementation is still lacking.

In addition, in recent years both the UN Secretariat and some UN Security Council (UNSC) member states have  been introducing promising reforms and ways of working. One example would be the advances made by the UN in achieving some levels of gender parity in the Secretariat. Although on that note, we still have not yet seen a female UN Secretary-General and hopefully we will not have to wait another 75 years to have a feminist woman as Secretary-General.

Another positive trend is the increasing number of civil society activists from around the world that have been able to brief the UNSC. The UNSC’s Resolution 2242 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2015, “expresses its intention to invite civil society, including women’s organizations, to brief the Council in country-specific considerations and relevant thematic areas…”. According to data gathered by the NGO Working Group on Women Peace and Security, in 2015 only 16 civil society members briefed the Council, but by 2019, that number had grown to 53.

 

What things are currently not working and need to change?

As we know, the UN is only as successful as its member states, collectively, want it and allow it to be. And herein we see many of the challenges and the flaws. Here are just a few.

First, globally we are seeing a terrifying rollback of women’s rights, attacks on women human rights defenders and a shrinking of civic space. This is happening at a national level – where we see decreasing compliance with international human rights law – as well as at a global UN level. Member states with regressive agendas are using any opportunity they can find to chip away at long-established norms regarding rights. An example of this was at the negotiations in April 2019 around UNSC Resolution 2467 on conflict-related sexual violence, when the Council stripped all language on sexual and reproductive health rights from the final text, including previously agreed language. And 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and 20 years on from the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, commitments to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and gender equality more broadly are going unfulfilled. Gender advisors are being cut from UN missions, women’s rights and women-led organisations in conflict and fragile states are not getting enough funding, and gender mainstreaming efforts are slow.

As civic space is shrinking around the world, it is also being challenged at the UN – indeed, even the importance of multilateralism is being challenged – with key human rights mechanisms being defunded, civil society access to the UN being blocked through visa denials, and the people affected by conflict not being consistently included in the processes that impact them.

Another challenge is that while the UN and its partners may be saving lives, the current humanitarian system is overstretched, outdated and not yet able to respond adequately to all the growing need. Leadership and resources for humanitarian response need to be decentralised, with more power and funding given to the local organisations that are often the first to respond, and humanitarian action needs to be gender transformative. The whole system will need to rise up to all the challenges ahead, including the humanitarian dimension of the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the humanitarian aid system that is in trouble. Funding for climate and the SDGs is off-track too. Currently there is an outsized reliance on the business sector for delivering the SDGs, when what we need is more action by member states themselves.

A major additional challenge is that the UNSC, which is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, is blocked and paralysed due to its members’ own geopolitical fights. When wars are not prevented or resolved, humanitarian need only grows. Combine this with humanitarian need driven by natural hazards and other causes: according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2020 167.6 million people – about 1 in 45 of the world’s population – will be in need of humanitarian aid and protection. It appears that there is now little that the UNSC can find agreement on. And as it fails to address crises, warring parties also fail to uphold their responsibilities; we see decreasing compliance with international humanitarian and international human rights law, with harrowing impacts. In too many conflicts we are seeing civilian populations, their organisations and infrastructure, as well as humanitarian aid workers, being targeted. And when the parties at war are supported by the member states on the UNSC or indeed are the member states themselves, where is the accountability and incentive to action?

Some kind of change at the UNSC is clearly needed. In the first instance, the five permanent members could voluntarily agree to not use their veto in the face of mass atrocities. This then should be followed by serious efforts to make the UNSC fit for purpose in the 21st century. Or how about asking incoming elected UNSC members to commit to adopting a feminist foreign policy – with the rest of the existing Council following suit?

For his part, the UN Secretary-General should take more advantage of his Article 99 powers under the UN Charter to ensure the Council discusses topics it would rather ignore. He must also ensure the implementation of the UN’s own Human Rights up Front approach, speaking out strongly against injustice and violations when they occur.

Do you know of any civil society initiative pushing for that kind of change?

While we must of course celebrate the successes of the UN this year on its 75th anniversary, as civil society we are most focused on working to both advance a rights agenda as well as defend against the attacks on this work that we increasingly see at the UN headquarters level and globally. Working together in alliance has been one of the most effective ways to do this. One important example of this coalition work is the 19 international non-governmental organisations that have been working together in New York as the NGO Working Group on WPS to advocate collectively for better implementation of the WPS agenda.

Other examples include the Charter for Change (C4C) network, the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) and the Global Refugee-Led Network (GRN), which are all civil society initiatives pushing for reforms within their member organisations and the humanitarian system to enable more locally-led responses. These three networks work to ensure that the perspective and direct representation of crisis-affected communities and their organisations are part of decision-making processes.

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

 

‘Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised’

 

Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Rodrigo Mundaca, Agronomist and National Spokesperson of the Defence Movement for Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (MODATIMA), an organisation established in 2010 in the Chilean province of Petorca, in the Valparaíso region, to defend the rights of farmers, workers and local people. Since the 1990s, the region has been affected by the massive appropriation of water by agribusiness in collusion with the political establishment.

Rodrigo Mundaca

What is the main environmental issue in your context?

The main problem is water. We live in a territory characterised mainly by the monoculture of avocado, the production of which requires huge amounts of water. Water is in the hands of large producers who have dried out our territory and compromised the lives of our communities. Ours is an extreme case: Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised. Chile has clearly prioritised extractive industries over the rights of communities to water.

The privatisation of water sources in Chile dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973 to 1990. The 1980 Constitution enshrined the private ownership of water. This was maintained, and even deepened, following the democratic transition, since sanitation was also privatised. The privatisation process of sanitation began in 1998, under the administration led by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat. Nowadays, people in Chile pay the highest rates in Latin America for drinking water, which is owned by large transnational corporations. Overall, the Suez group, Aguas de Barcelona, Marubeni and the Ontario teachers’ pension fund administrator from Canada control 90 per cent of the drinking water supply.

Right now, President Sebastián Piñera's government is auctioning off rivers. Piñera came into government with a mission to underpin the legal certainty of water rights ownership, and his cabinet includes several ministers who own rights to water use, the most prominent of which is the Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Walker Prieto. This minister and his family own more than 29,000 litres per second, which is equivalent to the continuous water supply used by approximately 17 million people.

Is it as simple as someone owning the rivers and being able to prevent others from using the water?

Yes, the 1980 Chilean Constitution literally states that the rights of individuals over water, recognised or constituted in accordance with the law, grant their bearers ownership over it. In 1981, the Water Code established that water is a national good for public use but also an economic good. Water ownership was separated from land ownership, so that there are water owners who have no land and landowners who have no water. It is the state's prerogative to grant rights for water use. These rights fall into two categories: water rights for consumption use and water rights for non-consumptive use, for example for generating electricity. In the first category, 77 per cent of the rights are held by the agricultural and forestry sector, 13 per cent by the mining sector, seven per cent by the industrial sector and approximately three per cent by the health sector. As for the rights for the use of water that is not consumed, 81 per cent are in the hands of an Italian public-private company. The owners of exploitation rights can sell or lease water use in the marketplace.

In 2018, the Piñera administration proposed a bill aimed at providing legal certainty to perpetuity to private owners of water and introducing water auctions. Currently, 38 rivers in Chile are being auctioned off; basically, what the state does is auction off the litres per second that run through a river. While this occurs in some territories where there is still water, areas accounting for 67 per cent of the Chilean population – some 12 million people – have become water emergency areas. Our region, Valparaíso, is a zone of water catastrophe due to drought. This is unheard of: while such a large population has serious difficulties in accessing drinking water, the state is auctioning off rivers.

What kind of work do you do to promote the recognition of access to water as a right?

For more than 15 years we have made visible the conflict over water in our territory. Although we originated in the Valparaíso region, from 2016 onwards our organisation has worked nationwide. We fight at the national level for water to be regulated as a common good. The right to water is a fundamental human right.

Our original strategy was to kickstart the struggle for water, render the conflict visible and bring debate to parliament about the need to repeal private ownership of water, despite our lack of confidence in the political class that has the responsibility to make the law and watch over its implementation.

In 2016 we took an important step by putting forward an international strategy that made it known throughout the world that in our province the human right to water was being violated in order to grow avocados. We were featured in a German TV report, ‘Avocado: Superfood and Environmental Killer’, in several articles in The Guardian describing how Chileans are running out of water and in an RT report in Spanish, ‘Chile’s Dry Tears’, among others. Last year Netflix dedicated an episode of its Rotten show to the avocado business and the violation of the human right to water in Chile. We have had a positive reception. In 2019 alone, we received two international awards: the International Human Rights Prize awarded by the city of Nuremberg, Germany, in September, and the Danielle Mitterrand Prize, awarded by the France Libertés Foundation, in November.

Another thing we do is develop activists and leaders. We have long-term training programmes and do ongoing work to develop theoretical and political thinking. We also mobilise. In the context of the widespread protests that started in Chile on 18 October 2019, we have made our demands heard. Clearly, although at the national level the main demands concern the restitution of workers’ pension funds and improvements in education and health, in some regions further north and further south of the capital, the most important demand concerns the recovery of water as a common good and a human right.

In addition to mobilising, our work on the ground involves more radical actions such as roadblocks and occupations. Among direct actions carried out on the ground are the seizure of wells and the destruction of drains. Some local grassroots organisations seize wells owned by mining companies, resist as long as they can – sometimes for 60 or 70 days – and divert the water to their communities. In places where rivers no longer carry water, groundwater has been captured through drains, works of engineering that capture, channel and carry all groundwater away. Some communities destroy the drains that transport water for use by agribusiness such as forestry companies. Such actions of resistance have increased since the start of the social protests in October 2019.

The struggle for water is a radical one because it erodes the foundations of inequality. The origin of the major Chilean fortunes is the appropriation of common goods, basically water and land. President Piñera's fortune is no exception.

Have you faced reprisals because of your activism?

Yes, because of our strategy to give visibility to the conflict over water, several of our activists have been threatened with death. That is why in 2017 Amnesty International conducted a worldwide campaign that collected more than 50,000 signatures to demand protection for us.

Between 2012 and 2014, I was summoned 24 times by four different courts because I denounced a public official who had been Minister of the Interior under the first administration of President Michelle Bachelet (2006 to 2010). As well as being a leading Christian Democratic Party official, this person was a business owner who diverted water toward his properties to grow avocado and citrus. I reported this in 2012, during an interview with CNN, and that cost me 24 court appearances over two years. I was finally sentenced, first to five years in jail, which were then reduced to 540 days and then to 61, and finally our lawyers managed to put me on probation. I had to show up and sign on the first five days of each month. We also had to pay a fine.

We have been attacked and threatened with death many times. In November 2019, an investigation published on a news site revealed that we were being targeted by police intelligence surveillance. However, in response to an amparo appeal – a petition for basic rights – against the police, in February 2020 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the surveillance to which we are subjected does not violate our constitutional rights. This is Chile in all of its filthy injustice.

Government behaviour has always been the same, regardless of the political colour of the incumbent government. All governments have reached agreements to keep the private water model because it is business, and one that is highly profitable for the political class. When they leave their positions in government, former public officials go on to occupy positions in the boards of the companies that appropriate the water.

Did you join the global climate mobilisations of 2019?

In Chile we have been mobilising since long before. In 2013 we had our first national march for the recovery of water and land, and from then on we have mobilised every year on 22 April, Earth Day. We also demonstrate to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. We have been on the move for a long time. Chile is going through a social, environmental and humanity crisis. We face the need to safeguard human rights that are essential for the fulfilment of other rights. The human right to water is a basic precondition for people to be able to access all other rights.

We have also been mobilised for a long time to denounce that Chile's development model is extremely polluting and deeply predatory. We have privatised marine resources: seven families own all of Chile’s marine resources. Our country has five areas of sacrifice, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries. These are in Colonel, Huasco, Mussels, Quintero and Tocopilla. The areas of sacrifice are not only an environmental problem but also a social problem; they discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable communities. They are overflowing with coal-fired thermoelectric plants and, in some cases, with copper smelters. The are 28 thermoelectric plants: 15 of these are US companies, eight are French, three are Italian and two are owned by domestic capital. The population in these areas has endured the emission of toxic gases and heavy metals for decades. We have been mobilising in these areas for years in defence of common natural assets.

Have you engaged in international forums on the environment and climate change?

Yes, I have been involved several times. In 2014, before I was convicted, I went to Paris, France by invitation of several European civil society organisations to attend a forum on human rights defenders, where I spoke about the private water and land model. In 2018 I was invited to a global meeting of human rights defenders at risk, held in Dublin, Ireland. That same year I was also invited to a regional meeting of human rights defenders that took place in Lima, Peru.

We have also been involved in intergovernmental forums such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2019, Chile was going to host the COP 25, and the global mobilisation for climate throughout the year had a tremendous echo in Chile. Obviously neither the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, planned for November, nor COP 25, scheduled for early December, could be held in Chile, because the government was completely overwhelmed by the popular mobilisation that began in late October, and because it responded to this with systematic human rights violations.

Several of our members were at COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and were able to speak with the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and with some officials of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after this meeting we had a meeting in Chile with Baltasar Garzón, the judge who prosecuted former dictator Pinochet and had him arrested in the UK. Garzón was very impressed with the water model and the stories our activists told him. Also recently we met with the delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during their visit to Chile. We met with Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and presented an overview of the Chilean situation and what it means to live deprived of water.

Do you think that forums such as the COP offer space for civil society to speak up and exercise influence?

I have a critical opinion of the COP. I think that in general it is a fair of vanities attended by many presidents, and many ministers of environment and agriculture, to promise the world what they cannot fulfil in their own countries. The main greenhouse gas emitting countries have leaders who either deny climate change, or are talking the talk about climate change but don’t seem to have the intention to make any change in their country’s predatory economic behaviour. The countries that are most responsible for climate change and global warming are currently the main detractors of the COP.

However, the summits do offer a space for civil society, from where it is possible to challenge the powerful, speak up about the climate injustice that affects the entire planet and promote the construction of a new development model that is viable and economically competitive while also socially fairer and ecologically healthier. But for that we need new paradigms: we cannot continue to think that there are unlimited development prospects on a planet that has finite natural resources.

Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with MODATIMA through their website and Facebook page, or follow @Modatima_cl on Twitter.

 

BOLIVIA: ‘We empower young people so they can lead the climate movement’

Rodrigo MeruviaFollowing a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Rodrigo Meruvia, general coordinator and researcher of the Gaia Pacha Foundation, a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to environmental protection and conservation. Based in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Gaia Pacha undertakes research, extension and development initiatives on the basis of cooperation with other CSOs, universities, research centres, government agencies and private companies.

 

 

What is the main environmental problem in the context where you work?

The central issue is climate change, a planetary phenomenon that is having impacts at all levels, on populations and their productive and food systems, and that exceeds local and institutional capacities. Among other things, this phenomenon is reflected in an increase in the frequency and magnitude of climatic events and the depth of their impacts.

We work with the aim of increasing the resilience of rural communities in the face of climate change, as well as building awareness among the urban population regarding the ways in which their consumption patterns affect the development prospects of many communities in rural areas. First of all we work to show how climate change impacts on areas of small family subsistence production and create mechanisms to help increase their resilience to climate change. We also work to empower young people both in rural communities and cities. We train them in technical issues as well as in matters of strategy and leadership, so that they can produce initiatives and generate alternatives on topics such as deforestation or greenhouse gas emission. We encourage them to generate projects applicable to their immediate surroundings and we foster networks and bridges with other civil society and academic organisations to support the implementation of their initiatives.

For example, at the moment we are working with universities in Cochabamba on the subject of alternative transportation, with the aim of establishing bike paths between the various university campuses within the city, so that young people can use bicycles as an emission-free and safe means of transportation. With that aim in mind, mobile phone apps are being developed that will indicate the safest routes, and parking lots for bicycles are being established, among other things. Work is also being done to educate car drivers, in partnership with the university and in a joint initiative with the municipality and some private companies that are interested in this issue.

Were there climate mobilisations in Bolivia during 2019?

Yes, in September, when the global climate mobilisations were held, major Bolivian cities joined as well. In Cochabamba, we provide support to the youth movement, providing them with resources so that they can lead the climate movement. We provide them with logistical and institutional support, which is needed because there is still a lack of trust in young people in our cities. We propel them without becoming the spokespeople for the movement. We provide training on a variety of topics and transmit the fundamentals and basic concepts to them so that they can account for the reasons for their mobilisation rather than just go to a march armed with a single slogan. The idea is for them to become the disseminators of accurate information regarding both the causes and local effects of global climate change.

With that aim we held several workshops targeted at young people. We trained about 100 young people directly, and indirectly we have reached around 1,400.

Did climate mobilisations in Bolivia echo global demands, or did demands have specific local components?

Demonstrations in Bolivia expressed demands related mainly to the forest fires that come hand in hand with the expansion of the agricultural frontier. Their main demand was the repeal of domestic laws that benefit agribusiness and neglect the protection of forests.

Bolivian laws do not protect forests, but rather the opposite. In mid-2019, just a few months before 2019’s great forest fires, the government enacted decree 3973, which authorised clearance for agricultural activities in private and community lands in the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz, and allowed controlled fires. In other words, the law gives free rein to any owner interested in expanding their production space, whether for livestock or agriculture. Unfortunately, this has been the position of the state so far, and in our experience whether there were leftist or right-wing governments in place has not made any difference. Beyond the party ideology of the incumbent government, there’s the interests of the agribusiness sector, which are much more permanent and broader, since they involve not only local actors but also transnational companies.

We believe that the cause of the fires is primarily human in origin, since they are started to expand the agricultural frontier. This is how about five and a half million hectares have already been burned. To give an idea of​​the dimensions of the disaster: the area that has been burned in the lowlands of Bolivia is almost the same size as Guatemala. And not only the forest is lost, but also the entire habitat is degraded, the water sources of some communities disappear and the effects of this extend beyond Bolivia, as bioclimates and rainfall change.

We understand that the phenomenon that affects us is part of a bigger problem, which this year had several expressions in the form of fires in the Brazilian Amazon, in African countries and in Australia. As there is insufficient rainfall due to climate change, forests are much more prone to burning. In addition to agricultural expansion policies, especially those aimed at growing soybeans – which in addition are genetically modified – this makes these places much more vulnerable. The consequences of this are suffered not only by the population living in the territories where these incidents occur, which is directly affected, but also by the general population.

At the same time, we also put forward the issue of urban deforestation. In Cochabamba there are around 200 deaths per year due to respiratory problems. It is one of the cities with the most polluted air in Latin America, so this was also one of the specific demands of our mobilisations, as well as the fact that we adhere to the global call for definitive and effective action by governments.

Have you had participated in international processes related to climate change?

