ASEAN: ‘There is a lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis’

MaryAileenDiez BacalsoCIVICUS speaks with Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, a globally recognised human rights advocate and the new Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), on the state of civic space in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body’s response to the human rights situation in Myanmar.

In March 2023, Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed, in response to developments including the detention of thousands of activists and protesters, many of them convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including the death penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. The ruling military junta has also systematically targeted journalists and forced civil society organisations (CSOs) to shut down and their leaders to go into hiding or flee the country. The junta has committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful attacks, killing and injuring civilians through the use of extrajudicial executions, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.

What is the state of civic freedoms in ASEAN member states?

In recent years, there has been a discernible trend in ASEAN toward democratic regression and shrinking civic space.

In Cambodia, as an election draws near, there is an ongoing assault on civic space and an increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians and media workers.

In Myanmar, the path toward democracy, which began in 2011, was dismantled and civic space has closed. The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) they reached in April 2021 has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.

In Singapore, civil liberties are curbed through the prosecution of journalists, protesters and harassment of activists. Civil space has been further limited by repressive laws such as the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which include vague provisions that allow for executive discretion in interpretation and implementation.

Overall, civic space in ASEAN countries has deteriorated. But in the midst of this darkness, the results of recent elections have cast a ray of hope that could have an impact at the regional level. Election results in Malaysia in November 2022 and Thailand in May 2023 have brought hope and a breath of fresh air after years of regression of fundamental freedoms. ASEAN’s youngest member state, Timor-Leste, is unique in that it has committed to consolidating democracy and held a free, fair and transparent election on 21 May 2023, allowing voters to cast their ballots peacefully, thus making their voices heard.

As the current ASEAN chair, has Indonesia made any efforts to engage with civil society and protect human rights?

Indonesia became ASEAN chair amid a lot of expectations regarding its potentials to address the Myanmar crisis, following the lack of progress under its two predecessors, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia – and possibly on the assumption that no further progress will happen under its successor, Laos.

Led by Indonesia, ASEAN managed to adopt several Leaders’ Declarations related to human rights, including one on combating trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology and one on the protection of migrant workers and family members in crisis situations, adopted at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023. These represented a crucial step toward protecting rights. However, questions of implementation and domestication have long plagued the ASEAN region.

Progress made at the regional level is not necessarily reflected by domestic developments. For example, ahead of the 2023 ASEAN summit, held in Labuhan Bajo, the Indonesian police summoned two residents, Viktor Frumentius and Dominikus Safio, over a planned protest regarding compensation for houses and land clearing for a road project. The criminalisation attempt happened a few days after the police issued a warning letter for local people not to conduct actions that could ‘create incitement’ during the summit. This incident came on top of ongoing attacks on civil liberties in Indonesia.

Regarding engagement with civil society, unfortunately the Indonesian government failed to respond to civil society’s request to conduct an interface meeting during the summit. Taken together, this and the attempted criminalisation of protesters reveal the government’s exclusionary approach to critical voices.

Did the summit’s outcomes include any commitment on human rights?

The summit’s outcome document highlighted the commitment to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. Human trafficking is indeed a serious and systemic violation of human rights in Southeast Asia, with the pandemic exacerbating the already precarious situation of marginalised people who might end up in hands of human traffickers.

Regarding Myanmar, however, disappointment continues. On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.

Unfortunately the issue of shrinking civic space was not discussed at the summit, which reveals continued neglect by ASEAN member states and a lack of consensus about the importance of the fact that civic space is deteriorating across the region.

Has there been progress in strengthening the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)?

Since its inception, the AICHR has been criticised as nothing more than a front for ASEAN member states to comply with their duty to put human rights on the regional agenda. It is not surprising that ASEAN finds it difficult to promote human rights at the regional level, given that its membership includes several authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies.

Civil society groups have done what we could to strengthen the AICHR, leading to incremental progress in its institutional strength and its relations with civil society. In 2019, FORUM-ASIA and its partners called for a review of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference to make it more independent and give it a protection mandate, among other things. ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to this, but the process hasn’t kicked off. Still, other positive changes happened, such as the inclusion of civil society in various AICHR activities and growing opportunities for the AICHR to meet with civil society in a variety of settings.

For example, recently and for the first time ever, FORUM-ASIA and other CSOs with AICHR consultative status were invited to meet with AICHR representatives at the 37th AICHR Meeting. The question remains whether this practice can be sustained and institutionalised. The AICHR has also recently demonstrated increased engagement with national human rights institutions, its natural national partners. This also needs to be maintained and strengthened.

Additionally, the current AICHR mechanism for handling human rights complaints needs to be assessed for it to become more transparent and responsive to rapidly deteriorating civic space conditions. But because the issue of shrinking civic space has not been met with consensus among AICHR member states, progress has been minimal. However, FORUM-ASIA keeps engaging with the AICHR in the knowledge that it will take years of effort to build a mechanism that lives up to our aspiration of holding states accountable for human rights violations. We are willing to engage in discussions with the AICHR about how to strengthen its complaint mechanism to contribute to enforcing states’ human rights obligations at the national level.

Why hasn’t there been any progress in implementing the 5PC to address the situation in Myanmar?

The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government (NUG).

As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.

Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, the ASEAN chair in 2022, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.

Finally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed. 

How has civil society responded to ASEAN’s failure to address the situation in Myanmar?

Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.

Along with reputable Myanmar CSOs and other regional and international organisations, FORUM-ASIA recently released a position paper calling for a review and reframing of the 5PC. This paper provides five counterpoints of action that ASEAN leaders must immediately take to prove the bloc’s commitment and capability to resolve the Myanmar crisis effectively.

The first point calls for the immediate adoption of an action plan for civilian protection and cessation of violence. The second emphasises the need to convene inclusive and meaningful consultations with legitimate Myanmar stakeholders, including the NUG, its advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a group of ousted parliamentarians – and ethnic resistance organisations. The third stresses the need to amend the mandate of the ASEAN Special Envoy’s term to three years with authority, independence and resources to take effective action. The fourth calls for the provision of direct support to frontline humanitarian responders in Myanmar and along ethnic borderlands, including Myanmar’s western borders. And the fifth point calls on the Special Envoy to immediately open formal communications and engage with civil society and other key stakeholders from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.

What should the international community do to push ASEAN to protect human rights and address the situation in Myanmar?

International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the NUG as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.

They should also work closely with the United Nations, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the Special Envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed Special Envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.

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

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

ITALY: ‘Accusing activists of vandalism is much easier than implementing renewable energy policies’

GabriellaAbbateCIVICUS speaks with Gabriella Abbate of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Italy, a country that has recently experienced both drought and devastating floods.

Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to compel governments to address the climate emergency by enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.

Why are climate protests on the rise in Italy?

Italy is heavily affected by climate and ecological crises: it experienced 310 climate disasters in 2022 alone, one of the main reasons behind them being the use of fossil fuels. The Italian government’s funding of fossil fuels has been steadily increasing, reaching €2.8 billion (approx. US$3 billion) between 2019 and 2021 and comprising 90 per cent of Italy’s total investment in fossil energy. Italy is the world’s sixth largest fossil energy lender, ahead even of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

In reaction to these energy policies, transnational activist networks including Last Generation, Extinction Rebellion and Scientists Rebellion are organising climate protests throughout Italy. They all use nonviolent civil disobedience tactics such as roadblocks, soiling with washable and vegetable-based paint and gluing. Last Generation is currently protesting to demand that the Italian government immediately cease public funding for fossil fuels and respect the agreements made by European Union member states in the 2030 climate and energy framework to increase the share of renewable energies, improve energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

What challenges are climate protesters facing in Italy?

A major challenge has been the criticism of our ways of protesting and the way we have been portrayed by the media. I think it is much easier to present someone as a vandal than to try to understand the root causes of the anger driving their action. The media and the state strongly exploit people’s lack of awareness regarding the innocuous materials used in the actions, such as vegetable charcoal, which leads to plenty of misinformation. However, more and more people are still joining our movement, perhaps driven by personal fear of the climate catastrophe, but also due to the realisation that the label of ‘eco vandalism’ is only a facade to mask the problem and that the negative consequences of our actions are minor and superficial.

On the other hand, the consequences of our activism being portrayed as violent and as acts of vandalism have been profound. There are currently three Last Generation activists facing trial for spraying the Senate building in Rome. They’re accused of ‘criminal damage’ and risk up to three years in prison. Never mind that the paint they used in the protest was washable.

