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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Killa Ace

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

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

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

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

Why do you think you were targeted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you tell us more about your work?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What are the overall conditions for civil society in Singapore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is civil society pushing back against these restrictions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

PAKISTAN: ‘The environment for civil society is suffocating’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What significance did the February 2018 constitutional referendum have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

What is driving the current wave of protests in Sudan?

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

 

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

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

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

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

Escazu 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escazu 2Escazu 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

What is the Escazú agreement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What difference did civil society make to the final agreement?

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

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

What’s next for Escazú in the region?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did the authorities react to the protests?

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

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

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

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

Did the protests experience backlash from conservative groups?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the government’s position toward international institutions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

Paula Raccanello Storto

Portuguese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How has civil society reacted to these setbacks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get in touch with Paula Raccanello through her email, .

 

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

Sohrab Razzaghi IranFollowing a year that was characterised by a continued crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Iran, CIVICUS speaks to Sohrab Razzaghi, Executive Director of the Volunteer Activists Institute (VA) a not-for-profit, non-partisan, independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in The Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peace-building and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007. After fleeing Iran, Sohrab now lives in exile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What major changes is civil society currently experiencing in Iran?

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

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

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

What is the current state of the freedom of expression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Felix Tshisekedi DRC1

French 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the significance of these elections for Congolese citizens?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get in touch with PPI and NDSCI through their websites.

 

VENEZUELA: Crisis demands a combined humanitarian and human rights response

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

 

CHILE: Protests reveal lack of accountability of the Catholic Church

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is the government persecuting online and offline dissent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why is the UPR process important for civil society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would you like to see come out of the UPR review?

We hope that UN member states in the Human Rights Council will listen to civil society and our recommendations, and that a diverse range of civil society’s human rights concerns, including the rights of women, young people and LGBTQI people, and civil and political rights, will be addressed by strong recommendations - by recommendations that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. This will allow civil society groups and other stakeholders to monitor easily whether the government of Vietnam follows through with their implementation.

We would also like Vietnam to have more dialogue with unregistered and independent groups, to ensure there is a balanced representation of civil society in national dialogues for future reviews. This will strengthen the impact of the UPR process and improve the integrity of the mechanism.

What are you plans following the UPR review, and what support is needed from the international community and international civil society?

VOICE will raise awareness of the commitments made by Vietnam through translation and dissemination among the public, media, parliamentarians, embassies and civil society.

We will make sure to follow up on the recommendations made to Vietnam to ensure they are being followed through by holding regular stakeholder meetings, including with other civil society groups and embassies in Hanoi. We will continue to update the states that have made specific recommendations during advocacy meetings, to let them know whether progress has been made and urge them to put some additional pressure if it has not.

We would like the international community, including international civil society organisations, to keep up the pressure so the government of Vietnam follows through with the recommendations they have received, and to provide a platform for civil society groups and HRDs to raise awareness about the state’s progress or lack of progress in human rights.

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

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

 

ARGENTINA: ‘Change is inevitable. It is just a matter of time’

Twitter: Edurne Cárdenas

In 2018, after years of civil society efforts, Argentina’s congress discussed an initiative to legalise abortion for the first time. While the ban on abortion in most cases remains, those campaigning for reform believe the debate has progressed. CIVICUS speaks about the campaign to Edurne Cárdenas, a lawyer with the international team of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights organisation. CELS was founded in 1979, during Argentina’s military dictatorship, to promote human rights, justice and social inclusion. In its early years, CELS fought for truth and justice for the crimes committed under state terrorism, before expanding its agenda to include human rights violations committed under democracy, their structural causes and their relationship to social inequality. CELS advances its agenda through research, campaigning, alliances with others in civil society, public policy advocacy and strategic litigation in both national and international forums.

When did CELS, a classic human rights organisation, start working on sexual and reproductive rights, and why?

CELS has had great capacity to work in tune with the times and therefore to enrich its agenda progressively, always in alliance with social movements and other organisations. The idea of women’s rights as human rights was explicitly articulated at the 1993 Vienna Conference on Human Rights. In the mid-1990s, and more precisely in 1996 I believe, the CELS annual report included contributions by women’s rights activists on reproductive rights. Over the following years, often in partnership with other organisations, CELS took part in submissions to human rights bodies: for instance, in 2004 we contributed to a shadow report submitted to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion was formed in 2005 and CELS joined in 2012. Shortly after those first articles were published in our annual report, our concerns about human rights violations gradually widened to encompass access to non-punishable abortions, as they are referred to in the Criminal Code - abortions that can be performed legally when the woman’s life or health are in danger or if the pregnancy in question is the product of rape. The issue was also incorporated as a result of the sustained work of feminist activists within our organisation.

In sum, CELS works on this issue because we understand that the criminalisation of abortion has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by women. CELS’ key contribution was to place the abortion debate within the human rights sphere and to put into circulation human rights arguments to feed debate around the issue. CELS does not specialise in health issues, but we work in partnership with other organisations that examine the problem from that angle. From our point of view, this is an issue in which freedom and equality are at stake, and that is cross-cut by another theme - institutional violence - that was historically central to our work.

In 2018 the debate over legal abortion progressed in Argentina more than ever before, but not far enough for legal change to happen. What lessons do you draw from this experience?

In 2018, for the first time ever, an initiative to legalise abortion was debated in Congress. It was the seventh time that an initiative of this nature was introduced, and it was drafted and promoted by the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion. This is a network bringing together more than 500 organisations that form the women’s movement; it is well coordinated, horizontal and has 13 years of experience in this struggle. Before 2018, initiatives had not progressed, even within the congressional committees that had to issue an opinion to allow for debate to proceed to the full house. Argentina has a tradition of highly mobilised feminism and, since 2015, the campaign has had a lot of street presence and has made a clear demand for legal abortion. 2018 began with a novelty: in his opening speech of that year’s legislative session, the president raised the issue, which alongside feminist pressure enabled parliamentary debate. This was absolutely unprecedented. Regrettably, after being passed by the House of Representatives - the lower house - in June 2018, the initiative to legalise abortion was rejected by the Senate in August.

The whole process was led by the women's movement. All other movements and organisations aligned behind their leadership. In the House, the initiative succeeded because the strategy was multi-partisan and diverse, there was strong social movement participation and street pressure made itself heard. In the Senate, a more conservative chamber, additional work was required. Our alliances failed us, as we couldn’t make them as cross-cutting as they were in the House. A question that remains on the table, then, is how to reach out to the most conservative chamber of Congress with a demand that must necessarily be processed through it.

In addition, the defeat in the Senate made it clear that we need to work more to understand and counter the ‘post-truth’ discourse of our opponents. We are seeing conservative advances that put institutional quality, and ultimately democratic institutions, at risk. What was interesting in the process was that all citizens were able to find out and take note of what their representatives think and how they vote.

The results of this particular struggle could be called bittersweet. How much of a defeat, and how much of a victory were they, and why?

The pictures of disappointment on 9 August 2018, when the Senate rejected the initiative, do not tell the whole story. When we take stock, the list of what we won is much longer than the list of what we lost. Losses of course include a missed opportunity - but we only missed one opportunity, that of 2018, because I really believe that change is inevitable, and it is just a matter of time. I do not know if it will happen in 2019, but it will eventually. But one thing does need to happen in 2019: with elections due, all the issues that were put on the table during this process have to be part of the presidential campaign agenda.

We undoubtedly gained in terms of mass participation and public presence - both in the streets and in public opinion. In 2018 abortion was discussed like never before, so silences and taboos broke. But the process also had a negative side effect: because the issue that was placed on the agenda was so divisive, and mobilisation became so massive and acquired such centrality on the political scene, a strong reaction from the most conservative sectors ensued. These sectors gained a level of organisation and visibility that they did not have in the past.

As these conservative voices emerged, the debate on abortion rights also brought back into the discussion some things that we thought were long settled and part of a basic, untouchable consensus. These sectors began to say out loud certain things that they wouldn’t have dared say only a few years ago. Such was the case with the campaign ‘Do not mess with my children’ (Con mis hijos no te metas), against the implementation of the law mandating comprehensive sex education, which called into question the role of the state in education.

What role did CELS play in the legalisation campaign?

Throughout the process, the women’s movement’s leadership, and that of the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, was undisputable. As a member of the Campaign, and alongside other human rights organisations, CELS made an important contribution in terms of organisation, coordination and argumentation.

Our history and experience give CELS much legitimacy. The fact that CELS speaks about abortion can make a difference when it comes to reaching broader audiences. Starting in 2014, when it seemed likely that the legalisation initiative would eventually be discussed in congressional committees, CELS began putting together input for the legislative debate, by revising jurisprudence and current standards and providing a justification as to why the debate on abortion had to be carried out from a human rights perspective.

At the same time, CELS participated as amicus curiae - friend of the court - in various court cases. Although we think that our ultimate goal, and the only one compatible with the recognition of women’s autonomy as full subjects of rights, is the legalisation of abortion, we have deemed it necessary to ensure in the meantime that the abortions that are already legal can be performed effectively, along the lines established for non-punishable abortions. In 2012, in its ruling in the F.A.L. case, the Supreme Court made very clear the conditions under which legal abortions can be performed and the obligations that this confers on the state. This ruling reflected the great work done by women’s rights and human rights movements on the streets, in hospitals, in academia and in the courts. But nonetheless, access remains very uneven, and even in more ‘advanced’ provinces barriers to legal abortions still exist. To a large extent, this reflects the structural limitations of a system that establishes a restrictive set of grounds allowing abortions, which inevitably fails because it depends on someone certifying the presence of those grounds. In addition, the current system ignores the most important among all possible grounds for abortion: the pregnant person’s will. This is precisely what the bill that was passed by the House put in the spotlight.

During the 2018 debate, CELS made several presentations in support of the initiative at public hearings in both houses of Congress. Our executive director and I presented at the House of Representatives - significantly, both at the opening and the closing of the debate - and our litigation director spoke at the Senate. At the beginning of the debate, we issued a publication that was endorsed by a large part of the women’s movement, feminists and organisations alike, with arguments, legislation and jurisprudence, to bring clear information to legislators.

We were also present on the streets, not only sharing the vigils that were held during the voting sessions, but also in organising, providing support and coordinating with the women's movement, with the other organisations within the Campaign for Legal Abortion and with high school students, health professionals and other mobilised groups. This coordination and the sustained presence of the movement on the streets were what made the difference during 2018. Finally, we defended the freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, since throughout this process the groups mobilised against legal abortion perpetrated various acts of violence against legalisation activists.

You have repeatedly mentioned the existence of anti-rights groups. Do you think these groups are on the rise? If so, what can progressive civil society do to protect the rights already conquered and keep moving forward?

Anti-rights groups have indeed grown and are organised under a common umbrella, against what they call ‘gender ideology’. They saw this debate as an opportunity to organise like never before. Now they are more numerous: there used to be groups linked to the Catholic Church, but now there are also numerous groups with links to evangelical churches, well-organised and well-funded, alongside other groups that are not necessarily faith-based. Their presence demands our attention because their goals run against the rights of a large part of the population, as they seek to limit access to rights by children, women, lesbians, gays, transvestites and trans people. They are appearing throughout Latin America and their existence also raises questions about their alliances and goals: how and when did they arrive in Argentina? What are their demands? How far are they willing to go? We have seen that behind their ‘no to abortion’ they bring along a broader agenda that is linked to their rejection of so-called ‘gender ideology’, sexual education in schools, even vaccination, and who knows what else.

The progressive movement needs to think of a strategy to face them. The strength of the human rights movement is our use of creativity and the strategy of reason. On the other hand, what anti-rights movements do is mirror the strategies of the human rights movement. Now, although creativity and innovation give us an advantage, the anti-rights movement is making us waste our time discussing things we thought were long settled. To top it all, what we get into is not even an honest discussion, since the statements they make and even the data they use do not withstand the slightest fact check. The result is not actual debate - that is, a genuine exchange of arguments and reasons. Still, we have no alternative but to respond. So, when we engage in such ‘debate’, we do not really discuss with them or try to convince them, but we share our reasoning before an audience, in order to try and convince that audience. We take advantage of that simulation of a debate to make our point before public opinion. For this task, social media are key, although they have clearly been a double-edged sword. In fact, it was during this debate that we were able to see first-hand the way so-called ‘fake news’ operates, particularly when they find an echo in influential voices outside social media, who disseminate them elsewhere. It so happened, for instance, that totally fake data found on social media were quoted by legislators during the congressional debate. In that area, there is a lot of work for us to do.

Leading the debate agenda is one of the challenges that our movements face. To do this, we need to always be a step ahead in the discussion. We should not ‘debate’ with the anti-rights groups but speak to larger audiences and engage in discussion with elected representatives, whose obligation it is to pass laws for our common good and to ensure the state’s compliance with its obligation to enforce human rights. The debate over the legalisation of abortion was a spearhead to think about other issues. The system of limited grounds for legal abortion, similar to the one that has just been adopted in Chile, has been in place in Argentina since 1921. The transition from a system of grounds to a system of deadlines requires a simple legislative decision to amend the Criminal Code. Why such big fuss then? Because this debate puts other discussions on the table, including what we think the role of women is, what the role of the state should be, to what extent and regarding what issues the state should get involved - and this is where conservative sectors exhibit their contradictions: they want the state to get inside your bed to criminalise your behaviour, but when it comes to education or vaccination, they want it not to interfere.

We cannot stay on the defensive. We need to go on the offensive and place secularism and the role of the state on the agenda. And we are forced to do so in a very regressive sub-regional context. Brazil, our biggest neighbour and partner, has just elected a president who is committed to advancing the agenda of its powerful evangelical caucus and who has just appointed to lead the Ministry of Human Rights an evangelic minister who says that women are born to be mothers.

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

Get in touch with CELS through their website and Facebook page, or follow @CELS_Argentina and @EdurneC on Twitter.

 

BOLIVIA: Increasing reduction of spaces immune to state co-optation or repression

CEDLA: Javier Gómez

Bolivia was home to a series of protests in 2018. CIVICUS speaks about these to Javier Gómez Aguilar, Executive Director of the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Founded in 1985, CEDLA is a non-profit research centre dedicated to producing and disseminating critical knowledge about labour issues in order to influence public debate. CEDLA works directly with workers and their organisations, and with development institutions, financial counterparts, other social organisations and regional and international networks.

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

Our normative framework is that of a multiparty liberal democracy with periodic elections and separation of powers; however, there is an ongoing trend, which is apparent not only in Bolivia, towards a dominant party regime and the personal concentration of power. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by President Evo Morales, is deeply rooted in Bolivia’s popular sectors, and over the course of 12 years in power it has taken over civil society space. It has done so through very different mechanisms: by criminalising protest, persecuting opponents, dividing social organisations, putting pressure on civil society organisations (CSOs), harassing them by applying tax or labour standard compliance regulations, acquiring media outlets, denying official advertising to independent media and monitoring social networks.

The use of these mechanisms has increased as the ruling party, despite remaining the biggest party, has lost support. As the government controls the four branches of government, it uses them to counter its progressive loss of legitimacy. Discontent has increased and so have protests, albeit not in the same proportion. The government continues controlling the streets and retains the capacity to mobilise its supporters, particularly public servants and sectors of the population who depend on funds transfers or state subsidies.

If any CSO denounces violations of environmental rights or norms, the government responds very aggressively and denounces the spokesperson, accusing them of having links to unspeakable political interests, notably those of US imperialism. CEDLA recently published a report on the situation in state-owned companies, and the government aggressively attacked us. They did not discuss content. After all, we used information that was already public, and all we did was analyse it. Instead they just sought to discredit the source. They may try to link us to the radicalised left, while at the same time, as we receive European funding, accusing us of representing the right-wing ideology that has won power in Europe. They do whatever it takes to build a narrative in which we appear as actively conspiring against a progressive government.

In addition, in November 2018 an audio clip was leaked in which the police commander informed the authorities about actions undertaken to “monitor” journalists and opponents on social media, and said something that was very revealing: that actions were being taken to both “inform and misinform.”

As a result, many lean towards self-censorship or self-restraint, and the public agenda weakens as a consequence. In the face of persisting activism, the government resorts to stigmatisation, treating activists as liars and subjecting them to fiscal persecution and criminalisation, even including judicial persecution. This has happened to all the social movements that mobilised in recent years. The most extreme case, throughout 2018, has been that of the Yungas coca producers, whose demands to expand production have been systematically denied by the government. Instead the producers of Chapare, the other coca region, where President Morales comes from, were allowed to expand. The Yungas coca producers have mobilised for years, but it was in mid-2018 that the government began to denounce their alleged links to armed sectors, and in August 2018 a mobilisation ended with a strange episode that resulted in the death of a police officer, and the main leader of the movement was arrested.

This situation invariably repeats itself with each sector that mobilises and in one way or another represents a threat to the government: their protests end with their leaders denounced for violence, prosecuted in the absence of due process guarantees and detained preventively for prolonged periods. It is quite common that, as protest leaders are let go with some form alternative measure, they choose to leave the country. Demobilisation ensues.

 

What caused protests by students in 2018, and how did the government react to them?
Student mobilisations were triggered by the limited budget allocation to El Alto Public University (UPEA), a new university that was born out of the popular struggles of 2000, which caters to a lot of students but is quite poor. UPEA mobilisations started in early 2018, and in March a student, Jonathan Quispe Vila, was killed in a protest. The government immediately claimed that the student had been killed as a result of the impact of a marble of the sort that students were throwing, although available home videos appear to show that he was hit by a police-issue bullet. In any case, there was no clear investigation of what happened, and although initially further demonstrations were held to protest against the death, the ultimate effect of repression was demobilisation due to fear of confrontation with the police.
Another relevant mobilisation of 2018, which started in late 2017, was that of medical doctors. Health professionals held a long strike and staged numerous protests against a new article in the Criminal Code that introduced sanctions of between five and nine years in prison for medical negligence and malpractice, following what was barely more than an administrative process. Health workers mobilised over the end-of-year holidays of 2017 and up to 21 February 2018, the day when citizens mobilise to keep on the agenda the fact that in 2016 President Morales lost a referendum that should have denied him the prerogative of running for another term in office. In the process of the health workers’ protests, several instances of confrontation, violence and persecution took place. In January 2018, the police violently broke into the Convent of San Francisco in La Paz and arrested doctors and medical students who had found safe haven there following the repression they faced when trying to block the passage of the Dakar Rally, which was routed through Bolivia. This was extraordinary: historically, the church in Bolivia protected various protesters, including those involved in hunger strikes against the dictatorship, and up to now there had never been any such intervention. There are almost no spaces immune to state repression anymore. In the case of the doctors, mobilisation gave way when the Criminal Code was repealed.
In the face of every mobilisation, the state apparatus behaves in the same way. Even when it faces sectoral demands that in themselves do not necessarily imply a political challenge, the government allows conflict to grow, feeds polarisation, waits for scuffles and confrontations with the police to arise and then accuses the leaders of mobilised groups of being behind the violence and has them arrested and prosecuted. Opposition members side with these movements, arguing that the government is not listening to them, and then conflicts that were initially sectoral or territorial end up being treated as destabilisation attempts orchestrated by the opposition.