We have participated from the local level, training young people to take part in the international negotiation processes, mainly at the COP – Conference of the Signatory Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – series of meetings.

We started by recruiting in various institutions that work with young people, and making a diagnosis to identify who were the ones who were ready and committed to addressing the issue of climate change, and then we made selections based on the issues we were working on. We gave workshops on topics ranging from the conceptual and technical approach to the issue of climate change, to the management of environmental projects, the characteristics of the negotiation process and strategies to participate, as well as workshops to improve people’s ability to express themselves adequately at these events. It was a long process, but it yielded very good results, because we already have leaders in the country’s nine departments who are trained to go participate in discussions and show the world the initiatives and projects that are being developed in Bolivia.

Unfortunately, the last-minute change of the venue for COP 25 to Spain – because it could not take place in Santiago de Chile due to the context of protests and repression – deflated us, because we were well prepared and had a firm position that in the end we could not contribute to the event. This was the case not just for us in Bolivia, but more generally for Latin America, where something very big was being prepared to share in Chile. The change of location and the short notice with which it was decided created a big complication for us, financially and logistically. On top of this, for us in Bolivia the consequences of recent socio-political conflicts also were an obstacle that prevented us from implementing our strategy before COP 25.

But we do not want to throw away the existing motivation and the accumulated work that we have done over approximately one and a half years, so we have continued to work to train young leaders. Our goal is to underpin the ability of young people to generate proposals and initiatives, both technically and politically, not only in their regions but also in international spaces.

Do you think that the disappointing outcomes of COP 25 had something to do with the absence of many people who were ready to influence the agenda but could not participate?

Yes, I think so. Without detracting from the work done by the countries and organisations that did participate, I think it ended up being a very improvised event, and if it had been held in Chile as planned, the results could have been a bit more significant and positive thanks to the presence and the participation of young people. For the first time, Bolivia was going to count on the participation of a group of young people recognised by the state, who were to carry out the mandate of a collective process developed in Bolivia’s nine departments through four or five prior forums.

However, we are trying to have a constructive attitude in the face of this setback, and we are taking advantage of the extra time we have to get ready. We already have these young people who are in a position to formulate demands and proposals wherever it might be necessary to do so – be it in the UK, where COP 26 will be held, or in any other international event if the opportunity arises.

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

Get in touch with the Pacha Gaia Foundation through its website and its Facebook page, or follow @GaiaPacha on Twitter.

 

HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the 2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders were sentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June, more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

What changed after the repression of 12 June?

There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression. Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is a leaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

What else have you learned in the process?

A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

What have the protests achieved so far?

The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

What are the challenges ahead?

While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

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

Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through its website and follow @hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

 

BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’

CIVICUS speaks about the 2019 protests and elections in Bolivia with Eliana Quiroz, Executive Director of Fundación Internet Bolivia (Bolivia Internet Foundation), an organisation dedicated to strengthening free and secure access to the web. In its work to defend online human rights against censorship, surveillance, manipulation, extortion and other harmful practices, the Bolivia Internet Foundation focuses its actions on capacity strengthening among vulnerable publics, the promotion of open discussion spaces and the development of knowledge and technology-based strategies.

 

ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘Protesting once is not enough; we need to fight back every single day’

Asia LeofreddiFollowing our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about civil society protests against the World Congress of Families held in Verona, Italy, with Asia Leofreddi, a PhD Candidate at the Antonio Papisca Human Rights Centre of the University of Padua and a journalist with Confronti, a think tank and magazine dedicated to the study of the relationships between religion, politics and society. Based on the values of memory, hospitality, solidarity and pluralism, Confronti promotes dialogue among Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and lay people interested in the world of faiths, with the aim of breaking down misunderstandings and fundamentalism and helping to build an intercultural democratic society.

How would you characterise the World Congress of Families?

The World Congress of Families (WCF) is the biggest ‘pro-family’ gathering in the world. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQI+ advocacy group and political lobbying organisation in the USA, has defined it as “the largest and most influential organization involved in anti-LGBT policies worldwide.” It was established by an American and a Russian in Moscow in 1997, and today it gathers together many associations, religious groups, scholars and political activists based in various countries, primarily belonging to Christian denominations. Among them, the Russian branch is particularly strong and acts with the open support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.

The WCF’s pro-family agenda translates into support for the traditional family model and reflects a highly conservative view of gender roles. Accordingly, the WCF opposes abortion, surrogate motherhood, same-sex marriage and any progress towards equality in sexual and reproductive rights. Their gathering is organised by the International Organization for the Family (IOF) which is active at many other levels. At the international level, beyond organising international conferences, it tries to influence international institutions, such as the UN, in order to promote a conservative and restrictive interpretation of human rights, in particular of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In domestic politics, its member organisations link with or operate as interest groups infiltrating parties and academic institutions, lobbying officials and using democratic means such as referendums and mobilisations to advance their claims in national public spheres.

Not coincidentally, over the past decade Brazil, Russia, the USA and several European countries have witnessed the rise of anti-gender and pro-family discourse, promoted by far-right parties, as well as the introduction, and sometimes also the approval and implementation, of morally conservative policies put forward by representatives of their national governments. In 2013, for instance, the Russian Duma unanimously approved a Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values (popularly known as the ‘anti-gay law’). In Croatia a referendum was held that same year, promoted by an organisation called U ime obitelji (‘In the name of the family’) and aiming to establish a constitutional prohibition against same sex-marriage. It won with 67 per cent of the vote. In 2018 the right-wing governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which they viewed as a threat to the traditional family structure. And in 2019 the Council of Verona approved Motion 434, described as ‘an initiative to prevent abortion and promote motherhood’, put forward by a representative of the far-right League Party, and declared Verona a ‘pro-life city’. All the organisations and political representatives involved in all these processes are somehow connected to the WCF, which shows that over the past decades the ‘family’ label has started to play a key role in the creation of new geopolitical alliances that were not even thought to be possible a short while ago.

Who were the main groups involved in protesting against the WCF in Verona?

The main protests held in Verona during the meeting of the WCF in March 2019 were led by the local branch of the transnational feminist movement Non Una di Meno (‘Not one woman less’). They organised a three-day mobilisation called Verona Città Transfemminista (Transfeminist City Verona) that encompassed a variety of events spread throughout the city. These events looked like a real counter-congress, complete with panels, shows and speakers coming from every part of the world.

Additionally, another forum took place at the Academy of Agriculture, Letters and Sciences, a historic building in the city centre, on 30 March. This encounter was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation – European Network and the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti) in collaboration with Rebel Network and other national and international organisations. This event gathered more than 30 speakers representing the transnational struggle of civil society for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.

Some Italian politicians also decided to show their opposition to the WCF, and several female representatives of the opposition Democratic Party organised a public meeting in the K2 Theatre of Verona on the same day.

As all these events show, during those days Verona became a political laboratory in which two opposed views of society were on display. The small city became the battlefield of a global struggle. On the one hand, there was the reactionary and illiberal activism of the WCF, and on the other, the open and inclusive activism of national and international progressive movements and people who autonomously decided to participate in the protests.

However, what was most surprising was the great participation of Italian civil society. The demonstration held on 30 March was the biggest Verona had ever seen: more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the city to side with women’s right to choose.

What motivated all these groups and citizens to protest?

For civil society groups, the main binding factor was the WCF. Mobilised groups focused their activism on defending sexual and reproductive rights, strongly jeopardised by the narratives promoted and political strategies used by Congress participants.

Meanwhile Italian citizens took to the streets mostly in reaction against the strong support that the WCF received from an important sector of the Italian government at the time. Indeed, three then-ministers took part in the Congress – Matteo Salvini, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Lorenzo Fontana, Minister of the Family and Marco Bussetti, Minister of Education – and both the governor of the Veneto region and the mayor of Verona gave official sponsorship to the gathering. A majority of Italians viewed the institutional promotion of a gathering detrimental to civil rights as a political action against our Constitution.

What was the impact of the protests?

This was the first time the WCF had to face such a huge protest. As soon it was announced that the 13th edition of the WCF would take place in Italy – a founding member of the European Union with a strong civil society and a deep attachment to a set of rights gained through many years of struggle – analysts started watching the events with great interest. However, I don’t think anyone expected such a big reaction – not even our politicians attending the Congress.

At the national level, the protests achieved good results. For instance, they forced Matteo Salvini to publicly proclaim that Law 194 – the Italian law recognising abortion rights – would not be not touched and forced League Senator Simone Pillon to postpone a draft bill that had been widely criticised as not defending women from domestic violence. They also provided the opportunity for representative Laura Boldrini to pass a law against revenge porn, which until then had been strongly opposed by the parliamentary majority. Additionally, the days of the Congress were a great opportunity to unmask the strong connections that a section of our government, and particularly the League Party, which was in coalition government at that time, has with the global far right, despite their rhetoric on national sovereignty, and with some domestic far-right forces such as Forza Nuova, an extreme-right nationalist party, members of which were accredited to the Congress.

At the international level, the WCF in Verona offered an opportunity for participating opposition movements to forge new transnational alliances and reflect on the construction of common narratives and strategies. It was then that groups that until then had focused on their own national, and sometimes provincial, contexts realised how important it was to act globally. The presence of foreign experts and activists helped Italian movements to understand better the strategies of ultra-conservative groups and their ability to function simultaneously at different levels.

While we in Italy have always been confronted with the conservative positions of the Vatican and its influence on politics and civil society regarding sexual and reproductive rights, the WCF in Verona made it clear that we are facing a process of modernisation and professionalisation of ultra-conservative activism. As Kristina Stoeckl, an Austrian scholar, has widely demonstrated in her project on postsecular conflicts, these actors now enter public debate with their religious claims and turn them mainstream. They present them in a non-religious language, translating them into the language of human rights or natural law. They disseminate them with by using tactics and strategies typical of progressive mobilisations and campaigns. During the WCF held in Verona, Italian progressive movements became aware of the dimension of the phenomenon that they face as well as the fact that far from being limited to a national context, the politicisation of religion and pro-family rhetoric are actually part of a much broader political project.

These successes, however, by no means turned the Verona edition of the WCF into a failure. They clearly showed they were not be ready to deal with countries with a strong civil society capable of mobilising discourses and resources at their same level. Still, about 10,000 people took part in their ‘family march’ on 31 March. They were far fewer than those who took to the streets to participate in the feminist and progressive mobilisation off the previous day, but they were still many. Moreover, I think the success of the WCF is measured more by what happens inside the Congress than what happens outside. In the WCF in Verona there were many representatives of governments from all over the world – far more than in previous years – which offered them a great opportunity to strengthen their networks.

I don’t mean to diminish the results achieved by progressive movements in Verona, but to emphasise that protesting once is not enough. We need to remember to fight back every single day. We need to be aware that our opponents remain active even when they disappear from the scene. Ours is a battle of public opinion, which must be informed on a daily basis.

What more could civil society be doing to push back against anti-rights groups such as the WCF, and what support does it need to be able to respond?

First, the days in Verona demonstrated the importance of a vigilant and united civil society. On the way forward, it is important for progressive actors to develop better knowledge of these transnational networks and gain the ability not only to react but also to move proactively against ultra-conservative political projects on a daily basis. It is worth noting that the WCF has existed since 1997, and around the mid-2000s it started to become a political actor, capable of influencing national discourse and policies in several countries, from Russia to Central and Eastern Europe up to the USA. Moreover, for quite a long time some of its members have been involved in UN negotiations, playing a wider role in the international human rights debate. However, most Italian groups working on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only became aware of its existence when it was announced that the Congress would take place in Verona.

Second, it is important to move beyond a reductionist interpretation of these movements as simply anti-gender and of this phenomenon as a mere ‘conservative backlash’ against progressive and emancipatory movements. Defining ultra-conservative claims in culturally binary terms (past vs future, intolerance vs tolerance, religion vs secularism, traditional family vs sexual freedom) does not help grasp the complexity of their project and their strong contextual adaptability, nor prevent them from taking further actions.

Indeed, their anti-gender claims often intersect with other issues including the right to homeschooling, concerns such as human ecology, demography, Christianophobia, political stances such as nationalism, the defence of national sovereignty and a more general critique of the Western liberal political and economic order and its supranational institutions. All these concepts help them build a more comprehensive and systematic ideology, mobilising forces in various countries and strengthening their political alliances.

But binary oppositions overlook these groups’ capacity to function in a variety of contexts. For instance, although they support a conservative view of gender roles, several ultra-conservative political parties have female leaders – just think of Alice Weidel (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national, France), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia) and Pauline Hanson (One Nation, Australia). Others have women among their leadership, as seen with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang, Belgium) and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Swiss People's Party). On top of that, once in power, many of them promote social policies that advance women’s interests, such as a monthly income for every child born or more general welfare measures. Of course, these policies only favour heterosexual families, but still, they allow many families – and many women – to get the support they need.

Even regarding LGBTQI+ rights, they are able to contextualise their stances. While Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro says that he would prefer a dead son than a gay one, Alice Weidel is an out lesbian who lives with her partner and her two children. Similarly, prioritising the fight against radical Islam and foreign powers, during her latest electoral campaign the ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen recognised the acceptance of homosexuality as part of French values.

Third, the media have a key role in opposing these movements. It is very important to do research and disseminate information, explaining for example that many of the populist forces we see emerging in our countries are part of larger networks. It is no coincidence that Italy’s Salvini publicly kisses the crucifix, Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the legalisation of homeschooling one of his key priorities for his first 100 days in office, and Donald Trump is the first US president to attend his country’s most important national anti-abortion march. They are all part of a specific structure of power and the media have the responsibility to unmask their political and economic links.

Finally, I believe that the rise of these ultra-fundamentalist movements is the consequence of a broader crisis, which has also led to the success of several illiberal leaders in various parts of the world. Progressive movements need to be aware of this so as to rethink some key concepts of their strategy, assess whether they are still connected with the broader society and, if they are not, start addressing this issue. As masterfully expressed by Eszter Kováts, “We need to recognise the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful question: ‘how did we get here’, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.”

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

 

#UN75: ‘The system is slow and not at all agile’

yolette etienne2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks with Yolette Etienne, Action Aid Country Director in Haiti.

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history? Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

Among the greatest successes of the UN we could highlight the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; support for decolonisation processes in Africa and Asia; participation in peace agreements; the deployment of peacekeeping operations, with some reservations; the drafting of nuclear and conventional arms control treaties; the establishment of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court; and the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women and the creation of UN Women for the promotion of equality. Their existence, although perhaps not their impact, has been a success.

In connection with these, we should also note the existence of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Generally speaking, there have been many initiatives bringing about transformations and recognising the right to development, introduced mainly before the 1990s, as was the case of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

From 2019, we must emphasise the positive character of the strong position taken by the UN to alert the world to the crisis of climate and nature.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

There are too many UN humanitarian agencies and they consume too much money – around 60 per cent of the overall humanitarian budget. Another dysfunctional entity of the UN is the Security Council, which is paralysed because of its permanent members’ veto power.

There were indeed efforts by the World Humanitarian Summit to tackle the global reform of the humanitarian system under former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but it did not really have the support of the big players. I do not really know of any civil society initiatives in this direction, but it would be nice to see civil society movements tackle these two situations.

What challenges have you encountered in your interactions with the UN system?

It's the same general remark when it comes to heaviness and slowness. The system is slow and not at all agile. The simplest partnership requires a lot of energy to keep agencies engaged, not to mention the crippling bureaucracy.

Get in touch with Action Aid Haiti through its website and Facebook page, or follow @ActionAid on Twitter. 

 

#UN75: ‘It is time for the UN to be bold again!’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Caroline Vernaillen, Public Relations and Global Community-Building Officer with Democracy International, a global coalition pushing for more direct democracy as a means to improve our lives and the societies in which we live. Democracy International runs campaigns, organises knowledge-sharing events and supports democracy activists from all over the world. 

caroline vernaillen

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

One of the greatest achievements of the UN has been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that is, the formulation of the universal and inalienable rights that every person on this planet has. The Universal Declaration sets out the fundamental values of our society: freedom, equality, justice and solidarity – the very pillars of democracy – and of course the right to public participation. It is heart-breaking that these rights are still suppressed in many countries and that they have come under heavy attack again in recent years. We have a lot of work to do to turn them into a reality for every single human being on this planet.

Over the past years, we have seen citizens around the world take to the streets, claiming their democratic rights. The UN has been consistent in speaking up on their behalf, ensuring that their human rights are guaranteed in a world where the space for civil society – civic space – is dramatically shrinking. Millions of young people around the world in recent years have been protesting for more effective measures against climate change. The global Youth for Climate movements have been given a prominent platform at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) and even the UN General Assembly, allowing them to present their demands to world leaders directly and address a global audience with increased authority.

Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

In the case of Hong Kong, where citizens have been protesting for their democratic rights since the spring of 2019, the UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly called for restraint and de-escalation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has publicly called for an investigation into the widely reported police violence against protesters and has defended the rights of Hong Kong citizens to participate in public affairs and to the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

At the end of the year, the International Criminal Court announced that it would launch an investigation into, among other things, violence by Israeli defence forces against Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza.

In Syria, the UN General Assembly set up a mechanism to investigate the most serious crimes committed under international law, an investigation that is now operational. These instances send a strong message that the UN is prepared to defend people’s rights to public participation and that those who use violence against citizens will be held accountable.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

The UN was set up as an intergovernmental organ, because at its inception the greatest threat to global peace and security were nation states waging war against each other. The world we live in today is very different. From our global financial architecture to conflicts increasingly spurred on by non-state actors to environmental challenges, everything has globalised. However, citizens at the moment do not have a way to influence decisions at the global level that could address these challenges. The UN is still the most important arena where these issues can be tackled, but there is no way for citizens to have direct influence on the issues that are being discussed and decided there. Citizens around the world worry about and feel the consequences of climate change, for example, but they do not get to set the agenda for international decision-making on the subject. They have to rely on the will and initiative of governments to take action, rather than being able to express what their own policy priorities are. This is not a new issue. The democratic deficit at the UN is well documented, and throughout the years many proposals for reform have been made, but few have been implemented.

What are the ongoing civil society initiatives pushing for that kind of change?

Together with our partners at Democracy Without Borders and CIVICUS, and with the support of a growing alliance of already over 100 civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide, we just launched a campaign for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, dubbed We the Peoples. The campaign calls for an agenda-setting mechanism that would allow citizens around the world, once they have reached a certain threshold of support, to put issues on the agenda of either the UN General Assembly or the Security Council.

This is not a new idea. Mechanisms like this exist in most democratic countries and there is one transnational example too. The European Union (EU) allows citizens who gather one million signatures of support in at least seven EU member states to propose legislation to the European Commission, which is obligated to respond to the proposal. In its eight years of existence, the European Citizens’ Initiative has already led to changes in water regulation and pesticide regulation in the EU. The tool certainly has flaws as well: for instance, there is no way for citizens to enforce follow-up on their initiative, as the Commission is not obligated to take action. But the European experience shows that tools like this are feasible, and they can work to empower citizens and involve them more in political decision-making, even at the transnational level.

