BOLIVIA: ‘Civil society, like political society, is deeply divided’
Following our 2019 special report on anti-rights groups and civil society responses, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about civil society protests against the World Congress of Families held in Verona, Italy, with Asia Leofreddi, a PhD Candidate at the Antonio Papisca Human Rights Centre of the University of Padua and a journalist with Confronti, a think tank and magazine dedicated to the study of the relationships between religion, politics and society. Based on the values of memory, hospitality, solidarity and pluralism, Confronti promotes dialogue among Christians of different denominations, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and lay people interested in the world of faiths, with the aim of breaking down misunderstandings and fundamentalism and helping to build an intercultural democratic society.
How would you characterise the World Congress of Families?
The World Congress of Families (WCF) is the biggest ‘pro-family’ gathering in the world. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQI+ advocacy group and political lobbying organisation in the USA, has defined it as “the largest and most influential organization involved in anti-LGBT policies worldwide.” It was established by an American and a Russian in Moscow in 1997, and today it gathers together many associations, religious groups, scholars and political activists based in various countries, primarily belonging to Christian denominations. Among them, the Russian branch is particularly strong and acts with the open support of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin.
The WCF’s pro-family agenda translates into support for the traditional family model and reflects a highly conservative view of gender roles. Accordingly, the WCF opposes abortion, surrogate motherhood, same-sex marriage and any progress towards equality in sexual and reproductive rights. Their gathering is organised by the International Organization for the Family (IOF) which is active at many other levels. At the international level, beyond organising international conferences, it tries to influence international institutions, such as the UN, in order to promote a conservative and restrictive interpretation of human rights, in particular of Article 16 of the Universal Declaration. In domestic politics, its member organisations link with or operate as interest groups infiltrating parties and academic institutions, lobbying officials and using democratic means such as referendums and mobilisations to advance their claims in national public spheres.
Not coincidentally, over the past decade Brazil, Russia, the USA and several European countries have witnessed the rise of anti-gender and pro-family discourse, promoted by far-right parties, as well as the introduction, and sometimes also the approval and implementation, of morally conservative policies put forward by representatives of their national governments. In 2013, for instance, the Russian Duma unanimously approved a Law for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values (popularly known as the ‘anti-gay law’). In Croatia a referendum was held that same year, promoted by an organisation called U ime obitelji (‘In the name of the family’) and aiming to establish a constitutional prohibition against same sex-marriage. It won with 67 per cent of the vote. In 2018 the right-wing governments of Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which they viewed as a threat to the traditional family structure. And in 2019 the Council of Verona approved Motion 434, described as ‘an initiative to prevent abortion and promote motherhood’, put forward by a representative of the far-right League Party, and declared Verona a ‘pro-life city’. All the organisations and political representatives involved in all these processes are somehow connected to the WCF, which shows that over the past decades the ‘family’ label has started to play a key role in the creation of new geopolitical alliances that were not even thought to be possible a short while ago.
Who were the main groups involved in protesting against the WCF in Verona?
The main protests held in Verona during the meeting of the WCF in March 2019 were led by the local branch of the transnational feminist movement Non Una di Meno (‘Not one woman less’). They organised a three-day mobilisation called Verona Città Transfemminista (Transfeminist City Verona) that encompassed a variety of events spread throughout the city. These events looked like a real counter-congress, complete with panels, shows and speakers coming from every part of the world.
Additionally, another forum took place at the Academy of Agriculture, Letters and Sciences, a historic building in the city centre, on 30 March. This encounter was organised by the International Planned Parenthood Federation – European Network and the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics (Unione degli Atei e degli Agnostici Razionalisti) in collaboration with Rebel Network and other national and international organisations. This event gathered more than 30 speakers representing the transnational struggle of civil society for women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Some Italian politicians also decided to show their opposition to the WCF, and several female representatives of the opposition Democratic Party organised a public meeting in the K2 Theatre of Verona on the same day.
As all these events show, during those days Verona became a political laboratory in which two opposed views of society were on display. The small city became the battlefield of a global struggle. On the one hand, there was the reactionary and illiberal activism of the WCF, and on the other, the open and inclusive activism of national and international progressive movements and people who autonomously decided to participate in the protests.
However, what was most surprising was the great participation of Italian civil society. The demonstration held on 30 March was the biggest Verona had ever seen: more than 100,000 people took to the streets of the city to side with women’s right to choose.
What motivated all these groups and citizens to protest?
For civil society groups, the main binding factor was the WCF. Mobilised groups focused their activism on defending sexual and reproductive rights, strongly jeopardised by the narratives promoted and political strategies used by Congress participants.
Meanwhile Italian citizens took to the streets mostly in reaction against the strong support that the WCF received from an important sector of the Italian government at the time. Indeed, three then-ministers took part in the Congress – Matteo Salvini, then-Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, Lorenzo Fontana, Minister of the Family and Marco Bussetti, Minister of Education – and both the governor of the Veneto region and the mayor of Verona gave official sponsorship to the gathering. A majority of Italians viewed the institutional promotion of a gathering detrimental to civil rights as a political action against our Constitution.
What was the impact of the protests?
This was the first time the WCF had to face such a huge protest. As soon it was announced that the 13th edition of the WCF would take place in Italy – a founding member of the European Union with a strong civil society and a deep attachment to a set of rights gained through many years of struggle – analysts started watching the events with great interest. However, I don’t think anyone expected such a big reaction – not even our politicians attending the Congress.
At the national level, the protests achieved good results. For instance, they forced Matteo Salvini to publicly proclaim that Law 194 – the Italian law recognising abortion rights – would not be not touched and forced League Senator Simone Pillon to postpone a draft bill that had been widely criticised as not defending women from domestic violence. They also provided the opportunity for representative Laura Boldrini to pass a law against revenge porn, which until then had been strongly opposed by the parliamentary majority. Additionally, the days of the Congress were a great opportunity to unmask the strong connections that a section of our government, and particularly the League Party, which was in coalition government at that time, has with the global far right, despite their rhetoric on national sovereignty, and with some domestic far-right forces such as Forza Nuova, an extreme-right nationalist party, members of which were accredited to the Congress.
At the international level, the WCF in Verona offered an opportunity for participating opposition movements to forge new transnational alliances and reflect on the construction of common narratives and strategies. It was then that groups that until then had focused on their own national, and sometimes provincial, contexts realised how important it was to act globally. The presence of foreign experts and activists helped Italian movements to understand better the strategies of ultra-conservative groups and their ability to function simultaneously at different levels.
While we in Italy have always been confronted with the conservative positions of the Vatican and its influence on politics and civil society regarding sexual and reproductive rights, the WCF in Verona made it clear that we are facing a process of modernisation and professionalisation of ultra-conservative activism. As Kristina Stoeckl, an Austrian scholar, has widely demonstrated in her project on postsecular conflicts, these actors now enter public debate with their religious claims and turn them mainstream. They present them in a non-religious language, translating them into the language of human rights or natural law. They disseminate them with by using tactics and strategies typical of progressive mobilisations and campaigns. During the WCF held in Verona, Italian progressive movements became aware of the dimension of the phenomenon that they face as well as the fact that far from being limited to a national context, the politicisation of religion and pro-family rhetoric are actually part of a much broader political project.
These successes, however, by no means turned the Verona edition of the WCF into a failure. They clearly showed they were not be ready to deal with countries with a strong civil society capable of mobilising discourses and resources at their same level. Still, about 10,000 people took part in their ‘family march’ on 31 March. They were far fewer than those who took to the streets to participate in the feminist and progressive mobilisation off the previous day, but they were still many. Moreover, I think the success of the WCF is measured more by what happens inside the Congress than what happens outside. In the WCF in Verona there were many representatives of governments from all over the world – far more than in previous years – which offered them a great opportunity to strengthen their networks.
I don’t mean to diminish the results achieved by progressive movements in Verona, but to emphasise that protesting once is not enough. We need to remember to fight back every single day. We need to be aware that our opponents remain active even when they disappear from the scene. Ours is a battle of public opinion, which must be informed on a daily basis.
What more could civil society be doing to push back against anti-rights groups such as the WCF, and what support does it need to be able to respond?
First, the days in Verona demonstrated the importance of a vigilant and united civil society. On the way forward, it is important for progressive actors to develop better knowledge of these transnational networks and gain the ability not only to react but also to move proactively against ultra-conservative political projects on a daily basis. It is worth noting that the WCF has existed since 1997, and around the mid-2000s it started to become a political actor, capable of influencing national discourse and policies in several countries, from Russia to Central and Eastern Europe up to the USA. Moreover, for quite a long time some of its members have been involved in UN negotiations, playing a wider role in the international human rights debate. However, most Italian groups working on women’s and LGBTQI+ rights only became aware of its existence when it was announced that the Congress would take place in Verona.
Second, it is important to move beyond a reductionist interpretation of these movements as simply anti-gender and of this phenomenon as a mere ‘conservative backlash’ against progressive and emancipatory movements. Defining ultra-conservative claims in culturally binary terms (past vs future, intolerance vs tolerance, religion vs secularism, traditional family vs sexual freedom) does not help grasp the complexity of their project and their strong contextual adaptability, nor prevent them from taking further actions.
Indeed, their anti-gender claims often intersect with other issues including the right to homeschooling, concerns such as human ecology, demography, Christianophobia, political stances such as nationalism, the defence of national sovereignty and a more general critique of the Western liberal political and economic order and its supranational institutions. All these concepts help them build a more comprehensive and systematic ideology, mobilising forces in various countries and strengthening their political alliances.
But binary oppositions overlook these groups’ capacity to function in a variety of contexts. For instance, although they support a conservative view of gender roles, several ultra-conservative political parties have female leaders – just think of Alice Weidel (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement national, France), Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia) and Pauline Hanson (One Nation, Australia). Others have women among their leadership, as seen with Barbara Pas (Vlaams Belang, Belgium) and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher (Swiss People's Party). On top of that, once in power, many of them promote social policies that advance women’s interests, such as a monthly income for every child born or more general welfare measures. Of course, these policies only favour heterosexual families, but still, they allow many families – and many women – to get the support they need.
Even regarding LGBTQI+ rights, they are able to contextualise their stances. While Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro says that he would prefer a dead son than a gay one, Alice Weidel is an out lesbian who lives with her partner and her two children. Similarly, prioritising the fight against radical Islam and foreign powers, during her latest electoral campaign the ultra-conservative Marine Le Pen recognised the acceptance of homosexuality as part of French values.
Third, the media have a key role in opposing these movements. It is very important to do research and disseminate information, explaining for example that many of the populist forces we see emerging in our countries are part of larger networks. It is no coincidence that Italy’s Salvini publicly kisses the crucifix, Brazil’s Bolsonaro made the legalisation of homeschooling one of his key priorities for his first 100 days in office, and Donald Trump is the first US president to attend his country’s most important national anti-abortion march. They are all part of a specific structure of power and the media have the responsibility to unmask their political and economic links.
Finally, I believe that the rise of these ultra-fundamentalist movements is the consequence of a broader crisis, which has also led to the success of several illiberal leaders in various parts of the world. Progressive movements need to be aware of this so as to rethink some key concepts of their strategy, assess whether they are still connected with the broader society and, if they are not, start addressing this issue. As masterfully expressed by Eszter Kováts, “We need to recognise the problematic nature of emancipatory discourse as it stands today: just because a particular criticism is coming from the Right of the political spectrum does not necessarily render our positions beyond critique. And then we need to ask the painful question: ‘how did we get here’, and what does the current popularity of the Right have to do with the unfulfilled promises and problematic developments of emancipatory movements. Of the very same movements that seem to have failed to address the real nature of inequalities and everyday material struggles of people.”
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks with Yolette Etienne, Action Aid Country Director in Haiti.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history? Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
Among the greatest successes of the UN we could highlight the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; support for decolonisation processes in Africa and Asia; participation in peace agreements; the deployment of peacekeeping operations, with some reservations; the drafting of nuclear and conventional arms control treaties; the establishment of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court; and the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women and the creation of UN Women for the promotion of equality. Their existence, although perhaps not their impact, has been a success.
In connection with these, we should also note the existence of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Generally speaking, there have been many initiatives bringing about transformations and recognising the right to development, introduced mainly before the 1990s, as was the case of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
From 2019, we must emphasise the positive character of the strong position taken by the UN to alert the world to the crisis of climate and nature.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
There are too many UN humanitarian agencies and they consume too much money – around 60 per cent of the overall humanitarian budget. Another dysfunctional entity of the UN is the Security Council, which is paralysed because of its permanent members’ veto power.
There were indeed efforts by the World Humanitarian Summit to tackle the global reform of the humanitarian system under former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but it did not really have the support of the big players. I do not really know of any civil society initiatives in this direction, but it would be nice to see civil society movements tackle these two situations.
What challenges have you encountered in your interactions with the UN system?
It's the same general remark when it comes to heaviness and slowness. The system is slow and not at all agile. The simplest partnership requires a lot of energy to keep agencies engaged, not to mention the crippling bureaucracy.
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Caroline Vernaillen, Public Relations and Global Community-Building Officer with Democracy International, a global coalition pushing for more direct democracy as a means to improve our lives and the societies in which we live. Democracy International runs campaigns, organises knowledge-sharing events and supports democracy activists from all over the world.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
One of the greatest achievements of the UN has been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that is, the formulation of the universal and inalienable rights that every person on this planet has. The Universal Declaration sets out the fundamental values of our society: freedom, equality, justice and solidarity – the very pillars of democracy – and of course the right to public participation. It is heart-breaking that these rights are still suppressed in many countries and that they have come under heavy attack again in recent years. We have a lot of work to do to turn them into a reality for every single human being on this planet.
Over the past years, we have seen citizens around the world take to the streets, claiming their democratic rights. The UN has been consistent in speaking up on their behalf, ensuring that their human rights are guaranteed in a world where the space for civil society – civic space – is dramatically shrinking. Millions of young people around the world in recent years have been protesting for more effective measures against climate change. The global Youth for Climate movements have been given a prominent platform at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) and even the UN General Assembly, allowing them to present their demands to world leaders directly and address a global audience with increased authority.
Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In the case of Hong Kong, where citizens have been protesting for their democratic rights since the spring of 2019, the UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly called for restraint and de-escalation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has publicly called for an investigation into the widely reported police violence against protesters and has defended the rights of Hong Kong citizens to participate in public affairs and to the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.
At the end of the year, the International Criminal Court announced that it would launch an investigation into, among other things, violence by Israeli defence forces against Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza.
In Syria, the UN General Assembly set up a mechanism to investigate the most serious crimes committed under international law, an investigation that is now operational. These instances send a strong message that the UN is prepared to defend people’s rights to public participation and that those who use violence against citizens will be held accountable.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
The UN was set up as an intergovernmental organ, because at its inception the greatest threat to global peace and security were nation states waging war against each other. The world we live in today is very different. From our global financial architecture to conflicts increasingly spurred on by non-state actors to environmental challenges, everything has globalised. However, citizens at the moment do not have a way to influence decisions at the global level that could address these challenges. The UN is still the most important arena where these issues can be tackled, but there is no way for citizens to have direct influence on the issues that are being discussed and decided there. Citizens around the world worry about and feel the consequences of climate change, for example, but they do not get to set the agenda for international decision-making on the subject. They have to rely on the will and initiative of governments to take action, rather than being able to express what their own policy priorities are. This is not a new issue. The democratic deficit at the UN is well documented, and throughout the years many proposals for reform have been made, but few have been implemented.
What are the ongoing civil society initiatives pushing for that kind of change?
Together with our partners at Democracy Without Borders and CIVICUS, and with the support of a growing alliance of already over 100 civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide, we just launched a campaign for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, dubbed We the Peoples. The campaign calls for an agenda-setting mechanism that would allow citizens around the world, once they have reached a certain threshold of support, to put issues on the agenda of either the UN General Assembly or the Security Council.
This is not a new idea. Mechanisms like this exist in most democratic countries and there is one transnational example too. The European Union (EU) allows citizens who gather one million signatures of support in at least seven EU member states to propose legislation to the European Commission, which is obligated to respond to the proposal. In its eight years of existence, the European Citizens’ Initiative has already led to changes in water regulation and pesticide regulation in the EU. The tool certainly has flaws as well: for instance, there is no way for citizens to enforce follow-up on their initiative, as the Commission is not obligated to take action. But the European experience shows that tools like this are feasible, and they can work to empower citizens and involve them more in political decision-making, even at the transnational level.
Another civil society initiative is the campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which advocates for stronger citizen representation at the UN level. This complementary body would allow elected representatives, including from the opposition and minorities, to have a voice at the UN. Currently UN member states are only represented by their executive branch of government.
What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how would it be possible to overcome them?
For CSOs it is quite hard to gain access to the UN system. We have found that individual mandate holders are often very willing to listen and are open to new ideas, but any institutional change is decided by member states. This constitutes a very high hurdle for CSOs, which often only operate in a handful of countries. Gathering up the necessary support from enough member states is an arduous and expensive process that very few CSOs can afford. In addition, there is a lot of institutional inertia at the UN, which works in favour of those governments that wish to keep civil society and citizens away.
It is even more difficult for individual citizens to gain access to UN institutions. Our call for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative would give citizens the framework and the setting to address the UN directly and open into an interaction with them on a scale that has not existed yet in the history of the UN. Even though this is a tool that is not yet in place, organisations and individuals can join the campaign by visiting https://www.worldcitizensinitiative.org to strengthen the citizen and civil society-led solidarity behind the campaign, which, if implemented, will alleviate the UN’s democratic deficit and bolster citizens’ role in the UN. It is time for the UN to be bold again!
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Rosanna Ocampo, UN Advocacy Senior Programme Officer with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a network comprising 81 members in 21 countries across Asia that works to promote and protect human rights through collaboration and cooperation among human rights organisations and defenders in Asia and beyond.
Would you say there were instances during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In 2019, the work of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) made some positive differences in addressing human rights situations in various places, including in Asia. For example, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar presented its final report to the HRC. The report noted that there were “reasonable grounds to conclude that the evidence that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State, identified in its last report, has strengthened.” This contributed to the application filed by the Government of Gambia at the International Court of Justice, which in January 2020 made a unanimous decision ordering Myanmar to protect the Rohingya people from genocide. On the basis of the FFM’s reports, the Court also ruled that there was prima facie evidence of violations of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar. This is a clear demonstration of the complementary roles played by different UN organs and agencies.
Other recent steps toward justice and accountability in Myanmar have included the operationalisation of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, which will collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of serious international crimes and violations, and will prepare case files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings. Another is the publication of the report on the involvement of the UN in Myanmar since 2011 to establish whether everything possible was done to prevent or mitigate the crisis. We hope that states will follow up on this work by pursuing criminal accountability, including through the UN Security Council referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.
In 2019 the HRC also adopted its first resolution on the Philippines in response to the thousands of deaths resulting from the government's so-called 'war on drugs' and threats to civil society space. The resolution requested the High Commissioner “to prepare a comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in the Philippines and to present it to the Human Rights Council at its forty-fourth session,” which is to be held in June 2020. We see this as an important first step toward credible investigations and accountability, and hope that the HRC will follow up on the recommendations of the report. As the Philippines is a member of the HRC, the resolution on the Philippines also shows that Council membership shouldn't be a shield from scrutiny and that members are expected to uphold human rights standards both domestically and internationally.
What things are currently not working and would need to change?
There still remain many instances in which the lack of political will, or the political and economic interests of states, get in the way of situations being adequately addressed at the HRC, including situations of grave concern and issues relating to civil society space. For example, the way the resolutions on Cambodia have played out in the past couple of years haven't reflected the reality of the situation in the country. More should have been done than just renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia. It would have been good for the HRC to mandate additional monitoring and reporting by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on civic and democratic space in the country, and recommend steps for the Government of Cambodia to take to restore fundamental freedoms.
What obstacles does civil society face in interacting with the UN, and what can be done about it?
Discussions on improving the efficiency of the HRC and problems related to the budget of the UN all affect civil society participation at the UN, including at the HRC. There are still some states that are using this opportunity to try to restrict civil society space at the UN and limit civil society participation in debates. Working together with other like-minded civil society organisations, we continue to advocate with states to ensure that civil society is not disproportionately affected by changes in the work of the HRC and ensure that human rights defenders can continue to play a part in the discussions that affect them.
2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.
CIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of the Karapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatan has 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.
What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.
Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.
The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.
What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?
Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.
First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.
Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.
Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.
All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.
What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?
We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.
When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.
When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.
When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.
When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.
Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks about the recent election in Spain with Núria Valls, president of the Ibero-American League of Civil Society Organisations (Liga Iberoamericana), a platform that brings together 29 civil society organisations from 17 Ibero-American countries, specialising in human, social and community development. Legally incorporated in Spain, the Ibero-American League has worked on childhood, youth, education and labour issues from a human rights perspective for 20 years, by providing advice to governments, monitoring and evaluating programmes and building networks and doing public policy advocacy at the local, domestic and international levels.
What were the causes of the political instability that required Spain to hold two elections in 2019?
The widespread rejection of the political system that was established following the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s led to a significant deterioration of the two traditional parties: the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Popular Party (PP). These political parties were very used to bipartisanship and ruling with the support of large majorities. When other parties appeared on stage, pacts and coalitions became necessary, which until then had only been a feature of local politics. It became necessary to include more minority parties and nationalist parties from the country’s periphery, which does not always pay electorally.
In addition, the political conflict in Catalonia had radicalised the positions of parties present at the state level, which entered into a sort of competition to show who was the most Spanish. Even leftist parties do not dare to speak in recognition of Spain’s national plurality because the media, and particularly those from the capital, Madrid, criticise them aggressively.
In the first elections of 2019, held in May, the PSOE felt uncomfortable when negotiating with the leftist and independent parties that had supported the motion of censure leading to the replacement of the conservative government led by the PP. On top of this, the personal ambitions of the leaders of both the PSOE and Unidas Podemos, the left-wing coalition formed in 2016 by the Podemos political movement and several other political forces, made a pact impossible at that time.
The PSOE misread the polls and believed that a second election would give them the majority, and therefore the possibility of governing alone. But ahead of the November elections, people were angry because, as they saw it, due to their leaders’ personal egos parties had not done their job, and instead had made us waste time and money. All of this further deepened dissatisfaction with politics.
Would you say that the extreme right party Vox benefited from this?
Vox was one of the parties that benefited the most from the second election. It doubled its number of votes and became the third most represented party, with 52 seats, right behind the two major parties.
Traditionally in Spain it was considered that there was no extreme right because the PP encompassed the entire right wing. But Vox emerged with great force and with a Francoist, aggressive anti-human rights discourse, presenting itself as the guarantor of the unity of Spain against separatism. In fact, the way the situation in Catalonia has been handled has been a breeding ground for the acceptance of increasingly right-wing discourse, justified in the need to preserve the unity of Spain.
Another electoral result worth mentioning is that of Ciudadanos, a seemingly liberal party, which not long ago thought it would soon be in government, but which practically disappeared given its meagre results. Ciudadanos had focused its discourse on territorial conflict and on the unity of Spain. Voters who prioritised this issue preferred Vox, which has a more radical stance.
Despite the good results obtained by Vox, however, it was the left that won the elections and this time they worked fast. In just 24 hours a pact between the PSOE and Unidas Podemos was forged, which had previously been impossible to achieve. Citizens found it hard to understand why what a few months ago had been impossible was now possible. But what is important is that the formation of a government was prioritised against the feeling of instability and paralysis that has prevailed in recent years. Faced with this broad pact among leftist parties, the right wing reacted with a very aggressive discourse, strongly rooted in the Francoist tradition.
Finally, due to the abstention of Catalan pro-independence parties, it was possible to form a government. Governing will not be easy, but it promises to be a very interesting experience, which offers the possibility of creating change. It will be a very broad government, with 22 ministerial portfolios, notably characterised by gender parity.
How would you characterise Vox as a political force and ideological trend?
Vox is a far-right party that does not hide its xenophobic anti-human rights discourse. It prioritises two major issues: the unity and centralisation of Spain, and the elimination of gender policies.
This is a worrying phenomenon that is not only happening in Spain. Extreme right parties arise in times of citizen frustration in the face of economic and social inequalities in a globalised world. There is an international movement – which spans Brazil, France, Italy, Norway, the USA and many other countries – that focuses on stigmatising and criminalising migration and so-called ‘gender ideology’. The support for these speeches by some religious congregations should also be analysed.
These parties use democracy’s rules to promote an anti-human rights ideology. It is paradoxical that democracy, which was born under the values of participation and respect for rights, is currently being used to strengthen and foster an ideology that is totally opposed to those values.
How did this right turn take place just a few years after so many people had taken part in protests for economic and social justice?
An element of this turn has to do with the anger that a section of the population feels toward politics. Corruption of political parties has had a great impact on society, as people think that politicians are in politics only to enrich themselves. There is no idea of politics in the broader sense as linked to the common good.
In particular, there is a bloc of young people who see a very difficult future for themselves. They have very low expectations and view a vote for Vox is an anti-system choice. This is the vote of those who think that migration will deprive them of jobs and state resources, and that gender policies are an exaggeration. Vox is very apt at using social media with direct messages often based on falsehoods but that are reaching the population.
The territorial conflict between Spain and Catalonia has also functioned as a catalyst for this anger. The message of ‘we’ll go after them (‘A por ellos’) used to despatch police units from the rest of Spain towards Catalonia to try to prevent the referendum on 1 October 2017, later reinforced by a message from the King, aroused an anti-Catalan sentiment. The right bloc, and especially Vox, appropriated the defence of the monarchy against republican leftist parties.
How is this process being experienced by civil society? Do you think that the space for civil society is being degraded in Spain?
Organised civil society was caught a little off guard. On the one hand, we did not believe that electoral support for Vox would be so strong, and on the other hand, we had a debate about whether we should respond to them, and therefore give them more media coverage, or whether it was best to ignore them. The second option prevailed, among political parties as well. And the strategy of ignoring them contributed to the increase in votes for Vox. There was nobody left to respond to their expressions bluntly and with clear arguments.
Now civil society debate revolves around the need to defend human rights clearly and forcefully and respond to any expression that hurts or stigmatises any population group.
In the territories where it is governing together with the PP and Ciudadanos, such as Andalusia, Madrid and Murcia, one of Vox's first actions has been to press for the end of aid to organisations working with women or vulnerable groups.
We are experiencing a risk of regression in freedoms and therefore it is necessary for us to work in a more united way than ever as civil society. A clear communication strategy must be developed to reach all people. Often we in civil society remain locked in our own spheres and find it hard to take our message beyond our circles.
Another strategy used by the right wing, and especially by Vox and the PP, is to use the justice system to settle political disagreements. Much of the judiciary in Spain is still very ideological, since many conservative judges remain as heirs of the Franco regime. As a result, sentences have abounded against the freedom of expression on social media, including censorship of songs. And many people have also been convicted for protesting publicly, especially in Catalonia.
How has the situation in Catalonia evolved since the 2017 referendum?
The referendum of 1 October 2017 was an act of empowerment by a section of the Catalan population that participated very actively, with a collective sentiment of civil disobedience, to achieve a better future against a state that did all it could to prevent it from happening. The violent state repression unleashed during the referendum and afterwards increased the collective feeling of a big section of the population in favour of independence, and especially in favour of the right to decide through elections.
After the referendum, repression against Catalan pro-independence groups increased, and the state put all its police and judicial machinery in motion. In addition, it launched article 155 of the Constitution, which provides the state with a coercive mechanism to bind the autonomous communities that breach constitutional or legal obligations or seriously undermine Spain’s ‘general interest’. Article 155 suspended the autonomy of Catalonia from 27 October 2017 until 2 June 2018, when new regional elections were held. It amounted to almost a year of political, financial and administrative paralysis in Catalonia.
Previously, on 16 October 2017, the leaders of the two most representative Catalan pro-independence groups, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, had been imprisoned for mediating in a spontaneous and peaceful demonstration in front of a building of the Generalitat, the Catalan government, where the police were conducting a search. They were imprisoned preventively, with no possibility of release before their trial.
Following these arrests, judicial repression against the government of Catalonia increased, culminating in the detention of the vice president and five government ministers plus the president of the parliament of Catalonia, all of whom were placed in pre-trial detention. For his part, the president of the Generalitat went into exile in Belgium along with four more ministers, and two other politicians went into exile in Switzerland. The government of Spain made statements affirming that it had decapitated the pro-independence movement.
This entire judicial and repressive process further complicated the political situation in Catalonia. The ruling issued on 14 October 2019, which sentenced independence leaders to prison terms of between nine and 13 years, amounting to a total of 100 years, caused new street protests to break out.
Unlike all previous pro-independence demonstrations since 2012, the latest protests caused many riots and faced police repression. In addition, young people were the protagonists and adopted a more radical attitude towards repression. In that context, the anonymous Democratic Tsunami movement emerged. Inspired by the Hong Kong protests, this movement uses social media to call for large peaceful mobilisations in various locations, such as the border or the airport. The police have tried to discover who is behind this movement, but it really is just an instance of collective empowerment by pro-independence civil society.
At present, following the latest Spanish elections in which the PSOE and Unidas Podemos required the abstention of the pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia to be able to form a government, the picture has changed. The government has pledged to initiate a dialogue with the government of Catalonia and to bring any agreements reached through dialogue to a citizen vote. This will not be easy because right-wing parties, using any judicial remedy at their disposal, are trying to boycott the process. An effort must be made to find a solution for the situation of pro-independence prisoners that facilitates a peaceful and political way out and allows a process of real dialogue to begin.
CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ismail, a longstanding member of CIVICUS’ Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA), a network of 90 national and regional civil society platforms from around the world. Professor Ismail is the focal person for the Pakistan NGO Forum (PNF), an umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Pakistan.
Mohammed Ismail and his family have been facing various forms of harassment, intimidation and threats due to the activism of his daughter, Gulalai Ismail. Due to persecution, Gulalai fled Pakistan and applied for asylum in the USA. In July 2019, Mohammed was accused under the Anti-Terrorism Act and on 24 October 2019 he was detained, and further charges were brought against him under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act. He was granted conditional bail on 5 December 2019 and released. The charges against him are still pending.
Can you tell us about the charges and harassment leading to your arrest? Why do you think you have been targeted?
I have been targeted because of my daughter’s activism. In May 2018, my daughter Gulalai Ismail, a women’s rights activist, visited South Waziristan, an area on the border with Afghanistan, which was once a hub for international terrorism. Residents of the area have been complaining that the Pakistani army was protecting the militants, killing peaceful citizens and destroying their property.
Gulalai visited an area named Khaisoor along with a group of women human rights activists. Women and girls shared their stories about sexual harassment by army personnel. Gulalai assured them that she would highlight their situation and work on the issue of sexual harassment of women and girls in conflict areas. In May 2019, a nine-year-old girl whose parents had been internally displaced from tribal areas experiencing conflict was raped and killed in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The police refused to file a first information report (FIR) of the incident, and instead abused and harassed the father and brother of the child in the police station. Gulalai led a protest in Islamabad against police brutality and misconduct and spoke up about sexual harassment of women and girls in tribal areas and of the internally displaced population from tribal areas.
Gulalai is also an active member of the newly emerged young Pashtun movement known as the Pashtun Protection Movement (PTM), which has been voicing demands for a truth-finding process around war crimes committed by security forces in conflict areas. They have also made demands for the recovery of missing people, for perpetrators to be brought before the law, the clearing of landmines, compensation for houses and markets destroyed and the protection of people’s fundamental rights.
Due to her activism, the government brought two criminal cases against Gulalai for attending gatherings of the PTM, but these were quashed by the courts. A few months later Gulalai was arrested at Islamabad Airport by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on her arrival from London and her name was put on the Exit Control List (ECL), which bans her from travelling outside the country.
In February 2019, Gulalai was picked by security agencies at the Islamabad Press Club while she was attending a protest for the release of PTM activists, but her name was not on the list of people arrested and she went missing for 36 hours. She was produced and released by the Pakistani army after the Prime Minister of Pakistan interceded.
On 22 May 2019 the Islamabad police registered six counts of sedition charges against her in different police stations. Gulalai heard the news from various TV channels and stayed with friends to evade arrest. The army and the police raided our home in Islamabad and two army vehicles conducted surveillance on us for 24 hours. The army and the police also raided the homes of relatives while searching for Gulalai.
When the police could not arrest Gulalai, they retaliated by registering a case against me, my wife and Gulalai. They accused Gulalai of raising funds for her organisation and distributing them to terrorists through me and my wife. We were charged with financing terrorism.
I filed a writ petition in the Peshawar High Court for them to quash the charges on the basis that they were based on mala fide (bad faith). The Peshawar High Court then issued a stay order till the writ petition could be heard by them.
Can you tell us about your arrest? How did it happen? Where were you taken to?
Around midnight on 17 October 2019, the doorbell rang at our home. I checked the CCTV cameras and saw two vehicles outside. Two persons were going around on bikes and four were standing in front of our door. Two of them had masks on their heads and pistols in their hands and were standing at both sides of the door. One had a Kalashnikov and the other rang the bell.
I came to the door and asked who they were. They told me that they were police officers and I should come out. I refused and said that at that time of night, they could very well be criminals. They stood around for at least 40 minutes and finally left.
My children advised me to leave Islamabad for a few days, so I shifted to another area. The hearing of my writ petition in Peshawar High Court was scheduled for 24 October 2019. I waited in the courtroom but due to delays my case was adjourned to another date. As I came out of the court, uniformed people were waiting for me at the gate. They started beating me and dragged me into a car. The car had a siren and rushed out of the city towards the tribal areas. Then they received a call and took me to a FIA office.
What happened after you were detained?
I asked the staff present at the FIA office why I had been treated this way, why I was being humiliated and what my crime was. They told me that they had nothing to do with my arrest. The people who detained me were from the Army Intelligence Agency (ISI) and they were waiting for further orders on what to do with me. They took away my mobile phone, laptop and purse. Eight hours after my abduction they registered a FIR against me and charged me for cybercrimes. The FIR stated that I had used social media to spread hate. I was kept in lockup. I was not provided with bedding or food. There were other people charged with smuggling in the lockup who provided me with a blanket and water to drink.
The next day I was presented to a magistrate and sent to Peshawar Prison, where I was kept with drug addicts and again I was not provided with any bedding or blanket. My relatives and friends were not allowed to visit me or bring me the items I needed. I made a complaint to the magistrate when I was presented to him 14 days later, but he told me that it was not in his domain to provide me with the necessary items.
The food provided was below standard and of low quality while medicine was not available. The latrines were dirty and I had to sleep on the ground. I stayed in prison for 34 days without any of the facilities required by a normal person. I wrote to the Chief Justice of Peshawar High Court and Supreme Court of Pakistan about the violations of the human rights of prisoners in Peshawar Prison.
Why do you think you were released?
My bail application was rejected by the Session Court judges but the Peshawar High Court granted me conditional bail. The judge asked me to support the government of Pakistan and show the positive face of Pakistan to the world so that Pakistan could be removed from the grey list of the Financial Action Task Force, an organisation combatting money laundering and terrorism financing. I was further told not to use social media.
What is the current status with your case and charges?
In the first case, related to terrorism financing I am on pre-arrest bail. I am waiting for the decision of the Peshawar High Court. If the case registered against my wife, my daughter and I is quashed by the High Court, then this case will end. Otherwise my wife and I will be handed over to ISI and the Anti-Terrorism Police. In the second case related to cybercrimes, I am on bail and waiting for the start of the case in court. Further, my wife and I have been put on the ECL, so we cannot travel outside Pakistan. If we are acquitted, we will file a writ petition that will allow us to travel.
Are other activists facing similar restrictions in Pakistan?
Yes, they are. For example, PTM activists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are arrested on a regular basis on cybercrime charges. The government and the army have lost their patience with dissident voices. There is censorship, which is why Pakistan ranks poorly for media independence. Political opponents are also arrested on trumped-up corruption charges.
People supported me and condemned my arrest by making my case trend on Twitter. But only one CSO – the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan – raised its voice for me. All other CSOs have surrendered to the army and the government and have lost the courage to raise their voices against the abduction of human rights defenders.
What can the international community do to support your case?
I still need support from the international community to urge the government of Pakistan to withdraw the cases registered against my wife and I and get us off the ECL so that we can recover our right to free movement. It will also be important to target the Chief Justice of Pakistan so he can use his power to protect the rights of human rights defenders in Pakistan.
It would be good if my case can be raised with the international media, international human rights organisations, the United Nations system, the US State Department and the European Union. I am thankful to CIVICUS for raising your voices for me on various forums.
CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.
Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.
The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?
Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.
In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.
In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.
Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.
In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.
How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?
There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.
The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.
At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.
At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.
Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.
Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.
Why the change?
The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.
In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.
How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?
The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.
From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.
For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.
However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.
Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?
The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.
What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.
The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.
CIVICUS speaks to Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations of DefendDefenders, an organisation that promotes the work and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa – Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. DefendDefenders provides emergency and legal support, protection grants and relocation programmes; helps build capacity in security and protection, digital safety, advocacy and communication, monitoring and reporting, human rights education and mental health and wellbeing; connects HRDs and civil society organisations (CSOs); raises awareness through research and analysis; and advocates for the protection of HRDs at the regional and international levels. A regional NGO, it is based in Kampala, Uganda and has a permanent office in Geneva, Switzerland.
Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?
In its first 75 years of existence, the UN has secured a great deal of achievements in the fields of peace, security and development. When it comes to its third pillar, human rights, I would say that the UN’s greatest success is the international community’s acceptance, at both the ideological and practical and policy levels, that human rights are not within the sphere of domestic affairs.
With the UN, the promotion and protection of human rights – or indeed their violation – became a legitimate matter of international and multilateral concern. Today, states cannot simply use ‘sovereignty’ to disregard criticism over their human rights record. Some unconvincingly attempt to claim that human rights advocacy amounts to ‘interference’ in their internal affairs, but all, even the most closed, feel compelled to defend their human rights record and claim that they respect human rights (dictatorships usually add ‘fully’).
In other words, sovereignty cannot be used as a veil to prevent the international community from looking at the way a government treats its own people. This is immensely significant when you look back at history: states used to refuse to look at what was going on inside other states; they did so only when their own nationals or coreligionists were abused.
Now of course, selective invocation of human rights still exists: why does Country A raise human rights issues in Country B (its adversary) while remaining silent on exactly the same issues in Country C (its strategic ally)? However, unlike in past centuries, Country B will reply and will usually try to reverse the narrative (by saying ‘we respect human rights’) and to raise human rights issues in Country A (and, for good measure, in Country C).
Governments like to claim that ‘pressure does not work’ and ‘naming and shaming’ does not bring about any results. A number of them praise ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance and capacity-building’. Yet they spend time responding to criticism. They invest in the UN human rights system. They engage with the Human Rights Council and with the General Assembly’s Third Committee. They go through the Universal Periodic Review every four and a half years. They engage with special procedures (the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Council) and act on their communications – even when they do not publicly acknowledge so. They constantly interact with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Most states ratified a large number of human rights instruments and are therefore subjected to periodic reviews by treaty bodies. Finally, states systematically reply to HRDs and CSOs that conduct investigations and advocacy, either openly and constructively, or, sadly, by exercising reprisals against them.
Further, it often goes overlooked that ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance’ actually include substantial human rights elements. In 2019, DefendDefenders published a thorough analysis of the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘item 10’ resolutions on advisory services, which showed that human rights scrutiny is part and parcel of item 10, contrary to received wisdom and the narrative propagated by authoritarian states.
Multilateral human rights diplomacy has spilled over to, or has been accompanied by, bilateral human rights diplomacy. Human rights are included in the conduct of foreign affairs, from multilateral arenas to bilateral human rights dialogues. Further, provided they enjoy a degree of free expression, peaceful assembly and association, citizens demand human rights compliance from their governments not only at home but also with regard to the conduct of foreign policy. All of these aspects are – at least partly – human rights successes of the UN.
Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?
In 2019, as an instance in which the UN made a difference, I could cite the fact that sitting members of the Human Rights Council were subjected to more, not less, scrutiny. In July 2019, for the first time, the Council adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in three of its sitting members – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and the Philippines – during the same session. This showed that Council membership does not shield you from scrutiny, and that election to the Council does not amount to an endorsement of your human rights record. At the same time, states that until recently believed they were outside the reach of coordinated multilateral condemnation – notably China and Saudi Arabia – were subjected to scrutiny through joint oral and written statements.
These developments were unimaginable prior to 1945. This remains true despite reason for concern in recent years, with increasingly direct attacks against multilateral institutions and the UN human rights system by authoritarians and populists.
What things are currently not working and need to change?
Budget is always an issue for the UN’s human rights pillar. Compared to the peace and security and development pillars, it gets very little: the figure that is usually put forward is a mere three per cent of the overall UN budget.
This means that UN secretariat staff – OHCHR and human rights advisers in peace missions – and UN human rights bodies and mechanisms must work on a shoestring – and they achieve much! But the UN’s financial neglect for its human rights pillar also means that the UN system as a whole is facing a lack of policy consistency. Whereas the idea that development, peace and security, and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing has brought about policy initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front, decision-makers have been backtracking. In fact, the UN’s human rights pillar has faced mounting budget cuts, forcing a number of bodies to prepare for reduced numbers of sessions and meetings.
Caving to pressure from China, Russia and the USA, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has since he assumed office betrayed efforts to mainstream human rights in all UN work. He has by and large buried Human Rights Up Front, and human rights components of peace operations are being eviscerated as a result of this pressure and budget cuts decided by members of the UN Security Council.
How is civil society reacting to this?
Civil society is pushing back at all levels, reminding the UN and states of their duties towards the human rights pillar. Civil society has relied on, and promoted, a human rights-based approach to issues of global concern, from migration to counter-terrorism to climate change.
Civil society’s very existence and its dynamism are also important insofar as they highlight that the current form of the state – which still relies, essentially, on a ‘Westphalian’ concept of territorial sovereignty – is recent in the history of mankind, and that it is contingent and somewhat arbitrary. Societies, including the international society, could be organised differently.
