THE MALDIVES: ‘Civic space is practically nonexistent now’

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. What is your hope for the future?

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

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

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


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


Fernanda Hopenhaym

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If civil society is going to be prohibited from publishing survey statistics freely, as is now being threatened, then much grassroots work in trying to understand the prevalence, drivers and possible solutions to problems is going to be not used or not done in the first place. This would be a real shame, especially as the potential to collect and use data for social good is becoming more and more accessible to grassroots organisations.

At the same time, some people do support the president, and citizens who support the president may challenge opposition parties. This means that CSOs that criticise the president and the ruling party may be branded as part of the opposition.

3. What do you think motivates these attacks?

This is happening because of the nature of Tanzania’s leadership. People in the ruling party fear that if they are criticised and people are aware of their failings, they can be removed from power. They want citizens and the community to be blind to what is taking place in the government.

This has worsened compared to previous times. Under former presidents, for example, opposition parties were much more able to make criticisms as part of the democratic process. There is less of this happening now, and people do so in a more muted way.

4. How can civil society respond, and what further support does it need to respond?

In response civil society has to invest more in education at the grassroots in raising awareness about human rights. Sometimes people do not know that their rights are being violated.

Civil society also needs tools that help it reach people at the grassroots. There need to be stronger links between CSOs and citizens at the grassroots. Human rights organisations need to do more work outside the capital city.

There also needs to be more support for civil society through international human rights networks.

Civil society needs to be supported with competent legal aid, and training to support its work on human rights, as well as help to resist being intimidated. Civil society needs to find more ways of approaching government machinery and knowledge about different ways to navigate the system.

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


SLOVENIA: ‘A fragmented political reality’

Albin KeucAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. Following Slovenia’s June 2018 election, which saw a party that stood on a nationalist, anti-migrant platform come first and a new party come second and go on to form a minority government, CIVICUS spoke to Albin Keuc, director of Slovenian Global Action (SLOGA). SLOGA is a Slovenian civil society platform that principally brings together civil society organisations working in the fields of development, global education and humanitarian aid.

1. What do you think was the story behind the June 2018 elections? Do you think the results point to some level of disaffection with conventional politics or indicate challenges for democracy?

The elections in Slovenia were fairly unspectacular from the point of view of the results, but quite striking in comparison with the election results in neighbouring countries, such as Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy. In those countries, elections have led to the instigation of more or less right and centre-right governments, in accordance with the authoritarian and populist political atmosphere in Central and Eastern Europe in particular. The Slovene political scenery has been quite consistent for the last decade, showing a persistent roughly 40 to 60 distribution of voters between the broad right and left camps, and with a declining turnout by voters, standing at around 51 per cent in 2018.

The lowest point of the campaign for civil society was a public call by a candidate of the right-wing Slovene Democratic Party (SDS) to cut off all public financial support to civil society organisations (CSOs). This brought a united reaction by CSOs and the media, forcing the candidate and party to make clarifications.

Although several parties approached the electorate with messages similar to those propagated by hard-line Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, mimicking these with a 'Slovenia First' approach, they were not rewarded: smaller parties stayed below the four per cent threshold needed to obtain a seat in parliament. However, the right-wing populist Slovene National Party (SNS) returned to parliament after a decade. SDS and New Slovenia (NSi), a centre-right party, gained better results than in previous elections, but they and no party came close to having a parliamentary majority. These three parties won 36 out of 90 seats. The other parties represented in the new parliament - the Marjan Šarec List (LMŠ), Modern Centre Party (SMC), Social Democrats (SD), The Left (Levica), Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia (DeSUS) and Alenka Bratušek Party (SAB) - cover a range of centre-to-left perspectives along a spectrum from neoliberal to socialist ideas.

The current situation, with nine parties represented in parliament, indicates a further fragmentation of support for political parties and increased political rivalry that will affect the government's capacity for decision-making regarding future political, social and economic developments. There were clear demands made in the campaign of people asking for reforms at least of the national health system and the minimum wage, which will need a high level of consensus to be successful.

There are several existing fractures in Slovenian society that are behind the fragmented political reality. Culture wars arising from an unsuccessful national reconciliation process overshadow almost all public discussions and are hindering the ability of public debate to act as a democratic tool, causing political fatigue among the public. Another fracture is between what can be characterised as a neoliberal sell-everything approach and a statist keep-as-much-as-possible-in-government-hands approach, both of which imply public costs. A growing fracture can also be found in intensified intergenerational conflict arising from the demographic situation and the limited employment opportunities for young people, instilling additional social uncertainties throughout Slovene society.

2. And what were the eventual outcomes of the elections, and the prospects of the new government?

After two months of negotiations, Marjan Šarec from the LMŠ, a new centre-left party, was appointed as the new prime minister by parliament and charged with constructing a minority government out of the various centre-to-left parties listed above. He gained the support of those parties’ 52 members of parliament to become prime minister, along with the support of the two members elected to represent Slovenia’s Hungarian and Italian minorities, and one unknown rogue vote from a member of the one of the right-of-centre parties. We can expect a rocky governing period, as a minority government will have to negotiate every step in parliament while also having to govern. This will be the first minority government in the 27 years since Slovenia became independent from Yugoslavia.

Šarec is relatively young, with local political experience as a mayor of a small town for eight years, and with a background in entertainment and comedy. He first stepped onto the national political scene as a presidential candidate in 2017, losing to the incumbent president by only a few points. From a political point of view him and the LMŠ members of parliament are a big unknown, although some senior business people can be seen to be playing a role in LMŠ.

3. What are the likely impacts of the outcome of the election on Slovenia civil society, particularly civil society that promotes human rights and democratic freedoms?

CSOs in Slovenia are still underdeveloped. The number of people who work in CSOs is low compared to other European Union (EU) countries. We also face high dependency on public funding, which affects CSOs’ capacity to engage in advocacy and accountability activities. However, the previous government adopted Slovenia’s very first law on CSOs, which helped to set the scene and established a new budgetary support fund for CSOs.

There are also signs of illiberal practices and discourse being used by governmental officials, some media and organised interests. CSOs have been criticised by the nationalist and anti-communist parties from an ideological point of view and accused of being supportive of a post-communist elite. CSOs have been criticised and even threatened when exercising their watchdog role, for example, when employing their rights to participate in processes such as environmental impact assessments, required to establish new industrial facilities.

4. What actions has civil society taken to build support for human rights and social justice, and to combat extremism and political polarisation in Slovenia? And what new challenges have arisen for civil society?

In recent years, and especially during the time of the controversy over refugees and migrants in 2015 and 2016, we faced an explosion of hate speech throughout social networks. Slovene CSOs showed their resilience and ability to cooperate on different levels. But existing networks and platforms will need to strengthen their capacities to provide additional support in the form of fundraising, communication and outreach techniques for a digital era, and in membership building and understanding cognitive science and behavioural economics for CSOs.

In general, there is a need for the revitalisation of public intellectual life, which has been diminished and replaced by online social networks, and for rethinking and repositioning the role of the public media in reaching the public in the new digital era.

There has been an unprecedented change in communication and information exchange in the last decade, which has made a huge impact on our decision-making and our choices in everyday life. It has also had an impact on traditional civil society operations, leaving us with the key questions of how to respond to the politics of fear that create frightened citizens, how to adapt to the changed media reality, how to reach people that fall vulnerable to whatever fake news is being provided to them, and so on. All those changes have been global, having ‘glocal’ effects.

History teaches us that in times of social despair and fear people turn inwards to their social networks and communities, locally or nationally, with the consequences of narrow group loyalty and the exclusion of others. This is why the neo-conservative agenda entails practices of going after the credibility of CSOs (‘who pays you?’) and our legitimacy (‘who do you represent?’). This makes us think about the value of our personal credibility and legitimacy, and their importance for us and the communities we serve.

5. How can Slovenian civil society respond, and what support does it need to respond?

From the CSO point of view, strategic rethinking, cooperation and prioritisation is needed on the national and local levels to strengthen support for a liberal society based on respecting human rights, affirmative actions, tolerance, the rule of law and transparent and accountable government.

What we also need today is a ‘civil society of the world’new forms of cooperation among progressive activism on global scale. Think global, act local is a reality of today’s momentum. We have the communication tools available, and have on our side experience grounded in results and creativity.

There is a growing feeling that the attitudes of the public are changing towards having a less open, tolerant, inclusive and permissive mindset. Thus social research to understand the factors that are pushing people in that direction is surely needed if we are to understand the processes in play. With a goal of rethinking and recreating our methods and tools for making an impact, civil society needs to reach out to the academic community and vice versa to generate further insights into social changes, including those caused by the introduction of social media. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to imagine the consequences if that sphere of freedom is already being commodified.

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

Get in touch with Slovenian Global Action through their website or Facebook page, or by writing to .


LATVIA: ‘Faced with hatred, we focus on delivering a human rights message’

Kaspars ZalitisAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Kaspars Zālītis about the challenges faced by LGBTI people in Latvia, and the actions undertaken by civil society to broaden civic space for sexual minorities and therefore to make democracy truly inclusive. Kaspars is the director of Mozaika - Association of LGBT and their friends, currently the only LGBTI rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Latvia. Established in 2006, Mozaika promotes gender equality and anti-discrimination; raises awareness of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions of identity; promotes an understanding of diverse family models and their legal recognition; and advocates for the harmonisation of Latvian laws with international standards.

1. What is the current situation of LGBTI rights in Latvia?

On the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s ILGA-Europe Rainbow Map, which measures each country’s respect for LGBTI rights, Latvia ranks 40th within Europe, and last of all European Union (EU) member countries. In turn, the CIVICUS Monitor has reported several restrictions of civic space in Latvia. CSOs working on controversial topics are being targeted, and civil society has found it increasingly difficult to gain access to policy-makers. Mozaika has tried to lobby politicians and policy-makers for years, but they often prefer to meet in private rather than attract any attention that can lead to attacks from right-wing activists and politicians.

The political climate is hostile for sexual diversity and for diversity as a whole. ‘Moral upbringing’ amendments introduced into the Education Law in 2015 - which mandate schools to promote ‘family values’ and marriage as part of education - have been implemented through the publication of guidelines that have caused fear among teachers of negative reactions if they touch on any LGBTI issues, and sexual and reproductive rights issues more generally. In 2016, a schoolteacher whose students had requested her to start a Gay-Straight Alliance was asked to refrain from doing so, and another teacher faced calls that he should close all his social media accounts so that students wouldn’t see his ‘LGBT-friendly’ attitudes - in other words, he was asked to hide his sexual orientation. Legislators bashed him on social media and insinuated that he was ‘recruiting’ children.

In March 2018, parliament was quick to dismiss a Cohabitation Bill that would have granted basic rights to non-married couples, including same-sex ones. It did so on the grounds that couples could access these rights by getting married, even though the Latvian Constitution prohibits same-sex marriage. The initiative had started three years earlier through an online petition that gathered 10,000 signatures, which was why parliament had to consider it.

2. What is the role of religious groups in this?

Indeed. The Catholic Church has a lot of influence, and it is taking the lead in fighting the LGBTI community and pushing back against women’s rights. For instance, there has been a lot of disagreement over the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, and parliamentary debate on the issue has been postponed until after parliamentary elections are held in October 2018.

Church leaders and many public officials oppose ratification of the Istanbul Convention because one of its non-discrimination clauses concerns sexual orientation and gender identity. The Catholic Archbishop is rallying against it and has gathered considerable support among political parties and parliamentarians. He has managed to convince them that ratification is part of the secret agenda of so-called ‘genderists’ – an expression that originated in Russia, a country with a very strong cultural influence in Latvia. Church officials, right-wing activists and politicians and anti-LGBTI and anti-abortion groups depict the Convention as contrary to Latvian traditional values and as being aimed at over-sexualising and ‘converting’ children. These arguments are gaining ground among the public.

This rhetoric is not the exclusive preserve of the Catholic church: the Lutheran church, which is the largest Protestant church in Latvia, is also taking a lead in fighting us and the Istanbul Convention. This is quite strange, because Lutherans, prevalent in Nordic countries, tend to be more liberal. But in Latvia they even voted against having female priests, following the lead of the Catholic church. Additionally, new religious organisations with direct links with US evangelical groups are emerging. Some of their leaders have been trained in the USA and are quite good at influencing people.

Although religious leaders and organisations don’t have a direct and institutionalised role in policy-making, given that the Latvian Constitution establishes a separation between church and state, in practice they have a lot of influence. Church-state separation notwithstanding, the state has a religious advisory council, as does the City Council. It is not uncommon for the Catholic Archbishop to meet with the ruling coalition’s leading party, and for the party’s leader to then say that he has ‘consulted’ with the Catholic church and has decided to vote in one way or another. You can see a direct link because all this happens in public.

We, on the contrary, don’t have access to leading politicians because they are not willing to risk their reputations by meeting us in public. At the most, we can expect to have a private meeting here and there. This has a lot of impact on us, especially as we see the religious right rise all over Europe. Religious organisations and right-wing parties are increasingly organised and coordinated to fight against gender equality and LGBTI rights at the European level, and they are getting a major influx of resources from the USA. They have way more resources than we do, and their message also resonates better with the latent homophobia in Latvian society, which is becoming increasingly vocal. And after the Brexit vote and the Trump victory, they are emboldened. The latest developments in Hungary and Poland are also proof to them that they may be closer to winning.

3. Has this discourse penetrated the media?

Most definitely. Our media landscape is quite pluralistic, and the state channel and public broadcaster at least try to provide balanced coverage. But some media outlets are outright hostile towards LGBTI groups, and one of them, a Russian outlet with a major agenda against the rights of women, migrants, refugees and LGBTI people, is clearly leading a crusade against us.

Vilification of women’s and LGBTI rights groups is also increasingly taking place online. We are now constantly harassed on Facebook. At some point we realised these were not the usual people who used to attack us and we did some research to find out where the attacks were coming from, and found links to evangelical churches.

Since January 2018, Mozaika has reported over 200 posts that are openly homophobic to social media administrators, and most of them have been taken down and their authors temporarily or permanently blocked. This caused all Mozaika activists to be blocked from accessing certain groups and pages, and we have evidence that a number of secret Facebook and WhatsApp chat groups have been created to follow our activities.

4. Can you tell us more about the significance of Pride in Latvia and the Baltic Pride that was recently held in the capital, Riga?

Pride in Latvia is the most visible LGBTI event in the country. It draws widespread social and media attention to our cause, but it also attracts a large number of expressions of hatred and brings to the surface negative attitudes towards the LGBTI community. Pride in Latvia grew from 70 participants who faced 3,000 protesters in 2005, to 5,000 participants at EuroPride 2015, which was held in Riga, and 8,000 in the recent Baltic Pride. In between, it was banned by Riga City Council three times.

Mozaika applied for permission to hold Baltic Pride in February 2018. Latvian laws state that applications must be submitted no earlier than four months prior to the event and that if there is more than one application for an event to be held at the same time, priority will be given to the first applicant. Mozaika’s representative arrived at Riga City Council an hour before opening to make sure that Baltic Pride was the first applicant, and just seconds after he entered the building Antiglobalists, an anti-rights organisation, arrived to submit another request for an event that would take place at the exact same time and venue, but under the name “Promotion of paedophilia, zoophilia, necrophilia and other perversions.” They wanted to make the statement that if ‘homosexuals’ can promote their ‘perversions’, then they should also be allowed to promote any other perversion they could think of.

Since it became known in late 2017 that Riga would host Baltic Pride, both Mozaika and Baltic Pride became targets. The leader of the Latvian Green Party-Riga Unit started a //">personal campaign against so-called ‘genderists’. He insisted that Baltic Pride should be banned and set up a Facebook page to ‘inspire’ activists for ‘traditional values’. Starting in January, Baltic Pride organisers received over a hundred personal attacks, warnings or threats. We were insulted, called sick and branded perverts on our Facebook pages on a daily basis. Hate campaigns were launched to convey the idea that Pride is a ‘sex festival’. Countless posts were made showing rainbows and guns, to create fear among potential participants and the LGBTI community and dissuade them from attending. Antiglobalists, Tautas tiesību kustība (National Rights Movement) and activists inspired by right-wing politicians also constantly posted statements to encourage others to stand against Baltic Pride. Sometimes they provided details about our activities, forcing us to restrict them to registered participants to ensure safety. We also had to take unprecedented security measures for Pride events.

Fortunately, we could find common ground and work closely with the police. Counter-protesters attack and humiliate the police, but we treat them with respect. No public official or security officer supporting us would ever say so publicly, but we have been able to work together behind closed doors. In the end, Baltic Pride was a great success. We would have considered it a success if 2,000 people had attended, but over 8,000 did. There were no major incidents, although at some point eggs and smoke bombs were thrown at participants.

5. How do you counter the anti-rights message?

We focus on delivering a human rights message. We never blame the church or call anyone by name - we don’t talk about them. We counter argument with argument, and fiction with facts. If they say that perverts will march, we state the fact that 70 per cent of those ‘perverts’ are straight people with children. Against arguments that ‘naked people’ will march, we simply say we don’t know what Pride they are referring to because we have never had people marching naked in Latvia. When we are called perverts, we thank them for their opinion but insist that we want to have a conversation within a human rights framework. That is, we don’t want to limit anyone’s rights and we want to be able to exercise ours. Compromising and always staying within the confines of a positive message may be personally difficult for many activists, but that is what we are going for, no matter what we hear. We might explode afterwards, but while we meet we listen and stay calm.

I always meet the Catholic Archbishop at state visits or embassy receptions and we have polite exchanges. I’ve told him I’m non-believer but I know that the message of Jesus is all about love and respect and I don’t see that coming from him – that’s when he leaves the conversation. Within Mozaika there are also religious people, and we have invited churches to have an open and public dialogue, but so far, they have always refused.

6. What is civil society in Latvia doing to overcome these challenges?

Civil society uses all the available mechanisms to highlight rights violations in the international arena, including at the EU level, and to try and influence decision-makers and politicians. However, our Minister of Justice, who is openly homophobic and transphobic, ‘does not see’ any restrictions. While we were organising our Pride event, the government was putting a lot of effort into organising celebrations for the centennial of the Latvian state, and often blamed critical CSOs for shaming the country abroad as such an important date approached.

In this context, Mozaika planned several actions, including a social media campaign (‘I support freedom’) in which public personalities publicly expressed their support for LGBTI rights, and human rights more generally, and demanded that our government ensure that Baltic Pride could take place safely. We aimed to bring in people who are not typically seen as supporters of human rights and LGBTI rights, and then amplify their voices as allies of the LGBTI community. Ultimately, what we wanted to show is that the LGBTI community and its supporters were a lot more numerous and diverse than the handful of activists and the few hundred people who normally show up to our events. We also undertook efforts targeted at international organisations and foreign governments and activists. We asked them to encourage people to participate in Baltic Pride and demand that the authorities guarantee their safety.

Of course, we continue to monitor, document and report online and offline abuses against LGBTI people, activists and organisations. We take down hate comments and instruct the community to report any attacks that they experience on social media to us so we can work to take down the posts. If prominent hate expressions get out there, we try to respond to them with a counter-message. But we have limited resources, so sometimes we leave them for liberal commentators to deal with, and we focus on using social media to counter the most blatant expressions of hatred, particularly if someone is attacked physically.

Finally, we are trying to place LGBTI issues and broader diversity issues on the agenda of the campaign for the upcoming October 2018 parliamentary election. We are promoting public debate on these issues, presenting political parties with examples of the rights restrictions that LGBTI people face on a daily basis and asking them to provide policy solutions to create a safe environment for LGBTI people and other minorities. We will consider it a success if three or four political parties include LGBTI issues or other diversity issues on their agenda.

7. What are your needs and what can donors do to help?

The one thing we have wanted to do for a long time is a long-term communications campaign – not the kind that individual CSOs put together on their own, but a broader one coordinated by various CSO leaders and activists who provide the substance and set the tone, and that is executed and managed by a professional communications team. The problem is that all CSOs live from project to project and are barely sustainable. Mozaika is able to function thanks to the work of volunteers. So what we need most is resources to ensure sustainability. This includes building capacity, but this has to be done on the basis of the expertise that we already have. We have attended countless training events and seminars, and are tired of going to international meetings just to be told ‘this is the right way to do it’. We need customised approaches to find practical solutions to our specific problems. There is a lot for us to learn from France, Germany, or the USA, but lessons must be customised and they should come alongside the resources to ensure sustainability.

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

Get in touch with Mozaika through their Facebook page or follow @lgbt_mozaika and @KasparZ on Twitter and Instagram.


South Sudan: ‘Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to John Ador, founding member of the #Anataban movement, about South Sudan’s new peace agreement and the prospects for democracy. #Anataban - literally ‘I am tired’ - is a collective of artists, young people and other citizens aiming at fostering public discussion about the issues of social injustice and government transparency and accountability in South Sudan. #Anataban was created in 2016 in reaction to South Sudan’s civil war and offers a platform for South Sudanese citizens to speak up and make themselves heard through art and social media.

1. South Sudan became independent in 2011 and civil war began in 2013. What is the current situation?

South Sudan has indeed been at war through all this time, and even before it gained independence from Sudan. But truly, most of the country is now pacified. What we have today is not war anymore; there are just a few bandits, as I call those who haven’t seized the opportunity of the ceasefire agreed in early August 2018, who still command armies and soldiers and are set upon attacking. These days, the strategy is ‘to attack, attack and run’. The full-blown war that we had for years starting in 2013 is mostly over now.

The Khartoum Declaration signed in June 2018, however, was unnecessary, and I’m not sure it is going to bring any change to us. The Khartoum Declaration was mostly a power-sharing agreement through which some of the ‘rebels’ regained positions in government and parliament. But first, the ceasefire does not address the current situation; it has nothing to do with why we are in this mess. Since the talks started in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2015 and until their final stages in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, we had many peace agreements, which weren’t respected. And all of them neglected the main issues impeding us from moving on as a country. Beyond that, there is no real common understanding of the issues and the solutions for our current problems.

Second, elections have now been programmed for 2021, although according to the latest peace agreement they were due this year. However, there is no guarantee that the different factions are not going to disrupt the peace agreement again before 2021, so it is likely that elections might be postponed again.

Third, most civil society views, including youth voices and even those of religious leaders, haven’t been taken into account or even listened to at all regarding this agreement. The political parties who signed it just wanted to get their hands on small pieces of the resources we still have in South Sudan. The economy is on the verge of collapse. Inflation surpassed 600 per cent at one point in 2016, and earlier this year, year-on-year inflation stood at 161 per cent. The situation does not look like it’s getting better any time soon. And yet citizens’ concerns haven’t been addressed, including youth unemployment, under-development, illiteracy, lack of jobs and insecurity. All of this needs to be tackled for a free and peaceful South Sudan to develop.

2. To what extent would you say that civil society’s three fundamental rights – of association, peaceful assembly and expression – are respected in South Sudan?

Our current regime is democratic only on paper, not in practice. In terms of policies and their implementation, there is no democracy at all. The constitution gives us the right to protest in public gatherings and express our opinions freely, but this doesn’t really happen. Most civil society activists, media outlets and citizens don’t speak their minds openly about what is going on in South Sudan. There is fear that whenever we speak out or go out to protest we might be detained. For instance, one fellow civil society member was detained recently for saying out loud things that are happening in South Sudan. When we lobbied for him to be released, or at least for the authorities to bring him in front of a court of law for a trial, they answered that they didn’t have him and didn’t know where he was. Other agencies we reached out to said he was not under arrest but had just been taken in for interrogation. We got completely different information from different offices. I don’t know who was telling the truth or whether they were all just playing games.

Intimidation comes not only from the government but from other sources: individuals, members or factions of the security forces and other power-bearers who have decided to establish their own security forces and take matters into their own hands. They can simply come, take your belongings, or detain you or arrest you illegally. And they never take you to a court of law or provide any reasons why they have detained you. Cases have been documented of enforced disappearance and murder.

3. What steps need to be taken to build democratic freedoms in South Sudan?

In South Sudan, the state is very weak. Our institutions are there, but they are not respected. It’s just a few individuals within the system who are running the country. Nowadays, even the president might not know what is going on in the country that he is supposed to run. Actual power-bearers are usually very wealthy, which gives them a huge power advantage in a country where most people are just trying to survive, not even with the bare minimum. Even army officers are not well paid, and if they are, they’re usually not paid on time. When the generals that head these armies are in a position to pay their soldiers and take care of them, they will remain loyal to them rather than to their country. It’s because there isn’t one central command of the army that we can’t have elections, nor hold protests like they do in The Gambia or Zimbabwe.

Our policies and institutions are not in order. We do not have mechanisms to hold office-holders accountable, except to remove them from office. But being removed from office doesn’t mean losing power; power is retained and those who have it are still free to exercise it. We should have the possibility of holding trials under a martial or criminal court and law, so that everybody understands that the rule of law must be respected. We need a stronger judiciary, and even maybe establish an institution to enforce accountability of the judiciary. We could start, like they did in Kenya, by looking at each institution one by one, to reinforce them, remove people, or change internal policies or the laws that rule them, as needed.

4. In this context, how do you manage to reach out to and mobilise citizens towards the goals of your campaign?

If you speak too much or too loudly, you may face all kinds of repressive tactics. Despite the hostile environment, at #Anataban we work and grow out of solidarity. If numbers are on your side, it becomes harder for them to crush you. We decided to multiply, to become many, and then more, and as a result we became more difficult to deal with. #Anataban is not an individual or a small group, but a lot of people with massive support. We have created chapters all over the country - in Bor, Lankien, Yambio and Yei, and also abroad, in Addis Ababa and Gambela in Ethiopia, Nairobi and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda. We keep expanding.

We also don’t just target issues directly but rather deal with them indirectly, in what we think is the most appropriate and resolving way. We use our art to raise issues. Other people may see art as mere entertainment, but not us - we’re using it as a tool to advocate for our rights, for social justice and against human rights violations. That also confuses our adversaries, who sometimes don’t really understand what we are doing. For instance, during the most recent International Peace Day in September 2017 and during the peace discussions in Addis Ababa, we printed more than 3,000 T-shirts with a message for peace, which we distributed during a street contest, even to motorcycle and taxi drivers. Then we moved like a caravan across the streets of Juba, South Sudan’s capital, sometimes blocking intersections, and talking to people about our rights and the peace process in general. It was some sort of performance rather than a traditional protest. This is not what was expected, so at first they didn’t try to stop us – they only did so when we became too many on the streets. Only then did the security forces realise that we were up to something and begin to stop us.
Anataban 1Anataban 2

 #Anataban members and other citizens during the 2017 International Peace Day event

Additionally, every year we organise an arts festival. This year it was our anniversary, so we decided to produce a theatre play on a controversial news topic. In the context of a calamitous economic situation, with so many people on the brink of starvation, the government had decided to offer parliamentarians car loans of US$40,000 each, on the grounds that they have ‘a right to mobility’. We put on a play based on that issue, to condemn the decision and highlight the multiple ways the government could be helping our least-favoured fellow citizens instead. The event was eventually shut down by the security forces, but we still got many people coming to see it.

SouthSudanIsWatchingA few years back, #Anataban and several other organisations, including the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization, Justice Africa, OKAY Africa Foundation and the South Sudan Youth and Development Organization, launched a campaign, ‘South Sudan is Watching’, to mobilise civil society for the peace process. Some participants, including youth organisations, managed to become representatives in the peace talks in Addis Ababa, and were then able to follow up on the progress made. Our voices were heard then, although lately our efforts haven’t been all that successful.

5. What kind of support does South Sudan’s civil society need, particularly from international civil society and the international community?

Overall, South Sudanese civil society is alive and growing – the main issue right now is leadership. There are too many divisions among us; there are organisations leaning towards the government and others siding with the opposition, while others have stuck to the cause of civil society without taking sides in political struggles. We need to put in place a leadership that is respectful of civil society’s autonomous work.

Division is not only political; it is also caused by competition for resources. We need to replace unnecessary competition with serious solidarity. We need a civil society umbrella body, one focal voice or forum, where all of us can come together and agree on one agenda for the common good of South Sudan. We need to work together to protect our space. Right now, we don’t have one voice or even a single language to communicate in, and the government and others are taking advantage of our divisions.

Foreign and international partners have sometimes tended to choke the work of civil society through their decisions about where to work or how to deploy their funding. We don’t want the international community to do our work; we want their technical support, including financial and human resources. We need to change the mindset that a black man cannot resolve the issues of his fellow black man - that an international solution is always better than a home-grown solution.

In Eastern Africa, we don’t have regional integration bodies like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Other governments in the region, such as Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, have played a part in the peace agreement in South Sudan only because it suited their self-interest, usually of an economic nature. I liked the ECOWAS answer to recent political crises, such as the ECOWAS Mission in The Gambia (ECOMIG).

As for the international community’s support to South Sudan as a whole, they shouldn’t turn their back on us. The country is broke, and the needs are too many. If they could support a rejuvenation of our judicial system, it could give the country a fresh start to increase respect for our constitution and laws. With a new judiciary and parliament in place, we would be able to discuss a new constitution, which is necessary because the current one is very shallow.

6. Do you see any reason for hope that the situation will improve in the future?

We should all be hopeful that South Sudan’s future is bright. I believe that after every bad situation, good times will follow. Nowadays there are just a few power-hungry bandits who rebel when they are removed from power. They are the only ones destabilising peace in South Sudan. Our founding father, John Garang De Mabior, used to say that as a nation we should stop focusing on oil and start cultivating the land – and now, when it’s rainy season, you can finally see in Juba all these small gardens growing in people’s yards. This shows that war has brought not only destruction but also lessons learned. And most importantly, citizens have started speaking one and the same language, because they are all tired of violence. In Juba, it’s become very rare to hear gunshots at night, when there was a time we wouldn’t be able to sleep in peace. We are definitely headed in the right direction.

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

Get in touch with the #Anataban movement through its website or Facebook page or follow @AnaTabanSS and @longj2a on Twitter.


West Papua, Indonesia: Failure to implement human rights protections in law contributes to violations

Yan Christian WarinusseyAs part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Yan Christian Warinussey, a senior West Papuan lawyer and Executive Director of LP3BH (Institute for Research, Investigation and Development of Legal Aid in Manokwari), an organisation that empowers local civil society through advocacy, legal aid and education about basic human rights. In the West Papuan region of Indonesia there have been severe human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrests of activists by the Indonesian security forces under the guise of suppressing separatism. Yan has worked for over two decades on human rights in West Papua and has defended activists who were arrested and prosecuted for their peaceful activism. In 2005, he received the John Humphrey Freedom Award from Rights and Democracy in Canada.

1. What are the main challenges for civil society’s fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and for human rights more generally, in West Papua?One of the main challenges for fundamental rights in Indonesia, and especially in West Papua - that is, in the provinces of Papua and West Papua - is the failure of the government to implement the United Nations (UN) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia has ratified. Further, there has also been a failure to respect and protect human rights provisions in our Constitution as well as in local laws and regulations. Therefore, when individuals exercise their rights and carry out peaceful actions or gather and associate to protest against human rights abuses, demand independence or seek attention from the international community they are constantly faced with repressive actions from the authorities, such as arrest and detention. In some cases, individuals are also charged with treason.

2. Have the conditions for civil society in West Papua improved or worsened in recent years, and why?
The conditions for civil society in West Papua have deteriorated in recent years, because of the lack of implementation of the laws mentioned above. For example, in 1998, Law No. 9 on Freedom of Expression in Public was passed. However, no implementing regulations were issued. Instead, the police have issued internal guidelines that suppress the freedom of expression. This has become the law in West Papua and is used to suppress activism. Things have become worse also because the central government in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and in the West Papuan region have not provided space for the legal and democratic education of civilians, including on the issue of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

3. What have been the recent actions of the pro-independence movement, and how has the Indonesian government responded to these?
West Papua used to be a Dutch colony known as Netherlands New Guinea. The Dutch government kept hold of these territories after Indonesia became independent in 1945. Then in the 1960s West Papua was supposed to undergo a decolonisation process, but in 1963 it was annexed by Indonesia. In 1969, Indonesia formalised its control over West Papua by hand-picking about a thousand people among its population and threatening them into voting for annexation in a UN-supervised, but highly undemocratic, process known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’. As West Papuans were denied their right to self-determination, a pro-independence movement under the umbrella of the Free Papua Movement, also known as the OPM, has remained active for more than half a century. Further, a small armed group has led a decades-long low-level insurgency, which the government in Jakarta has used as an excuse to perpetuate a significant military involvement in the region. Numerous human rights violations have resulted from this.

In late 2014 a number of pro-independence movements united under the leadership of an organisation called the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Ever since it formed, the government's response has been to treat it as a separatist group and refuse to enter into any kind of dialogue with them. In September 2017, a petition calling for independence signed by 1.8 million West Papuans was smuggled out of the country and submitted to the UN Decolonisation Committee, which rejected it on the grounds that West Papua’s cause is outside its mandate. So we are nowhere close to finding a solution.

4. What actions should the Indonesian government take to safeguard democratic freedoms and human rights in the immediate future?
First, we need to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission in Indonesia and revise Law No. 39 of 1999 concerning human rights to allow the commission not only to investigate human rights violations but also to prosecute such crimes. Currently there is a lack of political will by both the police and the Attorney General’s office to undertake such prosecutions.

Second, we need the Indonesian government to formulate and produce implementing regulations on the array of human rights legislation that has been passed over the years, including against torture (Law No. 5 of 1998), civil and political rights (Law No. 11 of 2005) and economic, social and cultural rights (Law No. 12 of 2005).
And finally, especially for Papua, the government must immediately implement the mandate of the 2011 Special Autonomy Law, which calls for the establishment of a Human Rights Court and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Papua.

5. Looking further ahead, what would it take for human rights and democratic freedoms to flourish in West Papua? And how can civil society help advance these?
There are lots of things that need to be done in the West Papua region. As a first step, there is a need to open up the region to international scrutiny. Currently journalists and international human rights organisations have been denied access to many part of the region. Previously, the visit of the then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression was unilaterally cancelled and indefinitely postponed by Indonesia, allegedly because of the Special Rapporteur’s wish to visit Papua.

There is also a need for human rights and democracy education to be included in the basic, secondary and higher education curricula in West Papua so that we understand these rights. To do this we would need the support of the government through the National Human Rights Commission and human rights organisations in West Papua and internationally.

6. Has the response of the international community to the situation in West Papua been adequate? How could external actors help?
The response of the international community to the situation in West Papua has been good and there has been very significant and constant pressure when abuses occur. As a human rights defender and a lawyer, I am very grateful for this and urge the international community to keep this pressure up.

As I have mentioned before, international support is needed to ensure human rights education and democracy for all West Papuans, and especially for victims of human rights violations, so they know how to defend and advocate for themselves now as well as in the future.

Civic space in Indonesia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitorr.
If you would like to support the work of LP3BH, please get in touch with CIVICUS.



‘People are eager to use any opportunities at hand to influence decision-making’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Elina Leinonen, Communications Officer for the Service Foundation for People with an Intellectual Disability, a Finnish civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at finding individual solutions through the development and provision of high-quality services to support people with intellectual disabilities or special support needs and their families. Elina was also the communications lead for the Not-for-Sale campaign, which used a citizen initiative to promote the rights of people with disabilities in Finland.


MÉXICO: ‘Buscamos incidir en las políticas públicas del próximo gobierno para contribuir a solucionar los problemas del país’


En el marco de nuestro informe temático 2018 sobre “Reimaginar la Democracia”, estamos dialogando con líderes, activistas y especialistas de la sociedad civil sobre su labor de promoción de las prácticas y principios democráticos, los desafíos que enfrentan y los logros alcanzados. En esta oportunidad, CIVICUS conversa con Emanuel Johansen Campos, Coordinador de Fondos a la Vista de Alternativas y Capacidades, A.C. una organización de la sociedad civil (OSC) mexicana dedicada a fortalecer las capacidades de incidencia de la sociedad civil organizada, promover la inversión social estratégica y fortalecer la participación ciudadana en los asuntos públicos.


EGYPT: ‘The security-first approach is not working’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Khaled Mansour about the challenges Egyptian civil society has faced since the army took power in 2013. Khaled was a journalist and then a United Nations aid and peacekeeping official for 25 years before he ran the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading Egyptian human rights organisation. He is now an independent writer and analyst on human rights, humanitarian aid and development, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Arab Reform Initiative.


‘Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders and their allies about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations’ Democracy Fund (UNDEF), which is dedicated to funding projects that empower civil society, promote human rights and encourage the participation of all groups of society in democratic processes.

How do you see democracy - is it simply a system to elect governments, a means to solve other problems, or an end in itself? What are its essential components?

The most successful examples of a functioning democracy are holistic: those encompassing the procedural and the substantive; the rule of law, formal institutions and informal processes; majorities and minorities; government, civil society and independent media; all genders; the political, the economic and the cultural; and at the national and local levels. Democracy works best when people associate it with the advancement of the quality of life for all human beings; this means democracy is key to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. We know that development is more likely to take hold if people are given a genuine say in their own governance, and a chance to share in the fruits of progress. Conversely, democracy has a far better chance to thrive if people associate the democratic process with improvements in their daily lives; faced with bleak prospects and unresponsive governments, people are more likely to act on their own to reclaim their future.

What are the main challenges for democracy around the world today?

Democracy is showing greater strain than at any time in decades. There is a crisis of faith. We’re seeing growing and deepening divides among people, as well as between people and the political establishments that exist to represent them. Globalisation and technological progress have lifted many out of poverty but have also contributed to inequality and instability. Fear is driving too many decisions. This is a danger to democracy.

Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive. We need to look beyond responses to today’s news cycle, and instead seek answers for the systemic challenges to democracy. We need to think beyond criticism of individual leaders, and beyond trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. This means tackling inequality, both economic and political. The interests of the very wealthy are often seen as taking precedence over the well-being of the middle class and working families. The poor and minorities feel excluded from decision-making. Governments - working together - need to spread more fairly the benefits of globalisation and ensure more equitable access to the levers of power. This means making our democracies more inclusive, by bringing the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. We should explore true representation and participation in decision-making, including demographically representative citizens’ assemblies, as alternatives to what can be interpreted as a self-serving and self-perpetuating political class disconnected from their electorates. This means making our democracies more innovative and more responsive to new challenges, including through new technologies, while addressing the democratic challenges brought by new technologies themselves.

Many of the world’s democracies are well past middle age, but the digital age is still in its infancy, and questions of ownership and control are evolving. The answers do not lie in technology alone. But some answers do lie in better interaction and understanding between thinkers of technology and thinkers of democracy. Sixty years have passed since CP Snow declared that society was divided into two cultures - humanities and science - separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension. We need to bridge this. We need futurists to think about a future that leaves no one behind. What impact will migration, climate change, or cybersecurity issues have on democracy in the next generation? How can a reinvigorated democracy help mitigate the challenges these issues create? How are democratic processes impacted on by a transition from an internet to a brain-net, by an on-demand world of biological software upgrades, personalised medicine, and artificial intelligence? A better grasp of how we humans function - how we trust, learn and cooperate, but also how we hate, fight and manipulate - can help public policy-makers and citizens build better governance and better lives.

What is the role of civil society in supporting democratisation and the consolidation of democracy, and how does UNDEF help civil society to play this role?