Another civil society initiative is the campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which advocates for stronger citizen representation at the UN level. This complementary body would allow elected representatives, including from the opposition and minorities, to have a voice at the UN. Currently UN member states are only represented by their executive branch of government.

What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how would it be possible to overcome them?

For CSOs it is quite hard to gain access to the UN system. We have found that individual mandate holders are often very willing to listen and are open to new ideas, but any institutional change is decided by member states. This constitutes a very high hurdle for CSOs, which often only operate in a handful of countries. Gathering up the necessary support from enough member states is an arduous and expensive process that very few CSOs can afford. In addition, there is a lot of institutional inertia at the UN, which works in favour of those governments that wish to keep civil society and citizens away.

It is even more difficult for individual citizens to gain access to UN institutions. Our call for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative would give citizens the framework and the setting to address the UN directly and open into an interaction with them on a scale that has not existed yet in the history of the UN. Even though this is a tool that is not yet in place, organisations and individuals can join the campaign by visiting https://www.worldcitizensinitiative.org to strengthen the citizen and civil society-led solidarity behind the campaign, which, if implemented, will alleviate the UN’s democratic deficit and bolster citizens’ role in the UN. It is time for the UN to be bold again! 

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

 

#UN75: ‘The Human Rights Council has made a positive difference in addressing human rights violations’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Rosanna Ocampo, UN Advocacy Senior Programme Officer with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a network comprising 81 members in 21 countries across Asia that works to promote and protect human rights through collaboration and cooperation among human rights organisations and defenders in Asia and beyond.

Rosanna Ocampo

Would you say there were instances during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

In 2019, the work of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) made some positive differences in addressing human rights situations in various places, including in Asia. For example, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar presented its final report to the HRC. The report noted that there were “reasonable grounds to conclude that the evidence that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State, identified in its last report, has strengthened.” This contributed to the application filed by the Government of Gambia at the International Court of Justice, which in January 2020 made a unanimous decision ordering Myanmar to protect the Rohingya people from genocide. On the basis of the FFM’s reports, the Court also ruled that there was prima facie evidence of violations of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar. This is a clear demonstration of the complementary roles played by different UN organs and agencies.

Other recent steps toward justice and accountability in Myanmar have included the operationalisation of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, which will collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of serious international crimes and violations, and will prepare case files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings. Another is the publication of the report on the involvement of the UN in Myanmar since 2011 to establish whether everything possible was done to prevent or mitigate the crisis. We hope that states will follow up on this work by pursuing criminal accountability, including through the UN Security Council referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.

In 2019 the HRC also adopted its first resolution on the Philippines in response to the thousands of deaths resulting from the government's so-called 'war on drugs' and threats to civil society space. The resolution requested the High Commissioner “to prepare a comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in the Philippines and to present it to the Human Rights Council at its forty-fourth session,” which is to be held in June 2020. We see this as an important first step toward credible investigations and accountability, and hope that the HRC will follow up on the recommendations of the report. As the Philippines is a member of the HRC, the resolution on the Philippines also shows that Council membership shouldn't be a shield from scrutiny and that members are expected to uphold human rights standards both domestically and internationally.

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

There still remain many instances in which the lack of political will, or the political and economic interests of states, get in the way of situations being adequately addressed at the HRC, including situations of grave concern and issues relating to civil society space. For example, the way the resolutions on Cambodia have played out in the past couple of years haven't reflected the reality of the situation in the country. More should have been done than just renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia. It would have been good for the HRC to mandate additional monitoring and reporting by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on civic and democratic space in the country, and recommend steps for the Government of Cambodia to take to restore fundamental freedoms.

What obstacles does civil society face in interacting with the UN, and what can be done about it?

Discussions on improving the efficiency of the HRC and problems related to the budget of the UN all affect civil society participation at the UN, including at the HRC. There are still some states that are using this opportunity to try to restrict civil society space at the UN and limit civil society participation in debates. Working together with other like-minded civil society organisations, we continue to advocate with states to ensure that civil society is not disproportionately affected by changes in the work of the HRC and ensure that human rights defenders can continue to play a part in the discussions that affect them.

Get in touch with FORUM-ASIA through its website and Facebook page, or follow @forum_asia on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘Governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community’

2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

cristina palabay pictureCIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of the Karapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatan has 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.

What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.

Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.

The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.

What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?

Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.

First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.

Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.

Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.

All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.

What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?

We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.

When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.

When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.

When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.

When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.

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

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

 

SPAIN: ‘Democratic rules are being used to promote an anti-rights ideology’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent election in Spain with Núria Valls, president of the Ibero-American League of Civil Society Organisations (Liga Iberoamericana), a platform that brings together 29 civil society organisations from 17 Ibero-American countries, specialising in human, social and community development. Legally incorporated in Spain, the Ibero-American League has worked on childhood, youth, education and labour issues from a human rights perspective for 20 years, by providing advice to governments, monitoring and evaluating programmes and building networks and doing public policy advocacy at the local, domestic and international levels.

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What were the causes of the political instability that required Spain to hold two elections in 2019?

The widespread rejection of the political system that was established following the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s led to a significant deterioration of the two traditional parties: the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). These political parties were very used to bipartisanship and ruling with the support of large majorities. When other parties appeared on stage, pacts and coalitions became necessary, which until then had only been a feature of local politics. It became necessary to include more minority parties and nationalist parties from the country’s periphery, which does not always pay electorally.

In addition, the political conflict in Catalonia had radicalised the positions of parties present at the state level, which entered into a sort of competition to show who was the most Spanish. Even leftist parties do not dare to speak in recognition of Spain’s national plurality because the media, and particularly those from the capital, Madrid, criticise them aggressively.

In the first elections of 2019, held in May, the PSOE felt uncomfortable when negotiating with the leftist and independent parties that had supported the motion of censure leading to the replacement of the conservative government led by the PP. On top of this, the personal ambitions of the leaders of both the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, the left-wing coalition formed in 2016 by the Podemos political movement and several other political forces, made a pact impossible at that time.

The PSOE misread the polls and believed that a second election would give them the majority, and therefore the possibility of governing alone. But ahead of the November elections, people were angry because, as they saw it, due to their leaders’ personal egos parties had not done their job, and instead had made us waste time and money. All of this further deepened dissatisfaction with politics.

Would you say that the extreme right party Vox benefited from this?

Vox was one of the parties that benefited the most from the second election. It doubled its number of votes and became the third most represented party, with 52 seats, right behind the two major parties.

Traditionally in Spain it was considered that there was no extreme right because the PP encompassed the entire right wing. But Vox emerged with great force and with a Francoist, aggressive anti-human rights discourse, presenting itself as the guarantor of the unity of Spain against separatism. In fact, the way the situation in Catalonia has been handled has been a breeding ground for the acceptance of increasingly right-wing discourse, justified in the need to preserve the unity of Spain.

Another electoral result worth mentioning is that of Ciudadanos, a seemingly liberal party, which not long ago thought it would soon be in government, but which practically disappeared given its meagre results. Ciudadanos had focused its discourse on territorial conflict and on the unity of Spain. Voters who prioritised this issue preferred Vox, which has a more radical stance.

Despite the good results obtained by Vox, however, it was the left that won the elections and this time they worked fast. In just 24 hours a pact between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos was forged, which had previously been impossible to achieve. Citizens found it hard to understand why what a few months ago had been impossible was now possible. But what is important is that the formation of a government was prioritised against the feeling of instability and paralysis that has prevailed in recent years. Faced with this broad pact among leftist parties, the right wing reacted with a very aggressive discourse, strongly rooted in the Francoist tradition.

Finally, due to the abstention of Catalan pro-independence parties, it was possible to form a government. Governing will not be easy, but it promises to be a very interesting experience, which offers the possibility of creating change. It will be a very broad government, with 22 ministerial portfolios, notably characterised by gender parity.

How would you characterise Vox as a political force and ideological trend?

Vox is a far-right party that does not hide its xenophobic anti-human rights discourse. It prioritises two major issues: the unity and centralisation of Spain, and the elimination of gender policies.

This is a worrying phenomenon that is not only happening in Spain. Extreme right parties arise in times of citizen frustration in the face of economic and social inequalities in a globalised world. There is an international movement – which spans Brazil, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and many other countries – that focuses on stigmatising and criminalising migration and so-called ‘gender ideology’. The support for these speeches by some religious congregations should also be analysed.

These parties use democracy’s rules to promote an anti-human rights ideology. It is paradoxical that democracy, which was born under the values ​​of participation and respect for rights, is currently being used to strengthen and foster an ideology that is totally opposed to those values.

How did this right turn take place just a few years after so many people had taken part in protests for economic and social justice?

An element of this turn has to do with the anger that a section of the population feels toward politics. Corruption of political parties has had a great impact on society, as people think that politicians are in politics only to enrich themselves. There is no idea of politics in the broader sense as linked to the common good.

In particular, there is a bloc of young people who see a very difficult future for themselves. They have very low expectations and view a vote for Vox is an anti-system choice. This is the vote of those who think that migration will deprive them of jobs and state resources, and that gender policies are an exaggeration. Vox is very apt at using social media with direct messages often based on falsehoods but that are reaching the population.

The territorial conflict between Spain and Catalonia has also functioned as a catalyst for this anger. The message of ‘we’ll go after them (‘A por ellos’) used to despatch police units from the rest of Spain towards Catalonia to try to prevent the referendum on 1 October 2017, later reinforced by a message from the King, aroused an anti-Catalan sentiment. The right bloc, and especially Vox, appropriated the defence of the monarchy against republican leftist parties.

How is this process being experienced by civil society? Do you think that the space for civil society is being degraded in Spain?

Organised civil society was caught a little off guard. On the one hand, we did not believe that electoral support for Vox would be so strong, and on the other hand, we had a debate about whether we should respond to them, and therefore give them more media coverage, or whether it was best to ignore them. The second option prevailed, among political parties as well. And the strategy of ignoring them contributed to the increase in votes for Vox. There was nobody left to respond to their expressions bluntly and with clear arguments.

Now civil society debate revolves around the need to defend human rights clearly and forcefully and respond to any expression that hurts or stigmatises any population group.

In the territories where it is governing together with the PP and Ciudadanos, such as Andalusia, Madrid and Murcia, one of Vox's first actions has been to press for the end of aid to organisations working with women or vulnerable groups.

We are experiencing a risk of regression in freedoms and therefore it is necessary for us to work in a more united way than ever as civil society. A clear communication strategy must be developed to reach all people. Often we in civil society remain locked in our own spheres and find it hard to take our message beyond our circles.

Another strategy used by the right wing, and especially by Vox and the PP, is to use the justice system to settle political disagreements. Much of the judiciary in Spain is still very ideological, since many conservative judges remain as heirs of the Franco regime. As a result, sentences have abounded against the freedom of expression on social media, including censorship of songs. And many people have also been convicted for protesting publicly, especially in Catalonia.

How has the situation in Catalonia evolved since the 2017 referendum?

The referendum of 1 October 2017 was an act of empowerment by a section of the Catalan population that participated very actively, with a collective sentiment of civil disobedience, to achieve a better future against a state that did all it could to prevent it from happening. The violent state repression unleashed during the referendum and afterwards increased the collective feeling of a big section of the population in favour of independence, and especially in favour of the right to decide through elections.

After the referendum, repression against Catalan pro-independence groups increased, and the state put all its police and judicial machinery in motion. In addition, it launched article 155 of the Constitution, which provides the state with a coercive mechanism to bind the autonomous communities that breach constitutional or legal obligations or seriously undermine Spain’s ‘general interest’. Article 155 suspended the autonomy of Catalonia from 27 October 2017 until 2 June 2018, when new regional elections were held. It amounted to almost a year of political, financial and administrative paralysis in Catalonia.

Previously, on 16 October 2017, the leaders of the two most representative Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, had been imprisoned for mediating in a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration in front of a building of the Generalitat, the Catalan government, where the police were conducting a search. They were imprisoned preventively, with no possibility of release before their trial.

Following these arrests, judicial repression against the government of Catalonia increased, culminating in the detention of the vice president and five government ministers plus the president of the parliament of Catalonia, all of whom were placed in pre-trial detention. For his part, the president of the Generalitat went into exile in Belgium along with four more ministers, and two other politicians went into exile in Switzerland. The government of Spain made statements affirming that it had decapitated the pro-independence movement.

This entire judicial and repressive process further complicated the political situation in Catalonia. The ruling issued on 14 October 2019, which sentenced independence leaders to prison terms of between nine and 13 years, amounting to a total of 100 years, caused new street protests to break out.

Unlike all previous pro-independence demonstrations since 2012, the latest protests caused many riots and faced police repression. In addition, young people were the protagonists and adopted a more radical attitude towards repression. In that context, the anonymous Democratic Tsunami movement emerged. Inspired by the Hong Kong protests, this movement uses social media to call for large peaceful mobilisations in various locations, such as the border or the airport. The police have tried to discover who is behind this movement, but it really is just an instance of collective empowerment by pro-independence civil society.

At present, following the latest Spanish elections in which the PSOE and Unidas Podemos required the abstention of the pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia to be able to form a government, the picture has changed. The government has pledged to initiate a dialogue with the government of Catalonia and to bring any agreements reached through dialogue to a citizen vote. This will not be easy because right-wing parties, using any judicial remedy at their disposal, are trying to boycott the process. An effort must be made to find a solution for the situation of pro-independence prisoners that facilitates a peaceful and political way out and allows a process of real dialogue to begin.

Civic space in Spain is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with La Liga Iberoamericana through its website and Facebook page, or follow @LigaIberoamOSC on Twitter.

 

 

PAKISTAN: ‘I was told the people who detained me were from the Army Intelligence Agency’

Prof IsmailCIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ismail, a longstanding member of CIVICUS’ Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA), a network of 90 national and regional civil society platforms from around the world. Professor Ismail is the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Pakistan.

Mohammed Ismail and his family have been facing various forms of harassment, intimidation and threats due to the activism of his daughter, Gulalai Ismail. Due to persecution, Gulalai fled Pakistan and applied for asylum in the USA. In July 2019, Mohammed was accused under the Anti-Terrorism Act and on 24 October 2019 he was detained, and further charges were brought against him under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act. He was granted conditional bail on 5 December 2019 and released. The charges against him are still pending.

Can you tell us about the charges and harassment leading to your arrest? Why do you think you have been targeted?

I have been targeted because of my daughter’s activism. In May 2018, my daughter Gulalai Ismail, a women’s rights activist, visited South Waziristan, an area on the border with Afghanistan, which was once a hub for international terrorism. Residents of the area have been complaining that the Pakistani army was protecting the militants, killing peaceful citizens and destroying their property.

Gulalai visited an area named Khaisoor along with a group of women human rights activists. Women and girls shared their stories about sexual harassment by army personnel. Gulalai assured them that she would highlight their situation and work on the issue of sexual harassment of women and girls in conflict areas. In May 2019, a nine-year-old girl whose parents had been internally displaced from tribal areas experiencing conflict was raped and killed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The police refused to file a first information report (FIR) of the incident, and instead abused and harassed the father and brother of the child in the police station. Gulalai led a protest in Islamabad against police brutality and misconduct and spoke up about sexual harassment of women and girls in tribal areas and of the internally displaced population from tribal areas.

Gulalai is also an active member of the newly emerged young Pashtun movement known as the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has been voicing demands for a truth-finding process around war crimes committed by security forces in conflict areas. They have also made demands for the recovery of missing people, for perpetrators to be brought before the law, the clearing of landmines, compensation for houses and markets destroyed and the protection of people’s fundamental rights.

Due to her activism, the government brought two criminal cases against Gulalai for attending gatherings of the PTM, but these were quashed by the courts. A few months later Gulalai was arrested at Islamabad Airport by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on her arrival from London and her name was put on the Exit Control List (ECL), which bans her from travelling outside the country.

In February 2019, Gulalai was picked by security agencies at the Islamabad Press Club while she was attending a protest for the release of PTM activists, but her name was not on the list of people arrested and she went missing for 36 hours. She was produced and released by the Pakistani army after the Prime Minister of Pakistan interceded.

On 22 May 2019 the Islamabad police registered six counts of sedition charges against her in different police stations. Gulalai heard the news from various TV channels and stayed with friends to evade arrest. The army and the police raided our home in Islamabad and two army vehicles conducted surveillance on us for 24 hours. The army and the police also raided the homes of relatives while searching for Gulalai.

When the police could not arrest Gulalai, they retaliated by registering a case against me, my wife and Gulalai. They accused Gulalai of raising funds for her organisation and distributing them to terrorists through me and my wife. We were charged with financing terrorism.

I filed a writ petition in the Peshawar High Court for them to quash the charges on the basis that they were based on mala fide (bad faith). The Peshawar High Court then issued a stay order till the writ petition could be heard by them.

Can you tell us about your arrest? How did it happen? Where were you taken to?

Around midnight on 17 October 2019, the doorbell rang at our home. I checked the CCTV cameras and saw two vehicles outside. Two persons were going around on bikes and four were standing in front of our door. Two of them had masks on their heads and pistols in their hands and were standing at both sides of the door. One had a Kalashnikov and the other rang the bell.

I came to the door and asked who they were. They told me that they were police officers and I should come out. I refused and said that at that time of night, they could very well be criminals. They stood around for at least 40 minutes and finally left.

My children advised me to leave Islamabad for a few days, so I shifted to another area. The hearing of my writ petition in Peshawar High Court was scheduled for 24 October 2019. I waited in the courtroom but due to delays my case was adjourned to another date. As I came out of the court, uniformed people were waiting for me at the gate. They started beating me and dragged me into a car. The car had a siren and rushed out of the city towards the tribal areas. Then they received a call and took me to a FIA office.

What happened after you were detained?

I asked the staff present at the FIA office why I had been treated this way, why I was being humiliated and what my crime was. They told me that they had nothing to do with my arrest. The people who detained me were from the Army Intelligence Agency (ISI) and they were waiting for further orders on what to do with me. They took away my mobile phone, laptop and purse. Eight hours after my abduction they registered a FIR against me and charged me for cybercrimes. The FIR stated that I had used social media to spread hate. I was kept in lockup. I was not provided with bedding or food. There were other people charged with smuggling in the lockup who provided me with a blanket and water to drink.

The next day I was presented to a magistrate and sent to Peshawar Prison, where I was kept with drug addicts and again I was not provided with any bedding or blanket. My relatives and friends were not allowed to visit me or bring me the items I needed. I made a complaint to the magistrate when I was presented to him 14 days later, but he told me that it was not in his domain to provide me with the necessary items.