 

When and why did protests against presidential re-election reignite? Why was this issue not solved once and for all with the 2016 referendum?

The February 2016 referendum was organised by the president himself, with the intention of getting a green light to change the Constitution - a Constitution that had been passed under his administration - in order to enable a further re-election. The referendum mechanism gives citizens the last word, so that the issue of re-election should have been resolved for good with the ‘no’ victory, and the president should not have been able to run again.

The current Constitution allows for only one re-election, but President Morales is already in his third term; the first one was not taken into account because it took place under the previous Constitution. After 12 years in power, the dispute over re-election reflects the ruling party’s institutional fragility. A prohibition on re-election would not amount to a ban against the party: the MAS could present another candidate. But at this point there is no successor to Evo Morales because, instead of acknowledging at an earlier stage that there would be no re-election, and therefore focusing on producing an alternative leadership, the government devoted itself to finding alternative ways to overcome the re-election ban.

Given that the ‘no’ option won by a very narrow margin, it has been said that the vote was ‘almost’ a draw, and therefore the result was not conclusive. In the judicial arena, two pro-government representatives filed a claim of unconstitutionality, invoking the Pact of San José de Costa Rica (the American Convention on Human Rights), which has a status higher than the Constitution. They say that because the Convention guarantees the full right of citizens to vote and be voted for, the prohibition on re-election would be a violation of the president’s political rights.

In December 2017, just days before its term ended, the Constitutional Court accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and authorised Evo Morales to seek a further re-election. It should be emphasised that Constitutional Court judges are elected and serve five-year terms, and the judges who issued that ruling are all public officials now. In other words, the judiciary is not an independent power. We are currently awaiting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ pronouncement on the subject.

The government retains about 30 per cent electoral support and mobilises a lot of people on the streets. So while fighting on the judicial front, it has also tried another way, through the approval of a new political parties bill that mandates that primary elections be held in January 2019. Right after the law was passed, the Electoral Tribunal enabled the president and vice-president to run in the primaries. Participation in these elections is mandatory for parties that want to present candidates in the general elections, but is voluntary for voters, and restricted to party members. Registries are in very bad shape: when the lists of registered voters were published, many of us found ourselves listed as members of parties that we had never been affiliated with. The opposition has insisted that this election is unnecessary, since all the parties - including the incumbent - have registered single candidates. However, the Electoral Tribunal ratified it for 27 January. Now that President Morales has been proclaimed as a candidate, it will be increasingly difficult to turn back, because this move changed the focus of the discussion: from discussing President Morales’ political rights and whether they would be violated by a re-election ban, we have moved onto a discussion of the right of MAS members and activists to vote for their favourite candidate.

 

Is civil society divided over the re-election issue? Would you say that Bolivian citizens are polarised around the issue?

There are demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, expressions in favour of and against the re-election. President Morales retains a very important level of support, particularly among public servants. There are organised sectors that receive abundant state resources and mobilise systematically against any anti-re-election protest. At the same time citizen platforms - groups of women, young people, students and sections of the middle class - have mobilised under the 'Bolivia said no' banner to demand respect for the results of the referendum. During one of the recent marches by university students the front of the Electoral Court building in Santa Cruz was set on fire. According to the students, the fire was caused by infiltrators who also caused much other damage. But the government immediately arrested the protest leaders, one of whom was indicted in a single day: he was given an abbreviated trial, pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended prison sentence - something quite extraordinary in the context a very slow judicial system, in which 80 per cent of prisoners have not been sentenced. The student was freed with alternative measures, but the objective of creating fear among mobilised sectors was achieved. It clearly showed that if you mobilise, you can end up in jail.

 

What are the long-term changes that have been seen in Bolivia?

No matter who wins the next election, scheduled for October 2019, the next government will be transitional in nature. The social transformations of the past 12 years have been profound and, I believe, irreversible. Inclusion may have been achieved through the market, but the policy changes have nonetheless been enormous, and they have taken place without any dramatic social conflict. We could have had a bloody revolution, but instead we had a very institutionalised process of social change. The fact that there are representatives, senators, mayors and governors of indigenous descent has become a natural occurrence. Out of the eight presidential candidates competing in the upcoming primaries, four are of indigenous descent - Aymara or Quechua - and each represents a different political and ideological strand, including one on the far right. Inclusion and the realisation of the rights of indigenous people was originally a leftist cause and was indeed pushed from the left, but nowadays being indigenous no longer equates with supporting alternative causes or political renewal. Being indigenous is compatible with a diversity of ideological options and no longer represents anything close to a position of moral superiority: it has become part of the mainstream, and therefore encompasses all the complexities and contradictions of society. That alone reveals how much this country has changed.

 

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

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

 

ISRAEL: There is a lack of political will to end the occupation

 

Twitter: Amit Gilutz

After a tough year for dissent in the occupied Palestinian territories, CIVICUS speaks to Amit Gilutz, spokesperson of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, B’Tselem (which means ‘in the image of’, pointing to the universal moral edict to respect and uphold the human rights of all people) strives to end Israel’s occupation, which it sees as the only way to achieve a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It does so by documenting and publicising acts of injustice, violence and human rights violations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and by challenging the legitimacy of the occupation regime both in Israel and internationally.

How would you describe the environment for civil society in Israel over the past year? Has it worsened or improved?

The recent Israeli governments - each more extremely right-wing than its predecessor - have for years engaged in a campaign aimed at silencing criticism of their policies in general and specifically stifling any debate about the occupation. Not only are human rights organisations such as B’Tselem targeted: anyone critical of the government, whether they be journalists, academics, or artists, easily becomes the target for incitement through smear campaigns and legislation designed to narrow the space available for political or even cultural action. At the same time the government is engaged in intensive international lobbying aimed at cutting funding for civil society organisations (CSOs). This process, widely referred to as ‘shrinking democratic space’, is the predictable consequence of the prolonged occupation itself, now in its 51st year. It is paralleled with another push to erase the occupation, namely the formal annexation of the territories, which the current government seems to be keener on than previous ones.

What effects have the turn towards right-wing populism abroad, and particularly in the USA, Israel’s most powerful ally, had in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been joining forces with other reactionary and populist governments around the world, aiming to create new alliances that would diminish the ability of the international community to act effectively against the occupation. These alliances, together with the green light Israel sees coming from Washington, including through a series of unilateral measures the US administration has taken against Palestinians, has emboldened the pro-settlement camp in Israel, as well as the government to step up its efforts in the dynamic process of gradually taking over more and more Palestinian land and resources, while pushing Palestinians onto enclaves that are detached from one another and from resources needed for a sustainable future.

A case in point is the plan to forcibly remove the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, which is a war crime under international law. For decades Israel has created a coercive environment for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank, hoping they will give up and leave, as if by their own volition, while stopping short of directly loading them onto trucks and dumping them elsewhere. These are the kinds of images that would damage the PR efforts of a state that purports to be a democracy, while at the same time controlling millions of subjects with no political rights. In the current political climate, Israel seems to be nearing a point in which this consideration will no longer stop it, although the planned forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents is for now on hold, thanks to international pressure.

How significant was the Knesset’s decision to pass the contentious nation-state bill into law, declaring Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”?

Although significant, none of the laws passed recently should be seen in isolation because it is their totality that matters. Their combined purpose is to mark any opposition to the occupation as illegitimate, as lying beyond the border of acceptable politics, and to further marginalise the Palestinian citizens of Israel. That said, the opposition to the nation-state bill has been quite exceptional, and one can only hope that this opposition can be sustained.

How do you work in the occupied territories, and what challenges do you face in doing so?

B’Tselem field researchers are Palestinians who work in the communities in which they live, all across the Occupied Territories. The reality of the occupation is something that they experience on both the personal, as well as the professional, level. Take for example the B’Tselem field researchers based in blockaded Gaza: together with two million Palestinians they live under this reality. On a personal level, it’s part of their lives. On a professional level, the fact that they never get a permit from Israeli authorities to leave the Gaza Strip means that it’s almost impossible for them to meet with colleagues from the B’Tselem team. A permit to exit the strip would also mean some relief from the inhumane conditions that the blockade Israel imposes on Gaza has created. In the occupied West Bank, our field researchers and volunteers have been arrested, strip-searched and harassed, have had their equipment confiscated and otherwise prevented from doing their work.

On the other side, in Israel proper, life of course is much more ‘normal’ – as exposed as our team is to the ongoing hate speech and government incitement. Specifically, Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, has once again recently been a target of incitement. In October 2018, when he appeared for the second time in front of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Israel’s Envoy to the UN, Danny Dannon, boasted in English about Israeli democracy, while addressing Hagai in Hebrew and accusing him of being a traitor.

What extra help, including from international civil society, does progressive civil society in Israel need to help create a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist and enjoy equal human rights?

We need civilians around the world to demand that their representatives do nothing short of decisive action in order to bring an end to the occupation. What we lack is not political solutions but political will, and meanwhile an unbearable toll is taken on Palestinians.

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

Get in touch with B’Tselem through their website or Facebook page, or follow @btselem and @amit_gilutz on Twitter

 

INDIA: When justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting

Flickr: Anand Grover

After years of civil society campaigning and legal action, gay sex was decriminalised in India in 2018. CIVICUS speaks to Anand Grover, Senior Advocate and Director of Lawyers Collective, a civil society organisation that led the campaign. Lawyers Collective seeks to empower and change the status of marginalised groups through the effective use of law and engagement in human rights advocacy, legal aid and litigation. Founded in 1981, Lawyers Collective uses the law as a tool to address critical issues such as gender-based violence, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual and reproductive rights, LGBTI rights and access to medicine and healthcare. Anand is known for his legal activism around homosexuality and HIV/AIDS. From 2008 to 2014 he was the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health and is currently an acting member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Homosexuality is still criminalised in about 70 countries around the world, but no longer in India. What is the significance of this change?

In September 2018, when the Supreme Court decriminalised consensual adult sex in private, it meant a lot to many people in India. Section 377 of the Penal Code criminalised all forms of so-called ‘unnatural sex’, that is, penal non-vaginal sexual acts. Section 377 ostensibly applied to both heterosexuals and homosexuals, and to gay men and lesbian women, but it was mostly used as a tool in the hands of the police to harass, extort and blackmail gay men. It prevented gay men from seeking legal protection from violence, for fear that they would end up being penalised for sodomy. Criminalisation resulted in stigma and prejudice, which in turn perpetuated a culture of silence around homosexuality and resulted in rejection at home and discrimination in the workplace and public spaces.

Not surprisingly, when we first challenged Section 377 in 2001, nobody wanted to become a petitioner; homosexuality was so stigmatised that nobody wanted to come forward. It was only in 2009, when the High Court of Delhi first decriminalised it, that people started coming out into the open.

The recent Supreme Court ruling lifted such a heavy burden from many people that we call it the second independence of India – the independence of all these groups that were still criminalised by a British law. Section 337 was imposed in 1861, under colonial rule. Before the British came, sexual practices were not criminalised in India.

As an immediate result of the legal change, people now can be open about their sexualities. People who got married abroad are now throwing receptions to celebrate their marriages. This was unheard of in India before September 2018. It is quite new for people to declare willingly that they are gay and be seen as a normalised part of society. The other day I interviewed somebody for a job, and she said she was bisexual – and nobody had asked her about it, we asked her about her aspirations, her thoughts about society, and she just said, ‘I’m bisexual and I am happy about all that is happening’, and that was that. We will, hopefully, become a more pluralistic society, at least in terms of sexuality.

 

Can this change be claimed as a victory for Indian civil society? What role did the Lawyers’ Collective and other civil society organisations (CSOs) play in the process?

This was indeed a big and hard-won victory for civil society. The process was kicked off by the Lawyers’ Collective in 2001 - or even earlier, because it all started with HIV. We began advocating for the rights of people with HIV in the late 1980s, and lost many times, but got our largest victory in 1997, when the Bombay High Court ruled against discrimination in public sector employment on the basis of HIV status.

After we won the HIV case, many gay men started coming to our office in Mumbai to seek legal advice. And that’s when I realised that the main issue for them was Section 377. It was the biggest impediment to the full expression of sexuality and personhood of LGBTI people.

We, in the Lawyers Collective, first decided to challenge Section 377 in 1999 or 2000 but couldn’t file a petition because no gay men were ready to come forward. In the meantime, someone else filed a petition in Delhi and it was dismissed. We then had to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377 in Delhi High Court. The Naz Foundation, a Delhi-based CSO working on HIV prevention amongst homosexuals and other men having sex with men, had also reached the same conclusion: Section 377 was one of the biggest obstacles to access to health services by gay men, who tried to stay under the radar due to fear of prosecution.

In the Delhi High Court, we argued that Section 377 made it difficult for the Naz Foundation to do their job of providing sexual health advice to gay men. We also challenged Section 377 on the grounds that it violated the rights to equality, non-discrimination and freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, which included the rights to privacy, dignity and health.

In 2009, the Delhi High Court declared that Section 377 was unconstitutional, and therefore decriminalised adult consensual same-sex relations in private. However, 15 Special Leave Petitions (SLPs) against the Delhi High Court’s decision were filed in the Supreme Court, mostly on behalf of faith-based and religious groups, and the government did not file an appeal. Among other interventions in support of the judgment, the Lawyers Collective filed a comprehensive counter affidavit against the SLPs, on behalf of the Naz Foundation. In 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the judgement of the Delhi High Court on the grounds that amending or repealing Section 377 should be in the hands of parliament rather than the judiciary. The Naz Foundation, through the Lawyers Collective and others, then submitted curative petitions. In the meantime some other petitions were filed and in September 2018 the Supreme Court eventually revised its 2013 judgment and concluded that Section 377 was indeed unconstitutional. They basically said: oh, we made a mistake, sorry.

What are they key lessons you learned from this experience that could help people in other countries who are fighting similar battles?

The lesson is quite simple: you need to realise that when justice is on your side, you have to keep on fighting and you will eventually win. That is what happened here: we knew that this law, that was arbitrarily imposed by the British, was unjust. We encountered lots of challenges, the fight was a long one, but we were ultimately victorious.

Are you experiencing backlash? Do you expect anti-rights groups to challenge these gains?

Not really, not this time. In fact, from 2001 to 2018 we developed a lot of advocacy through the media, and over time the public started understanding the issues, so there’s hardly any backlash now. The process took a long time, so it also gave us time for changes to catch within the mindset of the people.

I think anti-rights groups are weak on this particular issue, because all major religious groups eventually took sides against criminalisation. We will eventually see backlash when the issue of marriage equality is raised, but not around the decriminalisation of gay sex. And even gay marriage will eventually happen, because it is the logical next step.

What should be the next agenda item to work on?

Now we need to move to the next stage in terms of equality between LGBTI people and the rest of the population, including equality and non-discrimination in the private sector, regarding employment, education, health services and so on. Also, laws about sexual assault and rape need to be gender-neutral. This also applies to marriage – it should be defined as a relationship between two people, and so the definition should be gender-neutral. The same goes for inheritance and other things.

We approach change from two sides: public opinion and the courts. The reason why we choose to work through the courts rather than parliament is that the judiciary is more empathetic to these causes, whereas the parliament is packed with right-wing politicians, so these reforms wouldn’t pass.

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

Get in touch with Lawyers Collective through their website or Facebook page, or follow @LCHIVWRI and @AnandGroverRepo on Twitter

 

MIGRATION: ‘The way our countries are treating refugees –this isn't the Europe we want’

SeaWatchCIVICUS speaks to Giorgia Linardi, spokesperson for Sea-Watch in Italy, and Julian Pahlke, chairperson of Jugend Rettet (‘Youth Rescues’) and former crew member of the Iuventa ship. Sea-Watch and Jugend Rettet both conduct civil search and rescue (SAR) operations in the Central Mediterranean, a route by which migrants and refugees seek to enter Europe. In the face of an ongoing humanitarian crisis, they provide emergency relief, push for rescue operations by European institutions and stand up for legal escape routes and the removal of the root causes of migration and flight.

Photo: Sea-Watch.org

When did you decide to organise to help migrants and refugees, and why?

Julian Pahlke (JP): Jugend Rettet was founded in early 2016 by a couple of young people in Berlin. As young Europeans, we couldn’t let Europe become a mass grave. Ours is such a rich continent. Why would we leave less fortunate people to drown at sea? We might be geographically disconnected from the Mediterranean, but as Europeans we cannot be disconnected from the issue, because if you look at the way our countries are treating migrants and refugees, this is not the Europe we want.

 

NOBEL PEACE PRIZE: Congolese doctor and Iraqi survivor recognised for efforts to end wartime sexual violence

Susannah SirkinOn the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict, CIVICUS speaks to Susannah Sirkin, director of policy and senior advisor with Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Founded in 1986, PHR uses medicine and science to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. PHR’s work focuses on the physical and psychological effects of torture and sexual violence, the forensic documentation of attacks on civilians, the unnecessary and excessive use of force during civil unrest, and the protection of medical institutions and health professionals working on the frontline of human rights crises. Susannah oversees PHR’s international policy engagement, including its work with the United Nations, domestic and international justice systems and human rights coalitions, and is also responsible for managing and multiplying PHR’s strategic partnerships globally.

Who are Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, and why were they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

Let me start with Denis Mukwege, whom I know personally. Dr Mukwege is an incredibly skilled and experienced gynaecologic surgeon from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He is not only a clinician but also has a PhD in Medicine and has become, unfortunately due to the wars in the DRC, an expert in treating victims of mass sexual violence in the context of the decades of brutal conflict in his country. His medical specialty therefore became treating patients with traumatic fistula – women who were sexually assaulted so violently that various functions of their internal organs were damaged and destroyed, causing pain, incontinence and many other problems. In sum, Dr Mukwege’s surgical expertise is repairing fistulas and treating damage to the genital and reproductive organs in women and girls. In the course of treating hundreds of victims of mass rape in Eastern Congo, he started to speak out, as a doctor, against the atrocities and the culture of impunity that continued to be the norm in his country, and he began to analyse and denounce the use of mass rape as a weapon of war and to bring the voices of survivors to the fore in the global context.