State representatives sometimes portray human rights advocacy CSOs as arrogant when the latter name and shame human rights abusers, but the existence of civil society and the role citizen movements play call for more modesty on the part of state officials. Governments – provided they result from free and fair elections – represent one form of legitimacy, but not the only form of legitimacy. Civil society was there before the Westphalian state, and it will probably be there after the latter is, as Michel Foucault would say, “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
I believe these elements are important to keep in mind when discussing how civil society is pushing for change.
What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and what have you achieved?
For a regional human rights CSO like DefendDefenders, challenges are many. They include financial resources, a shrinking civic space in some of the countries we work on, impunity for human rights violations and abuses, and the very nature of our work. Human rights are, and will always be, about challenging power and imposing restrictions on those exercising it, to prevent abuse.
We always focus on the quality and relevance of our work. We also build bridges with all stakeholders: governments (as human rights duty-bearers), international and regional institutions, fellow CSOs, communities, grassroots activists and individual HRDs, who in the East and Horn of Africa have been organising themselves in coalitions and networks.
In December 2019, DefendDefenders was involved in the launch of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, something that was unthinkable two years ago when civic space in the country was closed. Any opportunity must be seized to build stronger human rights protections.
I will end with an anecdote. For years, Sudanese HRDs were insulted, intimidated, threatened, subject to surveillance, prevented from leaving their country and abused. In April 2019, through a peaceful revolution, Sudan’s people and civil society brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. In July, Dr Nasredeen Abdulbari, an academic and HRD, was part of DefendDefenders’ delegation to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council. Together, we advocated for meaningful UN action on Sudan, put forward our proposals and met with stakeholders. Two months later, at the Council’s 42nd session, Dr Abdulbari led the Sudanese government’s delegation to Geneva. In the meantime, he had been appointed Minister of Justice and joined a transitional cabinet led by civil society figures and activists. This is certainly not the end of the story, but it shows that one should never lose hope.
Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Nicole Romo, director of the public policy area of the Community of Solidarity Organisations (Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias), a network of more than 200 Chilean civil society organisations that work to combat poverty and exclusion. Together, its member organisations work with more than 900,000 people, mobilising around 11,000 staff members and over 17,000 volunteers.
Why did protests break out in Chile, and what made them escalate as they did?
The social outbreak in Chile came after decades of the promotion of a development model that focused on creating wealth, which for years was distributed with no fairness or justice. Individualistic, short-term and assistance-based social policies that deeply damaged social cohesion and the community and collective sense of wellbeing were implemented. Alongside this there were housing policies that segregated Chileans into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ territories where access to goods and services was distributed in the same way, a pension system that impoverishes senior citizens, lack of access to healthcare in a timely manner and with adequate quality standards, and an education system that also segregates and grants diametrically opposed opportunities to the rich and the poor.
In this context, the motto ‘it is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years’, which was heard a lot during the protests, expresses quite well the feeling that prevailed among the citizenry. Although this social movement began with students massively evading payment of public transportation fares, after a rise of 30 Chilean pesos in the cost of a metro ticket, deep-seated malaise has been accumulating for over 30 years. There have been several protests to advance various social demands over the years, but this profound discontent had never been heard or even made visible. The social eruption of 18 October 2019 was the result of the accumulation of radical discontent with the government and the way the country has been ruled for several decades.
How have people and civil society organisations reacted to the protests?
The national state of mobilisation that we are experiencing has clearly shown that two Chiles coexist within the same territory – two Chiles that do not know each other and do not intersect. This division is the brutal expression of the difference in the quality of life between those who have privileges and those who don’t. Our country spent the past few decades convincing itself that achievements are based on individual merit, that each person’s efforts are the only guarantee of social mobility, which in fact, as shown by a variety of studies, is absolutely untrue.
In the face of this, data from various surveys show a high rate of approval of social demands among citizens. On the other hand, people are more divided when it comes to violence, and especially the forms of violence that have resulted in damage to public and private infrastructure, such as looting, the destruction of stores and the burning of commercial premises and other types of services, as well as regarding violence by state agents, who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.
How has the government reacted to the protests?
The government has handled this conflict in a quite regrettable way, by mainly emphasising its security agenda, criminalising protests and furthering a legislative agenda focused on punishing protesters, which reveals their lack of understanding of the nature of the protests, their demands and their urgency.
The social agenda proposed by the government is quite weak. It does not seek to make radical changes to existing structures that deepen inequality and does not guarantee the rights of all people. The changes and the contents of the social agenda led by the government are not up to the protesters’ demands and their urgency. Its numerous initiatives and measures involve limited improvements, which are necessary but will not affect the structures that reproduce unfairness in our country; therefore, they only duplicate the same old short-term public policies that are not based on a rights approach and focus on the individual rather than on the needs of the thousands of families in vulnerable conditions.
The latest reports speak of dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Could you describe the extent of the repression and human rights violations committed during the protests?
Since the protests broke out in Chile, numerous human rights violations have been committed by state security agents. These violations have been denounced by national and international organisations, but the state has tended to downplay them.
It is essential for us to reiterate that at all times unrestricted respect for human rights must prevail, and that each case of violation must be investigated, resulting in punishment for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims. Civil society is key in monitoring and watching over these processes, to ensure that they remain transparent and foster accountability of the state.
Data from the National Institute of Human Rights indicate that in 48 per cent of the observed cases of detention, detainees were protesting peacefully, regardless of whether or not they were occupying roads. Likewise, gases were used indiscriminately in 56 per cent of recorded cases, and in 60 per cent of the cases observed, force was not used in a graduated way, and was instead applied without prior notice and in the absence of any kind of dialogue. There were 2,727 documented cases of injured adults who were treated in hospitals, as well as 211 children and adolescents, and 241 people with eye injuries. There was also a series of human rights violations against people detained and held in police stations. The most frequent of these was the excessive use of force during detention, with 751 cases. Overall, 190 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were recorded, 171 of them being cases in which detainees were stripped naked.
How have people and civil society organisations responded to the state repression and rights violations that occurred during the protests?
We have responded without fear. Entire cities have shouted fearlessly in protest at the human rights violations that occurred during the past months. Many people have compiled testimonial material to make visible the level of exposure and violence they experienced during the protests.
From civil society organisations the responses have been diverse, but generally speaking all organisations have called for non-violence and the establishment of new spaces for dialogue leading to the strengthening of a society based on social justice and fairness. Without a doubt, civil society organisations have played a prominent role, promoting the establishment of meeting spaces and helping present the demands of the citizenry. This was done through the creation of a large network of networks called the New Social Pact, which brings together more than 600 civil society organisations that have worked tirelessly to search for real solutions to substantial demands.
The Community of Solidarity Organisations supports the principle of nonviolence and since day one of the protests we voiced the need for unrestricted respect for human rights. Even if it is not our field of work, we believe that this outbreak revealed how urgent it is to restructure the police forces. We faithfully believe in the data published by the National Institute of Human Rights, and we know that their work is conscious and rigorous, as is the report delivered by Amnesty International, so as civil society we will support from our field of work all actions aimed at bringing reparation for the rights violated during the protests.
What immediate measures should the Chilean government take to overcome this crisis? What are the chances of this happening and a lasting solution being reached?
A lasting solution would require a long process of construction and change including short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.
The short-term and medium-term measures are related to the social agenda, which has three dimensions. The first consists in improving the quality of life through measures on issues such as health, education and pensions. The second dimension includes measures to end abuses by economic and political elites and close the gaps in justice administration between cases involving members of the economic elite and ordinary citizens, who face completely different sanctions for committing crimes: ‘ethics classes’ for the former and effective jail terms for the latter. The third dimension involves raising the resources that the state needs to implement a deep and powerful social agenda. Chile requires a tax reform to increase revenue and needs a much more efficient tax management system.
The long-term axis refers to a constituent process whose main milestones have already been established: an initial referendum, the election of representatives and a ratification referendum. However, conditions guaranteeing participation by a cross section of people, equitable representation, gender parity, minority quotas and independent candidacies have not yet been achieved. Without these conditions in place, the legitimacy of the constitutional process will severely weaken.
Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
On 5 August 2019, the government of India revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed the autonomous status and rights of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The government also imposed a severe communications blockade that impacted on the daily lives of Kashmiri people, including by affecting access to medical care, basic necessities and emergency services. Hundreds of detentions of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been reported. CIVICUS speaks about this situation with Natasha Rather, Regional Campaign Officer for the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, linked to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation that focuses on enforced disappearances in the region, monitors the human rights situation and documents abuses.
What was the situation of civic freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir prior to the revocation of its special status under Indian administration?
During the first half of 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (JK) witnessed continued and increased violence and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following a militant attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy on the Jammu–Srinagar highway that resulted in the killing of 48 Indian soldiers in February 2019. Following this attack, Kashmiri people living in various cities and towns of India became targets of hate crimes. Thousands of Kashmiri students were forced to flee from their colleges and universities and return back to Kashmir. People living in JK feared the attack would have dreadful consequences – which turned out to be true.
The frequency of cordon and search operations (CASOs) and crackdowns increased in the aftermath of the attack. CASOs are a form of harassment that breach people’s right to privacy. According to a report by the APDP and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 177 CASOs were conducted by the Indian armed forced in JK, which resulted in the killing of at least 118 militants and four civilians and the destruction of at least 20 civilian properties.
In February 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Kashmir Chapter of Jamaat-i-Islami were banned and hundreds of their leaders and workers were arrested.
Ahead of the elections to the Indian Parliament, held in JK in April and May 2019, 100 additional companies of soldiers were deployed in Kashmir and mass arrests of political and religious leaders were carried out. During polling days there were complete shutdowns, violence and killings.
The use of administrative detention under the provisions of repressive Public Safety Act (PSA) led to many arrests and detentions. Between January and June this year, at least 25 people were booked under the PSA.
Internet shutdowns have also been a common practice in JK. Internet services were curtailed 51 times in the first half of the year.
How did people in Jammu and Kashmir respond to the revocation of the state’s special status?
Before revocation was formally announced by the Indian government, many rumours made the rounds and people guessed that something sinister was underway. Official orders by the state administration added to the apprehension. People prepared themselves for a complete lockdown, drawing from their previous experience when the Indian government imposed curfews and shut down phones and the internet.
When revocation of the special status was announced amidst a complete blockade of communication and full restrictions on movement, people were not greatly shocked. The autonomy guaranteed to JK under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it had been greatly eroded before revocation of the special status, which downgraded JK from a state to a union territory, and there was nothing much left in it for the benefit of the people.
There have been concerns attached to the revocation of Article 35a, which permits the local legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir to define who are permanent residents of the region. People have speculated that demographic changes might be underway, designed and strategised along the same lines as the occupation of Palestine, including the demographic changes introduced by Israel in Palestine. While there are fears of demographic changes, the majority’s response has been not to fight against revocation of the state’s special status, as this would have meant legitimising the occupation of the region. The larger struggle is for the right to self-determination.
We have read reports of civic space restrictions, including a ban on meetings, restrictions on freedom of movement and arrests of leaders. Can you provide more information about this?
The announcement of the revocation of JK’s special status was accompanied by widespread restrictions. There was an increased deployment of Indian armed forces at all roads and intersections across the valley, and the unyielding troops have strictly restricted the movement of people. For the first few weeks, people were not even able to reach hospitals and doctors. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings of more than four people, was imposed despite a curfew being in place since the night of 4-5 August. This prevented people from organising protest gatherings and meetings.
According to a government report dated 6 September, more than 3,800 people had been detained since 5 August and only about 2,600 of them were subsequently released. Those detained include political leaders from both pro-India and pro-independence parties, civil society members, lawyers and protesters. Three former Chief Ministers of JK – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been detained since 5 August. On 16 September, Farooq Abdullah was detained under the PSA. Leaders and politicians like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Farooq Abdullah, Taj Mohiuddin and M Y Tarigami have been under house arrest. Hotels and government guesthouses have been turned into detention centres. Many leaders and civil society members have been lodged in jails in India.
There has been an extensive use of the PSA to detain people, especially young people. Many young people were detained without being formally charged and were released only after the signing of community bonds. Many young people and most political leaders continue to be detained.
Have people protested? How have the security forces responded to protests?
Despite the severe restrictions imposed on the movement and assembly of the people, there have been many protests across the valley of Kashmir, with people taking to the streets and shouting slogans demanding freedom from the Indian state. The Indian media has claimed that there were negligible protests against the abrogation of Article 370, making it seem like there is normality and acceptance of the Indian state’s decisions. Since the local media has not been able to report on these protests, stories from them have not come to the fore. There were many protests in Kashmir valley, but due to the communication blockade and restrictions on the movement of journalists and media, news of protests from other districts went largely underreported.
Protesters have been met with excessive force by the Indian armed forces. For instance, on 9 August, several people were injured during protests in the Soura area of Srinagar. A doctor confirmed that at least 53 young people were treated for injuries at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. Reports also emerged that five people have been killed in separate incidents as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the policing of protests since the start of the clampdown.
How has the internet shutdown affected the work of activists and journalists?
The communication clampdown has greatly affected the work of journalists and activists. Owing to the shutdown of internet services and curbs on the movement of journalists, it has been a huge challenge for journalists to collect and file stories. The administration set up a Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar where journalists are allowed to access the internet and email their stories. No such facilities are available in other districts of Kashmir. Newspapers in Kashmir have been publishing with a reduced number of pages. Journalists have been forced to rely just on state-issued press briefs once or twice a week, without any means to verify the stories. There has been news of journalists facing reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing situation.
Also, since 5 August, civil society in JK has been under threat and dealing with a very precarious situation, as many civil society members have been detained and jailed under the PSA. In this way the Indian state has put pressure on Kashmiri civil society to remain silent about the current situation, and therefore their space is completely choked. There is a lot of resistance and criticism of the communications clampdown that is preventing civil society from carrying out its work.
In this context, the support required from the international community is that they should increase their understanding of the Kashmir conflict and talking about it so as to prevent this human rights crisis from worsening.
Left to Right: Dumiso Gatsha, SDGs Goalkeeper and founder of Success Capital NGO & Degan Ali, Executive Director at Adeso
A growing movement of people is challenging the traditional top-down paradigm, ways of working and decision-making within international development aid and philanthropy. Known as “Shift the Power” or #ShiftThePower, this movement calls for new behaviours, mindsets and work approaches that shift power and resources, and promote more equitable and people-led development. It started at the 2016 Global Summit on Community Philanthropy and, since then, has mobilised numerous funders, researchers and activists who are taking individual and strategical collective steps to further this change.
The recent Pathways to Power Symposium, hosted by the Global Fund for Community Foundations (GFCF) on November 18-19 2019, brought together a diverse group of 110 people from around the world and from different parts of civil society and philanthropy, who are deeply engaged this movement. We spoke with two activists and close partners of the CIVICUS alliance who participated in the Symposium: Degan Ali, Executive Director at Adeso, an African NGO that is promoting a development that non-dependent on international aid; and Dumiso Gatsha, SDGs Goalkeeper and founder of Success Capital NGO, a youth-led organisation defending LGBTIQ+ rights in Botswana.
What are your main takeaways from the Pathways to Power Symposium?
Degan: The Symposium was really inspiring because it was a completely different dynamic and group of people than what I’m normally used to when attending events within the traditional humanitarian or development aid sector. I felt a lot of energy. The activism and the possibilities of creating a movement were extremely exciting. My main takeaways were that we still need to do better about having more propositional and tangible ideas of what the ecosystem we are trying to create will look like. I'm not sure if we were able to address that in the symposium in terms of what we are offering or suggesting to the bilateral donors, foundations, international non-profit organisations and local organisations on a practical level. What is our proposition? What are we offering in terms of what the ecosystem change looks like? What does the shift of power really look like for local communities? The challenge for us is to get more concrete and practical.
Dumiso: Power will inherently lie with those who have options to decide what is prioritised, relevant or needed in society, and exercising those options requires equity and resources. So the assumption that people can exercise their power without resources (money specifically) is skewed, as the only other time when people galvanise is when there is a glaring lack of resources and mass civic action that emanates from the lacking leads to change in those instances. During the event, I appreciated the unravelling of nuances of supremacy (racial, geographic, country economic status, etc.), the breadth and depth of discussions on systemic issues that might be impeding power within philanthropy. The fact that I could be in this space brings peace to younger me that never understood why or how creativity, multifaceted ideas and young people were never independently enabled to scale or strengthen their work.
Considering your work on the ground, context and identity, what do you think is missing in the conversation about shifting the power?
Degan: What has been missing, at least from the traditional aid conversation on localisation, are proper discussions of power and racism. I think there was an openness to discuss this subject in the “shift the power” conversations that I haven't seen in other events, and that is good. As I previously mentioned, I think the conversation is also missing the clear and tangible asks and solutions that we would like to bring to the table as a “shift the power” movement.
Dumiso: It's clear that those who are implementing partners and/or those who operate on the ground never get to be in such important spaces. Their feedback is often limited to evaluations, project reports and sometimes, needs assessments. These have power dynamics that might not make it economically and mentally safe to be objective or true to the experiences on the ground. What success and capacity look like to a community can be very different from what is predetermined in a monitoring and evaluation plan or an enabler's strategy. This became evident in a more diverse group at the subsequent workshop hosted by Accountable Now, called “Preparing for a power shift towards people and communities we work with and for.”
What concrete suggestions would you give to those support groups and individuals in philanthropy and development circles that are trying to embody new ways of deciding and doing in order to help build agency, resilience and sustainability of your community?
Degan: Philanthropists and bilateral donors in the development and humanitarian circles should be more willing to reflect on the power that they wield and to start questioning the internal systems and machinery that are trying to retain the status quo of power and resources being held by the hands of the few in the Global North. My challenge to them is what can you do in your own circles and your own spaces to challenge power imbalances and do things differently? This requires both humility and courage.
Once we as a movement have come up with tangible solutions, we should ask them what specific things they can do as an agency, as a foundation or as a bilateral, inside and outside their own institutions, to help us achieve that new ecosystem. We also must get them to understand that improving the ecosystem is not only about eliminating institutionalised racism and shifting power, it is also about improving the quality of the work and programs provided. I think improving the ecosystem in the end means that you get a value for money, efficiency in the system with the removal of so many intermediaries, and it means that you do better work that is more meaningful and has more impact for communities that we are claiming to want to serve. If we are serious about quality, this is the right thing to do.
Dumiso: The best thing you can do to solve some of the prevalent, inherent and recurring challenges is to employ those who live and are affected by the experiences on the ground – they have capacity, they are skilled and diverse. Otherwise they would never be able to navigate and respond to the opportunities and challenges within their contexts. Othering, inequality and injustices are common factors in many societies regardless of jurisdiction.
Encouraging collaborative interventions does so much more systematically. Being uniquely placed to link and bridge those who are underfunded and under-resourced can strengthen movements and overall civic action. When the tides rise, all boats rise.
Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Soledad Fátima Muñoz, a Chilean activist and the founder of a mentoring programme and feminist festival, Current Symposium. (Photo by Kati Jenson)
How did something that started with a small increase in the price of the metro ticket become a mobilisation of unprecedented dimensions?
The first thing to clarify is that this was not caused just by an increase in the price of the metro ticket, nor is it an isolated protest. Mobilisations against the abuses derived from the neoliberal system have been a constant occurrence in Chile over the years. Among these were mass protests against the privatised pension system, against the Trans-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement and against the Fisheries Law, feminist protests and protests by the movement promoted under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’ (not one less), mobilisations about the historic debt owed to teachers, the student protests held in 2006 and 2011, and the more recent mobilisations by students against the so-called Safe Classroom Law. On top of this, there’s the outrage caused by systematic state repression of the Indigenous peoples in Wallmapu, the deaths of Camilo Catrillanca and Macarena Valdés, and the imprisonment of Machi Francisca Linconao and Lonko Alberto Curamil, among other political prisoners. Combined with a generation-long dissatisfaction with the impunity granted to those responsible for the tortures, disappearances and killings of thousands of people under the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, this produced an environment conducive to a citizen awakening of historical proportions. After years of abuse, the Chilean people woke up and want a new constitution, since the current one was drafted under the dictatorship and was designed to promote social inequality.
The big difference between the current protests and all the previous ones is the response they triggered from the government of President Sebastián Piñera, who declared a state of emergency and a curfew, unleashing a police and military repression against the Chilean people that is only paralleled by the crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship.
The protests are not being centrally organised and are not guided by a single political motto; there are many independent initiatives calling for people to gather and demonstrate, through social media or through various independent information channels. Some of the most widespread demands call for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Frequently demanded are the nationalisation of basic services and natural resources, including copper, lithium and water. There are also demands for direct democracy and binding referendums, the prosecution of political and economic corruption, respect for Indigenous peoples and plurinational sovereignty, and for health, education and decent pensions. On top of these there are also more specific demands, such as raising the minimum monthly wage to 500,000 Chilean pesos (approx. US$650), reducing legislators’ salaries and raising taxes on the richest.
These were the reasons why the movement began, but in the face of excessive state repression, citizens are now also demanding the resignation and prosecution of President Piñera and all the people involved in the systematic violations of human rights that have taken place over the past month.
Twenty deaths have been reported during the repression of the protests, in addition to large numbers of people injured and under arrest. Could you describe the human rights violations committed against protesters?
It is difficult to estimate right now the human rights violations that are being committed by the Piñera administration, since – as was also the case under the dictatorship – thousands of detainees are being kept incommunicado. That is why, when people are taken away in the streets, they shout out their name, surname and identity card number. The latest official figures from the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) account for 335 legal actions initiated, 489 victims represented, 6,199 people under arrest – 726 of them minors – and 2,365 injured people registered in hospitals. But it is difficult to confirm the veracity of these figures since the institutions that disseminate them may have been pressured by the government.
The INDH in particular partly lost its credibility when its director denied the existence of systematic human rights violations in our country on an open-air TV programme. That was simply a lie, since the institution itself had submitted complaints in the face of arbitrary actions by the police and the military. More than 200 cases of eye mutilations have happened as a result of the excessive use of pellets by the police, and there have been numerous cases of mistreatment, sexual violence and torture in detention centres. Additionally, there was an instance of repression at a school, Liceo 7 in Santiago, where a carabinero, a member of the military police, fired against students who were inside the building. There have also been raids on private homes and arrests made out of cars without police identification.
On top of repression by the security forces, there is a group of citizens who call themselves ‘yellow vests’ and say their mission is to maintain civic order and protect the work of the police, but in reality they are a violent far-right group. Among its members is John Cobin, who fired a firearm at a protester in broad daylight on the busy streets of the Reñaca resort. He belongs to the League of the South, a white supremacist organisation from California.
What immediate actions should the Chilean government take to safeguard civil rights and democratic freedoms?
A month into the protests, the government has not yet listened to its citizens, and instead has responded with increasing violence. In the early hours of 15 November, lawmakers reached a political agreement behind closed doors, named the ‘Peace Agreement’ which would lead to a new constitution. The agreement guarantees a ‘blank slate’ for free discussion to take place and establishes that the call for a constitutional convention is going to be done through a public referendum. But part of the mobilised citizenry is not satisfied with either the deadlines or the required quorum of two thirds established for decision-making by the constituent body, since they think it will redirect the current democratic process towards a system designed to protect the political class and prevent minority voices from gaining power.
I think what’s most important at this moment is the security of the citizenry and, above all, of the communities at greatest social risk, which are not only the most affected by the neoliberal system, but are also at the epicentre of the undiscerning violence applied by carabineros and the armed forces. An example of this happened in the community of Lo Hermida, in Peñalolén. After the authorities announced that they would not build the decent homes they had promised, inhabitants occupied the Cousiño-Macul vineyard. `Police repression was not long in coming, and in just one night 200 people were injured, two of them with severe eye trauma. In addition, carabineros broke in and threw pepper gas into homes with older people and minors inside.
It is time for the Piñera government to stop the repression, release the more than 6,000 protesters who are currently being held in detention centres, take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and – for the first time in Chilean history since Pinochet – end impunity for the systematic human rights violations that have been committed. The Piñera government must respond before the law for the more than 20 people who have been killed and the 200 that experienced eye mutilations, plus the torture of minors and sexual abuses against women, men and non-binary people, since all of these were consequences of the lousy decisions made by the government, and would have been at least partly avoided if they had maintained a direct dialogue with the public since the beginning. In this regard, the slogan chanted on the streets is: "There is no peace without justice."
Do you think that the mobilisations in Chile are part of broader regional trends?
What is happening in Chile is structurally international, since it derives from the austerity measures perpetrated by neoliberalism. Chile’s current socio-economic system is rooted in European colonialism and was enshrined by Pinochet’s coup d'état in 1973. Specifically, it came from a group of students belonging to Chilean elites who studied in the USA in the mid-1950s, where they absorbed the ideology of extreme monetarism and neoliberalism, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. These students – nicknamed the ‘Chicago Boys’ – served as finance and economics ministers under the dictatorship and introduced extreme privatisation measures. These measures were accepted and naturalised by a citizenry that was in a state of shock and repression.
The consequences of this privatisation translate into abuses perpetrated by multinational corporations that are enabled by governments around the world. In Chile, a good example of this is the case uncovered by journalist Meera Karunananthan in an article published by The Guardian in 2017. The author explains that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan is the largest investor in Aguas del Valle, Essbio and Esval, which control 41 per cent of the water and sanitation system in Chile. This is possible because the constitution allows for the private ownership of water, which has left entire communities in a drought situation and unprotected by the law. However, in 2010 the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution recognising access to water and sanitation as a human right. This means that in Chile human rights are violated not only through police repression but also through the maintenance of an unfair and abusive economic system.
The example cited above is just one within the great chain of international abuses perpetrated by corporations, including by the Canadian company Barrick Gold and the Norwegian state company Statkraft, which continue to abuse the policies of the Chilean subsidiary state and threaten our planet. That is why we must raise awareness at an international level so that the decisions of the Chilean people are respected and protection is provided to Indigenous peoples, without blockages or political interventions protecting foreign capital and perpetuating the destruction of our environment.
What support does Chilean civil society need from international civil society in this process?
At this time, it is important to recognise and create international awareness about the abuses committed against the working class, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and sexual minorities. I personally have learned a lot in the course of these mobilisations. One of the most subversive things that citizens are doing is rejecting the right/left binarism that has so severely affected Latin American societies and that has been used by neoliberal governments as an excuse to repress working people. The prevalence of citizen politics that do not identify with any dogmatic position on the right/left spectrum meant that the government could not identify an ideological enemy and ended up declaring war on its own people.
Mainstream national and international media are misrepresenting the facts and building a narrative against the mobilised population. But unlike what happened in the past, we are now equipped with phone cameras and can report directly. I invite people around the world to get informed through independent media and civil society channels to really know what is happening.
Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.
Can you tell us about your background and work?
I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.
What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.
Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.
As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.
Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.
What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?
People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.
Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.
Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.
The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.
Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.
Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.
Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.
Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.
Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.
According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.
Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.
What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?
In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.
Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.
What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?
One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.
Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?
Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.
We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.
There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.
Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?
I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.
The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.
Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?
In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.
At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.
We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.
As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.
Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?
The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.
There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.
So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.
Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?
All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.
There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.
There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.
Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.
Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.
How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?
Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.
The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.
When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.
How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?
After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.
We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.
How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?
In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.
LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?
We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.
Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.
Civic space in Malaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Letter from Zeyar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu members of the Peacock Generation in Myanmar
Seven members of the Peacock Generation—Kay Khine Tun, Zayar Lwin, Paing Pyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Zaw Lin Htut, Su Yadanar Myint and Nyein Chan Soe —were arrested in April and May 2019 after they performed Thangyat, a traditional performance art akin to slam poetry during the Thingyan Water Festival in April. On 30 October 2019, five of them were convicted under Section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code at Mayangon Township Court in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and sentenced to one year in prison. Section 505 (a) of the Penal Code prohibits the circulation of statements and reports with the intent to cause officers or soldiers in the Myanmar Armed Forces to mutiny or otherwise disregard or fail in their duties
For livestreaming performances on Facebook, Zay Yar Lwin, Paing Phyo Min, Paing Ye Thu, Su Yadanar Myint and Nyein Chan Soe also face charges under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunication Act for “online defamation”.
Members of the Peacock Generation are facing the same charges in five other townships in Yangon and Ayerwaddy Region where they have performed Thangyat and face a possible 19 years imprisonment. Below is their letter from jail:
We are writing to you from the cells of Insein Prison, the notorious and largest prison in Myanmar. The seven of us were sued by the military and arrested after we performed the Thangyat, a traditional performance criticising the military. We were convicted and sentenced to one year in prison by one court out of six and facing possible 19 years imprisonment.
We knew we could face risks and the military had noticed our group for a year and were preparing to take action against us. So instead of just avoiding it, we decided to be more critical in our lyrics when we performed, and action was taken against us. Our senior activists had also been critical of the military and now its our time to do so.
When we heard of the charges, we went to the police station to allow them to detain us. We are also experienced with jails. First the military sued us in Mayangone and Botahtaung Townships, and later military in Pathein, Dedaye, Pyapon, Maupin townships from Ayeyarwaddy Regions also sued us under 505(a) and 66(d). When they sue us, it was not just one time. They sued us at different times and intentionally delayed the verdict process. Those court processes in Ayeyarwaddy Region have not yet begun. That means they want to lock up us for a long time. It’s already been 6 months and only one verdict is out. And only two courts hearings are done.
We believe its not fair as even before the court decided on our innocence, we were already in jail as criminals. Mentally it is hurting for those who are locked up in jail. We are trying to pass the days because we have strong beliefs, but it is difficult for others to be in jail.
They have convicted us with no strong evidence. This is not a fair case. Because it is a case against the military, whatever we do, we will definitely be sentenced. Because in my country, nobody is treated fairly and equally by the law when the case is against military. We believe we didn’t commit a crime by performing Thangyat. This is the case of criticizing and resisting an oppressive institution – the military. We will never be silenced just because they jailed us or sentenced us this way.
We will keep criticizing and pointing out the flawed system in different ways because it is important for us to amend the constitution and to get the military out of politics so that we can pursue genuine democracy in Myanmar.
Thankfully we have people supporting us mentally and physically. They are all our colleagues, students, friends and families. Because of those support, we can stand these days. Lawyers support us legally.
When we talk about freedom of expression, there very little space and we still have to work a lot to have that freedom. We understand that our rights shouldn’t harm others. We admit we strongly criticized the military, but why we were criticizing them strongly was because military leaders and their institution have obtained power unfairly and are harming our own people. Freedom of expression in Myanmar is like a tortoise trying to get carried by a flying stick held by two crows on both ends. We can talk about freedom of expression, but if we really express ourselves, we can get jailed. That’s the current situation.
To all the international organizations and institutions that want to help “democracy” in Myanmar, do whatever you can to help us please. The important thing is to influence the military. Only by influencing them, we can help them move in the right direction or else, things will get worse in future. Please speak up more for the situation in Myanmar.
Instead of asking you to specifically to help our case, we want to ask if you help democracy and politics in Myanmar, and when it is improved, we will be part of the journey too. There are many others who are currently jailed in Myanmar. Thank you for your support and solidarity near and far and for helping change our country.
Zeyar Lwin and Paing Ye Thu members of the Peacock Generation in Myanmar
Translated by Thinzar Shunlei Yi a Youth Advocate and Activist from Myanmar
In May 2019 Taiwan became the first nation in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. CIVICUS speaks to Minister Audrey Tang about this historical decision and about her role in connecting government with civil society. Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s Digital Minister and the first transgender official in the state’s top executive cabinet.
When you were appointed back in 2016, you became the youngest minister without portfolio in the history of Taiwan. Do you see yourself as a bridge between generations, and between government and society?
Certainly. My work is primarily as a channel between social innovators and people in the public sector who are willing to co-create toward common goals.
Intergenerational solidarity is also very important, as is the capability to listen to the plurality of cultures on the Taiwan islands.
As Digital Minister, what roles do you think the internet and communications technologies can play in enabling people’s participation in decision-making? How have you worked with civil society from your government position?
‘Broadband as a human right’ is at the core of the government’s policy. Our idea is to bring technology into the spaces where citizens live, rather than expect citizens to enter the space of technology. The government must first trust the people with agenda-setting power; then the people can make democracy work.
Taiwan's national participation platform has hosted 10.6 million unique visitors — almost half of Taiwan’s population — since its launch in 2015. Anyone can begin an e-petition on the platform. Once a case has 5,000 signatures, the relevant ministries must respond in public.
As Digital Minister, I have established a network of Participation Officers in each ministry. They serve as links between the public and the public sector, and as channels for inter-agency collaboration. Whenever a proposal is raised, a collaborative meeting can be held, with participants from government departments and the public invited to join the discussion and jointly create new policies.
So far we have held more than 50 collaborative meetings. We gathered stakeholders to find solutions, including to improve the experience of filing income tax, the allocation of medical resources in remote towns and balancing fishery and marine biodiversity in national parks.
The Presidential Hackathon is another good example of an initiative that brings Taiwan’s public and private sectors together to solve urgent problems. At the event, the first of which was held in 2018, teams of hackers — composed of either private citizens or government workers — compete to design the most innovative improvements to the nation’s public services. Instead of prize money, the best teams receive a promise from the government that it will apply their ideas.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage in Taiwan was a historic first for the whole of Asia. What role did the government and civil society play in the process?
On 17 May 2019 – the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, the Legislative Yuan – Taiwan’s parliament – passed the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 after three readings. This achievement, made in Taiwan, was a historic first in all of Asia, and was not fulfilled overnight. It took the efforts of both government and civil society.
In 1986, Chi Chia-wei married his same-sex partner in the USA and held an international press conference. In March 2013, he and his partner went to Taipei City Wanhua District Household Registration Office to register for marriage but were declined. After losing the lawsuit, both he and the Taipei government requested an interpretation by the Constitutional Court to determine whether the provisions of Chapter II on Marriage of Part IV on Family of the Civil Code, which did not allow two persons of the same sex to be married legally, violated the Constitution.
In October 2016, a French professor at Taiwan University, Jacques Picoux, jumped off his apartment building and died. When his partner, Tseng Jing Chao, passed away, many problems arose concerning the medical procedures and real estate transfer before and after his death due to the fact that the two people were not legally married. The death of Jacques Picoux drew great attention to the issue of equal marriage in Taiwan society, and the once stagnated progress same-sex marriage law legislation sped up.
This was not the only driver of change. In April 2000, Yeh Yong Jhih at Pingdong County Gaoshuyuan Middle School committed suicide. He had suffered from school bullying because of his feminine temperament. This unfortunate accident drew much public attention.
The Gender Equity Education Committee of the Ministry of Education formed an investigation team, which issued a report calling on the Ministry of Education to pay attention to gender problems. The draft of the Gender Equality Education Act included clauses on sexual orientation, sexual traits and sexual identity, and was renamed the Gender Equity Education Act and passed by the Legislative Yuan on 23 June 2004. The Act rules that: schools must respect the gender traits and sexual orientation of students and teaching staff; schools must not discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation in their enrolment and admission conditions; students should not be treated differently for their gender or sexual orientation; schools should actively offer help to students in bad situations as a result of their gender or sexual orientation.
As well as this, another relevant legal change came: in order to ensure the right to work of LGBTQI people, the Gender Equality in Employment Law was renamed the Act of Gender Equality in Employment in 2007 to add provisions to protect LGBTQI people from discrimination.
In 2003, the Taipei government gave support to the first LGBTQI protest organised in the whole of Asia, gathering more than 2,000 participants. Ma Ying-jeou, who was then Mayor of Taipei and went on to become President, said that Taipei as an international city should respect individuals from different ethnicities and cultures. The following day, widespread media reporting helped raise acceptance of the LGBTQI community in Taiwan. Since then, this event has been organised regularly on the last Saturday of October every year. In 2018, a total of 137,000 people took part in the demonstration.
In 2015, Taiwan’s President, Tsai Ing-wen, then a presidential candidate, publicly expressed her support for marriage equity on the eve of the annual LGBTQI demonstration. On 20 May of the same year, the Kaohsiung government accepted the registration of same-sex couples; Kaohsiung was the first municipality to accept registration. Following that, all special municipalities and some cities and counties accepted registration one after another. After the announcement of the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 in 2017, the Ministry of the Interior announced the opening of registration for same-sex marriage nationwide, and allowed administration across cities.
On 24 May 2017, the Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 ruled that the restriction of marriage as being between a male and a female was in violation of the Constitution. The authorities were requested to amend or enact the laws as appropriate within two years. The president of the Executive, Yuan Su Tseng-chang, communicated with ruling party legislators personally and went through countless discussions and compromises to see the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretations #748 finally pass the third reading on 17 May 2019 and come in force on 24 May.
However, before this, in 2018, people opposing same-sex marriage launched a referendum to prevent an amendment to the definition of marriage in the Civil Code. Civil groups who support same-sex marriage organised volunteers to give out leaflets and deliver short speeches on the street.
The 2018 referendum drew wide support. This caused anxiety in the LGBTQI community. As cases of self-mutilation and suicides were reported, supporters of same-sex marriage worked to provide support and deliver political speeches.
To what extent do you think public opinion supports same-sex marriage in Taiwan? Has the issue been divisive, and if so, how can the two different points of view be reconciled?
Taiwan has gone through more than 30 years of LGBTQI campaigning since 1986. The issue of same-sex marriage aroused many different opinions in society, and caused cracks and intense discussions within families, generations and even religious groups.
In 2015, the Institute of Sociology of Taiwan, Academia Sinica, published the Basic Survey of Social Changes in Taiwan, which showed that the percentage of supporters and opponents to the question that ‘homosexuals should have the right to marriage’ was 59 per cent and 41 per cent respectively, while among people with higher education and young people, the support rate was higher than 80 per cent. In November 2016, the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation published a poll that found that 46.3 per cent of citizens were in favour of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, 45.4 per cent were opposed and 8.2 per cent were neutral.
During the 2018 referendum, opponents and supporters not only debated vehemently at referendum explanation conferences that were broadcast live, but also launched information ‘wars’ via social media. They raise funds to buy commercial advertisements to express themselves through print media, loudspeaker vans, radio and magazines. As the referendum attempted to delay the progress of same-sex marriage, debates and clashes were ubiquitous in society. The divergence lies in the fact that same-sex marriage was an issue of human rights, as the Judicial Interpretation indicated, but the referendum meant to remind people to consider the thoughts of traditionalists and religious people.
On the day of the third reading of the Enforcement Act, president Tsai Ing-wen said: “I know that passing this Act does not mean there won’t be disputes any more. But I invite the opponents to look at supporters, and supporters to look at opponents. Our faces are not so obnoxious.” This is a long journey. We have finally reached this point, but this is not the end. I hope it will be a starting point of a more inclusive Taiwan society. Taiwan needs to work hard, learn how to understand and co-exist, to let difference no longer bring divergence.
How have groups opposed to same-sex marriage reacted to the new law?
The Judicial Interpretation meant that the scope of the debate was limited: everyone agreed about respecting the judgement; the focus was on what kind of law – proposing a new law or amending the Civil Code – should be made to protect same-sex marriage, and how far it should go.
Opponents of same-sex marriage proposed a version of a ‘same-sex cohabitation law’, defining people in same-sex relationships as ‘same-sex family members’ and allowing them to form a family without getting married or having the right to adopt. Other rights of family members such as property relationships and legacy distribution could be legalised as long as there were written agreements.
They suggested that the results of the 2018 referendum should be adopted, and raised the question: the referendum reflects the opinions of 7.65 million people but the Interpretations are made by 10. Which one matters more?
They insisted that the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 was not consistent with the 2018 referendum’s proposal. They believed that proposals for change would destroy the meaning of marriage regardless of the wills of 7.65 million citizens. Therefore, a few protests were organised.
However, after the 2018 referendum, the Legislative Yuan published a news release clarifying that the legal foundation of the referendum launched by groups opposing same-sex marriage could not contradict the Judicial Interpretation #748, stating that: “Two persons of the same sex creating a permanent union of intimate and exclusive nature for the purpose of living a common life is freedom of marriage and right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Groups opposing same-sex marriage believe that 24 May 2019, the day the Act came into force, was the darkest day of legislation. So on the same day, they declared that they had formed a party to select 10 candidates for legislators to compete with the legislators that supported the Act.
Do you think the implementation of the new law will help change attitudes towards LGBTQI people? What else needs to be done?
The implementation of the Act made Taiwan the first in Asia in terms of guaranteeing LGBTQI rights, but we are only halfway there. Embracing each other, respecting differences and refusing discrimination are still important areas for our government to learn and act on. Yuan Su Tseng-chang said in public after the third reading of the Enforcement Act that in spite of our differences in beliefs and value, he hoped colleagues in the government set themselves as examples, treat everyone equally when providing services, do not make discriminatory comments or actions, and welcome every couple who come for registration with joy and blessings.
Due to the implementation of the Enforcement Act Taiwan has not yet carried out a large-scale effective poll to understand public attitudes; both international and domestic media are reporting positively, but negative news sometimes appears in online media. For example, in September 2019, the Ministry of National Defense announced that three same-sex couples were signing up for the joint military wedding of the National Army. It was the first time that the Ministry of National Defense had allowed same-sex soldiers to participate in the joint wedding. After the news was released, although many people online expressed their congratulations to the LGBTQI soldiers, some discriminatory remarks and personal attacks eventually caused two couples to give up.
What else is the government doing to try to ensure the rights of LGBTQI people?
The implementation of the Enforcement Act marked the beginning of governmental service. There are still challenges that require relevant departments to propose supporting measures. At the same time, establishing a social environment that is gender diverse and free of discrimination is also a goal we must achieve by learning and making progress.
Both Taiwan and the European Union (EU) are committed to promoting gender equality and human rights. Both have kept on conducting close exchanges since 2015, and established a three-year EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework in 2018. With Taiwan as the platform, other countries in the region covered by the Taiwan government’s New Southbound Policy and Japan and South Korea as the core, together with the EU as a learning partner, we are conducting a wide range of exchanges on gender equality policies and experience.
In 2019, the EU-Taiwan Gender Equality Cooperation and Training Framework was initiated. Working with the European Economic and Trade Office, we organised an exchange seminar on marriage equality and the protection and promotion of LGBTI human rights before the LGBTQI demonstration in October 2019.