The food provided was below standard and of low quality while medicine was not available. The latrines were dirty and I had to sleep on the ground. I stayed in prison for 34 days without any of the facilities required by a normal person. I wrote to the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan about the violations of the human rights of prisoners in Peshawar Prison. 

Why do you think you were released?

My bail application was rejected by the Session Court judges but the Peshawar High Court granted me conditional bail. The judge asked me to support the government of Pakistan and show the positive face of Pakistan to the world so that Pakistan could be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an organisation combatting money laundering and terrorism financing. I was further told not to use social media.

What is the current status with your case and charges?

In the first case, related to terrorism financing I am on pre-arrest bail. I am waiting for the decision of the Peshawar High Court. If the case registered against my wife, my daughter and I is quashed by the High Court, then this case will end. Otherwise my wife and I will be handed over to ISI and the Anti-Terrorism Police. In the second case related to cybercrimes, I am on bail and waiting for the start of the case in court. Further, my wife and I have been put on the ECL, so we cannot travel outside Pakistan. If we are acquitted, we will file a writ petition that will allow us to travel.

Are other activists facing similar restrictions in Pakistan?

Yes, they are. For example, PTM activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are arrested on a regular basis on cybercrime charges. The government and the army have lost their patience with dissident voices. There is censorship, which is why Pakistan ranks poorly for media independence. Political opponents are also arrested on trumped-up corruption charges.

People supported me and condemned my arrest by making my case trend on Twitter. But only one CSO – the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – raised its voice for me. All other CSOs have surrendered to the army and the government and have lost the courage to raise their voices against the abduction of human rights defenders.

What can the international community do to support your case?

I still need support from the international community to urge the government of Pakistan to withdraw the cases registered against my wife and I and get us off the ECL so that we can recover our right to free movement. It will also be important to target the Chief Justice of Pakistan so he can use his power to protect the rights of human rights defenders in Pakistan.

It would be good if my case can be raised with the international media, international human rights organisations, the United Nations system, the US State Department and the European Union. I am thankful to CIVICUS for raising your voices for me on various forums.

Civic space in Pakistan is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @ProfMIsmail on Twitter.

 

CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’

CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.

havana protest

Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.

The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?

Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.

In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.

In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.

Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.

In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.

How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?

There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.

The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.

At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.

At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.

Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.

Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.

Why the change?

The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.

In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.

How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?

The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.

From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.

For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.

However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.

Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?

The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.

What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.

The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.

Civic space in Cuba is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos through its webpage and Facebook profile, or follow @conflictoscuba on Twitter.

 

#UN75: ‘Human rights are at the centre of multilateral diplomacy’

 

NicoAgostini2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

CIVICUS speaks to Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations of DefendDefenders, an organisation that promotes the work and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa – Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. DefendDefenders provides emergency and legal support, protection grants and relocation programmes; helps build capacity in security and protection, digital safety, advocacy and communication, monitoring and reporting, human rights education and mental health and wellbeing; connects HRDs and civil society organisations (CSOs); raises awareness through research and analysis; and advocates for the protection of HRDs at the regional and international levels. A regional NGO, it is based in Kampala, Uganda and has a permanent office in Geneva, Switzerland.

Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

In its first 75 years of existence, the UN has secured a great deal of achievements in the fields of peace, security and development. When it comes to its third pillar, human rights, I would say that the UN’s greatest success is the international community’s acceptance, at both the ideological and practical and policy levels, that human rights are not within the sphere of domestic affairs.

With the UN, the promotion and protection of human rights – or indeed their violation – became a legitimate matter of international and multilateral concern. Today, states cannot simply use ‘sovereignty’ to disregard criticism over their human rights record. Some unconvincingly attempt to claim that human rights advocacy amounts to ‘interference’ in their internal affairs, but all, even the most closed, feel compelled to defend their human rights record and claim that they respect human rights (dictatorships usually add ‘fully’).

In other words, sovereignty cannot be used as a veil to prevent the international community from looking at the way a government treats its own people. This is immensely significant when you look back at history: states used to refuse to look at what was going on inside other states; they did so only when their own nationals or coreligionists were abused.

Now of course, selective invocation of human rights still exists: why does Country A raise human rights issues in Country B (its adversary) while remaining silent on exactly the same issues in Country C (its strategic ally)? However, unlike in past centuries, Country B will reply and will usually try to reverse the narrative (by saying ‘we respect human rights’) and to raise human rights issues in Country A (and, for good measure, in Country C).

Governments like to claim that ‘pressure does not work’ and ‘naming and shaming’ does not bring about any results. A number of them praise ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance and capacity-building’. Yet they spend time responding to criticism. They invest in the UN human rights system. They engage with the Human Rights Council and with the General Assembly’s Third Committee. They go through the Universal Periodic Review every four and a half years. They engage with special procedures (the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Council) and act on their communications – even when they do not publicly acknowledge so. They constantly interact with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Most states ratified a large number of human rights instruments and are therefore subjected to periodic reviews by treaty bodies. Finally, states systematically reply to HRDs and CSOs that conduct investigations and advocacy, either openly and constructively, or, sadly, by exercising reprisals against them.

Further, it often goes overlooked that ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance’ actually include substantial human rights elements. In 2019, DefendDefenders published a thorough analysis of the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘item 10’ resolutions on advisory services, which showed that human rights scrutiny is part and parcel of item 10, contrary to received wisdom and the narrative propagated by authoritarian states.

Multilateral human rights diplomacy has spilled over to, or has been accompanied by, bilateral human rights diplomacy. Human rights are included in the conduct of foreign affairs, from multilateral arenas to bilateral human rights dialogues. Further, provided they enjoy a degree of free expression, peaceful assembly and association, citizens demand human rights compliance from their governments not only at home but also with regard to the conduct of foreign policy. All of these aspects are – at least partly – human rights successes of the UN.

Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

In 2019, as an instance in which the UN made a difference, I could cite the fact that sitting members of the Human Rights Council were subjected to more, not less, scrutiny. In July 2019, for the first time, the Council adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in three of its sitting members – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and the Philippines – during the same session. This showed that Council membership does not shield you from scrutiny, and that election to the Council does not amount to an endorsement of your human rights record. At the same time, states that until recently believed they were outside the reach of coordinated multilateral condemnation – notably China and Saudi Arabia – were subjected to scrutiny through joint oral and written statements.

These developments were unimaginable prior to 1945. This remains true despite reason for concern in recent years, with increasingly direct attacks against multilateral institutions and the UN human rights system by authoritarians and populists.

What things are currently not working and need to change?

Budget is always an issue for the UN’s human rights pillar. Compared to the peace and security and development pillars, it gets very little: the figure that is usually put forward is a mere three per cent of the overall UN budget.

This means that UN secretariat staff – OHCHR and human rights advisers in peace missions – and UN human rights bodies and mechanisms must work on a shoestring – and they achieve much! But the UN’s financial neglect for its human rights pillar also means that the UN system as a whole is facing a lack of policy consistency. Whereas the idea that development, peace and security, and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing has brought about policy initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front, decision-makers have been backtracking. In fact, the UN’s human rights pillar has faced mounting budget cuts, forcing a number of bodies to prepare for reduced numbers of sessions and meetings.

Caving to pressure from China, Russia and the USA, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has since he assumed office betrayed efforts to mainstream human rights in all UN work. He has by and large buried Human Rights Up Front, and human rights components of peace operations are being eviscerated as a result of this pressure and budget cuts decided by members of the UN Security Council.

How is civil society reacting to this?

Civil society is pushing back at all levels, reminding the UN and states of their duties towards the human rights pillar. Civil society has relied on, and promoted, a human rights-based approach to issues of global concern, from migration to counter-terrorism to climate change.

Civil society’s very existence and its dynamism are also important insofar as they highlight that the current form of the state – which still relies, essentially, on a ‘Westphalian’ concept of territorial sovereignty – is recent in the history of mankind, and that it is contingent and somewhat arbitrary. Societies, including the international society, could be organised differently.

State representatives sometimes portray human rights advocacy CSOs as arrogant when the latter name and shame human rights abusers, but the existence of civil society and the role citizen movements play call for more modesty on the part of state officials. Governments – provided they result from free and fair elections – represent one form of legitimacy, but not the only form of legitimacy. Civil society was there before the Westphalian state, and it will probably be there after the latter is, as Michel Foucault would say, “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

I believe these elements are important to keep in mind when discussing how civil society is pushing for change.

What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and what have you achieved?

For a regional human rights CSO like DefendDefenders, challenges are many. They include financial resources, a shrinking civic space in some of the countries we work on, impunity for human rights violations and abuses, and the very nature of our work. Human rights are, and will always be, about challenging power and imposing restrictions on those exercising it, to prevent abuse.

We always focus on the quality and relevance of our work. We also build bridges with all stakeholders: governments (as human rights duty-bearers), international and regional institutions, fellow CSOs, communities, grassroots activists and individual HRDs, who in the East and Horn of Africa have been organising themselves in coalitions and networks.

In December 2019, DefendDefenders was involved in the launch of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, something that was unthinkable two years ago when civic space in the country was closed. Any opportunity must be seized to build stronger human rights protections.

I will end with an anecdote. For years, Sudanese HRDs were insulted, intimidated, threatened, subject to surveillance, prevented from leaving their country and abused. In April 2019, through a peaceful revolution, Sudan’s people and civil society brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. In July, Dr Nasredeen Abdulbari, an academic and HRD, was part of DefendDefenders’ delegation to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council. Together, we advocated for meaningful UN action on Sudan, put forward our proposals and met with stakeholders. Two months later, at the Council’s 42nd session, Dr Abdulbari led the Sudanese government’s delegation to Geneva. In the meantime, he had been appointed Minister of Justice and joined a transitional cabinet led by civil society figures and activists. This is certainly not the end of the story, but it shows that one should never lose hope.

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

 

CHILE: ‘There's radical discontent with how the country's been ruled for decades’

Nicole Romo

Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Nicole Romo, director of the public policy area of ​​the Community of Solidarity Organisations (Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias), a network of more than 200 Chilean civil society organisations that work to combat poverty and exclusion. Together, its member organisations work with more than 900,000 people, mobilising around 11,000 staff members and over 17,000 volunteers.

 

Why did protests break out in Chile, and what made them escalate as they did?

The social outbreak in Chile came after decades of the promotion of a development model that focused on creating wealth, which for years was distributed with no fairness or justice. Individualistic, short-term and assistance-based social policies that deeply damaged social cohesion and the community and collective sense of wellbeing were implemented. Alongside this there were housing policies that segregated Chileans into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ territories where access to goods and services was distributed in the same way, a pension system that impoverishes senior citizens, lack of access to healthcare in a timely manner and with adequate quality standards, and an education system that also segregates and grants diametrically opposed opportunities to the rich and the poor.

In this context, the motto ‘it is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years’, which was heard a lot during the protests, expresses quite well the feeling that prevailed among the citizenry. Although this social movement began with students massively evading payment of public transportation fares, after a rise of 30 Chilean pesos in the cost of a metro ticket, deep-seated malaise has been accumulating for over 30 years. There have been several protests to advance various social demands over the years, but this profound discontent had never been heard or even made visible. The social eruption of 18 October 2019 was the result of the accumulation of radical discontent with the government and the way the country has been ruled for several decades.

How have people and civil society organisations reacted to the protests?

The national state of mobilisation that we are experiencing has clearly shown that two Chiles coexist within the same territory – two Chiles that do not know each other and do not intersect. This division is the brutal expression of the difference in the quality of life between those who have privileges and those who don’t. Our country spent the past few decades convincing itself that achievements are based on individual merit, that each person’s efforts are the only guarantee of social mobility, which in fact, as shown by a variety of studies, is absolutely untrue.

In the face of this, data from various surveys show a high rate of approval of social demands among citizens. On the other hand, people are more divided when it comes to violence, and especially the forms of violence that have resulted in damage to public and private infrastructure, such as looting, the destruction of stores and the burning of commercial premises and other types of services, as well as regarding violence by state agents, who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

The government has handled this conflict in a quite regrettable way, by mainly emphasising its security agenda, criminalising protests and furthering a legislative agenda focused on punishing protesters, which reveals their lack of understanding of the nature of the protests, their demands and their urgency.

The social agenda proposed by the government is quite weak. It does not seek to make radical changes to existing structures that deepen inequality and does not guarantee the rights of all people. The changes and the contents of the social agenda led by the government are not up to the protesters’ demands and their urgency. Its numerous initiatives and measures involve limited improvements, which are necessary but will not affect the structures that reproduce unfairness in our country; therefore, they only duplicate the same old short-term public policies that are not based on a rights approach and focus on the individual rather than on the needs of the thousands of families in vulnerable conditions.

The latest reports speak of dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Could you describe the extent of the repression and human rights violations committed during the protests?

Since the protests broke out in Chile, numerous human rights violations have been committed by state security agents. These violations have been denounced by national and international organisations, but the state has tended to downplay them.

It is essential for us to reiterate that at all times unrestricted respect for human rights must prevail, and that each case of violation must be investigated, resulting in punishment for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims. Civil society is key in monitoring and watching over these processes, to ensure that they remain transparent and foster accountability of the state.

Data from the National Institute of Human Rights indicate that in 48 per cent of the observed cases of detention, detainees were protesting peacefully, regardless of whether or not they were occupying roads. Likewise, gases were used indiscriminately in 56 per cent of recorded cases, and in 60 per cent of the cases observed, force was not used in a graduated way, and was instead applied without prior notice and in the absence of any kind of dialogue. There were 2,727 documented cases of injured adults who were treated in hospitals, as well as 211 children and adolescents, and 241 people with eye injuries. There was also a series of human rights violations against people detained and held in police stations. The most frequent of these was the excessive use of force during detention, with 751 cases. Overall, 190 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were recorded, 171 of them being cases in which detainees were stripped naked.

How have people and civil society organisations responded to the state repression and rights violations that occurred during the protests?

We have responded without fear. Entire cities have shouted fearlessly in protest at the human rights violations that occurred during the past months. Many people have compiled testimonial material to make visible the level of exposure and violence they experienced during the protests.

From civil society organisations the responses have been diverse, but generally speaking all organisations have called for non-violence and the establishment of new spaces for dialogue leading to the strengthening of a society based on social justice and fairness. Without a doubt, civil society organisations have played a prominent role, promoting the establishment of meeting spaces and helping present the demands of the citizenry. This was done through the creation of a large network of networks called the New Social Pact, which brings together more than 600 civil society organisations that have worked tirelessly to search for real solutions to substantial demands.

The Community of Solidarity Organisations supports the principle of nonviolence and since day one of the protests we voiced the need for unrestricted respect for human rights. Even if it is not our field of work, we believe that this outbreak revealed how urgent it is to restructure the police forces. We faithfully believe in the data published by the National Institute of Human Rights, and we know that their work is conscious and rigorous, as is the report delivered by Amnesty International, so as civil society we will support from our field of work all actions aimed at bringing reparation for the rights violated during the protests.

What immediate measures should the Chilean government take to overcome this crisis? What are the chances of this happening and a lasting solution being reached?

A lasting solution would require a long process of construction and change including short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.

The short-term and medium-term measures are related to the social agenda, which has three dimensions. The first consists in improving the quality of life through measures on issues such as health, education and pensions. The second dimension includes measures to end abuses by economic and political elites and close the gaps in justice administration between cases involving members of the economic elite and ordinary citizens, who face completely different sanctions for committing crimes: ‘ethics classes’ for the former and effective jail terms for the latter. The third dimension involves raising the resources that the state needs to implement a deep and powerful social agenda. Chile requires a tax reform to increase revenue and needs a much more efficient tax management system.

The long-term axis refers to a constituent process whose main milestones have already been established: an initial referendum, the election of representatives and a ratification referendum. However, conditions guaranteeing participation by a cross section of people, equitable representation, gender parity, minority quotas and independent candidacies have not yet been achieved. Without these conditions in place, the legitimacy of the constitutional process will severely weaken.

Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias through their website or Facebook page, or follow @ComunidadOrgSol and @nromo_flores on Twitter.

 

‘Due to the communications blockade in Kashmir, news of protests went largely underreported’

On 5 August 2019, the government of India revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed the autonomous status and rights of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The government also imposed a severe communications blockade that impacted on the daily lives of Kashmiri people, including by affecting access to medical care, basic necessities and emergency services. Hundreds of detentions of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been reported. CIVICUS speaks about this situation with Natasha Rather, Regional Campaign Officer for the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, linked to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation that focuses on enforced disappearances in the region, monitors the human rights situation and documents abuses.

Natasha Rather interview

What was the situation of civic freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir prior to the revocation of its special status under Indian administration?

During the first half of 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (JK) witnessed continued and increased violence and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following a militant attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy on the Jammu–Srinagar highway that resulted in the killing of 48 Indian soldiers in February 2019. Following this attack, Kashmiri people living in various cities and towns of India became targets of hate crimes. Thousands of Kashmiri students were forced to flee from their colleges and universities and return back to Kashmir. People living in JK feared the attack would have dreadful consequences – which turned out to be true.

The frequency of cordon and search operations (CASOs) and crackdowns increased in the aftermath of the attack. CASOs are a form of harassment that breach people’s right to privacy. According to a report by the APDP and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 177 CASOs were conducted by the Indian armed forced in JK, which resulted in the killing of at least 118 militants and four civilians and the destruction of at least 20 civilian properties.
In February 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Kashmir Chapter of Jamaat-i-Islami were banned and hundreds of their leaders and workers were arrested.
Ahead of the elections to the Indian Parliament, held in JK in April and May 2019, 100 additional companies of soldiers were deployed in Kashmir and mass arrests of political and religious leaders were carried out. During polling days there were complete shutdowns, violence and killings.

The use of administrative detention under the provisions of repressive Public Safety Act (PSA) led to many arrests and detentions. Between January and June this year, at least 25 people were booked under the PSA.

Internet shutdowns have also been a common practice in JK. Internet services were curtailed 51 times in the first half of the year.

How did people in Jammu and Kashmir respond to the revocation of the state’s special status?

Before revocation was formally announced by the Indian government, many rumours made the rounds and people guessed that something sinister was underway. Official orders by the state administration added to the apprehension. People prepared themselves for a complete lockdown, drawing from their previous experience when the Indian government imposed curfews and shut down phones and the internet.
When revocation of the special status was announced amidst a complete blockade of communication and full restrictions on movement, people were not greatly shocked. The autonomy guaranteed to JK under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it had been greatly eroded before revocation of the special status, which downgraded JK from a state to a union territory, and there was nothing much left in it for the benefit of the people.