Dr Mukwege is eloquent, courageous, creative and imaginative. He is equally capable of speaking to heads of state and the UN Security Council as he is of talking to the people of Panzi, the small town where his hospital is located in the South Kivu province of eastern DRC. He has also mentored dozens of young professionals working to support survivors in DRC and beyond. He is a huge advocate for a holistic model of treating survivors of sexual violence: he recognises that medical care is not just about the immediate needs of survivors or rape – which are many, including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and dealing with possible pregnancy and mental health trauma – but also about supporting access to justice and social and economic reintegration and, above all, about restoring dignity and ending the stigma and shame that has silenced so many survivors.

Nadia Murad is a young woman who was a victim herself - but she did not remain a victim and instead became a powerful and outspoken survivor. She comes from Sinjar, in northern Iraq, and belongs to the Yazidi people, a very small ethnic and religious minority that Islamic State (ISIS) targeted for extermination because they viewed them as pagans. In 2014 ISIS overran the area, rounded up people from her village, and committed unspeakable atrocities. They killed thousands of them, including six of Nadia’s brothers, and took the women into slavery. More than 6,000 Yazidi women were kidnapped by ISIS and held as sexual slaves, and more than 3,000 are still missing. So essentially, Nadia is a survivor of what was clearly a genocide - the deliberate destruction of a people’s culture and community, their homes, the killing of men and boys, mass abductions and disappearances, the sexual slavery of women and girls. In this case, as in the cases of most survivors of sexual violence in conflict contexts, rape is just one of the many horrific atrocities inflicted on them.

What is remarkable about Nadia is that she came out of captivity, which involved unbelievable suffering – beatings, burning, rape – as a leading voice describing and denouncing the plight that she experienced along with thousands of women, and bearing witness to the genocidal violence against her entire community. She overcame enormous trauma, transformed her brutal experience into witness, testimony and advocacy, and has become a voice for her people and against violence against women, and to demand accountability for the Yazidi genocide. Hers is also a call to look at survivors as whole persons and recognise their dignity as human beings and not just as victims of one crime or another. In fact, both she and Dr Mukwege, the survivor and the doctor, testify to this deep understanding of the whole person that demands our response. And they both call for addressing the continued global impunity for these crimes and ensuring that survivors not only have a voice, but they are respected and listened to, that they recover their dignity and eventually receive a full measure of justice – including reparation.

Do you think the Nobel Prize will make a difference in terms of the visibility of wartime sexual violence and holding perpetrators accountable?

This is the most visible and prestigious global prize for peace and human rights, and the eyes and ears of the world are focused on its announcement. The laureates get the opportunity to address the global community in their Nobel speeches delivered from Oslo on 10 December, International Human Rights Day. As long as the media captures these moments and focuses on these individuals, they have an extraordinary platform to speak to governments, to the international agencies doing work in conflict zones and to all of civil society. So this is a terrific opportunity for them to continue to raise the issue and to point policymakers and others in the direction of the concrete actions that are needed, because they are activists, they know their communities, and they know what needs to be done.

Additionally, the very fact that somebody like Nadia, who went through those experiences, can have a voice sends a powerful message to other survivors. Nadia was very young, and she was not a trained organiser or activist, but she was able to overcome trauma and become a global spokesperson so that people like her could have a voice. This is very validating not just for the Yazidi people, who have suffered unspeakably, but also for women and girls anywhere who have suffered assault. She specifically calls attention to the phenomenon of slavery – which includes rape but is not limited to it. And in her case, attention also focuses on the vicious, depraved crimes committed by ISIS.

As for Dr Mukwege, it’s worth noting that this is a time of a possible, long-awaited transition in the DRC, where there may be long-delayed elections, and where dozens of unresolved mass atrocity cases await justice. The Nobel Prize to Dr Mukwege calls attention to the very critical role played by doctors who believe that you cannot just treat the victims of mass crimes but must also use your experience and expertise to bring about change and stop these crimes from happening in the first place. In the view of PHR, this transformation of Dr Mukwege from a doctor who treats each patient individually to a doctor who creates and advocates for peace and justice on the global stage is an extremely important model for doctors everywhere, and especially for those who are witnesses of human rights violations.

Can you tell us more about the work that PHR has done in partnership with Dr Mukwege as well as in northern Iraq, including the area where the violations against Yazidi people took place?

Over the past seven years, PHR has worked very closely with Dr Mukwege and his staff to build capacity for the forensic documentation of sexual attacks and to bring health professionals to work more closely with law enforcement, lawyers and judges, so that survivors can gain access to justice safely and with dignity. This is fundamental because unfortunately, it is still very common for medical humanitarian workers to feel that their job is limited to providing medical care, and as a result, they set up a firewall between medical care and justice, as if the two were in competition or even incompatible with each other. In the model we promoted along with Dr Mukwege, medical support to survivors includes forensic documentation and, if the survivor so wishes, also support towards and all the way through a justice process. This requires a multidisciplinary collaboration that in far too many contexts is currently still not happening.

In Iraq, as in the DRC, we are developing a model of multi-sectoral capacity building to support access to justice for survivors of sexual violence and torture. In Iraq, this was not restricted to the Yazidi people, as these human rights violations are taking place in the context of the various crises unfolding in Iraq. We are training doctors, nurses, psychologists, law enforcement officers, lawyers and judges on forensic documentation of sexual violence and torture, and we are working to help support greater communication and collaboration across these sectors so that survivors of these crimes have safe and dignified access to justice in the full sense of the term.

We are very concerned that to date the prosecutions and trials to hold ISIS accountable for mass crimes in Iraq, which have definitely not met any recognised international standards for fair trials and treatment of detainees, have also not involved any criminal charges related to sexual violence or sexual slavery. All the ISIS detainees are being prosecuted under anti-terror laws, not for the crimes of rape or sexual slavery. The justice system has so far not met the needs of the Yazidi people or any other victims of slavery and sexual violence.

In Iraq we are adapting the model used in the DRC, because there are legal as well as cultural differences between the two countries. A big difference is that DRC is a party to the Rome Statute - the International Criminal Court - and has incorporated it into domestic law, so we were able to use those standards, procedures and understandings of mass crimes within the Congolese legal system. That is not the case in Iraq, where there are no laws that recognise or allow for the prosecution of genocide or crimes against humanity. This huge legal gap makes it nearly impossible to prosecute genocide, mass rape and mass sexual slavery in Iraq.

Across the world, what needs to be done to ensure that sexual violence is recognised and treated as a major human rights violation?

There are things to be done at every step of the way. In too many places, everything conspires against victims coming forward. Sexual violence is often perpetrated by very powerful people who control a person’s physical, economic or social environment, their jobs and even their social standing in the community. In many parts of the world women who have been raped are considered unmarriageable. In sum, there are many factors conspiring against a victim coming forward or even seeking medical care, let alone justice.

In almost any country, the biggest initial obstacle is the lack of confidence that survivors have in the law enforcement and justice system. So first, there needs to be safe access to reporting. Opportunities need to be provided for reporting to a person who is well trained to respect the survivor’s physical and emotional needs, understand the trauma that that person has been exposed to and master all the technical aspects to ensure that the case is properly documented, both clinically and forensically, to facilitate access to justice. This also requires a support network to provide assurances of safety and confidentiality, as well as a context where the survivor is not judged or stigmatised, or has their integrity questioned. More often than not, it is the victim who ends being interrogated instead of the perpetrator.

Second, there are failures of the justice system to address, including delays, lack of proper procedures to allow survivors to tell their stories safely and confidentially, and an inadequate understanding of the ways trauma affects memory or even the ways in which someone presents in front of a court of law. A lot of our training seeks to address these issues. Third, there is the limited supply of the economic and psychosocial support that survivors need. And last but not least, at the highest international level, there is the failure to prosecute the worst perpetrators, which makes it much more difficult for survivors to deal with the day to day crimes of rape and sexual assault.

What further support does civil society need to combat wartime sexual violence, including from international civil society and the international community?

One of the biggest problems that we have is the insufficient communication and coordination among all the entities working on these issues. When there is a crisis – the Rohingya people in Bangladesh, Iraq, Syria – many organisations come in to do their very well-intentioned work, but they do so in a far too uncoordinated way. We hear constantly from the legal side that gathering testimonies without the proper training can actually harm the case, and we see that some survivors are interviewed way too many times by too many people without a clear purpose. In other words, two things that are critically needed are training and coordination.

The third thing we need is for the international community to be more intentional about referring cases to international justice mechanisms, and not just drop them if, say, the Security Council fails to refer some case to the International Criminal Court. We now have investigation mechanisms – for Iraq, for Myanmar, for Syria – but they don’t have any judicial authority. We need to address the fact that the system is broken: we are giving people hope, we tell them that if they report they might get justice - but that is in fact not happening.

Get in touch with PHR through their website or Facebook page, or follow @P4HR and @susannahsirkin on Twitter

 

UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR: ‘Counter-terrorism is devouring international law’

CIVICUS speaks to Agnes Callamard, United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, about her latest report, Saving lives is not a crime, which goes beyond documenting attacks on civil society to show how closing civic space also affects people who need life-saving help.

Your latest report presented to the UN General Assembly is titled Saving lives is not a crime. Why did you choose this topic as the theme?

This particular report initially grew out of outrage. Outrage over the repeated examples that I came across of people acting in solidarity with others and being threatened with legal action, such as in Europe and the USA in the context of anti-migration policies. Outrage as well over the criminalisation of humanitarian organisations and assistance because of the counter-terrorism and sanctions regime. So, outrage is the initial driver for this particular report. My subsequent research into empirical evidence and international law applicable to these situations showed that governments were violating their obligations to protect the right to life whenever they prevented or criminalised people from intervening in situations characterised by or leading to arbitrary killings or deprivation of life.

In which areas did you find the most direct examples of such actions leading to deprivation of life?

The greatest direct impact I found was on migrants at borders, whether in the Mediterranean or in desert areas. It’s very clear in the case of the Mediterranean that the number of refugees and migrants killed or murdered has increased due to the fact that there are no longer any humanitarian actors engaged in search and rescue of those who are taking the risk of crossing the sea. The data is not so clear in the case of the border between Mexico and the USA, but one can only extrapolate that if people are prevented from dropping food and water in desert areas, it’s likely that someone will lose their life as a result of not being able to find these life-saving resources. Another example is related to counter-terrorism. Security Council resolutions and national laws on counter-terrorism have led to a significant decrease in humanitarian aid for critically endangered populations. For example, funding to humanitarian organisations operating in Somalia declined by half between 2008 and 2011, and it is estimated that half a million people died in the famine of 2011.

Additionally, there is evidence of people losing their lives as a result of the global gag rule and related policies. [The global gag rule prevents US government funding from going to organisations that provide abortion services, including the provision of information and counselling, and advocacy to decriminalise abortion.] Organisations working to assess the impact of the global gag rule have noticed an increase in mortality rates in countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe, particularly among vulnerable groups such as people living with HIV and AIDS. Because of the way the policy is implemented, and because of civil society organisations (CSOs) providing integrated health services, the global gag rule is having a negative impact on many people beyond women, and many services beyond the provision of safe abortion. And regarding the latter, experts are saying that the global gag rule is in fact increasing the number of women seeking abortions, as a result of the decrease in access to family-planning services.

How have governments engaged with your report? Do you see any opportunities for civil society to build upon?

Most governments are giving a polite nod to my report, and a few attacked it but they don’t really engage with the substance of it. There are exceptions. I believe some governments are truly troubled by the criminalisation of humanitarian and medical assistance to civilian populations in armed conflicts. Some steps have already been taken to mitigate the effects of counter-terrorism and others are being explored and considered.

Civil society needs to use every possible opportunity to question the legal framework of counter-terrorism and national security more generally, for what it is doing to civil society and to society more generally. It’s essential for civil society to go on the offensive because this global discourse has become a monster that is devouring international law and ethically-based global governance. We cannot afford to be on the defensive and to accommodate the security language. Security is a human rights issue but not in the way it’s being currently approached, including through counter-terrorism measures that do not have much respect for established legal standards such as those of the Geneva Conventions or international human rights law as they relate to the right to life and many other rights.

What advice do you have for CSOs and activists that are interested in using the findings of your report to protect and promote their life-saving work?

Far more must and can be done to protect life-saving interventions by national and international civil society. I hope that CSOs and activists will be able to use my report and its recommendations for their advocacy work with government and UN bodies such as the Security Council. For instance, civil society could advocate for the principle of ‘humanitarian exemption’ to be fully recognised by international bodies and states, and implemented in the context of both counter-terrorism and migration policies. More empirical evidence is needed on the impact of counter-terrorism, migrations or other measures on beneficiaries’ human rights, including their right to life. Civil society could research and report regularly on the impact of counter-terrorism, migration or sexual and reproductive health policies on the human rights of beneficiaries, including their right to life.

I hope civil society can also rely on the legal analysis and interpretation in my report to strengthen the protection of their work, including for litigation purposes.  

They can use it to back the argument that it is not just their right to the freedom of association that is being threatened, but also the rights of the people they are serving: in the first place, their right to life; their right not to be arbitrarily killed. The services those CSOs provide help fulfil state obligations, and if the state is unable or unwilling to provide those services, at least it should not stop others from doing what it should be doing in the first place. I hope that CSOs, whatever their field of work, will be able to use those arguments not only in strategic litigation but also to raise awareness with the public. Solidarity is not a crime. Acts of solidarity should be protected, should be put forward as a model for societies, and should never be criminalised. Brotherhood and sisterhood are values that we need to protect. That’s what really prompted this report: I was outraged by the fact that acts of decency, acts of profound humanity, life-saving acts – that such acts could become the targets of criminal action. I hope the report also helps raise the alarm about the misuse of the law. Its purpose is not to prevent or prosecute good behaviours, but to encourage them. Saving lives is not a crime.

Get in touch with Agnes Callamard through her UN email address at: , her website, or follow @AgnesCallamard on Twitter. For her upcoming report, UN Special Rapporteur Callamard would like to hear from disability rights organisations with expertise on institutional violence.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

 

HAITI: The conditions for democracy are not being met

French

Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jean Marc-nel Etienne, president of the Union of Brothers for Alternative Integrated Development (UFADI), a Haitian civil society organisation that works to promote human rights, particularly in the areas of health and education.

What are the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy and an enabled civil society? Are those conditions being met in Haiti?

Democracy guarantees rights and duties to all people without exception, regardless of their origin, skin colour or culture. Rights can be summarised as follows: the right to education, the right to food, the right to housing, the right to the freedom of expression and all other civil rights. As far as duties are concerned, I would say that the beneficiaries of rights must, in return, respect the norms and principles that society imposes on them in order to guarantee its smooth operation.

In the early 1990s, Haiti chose to become a democracy. Three decades later, however, the country finds itself in chaos. What caused this situation? Do the Haitian authorities fulfil their duties towards the population? Is democracy effectively in place in Haiti?

If we take into account the reality of Haiti, and particularly the level of social inequalities, we can say that the conditions for democracy are not being met. They have been flouted by our own leaders. The Haitian population has been left to its own devices. Many measures seemed to have been taken to improve our situation, but they all remained on paper without any impact whatsoever on the daily lives of the population.

Should we really specify the main limits of democracy in Haiti, where opposing parties have used democracy without keeping any limit or respect for others? Democracy is about behaviour - it requires the actual enjoyment of a full set of civil, social and political rights. This is in essence what constitutes the cornerstone of citizenship: the right to choose a leader, the right of expression – these rights cannot be denied to any individual no matter how low their rank or class. As a result of claiming their citizenship rights, over the past three decades the Haitian people have acquired a political conscience that is irreversibly their own and that no one can take away from them. But when the people's rights are not democratically respected, there will always be a struggle against the functioning of the government in place, either to overthrow it or to claim rights. And in Haiti the political parties both in the government and in the opposition do not respect democracy: all they do is protect their own interests while the situation of the population remains critical.

What other major challenges does domestic civil society face in Haiti?

The challenges that civil society faces in Haiti are revealed by an analysis of the national economy, which raises burning issues that must be approached with policy positions and strategies. These are growth, institutionalisation and good economic governance. The global context has led to the development of a weak local economy that over time has become vulnerable because of the inadequacy of the elements necessary for its reproduction, the absence of vision and objectives, the lack of concern for sustainability, and the inability to self-correct. This has resulted in major challenges for civil society.

First, civil society faces the challenge of contributing to the development of strong socioeconomic foundations for future generations. Haiti has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, and today’s 15-year-olds are unlikely to be able to take care of the older generation 20 years from now.

Second, civil society must do its work in a politically and economically unstable society. Funding is low compared to needs, and when credit is available, it is only for carrying out profitable short-term activities that don’t improve local productivity, which would require longer-term efforts. Imports account for more than 50 per cent of the country's overall supply, while exports represent barely 20 per cent of aggregate demand, which has been mostly the result of an excessive liberalisation of foreign trade in the absence of remediation measures. The vulnerability of the economy puts civil society in a precarious situation. In order to obtain sufficient means to implement its projects, it is forced to become externally dependent.

Third, to implement its projects fully, civil society requires adequate infrastructure in sufficient quantities. This is the 21st century and we don’t even have an adequate electric supply. But poorly enforced taxes, dubious customs supervision, poorly designed liberalisation, various exemptions and hidden forms of protectionism, have developed risk aversion among capital holders, who therefore remain confined to activities that have nothing to do with what is required for national production. Additionally, the state is unable to generate the resources it needs because most economic activities take place in the informal sector, which makes the tax base very narrow. The taxes levied on the few activities that operate formally leave the state with no room for manoeuvre to produce and provide the necessary services and ensure equity in their distribution.

Finally, there is the challenge of putting institutions at the service of development and collective well-being. Civil servants should not be confused with the state; on the contrary, they should steer the state towards the fulfilment of the collective well-being.

What were the key issues that sparked the recent anti-corruption protests in Haiti? What has been the response to the violence that left a number of protesters dead?

Demonstrators asked: ‘Where is the Petrocaribe fund?’ - that is, they demanded an investigation into the embezzlement of funds from the Venezuelan Petrocaribe programme, which supplied crude oil to Caribbean and Central American nations on very generous terms. Last year the Haitian parliament published a report blaming former senior officials for irregularities in the use of these funds, but no prosecutions followed, so demonstrators demanded punishment for those who embezzled Petrocaribe funds. In other countries in the region these were used for infrastructure projects, while in Haiti they ended up in somebody’s pockets.