By bringing together EU and Asian government officials, civil society figures and experts and scholars for substantive exchanges and discussions, we hope to expand Taiwan's international perspectives and building gender-diverse human rights in Taiwan by sharing current EU and Asian same-sex marriage equality policies and learning about experiences, progress and challenges in establishing gender-friendly measures and promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people.
We hope that with the experience of other countries as a mirror, we will have closer exchanges and cooperation with the international community in promoting the human rights of LGBTQI people and supporting each other. This will stimulate the promotion and implementation of gender-diverse human rights in Asian countries and spread the seeds of hope of having zero discrimination.
In addition, the Executive Yuan has set ‘eliminating gender stereotypes and prejudice’ as a priority between 2019 and 2022, guiding ministries to promote people's recognition and acceptance of gender diversity and gender-diverse families. Further, through a gender equality performance counselling and assessment mechanism, the promotion of rights to gender diversity and of gender-diverse families will be incorporated into the assessment indicators of ministries and local governments, so as to actively promote gender equality.
In order to promote the understanding of and respect for LGBTQI people by public officials and the public, so that they can understand and respect different genders, sexual orientations and gender identities, Taiwan has also developed digital teaching materials on the protection of rights to gender diversity, which include themes on understanding LGBTQI people, gender equality law in employment and discrimination cases recognised by the Gender Equity Education Act. This is a digital reference for people becoming public servants, and for experts and scholars.
There is more work to do on same-sex marriage. At present, when a Taiwanese citizen wants to marry a foreign same-sex partner in Taiwan, because the foreign country may not recognise same-sex marriage, we will not be able to issue valid marriage certificate documents and verify the documents by our resident office to prove their marriage relationship and its legal status. It is still necessary for the court to further explain how same-sex marriage applies the Foreign-related Civil Law Application Act.
Further, article 20 of the Enforcement Act of Judicial Yuan Interpretation #748 only stipulates that one of the partners in a same-sex marriage can adopt the child of the other partner. However, at present, many same-sex couples in our society use methods such as adoption and surrogacy to have children, establish families and have a common life. Even if one of them is not a biological parent, they bear the responsibility for caring for the children. If the biological father dies, based on the best interests of the child, the partner is still subject to overall consideration by the authorities, in order to comply with the principle of equal rights and to protect the rights of same-sex families and their children.
What else needs to be done to strengthen the role that civil society plays in Taiwan? And how can civil society and other stakeholders outside of Taiwan better assist Taiwanese civil society representatives to have their voices heard in international and multilateral arenas?
The adoption of civic innovations in the public sector requires a system for regulation, maintenance and accountability. It is imperative that the government, civil society and private sector organisations come together to form a collaborative ecosystem to amplify our collective impact.
The United Nations report, The Age of Digital Interdependence, outlines a practical roadmap for such partnerships that aligns with our values of ‘norm-first’ architecture.
As for highlighting Taiwan social sector's contributions to international community, I'd encourage more people make use of the #TaiwanCanHelp hashtag — see the recent clip A True Friend for one example.
Civic space in Taiwan is rated as ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks to Ilaria Paolazzi of Child Rights Connect and Mieke Schuurman of Eurochild about child rights and attacks by anti-rights groups.
Can you tell us a little about your organisations and the work you do?
Ilaria: Child Rights Connect is the largest Geneva-based network of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on child rights. We have more than 90 members that are very diverse, including national, regional and international CSOs. Child Rights Connect is the expert organisation on the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child and the platform for joint civil society advocacy at the UN level. I’ve worked with Child Rights Connect for six years, and we are currently strengthening our coordination efforts with our members in the regions, for example in Europe with Eurochild.
Mieke: Eurochild is a regional member of Child Rights Connect. We are a European network of children’s organisations with almost 200 members across Europe, including all the European Union (EU) member states but also in many other European countries. I’m responsible for our work on child rights and child participation. We campaign for children’s rights to be implemented at the European level and focus in particular on vulnerable children in Europe, with three key priorities: combating child poverty and the social exclusion of children; the de-institutionalisation of children – making sure that children don’t grow up in institutions; and making sure that child rights are included in all EU policies, legislation and programmes. We do this by working very closely with our members and directly with children. We advocate towards the EU and actively engage for child rights beyond EU countries, including with the Council of Europe.
What are the main sources of attacks on child rights, and what role are anti-rights groups playing?
Ilaria: Attacks and restrictions on child rights are coming mainly from non-state groups, but also from some states. They are coming under the banner of advocacy for the protection of the family and traditional values.
Mieke: Our members have some serious concerns about anti-child rights movements in several countries in Europe. Particularly in countries such as Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia, there are anti-child rights movements, and these movements are gaining a lot of support. They use social media a lot, and use ‘fake news’ to be able to get their messages across, very much focusing on the cause of preserving the traditional family. Their messages are that child rights organisations are taking children away from their families, and this should not be accepted.
The campaign in Bulgaria went so far that in the end the prime minister there decided to stop the draft of the new strategy for the child, which would have introduced for the first time a holistic approach for family policy, oriented not only towards vulnerable children but also towards family support, including non-violent parenting. The anti-child rights movement strongly campaigned against the proposed new strategy as an ‘unallowable intervention into the family’, raising public support through propaganda and disinformation, and eventually the government gave in. In their campaign, they even used the logos of children’s civil society and of the child helpline in Bulgaria, spreading disinformation on their work as ‘paid from external sources in terms of selling Bulgarian children abroad’. Across the EU there is a free single number that children can call if they need support and help; they campaigned against this, on the basis that if children need help they can go to their parents and so they have no need to call a child helpline.
As a result of these movements, not only has development in child rights policies been stopped, but help and support to the most vulnerable children is being threatened.
They create a lot of fear and uncertainty among families. Research has demonstrated that the key supporters of these movements are conservative Catholics and conservative Protestants, but there is also a lot of support from Russia, and from Belarus and Ukraine, and also partly from the USA. Funding is coming from these countries to support anti-child rights movements.
It’s very hard for our members to campaign against it, because apparently these anti-child rights movements get something like 187,000 supporters on Facebook. We can question whether these are real supporters or fake ones, but it has the effect of mobilising a lot of uncertainty and uproar against children’s rights.
Ilaria: There is currently a member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN body responsible for monitoring the Convention on the Rights of the Child, who is Bulgarian and has been under direct attack from anti-rights movements in Bulgaria. These movements are generally very well informed and aware of what is happening at the international level and of the functioning of the Committee and they never miss opportunities to attack.
In 2014, the FamilyPolicy.ru group issued a 97-page report, Ultra Vires Acts by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, that aimed to delegitimise and dismantle the mandate of the Committee, calling into question its core functions by saying, for example, that the observations and general comments it issues should only be of a general nature and not go into details. It also included a specific call on states to denounce the Convention and refuse to ratify its third optional protocol on a communications procedure. This was quite a direct and unprecedented attack.
What do you think is new about these attacks, and where do they derive their power from?
Mieke: I believe these groups have always existed. They have always supported the family and the strength of the family, and gone against the rights of children, believing that parents can decide for children what to do and what not to do.
Maybe they have been able to increase their supporters very easily because of the opportunities given by social media. Also governments are not really doing anything against them. Civil society is not really being supported by governments. Governments are not making statements that support children’s rights or human rights. Some of our members are saying this is really what’s lacking now.
Ilaria: They also seem to have resources – much more than child rights organisations – and therefore the means to mobilise.
Mieke: That’s true. These anti-rights movements have a lot of funds. At the same time, the space for CSOs working on democracy and child rights is shrinking, which is particularly visible in terms of access to funding.
Ilaria: Another factor that is pushing them to become more active is the advance of certain topics within the child rights discourse that weren’t so prominent before, such as the issues related to gender identities, LGBTQI children and children growing up in LGBTQI families. While the child rights movement has yet to properly integrate a gender perspective into its work, children themselves are raising the issue in front of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in front of the international community. But it’s something that’s adding onto the sensitive discussions around sexual and reproductive rights.
Another emerging issue is the role that children are taking as environmental human rights defenders. While many stakeholders are opening their minds about children’s right to be heard and the importance of having space where children can exercise their civil and political rights, there has been a lot of hate speech against those children speaking out online and offline. This reflects the still pervasive vision of children as objects and not subject of rights.
Mieke: What they are saying about LGBTQI rights is that people want to take away children to give them to gay foster families. They are opposed to sex education in schools.
We increasingly get reports that when children speak in public at the local level, such as in city councils, child rights defenders often get negative reactions and are told to shut up. Children themselves are experiencing these negative attitudes, which is difficult for them to deal with.
How is civil society, including your membership, responding to these challenges?
Mieke: Our members in Bulgaria are quite active, and they are now very active on Facebook, trying to get as many supporters as possible, but still the group is smaller than the groups for supporters of anti-child rights movements. Anti-child rights movements are making up stories to convince the public that child rights are bad for children, and so we also need to share our stories about what we are doing and why child rights are important for children. Maybe in responding we need to use less the language of rights of children and talk more about the wellbeing of children and the need for children to grow up in safe families.
Basically our members are trying to share their stories on social media and on television to try to get the mainstream public convinced about the importance of child rights. They say we shouldn’t engage with the extremists because we won’t be able to convince them, but we should instead target the public who might not have an opinion or who might not know yet what they agree with because they need to have the right information and need to know the other stories about child rights.
Ilaria: As the international level we continue to try to draw the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s attention to national-level contexts and challenges so that it can take these into account when making recommendations to states. For example, we made a reference to the Bulgarian and European context in our public statement to the Committee’s opening session in May 2019.
We are also always alerted about initiatives brought by anti-child rights movements on the protection of the family to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where there is always a danger around the corner. Here we collaborate and coordinate with CSOs beyond our membership and that are working on different topics, such as the human rights of older persons, in order to be aware of, and respond collectively, to such initiatives.
We did a lot of work in 2014 when the UNHRC adopted a resolution on the protection of the family and organised a subsequent panel. Many initiatives around this sought to introduce the idea that the family, understood as the nuclear family, has rights as a unit, without acknowledging the human rights of individual family members such as children, the different forms a family can take, and the responsibility of states to protect the rights of individuals and intervene, when appropriate. Child Rights Connect coordinated advocacy to offer states an alternative, more consensual angle, which was effective for finding constructive compromises during the negotiation of the resolution and also for reaffirming children’s rights during the discussions on protection of the family.
In 2017, we did the same in the context of a seminar on the protection of the family and disability organised by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This year luckily nothing has happened, but we are always monitoring the situation and this is ongoing work, because child rights organisations working on specific issues might not be aware of these dangers.
We are also following and being alert about the discussions around alternative care of children with disabilities. In this context, some have been raising the issue of whether a right to a family exists or should exist. While we acknowledge the key role that families play for children, we think this is very dangerous for child rights in general, as it is not in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and opens up discussions around the rights of the family. So we are trying to empower everyone to understand the international law and the implications on child rights.
From 2017 we started to prioritise work on civil society space for children and children human rights defenders. What we have seen was that in moving beyond Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the right to be heard, which was the main basis for claiming child participation rights until now, the human rights defenders framework and UNHRC resolutions on civil society space are helping us to talk about children’s civic and political rights. This is still quite an underestimated issue for many, and not only states, but also the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, academia and child rights CSOs that are traditionally focusing on the economic, social and cultural rights of children.
When it comes to the fundamental freedoms of children, there is not a specialised CSO advancing the topic at all levels, and international human rights CSOs working on civil and political rights in general do not integrate a child rights-based approach in their work. There is still a big gap out there that Child Rights Connect is trying to fill through the angle of children human rights defenders.
What further responses are needed?
Mieke: I think the challenges are to make sure we get enough allies among civil society, in other fields, such as women’s rights organisations and disability organisations.
It’s also a question of resources, because if you continually have to be on social media to respond or share your stories, it takes a lot of time and human resources to do that work and you need funding to do this, so that’s also a big challenge. The need for measures to straighten media literacy is also crucial. We really need to find foundations and organisations that are able to support us and fund our work.
And then there is the challenge of getting states to speak up. Now we are trying to get the EU on board, to have a louder voice and tell states that they should support civil society in campaigning for children’s rights.
Ilaria: I think we have started, but we need to do more to connect children’s rights to human rights and work more closely with human rights CSOs and actors. I think the collaboration we’ve had with CIVICUS is emblematic. The Committee on the Right of the Child’s Day of General Discussion, held every two years in Geneva, helps. The 2018 Day on the theme of ‘protecting and empowering children as human rights defenders’ was an opportunity to strengthen the collaboration not only with CIVICUS but also with Amnesty International, International Service for Human Rights and other human rights CSOs.
We need to continue to make everyone understand what it means to apply a child rights-based approach. There are still too many who approach children as a solely vulnerable group or child rights as a theme and not as something that relates to everything, or that is impacted on by all human rights work.
Our work on children human rights defenders is helping this by making children be recognised as civil society actors and making all under-18 human rights defenders be recognised as children. However, we need to do more to clarify how to strike the balance between the protection and empowerment of children who act as defenders.
We keep hearing that children shouldn’t be exposed to risk by being called ‘defenders’ because it is a sensitive terminology, and we keep explaining that of course this must be taken into account for specific contexts, but it’s not an excuse for overlooking children’s civil and political rights. So we need to be sure we are taking criticisms in the right way, and addressing them appropriately.
Going back to the family rights issue, I think there is a need to also stress and clarify the positive role of families within the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and also say loudly that it’s not that human rights organisations are against families, which is one of the main claims made by anti-rights groups, and be clear that the existing human rights framework does give them certain rights, along with responsibilities and duties. One of our members had encouraged the Committee on the Rights of the Child to hold a Day of General Discussion on the role of parents and families in the realisation of children’s rights, with the objective of clarifying how states can best support parents and families in all their forms in order to ensure a healthy and nurturing family environment for children, but this wasn’t yet followed up by the Committee. But we are still exploring and working on this idea to help advance a positive discourse that counters anti-rights attacks.
What support, including from other parts of civil society, would most help make a difference to child rights?
Ilaria: I would say what would help us the most would be to mainstream effectively the protection, promotion and fulfilment of child rights in general. We welcome very much the roundtables between the OHCHR civic space unit and Geneva-based CSOs that CIVICUS is starting to organise. We participated recently and are really keen to use this to advance the mainstreaming of child rights within the UN human rights system, which is a big challenge.
Children and child rights are not yet taken seriously. We are really far from being there, and we are fighting constantly at all levels to be heard and for children’s views to be considered, because in many cases children are just given the space to talk for the sake of giving them a face and then nothing happens with the recommendations and the things they share. There is still a lot to do here and this should be a multi-stakeholder joint effort.
This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.
In Latin America there is a strong tradition of generosity and solidarity among neighbors, communities and people who do not hesitate to join efforts and resources to help an individual or solve collective problems. What we now call community philanthropy has always existed in many places, although informally. But in the last decades, community philanthropy has been formalised with the establishment of community foundations that have become a pillar for civil society and development.
Mexico is the country in the region that has more community foundations. The majority is consolidated and leads community philanthropy efforts, strategic social investment, development work and even humanitarian action. For example, after the devastating earthquakes in 2017, many foundations were key to addressing the emergencies and rebuilding affected areas. Their work is widely recognised, they enjoy strong legitimacy amongst communities and have the trust of national and international donors.
Comunalia is an alliance made up of 14 community foundations from 13 states of Mexico, which has been supporting and strengthening their work for nine years. We talked with Mariana Sandoval, Communalia’s executive director, and Ixanar Uriza, former vice president*, about the importance of these foundations and community philanthropy for Mexican civil society.
What are the characteristics of a community foundation that differentiate it from other philanthropic foundations?
Uriza: These are community-led foundations that mobilise both local and external resources to invest them for local benefit through loca civil society organisations (CSOs) and members of the communities. They are characterised by covering one specific geographical area; having expert knowledge about the characteristics and needs of their community; being leaders and defenders of those interests and priorities and being able to establish alliances with other actors to promote the common good.
There is great interest around the world in expanding community philanthropy. How have these foundations in Mexico managed to position themselves as a solid and legitimate channel to mobilise resources for local civil society?
Sandoval: Their reputation and legitimacy have been built after many years of work. Some members of Comunalia have been operating for more than 20 years. The key is that these foundations are more than a fund intermediary – they are an expert source of knowledge about the social context, needs and priorities of the communities. This builds trust: the communities know that the foundations are truly looking after their agenda and that we guide external donors on these priorities. On the donor side, they see community foundations as the best advisor to help them recognise the most relevant areas for social investment and to establish alliances with local CSOs.
CSOs in Latin America are facing numerous attacks and restrictions. How can community foundations help them address these challenges besides the financial ones?
Sandoval: Apart from being advisors, filters and liaison points between donors and local organisations, community foundations play a key strengthening role. Many foundations work with civil society groups that are not formally established and provide them with technical assistance while they consolidate. Established organisations also consider community foundations a foothold where they can get help for different challenges, becoming strategic allies. In addition, since the foundations are dedicated to mobilising resources, CSOs can focus on doing their field work, improve it and multiply their impact. However, our current challenge is offering more and better support in influencing public policies to improve the environment for CSOs in Mexico.
Could one say that community foundations have empowered civil society in Mexico?
Uriza: These foundations have not only strengthened civil society, somehow, they have also enabled it to grow. For example, the Malinalco Community Foundation started supporting projects ten years ago when there were no CSOs in this municipality, and now there are 23. The presence of the foundation helped to awaken civil society there.
Are community foundations ahead of the “shift the power” to communities’ trend that has gained ground in the last few years?
Uriza: Community philanthropy has always existed in Latin America; it is a pre-Hispanic practice. The idea of shifting the power to communities has become a trend recently, but for community foundations it has always been our working methodology – we have never conceived the idea of mobilising and granting a fund without first listening to the community and prioritising their needs and interests.
What new goals do community foundations have for Comunalia?
Sandoval: As mentioned before, we must strengthen the support in advocacy and influencing public policies provided by the foundations to the CSOs, something that is more relevant in the face of increasing threats to the civic space. Most of the foundations are already doing great work mobilising and managing resources, but we know that it is not enough in this context, especially for organisations working on social justice. Some foundations are advanced in this advocacy role in their territories, but many still need to develop it further.
* Ixanar Uriza was Comunalia’s vice president at the time of the interview.
Ahead of the Sri Lankan presidential elections on 16 November 2019, CIVICUS spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and campaigner for justice for families of people who have been disappeared. Sandya is the wife of disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and has been subjected to a barrage of hate, abuse, intimidation, harassment and death threats on social media.
Photo: Ravindra Pushpakumara
Can you tell us about the campaign on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka and how you became involved in it?
My husband Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted in January 2010. Since that terrible day, I have campaigned for the truth behind his disappearance. When domestic efforts failed, I traveled to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to press for justice. During my activism journey, I have worked with other mothers of the disappeared to raise awareness. We have asked the government to deliver on the truth behind the thousands of disappearances in our country. We also want the authorities to give support to families who often struggle with their livelihoods once a family member has been taken.
There has been some progress with the International Convention on Disappearances, signed in 2007 and in effect since 2010, but much work needs to be done to find the truth and support the victims. The Convention has not yet resulted in relevant domestic legislation. To keep momentum going on Prageeth’s case I have attended court over a hundred times tracking the habeas corpus case. Meanwhile, in the north, hundreds of mothers have been protesting on the streets seeking answers about their children. Justice for those disappeared remains a critical issue for the country to resolve.
What threats have you faced for your advocacy?
I have faced a number of different threats. I have been called a traitor and received hate speech on Facebook. In 2016, Prageeth and myself became the targets of a defamation campaign that took many forms, including public speeches and posters smearing my name. I believe this was an organised smear campaign by the Rajapaksa clan, the clan of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I have also been targeted by nationalistic Buddhist monks. Venerable Gnanasara Thero, General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation, threatened me as I was monitoring Prageeth’s court case. I filed a case against him, and he was found guilty by the court in Homagama in 2019. After this decision I got a lot of vicious threats, including threats to kill me and my children.
In 2018, I managed to navigate my way through one of the Rajapaksa clan’s attempts to lure me into a trap. They sent one of their men, a former air force officer, to meet me. He offered to disclose information on chemical weapons in return for safe passage to the USA. I do not believe this was genuine; it was a way of distracting me from my important work to seek justice for Prageeth. These obstacles have not stopped me fighting for justice but they make life as an activist challenging.
What is the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka a decade after the end of the conflict?
Between 2010 and 2015 the situation for civil society in Sri Lanka was terrible. Repression was so severe we faced imminent threats of being forcibly disappeared or killed if we spoke out. We saw the state using the Prevention of Terrorism Act to try to silence activists. An example of this was the 2014 unlawful detention of Balendran Jeyakumary, an activist campaigning for the disappeared.
After political change in 2015 the situation improved. There have been some incidents but space to talk about issues has increased. Recently, however, we have seen more clampdowns on the freedom of expression, including the arrest of Shathika Sathkumara, an award-winning writer, as well as of journalist Kusul Perera. This really troubles me. Although the environment is calmer, we see toxic elements appearing in social media. Trolls accusing people of being traitors and disseminating hate speech have emerged on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is organised and political.
Are there any particular issues affecting civil society and the space for civil society that you are concerned about ahead of the elections?
The participation in the elections of Gotabaya Rajapkasa, former defence chief and brother of Mahinda Rajapkasa, has re-energised racists and nationalists, who had been a bit dormant after 2015. These elements are now becoming quite vocal and issue threats. For example, following a petition filed by Gamini Viyingoda and Chandragupta Thenuwara querying Gotabaya’s eligibility for elections, Madumadawa Aranvinda, a politician, posted the comment that roughly translated as “there was a name which sounds like Viyangoda which was Ekneligoda and best wishes to you both and good luck.” As my husband was disappeared for speaking out, this was clearly a threat to the petitioners to stay silent.
Ahead of the elections there’s a looming possibility that violence will erupt. There have already been some examples. When Gotabaya’s legal team won the petition, a Gotabaya supporter set fire to the house of a United National Party supporter. In a highly polarised context, with the two bigger parties fielding strong candidates, it’s possible that the parties will encourage proxies to incite violence. This violence could also turn against civil society activists raising issues. I feel wary of the path ahead as impunity prevails, as reflected in the little progress experienced in mine and other cases.
What support does Sri Lankan civil society need from the international community and international civil society to help build greater respect for human rights and democratic freedoms?
If Gotabhaya comes into power there will be a surge in threats. International civil society groups should be ready to help those most at risk, like myself, who have named and shamed him. This is an important time for international civil society to show its solidarity with activists in Sri Lanka and check in with friends and colleagues on protection needs. It’s also really important that organisations continue to work with the victims who raised awareness about the need for truth following the end of the war despite the threats they faced. Civil society organisations must stay vigilant and keep pushing on investigations for important justice cases in Sri Lanka, such as my fight for the truth about what happened to my husband, Prageeth.
Civic space in Sri Lanka is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
This interview was undertaken by independent researcher Yolanda Foster on behalf of CIVICUS.
As calls grow for climate action to be more responsive to frontline communities, CIVICUS spoke to Maria Nailevu, a feminist climate activist from Fiji, about how feminists have been fighting for more inclusive climate policies from the local to the global levels. Nailevu says that United Nations (UN) climate negotiations often claim technical expertise as a reason to exclude diverse voices, but fail to recognise the specific expertise of women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, sex workers, rural and remote communities and young people in responding to the climate crisis in inclusive ways.
As a Fijian climate activist and a feminist, how inclusive of the needs of women, LGBTQI people and other excluded people have you found regional and national climate responses?
There is still a lot of work needed in terms of inclusiveness within our national and regional climate responses. There are still many key consultation processes that continue to exclude diverse voices that matter – those of women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, sex workers, people from rural and remote communities and young people, among others. Also, disaster responses still need to be more inclusive to ensure that all people, regardless of their race, sexuality, or background, have fair access to disaster assistance. After Cyclone Winston in 2016, one of the gaps identified within our disaster risk reduction work was that many marginalised communities were left out from accessing government assistance because it was designed only for traditional family structures. Only men as heads of households received the assistance on behalf of their families, which excluded many people who were already living on or below the poverty line and left them on their own to recover at their own cost.
Additionally, evacuation centres are not safe for women, girls and LGBTQI people. There have been reports of many human rights violations that arose during the evacuation period. We have also documented cases of LGBTQI people who were willing to risk their lives in temporary shelters because of fear of violence and discrimination at evacuation centres.
The 2017 climate change Conference of Parties (COP 23) hosted by Fiji emphasised the need for dialogue through the distinct Fijian process of talanoa – a form of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue. What do you think decision-makers can learn from talanoa in terms of listening to diverse perspectives?
I was fortunate to be part of the Talanoa Dialogue in 2017, when I was with DIVA for Equality representing the voices of lesbian, bisexual and transmasculine (LBT) women as well as women from rural, maritime and urban poor communities. As a grassroots feminist, climate activist and a woman holding diverse identities, I personally felt that it was a wonderfully designed platform because of the opportunity it provided for diverse voices to have a direct say in the process. I think decision-makers should create and support more inclusive and safe spaces that encourage the expression of diverse perspectives and shift away from tokenism and the focus on technical capacities.
Do you think the voices of diverse groups, and particularly of young people, have been heard in climate decision-making in Fiji?
Having the voice of young people heard has been a continuous challenge. However, in my feminist and climate justice work I feel that there are now spaces slowly opening up for young people and other marginalised voices. This has happened as a result of the continuous push by the feminist movement, and especially by DIVA for Equality, which has been doing great work in connecting direct voices that matter with key spaces.
I also personally feel that if youth spaces are shrinking, young people have the potential to shift that around by being radical and starting to implement actions rather than staying frustrated at decision-makers and our failing system. Young people can easily organise and act through community activities – such as planting trees, doing clean-up campaigns and conducting awareness drives – so that true work and commitment become visible, which can capture the attention of our leaders and reflect on existing processes.
Greta Thunberg is a great example of the younger generation having enough and speaking up to our failing system. Look at her now: she not only has the attention of our leaders, but also got international attention. The beauty behind this revolution is that it all started with Greta taking a day off school in 2018 to go sit and outside the Swedish parliament to call for stronger action on global warming. It was just her, on her own, holding up a sign that said, ‘School strike for climate’.
From your experience, do regional and global climate talks offer meaningful opportunities for the participation of frontline communities? If not, how do you think these processes could be improved?
I find UN climate-related spaces complicated, and I’m sure it’s the same for any feminist and climate activist from the global south. This happens for a few reasons.
First, gender balance in government delegations has always been a challenge in COP spaces. There are times you need to speak to your national and regional government delegations and it’s difficult for women when almost the entire teams are male. Another related challenge is that delegation members themselves are not familiar with gender and human rights issues and their interlinking impacts on climate change. This becomes a barrier to our work and efforts to influence our national and regional positions.
Second, there are almost no spaces and proper support systems for women from the global south to have a direct influence in the process. For COP 23, DIVA for Equality organised side events for the first time. We brought in women from the Pacific and elsewhere in the global south to speak about challenges and strategies. This was a breakthrough, as it created a stronger network of women working on similar issues. We also hosted a side caucus so that we could all find ways to support each other during the intense two-week process, which was helpful for women who were participating for the first time and feeling completely lost and consumed in the process.
Third, technical aspects tend to be prioritised over the importance of diverse knowledge. There seems to be a prevailing narrative that when you are from the global south or from a marginalised community, you are nothing but a victim. This shifts the attention away from the creation of spaces for grassroots women and marginalised groups to have a direct voice, sharing their realities and their strategies in a way that decision-makers can hear and learn from. There are so many spaces for technical capacity-building but so few that recognise and focus on the types of expertise that diverse communities also bring. There are feminist and women-led initiatives and indigenous and traditional knowledge that should be prioritised and integrated within our key climate responses.
Finally, there is a permanent tension between global north and global south politics. It is always a challenge for feminists from the global north and global south to convene and work together. I have been engaging in all COP events through the Women and Gender Constituency and it’s tough work when there are women from such different backgrounds. There still needs to be a recognition that our contexts are different and climate change impacts differently on us, and there needs to be more practice around power negotiations and a clear understanding of the different positions and politics in the room.
How are people in Fiji mobilising for a more just and inclusive response to the climate crisis?
I will speak on this based on my previous work with DIVA for Equality, which is a radical and feminist organisation in Fiji that works on an intersectional and interlinkage approach within a strong universal human rights framework.
One of the ways in which DIVA addresses inclusive responses is by creating inclusive and safe spaces for all people. Every year, DIVA hosts national conventions for LBT women, feminist bootcamps and an event called the Fiji Women Defending Commons, which convenes rural, maritime and urban poor women who are already doing work on climate, gender and sustainable development.
These key spaces that DIVA creates bring in excluded communities to come together to learn, share, strategise and work towards building a stronger social movement that connects communities that are doing great work with little support, contributing towards the resilience of their communities. These convenings produce useful outcomes, including outcome documents and demands that are co-produced by participants and shared with all relevant stakeholders, including the government, so they hear directly from people and can act on it.
DIVA is modeling a great set of work which I hope others, and especially our national and regional bodies, can follow to ensure that all people are included in climate responses if they truly believe in the 'leave no one behind' statement.
What do you think about the recent climate strikes around the world and the UN response to them?
There is a unique and powerful aspect of this climate strike, perhaps because it evolved from Greta Thunberg, who I find special because of her diverse identities: she is young girl with autism and she is from an global north country but stood up and spoke out not only for herself but for millions of people, including us in Fiji and the Pacific, who are angry at our failing system and structures and scared of our uncertain future because of leaders who are prioritising thriving economies at the expense of community livelihoods and our environment.
I find this year's climate strike really impactful and strong. I think it's a sign that people are now aware of the realities of climate impacts; they now understand the facts and the science that are shared by climate scientists on the status of the planet and our entire ecosystems. People cannot stand by and watch our planet be destroyed and our entire human race wiped out.
I hope the UN sees the seriousness in the key messages shared through the climate strikes and also strongly recognises that we are now in a time of climate crisis, as we can see in the various disasters striking across the globe. This requires a radical shift if we truly want to save humankind, our planet and all living species.
What are your hopes for COP 25, to be held in Chile in December 2019?
I hope there will be more support for diverse representation, including within government delegations. I hope global north countries and corporations will commit to their responsibilities through climate finance to address loss and damage for the global south, stop coal production and markets and invest more in renewable energy and gender-just solutions. I hope the objectives within the Gender Action Plan are implemented, monitored and achieved. And I hope the priority of protecting the ocean and marine life will be scaled up, especially around the global issue of plastic reliance and pollution. This will have a direct impact on food security for us and future generations.
Civic space in Fiji is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Nisreen Al Sayeem, Chair of the Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change and Coordinator of Youth and Environment - Sudan (YES). Nisreen is a junior negotiator at United Nations (UN) Climate Talks for the African Group of Negotiators and a co-organiser of the UN Youth Climate Summit. Nisreen speaks about how young people in Sudan are organising to respond to the climate crisis using the traditional Sudanese concept of Nafeer – collective voluntary action – to provide solidarity and assistance to villages affected by floods, droughts and desertification, and about how young people from Sudan have successfully fought to have a seat at the negotiation table at UN climate talks.
How did you become a climate change activist?
I’ve been doing climate change and environmental activism since 2012, which is seven years now, since my first year of university. Nowadays in Sudan, people's awareness of climate change is definitely different to when I started in 2012. Even policy-makers have a different perspective on climate change issues now, and all the agencies have climate change programmes. Unfortunately, not much has changed regarding UN climate negotiations. UN member states needed 21 years to reach the Paris Agreement, so you can imagine how slow things are still.
I’m a physicist. I studied physics and I love science very much, but I have realised that unfortunately, without policy-makers, policy papers and policy-making processes, science doesn’t mean anything. I started working in the climate change field because I wanted to see the link between the science and the policy.
How are young people in Sudan engaging with climate change?
Young people in Sudan are taking three different paths for climate action: policy, activism – including advocacy, campaigning and work in civil society organisations – and community-based work. Community-based work is what the majority of young people in Sudan are doing, because they realise that policy-makers are not quick enough and civil society work is not inclusive enough, so they are doing the government’s job in many places and also doing the humanitarian’s job in other places.
Our organisation works with young people. We give them the tools and help them organise their ideas for this community-based work. We are a civil society organisation but we are only a transitional platform for young people, so they can do their community-based work. We are a bridge.
What does community organising in Sudan look like?
There is an initiative called Nafeer, which has been a tradition in Sudan since forever. When there is a problem, people join together and try to solve it. Because of climate change, we started witnessing severe rainfall. This caused floods, which completely destroyed more than 18 villages, killed 68 people and left more than 184,000 people homeless. So young people decided to take action. They started delivering humanitarian aid, helping people who were hurt and providing food, shelter and medicines, because the water was contaminated and there was a diarrhoea outbreak.
Young people also wanted to show solidarity, sharing their sadness and their tears with the people from the flooded villages, and showing them that they were not alone. Even if most of the people who participated in the initiative were not really affected by the floods, the youth of Sudan are still the same, brothers and sisters, and whatever happened to you also happened to me, and with this concept and this spirit, we did it after three months of flooding and tears.
How else is the climate crisis affecting Sudan, and how have people provided community support?
In Sudan, livelihoods depend on natural resources, and because of climate change seasons are mixed now. Autumn is late, winter is early and summer is early. Now we have a lot of conflicts between farmers and pastoralists over land, resources and crops. We have had very unfortunate events in the east of Sudan where two tribes, one of farmers and one of pastoralists, fought between each other. In 20 days we lost about 180 people in this conflict. We have many conflicts over natural resources but in this case people from both tribes who were educated enough to see that fighting was not a solution made a 15-mile wall to separate the tribes.
Desertification is killing their land, so they are not able to do any agriculture activities or even pasture their cattle and you know how frustrated you are as a parent at home if you have kids and you cannot bring food to the table. In some villages you find animals and people drinking from the same sources. More and more people are moving to the capital and leaving rural areas deserted. As you can see, things are very complicated: climate change is no joke or a way to push the government to do something; even the government is affected by climate change in a country like Sudan.
What do you think about the climate strike movement?
Although it is a very progressive thing to hold strikes in global north countries, in a country like Sudan, going to school is a privilege for a lot of students, and it doesn’t make any sense for people to strike from a school they got into after a huge struggle. So I haven’t been focusing much on the strikes. But I really think it’s affecting the global north countries and I think it’s impressive. For us we have other different ways of taking action.
You are now a climate negotiator and have secured places for Sudanese young people in the government delegation at UN climate talks. How did you achieve this?
We began by forming a network of environmental organisations in Sudan. We coordinated with the Environment Conservation Society, the oldest organisation working on the environment in Sudan, and maybe even in Africa, established in 1975. We coordinated between them and other organisations and formed a network that we called Sudan Climate Change Network.
This network advocated very hard with the Ministry of Environment and its minister. After a huge advocacy campaign to include civil society in the delegation to climate change negotiations at the Conference of the Parties (COP) and the inter-sessions in Bonn, the minister agreed to give each organisation two badges out of a total of 24. We then started a small campaign within the Climate Change Network to give young people at least half of the 24 badges. We didn’t get 12 but we got seven.
And then with other young people from Africa we pushed towards having a young negotiator programme within the African Group of Negotiators (AGN). We discovered that the AGN had already established a programme because they needed junior negotiators. A lot of the older negotiators are passing away and to guarantee the sustainability of both the negotiation processes and the AGN itself, there was a need to replace this capacity by bringing in more young people, since the climate change fight will not end any time soon. Now I am one of the negotiators for the AGN, and my friend Lena Hussein is the Middle East and North Africa region negotiator for Climate Tracker. So, in total we now have nine young people from Sudan. Our number is increasing because we have proven ourselves, so now they know that we have the capability they are giving us more space.
You helped organise the first UN Youth Climate Summit in September 2019. What are your thoughts about the Summit, and what comes next?
When you organise the first edition of any huge summit like the Youth Climate Summit, some things might not go as planned. In this case, the general atmosphere was very promising. From my point of view, the only issue was the output: what were the actual conclusions and recommendations of this summit, and how are we going to take these forward? These recommendations need to be taken forward. As one of a group of 30 young organisers, I have many plans for many other forms of engagement, including with the UN Youth Envoy’s Office.
What do you think will be the big issues for you at COP 25 in Chile this December?
Regarding negotiation topics at COP 25, we have a huge issue with loss and damage. After I saw what happened here in Sudan, and after I saw how massive the destruction has been in many other African countries, I think that loss and damage is a huge theme for us. For example, in the USA you can have a disaster and because the country can handle this, they can repopulate the area in a month, whereas in Sudan it takes at least two or three years to recover because we really don’t have the capacity to predict or prepare, and after it’s happened, to rehabilitate the affected areas. So loss and damage is a key area for us. I will also follow the Agriculture Agreement, and Climate Finance is and always will be a big deal at negotiations. Every plan, everything that we want to do, is very much linked to the finance issue. Without funding you can’t do anything, and it doesn’t make any sense to plan for something that is not going to happen because there is no money.
Civic space in Sudan is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Nisreen through her Facebook page.
On 30 September 2019 an unusual scene flooded Cape Town as ‘zombie’ protesters fled through the inner city in a satirical protest against the re-emergence of Apartheid-era policies in post-Apartheid South Africa. The mass mobilization was driven by activists who have been decrying regressive social policy that has ‘come back from the dead’ to reinstitutionalise race and class segregation in Cape Town. CIVICUS spoke to Zacharia Mashele, Media and Communications Officer, from Ndifuna Ukwazi about the need to use satire in protests to garner broad support and some of the major hurdles to spatial justice 25 years since the end of Apartheid.
Tell us a bit about Reclaim the City and the origins of the organization? What is the social, political and economic context in which the organization works?
Reclaim the City is a social movement bringing together tenants and workers living in the inner city. We campaign to stop the eviction and displacement of poor and working-class people and secure access to decent affordable housing close economic centres.
South African cities remain segregated and deeply unequal. We understand that ongoing spatial apartheid replicates historical injustice and we aim to build the inclusive city and transformed society that our hard fought for Constitution guarantees.
Reclaim the City has successfully reclaimed three public buildings in the inner city and surrounds. Ahmed Kathrada House in Green Point, Cissie Gool House, in Woodstock and Irene Grootboom House in the city centre. Combined, they are providing dignified emergency housing to around 1000 members who would otherwise have been displaced or sent to a relocation camp.
We occupied these public buildings because our members are desperate for housing. Because we cannot afford to pay our rents anymore. Because we don’t want to live on the street when we are evicted. Because we don’t want to be sent to relocation camps by the government to be forgotten. Because we are tired of living in distant informal settlements and townships. Because we have little land and no security.
We occupied public buildings because we too have a right to live in the City. A right to walk along the beach promenade and in the city gardens. A right to have a view of the sea. A right to raise our children and care for our families in good areas where there are good schools and good hospitals. A right to be close to work and earn an income. We occupied public buildings because the City, the Province and the National Government here in South Africa have failed us. They say we must wait patiently for social reform and that the land and housing will come. But it never does and most likely it never will unless we organise against the property power that maintains inequality and spatial apartheid.
How has the organisation engaged with protests and mass mobilisation over the years, and how has this evolved with the times?
Like so many communities and social movements in South Africa, we’ve drawn on traditions of organising and mobilisation that have historical roots. Protest marches, land occupations, singing and solidarity actions are all part of the social fabric of South African society.
While these traditions were appropriate for organising against the apartheid state, many have had to be adapted to tackle inequality and injustice today. Lack of access to housing, like so many issues, is both felt at the local level and at the same time is a symptoms of global power relations.
We cannot speak of a right to housing and the need to advance spatial justice without recognising that financial flows in a neoliberal economic order are influencing land markets and the commodification of housing here in Cape Town. So, as the saying goes, we try to act locally but think globally.
In South Africa, the state is captured by ideologies that are invested in maintaining the status quo and feeding the interests of a minority who benefit from this favourable treatment. The state has become less responsive to mass mobilisation and protest and more likely to rely on tactics of violence and suppression using the police. In other instances, government simply does not have the capacity to implement changes. So often protest and demands have little impact, no matter the numbers of people who mobilise.
This is compounded in segregated cities like Cape Town where poor and working class people do not readily have access to the city centre where government and businesses are located because of the expense of public transport.
Our primary strategy, therefore, has been to organise and mobilise in the inner city. We think it is time to take the struggle for housing to the centre of the city, to the heart of power, to the people who should live there, and to the land that matters. Occupying public buildings has also been a powerful tactics. It has provided us with a space to educate, organise and mobilise ourselves; forming and demonstrating that people’s power is sustained and highly visible.
We’ve tried many creative protests that target particular individuals in power and have adopted the South American escrache, visiting politicians at their homes or offices rather than waiting for them at the steps. We cooked breakfast for the former Mayoral Committee member for Urban Development at 5am in the morning on the street outside his home. We’ve also occupied public squares and public land. We’ve held sit ins. We disrupted speeches and strung up banners across highways. And then some.
But these are the public moments. We recognise that mobilising takes daily organising and most of our work is done through discussions and meetings. We have consciously tried to avoid replicating patriarchal structures you find in the state, in political parties and in unions - our leadership is democratically elected and sits on a flat committee. No single person is in charge. We make sure that children are welcome at all our meetings and events.
But ultimately we know that organising against powerful interests takes time and needs to be sustained. We are here not only to demonstrate but to build community and we are here for the long journey.
On 30 September 2019, Reclaim the City organized a Zombie protest. Tell us a bit more about what this is and why the protests emerged?
We had spent a number of years organising to influence the Mayor to adopt a progressive approach to housing, land and spatial justice and we had made good progress. A number of new public housing projects were announced, the sale of public land was ended.
However, internal factional fighting within the centre-right party that governs the city led to the ousting of the Mayor and a cabal of conservative neoliberal politicians took power. They had begun to intimidate the movement with night-time raids and threatened mass evictions. They immediately rolled back the inclusive agenda and established new relocation camps for evictees on the periphery.