There have been concerns attached to the revocation of Article 35a, which permits the local legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir to define who are permanent residents of the region. People have speculated that demographic changes might be underway, designed and strategised along the same lines as the occupation of Palestine, including the demographic changes introduced by Israel in Palestine. While there are fears of demographic changes, the majority’s response has been not to fight against revocation of the state’s special status, as this would have meant legitimising the occupation of the region. The larger struggle is for the right to self-determination.

We have read reports of civic space restrictions, including a ban on meetings, restrictions on freedom of movement and arrests of leaders. Can you provide more information about this?

The announcement of the revocation of JK’s special status was accompanied by widespread restrictions. There was an increased deployment of Indian armed forces at all roads and intersections across the valley, and the unyielding troops have strictly restricted the movement of people. For the first few weeks, people were not even able to reach hospitals and doctors. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings of more than four people, was imposed despite a curfew being in place since the night of 4-5 August. This prevented people from organising protest gatherings and meetings.

According to a government report dated 6 September, more than 3,800 people had been detained since 5 August and only about 2,600 of them were subsequently released. Those detained include political leaders from both pro-India and pro-independence parties, civil society members, lawyers and protesters. Three former Chief Ministers of JK – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been detained since 5 August. On 16 September, Farooq Abdullah was detained under the PSA. Leaders and politicians like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Farooq Abdullah, Taj Mohiuddin and M Y Tarigami have been under house arrest. Hotels and government guesthouses have been turned into detention centres. Many leaders and civil society members have been lodged in jails in India.
There has been an extensive use of the PSA to detain people, especially young people. Many young people were detained without being formally charged and were released only after the signing of community bonds. Many young people and most political leaders continue to be detained.

Have people protested? How have the security forces responded to protests?

Despite the severe restrictions imposed on the movement and assembly of the people, there have been many protests across the valley of Kashmir, with people taking to the streets and shouting slogans demanding freedom from the Indian state. The Indian media has claimed that there were negligible protests against the abrogation of Article 370, making it seem like there is normality and acceptance of the Indian state’s decisions. Since the local media has not been able to report on these protests, stories from them have not come to the fore. There were many protests in Kashmir valley, but due to the communication blockade and restrictions on the movement of journalists and media, news of protests from other districts went largely underreported.

Protesters have been met with excessive force by the Indian armed forces. For instance, on 9 August, several people were injured during protests in the Soura area of Srinagar. A doctor confirmed that at least 53 young people were treated for injuries at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. Reports also emerged that five people have been killed in separate incidents as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the policing of protests since the start of the clampdown.

How has the internet shutdown affected the work of activists and journalists?

The communication clampdown has greatly affected the work of journalists and activists. Owing to the shutdown of internet services and curbs on the movement of journalists, it has been a huge challenge for journalists to collect and file stories. The administration set up a Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar where journalists are allowed to access the internet and email their stories. No such facilities are available in other districts of Kashmir. Newspapers in Kashmir have been publishing with a reduced number of pages. Journalists have been forced to rely just on state-issued press briefs once or twice a week, without any means to verify the stories. There has been news of journalists facing reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing situation.

Also, since 5 August, civil society in JK has been under threat and dealing with a very precarious situation, as many civil society members have been detained and jailed under the PSA. In this way the Indian state has put pressure on Kashmiri civil society to remain silent about the current situation, and therefore their space is completely choked. There is a lot of resistance and criticism of the communications clampdown that is preventing civil society from carrying out its work.

In this context, the support required from the international community is that they should increase their understanding of the Kashmir conflict and talking about it so as to prevent this human rights crisis from worsening.


Civic space in India is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @natasha_rather on Twitter.

 

#ShiftThePower, exciting possibilities and challenges for resourcing

DeganDumiso Interview

Left to Right: Dumiso Gatsha, SDGs Goalkeeper and founder of Success Capital NGO & Degan Ali, Executive Director at Adeso 

A growing movement of people is challenging the traditional top-down paradigm, ways of working and decision-making within international development aid and philanthropy. Known as “Shift the Power” or #ShiftThePower, this movement calls for new behaviours, mindsets and work approaches that shift power and resources, and promote more equitable and people-led development. It started at the 2016 Global Summit on Community Philanthropy and, since then, has mobilised numerous funders, researchers and activists who are taking individual and strategical collective steps to further this change.

The recent Pathways to Power Symposium, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) on November 18-19 2019, brought together a diverse group of 110 people from around the world and from different parts of civil society and philanthropy, who are deeply engaged this movement. We spoke with two activists and close partners of the CIVICUS alliance who participated in the Symposium: Degan Ali, Executive Director at Adeso, an African NGO that is promoting a development that non-dependent on international aid; and Dumiso Gatsha, SDGs Goalkeeper and founder of Success Capital NGO, a youth-led organisation defending LGBTIQ+ rights in Botswana.

What are your main takeaways from the Pathways to Power Symposium? 

Degan: The Symposium was really inspiring because it was a completely different dynamic and group of people than what I’m normally used to when attending events within the traditional humanitarian or development aid sector. I felt a lot of energy. The activism and the possibilities of creating a movement were extremely exciting. My main takeaways were that we still need to do better about having more propositional and tangible ideas of what the ecosystem we are trying to create will look like. I'm not sure if we were able to address that in the symposium in terms of what we are offering or suggesting to the bilateral donors, foundations, international non-profit organisations and local organisations on a practical level. What is our proposition? What are we offering in terms of what the ecosystem change looks like? What does the shift of power really look like for local communities? The challenge for us is to get more concrete and practical.

Dumiso: Power will inherently lie with those who have options to decide what is prioritised, relevant or needed in society, and exercising those options requires equity and resources. So the assumption that people can exercise their power without resources (money specifically) is skewed, as the only other time when people galvanise is when there is a glaring lack of resources and mass civic action that emanates from the lacking leads to change in those instances. During the event, I appreciated the unravelling of nuances of supremacy (racial, geographic, country economic status, etc.), the breadth and depth of discussions on systemic issues that might be impeding power within philanthropy. The fact that I could be in this space brings peace to younger me that never understood why or how creativity, multifaceted ideas and young people were never independently enabled to scale or strengthen their work.

Considering your work on the ground, context and identity, what do you think is missing in the conversation about shifting the power?

Degan: What has been missing, at least from the traditional aid conversation on localisation, are proper discussions of power and racism. I think there was an openness to discuss this subject in the “shift the power” conversations that I haven't seen in other events, and that is good. As I previously mentioned, I think the conversation is also missing the clear and tangible asks and solutions that we would like to bring to the table as a “shift the power” movement.

Dumiso: It's clear that those who are implementing partners and/or those who operate on the ground never get to be in such important spaces. Their feedback is often limited to evaluations, project reports and sometimes, needs assessments. These have power dynamics that might not make it economically and mentally safe to be objective or true to the experiences on the ground. What success and capacity look like to a community can be very different from what is predetermined in a monitoring and evaluation plan or an enabler's strategy. This became evident in a more diverse group at the subsequent workshop hosted by Accountable Now, called “Preparing for a power shift towards people and communities we work with and for.”

What concrete suggestions would you give to those support groups and individuals in philanthropy and development circles that are trying to embody new ways of deciding and doing in order to help build agency, resilience and sustainability of your community?

Degan: Philanthropists and bilateral donors in the development and humanitarian circles should be more willing to reflect on the power that they wield and to start questioning the internal systems and machinery that are trying to retain the status quo of power and resources being held by the hands of the few in the Global North. My challenge to them is what can you do in your own circles and your own spaces to challenge power imbalances and do things differently? This requires both humility and courage.

Once we as a movement have come up with tangible solutions, we should ask them what specific things they can do as an agency, as a foundation or as a bilateral, inside and outside their own institutions, to help us achieve that new ecosystem. We also must get them to understand that improving the ecosystem is not only about eliminating institutionalised racism and shifting power, it is also about improving the quality of the work and programs provided. I think improving the ecosystem in the end means that you get a value for money, efficiency in the system with the removal of so many intermediaries, and it means that you do better work that is more meaningful and has more impact for communities that we are claiming to want to serve. If we are serious about quality, this is the right thing to do.

Dumiso: The best thing you can do to solve some of the prevalent, inherent and recurring challenges is to employ those who live and are affected by the experiences on the ground – they have capacity, they are skilled and diverse. Otherwise they would never be able to navigate and respond to the opportunities and challenges within their contexts. Othering, inequality and injustices are common factors in many societies regardless of jurisdiction.

Encouraging collaborative interventions does so much more systematically. Being uniquely placed to link and bridge those who are underfunded and under-resourced can strengthen movements and overall civic action. When the tides rise, all boats rise.

Contact Adeso through their website and follow their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Contact Success Capital through their website and follow their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Visit GFCF’s website to see video highlights  and various resources produced before and after the Pathways to Power Symposium.

 

CHILE: ‘There has been a citizen awakening of historical proportions’

soledad munozProtests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Soledad Fátima Muñoz, a Chilean activist and the founder of a mentoring programme and feminist festival, Current Symposium. (Photo by Kati Jenson)

How did something that started with a small increase in the price of the metro ticket become a mobilisation of unprecedented dimensions?

The first thing to clarify is that this was not caused just by an increase in the price of the metro ticket, nor is it an isolated protest. Mobilisations against the abuses derived from the neoliberal system have been a constant occurrence in Chile over the years. Among these were mass protests against the privatised pension system, against the Trans-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement and against the Fisheries Law, feminist protests and protests by the movement promoted under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’ (not one less), mobilisations about the historic debt owed to teachers, the student protests held in 2006 and 2011, and the more recent mobilisations by students against the so-called Safe Classroom Law. On top of this, there’s the outrage caused by systematic state repression of the Indigenous peoples in Wallmapu, the deaths of Camilo Catrillanca and Macarena Valdés, and the imprisonment of Machi Francisca Linconao and Lonko Alberto Curamil, among other political prisoners. Combined with a generation-long dissatisfaction with the impunity granted to those responsible for the tortures, disappearances and killings of thousands of people under the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, this produced an environment conducive to a citizen awakening of historical proportions. After years of abuse, the Chilean people woke up and want a new constitution, since the current one was drafted under the dictatorship and was designed to promote social inequality.

The big difference between the current protests and all the previous ones is the response they triggered from the government of President Sebastián Piñera, who declared a state of emergency and a curfew, unleashing a police and military repression against the Chilean people that is only paralleled by the crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship.

The protests are not being centrally organised and are not guided by a single political motto; there are many independent initiatives calling for people to gather and demonstrate, through social media or through various independent information channels. Some of the most widespread demands call for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Frequently demanded are the nationalisation of basic services and natural resources, including copper, lithium and water. There are also demands for direct democracy and binding referendums, the prosecution of political and economic corruption, respect for Indigenous peoples and plurinational sovereignty, and for health, education and decent pensions. On top of these there are also more specific demands, such as raising the minimum monthly wage to 500,000 Chilean pesos (approx. US$650), reducing legislators’ salaries and raising taxes on the richest.

These were the reasons why the movement began, but in the face of excessive state repression, citizens are now also demanding the resignation and prosecution of President Piñera and all the people involved in the systematic violations of human rights that have taken place over the past month.

Twenty deaths have been reported during the repression of the protests, in addition to large numbers of people injured and under arrest. Could you describe the human rights violations committed against protesters?

It is difficult to estimate right now the human rights violations that are being committed by the Piñera administration, since – as was also the case under the dictatorship – thousands of detainees are being kept incommunicado. That is why, when people are taken away in the streets, they shout out their name, surname and identity card number. The latest official figures from the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) account for 335 legal actions initiated, 489 victims represented, 6,199 people under arrest – 726 of them minors – and 2,365 injured people registered in hospitals. But it is difficult to confirm the veracity of these figures since the institutions that disseminate them may have been pressured by the government.

The INDH in particular partly lost its credibility when its director denied the existence of systematic human rights violations in our country on an open-air TV programme. That was simply a lie, since the institution itself had submitted complaints in the face of arbitrary actions by the police and the military. More than 200 cases of eye mutilations have happened as a result of the excessive use of pellets by the police, and there have been numerous cases of mistreatment, sexual violence and torture in detention centres. Additionally, there was an instance of repression at a school, Liceo 7 in Santiago, where a carabinero, a member of the military police, fired against students who were inside the building. There have also been raids on private homes and arrests made out of cars without police identification.

On top of repression by the security forces, there is a group of citizens who call themselves ‘yellow vests’ and say their mission is to maintain civic order and protect the work of the police, but in reality they are a violent far-right group. Among its members is John Cobin, who fired a firearm at a protester in broad daylight on the busy streets of the Reñaca resort. He belongs to the League of the South, a white supremacist organisation from California.

What immediate actions should the Chilean government take to safeguard civil rights and democratic freedoms?

A month into the protests, the government has not yet listened to its citizens, and instead has responded with increasing violence. In the early hours of 15 November, lawmakers reached a political agreement behind closed doors, named the ‘Peace Agreement’ which would lead to a new constitution. The agreement guarantees a ‘blank slate’ for free discussion to take place and establishes that the call for a constitutional convention is going to be done through a public referendum. But part of the mobilised citizenry is not satisfied with either the deadlines or the required quorum of two thirds established for decision-making by the constituent body, since they think it will redirect the current democratic process towards a system designed to protect the political class and prevent minority voices from gaining power.

I think what’s most important at this moment is the security of the citizenry and, above all, of the communities at greatest social risk, which are not only the most affected by the neoliberal system, but are also at the epicentre of the undiscerning violence applied by carabineros and the armed forces. An example of this happened in the community of Lo Hermida, in Peñalolén. After the authorities announced that they would not build the decent homes they had promised, inhabitants occupied the Cousiño-Macul vineyard. `Police repression was not long in coming, and in just one night 200 people were injured, two of them with severe eye trauma. In addition, carabineros broke in and threw pepper gas into homes with older people and minors inside.

It is time for the Piñera government to stop the repression, release the more than 6,000 protesters who are currently being held in detention centres, take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and – for the first time in Chilean history since Pinochet – end impunity for the systematic human rights violations that have been committed. The Piñera government must respond before the law for the more than 20 people who have been killed and the 200 that experienced eye mutilations, plus the torture of minors and sexual abuses against women, men and non-binary people, since all of these were consequences of the lousy decisions made by the government, and would have been at least partly avoided if they had maintained a direct dialogue with the public since the beginning. In this regard, the slogan chanted on the streets is: "There is no peace without justice."

Do you think that the mobilisations in Chile are part of broader regional trends?

What is happening in Chile is structurally international, since it derives from the austerity measures perpetrated by neoliberalism. Chile’s current socio-economic system is rooted in European colonialism and was enshrined by Pinochet’s coup d'état in 1973. Specifically, it came from a group of students belonging to Chilean elites who studied in the USA in the mid-1950s, where they absorbed the ideology of extreme monetarism and neoliberalism, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. These students – nicknamed the ‘Chicago Boys’ – served as finance and economics ministers under the dictatorship and introduced extreme privatisation measures. These measures were accepted and naturalised by a citizenry that was in a state of shock and repression.

The consequences of this privatisation translate into abuses perpetrated by multinational corporations that are enabled by governments around the world. In Chile, a good example of this is the case uncovered by journalist Meera Karunananthan in an article published by The Guardian in 2017. The author explains that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan is the largest investor in Aguas del Valle, Essbio and Esval, which control 41 per cent of the water and sanitation system in Chile. This is possible because the constitution allows for the private ownership of water, which has left entire communities in a drought situation and unprotected by the law. However, in 2010 the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution recognising access to water and sanitation as a human right. This means that in Chile human rights are violated not only through police repression but also through the maintenance of an unfair and abusive economic system.

The example cited above is just one within the great chain of international abuses perpetrated by corporations, including by the Canadian company Barrick Gold and the Norwegian state company Statkraft, which continue to abuse the policies of the Chilean subsidiary state and threaten our planet. That is why we must raise awareness at an international level so that the decisions of the Chilean people are respected and protection is provided to Indigenous peoples, without blockages or political interventions protecting foreign capital and perpetuating the destruction of our environment.

What support does Chilean civil society need from international civil society in this process?

At this time, it is important to recognise and create international awareness about the abuses committed against the working class, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and sexual minorities. I personally have learned a lot in the course of these mobilisations. One of the most subversive things that citizens are doing is rejecting the right/left binarism that has so severely affected Latin American societies and that has been used by neoliberal governments as an excuse to repress working people. The prevalence of citizen politics that do not identify with any dogmatic position on the right/left spectrum meant that the government could not identify an ideological enemy and ended up declaring war on its own people.

Mainstream national and international media are misrepresenting the facts and building a narrative against the mobilised population. But unlike what happened in the past, we are now equipped with phone cameras and can report directly. I invite people around the world to get informed through independent media and civil society channels to really know what is happening.

Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Get in touch with Soledad Muñoz through her website or follow música_del_telar on Instagram.

 

BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

Can you tell us about your background and work?

I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

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

 

MALAYSIA: ‘We need global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights’

As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.

Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.

The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.

Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?

In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.

At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.

We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.

As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.

Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?

The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.

There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.

So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.

Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.

There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.

There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.

Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.

Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.

How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?

Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.

The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.

When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.

How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?

After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.

We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.

How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?

In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.

LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?

We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.

Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.

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

Get in touch with Justice for Sisters through its website and Facebook page, or follow @justice_sisters on Twitter.

 

Letter from Jail: Members of poetry troupe in Myanmar

Letter from Zeyar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu members of the Peacock Generation in Myanmar

Seven members of the Peacock Generation—Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Zaw Lin Htut, Su Yadanar Myint and Nyein Chan Soe —were arrested in April and May 2019 after they performed Thangyat, a traditional performance art akin to slam poetry during the Thingyan Water Festival in April. On 30 October 2019, five of them were convicted under Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code at Mayangon Township Court in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and sentenced to one year in prison. Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits the circulation of statements and reports with the intent to cause officers or soldiers in the Myanmar Armed Forces to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in their duties

For livestreaming performances on Facebook, Zay Yar Lwin, Paing Phyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Su Yadanar Myint and Nyein Chan Soe also face charges under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunication Act for “online defamation”. 

Members of the Peacock Generation are facing the same charges in five other townships in Yangon and Ayerwaddy Region where they have performed Thangyat and face a possible 19 years imprisonment. Below is their letter from jail: 

We are writing to you from the cells of Insein Prison, the notorious and largest prison in Myanmar. The seven of us were sued by the military and arrested after we performed the Thangyat, a traditional performance criticising the military.  We were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison by one court out of six and facing possible 19 years imprisonment. 

We knew we could face risks and the military had noticed our group for a year and were preparing to take action against us. So instead of just avoiding it, we decided to be more critical in our lyrics when we performed, and action was taken against us. Our senior activists had also been critical of the military and now its our time to do so.