According to several analysts, the Petrocaribe affair is the largest operation of corruption and misappropriation of public funds and the biggest financial crime in the history of Haiti. Those responsible must be tried and sent to prison. Haiti will or should cease to exist as a state if there is no trial in the Petrocaribe case. Many young people have mobilised to demand action. While the struggle to shed light on the fraudulent use of the Petrocaribe fund was not born on social media, but rather was triggered by a parliamentary report, the movement grew considerably thanks to online activism, with the #PetrocaribeChallenge hashtag trending.

This challenge moved beyond social media and took a new dimension by taking to the streets. In multiple locations in Haiti - including Port-au-Prince, Port-of-Peace, Fort-Liberté, Hinche, Mirebalais, Jérémie, Jacmel, Gonaïves, Saint Marc, Ouanaminthe, Cap-Haïtien and Les Cayes - and among Haitian diaspora abroad - in Montreal, New York and Paris - thousands of demonstrators marched, with numbers increasing dramatically by the day. Armed with signs, posters and banners, chanting remarks hostile to political and judicial authorities, they vehemently challenged the incumbent government to shed light on the use of the Petrocaribe funds.

The #PetroChallenge movement culminated on 17 October, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated, mostly peacefully, in almost every major city in Haiti. The event brought together a wide range of people, including children, adults, older people and young people, high school students and university students. There were violent clashes between the police, who fired several times with live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas, and protesters, who responded by throwing stones and bottles and setting up burning barricades. And again in mid-November, demonstrations took place day after day, again with violent clashes with the police. This time, the demonstrations also became a kind of referendum against the president, as many members of the political opposition took advantage of the mobilisations to demand the president’s ousting.

On 18 November unspeakable crimes were committed. Many people were killed, in addition to those already killed in previous protests, including young children, and several people were killed even in their homes.

The gigantic demonstrations that took place across the country on those days, involving several hundred thousand people, perfectly illustrate the classic axiom of Sun Tzu, which goes that if you roll a ball along a steep slope, the force required is minimal, but the results are incalculable. 17 October and 18 November thus became doubly historic - both because of the reason they were summoned, to protest against the misuse of public funds, and because they were the most massive in decades.

Is this a pre-revolutionary situation? If so, who will it benefit? If we scrutinise carefully a few pivotal periods in the history of revolutions, we note that, unlike the revolutions of the past, modern revolutions are made by a minority against the majority. Indeed, when people talk about ‘mobilising the masses’, they have only one goal: to immobilise them. When agitators, instigators, leaders, self-proclaimed ‘leaders of the people’, charlatans, demagogues and false prophets have succeeded in the name of democracy, that is to say, when this majority has been struck by general paralysis, petrified on the spot, the fruits of the revolution have fallen into their hands like a loose stone.

What kind of support does Haitian civil society need, including from international civil society organisations and international organisations?

In Haiti more than a third of children are out of school. The government lacks the capacity and the will to engage in a policy of struggle against extreme poverty. The strongest support that Haitian civil society needs from the international community is to help provide education as a public good that the state has not been able to provide in the country. But the question of the role of Haitian civil society in the face of a humanitarian crisis is too complex. It will take a struggle for hegemony, for a logical and distributive change of resources which is now a challenge. We have seen that the motives of political actors of the country are uniform, so we must strictly conceptualise civil society strategically as a competitive space. This will require the political actors of civil society in Haiti to work in favour of a democratic society.

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

Get in touch with UFADI through their website.

 

PAKISTAN: ‘Democratic forces have become weak due to prolonged military regimes’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Peter Jacob, the Executive Director of the Centre for Social Justice in Pakistan, a civil society organisation (CSO) engaging in research and advocacy on human rights, the democratic development and social justice. He has been an activist, researcher and freelance journalist for over 30 years.

In Pakistan’s July 2018 elections, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party led by Imran Khan, emerged as the largest party in parliament, breaking the decades-long dominance of the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. The election was overshadowed by hundreds of political arrests, a massive crackdown on the media and allegations that the powerful military covertly backed Imran Khan.

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Pakistan against those standards?

Just as anywhere else, a functioning democracy should have democratic norms, including constitutions and traditions, democratic institutions, including parliament and an opposition, basic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and a robust civil society that advocates for exercising these freedoms. Pakistan is struggling to become an inclusive and vibrant democracy after transitioning from a military-led government, even though direct military rule ended 10 years ago.

Pakistan faces an inherent challenge on account of having a constitution that provides for both a theocracy and a democracy, or a mix of religion and politics, posing specific risks to the rights of religious minorities.

How would you assess the conduct of the July 2018 elections? To what extent do you feel they were free and fair? What were the key challenges encountered and lessons learned?

The elections were held at a time when the previous government was facing trials on corruption and other charges, so there was a lot of speculation and allegations of gerrymandering. The government and the opposition have agreed to form a parliamentary commission to probe into these allegations. Whatever the outcome, one expects that it will help bring maturity and stability into the politics and governance of the country.

Until recently Pakistan has faced enormous challenges such as terrorism and lawlessness, low economic performance and an expanding population. It is understandable that the government system is weak and recovery is expected to be incremental. Additionally, the electoral system is not strong enough to have full transparency of the electoral process.

Nevertheless, one can say that there was wide participation by citizens in the recent elections and therefore the continuation of the democratic process presents hopes for building a fuller democracy. The decision of the opposition to become part of parliament has at least ensured that there isn’t a political crisis in the immediate post-election phase.

How did conditions for civil society change in the run-up to the elections?

A section of government has been always sceptical of CSOs; therefore, action against both international and domestic CSOs started back in 2015, largely through registration laws that were used to curtail their operations or their role in the social and public spheres. A smear campaign has also been going on, particularly against rights-based groups, which has pushed them to justify and maintain their own existence. CSOs also became victims of terrorism, and even though terrorist attacks have gradually decreased since 2015, a recovery from that situation has not come about. Therefore, the July 2018 elections did not do much to change the conditions for the civil society for the better.

To what extent was civil society able to mobilise around the elections?

Owing to these existential threats, during the recent elections, there were few organisations that could participate or even prepare to mobilise opinion around the elections.

However, due to popular human rights campaigns in the past and present, all political parties were obliged to incorporate a section on human rights in their election manifestos, which provides space for CSOs engagement in the future.

What are your key hopes and fears for the new administration that has come to power following the elections, and what should its priorities be?

The new government presents hope as it has come up with a rather holistic version of a development agenda, so besides a capitalist or neoliberal agenda they have laid an emphasis on environmental conservation, austerity and fighting corruption. Pakistanis, including the opposition, want this agenda to succeed as much as the government does. But Imran Khan has assumed power for the first time at the federal level and is therefore prone to mistakes. The biggest fear is that this team might land themselves in a trouble politically or take on a challenge bigger than they can handle. For example, the government made high claims about reducing its dependence on foreign lending yet it was obliged to approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout. This indicates some miscalculations or poor assessment of the challenges in the economy and the way forward.        

Some delicate issues may serve as on-the-job training for the government. For instance if the government can handle religious extremism where they have shown some tendency to perform - as in the well-known case of Asia Bibi, a victim of blasphemy laws - there is a pretty good chance that they will take the country forward.

Besides focusing on economic challenges, the government should also pay attention to the quality of education and cultural rights. At the moment, public education is mere indoctrination, and cultural and creative expressions are suffocated by censorship of various kinds, so they need to be unshackled.

Are there other key challenges for civil society’s fundamental rights and democratic freedoms in Pakistan?

The country is still passing through multiple transitions, such as in its external relations and the economy, which for too long have depended on US military aid and the World Bank’s financial assistance. The country needs to free itself economically and politically. Democratic forces were weakened by prolonged military regimes. The government is inclined to learn from the Chinese model, which is not a democratic one.

The media is facing curbs on its freedoms and CSOs are facing severe restrictions including a clampdown on receiving foreign funding, although CSOs are fighting back. Given its tradition of struggle against autocratic regimes, civil society might still make a comeback; however, there is currently a lot of confusion as to how civil society space will be reclaimed. But since Pakistan is setting up human rights institutions for women’s, children’s and human rights more generally, these institutions may help to disseminate a stronger discourse and bring attention to fundamental standards of freedoms and rights.

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

Human rights are all about internationalism and multilateralism, and countries must give and receive support from international actors, including international civil society, in their struggle for freedoms, which we strongly believe are interrelated. I would therefore like to encourage the international community and international CSOs to visit Pakistan, take stock of the ongoing developments and engage with the Pakistani people as well as the government.

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

Get in touch with the Centre for Social Justice on Pakistan through their website

 

FIJI: ‘In a democracy, the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box’

Abdul Mufeez ShaheedAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Mufeez Shaheed, a youth activist from Fiji and a member of CIVICUS-Counterpart International’s Innovation for Change programme in the Pacific Youth Hub.

Elections will be held in Fiji on 14 November 2018. Over the last few years, the authorities have used restrictive legislation to stifle the media and curtail the rights to peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression for civil society, including trade unions. During a visit to Fiji in February 2018, then United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein stated that civil society groups faced a "narrow civic space and the suppression of dissenting voices".

What do you see as the key components of a functioning democracy, and how do you assess the quality of democracy in Fiji againt those standards?

Key components of democracy include people power, checks and balances, separation of powers, citizens’ rights and government accountability. A democracy is where the power of the people doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box. Inclusivity is key to any democracy. So are dissent and varied opinions. Respect for basic human rights is also important, including the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. People should be able to protest in a non-violent manner, to strike and form movements and unions. The exercise of these freedoms ensures the checks and balances that are needed for a functioning democracy.

Fiji has a Bill of Rights enshrined in its Constitution. The 2013 Constitution has made some strides in ensuring these basic rights. Certain groups of people who used to face discrimination are now protected by anti-discrimination laws. Of concern, however, is the equally long list of limitations that came with the Bill of Rights. For instance, the public cannot assemble and protest without a police permit, and there have been instances when permits to hold a march or a rally have been denied on the grounds of national security. The problem is that the Constitution allows rights to be limited in the interest of national security, public safety and public order. While there are generally no restrictions against joining civil society organisations (CSOs), the government has a lot of power to regulate trade unions, strikes and lockouts in the interest of the economy. Recently, unions in Fiji - which have been a strong voice for workers’ rights - feel their collective bargaining power is being threatened and powers weakened with government moves to introduce individual, fixed-term contracts for civil servants, including teachers, rather than through a collective bargaining agreement.

Additionally, new legislation that regulates social media, such as the Online Safety Bill to “deter harmful online behaviour,” gives cause for concern. CSOs had raised strong reservations about the bill, including about the Bill’s lack of guiding principles to define and determine the scope of powers and discretion of the Commission when receiving, assessing and investigating complaints. While it has yet to be tested in courts, only time can tell how it will impact on free speech online. Another problem is the failure of the government to consult relevant bodies such as trade unions and associations when making policy decisions, including on contracts for civil servants.

What are your views on the upcoming election in Fiji? Do you think it will be free and fair?

Fiji’s system of government is parliamentary, so the upcoming general election will be held to fill the 51 seats of Parliament. Members of Parliament are elected in a single national district with open list proportional representation. The election will be carried out under the Electoral Act. A Multinational Observation Group (MOG), including representatives from Australia, India and Indonesia, will monitor the work of the Fiji Elections Office (FEO) in administering the electoral process. For the moment, everything seems to be in order. The previous election, held in 2014, was deemed by the MOG as free, fair and reflective of the will of the Fijian people.

The current electoral climate, however, includes some worrying trends. While there have been efforts to remove communal voting in elections, it seems the mindset of some people and parties is still ethnically and racially motivated. Time and again, there have been comments made by politicians that are racially motivated.

There is lots of engagement from people on social media about the elections which has come to play a big role in information sharing and allowing people to engage with official profiles of parties. However, as election day comes closer, with less than one week before polls, social media has become rife with anonymous accounts that have taken to spreading false information.

Is civil society working to promote democratic practices and human rights around the elections?

There has been lots of voter education carried out by CSOs, often in partnership with the FEO. However, CSOs are not allowed to have an active participation in the political-electoral processes. The Electoral Act prevents foreign-funded CSOs from engaging in election-related campaigns and vests the power of voter education in the Supervisor of Elections. Heavy fines of up to FJD$50,000 (approximately US$23,000) can be imposed on those breaching the Electoral Act, along with prison sentences of up to 10 years. Therefore, when CSOs such as women’s groups hold sessions on elections and women’s participation they often invite the FEO to participate so as not to breach the law.

Civil society has also organised various events to get the population up to speed with the current election processes. Women’s groups have released a women’s manifesto that states what they want from political parties. The Citizen’s Constitutional Forum, a CSO, has undertaken research on a ‘State of the Youth’ report regarding elections. Local civil society has also sought engagement with stakeholders such as international CSOs.

What are your hopes and fears regarding the government that will be elected, and what do you think its key priorities should be?

There are seve political parties running in the 2018 elections with differing opinions on a wide range of issues. These include the independence of the FEO and the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, media regulations, minimum wages, indigenous issues, education scholarship conditions, land property issues, military spending, pay and allowances for Members of Parliament and whether VAT should be paid on basic necessities, among other things.

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

There needs to be a concerted effort by international CSOs to speak out when local CSOs in Fiji raise issues of democratic freedoms and human rights. There are freedoms as well as limitations to what CSOs can achieve and if we come with a collective mindset that Fiji’s issues are everybody’s issues, we may see some progress.

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

Follow @abdulmshaheed on Twitter

 

Burundi bans international NGOs

Burundi’s National Council for Security in September announced a blanket 3-month ban on international NGOs. CIVICUS speaks to a human rights defender who asked to remain anonymous on why this ban has been imposed and the situation in Burundi for civil society.

Can you detail the recent ban by the National Security on NGOs?

The decision to ban international NGOs for a three-month period starting 1 October 2018 was announced on 27 September 2018 on national radio by the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, an organ chaired by Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza. In the communique read by General Sylas Ntigurirwa, the Executive Secretary of the National Council for Security, there was little detail on why this three-month ban was being applied. Rumors that circulated on social media such as WhatsApp in the following hours listed almost 130 INGOs, which in majority (99%) are of European and American origin.

On 28 September, the Minister of Home Affairs invited all the representatives of the banned NGOs for a briefing to discuss the details of the ban at Hotel Source du Nil in Bujumbura, but this meeting was postponed. It eventually took place on 2 October and some more details on the ban were leaked. The banned NGOs were accused of not implementing ethnic quotas in employing their workers as dictated the Arusha Peace Agreement.

The Burundi Minister of Home Affairs, Pascal Barandagiye has insisted that NGOS have to re-register with his ministry and listed four documents that NGOs must provide prior to their reopening. The documents are a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; a memorandum on the implementation of the provisions of the law on foreign NGOs and the national development plan; a commitment to the Ministry of Finance on compliance with financial regulations; and a plan for the progressive correction of ethnic imbalances in the staff of these NGOs. Also, only NGOs that support the health and education sectors are currently authorised to continue their operations.

How does this ban affect ordinary Burundians?

This is a very interesting question. Such a kind of measure taken by the Security Council has enormous negative consequences on the ordinary citizens. Although there are no accurate statistics, International NGOs in Burundi have more than 4 000 direct employees who have families and relatives they support. Some of those NGOs support vital sectors such as agriculture, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, health, education etc. If their work is banned, one can imagine the consequences.

Another level at which this ban affects not only the ordinary citizen but the entire nation, is the fact that those NGOs, are for the moment the only source foreign currencies on which the economy of Burundi depends since the economic sanctions were imposed because of human rights violations committed by government officials since 2015. We cannot ignore the taxes also being payed by NGOs to the state. This kind of ban on NGOs is clumsy and clearly not well thought clearly.

What is the current situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression in Burundi?

The situation of freedom of assembly and freedom of association has not improved since the 2015 political crisis. Civil society organisations, human rights defenders and political opposition actors continue to face threats including imprisonment or death threats. No one dares to criticise the government or government officials or challenge any government decision. A most recent example is the interruption of a live radio show at Radio Isanganiro on 25 September 2018 by police forces. Discussants on the radio show were unpacking the upcoming fifth round of inter-Burundi dialogue set for 18-24 October 2018 and among interviewees were the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and some opposition politicians.

What needs to be done for the situation in Burundi to improve?

Different measures such as economic sanctions targeting some top government officials have not produced the desired results in resolving the situation in Burundi. To date, different voices of the international community have had no effect on Burundi’s authorities and the inter-Burundi dialogue facilitated by former Tanzanian president, Benjamin William Mkapa and chaired by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, the president of Uganda are not seemingly bringing results to the situation.

Others have suggested a regional economic embargo. This measure worked well in the late 1990’s, when the government of Burundi was refusing to participate in negotiations to end the civil war. A regional economic embargo prompted the government to accept to negotiate. However, imposing an economic embargo will likely worsen the living conditions of the ordinary Burundians this time, so such a decision must be diligently taken.

But, in my opinion, some strategies that may work could include to lobby some of the regional leaders who have influence on the Burundi situation such as the president of Uganda, the president of Tanzania or the president of South Africa so that they put pressure of the authorities of Burundi to accept an inclusive dialogue in which all stakeholders are involved in finding sustainable solutions to the crisis that Burundi is going through

Any other information you would like to add on the situation in Burundi?

The situation of human rights in Burundi is worsening by the day. We are continuously witnessing forced disappearances, ransomed kidnappings and an ever-increasing number of people fleeing the country despite the movements of refugees returning from Tanzania. People live in extreme poverty and have limited access to health care as hospitals lack enough financial resources to purchase medicines. Burundi is in a dire humanitarian and political situation and is a danger to the whole Great Lakes region. A solution must be agreed on as a matter of urgency to prevent the further loss of lives.

 

VENEZUELA: ‘Venezuelans are not emigrating in search for better opportunities, but to save their lives’

CIVICUS speaks to Alicia Pantoja, co-founder Venezuela 3of Manos Veneguayas. Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, Manos Veneguayas is a civil society organisation (CSO) run by Venezuelans that offers support to Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. It works in alliance with other organisations and with the contributions of Uruguayan citizens and Venezuelans living in Uruguay. Since 2014, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, escaping from political repression, scarcity of food and medicines, street violence and a lack of opportunities. While some countries in Latin America have rejected Venezuelans at their borders, others – notably Uruguay and other Mercosur member states – have maintained an open-doors policy. More than 8,000 Venezuelans have now become legal residents in Uruguay. 

How do you see the situation in Venezuela, and how is it driving migration?