Ultimately, civil society is the oxygen of democracy. Speaking the truth takes two: one to talk, the other to hear. My work with UNDEF has brought home to me that a lively, open and candid discussion among men and women sitting under a tree can sometimes do more for participatory democracy than all the government summits and cabinet meetings in the world. When grassroots activists, community organisers, labour mobilisers, young people and women leaders come together at their own initiative, all with a stake in the outcome, they will persevere until all sides have a say. This is why it is so important that someone in the capital is listening. A confident nation gives citizens a role in the development of their country; the most effective, stable and successful democracies are in fact those where a strong civil society works in partnership with the state, while holding it accountable at the same time. This is what creates a virtuous circle of rights and opportunity under the rule of law, underpinned by a vibrant civil society and an enterprising private sector, backed by efficient and accountable state institutions. For democracy to thrive, this inclusive discourse must never end.

But civil society faces increasing challenges, as CIVICUS has very clearly highlighted in its 2018 State of Civil Society Report. Over the recent years, an alarming number of governments around the world are increasingly addressing civil society as a threat, not a partner. We need to make it better understood that to have a strong state and strong civil society at the same time is not only possible, but it is also desirable and necessary. What do the stable and prosperous states of the world have in common? A combination of both.

What does UNDEF do in the face of those challenges?

UNDEF is a fund within the UN Secretariat that manages and finances projects implemented by civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world. Since it became operational 12 years ago, it has funded over 750 projects in over 100 countries, totalling over US$175 million. UNDEF works directly and resolutely with civil society, often in delicate collaboration with state and private-sector actors, but always independently of them. We use quiet diplomacy where needed to work in challenging environments. We support projects designed at the grassroots to address democratic deficits and denied freedoms. Our grant process begins and ends at the project site: we are demand-driven, not supply-oriented. We commit to our partners’ success. Our capacity-building works through mentoring and evaluation, and by offering a platform for groups and institutions that otherwise would have no knowledge of one another’s projects to share experience and expertise. Lessons learned from each project become a resource for all - participants, future applicants and other funders - as well as the larger community working to build more responsive and inclusive societies. A self-sufficient and largely autonomous part of the UN system, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, UNDEF is uniquely positioned to build mutual understanding and cooperation between states and civil society at the local, national and global levels. Our strategy is to support local civil society and community leaders in addressing locally identified needs and priorities. This allows us to target scarce resources where they are needed most. It is also an investment in the ability of local people to assert their rights and improve their well-being long after our involvement has ended. We keep our staff and operational budget very small by leveraging the expertise, services and extensive field presence of partners from the broader UN system who provide expert advice and monitoring.

We support a wide range of projects, including initiatives that provide political facilitation, encourage popular participation, support civil society’s role in free and fair elections, foster the development of a culture of democracy, advance political pluralism and build civil society capacity to interact effectively with government at local and national levels. We aim to advance transparency and accountability, promote the rule of law and encourage responsive and inclusive government, while always supporting local ownership and domestic engagement, and explicitly promoting gender equality. UNDEF’s work is financed by voluntary contributions from more than 40 traditional and emerging donors on every continent. As independent third-party evaluators have found, UNDEF is not beholden to the vision, doctrine, or geostrategic interests of any member state, commercial entity, or philanthropic institution. Our evaluation process and lessons learned database advance accountability not only to donors, but also to partners and participants. We answer to project participants and to a governance structure unlike any in the field of democracy support. Our Advisory Board, which provides policy guidance and reviews project proposals, brings together a range of stakeholders, not only from governments - of countries that have made the largest financial contributions to the fund and countries reflecting geographical diversity - but also from individuals and CSOs - including CIVICUS, during the UNDEF Board's 2018-2019 term.

Learn more about UNDEF’s work through its website or Facebook page, or follow @UNDemocracyFund and @SavillAnnika on Twitter.


IRAN: Political humour as a tool against authoritarian regimes

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to the Iranian-born political cartoonist Nik Kowsar, who was jailed for his humorous criticism before eventually emigrating to Canada, where he became a citizen. A former recipient of the international Award for Courage for Editorial Cartooning, he currently resides in the United States.

1. Would you tell us the story of that crocodile you drew, and how it changed your life?

Iran CartoonI was born in Iran, and I had always lived in Iran until I had to get out of the country in 2003. I was a geologist by training and a cartoonist by trade. In 2000 I drew a cartoon and went to prison for it. My drawing apparently caused a national security issue: thousands of clergy students gathered and shouted for my death and they sat there for four nights, until I was arrested.

All I had done was draw a crocodile that was shedding crocodile tears and strangling a journalist, while claiming that the journalist was killing him. The name that I gave the crocodile rhymed with the name of an ayatollah. Of course, I denied any resemblance between the two, but still, you know, there was a political message there. From that day on, I became a sponsor for Lacoste – they didn’t sponsor me, but I started buying the shirts with the crocodile logo for myself, and I always wear them as a symbol and a reminder.

Long story short, I went to prison and underwent interrogation, and eventually I walked free. But I didn’t quit my job as a cartoonist and I started receiving death threats that eventually got serious, and in 2003 I had to escape. I had to leave my wife and daughter behind – they were only able to join me in Canada four years later, in 2007.

2. Did you see cartoons as a safer means of expression, a way of saying some things without saying them, when speech is heavily censored?

In Iran we used to say: ‘We have freedom of speech, what we don’t have is freedom after speech’. When you produce content that powerful people or organisations dislike, no matter how that content is packaged, they will try to shut you down by all means, including allegations and criminal charges like undermining national security, working with the enemy, indecency or attacking Islam. Anything can be used against you in Iran – and in other Islamic countries as well. I’ve been working with Tunisian and Palestinian cartoonists, and they all have problems with their governments.

What is said with a cartoon is more difficult to erase than anything else: a good cartoon is even more valuable than a thousand words, because it stays in your mind for ages. A ‘joke’ is a serious matter: it goes directly to the point, it exposes the absurd. In a way, cartoonists can be the conscience, the moral compass of a society – it is not a matter of right and left, but a matter of right or wrong. So, cartoonists are very important, and it is not wonder that many governments – from Iran to Equatorial Guinea to Turkey – are trying to pressure them into silence.

3. What have you done since leaving Iran?

While in Canada, I studied journalism and worked with a news agency for three years. I joined IFEX in 2008, and starting in 2009 I ran a news website specifically for and about Iran. This became one of the top news websites on Iranian issues, although it was filtered and firewalled in Iran. At some point, however, we stopped getting funding; we understood that the Obama administration’s policies towards Iran, their efforts to connect with the regime, were a major reason why other organisations stopped funding us. We had to let it go.

As a cartoonist with fibromyalgia, who has had to stop drawing as a professional, I now work with Cartoonist Rights Network International. I was once a client, now I am a board member. We are a human rights organisation, focused on the freedom of expression, and we support cartoonists in distress: cartoonists who are oppressed by the regimes in their countries, threatened, arrested or sent to prison.

Cartoonists are vulnerable, and even more so after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. There is increasing solidarity among them, and they are better connected now, through our organisation and others – but still, they are in danger. What needs to be done is provide a means of sustenance for cartoonists who are in trouble. That’s very difficult, because non-profits are not rich, and also because a cartoonist cannot live off assistance funds forever – they need to be paid to do what they do best.

Finally, as a geologist and an expert on Iran’s water problems, I am back to working on water issues. Iran has a big water problem, which is possibly going to create big chaos in the near future. There was an uprising in December 2017 and January 2018, and only in cities hit by water crisis and drought, where people were too desperate and felt they had nothing left to lose, were the protests not easily contained and people were killed. We will see more and more clashes in areas that are hit by drought.

4. Do you think environmental issues, including water, should be treated as political issues?

Most definitely. That is exactly what I am working on. Water may easily become a major political issue, in Iran and in the whole Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, an already unstable one. Iran has always been a dry country, with rainfall about a third of the median around the world. But for 3,500 years Iranians were able to manage their water resources through various technologies. Over the past 50 years, however, mega-dams and deep wells have ruined our environment and most aquifers have been depleted; as a result, 85 percent of our groundwater is now gone. Climate change has only made it worse: last year, we had 78 percent less snow storage in our mountains compared to the previous year.

Now, Iranians may be oppressed because of their beliefs and ideas, but when there’s not enough water to drink and produce food, they have reached a tipping point. In Syria the drought worsened from 2006 to 2009, as a result of which a million people from the north-eastern provinces had to leave their lands and migrate to the margins of bigger cities. When the Arab Spring started, it sparked protests in Syria as well – but in this case, they led to civil war. We are talking about farmers and herdsmen, people who had lost their livelihoods, many of whom had joined militant groups. Factor in an intolerant, authoritarian government that could not manage the protests, and there you go. Something similar could happen in Iran.

5. Are you saying civil war is a likely outcome for Iran? Isn’t there any way pro-democracy forces could turn the discontent in their favour?

That’s what some of us are worrying about. Pressure for water could, maybe, lead to a democratic opening as well. We are educating the public about the water situation. Unfortunately, many political groups have no clue about environmental issues – they have never cared about them, don’t understand them and don’t see how they could connect to their political struggles. In trying to change this, I am currently working on a documentary about water, connecting the struggles with water shortages that we are seeing in places as diverse as Cape Town in South Africa, Seville in Spain and even the Vatican City and some parts of the US. Our contacts in Iran are collecting material for us and documenting the situation as well, and we are doing a collaborative bilingual project, in English and Persian, to educate the public, including academics and politicians. Because if we don’t do anything about it, rather than democracy what we will get is more uprisings, repression, and hundreds or thousands of people killed in places hit by drought.

Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating overwhelming restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Get in touch with Nik Kowsar through his Facebook page, or follow @nikahang on Twitter.


‘Democracy is a struggle that never ends’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to US activist and CIVICUS board member Jesse Chen of Powerline about the growing popularity of citizen activism in the United States. Since the start of 2017, an unprecedented one in five US citizens have marched in the streets. But, Jesse points out, the growing number of people’s movements hasn’t come from nowhere: they are part of a longer trajectory that has seen political activism rising on both the left and right in the United States for at least a decade.

1. Given the unprecedented numbers of US citizens taking to the streets, including in the 2018 March for Our Lives movement, do you think that there is a new moment in political activism in the United States?

When Trump won in November 2016 and took office in January 2017, we witnessed an entire movement and energy on the left, but also on the right. People have been marching in the streets from the resistance and women’s marches over the first weekends of the Trump presidency to the science marches that came shortly after. On the right, the energy has been rising as well, not only with Donald Trump beating 16 other candidates for the Republican nomination, but also, for example, his rallies as well as the Charlottesville marches, a display last August of white nationalism and threatened white patriarchy.

The students participating in the March for Our Lives had plenty of recent context, fresh in their minds, that they could look to and say, “We’ve seen people marching very recently. Agree or disagree, it’s irrelevant. Being an activist is normal, socially-acceptable behaviour. I’m going to do this, too.” That said, I think it’s unwise to draw conclusions from a snapshot in time. To me, this moment that we are in right now, with students forming mass protests for gun reform, is naturally aligned with a trend line that can be traced back over the last 10 years at least.

In my view, this trend started in the early years of the Obama administration when many on the left realised that Barack Obama was not as far to the left as they had hoped. I believe this realisation partly led to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. As much as the left liked Obama, he was far more centrist and establishment than they had hoped. When financial reform and healthcare reform opportunities came and went, the left realised that Barack Obama wasn’t nearly as progressive as he had looked at the time compared to Democratic establishment forerunner and primary candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Fast-forward a few years and we saw the Dreamers, we saw Black Lives Matter and, of course, we saw Bernie Sanders, among others on the left. A clear thread of anti-establishment energy can be seen across each of these movements. Similarly, at the same time, on the right the conservative Tea Party movement was forming with rallies and marches across the country in response to the loss of the 2008 election. The Tea Party would go on to win several seats in Congress in 2010, leading not only to control of Congress and a number of government shutdowns, but also, indisputably, to the remarkable rise of Donald Trump a few years later.

Throughout this same period, we have gone through several mass shootings. Of those, we had the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, 14 years after Columbine. Six-year-olds, children no higher than your thighs, were gunned down in an elementary school, and this country’s government and its people did nothing. That was a moment of collective failure for this country where people suddenly realised that, if we can’t act on something so tragic as that, then maybe there actually is no way to act feasibly on guns. So, I definitely think that there was a feeling of hopelessness after the years of Sandy Hook Elementary School and the failure of our government to do something meaningful about it. That hopelessness seems to have given way, at least partially, with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students. Also, now that we have the Trump administration, all issues are back on the table, both open and closed.

2. What do you think that the March for our Lives Movement has learned from these other movements that have emerged over the past 10 years, including Black Lives Matter?

One important thing that Black Lives Matter shows is that translocal movements work. The notion of centralised control under a civil society organisation’s campaign or under some iconic leader is one of the reasons, in my view, why progressive movements aren’t as successful on the whole as a lot of conservative movements. Conservatives know that you don’t need to march on Washington to affect change - you can march in your own town, in your own city, in your own neighbourhood. Comparatively speaking, liberals over-extend and over-invest their trust in government as the solution and fail to get involved at the personal and local level. This is something that Black Lives Matter really helped bring out of the shadows and into the mainstream for those on the left. I think Black Lives Matters’ leadership really deserves credit for positively disrupting progressive activism in the United States in that way because that hyperlocal, translocal model can be extremely effective, especially for systemic change.

The cofounders of March for Our Lives from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have become iconic, but the movement also includes people here at Public School 123 in Brooklyn or Hoboken High School in New Jersey. The leaders in those translocal spaces are leaders, too - and they are not being ‘controlled’ by a central leadership just like how the Black Lives Matter activists are not being ‘controlled’ by the leadership at the Black Lives Matter network or at any of the other facilitating networks. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to think about this too - movements are too centralised in CSO offices in too many parts of traditional civil society.

Of course, the elephant in the room for the difference between Black Lives Matter and March for Our Lives is that the students are a diverse group of citizens. So to many bystanders, there appears less of a direct challenge to the existing power structure and the white patriarchy with the March for Our Lives Movement versus the Black Lives Matter movement. I look at Black Lives Matter and I see a story of fundamental oppression that has literally been both part of the DNA of this country and the driver of an enormous movement. It tells me a number of things, but number one is that democracy is a struggle that never ends. That struggle includes the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Jesse Jackson’s candidacy in the 1984 Democratic primary and the election of Obama as President in 2008. But we don’t win democracy with new laws, with elections, or even with revolutions. Democracy is something that you need to keep on fighting for. I think what Black Lives Matter teaches us is that, in general, this fight is a fight that never ends. I hope our educators within school spaces are walking the student activists through this process because, as those students have undoubtedly already learned in the last months, it’s not enough for people to feel sorry for you over a tragedy in order to get people to change what is a remarkably ingrained injustice in our system.

3. Movements like March for Our Lives both rise and fall on social media. Does this make it difficult for them to be sustained?

Social media networks were never designed for democracy. There is no question that social media and the major social networks have had a democratising effect, but we’re being pushed against our limits in terms of what current social media can and cannot do for society. That’s because current social networks were never intentionally designed for the needs and nuances of democracy. The design of the platforms has led to echo chambers and ideological bubbles. They’ve led to the sort of trolling problems that we see, the sorts of privacy problems that we see, the fake news, and many more problems. The situation is currently evolving as we work through the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, so it is against that context that I make the claim that we are between states on this as people awake to this flawed system. Of course, we can’t deny the role that Twitter is playing in helping these March for Our Lives activists organise and activate. The problem is that eventually there becomes a sustained engagement problem because, at their cores, these platforms were not designed to support real mass engagement over time. The students have had the benefit of physical co-location in their schools to anchor their local organising even as they use Twitter to connect translocally, and this has been helpful for sustaining for the last few months. Personal hopes aside, it remains to be seen how much the students stay active, energised and focused as the school year ends and summer break begins.

4. Are you hopeful about the trajectory of activism in the United States? Do these student activists show that it is ‘cool’ to be an activist now?

Activism is less nerdy than it used to be. The popular response in the past used to be ‘I’m not into politics.’ But try ‘not being into politics’ in Donald Trump’s America, and you’re seen as both uninformed and uncool. We’re seeing a ton more engagement in civic space, and this is one of the best non-partisan things Trump has done for the United States given its years-long declining citizen participation. Now, people are talking civics again, and they’re even talking politics in sports arenas. This is fundamental for a democracy. We can’t just keep going along on autopilot, holding an election every four years and expecting our leaders to do the right things for us. We must learn to organise, channel and sustain pressure between elections translocally and at scale on the government we do have, not the one we wish we had. These students are showing us ways in which that can be done, and I can’t be the only one that thinks that’s pretty cool.

From the student perspective, it gives us great hope that these kids will not have to wait until they’ve gone through a couple of years of college and ‘come out of their shell’ for a fraction of them to become activists as young adults. You have kids that were marching in the streets of their own towns, in some cases much to the chagrin of their own school administrations and city councils, and they were out there standing up for themselves. Good for them. Youth are the future in human form. They deserve to have their voices heard just like the rest of our citizens.

With activism being popular in high school now, we’ve got more people joining the ranks of active citizenship and, hopefully, they’re not going to wait five years until they are in college to get involved. If we look at the larger trend line, this gives all of us an opportunity to reconnect with the grassroots and to reconnect on issues that even some of us, despite best intentions, may have given up on in the past. So yes, I am hopeful at where this larger trend will eventually lead.

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

Get in touch with Powerline through their Facebook and Twitter pages.

See also our interview with Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch from March for Our Lives.


‘Most of what you hear is noise and government propaganda’


As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to journalist Aleksey Volosevich about recent political changes in Uzbekistan and what they might mean for civil society.

1.From outside Uzbekistan, it appears that socio-political reforms are underway, at least to some extent. How real have reforms been, and what are the limitations?

There is no real socio-political reform; most of what you hear about this is noise and government propaganda. There are very few changes. I would characterise what is happening rather as the elimination of the worst excesses and restrictions committed under the late President Islam Karimov. This is mainly happening in the economic sphere and in establishing relations with neighbouring countries, as under Karimov relations were very bad. For example, current President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who was Prime Minister under Karimov for 13 years, was able to establish relations with neighbouring Tajikistan and both countries abolished the visa regime and set up transport and air services, for the first time in around 20 years.

But there have been almost no institutional changes. All reforms are half-hearted and almost none are fully implemented. President Mirziyoyev does not bring many reforms to an end. But all the state-controlled media makes noise about the so-called great reforms, and this noise, unfortunately, is picked up by foreign media that do not understand what is happening here.

There are some achievements. Recently, a tax reform was carried out, which most economists evaluated as a positive change. The forced mobilisation of the population during the annual cotton harvest campaign has been partially abolished. The ban on photography has been lifted, and it is now possible to take photographs on the metro, for example, when earlier this would have led to the photographer being immediately detained and dragged to the police. Things have become less paranoid than under Karimov, which was a reflection of his psychopathic personality. The atmosphere in the country has improved; it has become a little easier to breathe.

In addition, the government has begun to change the way its reacts to publications in the press. Now there is some kind of response to 10 to 20 per cent of critical messages. The country's leadership shows signs that it understands criticisms, and there are examples of it abolishing unpopular decisions, dismissing officials and governors who are at fault, and attempting somehow to improve the situation. Under Karimov nothing like this happened.

Almost all political prisoners, around 20 people, have been released. But none of them have been rehabilitated, and none of their investigators, who tortured them and fabricated criminal cases, have been punished. So this positive move has not been brought to its logical conclusion.

And still the law does not ensure the rights of private property. A house, a shop, an enterprise of any kind can be demolished immediately, in order to build something else, while the compensation given is scanty or non-existent. Recently, along the so-called ‘presidential highway’, several dozen cottages and country houses, some built at great cost, were demolished. And no one could do anything. Investors see this and are not in a hurry to invest their money in Uzbekistan.

Also take, for example, the loud noise that was made about the introduction of currency exchange. Under Karimov this was not officially allowed, but the entire population was quietly changing money with street currency traders. At any moment it was possible to buy and sell any currency from traders, while banks did not buy currency. Under Mirziyoyev, the police dispersed all street currency traders, and banks were ordered to buy dollars. But banks do not sell dollars, and there are no currency exchange points. So where do we buy dollars now? No one knows. So the reform made things worse than before. But the press loyal to the authorities screams that currency reform has taken place in Uzbekistan, and now the authorities are moving away from discussing the topic. There are many such reforms that have begun but have not been brought to a logical conclusion. They touch upon the most basic moments of life in Uzbekistan.

It should be emphasised that Karimov created a tough authoritarian system for our new authorities, which they consider to be convenient for themselves. All changes and reforms are going to be carried out strictly within its framework, without affecting its foundations. There is no question of complete freedom of speech, fair elections and an independent judiciary. At the same time, representatives of the new government have redistributed beneficial ownership in their favour, taking control, for example, over the vast majority of imports entering the country, wholesale trade and, of course, the sphere of exports and construction.

There is still no question of protecting basic civil liberties. There is no one to protect them. Often, even such thoughts do not arise. The population is apathetic, uneducated and cowardly. There is practically no one to rely on. For the people to mature, you need at least a few decades. And then it will be possible to speak only about the next generations.

2. What have been the driving forces and motivations behind the limited changes you have seen so far?

What changes there have been have come about partly as a result of internet publications, social networks and people’s exposure to examples of life in developed countries. When everyone reads, for example, that in some underdeveloped countries the average salary has become higher than in Uzbekistan, people begin to resent it. And representatives of government and their relatives are also constantly on the internet and discuss all this. They feel the growth of dissatisfaction in some directions, and, if this does not contradict their own careers and selfish interests, try to somehow reduce discontent and solve some problems. In this respect, Mirziyoyev is much better than Karimov, who did not use the internet and, accordingly, did not care.

The influence of the media and social networks is great, and therefore they are an important catalyst for change. But it must be understood that at the same time, Islamist fanatics are creating their own information field, and its strength and influence also grows. There is a tension because Uzbekistan is religiously and culturally part of the Islamic world, but is also secular, and has many supporters of European values and the European way of development.

3. How have changes affected civil society so far?

It has become easier to work with the media, which has become bolder and begun to issue a whole stream of news. Over the last two years this is a major move. But still they dare not criticise the president, prime minister and their entourage. If they do, they may be deregistered or closed, or staff may be fired.

There are only two independent sites that provide critical commentary on Uzbekistan: my site,, and, which belongs to another journalist. Otherwise, there is little analysis of the type that would be considered normal elsewhere.

Fuller freedom is appearing in social networks. Just two years ago the authors of anti-government statements, or simply those that were critical, would have been summoned to the police and threatened with a criminal case. And now many people write what they want, and nobody pursues them. But this is not because the laws have changed. The laws are still the same. It's just that the new president has allowed people to express their opinions more freely. However, if he leaves his post and another person takes it, everything can immediately become as it was, because no irreversible changes have occurred. But while the trend is positive, gradually people can get used to greater freedom of expression, and this is important in itself.

But there is almost no independent civil society in Uzbekistan. There are only a few hundred people who are active on Facebook, and about a third of them live abroad. Any attempt to hold a protest on an important occasion will attract at best a handful of people. Compare this to when the authorities in the autumn of 2017 promised to distribute free plov - Uzbekistan’s national dish - in the centre of the capital, Tashkent: tens of thousands of people gathered with bowls.

There are also many religious fanatics who, due to the fact that Karimov pursued them for many years, prefer to sit quietly and not show themselves. But when a prominent Islamic figure died a couple of years ago, about 80,000 people turned out for his funeral. The authorities did not expect such an influx and were very frightened, although everything ended peacefully.

If voters were given the opportunity to vote in absolutely honest elections, there is a danger that a populist using religious slogans would come to power. Uzbekistan, over the long term, needs an enlightened and adequate leader who can lead the country along the path of progress, even if a large part of the population does not want it.

4. What are the key challenges for civil society in the current context, and how might they be addressed?

For those few hundred socially active people, perhaps the most basic difficulty at the moment is that the authorities do not notice them and do not seek to make any contact. Officials are afraid of being accused of disloyalty, so they are afraid to talk with civil society activists, and even mention their names. There is no interaction with the authorities, through the fault of the officials.

The world outlook of people needs to change. In Soviet times, despite all the excesses, there was some general progress. Women gained rights. The power of the Islamic clergy was limited. All children were sent to schools, taught to read and write, and given some knowledge about the world. Particularly rapid development took place during the last decades of the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union there was powerful pullback. Perhaps the ubiquitous spread of the internet will help spread knowledge and information, and enlightenment in general. But, given the current speed of these changes, I think it would take 200 years. Most of the population does not read anything and does not want to read, except for simple correspondence in social networks.

5. What can the international community and international civil society do to support favourable conditions for civil society in Uzbekistan?

There are three key things. The first is to give financial support to independent media and active human rights groups. The second is to prosecute thoroughly the criminal representatives of the regime who are in the West, bring criminal cases against them, demand that their bank accounts be blocked and their property confiscated - in general, not to leave them alone for a minute. And third, in no way to demonstrate their loyalty to Uzbek religious extremists entrenched in the West. These are the main enemies of democracy and human rights.

Support of the media and active human rights groups is important. If some outside agencies have the opportunity to give financial support to independent media in Uzbekistan and similar countries, it would be desirable to do so. A free media in attitudes and expose torture, the exploitation of people and corruption. Both those and others, as a rule, stand for democracy and liberal values. But getting this support because of bureaucratic obstacles, including from donors, is very difficult.

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

Get in touch with Aleksey via his website or his Facebook page.


‘What is underway is the promotion of an unequal society’

As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Silvia Stilli, spokesperson of AOI, the largest civil society platform in Italy, and director of ARCS, a civil society organisation that promotes active citizenship and participatory democracy. Well known for her active commitment in the peace movements of the 1980s, she has 20 years of experience in volunteer work, humanitarian aid and international cooperation. Silvia is particularly active on issues related to migrants and refugees, and recently made a statement on behalf of AOI on the denial of entry to Italy for the migrant rescue boat Aquarius.

1. Italy’s March 2018 general election led to the formation of a coalition government by two populist parties, the Five Star and the League. What are some of the reasons behind this?

The reasons for the current situation do not lie just in the last year, but in the last 10 years. Over the past 10 years, relations between political parties and civil society - which in Italy is very broad - have been getting looser and looser, so the opportunities for engagement have declined. There has been a distancing between political parties and civil society.

During this time, civil society in Italy has become increasingly engaged on social issues, especially since the 2008 global economic crisis, and it has done so by acknowledging the strong interdependence between global challenges and domestic challenges, including in poverty and migration flows. There has been a convergence of the different parts of civil society, including movements that are mobilising to demand rights. Civil society has been mobilising to try to connect global, regional and national issues. Migration is not a standalone issue. It’s something that affects us domestically, but because of our geographic location in the Mediterranean region.

While civil society has taken a joined-up approach, political parties, including progressive parties, were treating poverty and the economic crisis as purely economic issues requiring domestic responses. Citizens found themselves caught between these two completely different views of how to deal with the situation.

Another element is the huge mobilisation that has happened around the Five Star movement, which brought together many people around the need for change. This was an entirely new movement that attracted a lot of interest and support. People mobilised without necessarily looking at the depth of their political views, their orientation and programmes. Let’s see if they will actually bring some change.

2. How are these current changes in politics being experienced by civil society?

As well as concerns about migration, Italian citizens have experienced concern about security - both personal security, because there have been terrorist attacks, and livelihood security, given the difficulty of finding jobs. These sort of uncertainties and perceptions of insecurity have created the idea among some citizens that the work traditionally pursued by civil society organisations (CSOs), even if done with the best of intentions, is not taking into account their fears and insecurities. This anxiety has somewhat detached citizens from groups working on social issues.

Over the last two years, donations from citizens, be it voluntary contributions or allocations from tax deductions, have been decreasing. This was an alarming issue even before the election. However, overall, there has been no decline in citizen engagement, as seen for example in volunteering. This has been stable or even slightly increased, particularly among young people, who if anything are more inclined to engage through civil society than join a political party.

But at the same time that citizens are giving less - including to the many groups that are active in providing support and services in Italy to communities and vulnerable groups, some of which have had services outsourced to them by municipalities, including those run by the League - there are more demands on civil society. So we see on the one hand some financial decline, and on the other hand increasing need.

Civil society’s role is under discussion. The new message seems to be that civil society can only operate to implement policies established by the government. This is opening up a crisis because it was not the case until now.

3. How have politicians and political parties cultivated support, and what have been the impacts on rights?

The current confusion of citizens has happened because of the language that has been used, not just by the current government but by previous governments of both right and left. They started to use language revolving around security against migrants, border control and safety. They attack CSOs working on these issues, seeking to detach citizens from the so-called ‘do-gooders’ of civil society. The fact that the centre-left also spoke this language has confused many citizens, including the more progressive part of the citizenry who might naturally embrace tolerance and sensitivity towards social issues. The consequence is that some citizens have become disconnected from traditional values of democracy.

What is underway, to some extent continuing some measures of the previous government, is the promotion of an unequal society. They are talking about reduced rights and privileges for whoever is different, especially foreigners and migrants, and not only those coming now by sea, but also those who are already in Italy.

More broadly, a number of rights that have been expanded in recent years - on same-sex civil unions, abortion, living wills, access to services for a number of minority groups - are all now being undermined. Every day new ministers of this government are making declarations that undermine these and the victories civil society helped achieve in the past. The language used by the government and mainstream parties is more and more attacking minority groups, and the civil society that works with them.

Recently a Five Star member of parliament posted a Facebook message saying that CSOs that are mobilising for migrants need to be got rid of, in effect calling for a ‘fumigation’ of Italian civil society. This is the kind of language that parts of the new government are using against civil society.

There is also the ‘Soros effect’ in Italy. The Minister of Internal Affairs now wants to check the budgets of CSOs to see if they are getting money from George Soros and Open Society Foundations. The same minister wants to create a racial profiling of the Roma community, who in most cases are citizens of Italy and not foreigners. This profiling on the basis of race is something that previously wouldn't have been possible in Italy.

Within this new coalition government, the party that most extremely speaks the language of security is the League, from which the minister of interior affairs comes. It joined the new government as the minority partner, but the latest polls show that its leader, who is being assertive about security, is gaining support.

These changes have opened up a big crisis of cultural values and challenges, both for the Catholic and secular parts of civil society, which have both played a key role in promoting equality and access to rights. This new approach is disorientating a broad part of established civil society.

4. How is civil society responding, both to demonstrate its value, and to help those being targeted politically?

On 24 July 2018, several parts of civil society in Italy collectively organised an ‘email bombing’, all sending an email to the coastal guard. This initiative was joined by millions of citizens. This was a huge mobilisation to request that the coastal guard disregard instructions to devolve the management of migrants to the Libyan coastal guard. This was the first time since the election that we witnessed such a massive mobilisation.

After a very difficult period when civil society groups in Italy have faced defamation, smear campaigns and accusations, not only from political parties but also from citizens, this event was positive and shows negative trends being challenged, with citizens offering a massive mobilisation in support.

Italian civil society is almost unanimously aligned on one point: that basic and fundamental human rights cannot be denied, and so they do not support the closure of ports and the blocking of ships and their return to Libya. In the case of the Aquarius, the response has mostly been to point to international treaties and norms, and to call for opening ports in the name of safe ports. Libyan ports clearly don't meet the definition of safe ports.

Civil society is asking that humanitarian organisations can continue to work with the coastal guard and others involved at sea, as was the case in the past. There have been a number of judicial decisions that back the actions of civil society rescue ships. When rescue ships have been blocked, judges have determined that the ships have been in compliance with international norms, especially the Law of the Sea, and that this definitely overrides the state’s ability to block them.

Civil society is trying to mobilise different actors within Italy - not only civil society groups, but also local authorities and parts of government, such as those that deal with health and education, and is calling for a more integrated and strategic approach, at least at the national level, looking into rescue at sea and also best practices in integrating communities. It is also calling for changes in foreign policy and development cooperation policy, to look at the complexities and dynamics of countries and regions that migrants come from, and how best to stabilise these and prevent people from needing to migrate: to take a more joined-up approach, at least at the Italian level, but this should also be the approach at the European level.

Civil society points to the need for a strategic policy at the European level on this issue. On this, if not on the issue of the closure of ports, there is an alignment of civil society and government views.

5. What else could Italian civil society do to respond, and what are its support needs?

Although Italian civil society is now well connected and belongs to European and international networks, it has probably started late in engaging meaningfully in those networks. At the beginning, it was often enough to belong, but not be really actively engaged. We then realised the importance of using these channels to engage, such as to bring to wider attention what is happening with migration in Italy that some other parts of Europe might not be experiencing as we are: to raise awareness of the real challenges and struggles. It is crucial for Italian civil society to open up further to regional and international networks. Within key European civil society networks there is recognition of the need to bring forward a new narrative on migration and the integration of migrants in Europe, which could point to the positives of these, and not only the economic argument, but also the benefits of social and cultural growth for Europe. There is a need to invest in this as a medium and long-term political strategy. This is one of the most crucial things that Italian civil society should be doing together with broader European networks to change views of fear about insecurity and instability.

The second thing we need to do is work with new generations, including in schools and informal spaces, to find channels to engage them in ways that interest them, and invest in their understanding of today’s dynamics so they can be the drivers of change in future. We need to promote more volunteering abroad and the hosting of volunteers in Italy, and exchanges among students and young people who have come from areas of crisis.

Third, we need to work more with parliament, since there has been a major turnover of those who sit in parliament. There are new people who may not be much aware of the issues and so endorse populist narratives. We need to talk with them and influence them.

Fourth, we need to work more strategically with the media, to push for a better narrative and try to work through the media to shape opinion.

Finally, it’s important to highlight critical issues about civil society as well as positive ones. The fact that the credibility of civil society has been undermined, creating a decrease in donations and contributions, has prompted civil society to work more on our self-evaluation tools, to be critical, honest, self-assess how we have been doing things, and move towards more transparency and giving more feedback to citizens, including through participatory budgets and more transparent reports. Not only is it necessary for citizens to know where their money goes, but it is also the right way to respond to attacks.

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

Get in touch with AOI and ARCS through their websites or follow @AOIcooperazione and @ArcsCultSol on Twitter.


‘We are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society’


Ahead of the publication of the 2018 report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Martyna Bogaczyk, president of the board of the Education for Democracy Foundation, a Polish civil society organisation that has promoted democracy since 1989, with a focus on three areas: democracy education in schools, civic duty and activism, and global solidarity.

1. What would you say are the most pressing challenges that democracy faces in Poland?

As you know, in Poland as in much of Central Europe space for civil society is shrinking. In Hungary, in particular, the government is introducing legal changes that are making things harder and harder for civil society. So indeed, some actions by other actors, notably governments, are having a negative effect on civil society. But right now, I would rather focus on the challenge that stems from developments that are taking place within society, and civil society, itself.

I would place the origins of the current division that affects Polish society mainly in two historical points: the introduction of economic reform in the early nineties, which had dramatically unequal effects on society, and the Smolensk catastrophe: the 2010 plane crash that killed the President of Poland along with many government officials, members of parliament, senior military officers, figures of culture and civic activists. In my opinion, it was this catastrophe, and the different ways it was processed by either side of society, that showed us how different from one another we are, and how different our perceptions of reality and visions of Poland are. I believe this was the beginning of a process that resulted in more radical political movements reaching parliament, and politics becoming a lot more polarised. The division within Polish society was exacerbated.

I would say we are currently divided into two ‘clans’, each with its own history, historical memory, values, assessments and political positions. This is the biggest democratic challenge for us, because we have reached a situation in which we find it difficult to talk to each other. As a result, a civilised and meaningful political conversation cannot take place. Families cannot talk normally around the Christmas table anymore. People who are on either side of this cultural and political divide are not talking to each other.

2. How has this division affected organised civil society?

Polish civil society is wide and diverse: it includes not just formal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on democratic governance issues, but a whole range of organisations, from trade unions to student organisations, and from religious associations to grassroots movements to service providers. There is a sector of civil society organisations (CSOs) working on the rule of law, education for democracy, anti-discrimination and human rights, which has a very critical view of what is going on and is working to bridge the gaps. But let’s not forget that civil society also includes countless organisations that provide social services, such as education and healthcare. I believe that some of them may have other opinions about these developments. Some of them don’t care or don’t think that these developments affect them, and still others are not speaking about them for fear of losing public funding, which can be one of main sources of income for them.

3. Are you witnessing rise of so-called ‘un-civil society’, as it is happening elsewhere?

Indeed. ‘Un-civil society’: I think that’s a good way to put it. Because civil society also includes a number of organisations that are waging a cultural war and deepening the divide. They are occupying spaces meant for civil society and they are even grabbing the human rights language for their own purposes, using it against the advancement of rights.

In fact, I would say in this respect we have three distinct problems. First of all, there’s the phenomenon of GONGOs (government-organised NGOs). We call them ‘mirror NGOs’, because they mimic the structure of existing, legitimate ones. And when the government is pushing for a specific reform, these organisations support the government’s initiative, and the government can say that it consulted with civil society and that civil society is in its favour.

Second, there is the fact that both fake CSOs and other groups that may be ‘legitimate’ civil society - in the sense that they are not government-organised - but that do not promote rights and democracy, are also borrowing the language of democracy and human rights. This is a completely new experience for us, because after the fall of communism and the transition to democracy in 1989, we believed we were past all of this: that we had a functioning democracy, we were part of the European Union, so these were our shared values. And now we are realising that these values are in fact the object of a dispute, that they don’t mean the same thing for everybody, and that for some, they are just a means to a different end.

Third, we are increasingly seeing the dark side of civil society, in the form of an anti-rights discourse that is anti-Semitic, anti-migrants, anti-refugees. This discourse is becoming normalised to the point that to a growing sector of the population, it is perfectly acceptable. Rights have become something that can be traded. Rather than being recognised as universal, they can be denied to ‘them’ if that means more benefits can be distributed among ‘us’. So many Polish citizens are voting for right-wing parties that promise them social benefits that won’t be ‘snatched’ by foreigners, because they are going to keep them out.

4. How is progressive civil society reacting to this situation?

Many organisations are working to bring dialogue back into local communities. The change that we need will not happen as a result of a more liberal and human-rights oriented political party winning the elections, but through a change in the political conversation. We need to sit people on opposing sides at the same table and teach them how to hold a dialogue and discuss issues that are close to them. We are not trying to have them agree on everything; in fact, what we want is for people to understand that it would be impossible for all of us to agree on everything, and what we need to do instead is accept plurality and diversity. But we do want to hold a conversation aimed at achieving consensus on core values: those that make it possible to have a conversation in the first place.

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

Get in touch with the Education for Democracy Foundation through its website or Facebook page.


‘Civil society needs a compelling counter-narrative’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Lynnette Micheni from PAWA254, an organisation that fosters social accountability and active citizenship among young people, mainly through arts and media.

1.Your organisation, PAWA254, defines itself as a movement of young, socially conscious artists and activists. How do you connect art and activism in your work?

We use art, pop culture and media as an empowerment tool. We believe in artistic expression as a means for social change and the deepening of democracy, and we harness it to advocate for the rights and responsibilities of Kenyans, and against social and political vices, including corruption and abuse of power. As a result of our work, we have seen ‘artivists’ multiply, and a movement of active, freethinking youth emerge in our country.

We work with a variety of arts and media, including photography, film, spoken word, poetry graffiti, cartoons, blogging and writivism, which has opened such great spaces for accountability in Kenya.

Our programs are two pronged: some focus on the economic development of emerging creatives and activists and others on social accountability, all the while leveraging the arts, pop culture and media.