When we heard of the charges, we went to the police station to allow them to detain us. We are also experienced with jails. First the military sued us in Mayangone and Botahtaung Townships, and later military in Pathein, Dedaye, Pyapon, Maupin townships from Ayeyarwaddy Regions also sued us under 505(a) and 66(d). When they sue us, it was not just one time. They sued us at different times and intentionally delayed the verdict process. Those court processes in Ayeyarwaddy Region have not yet begun. That means they want to lock up us for a long time. It’s already been 6 months and only one verdict is out. And only two courts hearings are done.

We believe its not fair as even before the court decided on our innocence, we were already  in jail as criminals. Mentally it is hurting for those who are locked up in jail. We are trying to pass the days because we have strong beliefs, but it is difficult for others to be in jail.

They have convicted us with no strong evidence. This is not a fair case. Because it is a case against the military, whatever we do, we will definitely be sentenced. Because in my country, nobody is treated fairly and equally by the law when the case is against military. We believe we didn’t commit a crime by performing Thangyat. This is the case of criticizing and resisting an oppressive institution – the military. We will never be silenced just because they jailed us or sentenced us this way. 

We will keep criticizing and pointing out the flawed system in different ways because it is important for us to amend the constitution and to get the military out of politics so that we can pursue genuine democracy in Myanmar.  

Thankfully we have people supporting us mentally and physically. They are all our colleagues, students, friends and families. Because of those support, we can stand these days. Lawyers support us legally.

When we talk about freedom of expression, there very little space and we still have to work a lot to have that freedom. We understand that our rights shouldn’t harm others. We admit we strongly criticized the military, but why we were criticizing them strongly was because military leaders and their institution have obtained power unfairly and are harming our own people. Freedom of expression in Myanmar is like a tortoise trying to get carried by a flying stick held by two crows on both ends. We can talk about freedom of expression, but if we really express ourselves, we can get jailed. That’s the current situation. 

To all the international organizations and institutions that want to help “democracy” in Myanmar, do whatever you can to help us please. The important thing is to influence the military. Only by influencing them, we can help them move in the right direction or else, things will get worse in future. Please speak up more for the situation in Myanmar. 

Instead of asking you to specifically to help our case, we want to ask if you help democracy and politics in Myanmar, and when it is improved, we will be part of the journey too. There are many others who are currently  jailed in Myanmar. Thank you for your support and solidarity near and far and for helping change our country.

 

Zeyar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu members of the Peacock Generation in Myanmar

Translated by Thinzar Shunlei Yi a Youth Advocate and Activist from Myanmar

 

TAIWAN: Same-sex marriage legalisation a joint effort of government and civil society

In May 2019 Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. CIVICUS speaks to Minister Audrey Tang about this historical decision and about her role in connecting government with civil society. Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s Digital Minister and the first transgender official in the state’s top executive cabinet.

Audrey Tang

When you were appointed back in 2016, you became the youngest minister without portfolio in the history of Taiwan. Do you see yourself as a bridge between generations, and between government and society?

Certainly. My work is primarily as a channel between social innovators and people in the public sector who are willing to co-create toward common goals.

Intergenerational solidarity is also very important, as is the capability to listen to the plurality of cultures on the Taiwan islands.

As Digital Minister, what roles do you think the internet and communications technologies can play in enabling people’s participation in decision-making? How have you worked with civil society from your government position?

‘Broadband as a human right’ is at the core of the government’s policy. Our idea is to bring technology into the spaces where citizens live, rather than expect citizens to enter the space of technology. The government must first trust the people with agenda-setting power; then the people can make democracy work.

Taiwan's national participation platform has hosted 10.6 million unique visitors — almost half of Taiwan’s population — since its launch in 2015. Anyone can begin an e-petition on the platform. Once a case has 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public.

As Digital Minister, I have established a network of Participation Officers in each ministry. They serve as links between the public and the public sector, and as channels for inter-agency collaboration. Whenever a proposal is raised, a collaborative meeting can be held, with participants from government departments and the public invited to join the discussion and jointly create new policies.

So far we have held more than 50 collaborative meetings. We gathered stakeholders to find solutions, including to improve the experience of filing income tax, the allocation of medical resources in remote towns and balancing fishery and marine biodiversity in national parks.

The Presidential Hackathon is another good example of an initiative that brings Taiwan’s public and private sectors together to solve urgent problems. At the event, the first of which was held in 2018, teams of hackers — composed of either private citizens or government workers — compete to design the most innovative improvements to the nation’s public services. Instead of prize money, the best teams receive a promise from the government that it will apply their ideas.

The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan was a historic first for the whole of Asia. What role did the government and civil society play in the process?

On 17 May 2019 – the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, the Legislative Yuan – Taiwan’s parliament – passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 after three readings. This achievement, made in Taiwan, was a historic first in all of Asia, and was not fulfilled overnight. It took the efforts of both government and civil society.

In 1986, Chi Chia-wei married his same-sex partner in the USA and held an international press conference. In March 2013, he and his partner went to Taipei City Wanhua District Household Registration Office to register for marriage but were declined. After losing the lawsuit, both he and the Taipei government requested an interpretation by the Constitutional Court to determine whether the provisions of Chapter II on Marriage of Part IV on Family of the Civil Code, which did not allow two persons of the same sex to be married legally, violated the Constitution.

In October 2016, a French professor at Taiwan University, Jacques Picoux, jumped off his apartment building and died. When his partner, Tseng Jing Chao, passed away, many problems arose concerning the medical procedures and real estate transfer before and after his death due to the fact that the two people were not legally married. The death of Jacques Picoux drew great attention to the issue of equal marriage in Taiwan society, and the once stagnated progress same-sex marriage law legislation sped up.

This was not the only driver of change. In April 2000, Yeh Yong Jhih at Pingdong County Gaoshuyuan Middle School committed suicide. He had suffered from school bullying because of his feminine temperament. This unfortunate accident drew much public attention.

The Gender Equity Education Committee of the Ministry of Education formed an investigation team, which issued a report calling on the Ministry of Education to pay attention to gender problems. The draft of the Gender Equality Education Act included clauses on sexual orientation, sexual traits and sexual identity, and was renamed the Gender Equity Education Act and passed by the Legislative Yuan on 23 June 2004. The Act rules that: schools must respect the gender traits and sexual orientation of students and teaching staff; schools must not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation in their enrolment and admission conditions; students should not be treated differently for their gender or sexual orientation; schools should actively offer help to students in bad situations as a result of their gender or sexual orientation.

As well as this, another relevant legal change came: in order to ensure the right to work of LGBTQI people, the Gender Equality in Employment Law was renamed the Act of Gender Equality in Employment in 2007 to add provisions to protect LGBTQI people from discrimination.

In 2003, the Taipei government gave support to the first LGBTQI protest organised in the whole of Asia, gathering more than 2,000 participants. Ma Ying-jeou, who was then Mayor of Taipei and went on to become President, said that Taipei as an international city should respect individuals from different ethnicities and cultures. The following day, widespread media reporting helped raise acceptance of the LGBTQI community in Taiwan. Since then, this event has been organised regularly on the last Saturday of October every year. In 2018, a total of 137,000 people took part in the demonstration.

In 2015, Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, then a presidential candidate, publicly expressed her support for marriage equity on the eve of the annual LGBTQI demonstration. On 20 May of the same year, the Kaohsiung government accepted the registration of same-sex couples; Kaohsiung was the first municipality to accept registration. Following that, all special municipalities and some cities and counties accepted registration one after another. After the announcement of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 in 2017, the Ministry of the Interior announced the opening of registration for same-sex marriage nationwide, and allowed administration across cities.

On 24 May 2017, the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 ruled that the restriction of marriage as being between a male and a female was in violation of the Constitution. The authorities were requested to amend or enact the laws as appropriate within two years. The president of the Executive, Yuan Su Tseng-chang, communicated with ruling party legislators personally and went through countless discussions and compromises to see the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretations #748 finally pass the third reading on 17 May 2019 and come in force on 24 May.

However, before this, in 2018, people opposing same-sex marriage launched a referendum to prevent an amendment to the definition of marriage in the Civil Code. Civil groups who support same-sex marriage organised volunteers to give out leaflets and deliver short speeches on the street.

The 2018 referendum drew wide support. This caused anxiety in the LGBTQI community. As cases of self-mutilation and suicides were reported, supporters of same-sex marriage worked to provide support and deliver political speeches.

To what extent do you think public opinion supports same-sex marriage in Taiwan? Has the issue been divisive, and if so, how can the two different points of view be reconciled?

Taiwan has gone through more than 30 years of LGBTQI campaigning since 1986. The issue of same-sex marriage aroused many different opinions in society, and caused cracks and intense discussions within families, generations and even religious groups.

In 2015, the Institute of Sociology of Taiwan, Academia Sinica, published the Basic Survey of Social Changes in Taiwan, which showed that the percentage of supporters and opponents to the question that ‘homosexuals should have the right to marriage’ was 59 per cent and 41 per cent respectively, while among people with higher education and young people, the support rate was higher than 80 per cent. In November 2016, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation published a poll that found that 46.3 per cent of citizens were in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, 45.4 per cent were opposed and 8.2 per cent were neutral.

During the 2018 referendum, opponents and supporters not only debated vehemently at referendum explanation conferences that were broadcast live, but also launched information ‘wars’ via social media. They raise funds to buy commercial advertisements to express themselves through print media, loudspeaker vans, radio and magazines. As the referendum attempted to delay the progress of same-sex marriage, debates and clashes were ubiquitous in society. The divergence lies in the fact that same-sex marriage was an issue of human rights, as the Judicial Interpretation indicated, but the referendum meant to remind people to consider the thoughts of traditionalists and religious people.

On the day of the third reading of the Enforcement Act, president Tsai Ing-wen said: “I know that passing this Act does not mean there won’t be disputes any more. But I invite the opponents to look at supporters, and supporters to look at opponents. Our faces are not so obnoxious.” This is a long journey. We have finally reached this point, but this is not the end. I hope it will be a starting point of a more inclusive Taiwan society. Taiwan needs to work hard, learn how to understand and co-exist, to let difference no longer bring divergence.

How have groups opposed to same-sex marriage reacted to the new law?

The Judicial Interpretation meant that the scope of the debate was limited: everyone agreed about respecting the judgement; the focus was on what kind of law – proposing a new law or amending the Civil Code – should be made to protect same-sex marriage, and how far it should go.

Opponents of same-sex marriage proposed a version of a ‘same-sex cohabitation law’, defining people in same-sex relationships as ‘same-sex family members’ and allowing them to form a family without getting married or having the right to adopt. Other rights of family members such as property relationships and legacy distribution could be legalised as long as there were written agreements.

They suggested that the results of the 2018 referendum should be adopted, and raised the question: the referendum reflects the opinions of 7.65 million people but the Interpretations are made by 10. Which one matters more?

They insisted that the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 was not consistent with the 2018 referendum’s proposal. They believed that proposals for change would destroy the meaning of marriage regardless of the wills of 7.65 million citizens. Therefore, a few protests were organised.

However, after the 2018 referendum, the Legislative Yuan published a news release clarifying that the legal foundation of the referendum launched by groups opposing same-sex marriage could not contradict the Judicial Interpretation #748, stating that: “Two persons of the same sex creating a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the purpose of living a common life is freedom of marriage and right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Groups opposing same-sex marriage believe that 24 May 2019, the day the Act came into force, was the darkest day of legislation. So on the same day, they declared that they had formed a party to select 10 candidates for legislators to compete with the legislators that supported the Act.

Do you think the implementation of the new law will help change attitudes towards LGBTQI people? What else needs to be done?

The implementation of the Act made Taiwan the first in Asia in terms of guaranteeing LGBTQI rights, but we are only halfway there. Embracing each other, respecting differences and refusing discrimination are still important areas for our government to learn and act on. Yuan Su Tseng-chang said in public after the third reading of the Enforcement Act that in spite of our differences in beliefs and value, he hoped colleagues in the government set themselves as examples, treat everyone equally when providing services, do not make discriminatory comments or actions, and welcome every couple who come for registration with joy and blessings.

Due to the implementation of the Enforcement Act Taiwan has not yet carried out a large-scale effective poll to understand public attitudes; both international and domestic media are reporting positively, but negative news sometimes appears in online media. For example, in September 2019, the Ministry of National Defense announced that three same-sex couples were signing up for the joint military wedding of the National Army. It was the first time that the Ministry of National Defense had allowed same-sex soldiers to participate in the joint wedding. After the news was released, although many people online expressed their congratulations to the LGBTQI soldiers, some discriminatory remarks and personal attacks eventually caused two couples to give up.

What else is the government doing to try to ensure the rights of LGBTQI people?

The implementation of the Enforcement Act marked the beginning of governmental service. There are still challenges that require relevant departments to propose supporting measures. At the same time, establishing a social environment that is gender diverse and free of discrimination is also a goal we must achieve by learning and making progress.

Both Taiwan and the European Union (EU) are committed to promoting gender equality and human rights. Both have kept on conducting close exchanges since 2015, and established a three-year EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework in 2018. With Taiwan as the platform, other countries in the region covered by the Taiwan government’s New Southbound Policy and Japan and South Korea as the core, together with the EU as a learning partner, we are conducting a wide range of exchanges on gender equality policies and experience.

In 2019, the EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework was initiated. Working with the European Economic and Trade Office, we organised an exchange seminar on marriage equality and the protection and promotion of LGBTI human rights before the LGBTQI demonstration in October 2019.

By bringing together EU and Asian government officials, civil society figures and experts and scholars for substantive exchanges and discussions, we hope to expand Taiwan's international perspectives and building gender-diverse human rights in Taiwan by sharing current EU and Asian same-sex marriage equality policies and learning about experiences, progress and challenges in establishing gender-friendly measures and promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people.

We hope that with the experience of other countries as a mirror, we will have closer exchanges and cooperation with the international community in promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people and supporting each other. This will stimulate the promotion and implementation of gender-diverse human rights in Asian countries and spread the seeds of hope of having zero discrimination.

In addition, the Executive Yuan has set ‘eliminating gender stereotypes and prejudice’ as a priority between 2019 and 2022, guiding ministries to promote people's recognition and acceptance of gender diversity and gender-diverse families. Further, through a gender equality performance counselling and assessment mechanism, the promotion of rights to gender diversity and of gender-diverse families will be incorporated into the assessment indicators of ministries and local governments, so as to actively promote gender equality.

In order to promote the understanding of and respect for LGBTQI people by public officials and the public, so that they can understand and respect different genders, sexual orientations and gender identities, Taiwan has also developed digital teaching materials on the protection of rights to gender diversity, which include themes on understanding LGBTQI people, gender equality law in employment and discrimination cases recognised by the Gender Equity Education Act. This is a digital reference for people becoming public servants, and for experts and scholars.

There is more work to do on same-sex marriage. At present, when a Taiwanese citizen wants to marry a foreign same-sex partner in Taiwan, because the foreign country may not recognise same-sex marriage, we will not be able to issue valid marriage certificate documents and verify the documents by our resident office to prove their marriage relationship and its legal status. It is still necessary for the court to further explain how same-sex marriage applies the Foreign-related Civil Law Application Act.

Further, article 20 of the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 only stipulates that one of the partners in a same-sex marriage can adopt the child of the other partner. However, at present, many same-sex couples in our society use methods such as adoption and surrogacy to have children, establish families and have a common life. Even if one of them is not a biological parent, they bear the responsibility for caring for the children. If the biological father dies, based on the best interests of the child, the partner is still subject to overall consideration by the authorities, in order to comply with the principle of equal rights and to protect the rights of same-sex families and their children.

What else needs to be done to strengthen the role that civil society plays in Taiwan? And how can civil society and other stakeholders outside of Taiwan better assist Taiwanese civil society representatives to have their voices heard in international and multilateral arenas?

The adoption of civic innovations in the public sector requires a system for regulation, maintenance and accountability. It is imperative that the government, civil society and private sector organisations come together to form a collaborative ecosystem to amplify our collective impact.

The United Nations report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, outlines a practical roadmap for such partnerships that aligns with our values of ‘norm-first’ architecture.

As for highlighting Taiwan social sector's contributions to international community, I'd encourage more people make use of the #TaiwanCanHelp hashtag — see the recent clip A True Friend for one example.

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

 

CHILD RIGHTS: ‘Anti-child rights groups are making up stories to convince the public’

As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks to Ilaria Paolazzi of Child Rights Connect and Mieke Schuurman of Eurochild about child rights and attacks by anti-rights groups.

ilaria paolazzi and mieke schuurman

Can you tell us a little about your organisations and the work you do?

Ilaria: Child Rights Connect is the largest Geneva-based network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on child rights. We have more than 90 members that are very diverse, including national, regional and international CSOs. Child Rights Connect is the expert organisation on the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child and the platform for joint civil society advocacy at the UN level. I’ve worked with Child Rights Connect for six years, and we are currently strengthening our coordination efforts with our members in the regions, for example in Europe with Eurochild.

Mieke: Eurochild is a regional member of Child Rights Connect. We are a European network of children’s organisations with almost 200 members across Europe, including all the European Union (EU) member states but also in many other European countries. I’m responsible for our work on child rights and child participation. We campaign for children’s rights to be implemented at the European level and focus in particular on vulnerable children in Europe, with three key priorities: combating child poverty and the social exclusion of children; the de-institutionalisation of children – making sure that children don’t grow up in institutions; and making sure that child rights are included in all EU policies, legislation and programmes. We do this by working very closely with our members and directly with children. We advocate towards the EU and actively engage for child rights beyond EU countries, including with the Council of Europe.

What are the main sources of attacks on child rights, and what role are anti-rights groups playing?

Ilaria: Attacks and restrictions on child rights are coming mainly from non-state groups, but also from some states. They are coming under the banner of advocacy for the protection of the family and traditional values.

Mieke: Our members have some serious concerns about anti-child rights movements in several countries in Europe. Particularly in countries such as Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia, there are anti-child rights movements, and these movements are gaining a lot of support. They use social media a lot, and use ‘fake news’ to be able to get their messages across, very much focusing on the cause of preserving the traditional family. Their messages are that child rights organisations are taking children away from their families, and this should not be accepted.

The campaign in Bulgaria went so far that in the end the prime minister there decided to stop the draft of the new strategy for the child, which would have introduced for the first time a holistic approach for family policy, oriented not only towards vulnerable children but also towards family support, including non-violent parenting. The anti-child rights movement strongly campaigned against the proposed new strategy as an ‘unallowable intervention into the family’, raising public support through propaganda and disinformation, and eventually the government gave in. In their campaign, they even used the logos of children’s civil society and of the child helpline in Bulgaria, spreading disinformation on their work as ‘paid from external sources in terms of selling Bulgarian children abroad’. Across the EU there is a free single number that children can call if they need support and help; they campaigned against this, on the basis that if children need help they can go to their parents and so they have no need to call a child helpline.