I think the situation in my country is critical: literally, people are starving to death. Malnutrition has increased; there are more and more cases of children who are nothing but skin and bones. Older people are dying, and children in hospitals are dying as a result of completely preventable infections, just because hospitals are contaminated. I see a very tough future. It will be difficult for this generation that is growing up in Venezuela today to have the strength to push the country forward.

It is no secret to anyone that Venezuelans are not migrating in search of better opportunities; they are migrating to save their lives. From 2014 to the present, the quality of life in Venezuela has deteriorated to unimaginable levels. For those of us who still have families there, this is very hard. When you are at home at night and the telephone rings, your heart stops. You always fear that call in which you will be told that so-and-so died, or so-and-so has been killed.

Instead of trying to get other countries to open their arms to receive a massive influx of migrants from Venezuela, something needs to be done to change the situation that is causing people to flee their country. But in the meantime, we at Manos Veneguayas are trying to help Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay.

How does your organisation help?

Since November 2016, Manos Veneguayas has been active as a support organisation for Venezuelan migrants in Uruguay. We are a team of nine founders and nearly 40 volunteers. We have autonomy in our decision-making, but we receive support from other organisations. Two long-established CSOs, the Instituto de Estudios Cívicos (IEC) and Idas y Vueltas, help us. IEC lends us their headquarters and supports us at each event we organise. With Idas y Vueltas we have learned to work together. They continue to work on supporting all migrants more generally, while we focus on Venezuelans. Of course, although we are an organisation of Venezuelans working for Venezuelans, we serve all migrants who arrive at our doors looking for a helping hand. We do not deny anyone our help.

Initially our idea was to provide emotional support. People were arriving who ignored lots of important things about this country, such as that summers are hot and winters are cold. They had no idea what it is like to live in a country with four seasons. Newcomers did not even know how to dress for the low temperatures or how to protect themselves from the sun, and they often did not have the right clothes either. Many had arrived with nothing, so we collected and distributed necessities such as warm clothing.

The initial idea was to help newcomers adapt to Uruguay, so that they felt that they were not alone throughout the migration process. As the main urgency for new arrivals is to get a job, the first thing we did was create a jobs bank, which we named Clasificados Veneguayos.

At first, we tired ourselves out hunting for job offers online, but we soon got lucky when at one of our first job fairs a newspaper did a great interview with us, which was widely disseminated, putting Manos Veneguayas on the radar of many businesspeople. After that, offers began arriving directly to us, and we now have a database with hundreds of resumes that we provide to potential employers. And while many people come to us with requests for domestic help, we try to get people jobs within their professional areas of expertise. But our priority is to make sure that at least one member of each household receives an income, and we think that all jobs dignify. We give talks so that newcomers learn about their rights regarding healthcare and work, and we help them prepare a resume or get ready for a job interview. We also provide them with support so that they can obtain their legal papers.

We have done a survey, mostly through Facebook, to better understand the needs of Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. For those who are arriving right now, housing is an additional problem on top of finding work. Increasing despair is causing whole family groups to leave Venezuela, making the process all the more difficult. In the past, the head of the family, usually a man, often came first, stayed in a residence and focused on working, so three or four months later they would be able to provide the required deposit to rent a small apartment so that he could bring his wife along to work, and eventually rent a bigger place together. But now it’s families of four or five people arriving, and residences and even rental rooms are out of their reach. Legally, rental collaterals can only be obtained after being employed for a minimum of three months. Otherwise, you need to pay a lot of money up front, and in the case of recent Venezuelan migrants, if I told you that one per cent are bringing a sizeable amount of money, it would be an exaggeration. Shelters are overflowing because not only are Venezuelans currently arriving, but also Cubans and Dominicans.

The Venezuelan exodus has sparked some cases of discrimination and xenophobia in the region. Have you experienced this in Uruguay?

A sociologist who I spoke to recently told me about some cases. But I think they have been isolated cases. I have been in Uruguay for four years and I have not personally seen any kind of discrimination based on skin colour or nationality.

Of course, there are people who think that Venezuelans are coming to take job opportunities from Uruguayans. But that is obviously not true: there is simply a range of offers that fit some people and not others. While there are many Venezuelan professionals working as Uber drivers, waiters, vendors and delivery people, there are also professionals employed within their area of expertise: nurses, physiotherapists, engineers, even some architects who have been able to validate their college degrees. In fact, the migration of Venezuelan professionals has been very important for Uruguay, since it has allowed the country to tap into a high-quality pool of professionals while not investing a cent in their training.

We know that as far as migrants are concerned, it is common for the reputation of the whole national group to be put into question as a result of the actions of just a few individuals. If one Venezuelan makes a mistake, it will be said that all Venezuelans are dishonest or unreliable. Therefore, we are very careful in helping people prepare to find a job. When people arrive and tell us that they are desperate and want a job no matter what, we ask them to identify their own limits, because they need to commit to whatever job they get; they cannot stay in a job for two weeks and then leave. Something similar happens with the rhythm of things. In Venezuela, if you stand still you risk being ran over. In Uruguay, everything happens more slowly, and Venezuelans are not used to it. So we try to calm down all those young people who come here with this attitude of wanting to swallow the whole world, because in Venezuela they were eating air. We need to calm them down and show them that this is a wonderful country that has opened its doors to us, but that we also need to move at its pace.

Do you think Venezuelan migrants are here for good, or do they plan to return to Venezuela some day?

This is one of the things we always discuss among ourselves. There are some who consider that their life is here now, and they are here to stay, but a high proportion of us are of the view that we are here to learn, because our plan is to go back and help rebuild our country. I want to go back, and I believe most people think that this is just temporary, that our country is going to move forward and will eventually need us. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to leave a deep mark in this country that has hosted us, so that tomorrow they can say that Venezuelans have indeed played their part.

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

Get in touch with Manos Veneguayas through its Facebook page.

 

SOUTH KOREA: ‘Achieving victory by our own hands'

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Gayoon Baek, South Korean civil society activist, co-representative of Jeju Dark Tours and former coordinator of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, about what has changed for civil society following South Korea’s dramatic 2017 ‘Candlelight Revolution’, which led to the ousting of President Park Geun-hye, and what challenges South Korean civil society still faces.

What do you think people learned from the Candlelight Revolution?

For the last nine years when we had a conservative government, people felt that even though they protested over and over again, especially workers, nothing changed. For people who work in rights, we hadn’t had much experience of winning something.

But from the experience of 2017 people realised that if they all stand up together something can really change. Many people now are aware that once they are gathered together on the streets they can actually change something. This feeling of having achieved victory by our own hands will teach people that if you want to have some changes, you have to do something. This is something we did as a democracy and something we achieved with our own hands. Experiencing this makes a lot of difference. I think this will bring changes in the future when we have social issues to act on.

How have the changes in government impacted on South Korean civil society?

Civil society has changed a lot. At the time of the protests, some of the public who were participating distrusted civil society organisations (CSOs): they thought that CSOs wanted to maintain the old style of protests, characterised by union groups shouting the same slogans. Instead, people were very creative, holding concerts, being artistic, with a different format from the standard kind of protests that activists usually held. CSOs created innovative ways to conduct a campaign and protest. The protests were a platform for people to voice their different needs from different perspectives.

As civil society, it was easier for us to work together because we had a common goal. We had a lot of support from the public, including donations. They saw CSOs as fighting on their behalf.

Government agencies changed their attitude after the election. The day after the election results were published government ministries contacted CSOs and wanted to have a meeting with us. Before they hadn’t wanted to talk to us or include us as a partner. So it was a positive, that they wanted to talk to civil society groups. Now we have more opportunities to be able to talk and negotiate with the government. But at the same time it shows we are dependent on who is in the administration. There is not systematic dialogue, so when we have a bad administration it will go backwards again.

Now many former civil society members have joined the new president’s team. So now when it comes to advocacy and lobbying, we are having to do this with our former friends, which is difficult for both of us. So on the surface there are more opportunities, but when you go deeper, it can be more complicated. Their broad positions are similar to those of civil society, but when you go into details, and at the level of implementation, it’s quite different.

But from the public’s point of view, because it seems quite similar, there’s now no need to support civil society. Some people have let their membership of CSOs lapse.

South Korean CSOs depend on individual membership payments and donations, especially when they don’t get donor funding or funding from the state. This is how they’re able to sustain themselves. And now some people have seen that success has been achieved and they don’t want to donate any more. Also often people want to make a donation directly to the victims of human rights violations, but not to the organisations working for those victims. Many small organisations are really struggling now. Many activists are suffering from financial difficulties because of this.

Many in civil society feel that all the momentum within civil society has dissipated since the Candlelight Revolution. Many people think our role is over somehow because we have a new government. There are also a lot of groups that are very supportive of the new president, and some of these are quite extreme. They feel invested in the new president, having helped bring him to power. And people say that at the beginning, you have to encourage the new president and government instead of criticising them. But civil society should play a watchdog role regardless of the administration.

How would you evaluate the government’s progress so far, and what key challenges remain unaddressed?

When we go to international forums such as the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, other people have a high expectation now of how this government will act, because they know it was established through people power. So they think this government will do a better job than the previous government. But given these high expectations, from a civil society perspective the government’s progress on human rights so far is quite disappointing. Even though there is some progress, when it comes to acting on recommendations from the UN, not much has changed.

The first big problem is the lack of effort to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. This recommendation has been made over and over again. The UN Committee on Economic and Social Rights reviewed South Korea in 2017 and gave the government an 18-month deadline to come up with an action plan to implement an anti-discrimination act, but so far this has not happened. It is still a taboo to talk about LGBTI people and sexual minority issues in politics and politicians still use discriminatory speech.

Second is its position on disarmament. We appreciate the government’s efforts to develop a good relationship with North Korea. Everyone is happy about that. Once we solve the problem with North Korea many human rights problems in South Korea will be solved as well. We have a draconian national security law that has been used to crack down on human rights defenders and violate the freedom of expression, under the name of having an enemy in North Korea.

Yet at the same time, in 2017 the government still decided to deploy the USA’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in Seongju, arguing that it was needed to deter attacks from North Korea. Even though the relationship with North Korea has become better, the government has not yet withdrawn the project. They also wanted to have a naval fleet at Gangjeong village, where the villagers have fought against the establishment of a naval base for more than 10 years. So it was hard to understand how the government could say it wanted to have a good relationship with North Korea on the one hand while at the same time seeking to expand its military capabilities on the other.

Third is the refugee crisis happening recently on Jeju Island, when around 500 Yemeni refugees came into Korea. They applied for refugee status. But Korean society is not very open to other ethnicities. For example, when people come in from South-East Asia to live in the country, they are taught how to assimilate Korean habits, rather than us accept a different culture.

In this case, within a few days there was a petition signed by 800,000 people against accepting the refugees. Instead of declaring that under international law it would accept the refugees, the government’s response was to say they would tighten the refugee screening process, verify who are the real refugees compared to the fake ones, and expand its patrol system. That is disappointing from a human rights perspective.

The government has shown no ability to control hate speech and prevent extreme right-wing religious groups from organising. There are far-right evangelical groups protesting against proposals for an anti-discrimination act and they closely work with the conservative media. They are very organised and also lobby hard against LGBTI rights and refugee rights. CSOs working on human rights receive so many threatening calls from these groups.

Another recent concerning example came following the mass dismissal of workers by the SsangYong Motor Co in 2009. After a 10-year dispute it has agreed to rehire those who were dismissed. But 30 ex-workers had committed suicide during this time. When in 2018 the workers tried to set up a memorial altar to their colleagues who had recently died, conservative groups organised a protest, using abusive language and singing abusive songs at people mourning the death of their colleagues. But the authorities did nothing.

So when it comes to preventing and punishing hate speech, we don't have any system. This goes back to the lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination act. It’s disappointing that the government is failing to protect the human rights of marginalised groups.

In summary, on the one hand there are positives, but on the other there is still more to be done if this is to be called a government that is established with people power.

What would you like to see the government doing more of?

The government should be reminded that Koreans are able to impeach the president if they are not happy with the leadership of the government. The government is happy to be in power, but they may forget who they represent. They shouldn’t forget that they were able to gain their position only because people supported them. They should not only be having a dialogue with civil society but also thinking about the ways they can implement the human rights pledges they made during the protests and the election. That is one of the ways they can make themselves distinct from the previous administration.

Finally, what is your message to international civil society in relation to South Korea?

I don’t want international civil society to lose interest in South Korea because most of the activists detained under the previous regime have now been released and because the situation has improved, so now they feel they can pay their attention to another country where things are worse. It’s very easy for the situation to go backwards again.

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

Get in touch with Jeju Dark Tours through its Facebook page.

 

NICARAGUA: ‘The protests expressed an articulated demand for genuine democracy, based on respect for the popular will’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and specialists about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks with Amaru Ruiz about recent protests in Nicaragua, which were severely repressed, with hundreds of citizens killed. Amaru Ruiz is president of Fundación del Río, an environmental organisation that works for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development in the southeast region of Nicaragua, and coordinator of the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development (Red Local), a civil society coalition that seeks to strengthen civil society organisations (CSOs) to promote inclusive and equitable local development, influence public policy-making, manage knowledge and promote active citizenship. Both organisations are part of the Articulation of Social Movements and Civil Society, which focuses on the struggle for justice, freedom and democracy in Nicaragua.

 

SWEDEN: ‘Swedish civil society needs to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis’

Anna Carin HallAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. Following Sweden’s September election, CIVICUS speaks to Anna-Carin Hall, press officer at Kvinna till Kvinna (Woman to Woman), a Swedish civil society foundation that seeks to strengthen the role of women in conflict regions by collaborating with women’s organisations and supporting their work to promote women’s rights and peace. Its advocacy focuses on six thematic areas: safe meeting places, the empowerment of women’s rights defenders, increasing women’s power, women’s participation in peace processes, power over one’s body and security for all.

Sweden’s September election saw support fall for the established centre-left and centre-right parties and rise for the far-right Sweden Democrats. What factors lie behind this result, and what broader trends do you think it points to?

First, I must emphasise that my answers reflect my own personal opinions rather than those of the organisation I work for. Kvinna till Kvinna is a politically and ideologically independent organisation and has only taken one single standpoint regarding the elections – against what we see as the Sweden Democrats’ anti-feminist policy.

That said, the drop in support for social democratic parties, for example, is an ongoing trend all over Europe, and not just in Sweden, so one answer could be that this global trend towards a more traditional, nationalist and authoritarian climate finally got hold of Sweden, too.

Part of the explanation is, as always, fear of globalisation, as traditional jobs move out of Sweden as a result of cost-efficiency thinking, and a large influx of migrants over a short time span, particularly in 2015, create a heavy pressure on the Swedish welfare system, including education and health services, as well as housing shortages.

Before the election there was also public discussion about the gap between urban and rural areas in Sweden, and around health services shutting down in remote areas. Support for the Sweden Democrats is more common in regions with low education, low income and high unemployment.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy is still very strong, and Swedes are in no way suffering economically because of heavy immigration. But large migration centres set up in the countryside have altered the makeup of the population very quickly, causing tension in these places. Additionally, long-term studies in Sweden have shown that for many decades public opinion has been less pro-immigrant than the policies of the dominant parties, and the Sweden Democrats are now being able to capitalise on this.

Apart from the economy, insecurity issues have also been used to stir anti-immigrant sentiment. A rising level of spectacular shootings among criminal gangs in some immigrant-dominated suburbs has attracted the attention of both Swedish and international media – one of those events was even mentioned by US President Donald Trump, who incorrectly implied that it had been a terrorist attack – and alt-right websites have used these politically a lot.

Longer term, do you expect support for far-right causes to continue rise, or do you think it has peaked?

There are different views on this. Some analysts say that the Sweden Democrats have become popular because the other parties in parliament have tried to shut them out. As a result, the Sweden Democrats and their supporters have been able to play the role of victims and claim that the political elite does not care for the views of the common people. Some therefore argue that the Sweden Democrats should be included in the government, and refer to the case of Finland, where Sannfinnlandarna, a nationalist party, reached the government and showed themselves unfit to govern, as a result of which support for them rapidly dropped. This is suggested as one potentially easy way to get the Sweden Democrats off the agenda.

Several analysts have predicted that the Sweden Democrats will rise a bit more in the next election and will then start to lose popularity. The explanation for this would be that the right turn in the Western world will eventually fade out - but this is really just an assumption, with not much in terms of facts to support it.

Are these trends indicative of rising currents of xenophobia and racism? If so, how have the more mainstream political parties responded to these and how have they impacted on rights-oriented civil society?

There is a discussion in Swedish media right now regarding whether support for the Sweden Democrats is driven mainly by xenophobia and racism. Some opinion-makers claim this is the case, but there are surveys pointing towards the fact that Swedes think that the problem is failed integration, rather than immigration itself. Swedish society hasn´t been able to provide immigrant groups with proper education in Swedish, guidance about the Swedish community, decent jobs and so on.

The change in the political climate manifests itself in, for example, more outspoken discussion of the costs of immigration and its impact on the Swedish welfare system. We can also see a more vivid discussion around cultural or traditional behaviour, such as honour crimes, with some claiming that for too long Sweden has not taken a strong stand against this and avoided several conflictive issues around immigration and integration that were considered culturally sensitive.

The normalisation of the Sweden Democrats, a party that originated in the Neo-Nazi movement of the 1970s and 1980s, has also led to a louder alt-right Neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, which though still low in numbers, gets a lot of media attention. Several alt-right media outlets are spreading fake news about crime rates among immigrants. Alt-right groups are also making threats, spreading hatred and running smear campaigns in social media. This climate may very well lead to self-censorship among pro-immigration, feminist and LGBTQI groups.

Mainstream parties have responded to all of this by moving towards a more moderate immigration policy and placing higher demands on immigrants – for instance, by introducing new requirements that they must meet in order to receive social aid and subsidies. Rights-oriented civil society groups are still trying to raise their voices in favour of a generous immigration policy based on humanitarian values, but they aren’t getting much attention these days.

How is civil society working to combat xenophobia, racism and right-wing populism in Sweden, and what else could it do to build support for human rights and social justice?

Open racism and xenophobia are in no way tolerated by the vast majority of Swedes, and several local rallies have been staged against racism and the Neo-Nazi movement both before and after the elections. Rights-oriented civil society has prepared for a long time to counter these trends, but stills needs the support of large groups of everyday people to have an impact on official discourse and the public conversation.