In April, the Italian government introduced a new law specifically to punish climate actions seen as damaging monuments or cultural sites with fines ranging from €20,000 to €40,000 (approx. US$21,500 to US$43,000) and possible imprisonment for those caught in the act. In this regard, it should be noted that an essential part of Last Generation’s activism is to draw attention to one’s responsibility for one’s choices, which ends up accentuating the consequences of the actions we take. We take responsibility by not running away after an action, and this puts us in an even riskier position. Another tool used by the Italian state is indictment for ‘criminal conspiracy’, a charge historically used against the mafia.

The Italian government criminalises climate activists because by doing so it can continue avoiding its responsibilities regarding the wellbeing of its citizens. Accusing activists of vandalism is much easier than implementing renewable energy policies.

How does Last Generation support activists so they can continue mobilising for climate action?

Last Generation supports prosecuted activists by using funds from donations to pay their legal fees and hire experts to help them navigate court proceedings. We also share information about their cases on social media to gather international solidarity and support.

How do you connect with the global climate movement?

Last Generation is part of the A22 coalition, an international network of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigners, all of which demand their governments adopt measures to address ecoclimate collapse. The coalition was established in 2022 and it already includes at least 10 different campaigns advocating with governments in Europe, the Pacific and the USA.

Within the coalition we share not only strategies and best practices but also victories, such as that obtained in the Netherlands last month. In April, following months of continuous campaigning by our Dutch allies, Schiphol Airport decided to ban private jets and night flights from 2025. It is setting new rules that establish clear limits on noise and emissions and has dropped plans to build an additional runway.

This network is a great source of support. We help each other increase the visibility of our campaigns. It has certainly helped us attract more people to Non Paghiamo il Fossile (We Don’t Pay for Fossil) and other environmental campaigns in Italy and beyond.

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

Get in touch with Last Generation through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @ultimagenerazi1 on Twitter.

TURKEY: ‘The government does not tolerate opinions different from its own’

ErenKeskinCIVICUS speaks with lawyer Eren Keskin, chair of the Human Rights Association (IHD), about the Turkish government’s attacks on critical media and the state of press freedoms in the context of Turkey’s current elections.

Founded in 1986, IHD is one of Turkey’s oldest and largest human rights civil society organisations. It documents human rights violations and campaigns for the protection of human rights and civic freedoms in Turkey.

What are the conditions for journalism in Turkey?

Problems in the area of freedom of expression have existed in Turkey since the foundation of the republic. From the very beginning there were issues that the republic’s official ideology of Turkish-Islamic synthesis prohibited speaking about. Issues such as the Kurdish conflict, the 1915 Armenian Genocide and, later on, Turkey’s military presence in Cyprus, have long been forbidden topics.

What’s changed under the present government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party is that the opposition’s freedom of expression has been severely restricted across the board. As a result, obstacles have mounted for opposition journalists to express their views.

The government does not tolerate opinions different from its own. It recklessly issues arrest warrants for articles, speeches and social media messages if they express diverging opinions. The state of Turkey recognises freedom of expression in its domestic legislation and is bound to respect it as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, but it continues to violate its own laws and the international conventions and covenants it has signed.

What tactics does the government use against independent media and how have you been affected?

Because it does not tolerate any kind of diverging opinion, the government is extremely aggressive towards independent media and the free press, the majority of which are Kurdish media outlets.

Dissident journalists are commonly charged with making propaganda for an illegal organisation. Particularly with news reports on the Kurdish war, most lawsuits are filed on charges of making propaganda for the Kurdish political movement or Kurdish armed forces. Apart from this, a large number of cases are filed on charges of insulting the president, insulting the forces of the state and inciting the public to hatred and enmity.

Many journalists are under arrest or subject to international travel bans merely for expressing their thoughts in writing. There is almost no journalist who is not being subjected to judicial control.

I was once the volunteer editor-in-chief of the daily Özgür Gündem, one of the newspapers that has faced the most repression, and have stood trial in 143 cases just because my name appeared on the newspaper as volunteer editor-in-chief.

I’ve been sentenced to a total of 26 years and nine months in prison for alleged crimes such as membership of an illegal organisation, making propaganda for an illegal organisation and insulting the president, even for articles I did not write. These sentences are pending a decision of the Court of Cassation. As soon as they are final, I may go to prison. I have also been unable to travel abroad for six years now because of an international travel ban.

Has the intensification of repression affected the popularity of the president in any way?

Considering that the ruling regime is the main culprit for all the rights violations currently taking place in Turkey, and that power is concentrated in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it must be admitted that the main perpetrator of rights violations is the president himself. The judiciary is completely dependent on the president. Judges and prosecutors render compliant decisions out of fear. Where judges and prosecutors are afraid, it is unthinkable for the judiciary to be independent.

The president’s attitude towards the press, especially the opposition press, and the language of hatred and violence he uses, does not detract from his popularity but is instead a major reason his followers support him. However, we think that a large part of society, hopefully a growing part, is also disturbed by his blatant violations of freedom of expression.

What do you make of the results of the 14 May general election?

The AKP had relative success in the presidential and parliamentary elections held on 14 May. The president did better than expected, considering the economic situation and the criticism he’s faced over the response to the earthquakes in February. His party has maintained control of parliament. But he didn’t win re-election outright: he received 49.5 per cent of the vote while his opposition challenger, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) received almost 45 per cent. Now there’s going to be a runoff on 28 May.

None of this should come as a surprise. Society has become extremely polarised, especially as a result of Erdoğan’s rhetoric of fear, hatred and violence. We also witnessed many practices that violated the constitution and electoral laws, such as government ministers becoming parliamentary candidates without resigning and therefore using state resources for campaigning. The ruling party monopolises a large part of the media and used it exclusively on its own behalf. The elections were therefore held under extremely unequal conditions.

It’s hard to predict what the outcome of the runoff will be. The election may end in favour of Erdoğan or Kılıçdaroğlu. Much will depend on the practices that develop during the election.

How will the situation of vulnerable minorities in Turkey be affected by the election results?

Erdoğan uses language that is completely against human rights and the AKP has retained its parliamentary majority by coalescing with an extremist party. The situation will become dangerous if Erdoğan wins once again, especially for women, LGBTQI+ people and Kurdish people.

Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence – has already affected the feminist movement a lot. Now Law No. 6,284 on violence against women is being questioned. This poses a great danger for women and LGBTQI+ people.

Similarly, if Erdoğan wins again, pro-security approaches to the Kurdish issue will continue to dominate, preventing progress towards peace.

As for Syrian asylum-seekers, the AKP presents itself as having provided a good environment for them, but it is not really the case. Asylum-seekers in Turkey do not qualify as refugees because of the state’s reservation to the 1951 Refugee Convention. They are subjected to racist attacks. They work as cheap labour in extremely difficult conditions. Women and girls live under permanent risk of violence. An AKP win will not give them a chance.

But it must be noted that the CHP’s proposal regarding refugees is not any more democratic or inclusive, and its discourse also has racist overtones. Therefore, first and foremost, the discriminatory, double-standard approach to the Refugee Convention should be questioned.

What kinds of domestic or international support do Turkish independent media and journalists currently receive, and what more would you need?

Journalists working in independent media in Turkey, and especially in Kurdistan, are clearly not receiving sufficient international support. The Republic of Turkey is a state party to many international conventions that guarantee freedoms of expression and the press. The state has committed to respecting them on paper, but it violates them in practice. All these conventions have monitoring mechanisms, but unfortunately, they are not being properly implemented for Turkey. In this sense, the European Union has left Turkey alone.

We believe that Turkey should be questioned more, especially by western media organisations and by Turkey’s co-signatory states of international rights conventions, to contribute to the lifting of repressive measures against the dissident press.

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

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

HUNGARY: ‘The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of children protection’

ImreZsoldosCIVICUS speaks about the Hungarian government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign with Imre Zsoldos of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance.

Founded in 2009, the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is an umbrella civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together seven LGBTQI+ groups with the aim of promoting communication, cooperation and joint action to confront social rejection, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities in Hungary.

What are the latest developments in the government-led anti-LGBTQI+ campaign?