As a result of these movements, not only has development in child rights policies been stopped, but help and support to the most vulnerable children is being threatened.

They create a lot of fear and uncertainty among families. Research has demonstrated that the key supporters of these movements are conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants, but there is also a lot of support from Russia, and from Belarus and Ukraine, and also partly from the USA. Funding is coming from these countries to support anti-child rights movements.

It’s very hard for our members to campaign against it, because apparently these anti-child rights movements get something like 187,000 supporters on Facebook. We can question whether these are real supporters or fake ones, but it has the effect of mobilising a lot of uncertainty and uproar against children’s rights.

Ilaria: There is currently a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN body responsible for monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child, who is Bulgarian and has been under direct attack from anti-rights movements in Bulgaria. These movements are generally very well informed and aware of what is happening at the international level and of the functioning of the Committee and they never miss opportunities to attack.

In 2014, the FamilyPolicy.ru group issued a 97-page report, Ultra Vires Acts by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that aimed to delegitimise and dismantle the mandate of the Committee, calling into question its core functions by saying, for example, that the observations and general comments it issues should only be of a general nature and not go into details. It also included a specific call on states to denounce the Convention and refuse to ratify its third optional protocol on a communications procedure. This was quite a direct and unprecedented attack.

What do you think is new about these attacks, and where do they derive their power from?

Mieke: I believe these groups have always existed. They have always supported the family and the strength of the family, and gone against the rights of children, believing that parents can decide for children what to do and what not to do.

Maybe they have been able to increase their supporters very easily because of the opportunities given by social media. Also governments are not really doing anything against them. Civil society is not really being supported by governments. Governments are not making statements that support children’s rights or human rights. Some of our members are saying this is really what’s lacking now.

Ilaria: They also seem to have resources – much more than child rights organisations – and therefore the means to mobilise.

Mieke: That’s true. These anti-rights movements have a lot of funds. At the same time, the space for CSOs working on democracy and child rights is shrinking, which is particularly visible in terms of access to funding.

Ilaria: Another factor that is pushing them to become more active is the advance of certain topics within the child rights discourse that weren’t so prominent before, such as the issues related to gender identities, LGBTQI children and children growing up in LGBTQI families. While the child rights movement has yet to properly integrate a gender perspective into its work, children themselves are raising the issue in front of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in front of the international community. But it’s something that’s adding onto the sensitive discussions around sexual and reproductive rights.

Another emerging issue is the role that children are taking as environmental human rights defenders. While many stakeholders are opening their minds about children’s right to be heard and the importance of having space where children can exercise their civil and political rights, there has been a lot of hate speech against those children speaking out online and offline. This reflects the still pervasive vision of children as objects and not subject of rights.

Mieke: What they are saying about LGBTQI rights is that people want to take away children to give them to gay foster families. They are opposed to sex education in schools.

We increasingly get reports that when children speak in public at the local level, such as in city councils, child rights defenders often get negative reactions and are told to shut up. Children themselves are experiencing these negative attitudes, which is difficult for them to deal with.

How is civil society, including your membership, responding to these challenges?

Mieke: Our members in Bulgaria are quite active, and they are now very active on Facebook, trying to get as many supporters as possible, but still the group is smaller than the groups for supporters of anti-child rights movements. Anti-child rights movements are making up stories to convince the public that child rights are bad for children, and so we also need to share our stories about what we are doing and why child rights are important for children. Maybe in responding we need to use less the language of rights of children and talk more about the wellbeing of children and the need for children to grow up in safe families.

Basically our members are trying to share their stories on social media and on television to try to get the mainstream public convinced about the importance of child rights. They say we shouldn’t engage with the extremists because we won’t be able to convince them, but we should instead target the public who might not have an opinion or who might not know yet what they agree with because they need to have the right information and need to know the other stories about child rights.

Ilaria: As the international level we continue to try to draw the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s attention to national-level contexts and challenges so that it can take these into account when making recommendations to states. For example, we made a reference to the Bulgarian and European context in our public statement to the Committee’s opening session in May 2019.

We are also always alerted about initiatives brought by anti-child rights movements on the protection of the family to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where there is always a danger around the corner. Here we collaborate and coordinate with CSOs beyond our membership and that are working on different topics, such as the human rights of older persons, in order to be aware of, and respond collectively, to such initiatives.

We did a lot of work in 2014 when the UNHRC adopted a resolution on the protection of the family and organised a subsequent panel. Many initiatives around this sought to introduce the idea that the family, understood as the nuclear family, has rights as a unit, without acknowledging the human rights of individual family members such as children, the different forms a family can take, and the responsibility of states to protect the rights of individuals and intervene, when appropriate. Child Rights Connect coordinated advocacy to offer states an alternative, more consensual angle, which was effective for finding constructive compromises during the negotiation of the resolution and also for reaffirming children’s rights during the discussions on protection of the family.

In 2017, we did the same in the context of a seminar on the protection of the family and disability organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This year luckily nothing has happened, but we are always monitoring the situation and this is ongoing work, because child rights organisations working on specific issues might not be aware of these dangers.

We are also following and being alert about the discussions around alternative care of children with disabilities. In this context, some have been raising the issue of whether a right to a family exists or should exist. While we acknowledge the key role that families play for children, we think this is very dangerous for child rights in general, as it is not in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and opens up discussions around the rights of the family. So we are trying to empower everyone to understand the international law and the implications on child rights.

From 2017 we started to prioritise work on civil society space for children and children human rights defenders. What we have seen was that in moving beyond Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the right to be heard, which was the main basis for claiming child participation rights until now, the human rights defenders framework and UNHRC resolutions on civil society space are helping us to talk about children’s civic and political rights. This is still quite an underestimated issue for many, and not only states, but also the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, academia and child rights CSOs that are traditionally focusing on the economic, social and cultural rights of children.

When it comes to the fundamental freedoms of children, there is not a specialised CSO advancing the topic at all levels, and international human rights CSOs working on civil and political rights in general do not integrate a child rights-based approach in their work. There is still a big gap out there that Child Rights Connect is trying to fill through the angle of children human rights defenders.

What further responses are needed?

Mieke: I think the challenges are to make sure we get enough allies among civil society, in other fields, such as women’s rights organisations and disability organisations.

It’s also a question of resources, because if you continually have to be on social media to respond or share your stories, it takes a lot of time and human resources to do that work and you need funding to do this, so that’s also a big challenge. The need for measures to straighten media literacy is also crucial. We really need to find foundations and organisations that are able to support us and fund our work.

And then there is the challenge of getting states to speak up. Now we are trying to get the EU on board, to have a louder voice and tell states that they should support civil society in campaigning for children’s rights.

Ilaria: I think we have started, but we need to do more to connect children’s rights to human rights and work more closely with human rights CSOs and actors. I think the collaboration we’ve had with CIVICUS is emblematic. The Committee on the Right of the Child’s Day of General Discussion, held every two years in Geneva, helps. The 2018 Day on the theme of ‘protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders’ was an opportunity to strengthen the collaboration not only with CIVICUS but also with Amnesty International, International Service for Human Rights and other human rights CSOs.

We need to continue to make everyone understand what it means to apply a child rights-based approach. There are still too many who approach children as a solely vulnerable group or child rights as a theme and not as something that relates to everything, or that is impacted on by all human rights work.

Our work on children human rights defenders is helping this by making children be recognised as civil society actors and making all under-18 human rights defenders be recognised as children. However, we need to do more to clarify how to strike the balance between the protection and empowerment of children who act as defenders.

We keep hearing that children shouldn’t be exposed to risk by being called ‘defenders’ because it is a sensitive terminology, and we keep explaining that of course this must be taken into account for specific contexts, but it’s not an excuse for overlooking children’s civil and political rights. So we need to be sure we are taking criticisms in the right way, and addressing them appropriately.

Going back to the family rights issue, I think there is a need to also stress and clarify the positive role of families within the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and also say loudly that it’s not that human rights organisations are against families, which is one of the main claims made by anti-rights groups, and be clear that the existing human rights framework does give them certain rights, along with responsibilities and duties. One of our members had encouraged the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold a Day of General Discussion on the role of parents and families in the realisation of children’s rights, with the objective of clarifying how states can best support parents and families in all their forms in order to ensure a healthy and nurturing family environment for children, but this wasn’t yet followed up by the Committee. But we are still exploring and working on this idea to help advance a positive discourse that counters anti-rights attacks.

What support, including from other parts of civil society, would most help make a difference to child rights?

Ilaria: I would say what would help us the most would be to mainstream effectively the protection, promotion and fulfilment of child rights in general. We welcome very much the roundtables between the OHCHR civic space unit and Geneva-based CSOs that CIVICUS is starting to organise. We participated recently and are really keen to use this to advance the mainstreaming of child rights within the UN human rights system, which is a big challenge.

Children and child rights are not yet taken seriously. We are really far from being there, and we are fighting constantly at all levels to be heard and for children’s views to be considered, because in many cases children are just given the space to talk for the sake of giving them a face and then nothing happens with the recommendations and the things they share. There is still a lot to do here and this should be a multi-stakeholder joint effort.

Get in touch with Child Rights Connect through its website and Facebook page, or follow @ChildRightsCnct on Twitter.

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

 

Mexico: Beyond a trend, community philanthropy has been essential to build people power

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

In Latin America there is a strong tradition of generosity and solidarity among neighbors, communities and people who do not hesitate to join efforts and resources to help an individual or solve collective problems. What we now call community philanthropy has always existed in many places, although informally. But in the last decades, community philanthropy has been formalised with the establishment of community foundations that have become a pillar for civil society and development.

Mexico is the country in the region that has more community foundations. The majority is consolidated and leads community philanthropy efforts, strategic social investment, development work and even humanitarian action. For example, after the devastating earthquakes in 2017, many foundations were key to addressing the emergencies and rebuilding affected areas. Their work is widely recognised, they enjoy strong legitimacy amongst communities and have the trust of national and international donors.

Comunalia is an alliance made up of 14 community foundations from 13 states of Mexico, which has been supporting and strengthening their work for nine years. We talked with Mariana Sandoval, Communalia’s executive director, and Ixanar Uriza, former vice president*, about the importance of these foundations and community philanthropy for Mexican civil society.

What are the characteristics of a community foundation that differentiate it from other philanthropic foundations?

Uriza: These are community-led foundations that mobilise both local and external resources to invest them for local benefit through loca civil society organisations (CSOs) and members of the communities. They are characterised by covering one specific geographical area; having expert knowledge about the characteristics and needs of their community; being leaders and defenders of those interests and priorities and being able to establish alliances with other actors to promote the common good.

There is great interest around the world in expanding community philanthropy. How have these foundations in Mexico managed to position themselves as a solid and legitimate channel to mobilise resources for local civil society?

Sandoval: Their reputation and legitimacy have been built after many years of work. Some members of Comunalia have been operating for more than 20 years. The key is that these foundations are more than a fund intermediary – they are an expert source of knowledge about the social context, needs and priorities of the communities. This builds trust: the communities know that the foundations are truly looking after their agenda and that we guide external donors on these priorities. On the donor side, they see community foundations as the best advisor to help them recognise the most relevant areas for social investment and to establish alliances with local CSOs. 

CSOs in Latin America are facing numerous attacks and restrictions. How can community foundations help them address these challenges besides the financial ones?

Sandoval: Apart from being advisors, filters and liaison points between donors and local organisations, community foundations play a key strengthening role. Many foundations work with civil society groups that are not formally established and provide them with technical assistance while they consolidate. Established organisations also consider community foundations a foothold where they can get help for different challenges, becoming strategic allies. In addition, since the foundations are dedicated to mobilising resources, CSOs can focus on doing their field work, improve it and multiply their impact. However, our current challenge is offering more and better support in influencing public policies to improve the environment for CSOs in Mexico.

Could one say that community foundations have empowered civil society in Mexico?

Uriza: These foundations have not only strengthened civil society, somehow, they have also enabled it to grow. For example, the Malinalco Community Foundation started supporting projects ten years ago when there were no CSOs in this municipality, and now there are 23. The presence of the foundation helped to awaken civil society there.

Are community foundations ahead of the “shift the power” to communities’ trend that has gained ground in the last few years?

Uriza: Community philanthropy has always existed in Latin America; it is a pre-Hispanic practice. The idea of ​​shifting the power to communities has become a trend recently, but for community foundations it has always been our working methodology – we have never conceived the idea of ​​mobilising and granting a fund without first listening to the community and prioritising their needs and interests. 

What new goals do community foundations have for Comunalia?

Sandoval: As mentioned before, we must strengthen the support in advocacy and influencing public policies provided by the foundations to the CSOs, something that is more relevant in the face of increasing threats to the civic space. Most of the foundations are already doing great work mobilising and managing resources, but we know that it is not enough in this context, especially for organisations working on social justice. Some foundations are advanced in this advocacy role in their territories, but many still need to develop it further.

* Ixanar Uriza was Comunalia’s vice president at the time of the interview.

Contact Comunalia through their website and follow their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

 

SRI LANKA: ‘Trolls accusing people of being traitors are organised and political’

Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.

sanya Eknaligoda

Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara

Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?

My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.

There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.

What threats have you faced for your advocacy?

I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.

In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.

What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?

Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.

After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.

Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?

The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.

Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.

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

If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.

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

This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.

 

CLIMATE CHANGE: Feminists have pushed for marginalised voices to be heard

maria nailevuAs calls grow for climate action to be more responsive to frontline communities, CIVICUS spoke to Maria Nailevu, a feminist climate activist from Fiji, about how feminists have been fighting for more inclusive climate policies from the local to the global levels. Nailevu says that United Nations (UN) climate negotiations often claim technical expertise as a reason to exclude diverse voices, but fail to recognise the specific expertise of women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, sex workers, rural and remote communities and young people in responding to the climate crisis in inclusive ways.

As a Fijian climate activist and a feminist, how inclusive of the needs of women, LGBTQI people and other excluded people have you found regional and national climate responses?

There is still a lot of work needed in terms of inclusiveness within our national and regional climate responses. There are still many key consultation processes that continue to exclude diverse voices that matter – those of women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, sex workers, people from rural and remote communities and young people, among others. Also, disaster responses still need to be more inclusive to ensure that all people, regardless of their race, sexuality, or background, have fair access to disaster assistance. After Cyclone Winston in 2016, one of the gaps identified within our disaster risk reduction work was that many marginalised communities were left out from accessing government assistance because it was designed only for traditional family structures. Only men as heads of households received the assistance on behalf of their families, which excluded many people who were already living on or below the poverty line and left them on their own to recover at their own cost.

Additionally, evacuation centres are not safe for women, girls and LGBTQI people. There have been reports of many human rights violations that arose during the evacuation period. We have also documented cases of LGBTQI people who were willing to risk their lives in temporary shelters because of fear of violence and discrimination at evacuation centres.

The 2017 climate change Conference of Parties (COP 23) hosted by Fiji emphasised the need for dialogue through the distinct Fijian process of talanoa – a form of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. What do you think decision-makers can learn from talanoa in terms of listening to diverse perspectives?

I was fortunate to be part of the Talanoa Dialogue in 2017, when I was with DIVA for Equality representing the voices of lesbian, bisexual and transmasculine (LBT) women as well as women from rural, maritime and urban poor communities. As a grassroots feminist, climate activist and a woman holding diverse identities, I personally felt that it was a wonderfully designed platform because of the opportunity it provided for diverse voices to have a direct say in the process. I think decision-makers should create and support more inclusive and safe spaces that encourage the expression of diverse perspectives and shift away from tokenism and the focus on technical capacities.

Do you think the voices of diverse groups, and particularly of young people, have been heard in climate decision-making in Fiji?

Having the voice of young people heard has been a continuous challenge. However, in my feminist and climate justice work I feel that there are now spaces slowly opening up for young people and other marginalised voices. This has happened as a result of the continuous push by the feminist movement, and especially by DIVA for Equality, which has been doing great work in connecting direct voices that matter with key spaces.

I also personally feel that if youth spaces are shrinking, young people have the potential to shift that around by being radical and starting to implement actions rather than staying frustrated at decision-makers and our failing system. Young people can easily organise and act through community activities – such as planting trees, doing clean-up campaigns and conducting awareness drives – so that true work and commitment become visible, which can capture the attention of our leaders and reflect on existing processes.

Greta Thunberg is a great example of the younger generation having enough and speaking up to our failing system. Look at her now: she not only has the attention of our leaders, but also got international attention. The beauty behind this revolution is that it all started with Greta taking a day off school in 2018 to go sit and outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on global warming. It was just her, on her own, holding up a sign that said, ‘School strike for climate’.

From your experience, do regional and global climate talks offer meaningful opportunities for the participation of frontline communities? If not, how do you think these processes could be improved?

I find UN climate-related spaces complicated, and I’m sure it’s the same for any feminist and climate activist from the global south. This happens for a few reasons.

First, gender balance in government delegations has always been a challenge in COP spaces. There are times you need to speak to your national and regional government delegations and it’s difficult for women when almost the entire teams are male. Another related challenge is that delegation members themselves are not familiar with gender and human rights issues and their interlinking impacts on climate change. This becomes a barrier to our work and efforts to influence our national and regional positions.

Second, there are almost no spaces and proper support systems for women from the global south to have a direct influence in the process. For COP 23, DIVA for Equality organised side events for the first time. We brought in women from the Pacific and elsewhere in the global south to speak about challenges and strategies. This was a breakthrough, as it created a stronger network of women working on similar issues. We also hosted a side caucus so that we could all find ways to support each other during the intense two-week process, which was helpful for women who were participating for the first time and feeling completely lost and consumed in the process.

Third, technical aspects tend to be prioritised over the importance of diverse knowledge. There seems to be a prevailing narrative that when you are from the global south or from a marginalised community, you are nothing but a victim. This shifts the attention away from the creation of spaces for grassroots women and marginalised groups to have a direct voice, sharing their realities and their strategies in a way that decision-makers can hear and learn from. There are so many spaces for technical capacity-building but so few that recognise and focus on the types of expertise that diverse communities also bring. There are feminist and women-led initiatives and indigenous and traditional knowledge that should be prioritised and integrated within our key climate responses.

Finally, there is a permanent tension between global north and global south politics. It is always a challenge for feminists from the global north and global south to convene and work together. I have been engaging in all COP events through the Women and Gender Constituency and it’s tough work when there are women from such different backgrounds. There still needs to be a recognition that our contexts are different and climate change impacts differently on us, and there needs to be more practice around power negotiations and a clear understanding of the different positions and politics in the room.

How are people in Fiji mobilising for a more just and inclusive response to the climate crisis?