The former entails developing the capacity of emerging artists and facilitating the integration of artistic expression for livelihoods development through the provision of a state-of-the-art co- working space consisting of creative suites, professional equipment, skills transfer and networking opportunities. PAWA convenes key annual events such as the PAWA Festival, an annual street festival that showcases East Africa’s visual and performing arts and disseminates the Kenya Photography Awards.

Our social accountability programs entail using art and pop culture as a form of civic engagement through dance, poetry, graffiti, theatre, music, film and photography to spark civic participation by focusing attention on emerging social concerns in the country and to prompt action in the process. Key current interventions include Off-The-Record, a weekly space where participants can express their thoughts on issues affecting society strictly off the record, with no fear of censorship or repercussions; #JengaHustle, an initiative aimed at advancing policies regarding employment and decent jobs for youth; #EmergingVoices, an intergenerational leadership development project aimed at empowering emerging social justice organisers and #ARealManIs, a transformative masculinity project aimed at leveraging media in mobilising young men’s fight against gender-based violence.

2. Does artivism, and activism in general, face any challenges in Kenya?

Indeed. Civil society is currently fighting a battle for its legitimacy, and it’s not winning. From every podium, including national television, the government is pushing a narrative discrediting civil society. Last year, two prominent human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) were shut down over their alleged non-compliance with regulations, including tax and employment laws, and for operating without a licence. There have been attempts to de-register other organisations as well.

The prevailing narrative is that activists and CSOs are donor-funded disrupters. The idea is also being disseminated that people do it for the money. If you mobilise, you are asked: ‘how much have you been paid?’ – like there is no other driver than money. Ideas or visions of change don’t count. They will say that critical civil society activists and organisations are ‘Soros people’ - implying they are being funded by the Open Society Foundations and are therefore puppets of foreign interests. It is very difficult to counter this narrative when it is constantly being propagated on national television.

It is also a challenge that there is a growing apathy amongst young people who are very well aware of their constitutional rights, resulting in an overreliance on individual activists.

3. What is being done in response to this?

What needs to be done is put together and disseminate a compelling counter-narrative. We know this is difficult because the problem has deep roots. So, the first thing we need to do is understand why it is so easy for governments to target civil society, in Kenya and elsewhere.

We first heard about ‘fake news’ a couple of years ago, and it was all happening far away, in the USA. But the trend has progressed very fast, and in the context of presidential elections last year we suffered an epidemic of fake news. It was all over social media, which is a major source of information for Kenyan citizens, and it distorted the political conversation, and maybe the outcomes of the elections as well. Young people, the group that most uses social media, were particularly misled by fake news stories aimed at stirring conflict and dividing civil society.

The abundance of fake news can be very disconcerting for young people that have little experience with interpreting data and are ill-equipped to tell the difference between legitimate and fake information. How do you sustain online movements while avoiding the infiltration of narratives based on fake news? How do you manage to bring online movements offline and keep them going in a context in which the political discussion is distorted to such extent?

Young people are also particularly vulnerable to empty electoral promises of jobs and other benefits. Lots of promises are made at election times but no policies are ever enacted to fulfil them afterward. And people keep believing every time. The problem is that we have a whole generation of people who form their opinions based on headlines, and also build their activism on the basis of headlines – and under the headlines, there is usually no real content.

The government is aware that evidence-based activism is lacking, and they do have smart and better prepared people, so they sometimes invite civil society to the table and pair them with a government technician, even on live television. Civil society activists are not always in a position to prepare adequately to respond. So it is difficult to connect and sustain civil society struggles, and instead it is so easy for the government to co-opt civil society actors.

This is why we work to empower people, and young people in particular, to seek facts, to interpret them and understand their implications, to make decisions based on them, and to use them to monitor the government, hold it accountable and ensure it responds to citizens’ needs. We believe that arts, pop culture and media remain a viable tool to engage with the youth and are keen to continue investing in them.

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

Get in touch with PAWA254 through its website or Facebook page, or follow @Pawa254 and @LynnetteMicheni on Twitter.


Des citoyen(ne)s responsables peuvent devenir des sentinelles de la démocratie


En vue de la publication du Rapport sur l'état de la société civile 2018 sur le thème de « Réinventer la démocratie », nous parlons et échangeons avec des activistes et des leaders de la société civile à propos de leur travail pour promouvoir les principes et des pratiques démocratiques, sur les défis qu'ils rencontrent et les victoires qu'ils obtiennent. CIVICUS parle aujourd’hui à Cheikh Fall, président de la Ligue des Blogueurs et cyber-activistes africains pour la Démocratie, Africtivistes, un groupe de plus de 200 jeunes journalistes, blogueurs et activistes de plus de 40 pays africains et de la diaspora (dont Haïti), cherchant à renforcer la démocratie, la bonne gouvernance et les droits humains via les technologies de l’information et de la communication.

Il semble que le travail d’Africtivistes est fortement focalisé sur les processus électoraux. Pourquoi donc ?

En Afrique, et pas seulement en Afrique de l’Ouest, les crises surviennent très souvent en période pré- ou post-électorale. Juste pour donner quelques exemples de la dernière décennie, plus de 1000 personnes ont été tuées et 600 000 déplacées en 2007 durant la crise post-électorale en République Centrafricaine ; il y a eu 3 248 morts durant la crise post-électorale en Côte d’Ivoire en 2010 ; plus de 800 morts dans le nord du Nigeria après l’élection présidentielle d’avril 2011 ; 24 personnes tuées après la proclamation des résultats de l’élection présidentielle de 2011 en République Démocratique du Congo ; et entre 800 et 1500 morts, et 180 000 à 600 000  personnes déplacées lors de la crise post-électorale au Kenya en 2007.

Dans certains pays, le processus électoral est souvent émaillé de violences et de graves dysfonctionnements des institutions électorales qui constituent des menaces réelles à la paix. Car les mauvaises pratiques qui affectent la crédibilité des résultats donnent irrémédiablement lieu à des contestations annonciatrices de conflits post-électoraux aux conséquences imprévisibles. Les rapports des multiples missions d’observation nationales et internationales font régulièrement état des mêmes faiblesses techniques, institutionnelles et socio-éducatives, mais leurs recommandations restent lettre morte.

Les deux principales causes sous-jacentes à ces entraves à la démocratie sont l’absence d’une volonté politique réelle d'organiser des élections démocratiques et crédibles, et la faible éducation civique et électorale des populations. On sait que le manque d’accès à une bonne information contribue largement à attiser les tensions.

Donc, l’Afrique doit d’abord connaître des transitions politiques libres et transparentes. La stabilité des Etats africains est la condition sine qua non à tout processus de démocratisation et de développement.

Pensez-vous que la situation a quelque peu changé avec l’avènement des nouvelles technologies de l'information et des communications ?

Je pense qu’il y a eu un progrès assez significatif. Depuis l'arrivée d'internet sur le continent, les citoyens sont outillés d’une nouvelle arme de communication, de prise de parole et d’interpellation des politiques. Le suivi, les critiques, les remarques et commentaires sur les différentes missions des pouvoirs publics se font de façon plus simple et deviennent plus accessibles à la population.

Dans les années 2000 naissaient les premiers espaces publics d’information sur internet avec des portails présentant des forums de discussion, des profils personnels et des services de messagerie sécurisés. Ces outils ont considérablement amélioré l'implication citoyenne des africains dans la vie politique de leur pays.

Quelques années plus tard, les blogs, les réseaux sociaux et les plateformes de vidéoblog ont encore changé pour les citoyens leur façon de vivre la citoyenneté. C’est ainsi qu’en 2010, la Côte d’Ivoire s’est appuyée sur la mobilisation de sa jeunesse connectée pour aider à reconstruire la paix. Durant la même année, une révolution sans précédent s'est produite en Afrique du Nord avec un rôle central joué par les nouveaux médias et internet. Un an plus tard, le Sénégal a connu sa première « Soft Revolution » : une révolution pacifique, douce et citoyenne s'appuyant exclusivement sur les réseaux sociaux pour assurer et garantir un processus électoral libre et transparent jusqu'à l’aboutissement d'une élection présidentielle véritablement démocratique.

En somme, avec l’avènement du numérique et des réseaux sociaux, nous avons connu et nous sommes toujours en train de connaître une nouvelle dynamique citoyenne dans nos pays respectifs. Et cette dynamique-là, c’est en quelque sorte le résultat d’une expression ou d’un besoin de citoyenneté. Cela est une aubaine pour les démocraties africaines, car elle consiste à s’exprimer dans les médias ou faire son exercice de citoyen responsable en donnant son avis et en portant des arguments sur des sujets d’intérêt public, déplaçant ainsi le débat public au niveau des espaces de connexion, des espaces d’interaction comme les réseaux sociaux.

Aujourd’hui, le digital est devenu un outil d’engagement citoyen, un outil de sensibilisation, d’éveil de conscience, d’implication, d’interpellation, de suivi, de veille et de monitoring. Il a permis de consolider les acquis démocratiques, et aussi de mettre à l’épreuve certaines démocraties ; et cela ne peut être qu’une bonne chose pour nos démocraties.

Mais l’Afrique a besoin d’être outillée, accompagnée, préparée afin qu’elle s’implique et qu’elle participe à cette révolution digitale. Nous avons une chance et cette chance, nous ne l’avons pas connue avec la révolution industrielle. Cette chance, c’est d’être au même niveau que les autres continents, au même niveau que tout le monde par rapport à la révolution digitale. C’est juste de l’audace et du courage qu’il nous faut pour intégrer cette révolution et la porter pour le bien du continent. On n’a pas mal d’initiatives portées par l’Afrique et les Africains qui permettent de parler aujourd’hui de participation africaine à la révolution digitale, mais c’est loin d’être suffisant.

Quel rôle Africtivistes a-t-il joué dans ce contexte ?

Il est à noter qu’Africtivistes n'est pas sorti de nulle part ; il y a eu des antécédents au travail que nous faisons. Dans les années 2000, plusieurs mouvements sociaux ont été créés en Afrique en réponse aux violations des droits de l'homme et pour favoriser une participation citoyenne et un engagement civique accrus. En fait, de nombreuses actions citoyennes ont été initiées, financées et menées à travers le continent par des citoyens. En 2007, de jeunes Kenyans ont créé, au cours de la crise post-électorale, une application Web appelée Ushahidi qui permettait aux gens qui habitaient près des zones de conflit de reporter et visualiser les « endroits dangereux ». L’application a depuis été utilisée partout dans le monde.

En 2010, les jeunes Ivoiriens ont lancé #CIV2010 et #CIVSOCIAL, des hashtags correspondant à deux initiatives citoyennes pour relever les défis de la période électorale et pour faire face à la crise post-électorale.

En 2012, des blogueurs sénégalais ont couvert l’ensemble du processus électoral avec un nouveau système numérique de suivi et d’observation, #SUNU2012, empêchant ainsi la fraude, et donc dans une moindre mesure une crise post-électorale potentielle. Cette e-observation a été une percée pour la participation citoyenne en Afrique. Le seul outil disponible pour ces jeunes étaient leurs téléphones mobiles ; et leur plan était de prendre des photos des feuilles de résultats à chaque centre de pointage pendant qu’une application calculait les résultats puis en informait le grand public, avant même que ne le faisaient les journalistes. Aussi en 2012, les jeunes Ghanéens ont lancé #GhanaDecides, une réponse à la participation des citoyens dans les processus électoraux.

De 2012 à 2015, l’Afrique a connu plusieurs autres initiatives citoyennes : #Vote229 au Bénin, #GuinéeVote en Guinée, le Mackymètre au Sénégal, le Buharimeter au Nigeria, le Présimètre au Burkina Faso, et le Talonmètre au Bénin.

En somme, c’était la solidarité spontanée de jeunes citoyens africains en ligne engagés dans un changement socio-démocratique qui a déclenché la mise en place d’un réseau panafricain. La création d’Africtivistes a montré l’importance de se connecter physiquement après avoir maintenu des liens forts en ligne.

La première action réussie de notre réseau, et ce avant même son lancement officiel, fut la campagne #FreeMakaila qui a sauvé le journaliste tchadien Makaila Nguebla d’être extradé du Sénégal vers le Tchad. Makaila a finalement été expulsé en Guinée où la communauté s’est mobilisée pour l’accueillir avant qu’il ne lui soit offert l’asile par la France. Puis, et bien que précédemment expulsé par le Sénégal, Makaila a été autorisé à assister au premier sommet Africtivistes en 2015 se déroulant à Dakar.

De 2015 à ce jour, nous avons ensemble avec tous les membres de notre organisation porté avec la plus grande énergie plusieurs campagnes, et nous avons soutenu plusieurs initiatives citoyennes en Afrique et en dehors du continent par solidarité. Depuis 2015, nous partageons notre vision par rapport à la démocratie participative, à la politique de transparence, à la bonne gouvernance ainsi qu’à la démarche globale de reddition des comptes. Nous partageons des valeurs communes et c’est cela la force de notre réseau.

Pouvez-vous donner quelques exemples du travail accompli par Africtivistes jusqu'à présent ?

Un exemple est celui de la Gambie, où Africtivistes a très souvent travaillé en amont avec les organisations de la société civile, les journalistes et les activistes gambiens pendant plus d’une année avant l’élection présidentielle de 2016, sur tout ce qui est information, campagne, collecte de données sur la Gambie. Ensuite, nous avons formé plusieurs activistes et journalistes gambiens sur la lutte contre la censure numérique, contre la surveillance et enfin sur tous les outils en ce qui concerne la cybersécurité. Cela leur a permis d’avoir une marge d’avance sur ce qui allait les empêcher de travailler, et ainsi de pouvoir informer le monde entier.

Le constat, c’est quoi ? Au-delà même des exactions, des violations des droits humains par le président Yaya Jammeh au cours de l’élection présidentielle (par exemple, les réseaux de télécommunication ont été coupés, et une certaine censure au niveau des médias classiques a été appliquée), cela n’a pas empêché que sortent les informations de la Gambie via internet. Vous l’avez sans doute constaté, le jour de l’élection présidentielle, et malgré la censure, toutes les informations sur le vote, le déroulement du vote, les résultats étaient systématiquement publiés sur internet. Quand il s’est agi de la fermeture des stations radio, nous avons mis à la disposition de certains journalistes gambiens une radio pirate en ligne pour les aider à continuer d’informer le monde.

Ensuite, nous avons porté des initiatives sur internet afin de faire des campagnes ciblées, organisées contre certains régimes lorsqu’ils ont tenté d’emprisonner ou d’intimider ou de censurer chez eux. On a vu ce qui s’est passé avec le Cameroun où internet a été coupé à un moment donné ; ce qui s’est passé avec le Tchad lors de la dernière élection présidentielle ; ce qui s’est aussi passé dans un pays de l’Afrique de l’Ouest, le Togo où avec les manifestations, internet et les réseaux sociaux sont très souvent coupés.

Depuis 2015, aussi nous avons aidé pas mal d’acteurs de la société civile qui ont eu des soucis chez eux et qui ont été exfiltrés. On en compte quatre, notamment ; des activistes ou journalistes blogueurs obligés de fuir leur pays parce qu’ils subissaient des répressions, des violences, des menaces par rapport à leur intégrité et leur sécurité. C’est pourquoi en 2017, nous avons entamé un vaste programme de formation et de renforcement des capacités pour les journalistes, acteurs des médias et de la société civile sur leur cybersécurité.

Quelles sont vos recommandations pour d’autres organisations de la société civile qui cherchent à promouvoir la démocratie participative ?

On ne peut pas prétendre être des gendarmes derrière des chefs d’Etat. Nous nous réclamons tout simplement être des vigies, des sentinelles de la démocratie en commençant par nous-mêmes. C’est ce que nous faisons en tant que citoyens, en respectant déjà ce que nos lois nous imposent, en essayant de servir de modèles et en poussant d’autres à faire comme nous. Une fois qu’on joue notre rôle de citoyens responsables, c’est à partir de ce moment-là qu’on devient une force d’interpellation auprès des gouvernants pouvant les relancer, leur rappeler leurs responsabilités par rapport à des engagements politiques qu’ils ont pris pour la bonne marche de la société.

Nous ne prétendons pas être non plus des adversaires politiques ni des opposants politiques mais une force citoyenne qu’on veut responsable, qui est en mesure d’interpeller et aussi de proposer des choses qui pourraient amener nos Etats et nos démocraties à aller de l’avant.

Entrez en contact avec Africtivistes à travers son site Web ou son page Facebook, ou suivez @AFRICTIVISTES et @cypher007 sur Twitter.


‘We are an activist group that seeks to restore faith in democracy’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, the challenges they encounter in doing so, and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Rangsiman Rome, co-founder of the Democracy Restoration Group, a Thai civil society organisation seeking to restore faith in democratic processes, particularly among young people, and promote accountable and responsive democratic institutions.


‘People have power, even if they don’t usually feel like they do’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Linda Kavanagh, spokesperson of the Abortion Rights Campaign, in the aftermath of the historic vote that repealed the eighth amendment of Ireland’s Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

See also our interview with Ivana Bacik, Irish Senator and campaigner for abortion rights.

1. The vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution exceeded 66 per cent. Did you see it coming?

We had lots of surprises – we certainly never saw 66 per cent coming. We thought it would be hard win, slightly over 50, 55 per cent at the most. We also thought that the people who were not really engaged would just stay home and not make what they surely considered a tough choice. But with close to 70 per cent, turnout was the third highest ever for a referendum.

Just so it is clear, it wasn’t our choice to go to a referendum, and I would never recommend it if it can be avoided. It is really tough, and while we won, it was a hard win, as people had to expose themselves and their stories. It was also expensive. But it was the only way to do this, as the amendment was in the Constitution.

2. What was the state of public opinion when the process started?

It is not easy to put a date to the beginning of the process. For my organisation, the Abortion Rights Campaign, it began in 2012. We started work in reaction to two major incidents around abortion rights that took place in Ireland in 2012. In the summer of that year, Youth Defence, a very militant anti-choice organisation, put up billboards all around Dublin, saying that abortion hurt women, stigmatising women who had had abortions, and saying lots of things that weren’t true. The protests that took place in reaction to this campaign were the biggest pro-choice demonstrations in a long time. This time, we were also organising online, on Facebook and Twitter, and this made it easier to get information out, so the protests were quite large. The first March for Choice, held in September 2012, gathered a couple of thousand people, which was no small feat at the time. It was the biggest in about a decade.

A month later, Savita Halappanavar died. Savita was pregnant and died because she was refused an abortion. She had been told she was going to have a miscarriage and there was a risk of infection but, according to the law, doctors were not allowed to intervene until her life was at imminent risk. This was a real wake-up call and put us under the global spotlight. Soon afterwards, in January 2013, the Abortion Rights Campaign began its work.

But none of this happened out of the blue; it was the result of decades of activism. And of course, the Abortion Rights Campaign was just one among many groups rallying for repeal. But Savita’s death was a turning point: many young people started their journey when it happened. From then on, the Marches for Choice got bigger and bigger every year and at some point, we figured out that we had to call a referendum to repeal the eighth amendment and push for political change. We had been agitating for a while, marching in the streets and getting bigger and stronger, and in the meantime, other terrible things that happened strengthened the view that change was necessary, including a horrific court case involving a young brain-dead woman kept on life support against her family’s wishes because she was 16 weeks pregnant.

3. How did you manage to shift public opinion towards repeal?

In early 2016 Amnesty International commissioned a poll that showed overwhelming support for change, with a breakdown of where people stood regarding different causes for legal abortion, including incest, rape, risk to the woman’s health and foetal abnormality. A little under 40 per cent were in favour of allowing women to access abortion as they choose, while about 40 per cent were in favour of allowing it only under very restrictive circumstances. Going in, we estimated we were looking at a maximum of 45 per cent of support.

So we started with a strong, solid base of 40-plus per cent, and we knew the other side had a solid 10 to 20 per cent. There were lots of people, another 40 per cent, who were in doubt, unsure of where they stood. These were the people who could tip the scale, so we had to go talk to them. The common thinking is that people who are unsure will stick to the status quo because that’s what they know. But we knew that when people get the facts, when they get to listen to the evidence, they tend to come to a more pro-choice position. We knew this because that is exactly what happened to each of us, personally: we heard about the issue, thought about it, said ‘well, actually that’s really unfair, let’s work on it’. That’s also what we saw happen at the Citizen’s Assembly and again at the Joint Parliamentary Committee. We saw this time and again and knew it was just a matter of letting people have these conversations. We knew there was a big swathe of people that needed to be persuaded one way or the other, so this was a big part of our strategy: to encourage conversation and bring the tools so they could take place.

As activism grew and marches got bigger, we figured out a couple of things. One was that there was an increasing sentiment for change: no matter how you felt about abortion, there was a growing sense that the status quo was not helping women. Our abortion policies had drawn criticism from international human rights bodies. This just couldn’t go on – so at some point we needed to start talking to politicians to make sure they understood that they couldn’t brush the issue under the carpet anymore.

So we decided to make abortion a red-line issue in the 2016 general elections – that is, a key issue that politicians would be asked about daily as they knocked on our doors to ask for our votes. And we gave people the language to talk to their politicians about the issue. We knew that if they encountered the issue once and again when they were canvassing, they would pay attention. We did this in a number of ways: we had civic engagement training sessions where we would give people information about how referendums work, how the law works, what it says about the issue, what we can do and what our position regarding free, safe and legal abortion is. And it worked! We succeeded in forcing the issue into the agenda.

The other thing we realised is that, if and when this came to a referendum, it couldn’t just be a Dublin-based campaign – we had to go national. So we worked very hard to set up regional groups in every county around Ireland. By the time the referendum came, there was a pro-choice group in every county. And those groups went on to form canvassing groups that would hold their own events and talk to their politicians.

4. What role did the media play in the process? How did you work with both traditional and social media?

From my perspective, a key takeaway from the process is that it is vital to use social media to create a space so people can have a nuanced discussion about these issues.

With traditional media, our hands were tied, because when it comes to controversial issues, they are required to provide ‘balanced coverage’. According to a 1995 Supreme Court ruling, it is unconstitutional for the government to spend taxpayers’ money to provide arguments for only one side in a referendum. As a result, any broadcaster that receives state funding must allocate equal airtime to both sides. So, if you talk on TV about how you had an abortion, or you say you are pro-choice, the opposite view has to be given space as well. Even if someone was telling their actual story of needing an abortion and having to travel to the UK, saying exactly what had happened to them, rather than preaching about right or wrong, there would be someone who would be called in to ‘balance’ that. And the rule was interpreted very broadly, so it applied not just during the referendum campaign but also for years before that. It was very stifling.

In other words, traditional media were a massive block to people’s education. You normally look to the media to educate yourself on an issue, but it is not educational to constantly pitch ideas against each other, especially on an issue as complex and nuanced as abortion can be. So we had to bypass the mainstream media to get to the people. Fortunately, we exist in the time of social media, and we put a lot of effort into it and gave people the language and the nuance to talk about these things. We were used to hearing discussions about the morality of abortion where it was either right or wrong: there was no middle ground for people who were not that comfortable with it but thought the status quo was bad, and there was no room to talk about it.

We advocate for free, safe and legal abortion for anyone who wants or needs one, no questions asked, because we know it’s the gold standard and believe that women having choice and control over their own lives is a good thing. But we didn’t want to impose this on people. Rather we wanted to give people the language to talk about it, allowing them to ask more questions, to find out what they were ready to accept and how far they were ready to go. This really worked. There has been so much discussion about the dark web, bots, trolls and possible interference with the campaign – but there were hundreds of pro-choice Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles set by hundreds of pro-choice individuals, and we had tools to protect the space we had created where these discussions were taking place. For instance, a group of volunteers created Repeal Shield, which was basically a public list of bots and troll accounts. When a user flagged an account by messaging @repeal_shield, a volunteer would investigate, and if the account met the criteria of being a bot or troll, it would be added to the list. As a result, people could keep having a conversation without interference.

One big takeaway from this is that people have power. They usually don’t feel like they do, but what they do matters. Someone clicking ‘like’ on your page because they really like it means so much more than paid advertising. People don’t realise that, but when it comes to something that needs to be shared by many people or otherwise won’t be visible at all, this gives everyone a bit of power. Of course, there’s a lot more to activism than clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook post, but every little thing adds up.

We are always told that there we are an echo chamber, that we only talk with people who already think alike, but it turned out that we weren’t doing this at all. We got 66 per cent of the vote. That was not an echo chamber. That was reality.

Traditional media and politicians were slower to catch up to this, so we carved our own way. I am not saying this is the way to go for every activist group around the world. For one, Ireland has very good internet coverage, most people have access to it, and we have high user rates of Twitter and Instagram. This is not the case everywhere. But we used the tools we had, and it worked for us.

5. What other tactics did you use?

We gave people the language and an understanding of the political process, and that didn’t happen on social media; it happened on the ground. We would talk to people and they would bring the issue to their doorsteps. The Abortion Rights Campaign is a grassroots organisation, and what we did best was give people those tools so that they could then use them themselves. For years we had stalls every second week so people would come, have a chat, get information, take a leaflet. We had monthly meetings so people would learn about the organisation and how they could join, and sometimes we had somebody bring in a different perspective, such as a migrant or somebody from Direct Provision, a terrible institution for asylum seekers. We also developed training activities for marginalised groups about abortion in a wider reproductive context.

Other groups would lobby politicians. We are now probably going to do so, but at the time the grassroots campaign was our main concern. We also did advocacy at both the national and international levels, including submissions to various United Nations bodies. And we maintained links with Irish groups in other countries, because the Irish diaspora is very focused on this issue. We also had connections with other organisations that didn’t have a direct pro-choice mandate but might support a repeal stance, such as migrants’ rights groups, disability groups and others.

Beyond women’s rights organisations, we got the support of international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, which meant a lot because everyone knows who they are, as well as some migrants’ rights organisations. An awful lot of the charity organisations in Ireland would have a nun or a priest on their board, so they would not take a stand on this issue. But a lot did, and we got a lot of support. More than a hundred organisations eventually signed up.

And of course, we sold t-shirts, repeal jumpers, so we gave people visibility. People became visibly pro-choice. You knew somebody was on your side when you saw them. You felt supported on a decision that maybe once you took and never told anybody about. Now you knew there was a visible crowd of people who supported you.

6. What was the tone of the debate?

A lot of it was about the moralities of abortion. Many people would say ‘I believe that life begins at conception; I believe you are taking a human life’ – and that’s okay, it’s people’s beliefs. But there were also lots of arguments that were brought in that were disprovable, greatly exaggerated, or not responding to the reality of what people were going through. Abortion is a contentious issue and there are indeed conversations to be had around disabilities and the like. But people were saying things like: ‘99 per cent of the people who get a diagnosis of Down’s Syndrome will abort’. And may be true in certain contexts, but not necessarily here. And in any case, that says more about our attitudes towards people with disabilities than it does about abortion.

While some of it was about people’s deeply held beliefs, there were also lies, exaggerations and a deliberate misuse of stats. Some really nasty stuff happened: a huge amount of graphic images were used and are still out there. I absolutely do not think that every ‘no’ voter is a terrible person - people have their beliefs and their struggles - but I do think the anti-choice campaign made it quite nasty. It never got as bad as we had expected, but it was still hard.

7. For things to happen, changing the Constitution seems to be just a first - big - step. What work remains to be done, and what will be the role of the Abortion Rights Campaign?

When the eighth amendment was repealed, legislation about abortion had already been put on the table. It wasn’t fully spelled out, but it provided broad strokes of legislation coming from the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly and the Joint Parliamentary Committee. As a result, people knew going in what they were voting for: 12-week access with no restrictions as to reason, and longer if a woman’s life or health is in danger or in case of severe foetal abnormalities. There are discussions about mandatory wait periods and this kind of thing, and we are not that happy about those, but part of our work is to have discussions about that.

The legislation will be debated in the autumn and we expect it to be brought forward at the beginning of 2019. In the meantime, our job is to keep the pressure on to make sure that the legislation includes the right language and that people who continue to travel or take pills are taken care of. The Abortion Rights Campaign has a broader mandate. We have a mandate to seek the establishment of free, safe and legal abortion, but we also have a longer-term mandate aimed at de-stigmatising abortion. We’ve taken huge steps towards that because we’ve had this national conversation and it’s not possible to avoid the issue any more, but we still have a long way to go.

It’s been more than a month since the referendum, and we are already strategising about what we want and how we see our role moving forward, in forcing legislation through and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. Are people still having to travel to the UK? What improvements can be made? We need to make sure our legislation is good enough, that it allows people to get access. All along, part of the ban on abortion was also a ban on information about abortion, and most of all about how to get one. You were basically left to your own devices to go sort yourself out in the UK, and there were rogue pregnancy agencies giving terrible advice and purposefully delaying women seeking abortions. So a big part of what will come in the future will be making sure that doctors can actually take care of their patients. We take it that conscientious objection is going to come into play and need to make sure that it does not undo any of the good that we have achieved.

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

Get in touch with the Abortion Rights Campaign through its website or Facebook page, or follow @freesafelegal on Twitter.


‘Cuando los migrantes son ciudadanos de segunda, se degrada la democracia’


En vistas de la publicación del Informe 2018 sobre el Estado de la Sociedad Civil, que girará en torno del tema “Reimaginar la Democracia”, estamos dialogando con líderes, activistas y especialistas de la sociedad civil para comprender su labor en la promoción de prácticas y principios democráticos, los desafíos que enfrentan y los logros alcanzados. En esta oportunidad, CIVICUS conversa con Ana Paula Penchaszadeh, colaboradora de la Red de Migrantes y Refugiadxs en Argentina y de la Red Nacional de Líderes Migrantes en Argentina, además de Doctora en Ciencias Sociales y en Filosofía, profesora de la Universidad de Buenos Aires e investigadora del CONICET (Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas).

1. Te defines como pensadora y activista de los derechos de las personas migrantes. ¿Qué te llevó a orientarte en esa dirección y desde qué plataforma despliegas ese activismo?

Desde que tengo memoria me han preocupado los problemas de la justicia y la exclusión. Yo misma he sido extranjera: mi familia tuvo que exiliarse en Venezuela y Francia durante la última dictadura militar en Argentina.

Como investigadora, desde los inicios de mi carrera me interesé por las dinámicas de inclusión y exclusión en la constitución de la comunidad política. Centré mi tesis de doctorado en el vínculo de política y hospitalidad en el mundo contemporáneo. Desde entonces, asumí que no es posible investigar el tema de la hospitalidad (de un vínculo no destructivo hacia el otro que llega) en un contexto inédito de grandes desplazamientos humanos, sin tener vinculación con los espacios del activismo en derechos humanos y sin realizar trabajos de incidencia a nivel de las políticas públicas migratorias.

Entre 2012 y 2015, trabajé en el Programa de Migraciones y Asilo del Centro de Justicia y Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de Lanús. En ese período, co-coordiné un proyecto sobre Migraciones, Derechos Humanos y Niñez en Argentina. A partir de un diagnóstico multivariado de la situación de la niñez en el contexto de las migraciones, abordamos la discriminación en el sistema escolar y desarrollamos un conjunto de materiales didácticos para trabajar la temática de las migraciones en las escuelas desde una perspectiva de derechos humanos.

En los últimos años, mi labor investigativa giró en torno de dos grandes ejes: uno teórico y filosófico, y otro práctico y aplicado. He tratado de poner el pensamiento al servicio del activismo en derechos humanos. Lo he hecho mediante la provisión de apoyo al trabajo que desarrollan la Red de Migrantes y Refugiadxs en Argentina y la Red Nacional de Líderes Migrantes en Argentina. Desde 2015 participo asiduamente como tallerista en temas de derechos políticos y migraciones y como relatora en los encuentros de la Red Nacional de Líderes Migrantes; dirijo un proyecto de voluntariado universitario sobre migrantes y economía social, desarrollado en conjunto con la Red de Migrantes y Refugiadxs en Argentina; he realizado numerosas intervenciones públicas, incluida una participación en la audiencia de la Comisión Bicameral Permanente de Trámite Parlamentario del Congreso, en contra del Decreto de Necesidad y Urgencia (DNU) 70/2017 y en defensa de la Ley 25.871 de Migraciones, así como en respaldo de un proyecto de ley de voto migrante; y he contribuido a dar difusión a la temática mediante entrevistas y artículos periodísticos, e incluso a través de un cortometraje documental, “Yo, afro”, producido junto con la artista audiovisual Gabriela Messina. Del mismo modo, en mis investigaciones busco abrir la escucha a la palabra de migrantes y refugiados y he trabajado bastante sobre el discurso y los procesos de subjetivación y empoderamiento de estos grupos.

2.¿Cuáles son los argumentos teóricos y filosóficos que sustentan tu activismo?

En el terreno teórico y filosófico, hago un análisis deconstructivo de la hospitalidad y la extranjería, para a partir de allí analizar las tensiones entre ciudadanía y nacionalidad. Sostengo que la movilidad humana pone en jaque la estructura supuestamente sedentaria y atávica (asociada al nacimiento en un territorio o en el seno de una familia) sobre la cual se ha erigido la comunidad política moderna. Las nuevas formas de pertenencia, y su relación con los procesos de subjetivación política, dislocan la espacialidad del Estado nación. Cada vez más, se impone pensar el espacio transnacional como fundamento de la ciudadanía: por un lado, des-territorializando y virtualizando la pertenencia a partir de una concepción “portable” de la ciudadanía (mediante el reconocimiento de derechos políticos a los nacionales que viven en el extranjero); y, por el otro, re-territorializando la pertenencia a través del reconocimiento de la residencia (y no solo de la nacionalidad) como fundamento de una ciudadanía plena (es decir, mediante el reconocimiento de derechos políticos a los inmigrantes).

3.¿Cuál es actualmente la situación de los migrantes en Argentina? ¿Observas avances o retrocesos en el goce de derechos?

En Argentina rige actualmente la Ley 25.871 de Migraciones. Esta norma, aprobada en 2004, vino a reemplazar una ley de la dictadura y a saldar una larga deuda de la democracia. La lucha de organizaciones de derechos humanos, de organizaciones que trabajan con migrantes y de organizaciones de los propios migrantes, dio forma a una de las leyes más progresivas del mundo en materia migratoria, que reconoce la migración como un derecho humano y un amplísimo abanico de derechos con total independencia de la condición migratoria (regular o no) de las personas. Es una muy buena ley nacional que todavía requiere medidas adicionales y un trabajo de adecuación normativa a nivel provincial y municipal para su aplicación efectiva en todo el territorio.

Lamentablemente, en vez de avanzar en esa dirección, recientemente se han producido graves retrocesos a nivel de la política migratoria en el país. Desde que asumió la Alianza Cambiemos a fines de 2015, el paradigma hospitalario ha ido cediendo frente a un paradigma securitario. El actual gobierno cerró el programa de abordaje territorial, que permitió la regularización documentaria de miles de migrantes a lo largo del país, reorganizó la Dirección Nacional de Migraciones con una impronta fuertemente securitaria y propuso la creación de un centro de detención para migrantes. Finalmente, en 2017, mediante un Decreto de Necesidad y Urgencia del Ejecutivo, se modificaron aspectos fundamentales de la ley de Migraciones. Se debilitaron derechos y garantías para facilitar la expulsión exprés de extranjeros.

Este decreto, emitido en forma totalmente inconsulta y sin siquiera una revisión parlamentaria, vino a coronar toda una serie de medidas regresivas, tales como el aumento de controles policiales para determinar la situación documentaria de los extranjeros y la persecución de migrantes en situación documentaria irregular. El decreto confunde irregularidad migratoria con criminalidad: según la ley vigente en Argentina, la irregularidad migratoria no es un delito, sino una falta administrativa que debe ser subsanada por el Estado (responsable de regularizar la situación documentaria de las personas). Si a algo remite la irregularidad migratoria es a la ineficiencia y la ineficacia del Estado para regularizar a las personas que están en su territorio. Todo migrante quiere estar en situación regular y tener los papeles que lo habilitan para alquilar, comprar, trabajar y estudiar de manera formal.

A este giro político se le ha sumado la crisis económica, que tiende a exacerbar los discursos xenófobos a nivel tanto de la sociedad como del Estado. La discriminación y criminalización de las personas migrantes se agudiza con las recesiones: que nos sacan el trabajo, que viven del Estado, que no pagan impuestos, que molestan en la calle. Y desde ya que el chivo expiatorio no es “cualquier” inmigrante, sino el latinoamericano y el africano. El discurso xenófobo esconde una mirada eurocéntrica y racista.

La normalización del prejuicio vuelve la violencia más aceptable, como lo muestra el reciente caso del vendedor ambulante de origen senegalés que fue agredido y gravemente herido por la policía en Buenos Aires. Es un círculo que empieza y termina con la acción y omisión del Estado. Los senegaleses son enviados literalmente a la calle como vendedores ambulantes, pues no tienen acceso a la regularización documentaria por ser extra-Mercosur y no entrar en ninguna de las categorías migratorias. Están condenados al empleo informal y, por lo tanto, expuestos de manera constante a la violencia y la persecución policial. El Estado, que debería facilitarles los medios para regularizar su situación migratoria, los empuja a la informalidad y luego los castiga por ello.

4.¿Cómo ha reaccionado la sociedad civil ante estos retrocesos?

Las organizaciones de derechos humanos, incluidas las que nuclean a refugiados y migrantes, se movilizaron ante cada vulneración de derechos, ya fuera un caso de discriminación o violencia, o un cambio normativo que afectara a migrantes y refugiados. Frente al DNU 70/2017, el Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), la Comisión Argentina para Refugiados y Migrantes (CAREF) y el Colectivo por la Diversidad (COPADI) promovieron una acción de amparo colectivo. Muchos otros acompañamos la iniciativa: por ejemplo, desde el área de migraciones del Instituto de Investigaciones Gino Germani (Universidad de Buenos Aires) presentamos un amicus curiae en apoyo del recurso de amparo. Gracias a todos estos esfuerzos, en marzo de 2018 el tribunal declaró inconstitucional el DNU, y lo hizo con argumentos muy interesantes para una defensa de las migraciones desde una perspectiva de derechos humanos.

Los migrantes en Argentina están organizados: cuentan con muchísimas organizaciones de defensa de sus derechos, algunas de ellas articuladas en redes. La Red Argentina de Migrantes y Refugiadxs, por ejemplo, nuclea a nivel nacional una treintena organizaciones de migrantes de Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Haití, Jamaica, Paraguay, Perú, República Dominicana, Senegal, Ucrania, Uruguay y Venezuela. Estas organizaciones y redes se reconocen como sujetos políticos, y consideran la Ley 25.871 como un logro de su activismo. Ante el Decreto 70/2017 que la tergiversaba, también fueron al Congreso y a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos para quejarse de que el gobierno no los llamara, ni aceptara recibirlos, para escuchar sus opiniones, y para reclamar una política seria contra el delito en reemplazo de las medidas que los usan como chivos expiatorios.

Es importante subrayar que estas organizaciones no son tan solo reactivas, sino que han tomado repetidamente la iniciativa para presentar propuestas innovadoras. Así, en diciembre de 2016 lograron que se presentara en el Congreso un proyecto de ley de voto migrante, que buscaba extender los derechos políticos a los extranjeros con residencia permanente. En esa misma línea, del cuarto encuentro de la Red Nacional de Líderes Migrantes de Argentina, realizado en septiembre de 2017 la Universidad Nacional de Lanús, surgió la Declaración de Lanús, que promueve la profundización de la democracia mediante la consolidación de la ciudadanía plena para todas las personas que habitan nuestro país.