To begin with, Hungarian legislation explicitly forbids same-sex registered partners from adopting children. There is another law prohibiting unmarried single people from adopting children unless they have a special permit issued by the Minister for Families, which has been made almost impossible to get to prevent same-sex parents adopting separately.

On top of this, in April 2023 the Hungarian parliament passed a bill enabling people to anonymously report on same-sex couples raising children, or those who contest the ‘constitutionally recognised role of marriage and the family’ or children’s rights ‘to an identity appropriate to their sex at birth’. This law specifically targeted rainbow families and transgender young people. No specific evidence or details would be needed to report same-sex families and other ‘offenders’ to the authorities. The law also mandated the establishment of a reporting platform.

President Katalin Novak did not sign the bill into law, arguing it weakened the protection of fundamental values, and sent it back to parliament for reconsideration. My assumption is that parliament will pass it again with some changes.

Previously in March, the government filed a counter claim to the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) to defend an education law passed in 2021, which was in fact just another anti-‘gay propaganda’ law. Initially, the law was meant to impose harsher punishment for sexual offences against minors, but legislators from the ruling Fidesz party introduced several changes so that the law ended up criminalising the portrayal or ‘promotion’ of homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and restricting sexual education in schools. It was condemned by 17 EU member states.

The 2021 Child Protection Act enshrines children’s right to ‘education in accordance with the values based on Hungary's constitutional identity and Christian culture’. The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of child protection, portraying LGBTQI+ people as paedophiles and claiming it is trying to ‘save the children’ from us.

The same narrative is also used to criticise the EU: the government claims the EU suspended over €6 billion (approx. US$6.5 billion) in funds for 2021-2027 because it promotes paedophilia, while in fact the funds were cut off due to a decline in the rule of law and judicial independence and concerns about corruption.

How is the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign affecting people?

This hostile rhetoric resembles the way Jewish people and other minorities were targeted in the run-up to the Second World War. We are losing the feeling of security in our own society. We feel outlawed and can’t understand how this can be happening in Europe nowadays. Many LGBTQI+ people are starting to think about whether we should leave the country before it’s too late.

Public attitudes to the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign are shifting both ways, since everyone is reacting to the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people as a public enemy. On one side of the divide, people are getting outraged by the government’s propaganda and hence showing more support and understanding. On the other side, people are beginning to feel emboldened and legitimised to express discriminatory thoughts and act in discriminatory ways.


What are the conditions for LGBTQI+ organisations in Hungary?

The majority of Hungarian LGBTQI+ organisations are run by volunteers because they very rarely have resources to pay employees, especially in fixed positions. Our funding is strictly tied to projects to be implemented.

As all the major media platforms are in the hands of the government, our opportunities to shift public opinion are really limited. We can only use CSOs’ social media and websites for advocacy. For example, one of the members of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is the Rainbow Families Foundation. It ran a large campaign, ‘Family is Family’, that reached an extensive audience thanks to a TV station broadcasting the campaign in prime time. But then the media authority fined the TV station, saying it’s only allowed to broadcast this kind of advertisement at night because its depiction of homosexuality sensitively affects children under 16, causing misunderstanding, tension and uncertainty among them. A court eventually nullified the media authority’s decision, but this kind of decision is why there is almost no newspaper or TV station where we could have the space to effectively resist the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign.

Activists are targeted by the authorities in diverse ways, such as smear campaigns fuelled by the dissemination of fake information about them, as well as audits and controls on their private or family businesses or pressure in their workplaces or on family members who hold any state position. This creates a constant stress situation, since we never know when, where or how we will be targeted.

But despite the hardship, we are doing our best to create safe places, build a community and provide legal and other forms of help to LGBTQI+ people.

What further support does Hungarian civil society need?

Alongside financial support, it would be extremely helpful – not only for LGBTQI+ people but also for other minorities, the political opposition and civil society as a whole – to have a widely accessible communication platform to reach older people beyond the capital, Budapest. While we can easily reach out to young people through social media, we are unable to reach those who get their information from television, newspapers and their churches, all of which are predominantly controlled by the government.

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

Get in touch with the Hungarian LGBT Alliance through its website or its Facebook page.

TURKEY: ‘All critical voices are repressed under the pretext of combating disinformation’

FatihPolatIn the run-up to Turkey’s general election, CIVICUS speaks with Fatih Polat, editor-in-chief of Evrensel, about the state of press freedoms and the Turkish government’s attacks on critical media.

Founded in 1995, Evrensel is an independent daily newspaper. In August 2022, the Turkish Press Advertisement Agency permanently banned all public announcements and advertisements with Evrensel despite the Turkish Constitutional Court’s decision that advertisement bans on Evrensel and other newspapers violated freedom of expression and press freedom.

What are the conditions for the exercise of journalism in Turkey?

In Turkey state representatives routinely refuse to answer journalists’ questions. In any developed western democracy, this would be a serious matter and would be considered an obstruction of journalistic work. But in Turkey, this is no longer seen as a problem. For a very long time, the government has routinely imposed a variety of obstacles both on the critical Turkish press and on our foreign colleagues covering Turkey for international press organisations.

Ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained power 21 years ago, independent media have been in trouble. The government pressures critical media both financially and politically. It seeks to financially asphyxiate them by blocking the flow of official announcements and advertisements and imposing fines for alleged infractions concerning news, commentaries or television programmes. Political pressures range from lawsuits filed against individual journalists and newspaper managers to the detention, arrest and use of torture against journalists.

Critical television channels can also be subjected to temporary screen blackouts. Online media, which have developed significantly over the past 20 years, experience pressures ranging from court-ordered removal of content to lawsuits. Even cartoonists are subjected to punishment and arrest. Moreover, journalists are frequently exposed to police violence and detained while following the news on the streets.

On top of this, if the government is uncomfortable with the publication of a newspaper, a state official calls the agency that distributes advertisements and makes veiled threats to stop the flow of private advertisements. In contrast, newspapers and TV channels supporting the government receive serious financial aid from the state.

How has Evrensel been specifically targeted?

Evrensel is a 28-year-old, well-established newspaper that stays afloat thanks to readers’ contributions and advertisements placed by municipalities run by the opposition. On 22 August 2022, the Turkish Press Advertisement Agency, whose budget comes from tax money, banned Evrensel from receiving any public announcements and advertisements. This tactic is aimed at making a newspaper financially unviable. In response we filed a lawsuit, which is currently underway.

The new press law, which was recently introduced by the government under the pretext of ‘combating disinformation’, has led to a new period of repression of anyone who expresses a critical stance towards the regime. Lawsuits are filed against us for news and articles published in our print newspaper and on our website. Our website is frequently subjected to access-blocking orders.

Are journalists from certain groups particularly vulnerable?

The Kurdish media are under particularly strong attack. There is an ongoing conflict between the state and various Kurdish insurgent groups who demand either separation from Turkey or greater autonomy within Turkey. The government has increased pressure on Kurdish media, and on all Kurdish actors, after putting an end to negotiations. For example, Kurdish journalists have been arrested alongside legislators and politicians of the pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including the HDP’s co-presidents Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and mayors have been replaced by trustees. In April and early May alone, 34 Kurdish journalists and press workers have been arrested.

How has the repression of press freedoms affected the popularity of the ruling regime?

Your question reminds me of another important element of repression. In Turkey, insulting the president is punishable with prison sentences of up to six years. I am among the many journalists who have been tried for insulting the president; I was acquitted in 2019. This has been applied not only against journalists but also against social media users.

But for a significant segment of AKP voters, media censorship or corruption allegations against the president are not that important. Only bad economic performance can result in the erosion of their support.

On 14 May Turkey will hold a critical general election, both for president and parliament. The unity of the opposition has brought hope for a change. Right now, the prospect of a time when we will be able to breathe a little more freely again seems within reach.

What kinds of domestic or international support do Turkish independent media and journalists currently receive, and what would help?

There are several domestic journalists’ organisations in Turkey. For example, I am a member of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and the Journalists’ Association of Turkey, the largest press unions in the country. In the last 15 to 20 years, various international journalists’ organisations have also provided important support, standing in solidarity with the independent press and journalists from Turkey, spreading awareness and advocating for our rights. It is very valuable for us that they follow the many cases of repression of critical media and include them in their countries’ political agenda.

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

Get in touch with Evrensel through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @EvrenselDaily and @fpolat69 on Twitter.