I will speak on this based on my previous work with DIVA for Equality, which is a radical and feminist organisation in Fiji that works on an intersectional and interlinkage approach within a strong universal human rights framework.

One of the ways in which DIVA addresses inclusive responses is by creating inclusive and safe spaces for all people. Every year, DIVA hosts national conventions for LBT women, feminist bootcamps and an event called the Fiji Women Defending Commons, which convenes rural, maritime and urban poor women who are already doing work on climate, gender and sustainable development.

These key spaces that DIVA creates bring in excluded communities to come together to learn, share, strategise and work towards building a stronger social movement that connects communities that are doing great work with little support, contributing towards the resilience of their communities. These convenings produce useful outcomes, including outcome documents and demands that are co-produced by participants and shared with all relevant stakeholders, including the government, so they hear directly from people and can act on it.

DIVA is modeling a great set of work which I hope others, and especially our national and regional bodies, can follow to ensure that all people are included in climate responses if they truly believe in the 'leave no one behind' statement.

What do you think about the recent climate strikes around the world and the UN response to them?

There is a unique and powerful aspect of this climate strike, perhaps because it evolved from Greta Thunberg, who I find special because of her diverse identities: she is young girl with autism and she is from an global north country but stood up and spoke out not only for herself but for millions of people, including us in Fiji and the Pacific, who are angry at our failing system and structures and scared of our uncertain future because of leaders who are prioritising thriving economies at the expense of community livelihoods and our environment.

I find this year's climate strike really impactful and strong. I think it's a sign that people are now aware of the realities of climate impacts; they now understand the facts and the science that are shared by climate scientists on the status of the planet and our entire ecosystems. People cannot stand by and watch our planet be destroyed and our entire human race wiped out.

I hope the UN sees the seriousness in the key messages shared through the climate strikes and also strongly recognises that we are now in a time of climate crisis, as we can see in the various disasters striking across the globe. This requires a radical shift if we truly want to save humankind, our planet and all living species.

What are your hopes for COP 25, to be held in Chile in December 2019?

I hope there will be more support for diverse representation, including within government delegations. I hope global north countries and corporations will commit to their responsibilities through climate finance to address loss and damage for the global south, stop coal production and markets and invest more in renewable energy and gender-just solutions. I hope the objectives within the Gender Action Plan are implemented, monitored and achieved. And I hope the priority of protecting the ocean and marine life will be scaled up, especially around the global issue of plastic reliance and pollution. This will have a direct impact on food security for us and future generations.

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

 

SUDAN: Young activists show climate solidarity through drought, floods and tears

بالعربية

Nisreen El SayeemCIVICUS speaks to Nisreen Al Sayeem, Chair of the Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change and Coordinator of Youth and Environment - Sudan (YES). Nisreen is a junior negotiator at United Nations (UN) Climate Talks for the African Group of Negotiators and a co-organiser of the UN Youth Climate Summit. Nisreen speaks about how young people in Sudan are organising to respond to the climate crisis using the traditional Sudanese concept of Nafeer – collective voluntary action – to provide solidarity and assistance to villages affected by floods, droughts and desertification, and about how young people from Sudan have successfully fought to have a seat at the negotiation table at UN climate talks.

 

How did you become a climate change activist?

I’ve been doing climate change and environmental activism since 2012, which is seven years now, since my first year of university. Nowadays in Sudan, people's awareness of climate change is definitely different to when I started in 2012. Even policy-makers have a different perspective on climate change issues now, and all the agencies have climate change programmes. Unfortunately, not much has changed regarding UN climate negotiations. UN member states needed 21 years to reach the Paris Agreement, so you can imagine how slow things are still.

I’m a physicist. I studied physics and I love science very much, but I have realised that unfortunately, without policy-makers, policy papers and policy-making processes, science doesn’t mean anything. I started working in the climate change field because I wanted to see the link between the science and the policy.

How are young people in Sudan engaging with climate change?

Young people in Sudan are taking three different paths for climate action: policy, activism – including advocacy, campaigning and work in civil society organisations – and community-based work. Community-based work is what the majority of young people in Sudan are doing, because they realise that policy-makers are not quick enough and civil society work is not inclusive enough, so they are doing the government’s job in many places and also doing the humanitarian’s job in other places.

Our organisation works with young people. We give them the tools and help them organise their ideas for this community-based work. We are a civil society organisation but we are only a transitional platform for young people, so they can do their community-based work. We are a bridge.

What does community organising in Sudan look like?

There is an initiative called Nafeer, which has been a tradition in Sudan since forever. When there is a problem, people join together and try to solve it. Because of climate change, we started witnessing severe rainfall. This caused floods, which completely destroyed more than 18 villages, killed 68 people and left more than 184,000 people homeless. So young people decided to take action. They started delivering humanitarian aid, helping people who were hurt and providing food, shelter and medicines, because the water was contaminated and there was a diarrhoea outbreak.

Young people also wanted to show solidarity, sharing their sadness and their tears with the people from the flooded villages, and showing them that they were not alone. Even if most of the people who participated in the initiative were not really affected by the floods, the youth of Sudan are still the same, brothers and sisters, and whatever happened to you also happened to me, and with this concept and this spirit, we did it after three months of flooding and tears.

How else is the climate crisis affecting Sudan, and how have people provided community support?

In Sudan, livelihoods depend on natural resources, and because of climate change seasons are mixed now. Autumn is late, winter is early and summer is early. Now we have a lot of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists over land, resources and crops. We have had very unfortunate events in the east of Sudan where two tribes, one of farmers and one of pastoralists, fought between each other. In 20 days we lost about 180 people in this conflict. We have many conflicts over natural resources but in this case people from both tribes who were educated enough to see that fighting was not a solution made a 15-mile wall to separate the tribes.

Desertification is killing their land, so they are not able to do any agriculture activities or even pasture their cattle and you know how frustrated you are as a parent at home if you have kids and you cannot bring food to the table. In some villages you find animals and people drinking from the same sources. More and more people are moving to the capital and leaving rural areas deserted. As you can see, things are very complicated: climate change is no joke or a way to push the government to do something; even the government is affected by climate change in a country like Sudan.

What do you think about the climate strike movement?

Although it is a very progressive thing to hold strikes in global north countries, in a country like Sudan, going to school is a privilege for a lot of students, and it doesn’t make any sense for people to strike from a school they got into after a huge struggle. So I haven’t been focusing much on the strikes. But I really think it’s affecting the global north countries and I think it’s impressive. For us we have other different ways of taking action.

You are now a climate negotiator and have secured places for Sudanese young people in the government delegation at UN climate talks. How did you achieve this?

We began by forming a network of environmental organisations in Sudan. We coordinated with the Environment Conservation Society, the oldest organisation working on the environment in Sudan, and maybe even in Africa, established in 1975. We coordinated between them and other organisations and formed a network that we called Sudan Climate Change Network.

This network advocated very hard with the Ministry of Environment and its minister. After a huge advocacy campaign to include civil society in the delegation to climate change negotiations at the Conference of the Parties (COP) and the inter-sessions in Bonn, the minister agreed to give each organisation two badges out of a total of 24. We then started a small campaign within the Climate Change Network to give young people at least half of the 24 badges. We didn’t get 12 but we got seven.

And then with other young people from Africa we pushed towards having a young negotiator programme within the African Group of Negotiators (AGN). We discovered that the AGN had already established a programme because they needed junior negotiators. A lot of the older negotiators are passing away and to guarantee the sustainability of both the negotiation processes and the AGN itself, there was a need to replace this capacity by bringing in more young people, since the climate change fight will not end any time soon. Now I am one of the negotiators for the AGN, and my friend Lena Hussein is the Middle East and North Africa region negotiator for Climate Tracker. So, in total we now have nine young people from Sudan. Our number is increasing because we have proven ourselves, so now they know that we have the capability they are giving us more space.

You helped organise the first UN Youth Climate Summit in September 2019. What are your thoughts about the Summit, and what comes next?

When you organise the first edition of any huge summit like the Youth Climate Summit, some things might not go as planned. In this case, the general atmosphere was very promising. From my point of view, the only issue was the output: what were the actual conclusions and recommendations of this summit, and how are we going to take these forward? These recommendations need to be taken forward. As one of a group of 30 young organisers, I have many plans for many other forms of engagement, including with the UN Youth Envoy’s Office.

What do you think will be the big issues for you at COP 25 in Chile this December?

Regarding negotiation topics at COP 25, we have a huge issue with loss and damage. After I saw what happened here in Sudan, and after I saw how massive the destruction has been in many other African countries, I think that loss and damage is a huge theme for us. For example, in the USA you can have a disaster and because the country can handle this, they can repopulate the area in a month, whereas in Sudan it takes at least two or three years to recover because we really don’t have the capacity to predict or prepare, and after it’s happened, to rehabilitate the affected areas. So loss and damage is a key area for us. I will also follow the Agriculture Agreement, and Climate Finance is and always will be a big deal at negotiations. Every plan, everything that we want to do, is very much linked to the finance issue. Without funding you can’t do anything, and it doesn’t make any sense to plan for something that is not going to happen because there is no money.

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

Get in touch with Nisreen through her Facebook page.

 

Zombies in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Satirical protest & mobilisation against Apartheid-era policies in Cape Town

On 30 September 2019 an unusual scene flooded Cape Town as ‘zombie’ protesters fled through the inner city in a satirical protest against the re-emergence of Apartheid-era policies in post-Apartheid South Africa. The mass mobilization was driven by activists who have been decrying regressive social policy that has ‘come back from the dead’ to reinstitutionalise race and class segregation in Cape Town. CIVICUS spoke to Zacharia Mashele, Media and Communications Officer, from Ndifuna Ukwazi about the need to use satire in protests to garner broad support and some of the major hurdles to spatial justice 25 years since the end of Apartheid.

Tell us a bit about Reclaim the City and the origins of the organization? What is the social, political and economic context in which the organization works?

Reclaim the City is a social movement bringing together tenants and workers living in the inner city. We campaign to stop the eviction and displacement of poor and working-class people and secure access to decent affordable housing close economic centres. 

South African cities remain segregated and deeply unequal. We understand that ongoing spatial apartheid replicates historical injustice and we aim to build the inclusive city and transformed society that our hard fought for Constitution guarantees. 

Reclaim the City has successfully reclaimed three public buildings in the inner city and surrounds. Ahmed Kathrada House in Green Point, Cissie Gool House, in Woodstock and Irene Grootboom House in the city centre. Combined, they are providing dignified emergency housing to around 1000 members who would otherwise have been displaced or sent to a relocation camp. 

We occupied these public buildings because our members are desperate for housing. Because we cannot afford to pay our rents anymore. Because we don’t want to live on the street when we are evicted. Because we don’t want to be sent to relocation camps by the government to be forgotten. Because we are tired of living in distant informal settlements and townships. Because we have little land and no security.

We occupied public buildings because we too have a right to live in the City. A right to walk along the beach promenade and in the city gardens. A right to have a view of the sea. A right to raise our children and care for our families in good areas where there are good schools and good hospitals. A right to be close to work and earn an income. We occupied public buildings because the City, the Province and the National Government here in South Africa have failed us. They say we must wait patiently for social reform and that the land and housing will come. But it never does and most likely it never will unless we organise against the property power that maintains inequality and spatial apartheid.

How has the organisation engaged with protests and mass mobilisation over the years, and how has this evolved with the times?

Like so many communities and social movements in South Africa, we’ve drawn on traditions of organising and mobilisation that have historical roots. Protest marches, land occupations, singing and solidarity actions are all part of the social fabric of South African society. 

While these traditions were appropriate for organising against the apartheid state, many have had to be adapted to tackle inequality and injustice today. Lack of access to housing, like so many issues, is both felt at the local level and at the same time is a symptoms of global power relations. 

We cannot speak of a right to housing and the need to advance spatial justice without recognising that financial flows in a neoliberal economic order are influencing land markets and the commodification of housing here in Cape Town. So, as the saying goes, we try to act locally but think globally.

In South Africa, the state is captured by ideologies that are invested in maintaining the status quo and feeding the interests of a minority who benefit from this favourable treatment. The state has become less responsive to mass mobilisation and protest and more likely to rely on tactics of violence and suppression using the police. In other instances, government simply does not have the capacity to implement changes. So often protest and demands have little impact, no matter the numbers of people who mobilise. 

This is compounded in segregated cities like Cape Town where poor and working class people do not readily have access to the city centre where government and businesses are located because of the expense of public transport. 

Our primary strategy, therefore, has been to organise and mobilise in the inner city. We think it is time to take the struggle for housing to the centre of the city, to the heart of power, to the people who should live there, and to the land that matters. Occupying public buildings has also been a powerful tactics. It has provided us with a space to educate, organise and mobilise ourselves; forming and demonstrating that people’s power is sustained and highly visible. 

We’ve tried many creative protests that target particular individuals in power and have adopted the South American escrache, visiting politicians at their homes or offices rather than waiting for them at the steps. We cooked breakfast for the former Mayoral Committee member for Urban Development at 5am in the morning on the street outside his home. We’ve also occupied public squares and public land. We’ve held sit ins. We disrupted speeches and strung up banners across highways. And then some.

But these are the public moments. We recognise that mobilising takes daily organising and most of our work is done through discussions and meetings. We have consciously tried to avoid replicating patriarchal structures you find in the state, in political parties and in unions - our leadership is democratically elected and sits on a flat committee. No single person is in charge. We make sure that children are welcome at all our meetings and events.

But ultimately we know that organising against powerful interests takes time and needs to be sustained. We are here not only to demonstrate but to build community and we are here for the long journey. 

On 30 September 2019, Reclaim the City organized a Zombie protest. Tell us a bit more about what this is and why the protests emerged?

We had spent a number of years organising to influence the Mayor to adopt a progressive approach to housing, land and spatial justice and we had made good progress. A number of new public housing projects were announced, the sale of public land was ended. 

However, internal factional fighting within the centre-right party that governs the city led to the ousting of the Mayor and a cabal of conservative neoliberal politicians took power. They had begun to intimidate the movement with night-time raids and threatened mass evictions. They immediately rolled back the inclusive agenda and established new relocation camps for evictees on the periphery. 

While poor and working-class people are affected by these changes, the majority of middle class residents tend to live in a bubble both unaware and unaffected. We wanted to get the word out that many members of the Mayoral Committee were in fact members of the National Party, which governed during Apartheid, and that this new cabal were following ideas which were similar or had a similar impact leading to the segregation and displacement of poor and working-class people during apartheid. 

So, together with world-renowned guerrilla activists the Yes Men, we came up with the idea of mobilizing our members to attend a spoof zombie rally of old National Party members back from the dead to support the new Mayor and his ideas. Everybody dressed up as zombies and when we got to the Mayor's office, we raised the old Apartheid State President PW Botha from the dead.

Why was it important to use satire for this protest?

We want to push the boundaries of what protest can look and feel like in Cape Town and try new innovative ways to cut through the information clutter and get our message out there. We wanted to disrupt what ordinary people see as normal behaviour from politicians or sensible economic policy, and which is in fact totally inhumane and unjust, 

At the same time, we wanted our members to have fun and take some risks. Zombies are the perfect symbol for bad ideas from a political party that everyone thought was long in the grave. 

Did you find that there was more engagement in the protest because of the use of satire? What were some of the responses (from citizens, policymakers and others) from the protests?

We started off by mobilising online. We set up spoof profiles on social media of City politicians as National Party Zombies posting silly and amusing content and slowly started introducing more pointed content. It generated a broad interest and laid the foundation for the rally in the public imagination while recruiting allies to take part. 

At the same time, we actively organised and recruited amongst our membership. At first, people were nervous, especially as many members have cultural-based fears of engaging with anything associated with those who have passed away. We organised public meetings, horror movie nights and zombie dance competitions for the youth and more and more people started to get involved. 

Within a week we had 200 zombies of all ages and races ready to rally in town. The coverage from the media was good and we got National Party Zombies on the front pages of two citywide dailies. The Mayor did not know what to do and decided to not engage at all or make a comment. It drove the point home - how exactly are things different or the same as during apartheid?

 What are some of the next steps following the protests? What needs to change in Cape Town for the realisation of spatial justice?

Changing a city structurally to make it more inclusive is a political project that must stretch across generations. Our immediate goal is to avoid a mass eviction of our members and we think the City administration is going to think twice about that now. 

Our main demands include the:

  • Cease City-led mass evictions from state land

Acknowledging the devastating long-term impact of forced removals on Black, Coloured and Indian communities, the City of Cape Town must, in principle, no longer support City-led mass evictions from state land.

  • Upgrade all informal settlements

Acknowledging how historical land dispossession has led to intergenerational trauma and systemic economic disparity, the City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to redistribute state land to redress past injustices by, inter alia, guaranteeing long-term security of tenure for all residents living in all informal settlements.

  • Shut down all Temporary Relocation Areas

Acknowledging the spatial inequality resulting from the establishment of segregated townships under apartheid, the City of Cape Town must, within three years, shut down all Temporary Relocation Areas (TRAs) on the periphery of the city, and rehouse residents in refurbished public buildings or on state land in well-located areas.

  • Cease the sale of all City-owned land

Acknowledging the central role the Constitution places on land redistribution in transforming South African society and the desperate need of many for access to land, the City must recognise it to be in breach of their obligations to sell or lease public land that could be used to satisfy that need.

  • Reject policy direction from large developers

The City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to advance spatial justice through urban planning rather than obeisance to a market logic that has served only the wealthy. And recognising that large development companies have for the past ten years built housing which has been unaffordable for the vast majority of residents, the City must engage developers through the planning process to secure affordable housing in the public interest and publish an Inclusionary Housing Policy within the next six months for public comment.

How can protests, like this one, serve to that end?

We need provocative protests, and creative protests that will ensure broad participation and support from not only our members but across race and class. It is only when we shift the politics of the centre that what was impossible becomes possible. 

Our long-term goal is to try to change the political discourse so that residents understand what the problem is and see our vision of an inclusive spatially-just city as the new normal and achievable rather than something we can only dream of. 

Ultimately, we need to continue to find strategies to hold those in power to account and shift what has become business as usual. We’re prepared to bring solutions to the table.

BIO

Born Dlamba Zacharia Mashele from Bosplaas West, North West holds a BA Degree in Journalism and a certificate in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program. He is currently the Media and Communications Officer for Ndifuna Ukwazi, a non-profit organisation that advocates for spatial justice in Cape Town. He also provides support with media and communications for Reclaim the City, a social movement advocating for affordable housing in the inner city of Cape Town. He is passionate about photojournalism and videojournalism and this entails creating photo projects and docu-series focusing on land and housing struggles in Cape Town.

Follow them at:

Ndifuna Ukwazi – www.Twitter.com/NdifunaUkwazi

Reclaim the City – www.Twitter.com/reclaimct

 

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