5.¿Piensas que la clave de la integración de los migrantes pasa por el reconocimiento de derechos políticos?

Absolutamente. Los extranjeros son el chivo expiatorio, el “otro” culpable de todos nuestros males. En momentos de crisis económica, lo primero que se intenta es restringir su acceso a bienes públicos que son, en definitiva, derechos. La idea de que los inmigrantes no deberían tener acceso a ciertos derechos, tales como la educación universitaria, resulta en una estratificación de la democracia, en ciudadanos de primera y de segunda categoría. Esto contradice el principio de igualdad, y por lo tanto degrada a la democracia.

Cuando se extiende el discurso xenófobo, para los gobernantes y funcionarios es muy fácil hacerse eco y culpar a los inmigrantes de los problemas que ellos mismos no logran resolver, porque no pagan por ello ningún costo político. Aunque en Argentina son una de las principales minorías – el 4,5% de la población – los migrantes no votan. No resulta sorprendente, en el marco de un sistema representativo que se basa en la distribución de premios y castigos a través del voto, que los funcionarios no se sientan responsables ante ellos. Por el contrario, les resulta muy cómodo cargar en ellos todos los problemas de la sociedad, desde el narcotráfico hasta el déficit habitacional y la falta de empleo, que son en realidad problemas estructurales, no solamente en nuestro país sino en casi todo el mundo.

La única salida democrática de esta situación pasa por los derechos políticos, que son en definitiva la mejor garantía de que no seremos privados de otros derechos. El migrante padece las políticas del Estado que lo recibe; debe obedecer las leyes y acogerse a las decisiones vinculantes de los poderes públicos. De ahí que deba tener voz y voto en la formación de esas decisiones, igual que cualquier otro ciudadano. Solo así será tomado en cuenta. En la ciudad de Buenos Aires, por ejemplo, los extranjeros representan el 13,5% de la población residente; pero, debido a las leyes que regulan el sufragio migrante, solo un 0,6% de esta población se encuentra habilitada para votar. En contextos de ballotage o segundas vueltas electorales, donde los candidatos se imponen con pequeñísimos márgenes de diferencia, los políticos se cuidarían mucho más de expresar opiniones xenófobas y se resolvería, en buena medida, su uso político y electoral, si los migrantes residentes en la ciudad efectivamente votaran.

El espacio cívico en Argentina es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.

Contáctese con Ana Paula Penchaszadeh, con la Red de Migrantes y Refugiadxs en Argentina y con la Red Nacional de Líderes Migrantes en Argentina a través de sus respectivos sitios web o perfiles de Facebook.


‘#MeToo is a feminist movement and feminism perfects democracy’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Ranhee Song, General Secretary of Korea Women's HotLine and a women’s rights activist, about the #MeToo campaign in South Korea. The movement has mobilised nationwide and has been instrumental in pushing for a review of defamation laws and a bill that would establish a special investigation agency for oversight of high-ranking public officials.

1. Could you retrace for us the story of the #MeToo movement in South Korea?
The #MeToo Movement in South Korea began after a female prosecutor, Ms Seo, revealed publicly in a news interview on 29 January 2018 that she had been sexually harassed by a senior prosecutor in 2010. After that interview, there was an uproar in Korean society.

The mobilisation in South Korea did not differ much from the #MeToo response in other countries. There have been other cases of women speaking out about sexual violence in various places over the past few years in Korea, but the domestic trigger was the fact Ms Seo is a prosecutor and that she went on public TV to speak about her case. In Korea there has been a lot of victim blaming, so usually victims could not expose their faces in public. After the news interview by Ms Seo, many others across Korean society began to join the #MeToo campaign. They felt that despite the fact that she was a prosecutor, she had still not been able to talk about the sexual harassment against her. This made many people angry and they woke up to how difficult speaking about sexual harassment is. There were a few high-profile cases involving political and entertainment figures, but also countless regular women shared their stories. In that way, the #MeToo movement showed a very clearly picture of the reality of sexual harassment in Korea.

At that point, we at Korea Women’s HotLine compiled a list of known sexual offenders. Within one month, the list already contained 139 names – which was impressive, given that we only worked with news sources. What we wanted to show is how big the problem is, and how pervasive.

2. Is #MeToo in South Korea mostly about sexual harassment, or does it connect with other issues raised by the wider women’s rights movement?
It is mostly about sexual harassment, and its demands are simple: punishment of offenders, strengthening of guarantees of the human rights of those who experience harassment, and changes in the government’s attitude towards sexual harassment.

While its main target is the government, our civil culture is also being questioned. Along the way, the #MeToo movement has become wider and has begun to touch on many other issues: gender discrimination in the workplace, anti-feminist bullying, spy cam crime, gender discrimination in investigations and within the judicial system, and so on. In Korea, the pay gap is immense, and the glass ceiling is too hard to break, so the number of women in key position of power in the workplace is still negligible. And within the legal system, victims often must prove how strongly they resisted assault; otherwise they are blamed rather than supported. The changes needed are very profound.

3. What kind of activities the South Korean #MeToo movement has undertaken, and who has been involved?
First of all, we formed the ‘Citizens Action with #MeToo movement’. This is a network of civil and feminist organisations and individuals. Almost 340 organisations are involved in this group.

We organised demonstrations calling for the end of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. We have held discussion programmes with citizens, and we have plans to expand the #MeToo movement.

Along with the ‘Citizens Action with #MeToo movement’, many other groups, large and small, have held numerous demonstrations, discussion programmes and lectures. Recently, there were very large demonstration to condemn gender discrimination in the investigation of illegal photography and among the judicial authorities focusing on this. Almost 45,000 women gathered at this demonstration.

4. What has the #MeToo movement achieved so far, in terms of changing the conversation and the content of public policy?
I’m not sure if we have achieved much yet in terms of public policy because it’s been only five months since the movement began. Of course, the government has promised many policies, but five months is too short to judge the success of a campaign. Also, the more important thing is that the government doesn’t understand that the essential point of #MeToo is the problem of gender discrimination. So, public policy changes must start with that. But so far, their policies seem very short-sighted.

Nevertheless, I think, the indisputable achievement of #MeToo is that women have woken up about the reality of women’s lives in Korea. Many women are saying “we cannot go back to the period before #MeToo.” It has opened so many possibilities to achieve change.
The #MeToo movement shows us that we, Korean society, have much work to do.

5. How is the #MeToo movement connecting to broader struggle for rights, democracy and accountability in South Korea?
I think the #MeToo movement demands a complete change in power relationships within our society. Sexual harassment shows very well how unfairly power is distributed. People need to learn from this.

It was a bit surprising for a movement like this to emerge in South Korea, but at the same time, it was bound to happen sooner or later. The #MeToo movement is a feminist movement, and feminism perfects democracy.

Civic space in South Korea is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor
Get in touch with Korean Women’s Hotline through their website, or follow @kwhotline on Twitter


‘Democracy is not failing the American people - politicians are’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jaclyn Corin and Matt Deitsch, from March for Our Lives, a student-led demonstration held on 24 March 2018 in Washington, DC, with hundreds of sibling events throughout the USA and around the world, in demand of tighter gun control. The march was organised in reaction to the February 2018 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

1. Is democracy failing the American people, and young Americans in particular?
JC: I don’t think democracy is failing Americans, but I do think we need to remember what democracy really is, because right now our politicians are not embracing its true definition.

MD: There are parties that are actively trying to obstruct democracy; there are people trying to suppress voters, whether by voter ID laws, or through registration procedures. The change towards automatic registration in several states is a big step in the right direction, allowing anyone to vote who is eligible. Mass incarceration is also a form of voter suppression, so there are things happening in the US that do suppress democracy. And nobody is free until we are all free, so we need to step up and fight for those who have their power taken away by this unfair system.

JC: It is just a matter of Americans taking advantage of their democracy, because a lot of people don’t realise that they do have a lot of rights. One of them is the right to vote, and many people don’t take advantage of it. So it is a matter of showing people that one vote can make a difference, even though the prevailing thought has long been ‘I’m only one person, I can’t do anything’.

2. What was different about the Parkland shooting? Why do you think it was this particular event that sparked a movement like #NeverAgain, in a context in which mass shootings, and school shootings in particular, have become almost routine?
JC: When this happened, and we were there, we weren’t even that surprised. I remember being in the classroom and thinking ‘this makes sense’. Because I grew up seeing mass shootings, they were all over the place on television. I wasn’t even alive during Columbine, which was one of the most memorable mass shootings in American history. So it was just a matter of us being tired of seeing that happening all the time. It was really important for young people to stand up, because with every mass shooting before this one, either nobody stood up, or they were too quiet and nobody listened to them. This time, there were 16, 17 and 18-year-olds appearing on TV screens, screaming at the very people that they were meant to ‘respect’. We were yelling at them, and people were just intrigued by our fierceness.

MD: The National Rifle Association (NRA) has practised something that is sometimes referred to as ‘normalisation’, where they create a narrative that is not grounded in reality, but this story is told so many times that it becomes fact to some people. So we immediately knew that what we needed to do is just speak with the truth on the matter. They have of course been trying to discredit this truth, but they have been unable to. When it came to Parkland, I was personally terrified for my brother and sister, and when they came home, my sister – it was her birthday – was pretending like everything was fine, but my brother was visibly angry. At that point we thought that only three people had died, and my brother was like ‘I need to find out if so-and-so is OK’, and he was so angry, he looked at me and said ‘I’m not traumatised, I’m pissed. I’m pissed because something needs to happen’. He was saying this 20 minutes after getting home, and we felt then that we could do anything.

JC: Yes, the fact that we didn’t even have time to mourn shows how messed up the system is. In a way, we were prepared for this to happen.

MD: The media was outside almost every funeral, if not at all of them. Every funeral I attended, I walked out and there was a camera on my face. So they give you a choice: you can either mourn and internalise that anger about the need for change, or you can voice it. We then took advantage of the eyes on us and voiced a very powerful message. It’s not that other mass shooting victims or other gun reform advocates have had less powerful messages – what made the difference is that we did something that people were not used to seeing: we broke the cycle that happens when there’s a crime: the families on TV, the funerals, the graduation - it’s almost like watching an exhibit. And we didn’t allow ourselves to be turned into an exhibit. There was something that someone said – Joaquin’s dad, actually – that stuck with me: he said ‘when reporters call me, I tell them I’m not news. What we are doing may become news, but we are not news anymore. The shooting in Parkland happened, and it’s done. We need the news to be something better, positive, something that produces change’. He told me this a week after his son’s funeral, and his message really inspired me. We are not telling people what happened – everyone knows what happened. They may be twisting their own version of it, but everyone knows what occurred. It’s just about making sure that we don’t have to go through something like this again, and that no family feels the way these amazing families now feel.

3. How were you able to move past the ‘thoughts and prayers’ phase, and into the policy-making arena?
JC: The idea of ‘policy and change’ instead of ‘thoughts and prayers’ only came with us after speaking to politicians directly. But what we were getting was just an illusion of change, because it didn’t really do anything: they raised the age to buy firearms, but it wasn’t enough. They proposed a programme to arm teachers, which was exactly the opposite of what we wanted, because that pours even more money into gun corporations.

MD: There’s no scientific evidence that more guns in any situation will make you safer.

JC: Exactly. And there have been hundreds of local laws implemented since Parkland, and 25 across 15 states at a state level, but that’s not nearly enough because what really needs to happen is federal change. Especially when it comes to universal background checks. No matter how strict a state may be, there’s always a state that is less strict and it’s so easy to move firearms around that it just doesn’t change anything.

MD: For instance, Chicago has strict gun laws, but they still have high gun violence, because they are next door to Indiana, which has no gun laws, and there is nobody at the border checking the guns that come through. And we have no federal registry, no way of tracking where guns come from, who owns them or what they are being used for. We need this to enforce individual responsibility for gun ownership.

4. What do you think your chances of success are, and why?
JC: We think our chances are incredibly high; it’s just a matter of time. The easy stuff is going to come first: for instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now will be able to research gun violence on a funded level; a digitised register may be created - all that is going to come first. It’s going to be a longer push for assault weapons and high capacity magazines to be banned. But it’s going to happen, because we are not going anywhere until it’s done.

MD: David Hogg, one of the movement’s founders, was asked on TV whether he thought we would be successful. He said yes, and the reporter said: ‘but the people against you are very powerful, they are a large organisation, they are training leaders every day, and they have tons of money’. And David goes: ‘yeah, but we are going to outlive them’. It’s that simple: young people are coming together to save each other’s lives. The selfish older generation, including the NRA leadership, is going to crumble. It’s bound to happen, because they have been a part of the corruption of our democracy and of America’s freedoms for so long. We are calling their bluff, exposing their façade, for stepping on the flag and using it as a podium instead of representing what that flag means.

JC: There are very few people on the other side compared to ours because young people have a more open mind now, in the 21st century, compared to ever before, and that makes us optimistic. Our open minds stem from the education we have received and the fact that we are aware that we have so much more to learn.

MD: This generation is better educated than most generations before. We were born in the internet age. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t able to look things up online when I had a question, and that ability to have all our questions answered is something that we have taken for granted - now we understand why it means so much. We can use that ability to communicate with loads of people to continue this education and produce policy that makes sense. A true democracy can only work in an educated society, so being an educated voting force is key to tackling the corruption that seems to have taken over the US, especially in recent years.

5. How did you personally become involved in this movement, and what was your source of inspiration?
MD: We model a lot of what we do after Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage and the women’s liberation movements: all the movements that expanded democracy. We are getting the same sort of message out. It worked – we didn’t have a democracy in America until everyone was granted the right to vote. In fact, America has only been a democracy for around 50 years! And we talk about being a free country, but even now, with the trend of mass incarceration, voter ID laws, registration requirements – all tactics of voter suppression – we are not actually a true democracy. We are using the same methods that worked in the past to expand our democracy.

JC: The movements that were most successful in the US had defined goals. Movements that are scattered about and lack one major thing they are striving for end up dwindling away. The fact that we have five main goals makes for a very clear finish line that is achievable. The first one is funded research on gun violence by the CDC – because until recently, as a result of the 1996 Dickey amendment, the CDC was not allowed to receive money to research the effects of gun violence in our country. This legislative provision was changed recently, but the CDC was still given no money – so what we need is categorised grants to fund this research. The second goal is a single digitised registry of files for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Currently there is no single place where you can find who owns a particular gun, and sometimes it is impossible to find out, because so many guns are bought on the black market or in private sales. We have the technology to fix this, but it hasn’t happened because people think it is a violation of their Second Amendment Rights – which has been completely taken over by the NRA lobby, with a definition that makes no sense, as it treats the reasonable regulation of the exercise of a right as an infringement. But the truth is, even if all our demands were made into federal law, people would still be able to go through a screening process and buy a firearm intended for protection, which is what the Second Amendment is for.

MD: The third goal is universal background checks. For instance, in no state should a domestic abuser be allowed to purchase a gun legally. Domestic abuse is the number one indicator for a mass shooter; it has a higher correlation with mass shootings than mental health issues. But that’s not in the law in most places. In some places there are no checks at all. In 12 states a concealed carry permit only requires you to sign a piece of paper. If you are on the terrorist watch list you cannot get on a plane, but you could still purchase an assault weapon. There are places where you need to go through background checks if you want to adopt a cat, but not if you want to buy an assault weapon! This makes no sense. Background checks should be required for every single gun purchase.

JC: It is important to emphasise that background checks should be mandated by federal law, so that every jurisdiction has the same requirements and procedures, and there are not places where regulations are less strict, creating loopholes that can be taken advantage of. Lastly, our fourth and fifth goals are longer term, as they are the hardest to swallow for conservatives. According to polls, they are still supported by a majority of public opinion, but less than the previous three, for which approval rates are around 80 to 90 per cent. Goals four and five are a high-capacity magazine ban and a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles. The shooter in our school fired 180 rounds in less than six minutes, while walking around and taking the time to go to classroom after classroom. When he was firing, it was like rainfall. No person should have the ability to shoot that many bullets in such short amount of time. Most hunting ranges have banned this type of weapon – which in fact are not really meant for hunting animals; they are meant for hunting people. This kind of firing power can only be in the hands of highly trained individuals, and has no place in our homes and streets. This is what so many veterans are telling us: these weapons are a danger not only to other people, but also to their owners and the people close to them, because they don’t know how to handle them, store them and take care of them.

6. In which ways could international civil society and like-minded movements elsewhere help you achieve your goals?
JC: A lot of other countries, like Australia and most European ones, have laws like the ones we advocate for, and their levels of gun crime are incredibly lower than ours. This proves there is a way to fix this, and we should stop ignoring the fact that we have a gun problem and blaming it all on mental health. Other countries have mental health problems but these problems don’t cause the same amount of damage as here, so the argument doesn’t hold. If the international community could add their voices in support of the idea that these laws do work, it would be of a lot of help.

MD: The international community could help a lot in promoting an educated democracy, saying how important it is for young people to not only vote, but also become educated in the voting process, given that our political system has clearly failed us when it comes to protecting us. This is important not only for the US but also for the world, because others emulate the US, as we can see with the current administration and how it has played out in the rest of the world in terms of the increase in intolerance and hate crimes. By promoting education and democracy, the international community would be helping us.

Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with March for Our Lives through their website or Facebook page, or follow @AMarch4OurLives, @JaclynCorin and @MattxRed on Twitter.


Fed up with corruption, civil society organises Malawians to take to the streets

CIVICUS speaks to Timothy Pagonachi Mtambo, a human rights defender and the ex-ecutive director of Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) in Malawi. CHRR recently led protests in the capital Lilongwe. Mtambo explains why the protest happened, the response of the government and the state of civic space in Malawi.


The Irish referendum, an exercise in deliberative democracy

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘Reimagining Democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and others about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Ivana Bacik, an Irish Labour Party Senator and campaigner for abortion rights, in the aftermath of the historic May 2018 vote that repealed the eighth amendment of the Irish Constitution. Passed in 1983, this constitutional amendment had recognised equal rights to life to an ‘unborn’ and a pregnant woman, banning abortion under any circumstances.

1. Were you surprised by the scale of the vote in favour of repealing the eighth amendment? What do you think the result says about changing attitudes and opinions in Ireland?

The scale of the vote in favour of repeal reflected what we were hearing on the doors during our months of canvassing before the referendum. The growing public awareness of the immense harm and hardship caused by the eighth amendment became increasingly apparent to me over the campaign. That awareness explains the immensely significant referendum vote in support of reform on 25 May. It shows that as a society we recognise the need for our democratically elected legislators to introduce an appropriate legal framework for the regulation of lawful termination of pregnancy.

Over the years, public opinion had shifted towards supporting repeal of the constitutional ban and for legal abortion to take place in Ireland. This change was also influenced by a number of international law cases in which the Irish state was found to have breached women’s human rights by forcing them to carry pregnancies to term even in cases where they knew their babies would not be born alive.

Following the public disclosure of the death in a Galway Hospital of Savita Halappanavar in late 2012, the contentious Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill of 2013 finally legislated for the X Case, allowing for terminations in limited circumstances where a woman's life was at risk. The positive experience of the marriage equality referendum in 2015 showed that Irish people were capable of great compassion and showed how successful a civil society campaign for social change can be. Then, in April 2017, the Citizens' Assembly voted 64 per cent to recommend that the termination of pregnancy without restriction should be lawful. In late 2017, the Joint Oireachtas (the Irish Legislature) Committee on the Eighth Amendment found cross-political support for holding a referendum and legislating for terminations at up to 12 weeks. The mandate for change arising from these public and parliamentary processes showed a huge willingness to accept the reality of abortion in a modern Ireland.

Like so many Yes campaigners, I was overjoyed when I saw the Irish Times and RTÉ exit polls on the night of the vote. I was pleasantly surprised by the consistency of the Yes vote across Ireland. Commentators were quick to characterise the Yes vote as being young and urban, but the outcome showed that in fact, men and women, both urban and rural and of all age groups except from over 65s, voted for repeal. This resounding endorsement across all demographics gives great reassurance that the Irish people are ready for change. The Behaviour & Attitudes exit poll, commissioned by RTÉ, which surveyed 3,779 voters, found that the overriding influencing factor for voters was a woman's right to choose, at 62 per cent – 57 per cent for men and 66 per cent for women. This says a huge amount about the respect for women's health in Irish society. The same poll found that 24 per cent of those who voted Yes had changed their mind over the last five years, which would reflect the national experience of change during recent years.

2. Can you tell us more about the Citizens’ Assembly process by which the repeal proposal came about, and the strengths, weaknesses and lessons of the process?

The Citizens' Assembly is a body comprising a Chairperson and 99 citizens, randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate, established to consider some of the most important issues facing Ireland’s future. The Assembly deliberates on the topics outlined in the resolution approving its establishment, and any other matters that may be referred to it. Their conclusions on each topic form the basis of individual reports and recommendations that are submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.

Since October 2016, the Assembly has met on a regular basis under the chairmanship of the Honourable Mary Laffoy. The Assembly is an exercise in deliberative democracy, as was the Constitutional Convention, held in 2013, which among other topics voted overwhelmingly in favour of same-sex marriage. The Assembly applies six key principles to its work: openness, fairness, equality of the voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. The process has two main strengths: first, the random selection of participants, which ensures that they are representative of Irish society; and second, the use of expert witnesses, including from the legal and medical profession, which ensures that participants deliberate on the evidence before them. The process has shown how much citizens engage with the facts and are willing to learn. With a topic as sensitive as abortion, the public benefitted hugely, not just from the Citizens' Assembly, but from the subsequent process of deliberation at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

3. More broadly, what do you think are the opportunities and risks involved in direct approaches to democracy, given recent referendum results in other contexts? How can these risks be avoided?

The eighth amendment was introduced in 1983 by way of a referendum, due to effective pressure from so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners. Therefore, the only way to remove the amendment from the Constitution was by way of another referendum. The successful campaign this year shows how important it is to have a considered campaign which really engages with citizens. Due to the importance of the Constitution, and the sovereignty of the people, Ireland has a long record of holding referendums and this has contributed to widespread public engagement and interest with the topics under debate. While the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 could make countries wary of holding referendums, the experience in Ireland shows how important it is to have an open and transparent process leading to such a vote, which gives voters the chance to engage fully with the implications of the vote. Perhaps if a similar deliberative democracy process had been undertaken in the UK, the result of the Brexit vote would have been different.

4. What were the key tactics employed by the Yes campaign, and what do you think was most responsible for its success?

The main message of the Yes side was that sometimes a private matter needs public support, and this really resonated with voters. A number of brave individuals and couples told their own stories of having to travel for terminations and this struck a chord as well. From the very start, the Yes campaign ensured to engage with undecided voters, those who were unsure of how to vote but recognised that some change was needed. For many years, opinion polls had indicated very high support for a right to abortion in limited circumstances, such as in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest, or a risk to the health of the woman. The message to these voters was that no change whatsoever was possible without repeal of the eighth amendment. The focus of the Yes campaign was very clear: that Irish women are having abortions in their thousands each year, either travelling to the UK for terminations, or taking unregulated abortion pills here in Ireland. A vote to repeal allows us to address this reality and treat women compassionately with the care they need at a time of crisis. The campaign also engaged with male voters successfully. Turnout was particularly high: 64.13 per cent. Among voters aged 18 to 24 years, the Yes vote was overwhelming, at 87.6 per cent, an indication of how successfully the Yes side engaged with young voters through social media platforms. Another key tactic of the Yes side was having many well-respected doctors, and particularly obstetricians, as spokespeople for the campaign. 

5. What needs to happen next to advance women’s rights in Ireland, and what role should Irish civil society play in this?

The next thing that needs to happen is to ensure that the proposed legislation to provide for the termination of pregnancy is enacted by the end of the year, and that free contraception is introduced with it. Aside from the area of reproductive rights, the next step in reforming our Constitution will be to amend Article 41.2, which places women in the home, so that instead we respect the role of carers, male or female. At the present time, older women are suffering a loss in their pensions due to lost earnings imposed on them by the marriage bar on employment, which only ended in 1973. Separately, many older vulnerable women who were incarcerated in Magdalene Laundries up until the early 1990s are only now receiving redress and justice; it is important that this group of women gain the respect they deserve. There are plenty of other reforms needed regarding migrant and traveller women, who suffer a double discrimination. The gender pay gap is another area that is currently being addressed, after I introduced a Private Members Bill to bring in mandatory reporting of the pay gap in companies. The National Women's Council, which played a pivotal role in the Together for Yes campaign, has a key role to play in advancing these reforms too.

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

Get in touch with Senator Ivana Bacik through her website or Facebook page, or follow @ivanabacik on Twitter


‘People invested in wanting a change’ – civil society and the Malaysia elections

Malaysia’s May election saw the ruling party defeated for the first time in 61 years, amid widespread public anger about corruption. CIVICUS asked Gayathry Venkiteswaran, media activist and Assistant Professor of media and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, for her perspective on recent events, and what these meant for civil society.

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA: A Malaysian voter casts her ballot in a polling station in Kuala Lumpur 
on May 9, 2018. Photo by Alexandra Radu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

1. Given that the same party had been in power since independence, what factors do you think led to their defeat this time?

I think it’s too early to tell, but I will say that the electorate certainly rejected the kinds of politics and corruption practised by the previous government. The transgressions were too obvious, and it was a matter of how big the loss would be for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition - but we didn't expect the fall to be this big. This election was significant because despite the challenges and obstacles placed in terms of the electoral processes, people were determined to reject the propaganda of the BN and insisted on change.

2. In what ways was civil society active in the run up to the elections, and what challenges did civil society encounter?

Civil society work to build political awareness and participation has been ongoing but it took a significant turn after the emergence of the Reformasi (reform) movement in 1998, and then the Bersih movement’s protests for electoral reforms. Bersih provided a focus for the change, even though various interest groups also brought their particular concerns such as anti-corruption, environment and indigenous rights. This mobilisation, together with exposés by independent and citizen media on the corrupt practices of the previous government, raised the stakes for citizens to demand change.

During this election, voters demonstrated commitment, including outstation and overseas voters, and people participated by being monitors at polling stations and provided other forms of checks and support to prevent cheating or malpractice on polling day. These are indications of people invested in wanting a change. The use of social media to share information, especially on voting practices, and the post-election vigilance of the newly elected government also shows a society that wants governments - whether at the federal of state levels - to be accountable.

While there was momentum for change and a number of initiatives that saw civil society coalitions or collaborations focused on the outcomes of the elections - for example, by issuing alternative manifestos - there was little real discussion on the possible scenarios, given the uncertainties and concerns that unlawful methods would be used to resist this change. It wasn't clear what civil society's stance would have been had the outcomes been different, and how it proposes to move forward in this environment.

3. What are civil society’s main hopes and fears now following the change of government?

Certainly, it is an environment filled with hopes. There are opportunities to carry out real institutional reforms, and hopes that the government will be more open to engaging with human rights-based civil society organisations (CSOs). The results showed a rejection of fear-mongering and bribery, and a willingness to bridge race/religion narratives as the main reference point for electing parties.

It is hoped that there will be room for a more inclusive and liberal approach in addressing the real concerns of citizens about their identities, needs and expectations. Having said that, there were and may still be fears that the BN coalition, especially members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party and organisations associated with them, use provocations to destabilise the situation, and that Malay/Muslim electorates are pressed hard to become more fundamentalist in response to a multiracial narrative. At the same time, there are concerns that the ruling coalition could backtrack on its promises in order to accommodate the opposition and resistance from among BN and UMNO supporters.

4. What three things could the new administration do to most improve the conditions for civil society in Malaysia?

The main step is to respect the rights of civil society members on their freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This can be done by refraining from using existing laws to curb their activities - among them, the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Immigration Act, Sedition Act and the Anti-Fake News Law, and announce plans on reforming these restrictions.

Given the newly formed Institutional Reform Committee, it is hoped that the government will institute mechanisms for engagement with civil society, particularly in the areas of policy making and law making. Among others, there should be meaningful consultations before the drafting of policies and laws at the executive level, by departments and ministries, and at the legislative level, in select committees or parliamentary hearings. The public should have access to information on these processes and be given the rights to submit inputs and feedback.

5. What should Malaysian civil society do next to make the most of the opportunity presented by the change in government, and what support does civil society need now?

I think it is urgent for civil society to sit down and come up with a road map of action plans, which can include recommendations and mechanisms to check on the government's actions. Civil society can pool its resources to build its own monitoring platforms and processes for engaging with the government. But most importantly, there should be leadership and commitment to ensure that change is for the long term, irrespective of which political parties come into power. We've done this in the past, after the 2008 elections, with the setting up of the Coalition for Good Governance (CGG) for the state of Selangor, and the Penang Forum. The CGG didn't last, but these are worth considering as a model, with adequate fine-tuning so that there is clear focus, accountability systems and sustainability plans.


Silence by the international community gives Israel the green light to continue its human rights violations

CIVICUS speaks to Amjad Al Shawi about the disproportionate use of force and extreme violence against peaceful protesters in Gaza and the reasons why the world cannot remain silent about these monstrous acts. Amjad works with the Palestinian NGO Forum and lives and works in Gaza.

1. Please tell us what happened during the protests that have been ongoing since 30 March in the Gaza strip?

Palestinians from all walks of life have been taking part in The Great March of Return and Breaking Blockade to protest their forced evictions and displacement since 1948, demanding the right of return, as stipulated in the UN Resolution 194.  Protesters are also calling for an end to the 11-year blockade imposed by Israel on Gaza. Palestinians are protesting peacefully to be able to live freely, which is something that concerns everybody. For this reason, women, elders and children took part in the protests to show the world the real face of Gaza.  We are calling for the implementation of the UN resolution and for the international community to pressure Israel to respect international humanitarian law and to end the illegal blockade on Gaza.

We are devastated that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) used lethal force to attack civil demonstrators. We did not pose any danger to the Israelis and we were simply calling for them to respect our right as human beings. Since March 30th, 110 Palestinians have been killed and over 10,000 wounded while taking part in the peaceful protests. The bloodiest day was May 14th where at least 61 Palestinians were killed including 8 children and over 2771 injured including 225 children and 86 women by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Health personnel and Palestinian Security Service have also been targeted by the IOF as 44 of the paramedics and the civil defence security personnel were injured with live bullets and gas suffocation.

2. Why are the protests taking place?

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are experiencing a catastrophe in all aspects of life. We are living under an 11-year continuous blockade imposed by Israel. As a result, we live in dire socioeconomic conditions, experience shortages in basic needs and this has translated into a humanitarian crisis. The overall situation in the Gaza Strip is dramatically deteriorating and people are frustrated because they feel that nothing can be done. The peaceful protests were an example of the little that the Palestinians in Gaza can do to raise the attention of the international community that the situation in Gaza is a catastrophe in all aspects of life. The situation in Palestine can be compared with Apartheid in South Africa.

Due to the blockade and the grave violations of basic human rights, we are struggling more than ever. 65% of the population in Gaza is youth and 80% of population receives humanitarian aid. We have received humanitarian aid from various sides but recently the funding from the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees was reduced from 320 million to 70 million dollars. A lot of financial support was raised after the 2014 offensive but we have only received 37%.

The peaceful protests were an initiative from Palestinians in Gaza and the massacre on peaceful protesters was a culmination of the last 70 years of oppression and suffering of the Palestinian people. People of Gaza are only calling for justice and human rights but the IOF even injured medical staff and journalists, which is against the Geneva conventions. This harsh situation requires an urgent intervention from the international community to protect human rights in the Gaza strip.

3. Who are the drivers of the problem?

Besides from the IOF continuously violating basic human rights of Palestinians, the coming to power of Donald Trump has negatively affected the lives of Palestinians. Freedom of assembly is a basic right but what we experience and see on the border is the opposite of this. We have seen police throw tear gas and snipers shoot demonstrators. There is no accountability and the silence of the international community is cause for concern.

Negative narratives targeting Palestinians are being promoted and supported. It all started with the issue of Jerusalem. The world is ignoring the rights of Palestinians and any potential for a two-state solution and right to return. The Trump administration is ignoring Palestinian victims and has given the green light to the IOF to continue violating human rights in Gaza, promote illegal settlements in West Bank and sustain the blockade of Gaza.

4. What have made people go back to the streets in spite of the violence since March 30th?

We have no other option than to go. No other hope. We will continue to raise the voices and then the international community will listen. People here are dying every day. We were surprised that so many numbers came. Families used their Friday holiday to go, elders symbolically held keys of their houses they left in 1964. Children who still dream to be free to play football, sing, and dance to popular Palestinian songs, came out and protesters raised Palestinian flags. People in Gaza are only asking for their basic rights. It is about self-determination and rights to end occupation. It is a demand to have a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as our capital, the right to our natural resources and the right to live in dignity and freedom.

5. What can international civil society, international institutions and people around the world do to help?

Humanitarian aid is needed but mostly we need support for our basic freedoms. We need statements from international NGOs outlining the grave violations committed by the Israelis. We also call on the Secretary General of the UN to send an inquiry mission to investigate the unlawful killings. The Americans and Israelis refuse the proposal to send any inquiry to investigate the crimes committed there.  The human rights violations we witness every day in Gaza is indicative of the failure of the international community and the lack of accountability encourages the IOF to continue using excessive use of force against peaceful protesters. The time to act is now and to ensure justice for Palestinians.

The conspiracy of silence has led Israel to violate different conventions and different rights included in international law. During the UN General Assembly, representatives from civil society organisations in Palestine were prevented from leaving Gaza to meet colleagues and share our recommendations. The premises of civil society organisations were attacked by Israel during the wars even though the premises were funded by international donors. We called our donors to compensate or to hold Israel accountable but what can we then do? Die in silence? Our youth have no jobs and there is no future in Gaza. Nobody is safe here. We have never experienced what we are going through now.

Our message to citizens in other countries is that this is a time to show solidarity with Palestinians as we are calling for human rights and democracy. We are very sad to see our beautiful youth killed in this way. We want to see a proper future for our children and for them to grow up in an environment like children in other countries. There are people living in Gaza who have never left Gaza because of the Israeli blockade. Your voice your stance is needed to show that Palestinians in Gaza are facing this brutal occupation. Your silence would be considered a green light for Israel to continue its atrocities.


Burundi referendum a blatant violation of its Constitution

Ahead of the controversial referendum scheduled to take place in Burundi on 17 May 2018, CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and civil society activist Janvier Bigirimana about the referendum’s implications for democracy. Janvier has represented victims of human rights violations in Burundi, East and Central Africa. He currently lives in exile because of the political crisis and human rights violations in Burundi.


Case of Zambia’s 42-for-42 tests freedom of expression and assembly

On May 17, six Zambia activists, civil society leader’s and a musician will appear before the magistrates in Court 3 in the capital Lusaka. This is not the first appearance as their case has been postponed several times. The six (pictured) are jointly charged with disobeying lawful orders after they held a protest last September questioning the government why it has used 42-million Kwacha to purchase 42 firetrucks, a cost that the six say is exorbitant. Laura Miti of the Alliance for Community Action who is also one of the six accused tells CIVICUS briefly about the case and why it is important.

Defiant and standing strong: Six of the Zambian activists and civil society leaders at one of the many court appearances after they held a protest in Lusaka last year questioning the government over expenditure

1. Can you tell us more about the court case in which you are appearing for in court on May 17?

The court case is the result of a peaceful protest that the Alliance for Community Action led on Parliament on 29 September 2017. The protest was called for together with civil society organisations and the general public to demand that accountability for a purchase by government of 42 fire trucks for 42 million Kwacha. Protesting and freedom of expression are both values enshrined in our Constitution so we were not breaking the law. The protest was broken up by the police and 6 protesters arrested and charged with disobeying lawful orders. Instead we were arrested and held for 10 hours and later released after being charged.

2. What does this case mean for the state of the freedom to protest and freedom of expression in Zambia?

By misapplication of the Public Order Act, Police in Zambia routinely prevent or break up protests that are even mildly critical of the government. However, protests or marches in support of government are allowed to go on even if the protester are openly breaking the law by being carrying weapons and being violent. The way this case has been held is an assault on both freedoms and it is concerning for us.

3. What challenges do you face as a woman human rights defender?

The terrain for women who speak out and challenge authorities is not easy for activists and it is even tougher for women due to the patriarchal nature of our society. As happens with all female activists, those who are unhappy with my work tend to attack my person and speak about my private life rather than engage with the issues at hand. This then discourages other women from speaking out and holding the state to account.

4. How can international civil society support you and the other 5 you are jointly charged with?

The defence of human rights in Zambia is for Zambians to ensure but a breakdown of human rights anywhere in the world, affects us all. We therefore believe that the excesses of the Zambian government should be called out by all who believe in a just world. When representatives of the Zambian government travel to international fora, they should be asked to explain the steep degeneration of the Zambian democratic space and respect for human rights in the last few years.

5. Please describe in one paragraph what you or your CSO does in Zambia

The Alliance for Community Action (ACA) works to grow the routine demand and supply of public resource accountability in Zambia, with focus on instituting the demand in the general public. The ACA would like Zambians to routinely link the quality of services they access to the budgetary and expenditure choices made by government and to demand accountability. The ACA encourages Zambians to speak up and ask targeted questions about how public money is spent and capacitates ordinary citizens to do so.


Syria’s CSO sector and population buckle under humanitarian crisis

Following the chemical attack in Syria and the subsequent airstrikes on Syria by the United States, United Kingdom and France, CIVICUS interviews a representative of The Arguendo Initiative about the humanitarian crisis and human rights violations taking place in Ghouta, Syria. The objective of the Arguendo Initiative is to enhance collaboration and information sharing to help people create a better and more informed society. The Arguendo Initiative is a member of CIVICUS and expresses concerns over the crisis in Syria and the lack of an adequate response from the international community to address the human rights violations.


Filipino activists stand firm after government adds them to list of terrorists

The Philippines government recently listed activists and a UN Special Rapporteur as terrorists and has threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court. CIVICUS speak to Bestang Dekdeken, Secretary General of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance on these threats and the drivers behind them.

1. Tell us more about the recent crackdown on indigenous rights activists in the Philippines and the labelling of them as “terrorists” by the authorities

A culture of impunity continues to reign in the Philippines, with indigenous peoples experiencing unrelenting human rights violations under the government’s counter-insurgency policy Oplan Kapayapaan, martial law in Mindanao, USA’s war on terror, and the crackdown against political dissenters. The latest in the series of attacks against indigenous peoples and human rights defenders is the recent Philippine Department of Justice’s petition to proscribe the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (NPA) as terrorist organisations. The petition was pursuant to the National Security Act 2007. It listed around 650 names, including leaders of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, and indigenous rights defenders, alleging that they are “terrorists”.

The Department of Justice petition is baseless and malicious with intent to vilify, harass and intimidate the people struggling for their democratic rights and indigenous communities fighting for their rights to their ancestral lands and self-determination. It is meant to cripple the growing peoples’ movement in the country and criminalise the legitimate struggles of the people. It is an attack on the legitimacy of people’s organisations such as the Cordillera Peoples Alliance and signals the intensifying curtailment of our fundamental and democratic rights and freedoms. Cordillera Peoples Alliance has been fighting for the defence of ancestral domains and self-determination of Cordillera indigenous peoples for more than three decades, which is an exercise of fundamental rights. The terrorist proscription list also puts at risk the lives of indigenous human rights defenders. It is for these reasons that we are soliciting international support to pressure the Philippine government to immediately dismiss the legal petition and uphold its human rights obligations.