PARAGUAY: ‘Very tough years are ahead for civil society that promotes human rights’

MartaFerraraCIVICUS discusses Paraguay’s recent general election with Marta Ferrara, executive director of Seeds for Democracy (Semillas para la Democracia).

Founded in 2006, Seeds for Democracy is a civil society organisation (CSO) whose main objective is to contribute to the improvement of the quality of democracy in Paraguay by promoting citizen participation, social equity and accountable governance.

What are Paraguay’s main challenges, and to what extent could the results of the recent election contribute to solving them?

Paraguay’s main problems are fundamentally economic, stemming from deep inequality. In recent years, Paraguay has had very good macroeconomic indicators, with high growth, but has remained very unequal, with high unemployment, large numbers of people in informal work and lack of access to health, education and opportunities. It is a country run by immensely wealthy cattle-ranching and agro-exporting elites who rule for their own benefit and to the detriment of a terribly unequal society. I believe this is the central characteristic of Paraguayan society and economy. It is a deep, structural problem, and this election has done nothing to solve it. The same people as always have won: the same sectors that have kept the country in this situation for more than 70 years.

At stake in this election was the possibility of alternation in power. However, that would not necessarily have meant radical change, because the presidential candidate of Concertación, the opposition coalition, was also a conservative, albeit from the Liberal Party. His running mate was a woman, but he still represented a conservative sector of society. These were not disruptive candidacies representing a real change in the way politics is conducted, in the way power is exercised, in terms of public policies or representing different social sectors.

How do you explain the comfortable win for the Colorado Party, despite the incumbent president’s very low approval rating?

The results can be explained to a large extent by the effects, which we already anticipated, of the system of unblocked lists with preferential voting in the context of a divided opposition.

A couple of years ago there was an electoral reform that replaced the closed and blocked party lists with unblocked lists with preferential voting. In these, the voter can select a candidate within the list of their choice, in order to vote for both a party and a candidate; then, according to the number of votes obtained by each candidate and their list, seats are distributed by the D’Hont system.

This system was introduced in the last municipal elections and we already knew that it would have some negative effects. A big problem with unblocked lists is that generally the candidate with the most money is the one who gets ahead. They also cause strong competition of all against all within parties.

In addition, the old system was replaced by electronic ballot boxes without sufficient training, meaning that people were not well prepared to use the new system. This allowed the spread of so-called ‘assisted voting’, which is illegal, and which basically consists of having people at polling stations interfering with voting with the excuse of helping voters use the electronic system.

All this benefited the Colorado Party, which has been at the helm of the state for a long time and is therefore the one with the most resources, and which has sufficient internal diversity to be able to provide replacement options for those who are dissatisfied with their government they lead.

There were, however, some small improvements in women’s representation. For the first time two women have been elected governors and there are more women than before in both houses of Congress.

But with the opposition divided, the Colorado Party won by the widest margin in Paraguay’s democratic history. In addition to winning the presidency, it won control of both houses of Congress and 15 of 17 governorships.

The other defining feature of this election was the emergence of a third opposition political grouping with a populist-authoritarian and messianic style. Led by Paraguayo Cubas, it represents so-called ‘angry voters’, those dissatisfied with traditional parties and the way politics has been conducted for decades. This candidacy did not take votes away from the government but from the opposition, and unexpectedly came in a close third place, with more than 20 per cent.

What is the basis for the allegations of fraud voiced by protesters?

The followers of Paraguayo Cubas, joined by people from practically all sectors of the opposition, many of them young people disaffected with politics, have taken to the streets en masse across the country to denounce fraud, despite the fact that their candidate got a very good vote, which they did not expect. The fact that an anti-establishment group is mobilising protests on a scale not seen in a long time represents a major challenge for the future of democracy in Paraguay.

This was a relatively peaceful election in which there was virtually no violence. What there was plenty of was disinformation, hate speech and social media attacks throughout the campaign. These aggressions strongly affected CSOs, including our own, Seeds for Democracy, and came mostly from the ruling party and the party and supporters of Paraguayo Cubas, although Concertación also launched similar attacks against its political opponents.

What role did civil society play during the election?

Civil society played a relatively important role, despite the restrictions it has faced. The Electoral Court initially did not authorise civil society election observation and instead issued a rather restrictive regulation. It finally accepted that the Sakã Consortium, a civil society coalition, would carry out observation and a parallel count, but with very many restrictions.

Seeds for Democracy has been actively involved in denouncing the problems of political financing, an issue we have succeeded in placing on the agenda. The other major problem in Paraguay, along with enormous inequality, is corruption. Lack of control over money in politics has brought groups linked to organised crime to power, both in Congress and in governors’ offices.

We will soon be working on political finance control. In Paraguay, campaign spending is controlled after elections. A month later, when the parties submit their statements, we begin to monitor them through the Electoral Court’s Citizen Observatory of Political Financing, cross-checking data on public contracts with the sworn statements published on public agencies’ websites. Paraguay’s freedom of information legislation is quite good and enables us to do this work.

How do you see the future of democracy in Paraguay?

In the medium to long term I see a very difficult situation. There are many things to be resolved in order to improve the quality of democracy. The emerging political group is violent, anti-rights, fundamentalist and messianic. Its inspiration is the popular authoritarian president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, and his way of ruling, so I think we are in for some very tough years ahead.

The section of the Colorado Party that won the election is one whose leaders attack civil society. They are anti-rights: they define themselves as ‘pro-life’, they are against equal marriage and sexual and reproductive rights and they attack all issues related to gender rights. That’s why I think civil society is in for a very tough few years. The various segments of civil society, especially those working on rights issues, are going to have to make big efforts to join together and undertake collective action.

At the moment, some organisations have some funding from international cooperation sources, and we hope that this support will increase and strengthen so that we can work together to face all these challenges. It will be a constant struggle, all the more difficult because we have already seen attacks against freedom of expression and press freedom.

I do not expect much in the coming months. For the time being, we must stay vigilant to understand which way things are going. But what is certain is that very tough years are ahead for CSOs that promote human rights.

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

Get in touch with Seeds for Democracy through their website or Facebook page, and follow @semillaspy on Twitter.

UN RESOLUTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE: ‘The climate crisis is a human rights crisis’

HaileyCampbellCIVICUS speaks with Hailey Campbell about the recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on the environment, which enables the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on states’ obligations to address climate change.

Hailey is a climate activist and co-executive director of Care About Climate, a justice-driven climate education and empowerment civil society organisation (CSO) and network of international young climate leaders seeking to share climate solutions on the international stage.

What was the origin of the initiative to take climate matters to the ICJ?

The historic initiative was first introduced in 2019 by the Pacific Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a youth-led organisation established by students from eight Pacific Island countries. The PISFCC started by persuading the Pacific Island Forum, the region’s main political and economic organisation, to bring the issue of climate change and human rights to the ICJ. CSOs from the Pacific supported this campaign and built the Alliance for a Climate Justice Advisory Opinion (ACJAO) to include other non-state actors. In 2021, the state of Vanuatu, a small island state that is highly susceptible to climate catastrophes, initiated negotiations and the drafting of the resolution, which was later supported by over 130 countries and over 220 CSOs, and eventually adopted by consensus by the UNGA on 29 March 2023.

Do you view this resolution as a civil society victory?

This resolution is a monumental victory! This victory is the beginning of a wave of change in how we all think about the climate crisis and a reminder that climate change doesn’t respect geopolitical boundaries. Environmental CSOs, young leaders, island nations leading the call for the resolution, and PISFCC are reminding the world that before being an advocate, a fossil fuel executive, or a politician, we are all people. As humans, we all share this beautiful planet and sharing it requires caring about each other. If some leaders fail to recognise this, they should be held accountable.

The resolution calling for an ICJ advisory opinion is also a celebration of island innovation and perseverance. Islanders have relied on traditional knowledge and collaborative leadership to adapt to environmental impacts for thousands of years. Taking the world’s greatest challenge to the highest court highlights their strength and experience. As a young person living on an island in the Pacific, I am grateful to the leadership of other young islanders and allies who are paving the way for future generations to have a sustainable future.

How could the ICJ help address climate change?

The ICJ is the world’s highest court, which sets precedents via advisory opinions and rules on how states should cooperate globally. As such, it plays a prominent role in keeping peace among our nations.