Swedes take great pride in their open society and will likely defend the free press, the freedom of speech and gender equality, among other values. Threats and hatred against immigrants, journalists, feminists and LGBTQI activists get much attention in the media and several political actions have been organised to prevent them from happening. So, if a right-wing government forms with silent or open parliamentary support from the Sweden Democrats, we will likely see a lot of strong reactions from the political and cultural establishment as well as from civil society.

In the long run, Swedish civil society needs to work to defend democracy at the grassroots level on a daily basis, and maybe it also needs to go to the barricades to build opinion and change what could turn out to be a dangerous course of history.

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

Get in touch with Kvinna till Kvinna through its website and Facebook page or follow @Kvinna_t_Kvinna on Twitter.

 

CIVIL SOCIETY ACCOUNTABILITY: ‘As civic space is under attack, building trust in civil society is more urgent than ever’

Español

Analia Bettoni

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and specialists about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Analía Bettoni, Projects Coordinator of the Instituto de Comunicación y Desarrollo (ICD), a Uruguayan civil society organisation that since 1986 has generated and disseminated knowledge and managed networks aimed at strengthening citizen participation and civil society advocacy and impact in Uruguay and in Latin America.

When we talk about accountability, it is governments that immediately come to mind. Why is civil society accountability important?

Civil society accountability is nowadays both a necessity and a duty. There are several reasons for this. Civil society has grown, it has gained visibility and has a more prominent role than ever in local, national and international development; as a result, it has a greater responsibility to account for what it does and how it does it. Just as civil society organisations (CSOs) are often hailed as examples because of their good actions, they are also examined, observed and questioned. As in other areas of human activity, some cases of corruption, misuse of funds or bad practices have been identified in some CSOs. This is a limited phenomenon, but if it is not dealt with properly, it may end up putting in question the legitimacy of civil society in general – not just of the organisations affected. In this sense, transparency and accountability are a factor of legitimacy and therefore an element that is necessary for the sustainability both of individual CSOs and civil society as a whole. But they are also ethical duties, as organisations use resources that are ultimately public, in the sense that they come from the public, whether they are handed to them by the state, international cooperation agencies, private companies or individual donors.

Unlike what happens with democratic governments, the legitimacy of civil society does not result from elections. On the contrary, civil society must produce and reproduce its own legitimacy every day through the work it does in defence of rights, the protection of the environment, the strengthening of democracy and in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable sectors.

Civil society works tirelessly to exert political and social pressure on behalf of marginalised communities, denounce government corruption and business practices that harm human beings and the environment, and protest in defence of the rights of women, young people and indigenous peoples, among many other actions. In addition, civil society has also had to defend its own space for action, which is also the space that those excluded sectors need to organise and mobilise for their rights. Civic space is being increasingly restricted throughout the world, as shown by the CIVICUS Monitor, according to which only four per cent of the world's population live in countries with open civic space, that is, where people can exercise their right to protest, express their views and associate without fear or arbitrary restrictions.

In that sense, a quick read of the news from Latin America reveals widespread and worrying phenomena, among which stand out the criminalisation and murders of human rights defenders, the excessive use of force to repress protests and the use of censorship, threats and attacks against journalists. Civil society is at the forefront of the fight against these threats.

Even so, for the reasons I mentioned, it no longer suffices to invoke the fact that we work for a noble cause to obtain legitimacy: it is necessary to demonstrate proactively where the resources come from with which that work is done, how they are used, what activities are carried out and what impacts they have.

Of what and to whom do CSOs need to be accountable?

What to account for? Basically, for everything they do: their objectives, their governance, their resources, their projects, their results. Good accountability requires each organisation to identify its closest stakeholders, their needs and expectations. Stakeholders may be external to an organisation, such as donors, governments, recipients or beneficiaries of their actions and the public, or internal to the organisation, such as members, associates and volunteers.

There is no single accountability model that works for all organisations: the missions and strategies of CSOs vary, as do the types of audiences to which they need to be accountable. An organisation providing social services may have to account for the quality of its services and its performance to donors, to the state agencies responsible for regulating such services and to the recipients or final users of those services. An organisation undertaking public policy advocacy, on the other hand, may need to build its legitimacy both with the communities or groups whose aspirations, interests or rights it represents, and with the actors it seeks to exert influence on, such as politicians, the government or public opinion.

But one of the central issues to highlight is that accountability cannot be limited to making information available to audiences. Strictly speaking, that is what active transparency is. Accountability is more than that: it requires the establishment of channels or mechanisms so that stakeholders can ask questions, make suggestions and demands and more generally give feedback, and through which a response can be provided to them.

Experience shows that CSOs tend to be much more attentive to donors’ demands than to the opinions of the people or groups they work with or represent. These are the most neglected accountability publics, and this is a problem. In this sense I would like to bring up an initiative, Resilient Roots, which CIVICUS is developing alongside Accountable Now and Keystone Accountability, and which seeks to assess to what extent reconnecting organisations to their main audiences through accountability can make them more resilient in the context of increasing challenges and threats to civic space. I think this is an important step in the right direction.

Your organisation, and yourself, have been working for almost a decade on the Rendir Cuentas regional initiative. Would you tell us more about it?

The Rendir Cuentas initiative was established in 2009 and brings together many CSOs from Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to disseminating numerous information resources, such as practical guides for transparency and accountability self-evaluation and for the development of collaborative alliances, all these years we have promoted individual and collective accountability among civil society in several Latin American countries. These exercises of collective accountability have a twofold objective: to generate more transparency, and to provide greater visibility to the contributions made by organised civil society in each country. For this reason, each accountability exercise involves not only CSOs making their information public, but also campaigns or public events to present data on the human and financial resources that civil society as a whole mobilises and about the change or impacts that it creates with its actions. In the last cycle collective accountability reports were submitted by organisations in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. These reports contain aggregate information for all participating organisations, and this does not exempt each of them from individually pursuing the highest standards of transparency and accountability, which we also encourage.

Finally, starting in April 2015, Rendir Cuentas has also taken part in the process to develop a Global Standard for CSO Accountability. This is an international project led by nine CSO accountability initiatives from around the world, with the objective of creating a self-regulation tool that can be used in any context, and with the purpose of reconnecting organisations with citizens, their partners, supporters, sympathisers, beneficiaries and donors in a dynamic accountability relationship that contributes to building trust and multiplying the impact of civil society actions in times when these are more necessary than ever, as civic space continues to be attacked.

Get in touch with ICD through its website and Facebook profile, or follow @ICD_Uruguay and @AnaliaBettoni on Twitter.

 

THE MALDIVES: ‘Civic space is practically nonexistent now’

CIVICUS speaks to Shahindha Ismail, Executive Director of the Maldivian Democracy Network, about the ongoing crackdown on dissent and the upcoming presidential elections in the Maldives.

widespread crackdown on dissent began in the Maldives in February 2018 when a court ordered the release of opposition leaders. This decision led to the arbitrary arrest of judges, scores of opposition politicians and activists who face a variety of trumped-up charges from bribery to terrorism. Police also used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, and in some cases, indiscriminately used pepper spray and tear gas. There are also documented cases of people being ill-treated in detention. At least a dozen journalists were injured while covering protests, with reporters being arrested and ill-treated.

With elections due on 23rd September 2018, civic space is likely to become increasingly contested. Already in May 2018, the Electoral Commission moved to bar four opposition leaders from running in the upcoming presidential elections.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

1. What is the state of civil society freedoms in the Maldives ahead of the elections?

Civic space is practically nonexistent now and has been for a few years. No one but those who support the government are allowed to speak freely or assemble. All rallies organised by the political opposition or civil society are dispersed, and their organisers and participants are arrested. The police intimidate people. Defamation is criminalised, and this has been a challenge, as media houses and individuals are fined millions of Rufiyaa and face the prospect of imprisonment for expressing themselves or broadcasting alternative views.

Those working in countering radicalism and violent extremism also face violent threats, including the possibility of disappearance or murder, from vigilante groups sanctioned by the government. These groups operate with full impunity and have targeted organisations and individuals promoting tolerance, offering alternate narratives and promoting secularism.

2. Can you tell us about the work of the Maldivian Democracy Network, and how it has been affected?

The Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) was founded in September 2004, following the mass arrests of August 2004, and was originally named Maldivian Detainee Network. It began as a torture documentation civil society organisation (CSO) and focused on assisting detainees and their families and fostering the establishment of a network of families that could support one another. Two years later, after several delays, MDN finally achieved registration with the Ministry of Home Affairs. In 2010 MDN amended its statutes and changed its name to Maldivian Democracy Network, following the introduction of a new Constitution that recognised most of the detainee rights that MDN advocated for. Presently MDN conducts a wide range of work, including monitoring parliament, monitoring trials and advocating for detainee rights, protecting human rights defenders, advancing the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and countering violent extremism.

In the current situation we have to do most of our work underground, and anything that we do publicly requires extra care. As human rights defenders (HRDs), we are constantly looking over our shoulders and have to take extra caution when moving around. We fear for the safety of our families. Those who are part of the HRD community and work in the civil service or at government-owned companies also fear the loss of their jobs. As an organisation, funding has become a serious challenge and we are on the brink of shutting down.

3. What should the international community do to support fundamental freedoms and free and fair elections in the Maldives?

The resolutions of the European Union about the Maldives, including the latest one issued in March 2018, are strong and encouraging. We would like to see their framework on targeted sanctions replicated and implemented by other states.

I believe it is critical that the international community have a strong presence in the Maldives in the final run-up to the elections as well as during and after the elections. An international observation mission is still the best we can ask for, and I hope that it happens.

4. What is your hope for the future?

I hope that we get a good change in this election, and that the new government will be more inclusive of the human rights community and CSOs when they plan reforms and implement them, as HRDs and civil society have had first-hand interactions with vulnerable groups and have represented them in difficult times. These experiences have given civil society an insight into some possible reforms and lots of training in advancing human rights issues in the Maldives. For example, we advocate for and hope that the government will include a strong civic education programme in the national school curriculum, in order to help produce critical, informed and articulate new citizens.

Civic space in the Maldives is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. The country is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor’s Watchlist.

Get in touch with the Maldivian Democracy Network through their website or Facebook page, or follow @MDN_mv and @HindhaIsmail on Twitter.

 

BINDING TREATY: ‘It's not a silver bullet, but it will be a step forward in regulating excessive transnational corporate power’

Spanish 

Fernanda Hopenhaym

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and specialists about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Fernanda Hopenhaym, Co-Executive Director of Project on Organizing, Development, Education, and Research (PODER), a regional civil society organisation (CSO). Based in Mexico, PODER has a mission to improve corporate transparency and accountability in Latin America from a human rights perspective and strengthen civil society stakeholders affected by corporate practices to help them function as long-term guarantors of accountability.

What are the indispensable conditions for a fully functioning democracy? Is corporate power a limit to democracy?

A full democracy must be based on a rule of law that really works, with guarantees for the full exercise of human rights, transparency and citizen participation in all matters of public interest, an independent justice system to which access is ensured, and a serious strategy to combat inequalities.

Although some may view the private sector as an ally for democratic consolidation, Latin America continues to be the most unequal region in the world and corporations, particularly large companies, continue to operate opaquely. This has its roots in structural problems that have prevented our countries from truly consolidating democracy and sustaining their development. These political-institutional, socioeconomic and financial deficits have their distant origin in the conquest of Latin America, but deepened in the 1990s, when neoliberal policies failed to fulfil their promises of economic growth and development. As described by economist Álvaro Vargas Llosa, it became the norm for state enterprises to be handed out to friends of the government under monopolistic conditions, and this exacerbated a system already characterised by economic elite control of public decision-making. Joel Hellman and Daniel Kaufmann, of the World Bank, named this phenomenon state capture. These are the mechanisms by which corporate elites interfere with or exert undue influence over laws, rules and decrees for their own benefit.

A recent example of this is the package of so-called structural reforms implemented in Mexico since 2013: labour, education, energy and other reforms that changed the rules of the game for the most important sectors of the economy to facilitate investment and favour capital.

When we talk about accountability, we usually think about holding state agencies accountable. Why do you think it is necessary to strengthen the accountability of corporations?

Corporations play a key role in the global economy, and hold increasing power. Public-private links have deepened, the separation between the spheres of action of business elites and governments has become very tenuous, and this has contributed to state mechanisms failing to regulate and balance the interests of corporations with the public interest effectively. That is why it is key that organised citizens focus their efforts on demanding accountability, higher standards of transparency and responsibility from companies for the negative impacts of their operations on human rights and the environment.

There are numerous examples of corporate abuses that have not been effectively addressed by states. The most notorious in Mexico is the case of the Sonora River, where the worst spill occurred in the history of mining in the country. Forty million litres of copper sulphate were spilled, which contaminated two rivers and affected almost 25,000 people. The culprit, a company with enormous power, has so far managed to evade full compliance with its obligations to provide compensation, and has even obtained new permits to expand the mine where the spill occurred. In Ecuador, there is the case of Chevron-Texaco, which has caused oil pollution in the territories of indigenous communities, which have been seeking redress and justice for decades. In Brazil, the case of the Samarco mine stands out, which caused the collapse of a dam. This resulted in terrible pollution of the Doce River, even reaching the ocean and causing death and desolation in the communities of Mariana. And I could continue bringing up more examples from Latin America and beyond, of companies causing harm with total impunity and not being held accountable.

What tools do you use, and what mechanisms do you promote for other stakeholders to use for improving corporate accountability?

At PODER we use a variety of methodologies to push for greater corporate accountability. We work on two levels: on a case-by-case basis, and at the normative level. For the cases that we follow, we use rigorous business research into strategic industries, including close follow-up of project financing, to expand access to information by affected communities and civil society in general. By reducing information asymmetries, we are able to refine campaigning and negotiation strategies and, when appropriate, legal strategies as well, to protect human rights from business activity. In this terrain, to sum up, PODER produces research, accompanies organisational processes, undertakes advocacy with key actors and, in some cases, resorts to strategic litigation.

Regarding normative change, we use various mechanisms, ranging from promoting greater transparency and access to public interest information using technology and open data, to carrying out investigative journalism in order to expose cases and increase the pressure of public opinion. We participate in processes at the national, regional and international levels to promote instruments that guarantee human rights and offer tools for corporate accountability. We are also present in multi-stakeholder spaces with the aim of exerting direct influence on the practices of both the state and companies in strategic sectors.

We share our methodology with other actors through workshops, the provision of online resources and above all by participating in networks and coalitions in which every group contributes their lessons learned to push this agenda forward. This exchange and collective effort is fundamental to reducing the enormous imbalance of power that exists between states and companies on one side and civil society on the other.

PODER, and you personally, have been invested for years in the process of developing a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. Why do you think there should be a treaty on this topic, and how have you worked to carry it forward?

Civil society working on human rights has increasingly identified abuse by companies as one of the roots of the problems it seeks to address. That is why the mobilisation to generate a legally binding instrument on transnational corporations and human rights has encompassed such a wide array of civil society actors, including movements as diverse as environmentalists, peasants, feminists and labour and indigenous groups, among others. An instrument of this nature would address some of the issues mentioned above that are weakening the role of states as guarantors of human rights, such as the transnational nature of big capital and the fact that negative impacts don’t respect borders between jurisdictions.

The mobilisation of organisations, networks and movements in recent years has been enormous. It has encompassed not only participation in formal spaces, both in the United Nations (UN) and within countries, but also the creation of its own spaces, public demonstrations, advocacy, communications and the generation of analysis and content to support the treaty process. In all these instances, the participation of Latin American civil society has been important.

The two largest coalitions are the Treaty Alliance, a very broad global platform that promotes civil society involvement in the work leading to the treaty and calls on states to participate effectively, and the Global Campaign to Dismantle Corporate Power, which works on this agenda in addition to other issues related to human rights violations by corporations. Another very interesting space is that of #Feminists4BindingTreaty, which includes groups, organisations and individuals who promote the inclusion of a gender perspective in the treaty process. Finally, PODER and our partners in the region are currently leading a coalition of Latin American organisations to disseminate information and add more voices to this process.

The zero draft of the Binding Treaty was published two months ago. What are your first impressions after reading the document?

The zero draft is still a timid document, with much emphasis on access to justice and little on damage prevention. But it does lay some important foundations and gives us something concrete on which to start negotiations. Leading to its elaboration, the government of Ecuador, in its presiding role as chair of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Group that was created with a mandate to draft the instrument by resolution 26/9 of the UN Human Rights Council, first generated a document of elements in 2017, then held informal consultations with states and organisations, and received numerous written inputs, which added to the work carried out in the three sessions of the Group. However, most of civil society views this first draft as insufficient.

A key issue we are concerned about is insufficient emphasis on establishing the primacy of human rights over trade and investment interests and agreements. Some other issues that will have to be refined have to do with the type of companies that the instrument refers to, as well as with jurisdictional issues – in particular, with the balance between reinforcing states’ power to act within their jurisdictions and their extraterritorial obligations. Topics that have been included but need greater clarity include the following: due diligence on human rights, clauses on conflict of interest, and the establishment of a mechanism - a committee - for monitoring and holding companies accountable. Some issues that are fundamental for civil society have also been left out, notably the establishment of protections for human rights defenders and the introduction of a gender perspective.

At the fourth session of the Intergovernmental Group, which will take place in Geneva from 15 to 19 October 2018, negotiations will start on the basis of the zero draft. Throughout this process there have been much resistance, particularly from the European Union and the United States. In addition, Latin American countries have not reached unified positions, and it is very unlikely that they will now. That is why the negotiation process and the production of further versions of the treaty are likely to take years, and only after that will the treaty come to light. From there on, there will be another stage leading to its signature and ratification. We in civil society will remain active and vigilant, since we believe that this process is a good opportunity to overcome obstacles to guarantee the protection of human rights at a global level and to better regulate transnational corporate power. It is not a silver bullet, but we are convinced that it will be a step forward.

For more on civil society’s efforts to develop a binding treaty, see our 2017 State of Civil Society Report, on the theme of ‘civil society and the private sector’.

Get in touch with PODER through its website and Facebook profile, or follow @ProjectPODER and @fernanda_ho on Twitter.

 

Tanzania: ‘People can’t say what they want to say’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to two Tanzanian civil society workers, who have asked to remain anonymous, about recent restrictions imposed on the freedom of expression and ability to participate in democratic dissent by Tanzania’s President John Magafuli.

1. Can you tell us about recent events that have affected the freedom of expression in Tanzania?Tanzani

There is a crackdown. Laws recently passed - such as the new law on online content, which requires online platforms to apply for a licence and pay an annual fee - are hindering human rights. This new law has caused a popular blogging site, Jamil Forums, to close down. Exercising the freedom of expression has become very difficult. If you want to talk about anything related to the government, you risk getting into trouble.