2. What do you think is driving the crackdown on indigenous rights and against human rights and civic freedoms more generally?

President Rodrigo Duterte is determined to impose his dictatorship in the country through martial law, and Charter change (constitutional reform) under the guise of a shift to a federal form of government. He is hell-bent at silencing political dissent, especially those against human rights violations and his selling-out of Philippine sovereignty and patrimony in exchange for promises of foreign investments. Hence, there has been a snowballing mass protests against the regime’s total disregard of human rights and an intensifying resistance against the fascist rule of Duterte. Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders have also been strongly opposing the continued onslaught of development aggression in our ancestral lands and natural resources through corporate extractive projects, such as mining, dams and mono-crop plantations, coupled with the militarisation of indigenous communities.

3. How is civil society responding to President Rodrigo Duterte’s onslaught against human rights?

The serious deterioration of the human rights situation in the Philippines is galvanising the peoples’ movement to resist the fascist rule of Duterte and to stand up for our fundamental freedoms and democracy. At national level, the Movement Against Tyranny (MAT) was launched in August 2017, aimed at uniting all freedom loving Filipinos against tyranny and to counter the increasing fascism and militarist rule of the Duterte government. MAT opposes fascist measures such as the demonification of human rights victims and defenders as “terrorists”, “drug addicts/pushers/coddlers”, “extortionists” and the use of red-baiting to muddle issues and justify extrajudicial killings and other atrocities. Following the national launch, MAT formations are being established at regional and provincial levels. Series of direct mass actions on specific issues are being held almost on a weekly basis in the past year.

4. Why has President Duterte threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and what has been the response in the Philippines? What is civil society is doing to resist this?

On March 16, the government of President Duterte notified the United Nations Secretary General of its decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in protest of the ICC’s decision to start its probe on the extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s War on Drugs. Withdrawing from the ICC is the latest move of President Duterte to try to evade accounting for the extrajudicial killings in the country and crimes committed against the people. It also further shows his disregard of international bodies that intend to investigate the human rights situation in the country, such as the ICC and the United Nations. It is a fact that a culture of impunity reigns in the country obliging concerned international bodies to conduct their own investigation. The civil society in the country have started expressing concern that Duterte is doing this to continue to act with impunity.

5. What are three things that need to change for the rule of law and human rights to be respected and for democracy to flourish?  

Public servants should seriously push for the government’s adherence to national human rights laws and international human rights agreements that the Philippines is a signatory of. The fundamental rights and freedoms of the people, democratic rights, and Philippine sovereignty must not be trampled upon and should be safeguarded by the people in the government instead of allowing tyrannical rule. The government should also put an end to the martial law in Mindanao, its counter-insurgency operations Oplan Kapayapaan, and the Inter-Agency Committee for Legal Action that have been victimising indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and legitimising and systematising political persecution and political extrajudicial killings.

6. What can the international community and international CSOs do to support Philippines civil society?

We appeal for solidarity support from the international community and international CSOs to help us put pressure on the Philippine government to uphold its human rights obligations, and put an end to political persecution, criminalisation and harassment of indigenous rights defenders and environmental activists, extrajudicial killings, militarisation of indigenous communities, and plunder of indigenous lands and resources.

7. How are journalists and media outlets responding to the attempts by the government to restrict or shut them down?

In light of President Duterte’s attacks on the press and freedom of expression in the country, journalists, media outlets and artists launched a new alliance called Let’s Organize for Democracy (LODI) in 2017. LODI aims to fight attacks against the freedom of expression and human rights violations. LODI and other press media workers have also been actively participating in the activities of the Movement Against Tyranny and mass protests to register their fight and solidarity with the wider Filipino movement for genuine freedom and democracy.

8. Has there been an impact on civic space from President Duterte’s misogynist and derogatory statements concerning women?

President Duterte’s misogynist, derogatory and demeaning statements about women have catalysed a wider and stronger women’s movement against violations of women and people’s rights in the country. Duterte’s animosity towards women’s rights further exposed Duterte’s fascism by openly encouraging violence against women and human rights violations with impunity. With this, women’s organisations have gained wide support from various groups, sectors and advocates in denouncing Duterte’s blatant disregard of women’s rights.


Another puzzling break-in prompts Uganda CSO to move operations to police station

CIVICUS speaks to Human Rights Awareness and Protection Forum (HRAPF) executive director Adrian Jjuuko (pictured) after their offices were broken into recently. He also speaks on the situation of human rights defenders and civil society in general in Uganda.


‘La presencia de mujeres en espacios de representación política es buena no solo para las mujeres sino también para la democracia’


En noviembre de 2017 Argentina aprobó una ley de paridad de género con el objeto de garantizar un 50% de representación femenina en su Congreso Nacional. CIVICUS conversa con Natalia Gherardi, Directora Ejecutiva del Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (ELA), una organización de la sociedad civil argentina que persigue la equidad de género mediante acciones de incidencia, trabajo en redes y el desarrollo de capacidades de actores políticos y sociales. Fundada en 2003 y basada en Buenos Aires, ELA es un equipo interdisciplinario de mujeres con trayectorias en el Estado, la práctica del derecho, la academia, los organismos internacionales y la sociedad civil.

  1. Según datos de la Unión Interparlamentaria, solo 12 países en todo el mundo tienen más de 40% de mujeres en sus cámaras de diputados o legislativos unicamerales. ¿En qué situación se encuentra la Argentina, y qué cambiará con la aprobación de la ley de paridad de género?

Argentina fue un país pionero cuando en los años ’90 aprobó una ley que estableció una cuota mínima de mujeres en ámbitos legislativos. Esta reforma se hizo a través de la introducción en el Código Nacional Electoral de un cupo femenino del 30% en las listas partidarias para las elecciones de diputados y senadores nacionales. En los años que siguieron, todas las provincias argentinas sancionaron leyes similares paras sus legislaturas provinciales. Esa medida de acción afirmativa buscaba subir el umbral de incorporación de mujeres en el ámbito legislativo y ese objetivo se alcanzó, aunque no sin dificultades. Según un estudio que hicimos en 2011, las legisladoras nacionales pasaron de menos de 5% en 1983, cuando recuperamos la democracia, a casi 40% en 2011.

Durante los 25 años que lleva de vigencia, sin embargo, fueron frencuentes las trampas en la implementación de la Ley de Cupo Femenino. Esto dio lugar a varios procesos judiciales por la impugnación de listas que burlaban el cupo de mujeres requerido por la ley. Todavía en 2015, el 10% de las listas presentadas en las elecciones nacionales incumplían de diversas maneras el mandato legal, sin que la justicia electoral ejerciera acabadamente su función de control.

El proyecto de reforma electoral que el Poder Ejecutivo impulsó en 2016 podría haber incorporado medidas para mejorar la implementación del cupo, pero no lo hizo. En todo caso, ese hubiera sido un objetivo pequeño. El compromiso con una democracia de calidad exige bastante más: la paridad. El debate en América Latina ya se estaba formulando en estos términos. Por ese motivo, en Argentina las mujeres de diversos partidos políticos se unieron en torno de diversos proyectos de ley para incorporar el principio de paridad, hasta llegar en noviembre de 2017 a la sanción de la ley de reforma del Código Nacional Electoral.

Como consecuencia de esta nueva ley, a partir de las elecciones de renovación legislativa de 2019 las listas que los partidos políticos presenten para las elecciones nacionales deberán incluir un 50% de mujeres, alternando la composición de la lista entre una mujer y un varón de modo de repartir en forma equitativa las posiciones elegibles.

Esperamos que la aplicación de esta ley tenga impacto al menos en dos niveles. En un sentido muy práctico, implicará un aumento en la cantidad de mujeres en los espacios legislativos, y eso se traducirá también en mayor cantidad de mujeres en todas las áreas del Congreso. Pero además, la aplicación de esta ley contribuirá a profundizar el consenso social acerca de la necesidad de contar con mayor presencia de mujeres en todos los espacios de poder y en todas las áreas de la vida social, política, económica y cultural de nuestro país.

  1. En los últimos años hemos escuchado a muchos, casi indefectiblemente hombres, insistir en que ya no hay en Argentina discriminación y desigualdad de género desde el momento en que una mujer ha podido llegar a presidente. ¿Qué es lo que falla en este razonamiento, y cuál es la mejor manera de rebatirlo?

Fue muy importante contar con una mujer en la presidencia (así como hoy en la gobernación de la provincia más grande de Argentina) porque abrió la puerta a un mundo de posibilidades. En estos años las mujeres han demostrado con creces que pueden ocupar lugares de poder en muy diversos espacios, no solo en la presidencia sino también en la Corte Suprema, en el Ministerio Público y en la gestión de las políticas universitarias. Estos cambios se fueron dando tanto a nivel nacional como en varias provincias. Se trata de modelos de rol que permiten ir transformando las miradas que la sociedad tiene sobre las mujeres (y que las mujeres -sobre todo las jóvenes- tienen sobre sí mismas) y los modelos de ejercicio del poder.

Sin embargo, los detractores de las medidas de acción afirmativa se toman de los casos particulares para argumentar que las mujeres “lo han logrado todo”. Básicamente, sostienen que si una mujer ha llegado a uno de esos espacios, entonces las medidas de acción afirmativa ya no son necesarias. Sin embargo, justamente el hecho de que podamos nombrar a “la” mujer que ha accedido a la presidencia, a la Corte Suprema, la gobernación, el decanato de la facultad o la dirección de la compañía demuestra que esa mujer es la excepción antes que la regla. Si las podemos nombrar, las podemos contabilizar, y eso es porque siguen siendo pocas en comparación con los cargos disponibles.

Los adversarios del cupo también argumentan que el establecimiento de una cuota o una regla de paridad socava el mérito como regla para acceder a los cargos públicos, e insinúan que no habría suficientes mujeres calificadas para ser legisladoras. Sin embargo, esto es desmentido por diversos indicadores. Por ejemplo, desde hace más de 20 años el 60% de los graduados de varias facultades de universidades nacionales son mujeres. En el Congreso Nacional, las mujeres que integran las cámaras tienen mayores credenciales educativas que sus pares varones: las mujeres con un título de educación superior superan en un 10% a los varones con similares títulos. Además, parecen ser más eficaces en su trabajo ya que a pesar de ser menos numerosas, impulsan más de la mitad de los proyectos de ley.

Otros dicen que debemos ser pacientes ya que con el tiempo se desarrollarán liderazgos femeninos que podrán acceder a lugares de decisión sin necesidad de políticas que impulsen el proceso. Este argumento no solo soslaya los mecanismos de poder que operan en la confección de las listas partidarias por efecto de la limitada democracia interna de los partidos políticos (donde abunda el nepotismo, pero el tema solo parece preocupar cuando la nominada es una mujer) sino que además pasa por alto el hecho de que la participación de las mujeres en el Congreso lleva largo tiempo estancada. En 2001 entró en vigencia la reforma impulsada a partir del reclamo interpuesto por una dirigente de la Unión Cívica Radical ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). María Teresa Merciadri de Morini había denunciado que el partido había violado la ley que establecía el cupo de 30%, ya que al conformar la lista de seis candidaturas electorales había colocado a dos mujeres en los puestos tercero y sexto, aunque el partido solo renovaba cinco cargos. Como consecuencia de la intervención de la CIDH el Estado nacional reformó la reglamentación vigente para resolver el problema que dio origen al reclamo. Desde entonces, hubo un aumento constante en la participación de las mujeres en el Congreso, que creció a un ritmo de 2,5 puntos por elección hasta 2009. Desde entonces y hasta 2015 la tendencia comenzó a decaer: la capacidad de promover la paridad a partir de la implementación del cupo del 30% se agotó hace casi una década.

Otro argumento frecuente contra el cupo sostiene que las mujeres no tendrían interés en ocupar esos cargos de responsabilidad, y que por eso no persiguen oportunidades de liderazgo o las declinan cuando se presentan. De acuerdo con esta línea de pensamiento, las mujeres prefieren otras formas de desarrollo personal, principalmente ligado a la construcción de una familia a la que dedican gran parte de su tiempo y esfuerzo en el trabajo invisible de cuidado. Este es un argumento interesante, porque parte de datos ciertos. De acuerdo con la Encuesta sobre Trabajo No Remunerado y Uso del Tiempo, en la Argentina las mujeres dedican el doble de tiempo que los varones a las tareas de cuidado. El análisis de las trayectorias personales de los integrantes del Congreso Nacional muestra que las mujeres son en mayor proporción viudas, solteras o divorciadas y tienen (en promedio) menor cantidad de hijos que sus pares varones. Eso parece indicar que para aprovechar las oportunidades políticas (y otras) las mujeres deben tener menos responsabilidades directas de cuidado. Pero hay varios aspectos que deben puntualizarse: ¿todas las mujeres realizan las mismas elecciones? Esas elecciones ¿no están en determinadas en cierta medida por el contexto cultural? Y finalmente, ¿qué rol deben cumplir las políticas públicas para favorecer una organización social del cuidado más justa en términos de género, de modo que el trabajo no remunerado no recaiga desproporcionadamente sobre las mujeres? El Congreso mismo fue hasta hace poco tiempo indiferente a la necesidad de garantizar políticas públicas para responder a esta problemática generalmente relegada a la privacidad de las familias: sólo recientemente se reformó el reglamento para habilitar a las diputadas usar el jardín maternal de la Cámara de Diputados, cuando una diputada fue madre durante su mandato e hizo el pedido. Entonces, ¿deben retirarse las mujeres o debe cambiar el Congreso?

Entender que las mujeres pueden y deben ocupar puestos de liderazgo como parte de su derecho a participar plenamente de la vida social, política y económica es un proceso en construcción. Por eso es importante no retroceder en los avances que se han logrado y responder a los argumentos falaces con que se trata de detener el proceso.

  1. ¿Por qué es bueno que haya más mujeres en cargos políticos? ¿Es bueno para las mujeres, o es bueno para la democracia?

Asegurar la diversidad en la integración de los cargos públicos, y en particular en el Legislativo que es el ámbito deliberativo por excelencia, mejora la calidad del debate público y fortalece los valores de la democracia.

La experiencia nos indica que en muchos casos –aunque ciertamente no en todos- han sido las mujeres quienes impulsaron políticas de igualdad, leyes contra la violencia de género y políticas para garantizar los derechos sexuales y reproductivos, entre tantos otros avances de las últimas décadas. Sin embargo no es esa la razón por la cual ha de promoverse a las mujeres a espacios de poder, ni tampoco deberían ser las mujeres las únicas responsables de promover la igualdad de género. Esta es una obligación derivada del compromiso auténtico con la democracia y los derechos humanos, y en tanto que tal debemos exigirla de todas las personas que ejercen poder en el ámbito que sea.

Sin embargo, las estructuras partidarias siguen siendo en general poco abiertas a las mujeres. Es interesante preguntarse porqué. ¿Es por efecto de los estereotipos que afectan a las mujeres? ¿O porque esas estructuras son parte de un sistema que concentra el poder en pocas y siempre en las mismas manos? Porque lo cierto es que no solo las mujeres están excluidas de los espacios de poder: la falta de diversidad no tiene que ver solamente con el género.

La paridad es un compromiso ético y político que parte de la convicción de que las mujeres deben estar presentes en los espacios de representación política porque eso es bueno no solo para las mujeres sino también para la democracia. El intercambio de ideas propio de todo proceso democrático se enriquece con la diversidad de miradas que aportan personas con distintas trayectorias y experiencias.

A partir de esta convicción se conformó en Canadá un gabinete paritario: no porque así lo dispusiera ley sino porque eso es lo que demanda una sociedad moderna, integrada e igualitaria. “Porque estamos en 2015” fue la justificación espontánea de Justin Trudeau, el Primer Ministro canadiense, en la conferencia de prensa que siguió a la presentación de un gabinete que reflejaba la diversidad de Canadá más allá del género, ya que incluía a varones y mujeres, personas con discapacidad y personas de distinto origen étnico y distintas orientaciones sexuales.

Hacia esa convicción debemos ir en Argentina y en América Latina.

  1. ¿Cuánto trabajo le insumió a la sociedad civil lograr que el tema fuera tratado y que la ley de paridad fuera aprobada?

En América Latina varios países avanzaron antes que Argentina en la regulación legal de la paridad en los espacios legislativos. Tales son los casos de Bolivia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, México y Nicaragua. Los consensos regionales que surgen de las Conferencias Regionales sobre la Mujer de América Latina y el Caribe hace ya varios años que promueven las políticas de paridad como un compromiso ético y político que mejora la calidad de la democracia.

En Argentina ya antes de 2015 había en el Congreso varios proyectos de ley que buscaban avanzar hacia la paridad. Así, cuando el Ejecutivo planteó la reforma electoral, muchas mujeres y algunos varones referentes de todas las fuerzas políticas se unieron para apoyar una propuesta ampliamente superadora del proyecto oficialista. Es importante destacar la colaboración de mujeres del oficialismo y la oposición, que trabajaron articuladamente entre ellas y con las organizaciones de la sociedad civil, el movimiento de mujeres y las feministas con un objetivo común. Las organizaciones de mujeres, académicas y de derechos humanos acompañamos el reclamo a través de la campaña #MujeresALaPolítica.

Entre las estrategias que utilizamos para contribuir a instalar y sostener el tema en la agenda pública se cuentan la organización y participación en mesas de debate, la elaboración y difusión de estudios sobre el impacto de las mujeres en la política, la publicación de notas de prensa y artículos de opinión, la generación de espacios de intercambio permanente con mujeres de las diversas fuerzas políticas y las campañas en las redes sociales y en la vía pública.

Así se logró avanzar en un dictamen conjunto que incluyó el principio de paridad en la reforma electoral que había presentado el Poder Ejecutivo, que la Cámara de Diputados aprobó en octubre de 2016. Al mismo tiempo avanzó y logró media sanción un proyecto independiente que buscaba incorporar el principio de paridad en el Código Nacional Electoral, y que fue aprobado por la Cámara de Senadores el mismo día de octubre de 2016. De ese modo se terminó ese año legislativo con dos proyectos de ley de objetivos similares: incorporar el principio de paridad en el Código Electoral. Paradójicamente, ninguna de las cámaras trató el proyecto iniciado en la otra, y ninguno de ellos logró convertirse en ley.

En ese situación se inició el año legislativo de 2017. Ese año, diputadas del gobierno y la oposición asumieron el compromiso público de avanzar en la sanción del proyecto que ya tenía media sanción del Senado. Esto se hizo realidad, finalmente, en la última sesión ordinaria del Congreso, nuevamente gracias a la articulación inteligente de las mujeres de distintas fuerzas políticas. Una vez colocado el proyecto en el temario, la enorme mayoría de la Cámara acompañó la sanción de la ley.

  1. ¿El trabajo de ustedes ha terminado aquí, o anticipan que habrá problemas de implementación que tendrán que monitorear?

No, el trabajo no termina aquí. La aprobación de una ley no es un punto de llegada sino el punto de partida de otro proceso complejo para garantizar su aplicación. Tal como sucedió cuando se reformó el Código Nacional Electoral para incluir el cupo femenino en los años ‘90, también en esta oportunidad los próximos años serán fundamentales para garantizar una adecuada reglamentación y aplicación del principio de paridad. Deberemos estar muy atentas a que la justicia electoral cumpla con su función de contralor. La provincia de Buenos Aires ya nos recordó la necesidad de mantener una mirada atenta sobre la implementación de los logros normativos, cuando la autoridad electoral emitió una resolución para eludir la aplicación de la ley de paridad que ya regía en la provincia. Contra esa resolución presentamos un recurso que todavía no ha sido satisfactoriamente resuelto.

  1. ¿Se ha vuelto más inclusiva la democracia argentina en los últimos años? ¿Hay perspectivas de progreso en esa dirección?

La ciudadanía se ha vuelto más exigente con la democracia, y eso es muy positivo. Un proceso democrático no solo requiere que se respeten la formalidad de la votación cada dos años. Una democracia robusta requiere debates informados, acceso a la información, procesos de discusión con la participación más amplia posible. Y sí, también requiere la inclusión de la diversidad, y no solamente en términos de género.

Avanzar en equidad de género requiere ir transformando la cultura y ese es un proceso lento que requiere consolidarse a lo largo del tiempo. En ese camino, contar con modelos de rol permite a una nueva generación de niñas y jóvenes verse en espejos distintos y proyectarse en una mayor variedad de posibilidades. Al mismo tiempo, ayuda a los varones valorar las capacidades de las mujeres con una mirada más igualitaria.

Claro que para sostener ese proceso es imprescindible revisar atentamente los mensajes que los medios de comunicación contribuyen a modelar y difunden. Y también debe enfatizarse la corresponsabilidad en el cuidado, no solo de niños y niñas sino también de personas adultas mayores y de todas las personas en situación de dependencia. Este debe ser asumido por mujeres y varones en condiciones de igualdad, con políticas publicas adecuadas para reducir su impacto en términos no solamente de género sino también socioeconómicos. Ignorar este tema impacta no solo en la igualdad y el acceso equitativo al poder, sino también sobre el empleo y demás condiciones para el ejercicio de la autonomía.

Espero que la incorporación del principio de paridad en el ámbito legislativo permita avanzar en la concreción del compromiso igualitario que da sustento a nuestra democracia. Además, espero que permita acercar al espacio de representación de los intereses del pueblo un reflejo más fiel de sí mismo, al tiempo que contribuya a establecer una conversación sobre la participación de las mujeres en otros espacios de decisión. En definitiva, la paridad de género se plantea como un principio rector de la democratización de las relaciones sociales entre los géneros.



El espacio cívico en Argentina es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.

Contáctese con ELA a través de su página web o su perfil de Facebook, o siga a @EquipoELA y a @NataliaGherardi en Twitter


‘Opaque laws, erratic application of rules and lengthy bureaucratic processes cost lives during a humanitarian response'

CIVICUS speaks with Jeremy Wellard, Regional Representative for Asia of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). ICVA is a global civil society network that advocates for principled humanitarian action, enhanced recognition of the vital role of civil society by governments and international organisations, and high-quality partnerships among humanitarian stakeholders. Established in 1962 by a small coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) focused on refugees and migration, ICVA has grown into a diverse network of CSOs operating at global, regional, national and local levels. It promotes a rights and needs-based approach and maintains its historical focus on forced displacement while also addressing other areas of concern related to crisis-affected populations.

  1. What are the immediate needs that civil society seeks to respond to in a humanitarian crisis?

Humanitarian response takes place in the aftermath of natural disasters, conflict or forced displacement of people and is focused on meeting key lifesaving needs, which may include protection, health, water and sanitation, shelter and food, communications, education and livelihoods services. Often imagined as a short-term response to crisis, in fact humanitarian action can continue in some protracted settings for decades. Recent examples from the Asia region include the Nepal earthquake of 2015, the Marawi conflict in the Philippines throughout 2017 and the most recent displacement of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh, beginning mid-2017. In Asia, humanitarian CSO actors are facing a particular set of challenges, particularly when working in countries where strong government leadership is present. In discussing these, it should be noted that perspectives may not always be applicable to humanitarian action in other contexts.

Humanitarian action by civil society generally takes two main forms. On one hand, there is the response by locally based individuals and actors, which are either part of the community, home-grown organisations or organisations already based in the country and delivering ongoing programmes. On the other hand, there is response by international actors seeking to meet needs that cannot be met by existing in-country structures. Because of their proximity to those affected by a crisis, locally based civil society organisations (CSOs) are often first to respond and have the best idea of the critical needs after an emergency. This gives them a unique advantage; however, this very closeness to those affected, and the fact that responding CSOs are often part of these communities themselves, also adds challenges regarding their ability to meet humanitarian needs. International CSOs play a complementary role, supporting and strengthening the work of local actors and, where necessary, delivering services or providing expertise at a scale beyond what most local actors can manage.

  1. How are challenges in humanitarian response exacerbated when there is contestation of and restrictions in the space for civil society?

Whilst acknowledging that there are many challenges that come with operating within an increasingly diverse humanitarian landscape, particularly due to the changing roles of United Nations (UN) agencies and other actors, it is governments, both as host and donor, who exercise the most influence in curtailing the space for CSOs to operate. For CSOs, these difficulties are often manifested through increasingly burdensome regulatory environments; reduced availability of donor funding; limitation on access to affected populations; provocation and stigmatisation in the media; and in the worst cases, intimidation, threats and attacks on humanitarian actors and infrastructure. In one recent example from Asia, a combination of these factors led to the near-complete shutdown of civil society action in affected areas. In cases where governments remain strong yet access to certain populations is denied due to deliberate government policies or military action, the very core tenets of humanitarian action are challenged by this inability to respond effectively.

The Asia region has recently experienced a growing number of crises where civil society actors have been denied access to a population in need. It is concerning to continue to hear of cases where CSO staff seeking to deliver humanitarian aid are themselves attacked and persecuted for these efforts, forcing CSOs to choose between the safety of their staff or meeting the needs of the communities they are trying to serve.

I would summarise the main challenges currently faced by humanitarian CSOs in three points: the erosion of humanitarian space, negative perceptions of CSO action and uncertain regulatory environments.

Traditionally, humanitarian space has been regarded as a unique space, with protections and advantages enshrined in the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. These principles, anchored in international humanitarian law, are recognised by all UN member states, as they have ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and include rules on the rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian aid and the freedom of movement of humanitarian personnel. Humanitarian CSOs work on the understanding that their adherence to humanitarian principles facilitates access and acceptance, allowing humanitarian workers to carry out their work in a protected space, separate from development, environmental, peace and other areas of work.

However, these days there are very few purely humanitarian CSOs. In Asia it is hard to find a CSO delivering humanitarian aid that is not also delivering programmes in areas such as development, rights or disaster risk reduction. A key challenge for these CSOs is having governments understand these dual roles. Adding to this, the complexity of the environment is increasing. For example, there is presently a concerted effort by the UN and World Bank to align humanitarian action more closely with development and peace action. However, this brings associated risks for this principled approach. Within a broadly shrinking space for civil society, we must remain aware that any blurring of the boundaries between humanitarian action and other fields may also threaten to weaken or remove such protections.

Second, a central argument for strengthening CSOs is that humanitarian action is more effective when the complementary capacities of a range of actors are brought to bear. Stronger government leadership does not necessarily translate into better services, particularly where government policies deliberately or otherwise make it difficult for governments themselves to deliver effectively to all people affected by a crisis. Civil society’s actions in a humanitarian space can fill the gaps where services break down or there is insufficient capacity within existing mechanisms. To help explain this to governments and other actors, ICVA promotes the use of the Principles of Partnership, which were developed in 2007 as a means to try and promote understanding of strong, complementary partnerships between all humanitarian actors.

Unfortunately, rather than being seen as a necessary complement to government action, the humanitarian work of CSOs is often seen as an interference or a front for the wide range of religious, political, social and rights agendas CSOs are rooted in. CSOs will argue that when delivering a humanitarian response, they put other considerations aside in order to negotiate access and ensure that services can be delivered. However, CSOs need to acknowledge that governments may not automatically understand or appreciate this critical distinction.

In some cases, the actions of CSOs have given reason for deepening mistrust of motives and in a number of countries the resulting vilification of high-profile CSOs in the media has added public support to government actions to curtail their humanitarian work. CSOs may be specifically targeted due to their closeness to certain populations, their willingness to negotiate access with non-state actors or their perceived alignment to the political or religious views of their donors. In a recent South Asian response, approval of access was initially granted to, and then quickly withdrawn from, a number of faith-based CSOs due to concerns voiced by parts of the government that these organisations had links to what they considered were dangerous or undesirable religious or political groups. In another example, anti-terrorism policies were used as a reason to place CSOs under surveillance, raid offices and intimidate staff. In some cases, governments have refused registrations, cancelled visas and work permits, or evicted organisations entirely.

Finally, it should be noted that a strong regulatory environment can either facilitate humanitarian action or introduce new challenges for CSOs. Often, as regulations are strengthened to limit CSO action in other areas, they also limit flexibility and responsiveness in humanitarian settings. This is particularly so because often government registration or approval processes do not tend to distinguish between different types of CSO action. From a humanitarian perspective, regulation is not necessarily a bad thing if it clarifies how to gain access, but it must be matched with reasonable and responsive triggers for flexibility and speed, and include overall clarity from governments regarding the provision of lifesaving aid. Currently in Asia, as governments develop disaster law frameworks, improve customs and border protections and strengthen visa processes, a wider set of possible restrictions can be brought to bear. Opaque laws, erratic application of new rules and lengthy, bureaucratic government processes, which are frustrating to CSOs at the best of times, cost lives and livelihoods during a humanitarian response. Some actors are working to promote open discussion between CSOs and governments around regulations that may impact on humanitarian action, so mutually agreed checks and balances can to be put into place.

One way in which CSOs in Asia are attempting to address this is by engaging more in disaster preparedness work, alongside government, UN, military and other actors. CSOs tend to have stronger links with governments at local levels, or at the level of national disaster management agencies, than at the political level, and therefore can engage on technical matters. There have been many positive examples in Asia. However, one challenge to engaging primarily at technical level is that a major crisis is always politically charged. Different government ministries will be engaged in these situations, with Ministries of State, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Security and Disaster Management and the Prime Minister’s or President’s office all becoming involved in decision making regarding CSO action. In a recent refugee crisis, the need for CSO action was widely acknowledged, yet opaque and complex criteria for registration of new CSO projects and the involvement of an increasing number of government ministries delayed the delivery of aid significantly. Project approvals were valid for just a few months, processes changed on a daily basis and government directives on approved activities forced CSOs to operate outside their areas of expertise. The unintended result was that the small number of local organisations that had approvals to operate bore the responsibility for delivering more and more projects, with some reports of organisations scaling up over 10 to 50 times in budget and size within weeks. I recall that six weeks into the response, one small organisation that previously specialised in providing long-term psychosocial support to refugees was delivering over 10 different project streams ranging from water, sanitation and hygiene to education, but had received no new funds to perform its core functions.

  1. What challenges do civil society actors encounter in coordinating with other responders and with government agencies?

In practice, response to even major disasters or crises is now almost always led by national governments. Increasing government leadership in coordination of both national and international humanitarian response can be seen as a positive step, if states have capacity and comply with international law, but also can present new challenges to the independence of humanitarian CSOs. For example, in more extreme cases, some governments are pushing for complete control of disaster relief distribution, requiring increasing portions of financial and material aid to be channelled through their mechanisms and refusing access to CSOs that do not comply. Thankfully this is not yet the norm and, in most cases, governments will model the international system and form some equivalent of a humanitarian country team, disaster management team or similar, including representatives of UN, emergency services, military and other actors. Yet despite their impact and expertise, CSOs are not always seen by governments as necessary contributors and find their opportunities to engage directly with these decision-making forums restricted, particularly at the national level. CSO engagement therefore is relegated through intermediaries such as the UN. ICVA is currently working to promote awareness of the important role of CSO forums of collective representation in national-level coordination mechanisms and there have recently been positive trends of increased CSO representation in some countries, which now need to be modelled and shared as best practice.

  1. What support does civil society need in responding in such contexts?

There is need for increased dialogue with governments to show how principled humanitarian action in an independent and protected space can be complementary rather than confrontational. Governments by nature tend to represent some parts of the population more than others, and this is more the case when the government is more authoritarian or military-backed, as is often the case in Asia. Humanitarian CSOs, on the other hand, act to serve all parts of the population, particularly those who are excluded due to political, religious or cultural prejudices, intra-communal violence or otherwise.

Ideally humanitarian civil society could work with governments with the Humanitarian Principles and Principles of Partnership as a starting point. For this to happen, states intent on showing strength and reinforcing their sovereignty need to also remember their responsibility to protect all people, citizens or otherwise, in times of crisis. They should not be able to have their cake if they also intend to eat it.

As a network, we are grappling with these issues and would like to learn from CSOs in other sectors facing similar challenges. We are open to ideas, suggestions and collaboration to cope with trends that affect us all in a fast-changing and increasingly complex world.

  • Get in touch with ICVA through their website, or follow @ICVAnetwork on Twitter


We believe in citizens taking action on the issues that affect their lives, without needing vast resources

CIVICUS speaks to Katherine Baird, International Projects Manager at the Foundation, an organisation that envisions a world in which no one is powerless, and to that aim incubates and accelerates movements giving disenfranchised people a voice. In-country teams provide resources and systematic support, including training and technology, to civic leaders and organisations who are behind movements addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as violence against women, environmental destruction, access to healthcare and lack of access to democratic institutions.

  1. While many of us will have signed a petition on, perhaps fewer have heard of the Foundation. What does this organisation do?

The Foundation builds on what the platform has achieved over the past seven years. is an online platform and a vehicle for people anywhere in the world to start a petition or a campaign on any issue that they feel strongly about, to spread the word, gather support and engage with politicians and decision-makers in order to obtain a certain decision or result. has been very successful and has engaged over 200 million people around the world in campaigns that were started by individuals.

The Foundation is quite new: it’s been around for about two years. With the Foundation, we have basically moved into civic space ourselves, in order to leverage the reach and the network that is already there and take the next step in terms of impact.

For the time being we focus on Asia and Latin America and we work on two broad global issues: civic participation and democratic accountability, and women and gender equality. We decided to work on those issues because they relate a lot to the global trends of civic space restrictions that we are seeing, and also because they are already out there in the petitions that many people have started on their own. But political contexts are different in the various countries where we work, so we are trying to find out what these issues look like in each specific country and what issues are emerging where. The foundation will allow us to experiment and innovate on different models of civic participation.

At the Foundation we believe that people should take action on the issues that affect their lives and that they care about. They don’t need to work for a civil society organisation (CSO) or to have access to vast resources; having an experience of something and being able to talk about it compellingly can create change. We therefore put citizens at the centre of our work. We also work with organisations and often link people who have started campaigns with organisations that are working on those themes, but our focus is on individuals bringing about change to their communities, cities and countries.

  1. Have you devised any way of measuring the impact that the Foundation is having?

Yes, that is something the Foundation is working on, because measuring the impact of a campaign is something that not just us, but other organisations as well, usually struggle with. When for instance a woman starts a campaign to gain access to medicine or a hospital for her child, and goes on and gets the law changed at the national level so all children now have access to the same thing – that’s pretty easy. But most often it is not like that, so we typically struggle with two sets of questions. First, what makes for an impactful project, programme or campaign? Does impact mean changing the law, or maybe changing the national conversation around an issue, or raising awareness about it in the media? And how shall we measure this? Second, what’s the impact on people themselves? That is, what is the effect that becoming a champion on a certain issue may have on a person? What journey does an individual go through from being a person sitting on a sofa, angry about something, to being a person that goes forward and talks to their parliament or writes in a newspaper? Those are the two areas in which we are looking at impact.

We believe in citizens raising issues themselves and therefore taking a step into civic space. But governments haven’t so far really stepped up and the mechanisms they use to involve citizens have not proven to be particularly effective. So here is where we come in. About one and a half years ago we piloted a project in Mexico City. A new city constitution was being drafted and the government wanted a way for citizens to bring input into the constitutional process. Our team was a little nervous about this because levels of cynicism around politicians and government are very high in Mexico, so they wondered why people would participate in these when they didn’t feel particularly engaged. But was used so that people would propose ideas of what they wanted included in the constitution, and the government promised that if enough people signed onto them, they would look into those ideas and submit them for consideration to the constitutional council. Over 200,000 people participated!

We realised that the problem wasn’t that people refused to participate, but that the channels usually available for participation were not appropriate because they didn’t fit into people’s everyday lives and concerns. So it was just a matter of the government going to where people were, and offer a channel for taking civic action that they were familiar with. In Mexico City, the level of engagement with was already high, so it was clever for the government to use the platform and meet people there.

We also realised that there was an appetite to move beyond petitions and do more with the network that we already have – maybe finding out what issues people in a particular country care about and then engaging politicians directly with commitments and pledges on those issues, or something bolder still to be defined. There must be something we can do to help bridge the disconnect between what the media, the government or CSOs are talking about, and what people on the ground care about, feel and want.

  1. Who’s your typical user: an individual or an organisation? If the former, do you think the platform functions as a substitute for organisation?

We have a variety of users. In Latin America, for instance, about 26 million people are using the platform, and their age range is extremely broad. Given that this is a technology-based platform, the fact that it is not concentrated overwhelmingly among young people is quite surprising. Users are spread out in terms of gender as well, although this varies from one country to the next. In India, for example, there is a much lower percentage of women on the platform, and this is an issue that we are working on. But broadly speaking, across countries the composition of users is quite balanced in gender terms.

The platform itself is about engaging people who are not the ‘usual suspects’ – that is, already civic-minded and socially engaged. Many people are driven to the site by personal stories, not by issues. So they may not be mobilised around, say, health issues, but they see a story about a woman who didn’t get access to the healthcare that she needed and this drives them to become involved in the campaign.

In terms of the balance between people and organisations, if you look at all the campaigns ever started on, you will see an overwhelming prevalence of individuals. This is something that we push for quite strongly, so even when an organisation wants to start a campaign, we let them know that their campaign will be more successful if an individual runs and leads it. This is because we have found that the stories of individuals are usually more powerful and have wider mass appeal to people beyond CSOs.

On the other hand, what we do when someone starts a petition on a certain issue is connect them to local resources and CSOs that may be able to support them. For example, in campaigns on domestic violence there are often legal aspects or other kinds of support that a person working on them might need, and we are in a position to offer it by connecting them with the right people.

  1. How does the transition between the online and the offline spheres of social activism take place? In other words, how does a petition started on the platform get - or doesn’t get - to have an afterlife in the offline world?

This is a very crucial issue, because starting a petition doesn’t in and by itself create change. Having lots of people sign your petition does not suffice to effect real change. A petition is just a first step, and there are a few key things that we think can make this transition successful. One of them is media engagement. We encourage people whose campaigns are taking off to get the word out and put some thought into the framing of their issues. For instance, in some countries with less open governments it is difficult to run campaigns on human rights issues, but it helps if the campaign is framed as the story of an individual. Of course it depends on the context, and there is more need to be careful in some countries than in others, but this way can be a way to get a warmer reception by the authorities and more coverage by the media.

Another crucial thing we have learned is that a campaign needs to be specific and targeted in its demands. If you want the government to make a change you need to find out who in the government is able to get it done, and how you can connect with that person. This is the key offline step, so once the signatures have been collected, we encourage those who have started a campaign to reach out to the official in question, seek a response and engage in dialogue.

We can potentially provide support for this, particularly in the context of a bigger campaign in one of the countries where we work and on specific issues that we want to engage with. There is a first layer of support that we provide to all users, through online resources that can be accessed directly from our webpage. But clearly there is no substitute for actually having someone there to help you, and this is the role that in-country teams play.

Besides running the platform, then, in some countries we also have staff teams who know the local context well. Sometimes our staff reach out to people who have started a campaign, and sometimes they reach out to us. In India, for example, we have a project to increase the number of women starting campaigns, and in that context we are proactively identifying campaigns and women to support at a higher level than we would support the average campaign starter.

  1. is about helping people mobilise to get the change they want. Is there any restriction or limit on the type of change that can be sought through the platform, or any mechanism in place to keep anti-rights groups out?