The ICJ advisory opinion embodies the reality that we can’t solve the climate crisis by continuing the very practices that brought us to it. The scope of the resolution moves beyond the Paris Agreement, referencing the importance of having a safe climate as a vital human right for well-being. Through outlining potential legal consequences for nations causing significant harm to vulnerable communities and future generations, it could finally ensure greater accountability for the climate crisis. If nations are held more accountable and pushed to act, the door is opened to ensure fossil fuel emissions are fully eliminated and capacity-building for adaptation needs are fulfilled.

How have you personally engaged in advocating for this resolution and broader climate action?

I first learned about the PISFCC’s campaign in 2019, when I got involved with the climate movement following the COP25 climate change summit. As a sustainability student dedicated to working in the climate field, I was inspired by how a small group of students across island boundaries was strongly calling for an ICJ advisory opinion. I started following their journey and supporting their calls to action in various ways, from reposting social media content to bringing up relevant arguments in my conversations with leaders at subsequent COPs.

Inspired by their island leadership, I accepted an internship with the Local 2030 Islands Network, the world’s first global, island-led peer-to-peer network devoted to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. I learned more about island sustainability and the impacts of climate change from island leaders and was amazed by their examples of innovative solutions and optimist spirit. Empowered to use my education to support islanders in making their voices heard, I chose to focus my master’s degree on developing a workplan for how islanders can work together with their communities to develop, track and implement sustainable solutions for climate change.

This journey of student activism helped me become a cross-sector environmental leader, work on climate adaption on islands, and lean into coalitions, like Care About Climate, as vulnerable groups to stand up for our right to a climate safe future. In fact, their inspiration led to my empowerment to work with young people to ensure the first-ever inclusion of young people as stakeholders in a UN climate conference decision at COP27.

What can international allies do to support this struggle?

All international allies must continue fighting! This historic resolution is only the first step. Before the ICJ can issue its opinion, written and oral arguments from states and select international organisations, such as the United Nations Environment Program, will be requested. It is important for community members to continue contacting their national representatives and international organisations selected to submit testimonies and call for support of the opinion. In fact, the PISFCC have just launched an amazing handbook to support policymakers, youth, and environmental CSOs in understanding their role that I highly recommend checking out. My favourite example from the handbook is about the importance of sharing your personal testimony as to why you believe in the need for an ICJ’s advisory opinion on climate rights and what impact it could have on your future with your national representatives. I hope everyone feels empowered to join me in the Alliance to stay up to date on ways to make an impact.

Get in touch with Care About Climate through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @careaboutclimate and @hailey_campbell on Twitter and Instagram.


SINGAPORE: ‘Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost’

RaviCIVICUS speaks with constitutional lawyer and human rights advocate M. Ravi about civic space, human rights and his activism against the death penalty in Singapore.

A prominent anti-death penalty advocate, Ravi is a founding member of the Anti‐Death Penalty Asia Network and the Singapore Anti‐Death Penalty Campaign community group. Due to his work, he has faced harassment from the Singaporean authorities.

Over the past few years, Ravi has also worked on business and human rights, sustainability and environmental, social and governance issues. He is a founding member of the Malaysian Association of Public Advocacy for Nature.

What is the current state of civic space in Singapore?

Civic space is highly restricted as a result of the repressive measures taken by the government, which has curtailed freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly for years. The authoritarian ‘rule by law’ has reached a toxic state in which the average Singaporean feels terribly alienated. The upside of this is the growth of an opposition force determined to remove the ruling People’s Action Party from power.

How did you start working on death penalty cases?

In 2003, I was instructed in a last-ditch attempt by the family of a young Malaysian death row inmate, Vignes Mourthy, to save him from execution. The case came to me through JB Jeyaretnam, a leading opposition politician at the time. I faced procedural hurdles against reopening the case, and on the eve of the execution I asked Chief Justice Yong Pung How whether an innocent man can be hanged due to procedural reasons, to which he responded that he could. That response shook my conscience, so I started campaigning against the death penalty. I founded an organisation, the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign, to support the families of death row inmates and ultimately end the death penalty.

What challenges have you faced?

I took up a number of human rights constitutional cases and death penalty cases on a pro bono basis. The demanding nature of the work and the emotional aspect of death penalty cases also affected my wellbeing. Being a human rights lawyer has had a huge personal cost.

This work has also been highly taxing on my resources. The Attorney General has filed several complaints with the Law Society and I have been prosecuted as a result. The courts slammed me with adverse personal cost orders to the tune of S$70,000 (US$ 52, 661) in my representation of death penalty cases. I had to raise funds to settle.

A complaint that the Law Society lodged against me with the Court of Appeal in a death penalty case is now before a Disciplinary Tribunal. I have recently been suspended for five years for criticising the conduct of the prosecution of another Malaysian citizen, Gobi Avedian, who would have been executed if not for my late-stage application, in response to which the Court of Appeal acknowledged that there had been a miscarriage of justice. But for my advocacy for Gobi, I paid a huge price in the form of a five-year suspension.

I have been often subjected to intimidation and state harassment. I have recently been investigated by the police over Facebook posts in relation to campaigns on death penalty cases as constituting contempt of court.


How has this impacted on your work?

All these repressive moves have greatly impeded my work. Lawyers in Singapore are cowed into passivity and fear, contributing to a weak legal profession. This has deprived me of the support of my peers and only increased my vulnerability. Fortunately, I have received a great deal of support from my international network of lawyers and civil society activists.

In 2020 and 2021 I was handling almost all death row cases. I represented 26 inmates at one go and most of this work was pro bono. But the personal cost orders against me had a chilling effect on the profession: lawyers were increasingly unwilling to get involved in late-stage applications for fear of state reprisals. After my suspension, 24 inmates I represented filed an application in court and appeared on their own, as they had no lawyers to argue their cases. Some of them have already been executed. My suspension has deprived them of a voice in court. Fear is crippling the legal profession.

Has any progress been made towards the end of the death penalty?

There has been progress. As a result of the various legal challenges, I and others brought to court in the case of Yong Vui Kong, another young Malaysian on death row, between 2010 and 2012 an indirect moratorium was placed on death penalty cases. This contributed to the amendment to the law in respect of the mandatory death penalty, giving judges discretion in death penalty cases. Yong was saved from the death penalty, along with two of my clients and several others.

The vigorous campaign held across Malaysia to save Yong also precipitated a call for reform of death penalty laws in Malaysia. Executions were also halted, culminating in the recent abolition of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia. A recent campaign and legal challenges to save another client of mine, Nagenthren, from being executed further strengthened calls by civil society, media, lawyers, politicians and others to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

What can civil society and the international community do to support human rights activists in Singapore?

They can issue solidarity statements and bring the human rights violations levelled against human rights activists to the United Nations and other international bodies. It is time for such cases to be brought to international courts or to the national courts of states such as France and the USA, which have universal jurisdiction. For example, the USA’s Alien Tort Statute gives US federal courts jurisdiction over certain international human rights law violations that occurred on foreign soil and plaintiffs affected can file a claim against a foreign country in the USA. This means that Singapore can be sued in countries which has universal jurisdiction laws for its egregious human rights violations in death penalty cases.

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

Follow @MRavilaw on Twitter.

GUATEMALA: ‘Judicial harassment and criminal prosecution have wearing effects’

CarlosChocOn World Press Freedom Day, CIVICUS speaks with Carlos Ernesto Choc, a Q’eqchi’ Mayan journalist with almost two decades of experience, about the criminalisation of journalism and the media in Guatemala.

What are the conditions for journalists in Guatemala?

The conditions for the practice of journalism in Guatemala are quite difficult. We face criminal prosecution by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and threats from various sources, including public officials that journalists are questioning or investigating. Defamation campaigns against journalists are also very concerning.

The internet and social media are full of trolls who send threatening and defamatory messages. They discredit journalistic work and attacks naturally follow. These even come from the state, and particularly from public security agencies. The National Civil Police attack the media and journalists both in the context of demonstrations and at other times and places where they do not want coverage of events in order to preserve impunity for crimes or violations of rights perpetrated on the ground.

Since 2015, aggressions against the press have only escalated. Now as well as being criminally prosecuted, judicially harassed, threatened, intimidated and vilified, you can be thrown into prison. To be able to do this, they accuse you of charges that are normally used to fight organised crime, such as illicit association, as in my case, or money laundering, as in the case of my colleague Rubén Zamora. In other words, we are accused of being criminals and prosecuted under accusations of having links to organised crime, leading land invasions or instigating crime. These are clearly fabricated accusations, so we are baselessly, illegally detained. They ultimately have no way of proving their accusations, but in the meantime you remain subject to lengthy criminal proceedings.