An example of this is what has happened to Twaweza, a civil society organisation (CSO). The head of Twaweza, Aidan Eyakuze, is now not allowed to travel outside Tanzania. This came after Twaweza published a survey suggesting that President Magafuli’s popularity rating had fallen sharply. A government body then contacted Twaweza and accused it of conducting a survey without a permit. Because Twaweza discussed the president and his rule, now he has got angry, and the organisation has been attacked. The government has since said it will change the law to make it mandatory to get government approval before publishing surveys and polls.

Another recent example came after Akwilina Akwiline, a student, was killed. This happened during an attempt to hold a peaceful assembly by Chadema, an opposition party. Akwilina, who was not involved in the protest, was apparently killed by a stray police bullet. Following this, Abdul Nondo, a third-year student at the University of Dar Es Salaam, Chairperson of the Tanzania Students’ Networking Programme and a human rights defender, challenged the Minister of Home Affairs, Mwigulu Nchemba, over the killing. Abdul then informed his friends that he had received threatening phone calls from unknown people, telling him he must quit and if he did not do so, his life would be in danger. After a time he informed his friends that he had been captured by anonymous people and sent to the Iringa province in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands region. Following this, the police arrested Abdul and reprimanded him, accusing him of having ‘captured himself’, which caused controversy among many people in the country.

People are living in fear. We say we have freedom in our country, but people do not have free expression because they feel intimidated. People can’t say what they want to say. The space is closing and it affects people in their daily lives.

2. And what have the impacts been on civil society more generally?

Human rights organisations are trying their best but they also find themselves in trouble. The government machinery - the police, the courts - are being used to repress them. They are being intimidated, including by being banned. It is different for organisations working on issues like education and health. They are fine. But once you work on human rights, or if you are a political party, you are challenged.

The government has said it does not recognise the issues raised by human rights CSOs. For example, the president has said that if girls get pregnant while they are still at school, they should not go back to school again, as he has no schools for parents. Human rights CSOs have tried to advocate that pregnant girls and young mothers should be allowed to go to school as it is a human right for everyone to receive an education no matter what, but arguments based on human rights grounds have been rejected.

If civil society is going to be prohibited from publishing survey statistics freely, as is now being threatened, then much grassroots work in trying to understand the prevalence, drivers and possible solutions to problems is going to be not used or not done in the first place. This would be a real shame, especially as the potential to collect and use data for social good is becoming more and more accessible to grassroots organisations.

At the same time, some people do support the president, and citizens who support the president may challenge opposition parties. This means that CSOs that criticise the president and the ruling party may be branded as part of the opposition.

3. What do you think motivates these attacks?

This is happening because of the nature of Tanzania’s leadership. People in the ruling party fear that if they are criticised and people are aware of their failings, they can be removed from power. They want citizens and the community to be blind to what is taking place in the government.

This has worsened compared to previous times. Under former presidents, for example, opposition parties were much more able to make criticisms as part of the democratic process. There is less of this happening now, and people do so in a more muted way.

4. How can civil society respond, and what further support does it need to respond?

In response civil society has to invest more in education at the grassroots in raising awareness about human rights. Sometimes people do not know that their rights are being violated.

Civil society also needs tools that help it reach people at the grassroots. There need to be stronger links between CSOs and citizens at the grassroots. Human rights organisations need to do more work outside the capital city.

There also needs to be more support for civil society through international human rights networks.

Civil society needs to be supported with competent legal aid, and training to support its work on human rights, as well as help to resist being intimidated. Civil society needs to find more ways of approaching government machinery and knowledge about different ways to navigate the system.

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

 

SLOVENIA: ‘A fragmented political reality’

Albin KeucAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. Following Slovenia’s June 2018 election, which saw a party that stood on a nationalist, anti-migrant platform come first and a new party come second and go on to form a minority government, CIVICUS spoke to Albin Keuc, director of Slovenian Global Action (SLOGA). SLOGA is a Slovenian civil society platform that principally brings together civil society organisations working in the fields of development, global education and humanitarian aid.

1. What do you think was the story behind the June 2018 elections? Do you think the results point to some level of disaffection with conventional politics or indicate challenges for democracy?

The elections in Slovenia were fairly unspectacular from the point of view of the results, but quite striking in comparison with the election results in neighbouring countries, such as Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy. In those countries, elections have led to the instigation of more or less right and centre-right governments, in accordance with the authoritarian and populist political atmosphere in Central and Eastern Europe in particular. The Slovene political scenery has been quite consistent for the last decade, showing a persistent roughly 40 to 60 distribution of voters between the broad right and left camps, and with a declining turnout by voters, standing at around 51 per cent in 2018.

The lowest point of the campaign for civil society was a public call by a candidate of the right-wing Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) to cut off all public financial support to civil society organisations (CSOs). This brought a united reaction by CSOs and the media, forcing the candidate and party to make clarifications.

Although several parties approached the electorate with messages similar to those propagated by hard-line Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, mimicking these with a 'Slovenia First' approach, they were not rewarded: smaller parties stayed below the four per cent threshold needed to obtain a seat in parliament. However, the right-wing populist Slovene National Party (SNS) returned to parliament after a decade. SDS and New Slovenia (NSi), a centre-right party, gained better results than in previous elections, but they and no party came close to having a parliamentary majority. These three parties won 36 out of 90 seats. The other parties represented in the new parliament - the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ), Modern Centre Party (SMC), Social Democrats (SD), The Left (Levica), Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia (DeSUS) and Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) - cover a range of centre-to-left perspectives along a spectrum from neoliberal to socialist ideas.

The current situation, with nine parties represented in parliament, indicates a further fragmentation of support for political parties and increased political rivalry that will affect the government's capacity for decision-making regarding future political, social and economic developments. There were clear demands made in the campaign of people asking for reforms at least of the national health system and the minimum wage, which will need a high level of consensus to be successful.

There are several existing fractures in Slovenian society that are behind the fragmented political reality. Culture wars arising from an unsuccessful national reconciliation process overshadow almost all public discussions and are hindering the ability of public debate to act as a democratic tool, causing political fatigue among the public. Another fracture is between what can be characterised as a neoliberal sell-everything approach and a statist keep-as-much-as-possible-in-government-hands approach, both of which imply public costs. A growing fracture can also be found in intensified intergenerational conflict arising from the demographic situation and the limited employment opportunities for young people, instilling additional social uncertainties throughout Slovene society.

2. And what were the eventual outcomes of the elections, and the prospects of the new government?

After two months of negotiations, Marjan Šarec from the LMŠ, a new centre-left party, was appointed as the new prime minister by parliament and charged with constructing a minority government out of the various centre-to-left parties listed above. He gained the support of those parties’ 52 members of parliament to become prime minister, along with the support of the two members elected to represent Slovenia’s Hungarian and Italian minorities, and one unknown rogue vote from a member of the one of the right-of-centre parties. We can expect a rocky governing period, as a minority government will have to negotiate every step in parliament while also having to govern. This will be the first minority government in the 27 years since Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia.

Šarec is relatively young, with local political experience as a mayor of a small town for eight years, and with a background in entertainment and comedy. He first stepped onto the national political scene as a presidential candidate in 2017, losing to the incumbent president by only a few points. From a political point of view him and the LMŠ members of parliament are a big unknown, although some senior business people can be seen to be playing a role in LMŠ.

3. What are the likely impacts of the outcome of the election on Slovenia civil society, particularly civil society that promotes human rights and democratic freedoms?

CSOs in Slovenia are still underdeveloped. The number of people who work in CSOs is low compared to other European Union (EU) countries. We also face high dependency on public funding, which affects CSOs’ capacity to engage in advocacy and accountability activities. However, the previous government adopted Slovenia’s very first law on CSOs, which helped to set the scene and established a new budgetary support fund for CSOs.

There are also signs of illiberal practices and discourse being used by governmental officials, some media and organised interests. CSOs have been criticised by the nationalist and anti-communist parties from an ideological point of view and accused of being supportive of a post-communist elite. CSOs have been criticised and even threatened when exercising their watchdog role, for example, when employing their rights to participate in processes such as environmental impact assessments, required to establish new industrial facilities.

4. What actions has civil society taken to build support for human rights and social justice, and to combat extremism and political polarisation in Slovenia? And what new challenges have arisen for civil society?

In recent years, and especially during the time of the controversy over refugees and migrants in 2015 and 2016, we faced an explosion of hate speech throughout social networks. Slovene CSOs showed their resilience and ability to cooperate on different levels. But existing networks and platforms will need to strengthen their capacities to provide additional support in the form of fundraising, communication and outreach techniques for a digital era, and in membership building and understanding cognitive science and behavioural economics for CSOs.

In general, there is a need for the revitalisation of public intellectual life, which has been diminished and replaced by online social networks, and for rethinking and repositioning the role of the public media in reaching the public in the new digital era.

There has been an unprecedented change in communication and information exchange in the last decade, which has made a huge impact on our decision-making and our choices in everyday life. It has also had an impact on traditional civil society operations, leaving us with the key questions of how to respond to the politics of fear that create frightened citizens, how to adapt to the changed media reality, how to reach people that fall vulnerable to whatever fake news is being provided to them, and so on. All those changes have been global, having ‘glocal’ effects.

History teaches us that in times of social despair and fear people turn inwards to their social networks and communities, locally or nationally, with the consequences of narrow group loyalty and the exclusion of others. This is why the neo-conservative agenda entails practices of going after the credibility of CSOs (‘who pays you?’) and our legitimacy (‘who do you represent?’). This makes us think about the value of our personal credibility and legitimacy, and their importance for us and the communities we serve.

5. How can Slovenian civil society respond, and what support does it need to respond?

From the CSO point of view, strategic rethinking, cooperation and prioritisation is needed on the national and local levels to strengthen support for a liberal society based on respecting human rights, affirmative actions, tolerance, the rule of law and transparent and accountable government.

What we also need today is a ‘civil society of the world’new forms of cooperation among progressive activism on global scale. Think global, act local is a reality of today’s momentum. We have the communication tools available, and have on our side experience grounded in results and creativity.

There is a growing feeling that the attitudes of the public are changing towards having a less open, tolerant, inclusive and permissive mindset. Thus social research to understand the factors that are pushing people in that direction is surely needed if we are to understand the processes in play. With a goal of rethinking and recreating our methods and tools for making an impact, civil society needs to reach out to the academic community and vice versa to generate further insights into social changes, including those caused by the introduction of social media. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine the consequences if that sphere of freedom is already being commodified.

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

Get in touch with Slovenian Global Action through their website or Facebook page, or by writing to .

 

LATVIA: ‘Faced with hatred, we focus on delivering a human rights message’

Kaspars ZalitisAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Kaspars Zālītis about the challenges faced by LGBTI people in Latvia, and the actions undertaken by civil society to broaden civic space for sexual minorities and therefore to make democracy truly inclusive. Kaspars is the director of Mozaika - Association of LGBT and their friends, currently the only LGBTI rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Latvia. Established in 2006, Mozaika promotes gender equality and anti-discrimination; raises awareness of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions of identity; promotes an understanding of diverse family models and their legal recognition; and advocates for the harmonisation of Latvian laws with international standards.

1. What is the current situation of LGBTI rights in Latvia?

On the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which measures each country’s respect for LGBTI rights, Latvia ranks 40th within Europe, and last of all European Union (EU) member countries. In turn, the CIVICUS Monitor has reported several restrictions of civic space in Latvia. CSOs working on controversial topics are being targeted, and civil society has found it increasingly difficult to gain access to policy-makers. Mozaika has tried to lobby politicians and policy-makers for years, but they often prefer to meet in private rather than attract any attention that can lead to attacks from right-wing activists and politicians.

The political climate is hostile for sexual diversity and for diversity as a whole. ‘Moral upbringing’ amendments introduced into the Education Law in 2015 - which mandate schools to promote ‘family values’ and marriage as part of education - have been implemented through the publication of guidelines that have caused fear among teachers of negative reactions if they touch on any LGBTI issues, and sexual and reproductive rights issues more generally. In 2016, a schoolteacher whose students had requested her to start a Gay-Straight Alliance was asked to refrain from doing so, and another teacher faced calls that he should close all his social media accounts so that students wouldn’t see his ‘LGBT-friendly’ attitudes - in other words, he was asked to hide his sexual orientation. Legislators bashed him on social media and insinuated that he was ‘recruiting’ children.

In March 2018, parliament was quick to dismiss a Cohabitation Bill that would have granted basic rights to non-married couples, including same-sex ones. It did so on the grounds that couples could access these rights by getting married, even though the Latvian Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage. The initiative had started three years earlier through an online petition that gathered 10,000 signatures, which was why parliament had to consider it.

2. What is the role of religious groups in this?

Indeed. The Catholic Church has a lot of influence, and it is taking the lead in fighting the LGBTI community and pushing back against women’s rights. For instance, there has been a lot of disagreement over the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, and parliamentary debate on the issue has been postponed until after parliamentary elections are held in October 2018.

Church leaders and many public officials oppose ratification of the Istanbul Convention because one of its non-discrimination clauses concerns sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catholic Archbishop is rallying against it and has gathered considerable support among political parties and parliamentarians. He has managed to convince them that ratification is part of the secret agenda of so-called ‘genderists’ – an expression that originated in Russia, a country with a very strong cultural influence in Latvia. Church officials, right-wing activists and politicians and anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion groups depict the Convention as contrary to Latvian traditional values and as being aimed at over-sexualising and ‘converting’ children. These arguments are gaining ground among the public.

This rhetoric is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic church: the Lutheran church, which is the largest Protestant church in Latvia, is also taking a lead in fighting us and the Istanbul Convention. This is quite strange, because Lutherans, prevalent in Nordic countries, tend to be more liberal. But in Latvia they even voted against having female priests, following the lead of the Catholic church. Additionally, new religious organisations with direct links with US evangelical groups are emerging. Some of their leaders have been trained in the USA and are quite good at influencing people.

Although religious leaders and organisations don’t have a direct and institutionalised role in policy-making, given that the Latvian Constitution establishes a separation between church and state, in practice they have a lot of influence. Church-state separation notwithstanding, the state has a religious advisory council, as does the City Council. It is not uncommon for the Catholic Archbishop to meet with the ruling coalition’s leading party, and for the party’s leader to then say that he has ‘consulted’ with the Catholic church and has decided to vote in one way or another. You can see a direct link because all this happens in public.

We, on the contrary, don’t have access to leading politicians because they are not willing to risk their reputations by meeting us in public. At the most, we can expect to have a private meeting here and there. This has a lot of impact on us, especially as we see the religious right rise all over Europe. Religious organisations and right-wing parties are increasingly organised and coordinated to fight against gender equality and LGBTI rights at the European level, and they are getting a major influx of resources from the USA. They have way more resources than we do, and their message also resonates better with the latent homophobia in Latvian society, which is becoming increasingly vocal. And after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory, they are emboldened. The latest developments in Hungary and Poland are also proof to them that they may be closer to winning.

3. Has this discourse penetrated the media?

Most definitely. Our media landscape is quite pluralistic, and the state channel and public broadcaster at least try to provide balanced coverage. But some media outlets are outright hostile towards LGBTI groups, and one of them, a Russian outlet with a major agenda against the rights of women, migrants, refugees and LGBTI people, is clearly leading a crusade against us.

Vilification of women’s and LGBTI rights groups is also increasingly taking place online. We are now constantly harassed on Facebook. At some point we realised these were not the usual people who used to attack us and we did some research to find out where the attacks were coming from, and found links to evangelical churches.

Since January 2018, Mozaika has reported over 200 posts that are openly homophobic to social media administrators, and most of them have been taken down and their authors temporarily or permanently blocked. This caused all Mozaika activists to be blocked from accessing certain groups and pages, and we have evidence that a number of secret Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups have been created to follow our activities.

4. Can you tell us more about the significance of Pride in Latvia and the Baltic Pride that was recently held in the capital, Riga?

Pride in Latvia is the most visible LGBTI event in the country. It draws widespread social and media attention to our cause, but it also attracts a large number of expressions of hatred and brings to the surface negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. Pride in Latvia grew from 70 participants who faced 3,000 protesters in 2005, to 5,000 participants at EuroPride 2015, which was held in Riga, and 8,000 in the recent Baltic Pride. In between, it was banned by Riga City Council three times.

Mozaika applied for permission to hold Baltic Pride in February 2018. Latvian laws state that applications must be submitted no earlier than four months prior to the event and that if there is more than one application for an event to be held at the same time, priority will be given to the first applicant. Mozaika’s representative arrived at Riga City Council an hour before opening to make sure that Baltic Pride was the first applicant, and just seconds after he entered the building Antiglobalists, an anti-rights organisation, arrived to submit another request for an event that would take place at the exact same time and venue, but under the name “Promotion of paedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and other perversions.” They wanted to make the statement that if ‘homosexuals’ can promote their ‘perversions’, then they should also be allowed to promote any other perversion they could think of.

Since it became known in late 2017 that Riga would host Baltic Pride, both Mozaika and Baltic Pride became targets. The leader of the Latvian Green Party-Riga Unit started a //medium.com/@juriskaza/latvian-science-fund-head-asks-to-ban-riga-pride-event-87173b6e2cbe">personal campaign against so-called ‘genderists’. He insisted that Baltic Pride should be banned and set up a Facebook page to ‘inspire’ activists for ‘traditional values’. Starting in January, Baltic Pride organisers received over a hundred personal attacks, warnings or threats. We were insulted, called sick and branded perverts on our Facebook pages on a daily basis. Hate campaigns were launched to convey the idea that Pride is a ‘sex festival’. Countless posts were made showing rainbows and guns, to create fear among potential participants and the LGBTI community and dissuade them from attending. Antiglobalists, Tautas tiesību kustība (National Rights Movement) and activists inspired by right-wing politicians also constantly posted statements to encourage others to stand against Baltic Pride. Sometimes they provided details about our activities, forcing us to restrict them to registered participants to ensure safety. We also had to take unprecedented security measures for Pride events.

Fortunately, we could find common ground and work closely with the police. Counter-protesters attack and humiliate the police, but we treat them with respect. No public official or security officer supporting us would ever say so publicly, but we have been able to work together behind closed doors. In the end, Baltic Pride was a great success. We would have considered it a success if 2,000 people had attended, but over 8,000 did. There were no major incidents, although at some point eggs and smoke bombs were thrown at participants.