We do have some mechanisms to keep anti-rights groups away. First, we have strict community guidelines, which basically means that we are not Twitter: we don’t tell people that our platform is theirs to say or do anything they want. We have rules regarding hate speech and discrimination, and we use those for monitoring to make sure that campaigns and even conversations are respectful to the rights of others. We have tools that allow us to kick out of the platform anybody who does not respect these rules.

The campaigns that we choose to amplify tend to be more closely related to human rights. Vast numbers of campaigns are started on the platform, because it is so easy to do so, but the ones that generate more movement are a small subset of those, and within that subset there are some that we choose to engage with specifically as an organisation.

Sometimes there is energy in a direction that a team would not necessarily advocate, but we have studied quite a lot how people who are interested in some issues can become interested in some other issues, and found out that people are generally not all black or white, and there are ways in which to channel energies generated around specific issues towards other, more rights-related issues.

  1. This is new compared to the classic CSO model of advocacy and campaigning. Do you see any connections between your work and the classic CSO approach?

Such connections are necessary to create change. The most interesting, thrilling and at times challenging part of what we do is the fact that we don’t directly run the campaigns. We provide advice and support, but ultimately the responsibility lies with the person running the campaign. This is exciting, it captures media attention and may engage decision-makers, but it cannot fit into a six-month strategy. It can be unpredictable and can go off in directions that you don't always necessarily predict –in a direction that you might not suggest if you were planning this on paper, as a formal CSO. Of course we work on campaign strategy and there are steps we follow which we explain to campaign starters, but ultimately they run their campaigns themselves. There are inevitable tensions that arise when people have real ownership of the campaigns, that is, when they are not just the faces that organisations put on the campaigns they run or when they don't just act as an organisation’s spokesperson.

We also work with traditional CSOs with issue expertise. We are not experts on every issue, and that’s where our role in linking people with organisations that have been working on their issue for a long time is extremely important. When this goes well, it can create powerful opportunities to push for change on an agenda that both the person running the campaign and the formal CSO are working on.

  1. How do you deal with governments that restrict civil society and civic space?

In Asia, we have country staff in India, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand; and within Latin America, we work in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. All of them are countries that have interesting things going on politically and civically, but some countries are more complex.

In Thailand for example, restrictions exist against people gathering physically in groups, and if you sent out a flyer inviting people to a meeting on human rights, many members of the public would not come. So we strive to stay open as an online space where it is still possible to gather virtually and have a conversation that is not always possible to have offline.

This tension hasn’t stopped us, or the Thai people, from working on many campaigns including the push against the single internet gateway. At the moment there is a campaign on changing the bail system, because people who cannot afford bail can sometimes end up serving six months of jail while waiting for trial. As with the other countries we work in, we are not running the campaigns ourselves; they are led and supported by Thai people. But it’s a tightrope that we are walking on at all times.

Now many people in Thailand will have known through many kinds of campaigns on animals and environmental protection, consumer rights, education, public healthcare and so on. This diversity happened both organically and by design. They help governments in countries like Thailand see that we are a platform that has campaigns on a range of different people’s causes and enable us to stay open as online space for citizens to engage and take action.

Get in touch with the Foundation through their website.


‘A diferencia del Brexit, la demanda independentista catalana tiene un componente democratizador’


CIVICUS conversa sobre la situación en Cataluña con Anaïs Franquesa Griso, abogada penalista especializada en derechos humanos y movimientos sociales y Directora de Litigio de Irídia, Centro para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos. Irídia es una asociación de la sociedad civil de Cataluña que combina la intervención directa ante situaciones de vulneración de derechos con la incidencia política y social para promover cambios de más largo alcance en las políticas públicas. Anaïs se desempeña en el Servicio de Atención y Denuncia de Situaciones de Violencia Institucional de la organización y su labor se centra en las violaciones de derechos humanos ocurridas en el marco del ejercicio del derecho a la protesta.

  1. ¿Qué hace Irídia, y qué motivó su fundación?

Mi organización tiene poco tiempo de vida; la presentamos públicamente dos años atrás. Yo vengo del activismo en los movimientos sociales anti-represivos de Barcelona. A lo largo del tiempo los movimientos sociales hemos ido creando mecanismos de respuesta bastante efectivos ante la represión de la protesta. Por ejemplo, antes había un teléfono para emergencias que iba cambiando de número y que solo conocían los activistas, y que para quienes no estaban muy organizados era difícil de acceder. Esto empezó a cambiar en 2011, con el 15M, un movimiento ciudadano que nació en las plazas públicas de distintas partes del país, primero en Madrid (en la plaza del Sol) y un día después en Barcelona, en forma de acampada, justo después de manifestaciones masivas con el lema “No somos mercancía en manos de políticos y banqueros”. Durante semanas, miles de personas se congregaron en las calles en asambleas masivas, donde se cuestionaban tanto las políticas económicas acordadas por el gobierno para hacer frente a la crisis financiera, como también el propio sistema político español, considerando que no representaba los intereses de la ciudadanía. Por ello otros de los lemas que se hicieron populares fueron “¡No nos representan!” y “lo llaman democracia y no lo es”. A partir de entonces, las protestas se hicieron más frecuentes y mucho más masivas, y entendimos que había que crear algo que fuera más útil para más gente, en especial para aquellas personas que no estaban organizadas.

En 2012 la represión se agudizó ante las huelgas generales y las manifestaciones multitudinarias en protesta por la crisis y las medidas de austeridad, por entender que ponían en riesgo derechos económicos y sociales básicos, como el derecho al trabajo, a la educación y a la sanidad. En ese contexto, ante el aumento de la represión, creamos una plataforma anti-represiva para brindar apoyo legal, psicosocial, económico y comunicativo en caso de detención. En las manifestaciones se repartía información sobre qué hacer en caso de detención, el números de contacto e instrucciones para actuar en caso de ser testigo o víctima de violaciones de derechos en las manifestaciones. Esto se fue generalizando hasta el punto en que recibíamos llamadas de personas que avisaban que acababan de ver a unos chavales que estaban siendo detenidos en las puertas de sus casas, lo que nos permitía triangular información y obtener testigos para procesos judiciales. A partir de esta experiencia detectamos un vacío en la respuesta ante el maltrato policial. Es decir, en caso de detención sí se creaba un grupo de apoyo o era cubierto por la plataforma anti-represiva, pero en caso de maltrato policial la carga del proceso recaía en las víctimas. Eso era así no solo en el contexto de la protesta, sino también en el espacio público o en centros de privación de libertad como las cárceles. De ahí la creación de nuestra organización, uno de cuyos pilares es el Servicio de Atención y Denuncia Ante situaciones de Violencia Institucional (SAIDAVI). Una de sus áreas está precisamente enfocada en las situaciones de protesta.

Desde 2015 la legislación española que se aplica a las protestas se endureció mucho. El 1 de julio de ese año entró en vigor la Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana, también conocida como “ley mordaza”. También hubo una reforma del Código Penal muy regresiva en términos de derechos, con la introducción de la cadena perpetua (llamada “prisión permanente revisable”).

En ambos casos se trató de respuestas directas a los movimientos de protesta que se habían multiplicado desde el 15M. Entre otras cosas, la ley mordaza pena toda “perturbación grave de la seguridad ciudadana” que se produzca frente a las sedes del Congreso, el Senado y los parlamentos autonómicos. Esta reforma fue introducida en reacción al surgimiento de movimientos tales como Rodea el Congreso. La ley también sanciona “el uso no autorizado de imágenes o datos personales o profesionales” de agentes policiales “que pueda poner en peligro la seguridad personal o familiar de los agentes, de las instalaciones protegidas o en riesgo el éxito de una operación”. Esto ocurre precisamente ante el auge de las grabaciones realizadas con celulares y las redes sociales como herramientas para registrar y difundir información e imágenes de uso excesivo de la fuerza policial, que en muchos casos han servido como prueba en procesos judiciales.

La ley mordaza también criminalizó las prácticas empleadas para detener desahucios, en un contexto en que, tras el estallido de la burbuja inmobiliaria, aparecieron colectivos como la Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, dedicados a empoderar a las personas afectadas, denunciar el sistema inmobiliario y financiero y dar una respuesta a la crisis habitacional, ya fuera parando desalojos, negociando con las entidades o con acciones de protesta. En ese momento los bancos, que habían sido rescatados de la quiebra con dinero público, estaban dejando en la calle a miles de personas que no podían pagar sus hipotecas. Ante esto, varios colectivos adoptaron una estrategia de desobediencia civil, de modo que cuando llegaban los funcionarios del juzgado a desalojar a una familia se encontraban con 50 o 60 personas que impedían el desalojo. Antes de la ley mordaza había formas de evitar las sanciones penales, ya que podía argumentarse que esas personas hacían legítimo uso de su derecho a las libertades de expresión y reunión pacífica. Los colectivos anti-desalojos también se manifestaban ocupando las sedes bancarias durante el día, en forma festiva, con cantos y bailes para llamar la atención, pero sin violencia, para que otros clientes del banco se dieran cuenta de que había muchos otros en la misma situación, y para empoderar a los damnificados. Estas manifestaciones forman parte del núcleo esencial del derecho a la libertad de expresión y reunión pacífica, pero la nueva ley introdujo un capítulo específico para penarlas e intentar neutralizarlas.

Otra conducta que pasó a estar sancionada fue el “escalamiento de edificios o monumentos sin autorización cuando exista un riesgo cierto de que se ocasionen daños a las personas o a los bienes”, disposición que parece apuntar contra actos de protesta como los que realizan Greenpeace y Ecologistas en Acción. Incluso las prácticas más comunes de la resistencia pacífica fueron puestas en riesgo por disposiciones de la ley mordaza que sancionaron la “resistencia a la autoridad” (también sancionada en el código penal con una redacción bastante ambigua) y habilitaron a la policía a multar a quienes se negaran a disolver manifestaciones en lugares públicos.

En suma, se restringieron derechos mediante la codificación de conductas antes permitidas como delitos o faltas administrativas, y se otorgaron más poderes sancionadores a las autoridades. Antes había muchas conductas que la Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana no cubría, y si estas acciones generaban alguna consecuencia, era mediante procesos penales que tenían lugar en un juzgado de instrucción y con las garantías del derecho penal. En la práctica eso comportaba que se lograran muchísimas absoluciones, porque los jueces generalmente consideraban o bien que la conducta en cuestión no era delictiva, o que no había quedado suficientemente probado quién había hecho qué. Todo esto cambió con la nueva ley, que eliminó las faltas del código penal y las convirtió en infracciones administrativas (algunas de ellas delitos leves), dando a los agentes de la autoridad facultad sancionadora y presunción de veracidad (es decir, es la persona quien tiene que probar que lo que dice el agente no es verdad), con sanciones desproporcionadamente altas.

  1. ¿Qué rol desempeñó la organización durante el referéndum de 2017?

A mediados de septiembre estábamos asistiendo con preocupación a vulneraciones graves de derechos civiles y políticos, como la entrada de cuerpos de seguridad en sedes de medios de comunicación o el registro sin orden judicial de imprentas para impedir el referéndum por la independencia catalana del 1 de octubre. Por ello, algunas organizaciones decidimos que era necesario crear un mecanismo de defensa de los derechos humanos. De ahí que junto con Novact, Lafede y otras organizaciones lanzamos la Campaña #SomosDefensoras.

En primer lugar, publicamos un manifiesto explicando que esta campaña era una respuesta a las vulneraciones de derechos humanos que ya estaban ocurriendo, sobre todo del derecho de reunión pacífica, el derecho a la información y la libertad de expresión. En una rueda de prensa anunciamos que estábamos elaborando un informe de derechos humanos, es decir, que estábamos monitoreando las violaciones que ocurrían para reportarlas ante las instancias internacionales. Esto pretendía tener una función preventiva. También anunciamos que estábamos formando activistas de base de otras organizaciones, no todas ellas de derechos humanos, para que funcionaran como observadores de derechos humanos. Capacitamos a más de 100 personas, de las cuales seleccionamos a 70 para que el 1 de octubre estuvieran todo el día repartidas por la ciudad y pudiéramos recibir informaciones en tiempo real de lo que estaba ocurriendo, como complemento del monitoreo de redes. Queríamos, si había víctimas, tener testigos o al menos personas capacitadas para recoger testimonios, además de socorrer y asesorar a las personas sobre lo que podían hacer. Porque sabemos que cuando sucede algo, el principal problema es la obtención de pruebas. Finalmente, coordinamos un grupo de 60 abogados que estaban disponibles, no solamente en Barcelona sino también en otros puntos del área metropolitana, además de 30 psicólogos para atender emergencias el día del referéndum y los días posteriores, y difundimos números de teléfono adonde las personas podía llamar si eran detenidas o agredidas.

Hicimos esto en las semanas y días anteriores al 1 de octubre, y por desgracia desde primera hora de la mañana vimos que habíamos acertado porque hubo muchísima violencia. El 1 de octubre nuestra organización atendió a unas 130 víctimas, y en las semanas siguientes atendimos por teléfono, correo electrónico y personalmente a 294 personas.

  1. ¿Había habido antecedentes de represión violenta de la protesta? ¿Qué tuvo de novedoso la represión del pasado 1 de octubre?

En el marco de las protestas del 15M, el 27 de mayo de 2011 los Mossos d’Esquadra, la policía autonómica que tiene las funciones de orden público en Cataluña, desalojaron brutalmente la Plaza de Catalunya en Barcelona. Fueron seis horas de represión constante, golpeando a gente que estaba pacíficamente sentada en el suelo y con las manos levantadas, y hubo más de 100 heridos. Esto fue retransmitido en directo y lo vio todo el mundo, y en consecuencia marcó un antes y un después en las percepciones de la violencia policial por parte de la ciudadanía. Mucha gente se sorprendió al ver el maltrato policial que los que estábamos involucrados en movimientos de protesta conocíamos desde hace rato.

El discurso de la consejería del interior de esos años buscó deslegitimar y criminalizar a los movimientos de protesta, y fue acompañado de cambios en el armamento policial así como de las mencionadas reformas legales. Hace poco publicamos un informe que da cuenta precisamente de la involución y la progresiva desprotección del derecho de reunión pacífica que se produjo entre 2011 y 2015.

De modo que lo que ocurrió el 1 de octubre de 2017 no fue una completa novedad. Teníamos claro que podía haber violencia por parte de los cuerpos y fuerzas de seguridad, y sabíamos que teníamos que hacer algo al respecto. Creo que en ese sentido incluso llegamos tarde. Este proceso ha sido bastante singular, con dudas muy razonables de si realmente el referéndum del 1 de octubre se podría hacer o no, por lo que al igual que otros sectores, las entidades de derechos humanos no caímos en la cuenta de que podíamos aportar experiencia en nuestro campo. Así que en vez de empezar a organizarnos en junio recién lo hicimos en septiembre. Si hubiéramos tenido más tiempo, sin duda algunas cosas las hubiéramos hecho distinto o por lo menos con mayor previsión.

Pero en todo caso, el tipo de violencia que vimos el 1 de octubre tuvo características nuevas. Por ejemplo, tuvo un claro componente de género, tal como lo explicamos en un informe reciente. Nosotros hablamos con mucha gente, víctimas y testigos, y vimos muchísimos videos. Numerosos relatos, de hombres y mujeres, coincidieron hasta en la expresión: “iban a por las mujeres”, con las mujeres se ensañaban más. La idea machista de fondo era que si bien nadie hubiera debido estar allí, mucho menos debían estar allí las mujeres, pues ese claramente no era su lugar. También hubo casos de vejaciones sexuales que antes no habíamos visto. Y en todo caso, nuestra generación no había asistido nunca a una represión tan generalizada contra la población civil (las cifras oficiales hablan de más de 1.000 personas heridas en todo Cataluña, de todas las edades) y mucho menos por algo tan básico como querer votar.

Además, se usaron balas de goma, que en Cataluña se prohibieron en 2013 y se dejaron de utilizar en abril de 2014. La prohibición se hizo efectiva gracias al trabajo de muchas entidades y colectivos de los movimientos sociales como Stop Balas de Goma o Rereguarda en moviment, así como gracias a la visibilidad del caso de Ester Quintana, una mujer que perdió un ojo en el marco de la represión de la huelga general del 14 de noviembre de 2012. Unido al esfuerzo previo, el gran trabajo comunicativo y legal en este caso, con la campaña Ojo con tu Ojo, se consiguió que el cuestionamiento del uso de este tipo de armamento llegara hasta el Parlamento de Cataluña. Aunque no se logró la condena de los policías que hirieron a Ester Quintana, sí se logró la prohibición del uso de balas de goma por parte de los Mossos d’Esquadra, además de órdenes de indemnización de las víctimas.

El uso de balas de goma el 1 de octubre de 2017, además de costarle la visión de un ojo a otra persona, Roger Español, tuvo un gran valor simbólico porque fue un retroceso en lo que creíamos que era una batalla ganada. Por ello tenemos claro que trabajaremos para que Roger sea la última víctima de las balas de goma en el país.

  1. ¿Cómo se llegó a la situación del 1 de octubre? ¿Cómo y cuándo se produjeron los avances del autonomismo que desembocaron en el referéndum por la independencia?

Siempre ha habido un porcentaje de la población catalana que ha querido la independencia. Alrededor del año 2000 ese porcentaje se estimaba en un 12 o 13%. Pero más allá de esto, había algunos consensos que estaban muy claros, tales como el uso vehicular de la lengua catalana en las aulas (obviamente combinado con una buena enseñanza del castellano). Según el llamado proceso de normalización lingüística, toda persona escolarizada en Cataluña debe salir del colegio sabiendo catalán y castellano. Esta fue una reivindicación de la clase obrera que en los años ’60 y ’70 había llegado desde fuera de Cataluña, porque hablar catalán confería ventajas de inserción laboral a las que no podía acceder quien no estuviera expuesto al idioma en su hogar, de modo que la enseñanza del idioma en la escuela era una suerte de igualador social. Esta es una arista de la reivindicación del idioma que es poco mencionada.

Y luego está la concepción del pueblo catalán, que existe desde hace muchos años y ha vivido distintos procesos. Cuando se aprobó la Constitución Española de 1978 se discutió mucho sobre si incluir o no el concepto de nación en los territorios históricos – Cataluña, País Vasco y Galicia. Al final se prefirió hablar de “nacionalidades históricas” más que de nación, sobre la base de la idea de que la nación es una sola e indivisible. Además, se pasó de reconocer cierta distinción de trato a esas nacionalidades históricas, que habían gozado de un estatuto de autonomía durante la República (1931-1939), a lo que se conoció como “café para todos”, una política homogénea para todas las regiones, tanto nacionalidades históricas como meras entidades geográficas. Así nació la división del Estado en autonomías, cada una de ellas con un parlamento y un ejecutivo propio.

Durante años, las demandas de mayor autonomía se fueron salvando con un constante estira y afloja, combinado con un apoyo casi sin fisuras a los gobiernos estatales por parte de la derecha catalana, en el poder en Cataluña durante más de 20 años. Con ello, también las diferencias económicas entre los distintos territorios del Estado se fueron agudizando, empeoradas por una falta clara de transparencia. Las llamadas “balanzas fiscales”, es decir, cuánto aporta cada territorio al Estado y cuánto recibe, nunca se hacían públicas. Aquí el País Vasco tiene un estatus diferenciado, por razones históricas –las guerras carlistas en el siglo XIX, entre otras-, conservando la potestad de recaudar impuestos para luego entregar un porcentaje pactado al estado español, mientras que en Cataluña la mayor parte de los impuestos los recoge directamente el estado español y luego regresa solo una parte. Eso, sumado a una falta de inversión en infraestructura bastante palpable –sólo hay que ver por ejemplo el sistema ferroviario catalán-, ha ido generando una sensación de desajuste entre lo que aporta Cataluña y lo que recibe (es el “Madrid nos roba” popularizado por Jordi Pujol, Presidente de la Generalitat, durante 23 años) que en el resto del Estado ha sido percibido como insolidaridad. A ello se han sumado ataques constantes a consensos establecidos, tales como el generado en torno de la lengua catalana en la escuela.

Históricamente, Cataluña ha reclamado mayor autonomía en muchos asuntos. Alrededor de 2002, se inició el debate para la modificación del Estatuto de Autonomía, es decir de la constitución interna de Cataluña, en reemplazo del estatuto de 1979. El estatuto debe ser aprobado por el parlamento catalán, luego por el Congreso de los diputados españoles, y luego sometido a referéndum. El nuevo estatuto fue aprobado en 2006, pero el proceso duró varios años. En ese momento el presidente del gobierno español era el socialista José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, quien había dicho que apoyaría el estatuto que aprobara el pueblo catalán. Este estatuto no era ninguna maravilla, pero representaba algunos avances en materia de derechos ciudadanos y competencias autonómicas.

Ya en ese momento, el Partido Popular del actual presidente del gobierno español Mariano Rajoy hizo una campaña feroz contra el Estatuto Catalán. El Partido Popular recogió firmas en su contra y recurrió ante el Tribunal Constitucional varios artículos del Estatuto de Cataluña que eran idénticos a los contenidos en los estatutos de Andalucía y Valencia, que se estaban discutiendo al mismo tiempo, los cuales sin embargo no fueron cuestionados. Cuatro años después, en 2010, el Tribunal Constitucional suprimió algunos de esos artículos del Estatuto Catalán, aunque artículos similares siguen vigentes en los estatutos de Andalucía y Valencia. Esto fue percibido por la opinión pública catalana como un ataque dirigido específicamente contra Cataluña.

La sentencia del Tribunal Constitucional de junio de 2010 fue un punto de inflexión. En reacción a ella se produjo una de las manifestaciones más masivas de la historia de Cataluña, que según diversas estimaciones reunió entre 1 y 1,5 millones de personas. Con el lema ‘Somos una Nación, nosotros decidimos’, se realizó el 10 de julio de 2010 y tuvo el apoyo de la mayoría de los partidos políticos representados en el parlamento catalán, el movimiento sindical y centenares de organizaciones de la sociedad civil. Ahí fue cuando se empezó a generalizar la sensación de que con este Estado español no era posible convivir. Las elecciones de noviembre de 2011 llevaron al Partido Popular a la presidencia del gobierno de España. En ese entonces el presidente de la Generalitat catalana fue a Madrid con la intención de negociar un nuevo acuerdo fiscal similar al del País Vasco y ni siquiera fue recibido.

La masividad de la convocatoria se repitió el 11 de septiembre de 2012, fecha de la fiesta nacional de Cataluña, cuando la manifestación que usualmente reúne a algunas decenas de miles de personas se transformó en una protesta de más de un millón. El partido que gobernaba Cataluña, que nunca había sido independentista, se vio superado por las multitudes que clamaban por la independencia. A partir de este momento cada manifestación del 11 de septiembre ha sido más masiva que la anterior, de tono claramente independentista, y cada año ha tenido innovaciones que le han dado un carácter espectacular, bien adaptado a la cultura audiovisual contemporánea.

Los movimientos sociales de base de Barcelona son bastante autónomos, y una parte de ellos no se sentían interpelados con la causa independentista, porque hay una porción muy amplia de la sociedad civil que no es nacionalista. De hecho, muchos independentistas se reivindican como no nacionalistas, y ven la independencia como una estrategia para conseguir mayor democracia y derechos, no como una cuestión nacionalista. La verdad, creo que quienes más han hecho por el crecimiento del independentismo en Cataluña han sido Rajoy y el Partido Popular, que no han hecho otra cosa que antagonizar con las demandas más razonables de autonomía y derechos, generando una radicalización masiva que no existía algunos años atrás. Si se hubiera hecho un referéndum por la independencia en 2012, muy probablemente hubiera ganado el ‘no’. Pero cada ataque del gobierno español ha generado nuevos independentistas y también mayor consenso en relación al hecho que Cataluña tiene derecho a decidir su organización territorial y política. De hecho, la propia represión del 1 de octubre aumentó en pocas horas la participación, ya que llevó a las calles y a las urnas a mucha gente indignada que en otras condiciones tal vez no hubiera salido.

  1. ¿Te parece que lo que está pasando en Cataluña es parte de un proceso más amplio de ascenso del nacionalismo, o tiene una lógica propia?

Hasta donde yo sé, los argumentos empleados a favor del Brexit fueron de un nacionalismo con connotaciones más bien xenófobas, al menos eso es lo que nos llega a nosotros por los medios de comunicación. Pero estos no han sido nunca los argumentos a favor de la independencia de Cataluña. De hecho, al mismo tiempo que se hacían manifestaciones multitudinarias por la independencia de Cataluña se hizo en Cataluña la mayor manifestación que tuvo lugar en Europa a favor de dar acogida a refugiados, con cientos de miles de personas en las calles. La demanda independentista tiene incluso un componente democratizador, y es por eso que se han sumado muchos movimientos sociales, aunque para ellos la independencia sigue sin ser una prioridad. En Cataluña ha habido procesos democratizadores que no han ocurrido en el resto de España, desde la anulación de los juicios sumarísimos del franquismo hasta la prohibición de las balas de goma, pasando por la demanda de cierre de los centros de internamiento para extranjeros. Eso no significa que en el resto del Estado no se esté presionando para conseguir eso - de hecho nuestra organización, Irídia, tiene mucha vinculación con movimientos sociales y entidades de defensa de los derechos civiles y políticos. Pero sea como sea aquí hemos conseguido incidir mucho más en este tipo de demandas que con el gobierno central. Eso genera un clima distinto entre sociedad civil e instituciones.

Si el gobierno español hubiera accedido a negociar las condiciones de la autonomía en dirección de un trato bilateral percibido como justo con Cataluña, seguramente la demanda independentista hubiera cedido. Y cabe subrayar que un trato justo también hubiera debido contemplar aportes sustanciales de las regiones más ricas en favor de las más desfavorecidas. Pero el gobierno español no tiene un política de negociación o diálogo arraigada, sino que se mueve más en términos de vencedores y vencidos y de humillación.

Aún así, no es seguro que la demanda independentista sea mayoritaria, aunque ha crecido mucho. Lo que sí reúne el consenso de la abrumadora mayoría de los catalanes es la convicción de que la decisión debe surgir de una consulta a la ciudadanía. Es decir, que debe reconocerse la capacidad de decidir del pueblo catalán y hacerse un referéndum. Ese es el motivo por el cual todos los partidos participaron de las elecciones autonómicas del 21 de diciembre de 2017, aún cuando éstas fueran una imposición del gobierno español y tuvieran lugar con la Generalitat intervenida como resultado de la cuestionada aplicación del artículo 155 de la Constitución española.

  1. ¿Cómo sigue el proceso; hacia adónde se dirige?

Es difícil de decir. De un lado tenemos preocupantes resoluciones judiciales del Tribunal Supremo que son difíciles de entender desde el punto de vista del Estado de derecho y la separación de poderes. Nos encontramos con personas presas con cargos de sedición y rebelión, a pesar de que todas las movilizaciones han tenido siempre un carácter marcadamente pacífico y así lo reconocen las resoluciones en su contra. Aun así, consideran que el hecho de que fueran movilizaciones masivas implicaba “intimidación” o que la violencia de los cuerpos de seguridad del Estado el 1 de octubre es responsabilidad de los líderes políticos catalanes. El argumento es que si no hubieran animado y organizado el referéndum ilegal, el Estado no se “habría visto obligado” a utilizar la fuerza. Este tipo de argumentos hoy se usan para acabar con el independentismo – con incierto resultado - pero mañana se pueden utilizar contra cualquier tipo de reivindicación.

En todo caso, y a efectos prácticos hoy por hoy estamos peor que en el comienzo: líderes sociales y responsables políticos en prisión preventiva, el gobierno catalán intervenido, y los derechos a la libertad de expresión, información, reunión y manifestación en retroceso. Además, el gobierno español advirtió antes de las elecciones del 21 de diciembre que si ganaban los partidos independentistas la administración seguiría siendo controlada desde Madrid; es decir, de algún modo anunció que no reconocería los resultados si no le eran favorables. El período pre-electoral fue utilizado por la Junta Electoral Central para definir qué palabras y conceptos podían utilizarse en la campaña, y hubo numerosos actos de censura. Mónica Terribas, una de las periodistas más reconocidas de Cataluña, dijo en su programa de diario que no se podía calificar de ‘libres’ a unas elecciones realizadas con la mitad del gobierno en prisión y la otra mitad en el exilio, y con semejantes ataques contra medios y manifestantes. Por sus palabras la radio fue sancionada.

Se llegó a las elecciones en estas condiciones porque tras varios meses de mucha intensidad política la gente estaba cansada y expectante, y porque nadie quería dar excusas para que hubiera más represión. La participación en las elecciones - 81,9%. - fue la más alta hasta el momento. Y el independentismo volvió a ganar, con más de 2 millones de votos (100.000 votos más que en las anteriores elecciones), obteniendo la mayoría absoluta de escaños en el Parlamento (70 de los 135). De otro lado, el partido más votado fue Ciudadanos (25,4%; 37 escaños), un partido liberal, defensor de la unidad de España, que obtuvo sus mejores resultados hasta el momento.

Sin embargo, las dificultades para formar gobierno son elevadas porque el candidato a la presidencia se encuentra en Bruselas y no puede volver sin riesgo de ser encarcelado, al igual que algunos representantes políticos elegidos en las últimas elecciones, como Oriol Junqueras. Por ello está claro que con unas elecciones no alcanza; para salir de esta situación se requiere un auténtico acto de soberanía, mucho diálogo y sobre todo respeto a los derechos fundamentales.

  • El espacio cívico en España es clasificado como ‘estrecho’ por el CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Contáctese con Irídia a través de su página web o su perfil de Facebook, o siga a @centre_IRIDIA y a @Anais_Franquesa en Twitter




‘The anti-corruption protests have turned the inhabitants of Romania into a whole new generation of alert citizens’

CIVICUS speaks to Viorel Micescu, Executive Director of CENTRAS: The Assistance for Non-Governmental Organizations, an independent non-profit organisation aimed at contributing to the development of democracy in Romania through the strengthening of civil society. Established in 1995, CENTRAS provides training, technical assistance and informational support to communities, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses and governments interested in civil society and democracy development. CENTRAS has a branch in Constanta (the third largest county in Romania) and supports a network of regional resource centres.

  1. What triggered the protests that took place in Romania in early 2017, and how would you describe them?

In January 2017, a new government came into office. It had been elected on a series of financial promises but instead, the first thing they did was pass legislation to amend the Criminal Code and decriminalise certain acts of corruption. This was intended to create much better conditions for politicians who had been involved in corruption to get away with it, thereby effectively slowing down the ongoing fight against corruption. The Ministry of Justice tried to pass this legislation through an emergency decree. Upon becoming aware of these plans, in mid-January 2017, citizens active on social media organised two marches to put pressure on the government. As a result, the president intervened to have the government drop this piece of legislation. However, the law was subsequently adopted by surprise in the middle of the night on 31 January 2017.

As soon as the word spread that the government had done this despite public protests, people were back on the streets. First the government ignored them but later, as numbers grew and the protest in front of the government building went on day after day, it was forced to withdraw the emergency legislation. These were the biggest protests in decades. At some point, it was estimated that half a million people took to the streets, including more than 200,000 in the capital, Bucharest. The protests were mostly peaceful, although clashes periodically erupted between police and protesters. When demonstrators threw objects at the police, officers responded with tear gas. In the aftermath of one clash in Bucharest, 20 people were arrested and eight were injured.

Within 10 days of the protests, the government had backed down. But this didn’t stop the demonstrations, because people kept expressing their anger and frustration with the undemocratic way in which the decree had been initially pushed through and passed, and were now demanding that the government step down. Government officials refused to resign; however, they did give up on the emergency decree and eventually the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, was forced to resign. A non-partisan personality from academia was appointed as his replacement.

However, the former Minister of Justice, who as the author of the controversial decree that would have protected politicians from prosecution for corruption offences had been at the centre of the story, ended up occupying a high position in parliament. In October 2017 Iordache was appointed president of the parliamentary committee for ensuring legislative stability in the field of justice. So in the end, the struggle moved from government to parliament. The government backed off but members of parliament still defied public outrage. Several months after the facts, people occupied the square in front of the government building in Bucharest.

  1. Did your organisation play any role in supporting the protests?

We are, above all, a resource centre for civil society development. In view of the ongoing events, since February 2017 we provided support to informal groups of citizens who organised on Facebook and other social media. As a result, there are now three large communities that are very active and exist not only on Facebook but also in the form of organised offline structures. They are monitoring closely what is happening. We estimate that between 50,000 and 80,000 citizens are involved in these groups.

Many people who took part in the protests had not been involved in civil society or political action before. As a result of the government’s actions in January and February 2017, a lot of people who were living within a narrow private triangle – work, family, vacation - suddenly became engaged citizens.

It suddenly became obvious for everybody that there was a huge gap between the people and the so-called political class. CSOs were out in the streets and the square as well. In this context, the reasonable thing for us to do in order to collect and disseminate credible information was to reach out to mobilised people. So once the ways in which the protest movement was being fuelled through social media became apparent, and those groups started gaining prominence and leading the events, we got in touch. The whole idea was to explain to the people out there that it is not enough to be a ‘protest citizen’ and only get out to the streets when something really bad happens. You must undertake civic work every day on top of your job and family obligations.

Protesters were mostly people who came from educated backgrounds and hold good jobs, and who also want the social and political environment to improve so they can enjoy life. The wishes and expectations of citizens who want a better life cannot really be fulfilled just by marching on the streets. From the streets you can stop a legislative initiative but you can’t interact sustainably with the government. We tried to make clear to these people that this would be not be the ultimate war against corruption, and that much more would be required to win. The people in the protests needed to organise for the long haul, and they had to do it quickly or otherwise it would be difficult to mobilise people again when a new backlash took place.

We realised that these active citizens with enough financial resources are the most likely to support the civil society sector. So along with one of the protest groups, in March 2017 we launched a small fund, which we named the Fund for Democracy, backed by donations from Romanians living in and outside Romania. We told people who cared about strengthening civil society that they could achieve this aim by putting money into the fund, which we would coordinate. Within a week we gathered €22,000 (approx. US$27,000), all of it in private donations transferred through the banking system. We initially received recurring donations only from selected donors, but we will eventually widen our base of support by going public. We make sure donations are managed properly by isolating projects from the rest of the organisation and having a separate board make decisions about them.

Once we got the funds, we launched a call for ideas on social media and funded eight civic projects. These are all centred on the idea of civic values and range from education to civic involvement and monitoring good governance, and they are open not only to formal CSOs but also to informal groups of citizens and investigative journalists. All of this is happening at a time when there is a huge funding gap at the international level, and there is virtually no money for civic-minded civil society.

  1. Did protesters also gather in CSOs after demonstrations ended?

Protesters did not have an actual leadership; only those who started the Facebook page had some kind of organisation, and most were doing their organising in addition to their day jobs. This would not have been sustainable, and in fact about a month and a half into the process some of those people started talking to each other and some groups merged as they became aware that they had to specialise. In this process, they acquired some kind of structure with an executive leader, with some kind of division into areas of work and task forces. Organisations emerged that dealt not just with corruption and governance issues, but also with health, education and the environment, among other issues.

Lots of people in the CSO community tried to provide protesters with information on how to get organised. The whole point was to help them get organised on their own by equipping them with the capacities to build the organisations that were best adapted to their needs. These were large emerging masses of people who were just starting to feel and behave as citizens, and persuading them to fit into existing structures was by no means the best available solution.

Many of these new organisations are still not registered as CSOs. The largest groups will surely eventually register, but not in the short term: this takes a lot of time, and registering an organisation with tens of thousands of members is complicated. Most importantly, we know that politicians have only just given us a break, and we have not won for good. The battle is ongoing, and nobody has much time for bureaucratic procedures. Every day we must produce, process and disseminate new information – so much of it, that it is difficult to keep up. Nobody really has much time to do anything else.

  1. Did the government make any changes in terms of its anti-corruption policies in the aftermath of the protests?

In April 2017, the government responded to requests from the European Union (EU), the USA and other actors, to analyse the legislation properly, including through debates and consultations with judges and magistrates. In doing this, the government took the slow road; however, the results of the inquiry were unsatisfactory to party and government leaders because they showed that practitioners didn’t want the legislation softened in any way.

Regarding pardoning prerogatives, for instance, the only consensus that exists in the judiciary is that they should not apply to people convicted in corruption cases. The majority believe that allowing public officials imprisoned for bribery, official misconduct, conflict of interest or influence trafficking to benefit from pardons would introduce the wrong incentives into our judicial system. So many people, including justice officials, now have the feeling that their own government has betrayed them.

In June 2017, the government lost the support of the ruling party for failing to respond to their political urges to slow down anti-corruption reforms. The government collapsed but the Prime Minister refused to resign. In August, the Justice Minister proposed new reforms that, according to critics, would undermine not just the fight against corruption but also the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. In other words, this took us back to square one – or almost.

As a result of the turmoil of February and March 2017, the ruling party now has big internal problems. However, elections have passed in 2016, and politicians managed to get through them by bribing people – by promising, for instance, to raise their salaries by 50 per cent. Their next encounter with voters is years away. In the meantime, the leaders of both houses of parliament are under criminal investigation on corruption charges, and will be convicted unless they manage to change the legislation. Many other members of parliament are in trouble as well, as they face various corruption charges. So all of them want a more favourable legislation, and in particular they rely on the introduction of pardoning prerogatives for corruption cases.

So in November 2017, nine months after the first protests, Romanians again protested against proposed legislative changes and to remind the government that they remained vigilant in case there was any attempt to slow down the fight against corruption.

More recently, on 15 January 2018, the ruling coalition forced yet another government, including the Prime Minister, to resign – mainly based on accusations that they have not done enough to pass the desired modifications to laws on justice – so citizen groups summoned a massive protest in Bucharest for 20 January 2018. So it seems that a political crisis is under way, and street mobilisation will continue. It shall be another busy winter for the citizens of Romania, as the 'criminal interest group' has managed to hold on to power in the ruling party, albeit their position is being seriously weakened.

  1. What has been the role of the international community throughout this process, and how could international civil society support Romanian civil society to fulfil its role?

In Romania, when the government gets on the wrong track, the international reaction is usually sufficient to set it straight. But this time it has been different. There was a majority parliament, and the EU and USA have been immersed in their own problems, and couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene immediately. That’s why it’s so good that people got out to the streets and protested. This caught the attention of the international public and allowed for a bigger reaction. But the fact that this reaction eventually took place was important – protesters in the streets would not have sufficed.

The whole process was self-reinforcing. People invested lots of energy and creativity in the protests. They used humour, created witty slogans and memes and repurposed symbols of pop culture. This allowed them to win over the hearts of the international media, who saw everyday Romanians get out in the cold weather after work, stay there for hours into the night and exhibit all that creativity. I remember meeting a number of journalists from big international TV stations and other global media outlets one of those days, quite late in the evening, in a small café by the square. They commented that they were impressed by the vividness of the protest and by protesters’ ability to respond to questions in several languages while displaying their slogans. As a result, they provided extensive and positive coverage of the events in the international media, which put pressure on European politicians to do something about it, and therefore for European countries to react strongly, which they did.

Romanian civil society is not yet mature; it needs international support and is very pleased when its efforts are acknowledged – it gets all the more energy when its actions get wide international coverage. In that sense, the visit of a delegation of the European Parliament in March 2017 was particularly significant. The visitors met with protest group leaders, lots of journalists wrote about them and the world discovered that Romanian citizens want good governance, hold European values and support anti-corruption efforts. Whenever someone writes and publishes something along these lines it is news for the Facebook community, and it gives civil society increasing strength.