While all journalists are vulnerable in this country right now, those of us who investigate environmental aggression, human rights violations and issues related to drug trafficking and corruption are particularly vulnerable. These are really complicated issues and some investigate them anonymously because many have been murdered, the most recent being Eduardo Mendizabal, just over a month ago.

The situation is getting more complicated by the day and some community journalists have chosen to emigrate and quit journalism. It is sad to see colleagues leave, and under the current government there have been more and more of them. I don’t see myself in exile, but I view this as an option of last resort.

What is your situation after the criminalisation you have experienced?

Mine has been a case of judicial persecution that has been used to attempt to silence me. It started in 2017 when I was investigating the pollution of Lake Izabal. I was documenting protests by fishers against mining and I captured the exact moment when a protester was killed by shots fired by the National Civil Police. The accusation against me came from the mining company, Solway Investment Group – a Russian-owned company based in Switzerland. In August 2017, a warrant for my arrest was issued. One hearing after another was postponed so only in January 2019 could I finally give testimony before the court, as a result of which I was handed an alternative measure to prison.

When you have an alternative measure to imprisonment you are free under certain conditions: you are forced to visit the Public Prosecutor’s Office every 30 days to sign in and forbidden to be in any place where alcoholic drinks are sold, among other things. The security forces, the police, the authorities are watching where you are and waiting for you to commit a breach to be able to prosecute you. I see these alternative measures as forms of punishment that imply restrictions and limitations on your right to inform and be informed.

In January 2022, I was criminally prosecuted again, under accusations by the National Civil Police of instigating violence during a protest by Indigenous communities in Izabal against the country’s largest active open-pit mine, owned by Solway’s subsidiary Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel. Thirteen police officers accused me of having physically assaulted them, when all I was doing was documenting the moment when security forces repressed people with teargas. Since then I could not continue doing my job as a journalist, nor move around freely, until my lawyers managed to prove to the judge that I really am a journalist and not a criminal. In September the charges against me were dropped. It has been very exhausting: judicial harassment and criminal prosecution have wearing effects.

What strategies have journalists adopted to be able to continue working?

Strategies to break through censorship are renewed every day and are often focused on both physical and digital security, particularly concerning the security of documents and files. Local, national and international networking among journalists and alternative and independent media is also very important.

Such networks have made possible works such as Green Blood, published in 2019, and Mining Secrets, published in 2022. Both were led by Forbidden Stories, an organisation based in France that supports the publication of the work of journalists facing threats, criminalisation and violence in their countries. Green Blood was the result of research conducted in three countries on three continents: Guatemala, India and Tanzania, and looks into the mining industry’s tactics to hinder journalistic work and criminalise those who oppose its practices. Mining Secrets arose from the leak of a huge amount of Solway’s internal files concerning the operation of its Fénix mining project in Izabal. A consortium of 20 media outlets from 15 countries around the world carried out an investigation, with information corroborated by 65 journalists, including the Prensa Comunitaria team I was part of.

It is all about finding a way to continue doing the work you are doing. Like many others, I do journalism out of passion and conviction. I don’t expect a prize or international recognition. I know that what I am doing is going to help my community and society in general. I believe that shedding light on environmental damage and human rights violations is very important.

What kind of support do journalists and community media in Guatemala currently receive, and what additional support would they need?

We receive support mainly in the form of accompaniment: legal accompaniment, accompaniment from human rights organisations and accompaniment from communities and community authorities who support our work.

This is very important, but much more is needed. A difficulty that criminalised or at-risk journalists experience is that of surviving economically and supporting their families, which is why economic support is important. The same goes for health support, because there are times when, due to all you are going through, your body no longer responds. Finally, it is key to provide opportunities for exchange with other journalist colleagues. It helps a lot to learn about the experiences of others.

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

Follow @CarlosErnesto_C on Twitter.

THE NETHERLANDS: ‘People are beginning to realise that we need real and systemic change’

SiegerSlootCIVICUS speaks with Sieger Sloot, an actor and climate activist from a Dutch branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR), about climate protests and the criminalisation of climate activism in the Netherlands.

XR is a global decentralised network of climate activists working to compel governments to address climate change and prevent biodiversity loss and ecological collapse through the use of non-violent civil disobedience tactics.

What forms of protests has XR deployed in the Netherlands, and what have you achieved?

In the Netherlands, XR organised over 300 protests in 2022 alone. One of the most successful was a blockade of the A12 highway in The Hague city centre. We were 30 people when we started blocking the road last June, and since then, the number of participants doubled or tripled every time, so we grew exponentially. On 11 March 2023, around 4,000 protesters blocked the same spot.

It is XR’s strategy to use non-violent disruptive actions like blockades to draw attention to the climate crisis, and especially to the €30 billion (approx. US$32.9 billion) annual fossil fuel subsidies provided by the government. These attract way more media coverage than regular protests. The Dutch law allows a great deal of protesting and XR is actively investigating the limits of what is allowed.

These forms of protest have had a huge effect on Dutch society. For the first time we witness mainstream media talking about fossil fuel subsidies. Some 400 Dutch economists wrote an op-ed on why and how fossil fuel subsidies should be terminated. Members of parliament are making proposals for ending fossil fuel subsidies. The Dutch Secretary for Climate has announced a press conference on the climate crisis. A wave of famous musicians, actors, writers and directors are joining the XR movement. So our tactics are proving to be quite effective.

What are your demands to the Dutch government, and how has the government reacted?

The Dutch government promised to end fossil fuel subsidies in 2020 but still hasn’t done it, so with every blockade XR demands it end all fossil fuel subsidies immediately, or otherwise the protesters won’t leave. Until now, the government hasn’t complied with our demand. Instead, police have arrested protesters who weren’t willing to leave and fined others. They also used water cannon to disperse crowds and tried to infiltrate XR.

Over the past months, between 40 and 50 climate activists have been prosecuted in the Netherlands. The accusations vary from vandalism, which can be just about spray paint, to not following police orders and trespassing, all the way to sedition.

This included eight activists arrested for sedition because they posted on social media about their intention to go to the protest and block the highway. This had never happened before: it is a totally unprecedented attack on free speech and freedom of assembly. This provoked a lot of anger among Dutch people, since according to both Dutch and European Union law it’s allowed to block roads while protesting. Over 70 civil society organisations showed their solidarity with XR following the arrest of those eight activists by joining the A12 protest.

I think the Dutch government is criminalising climate activists just to ‘restore law and order’, but it has totally backfired on them. The District Attorney (DA) is prosecuting the eight activists, probably to make a case that not all ways of protesting are allowed – even though XR’s actions are always non-violent. We’ve had some quite violent farmers’ protests in recent years, but it seems that the DA didn’t dare to make a case against them. Of course they have tractors and aren’t as easy to target as climate activists.

What kind of support are your receiving from international allies?

We get a lot of international support online, which is absolutely awesome. Right now, I think we’re really thriving and growing rapidly. It feels as if XR is becoming more and more accepted and mainstream every day. Along with other activists I’ve started giving ‘Headed for Extinction’ talks to all kinds of people, which translated into more attention for our story from people in power and in the media. More and more people are now joining us because they see it’s the logical thing to do. A lot of powerful and smart people are beginning to realise that we need change, real and systemic change.

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

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

UN PLASTICS TREATY: ‘It is up to civil society to speak up for the public when their governments won’t’

AidanCharronCIVICUS speaks about the progress being made towards a United Nations (UN) Treaty on Plastic Pollution with Aidan Charron, End of Plastics and Canopy Project Coordinator with EARTHDAY.ORG.

Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, EARTHDAY.ORG is the world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement, working with more than 150,000 partners in over 192 countries to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.

PAKISTAN: ‘They put a black hood over my face and took me to the airport’

SyedFawadCIVICUS speaks with Syed Fawad Ali Shah, a writer and journalist from Pakistan, about the situation of journalists in his country and his experience of persecution, exile and deportation.

In retaliation for his reporting on terrorism, crime, drugs, corruption and human rights, in 2011 Syed was kidnapped and tortured by Pakistani intelligence officers, forcing him to seek asylum in Malaysia. He remained there until August 2022, when he was deported back to Pakistan, allegedly because the Pakistani authorities falsely identified him as a police officer subjected to disciplinary proceedings.