While poor and working-class people are affected by these changes, the majority of middle class residents tend to live in a bubble both unaware and unaffected. We wanted to get the word out that many members of the Mayoral Committee were in fact members of the National Party, which governed during Apartheid, and that this new cabal were following ideas which were similar or had a similar impact leading to the segregation and displacement of poor and working-class people during apartheid.
So, together with world-renowned guerrilla activists the Yes Men, we came up with the idea of mobilizing our members to attend a spoof zombie rally of old National Party members back from the dead to support the new Mayor and his ideas. Everybody dressed up as zombies and when we got to the Mayor's office, we raised the old Apartheid State President PW Botha from the dead.
Why was it important to use satire for this protest?
We want to push the boundaries of what protest can look and feel like in Cape Town and try new innovative ways to cut through the information clutter and get our message out there. We wanted to disrupt what ordinary people see as normal behaviour from politicians or sensible economic policy, and which is in fact totally inhumane and unjust,
At the same time, we wanted our members to have fun and take some risks. Zombies are the perfect symbol for bad ideas from a political party that everyone thought was long in the grave.
Did you find that there was more engagement in the protest because of the use of satire? What were some of the responses (from citizens, policymakers and others) from the protests?
We started off by mobilising online. We set up spoof profiles on social media of City politicians as National Party Zombies posting silly and amusing content and slowly started introducing more pointed content. It generated a broad interest and laid the foundation for the rally in the public imagination while recruiting allies to take part.
At the same time, we actively organised and recruited amongst our membership. At first, people were nervous, especially as many members have cultural-based fears of engaging with anything associated with those who have passed away. We organised public meetings, horror movie nights and zombie dance competitions for the youth and more and more people started to get involved.
Within a week we had 200 zombies of all ages and races ready to rally in town. The coverage from the media was good and we got National Party Zombies on the front pages of two citywide dailies. The Mayor did not know what to do and decided to not engage at all or make a comment. It drove the point home - how exactly are things different or the same as during apartheid?
What are some of the next steps following the protests? What needs to change in Cape Town for the realisation of spatial justice?
Changing a city structurally to make it more inclusive is a political project that must stretch across generations. Our immediate goal is to avoid a mass eviction of our members and we think the City administration is going to think twice about that now.
Our main demands include the:
Acknowledging the devastating long-term impact of forced removals on Black, Coloured and Indian communities, the City of Cape Town must, in principle, no longer support City-led mass evictions from state land.
Acknowledging how historical land dispossession has led to intergenerational trauma and systemic economic disparity, the City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to redistribute state land to redress past injustices by, inter alia, guaranteeing long-term security of tenure for all residents living in all informal settlements.
Acknowledging the spatial inequality resulting from the establishment of segregated townships under apartheid, the City of Cape Town must, within three years, shut down all Temporary Relocation Areas (TRAs) on the periphery of the city, and rehouse residents in refurbished public buildings or on state land in well-located areas.
Acknowledging the central role the Constitution places on land redistribution in transforming South African society and the desperate need of many for access to land, the City must recognise it to be in breach of their obligations to sell or lease public land that could be used to satisfy that need.
The City of Cape Town must recognise its obligation to advance spatial justice through urban planning rather than obeisance to a market logic that has served only the wealthy. And recognising that large development companies have for the past ten years built housing which has been unaffordable for the vast majority of residents, the City must engage developers through the planning process to secure affordable housing in the public interest and publish an Inclusionary Housing Policy within the next six months for public comment.
How can protests, like this one, serve to that end?
We need provocative protests, and creative protests that will ensure broad participation and support from not only our members but across race and class. It is only when we shift the politics of the centre that what was impossible becomes possible.
Our long-term goal is to try to change the political discourse so that residents understand what the problem is and see our vision of an inclusive spatially-just city as the new normal and achievable rather than something we can only dream of.
Ultimately, we need to continue to find strategies to hold those in power to account and shift what has become business as usual. We’re prepared to bring solutions to the table.
Born Dlamba Zacharia Mashele from Bosplaas West, North West holds a BA Degree in Journalism and a certificate in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Program. He is currently the Media and Communications Officer for Ndifuna Ukwazi, a non-profit organisation that advocates for spatial justice in Cape Town. He also provides support with media and communications for Reclaim the City, a social movement advocating for affordable housing in the inner city of Cape Town. He is passionate about photojournalism and videojournalism and this entails creating photo projects and docu-series focusing on land and housing struggles in Cape Town.
Follow them at:
Ndifuna Ukwazi – www.Twitter.com/NdifunaUkwazi
Reclaim the City – www.Twitter.com/reclaimct
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Diana Cariboni, an Argentine journalist and writer based in Uruguay, winner of the 2018 National Written Press Award and author of several pieces of investigative journalism on anti-rights groups in Latin America.
Would you tell us about your experience at the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family?
In 2018 I covered the conference of this regional group – actually an Ibero-American one, since it has members throughout Latin America and also in Spain. It is a large group that seeks to become a movement. It is one of many, because there are several others, which also overlap, since members of the Ibero-American Congress are also part of other movements, interact with each other within these movements and serve on the boards of various organisations.
I started investigating this group because it was going to meet here in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in late 2018, and its arrival was preceded by some incidents that caught my attention. The most important actors that I managed to identify within this movement were, in the first place, a huge number of representatives of evangelical churches and, within evangelism, of neo-Pentecostalism, although there were Baptist churches and non-Pentecostal evangelical churches as well.
In addition to these churches, the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform was also represented. This network emerged in Peru in 2016 and includes a series of evangelical Christian personalities. Some of them are church preachers and some are also political actors; for example, there are a large number of representatives with seats in the Peruvian Congress. In fact, legislators make up an important segment of the Ibero-American Congress. In many countries, there are congresspeople who are church pastors or members of religious congregations: that is the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. These people are trying to coordinate a regional legislative movement. The Ibero-American Congress has been active in the legislative arena and has coordinated and issued statements on certain issues for some time now.
Mexico is an important focus because the founder of the Ibero-American Congress, Aaron Lara Sánchez, is Mexican. The movement has established communications media such as Evangélico Digital, which is part of a group of digital media that originated in Spain. It has also created or seeks to create some sort of think tank, because they want to coat all of it with a scientific varnish, so doctors, lawyers and biology and genetics experts take part in their conferences. They all promote the religious perspective that a family can only be made up of a man and a woman, that only two sexes, male and female, exist, and that the human person emerges at the time of conception; hence their opposition to abortion. They are putting together a pseudo-scientific discourse to substantiate these arguments despite the fact that scientific research indicates otherwise. Their objective is to put forward a discourse that is not viewed as belonging to the Middle Ages; that is why they seek some convergence with the common sense of the 21st century and speak of science and the secular state, even if only as a very superficial varnish. On the other hand, the Don’t Mess with My Kids discourse fits well with prevailing common sense, because it contains a very strong appeal to families and tells parents that they have the right to decide what education their children receive in school.
Would you characterise these groups as anti-rights?
Indeed, because their true objective is to eliminate all government policies related to gender. In fact, I interviewed the founder of the Don’t Mess with My Kids platform, Cristian Rosas, who told me: “We started with sex education because it was what mobilised people the most, because it refers to their children, but what we really want is to eliminate gender, the word ‘gender’, altogether, in Peru and all over the world.” The thing is, behind that word, gender, is the crucial issue of the recognition of identities and the search for equality: women’s struggles to end discrimination and subordination, and the struggles of LGBTQI communities to enjoy the same rights and guarantees accorded to the rest of the population. They say that these struggles are unnecessary because our constitutions already state that we are all equal before the law, so why establish special laws or statutes for LGBTQI people? What they are overlooking is that LGBTQI people, and particularly people such as trans individuals, cannot effectively access those rights or even the conditions for a dignified existence. They insist on ignoring this, and instead argue that what LGBTQI people are striving for is for the state to fund their lifestyles.
Uruguay offers a recent example of an anti-rights policy promoted by these sectors. Three Uruguayan members of the Ibero-American Congress for Life and Family – an alternate Catholic legislator of the National Party, an evangelical neo-Pentecostal representative, also of the National Party, and the leader of the biggest evangelical church in Uruguay, which is also neo-Pentecostal – carried forward a campaign to repeal the Integral Law for Trans People. The signature collection campaign was announced during the congress in Punta del Este that I attended.
Who were the participants in that conference? From your description, it sounds more a reunion of movement leaders than a mass meeting.
It was not the parishioners at large who gathered on this occasion, but rather pastors, preachers, politicians, opinion leaders and influencers seeking to take advantage of the language and codes used by a large section of the population, and especially by young people, to communicate. But still, it was a meeting of about 400 people.
This event was closed; the press was not allowed in. So I signed up as a participant, paid the US$150 registration fee and went in without letting the organisers know that I was covering the event as a journalist. In addition to paying the fee, I had to remain in Punta del Este for three days, stay in a hotel and be in the company of these people all day long. At times it became a bit suffocating because the way they carry out their activities is not the same as in a regular congress or conference, where you listen to panel presentations, take notes and sit in an auditorium next to other people who are doing more or less the same things. In this case, every session, including panels, integrated religious prayers – evangelical-style. This is nothing like Catholic mass, which is highly choreographed, and where the priest takes the lead, everyone knows more or less what he is going to say and parishioners respond with certain phrases at pre-established times, sit, stand and little else. The evangelical experience is very different: people talk, scream, raise their arms, move, touch. The pastor gives them instructions, but still, it is all way more participatory. I found it difficult to remain unnoticed, but I made it through.
I also managed to get a good record of what was happening, which was not really allowed. There was a lot of surveillance and I would have been thrown out had I been noticed. They realised close to the end: at the last minute they decided to organise a press conference and there was practically no media other than their own. I didn't know whether I should attend, but in the end I decided to, because I had already attended all the sessions after all. There was also a journalist from the weekly Búsqueda who attended the press conference. I was allowed to conduct interviews and was told that I could only publish anything related to the press conference, but not anything I had heard during the congress. Of course, there was nothing they could do to stop me from publishing anything, and my article ‘Gender is the new demon’ (‘El género es el nuevo demonio’) was published in Noticias shortly thereafter.
Being there helped me understand a few things. There are certainly very powerful religious and political interests behind anti-rights campaigns. But there are also genuine religious expressions, different approaches to life: some ultraconservative sectors genuinely reject 21st century life. What I observed during this congress is the extreme estrangement that some people experience regarding our contemporary world, a reality that can hardly be reversed, but that they experience as completely alien to them: the reality of equal marriage, diverse interpersonal and sexual relationships, sexual education, pleasure and drugs, free choice and abortion. We need to recognise this: there are segments of our societies that do not feel part of this 21st century world and thus react to these advances, which they interpret as degradation and corruption.
These groups have a nationalist discourse identifying nation-states and peoples as subject to foreign dictates that are considered to be evil – and are even seen as messages from the devil. Evil is embodied in a series of institutions that they describe as imperialistic: the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the inter-American human rights system, international financial organisations, the World Health Organization.
Isn't it strange for these groups to appeal to nationalism when they organise themselves in transnational networks and are active in the international arena?
Within the framework of this cultural battle that is being fought at the international level, what these groups do not see is that they themselves are actors in the international arena, even if only to weaken the scope of international law. They aim at the bodies that oversee treaties and conventions, such as the American Convention on Human Rights or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. They say that these are just expert committees whose recommendations do not need to be taken into account by states when they contravene domestic laws.
A recent discussion about this arose around the opinion issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in response to a consultation from Costa Rica regarding gender identity and equal marriage. Costa Rica asked the Court if it was obliged under the American Convention on Human Rights to recognise the gender identity of individuals and the economic rights of same-sex couples. In response, the Inter-American Court told Costa Rica, and therefore the entire continent, that these rights are protected by the Convention. A very strong discussion ensued, because for anti-rights groups this was a case of an international body acting above states, constitutions and national laws.
You mentioned that many politicians from different countries participated in the Ibero-American Congress. Do you think that these groups want to rule and are they getting ready to get to power? If so, what is their strategy to achieve it?
Above all, I do believe that they have the will to rule, which has a lot to do with the way the neo-Pentecostal movement that emerged in the USA and then expanded throughout the continent eventually evolved. The argument is simple: if they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth, they are being called to have an impact, so they have to seek power because they are the ones chosen to exercise it.
As for strategies, they vary. Pragmatism prevails, so the strategy depends a lot on context. In some cases, they create their own parties – religious, evangelical or ultraconservative – by which they feel represented. In other cases, they prefer to insert their candidates into various party tickets. Currently in Argentina, for example, there are candidates of this sort in practically all parties, except for the most radical left. They are present in both the ruling party and the main opposition coalition. In addition, there is a recently formed small party, the NOS Front, founded on the explicit rejection of ‘gender ideology’ in the context of the legislative debate over legal abortion – but it didn’t get many votes in the recent primaries, and I don’t think it will achieve too much in the upcoming elections. On the other hand, many candidates that are running on various lists will be successful, both at the federal and provincial levels.
Another complementary strategy is to enter governments at lower levels, especially in countries with federal structures, where they can access management positions in the areas of health, education or justice; hence their strategy of training experts – lawyers, jurists, bioethics experts – who can take positions in various areas of public administration. I am seeing that a lot in Argentina.
In the case of Uruguay, these sectors are quite concentrated within a segment of the National Party, which already has some evangelical and neo-Pentecostal legislators; it is highly likely that there will be more after the next elections. I think an evangelical caucus will very likely emerge out of the October 2019 elections in Uruguay. There are some similar candidates in the other parties, although they are much less visible.
Additionally, a new phenomenon has emerged in Uruguay, in the form of the Cabildo Abierto party, led by a former army chief, which is the first to declare itself an anti-gender ideology party. This is a new phenomenon because the leaders and main figures of the National Party, the one that has so far given space to most of these candidates, do not support these positions. Although it is a new and small party, polls are forecasting that Cabildo Abierto will get between seven and 10 per cent of vote, which means it will possibly get some legislators elected, who will go on to vote as a block.
Do you find these developments worrying in a country such as Uruguay, often described as the most secular in Latin America?
What happens is that confessional vote is not automatic. In Argentina, evangelical parishioners are an important percentage of the population, which is also growing, but for the time being there is hardly any evangelical legislator in the National Congress. Something similar could be said about most countries: people who declare they belong to a certain religious group do not necessarily vote for candidates of the same religion. In other words, the faith-based vote, which is what these sectors intend to promote, is not necessarily succeeding in every country. It has made substantial progress in Brazil, but this progress has taken decades, in addition to being related to peculiarities in the Brazilian open-list electoral system, which allows for such candidacies to spread among various parties, including the Workers’ Party when it was in power. This growth was reflected in the substantial support provided by evangelical sectors to President Jair Bolsonaro’s candidacy, whose victory also nurtured the evangelical caucus.
A number of factors affect how people vote at any given time; when voting, people are not necessarily guided by candidates’ religious creed. But this could change in the upcoming elections. Both Argentina and Uruguay hold elections in October, on the same day; in Bolivia elections will be held a week earlier; and also in October there will be regional elections in Colombia, with many such candidates in various parties. We will soon get a better idea of how the faith-based vote evolves in each country. We need to watch it closely in order to find out if it is a linear phenomenon on the rise, a process including progress and reversals, or a phenomenon that is finding its limits.
This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.
In June 2017, the civil society organisations (CSOs) that are part of the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) Hub of Innovation for Change (I4C), a global innovation network supported by CIVICUS and Counterpart International, launched a sharing economy platform to find alternative resources in a moment when international cooperation weakens in the region. The platform, called ComuniDAS, facilitates the exchange of services between Latin American CSOs, but its enormous potential is also seducing the private sector and CSOs outside the region. In May, the initiative won the popular vote award at the SID-Washington Innovation Competition 2019, and will soon be replicated by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Hub of I4C.
We spoke with Gerardo Torres, spokesperson for ComuniDAS, about their journey creating this platform, its challenges and strengths.
How did the hub come across with the idea of creating ComuniDAS?
The idea was born in 2016, when 45 CSOs got together to set up the LAC Hub of Innovation for Change. We were discussing the main financing challenges for CSOs in the region and how to address them, and we ended up speaking about sharing economy. This subject was resonating internationally and according to Times magazine, it was one of the 10 ideas that would change the world. In Latin America there were some success stories of sharing economy, such as a platform created in Chile after the earthquake, through which the affected communities organised to collect resources and buy items of common need; there were also various environmental initiatives. Thus, we saw the opportunity to map our needs, strengths and things we were each good at with the idea of exchanging these resources under the sharing economy model, strengthening solidarity between CSOs and then attracting solidarity from other sectors.
What resourcing challenges for CSOs do you want to address with ComuniDAS?
We identified three main challenges. First, more financing alternatives are needed because international cooperation – a major source of resources for civil society – is withdrawing from the region to focus on other areas of the world. We also noted that the more traditional CSOs, such as those founded in the 1970s during civil wars and focused on human rights, have difficulty establishing alliances with the private sector without feeling that they lose their autonomy. Finally, according to the World Giving Index, Latin America and the Caribbean has one of the weakest philanthropic cultures in the world, which is reflected in the low solidarity within the CSO sector, which hardly shares knowledge or resources despite the fact that many organisations have great strengths and capacity to do so.
What advantages and difficulties have you faced to implement a project with innovative concepts for the sector?
We found a lot of interest both in the topic of sharing economy and in having civil society leading innovation projects. This facilitated obtaining support, advice and tools from experts in the field, such as the renowned Albert Cañigueral, from entities that are promoting sharing economy, such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and even from the private sector.
We found several difficulties. In the beginning, we thought that the platform could be based merely on solidarity, so that a large CSO with more resources and capabilities would help a small CSO in exchange for another service. However, in practice, the success of these exchanges lies in ensuring trust and reciprocity among the members, so that they provide the promised services and on time, which we had no way of doing. Another challenge is to avoid widening the gap between the strongest CSOs that have something to exchange and ability to participate in this type of innovation initiatives and the smaller ones that have needs but may not be able to offer something in return. Having the right technology for the platform has also been difficult because there was not something ready to use in the region, so we’ve had to develop it.
How have you addressed the need to ensure that reciprocity and trust?
There are mechanisms such as allowing users to publish reviews and ratings of members with whom they have exchanged services, but these are not enough. We checked out how private sector platforms have dealt with this and found an online platform promoting symbiotic economy in the United States, called Simbi, which allows members to accumulate virtual credits for services provided and exchange them for various services of other members of the community. This caught our attention because it would allow the members of ComuniDAS to offer a service and save their credits if they do not need to receive a service in return immediately, it would also be more useful to attract private companies that operate with precise parameters. With this idea in mind, we are developing a social currency that will mark a new stage for ComuniDAS. At this moment are matchmakers between users, but the exchanges occur outside the platform; with the social currency everything will happen within the community.
Regarding the second challenge, how could smaller CSOs with urgent resource needs benefit from platforms such as ComuniDAS?
A platform like this does not solve urgent needs such as paying operating expenses, but it can make it easier for these CSOs to explore alliances that help them continue to fulfil their mission. We are trying to attract support from the private sector that is suitable for grassroots and CSOs working on more abstract issues such as human rights, and we are promoting the value of social return. We are also thinking about how to make the bridge between large, tech-oriented and hybrid CSOs exploring social entrepreneurship – which are the ones capitalizing more on funding from large donors – and those small and grassroots CSOs that have the advantage of reaching populations and sectors that the “coolest” CSOs do not reach. We don't have everything solved, but we’re looking for options. Making innovation inclusive is a challenge for the entire sector.
ComuniDAS won an innovation award and will soon be replicated in the MENA region. What strengths have facilitated this success?
First, the fact of being a regional and innovative effort created and led by civil society to seek alternative resources to international cooperation. We are moving from the idea that donors have to finance us, to promoting a model in which CSOs capitalize their own resources, know how to sell their proposal and demonstrate value outside the sector, which requires not demonizing profitability, promoting transparency and accountability and having a strategic plan. This has allowed us to establish successful partnerships with the private sector, municipalities and other actors. Another strength is that ComuniDAS’ technology adapts to the needs of the sector because it was developed by CSOs; and since it’s open source, it can be replicated as it is being done by the MENA Hub, which will launch the platform in about four months. Our dream is that in the future there will be global exchanges, for example, between CSOs in Honduras, Egypt and other countries. This would multiply resources and solidarity for civil society in the world.
Get in touch or join ComuniDAS through their website.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups and how they are responding. CIVICUS speaks about the role that conspiracy theories are playing with Chip Berlet, an investigative journalist and activist who specialises in the study of extreme right-wing movements in the USA.
You have done a lot of work around social and political speech that demonises specific groups in society. You call this the rhetoric of scripted violence. What is scripted violence, and how is it operating in the USA?
Scripted violence is part of a dynamic process in a society under lots and lots of stress. It starts with stories circulating in a nation that warn of subversion and conspiracies. These stories are called ‘narratives of insecurity’ by Professor Abdelwahab El-Affendi, and he warns that these stories can lead to mass violence and other forms of terrorism. The process continues with ‘scripted violence’, which is when a high-status political or religious leader publicly identifies and demonises a specific group of people alleged to be conspiring to ruin the ideal nation. The result is called ‘stochastic terrorism’. That’s an awkward term, but it just means that the specific terrorist act is unpredictable. Yet the violence has been generated by this three-step process that starts with conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but now they seem to be more widespread than ever. What role has the internet played in spreading them?
Conspiracy theories have always been around. Conspiracy theories are improbable explanations alleging a vast conspiracy by evil powerful people and their cronies. Stories circulate that make allegations posing as facts. During moments of societal stress and political change it is often harder for folks to separate what is reality-based, what is political propaganda and what is pure fantasy.
The internet has been fertile ground for planting misinformation and conspiracy theories because it’s a new medium, and all new forms of mass media go through a phase in which they are easily misinterpreted, and there are as yet not enough safeguards in place, so it’s hard for folks to tell reliable and unreliable content apart. We live in a time in which too many people think stories are real if they are on the internet. When you go to a library, there is the fiction section, and then there’s the rest of the library, where you can find history, science and other material based on facts. But content has not yet been separated that way in the internet age.
We are going through an adjustment period. We are still learning how to use the medium. In the past, misunderstandings arose when people were using a new medium that they didn’t truly understand. In the USA, the best example of this happened in 1938, when a fictional story about a Martian invasion, The War of the Worlds, was broadcast during a radio programme, and people didn’t realise it was not real news, so some people called the police and went running out into the streets in a panic. Similarly, it is really difficult for the average person to differentiate between what’s a reliable piece of information and what’s just a conspiracy theory recirculated by someone with no training or understanding of the subject they post on. Much worse is when sinister propaganda is spread for political gain. There currently is no mechanism to separate what’s true and what’s fake on the internet, although I hope someday there will be.
Conspiracy theories abound on both right and left, but these days largely seem to be fuelling far-right movements. Do you see any affinity between conspiracy theories and the extreme right?
I don’t think it has as much to do with the left or right side of the political spectrum, but rather with fear and instability in a specific society at a specific moment. What would cause relatively normal and average people, wherever they are on the political spectrum, to act out against a claimed enemy? It’s because they believe their society is under attack, and then act accordingly.
In any healthy society there always are conspiracy theories circulating, but when you hear them from somebody pushing a shopping cart down the street with all their belongings and shouting about an imminent Martian invasion, almost nobody pays any attention. These conspiracy theories are dismissed because they are being circulated by marginal or low-status folks. Most rational people simply reject them.
In an unhealthy and unstable society, in contrast, people don’t know what to believe, and may latch onto normally farfetched theories to explain why they feel so powerless. When social trust has been eroded and there is so much anger, increasingly less legitimacy is assigned to people who have actual knowledge. Instead, it is transferred to those who will name the evildoers. And some people lack the kind of restraints that most of us luckily have and prevent us from attacking others who are not like us and might seem threatening or dangerous.
Let’s say I’m an average middle-aged, middle-class white male in the USA, and I’m stressed and anxious because I fear that my status in society is being diminished. And then someone comes and tells me it’s okay to feel that way because there are evil forces at play that are causing this and tells me who is to blame for what is happening to me. According to this narrative, I would be still seated near the top of the social ladder if it weren’t for those people.
Of course, people who have privilege see it as normal. We are not aware of it. So, when the status quo that has folks like them near the top changes – because previously marginalised groups successfully claim rights for themselves – the privileged don’t see this as the loss of unfair privileges, but as undermining the natural order, the traditional community or the nation itself. They talk about themselves as real ‘producers’ in the society being dragged down by lazy, sinful, or subversive ‘parasites’.
In other words, conspiracy theories are a reflection of a society that is under stress, and they cause people who would normally be ignored suddenly to have an audience to speak to because they appear to have the answer that everybody else is lacking. People are disoriented: they do not feel connected to a common narrative of a healthy nation. Folks feel that their society, ‘our’ society, is under attack by ‘the others’, whoever they might be. So, if someone comes and tells them the name of the group of ‘others’ who are destroying our idealised community or nation, then common sense will tell us to stop them. Perhaps we need to eliminate them before they attack us – and that’s the narrative storyline of every genocide in history.
Isn’t it strange that so many ‘others’ in today’s conspiracy theories do not really have the power that they are attributed: they are usually already vulnerable groups whose rights are being attacked?
There is an interesting dynamic storyline in many conspiracy theories about the sinister people below working with certain traitorous powerful people above. Conspiracy theories, especially in the middle class, tend to identify a group of evil people down below on the socio-economic spectrum when defining who belongs and who doesn’t belong to the nation. So, a lot of the problems are blamed on these people down below in the ‘lower’ class who are portrayed as lazy and ‘picking the pockets’ of the middle class by draining tax dollars. Barbara Ehrenreich, for example, wrote a book about this called Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
But the middle-class conspiracy theorists generally also blame a sector of the ruling elites who are portrayed as traitors. So if you look, let’s say, at the US political scene today, the narrative during the Trump administration blames some people who are down below and who are portrayed as lazy, sinful, or subversive. These folks are breaking the rules or taking advantage. But some people listed as conspirators are high-status: such as those rich, Democratic Party bureaucrats who are depicted as the ones pulling the strings, as in a puppet show. Sometimes those spreading the conspiracy theories use a graphic of a huge mechanical vice squeezing the middle class from above and below.
Is there anything that progressive civil society could do to counter these regressive trends?
There sure is. Democratic civil society has historically developed mechanisms to face these challenges. Historically, religious leaders and journalists have played a very important role in making these kinds of claims become judged unacceptable. But the influence of both of these actors has now collapsed. Religious figures have been losing their status everywhere except in religious authoritarian countries. The internet is undermining the influence of major news organisations, and the cost of producing good journalism has become very high relative to the cost of posting a rumour on the internet. So, democracies need to develop new safeguards and mechanisms to counter these trends.
In the age of the internet, these mechanisms have not yet been developed. But although we are going through a very unstable and stressful period, the situation is not hopeless. The history of democracy is a sort of cycle in which at some point things stabilise only to fall apart again eventually until resistance builds up and safeguards are put back in place.
Leaders with some status and legitimacy within democratic civil society need to admit that we are in a really bad place and we’ve got to fix it together, so that the answer comes not from the demagogic and authoritarian political space, but from the democratic one – the demos – and that’s all of us. People need to start talking to their neighbours about the things that are not going well and about how to fix them, because these problems can only be solved collectively. When doing activist training sessions, I tell people to go sit at a bus stop and talk to the first person who sits down next to them. If you can get up the courage to do that, then you certainly can talk to your neighbours and co-workers. Regular people need to start doing just that.
In the USA, there is a kind of smug, liberal treatment of people who feel that they are being pushed down the ladder. These folks are not ‘deplorables’; they are basically scared people. These are people who had a union job and worked in a machine shop or at building automobiles. They worked for 30 years and now have nothing: their whole world has been shot down while others have become billionaires. They cannot be dismissed as ‘deplorables’. That word slip may have actually cost Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton the election. We need to engage these people who are so angry and disoriented in face-to-face conversations. We need to care about them.
How can these conversations take place when social media, increasingly the means of communication of choice, often operates as an echo chamber that solidifies beliefs and fuels polarisation?
I know, I’m so old-fashioned. My solution is actually quite low-tech. You know, my wife and I have been political activists for many years, and as students in the 1960s we were involved in the anti-racist civil rights movement. At one point black organisers said: if white people really want to challenge racism against black people they should move into white communities where there is racism and try to turn it around. So in 1977, my wife and I picked up our household and moved to Chicago, Illinois. We lived in an overwhelmingly white Southwest side neighbourhood where there was white racism, but also Nazis, literally guys in Nazi uniforms, kicking black people out of the neighbourhood. A house on our street was firebombed.
Eventually we became part of a community group, and for the first three years we were out-organised by neo-Nazis. Few things could be more mortifying for a leftist activist in 1970s USA. But in the Southwest side of Chicago there was also a multi-racial group, which we joined. One day some of us who were strategists were invited over to a house for a meeting with a group of black ministers. They sat us down and gave us coffee and tea, cakes and cookies, and then one of them asked, “Do you know why black parents take turns sleeping in your neighbourhood?” We looked at each other; we had no idea. They said, “That’s because when the firebomb explodes one of the adults has to be awake to get the kids out of the house.” It had never occurred to us that black parents had to take turns to stay up all night in their own homes so they could just stay alive. Then another of the ministers said, “Do you think all those white Catholic women want babies to get killed by firebombs?” We said no, and he replied, “Well, there’s your strategy.”
Our strategy was to start talking to people: first to Catholic women who were horrified to learn what was going on, then getting them to talk to their neighbours and members of their congregations. Eventually some white Catholic priests started talking about what was happening. Five years later, the neighbourhood had become safe for black people to live in.
It seems we still have a lot to learn from the civil rights movement and their organising tactics. Nowadays it’s so tempting to organise and mobilise online, because it’s so fast, but it’s also so much more difficult to create sustained commitment, isn’t it?
Yes. I think face-to-face organising is still how you change neighbourhoods, and how neighbourhoods change societies. But of course, you cannot ask young people who are using technology to organise and protest to let go of the internet. You can’t tell people to ignore the technologies that exist. We do have a technology that enables instantaneity. I post constantly on the internet, I have a Facebook page and so on. I think it’s great to use the internet to organise people to confront racism online as well as to organise counter-demonstrations when white supremacists gather. But that’s not enough, in the same way as in the 1960s it wasn’t enough for writers to just write about the evils of racism. Those kinds of articles were published all along, but nothing really changed until people started organising – that is, talking to their neighbours to challenge the status quo.
Take civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who sat down in the white section of a bus in Alabama. There is the misconception that her act was spontaneous, but it was nothing like that: it was a tactic created by a training centre that had been set up in the south by religious leaders and trade unions. Behind one black woman who refused to give up her seat in the front rows of a bus were 10 years of training and organising at the Highland Center.
In a way, that’s also what the young climate activists and the members of the new democracy movements are doing. Look at Hong Kong: it is people rising up and saying ‘enough,’ often organising online while also organising and mobilising locally, staying in their neighbourhood, talking to their neighbours, building networks. And internationally we see young people demanding a right to stay alive – just stay alive.
You need organisation, you need training in strategies and tactics, you need support groups, and you need to talk to your neighbours. That’s how it works; there is no magic formula.
Civic space in the USA is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks with Adriana Ramos, advisor at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian civil society organisation that has worked since 1994 to propose solutions to social and environmental issues. ISA's main focus is the defence of social, collective and public goods and rights regarding the environment, cultural heritage, human rights and peoples’ rights.
Do you think there is an increasing restriction of civic space in Brazil following the election of President Jair Bolsonaro?
Yes, we already have plenty of evidence that there is less scope for democratic action by civil society, at least in regard to the government. Various councils, committees and commissions that used to function as formal spaces for civil society participation in policy-making have been shut down. Regarding climate policy in particular, the National Commission for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (CONAREDD+), the Climate Fund’s Steering Committee and the Amazon Fund’s Steering Committee were affected, which used to be important forums for the implementation of national climate change policies.
The government is also behaving antagonistically toward civil society. Its belligerent and aggressive tone hinders the possibility of dialogue. There is no respect for the role of civil society. All of this reflects on the performance of organisations working on the frontline. The suspension of the Amazon Fund, for instance, has precluded many planned projects and jeopardised ongoing ones.
The government also attempted to eliminate the Ministry of Environment because they thought there was no need for environmental policy. As the proposal to eliminate it had a negative reaction among the public, the Ministry has remained in place, but it is now dedicated to dismantling existing environmental policies and legislation.
When the Amazon fires came under the spotlight, the president of Brazil said that civil society organisations (CSOs) could be the ones responsible for deforestation. How have these statements affected the work of environmental organisations and defenders?
Their first effect has been to drain all our energies by forcing us to focus on responding to such atrocious accusations. When the president makes such statements, the press is obliged to disseminate them, and we end up having to defend ourselves. We are put in a position where we need to respond to completely baseless statements made by the president. This is clearly a demobilisation strategy, as it paralyses our main activities and hinders the work of CSOs.
In addition, there is little understanding of civil society in our country. As a result, such a statement sends a prejudiced message to the public and promotes misinformation and a misreading of the role of civil society. This is happening within the framework of a larger system that is actively promoting ‘fake news’. It ends up creating a cascade effect.
Is there a link between this narrative and the threats facing environmental defenders, particularly those closest to the frontline of conflict?
During his election campaign the president promised to “end all activism in Brazil.” We see the government acting consistently with this promise, promoting lawlessness and delegitimating the work of environmental defenders. This reflects directly in the increased lack of safety in the field and the sense of impunity that strengthens those who act illegally. Illegal activities are promoted in the Amazon region, such as illegal logging, illegal mining and land grabbing, all of which are sources of conflict. Those who have historically been the perpetrators of violence against indigenous peoples and environmental leaders come out stronger. In addition, the president’s authoritarian approach ends up mobilising public security forces. Public security forces, which should be working to defend vulnerable groups, are guided by a policy that criminalises and marginalises these groups. Thus, Brazil will probably continue to be listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders.
How has civil society organised to respond in this context?
We have sought to ensure the constitutional conditions for an active civil society, coordinating various efforts to guarantee the safety of defenders in the field and strengthen protection strategies for the social leaders who are in the most vulnerable positions. We need to innovate in our methods in order to be able to get through these times. It is an unfortunate situation, but I think Brazilian civil society is quite experienced in facing adverse situations and is trying to become stronger in this context.
At the same time, I believe that checks and balances between the three powers of our government have never been as essential as they are today. If dialogue with the executive is unfeasible, then we must increase our work on the legislative and judicial fronts. Even with their institutional limitations, these end up being key spaces for intervention and contestation of the Brazilian government’s authoritarian actions. We still have a constitution in place. It is a robust constitution in terms of guarantees for individual rights and the freedom of association. On its basis, we carry on the battle.
What kind of support do Brazilian environmental organisations and defenders need?
We need more institutional support to ensure that organisations can develop their advocacy work as robustly as the context requires. We need protections that render them less vulnerable to any kind of persecution.
But support is also needed to strengthen locally developed initiatives, by means of supporting local communities so they can generate income and manage their territories. It is no use fighting on the political front to prevent legislative changes if the living conditions of local communities deteriorate and they become increasingly vulnerable to the unsustainable proposals brought to them by the government. It is important to ensure that there are projects that generate income from sustainable forest use so that communities do not become vulnerable and prone to being used as pawns at the service of those who advocate for the opening of their territories for exploitation by third parties. If this happens, these territories will become unsustainable, and this is bad both for the communities and the environment. It is not only about supporting political resistance against the government’s discourse, but also about supporting best practices in autonomous environmental management by communities, so that communities are strengthened in the process, rather than becoming vulnerable to co-option.
Is there a growing public movement for environmental causes in Brazil?
I believe so. Every day more people are interested in mobilising and are reacting to what is happening. They begin to understand that this is a cross-cutting theme, as there is no economy or health without a healthy environment. Because of the current denial of environmental policy, the theme draws even more attention. Without a doubt, this can contribute to strengthening civil society and prompt more people to mobilise, participate and stay attuned to what is happening. That is the positive aspect of the current situation.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of hate speech in Europe and civil society strategies to counter it with Martin Pairet, Network Manager at European Alternatives, a transnational civil society organisation and citizen movement that promotes democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state.
European Alternatives focuses on promoting democracy across borders. How concerned are you about the rise of authoritarian nationalism in Europe?
European Alternatives works to support democracy across the continent, and our current analysis is that democracy is not really mature enough and that the fundamental rights necessary for democracy to work are not being respected in Europe. The process of degradation of democratic practices and institutions has taken place over a number of years, a decade at least, but has particularly accelerated with the crisis of hospitality that we are currently experiencing in the face of migration. This crisis of hospitality is above all a crisis of European values. We stand for the principle of solidarity and the creation of new forms of transnational community, and we are seeing exactly the opposite – the normalisation of anti-rights movements and parties whose discourse is being amplified by the media, and by social media in particular. This is happening in every country in Europe, and particularly in countries where politicians have a lot to gain through anti-migrant politics, such as France, Germany and Italy.
Do you see this situation as the result of a deficit of democracy, or as the result of a failure to respect human rights?
I think it’s a little bit of both. There is in fact a deep democratic deficit, and over the past few years there has been increasing questioning about how decisions are being made at every level – local, national, European and global. People have been demanding more representation and meaningful involvement in decision-making processes, through mechanisms such as citizen-initiated referendums. There are many other examples that we’ve seen over the past few years in Europe, of people organising to supplement the shortcomings of representative institutions and getting involved in decision-making, for instance through citizen assemblies. A lot of people feel their voices are not being heard and therefore feel powerless – they feel that no matter what they do, they won’t be able to change things and they won’t regain control over politics, which means they won’t have a say over the decisions that affect their lives, and they won’t control their futures.
In this sense, democracy is quite weak, and people are getting increasingly desperate for someone in decision-making positions to really understand their problems and their fears, which the system is not paying attention to and is not able to process. This is the point when nationalism, extremism and hate start to rise, and hate speech becomes appealing. And in this context it becomes very difficult to hear the human rights discourse, because it is not necessarily something that people always respond or relate to, as it is quite abstract. European human rights organisations have been working hard to tackle the humanitarian crisis, but have sometimes undervalued the power of emotions, and of fear in particular, and have therefore not focused on how to address those fears, which has been problematic.
In your analysis of the ongoing crisis of hospitality you focus on hate speech. How would you define this?
Hate speech is a complex phenomenon that can’t really fit into a simple definition. In fact, there isn’t an internationally accepted definition of hate speech, and every member state of the European Union (EU) has its own legal definition. The definition used by the Council of Europe includes all forms of expression that spread or amplify xenophobia and various forms of hatred and intolerance. Hate speech is against human rights, so it is a form of anti-rights speech. It is also a social phenomenon that has been amplified by social media within the context of increasingly social power relations also related to the economic and financial crisis and the fact that financial and economic power is concentrated in few hands. But stereotypes also play an important role. I would say that hate speech is driven by both unequal power relations and negative stereotypes.
In recent years, the normalisation of hate speech has contributed to the radicalisation of people and groups against those seen as ‘the other’: attacks against marginalised groups, including women, LGBTQI people, Roma people, migrants, refugees and minority faith communities, have spread on social media, and the hate narrative gradually translated into actual violence. That’s why we’ve seen a rise in hate crimes.
One problem, and the reason why it is important to have a clear definition of hate speech, is that while hate speech is a form of anti-rights speech, an attempt to regulate and suppress it may lead to the violation of other rights, and particularly the violation of a fundamental right, the right to the freedom of expression.
While the rights of women, LGBTQI people, people of colour and indigenous peoples ought to be respected, their right to be treated fairly and respectfully may sometimes collide with the freedom of expression. So it is important to know where to draw the line and how to identify what falls under the freedom of expression and what is hate speech, and what can be done about it. But this is a very dynamic process and definitions are continuously changing, partly because of the rise of new technologies. As new forms of communications arise, we need to ask ourselves whether this or that is still hate speech. Where is the limit? Do certain commentaries or visual communications that we find on media platforms constitute hate speech? The distinction between what’s ironic and what’s serious can be difficult to grasp online.
Where in Europe is the situation most worrying?
The problem is taking different forms in different places. One specific example of this worrying situation is in Italy, where there was a significant rise in hate crimes between 2017 and 2018. Because of the use of different data collection methods, it’s difficult to know how much these have increased, but it is evident that they have risen sharply while the far-right was in power.
In Italy, hate speech has specifically targeted refugees and people of colour. Cécile Kyenge, a black Italian member of the European Parliament, has faced racist attacks for years. When she was appointed as Italy’s first black government minister back in 2013, she received racist insults from the far-right League Party. In 2018, once the League Party’s leader Matteo Salvini had reached power, they brought a defamation case against her, for accusing the party and its leaders of being racists!
It is very telling that a hate crime happened on the same day that Matteo Salvini was sworn in as Deputy Prime Minister, on 3 June 2018. A 29-year old migrant from Mali was shot dead by a white man who drove by and fired on him with a shotgun. He was killed while collecting scrap metal to build shacks, alongside two other migrants who also suffered injuries. They all lived in a tent city that houses hundreds of poorly paid farm workers. This was clearly an example of hate speech turned into act, as it happened just hours after Matteo Salvini warned that, with him in power, "the good times for illegals are over” and that “Italy cannot be Europe's refugee camp.”
It does make a difference whether the far right has reached power, which becomes apparent when you compare Italy and Germany. Hate speech has also been on the rise in Germany, but in this case, a new law was passed in late 2017 to regulate hate speech online. This law requires social media platforms to quickly remove hate speech, ‘fake news’ and any illegal material, and it appears to have been quite efficient in reducing online hate speech. In contrast, Italy does not have a similarly strong legal framework and the context is not conducive to a revision of the legal framework either. In sum, the rise of hate speech in Italy is the result of a mix of a regressive political environment and the absence of strong legislation.