  1. What impact do you think the protests might have on future citizen participation in Romania?

CSOs like ours have spent a quarter of a century trying to make citizens out of the inhabitants of Romania, with relatively little success. It was as a result of the recent protests that we regained hope. We now have a whole new generation of alert citizens. Politics has become one of the most likely subjects of everyday conversation. Debates and forums are being organised to channel all these energies, because people have not been in the business of practising civic values for a long time, and they are just learning how to participate, how to form and express an opinion, how to interpret political events.

In normal times, a typical protest against some form of government abuse would gather a few hundred people. Sometimes, environmental organisations would manage to summon around 10,000 people, but in February 2017, close to 600,000 came out from all over Romania on a single night. Most importantly, the protest reached places like small cities and towns, where there had never been protests before.

Eastern Europe does not have a big protest tradition, and these were by far the largest protests ever experienced in this part of the world. Additionally, protests against corruption and in favour of European values mean a lot more in times of uncertainty, after the Brexit vote and the progress made by the extreme right in the Dutch and French elections. These protests gave a message of unity around European values, and in that sense they can be viewed as model protests for the times to come.

These are fascinating times. On one hand, never before have we had politicians who are so mean and selfish, and of such little human and professional quality. On the other hand, there is now a large mass of new people entering the civic arena, getting ready to monitor the government and eventually to help educate politicians. Politicians will be educated only if citizens educate themselves first: there is a need for millions more to wake up and understand that there is another way of living their life.

  1. What challenges do you see moving forward?

Most importantly, our anti-corruption struggle is ongoing. Despite daily public protests in front of the parliament, new laws on judicial organisation were passed in December 2017 and submitted to the president for approval. The president could veto them, but the ruling parties have a sufficient majority to override the veto. The adoption process was marred by abuses and lack of consultation, which was not surprising, given that the parliamentary committee that drafted them was led by the same former Minister who started the fire in January 2017. These pieces of legislation as well as their adoption process will surely come under the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court in the following months.

Additionally, the same parliamentary committee is now getting ready to amend the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedures Code. This is the big stake for politicians; if passed, these amendments will make even the emergency decree passed in January 2017 look soft.

Still, public support for the ruling party has not gone down enough. To keep popular support, the government keeps trying to deliver on their promise to double salaries, although this is not sustainable, as it would create a huge pressure on public finances.

CSOs are also being the target of restrictive legislation. It will not be as bad here as it has been in neighbouring Hungary, but the political majority is moving along the same lines. A smear campaign against CSOs is ongoing, and it is being repeatedly insinuated that CSOs have a hidden interest in destabilising the country. In June 2017, a draft bill was proposed to allow for the forced closure of any CSO that does not publish reports of its revenues and expenses, as well as the names of all of its donors, twice a year. This is an arbitrary burden, much more demanding than that applied to other sectors, meant to increase political control over civil society. Although the bill was put on hold for the summer due to the negative public reactions it caused, it was tacitly adopted by the Senate in November 2017, and was then sent to consideration by the Chamber of Deputies. We are confident that we will be able to block it, but we also know that a new move by the government will follow to restrict civil society.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • Get in touch with CENTRAS through their website.


‘Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and Hong Kong people are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways’

Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report on the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so. CIVICUS speaks with student leader Yiu Wa Chung about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong.

  1. Three years after the 2014 protests, what has happened to the pro-democracy movement?

Two separate processes have unfolded over the past few years: street protests and an institutional process that took place around the Legislative Council elections. What we demanded through street demonstrations in 2014 was true universal suffrage. We wanted China to change its electoral guidelines and the pro-China Chief Executive to resign.

Since Britain returned it to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means the Hong Kong government has jurisdiction over internal affairs and trade relations, while the government of China is in charge of Hong Kong’s defence and foreign policy. We therefore enjoy limited self-determination and political rights, although we do have an independent judiciary and a free press.

Hong Kong has the status of a Special Administrative Region, and our government is led by a Chief Executive who is chosen by a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people, most of them from pro-China elites. The Legislative Council is the legislative branch of government.

The thing is, when Hong Kong was returned to China, we were promised that we would be able to elect our Chief Executive by universal suffrage by 2017; however, in 2014 it became clear that free elections were not going to happen, as a reform framework was passed in August that established that only a few committee-vetted (pro-China) candidates would be allowed to compete in these elections. And that was the trigger for the massive 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in Hong Kong’s history.

The main reason that mobilisation decreased in the years after 2014 is that people were discouraged by the lack of results. After such a big movement and 79 days of occupation that paralysed major roads in the financial centre, we got no reply from the government, and there was no institutional change. People devoted a lot of energy, time and effort and they sacrificed so much. Almost every single young protestor who appeared on camera or was interviewed by the media in 2014 is being prosecuted or is in jail. And it was all for nothing. In other words, the costs of protest increased and the expected gains decreased, so the momentum passed and street protest declined.

However, in the years since 2014 there were two elections, for the local District Councils in 2015 and for the Legislative Council in 2016. Because of the atmosphere and because voting in elections has much lower cost than going out to the streets, the results of those two elections were quite good for the pro-democracy camp.

But it is important to note that half the legislative seats are filled through small circle elections within functional interests, which works almost like an appointment, so regardless of how well we fare in the elections we still face considerable obstacles when looking at the overall composition of the Legislative Council. Moreover, what happened in 2016 is that after the elections that the pro-democracy camp won, the government found an excuse to disqualify six of the elected legislative councillors. For instance, they argued that one of the councillors had not taken his oath properly because he had changed the tone of his words, so his promise to obey the laws of the People’s Republic of China sounded more as a question than a statement. He hadn’t changed a single word, but according to the government he pronounced them in a questioning rather than a neutral tone. Another elected councillor took the oath properly, in a neutral tone and all, but after he had been sworn in, he chanted a pro-democracy slogan, “Rights to the people.” Another one paused excessively in between words and mispronounced the word “China,” and so on.

The judicial process following a demand for disqualification takes about a year, during which time these elected councillors were banned from taking part in the Council’s deliberations. And when they were eventually disqualified, they were required to pay back the salaries they had received. This is something that not just anybody can afford. In other words, the government is using every means at their disposal to bend people’s opinion, including by forcing us to go bankrupt. The message that Beijing is sending to people in Hong Kong is that resisting is pointless.

In sum, both in the streets and at the institutional level, the pro-democracy movement is currently in decline.

  1. Do you think a “culture of protest” emerged out of the Umbrella Movement, and that the public is now more prone to mobilising than in the past?

It did look like it around 2015, but the enthusiasm has long since dissipated. By 2015 the government was not as authoritarian as it is today, and community organising flourished. There were lots of new organisations that put their efforts into all kinds of issues, including labour rights, universal suffrage and institutional change. But by 2016, with the government on the offensive, trying to disqualify elected lawmakers, passing restrictive bills and jailing people, protest and mobilisation had declined.

I believe that the current authoritarian trend is no accident; it fits the long-term plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the handover, the CCP has devoted a lot of human and financial resources to setting up satellite organisations in Hong Kong. They have consistently worked to infiltrate each and every sector and change the democratic culture, step by step. Hong Kong people resented this; resentment built up and resulted in the 2014 protests. The Umbrella Movement took the CCP and the Hong Kong government by surprise; nobody expected so many people to take to the streets. But they chose to ignore it and let it wear out by providing no response whatsoever to its demands. The occupation lasted 79 days, during which the CCP clearly sized the movement up. They got to know its weaknesses and limits perfectly well. They were aware that people were getting tired. They saw us as a wave coming from the ocean, gathering strength and gradually wearing out, and they waited it out. As the movement weakened, the CCP asserted its power. Increasingly authoritarian methods are hard to resist once you have used up all our energy. All that has been done has yielded no results, so people have retreated further and increasingly refrain from voicing their opinion.

It should be noted that unlike in China, control in Hong Kong can be subtle. Different methods are being used, the prosecution and jailing of protestors being just the most blunt of them. But the government has also been deliberately increasing the cost of living in Hong Kong, and most notably rent, which is already the highest in the world. The effects of this are appalling: for many people, it means they have to work longer hours, with little time or energy left for leisure or politics, and that they have no leftover money for anything else, and organising obviously costs money. Additionally, the Hong Kong economy is very dependent on China, and if you have business with China you will lose everything for not playing by their rules, which include political alignment.

Control is also cultural and educational. There is an increasing control of the school curriculum, and changes are being introduced in the content of schoolbooks, so young children learn from an early stage that they have to love and obey China and its leaders. Children are being told to love the CCP, the “most democratic” party there is. There is also an ongoing attack on our language, as they are trying to impose Mandarin instead of Cantonese in schools. In short, combined control tactics are being applied from all sides – they are truly a tight network of control - so there is no room to even think of resisting.

The democratic camp has kept trying to mobilise support, but people are tired and less ready to respond. Public reactions against authoritarianism and rights violations have become exceptions rather than the rule in the present context.

  1. A number of pro-democracy activists were jailed in 2017. What was the background to this, and what was the civil society response?

In August 2017, three student leaders of the pro-democracy movement were sentenced to between six and eight months in jail. They had originally been sentenced to community service for storming a fenced-off section of the government headquarters. They were charged with unlawful assembly, and inciting people to take part in illegal rallies. However, the local government appealed against the case arguing that community service was too light a punishment, and they were eventually sentenced to jail. Additionally, they were barred from running for public office for five years, which meant that one of them, who was considering running for a legislative position, would no longer be able to do so.

In reaction to the sentencing tens of thousands of people took to the streets and marched to the Court of Final Appeal. This was the biggest demonstration since 2014. Sadly, it was only an isolated reaction, which probably was due to the fact that these students were some of the most visible leaders of the Umbrella Movement and their cases drew lots of attention.

In contrast, in December 2017 the government approved changes in the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedure that would break the balance between pro-democracy and pro-China camps, and there was no visible reaction. The democratic camp called for a protest, but only a couple of hundred people showed up and were easily removed. These procedure changes were accomplished because, with six of its democratically elected legislators disqualified, the pro-democracy camp did not have enough votes to block them. Over several weeks, numerous pro-democracy legislators were kicked out of the chamber for disrupting the debate with filibustering tactics, and the amendments eventually passed. As a result, the president will now have the power to reconvene meetings, to ban and combine amendments, and to stop legislators from raising adjournment motions.

  1. Looking ahead, what are the main challenges to the sustainability of the pro-democracy movement, and how are they being addressed?

All the major tools that we had are gone. For protesting in the streets you get arrested and thrown into jail, and if you try the institutional path, you get disqualified or stripped of decision-making power. The cost of involvement in both arenas is going up.

Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and it is much more than what you can see on camera. People in Hong Kong are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways, such as setting up a tiny bookstore to counter state-sponsored indoctrination, using public space for cultural activities or creating semi-public spaces for reading groups.

But of course we are not going to defeat the network of control that oppresses us by ourselves, with a music concert or a reading group. We need help. This could take the form of the international media focusing more on Hong Kong, the United Nations setting up a special commission, or foreign governments putting economic pressure on China to change its Hong Kong policy. However, we all know that this will hardly happen. Not even Britain, our former colonial power, reacted strongly as China recently stated that their Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which laid the blueprint for Hong Kong to organise after its handover to China, no longer had any practical significance. China is not fulfilling its promises and Britain is not doing anything about it. There’s a lot the international community could do, but there’s not much they are willing to do, given the facts of China’s economic and military rise. They all want to do business with China and do not dare bring up the Hong Kong issue. The cause of Hong Kong is unfortunately not nearly as popular as that of Tibet.


‘Civil society won the debate on inequality but still needs to win the actual fight against it"

CIVICUS speaks to Ben Phillips, Launch Director of the Fight Inequality Alliance, a growing movement of citizens from across the world uniting to take on the crisis of widening inequality, and build a world that works for all. Committed to countering the excessive concentration of power and wealth in the hands of small elites, the Fight Inequality Alliance includes leading international and national civil society organisations (CSOs), human rights campaigners, women’s rights groups, environmental groups, faith-based organisations, trade unions, social movements and other CSOs.

  1. Why is widening inequality such a worrisome phenomenon?

Widening inequality – and how we start to beat it – is the defining issue of our time. Anti-apartheid leader Jay Naidoo calls the widening chasm between a powerful few and the rest “Apartheid 2.0.” Rising inequality is holding back progress on poverty, hurting growth, making societies less healthy and liveable, widening mistrust and instability, exacerbating violent conflict, facilitating extremists, holding back action on climate change, corrupting politics, weakening the voice of ordinary people and concentrating ever more power in fewer hands. Privilege and wealth are reshaping economic and social systems at the expense of people as a whole and the planet. We are witnessing a world in danger not just of a slowdown in social progress but of a reversal of it.

Seven out of 10 people live in countries where the gap between rich and poor is greater than it was 30 years ago. As I saw for myself in Zambia when I met with dispossessed farmers there, despite the country moving from officially poor to officially middle income status, the number of poor people has actually increased. China, India and Russia have all seen steep rises in the gap between rich and poor. Five per cent of Indians own 50 per cent of the country’s wealth. Growth has seemingly been decoupled from jobs and from broad benefit for ordinary people. Lives and livelihoods are being lost because those who design policies are following a damaging model.

Inequality is intersectional and all forms of inequality influence each other. Our societies are rooted in patriarchy, racism and many other forms of discrimination. Women, especially women of colour, are also the hardest hit by rising economic inequality: they are the workers in the most precarious employment; they suffer the most from cuts in public services; and much of their work, paid and unpaid, is not recognised and rewarded. Challenging patriarchy, challenging discrimination, and challenging the power of the 1 per cent are all essential and inseparable to building societies where all are valued. Governments are loosening their watch over major corporations and big finance, and tightening their watch over civil society, including unions, community organisations and citizens. Civil society space and democratic rights are being eroded to make way for overly powerful elites. So too, an increasingly economically divided world is becoming an increasingly angry and intolerant one, and groups that blame an ‘Other’ (defined through their race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality) have dramatically grown. Every progressive cause, and the dignity of every person, is threatened by the inequality crisis. Uniting to fight inequality is essential for all of us.

  1. While inequality is truly damaging, the need for action to tackle it, once a controversial idea, is now accepted even in mainstream economic discourse. Does this mean the movement to fight inequality has won?

If only! As civil society, we face the paradox of having won the debate but still needing to win the fight. To hope that commitments would be made by governments to tackle inequality was once seen as an overly ambitious advocacy goal. It has been more than passed. It may have felt like winning. But real government actions to tackle inequality are like flowers in a desert. The mainstream consensus has shifted to recognise inequality without a consequent shift in action. We are feasting on words and fasting on delivery. This is not just because it takes time. It’s because widening inequality is a consequence of a political economy cycle in which ever more power and wealth are concentrated in fewer hands, warping society and politics to further concentrate power and wealth. To break this cycle and catalyse a renewed virtuous cycle therefore requires a process of shifting power.

That is why the focus on the Fight Inequality Alliance is on organising to build up collective power from below, and across organisations and borders. None of this is easy. But that’s also the point: we are faced with a structural challenge of dominance by powerful elites who are not simply waiting to be better informed by civil society before they voluntarily make things fairer. The approach to how we advance change needs to be commensurate with the scale of transformation required. The power of the people can challenge the people in power – but when, and only when, we organise. The Fight Inequality Alliance is helping people build that power today.FightInequality Interview

  1. How is the Fight Inequality Alliance working to achieve its very ambitious goal?

The Fight Inequality Alliance seeks to reverse widening inequality and build economies and societies that work for all. Amongst the shifts the Fight Inequality Alliance is calling for from governments and international institutions to ensure this are: action to combat discrimination and tackle entrenched privilege; fairer taxation and progressive spending for quality universal public services and social protection; minimum living wages and strengthened workers’ rights; strengthened land rights; fair and bold action to address climate change; protection of migrants and refugees; and protection for democratic rights and civil society space. At national and regional levels alliance members are developing their own, more detailed, visions and narratives that reflect the regional or national contexts and agreed campaigning priorities.

Crucially, Fight Inequality Alliance members don’t only share a set of values of the kind of society we are working to advance. We also have a shared recognition that it can’t be achieved merely by asking for it from leaders, through insider advocacy, policy papers and pilot projects. As much as these are important, the fight against inequality will be won by deepening people’s collective power and advancing practical actions that challenge and change the status quo and shift power.

Inequality is ultimately a question of power – and societies are only truly more equal when power is more equal. Reversing rising inequality is not just about changing the rules but also about changing who gets to make the rules. That is why we are working together to build people’s power to pressure leaders to act. The alliance’s key added value is in building the strength of people to press for change. The model is one where securing small wins is useful not only in itself but also in strengthening people’s confidence and capability for further small and larger wins. A movement of national alliances is seen as the key driver of change, supported by regional and international solidarity and action to amplify it.

  1. Who is involved in the Fight Inequality Alliance, and how is it organised?

The Fight Inequality Alliance brings together social movements, trade unions, and progressive CSOs in a common struggle for a more equal world. Those involved in it include the International Trade Union Confederation, CIVICUS, Femnet, Africans Rising, Asian People’s Movement on Debt and Development, Greenpeace, ActionAid, Oxfam, ACT Alliance, the Global Alliance for Tax Justice and many national organisations and movements including Gambia Has Decided, Fees Must Fall, India Social Action Forum and others. It’s a wonderfully diverse group that came together because inequality and its root causes are the common thread in the challenges we face the world over in building societies that work for all, and because all those involved are really clear that they cannot do this on their own, and that if inequality is to be tackled we need to name that as our explicit goal and work together in an alliance.

The Fight Inequality Alliance is coordinated by a steering group representing the different sectors and regions of the world. Global gatherings were held in 2016 on a community-owned farm set up by anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, in early 2017 in a poor community in Manila, the Philippines, at a convent of radical nuns who had helped defeat Ferdinand Marcos, and in late 2017 at a youth activist-managed hostel in Copenhagen, Denmark. Through these meetings and other joint work, allies have been able to come together with a common platform for change and a common approach, overcoming the challenges faced by different parts of civil society in doing joint work, going beyond the ‘egos and logos’ that can hold back cooperation, and building an alliance big enough to make a difference. It’s a facilitative and enabling way of working driven by the needs of people working for change in their countries. It’s an open and growing movement and we’d welcome any interested readers getting in touch.

  1. In October 2017 the Fight Inequality Alliance organised a powerful global mobilisation to challenge the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how their actions contradict their words on inequality, and it is now organising another one to counter the elite gathering of the World Economic Forum at Davos. What happened last October and what can we look forward to in January 2018?

Back in October the mobilisation of Fight Inequality Alliance members surprised and shook the World Bank and the IMF, and helped re-energise civil society groups, by bringing people out on the streets to highlight how the World Bank and IMF’s actions continue to widen inequality. World Bank security had earlier in the week tried, unlawfully, to shoo us away from outside their building, and then we had a bit of a scare when a far-right US pro-gun group claimed on social media that they would counter-protest the Fight Inequality protest, but on the day the sun shone and the Fight Inequality protest brought the attention of the public and media to the inequality crisis and the role of the international financial institutions in perpetuating it, and the World Bank and IMF were shown up by refusing even to comment to the Al-Jazeera correspondent who asked them about a list of examples we gave of the damage they were doing on the ground.

This January, at the same time as political and business elites will meet at the World Economic Forum and claim that they are fixing the problem of inequality, Fight Inequality Alliance groups across the world will show through mobilisations and actions that answers do not come from those elites who actually are making inequality worse; that instead, the way to tackle inequality is through strengthening the power of people by uniting for change and listening to their solutions.

As the world's 1 per cent gather in the luxury Swiss mountain resort of Davos, rallies will be taking place around the world on mountains of a very different sort – the mountains of garbage and of open pit mines that millions of the most unequal call home. People will be gathering in events in countries including Bangladesh, Denmark, the Gambia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Senegal, South Africa, Tunisia, United Kingdom, Zambia and Zimbabwe to demand publicly an end to inequality. Events worldwide include a pop concert at a slum next to a garbage mountain in Kenya, a football match in Senegal, a public meal sharing in Denmark, a rally at an open-pit mine in South Africa, a sound truck in Nigeria, and a giant ‘weighing scales of injustice’ in the UK.

Mobilising globally in this way is helping to expose how we cannot put our faith in elites to fix an inequality problem they perpetuate, and that instead we need to recognise as citizens that we, together, are the people we’ve been waiting for. Mobilising together across the world inspires people to recognise their own power and grow in confidence, builds up the movement, and builds up the links that build collective power.

We have rising inequality because the super-rich are determining what governments should do. Davos can never be the answer because the problem is caused by the influence of the people at Davos. Governments around the world must listen instead to their citizens, and end the Age of Greed. We know that governments will only do that when we organise and unite, so we are coming together as one.

  1. What needs to happen for widening inequality to be reversed?

We, all of us, need to happen! Elites won’t self-correct. The arc of the universe won’t bend on its own towards justice, but collective people power can bend it down.

We’re optimistic. This optimism does not come from a naïve assumption that recent elite declarations of intent to act on inequality will automatically be followed through without public pressure. Rather, the possibility for change comes from people organising and connecting. Around the world, extraordinary ordinary people are fighting inequality – from women garment workers in Bangladeshi factories fighting for living wages; to youth activists in Zambia fighting for mining companies to pay their fair share of tax to fund public schools and health clinics; to LGBTI activists in Liberia fighting discrimination and hate speech; to indigenous communities fighting to prevent fossil fuel companies from destroying their land. The growing Fight Inequality Alliance is connecting these struggles, building a movement to bring people together to challenge privilege and counter the excessive concentration of power and wealth. We are standing together to build a world of greater equality, opportunity and dignity – where all people’s rights are respected, living within the planet’s boundaries.

The struggle to reverse rising inequality is a cause that can be won. Through supporting collective organising and linking that strengthens the power of people, civil society can help ensure that together we can start to push inequality back.

Former CIVICUS leader Kumi Naidoo put it to me this way: “We’ve spent too many years looking upwards at governments, we have to change our gaze and focus on people’s mobilisation.” This is why, in the Fight Inequality Alliance, we do less lobbying and more mobilising and organising. The most important change happens from the ground up. People gather in a circle, see that they are not alone, and start to talk. And from that the most powerful actions build. The change we need won’t be given to people; it will be won by people. 

This is a lesson learnt by others who struggled against inequality in the past. As Frederick Douglass, former slave and great anti-slavery campaigner, put it in 1857: “The whole history of the progress shows that all concessions have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and yet deprecate agitation want crops without ploughing up the ground; rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The good news is that people are organising and connecting. We can win. We can beat inequality. Together.



United States: ‘Even in challenging times, civil society needs to be proactive in setting the agenda"

CIVICUS speaks to Nick Robinson, a legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and lead of their United States Program. ICNL is a civil society organisation that works with governments, civil society and the international community in more than 100 countries to improve the legal environment for civil society, philanthropy and public participation. 

  1. How is ICNL engaging with the impacts on civil society of the current political climate in the United States?

ICNL has engaged with the current political environment by developing a set of initiatives focused on the United States. For example, in one of our central initiatives, the US Protest Law Tracker, and related freedom of assembly work, we analyse and advocate against anti-protest laws and overly aggressive prosecution of demonstrators. In another initiative, we are engaging Congress and other policy-makers about concerns we have regarding recent legislative proposals to strengthen the enforcement of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Dating from 1938, FARA requires those who engage in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register as a ‘foreign agent’ with the Department of Justice. While the Act has traditionally been rarely enforced, its provisions are so broad and vague that if it was implemented it could lead to many civil society organisations (CSOs) having to register as ‘foreign agents’. It is worth noting that ‘foreign agent’ acts in other countries, like Russia, have stigmatised and undercut civil society. In fact, as we’ve documented in a recent report, many of these other countries claim to have based their legislation on FARA.

Other projects include one that provides support to CSOs concerned about politicised government legal compliance actions against them and third party attacks; and a project that aims to help address vulnerabilities we see in the US university space.

  1. What has been the impact on US-based civil society groups in this first year of the Trump Presidency? What rights and groups do you perceive as being in the most danger?

We see a number of types of civil society groups and activities being particularly vulnerable at the present moment. As the prosecution of so-called ‘J20 protesters’ made clear, the use of collective liability is on the rise against protesters. This is deeply disturbing. In the J20 case, which was a case resulting out of protests in Washington DC against President Trump on Inauguration Day (20 January 2017) that damaged property, almost 200 protesters had charges brought against them that could bring decades in jail. The prosecutors never claimed they had evidence that the specific individuals who were charged had damaged property or assaulted anyone; instead, they were trying to hold liable anyone who was present at the protest under a theory of collective liability.

The protesters in the first batch were found innocent on all charges by a jury in December 2017, but it took 11 months to get a verdict. The other protesters charged are still awaiting trial. Keep in mind, this is a prosecution brought not by an obscure local prosecutor, but by the federal government – the Department of Justice. Along with CIVICUS and the Charity & Security Network, ICNL was able to bring our concerns about the freedoms of association, assembly and expression to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). We brought one of the charged J20 protesters, Elizabeth Lagesse, to give her testimony at an IACHR hearing that anyone interested in the case should check out.

We’ve also seen discriminatory or aggressive actions taken against civil society groups. For example, in September 2017, Representative DeSantis introduced a bill that would have banned Islamic Relief Worldwide from receiving federal funds based on unsubstantiated claims that they had ties to terrorist organisations. ICNL participated in a coalition that spoke out against this bill, which was ultimately withdrawn. However, this is part of a larger pattern of trying to target some groups by claiming they have ties to terrorist groups.

Finally, we’ve seen a number of impacts on civil society because of the administration’s new immigration policies. Organisations have mobilised to fight some of these policies because of the effect they will have on the country and people’s lives, but they also affect the functioning of organisations. Employees or volunteers of many groups are now facing deadlines by which they have to leave the US or are facing the threat of deportation. The visa bans of targeted countries, most of which are predominantly Muslim, have made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for civil society groups to do something as simple as bring a speaker for a conference from one of these countries.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it gives you a sense of some of the challenges we are seeing.

  1. Can you tell us more about your US Protest Law Tracker, its uses and main findings?

My colleague Elly Page has led ICNL’s efforts on the US Protest Law Tracker. ICNL created it when we realised there was an increase in the number of anti-protest bills being introduced in states across the country. As of the beginning of 2018, 28 states had considered 50 bills that restrict the right to protest since November 2016. Eight of these bills have been enacted, while a number of others are still pending. The tracker provides succinct analysis of each bill and categorises them under topics like ‘campus speech’ and ‘trespass’. Activists, the media, and the public can then search the tracker to find out the latest information about what bills are being considered.

We’ve seen not only an uptick in these laws, but a proliferation in the ways that the right to protest can be chilled. Perhaps most disturbing has been the number of bills that apply theories of collective liability or that increase the penalties for relatively minor offences frequently related to demonstrations – like blocking traffic or trespassing.  We’ve also been troubled by governors declaring states of emergency in response to protests – even in situations where this might make sense, like the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, these powers aren’t being tailored sufficiently. And we are concerned that these powers are beginning to be used whenever there is the mere threat of violence at a protest. This can chill participation in protests.

  1. How big an impact do you think democratic regression in the US is having at the regional and global level?

Other governments are picking up on US rhetoric and actions. For example, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán started using rhetoric around “Hungary comes first”, modelled on President Trump’s slogan “America First”, to justify the passage of a restrictive bill targeting international funding of civil society. President Trump’s practice of labelling certain stories “fake news” has been picked up and used by governments in countries like Cambodia, China, Russia and Syria against media reports documenting their human rights violations. It’s an easy way to delegitimise critics.

It’s important to note though that we don’t just see these challenges in the US, but across several developed democracies. Australia has seen proposals to ban foreign funding to CSOs and limit the amount of advocacy they are allowed to engage in. France has seen the repeated extension of national states of emergency and the use of other national security measures that can undercut a free and open civic space. It’s a bigger challenge than just the US.

  1. What message would you like to convey to international civil society groups working in challenging circumstances?

I would leave them with two thoughts. First, as the US government takes a step back from taking a lead on protecting civil space globally, and I think it is taking a step back, international civil society needs to push governments of other democracies to step up and take on more of a leadership role. There is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

Second, and related, in times like these it’s understandable that many of the responses of civil society are defensive. We need to defend the gains we’ve made over the years. Yet I think it’s also really important that we continue to pursue a vision of the independent pluralistic civil society that we want to create in the world. Even in difficult times we want to be proactive, and set the agenda we want to set – not just react to the latest crisis or concern. It’s difficult to do, but a vital task.

  • Civic space in the United States is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor
  • Get in touch with ICNL through their website or Facebook page, or follow @ICNLAlliance 


Catalonia: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’

Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.


Nigeria: ‘If passed, the NGO Bill will reduce the ability of CSOs to hold the government accountable and ensure that human rights are respected’

CIVICUS speaks to Oluseyi Babatunde Oyebisi, Director of the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) about the draconian NGO bill under consideration by Nigerian lawmakers and the implications that it would have for civil society. Based in Lagos, NNNGO supports Nigerian NGOs in their commitment to reduce poverty, promote human rights and spread the benefits of development among all people. NNNGO provides a range of services and opportunities to help its members achieve their organisational aims and exert influence on issues relevant to the national agenda.


‘Against hopelessness, we need to work not to lose the very small windows of freedom that we can find under this dictatorship’

CIVICUS speaks to an Iranian woman human rights defender about the causes and significance of the recent protests in Iran, as well as the prospects for change in a country with a closed civic space and a theocratic government that maintains a firm grip on power. She asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.


‘There are signs of hope, but we are not waiting with our arms crossed but pushing for reforms that improve our lives’

Angola saw a change at the top in 2017, when President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after a staggering 38 years in power, to be replaced by President Joao Lourenco. His rule was characterised by close control of the nation’s oil wealth, to the benefit of his family and the ruling elite, which necessitated a tight grip on civil society to prevent it exposing corruption and demanding a fairer distribution of wealth. As part of the state’s repression of civil society, in 2015, 15 young activists were arrested and detained for taking part in a group that discussed a book on liberation. The group were held in poor conditions, mistreated and, after an unfair trial, found guilty of rebellion. One of that group, activist and rapper Luaty Beirão, speaks to CIVICUS about what changes may be underway in Angola, and how civil society is trying to engage constructively to seek reform under the new president.

1. What changed for Angolan civil society in 2017?

2017 was a very interesting year for us. After six years of struggle aimed at our President, José Eduardo dos Santos - who when we started had been in power for 32 years, and in 2017 marked 38 years in power - he finally did not run for the presidency again. So we have a new president for the first time. I was born under dos Santos, and finally I have a second president.

It’s the same regime and the same party that has been in power for 42 years, so we were not expecting the new president to act against his predecessors. What dos Santos did towards the end of his term was put his family, especially his children, in very sensitive positions in our economy. His daughter Isabel dos Santos was chair of the national oil company, Sonangol - oil is our main resource - and his son José Filomeno dos Santos managed the US$5 billion sovereign wealth fund. We did not expect the new president to move so swiftly, but in under 90 days he’d sacked Isabel dos Santos and got José Filomeno dos Santos under control: he should not last much longer because he’s recently been implicated in the Panama Papers scandal. Two other children - Welwitschia and José Paulinos dos Santos - were in charge of two private companies, Westside and Semba Comunicações, which had a US$30 million contract with the state to run public TV service Channel 2. But now they have lost the contract and Semba Comunicações has closed.

The new president is also giving some space for judicial and state investigators to track how public money was used. Some cases are starting to arise, including some that affect the former president’s family interests. Isobel dos Santos, the richest woman in Africa, is also being sued abroad. Things are starting to catch up on them really quickly. It is interesting to see the new president allowing this to happen, although it might come back to bite him: it is impossible for him be clean because he has been in government for so many years.

One of the main reasons why we thought the new president would not do anything is that under the Angolan electoral system we vote for a party, not a candidate for president, and dos Santos remains the president of the ruling party. We expected him to tell party members what to do. We knew there was disruption within the ruling party, but the level of disruption is only now becoming apparent.

2. How is civil society reacting to these changes and the new opportunities that may open?

For us, there are signs of hope. The new president’s intentions appear to be good, so we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

In 2011, we decided that confrontation was the only way to go, because if we tried to do small projects on the side, they would only come and shut us down. We decided that to get our ideas working, we first needed to liberate ourselves from totalitarian rule.

Now the old president is gone and the new president is showing some openness, so we want to explore the situation and find out how far this openness reaches. Instead of looking for confrontation, as we had to do in the past, we have started to propose ideas, especially on social media. This is because to cast an image of himself as more democratic and open to modern society, the new president has official accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as do the Minister of Communication and the Governor of the capital city, Luanda. So we know they are reading our comments and they know we are there not just to be critical, but that we want to give them the benefit of the doubt. There are things we want to propose and see how they react to them, so we are testing them. I hope this interesting phase we're now in will shift us away from the need that we had before to be confrontational.

Even huge opponents of the old regime are applauding some of the new president’s initiatives. Hope is rising in Angola. We hope he is wise enough to keep it going longer. I hope he takes in all this positive energy and he finds it contagious and carries on going.

But we are not just waiting with our arms crossed. We are pushing for reform initiatives and showing the government that we are ready to back its actions if they are going to have positive repercussions in improving our lives and lifting the limitations we suffered from 1975 to 2017.

3. What changes should take place to show that the new president is serious in seeking reform?

There are many simple things that can be done, and small steps can keep hope alive. We want to carry on believing. We don't want to be disillusioned.

The new president should acknowledge the need for a strong civil society, rather than try to co-opt it into government. It would help if civil society actors saw their points of view taken into consideration when major decisions are made. The government should show more openness, for instance by being more present on social media and making live broadcasts of meetings.

There should be a constitutional reform. The 2010 constitution was designed to suit dos Santos. It gives too many powers to a president that is not even directly elected by the people. The president appoints judges to the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Military Court, and these judges report directly to the president, so there is no separation of powers. This needs to change. If the president wants to effect real change, he should reduce his own powers.

Regarding corruption, the new president should open a public debate and the public should accept that it is useful to know who were guilty of stealing public money and where the money went. But rather than focusing on sending those people to prison, we need to find a way to recover the money and have it invested in Angola.

We don’t expect the new president to transform the country in two days, but we do want him to show he is willing to listen and put into practice other people’s ideas, to experiment and open up.

We want to not have to be constantly fighting and confronting the powers that be. It’s exhausting, especially when you get beaten up, you get stitches in your head and you have to spend a year in prison. I would really love to shift my activism. I just want to feel like an active citizen. I want to carry on sharing my thoughts and ideas without being involved in conflict the whole time.

4. Apart from corruption, what are the major challenges that the new president faces?

There is urgent need to invest in education and health. Although theoretically we have free access to these public services, in practice that is not the case, and people in the ministries that are supposed to make these services work have stolen money, so we lack basic equipment and supplies. There is need for serious investment, starting with education, which will also help with public health knowledge. We need educated Angolans to manage the country. We are still very reliant on foreign capacities and foreign consultants, who charge huge amounts of money. We should also be developing tourism, but for the time being it is very hard to get visas for Angola.

Long-term investment is needed. Our national budget for the last 15 years has had double the amount going to security than to education and health. We are not at war and face no military threat. The only explanation for this is that the military control society. In fact, there are three different secret services operating in Angola.

Holding local elections is another important task for the new president. Local elections have been delayed for over seven years so far, with excuses such as lack of money or the need for a new law that has not been drafted. Of course, the ruling party doesn’t want elections because it risks losing constituencies.

There are good things going on in this part of the continent. Why can’t we follow the good examples instead of always comparing ourselves to the worst cases?

5. What role should the international community and civil society play? Do we need to change our approach to Angola?

When we started our movement in Angola, we were not thinking about finding supporters. We just did it out of urgency. But when you act following your heart and convictions, you draw international attention. Luckily for us, when we landed in prison a worldwide civil society movement advocated on our behalf.

There are always more things that can be done. But the situation on the ground is so dynamic that it's hard for big structures to follow through and adapt quickly. One of the things big structures need to do is acknowledge their difficulty to adapt and recognise that civil society movements worldwide are becoming increasingly less formalised. On the other hand, for informal groups it is also hard to adjust to the formal ways of access to international civil society organisations. We don't even know the jargon or terminology. We don’t know how a letter to the UN should be structured. There may be a need for capacity building in that regard. It might help if we were shown how to identify and reach out to the right people in the right places, and if we had help in building networks and identifying similarities and parallels that could serve as a basis for dialogue.

  • Civic space in Angola is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.
  • Get in touch with Luaty Beirão through his Facebook page, or follow @LuatyBeirao on Twitter.


‘The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it’

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

1. What is the current situation of the Rohingya people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and in the refugee camps in Bangladesh?

The situation is absolutely desperate and devastating, both inside Myanmar, as far as anybody can tell, and in Bangladesh, as the world is able to see on television. Essentially, what we have witnessed over the past six months – although this has been building up for years – is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has referred to as possible genocide, and what most organisations concerned with international law and human rights have denounced as crimes against humanity. Dozens of Rohingya villages have been burnt to the ground, forcing people to flee on long journeys through the jungle to reach a very precarious situation in Bangladesh. People fleeing have been pursued and attacked with guns and other weapons not just by the military but also by civilian members of the Burmese population.

In Bangladesh, refugees are living in incredibly overcrowded, under-resourced, and dangerous camps – it’s hardly fair to even call them “camps,” although the situation has improved a bit over the past couple of months. More than 620,000 Rohingya, about half the population, have so far fled Rakhine state, and they have nowhere else to go. So they are forced to stay on a very small piece of land in one of the poorest and already most densely populated countries in the world. There have already been outbreaks of infectious diseases, and given the problems of overcrowding and lack of basic hygiene and sanitation, which my own team at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recently reported, it is possible for infectious diseases to spread rapidly and with lethal results.

Essentially, the world has witnessed the virtual destruction of a culture, a community and a portion of the Burmese population. Myanmar and Bangladesh have recently reached an agreement for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar, but nobody really believes such an agreement can be implemented under the present circumstances. In the first place, refugees shouldn’t be sent back to Myanmar unless citizenship and basic rights are guaranteed. In the second, the provisions in the agreement involve Rohingya providing documents according to citizenship laws that don’t recognise them as citizens. This is obviously hugely problematic. What’s more, they have no homes to return to, as their villages have been burned, their lands and cattle seized by their non-Muslim neighbours, and many in their families and communities killed. There have also been very serious reports of mass rapes of women and girls, as well as killings of babies and young children, so the situation couldn’t be worse on any count.

2. Why is the Rohingya minority being specifically targeted?

There’s a long history of discrimination and persecution of minority groups in Myanmar, not only of the Rohingya but also of the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Shan minorities. PHR has documented the persecution of ethnic minorities in Myanmar for a decade, and other human rights groups have done it long before us.

Historically, it has been a problem for people who are not Burmese to live in Burma or Myanmar. There is a hyper-nationalist strain among both the population and the country’s leadership, and, on top of this, the country has lived for decades under a military dictatorship that persecuted not only the political opposition but also ethnic and religious minorities.

Myanmar has failed to recognise diversity and human rights for all its population. The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in a country that has a Buddhist majority, have long been deprived of their citizenship and treated as if they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for several generations, well over a hundred years, and belong in Myanmar as much as anybody else. However, in the latest census they were not counted among Burmese minorities but rather as foreigners lacking the protections that citizens receive under the law.