What is the situation for journalists in Pakistan?

It is too easy to kill, kidnap or torture journalists in Pakistan. Many Pakistani journalists have sacrificed a lot for press freedom, which the Pakistani government has strangled. Journalists working for most newspapers and TV channels in Pakistan have not received their salaries for several months because critical newspapers do not receive government advertising, putting pressure on journalists.

Why did you flee Pakistan in 2011?

In 2011, I was kidnapped in Islamabad by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), precisely for raising my voice for the freedom of people forcibly disappeared by the ISI. I was also exposing corruption in the police and bureaucracy and reporting on terrorism and the Taliban.

The ISI kept me in a secret, black hole-type jail for three months and 18 days. They released me on the condition that I quit journalism, leave the country, or work as a spy for them. I told them I would quit journalism, but it was impossible for me to leave the country or spy for the ISI.

To save my life, I kept my word. The ISI freed me in April. In June, I was wounded in a bomb blast in Peshawar. After my name was published in a local newspaper, the ISI called me threateningly, accusing me of starting journalism again. I told them that I had not; I just happened to be there. In August, I reluctantly left my country. I travelled to Thailand and a few days later I arrived in Malaysia, where I was granted refugee status.

What was your experience as a refugee?

As a refugee registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), I experienced many hardships. UNHCR cardholders are sometimes arrested in Malaysia, so I lived in fear of being deported back to Pakistan. During my 13 years in Malaysia, I moved from place to place to avoid arrest. I wrote for various newspapers and websites, reporting mostly on refugee issues and immigration policies.

In 2016, UNHCR Malaysia referred my resettlement case to the United States Refugee Admissions Program through the International Rescue Committee (IRC). However, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) refused to resettle me in the USA due to alleged security issues. They gave me a series of reasons I could not be admitted as a refugee in the USA. I applied for reconsideration in 2016 but did not hear back from the DHS until June 2022.

From 2016 to 2022, I waited for a response from the US government that never came. I finally asked the IRC to send my case file back to UNHCR Malaysia, which they did. I wrote hundreds of times to UNHCR Malaysia requesting resettlement in a safe country but got no response, although I sent them copies of the threats I received from the Pakistani government, the police report and the letter written to Interpol for my arrest. Other who became refugees after me were resettled by UNHCR, but I was stuck there. Pakistani intelligence officers stationed at the Pakistani High Commission in Kuala Lumpur often spied on me.

How did your arrest and deportation happen?

On 23 August 2022, at 9pm, I was abducted by Malaysian immigration officials in a joint operation with the Pakistani ISI in the Bangsar area of Kuala Lumpur. They took me to the Immigration Headquarters in Putrajaya, where they locked me up in the basement. On 25 August they put a black hood over my face and took me to the airport. Before taking me to the airport, they gave me a drug, saying it was for COVID-19, after which I fell unconscious. At the airport they removed the black hood and put me on a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Islamabad, with two ISI officers at either side. More than 30 people from Malaysian Immigration and the Pakistani diplomatic mission saw me off at the airport.

When I arrived, the ISI sent me to an unknown prison in Islamabad without entering my data in the Federal Investigation Agency’s immigration system. I was detained for six months, during which time the Pakistani government did not acknowledge I was in Pakistan. But in March 2023, Malaysia’s Home Affairs minister finally acknowledged I had been deported and this was reported by international media.

The authorities couldn’t hide me for longer and eventually handed me over to the Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) cybercrime wing, who slapped me with two fake charges under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016. After I received temporary bail, the judge was pressured by FIA’s cybercrime wing to fabricate further cases against me, so I am constantly afraid that the court will send me to jail. The ISI often oversteps its authority and kidnaps and disappears innocent people, which has led to thousands of cases pending in the Supreme Court of Pakistan without any result.

What are your requests to the international community?

I urge organisations working for the rights of refugees and journalists around the world, as well as the heads of all states that have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, to provide me with protection and immediately relocate me to a safe country under special circumstances.

I also urge the leaders of democratic states to put pressure on the Pakistani government regarding my situation and to provide me with a way to leave the country safely, as was done for Asia Bibi, who was resettled in France in 2020.

Due to pressure from Pakistani security agencies, my passport has been blocked for 10 years, and my name has been added to the Integrated Border Management System of Immigration, forcing me to change location every day. I am unable to sleep due to fear. Every time there is a knock at the door I panic. My heart beats fast all the time and I have fallen ill many times.

Civic space in Pakistan is ratedrepressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Follow @SyedFawadAli303 on Twitter.

KENYA: ‘We have concerns about state functions being used to dictate and define morality’

IvyWerimbaCIVICUS speaks about LGBTQI+ rights in Kenya and the criminalisation of activism with Ivy Werimba, Communications and Advocacy Officer at galck+.

galck+ is a national coalition of Kenyan LGBTQI+ organisations advocating for issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression and representing LGBTQI+ voices across the country.

How significant is the recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of allowing the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to register? Has it brought any anti-rights backlash?

The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the lower court rulings was highly significant. This decision sets an important precedent for future cases involving discrimination against marginalised communities and underscores the importance of the judiciary in upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights. It was the first of its kind by the Supreme Court of Kenya. We applaud their decision to uphold the Constitution.

There has been a lot of backlash from various societal leaders and there is now a Family Protection Bill that’s been created and awaiting being gazetted. This bill, which closely resembles the anti-homosexuality bills of Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, has given fodder to the opposition, which is rallying support for it online and continuing to spread misinformation and disinformation by tying it to other issues that political leaders refuse to address, such as the poor economy, the rise in teenage pregnancies and alcohol abuse, election violence and election violations, widespread corruption and unrest in secondary schools.

The NGLHRC fought for 10 years to register because its name contained the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. Has galck+ faced similar challenges?

No, our struggle has been different. As a coalition made up of 18 member organisations catering to people of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics, we changed our name in 2022. We are now galck+ and our name is no longer an abbreviation. galck+ reflects the growth and intersectionality we have witnessed in the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement, with inclusion and diversity at the heart of what we do. Our updated resolve is to create a space that doesn’t feel segmented since our fight for freedom and love is the same regardless of what makes us different from each other.

How do you manage to work in a context where being LGBTQI+ is illegal?

Our work in Kenya is not hindered by the illegality of being openly LGBTQI+. Although Kenya is a patriarchal, conservative and sexist state, the perception of a person’s gender or sexuality is what gets people in trouble. Through its existence and work, the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya continues to challenge conformity to societal norms that expect men to be courageous and women to be homemakers.

There have been significant milestones in establishing laws and policies that support gender equality and social inclusion. However, several factors – including limited resources, weak links among ministries and between the national and county levels, negative pervasive norms and attitudes about inclusion – hinder the effective implementation of laws and policies.

Despite all these tribulations, we use our work and our spaces to push back on these norms and celebrate the limited but important progress made on the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Kenya over the last 10 years. This has largely been obtained through victories in court, where Kenyan activists have challenged criminalising provisions and the treatment of LGBTQI+ people and organisations. This includes a case that established that the use of forced anal exams is illegal, a case that upheld the right of LGBTQI+ people to form and register organisations and a case that upheld the right to change gender on legal documents. The Family Protection Bill threatens to destroy all this progress and so our work continues to be a reminder that the freedoms we fight for are for all Kenyans, and not only for the LGBTQI+ community.

Do prohibitions of ‘same-sex behaviour’ apply in practice?

Violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people in Kenya are a harsh reality. Despite claims that sexual orientation and gender identity are non-issues, LGBTQI+ people in Kenya experience stigma, discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, assault, harassment, eviction from their homes, loss of their jobs, suspension or expulsion from school and many other rights violations that significantly affect their wellbeing and quality of life.

The Penal Code’s sections 162(a), 162(c) and 165 criminalise sexual activities that are perceived to be against the ‘order of nature’. While these sections apply to all Kenyans, they are selectively used to criminalise same-sex relationships. The ambiguous language used in these sections also makes it difficult to define ‘gross indecency’ since it criminalises even innocent actions like hugging or holding hands between people of the same sex. These laws also affect the transgender and intersex communities. The misguided narrative that limits people’s understanding of the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity leads many Kenyans to assume that transgender and intersex people are homosexual or bisexual.