In the cases of Hungary and Poland there have also been strong governmental responses against migrants. These examples are particularly interesting because sometimes there are no migrants in parts of the country, especially in the countryside, but there can still be anti-migrant policies even in places with very few migrants. This has a lot to do with who is in power and what discourse is being delivered from the top and disseminated on social media. And while hate speech can target various particular groups, I think that in the current situation in Europe, it always starts with migrants and refugees, then extends to other marginalised groups. We saw this with Brexit in the UK: the referendum campaign was permeated with an anti-migrant discourse, but various groups of people who were not migrants or refugees became increasingly threatened by exclusionary narratives, which eventually targeted anyone who was different, looked different, or spoke differently.
Is there any legislation in place at the European level to counter hate speech?
There is nothing in place specifically against hate speech, but because hate speech is a violation of a whole set of rights, there is a broad set of rules that apply, such as the Framework Decision on combating certain forms of expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. There is also the Fundamental Rights Agency, an EU-funded agency that collects and analyses data and carries out research on fundamental rights. It provides assistance and expertise at both the European and national levels, including in the areas of non-discrimination, racism, intolerance and hate crime. Finally, there is a Code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online that the European Commission recently agreed with Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube, which aims at enabling social media users to express their opinions online freely and without the fear of being attacked out of bias based on race, colour, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation and gender identity, disability, or other characteristics. It also seeks to ensure that EU and national laws on combating hate speech are better enforced in the online environment across the EU. But the process of domesticating European legislation is slow and long, and the EU doesn’t always have sufficient mechanisms in place to hold members states accountable when they are not complying.
What can civil society do to counter hate speech, besides pushing for legislative change?
There are many strategies that can be used to counter hate speech effectively. Of course it is important to change legislation to ensure it covers all forms of discrimination and hate speech, but it is also important – and very difficult – to raise awareness. Awareness of their right to equal treatment must be raised, first of all, among the people who are being targeted by hate speech. Even among European citizens, many people don’t know exactly what their rights are. So it is important to share information among civil society and encourage civil society groups to share it further.
The role of local authorities and state agencies such as the police is also key in ensuring the right to equal treatment and it does make a difference whether or not they act in the face of hate speech. So it is important for civil society to work with these actors so that they are able to recognise hate speech and act against it.
Additionally, civil society can do better in the area of communication strategies to protect fundamental rights in general. This would require an investment in capacity development, given that the required knowledge is not evenly disseminated. Grassroots actors don’t necessarily have the means to do this kind of work, but it’s this kind of work that often impacts on affected groups the most, as it is key in helping them reach out.
A lot more investment is needed to counter hate groups online, because online content can have an impact well beyond the context for which it was formulated. According to studies about anti-Semitic speech, people tend to feel threatened by what they see online regardless of how much impact it actually has on their reality, so clearly more investment is needed to counter this effect.
How is European Alternatives working to counter hate speech?
We work to connect groups that are working on similar issues and to fill the capacity gap. We’ve done this quite successfully through a series of training activities on Countering Hate Speech and Far-Right Radicalism in Central and Eastern Europe. It is important to bring together activists and citizens from different countries, because it is quite hard for people to understand that these are not isolated phenomena that are happening in their communities, but rather that a lot of communities are experiencing the same, and there is a range of solutions that have been tried in various local contexts to tackle it. It’s very important for these exchanges to continue, because we’ve seen it’s working: we see organisations collaborating across borders and exchanging experiences in ways that they can adapt to tackle hate speech in their own contexts.
It is also key to invest in civic education and human rights education as much as possible. We do this through an online course on Countering Hate Speech in Europe, which is based on online dialogue maintained with our partners. The videos are open source and are available on our YouTube channel. We have a playlist called ‘Countering Hate Speech’, so they can be watched in sequence. The course offers participants the opportunity to access expert content developed by European Alternatives and to put their own experiences, values and perspectives to the forefront while engaging with peers through a Virtual Exchange. At the end of the course, participants even learn how to plan and organise an Action Day Against Hate Speech.
Through these activities, we try to reach out to a high number of young people. Dialogue among individuals and among communities is key because on social media there are fewer and fewer spaces where people can have a real conversation in a safe environment. And dialogue is quite effective for raising awareness and thinking strategies through collectively.
I think the reason why we keep at this is because we think there cannot be a well-functioning democracy when people are not respected in the first place. Respect for our shared humanity is a precondition for any democratic reform to work.
CIVICUS speaks to Yared Hailemariam, Executive Director of the Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, about recent political reforms in Ethiopia, the opening opportunities for civil society and the prospects for further change.
Can you tell us about your background and how the political reforms introduced in Ethiopia since 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have impacted on you?
I used to work for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), a civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1991 by people concerned about the human rights situation in Ethiopia at that time. This was just after the removal of the military junta and its replacement by the current ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). I joined EHRCO as an investigator in 1998, and then came the notorious 2005 elections, which the government rigged and which were followed by violence. There were mass killings in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June 2005, and then my colleagues and I were targeted by security forces and detained several times. One time we were detained for a couple of weeks. After we were released there were more clashes between government security forces and opposition members and supporters. Just before the second round of massacres in November 2005 I left the country to attend a conference in Uganda, and while I was there I found myself in the wanted list, so after that I was in exile.
I returned home in January 2018 for the first time after 13 years in exile. Currently I’m leading the Europe-based Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, which is an organisation that was working to fill the gap, because Ethiopian civil society was under threat and not able to do any advocacy activities outside the country. They were not able to conduct any research or reach the international community. So some of my colleagues who left the country and I established this association in 2013. We conducted undercover research in Ethiopia, but mostly we have focused on advocacy. I was working mostly at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and with European institutions. We were doing advocacy together with CIVICUS, the Committee to Protect Journalists, DefendDefenders, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and other partner organisations. But now we are allowed to go back home.
What are the main differences the political reforms have made for Ethiopian civil society?
In the last 10 years, civic space in Ethiopia was in a very horrible condition but now, following these reforms, it’s seen a really huge change. Civic space has opened widely.
The previous law was very restrictive. It targeted civil society working on rights-based issues, but now CSOs are encouraged. The Civil Society Proclamation, a very draconian piece of legislation, has been reformed, and the process was very open and civil society was respected in it. The new draft accommodated all our concerns. The previous law established an agency that monitored the activities of civil society that was very authoritarian and limited the work of civil society, but that institution has also been reformed. In the new agency there’s a presence of civil society and independent representatives, as well as people from the government. I visited the agency. They are very friendly, very open and work really closely with civil society.
Just a year and a half ago, international human rights organisations were not able to organise any meeting or training activity, or even visit Ethiopia. I’ve now been able to conduct capacity development workshops in Addis Ababa. So, the impression I have is one of huge progress that is very satisfactory for local civil society.
The opening of civic space in Ethiopia can be also a good example for other countries that had followed the bad practices of Ethiopia.
How has civil society responded to the changes?
There is now a lot of activity, including training and workshops, and it’s open to international human rights organisations. They are providing capacity development training and financial and technical support to local civil society, which is also receiving support from donors, embassies and the international community. These opportunities are new. Local civil society can now recover and rehabilitate from its past limitations, and reach the international community, because people can also now travel.
What are the major challenges that remain for civil society?
Because of the impact of the previous laws and because CSOs were labelled as enemies of the state they were restricted in their development, and now they have challenge of getting back to attracting skilled professionals. CSOs have opportunities but they don’t have the capacity to explore and exploit all the opportunities that come to their door. That’s the big challenge. I interviewed some CSOs that don’t know how to prepare a proposal to attract donors and don’t know how to do advocacy. I met some donors who told me that they want to provide support to local civil society but there is shortage of skilled people who can prepare proposals and report back to them at the level they require. Now an election is coming in 2020 and many CSOs want to engage with this process, but even prominent CSOs have told me that they don’t know how to approach donors and how to submit good proposals to get grants.
So there is a huge gap now, and that’s the area where we are trying to support local CSOs to develop skills. There is a need for people from outside. What I’m saying to the international community is that it’s not enough to go there and do training; if they send one or two experts for some months these experts could help strengthen and offer support for some prominent CSOs.
Given that the reforms are emanating from the prime minister, what are the risks that could hinder further reforms?
There are potential dangers. Reform is still at the top level. The prime minister promised to reform the country through a democratic transition and to open up the political space. You can feel that there is a change in the country and there is some political willingness at the top level, but at the same time the regime has huge and very complex bureaucratic structures.
Most government structures, offices and institutions are full of political appointees from parties in the ruling coalition. That makes it really difficult to reform organisations. Even when the central government in Addis Ababa says something or a new law or regulation is adopted, it may not go very deep. Reforms may not go deep through to the bottom of bureaucracy, to the structures. People are starting to complain in public media that the government is saying the right things, reforming the law, appointing new faces to high-ranking positions, but the suffering still continues at the lower level. So, that’s one challenge, and there is still no clear roadmap that shows how the central administration can improve this mess
People who were appointed because of their political affiliation rather than their talents now feel under threat. They fear they may be moved or replaced. So in some regions we have seen that some movements are trying to shift the direction of reform. Some people linked to the old regime are still in control of their regions and are trying to instigate conflicts. They have money and weapons, so they can manipulate regions to instigate ethnic conflicts.
The EPRDF is a coalition of four major parties that are now not united like they were before and are publicly disagreeing. There are tensions between the Amhara and Tigray regional governments, and recently a conflict erupted in the border area between the Amhara and Oromia regions. In the past, these groups acted together because they were fully dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the other parties were used as a tool. But now, each of the regional governments considers themselves as effectively a sovereign state so there is competition. Each regional state is recruiting and training militias, such that each region has thousands of fully armed forces.
There is a fear that the administration in Addis Ababa has failed to control these dynamics of conflicts and tension within the ruling coalition that might affect the unity of the country. We don’t know in which direction it will lead us, but there are clear tensions. There is tension between the ruling party members and the different coalition parties, there is ethnic tension, and in each region there are extremist elements, groups that spread hate speech and advocate the removal of other targeted ethnic groups from their region. Ruling parties are also competing and fighting with the extremist groups in their regions. Because of this, the Addis Ababa administration is failing to reinforce the rule of law.
In some regions, the instability is such that there are huge and serious debates about the dangers of holding the election. Some parties are requesting that the election be postponed for at least six months because of extreme elements, and the fear that people will be targeted and attacked and wouldn’t be moved from region to region to mobilise their supporters or open offices. Some parties are restricted from moving and are now only able to work in Addis Ababa, and maybe a few more cities where they are given full security. So, many parties have requested a delay. But on the other side, extreme and ethnic-based parties are requesting that the government conducts the election on its planned dates. They have already declared that if the election day changes, even by one day, they will call for a protest, and that might create more problems. So now the Addis Ababa administration faces a dilemma. If the election is conducted on its time, I’m sure that ethnic nationalist extremist parties that are instigating violence will win seats in parliament. These upcoming days, weeks and months will be a very difficult time for Ethiopia.
What role is hate speech playing in stoking ethnic conflict?
People are living together and still sharing values. In Addis Ababa you didn’t feel it. People are living their normal lives and going about business as usual. It is the elites and their activists who are using social media to spread hate speech instigating ethnic tension, violence and targeting of certain groups of people. They have followers, and when they call some kind of violent action you immediately see that there is a group on the ground that’s ready to act and attack people.
In the last year and a half almost three million people were forced into internal displacement. Ethiopia is now in the 10 highest countries in the world for internal displacement. This has happened in the last year and a half because of ethnic conflicts. Hate speech is spreading easily and very quickly through phones and social media, especially Facebook. Some of the calls for ethnic conflicts are coming from outside Ethiopia, including Europe and the USA.
Now the government is drafting a new law to regulate hate speech, but it’s really hard to tackle.
How can further political reform be encouraged?
We all, especially human rights activists and researchers, including from the international community, need to encourage this reform in many ways. We need to support the strengthening of national human rights institutions, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and strengthen the capacity of local civil society.
Civil society could play a key role in overcoming divisions, given that political parties and some media are ethnically based. Because civil society is neutral, the international community should focus on strengthening its capacity to play a key role in shaping the behaviour of new generations, who are vulnerable to being used by political elites. Civil society could give broad-based civic education to nurture good citizens who understand their responsibilities.
In short, we need to focus on how to strengthen the capacity of civil society to support the positive achievements and political reforms going on in Ethiopia.
What are the most urgent support needs of civil society?
There are many ways to support local civil society, and not only by providing money. As I said earlier, there is now the possibility to receive funding, but people still need skills to apply for and use these grants. So, in addition to financial support, local civil society needs skill training in various aspects, including in advocacy, research methodologies, monitoring and documenting human rights, and they also need to network, and not only at the national level. They need support to connect themselves to the outside world, to the UN Human Rights Council and other international and regional mechanisms. Local civil society is not able to use these processes well, and some don’t know how to engage with these international mechanisms at all. So, they need the guidance and support of the international community.
Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns at the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations (UN) among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its action is based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.
Why should people care about the UN?
The reason for caring about the UN is the same as the reason for caring about the planet. Anyone concerned about the climate crisis, conflict, terrorism, or cybercrime should also be concerned about the health of the UN since it remains our most effective medium through which to combat global challenges. When you think about the UN as a meeting place with an agreed rulebook for the international community to address the defining issues we face, its need is apparent.
Another indispensable part of the UN’s programme is its coordination of humanitarian activities, from supplying vaccines to almost half the world’s children to the tens of millions who depend on it for their food, shelter and protection. When disaster strikes it’s often said that the UN is the first to arrive and the last to leave, at great personal risk to UN staff. Similarly, day-in day-out, UN peacekeepers are putting themselves in harm’s way across 14 missions, keeping the peace in some of the world’s most dangerous environments.
When things go wrong our newspapers are filled with the atrocities that are taking place, and we rightly question why the international community isn’t doing more to prevent this. But we rarely credit the role UN diplomacy and peacekeepers have played in preventing countless conflicts since the UN was founded 75 years ago. Throughout this time the UN has fulfilled its fundamental role: to avert a third world war. Dag Hammarskjöld, a towering figure in UN circles and perhaps the best leader the UN ever had, perhaps said it best, when he famously remarked: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”
Like all large organisations, the UN is far from perfect, but without it the world would be more dangerous and more chaotic. Rather than discussing whether or not the UN matters, I would love to see more energy going into how the UN can adapt and become more effective given the current political landscape.
Do you think the UN offers a valuable space for civil society?
The UN is currently dominated by states and this is a massive problem. Civil society, businesses and local and regional leaders all clearly need to work in partnership with states to respond effectively to issues such as ecosystem collapse and cybercrime, yet they are locked out of the decision-making structures and when they are invited to participate in discussions, their involvement is often tokenistic.
The UN Charter gives civil society organisations (CSOs) consultative rights with member states, but 75 years on, the means to achieve this have not kept pace with the burgeoning UN system. The UN secretariat lacks the resources to provide a coherent, system-wide approach. The results are a hotchpotch of different ways for civil society to engage with various processes and UN bodies, with key organs such as the General Assembly and the Security Council still only allowing piecemeal participation on certain occasions, and usually only to those – often well-resourced – organisations that have been able to navigate their way to attaining much-vaunted consultative status. The process to do this, overseen by a committee of member states, has been widely exposed as politicised and biased, with organisations working on issues such as LGBTQI and sexual and reproductive rights treated unfavourably.
Despite these shortcomings, civil society has proved itself to be an indispensable ally to the UN, contributing massively to many aspects of its programme work, from service provision to defending human rights to data collection and much more.
What needs to be done so that civil society can participate more effectively in UN processes?
Internally, reform is urgently needed to create easier and more meaningful ways for civil society to engage with UN activities. A good start would be the appointment by the Secretary-General of an Under-Secretary-General for Civil Society to act as a system-wide focal point. Crucially this role would need to be backed by an office with the institutional status and funding necessary to mainstream civil society participation across the UN. Supportive states or donors willing to champion this idea will be vital to its longevity and success. The idea is not new, but is needed now more than ever.
But the benefits of civil society to the UN will remain stunted until they are fully invested in decision-making structures. Opportunities should be sought to reform the governance structures of UN bodies to incorporate and recognise the interests of other stakeholders, including civil society. The way the International Labour Organization works – with delegations made up of government, business and workers’ representatives – could provide some inspiration on this front.
Externally, the UN secretariat and its officials need to be determined and vocal in their support for the protection of civil society space. The global trend towards silencing – sometimes brutally – those who support human rights and are willing to oppose those in power is hugely concerning and must be reversed if the international community is to come good on its mantra to ‘leave no one behind’. This is where the internal and external strands meet: by improving access to UN platforms to those who have been silenced or oppressed in their domestic contexts, the UN can give voice to the voiceless and disincentivise repressive behaviour by states, whose reputations will take a hit.
Is the UN facing a legitimacy challenge?
Yes. This is mainly because the UN is an easy target for states and non-state groups to point to when something has gone wrong. It’s distant, it’s made up of mostly unelected officials and its role as a servant to states makes it tricky to stand up robustly to accusations made by member states. A large proportion of the media coverage I read on the UN also makes it apparent that it is not well understood. This often takes the form of journalists regurgitating the lazy misconception that a conflict is the fault of UN inaction or the fault of the ineffective UN Security Council, when in reality, it is almost always very specifically the fault of one or two states, whose motivations for blocking action should be under the spotlight, not the UN.
There is, of course, also the justifiable criticism that the UN comes under such as over its mishandling of whistleblowers or of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. Then there is the question of both gender and geographic representation in UN appointments and in the location of UN offices. On appointments, the current Secretary-General has made some progress on gender parity at the senior level, but there remains a lot to be done both in terms of reaching gender parity across all levels, including the top job, which has seen nine men occupy the role, and in terms of the stranglehold on top jobs that influential countries continue to maintain. Issues like these inevitably cause reputational fallout to the organisation and need to be addressed.
Much of the current backlash is against a perceived elite and therefore it is more important than ever, both for legitimacy and principle, to get serious about the promise contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to leave no one behind. A global system can work, but it needs to work and be seen to work for everyone, particularly in today’s political climate. The most representative body – the General Assembly – has an expanding role to play here, including on matters of peace and security, which need not be the exclusive preserve of the Security Council.
Can you tell us more about what UNA-UK does, and specifically about its recent campaigns, such as the one conducted around the election of the UN Secretary-General?
UNA-UK is a campaigning organisation that makes the case for an effective UN. One of our recent successful campaigns was the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign to reform the way the UN chooses its leader. The campaign ran for three years ahead of the appointment of the most recent Secretary-General, building a strong civil society coalition and working closely with progressive states and the then-president of the General Assembly to revolutionise the way the UN Secretary-General selection process was conducted. Instead of being dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5) in the shadows like in previous races, the process involved a list of named candidates from all over the world along with vision statements and public hearings in the General Assembly for each candidate. We are now working to ensure these hard-won gains are consolidated and built into all future selection processes for the UN’s top job as well as for the learning to be applied where appropriate to other senior appointments.
You are currently leading a campaign, Together First, aimed at establishing “a global system that works for all.” What does the campaign seek to achieve?
Together First is our flagship campaign that we launched with partners in 2018. Its vision is to give civil society a seat at the table when the world’s future is being discussed.
Humanity faces challenges that threaten our very survival, and rising to those challenges requires the world to work together. But the status quo is not set up for this. Global coordination to mitigate cross-border threats remains overwhelmingly dominated by states, despite it being undeniably apparent that civil society needs to be part of the decision-making process if it is to be successful.
Together First is focusing on building coalitions of CSOs, activists and experts around the most promising existing ideas so we can then turn them into a reality. We are a coalition of realists and are delighted to count CIVICUS among our ranks. We understand that to convince decision-makers to pursue reforms in the current environment will not be easy, but that the chances of success will be maximised by demonstrating where existing support and resources for proposed ideas can be found, along with clear roadmaps for implementation.
Next year the heart of our current global system, the UN, turns 75 years old. Governments have decided to mark this milestone with a leaders’ summit in September 2020. What could make this more than a talking shop is for the associated intergovernmental process to agree on a forward-looking outcome document on the theme: ‘The future we want, the UN we need’. The first clause appears somewhat redundant given we already have the SDGs, but the second clause speaks to a long-overdue exercise which, if done well, could get to the heart of how multilateralism must radically adapt to face the challenges of the 21st century.
This is a crucial opportunity to demand action to improve our current global system. Together First’s objective is to ensure we make the most of this historic moment.
CIVICUS speaks with Saleem Vaillancourt, a journalist and media producer who works to promote the rights of Iran’s Bahá’í community and to encourage positive action to realise human rights. Saleem works with the street art for social justice project, Paint the Change.
Can you tell us how your work began?
I work closely with the Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, Maziar Bahari. Maziar’s story is well known. He was jailed in Iran and held in solitary confinement in 2009 after covering the Iran election crisis. He was released after an international campaign and the book he wrote about his ordeal, ‘Then They Came for Me’, was made into a film, ‘Rosewater’, by Jon Stewart. Maziar was no longer simply a journalist; he was also a human rights advocate. Once released, he could talk about all the things going on in Iran that he couldn’t when he was working in Iran.
Chief among these is the situation of the Bahá’í community, which is the largest religious minority in Iran. They are persecuted by the Iranian government because their beliefs come up against the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam practised by the government. Bahá’ís are routinely arbitrarily detained, held either without charge or under false charges and jailed. They are denied the right to go to university. There is a lot of misinformation and propaganda against them from the state media.
I’m a Bahá’í and I worked with the Bahá’í community, and also as a journalist and in public communications, and that’s how my path crossed with Maziar. In 2014 he made a documentary, ‘To Light a Candle’, about the story of the Bahá’ís and particularly about the denial of their right to education, and their response, which was to create an informal educational project – an underground university – in which they created opportunities to educate themselves. This is a programme that for 30 years has given thousands of people an education, many of whom have gone on to pursue graduate studies in western universities. It’s a huge success and a major example of constructive resilience, or what Maziar calls peaceful resistance: meeting injustice not with conflict but by building a positive alternative to overcome the situation.
I joined him for what was meant to be a short time to help promote his film and things grew from there. We created a campaign, ‘Education is not a Crime’, which is a street art and human rights campaign in which we use murals to talk about the story of the Bahá’í in Iran and more broadly to try to address education inequity and uneven access to education in other contexts as well.
What are the key methods by which you work?
We create murals, and then the murals have a social media dimension, because we share them online as videos and create local conversations, explaining why we are doing these, and especially relating what we are doing to local stories. For example we painted 20 murals in Harlem in New York, and people in this neighbourhood really saw a parallel in our work between Bahá’ís in Iran and the African-American experience of discrimination and the attempt to overcome discrimination, including in the area of education. We made a documentary about that in 2017, ‘Changing the World One Wall at a Time,’ which has been screened around the world.
This led to an initiative in Detroit, where we’ve partnered with the City of Detroit and local schools. The city government was already working to encourage school attendance, which is something we care about in terms of access to education. They created a bus route called the ‘GOAL Line’ – GOAL stands for ‘get on and learn’ – but we observed that the bus route had no shelters, so we offered to build some shelters and put artwork on them. The artwork was created in art workshops through a partnership with local students and local artists. The works represent the community in a direct way and create a visual cue in the community around the issue of education. In this activity, we moved from the area of pure awareness-raising to a kind of indirect social action.
We’re also starting to do a locally orientated street art project in London, producing work with local communities that celebrates local heroes, people who contribute to their community, whether they are known by their community or not. We put them on the side of buildings so they become positive stories that can encourage local young people.
Another thing we have been doing is producing an oral history video series in the USA, about the Bahá’í community, not only about Iran but also about the work of the community to promote race unity over the past several generations. Again, this is about telling a positive story and something that perhaps helps others in US society to look again at the issue of race – something that is obviously very charged and challenging – and find other ways of addressing it.
So that’s what I do. It’s a chance for both Maziar and I to talk about issues we think are important, but that are not limited to a focus on the Bahá’í community. Our work is at the intersection of human rights, social action and media. Sometimes it is about raising awareness or fighting instances of violations of human rights, as with the rights of the Bahá’í in Iran, but more and more now it is about finding positive stories and celebrating them through street art or a film or through other media. We want to do this in a way that can help a community see a positive version of themselves and put that at the centre of their own narrative.
What would you say you do that is different from the conventional work of a human rights organisation?
Because we are principally a media-driven group, we try to apply our media work to human rights issues and social issues, and we are looking to go beyond human rights awareness-raising to try to contribute to social processes in local communities. The Detroit project is an example of that. So that’s a kind of social action that’s distinct from awareness-raising as a conventional discipline.
We are trying to do human rights work and social action work together. We see them as different sides of basically the same work. We want to reach audiences that perhaps haven’t been engaged in human rights discussions or social action before, through media and through education workshops. So our focus is not so much on informing policy-makers, but on trying to reach local communities through accessible media and artforms.
What are the challenges faced when defending the rights of Bahá’í people in Iran?
I am also involved in IranWire, an independent news website. I know through this that Iranian journalists are targeted. Our site was recently down for a few hours over the course of several days because of a sustained denial of service attack originating from Iran.
Maziar is continually attacked on Twitter and by Iranian state media, as are other people we work with. Many people who have worked in the public space on the issue of the Bahá’ís are vilified by the Iranian media. When Maziar and others talk to United Nations institutions, they get criticised and there is a lot of disinformation spread about them. It’s clear that the Iranian authorities seek to discredit people through disinformation to try to limit their legitimacy in the international space when they talk about human rights issues happening inside Iran. The Iranian government attempts to control the narrative.
Turning to your work outside Iran, what would you say the major successes and challenges have been?
I think the big success we’ve had so far is the initiative to create the murals, especially in Harlem but also around the world: to create a story out of them, and for that story to be something that people respond to, and for us to find a way to relate that story to other situations around the world.
In the early stage of developing these murals in New York, after we had produced one or two in Harlem, the questions of these parallels between the Bahá’ís and the African-American community started to sit up. It’s not a parallel in terms of scale or severity or even of type, but it’s a parallel in terms of individual experiences and the ideology that has created a situation. African-American people who learned about the project brought that parallel to the fore in our discussions. Here was one community that is struggling identifying with the struggle of another community, that was undergoing the kind of suffering that makes the community more empathetic and more aware of the struggles of another.
We decided to tell that story as much as we could and in our work in Harlem to work with local artists and local community leaders as much as possible, and to hold educational workshops for young people around the creation of the murals. I think the fact that those murals became possible and were welcomed into the community, that there was the opportunity to see these parallels and to tell that story around the world, and that the story was broadcast inside Iran in Persian on satellite TV and seen by millions of people there, was probably the biggest success.
I think there’s not so much one major challenge we have been unable to overcome, although there are things that are harder to do than others, but it’s more that nobody is particularly out there asking for anybody to do something positive. I think a lot of people have a great desire, appetite and thirst for encountering positive stories even if they address challenging issues, but it’s not something you see being asked for in market terms, and in terms of what audience there is, and what funding you can get to do projects.
So it is a challenge to create the audience and explain our reasons for approaching our work as we do, and maintain these projects, because it’s not something that is being asked for in a commercial sense. I don’t necessarily mean commercial in terms of being driven by profit, but even non-profitable works need grants, and while there are grants that are tailored around work that tries to introduce positive narratives, it takes a lot of effort to identify them and to massage an idea into a format that would meet the requirements of a particular grant.
What more needs to change, and what further support is needed, to enable your work to achieve even more?
I think there are two levels. At the level of human attitudes, in general the world is in a very difficult place and much of what’s happening is turning people towards conflict. I think what needs to change – in order for the kind of stories we want to produce and tell to be more easily relatable and for people to be able to understand what we are getting at – is that people need to be orientated towards positive stories, towards sharing and finding them, and to seeing the world through the lens of positivity. This is not to deny there are negative things or pretend that everything is fine, but to say that we address a challenge or a difficulty not by more contention but by means of conciliation and friendliness. I think if people’s minds are orientated more that way they would be likelier to seek out or ask for the positive stories we try to tell. I’m not saying we’ve nailed that formula, but that’s our motivation and we’re trying to work in that direction.
At the structural level I think the kinds of grants, and often the kinds of initiatives that organisations want to support or are asking for, need to change. Again, it is possible to do that in terms of some grants that exist, but there is a lack of a structure and approach that says: this organisation really wants to find positive stories because positive stories change the nature of a society’s view of how to deal with challenging issues.
So much of what civil society does is about countering things that are negative. This is important work, but I also think that civil society should be going towards what it wants to see in the future. If there could be a harmonious sense across civil society about what the future ought to be, how human rights ought to be respected and what the nature of society should be in order to realise those ideals, then I think we could move towards shared civil society agendas that make it possible to work for these goals more easily.
In the civil society space, the media space and the human rights space – and partly because we are all too busy but also because there is no clearing house or central organising system – I don’t know who in civil society would want to work in the same way. But I’d love to know more about who’s out there and what they’re doing, in order to more easily find the appropriate partners.
Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Paint the Change through its website.
In a context of great mobilisation on climate action around the world and in the run up to the next Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 25), which will take place in Chile in November 2019, CIVICUS speaks with Gabriela Burdines of Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente (FIMA), a civil society organisation that since 1998 has worked to promote access to environmental justice and related legislation in Chile.
In view of access restrictions faced during COP 24 in Poland, what expectations does civil society have of COP 25 in Chile?
So far we have not been aware of any action by the government against civil society participation. On the contrary, the government has tried to approach civil society by organising information-sharing meetings and facilitating access to the 'green space' at COP 25, which is the area that civil society has traditionally occupied during these events, and which in Chile will be open between 2 December and 13 December at the Metropolitan Park of Cerrillos. In addition, there are civil society initiatives such as the Social Summit for Climate Action, a summit organised by civil society parallel to COP 25, and the Peoples’ Summit, an annual meeting that brings together organisations and networks from various parts of the world to share experiences, promote alternative solutions and strengthen global organisation and local action to curb the socio-environmental catastrophe. While they have not received any official government support, these meetings have so far not experienced any restrictions.
We are yet to see what happens with the protests that will take place in public spaces, which will begin soon, in September. As civil society we are calling for a great mobilisation to be held during COP 25, on 8 December, which we hope will appeal to all people as well as to Chilean and global civil society organisations (CSOs) participating in the conference.
How is Chilean civil society organising its participation in COP 25?
Chile took on the challenge of hosting COP 25 after Jair Bolsonaro's government decided not to hold it in Brazil. This has significantly reduced planning times. Chilean civil society is organising around at least three groups or platforms. The three that I have knowledge of are Civil Society for Climate Action (SCAC), which is in charge of the Social Summit for Climate Action, where FIMA is participating and coordinating several groups; the People's Summit, which is taking place around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November and COP 25; and the parallel COP 25 Civil Society Forum.
So there are several organised spaces. In the specific case of SCAC, this came into existence because there was no other network around the issue at the time, and because there were no spaces for participation in the official COP, since FIMA is the only Chilean CSO that is currently accredited with the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These groups are all working on different issues. They focus on national climate policy, including consultation on climate change law, decarbonisation planning and nationally determined contributions to greenhouse gas emission reductions under the UNFCCC. And they focus internationally, along with foreign CSOs such as Climate Action Network Latin America, and mainly with organisations from Central America, South America and Europe. In addition, we are doing advocacy and participating in events that will take place prior to COP 25, such as the Climate Action Summit in September and the Pre-COP.
COP meetings need the participation of civil society, and a participatory COP would have to include parallel events held by civil society, academics, governments and other actors, within the framework of the official conference and in the green space. It would also have to facilitate mobilisations in public spaces and activities in other citizens’ forums.
From the perspective of Chilean civil society, what are the most important issues that need to be addressed in COP 25?
During COP 25 it will be very important to have transparency and for the participation of CSOs in events such as this to be guaranteed as a right and established as a minimum requirement that the Chilean government must comply with. I would also highlight the importance of raising awareness about the urgent actions that need to be taken in the fight against climate change and raising the issues that make up the citizen agenda that are essential to curb global warming. Finally, as civil society we will be working for the real decarbonisation of our energy matrix; the termination and reparation of environmental sacrifice zones, that is, those areas encompassing a great number of polluting industries; the promotion of clean energies with a low impact on both the environment and human rights and policies for a fair transition and adaptation to climate change; and the design of market mechanisms that include adequate environmental and social safeguards.
For years the Chilean government led the negotiation of the Escazú Agreement on environmental democracy, but now refuses to sign it. Why is it refusing, and why is it important that it signs it?
For several years, Chile, alongside Costa Rica, led the negotiations that culminated with the adoption of the Escazú Agreement. Through a statement when the agreement opened to signature, which they issued on 7 June 2018 in their roles as co-chairs of the negotiation process, Chile and Costa Rica reaffirmed their commitment to signing the treaty and its prompt entry into force. However, ever since the treaty opened for signature on 27 September 2018, Chile has refrained from signing.
According to information disseminated in the media – since until now civil society has not received any formal response – the government's refusal to sign the Escazú Agreement is due to security and sovereignty reasons and is centred on the clause on cooperation with landlocked states and dispute resolution, which would affect Chile by virtue of its border conflict with Bolivia. However, the government has not said that it will not sign the treaty, but only that it is still ‘under study’. It has also stated that the entire content of the agreement is already guaranteed in our national legislation, so there would be no need to sign it.
However, we believe that it is important that the government commits to this agreement. Chile has made great legislative progress on matters related to the right to access environmental justice, but still needs to make progress in implementation. No protection exists for climate activists and there are many gaps in matters of information, participation and justice. We recently published a report on the progress made and challenges encountered in guaranteeing access to environmental justice, and much remains to be done in this area. For example, our country has no mechanisms allowing for the provision of free legal counsel on environmental matters.
In this context, we hope that Chile will soon sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement, and that this will be the beginning of a path that will take us to a different way of making decisions, in which agendas seeking to encourage investment will not undermine the fundamental rights of people and communities.
Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the rise of far-right extremism and religious fundamentalism in Eastern Europe with Gordan Bosanac, co-author of a case study on Eastern Europe for the Global Philanthropy Project’s report ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI rights.’
You have worked on a variety of issues, from racism and xenophobia to religious conservatism and LGBTQI rights. Do you think the rise of nationalism and attacks against migrants’ rights and sexual and reproductive rights are all part of the same trend?
These are all definitely part of the same phenomenon. The vast majority of the organisations that mobilise against women’s rights also reject LGBTQI people and migrants and refugees. They are all part of the same global movement that rejects liberal-democratic ideas, and they all mobilise against minorities or vulnerable groups.
They are a very heterogeneous set of groups and organisations. Their common denominator is what they fight against: liberal democracy. Neo-Nazi, anti-women, anti-LGBTQI and anti-migrant rights groups have different targets, but they share an agenda and collaborate towards that agenda. Many of these groups come together at the World Congress of Families, where you will find lots of hate speech against the LGBTQI community, against women and against migrants. They share the same philosophy.
To me, these groups are the exact reverse of the human rights movement, where some organisations focus on women’s rights, others on LGBTQI rights, still others on migrants or indigenous peoples, or social, cultural, or environmental rights, but we all have a philosophy founded on a positive view of human rights. We are all part of the human rights movement. It is the exact opposite for them: they all share a negative view of human rights, they don’t think they are universal, or they don’t view all people as equally human. Either way, they mobilise against human rights.
When and why did Christian fundamentalist groups emerge in Eastern Europe?
A colleague of mine says that these groups have been around for a long time. She’s currently investigating the third generation of such groups and says they originated in the 1970s, when they first mobilised around neo-Nazi ideas and against women’s rights. The most recent turning point in Eastern Europe happened in the early 2010s. In many cases it has been a reaction against national policy debates on LGBTQI and reproductive rights. Croatia, where I come from, was one of the exceptions in the sense that these groups did not mobilise in reaction to policy gains by women’s and LGBTQI rights groups, but rather in anticipation and as a preventive measure against processes that were advancing internationally, specifically against same-sex marriage.
The Croatian experience has played out in three phases. Beginning in the 1990s, an anti-abortion movement developed, led by charismatic Catholic priests. Following the fall of Communism, abortion was presented as being against religious faith, family values and national identity. The Catholic Church set up so-called ‘family centres’ that provided support services to families. Since the early 2000s, independent civil society organisations (CSOs) formed by ‘concerned’ religious citizens emerged. What triggered them was the introduction of sexuality education in the public-school curriculum. A third phase started around 2010, with the rise in nationally and internationally-connected fundamentalist CSOs, independent from the Church structure. For instance, the new groups had links with ultraconservative Polish movements – Tradition, Family, Property and Ordo Iuris. The Catholic Church remained in the background and the role of anti-rights spokespersons was relegated to ‘concerned’ religious citizens.
Fundamentalists in Croatia made good use of citizen-initiated national referenda. In 2013, they voted down marriage equality, in large part thanks to voting laws that do not require a minimum voter turnout in national referendums, as a result of which a low turnout of roughly 38 per cent sufficed to enable constitutional change. In contrast, similar referendums in Romania and Slovakia failed thanks to the requirement of a minimum 50 per cent turnout.
Anti-rights groups seem to have made a lot of progress in Eastern Europe since the early 2010s. Why is that?
We started closely monitoring these groups in Croatia around the time of the referendum, and what we saw is that their rise was linked to the redefinition of their strategies. They used to be old fashioned, not very attractive to their potential audiences and not very savvy in the use of the instruments of direct democracy. From 2010 onwards they changed their strategies. The anti-rights movement underwent a rapid renewal, and its new leaders were very young, eloquent and aware of the potential of democratic instruments. In their public appearances, they started downplaying religion, moving from religious symbolism to contemporary, colourful and joyous visuals. They started organising mass mobilisations such as the anti-abortion Walk for Life marches, as well as small-scale street actions, such as praying against abortion outside hospitals or staging performances. Ironically, they learned by watching closely what progressive human rights CSOs had been doing: whatever they were doing successfully, they would just copy. They also revived and upgraded traditional petition methods, going online with platforms such as CitizenGo.
Internationally, anti-rights groups started taking shape in the mid-1990s in reaction to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing. It was then that a consensus formed around women’s rights as human rights, and when gender first came on the agenda. Religious groups felt defeated in Beijing. Many academics who studied this process concluded that it was then that the Catholic Church got angry because they lost a big battle. They underwent several defeats in the years that followed, which enraged them further. In 2004, the candidacy of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian nominee for the European Commission, was withdrawn under pressure from the European Parliament because of his anti-gender and homophobic positions. Christian fundamentalists were also enraged when heated discussions took place regarding the possibility of Europe’s ‘Christian roots’ being mentioned in the European Constitution. All of this made the Vatican very angry. There were quite a few symbolic moments that made them angry and pushed them to fight more strongly against liberal ideas.
In reaction against this, they modernised, and it helped them to have increasingly tight connections to US-based fundamentalist evangelical groups, which had a long experience in shaping policies both within and outside the USA.
Do you think this is mostly a top-down process, or have these groups reached deeply at the grassroots level?
In Eastern Europe it is mostly a top-down process, possibly related to the fact that for the most part these groups are Christian Catholic, not evangelical. These ideas come from very high up. They have been produced and disseminated by the Vatican for decades. They are not spontaneous and are very well organised. Their strategies have not spread by imitation but rather because they are all dictated from the top.
This does not mean that they have not been able to appeal to citizens; on the contrary, they have done so very successfully, even more so than human rights groups. That is because they use very simple language and play on people’s fears and insecurities. They build their popularity upon prejudice and fears of others who are different. Fear seems to be an easy way to mobilise people, but people on the left don’t want to use it because they feel that it is not fair to manipulate people. Anti-rights groups, on the other hand, don’t have any problem with scaring people. When they first appeared in Croatia, these groups gained huge support because they stirred fear and then presented themselves as the protectors and saviours of people against the fictional monster that they had created.
What are the main strategies that these groups have used in order to grow?
First, they share a unified discourse that is built around the rejection of what they call ‘gender ideology’, which is nothing but an empty signifier to designate whatever threat they perceive in any particular context. They declare themselves the protectors of the family and the natural order and use defamation strategies and a pseudo-scientific discourse against women’s and LGBTQI people’s rights. A nationalistic rhetoric is also omnipresent in Eastern European countries.
Second, they have co-opted human rights discourse and adopted the practices of civic organising of the human rights movement. They not only profit from direct access to church-going citizens, but they also mobilise the grassroots through lectures, training, youth camps and social networks. They also benefit from sufficient funding to bus people to central rallies such as the Walk for Life marches, pay the expenses of numerous volunteers and cover the cost of expensive advertising.
Third, they have successfully used citizen-initiated referendum mechanisms. In Croatia and Slovenia, they collected the required number of signatures to initiate national referenda against same-sex marriage, which they won. In Romania and Slovakia, in turn, they succeeded in collecting the signatures but failed to meet the minimum participation requirement. Voter turnout in all these referenda ranged from 20 per cent in Romania to 38 per cent in Croatia, which shows that fundamentalists do not enjoy majority support anywhere, but they are still cleverly using democratic mechanisms to advance their agenda.
Fourth, they use litigation both to influence and change legislation and to stop human rights activists and journalists who are critical of their work. In order to silence them, they sue them for libel and ‘hate speech against Christians’. Although these cases are generally dismissed, they help them position themselves as victims due to their religious beliefs.
Fifth, they not only get good coverage of their events on mainstream media but they also have their own media, mostly online news portals, in which they publish fake news that defames their opponents, which they then disseminate on social media. They also host and cover conservative events that feature ‘international experts’ who are presented as the highest authorities on issues such as sexuality and children’s rights.
Sixth, they rely on transnational collaboration across Europe and with US-based groups.
Seventh, they target the school system, for instance with after-school programmes intended to influence children between the ages of four and 14, when they are most susceptible and easily converted.
Last but not least, they work not only through CSOs but also political parties. In this way, they are also present in elections, and in some cases, they gain significant power. Such is the case of the far-right Polish Law and Justice Party, which fully integrated these groups into its activities. In other cases, they establish their own political parties. This happened in Croatia, where the main fundamentalist CSO, In the Name of the Family, established a political party called Project Homeland. The case of Romania is most concerning in this regard, as it shows how Christian fundamentalist positions on LGBTQI rights can be mainstreamed across the political and religious spectrum.
In other words, these groups are present in various spaces, not just within civil society. And they are targeting mainstream conservative parties, and notably those that are members of the European People’s Party, the European Parliament’s centre-right grouping. They are trying to move centre-right and conservative parties towards the far right. This is their crucial fight because it can take them to power. It’s the responsibility of conservative parties around the world to resist these attacks, and it is in the interest of progressive groups to protect them as well because if they lose, we all lose.