The idea that a certain group does not belong in a country is instrumental in enabling discrimination and persecution against it. A few years ago, PHR released a report on the burning of Muslim homes in Buddhist-dominated areas of Myanmar. We documented a well-known massacre in the town of Meikhtila, where police and security officials stood by and watched as local population burned houses and people alive. These actions had long been encouraged by racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, fuelled by a few very charismatic Buddhist monks that had much influence with the population.

Before the 2015 crackdown and subsequent crisis, more than one million Rohingya lived in Myanmar, most of them in Rakhine state. Their relationship with their Buddhist neighbours had been tense for quite some time, and outbreaks of violence had been relatively frequent in the past. The current crisis broke out in August 2017, when government forces were attacked by militants and a “clearance operation” was launched by Myanmar security forces in response. Mass expulsion of the Rohingya has since been executed under the pretence of a counter-insurgency operation, with the local population joining in burning villages and killing people. This looks like a very well-coordinated effort between officials and citizens, which is very disturbing.

In present Myanmar, the situation is compounded by the denial of human rights on multiple levels. We have recently seen a frightening crackdown on the freedom of expression in the country, and for some time the area in northern Rakhine State has been closed off to journalists. For some years now, it has been very difficult for humanitarian aid to reach the area. When a government shuts down access in such way, one can only fear the worst, because it strongly suggests that they are trying to hide something.

3. Has progressive and human rights-oriented civil society in Myanmar and Bangladesh done anything to respond to this crisis? If so, what challenges have they faced?

There have been efforts by very courageous individuals and organisations inside Myanmar, especially those representing minority groups, as well as human rights and humanitarian organisations. But it is extremely dangerous, if not impossible, to be an independent civil society voice inside Myanmar right now. For the Rohingya in Rakhine State, speaking up means sure death, and there is no access even for journalists to document what is going on in the area. So, unfortunately, even the most courageous members of civil society have been silenced by persecution.

In Bangladesh, there are a number of efforts underway, particularly by the humanitarian community, to help the refugees. But it’s not the best possible situation in terms of humanitarian response, either. The fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was not designated as the lead agency has been viewed negatively, although there has been strong coordination between the International Organization for Migration and UNHCR. In any case, the refugee influx has been overwhelming and the early response was insufficient. Moreover, this is happening in a challenging environment, and we need to understand that such an influx of refugees can be nothing but overwhelming for a country like Bangladesh – which makes an adequate international response all the more important.

4. You mentioned that the area where the atrocities are occurring is closed to journalists and civil society. What challenges have PHR and similar organisations faced in documenting the abuses?

The number one challenge is that human rights groups can’t get into Myanmar. It is therefore extremely difficult to do what we are supposed to do in terms of properly and independently documenting and assessing the facts inside the country where the crimes have occurred. The prohibition not only applies to human rights civil society organisations – representatives of the UNHCHR and the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar have also been barred from visiting the country. On the other hand, entry was allowed for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, who was able to interview survivors and confirm reports of atrocities.

As we lack access to Myanmar, we have instead documented what has happened to this people by interviewing them in Bangladesh. Thankfully, human rights groups and humanitarian organisations have had access to refugee camps, and this has been critical to documenting the plight of the Rohingya and their current humanitarian situation, and reporting on it. Doing this in the middle of a huge humanitarian crisis poses specific challenges. We are basically interviewing survivors who are desperately in need of trauma recovery, medical care, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and information about their missing family members. We have interviewed people who lost everybody in their families and are the sole survivors; people who have seen their homes burned to the ground, who had family members raped and shot dead, who were shot at even while crossing the river to get to Bangladesh. Documenting these kinds of human rights violations is certainly challenging for the person that is being interviewed, but it is also challenging for the one doing the reporting, because the need is so intense and the trauma is so acute – and we are a medically-based organisation, after all.

5. What support should the international community offer to resolve this crisis?

First, what most urgently requires a response from global governments is the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the ground in Bangladesh, in order to meet the most desperate needs of the refugees.

Second, there is a need for governments of the most powerful countries with influence on the Myanmar government – including China, which has consistently supported the government – to exert pressure so Myanmar immediately stops persecuting this population and gives them the citizenship and associated guarantees that they are due.

It is important to note that there have been high expectations regarding the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is now Myanmar’s nominal head of state, and her apparent lack of concern and acknowledgment of what her government has been doing have been very concerning. On one hand, we need to understand that she has limited control over the country’s military forces enacting the brutal campaign against the Rohingya. On the other hand, however, the international community needs to send Suu Kyi a strong message, since so much of the Burmese population views her as a leader and a hero, and her voice could change the tenor of this crisis – it could turn the population away from prejudice, discrimination, and persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities.

Third, there needs to be credible efforts to establish accountability and justice. This is critical, given the seriousness of the crimes that have been committed. Unfortunately, efforts to refer the crimes in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court for assessment have been blocked by China, among others.

Finally, it is also crucial to confront the flaws of the repatriation agreement, so that anybody who chooses to return to Myanmar is able to do so safely and with guarantees for all their human rights, including the right to reclaim their land, property, livelihood, and employment, as well as to practice their religion freely and safely. On the other hand, those who choose not to go back need to be guaranteed the right to claim asylum and find safe haven in another country. Policy-wise, the biggest challenge will be defining what will happen to these people who have fled in such high numbers.

This will not be an easy crisis to solve. Global politics are not looking particularly good at the moment. World leaders and the Security Council have many other crises to deal with, including the North Korea situation, Iran, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and so on. Many of us are worried that people are going to forget about this particular crisis unfolding in a remote part of the world, so it is vital to continue to call attention to these serious human rights abuses and not let the world forget that this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis. As recently as last week, we’ve seen reports of outbreaks of diphtheria, and there are fears of a cholera epidemic, which will not be easy to contain. The long-term solution to this crisis will most definitely require continuous surveillance, reporting, and action by UN bodies, regional organisations, individual governments, and civil society.

  • Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating serious restrictions in the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
  • Get in touch with PHR through their website or Facebook page, or follow @P4HR and @susannahsirkin on Twitter


‘Market discourse has captured the development agenda to a point that may be incompatible with UN mandates’

CIVICUS speaks with Barbara Adams, senior policy analyst at the Global Policy Forum (GPF), an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinises global policy-making. Founded in 1993 by a group of progressive scholars and activists, GPF promotes accountability and citizen participation in decisions on peace and security, social justice and international law. It does so by gathering information and circulating it through a comprehensive website, playing an active role in civil society networks and other advocacy arenas, organising meetings and conferences and publishing original research and policy papers.

1. What is driving the turn towards the private corporate sector for development funding?

To implement the 2030 Agenda, many in the international community have addressed the financing gap, proclaiming the need to go from “billions to trillions” of dollars. This has propelled a turn to the private sector, and not just the private sector - given the trillions needed - but more so the corporate sector.

According to this view and the analysis of multilateral development banks, as reflected in a 2015 report by the World Bank, the global community needs to move the discussion from billions in official development assistance to trillions in investments of all kinds, to meet the investment needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While admitting that the majority of development spending happens at the national level in the form of public resources, advocates stress that the largest potential for additional funds is from private sector business, finance and investment - working in partnership with governments. Assessments, however, have not adequately addressed the accompanying policy influence,  programme distortions and undermining of the 2030 Agenda and ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This has been the conclusion recently reached by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda.

A related trend is the emphasis put on multi-stakeholder partnerships by some governments and United Nations (UN) agencies and the former UN Secretary-General. This has been reinforced by the 2030 Agenda, and the push for its implementation and achievement of the SDGs.

For instance, a report released in 2015 by the UN Environment Programme emphasised the need to “access private capital at scale, with banking alone managing financial assets of almost US$140 trillion and institutional investors, notably pension funds, managing over US$100 trillion, and capital markets, including bond and equities, exceeding US$100 trillion and US$73 trillion respectively.”

2. To what extent has market discourse captured the development agenda, and why has this happened?

The fact that the action phase of the ‘big three’ landmark agreements - the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) and the Paris Agreement - is dominated by attracting private financing demonstrates the extent to which market discourse has captured the agenda. On a planetary scale this discourse or narrative capture continues patterns well underway at national and global levels.

Inadequate quantity and quality financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states has prompted different patterns of finance, including through philanthropists and big business. Core or un-earmarked resources have plummeted from nearly half of all resources in 1997 to less than a quarter today. According to a recent report by the UN Secretary-General, some 91 per cent of all UN development system activities in 2015 were funded with non-core and earmarked or project-based resources. A report that we published a couple of years back showed that between 1999 and 2014, total non-core resources for UN-related activities increased by 182 per cent in real terms, while core resources increased by only 14 per cent. Much of this increase has gone through a proliferating number of UN trust funds.

The growing use of trust funds - where contributions have jumped by 300 per cent over the last decade - allow donor governments and corporate interests to direct UN funding choices outside the ‘one country, one vote’ UN policy processes. This represents a substantial change in the funding architecture of the UN development system, characterised by the growing ‘bilateralisation’ of funding for multilateral aid.

The Third International Conference for Financing for Development launched the Financing for Development Business Compendium, which highlights 33 efforts aimed at mobilising business sector capital, claiming these provide “a strong indication of the broad scope of ongoing initiatives and the potential for scaling up to achieve the demands of the Sustainable Development Goals.” It also launched the Global Infrastructure Forum to bridge the “infrastructure gap.” The AAAA conference outcome document agreed that “to bridge the global infrastructure gap, including the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion annual gap in developing countries, we will facilitate development of sustainable, accessible and resilient quality infrastructure in developing countries through enhanced financial and technical support.”

To mobilise this support, the AAAA endorsed blended finance and emphasised public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a method of high potential among the instruments of blended finance. In order to assess this potential, it called for “inclusive, open and transparent discussion when developing and adopting guidelines” for PPPs and iterated that they “should share risks, reward fairly, include clear accountability mechanisms and meet social and environmental standards.”

To date, PPPs have been more commonly executed in developed countries, as lower-income countries are less likely to attract large private investors. The extensive use of PPPs in Portugal and Spain contributed to their domestic financial crisis, yet domestic experiences are not informing the donor push for PPPs in developing countries. This is despite warnings that modalities that were unsuccessful in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries are even more unlikely to succeed in less developed countries, where cost recovery is more difficult.

At a global level, the embrace of partnerships with the business sector brings with it a number of risks, side-effects and spill-over effects that have not received careful consideration and adequate independent scrutiny regarding compatibility with UN mandates for human rights and sustainable development; and their extra-budgetary funding lines remove the global partnerships from regular review and impact assessment.

3. Are civil society actors being recognised as UN partners alongside corporate actors?

The emphasis on public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder partnerships has technically included civil society organisations (CSOs). For example, member states have adopted mechanisms to support such engagement, such as in the resolution of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and in structuring the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a multi-stakeholder forum (A/RES/68/1). However, this inclusion tends to be procedural and more needs to be done to recognise the expertise and experience of civil society and its contribution in enriching substance in the context for policy decisions as well as in implementation strategies and monitoring. It is essential to differentiate the classifications of non-state stakeholders, rather than lumping them together as partners, and to recognise their different mandates and commitments to the public good.

However the emphasis on multi-stakeholder partnerships tends to be driven by the funding gap issue and it favours the corporate sector.

While CSOs focus on the enabling environment for their participation in key policy streams, it is important to broaden this attention. While the embrace of partnerships continues, the UN Secretary-General’s June 2017 report, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: ensuring a better future for all’, (A/72/124) has put in motion the mandate from the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) (A/RES/71/243) to “recalibrate and enhance other critical United Nations skill sets to match the needs of the 2030 Agenda,” and seeks “revamped capacities in partnerships and financing.”

Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council resolution establishing an Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights (OEIGWG), seeks “an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises” (A/HRC/RES/26/9).

The UN General Assembly partnership resolution has been on the General Assembly’s agenda since 2000 and is the main intergovernmental framework in place to govern non-state partnerships and hold them to account. But it lacks robust reporting and implementation. Its latest iteration is ‘Towards global partnerships: a principle-based approach to enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and all relevant partners’ (A/RES/70/224). While it references for the first time the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, its main emphasis continues to be the UN Global Compact’s 10 principles, which pre-date and are inadequate for the comprehensive 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

In December 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted decision A/72/427, in which member states decided to “defer, on an exceptional basis, the consideration of the item entitled ‘Towards global partnerships’ and to include it in the provisional agenda of its seventy-third session.”

4. What can civil society do to respond to these trends?

There are a number of ways to respond, starting with an analysis and understanding of the overall context within which partnerships are promoted - the inadequate financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states. Crucial for CSOs is to assess their own situation and actions and the extent to which organisations have become passive participants in processes that are very limited, if not counter-productive to the pursuit of human rights and to strengthening the normative ability of the UN.

Another way to take action is to monitor these trends at the UN more broadly than in specific processes and siloes, and be more actively involved in the partnership resolution dynamics and the importance of championing the public interest. This will require strategic substance-led alliances, not ‘big tent’ groupings in which strategies based on substance tend to evaporate.

Additionally, it is important for civil society to undertake monitoring and to mobilise to prevent UN system activities, practices and appointments that undermine UN values-based mandates and that contradict the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

Finally, civil society actors need to support each other to strengthen the independence of civil society monitoring, not only in developing countries but all countries. An independent civil society cannot rely only on financing through development assistance that focuses primarily on developing country policies and programmes.


‘If citizens are not able to recognise what is going on and mobilise, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region’

The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to Stefan Cibian, president of the Federation of Non-Governmental Development Organisations of Romania (FOND) and Board member of the Romanian Association for International Cooperation and Development (ARCADIA). Founded in 2006, FOND includes some of the most important civil society organisations in the country, and currently has 33 member organisations. Since its inception, it has organised capacity-building training for its members to become more active in the field of international development cooperation, volunteering and humanitarian assistance as well as landmark events for the Romanian development community, such as the Romanian Development School and for the broader region, including the Black Sea NGO Forum.

1. How would you describe the state of democracy in Romania? Has the practice of democracy changed over the past few years?

I would describe the current state of democracy in Romania as worrying. In essence, there used to be a positive trend at the grassroots level, where individuals and communities came to life after the treacherous totalitarian regime that lasted until 1989. More recently, however, the political mood has reverted back towards the totalitarian practices of before 1989. This is unfortunately part of a broader trend, with several countries in the region being led by democratically elected leaders who are, in essence, destroying or undermining the democratic systems that brought them to power. Country after country in Central and Eastern Europe - and not only in that region - are following the same approach: Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey and now Romania.

In Romania’s case the practice of democracy had improved over the past decades. The positive side includes, or rather included, a strengthened judiciary with an increasingly efficient anti-corruption agency, that until now managed to increase respect for public assets; a media landscape with some weaknesses in terms of ownership structure and politicisation, but nevertheless is free and diversified; an increasingly stronger civil society with grassroots movements that give life to broadly disempowered communities; and an increasingly empowered citizenry that expresses itself through mass protests and online, as well as through community engagement, increased donations and participating in sporting activities. This trend is made possible by a new generation shaped by access to information and technology – a generation that has partially different aims and behaves fundamentally differently from its predecessors.

Romanian democracy faces, however, challenges that are similar to those faced by many countries experiencing an externally-assisted democratisation process. Its most important weakness relates to its citizens’ capacity to fulfil their constitutional mandate. While democratic systems place power in the hands of citizens, democratisation processes to date have largely ignored the capacity of citizens to make good use of the power they possess (including the way a citizen votes, decides to be involved and holds political leaders and state institutions to account). The key problem is a lack of critical thinking and abilities to put into practice the rights offered by democratic constitutions. Understandably, if they are not able to live and practise the freedoms brought about by democracy, citizens are not going to defend their democratic system, whenever needed.

A set of other challenges relate to inherent weaknesses in the sustainability of organised civil society. Democratisation driven by donors’ assistance has not generated any sustainable organised civil society in terms of resources, nor in terms of connection to the governmental sphere, or indeed, often to local communities.

A last set of challenges relate to the party system. Rather than holding to democratic principles, the parties that emerged after the Communist period in Romania function as mechanisms to capture the state for various private or even illegal interests.

2. Is Romanian civil society currently able to fully contribute to democratic governance?

I would say it is partially able to do so. While protests have made a positive contribution over the past few years, the democratic system has been significantly altered when it comes to the relations between civil society and political parties or state institutions. With the exception of some new parties born out of civil society initiatives, relations between political parties and society are not yet embodying democratic principles. Parties attempt to control society, not to represent it, and civil society is weak in terms of organisation and its ability to articulate common interests, while keeping a distance from the main political parties. Therefore, in the way the current system works, it is unlikely that civil society will be able to contribute fully to democratic governance.

3. What triggered the anti-corruption demonstrations that took place earlier in 2017? What fuelled them, and why did they continue after the government rolled back the decree that motivated them in the first place?

There are two key aspects here: first, the dynamics were not only about corruption, but also about the type of power that is deployed along with it. Second, the word we live in is being fundamentally transformed by technology, which is creating societal needs that cannot be catered for by current organisational models. This poses fundamental challenges to the way in which our societies are organised. Whether we talk about civil society, political or business organisations, those changes are taking us towards a new world that exposes new ways of being and living.

In Romania’s case, protests have been about corruption, but they have also been about much more – a fundamental lack of trust in political parties and core institutions, which are de jure but not de facto democratic. Protests have continued for a good reason, as recent laws passed by the Romanian parliament, including new regulations on civil society organisations (CSOs), and emergency decrees issued by the Romanian government, have indicated that public institutions are being used to dismantle democracy and limit the space for civil society. Therefore, the aim is not corruption; corruption is just the means. The true aim is to hold control over society, and gaining discretionary power over resources is necessary in that regard. That is also the reason why, although the government’s reactions to citizens exercising their right to protest was soft at the beginning, there has been a growing tendency for the government to intervene to limit protests, spark violence, and then use that violence as an excuse for repression.

4. Would you say a full-fledged anti-corruption movement has emerged from the protests?

No. What this year’s mobilisations have produced is, on one hand, an increasing number of angry people, and on the other a growing number of disempowered people. Established CSOs have played a role in the protests, but up to now it has been a marginal one. Their ability to mobilise citizens, or even to coordinate amongst themselves, has remained alarmingly low.

While some connections have been established with like-minded mobilisations in other parts of the world, these have taken place mostly at an inspirational level, and for very few of those involved.

For the time being, the 2017 mobilisations have only succeeded in postponing the ruling party’s plans, which are now being rolled out through parliament. Citizen reactions, on the other hand, are now far from the strength that they had at the beginning of 2017.

This is a crucial moment for Romanian democracy. If citizens are able to recognise what is going on and they mobilise, they will be able to protect their rights and re-establish a democratic system. If they do not, Romania will very likely join the club of ‘illiberal democracies’ of the region.

  • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of some restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression
  • Get in touch with FOND through their website or Facebook page, and contact ARCADIA through their webpage, or follow @stefancibian and @FONDRomania on Twitterdemocracy 


‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’

As the 2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue with Thea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director at ESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. ESCR-Net is a collaborative initiative of groups - grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres - as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights. With over 280 members in 75 countries, ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights, with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment. ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.

1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?

All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.

In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.

We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.

2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?

The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses (Chapter IV, article 17.2). Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.

3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?

Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.

Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.

To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.

4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?

I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.

This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises (IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.

Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.

This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.

In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.

Get in touch with ESCR-Net through their website or Facebook page, or follow @ESCRNet on Twitter.


Armenia: ‘For the quality of democracy to improve, judicial independence must be guaranteed and labour rights need further protection’

Elections held in Armenia in 2017 resulted in the ruling party holding onto power, but were marred by allegations of fraud, including vote-buying and misuse of state resources. CIVICUS speaks to Artur Sakunts, chairman of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor Office (HCA Vanadzor), a non-political, non-religious and not-for-profit civil society organisation that seeks to advance the values of human rights, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Armenia. HCA Vanadzor works in the areas of research, dissemination, litigation, training, lobbying, campaigning and the promotion of public debate.

1. How would you describe the current state of democracy and human rights in Armenia?

Since 2013, human rights and democracy have considerably regressed in Armenia. The constitutional referendum, held in 2015, and elections to the National Assembly and Yerevan City Council in 2017 were marked by fraud and procedural violations. As a result of the constitutional referendum, Armenia changed from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and the changes began to be implemented during the 2017 elections. The new parliamentary system strengthened the dominant position of the Republican Party, which is the main party, and the power of its leader. A number of opposition figures have suffered and still suffer persecution. Any demonstration of civic activism has faced a harsh reaction and pressure by law enforcement agencies, and the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and civil society initiatives has further shrunk. Additionally, the Four Day War with Azerbaijan in April 2016 led to a large loss of human lives and exposed the country's vulnerability to external threats. All these processes have occurred in an atmosphere of impunity. Meanwhile, the steps towards reform taken by the authorities have been reactive or aimed at solving problems by increasing the social burden on citizens rather than by making systemic changes.

In December 2015, a new phase of negotiations was launched between Armenia and the European Union (EU). The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialled in March 2017 and eventually signed in November 2017. However, the unpredictable behaviour of the Armenian authorities creates uncertainty in terms of the expected developments in EU-Armenia relations, even after the agreement has been signed.

2. Have recent changes in CSO regulations affected civil society’s ability to contribute to democratic governance?

On 16 December 2016, after long-held discussions, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was adopted, entitling CSOs to represent the public interest in court, albeit only in the field of environmental protection. It should be noted, however, that in its ruling of 7 September 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court recognised the right of CSOs to represent the public interest in national courts without any limitation.

Another risk associated with the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was that it initially prescribed state supervision over the financial activity of all CSOs. However, as a result of public debate, this requirement was eventually prescribed only for state-funded CSOs.

In short, contrary to expectations, the new regulations ended up being a positive development for civil society.

3. What is the environment like for human rights defenders in Armenia?

In early 2016 a well-known human rights defender, Karen Andreasyan, stepped down as Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman without providing any reasons. It should be noted that in the autumn of 2015, during the presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, Andreasyan was strongly criticised and personally insulted by Republican Party deputies. His resignation exposed the vulnerability of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In December 2013 Andreasyan had published a well-substantiated report on the spread of corruption in courts and the lack of independence of judges, which was harshly criticised by the Prosecutor General's Office, the Republican faction of the National Assembly and several judges. None of the concerns raised by the report on the state of the judiciary have been considered or examined.

Following the National Assembly’s appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, the concentration of oversight and protection mechanisms over different fields of human rights, including children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, has increasingly raised serious concerns. Along with such centralisation, space for other human rights institutions is becoming more limited and the variety of human rights protection mechanisms is being reduced. Given that since the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was introduced, all Ombudsmen have resigned before the end of their term under pressure from political and executive powers, the concentration of protection mechanisms in the hands of a single person makes the Human Rights Ombudsman and human rights protection mechanisms extremely vulnerable.

In early July 2016, an armed opposition group known as Sasna Tsrer seized a police station and took hostages. As Sasna Tsrer members underwent trial, significant restrictions were imposed on various stakeholders engaged with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, and particularly on attorneys and on the public monitoring group on penitentiary institutions. Before Sasna Tsrer’s surrender, members of the Group of Public Observers Conducting Public Monitoring in Penitentiary Institutions and Bodies of the Ministry of Justice were illegally banned from meeting Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner detained at the Vardashen penitentiary institution. Later, members of the Group of Public Observers were also banned from meeting Sasna Tsrer members detained at the Nubarashen penitentiary institution, after information was aired that on 28 June 2017 Sasna Tsrer members had been subjected to violence at the General Jurisdiction Court of the Avan and Nor Nork administrative districts.

It should be also noted that during the former Minister of Justice’s tenure, draft regulations were put forward suggesting that any new members of the Group of Public Observers would need to be confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, although the Group's Charter states that new members only need to be accepted by the Group itself. The draft regulation was rejected, but it was an attempt to restrict the activities and independence of the Group of Public Observers. The current Human Rights Ombudsman has not reacted in any way to this attempt, which is yet further evidence of the dangers of concentrating human rights defence mechanisms.

Illegal attempts were made to search the defence attorneys of Sasna Tsrer members before they entered the courtroom. As the attorneys resisted those searches, the court adopted a tactic of imposing sanctions on the attorneys and replacing them with public defenders, which posed a risk of substantially reducing the protection of Sasna Tsrer members. The legal community also faces pressures through disciplinary proceedings initiated against lawyers on suspicious grounds. An added challenge is the behaviour of the Bar Association, which imposes its own disciplinary sanctions on individual attorneys. The Bar Association’s chairman has openly argued against laws preventing domestic violence and has repeatedly made homophobic statements.

The environment has also been unfavourable for journalists, including legislative restrictions and physical attacks, particularly during protests, as well as legal actions meant to silence them.

4. How have the authorities responded to peaceful protests over the years?

President Serzh Sargsyan's second term in office, which began in 2013, has been marked by increasing civic activism, which has in turn been suppressed by the police and other state bodies. Citizens’ protests have mostly been related to various issues of public or social significance, particularly transportation and electricity price hikes, the introduction of a mandatory funded pension system, the dismantling and destruction of cultural monuments and environmental issues.

On 2 December 2013, the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Armenia, a large number of citizens held protests in Yerevan, the capital, against Armenia joining the Eurasian Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union. The police dispersed the protests using violence and apprehended 110 peaceful protesters, who were kept in police stations for eight hours without access to legal assistance.

The summer of 2015 was marked by the so-called ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests against the hike in electricity prices, which lasted almost two weeks. On 23 June 2015 at 5am, the police used water cannons to disperse a peaceful sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. Using physical violence, the police apprehended around 240 protesters and attacked 21 journalists, damaging their equipment. Following the police violence, the number of sit-in participants dramatically rose, but at the end of June 2015 protesters split up as some of them obeyed police warnings and moved to Liberty Square. The number of sit-in participants on Baghramyan Avenue gradually decreased, and on 6 July 2015 the police eventually dispersed the demonstration. Criminal proceedings were initiated, against both protesters and police officers that used violence against them. Four police officers faced charges for using violence against journalists, but none has so far been held liable for the violence.

In July 2016, following the Sasna Tsrer incident, a series of mass protests was held in Khorenatsi Street and Liberty Square in Yerevan, and the police again used violence against the demonstrators. Hundreds of people were illegally apprehended and the protests were brutally dispersed through excessive force. According to official data, between 17 July and 4 August 2016, 775 people were arrested. On 20 and 29 July 2016 police used unprecedented violence against protesters; as a result, several protesters and journalists received serious bodily injuries. For the first time in the entire history of the Republic of Armenia, protesters were violently taken to the Police Internal Troops barracks and illegally deprived of their freedom. Many people compared this with the situation in Chile in 1973 when dictator Augusto Pinochet kept people captive in a football stadium.

As a rule, no police officer that uses violence against protesters or violates their rights in any way are held accountable, while protesters are liable for administrative and criminal offences. In this regard, it should be noted that in 2012 a Police Disciplinary Commission was created with a provision allowing for the inclusion of representatives from five CSOs. The Disciplinary Commission’s membership and procedures were decided by the government. However, through a decree issued on 31 March 2016, the government handed this power over to the Chief of Police. This change may lead to a conflict of interests and to a further reduction of the Commission’s independence.

5. Have any civil society freedoms been restricted around the 2017 elections?

The new draft Electoral Code resulting from the constitutional amendments first became available on 22 February 2016 on the official website of the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters), in English. Its Armenian version was posted on the Armenian government’s website no sooner than 3 March 2016.

Unlike what had happened with the draft constitutional amendments and the initial draft of the Electoral Code, which had been prepared within a narrow pro-government circle, wider participation was ensured during the further amendment of the Electoral Code. At the suggestion of Levon Zurabyan, a deputy with an opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, negotiations on the draft Electoral Code started between the ruling party, the political opposition and civil society in a 4+4+4 format. As a result, the Electoral Code included a number of recommendations, mostly of an administrative nature, put forward by the opposition and civil society. However, the authorities made no concessions on issues of political significance or that would affect the distribution of power in the parliament to be formed. It should be noted that civil society members took part in the negotiations only at the initial stage and refused to sign the agreements that were eventually reached by the government and the opposition.

The Electoral Code adopted in May 2016 imposed significant restrictions on observers and mass media representatives. In particular, the Code gave precinct electoral commissions the right to set a maximum number of observers and mass media representatives allowed at a polling station. The Code set a requirement for election observation organisations to have had a provision on human rights and democracy in their statutory goals for at least the past year and imposed an accreditation requirement for mass media, allowing for only a limited number of representatives. As a result, a media outlet may have a maximum of 50 representatives throughout the country. The new Electoral Code also stipulates that commission members may remove observers, mass media representatives and proxies from a polling station by a vote.

It is noteworthy that the Electoral Code considers CSOs as the main entities engaged in civic oversight and particularly in electoral observation, but it gives them no right to appeal against the actions or inactions of electoral commissions, or election results, or to file any other complaints.

The Code extended the voting population, as the right to vote was granted to persons who have committed crimes of minor and medium gravity and have served their sentences, and to persons doing military study abroad; however, the rest of the approximately 450,000 to 500,000 Armenian nationals living abroad were not granted the opportunity to vote.

As a result of amendments passed a few months later, the Electoral Code also provided for the publication of signed voter lists, something that the opposition and civil society had been demanding for years. Citizens were given the right to file an application for voter impersonation cases, although the Armenian Criminal Code included an article on false statements regarding such applications. According to the Central Electoral Commission’s report, only one person filed an application on voter impersonation in the context of the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017. Among other reasons, this might have been due to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, though it is widely held that the number of cases of multiple voting or voter impersonation during the elections was not considerable, and the authorities mostly distorted the election through the abuse of administrative resources and vote-buying.

During the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017 and the Yerevan City Council elections of 14 May 2017, widespread abuses were identified that took the form of fake observation. The Central Electoral Commission accredited around 28,000 observers from 49 organisations to observe the National Assembly elections. The overwhelming majority of those observers acted at polling stations mostly as proxies representing the interests of the Republican Party or the Tsarukyan Bloc, which came second in the election.

6. What needs to change for the quality of democracy to improve in Armenia?

First, more protection of labour rights is needed in both the government and business sectors, where rights are not protected. This was explicitly revealed during the recent elections. At the same time, the independence of the business sector and the protection of their rights from the ruling elites should be ensured as well.

The second important issue is judicial independence from executive power. Control of the judiciary is the main tool that the government uses to reinforce impunity, and this is an obstacle for the effective protection of citizens and civil society groups.

  • Civic space in Armenia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of significant restrictions on civil society rights.
  • Get in touch with HCA Vanadzor through their website or Facebook page, or follow @HCAVanadzor on Twitter


Making progress, preventing regress: civil society at the Human Rights Council

We asked Phil Lynch, Director of International Service for Human Rights, to look back at the past year’s experience of civil society engagement with the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. His perspective provides a brief overview and analysis of civil society engagement and advocacy at the Council in 2017, while also offering some reflections on opportunities to strengthen the Council and make it more accessible, effective and protective for human rights defenders and victims of violations.

1. What is the significance of the UN Human Rights Council for civil society?

The work of human rights defenders has perhaps never been more important nor more imperilled. As space closes at the national level – from China to Egypt, from Russia to Venezuela, and from Burundi to the Philippines – more and more defenders are seeking to use the international human rights system to expose violations, to push for accountability, to obtain justice and protection, and as a lever to increase pressure for national-level change.

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is a key mechanism for civil society in this regard, meeting three times per year in ordinary session, convening special sessions on crises and emergencies, and overseeing both the Universal Periodic Review and the work of Special Procedures (the UN’s independent human rights experts).

2. What were the major advances and challenges in Geneva in 2017 for human rights monitoring and accountability?

For many civil society actors, the decision made by consensus at the 36th session of the Council in September to establish an independent investigative body on the conflict in Yemen was the highlight of 2017, albeit a decision that should have been made at least two years earlier in line with calls by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The body – comprising eminent international and regional experts – is mandated to investigate war crimes and other violations perpetrated by all parties to the conflict, with a view to both promoting accountability and deterring future abuses. Such crimes include the bombing of civilians, torture and enforced disappearances, the use of landmines and cluster bombs, and the denial of access to food, water and humanitarian aid, among other gross deprivations. The adoption of the resolution followed sustained advocacy by a coalition of over 60 international, regional and Yemeni human rights civil society organisations (CSOs), complemented by principled leadership by a group of states led by the Netherlands, together with Belgium, Canada, Ireland and Luxembourg. Significant in its own right, the adoption of the resolution also sent a strong message to the likes of Saudi Arabia that membership of the Human Rights Council is not a guarantee against scrutiny by that body and may even expose a country to heightened international attention.

While the Yemen resolution came at least two years too late, the Council did act more quickly, albeit not preventatively, in relation to gross human rights violations in Myanmar. It established a Fact-Finding Mission at its 34th session in March, extended the mandate of that Mission at its 36th session in September, and then convened a special session on the situation in early December. The special session was significant, with the call for the session initiated by Bangladesh with strong support from other members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – states better known for championing principles of sovereignty and non-interference than those of accountability and justice. It remains to be seen, however, whether this is a posture particular to the ethnic and religious dynamics of the situation. To date, the government of Myanmar has refused to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission, demonstrating the need for such mechanisms to be complemented and supported by other actors with leverage, such as states and multinational enterprises with business, trade and investment interests in the country.

While action on Yemen and Myanmar were significant positive developments, the year was also marked by inaction on a range of other serious situations of concern, with the Council failing to address gross and systematic violations in states including Bahrain, China, Egypt, the Philippines, Turkey and Venezuela, to name just a few. This is despite the situations in those countries manifestly meeting the objective criteria for action committed to by a group of more than 50 states through joint statements led by Ireland in 2016 and the Netherlands in 2017. Lack of state leadership and political will – rather than any lack of information, capacity or tools – remain the greatest impediments to the Council’s effectiveness.

3. What are the trends in civil society space and participation at the Human Rights Council?

Countering the global trend, CSOs partnered both to prevent regress and achieve some progress in protecting defenders and combating reprisals at the Council in 2017.

Against the backdrop of what the UN’s independent expert has described as an “unprecedented attack” on defenders, in March the Council adopted a Norwegian-led consensus resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. In November, the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly similarly adopted a resolution on defenders, although the consensus masked fractures, with China disassociating itself from a paragraph that referred to the work of defenders as “legitimate.” More positively, the General Assembly resolution was co-sponsored by states from all regions, including a number of African states – such as Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Mali – that have not been traditional co-sponsors but have taken recent national law initiatives towards the protection of defenders.

Acts of intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders, victims and others who seek to cooperate with the UN violate not only the rights of the individuals concerned, but amount to an assault on civil society and a rules-based international order. Seen this way, a September report by the UN Secretary-General that found evidence of “a strategy on the part of some states to prevent the activities of individuals providing information or otherwise cooperating with the United Nations” is profoundly disturbing. The report highlighted that the incidence of reprisals is becoming “broader,” and the “means used increasingly blunt.” It identified cases of travel bans in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia; the freezing of CSO assets in Egypt; intimidation of human rights defenders in India and Myanmar; torture of defenders in Burundi and Egypt; arbitrary detention of defenders in China, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan; and the killing of defenders in Honduras, among others. Spurred by this report, together with the strategic advocacy of CSOs, the Council adopted a significant but contested resolution on reprisals in September – the first such resolution since 2013.

The resolution – led by core group comprising Fiji, Ghana, Hungary, Ireland and Uruguay – affirmed the right of all people to safe and unhindered access to and communication with international human rights bodies. It also mandated the Council to hold a dedicated dialogue to address acts of intimidation and reprisals and affirmed the particular responsibilities of the Council’s members, president and vice-presidents to investigate and promote accountability for such acts. The holding of a dedicated dialogue within the Council will increase the visibility of acts of intimidation and reprisals, provide a platform to denounce and seek accountability for such acts, and increase the political cost for perpetrators

Prior to the vote on the resolution, 50 CSOs from all over the world called on member states to reject 19 hostile amendments led by China, Egypt, India, Russia and Venezuela. Perhaps not coincidentally, each of those states has been accused of perpetrating reprisals by the UN Secretary-General and UN experts in recent years. Despite these hostile efforts, the ultimate adoption of a strong, substantive resolution by an overwhelming majority sends a clear message that reprisals will not be tolerated and must end.

4. What is civil society doing to try to make the Human Rights Council more accessible, effective and protective?

The world needs a legitimate and influential high-level human rights body that is accessible, effective and protective for rights holders, defenders and victims.

In 2016, on the occasion of the Council’s 10th anniversary, a group of 20 national, regional and international CSOs, coordinated by ISHR, collaborated to develop a series of practical recommendations to strengthen the Council. 2017 saw a number of these recommendations taken up by progressive states, partly in response to a problematic US push to reform the Council, demonstrating the potential to craft opportunities from crises. Most significantly, at the 35th session of the Council in June, the Netherlands worked in close partnership with ISHR and Human Rights Watch to devise a joint statement, subsequently endorsed by almost 50 states from all regions, outlining and committing to a series of 11 measures to enhance the Council’s legitimacy and effectiveness.

Among other measures is a commitment by signatory states to strive for competitive elections to the Council and support candidates based primarily on human rights-based considerations. States that are responsible for gross and systematic human rights violations, or that refuse to cooperate fully with the UN and uphold a rules-based international order, should have no place on the Council. The ongoing Council membership of Burundi, together with the recent election of the Democratic Republic of Congo, demonstrate the imperative of operationalising this commitment.

States that signed the Dutch-led joint statement also pledged to be guided by objective and human rights-based criteria, previously elaborated in an Irish-led joint statement in 2016, in determining whether and how the Council should respond to situations of concern. Such criteria include whether the UN’s human rights experts have recommended or called for action, the extent of the country’s cooperation with the UN human rights system, and the situation of human rights defenders and other civil society actors in the country. Such an approach to triggering action at the Council has been long advocated by CSOs, and the onus is now on states to demonstrate principled leadership in applying the criteria. If a small state such as Iceland can lead a joint statement on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, as it did at the Council’s 35th session in June, then it behoves other states that profess a commitment to human rights and their defenders to show similar resolve. CSOs have less and less patience for states that espouse a rhetorical commitment to thematic human rights issues – such as the protection of human rights defenders, the freedom of expression or peaceful assembly – but that fail to take up those issues in concrete situations where perceived political, economic or other interests may be at stake.

5. Looking ahead, what is the role of civil society in building a Council fit for purpose?

The Council approaches a critical juncture in 2018. While there is no formal review or reform process presently mandated, it is clear that the Council will have to strengthen its approach to prevention and implementation, become more streamlined and efficient in its working methods, and find ways to enhance state cooperation and adherence to membership standards if it is to be the credible and responsive human rights body the world needs.

For states that share a vision of the Council as a vital mechanism for monitoring and exposing violations, promoting accountability for perpetrators and achieving access to remedy and justice for victims, civil society must be an indispensable partner in strengthening efforts. A reform agenda motivated primarily by a desire for efficiency or devised primarily by international diplomats and think tanks will not be fit for purpose and will not respond to the real and pressing needs of rights holders, defenders and victims on the ground.

Phil Lynch is Director of the International Service for Human Rights ( Follow him on Twitter @PhilALynch.




25  Owl Street, 6th Floor
South Africa,
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5959
Fax: +27 (0)11 833 7997

CIVICUS, c/o We Work
450 Lexington Ave
New York
NY 10017
United States

11 Avenue de la Paix
Tel: +41 (0)22 733 3435