5. How do you counter the anti-rights message?

We focus on delivering a human rights message. We never blame the church or call anyone by name - we don’t talk about them. We counter argument with argument, and fiction with facts. If they say that perverts will march, we state the fact that 70 per cent of those ‘perverts’ are straight people with children. Against arguments that ‘naked people’ will march, we simply say we don’t know what Pride they are referring to because we have never had people marching naked in Latvia. When we are called perverts, we thank them for their opinion but insist that we want to have a conversation within a human rights framework. That is, we don’t want to limit anyone’s rights and we want to be able to exercise ours. Compromising and always staying within the confines of a positive message may be personally difficult for many activists, but that is what we are going for, no matter what we hear. We might explode afterwards, but while we meet we listen and stay calm.

I always meet the Catholic Archbishop at state visits or embassy receptions and we have polite exchanges. I’ve told him I’m non-believer but I know that the message of Jesus is all about love and respect and I don’t see that coming from him – that’s when he leaves the conversation. Within Mozaika there are also religious people, and we have invited churches to have an open and public dialogue, but so far, they have always refused.

6. What is civil society in Latvia doing to overcome these challenges?

Civil society uses all the available mechanisms to highlight rights violations in the international arena, including at the EU level, and to try and influence decision-makers and politicians. However, our Minister of Justice, who is openly homophobic and transphobic, ‘does not see’ any restrictions. While we were organising our Pride event, the government was putting a lot of effort into organising celebrations for the centennial of the Latvian state, and often blamed critical CSOs for shaming the country abroad as such an important date approached.

In this context, Mozaika planned several actions, including a social media campaign (‘I support freedom’) in which public personalities publicly expressed their support for LGBTI rights, and human rights more generally, and demanded that our government ensure that Baltic Pride could take place safely. We aimed to bring in people who are not typically seen as supporters of human rights and LGBTI rights, and then amplify their voices as allies of the LGBTI community. Ultimately, what we wanted to show is that the LGBTI community and its supporters were a lot more numerous and diverse than the handful of activists and the few hundred people who normally show up to our events. We also undertook efforts targeted at international organisations and foreign governments and activists. We asked them to encourage people to participate in Baltic Pride and demand that the authorities guarantee their safety.

Of course, we continue to monitor, document and report online and offline abuses against LGBTI people, activists and organisations. We take down hate comments and instruct the community to report any attacks that they experience on social media to us so we can work to take down the posts. If prominent hate expressions get out there, we try to respond to them with a counter-message. But we have limited resources, so sometimes we leave them for liberal commentators to deal with, and we focus on using social media to counter the most blatant expressions of hatred, particularly if someone is attacked physically.

Finally, we are trying to place LGBTI issues and broader diversity issues on the agenda of the campaign for the upcoming October 2018 parliamentary election. We are promoting public debate on these issues, presenting political parties with examples of the rights restrictions that LGBTI people face on a daily basis and asking them to provide policy solutions to create a safe environment for LGBTI people and other minorities. We will consider it a success if three or four political parties include LGBTI issues or other diversity issues on their agenda.

7. What are your needs and what can donors do to help?

The one thing we have wanted to do for a long time is a long-term communications campaign – not the kind that individual CSOs put together on their own, but a broader one coordinated by various CSO leaders and activists who provide the substance and set the tone, and that is executed and managed by a professional communications team. The problem is that all CSOs live from project to project and are barely sustainable. Mozaika is able to function thanks to the work of volunteers. So what we need most is resources to ensure sustainability. This includes building capacity, but this has to be done on the basis of the expertise that we already have. We have attended countless training events and seminars, and are tired of going to international meetings just to be told ‘this is the right way to do it’. We need customised approaches to find practical solutions to our specific problems. There is a lot for us to learn from France, Germany, or the USA, but lessons must be customised and they should come alongside the resources to ensure sustainability.

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

Get in touch with Mozaika through their Facebook page or follow @lgbt_mozaika and @KasparZ on Twitter and Instagram.

 

South Sudan: ‘Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to John Ador, founding member of the #Anataban movement, about South Sudan’s new peace agreement and the prospects for democracy. #Anataban - literally ‘I am tired’ - is a collective of artists, young people and other citizens aiming at fostering public discussion about the issues of social injustice and government transparency and accountability in South Sudan. #Anataban was created in 2016 in reaction to South Sudan’s civil war and offers a platform for South Sudanese citizens to speak up and make themselves heard through art and social media.

1. South Sudan became independent in 2011 and civil war began in 2013. What is the current situation?

South Sudan has indeed been at war through all this time, and even before it gained independence from Sudan. But truly, most of the country is now pacified. What we have today is not war anymore; there are just a few bandits, as I call those who haven’t seized the opportunity of the ceasefire agreed in early August 2018, who still command armies and soldiers and are set upon attacking. These days, the strategy is ‘to attack, attack and run’. The full-blown war that we had for years starting in 2013 is mostly over now.

The Khartoum Declaration signed in June 2018, however, was unnecessary, and I’m not sure it is going to bring any change to us. The Khartoum Declaration was mostly a power-sharing agreement through which some of the ‘rebels’ regained positions in government and parliament. But first, the ceasefire does not address the current situation; it has nothing to do with why we are in this mess. Since the talks started in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2015 and until their final stages in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, we had many peace agreements, which weren’t respected. And all of them neglected the main issues impeding us from moving on as a country. Beyond that, there is no real common understanding of the issues and the solutions for our current problems.

Second, elections have now been programmed for 2021, although according to the latest peace agreement they were due this year. However, there is no guarantee that the different factions are not going to disrupt the peace agreement again before 2021, so it is likely that elections might be postponed again.

Third, most civil society views, including youth voices and even those of religious leaders, haven’t been taken into account or even listened to at all regarding this agreement. The political parties who signed it just wanted to get their hands on small pieces of the resources we still have in South Sudan. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Inflation surpassed 600 per cent at one point in 2016, and earlier this year, year-on-year inflation stood at 161 per cent. The situation does not look like it’s getting better any time soon. And yet citizens’ concerns haven’t been addressed, including youth unemployment, under-development, illiteracy, lack of jobs and insecurity. All of this needs to be tackled for a free and peaceful South Sudan to develop.

2. To what extent would you say that civil society’s three fundamental rights – of association, peaceful assembly and expression – are respected in South Sudan?

Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice. In terms of policies and their implementation, there is no democracy at all. The constitution gives us the right to protest in public gatherings and express our opinions freely, but this doesn’t really happen. Most civil society activists, media outlets and citizens don’t speak their minds openly about what is going on in South Sudan. There is fear that whenever we speak out or go out to protest we might be detained. For instance, one fellow civil society member was detained recently for saying out loud things that are happening in South Sudan. When we lobbied for him to be released, or at least for the authorities to bring him in front of a court of law for a trial, they answered that they didn’t have him and didn’t know where he was. Other agencies we reached out to said he was not under arrest but had just been taken in for interrogation. We got completely different information from different offices. I don’t know who was telling the truth or whether they were all just playing games.

Intimidation comes not only from the government but from other sources: individuals, members or factions of the security forces and other power-bearers who have decided to establish their own security forces and take matters into their own hands. They can simply come, take your belongings, or detain you or arrest you illegally. And they never take you to a court of law or provide any reasons why they have detained you. Cases have been documented of enforced disappearance and murder.

3. What steps need to be taken to build democratic freedoms in South Sudan?

In South Sudan, the state is very weak. Our institutions are there, but they are not respected. It’s just a few individuals within the system who are running the country. Nowadays, even the president might not know what is going on in the country that he is supposed to run. Actual power-bearers are usually very wealthy, which gives them a huge power advantage in a country where most people are just trying to survive, not even with the bare minimum. Even army officers are not well paid, and if they are, they’re usually not paid on time. When the generals that head these armies are in a position to pay their soldiers and take care of them, they will remain loyal to them rather than to their country. It’s because there isn’t one central command of the army that we can’t have elections, nor hold protests like they do in The Gambia or Zimbabwe.

Our policies and institutions are not in order. We do not have mechanisms to hold office-holders accountable, except to remove them from office. But being removed from office doesn’t mean losing power; power is retained and those who have it are still free to exercise it. We should have the possibility of holding trials under a martial or criminal court and law, so that everybody understands that the rule of law must be respected. We need a stronger judiciary, and even maybe establish an institution to enforce accountability of the judiciary. We could start, like they did in Kenya, by looking at each institution one by one, to reinforce them, remove people, or change internal policies or the laws that rule them, as needed.

4. In this context, how do you manage to reach out to and mobilise citizens towards the goals of your campaign?

If you speak too much or too loudly, you may face all kinds of repressive tactics. Despite the hostile environment, at #Anataban we work and grow out of solidarity. If numbers are on your side, it becomes harder for them to crush you. We decided to multiply, to become many, and then more, and as a result we became more difficult to deal with. #Anataban is not an individual or a small group, but a lot of people with massive support. We have created chapters all over the country - in Bor, Lankien, Yambio and Yei, and also abroad, in Addis Ababa and Gambela in Ethiopia, Nairobi and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda. We keep expanding.

We also don’t just target issues directly but rather deal with them indirectly, in what we think is the most appropriate and resolving way. We use our art to raise issues. Other people may see art as mere entertainment, but not us - we’re using it as a tool to advocate for our rights, for social justice and against human rights violations. That also confuses our adversaries, who sometimes don’t really understand what we are doing. For instance, during the most recent International Peace Day in September 2017 and during the peace discussions in Addis Ababa, we printed more than 3,000 T-shirts with a message for peace, which we distributed during a street contest, even to motorcycle and taxi drivers. Then we moved like a caravan across the streets of Juba, South Sudan’s capital, sometimes blocking intersections, and talking to people about our rights and the peace process in general. It was some sort of performance rather than a traditional protest. This is not what was expected, so at first they didn’t try to stop us – they only did so when we became too many on the streets. Only then did the security forces realise that we were up to something and begin to stop us.
Anataban 1Anataban 2

 #Anataban members and other citizens during the 2017 International Peace Day event



Additionally, every year we organise an arts festival. This year it was our anniversary, so we decided to produce a theatre play on a controversial news topic. In the context of a calamitous economic situation, with so many people on the brink of starvation, the government had decided to offer parliamentarians car loans of US$40,000 each, on the grounds that they have ‘a right to mobility’. We put on a play based on that issue, to condemn the decision and highlight the multiple ways the government could be helping our least-favoured fellow citizens instead. The event was eventually shut down by the security forces, but we still got many people coming to see it.

SouthSudanIsWatchingA few years back, #Anataban and several other organisations, including the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, Justice Africa, OKAY Africa Foundation and the South Sudan Youth and Development Organization, launched a campaign, ‘South Sudan is Watching’, to mobilise civil society for the peace process. Some participants, including youth organisations, managed to become representatives in the peace talks in Addis Ababa, and were then able to follow up on the progress made. Our voices were heard then, although lately our efforts haven’t been all that successful.

5. What kind of support does South Sudan’s civil society need, particularly from international civil society and the international community?

Overall, South Sudanese civil society is alive and growing – the main issue right now is leadership. There are too many divisions among us; there are organisations leaning towards the government and others siding with the opposition, while others have stuck to the cause of civil society without taking sides in political struggles. We need to put in place a leadership that is respectful of civil society’s autonomous work.

Division is not only political; it is also caused by competition for resources. We need to replace unnecessary competition with serious solidarity. We need a civil society umbrella body, one focal voice or forum, where all of us can come together and agree on one agenda for the common good of South Sudan. We need to work together to protect our space. Right now, we don’t have one voice or even a single language to communicate in, and the government and others are taking advantage of our divisions.

Foreign and international partners have sometimes tended to choke the work of civil society through their decisions about where to work or how to deploy their funding. We don’t want the international community to do our work; we want their technical support, including financial and human resources. We need to change the mindset that a black man cannot resolve the issues of his fellow black man - that an international solution is always better than a home-grown solution.

In Eastern Africa, we don’t have regional integration bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Other governments in the region, such as Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, have played a part in the peace agreement in South Sudan only because it suited their self-interest, usually of an economic nature. I liked the ECOWAS answer to recent political crises, such as the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG).

As for the international community’s support to South Sudan as a whole, they shouldn’t turn their back on us. The country is broke, and the needs are too many. If they could support a rejuvenation of our judicial system, it could give the country a fresh start to increase respect for our constitution and laws. With a new judiciary and parliament in place, we would be able to discuss a new constitution, which is necessary because the current one is very shallow.

6. Do you see any reason for hope that the situation will improve in the future?

We should all be hopeful that South Sudan’s future is bright. I believe that after every bad situation, good times will follow. Nowadays there are just a few power-hungry bandits who rebel when they are removed from power. They are the only ones destabilising peace in South Sudan. Our founding father, John Garang De Mabior, used to say that as a nation we should stop focusing on oil and start cultivating the land – and now, when it’s rainy season, you can finally see in Juba all these small gardens growing in people’s yards. This shows that war has brought not only destruction but also lessons learned. And most importantly, citizens have started speaking one and the same language, because they are all tired of violence. In Juba, it’s become very rare to hear gunshots at night, when there was a time we wouldn’t be able to sleep in peace. We are definitely headed in the right direction.

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

Get in touch with the #Anataban movement through its website or Facebook page or follow @AnaTabanSS and @longj2a on Twitter.

 

West Papua, Indonesia: Failure to implement human rights protections in law contributes to violations

Yan Christian WarinusseyAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Yan Christian Warinussey, a senior West Papuan lawyer and Executive Director of LP3BH (Institute for Research, Investigation and Development of Legal Aid in Manokwari), an organisation that empowers local civil society through advocacy, legal aid and education about basic human rights. In the West Papuan region of Indonesia there have been severe human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests of activists by the Indonesian security forces under the guise of suppressing separatism. Yan has worked for over two decades on human rights in West Papua and has defended activists who were arrested and prosecuted for their peaceful activism. In 2005, he received the John Humphrey Freedom Award from Rights and Democracy in Canada.

1. What are the main challenges for civil society’s fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and for human rights more generally, in West Papua?One of the main challenges for fundamental rights in Indonesia, and especially in West Papua - that is, in the provinces of Papua and West Papua - is the failure of the government to implement the United Nations (UN) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia has ratified. Further, there has also been a failure to respect and protect human rights provisions in our Constitution as well as in local laws and regulations. Therefore, when individuals exercise their rights and carry out peaceful actions or gather and associate to protest against human rights abuses, demand independence or seek attention from the international community they are constantly faced with repressive actions from the authorities, such as arrest and detention. In some cases, individuals are also charged with treason.

2. Have the conditions for civil society in West Papua improved or worsened in recent years, and why?
The conditions for civil society in West Papua have deteriorated in recent years, because of the lack of implementation of the laws mentioned above. For example, in 1998, Law No. 9 on Freedom of Expression in Public was passed. However, no implementing regulations were issued. Instead, the police have issued internal guidelines that suppress the freedom of expression. This has become the law in West Papua and is used to suppress activism. Things have become worse also because the central government in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and in the West Papuan region have not provided space for the legal and democratic education of civilians, including on the issue of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

3. What have been the recent actions of the pro-independence movement, and how has the Indonesian government responded to these?
West Papua used to be a Dutch colony known as Netherlands New Guinea. The Dutch government kept hold of these territories after Indonesia became independent in 1945. Then in the 1960s West Papua was supposed to undergo a decolonisation process, but in 1963 it was annexed by Indonesia. In 1969, Indonesia formalised its control over West Papua by hand-picking about a thousand people among its population and threatening them into voting for annexation in a UN-supervised, but highly undemocratic, process known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’. As West Papuans were denied their right to self-determination, a pro-independence movement under the umbrella of the Free Papua Movement, also known as the OPM, has remained active for more than half a century. Further, a small armed group has led a decades-long low-level insurgency, which the government in Jakarta has used as an excuse to perpetuate a significant military involvement in the region. Numerous human rights violations have resulted from this.

In late 2014 a number of pro-independence movements united under the leadership of an organisation called the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Ever since it formed, the government's response has been to treat it as a separatist group and refuse to enter into any kind of dialogue with them. In September 2017, a petition calling for independence signed by 1.8 million West Papuans was smuggled out of the country and submitted to the UN Decolonisation Committee, which rejected it on the grounds that West Papua’s cause is outside its mandate. So we are nowhere close to finding a solution.

4. What actions should the Indonesian government take to safeguard democratic freedoms and human rights in the immediate future?
First, we need to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission in Indonesia and revise Law No. 39 of 1999 concerning human rights to allow the commission not only to investigate human rights violations but also to prosecute such crimes. Currently there is a lack of political will by both the police and the Attorney General’s office to undertake such prosecutions.

Second, we need the Indonesian government to formulate and produce implementing regulations on the array of human rights legislation that has been passed over the years, including against torture (Law No. 5 of 1998), civil and political rights (Law No. 11 of 2005) and economic, social and cultural rights (Law No. 12 of 2005).
And finally, especially for Papua, the government must immediately implement the mandate of the 2011 Special Autonomy Law, which calls for the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Papua.

5. Looking further ahead, what would it take for human rights and democratic freedoms to flourish in West Papua? And how can civil society help advance these?
There are lots of things that need to be done in the West Papua region. As a first step, there is a need to open up the region to international scrutiny. Currently journalists and international human rights organisations have been denied access to many part of the region. Previously, the visit of the then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression was unilaterally cancelled and indefinitely postponed by Indonesia, allegedly because of the Special Rapporteur’s wish to visit Papua.

There is also a need for human rights and democracy education to be included in the basic, secondary and higher education curricula in West Papua so that we understand these rights. To do this we would need the support of the government through the National Human Rights Commission and human rights organisations in West Papua and internationally.

6. Has the response of the international community to the situation in West Papua been adequate? How could external actors help?
The response of the international community to the situation in West Papua has been good and there has been very significant and constant pressure when abuses occur. As a human rights defender and a lawyer, I am very grateful for this and urge the international community to keep this pressure up.

As I have mentioned before, international support is needed to ensure human rights education and democracy for all West Papuans, and especially for victims of human rights violations, so they know how to defend and advocate for themselves now as well as in the future.

Civic space in Indonesia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitorr.
If you would like to support the work of LP3BH, please get in touch with CIVICUS.

 

 

‘People are eager to use any opportunities at hand to influence decision-making’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Elina Leinonen, Communications Officer for the Service Foundation for People with an Intellectual Disability, a Finnish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at finding individual solutions through the development and provision of high-quality services to support people with intellectual disabilities or special support needs and their families. Elina was also the communications lead for the Not-for-Sale campaign, which used a citizen initiative to promote the rights of people with disabilities in Finland.

 

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