Do you think there is anything that progressive civil society can do to stop anti-rights groups?
I’m not very optimistic because we have been fighting them for several years and it’s really difficult, especially because the global tide is also changing: there is a general rightwards trend that seems very difficult to counter.
However, there are several things that can still be done. The first thing would be to expose these groups, to tell people who they really are. We need to expose them for what they are – religious fundamentalists, neo-Nazis and so on – because they are hiding their true faces. Depending on the local context, sometimes they are not even proud to admit that they are connected to the Church. Once these connections are exposed, many people become suspicious towards them. We would also have to hope for some common sense and disclose all the dirty tracks of the money and hope that people will react, which sometimes happens, sometimes doesn’t.
The main role should be played by believers who refuse to accept the misuse of religion for extremist purposes. Believers are the most authentic spokespeople against fundamentalism and their voices can be much stronger than the voices of mobilised secular people or political opposition. However, the lack of such groups at the local level, due to pressure from local religious authorities, can be a problem. Pope Francis has seriously weakened fundamentalist groups and he is a great example of how religious leaders can combat religious extremism and fundamentalism.
It is also productive to use humour against them. They don’t really know how to joke; sarcastic, humorous situations make them feel at a loss. This has the potential to raise suspicions among many people. But we need to be careful not to make victims out of them because they are experts in self-victimisation and would know how to use this against us.
Finally, let me say this again because it’s key. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s very important to empower conservative parties across the globe so they stand their ground and resist far-right hijacking attempts. Progressives need to protect conservative parties from extremist attacks, or they will become vehicles for the far-right to get to power, and then it will be too late.
Civic space in Croatia is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @GordanBosanac on Twitter.inter
Since August 2019, there have been mass protests in Papua and West Papua, Indonesia. Protesters have demanded self-determination and called attention to racism by the Indonesian authorities. CIVICUS speaks to Arnold Belau, a West Papuan journalist and editor of Suara Papua (Papuan Voice), about the government’s crackdown on protests and the intimidation experienced by journalists reporting on the abuses.
What has been the cause of the recent mass protests? What are the protesters’ demands?
The cause of the mass action in Papua was the racism experienced in mid-August by Papuan students in Surabaya on the island of Java. Their student dormitory was raided by the security forces and locals verbally attacked them and hurled racist insults at them. Papuans demand an end to the persecution and racism against them. Such acts are not new. They have been happening for a long time against Papuans. This case is not the first and it would not be the last.
Papua is a region where there have been longstanding demands for independence by local Papuans because of systematic human rights violations against them by the Indonesian security forces, discrimination, displacement of their communities and extraction of natural resources. Despite its natural wealth, Papua remains one of the least economically developed regions of Indonesia.
What has been the government's response to the protest?
The government's response to the Papuan protests has been excessive. Instead of seeking to understand the reasons for the protest and to address the longstanding racism against Papuans, it has arrested and detained many of the protesters who have spoken out. Added to this, the government blocked the internet and deployed the military in excessive numbers to the West Papuan region. This will not solve the problem. Instead, the military presence will worsen the atmosphere.
There are reports of pro-Indonesian civilian organisations operating in the region. What are they doing?
There are some mass organisations known as Merah Putih (Red and White) operating in the West Papuan region. There are usually close to the military and police. Also, they often make statements to the effect that Papua is a legitimate region within the framework of the Republic of Indonesia. Usually they organise demonstrations to the Papua Parliament to which they bring red and white flags, the colours of the Indonesian state, particularly on important dates for Papua, such as 1 December, which marks the 1969 annexation of Papua by Indonesia. They usually turn up then. However, they are few in number.
What is the current situation of activists in Papua?
At present the situation has improved. However, there are still many security officials on the streets. Their presence certainly increases the trauma of the Papuan people because of the abuses perpetrated by the Indonesian military apparatus. Their presence does not provide security for Papuans. Arrests of pro-independence activists are still ongoing in Papua and outside Papua. At least 10 people have been arrested and 62 have been identified as suspects. But this number is certain to increase because the security forces are still seeking to arrest activists who they suspect are behind the protests throughout Papua.
How does the internet closure affect the work of journalists?
Internet access has been blocked since 19 August 2019. The internet is still being blocked by the state in certain areas, especially affecting internet access via smartphones. However, we can now at least access the internet via wifi, which was unblocked in early September. From the moment the internet was blocked, we could not work anymore. Our work activities were disrupted because we work in the online media space. We felt the most impact because we could not write and disseminate information to the public. As well as that, readers and visitors to our online website dropped dramatically. This is the impact that we felt. However, since the beginning of September, we have been able to work again, with wifi access now operating normally. But internet access via smartphone has not yet been unblocked in Jayapura, the capital and largest city in Papua.
Do journalists face threats and harassment for doing their job
Those of us who are native reporters from Papua often experience harassment and threats. Victor Mambor, the editor of Jubi Newspaper and Jubi online, is facing serious threats, including ‘doxxing’. ‘Doxxing’ is where personal or identifying documents or details are shared online about someone without their consent. I have also experienced this. Most recently, on 9 September 2019, the authorities went to the home of Benny Mawel, a reporter who works for Jubi and the Jakarta Post, to search his house. The threats to local Papuan journalists are greater. This is because we face discrimination when reporting. This occurs especially when covering abuses during protests in Papua. I think that freedom of the press in Papua must improve. The authorities must open access for foreign journalists to come to report freely in Papua without being restricted and without supervision by the government or military.
What can the international community do to support the work of journalists in Papua?
The international community must speak up and support journalists and the media in Papua when they face intimidation and threats. They must call on the Indonesian authorities to respect and protect journalists so we can write freely without threats and intimidation.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks with Brandi Geurkink, European campaigner at the Mozilla Foundation, a non-profit corporation based on the conviction that the internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible to all. The Mozilla Foundation seeks to fuel a movement for a healthy internet by supporting a diverse group of fellows working on key internet issues, connecting open internet leaders at events such as MozFest, publishing critical research in the Internet Health Report and rallying citizens around advocacy issues that connect the wellbeing of the internet directly to everyday life.
The regular internet user possibly identifies Mozilla with Firefox and doesn’t know that there is also a Mozilla Foundation. Can you tell us what the Mozilla Foundation is and what it does?
I get this question asked a lot. When I told my family I was working for Mozilla, they said, ‘wait, you are not a software professional, what are you doing there?’ What makes Mozilla different from other software developers is that it is a non-profit tech company. Mozilla is the creator of Firefox, which is a web browser, but an open source one. It also has users’ privacy at its core. And all of Mozilla’s work is guided by the Mozilla Manifesto, which provides a set of principles for an open, accessible and safe internet, viewed as a global public resource.
Profits that come from the Firefox browser are invested into the Mozilla Foundation, which is the Mozilla Corporation’s sole shareholder, and our mission is to build an open and healthy web. Mozilla creates and enables open-source technologies and communities that support the Manifesto’s principles; creates and delivers consumer products that represent the Manifesto’s principles; uses the Mozilla assets – intellectual property such as copyrights and trademarks, infrastructure, funds and reputation – to keep the internet an open platform; promotes models for creating economic value for the public benefit; and promotes the Mozilla Manifesto principles in public discourse and within the internet industry.
Mozilla promotes an open and healthy web through a variety of activities. For instance, we have a fellowships programme to empower and connect leaders from the internet health movement. This programme supports people doing all sorts of things, from informing debates on how user rights and privacy should be respected online to creating technologies that will enable greater user agency. Mozilla also produces an annual report, the Internet Health Report, and mobilises people in defence of a healthy internet. A lot of this work takes the form of campaigning for corporate accountability; we seek to influence the way in which tech companies are thinking about privacy and user agency within their products and to mobilise consumers so that they demand better behaviour and more control over their online lives.
How do you define a healthy internet?
A healthy internet is a place where people can safely and freely communicate and participate. For this to happen, the internet must truly be a global public resource rather than something that’s owned by a few giant tech companies, who are then in control of who participates and how they do it. Some key components of a healthy web are openness, privacy and security. We place a lot of emphasis on digital inclusion, which determines who has access; web literacy, which determines who can succeed online; and decentralisation, which focuses on who controls the web – ideally, many rather than just a few.
The internet is currently dominated by eight American and Chinese companies: Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, Baidu, Facebook, Microsoft and Tencent. These companies and their subsidiaries dominate all layers of the digital world, from search engines, browsers and social media services to core infrastructure like undersea cables and cloud computing. They built their empires by selling our attention to advertisers, creating new online marketplaces and designing hardware and software that we now cannot do without. Their influence is growing in both our private lives and public spaces.
What’s wrong about giant tech companies, and why it would be advisable to curb their power?
A lot of the problems that we see online are not ‘tech’ problems per se – they’re sociopolitical problems that are amplified, and in some cases incentivised, to spread like wildfire and reach more people than ever before. When it comes to disinformation, for instance, a big part of the problem is the business models that guide the major social media platforms that we communicate on. The most successful tech companies have grown the way they have because they have monetised our personal data. They cash in on our attention in the form of ad revenue. When you think about how we use platforms designed for viral advertising as our primary method of social and political discourse – and increasingly our consumption of news – you can start to see why disinformation thrives on platforms like Facebook and Google.
Another example of the ‘attention economy’ is YouTube, Google’s video platform, which recommends videos to users automatically, often leading us down ‘rabbit holes’ of increasingly more extreme content in order to keep us hooked and watching. When content recommendation algorithms are designed to maximise attention to drive profit, they end up fuelling radical beliefs and often spreading misinformation.
What can be done about people using the internet to disseminate extremist ideas, hate speech and false information?
I’m glad that you asked this because there is definitely a risk of censorship and regulation to fix this problem that actually results in violations of fundamental rights and freedoms. Worryingly, we’re seeing ‘fake news laws’ that use this problem as an excuse to limit freedom of speech and crack down on dissent, particularly in countries where civic space is shrinking and press freedom lacking. Mozilla fellow Renee di Resta puts this best when she says that freedom of reach is not the same as freedom of speech. Most of the big internet platforms have rules around what constitutes acceptable speech, which basically take the form of community guidelines. At the same time, platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter give people the ability to amplify their ideas to a huge number of people. This is the ‘freedom of reach’, and increasingly we’re seeing that used to spread ideas that are at odds with the values that underpin peaceful and democratic societies, like equality and human rights.
I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the business models of major technology platforms create the perfect storm for the manipulation of users. Disinformation and hate speech are content designed to appeal to emotions such as fear, anger and even humour. Combine this with the ability to target specific profiles of people in order to manipulate their ideas, and this becomes the perfect place for this sort of ideas to take hold. Once purveyors of disinformation have gained enough of a following, they can comfortably move offline and mobilise these newly-formed communities, which is something we’re seeing more and more of. It’s this freedom of reach problem that platforms have yet to grapple with, maybe because it’s at odds with the very way that they make money. The challenge is to come up with ideas that improve the mechanisms to eliminate, on one hand, the likelihood of amplification of anti-rights ideas and hate speech, and on the other, the danger of censorship and discrimination against certain types of legitimate discourse.
There has been a lot of controversy about how social media platforms are, or are not, dealing with misinformation. Do you think fact-checking is the way to go?
Responsible reporting and factual information are crucial for people to make informed choices, including about who should govern them; that is why fighting misinformation with care for free speech is key. Among the things that can be done about misinformation it is worth mentioning the verification of advertisers, as well as improved monitoring tools to detect bots and check facts. These are things that if implemented correctly would have an impact on these issues, and not just during the time of elections.
But the critical place where platforms are currently failing to live up to their commitments is around transparency. There must be greater transparency into how people use platforms like Facebook and Google to pay for ads that are intended to manipulate political discourse. At the same time, we must ensure that these companies are open about how content monitoring happens on platforms and that there are redress policies in place for people whose content has been wrongfully removed or deleted. Specific attention should be paid to the situation of fragile democracies, where disinformation can be more harmful because of the absence or limited presence of independent media.
There have been election campaigns plagued by disinformation tactics in many different places, from India to Brazil. In response to public pressure, Facebook expressed a commitment to provide better transparency around how their platform is used for political advertisement so that sophisticated disinformation campaigns can be detected and understood and ultimately prevented. But the transparency tools that the company has released are largely insufficient. This has been repeatedly verified by independent researchers. There is a big disconnect between what companies say in public regarding what they intend to do or have done to prevent disinformation and the actual tools they put out there to do the job. I think Facebook should focus on creating tools that can actually get the job done.
And besides what the companies running the social media platforms are or are not doing, there have been independent initiatives that seem to have worked. A tactic that disinformation campaigns use is the repurposing of content, for instance using a photo that was taken in a different place and time or sharing an old article out of context to spread the rumour that something new has just happened when it’s actually something else entirely that has been reported five years ago. In response to this, The Guardian came up with a brilliant solution: when someone shares on Twitter or Facebook an article of theirs that’s over 12 months old a yellow sign will automatically appear on the shared image stating that the article is over 12 months old. The notice also appears when you click on the article. This initiative was a proactive move from The Guardian to empower people to think more critically about what they are seeing. We need many more initiatives like this.
Are disinformation campaigns also plaguing European politics in the ways that we’ve seen in the USA and Brazil?
Most definitely, which is why in the lead up to the 2019 European elections four leading internet companies – Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla – signed the European Commission’s Code of Practice on Disinformation pledging to take specific steps to prevent disinformation from manipulating citizens of the European Union. This was basically a voluntary code of conduct, and what we saw when monitoring its implementation ahead of the European elections was that the platforms did not deliver what they promised to the European Commission in terms of detecting and acting against disinformation.
Fortunately, ahead of the European Parliamentary elections we didn’t see election interference and political propaganda on the scale that has happened in the Philippines, for example, which is an excellent case study if you want to learn about disinformation tactics that were used very successfully. But we still have a big problem with ‘culture war debates’ that create an atmosphere of confusion, opening rifts and undermining trust in democratic processes and traditional institutions. Social media platforms have still not delivered on transparency commitments that are desperately needed to better understand what is happening.
Civil society identified a case in Poland where pro-government Facebook accounts posed as elderly people or pensioners to spread government propaganda. Before the European elections and following an independent investigation, Facebook took down 77 pages and 230 fake accounts from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK, which had been followed by an estimated 32 million people and generated 67 million interactions over the previous three months alone. These were mostly part of far-right disinformation networks. Among other things, they had spread a video that was seen by 10 million people, supposedly showing migrants in Italy destroying a police car, which was actually from an old movie, and a fake story about migrant taxi drivers raping white women in Poland. A UK-based disinformation network that was uncovered in March 2019 was dedicated to disseminating fake information on topics such as immigration, LGBTQI rights and religious beliefs.
Of course this is happening all the time, and not only during elections, although elections are moments of particular visibility when a lot more than usual is at stake, so there seems to be a spike in the use of misinformation tactics around elections. This also tends to happen around other, particularly stressful situations, for example a terror attack or more generally any current event that draws people’s attention.
Why do online dynamics favour the amplification of specific kinds of messages – i.e. messages of hate instead of a narrative of human rights?
Internet platforms are designed to amplify certain types of content that are created to appeal to deep emotions, because their aim is to keep you on the platform as long as possible and make you want to share that content with friends who will also be retained as long as possible on the platform. The higher the numbers of people online and the longer they stay, the higher the number of ads that will be delivered, and the higher the ad revenue will be. What will naturally happen once these platforms are up and running is that people will develop content with a political purpose, and the dynamics around this content will be exactly the same.
Some will say that users doing this are abusing internet platforms. I disagree: I think people doing this are using those platforms exactly how they were designed to be used, but for the purpose of spreading an extremist political discourse, and the fact that this is how platforms are supposed to work is indeed a big part of the problem. It does make a difference whether someone is trying to make money from users’ posts or the platform is just a space for people to exchange ideas. We need to understand that if we are not paying for the product, then we are the product. If nobody were trying to make money out of our online interactions, there would be a higher chance of online interactions being more similar to interactions happening anywhere else, with people exchanging ideas more naturally rather than trying to catch each other’s attention by trying to elicit the strongest possible reactions.
Does it make sense for us to keep trying to use the internet to have reasonable and civilised political conversations, or is it not going to happen?
I love the internet, and so I think it’s not an entirely hopeless situation. The fact that the attention economy, combined with the growing power of a handful of tech companies, drives the way that we use the internet is really problematic, but at the same time there is a lot of work being done to think through how alternative business models for the internet could look, and increasingly regulators and internet users are realising that the current model is really broken. A fundamental question worth asking is whether it is possible to balance a desire to maximise ad revenue, and therefore people’s time spent on social media, and social responsibility. I think that companies as big as Google or Facebook have a duty to invest in social responsibility even if it has a negative impact on their revenue or it requires a level of transparency and accountability that frightens them. Responsibility implies, among other things, getting people’s consent to use their data to determine what they see online, and provide users’ insights into when and how you’re making choices about what they see.
You may wonder, ‘why would they do that?’. Well, it’s interesting. The CEO of YouTube, Susan Wojcicki, recently published a blog post saying that the spread of harmful content on YouTube is more of a revenue risk for the company because it damages their reputation. I think that there is an element of reputational damage, but the much bigger risk that these companies face is policy-makers cracking down on these platforms and their ability to continue operating as usual without greater accountability. For instance, the European code of practice on disinformation was self-regulatory; we have seen at least in this case that the platforms that committed to the Code didn’t deliver tools that were sufficient to provide greater political ad transparency, and they are still not held accountable for this. Does this example mean that policy-makers will be under greater pressure to regulate the online space by mandating transparency instead of requesting it? These are the sort of conversations that should define new approaches to dealing with harmful content online in order to make sure it remains a positive force in our lives.
CIVICUS speaks with Nay Lin Tun, a doctor and civil society humanitarian worker in Myanmar, about conflict in Rakhine State, the difficulties faced by minorities in the region, and civil society’s work to provide help.
Can you tell us about your background and the work you’re doing in Rakhine State?
I’m a doctor working in public health, particularly focusing on primary healthcare, reproductive and women’s health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I was part of a group who founded a civil society organisation, the Center for Social Integrity, which supports communities in conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine State. We’re trying to support people based on their needs, including their needs to food, shelter and livelihoods. Right now in Rakhine State we are providing basic humanitarian support, education, healthcare, livelihoods and water and sanitation services for people in the conflict areas. Because of my experience I focus on providing healthcare and humanitarian support.
At the moment there is fighting in the north and east of Rakhine State between the Myanmar Army and the insurgent Arakan Army. According to the United Nations there are around 35,000 newly displaced people because of the fighting in 2019, living in camps in Rakhine State. We are supporting these communities and other conflict-affected communities in the area.
What are some of the challenges minority groups face in Rakhine State?
In my country there are 135 recognised ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, who are the main group across most of Myanmar. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of small groups, often in the regions close to borders, who are becoming less and less recognised by the government. Different groups face different challenges. In Rakhine State there are religious, ethnic and social minorities, and they all face human rights challenges.
The Rohingya community, who are Muslims, have been subjected to a lot of abuses. They are denied citizenship and treated as stateless persons. They are not recognised as an ethnic group by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are called Bengalis by many in the dominant population groups, because they see them as belonging to Bangladesh. They have their movement restricted and struggle to access education and healthcare.
Local hospitals are inadequate, so if there is a medical emergency people have to travel to a major city. Before 2017 they could go to the Bangladesh side of the border on a short-term pass and get hospital treatment, but now the border area is closed and they cannot do this. But because they don’t have citizenship and their movement is restricted, it is also hard to go to the big hospitals in Sitwe, the main city in Rakhine State. People can pay for this with their lives. If there is an emergency, the only way people can negotiate to get treatment is to pay a bribe. This happened to someone I was trying to treat for a tumour.
In another case, a pregnant woman had severe labour pains in the middle of the night. They tried to take her to hospital, but there is a curfew, introduced in 2017 and in force ever since. No one can go out between 11pm and 5am. There are many police checkpoints in the area, and while other villages were okay, in this case they would not allow this pregnant woman to pass. She had to go home. By the time she could go to hospital the next day, the child was already dead. Luckily, the mother survived.
Rohingya people are also denied education. The highest education most people can get is at high school. They cannot join a university as a full-time student. They can only do distance learning for a few subjects. They also struggle to find work. Most Rohingya people work in farming, fishing and cutting timber, but right now they are not allowed to fish or go into forests to chop wood. Most of the farming lands are occupied by the military. Most people are now involved in daily casual work. So everyday life is very challenging.
The Rohingya are not the only minority in the region who face difficulties. Local ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Dynat and Mu, who live on the mountains, face challenges, even though their religion is Buddhist. Because they live in remote locations, they cannot access healthcare and education. They have no life opportunities.
What was your experience of the violence that occurred in 2017?
What I saw was people living in fear. I saw communities that were afraid of each other: Rohingya people and Rakhine people, the majority group within the state, were afraid of each other. I worked on medical clinics in northern Rakhine State and hired a taxi to transport medicines. My driver, who was from the Rakhine group, did not want to take me to the area. You had people unable to go to the other communities because they did not think they would come back.
What role do you think hate speech and extremist views played in stoking conflict?
Most of the hate speech and extremist protest and provocations came from extreme groups in the big cities, and was spread by social media, whereas in rural communities it was more that you had villages of different ethnic groups that were afraid of each other. There was a lot of misinformation spread through social media, and this was viral. No one could know what was true or not. Positive stories and true information were far less viral than hate speech and misinformation.
In the major cities, hate speech and misinformation turned a social conflict into a religious conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Extremist Buddhist monks turned this into a bigger conflict. Extremist groups spread disinformation and encouraged extremism, with the unofficial support of the military and political parties, in their own interests. People played political games in the big cities, but they had no connection to the villages in the conflict area. Those people were the most affected and they were living in fear, and live in fear now. There is a big challenge in controlling hate speech and misinformation on social media.
It is much harder for civil society voices promoting social cohesion and religious harmony to be heard compared to hate speech, but civil society is trying to do this. These are messages my organisation is trying to promote very strongly in the conflict areas. But there is a need for more impact, and more efforts, not just from civil society but from the government. There is a need for much more activity that strengthens communities.
What support is needed, including from the international community, to improve the lives of minorities and people affected by conflict?
There is a lot of willingness from the international community to support people in Rakhine State, and not only Rohingya people but also other minorities. But the most challenging thing at the moment is that national government and local authorities are limiting them from doing so, and have been doing since 2017. So there is a lack of ability to really go into the villages and directly help people.
The international community needs to engage with the national government and local authorities so that they are willing to work with them and listen to the voices of local communities and support them in the areas affected by conflict. They need to build relationships with the government, and the government needs to work with the international community. The government needs to open the doors.
It is all about access – access to healthcare, access to education, access to livelihoods. Right now access is blocked. Even access to the internet was blocked by the government, between June and September. People don’t have access to the means to share their voices. People are also scared of speaking out because of restrictive media laws. They fear they will get into trouble. This is why I try to share their stories. So, access is the big challenge. We need more access by the community for the community. This is why the government needs to open the doors for international and local civil society.
Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks with Thang Nguyen of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a civil society organisation based in the USA and Thailand, about the challenges for civil society and religious minorities in Vietnam, and about their work to enable civil society responses.
Can you tell us about BPSOS and the work it does?
I’m currently the CEO and President of BPSOS, having joined initially as a volunteer. BPSOS was founded in 1980. We have two major divisions. The first, our domestic programme, is about serving refugees and migrants in the USA, across six locations. Second, we have our international initiatives, run from our regional headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.
In Bangkok, we provide a legal clinic to help refugees and asylum seekers with their asylum claims and with protection – not only those coming from Vietnam but also from other countries, including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We have a programme to help Vietnamese human rights defenders at risk, whether they be in prison or in hiding in Vietnam or seeking refuge in Thailand or elsewhere. A major component is to build capacity for civil society in Vietnam at the community level. Finally, we have a religious freedom project, working with local, regional and global partners, to build up a network for advocates for freedom of religion or belief in South East Asia. We hold an annual conference, the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB).
What are the key current challenges experienced by civil society in Vietnam?
The regime is still very oppressive. The government has heavy-handed policies against people coming together to form their own associations, which make it hard for organised civil society to develop. The government is now somewhat more tolerant with individuals speaking out, or perhaps it is that the government struggles to control expression on social media to the same extent.
Another challenge comes with the people themselves. Living in a closed society, they don’t have many opportunities to develop the necessary skills or experience to come together and form associations.
Further, there’s very little commitment or investment from the international community to develop civil society in Vietnam, compared for example to Cambodia or Myanmar. There are very few organisations from outside Vietnam that work hand in hand with groups in Vietnam to help them develop capacity to implement programmes.
Because of this, there are very few truly functional independent civil society organisations in Vietnam and the number of these has decreased over the last five years because they cannot sustain themselves in the face of interference from the government. There are only individual human rights defenders, some of them well-known, but not organised civil society.
In contrast, there are tens of thousands of government-owned ‘non-governmental’ organisations (GONGOs) that are controlled by the Communist Party. They present themselves as the civil society of Vietnam.
What are the challenges minority groups face in Vietnam, particularly religious minorities?
Many of the minority groups are indigenous peoples, but the government of Vietnam does not recognise them as such; it only classes them as ethnic minorities. They therefore face a fight for the right to be recognised as indigenous people. They are often separated from their ancestral land.
For many groups, a religion that is a minority belief in Vietnam is part of their social and cultural makeup. For example, the Cham are Muslim and the Khmer Krom are Theravada Buddhists, which is very different from the Mahayana Buddhism practised by the majority of Vietnamese Buddhists. Then there are the Hmong and the Montagnards: Christianity has spread among the Montagnards for decades, and the government wants to control and stop this. Since the early 1980s, Christianity also started to develop in the Northwest Region among the Hmong population. The government of Vietnam viewed this as an undesirable influence from the west, and therefore it has taken drastic messages to stop its further spreading in the Northwest and Central Highlands regions.
Most of these groups of people are located remotely and so don’t have access to the internet, and don’t know how to attract resources, even from within Vietnam. Other people in Vietnam aren’t aware of the situation, let alone the international community. Little information is available about these groups.
The government authorities are directly suppressing independent house churches. In the Central Highlands, thousands of house churches have been closed, set on fire and destroyed. In 2004 the government issued an ordinance on belief and religion, meaning that house churches have to be registered. There are credible reports that the government trained a lot of its own people to become pastors, and they have set up new churches allowed by the government. These are run and controlled by the government.
A major challenge is the forced renunciation of faith. Christians have been ordered to leave their parish churches and told not to follow any religion, or to join a government-controlled church. People who have resisted joining government-controlled churches have been harassed, persecuted and tortured. Several deaths in police custody have been documented. There are quite a lot of religious prisoners of conscience, many of them Montagnard Christians.
The repression of the Hmong is even more drastic. In many parts of Northwest Region, Hmong Christians who have refused to renounce their faith have been evicted from their villages by the local authorities. Their villages have been declared as Christian-free zones. Tens of thousands of Hmong have been affected, something that continues to this day. They became itinerant, and it has taken them many years to coalesce into new communities, usually in previously uninhabited areas unknown to local government. Many moved to the Central Highlands. They are completely undocumented and so have become functionally stateless. They live outside society. Married people are not issued with marriage certificates, babies do not get birth certificates, children can’t formally receive education – although some slip into school unofficially – and people can’t get legal employment, set up a business, or open a bank account. They are restricted in their travel: pastors can’t travel into these communities, while they cannot travel to worship elsewhere.
In many provinces Catholics, even when they are part of the major ethnic groups, have been persecuted by the government. And then there is the Cao Dai religion, a minority religion with about five million reported followers, although the government only recognises around 1.2 million Cao Daiists. Its church structures were disbanded in 1978. In 1997 the government created a new Cao Dai sect, and then 10 years later turned this into a new religion with a similar name and transferred all the property of the Cao Dai religion to it. To the world the government presents this sect as the representative of the Cao Dai religion.
The government is also using non-state actors against minority religions. In Nghe An Province, the authorities use organised mobs known as Red Flag Associations, which are supported and encouraged by local authorities to attack churches and beat up parishioners. We have had several reports of this.
What steps are needed to help civil society respond to these rights violations?
Because of the restriction of organised civil society there’s very little response to the suppression of religious minorities. This lack of organised civil society also makes it difficult to foster partnerships between civil society groups in Vietnam and international human rights organisations. In response, we are trying to build community capacity to develop organisations in Vietnam to protect rights.
We train a lot of people in Vietnam to know how to report human rights violations. So far we’ve trained about a thousand local rapporteurs and they have generated about 200 different reports that have been submitted to various United Nations (UN) special procedures and UN bodies, and shared with other governments and international human rights organisations to raise awareness of the situation in Vietnam.
We are helping to form community-based CSOs in each minority community. So far there are about 20 of these, and we aim to have 100 by the end of 2020. We have incubated a number of CSOs specialising in different aspects of human rights, based on the international commitments Vietnam has made as a result of signing various conventions. For example, we have supported the creation and development of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, the Vietnam Coalition Against Torture and the Vietnam Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable. We have worked with Montagnard people to form a CSO specialising in Montagnard minorities. Now we are connecting these specialist CSOs with their peers outside Vietnam. For instance Vietnamese Women for Human Rights is now a member of FORUM-ASIA, a network of human rights organisations throughout Asia and the Pacific. We are cultivating these kinds of partnerships.
What more support is needed?
Once CSOs in Vietnam have developed some capacity, there is a need to connect them with civil society outside Vietnam. We are advocating for organisations to offer internship and fellowship schemes to enable staff to develop skills, experience, connections and exposure outside Vietnam.
We hope to see more projects geared at further developing civil society in Vietnam, through training, coaching and technical assistance as well as advocacy. There has been an almost complete lack of this kind of investment from civil society worldwide. Organisations are issuing statements about Vietnam and that is appreciated, but this is the next step needed. Amnesty International now has a Vietnamese national working on Vietnam, who was with BPSOS before, so this is a positive step and a model to replicate.
It would be much more effective if international human rights organisations working on Vietnam could coordinate among themselves, and with groups within Vietnam. For instance, a joint advocacy project on the functionally stateless Montagnard Christians, with pressure coming from multiple directions, would help.
Civic space in Vietnam is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Europe with Giada Negri, research and advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum (ECF). The ECF is a network of civil society organisations working on citizenship education, human rights advocacy and the promotion of democracy.
What kind of work does the European Civic Forum do?
The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a European network that includes over a hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from all across the European Union and the Balkans. It began in 2005 as an informal network and became official in 2007. This happened at a crucial moment because the Constitutional Treaty – the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – had just been thrown out as a result of popular votes. It was time to discuss serious issues related to democracy, issues that were transversal to civil society across countries, and the ECF thought it could provide a space for these debates to take place.
More recently we started working on civic space, as our members and partners began to notice an increased pressure on civil society. The tipping point was the approval of the Anti-Foreign NGO Law in Hungary in 2017. About one-and-a-half years ago the ECF created a platform for civic space, Civic Space Watch, to collect resources, analyses, updates and articles on the state of civic space and civic freedoms in Europe, and to fuel civil society reaction to restrictions. We want civil society to be able to request and receive solidarity across borders, so if there is an attack in one country there is a shared understanding of what is happening and a quick collective reaction against it.
What would you say are the main current threats against civic space in Europe?
To understand these threats we have to take step back and look at what CSOs and social movements have been doing over several years – denouncing a system that has proven socially, environmentally and politically unsustainable and filling in the gaps in many areas and in different ways, whether by providing services and proposing practical solutions or by keeping the powerful accountable and keeping on the agenda the values and principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Civic space, the space to call out the powerful and to express dissent, has been restricted in an attempt to maintain a system that is not working for all anymore. We see rising illiberalism and the tendency to securitise public discourse and public space at the same time as social policies shrink. The underlying factor is a neoliberal vision of the world that views society as just a collection of individuals put together, and that does not recognise the importance of the value of social justice and the responsibility of public policies to deliver for everybody and to include everybody in the discussion.
The specific challenges that civil society face are very diverse and differ among countries, as do the main actors that are targeted. But we are seeing some trends emerge across the European continent, so it is important to put them on the European agenda and raise them with European Union (EU) institutions. While some instances of restriction in countries such as Hungary and Poland are being very well covered by the media, other countries are experiencing attacks that are not being sufficiently discussed, such as violent policing and censorship in France or Spain.
In other countries challenges are more subtle and tend to be ignored. For instance, in February 2019 a German Court ruled that the German branch of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) should have its public benefit status withdrawn due to its activities being ‘political’. This raises the worry that organisations promoting causes like tax justice might become afraid to speak up against the powerful and denounce policies that don’t work or that work to the benefit of few people because their financial capacity and therefore their continued existence could be at stake.
Clearly civic space is not being restricted equally for everybody: specific groups are being targeted. Which groups are the most targeted in Europe?
On the Civic Space Watch we see that those most affected by the introduction or tightening of civic space restrictions have been environmental organisations, groups providing solidarity to migrants and those fighting for inclusion, social sustainability, the rule of law and sexual and reproductive rights. All of these have found themselves at the centre of controversies because they point out systemic failures and injustices. Which issues are the more controversial, and therefore which groups find themselves under the most pressure, varies between countries. But whatever those issues are, the groups working on them and denouncing failures of the system are the most under pressure.
Do all of these restrictions originate from the state, or are others imposing them as well?
The state authorities and agencies, at all levels, are still the main actors responsible for civic space restrictions. But we are definitely seeing non-state actors threatening civic space as well. In several countries we have reported non-state groups, including private companies, taking action against the freedom of expression or the freedom of peaceful assembly. More research is needed about these because this is an emerging threat in many contexts – we have had cases reported in France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and so on. Additionally, we are also seeing anti-rights groups that are gaining confidence to act against the rights of certain people.
European society is becoming increasingly polarised around many issues, which is making it easier for these groups to gain a support that would previously have been thought impossible. They promote a view of rights that creates competition between vulnerable groups or is exclusive of some groups on grounds of identity, culture or sexual orientation. They have become really good at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audiences, which in turn are the result of policies that have brought competition of all against all into our societies. They are being able to use human rights language and human rights tools, which is also new.
In Romania, for instance, anti-rights groups gathered thousands of signatures to call a referendum to try to ban same-sex marriage. They used the tools of participatory democracy to try to change the Constitution, which did not specify the gender of the people in a marriage. Although a lot of resources were spent to promote it, this referendum failed. But in the process, anti-rights groups targeted LGBTQI people and activists and there was a rise in hate crime. In contexts like this, I fear for democracy. The fact that these groups are using democratic tools may be used as an excuse for governments to start withdrawing these democratic tools; however, I am convinced that less democracy can’t ever be the answer to these issues.
Certain extremist groups – specifically neo-fascist ones – are using very confrontational tactics, such as physical attacks against the police, activists, vulnerable groups and CSOs. Thanks to their confrontational strategies they are gaining space in the media, which gives them an audience. European countries have legislation against these kinds of groups, but the authorities are failing to call them out, prosecute them and outlaw them, which confers some legitimacy on them. Around certain issues, such as migration, these groups are increasingly present in the public sphere. As governments also pick up the topic and treat migration as a problem in much the same way, they legitimise anti-migrant groups to the same extent that they criminalise the civil society groups that work to provide support to migrants.
There is already a lot of knowledge about these extremist groups in individual countries, although less about conservative groups that are not necessarily extremist. But we need to learn more about how they are interconnected, because they clearly are. Connections happen at all levels, from top to bottom. At the highest political level, right-wing populist leaders restricting civic space and targeting marginalised groups are connecting, cooperating and learning from one another. In a highly symbolic gesture, in May 2019 Italy’s far-right Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where fences had been built to stop the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers coming north through the Balkans. The measures that Salvini proposes are very similar to Orbán’s, and they wanted to show to the world a unified front against migration.
Anti-rights groups are also connected at the grassroots level. A clear example of this was the World Congress of Families that gathered in March 2019 in Verona, Italy. It was a massive gathering of activists from around the world, united by their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their vocal hate for LGBTQI people. But in this case the opposition was also strong and brought activists from all across Europe.
How is progressive civil society responding to anti-rights groups? And what else should it do to respond more effectively?
Solidarity is key. Civil society mobilisation in support of threatened groups provides a lot of the psychological strength needed to keep going, and has also brought important, tangible successes. In May 2018 Ireland celebrated a historic referendum that legalised abortion, and civil society mobilised around the right of women to choose not only in Ireland itself but also in other countries, as a way of saying, ‘We stand with you in solidarity, we are united for the same cause, an attack against one of us is an attack against us all’. In Poland, when the government tried to push through even more restrictive legislation of abortion, even though the law that is in place is already among the strictest in the world, civil society repeatedly mobilised. Women protested massively in 2016, in 2017, and keep doing so, not only in Poland but everywhere in Europe. So far, they have been very successful in stopping restrictive legislation.
I think all rights are connected – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental rights – so if one of them is taken away, the whole universality of rights shrinks as well. Civil society has learned that we must react not just when those rights that we fight for are being threatened, or when it is political or civil rights that are under pressure, but every time any right is under threat. And we should not only point out when democratic mechanisms don’t work; democracy should not merely function, but it should function for everyone, so we should keep pointing out when that is not happening.
It is also really important that we start telling the stories of our victories, because we are really good at pointing out when there are problems and sometimes it’s just necessary to acknowledge to ourselves, ‘hey, we did that’. We need to celebrate our victories because they are victories for everybody, and also because it boosts our confidence and gives us the strength to keep fighting. That is why the campaign that we started in 2018 around the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we are carrying out again this year and, we hope, in the years to come, takes the form of a celebration of all the work that civil society has done, trying to show the real, amazing impact of what we do, and the fact that everything would be quite different without us, because of all the human rights victories that would not have happened.
I think I sometimes made that mistake when I started studying civic space and looking into civic space restrictions: when focusing so much on the restrictions, I lost sight of the fact that those restrictions were being introduced in reaction to our successes. We were being restrained precisely because we were winning, and someone resented it. They want to stop us because we do make a difference.
CIVICUS speaks with Sutharee Wannasiri, a human rights activist in Thailand who has been facing criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit as a result of reporting on abuses of migrant worker rights by a Thai poultry company while working as a researcher with Fortify Rights, a human rights organisation. After she tweeted about the labour rights abuses, the poultry company made complaints of civil and criminal defamation against her. The civil complaint was eventually dropped in August 2019 after a court mediation session.
The company has a history of filing lawsuits against individuals who have voiced criticism of its human rights record: since 2016 it has filed complaints against at least 22 people. Rights groups and United Nations (UN) human rights experts see these legal proceedings as part of the rising global trend of businesses using strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) to try to avoid criticism.
What were the circumstances that led to you facing charges?
Part of my role at Fortify Rights was to document cases of judicial harassment, attacks and violence against human rights defenders, including those working on environmental and labour rights issues. I was documenting the labour rights of migrant workers from Myanmar working on a poultry farm and the rights of civil society organisations that support the workers. Thai authorities found that the company had violated labour protection laws and ordered it to pay compensation to the migrant workers. Fortify Rights published statements and a campaign video to amplify the voices of the workers and demonstrate the impact of the rights abuses. I also used Twitter to share the working conditions and the challenges that migrant workers are facing. Those tweets led to the poultry farm making civil and criminal complaints against me, saying that my online posts defamed their reputation.
What effects have the lawsuits had upon you?
I felt my rights and my freedom were ripped away. My future plans have had to be put on hold. My family is understandably worried. This has definitely created a chilling effect among human rights advocates and is eroding the civic space of Thai civil society as a whole.
Some people have advised the migrant workers and me simply to make an apology and stop talking about the labour rights conditions related to the business. For me the lawsuits are a demonstration of intimidation and injustice against people who want to speak truth to powerful corporations. I refuse to submit to the injustice. To stand trial in these cases is about reclaiming our human dignity and being able to stand up and assert our rights.
How is this part of a wider pattern?
My case is not an isolated one. Businesses in Thailand have used civil suits and criminal prosecutions, including complaints of criminal defamation, to intimidate workers, environmental defenders, journalists and civil society groups working to demand corporate accountability.
The use of the criminal defamation law against opposition politicians and human rights activists is a major challenge if we are to transition to a democratic society. Free speech should never be criminalised and the criminal defamation law should be revoked. In the five years under the military government, Thai human rights organisations such as Thai Lawyers for Human Rights and iLaw documented the increasing use of criminal lawsuits by state authorities and businesses, including criminal defamation and in some cases sedition, lèse majéste and computer crimes charges, to intimidate and silence activists who speak out, whether on environmental issues, labour rights promotion, or on protecting civil and political rights, including the right to free and fair elections. People have been prosecuted in large numbers.
The criminalisation of the legitimate work of civil society is one of the most important challenges we have seen. People who express opinions or organise protests can find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Several people face charges under the public assembly law for organising peaceful protests to demand justice and accountability.
What are the wider impacts of lawsuits on civil society and on migrant workers in Thailand?
The lawsuits against the courageous Myanmar workers have had a wider impact than just on the group of migrant workers who are facing the lawsuit. The message to other migrant communities is that they should not complain about human rights abuses committed by businesses, or they will face repercussions.
This is a serious threat to the freedom of expression for whistleblowers, researchers and human rights defenders who are trying to do their job of exposing violations and abuses committed by the authorities and businesses. I also see this legal prosecution as directly undermining Thailand’s commitment to strengthen corporate accountability. The Thai government pledged its endorsement and support to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. However, the workers and affected communities are not able to exercise the right to access remedies without fear of retaliation. Workers and local communities should have the right to complain about alleged violations and abuses, have their complaints promptly investigated and be compensated if their rights have been violated. Companies that are found to be involved in abuses should be brought to justice.
The migrant workers have been trying to use the grievances mechanism created by the government to exercise their rights, but they face multiple lawsuits and intimidation with the purpose of telling them to stop fighting. Thai authorities claim they don’t have a specific procedure to prevent this kind of lawsuit being brought against activists and whistleblowers. However, they all have an obligation to respect human rights and to end these and any other cases that violate rights.
More broadly, what are the key issues migrant workers face in Thailand?
It is estimated that there are three million migrant workers in Thailand. The majority come from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. They are usually working in dangerous or low-paid sectors, including agriculture, construction, fishing and garment manufacture. Migrant workers already face daily discrimination and are more vulnerable to rights abuses. When they try to demand justice and accountability, they face obstacles such as language barriers and their lack of knowledge of Thai domestic laws. This is why several local civil society groups such as the Migrant Workers Rights Network are supporting migrant workers to reclaim their rights.
I believe that there are several businesses with good records of promoting and respecting labour rights. We have examples of responsible businesses that implement and uphold the domestic labour laws and protect their workers and collaborate with civil society groups to improve the quality of lives of their workers. At the same time there is a smaller number of businesses that refuse to acknowledge and comply with Thai labour laws.
Did the March 2019 election, the first since the 2014 military coup, make any difference to civil society?
The majority of Thai society still doubts whether the March 2019 election was free and fair. I think we have not achieved a transition to a more democratic and more accountable regime. The ruling government is still made up of the same military generals that led the military government over the past five years.
A positive sign is that new members of parliament from progressive parties have opened up parliamentary debates about concerns from their constituents, including the land rights of farmer communities, attacks against student activists and the criminalisation of political activism. At least we have seen these issues being discussed in parliament, but there is still a long way to achieve a solution.
What needs to change in Thailand, and what support could help civil society and migrant workers overcome the challenges they face?
Thai authorities should decriminalise defamation. Thailand still maintains a sentence of up to two years’ imprisonment as a punishment for defamation charges. This contradicts the right to the freedom of expression that is guaranteed in international law and standards, and in the Thai Constitution. Thai law enforcement officers should also implement an effective and thorough screening of legal complaints to prevent abuses of the judicial system to avoid criticism and accountability. All other laws that are inconsistent with Thailand’s international human rights obligations should also be amended or revoked.
Change is needed at a policy level and at practical levels. Nobody should go to jail simply for expressing their opinions.
Business enterprises and foreign governments engaging in business operations in Thailand have an important role in urging the government to put in place stronger standards of labour rights protection and environmental standards for all businesses. Global brands and multinational companies that source their products and services from Thailand should particularly set a good example.
All sending and receiving countries and trading partners should strengthen their protections for migrant workers in all sectors, and not only in the seafood and fisheries sector: there is a good example here of meaningful collaborations between Thai authorities, sending countries, civil society groups and business enterprises to improve transparency in recruitment and the quality of life of migrant workers in the fishing industry. This collaboration could be replicated and applied to protect migrant workers in other sectors, such as agriculture, constructions and domestic work. Civil society groups have called for the government to put in place regulations and ensure their effective implementation for Thai and foreign businesses to respect the rights of workers and affected communities.
Civic space in Thailand is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks about migrant workers’ rights with Dariele Santos, the young founder of Instituto Alinha, a social enterprise focused on improving the work and life conditions of migrant workers employed in the fashion industry.
When and why did you decide to create the Alinha Institute?
When I was in college I had several jobs with which I supplemented my scholarship, and one of those jobs involved research on immigration issues, and more specifically about Latin American immigrants employed in the clothing industry in São Paulo. That’s when I began to speak with migrants and I learned about their precarious life and work conditions, that is, about the reality of the production chain in Brazil’s fashion industry.
Brazil encompasses all steps in the production chain of this industry, from cotton production to garment manufacturing. The fashion industry is spread throughout the country, but its final link, the manufacturing of clothing, is highly concentrated in São Paulo, employing mostly migrant workers. Production is highly outsourced; clothing brands subcontract with sewing workshops that are involved in the various phases of the manufacturing process. The more workshops that are involved in the process, the more difficult it is to exercise some control and the more labour protections are lost. Many of these workshops are small and family-run, and function in the family's home, with all members of the family working, and getting paid by the piece. People work up to 90 hours per week because they get paid very little for each piece that they produce.
When I learned the stories of these migrant workers, I began to realise the huge dimensions of the problem, and I also realised how little I had known about it, and how little we know in general about the fashion industry chain: we don't care the least about how the clothes that we wear are made. The problem of the huge inequality and injustice in the fashion industry chain is completely invisible. It is a super-luxury industry that generates a lot of money, but to the same extent, it is a chain of enormous exploitation.
Along with a friend, I started thinking about starting a social enterprise that would apply technology to solve this problem, and we launched Alinha in 2014.
What does Alinha do to improve the working conditions of migrant workers?
The idea is simple: Alinha provides advice to sewing workshop entrepreneurs so that they regularise their businesses and guarantee adequate security and reasonable deadlines and pay, and connects them with clothing manufacturers and designers interested in hiring a workshop, thus ensuring fair conditions for all parties involved.
More specifically, we begin by visiting the sewing workshops that sign up to receive advice, and we assess their deficits in order to recommend what they should do to get out of informality. We look at areas such as their forms of contracting, their health and safety conditions and their equipment. In our second visit we bring a work safety specialist. These workshops have a lot of fire hazards, because they store large quantities of cloth and tend to have precarious electrical installations; to make things worse, usually many children live in the houses in which the workshops operate. Once the safety assessment has been done, we prepare an action plan aimed at regularising the workshops or aligning them with labour and safety standards - hence our name of Alinha. We do it in plain language and translate the laws for workers. We provide the basics of accounting and help workshop owners calculate the required investment and how it would impact on product prices. Once the improvements have been made and we consider that a workshop has reached a minimum security and formalisation threshold, we upload its details to the Alinha platform so that it can get it in touch with brands and designers. Brands and designers come on our platform because they seek to change the way they produce and are willing to guarantee fair payment terms and deadlines. So we connect them.
The prices of these products are surely higher than those of products made under conditions of extreme exploitation. Have you managed to convince consumers that it is worth paying more for them?
We're on it. We know that it is important to connect consumers because they have enormous power in their hands: when choosing the brand they are going to buy, they can make the decision to support one that guarantees fair working conditions. But consumers can't really choose if they don't know which brands have contracts with our aligned workshops. That is why we have a platform where the aligned brands place data that users can check - for example, that they are making a certain number of pieces with such and such workshop, so that after the information has been added to the Alinha platform, the workshop can confirm on the phone that they are indeed making these pieces, earning a certain amount per hour, and working with such and such deadlines. When all the links in the production chain confirm the information, an identification code for the piece is generated to be placed on the garment’s label, so that the final user can track the garment’s history. All information and confirmations are stored in Blockchain, so that there is more security and trust in the information.
We are also in the process of making a short film that tells the story behind the clothes, based on the story of a Bolivian migrant seamstress. The presentation of an individual’s story seeks to generate connection and empathy: we want the consumer to see a woman who has dreams and hopes similar to their own. We seek to ask the consumer a question: which story would you rather choose, one about exploitation or one about decent work?
Do you think that the situation of migrants in Brazil has recently worsened?
The problem of migrants is not recent; it comes from long ago. There are many migrants who have lived here, and worked in terrible conditions, for decades. Migrants who work in sewing workshops in São Paulo are mostly Bolivian, although there are many from countries such as Paraguay and Peru as well. Many of them first emigrated from their countries to Argentina, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit they moved to Brazil. The political and economic conditions back then - the Lula government and a period of strong economic growth - made Brazil a better destination.
But it is difficult to be a migrant in Brazil. It is the only non-Spanish speaking country in the region, so difficulties in communication and access to information abound. Migrants without legal documentation or formal employment are afraid all the time. The psychological pressure is very strong: people refuse to leave the sewing workshops because they are afraid of being caught and forced to leave. Migrants fear the consequences of demanding their rights.
While the migrant workers’ exploitation is not a new problem, and migrants’ fear isn’t new either, the situation has recently worsened. The new president, Jair Bolsonaro, represents the far right, and his discourse is extremely xenophobic. He places himself above the laws and above all democratic guarantees. His message to migrant workers is: ‘be thankful for all the good things you have here, and if there is something you don't like, you’d better leave’. The fact that hate speech is coming from so high up is emboldening people who always thought these things, but in the past would not say them and now feel it is legitimate to do so. In this sense, discrimination and hate speech are becoming normalised.
This situation is replicated in various spheres. It is a dangerous time for activists working on human rights, environmental rights, women's rights, LGBTQI rights, black and indigenous peoples’ rights and migrants’ rights. There is a lot of fear because going against the government poses high risks. This has been clearly seen in the cases of Marielle Franco, the LGBTQI activist and councilwoman from Rio de Janeiro who was murdered in March 2018, and the LGBTQI congressperson and activist Jean Wyllys, who recently left Brazil because of threats against his life.
Fortunately, not all Brazilians are receptive to Bolsonaro's discourse. We live a situation of high polarisation. While many have indeed moved towards the far right and have adopted nationalist positions, many people are also increasingly convinced that what needs to be done is to guarantee more rights to more people.
In this context, what can rights-oriented civil society do?
Civil society moves within narrow margins. Our strategy is to generate a discourse that creates empathy among public opinion rather than a confrontational discourse permanently criticising the president because this would create trouble with a broad sector of society that would immediately reject it as leftist. We are going through tough times: it is not advisable to announce that you fight for human rights because human rights are associated with the left rather than viewed as things that belong to everyone. That is why we find it more productive to focus on real people and their stories, to show the photo of a flesh-and-blood person and ask our audience, 'don’t you think this woman is a hardworking person, who is struggling just like you, and who deserves better working conditions, who deserves to get ahead?'
It is really quite tragic to have to hide the struggle for human rights because it is not seen as a legitimate cause. Since President Bolsonaro was elected, a lot of activists have had to leave Brazil. Those who have stayed are being forced to choose: if they want to continue doing a direct, head-first kind of activism, they need to be willing to take risks. Nowadays, mine is a sort of diplomatic activism: I sit down to speak with businesspeople and I need to be open to chat with people who don't necessarily think like me or do things the way I think they should be done, but with whom I can achieve some progress.
What international support does Brazilian civil society need to continue working?
Although it may not seem obvious at times, because Brazil is considered a medium-high-income country, Brazilian civil society needs all kinds of support to continue working in this hostile environment. In my particular case, I was very fortunate to receive support from the Goalkeepers Youth Action Accelerator programme, which seeks to accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This programme supports a group of young activists who are using data in innovative ways to address SDGs 1 to 6, that is, to seek solutions to local development challenges related to poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality and water and sanitation.
This support has been super strategic, since it included funding, technical support and connections, and allowed me to acquire new tools. Many more initiatives like this are needed, because Brazilian civil society is shrinking, and not only because of the political climate but also because of the economic crisis that has been going on for several years. According to a recent study, more than 38,000 civil society organisations closed their doors in Brazil between 2013 and 2016, and many of them used to provide basic services to vulnerable populations. The segment of civil society that has suffered the most is the one working on development and human rights advocacy: more than 10,000 organisations that closed down used to work in favour of minorities, such as black people, women, indigenous people and LGBTQI people, and the rights of communities.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks about the state of artistic expression with Srirak Plipat, Executive Director of Freemuse, the main international civil society organisation advocating for and defending the freedom of expression of artists.
What is the specific nature of attacks on artistic freedoms - how do they differ from attacks on civil society more generally?
Artists and artworks are targeted in many different ways, responding to different strategies to silence them. They range from censorship to violations such as threats, detentions, legal prosecutions, imprisonments and, in the worst cases, murder. Artists are particularly targeted for being human rights defenders, standing for the causes they believe in; but most importantly, they are targeted because art is a powerful vehicle to deliver messages that resonate with the population.
What are the main sources of attacks against artistic expression?
As Freemuse’s reports show, the culture of silencing artistic expression is practised by multiple actors. Violators are not only governments of repressive regimes, as commonly cited, but democratic states as well. We also document violations carried out by non-state armed groups, and we will unpack this in more detail in our upcoming report about how fundamentalist groups violate artistic freedom.
Moreover, in the digital age social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have power to determine what the margins of online public debate and ideas are. This consequently affects the freedom of artistic expression. In June 2019 Freemuse published a report, Privatising Censorship, Digitising Violence, which outlines how social media limits artists’ ability to express their art fully. The research showed that social media platforms make no clear distinctions between art and obscenity, which raises questions about the platforms’ judgement when it comes to policing nudity and what is artistically acceptable. Besides, community guidelines are vaguely worded, which results in moderators subjectively making decisions with no clear lines of accountability or transparency.
We also see a growing number of online abuses targeted at artists. The anonymity that online platforms can provide means that invariably perpetrators of online threats can opt for false names and fake accounts and often remain unknown. This also makes it incredibly difficult to assess the intention behind the threats and identify the source.
Which artists are attacked most and why?
If we speak about the genre, in 2018 Freemuse documented 673 cases of violations, 270 of which were violations against musicians. Music remains a powerful instrument: musicians often use music as a tool to express dissent and present critical views, which invites undue interference by the state authorities or other actors. For example, one of the artists from Central Asia that we interviewed recently, songwriter Zere Asylbek from Kyrgyzstan, said she deliberately chose music to popularise social activism and challenge social norms. This, however, was not welcomed by the people, and the moment Zere uploaded the music video for her song Kyz (Girl) in September 2018, she received thousands of abusive comments online, including death threats. The video was meant to spark a debate about women’s position in Kyrgyz society.
Many musicians are also constantly targeted by the authorities. One of them was Ferhat Tunç from Turkey, who suffered constant pressure from government authorities and several criminal cases. In September 2018, he was sentenced to almost two years in prison on charges of disseminating propaganda of a terrorist organisation, based on messages he had posted on social media. He eventually left Turkey and now lives in Germany.
Of course, it is not only musicians’ freedom to artistic expression that is violated; we see violations involving all different art forms. Overall, artists who challenge dominant social, cultural and religious norms through their artwork remain the main target of attacks.
Are women artists and artists from minorities specifically targeted?
In 2018, Freemuse published another report, Creativity Wronged: How Women’s Right to Artistic Freedom is Denied and Marginalised, which examined cases of violations of women’s artistic freedom. The gender-based silencing of women artists remains one of the big challenges for the freedom of artistic expression. Numerous cases of violations of artistic freedom show that women are prohibited from certain expressions to uphold traditional or religious norms. Often women who try to challenge those norms experience pushback and are labelled as ‘indecent’. Many women artists also suffer negative repercussions when they use their creative skills to express their opinions on issues such as body positivity and sexuality or to challenge gender inequalities.
The freedom of expression of artists coming from minority groups continues to be targeted as well. As our annual 2019 State of Artistic Freedom report shows, artists who raise awareness about the political, social and economic issues they face in the societies in which they live are constantly targeted by both state authorities and non-state actors. In countries such as China and Turkey, these forms of discrimination continued to be particularly entrenched for people ethnically identifying with Kurdish, Tibetan and Uighur minority groups; they continued to be deprived of fundamental rights. In these countries, minorities are particularly exposed to oppressive measures, which include systematic persecution, disappearances and imprisonment. For example, in 2018 Freemuse documented that ethnic Uighurs were subjected to a range of unlawful violations that include mass arbitrary detention in pre-trial detention centres and prisons as well as ‘political education’ camps.
How can civil society in general help uphold artistic freedom?
As our reports and advocacy highlight, civil society can uphold artistic freedom by raising awareness of the issue, spotlighting specific cases where artistic freedom is violated and working to overturn legislation that impedes and restricts the ability of individuals to enjoy art and cultural expressions. This is strengthened by partnering with other civil society organisations to maximise the reach of the communication of these topics through a number of channels, including formal United Nations mechanisms, social media platforms, organisational websites and joint conferences on cultural rights and artistic freedom.
Civil society has a unique position because it straddles both the grassroots artistic community and the governmental and intergovernmental policy environment. This enables civil society to use information and cases from each of the respective communities to uphold artistic freedom through policy briefings, artist campaigns and events with artists and policymakers. We register cases of artistic freedom violations and restrictive policies with the United Nations Special Rapporteurs but also work directly with artists at risk of their artistic freedom being violated.
Do you see any tension between the freedom of expression and progressive civil society?
Freedom of expression is restricted by a number of civil society groups. This includes, but is not limited to, ‘progressive’ left-wing groups. For example, we have documented cases where artists have been silenced by both the Israeli government and by the cultural organisations supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. We oppose the apartheid policies and the other systematic discrimination practices of the Israeli authorities against Palestinians both inside and outside the territory, but do not support cultural boycotts of any groups and parties as they create obstacles to the cultural and artistic expressions of individuals and artists and exchanges of these expressions on any side of a conflict.
Another example of this are civil society groups in the USA violating artistic freedom on the premise of social justice. The most prevalent illustration of this has been the vandalisation and illegal removal of statues, monuments and paintings depicting confederate or violent leaders of the country’s history. This includes protesters splashing red liquid onto a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the American Museum of Natural History, on the basis that the statue is an emblem of “white supremacy and settler colonialism,” and the removal of Sam Durant’s controversial sculpture Scaffold from the Walker Art Centre in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after members of the Native American community protested against the piece for its part-modelling on the 1862 gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences and actions in the face of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Héctor Pujols, spokesperson for Chile’s National Immigrant Coordination. The Coordination is a network that brings together activists and organisations that work for the defence of the human rights of Chile’s migrant population and advocates for legislative advances and the implementation of inclusive public policies towards migrant communities.
Can you tell us what kind of work the National Immigrant Coordination does?
The Coordination is a network of organisations, migrants’ groups and movements; we think that migrants need their own organisations. The Coordination has existed since 2014, but many organisations that are part of it, especially those of Peruvian immigrants, have been around for 20 to 25 years. Our membership is diverse and includes cultural organisations; thematic ones, dedicated for instance to labour or housing issues; sectoral ones, such as the Secretariat of Immigrant Women; those that are territorial in nature, linked to particular communes; and others that are organised by nationality, and seek to provide spaces and opportunities to Argentine, Ecuadorian, or Peruvian communities.
One of the Coordination’s main tasks, although not the only one, is political advocacy at the national level to improve the inclusion of the migrant population. We do it by organising ourselves as migrants, and coordinating with other organisations, including unions and civil society organisations of other kinds.
What does the Coordination think about the draft Aliens Law currently under debate in the Chilean Senate?
Historically, at least in contemporary times, Chile has not had a flow of immigration of comparable dimensions to other Latin American countries. The phenomenon increased in the 1990s, with Bolivian and Peruvian immigration flows, but it has been over the past 10 years that it has become more significant, with an increase in the number of immigrants coming from other countries in the region, mainly Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and, more recently, Venezuela.
In this context, about five or six years ago talk began about the need to update the 1975 Aliens Act, which had been established in the context of the dictatorship and had a national security focus. This law views the migrant as a foreign agent, an ideological agitator, someone who seeks to import the revolution. When this law was made during the dictatorship, the migrant that lawmakers had in mind was the typical one of times of the Popular Unity, Chile’s former leftist ruling party – Argentinians, Cubans and Uruguayans who came to support the leftist government or were seeking safe haven after fleeing other governments that persecuted them.
The new migratory context is quite different, and there has been broad consensus that the 1975 law does not conform to the current reality. For years the Coordination and other organisations have been demanding a new legal framework that enables the inclusion of the migrant population.
However, the debate has been complex and over the past year, after President Sebastián Piñera‘s inauguration, the government introduced a very similar bill to the one they had already submitted to Congress in 2013: one that shifts the focus from the foreigner viewed as an external agitator towards the foreigner as an economic asset, whose value depends on how much money they bring in their pockets. A complex debate ensued in which Chile has tried to position itself in the world by adopting a visa system similar to those of countries such as Australia or Canada, without the understanding that the migratory context and the characteristics of immigration in Chile are not the same as in those countries. This bill has already been passed by the House and is now in the Senate.
We think that, if passed, this law would greatly encourage irregular migration, which is already a big problem in Chile. It would encourage people to arrive as tourists and overstay their visas, with no prospect of regularising their situation even if they get a job. An irregular migratory status negatively affects access to all rights – to health, education and even to decent work. A person who cannot sign an employment contract will work anyway, because they have to make a living, but they will do so in much more precarious conditions. In sum, on the surface the bill adopts civil society discourse on the need to renew the legal framework, but it is fundamentally an anti-rights initiative.
The exercise of civic freedoms by migrants seems to have intensified. How do migrants view themselves in relationship to their citizenship status?
I think we do not see the exercise of our rights to organise, mobilise and claim our rights as tied to any citizenship status because the Chilean Constitution equates citizenship with nationality, as a result of which foreigners cannot be citizens. However, the Constitution also establishes that after five years of residence foreigners are allowed to vote. And regardless of length of residence or the rights assigned to us by the Constitution and the laws, in practice we exercise other rights that are related to being a citizen - we organise, mobilise and do political advocacy, even though this is banned by the Aliens Act.
The Aliens Act lists attacks against the interests of the state and interference with political situations of the state as reasons for expulsion. The ways it is interpreted and enforced are very arbitrary: it always results in the expulsion of people with progressive or critical views, rather that people with far-right political leanings. Not long ago, in 2017, some young Peruvians were expelled for having books on Marxism. The Coordination submitted an amparo petition – an appeal for the protection of basic rights – and won, but the expulsion order had already been executed and they were already out of the country.
This was not an isolated case; there have been several others. An Italian journalist was expelled because he did visual communications for the mobilisation process of a very important union. A Basque colleague was also expelled because of his involvement with the indigenous Mapuche communities; he was accused of having links with ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation. This was proven false but he was expelled anyway. All this happened under the administration of former President Michelle Bachelet, that is, independently of the incumbent government’s leanings.
You were in the middle of the discussion of the bill when calls for an anti-migrant mobilisation began. Who were the groups behind this mobilisation?
These groups were not new. They had already made another call before but it had not resonated as it did this time. These are groups linked to a long-existing far right, the kind of far right that never dies in any country. Although perhaps its presence declines at times, it always remains latent, waiting for the opportunity to resurface. These are groups that defend the dictatorship but know that if they go out to the streets to shout ‘Viva Pinochet’ many people will reject them. So they find different themes that allow them to further their narrative. For instance, they took advantage of the salience of the rejection of so-called gender ideology and joined anti-abortion marches, and now they are working around the issue of immigration.
Far-right groups are characterised by an extremely simple and exclusionary discourse: the other, the one that’s different, the one coming from outside, the stranger who is not Chilean – they are the enemy, because they are the cause of all the country's ills. These groups come from various places, but they all find protection under the current government’s institutional discourse, which blames everything on immigration. Weeks ago, President Piñera said that the increase in unemployment in Chile was caused by the arrival of migrants, even against his own Minister of Labour’s denials. His former Minister of Health said that the increase in HIV/AIDS in Chile was the migrant population’s fault. This institutional discourse, based on falsehoods, is taking root and is being taken advantage of by far-right groups.
What explains the fact that this time around they have had more of an appeal than in the past?
These groups become stronger when their narrative emanates from the government. The proposals put forward by the far right are the same as the government’s: for example, to deny healthcare to people with under two years of residence and to eliminate access to education. The government says, ‘let’s take rights away from immigrants’ and these groups move just one step further and say, ‘let’s kick immigrants out’. The underlying diagnosis is the same in both cases: we are being invaded, they are coming to take our jobs, they are coming to take our social benefits, Chile First.
Additionally, in this case social media is playing an amplification role. These groups have learned how to use social media. They learned a lot from Brazil’s experience; some actually travelled there to support then-candidate Bolsonaro. The skilful use of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter allows them to reach a wide audience – the Chilean who is going through hard times – to whom they offer a simple explanation and a solution: you can't find work; the fault lies with immigrants; the solution is to throw them out.
You mentioned a curious phenomenon: ultra-nationalist far-right groups that become internationalists, by networking, collaborating and learning from their peers in other countries.
Yes, there is an ongoing international process in which the Chilean far right learns from what the Argentine far right does, and the Argentinian far right learns from that of Brazil, and so on. The narratives we have heard in Chile are an exact copy of those used by the extreme right in Spain, where the phenomenon of the far-right Vox party emerged almost a year ago. They are an exact copy, even though the Chilean reality is very different. In Spain, the claim that migrants take up all social support was very intense, and in Chile the same discourse was attempted, since it is an international tactic, but not surprisingly it had less of an impact because social support in Chile is very limited. So it is not always working for them; it is a matter of trial and error. But these groups do form a network that is becoming stronger internationally, which is very worrying.
These groups summoned a mobilisation against immigrants that was scheduled for 12 August 2019, but in the end the march did not materialise. Can you explain what happened?
The call to the march was spread through social media, and a far-right influencer, a member of one of the organising groups, called on protesters to bear arms to defend themselves against the anti-fascist groups that had summoned a counter-demonstration.
In Chile it is necessary to request an authorisation to hold a street mobilisation, and in the capital, Santiago, the Municipality is in charge of giving the authorisation. After several conversations, and under pressure from socialorganisations and the Bar Association, which requested that the permit be denied, the Municipality did not authorise the march. There were some isolated incidents caused by about 20 people who attended notwithstanding, but not much else happened.
The Coordination convened another event on the same day, given that it was complicated for us to support the counter-demonstration held by anti-fascist groups in light of the limitations placed on immigrants’ rights to political participation. On that very same Sunday morning we held an event at the Museum of Memory, a space dedicated to the victims of the dictatorship. The focus of our call was the rejection of hate speech, which today happens to be targeted against immigrants but at other times has been targeted against women or against those who thought differently, and which leads to the practices we experienced under the dictatorship. When you dehumanise a person then you can then torture her, drop her body into the sea or make her disappear. That was our response. Around 150 people attended, which is not that many, but it should be enough to show that we are also part of this country and that we have memory.
What strategy should adopt the civil society that advocates for the human rights of migrants in the face of anti-rights groups?
These groups are here to stay, and they have already planned a new demonstration for 7 September 2019. The prevalent narrative focuses on an alleged migrant invasion, so ours is a dispute for common sense, a long-term struggle. We work in a strategic partnership with progressive and democratic movements, but these need to put aside their paternalistic attitude towards the migrant population. We do not want to be treated as helpless people in need of assistance; that is why we are an organisation of migrant persons, not an organisation that defends the rights of migrants. We do not want paternalistic aids; we want equal rights.
Civic space in Chile is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Evan Jones of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) about the challenges that refugees face in Asia and civil society’s work to help realise refugee rights.
Can you tell us about your network and what it does?
APRRN is a civil society network with around 400 members across Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Iran to South Korea and Taiwan and down to New Zealand. We’ve existed for 10 years and our main aim is to advance refugee rights in Asia and the Pacific. We push for legislative and policy change in the region to help refugees have sustainable lives and access to the same rights as everyone else. Our key purpose is advocacy, and underneath this there are three pillars of work: first, capacity strengthening for our members, through training and courses in areas such as refugee law, advocacy, working with the media and gender; second, information sharing across borders about best practices, contacts, resources, skills and communication ideas: if there’s a good development that’s happened in one country, we’ll try to connect civil society organisations (CSOs) in other countries to share lessons learned and possible ideas to adapt; and third, advocacy on the national, regional and international levels.
In recent years we’ve been working on building refugee self-representation and putting refugee voices front and centre of everything we do. A refugee, someone with lived experience, is the chair of our entire network and the chairs or deputy chairs of many of our working groups are either still in refugee situations or have been earlier in their lives. Throughout our advocacy, we make sure that refugees are present in everything we do.
What are the key current movements of people in the region, and what are the main reasons that drive people to become refugees?
We have movements of refugees both from outside the region into the region, and also within the region. Specific refugee populations vary from country to country and also in size. In Malaysia, for example, there are about 180,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, a number of whom have arrived after the 2017 exodus. Others have been there for decades, eking out an existence, often on the fringes of society. In Thailand, there are a significant number of Pakistani refugees from religious minorities, along with groups of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam. In South Korea, there are refugees from Yemen. There are many populations in almost every country across the region.
There are a number of reasons why people are forced to flee their homes, ending up as refugees in Asia. One is religious persecution. This has been clearly evident with the decades-long persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, alongside persecution of Christian minorities such as the Chin. The Ahmadi Christian minority of Pakistan are another example of a population that has been subject to ongoing religious persecution.
Aside from refugees fleeing religious persecution, many individuals are also fleeing persecution due to their race, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Because often ethnic minorities are targeted, we see a sizable amount of people fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. Other groups include those fleeing generalised violence and civil war, for example in Syria and Yemen, LGBTQI community members fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual identity and individuals fleeing despotic regimes such as North Korea’s.
Refugees often find themselves in Asia for a number of reasons. For some, capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were the only places they could afford to travel to at short notice and with relatively easy visa requirements. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, people from most countries can get a visa on arrival. Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis can still get a visa on arrival in Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries around the world where they can do so. Many people came to these hubs thinking they would only be transit points, intending to claim asylum in Australia, Canada, or elsewhere, and then got stuck in these countries because they weren’t able to travel further.
What are the key challenges refugees face?
There are generally no local protections. There are usually no safeguards from detention, no capacity to work and no access to education and healthcare. Refugees struggle to attain almost all their human rights. This situation is common in most countries in both South and South East Asia.
One of the biggest challenges, in Asia as well as globally, is the lack of durable solutions for refugees. Many have been and are expected to be here for years or even decades. With record numbers of refugees, no longer is it the norm nor can it be expected that refugees will be resettled in months or even years. Now, many have no real prospects of resettlement, with the number of resettlement spots globally having dropped so significantly. Under one per cent of all refugees in the world will ever get resettled, and the situation is even worse in Asia.
Particularly in South East Asia, detention is a key concern and a continued focus of our advocacy. Instead of detention being used as an option of last resort it is quite often the norm. In Thailand for example, UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) cardholders are subject to arrest and detention if they are unable to produce a valid passport or visa. The detention centre is, in essence, a jail, where refugees are often held indefinitely until they either return home – which is not really a possibility – or get resettled, which is also unlikely for many people.
Access to a legal right to stay is extremely difficult for people with a passport from refugee-producing countries. It’s hard to maintain or extend a visa in many countries around the region. If you’re from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, for example, often one of the restrictions to maintain a visa is that you’re expected to go home and then come back, which obviously isn’t an option for refugees. In some countries like India, we are seeing a worrying rise in racism and xenophobia, where refugees from some Muslim countries are being requested to ‘return immediately’ and told that they ‘are no longer welcome’.
A further worrying trend that we are seeing is the use of extradition. States both within and outside the region are using extradition as a tool to have refugees forcibly return to countries from which they’ve fled. Sadly, we are quite often seeing states where refugees have sought protection going ahead with these extraditions. In essence, we see them buckling to the weight or political interests of neighbouring governments.
One such example that made world headlines was the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem is a Bahraini refugee who lives in Australia and was held in a Thai prison for three months, from November 2018 to February 2019, pending extradition back to Bahrain, after going to Thailand on his honeymoon. There was also the case of Sam Sokha, the Cambodian political activist, who was famous for throwing her shoe at a billboard of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an act that was filmed and widely shared on the internet. She was arrested in Thailand in January 2018 and held in the immigration detention centre even though she had a UNHCR card recognising her as a refugee. The Thai government allowed an extradition request to be processed and sent her back to Cambodia, where she’s currently serving a prison sentence. Another case is Praphan Pipithnampron, an activist from Thailand who fled to Malaysia, claimed refugee status and was then extradited back to Thailand with the agreement of the Malaysian government. These examples show a clear and fundamental breach of the principles of refugee protection. Even with UNHCR status, the lack of legal protection leaves refugees in precarious situations across the region.
Access to work is another major challenge. There are generally no special provisions for refugees to access work unless they happen to have come on a business visa with work rights and have maintained their visa. The lack of labour rights for refugees impacts on all other rights, including their ability to obtain food and shelter, access education and pay for healthcare. Interestingly, there have been a few small positive steps towards addressing this. A few years ago, the Malaysian government instigated a pilot project on work rights for Rohingya refugees, for a very limited number of 300 people. Whilst the initiative was a failure, the fact that the government even initiated such a program indicated a notable shift towards recognition of work rights. It shows that work rights are now on the agenda.
Access to education differs country by country, but broadly speaking, it’s very problematic across the region. In Malaysia, there’s no capacity for refugees to access primary education. Malaysia has a reservation against the Convention on the Rights of the Child that means refugee children aren’t able to access state schooling. In Thailand, despite there being a progressive ‘education for all’ policy, practically it’s still quite difficult for refugee children to be able to attend school. This is because of the costs, the requirement to have basic Thai language skills and concerns about xenophobia and racism. Schools may not want to receive children who don’t have the relevant immigration papers or who look or sound too different.
Across the region more broadly, there is also a hidden but major concern regarding a lack of access to tertiary education. From the perspective of states, and even many CSOs and service providers, tertiary education is seen as something that far surpasses basic needs. However, without this access, there remains a large refugee population who are simply left to linger in a state of under-productivity. They are not only unable to work, but they also cannot improve the skills and expertise that would help them grow personally and professionally if they were resettled or even decided to return home. This is starting to change just a little, and there are some positives here. For example, Japan has opened up 20 scholarship spaces for Syrian refugees, and some universities in Malaysia have also begun to offer dedicated spaces and scholarships.
Healthcare is also problematic. Often refugees have to pay upfront for healthcare before they can be reimbursed by CSOs or the UNHCR. Refugees often fear that if they go to hospitals when they lack the correct documentation they may even be referred to immigration authorities.
What are the challenges refugees face from anti-rights groups and majority populations?
There were three pronounced examples over the past year of majority religious groups mobilising against minorities in the region. In South Korea in June 2018, 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island. Almost immediately there was a huge outcry from the public, church groups – particularly conservative Christian groups – and the media. This fanned what was partly an anti-refugee sentiment but was more strongly an anti-Muslim sentiment that swept through the country and became conflated with refugee issues. It connected to the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric that was coming out of Europe, and showed how these two have become intertwined. Within weeks of the story hitting the headlines a petition with more than a million signatures was sent to the president’s office requesting that South Korea pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thankfully the government didn’t go down this track but there have been high-level talks about how potentially South Korea could modify its domestic legislation for refugees and wind back some of its protection for refugees.
In Sri Lanka, the 2019 Easter Bombings in Colombo gave rise to an immediate anti-Muslim public sentiment, which affected the refugee population in Sri Lanka, which is significantly an Afghan and Ahmadi Pakistani population. Several hundred fled from Colombo to the city of Negombo and went into hiding. Some stayed in a police station for several weeks of their own volition for protection and others were supported by CSOs. UNHCR was so concerned it sent additional staff to try to expedite cases and look at emergency resettlement out of Sri Lanka because of the fear of retribution and abuses against Muslim refugees.
The third example was what we saw in Myanmar with the Rohingya. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment have permeated through Myanmar society. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and viewed as associated with terrorism. This resulted in what many are calling a genocide.
Given these challenges, how is civil society in the region trying to respond, and what have the successes and challenges been?
Negative stories dominate the discourse, and we try to counter this by placing refugees’ voices front and centre. This is something that is being supported quite strongly within the region, from Australia and New Zealand, but also now from within South East Asia. Civil society groups are realising that it is refugee voices that are the most impactful, and civil society is trying to amplify these voices to show the agency and contribution of refugees. In Malaysia, for example, there is now a completely self-organised group, the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, where Afghani, Eritrean, Rohingya, Somali and Sri Lankan refugees are all coming together by themselves, putting forward their messages. They are offering training and they have learning centres. This is a really positive development. CSOs are trying to facilitate and support these developments.
There’s also awareness-raising with the public, and with local host communities, the media and government. The media are stakeholders with potential for huge good but also huge harm, depending on their messaging. Many CSOs are trying to engage better with the media, including through media training. Misinformation is a major issue in some countries, such as in Myanmar, where both before and after the upsurge in violence there was a lot of anti-Rohingya messaging. However, in other countries, such as Thailand, refugee stories are rarely covered by local media.
Over the past few years, there has also been a definite shift towards building connections with parliamentarians across the region. There has been a lot of work in trying to find champions within governments and trying to get them to work for refugees within governments and across borders. One organisation we work with quite closely that has done excellent work on several issues, including refugees, is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights. They have a network of members of parliament in each country where they share information and strategies and use their status as elected officeholders to try to support rights.
As well as positive shifts on labour rights and education in Malaysia, the government there is also looking at possible ratification of the Refugee Convention. Another positive move in Malaysia which shouldn’t be underestimated is that the government is speaking more openly about the issue, and in many cases speaking the right language. Five years ago you would not have seen the Malaysian government speaking out bilaterally or within ASEAN about the atrocities in Myanmar. Now the government is quite strong in calling attention to the situation in Myanmar and has also spoken out about other vulnerable populations, such as the Uighurs in China. They seem to be heading in the right direction.
Another positive development has come in Thailand. Despite the fact that there is still immigration detention, in January 2019 the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to release mothers and children from the immigration detention centre to live in the community. This might seem a small win, but it was a practice that went on for so long. It was a change largely driven by civil society advocacy.
Elsewhere there are regressions, as with the anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. There are still a million-plus Rohingya sitting in camps in Bangladesh and there’s the growing prominence of the Uighur detention camps in China. There have been other headline stories this year, such as that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi Arabian woman who was fleeing from Kuwait to Australia and was stuck in a hotel within Bangkok airport. So even when we see governments in the region appearing to move in the right direction, all of a sudden they do something that takes them back again, such as threatening to return refugees for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations. But we can have some cautious optimism that things are progressing in the right direction.
What more could be done to support refugees and the civil society that supports them in the region?
While the Refugee Convention is still incredibly important, this is no longer the pinnacle and the sole focus of our advocacy. We have states that have signed it that completely ignore it. So now we’re looking for tangible legal and policy changes on the ground.
International civil society can help by keeping things on the agenda. Asia as a region is quite often forgotten and underrepresented globally. The huge refugee movements and protracted situations in Asia are often completely overlooked. A million Afghanis have been in Iran for 40 years with several million more in Pakistan. There are 100,000 Myanmar refugees on the Thai border along with the million-plus Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Compare this to headlines about migration in Europe and the USA and you’ll soon realise that our perception of refugee crises is skewed. There are these massive populations that don’t make the same global media impact and don’t get the attention they deserve. Keeping things on the agenda is really important.
Cohesive messaging and cohesive action are also important. We all need to be able to work together to share resources and best practices, understand what is happening in other regions and learn the lessons that can be applied. I think in civil society we tend to look at the same things again and again: we look at national governments, the United Nations, we talk to ourselves a lot, but I think there are under-utilised mechanisms, such as ASEAN, the European Parliament and the private sector. I think in sensitive situations, such as with the Uighurs, the European Parliament could be lobbied to put pressure on ASEAN, which could then put pressure on the government of China. We need to look outside the box at how we can utilise regional platforms and also have other countries exert their influence in the region.
People such as Abdul Aziz Muhammat, who spent years in the Australian government’s detention centre in Papua New Guinea and campaigns for refugees’ rights, should inspire us, and he should be a person we all aspire to be. He’s had such a traumatic life and so many things have gone against him, but he remains so positive and so ardent about supporting other populations. He continues to speak up for those left behind after him. To see refugees who have gone through everything and still fight for other refugees is inspiring. It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and their allies about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks to two United Nations (UN) officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the increasing space that is being taken up by anti-rights groups at the UN Human Rights Council, and the strategies that need to be developed to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses.
CIVICUS speaks to Arshak Makichyan, a Russian violin student at the Moscow Conservatory who started weekly climate strikes on 15 March 2019. Arshak, who has played violin since the age of seven, had planned to continue his musical studies in Berlin, but has now decided to stay in Moscow to continue his weekly climate strikes. He has since been joined by students who started their own strikes in other Russian cities and found international support, including through the #letrussiastrikeforclimate campaign.
What initially inspired you to start striking for climate?
It is strange that I learned about the climate crisis from Greta Thunberg. I am grateful to her for that. It is better to know the truth and fight than to live in ignorance. It was not inspiration. It was hopelessness that made me take action. It was a difficult decision, but I knew I had nothing to lose.
The first weeks I was very afraid and felt a little silly, as people couldn't understand what I was doing. I had no support in Russia, but people around the world on Twitter were supporting me and that was something. I chose to stand in Pushkin Square, because a week before I'd seen other strikes there, with demands to stop the war with Ukraine, and I thought that it's more possible to influence people in Russia than it is to influence the government. And on top of that, Pushkin is a symbol of freedom in Russia.
Public protest in Russia is highly restricted. Are people surprised to see you in the streets? What have been their reactions?
It’s been 21 weeks and thousands of people have come by. Now people seem to be more understanding, but at the same time protest has become more dangerous.
On my strikes I get many different kinds of reactions from people. Some express their support and take pictures, but some accuse me of being a spy from the USA or some other country. After one of my first interviews, police came and asked how much I was being paid. A few weeks ago, a person threatened to stab me if I didn’t put down my poster and then stayed around, calmly waiting, even after I called the police. And the police couldn't, or rather wouldn’t, arrest him, even though I have a video. But even so, something good came out of that: it was a reason for independent Russian media to write about Fridays for Future.
Organising mass strikes is also very difficult. Usually the government refuses to authorise them without even providing a reason or only allows you to strike in places where not so many people can see your protest. They refused my two applications in July, then I wrote again saying that if they refused the next one we would do single strikes every day, so they called me and offered a place that was not so bad, even though it was not the place that we wanted.
But despite the challenges, we are not going to give up. Activism may not work fast enough, but it does work.
The student climate strikes are unique in that often they involve a single person protesting. How does it feel to protest alone or in small groups? Is it easier knowing other people in other countries are doing the same?
Yes, it's easier when you know that you have millions of people behind you. The first weeks were the most difficult, because I did not have such support and felt a little silly by myself. Now I have that support, even in Russia, but it is also a very big responsibility. There is more and more responsibility and there is no way back for us. The world now knows that in Russia we are fighting, so that they have hope. We increase the power of protests by taking risks. And we will continue to do so, because there is no security without a future.
How has digital organising helped your campaign, and have there also been online attacks?
There are a lot of strange and dirty things online, such as trolls, false information and propaganda. But it's not so bad, because the internet also helps us. Support and communication on the internet have been very important to us.
An anonymous Telegram channel recently shared the data of 3,000 people, including mine, and I had a very uncomfortable feeling. I felt there was less security and greater danger. But I'm not afraid of them and I'm going to continue and strike to the end with my new friends in Russia and around the world.
What's scarier for me, even more than trolling and threats, is the indifference of most people.
Since you started striking, the climate emergency has become more serious. Heatwaves have spread across Europe and even Siberia caught fire. Have you noticed any changes in how people react to your protest?
Yes, the climate crisis is obvious, even despite the silence of the Russian propaganda media. They are silent about the climate crisis. There is no news about it on TV or elsewhere.
It seems to me that in a few years there will be no point in going on strikes. Young people will have to solve real problems, because humanity is not ready for a crisis.
Civic space in Russia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow Arshak on Twitter at @MakichyanA
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Dumiso Gatsha, a young LGBT rights activist and founder of Success Capital Organisation, a youth-led civil society organisation (CSO) that supports civic action and promotes the rights of LGBTQI people.
How significant was the June 2019 court decision that decriminalised homosexuality in Botswana?
The High Court ruled that colonial-era laws criminalising same-sex relations are unconstitutional. The judges said penalising people for who they are is disrespectful, and the law should not regulate private acts between consenting adults. One of the contested sections of the penal code, Section 164, is about ‘unnatural offences’, defined as “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” which essentially applied to gay sex, although it was up to the courts to define what unnatural acts meant, and it could theoretically also apply to heterosexual activities seen as ‘unnatural’.
This ruling is very significant on two fronts. The first is that this decision eliminates the risk of persecution altogether. Although the prohibition was not necessarily implemented by law enforcement agencies, it could have been, as it added elements of uncertainty and arbitrary treatment. The second is that it essentially provides an avenue for building protections and safeguards in health, employment, business, governance, service delivery and, more importantly, eliminating systemic stigma and discrimination.
Was civil society in Botswana instrumental in bringing about this decision?
Yes. Civil society, and LGBT civil society more specifically, has been very active since the 1990s. But when I started out there were still few activists that were well known. I came to Botswana in 2012 and there were only one or two notable activists, while now, only seven years later, there are five new LGBT-led organisations. A lot of them work on HIV/AIDS response, because a lot of funding goes to this kind of work.
Litigation for decriminalisation was led by civil society, on behalf of a young gay man. Procedurally, only an individual can bring such a challenge to the courts, not an organisation. The most progressive of recent court cases, in terms of gender marker changes, were led by people. Civil society partnerships helped ensure financial and technical assistance.
However, it is very difficult to bring the rest of the community along with these advances: yes, you achieve decriminalisation, but decriminalisation does not mean protection or mean it will be any easier for people to navigate difficult conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity with family members or educators, or in the workplace.
Has the court decision prompted any backlash against LGBT rights?
I think society is divided, and attitudes may take longer than laws to change. In this context, a new opposition populist party has used this issue as a populist tool. The ruling political party initially said that it would abide by the court decision and it backed non-discrimination. The current president had previously released a statement commemorating 16 days against gender-based violence and spoke about discrimination experienced by people in same-sex relationships. This was the first time a sitting head of state publicly recognised and acknowledged the gay community affirmatively in an African country that criminalised same-sex intercourse. Previous administrations had maintained a position of not persecuting people. In that sense, the state was always perceived as being a bit more progressive than the social majority or the rest of Africa. I think the state has long resorted to silent diplomacy on issues considered ‘progressive’.
What changed after the High Court ruling, and lead to the state deciding to appeal, was that the new opposition party saw an opportunity to use the ruling to seek votes. They blamed the current president for singlehandedly decriminalising same-sex intercourse. Given the intolerance in public opinion, it was an opportunity to appeal to the majority. This turned into a political issue rather than one of rights, particularly because this new political party is backed by a former president. This was the first time ever in Botswana’s living history that LGBT issues were used within an intentionally populist narrative.
This did not happen in isolation. Since the court ruling, religious institutions, mostly evangelical groups, became more vocal in their intolerance of LGBT people. It was surprising to us. We didn’t quite expect this. Public statements were released, including some stating that they would be appealing against the court ruling. They perceived this court ruling as an avenue for same-sex marriage and adoption of children by LGBT people.
Why did this take you by surprise? Weren’t anti-rights groups present in the public sphere before?
Regarding the court case, which took almost two years, evangelical groups and other religious actors remained silent for the most part. They wouldn’t really talk about it. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them at all. They didn’t bother building a whole narrative around or against it. That is why it was surprising that when the court decision was made public, all this opposition materialised. Some churches that had never released public statements on anything are now doing so. It isn’t just evangelical churches, although they have been probably the ones taking the lead. Catholic and Methodist churches have become quite intolerant, and vocally intolerant, as well.
While some civil society actors, including human rights groups, that we thought would be supportive, remained quite passive, anti-human rights groups have been increasingly active, using LGBT rights as a populist tool, by taking advantage of the dynamics regarding ‘immorality’ that prevail among the public – in other words, of the fact that many people are simply anti-LGBT by default, with no critical thinking.
I think that populist anti-rights groups are emerging in reaction to progressive gains. This is the Trump era, with its atmosphere of nationalism and regressive thinking. Regarding women’s sexual and reproductive rights and LGBT rights, US right-wing organisations are exporting their ideas to other parts of the world, including Africa. Fortunately, however, Botswana has historically been a peaceful society where it has not been easy for populist discourse to grow, and we are not seeing the growth of the same political populist narrative that has gained ground in other African countries or, for instance, in Eastern Europe. Botswana’s political landscape does not include extremist parties, either on the left or right. Major parties are all in support of LGBT rights and their leaders are quite progressive. There was an assumption that the negative political use of LGBT issues would work, but it is not clear that it has. However, society itself isn’t very accepting, and religious institutions are indeed perpetuating homophobia and intolerance.
What’s next for LGBT civil society in Botswana, after achieving decriminalisation?
Even if the High Court ruling survives the appeals and any other further legal challenges, a gap will remain. There have been some fragments of civic action aimed at educating people on LGBT issues. There is an urgent need to work on changing the hearts and minds of people. More importantly, there is a lot of work needed in moving LGBT people from surviving to thriving, especially in issues of efficacy, agency and having an influence within their communities. We focus on the individual and their access to rights, because rights are not really effective if they cannot be exercised at key touch points of service delivery, such as in a police station or a clinic. The community needs healing, at individual and collective levels. There has been a lot of pain and harm, even within activism.
What challenges do LGBT civil society face in doing this work, and what kind of support does it need?
A lot of advocacy strategies and narratives are pre-determined and attached to funding. There is a lot of gatekeeping in terms of the narratives that are considered relevant and valid, and therefore granted access to funding and to policy-makers. The main narrative currently appears to be around public health, and it is very difficult for new organisations to establish new narratives and still gain access to funding. If you are not operating under the umbrella of a much larger body, it is difficult to scale up advocacy work. This structure of opportunities has a strong impact on how creative and collaborative civil society can be while remaining sustainable.
I think this has to stop. We need to move towards a community-led narrative. This is how we will get the best results in terms of transforming people’s hearts and minds. In that regard, there is a need to strengthen the intellectual body of knowledge of LGBT communities and decolonise our institutions, because a lot of our conversations are in fact based on Western narratives. We also need to rethink the narratives used for campaigning. The narratives that have been used so far are based on the assumption that the human rights-based approach works, without any reflection on the need to adapt the language in a way that resonates with people and makes issues easier for people to digest.
In sum, I would say it is very important to diversify both the forms of advocacy that are undertaken and the ways that they are being supported.
Civic space in Botswana is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
CIVICUS speaks to Alessandra Nilo, co-founder and Executive Director of GESTOS – HIV and AIDS, Communication and Gender, a civil society organisation (CSO) created in 1993 in Recife, Brazil. She is a member of the NGO Delegation to the Programme Coordinating Board of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), an institution that uniquely involves civil society in its governance board. Here, Alessandra discusses civil society’s important role in UNAIDS, her work on HIV/AIDS in the deteriorating political climate of Brazil and the growing challenge posed by anti-rights groups that oppose action on HIV/AIDS and human rights.
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work on issues of HIV/AIDS?
I am a journalist, specialised in health and with a postgraduate qualification in diplomacy. I was also involved in student movements and workers’ and political movements. In 1993, a group of us created GESTOS. At that time, we didn’t know much about the epidemic. I lost a friend, whose family locked him in his house and wouldn’t allow us to talk to him. That was why GESTOS was born, to address the issues of people living with HIV/AIDS.
We knew that having an organisation to help people was not enough. We needed to exercise accountability. We needed to improve policies. We were pioneers because at that time we knew that gender was an important dimension, and also that without communication, we could not move forward, because it was important to involve the public and mobilise them for our cause. This is why we were named GESTOS – Seropositivity, Communication and Gender.
We started to engage with the national councils in Brazil. These are bodies established by the 1988 Federal Constitution, where government, civil society and interested parties sit together to define public policies. These were spaces where we could practise direct democracy and have direct participation. Through participation GESTOS became very close to the ministries of health and gender and we began to engage in social networks of the Latin American region.
What have been some of the impacts of the HIV/AIDS movement, in Brazil and globally?
In general Brazil’s HIV/AIDS movement is very strong. We have helped people take action to define their own responses to HIV/AIDS. Worldwide, the HIV/AIDS movement has been responsible for many breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS policies, and this happened in Brazil.
We were the first movement to start pushing that treatment was a right, rather than a commodity delivered by governments depending on whether they wanted to or had capacity. We were responsible for big discussions around sexuality that contributed to the sexual and reproductive rights movement. We built strong alliances with the feminist movement. We were the first movements to include people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, transgender people and sex workers in a global resolution at the United Nations (UN). We also engaged in debates that led to the Sustainable Development Goals. The fact that in the Agenda 2030 resolution there is a mention of people living with HIV/AIDS is because GESTOS was there as part of the Brazilian delegation and Brazil proposed this at the last minute of negotiations in New York.
The bottom line is that people living with HIV/AIDS proved at local, national and international levels to have a strong capacity to advocate for amplifying the spaces and formal sites and mechanisms for civil society participation in general.
How did civil society’s role in UNAIDS develop?
UNAIDS created the Programme Coordinating Board (PCB), UNAIDS’ governing body, in 1995 – it started operating in 1996 – and it is super innovative because it is the only governing body in the UN system that includes formal participation by civil society. It has 22 voting Member States, 11 co-sponsors, who are other UN bodies, and five civil society delegates plus five alternates, which means 10 people from civil society are involved. We have one member and one alternate per region, from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Asia and Europe.
The PCB is the place where the main global policies on HIV/AIDS have been discussed and formed, and these have informed other UN debates. More than that, it has informed and inspired the ways UN member states implement HIV/AIDS policies at national levels.
The rationale for civil society’s involvement lies in the fact that the HIV/AIDS movement was really based on participation. Since the beginning, people living with HIV and key populations pushed and insisted that politicians, scientists and affected people should come together and figure out how to create solutions together. We built this social movement where it was almost impossible to move forward any discussion without involving us. We were pressing since the beginning to have meaningful participation.
Because of this, when the PCB was formed, civil society was considered a very important player that had to participate. This was very innovative at that time and continues to be innovative today.
How does civil society’s involvement work in practice? How are the delegates selected and how do they connect with wider civil society?
The PCB NGO Delegation members have mandates for two years and depending on the performance of a delegate, the group can expand this mandate for one more year. Delegates are selected by current NGO PCB members. We put forward a public call, in response to which interested applicants make a submission. Shortlisted applicants are then invited to an interview panel. The panel, which consists of NGO delegates, as well as an external civil society partner or a former NGO delegate, makes a recommendation. Final deliberation and decision are done by the full Delegation.
We have a number of requirements for these candidates. One is that they should have the capacity to represent and communicate with their constituencies. It is essential to have the capacity for broader communication.
We have a very transparent process. We have a website where we publicise the calls, but also use social media to publicise the opportunity. We have a list of advisory groups, CSOs and activists who are always interested in issues of the UNAIDS PCB, and we communicate with them and involve them in preparations before, between and after the biannual PCB meetings. In recent years, we have been trying to reach out to other spheres, including groups working on issues such as sustainable development and financing for development.
Since 2008, there has also been an independent Communication and Consultation Facility (CCF) to support the NGO Delegation by providing technical, administrative and programme support. Since 2013, the CCF’s host organisation has been the Asia Pacific Network of People Living with HIV, based in Thailand. The CCF is the backbone of the NGO Delegation. It is hard to imagine how the Delegation would function effectively without it. A key objective of the CCF is to facilitate communication among the delegates and consultation with wider civil society.
What have the impacts and challenges been?
The NGO Delegation has no right to vote, but can participate in every other aspect of PCB activities. There is a very fine line between participating in deliberations and taking part in decision-making, because traditionally the PCB does not hold votes but decides by consensus. There have been so many examples where the NGO Delegation has been able to table decision points during meetings for critical agenda items, and had its points approved. Most decisions that have come out of the PCB came in one way or another after strong civil society participation.
Civil society and communities are really strong players and our voice is considered in a very respectful manner. It has been proven that with civil society participation, policies, programmes and services are designed much more efficiently and with much higher chances of working and benefiting people.
In terms of the process, since 2012, the NGO Delegation has been trying to create connections with other groups working with the UN to show them how the experience of the UNAIDS PCB accepting us and having us as formal members can be transposed to other UN bodies. We think this would be a great achievement for civil society in general. We tried to push this while the UN was having a conversation about restructuring and reforms. We talked with so many people, but it seems there is not an appetite for the UN to become more democratic in terms of the participation of civil society in formal decision-making bodies.
To have formal spaces for civil society is important, but it is not enough. There is absolutely a need to be able to inform decisions and participate in the decision-making processes of the UN at this time when, at the national and international levels, we are every day being pushed farther away from spaces for participation because of the advancement of reactionary political forces.
Although our PCB NGO Delegation succeeded, gaining formal space to participate was challenging. This is why we value it so much. If you think about the face of our movement you see people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men, LGBTQI people and women, people who have always led our movement but who have been marginalised in society. And even nowadays, stigma and discrimination continue to prevent us from reaching and accessing some places. While the HIV/AIDS movement has been successful in gaining public attention and claiming spaces, it has been very hard to do so, because stigma, prejudice and discrimination continue to fuel this epidemic.
With all these populist movements nowadays, the communities impacted on and affected by HIV/AIDS are not only the most marginalised but also the most criminalised. Criminalisation really impacts on the kind of organising we can do. In many countries in Africa and Asia, homosexuality, sex work and drug use are criminalised. There are real legal barriers for our communities that really impact on participation and engagement.
How is the restricted space for civil society in many contexts impacting on your work?
In the past decades we were fighting to improve the work that we were doing, but now we are working toward maintaining the rights we have, to resist, to recover from losses, and this is a very different game. In general, there is this trend of the space for civil society being increasingly restricted, and it is even more so for the HIV/AIDS movement because the forces opposing us are reactionary.
We are seeing different experiences in different countries. And, including in countries that were known as democratic, we have seen civil society dismantled, and colleagues in civil society forced to flee their places in order to keep some movements alive.
Besides this, in general, governments have used economic crises to justify cuts in programmes that used to have civil society participation. One very efficient way of diminishing civil society’s capacity is to cut funds, and this has happened to the HIV/AIDS movement. Until recently, we had countries investing in HIV/AIDS response, and that included investing in communities and civil society. This was working in a very progressive way, but now we have seen that resources for civil society, particularly international resources in middle-income countries, have decreased, and this has impacted negatively on our capacity to continue responding to HIV/AIDS and influencing governments.
In recent years we have seen the rise of fundamentalism and nationalism and a rejection of multilateralism in general. This has completely jeopardised the progress made in previous years in human, economic and environmental rights. Even in contexts where states had no interest in supporting civil society participation, we used to have an organisation such as UNAIDS and other international entities that could fund international networks and those networks could support national work, or could directly fund communities on the ground. This is not the case any longer. Formal space is being diminished, resources have been reduced and the groups that organise to provide support face increasing demands, because when democratic spaces shrink, public services and policies that benefit everyone in society usually suffer. And then the demand on us increases further. This equation simply does not work.
At the UNAIDS PCB itself, we see a political trend of some Member States becoming more aggressive towards CSOs, and some conservative governments questioning our model of participation. PCB meetings have seen attempts to challenge the existence of the NGO Delegation. In 2013 this was brought up by a couple of Member States that questioned the Delegation’s standing to participate in the meeting. In December 2018, a Member State questioned the recruitment process of the NGO delegates. I think the threat of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) resolution that established the PCB being revised is always there, especially in the current climate of declining democracy in various parts of the world. If that resolution is revised, then anything can be revised.
What challenges do you now face under an extreme right-wing president In Brazil?
In Brazil, the federal government is really going after LGBTQI people, the indigenous population, people who use drugs, black people. In June the Senate approved a law to make the policy on drugs even more restrictive, going in the opposite direction to many other countries. LGBTQI people are much more scared of being visible now. Also in May, the new government issued a decree to basically shut down all civil society participation in national councils. All councils created by law will continue to function but their composition will be revised, and all councils created by decree were immediately cancelled.
The government spread confusion about civil society in relation to the Amazon Fund, which is a big international fund to which CSOs can apply to fight climate change. The government lied by stating that the fund was being misused, while what they really want is not to let civil society get funding.
Also, as soon as it took power, the government cut several contracts with CSOs. At this moment we do not know that will happen with women’s rights and human rights policies. All progressive agendas are being cut by 65 per cent, 85 per cent, 95 per cent. Can you imagine that the Environment Ministry’s fund for climate change was cut by 95 per cent? As well as being a fundamentalist and economically ultraliberal, the new President doesn’t believe in climate change, the Minister of International Affairs stated that "globalism is a cultural Marxist conspiracy" and they want to solve the violence problem by releasing weapons for the entire population. How do you deal with people like that?
Given challenges, what is needed to improve the impact of the NGO Delegation?
UNAIDS and Member States should improve the level of investment in the NGO Delegation. Because our delegation operates very differently from government delegations, we lack the resources we need to amplify our voices and our advocacy work. The reason why we have not done more structured advocacy work in other areas of the UN is that we never have funds for that.
We also need more support in terms of communications, because we would like to do more campaigns around the results of our work and publicise key debates happening at the PCB, including intensifying our communication about the unique role of the PCB and civil society’s role within it.
More generally, how can the challenges that HIV/AIDS-related civil society is facing be addressed?
We need to improve our capacity to communicate and amplify our voice. If we could do that, people would pay more attention and value more what we do. It would be helpful if people could understand that the HIV/AIDS movement is an important part of the development agenda.
We need to reshape the entire conversation about international cooperation and decision-making in terms of the allocation of funds for communities and civil society. Decisions not to support countries because of their income levels are flawed. Brazil, for example, is defined as a middle-income country; as a result, over the past 10 years or so international cooperation agencies have withdrawn from Brazil. As a consequence of the low capacity to respond to right-wing fundamentalism, repressive forces have flourished. We need to go back to the basics, to our peers, to frontline groups, to political education. Conservative forces were just hidden and waiting for the moment to rise again. And they did so with discourse filled with falsities, for instance claiming to oppose corruption, an issue that has dominated in Brazil in the past years.
In countries with repressive right-wing leaders – such as Brazil, Hungary and the Philippines – civil society is doing its best to respond on several fronts despite lack of funding. Luckily for humanity, some people are born activists and do this work whether there is money or not. But I truly believe that, in order to keep our movement sustainable, we have to engage more deeply in global discussions about how to fund an independent civil society, one that does not rely upon states to raise funds and therefore remains independent of government decisions.
Given the impossibility of engaging with the federal government, another response in Brazil is to engage more with sub-national authorities and parliament. More connections are needed at the sub-national level, where it is possible to identify many people who support our causes.
Another idea is to make more use of litigation: to use legal frameworks to maintain the agenda. But, again, we need funds to do that.
For the UN, we need to be mindful about institutional reforms that are taking place and be vigilant. We need innovative mechanisms and funds that can help make the UN more independent of Member States, and to increase civil society capacity to play a bigger part. There should not be such distance between the international and national levels. People on the ground can benefit from discussions at the global level, and international discussions should be informed by the desires of people on the ground. People on the ground need to know why multilateralism is important, what the UN is, what UNAIDS is, why they matter. But it is hard when international cooperation funds keep shrinking and most organisations are relegated to providing services rather than advocating for rights, developing capacity and enabling new activists.
The issue of restricted space for civil society connects us all, independently of our field of action. Therefore it is crucial to have cross-movement dialogues and open conversations, because this is where we can build resilience and solidarity and support each other. We need different sectors to come together to keep growing and not to be intimidated into silence by forces that are sometimes literally killing us. We cannot be isolated in our own agendas. We really need a global civil society movement that stands together for all rights.
We are in a very delicate movement for democracy where social media and education play a crucial role. Communication is also a major issue for social movements. At this point in history we should be able to communicate better. What is our role? What is our success story in terms of supporting and strengthening democracy? Well, if you look at history, you will see that our role is essential and that most existing rights resulted from civil society demands and victories. Because without meaningful community and civil society participation there is no sustainable development, there is no democracy, and it is unlikely that public policies can be translated into services and programmes that really serve the needs of people.
Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their human rights work, their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Abdul Aziz Muhammat, a Sudanese refugee who became an advocate for refugee rights while experiencing long-term detention at the Australian government detention centre on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. In January 2019 he was awarded the Martin Ennals award for his tireless work on behalf of his fellow detainees.
How did you become a refugee, and why did you end up detained on Manus Island?
I am from the Darfur region of Sudan. In 2013, as today, Sudan was undergoing civil conflict, famine and drought, so I fled to Indonesia, where I boarded a boat bound for Australia. When I finally made it, I was sent, along with many others, to an offshore detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. This is a notorious holding space used by Australia to detain those seeking refuge. Australia’s policy of detaining and processing refugees on Manus Island has resulted in the systematic violation of the rights of several hundreds of people. I was forced to stay there for four years. I was granted refugee status in 2015 but stayed on Manus Island until 2019 when I was granted asylum in Switzerland.
What were the main challenges you faced while detained on Manus Island?
The detention centre was deliberately designed to make our lives there as bad as hell, designed to take our humanity away and replace it with cruelty and inhumane treatment, and designed to push us as hard as possible, mentally and physically. For instance, you wouldn’t receive proper medical treatment if you were sick, physically or mentally, but rather people would point fingers at you or tell you to go back to where you come from. I personally went through a lot of physical and mental challenges.
It is extremely difficult to summarise the situation, because it really is beyond human understanding. I am afraid people without a personal experience of detention in a place like that wouldn’t ever understand how detention destroys the lives of vulnerable people, both physically and mentally.
The situation was so bad that nobody who would be able to bear witness – human rights researchers, social workers, civil society organisations – was allowed to enter the island. So I tried to expose the cruelty and inhumanity faced by refugees on Manus island. Over time, I sent a journalist over 3,500 WhatsApp messages documenting the conditions of the detention camp. These were later turned into a podcast, The Messenger, that was published by the Guardian in 2017.
I started doing advocacy back in 2013. As soon as the authorities realised, the harassment started, and never stopped. It began with physical abuse, then torture, and when I got sick either physically or mentally, I didn't always get treatment. Even when I did, all there was was a doctor whose job description seems to have been to be as bad as they could. Between 2013 and 2015 I was in a desperate need of medical treatment, physically and mentally. Within a month I lost six kilos and I nearly died, but I managed to pick myself up again. I realised that I could not rely on these people to help me or treat me, so I decided to look after myself and treat myself.
I started to read about psychology and psychiatry and how they deal with anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress. Reading and researching helped me to cope and to learn how to look after myself as well as to look after friends in similar situations. I became a sort of therapist or counsellor to them, helped them out of their mental crises by detecting their negativity and replacing it with positivity – in other words, by trying to raise hope. I know it's not good to give people false hope, but I just tried to be there for them, to talk to them and try to remain positive, and tell them that we would get out of there sooner or later but in the meantime we just needed to stay positive.
What were the main restrictions on people’s ability to organise or speak up while detained on Manus Island?
Restrictions were all over the place. In a prison, the main rule for prisoners is ‘say nothing, do nothing, stay quiet’. You are an animal in a cage – you only move when the cage is opened for you, you only eat or drink when you are given food or water, and you only speak when you are told to. A separate world is created, with its own rules, structures, authorities and boundaries that you are not supposed to cross, and if you do cross them you are subjected to a variety of punishments. Social workers, the case managers, advised their clients in the centre to not speak about their situation if they wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you would remain in detention for a very, very long time, as your process would be delayed and your name would be put on a blacklist. These were the kinds of verbal threats that we got.
When you are immersed in a world like that, you always think of alternative options. If you cannot dismantle the system, then you may try to manipulate it so that you are seen as complying with the rules even if you are not taking them seriously. I wanted to test the limits and check what the punishment for breaking rules would be, if it would be applied or not, so I took the risk to become an advocate and started speaking up about the situation. I knew that I was going to be punished but also wanted to be a role model for others follow, so that if we all spoke up together we would be heard and our situation would improve.
Unfortunately, due to our differences in cultural backgrounds, some of my friends refused to follow. I also blame the system for this, because it is deliberately designed to create passivity through fear. However, we did manage to highlight the core problems and shift public opinion from a negative to a positive perception of refugees. The Australian government proposed a law that would criminalise whistleblowers further, but despite this, many other people felt encouraged to speak up when they saw us, speaking up about our situation while incarcerated.
What were your demands to the Australian government?
We were not in a position to present our demands to the government directly. We were just people who had fled their homelands and were looking for a safe place to call home, and that would give us the opportunity to make a contribution to society. When we came to Australia we were just like every other asylum seeker. We did not want to get in any confrontation with the government or even talk about them and their policies. But when they sent us to Manus Island, they forced us to speak up and organise. As a result, we managed to learn resilience and the ability to think out of the box and to act despite our lack of resources.
We had one very clear message to the Australian government. We basically asked, ‘If you don't want us in your country, why do you rescue us from the sea in the first place? If you don’t want us, please stop taking us to Manus Island; there are other countries that are willing to take us’. We made it very clear to the Australian government that we did not want to come to Australia after what we had been through, and we wanted them to hand us over to the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which is designed specifically to deal with the problems of refugees.
How did the Australian government respond to your demands?
The Australian government was getting heat from all sides. The international community pointed fingers at Australia and Australian civil society pointed fingers at their government claiming this was cruel and inhumane treatment and accusing them of being fascists. In response, the Australian government claimed this was not actually happening in Australia but in Papua New Guinea – according to them, this was happening on Papuan territory and the Australians were only providing them with the logistics. Truth is, though, that Australia still acts like a coloniser and the Papuan government complies with whatever they say regarding the detention centre.
As Australia claimed they were not responsible, we ended up facing the authorities of Papua New Guinea, who had no idea how to deal with us. They said they knew nothing of the situation we were denouncing, and that they didn’t even have access to us or the authority to make any decision regarding us – they were waiting for the Australian parliament to decide what to do and where to send us. So we basically kept being sent back and forth and never got any response from either side.
As our demands were ignored by both governments, we found ourselves fighting not only for our freedom but also for something more basic, our human dignity. We were human beings who had been turned into numbers but fought back to turn ourselves back into human beings, so that then we could start thinking about freedom. That is when we thought, ‘What if we demand our fundamental rights, like proper medical treatment? We are talking about Australia, a Western democracy with top-notch medical services – why can't we just access equal medical services as Australian citizens?’. Still, the government kept ignoring us.
We then realised that if we were not able to get to the Australian authorities, we might still be able to use social media to challenge the government’s arguments. And so we did.
Did you get any support from civil society in Papua New Guinea, Australia or other countries?
To be honest, civil society in Papua New Guinea had no idea what they were dealing with, of what was going on. Civil society groups there are dealing with other crises – healthcare, insecurity, unemployment – that from their perspective are much worse. They just don’t have the time or resources to look into Manus Island.
As for Australian civil society, there has been a significant change over the past few years. Today, with the help of Australian civil society, we are managing to get our message around Australia. When we started talking about Manus Island in 2013, one organisation, Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney, got in touch with us and connected us with many other civil society organisations. At the beginning, the position of civil society wasn't very clear or unified. Many thought their argument was weak because this was happening outside Australian territory. But we worked hard to shift their views, and now Australian civil society has a stronger, vocal position, and every time they get into an argument with the government they win it. We are very thankful to every individual and organisation in Australian civil society who contributed to spread the word about Manus Island.
Alongside Australian civil society, we succeeded in having the Medevac Bill passed in February 2019. This law gave us refugees not quite full access to our fundamental rights, but it gave us something rather than nothing. The newly-elected Conservative government is now desperately trying to repeal the Medevac Bill, but thank God we have managed to buy some time until November.
Are you aware of groups in Australia that oppose refugee rights?
I cannot say there are civil society groups organised to oppose refugee rights, but there are indeed politicians in parliament and in government who do. They claim that Australia has one of the best asylum processes and that the people on Manus are not refugees. They tell people: ‘these people are coming to take your job, to steal your welfare, they are criminals’. These are the politicians. There are just a minority of Australian society, but they are always there. There are always people who oppose your rights, and they do it by putting forward arguments that may not even be connected to what you're fighting for.
Do you think that people outside Manus recognised the work that you were doing?
Although I did a lot for my friends inside Manus and for many people elsewhere, while I was on Manus I never felt that my voice was being heard or my work recognised, up until February of this year, when I was given the Martin Ennals award. I am very thankful to everyone who stood beside me and shared my story and demands. I don’t have an academic background and I started from the grassroots, where I faced many challenges, but never thought that I should stop. I just want to keep doing the work that I’m doing. I’m not doing it for credit, but because this is who I am, and it’s what makes me feel good about myself. I want to represent the voice of refugees, because our voice is either completely missing or misrepresented by some organisations.
Over time, I witnessed some organisations working day and night on behalf of refugees, while others are fighting for their own interest or to further their own political agenda. Sometimes people contact you and ask you a comment, or to participate in an event, they use you for their fundraising and you never hear from them again, until they run out of funds and they come back to you. So it is important to tell apart those who are advocating or speaking on behalf of the missing voices of refugees or migrants because that is what they believe in, and those who are trying to get some gain out of it. It is important to identify those who do it out of their humanity or because they feel that something needs to be done.
Sometimes other people take credit for the work I do, fail to see me as my own advocate, or think I am going to put their work in jeopardy, and for that reason they keep undermining me. But they won’t stop me – I’m here to make unheard voices heard. All the while I’m dealing with a huge amount of trauma, as I spent six years incarcerated in a detention centre, in a parallel world with its own rules and restrictions, where people are kept under control and their humanity is taken away.
What difference did the Martin Ennals award make to you and your struggle?
Winning the Martin Ennals award gave me purpose, and a lot more. I never in my life thought that one day I would be coming to Europe, and particularly to Geneva. It was not even part of my dream, and it happened because of the Martin Ennals award. Above all, this award meant recognition, not just of the work I’ve done, which I wasn’t doing to be recognised anyway, but most importantly of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Manus Island, in Nauru, in Australia and around the world. It meant that despite what we've been through, or maybe because of it, we get to represent our own voice, to speak for ourselves and make the world know what is happening.
The award finally shone a light on the crisis on Manus Island. Not long ago, the Australian government came to Europe to talk about their successful migration policy. They didn’t speak about the atrocities they have committed and the suffering they have caused to kids, men and women who have been mentally and physically destroyed. But as a result of this award people are beginning to understand what happened. It was a crime against humanity. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert, but you don’t have to be one to see that locking up thousands of people for years and torturing them mentally and physically is well beyond the law, and any government that does that is acting above the law.
What are the next steps for you?
I want to continue amplifying the voices of migrants and refugees and to make people understand that we are equal human beings, you and me, that there is no difference between us. I want to advocate for refugees and migrants globally, not just in one place, because as we can currently see in Europe, some countries are acting beyond all limits, turning into evil. Italy and Hungary, for instance, have even passed laws to criminalise people who are saving the lives of others. So what I want to do next is help empower these embattled human rights defenders.
I also want to make people stop judging people based on their status. If you look at my status, my migratory status, I am a refugee. But my status doesn't represent me. I am Aziz, and I want people to treat me as Aziz – Aziz who has the ability and capacity to stand up and speak and participate and share his story, Aziz who also can be part of the community he is in, not Aziz the refugee you feel sorry for. 'Refugee’ and ‘migrant' have almost become offensive words, and it is our duty to change that, to prove to the world that they are not, and to remind people of history. It's not long ago when the world turned upside down in the First and Second World Wars, when many people became refugees and were not treated the way that we’re treating people right now. The fact that you were not there at the time is no excuse for ignorance. The history is there; if you can read, you can learn what happened. I will use the Martin Ennals award to share my story and other stories of struggle and resilience on Manus Island. I will use my personal testimony to give people the facts.
What support do refugees and refugee advocates need from the international community and international civil society?
We want the international community to understand fully that we are human and include us in the conversation and in decision-making. By talking about us, or representing us, be it from a legal or an academic perspective, you are not helping the victims, those actually experiencing torture and trauma. What we want is for the trauma and the torture to stop, and for that to happen, we need people who have been through the experience to come and testify, to be heard by the international community.
We want civil society to also include the voices of refugees and migrants in roundtable discussions, where they could convey the message that people do not choose to be refugees, but they are forced to. If I can take part in the discussion, I will say what is in my mind, I will tell what I have been through, and I will be a strong voice on behalf of people who remain in places that are out of sight, out of mind – where no one knows of their existence. I will be their voice. It will encourage them to stay strong, resist power and fight hard, even inside a detention centre, if they know a refugee is sitting at the table and speaking on their behalf.
Including refugees at the table provides legitimacy to civil society. When civil society speaks up, governments always undermine them by pointing out, 'You were not there, how do you know?'. In order not to be pushed into the corner that way, they need to bring in refugees or migrants that speak for themselves and who can say ‘yes, I was there, and I know how horrible that place is’.
To stay true to its mission, civil society needs to question its own motivations and scrutinise everything from that perspective, even human rights institutions and refugee agencies and staff. Many people view international institutions and civil society organisations as a source of employment rather than a platform to serve others, to help people that are in need of help. There is so much to be done in order to improve human rights and democracy around the world. We need everyone’s contributions, the only way we can do it is together.
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to T King Oey, an Indonesian capacity development expert and a founder and board member of Arus Pelangi, the Indonesian Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual and Intersex Communities.
How does your network work, and what are the challenges you are addressing?
Our organisation, Arus Pelangi, which means the Flow of the Rainbow, was established in 2006. This was during the Reformasi era that followed the ousting of President Suharto in 1998 after three decades in power. After this there was much more freedom and many repressive laws were revised. At this time LGBTQI people felt we should come together to stand for our rights. Before then the only context in which people talked about LGBTQI people was in relation to the mitigation of HIV/AIDS. So we decided to form an organisation purely to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI people.
Arus Pelangi is a coalition of national and local groups of LGBTQI people. We network a lot with other human rights organisations, including those working on other aspects of diversity and legal reform. We have also been instrumental in the formation of a network across the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries – the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. It is based in the Philippines and Arus Pelangi is an important member. At the same time we are reaching out to local communities around the huge country of Indonesia. There are still capacity challenges in enabling far-distant communities to make their voices heard.
What challenges have you faced in recent years?
The space for democracy in Indonesia is becoming more restricted, and it is harder for us to be visible. When we started in 2006 we saw it as strategic to raise our visibility as much as possible, so people could see and understand LGBTQI people and know who we are. So we took part in demonstrations, held flash mobs, held public discussions, made media appearances – anything to make us visible as a group.
From the very beginning there were all kinds of groups attacking us. But things got much worse in 2016, when all of a sudden there was this massive wave of attacks. Persecutions also began from 2016 onwards. The trigger was a pronouncement by the Minister of Research, Technology and Higher Education, Muhammad Nasir, that LGBTQI people should be banned from university campuses. Suddenly everyone joined in, saying that LGBTQI people should be banned from everywhere, that we should be criminalised.
These attacks came especially from hardline religious groups. These groups had always advocated for criminalisation, but suddenly they had momentum because of what the minister had said.
From then on it was no longer possible to be visible as an organisation, and to some degree even as individuals.
How have extremist groups been able to organise, and how have they mobilised support?
The Reformasi era created all kinds of freedoms for people to organise themselves, but the fundamentalists had the same freedoms, and they did very well in organising themselves. They have received lots of funding from Saudi Arabia.
There has been a two-track development in Indonesia. Indonesia has become more part of a global society, more integrated in terms of technology, but at the same time people’s minds have become more conservative, due to the influence of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists have had more chances to preach, and to organise in all kinds of groups and organisations. One of the most well-known is Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), which has been very vocal in attacking us, and they have been able to stop some of our activities.
The attitude of the police has been ambivalent. They haven’t stopped the FPI from attacking us. Rather they have said that for our safety it would be better if we disband. They always use this argument of safety. Since 2016 the police have also been proactive in outing and arresting people. People are arrested, paraded in front of the media and then released without charge.
This has had a huge effect on the whole community. People have become afraid. Since 2016 we have held hardly any public events. We have to keep things secret and do everything underground. We have also had to learn to take security measures. Many of our people became depressed and closed themselves away, stopped going out. It’s just like being back in the Suharto era. We aren’t free any more.
Fundamentalists reached the level of power that in 2017 they were able to put Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of our capital city, Jakarta, into jail for blasphemy. This was when the network of fundamentalist groups reached the height of their power. They were able to work together to do this. Indonesia has a blasphemy law, and once someone has been indicted, it is certain they will be convicted. I haven’t heard of any case when someone charged with blasphemy has walked free.
How has the government responded?
What is interesting is that this level of fundamentalism got to the point where it was threatening the position of President Jokowi. Only then did we see a concerted effort from the government to push back, and this process is still going on. The government has banned one of the fundamentalist groups, an international Muslim network that calls for the establishment of the caliphate, on the grounds that it does not adhere to the national ideology, known as Pancasila.
A law the government recently passed on civil society organisations enabled it to do this. Human rights organisations criticised this law for being too loose and flexible. It could potentially enable the government to ban any group. This is the first time it has been used. The same law could be used against any group. It’s a double-edged sword.
The government is considering banning the FPI. The government is also saying that it is coming to realise how many campuses have been infiltrated by fundamentalist groups, but it’s hard to know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Has the April 2019 presidential election brought any changes?
President Jokowi won re-election in April, but it seems he felt he couldn’t do it without the support of the moderate Muslims, as he took an Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate. Ma’ruf is a fairly conservative cleric who has made all kinds of negative pronouncements against LGBTQI people. It’s a mystery for many people, even for supporters of President Jokowi, why he was chosen over all other candidates.
For LGBTQI people, now President Jokowi has won re-election, it remains to be seen whether the coming five years will bring any improvement. We don’t believe President Jokowi is against LGBTQI people, and on some occasions, he has said that the rights of LGBTQI people should be protected. But this is the kind of thing he has said when he has been interviewed by the BBC. It is a message for the outside world, rather than for a domestic audience.
What is also disappointing is that in his first term, President Jokowi prioritised a focus on the investment climate, emphasising massive infrastructure projects, such as ports, roads and power plants, and reforming the bureaucracy to remove obstacles against investment. Just recently he has announced that his second-term priorities are the same. He said nothing about human rights. Many were hoping that he would be less cautious in his second term. It remains to be seen how committed he will be to human rights.
As well as LGBTQI groups, which other communities are subject to persecution?
Other groups particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses are minority Muslim sects, which have been heavily persecuted over the years, and communists and those associated with them. This goes way back to the mass killings of 1965-1966. Survivors and second and third-generation family members are still suffering from discrimination and threats.
The struggle for gender equality goes back many decades. Women are targeted by conservative groups. Shariah law applies in the province of Aceh, and they have introduced and are applying draconian punishments such as caning and stoning to death. Several LGBTQI people have been the victim of caning. There are attempts to criminalise non-normative sexuality elsewhere in Indonesia.
There is an ongoing effort and desire among many to more closely regulate morality. It is a continuous battle to try to prevent more repressive measures. For example, parliament is currently debating a law on domestic violence, and conservative law-makers are asserting that many things we would consider as sexual violence, like marital rape, are not included. The dividing line is between following a hardline interpretation of the Quran or not. Despite its secular appearance, Indonesia has become a de facto religious state.
How is civil society responding to these challenges, and what support could the international community and international civil society best offer to Indonesia’s LGBTQI community?
Civil society has been trying to respond through networking, joint statements, lobbying parliament and campaigning, including through Change.org. But it can feel like fighting an impossible war, because the conservatives always seem to be more powerful, better organised and better resourced.
We have to be careful when considering outside assistance, because one of the arguments that fundamentalists always use is about foreign influences and attempts to make Indonesia a liberal country. LGBTQI is characterised as a western concept that is incompatible with the culture. Of course if you look at the culture and history of Indonesia you see all kinds of expressions of non-binary gender, including in dances, songs, literature and rituals. This culture has been denied consistently by conservatives who say that the only culture is hardline Islam. The conservatives forget that Islam itself is an imported religion.
In 2015, when the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, this created quite an uproar in Indonesia. Conservative groups always point to this and say that once they give in to one thing, this is what will happen. The global debate about same-sex marriage works both ways for us, because LGBTQI people in Indonesia have never suggested this – it seems too far away to even contemplate this, and we need to have our fundamental rights respected first – but at least it tells us we’re not alone.
So you have to be careful, but solidarity helps. It helps LGBTQI people here to know they are not alone and have not been abandoned. If people have any chance to speak to government officials from Indonesia, they should use that opportunity to speak up for LGBTQI people and other vulnerable groups.
At Indonesia’s United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review session in 2017, many shadow reports pointed to the severe situation of LGBTQI people. There was quite a bit of criticism. The usual attitude of the Indonesian government is to cite social conservatism, but this time it was forced to acknowledge the need to take steps and it committed to hold a dialogue with the LGBTQI community. This was a concession that came because of international pressure. Of course, it remains to be seen what will happen on the ground. We have to keep the pressure on.
Civic space in Indonesia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with T King Oey through Arus Pelangi‘s website.