Although few people have been charged under these laws, they are often used to justify violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, creating a perception that they are criminals. This is a perception that subsets of the state and religious institutions advance to further perpetuate human rights violations and acts of violence.

In other words, there is a connection between legal prohibitions and violence against LGBTQI+ people, even if the laws are not consistently applied. This hostility is underpinned by discriminatory laws, including the law that criminalises same-sex activities and other laws used by the state to target LGBTQI+ people.

These laws also create a culture of fear and secrecy among LGBTQI+ people, making them vulnerable to harassment, assault and other forms of violence. In addition, the inconsistent application of these laws can lead to arbitrary arrests and prosecution, including under laws criminalising ‘loitering’, ‘solicitation’ and ‘impersonation’, to extort money or sex from LGBTQI+ people, or to deny services to LGBTQI+ survivors of violence.

How are LGBTQI+ organisations in Kenya working to change this?

LGBTQ+ organisations in Kenya are working to change discriminatory laws and social norms by engaging in various advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, providing legal aid, sharing security directives with our constituents and offering healthcare services to the LGBTQI+ community. These organisations are also working to create safe spaces for LGBTQI+ people to express themselves, network and access information.

Some of the main issues on the LGBTQI+ agenda in Kenya include the repeal of discriminatory laws such as Penal Code sections 162(a), 162(c) and 165 and the promotion of laws and policies that are intersectional for LGBTQI+ people and organisations, including the Employment Act (2007), which recognises the rights of employees to basic conditions of employment, the Sexual Offences Act (2006), which outlaws all forms of sexual violence, and the National Gender and Equality Commission Act (2011), which spells out the National Gender Equality Commission’s function, which is to promote, monitor and facilitate gender equality and freedom from discrimination in the country’s laws at the national and county levels.

Other issues include ending violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, addressing the challenges faced by transgender people, and promoting education and awareness on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community.

Do you see your struggle as part of a bigger regional or global struggle?

Yes, the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement is part of the regional and global struggle to achieve various goals ratified in regional and international agreements such as Resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – on protecting people against violence and other human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – and reducing inequalities, as laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Kenyan government has adopted legal and policy frameworks aimed at promoting gender equality and reducing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such initiatives include the Kenya Vision 2030, which highlights the government’s commitment to reducing income inequality through economic growth, job creation and social safety nets. In addition, Kenya has adopted several legal and policy frameworks aimed at promoting gender equality and reducing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

However, significant inequalities still exist, particularly in the wake of the pro-religious government that has been openly homophobic, inciting violence that threatens the lives of queer people. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the new government’s impact on LGBTQI+ organising and funding, with concerns about the evangelisation of the state and state functions being used to dictate and define morality.

Despite these challenges, the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement remains resilient. We are mobilising together and collaborating with LGBTQI+ organisations in other countries in the region, including Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, on issues such as the anti-homosexuality bills of Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, that are now spreading to Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and many other African countries, and exchanging best practices.

To continue doing this, we need various forms of support, including in raising awareness around the issues brought about by state and non-state-sponsored homophobia and flexible funding to respond to rising insecurity and mental health issues. We need our allies working on other thematic areas to highlight intersectionalities, showing how these regressive laws will affect sexual health and reproductive rights, children’s rights, the economy and more.

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

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

ISRAEL: ‘We dream of hundreds of thousands demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights’

DebbieGild HayoCIVICUS speaks about current protests against judicial changes in Israel with Debbie Gild-Hayo, Director of Public Advocacy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).

Founded in 1972, ACRI is an oldest and largest human rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Israel. It advocates for the human rights and civil liberties of everyone living in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

What are the judicial changes being proposed, and what is wrong with them?

The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promoting several pieces of legislation concerning the judicial system. The one that has advanced most and is the most controversial at the moment concerns the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee. This committee chooses judges for the High Court, which also plays the role of a Constitutional Court, and also all other courts.

The government wants the ruling coalition to have a majority in the Judicial Selection Committee so it can control the appointment of judges. It currently has to make compromises and reach agreements between all members of the committee, political and professional, to nominate judges. If the change is adopted, the nomination process will be totally political and will prioritise judges’ allegiance to the government over their professionalism.

The reform would also diminish the authority of the High Court to conduct judicial review of Basic Laws – which have the status of a constitution in Israel – drafted by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. For example, the coalition wants to pass a new Basic Law that will release ultra-Orthodox people from obligatory military duty, making their religious studies equivalent to army service. The High Court has already stated that this kind of arrangement would violate the principle of equality. But if the reform passes, then these kinds of unconstitutional amendments to Basic Laws will be possible and the High Court will not be able to intervene.

Another bill concerns regular laws passed by the Knesset that contradict Basic Laws. The bill determines that in order to annul an unconstitutional statute the High Court will need 80 per cent of its members to agree, which is practically impossible to achieve. On top of that, the bill includes an override clause, which determines that even if the High Court recognises legislation as unconstitutional, the Knesset will have the power to override its decision with a simple majority of 61 of its 120 members.

It’s important in this context to remember that Israel has a 20 per cent Arab population, so even if a majority of 80 out of 120 Knesset votes were needed for the override clause, like some suggestions that are on the table and quite widely accepted, it would still keep Arabs completely out of the law-making process in the most harming and controversial moments. The government wants to be able to pass laws deemed unconstitutional with a simple majority of 61 members, which could potentially harm an enormous part of the population.

The government also seeks to change the status of legal advisors in ministries, turning them from independent advisors into politically nominated counsel whose rulings would have non-binding status.

All of these bills would harm the independence of the judicial system and its ability to defend human rights, and specifically the rights of minorities.

How would you describe the protests against the changes?

I would describe them as amazing. As a human rights organisation, it is our dream to have hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights. We wouldn’t have thought it possible only a short while ago. People are now attending parliamentary discussions – which, believe me, is incredible. I have been doing this job for a long time, and I used to always be there alone or with a few colleagues at most.

I think many people felt threatened personally by the reform initiative. This is what usually brings people out to the street. A lot of people who have never been involved in politics before are now mobilising.

In the last few months, I have talked to members of the Knesset as well as to protesters and advocated for other issues besides the judicial changes that are also harming democracy and human rights in Israel to be included on the agenda. Everything that is related to the occupation is excluded from the mainstream agenda. There is a perception that those demonstrating with Palestinian flags harm the protest.

But a few things are slowly widening the protesters’ agenda. For instance, people have been speaking up against the creation of a militia of armed citizens to support the police. It is a good sign that criticism is starting to go beyond the judicial changes.

Protesters include people of all ages and various professional groups, including doctors, social workers and teachers, as well as youth and student groups. But it is undeniable that most are middle or upper-middle class. A deep split has existed in Israeli society for many years, but now it has come to its peak. On the one hand you have the more liberal population and on the other the right-wing nationalist segment, including five per cent of the population who are settlers and 10 per cent who are ultra-Orthodox believers.

How has the government reacted to the protests?

From my point of view, there hasn’t been much repression. There are frequent clashes between police and protesters and there have been cases of police brutality, but the level of violence has not been that high. I have seen the police in action in other places, such as East Jerusalem, and they are much more violent. In this case, they have given quite a lot of room to protesters.

The main thing the government has attempted to do is to delegitimise the protests, referring to protesters as ‘anarchists’, ‘leftists’, ‘a minority against the country’ and so forth, disregarding the fact that hundreds of thousands are protesting every week and many of the people opposing the reforms and deeming them non-democratic are public officials, including members of security forces, or have positions in the financial system. The government also claims protesters are violent, but I personally have never seen such non-violent protesters in my life. If you just look at the protests against the pensions system changes taking place in Paris right now, there is no comparison.

What role are CSOs playing?

CSOs have been fully involved in many ways. CSOs are doing advocacy and campaigns, explaining to the public what this judicial reform is about, talking to the press and writing reports. They are also going to the courts when any rights violation occurs, especially regarding freedoms of speech and assembly, and to the police to defend arrested people. And they also take part in the parliamentary legislation procedures, including by attending committee sessions.

Do you think the protests will force the government to backtrack?

Protests have put a lot of pressure on the government, influencing Israel’s financial situation and bringing international support, which is also threatening to the government. But we have not stopped the process, but rather slowed it down. The government started pushing all these bills at once and ended up at the end of the Knesset session with only one passed, which protects Netanyahu’s position by limiting the ways a sitting prime minister can be declared unfit for office.

The judicial reform has been put off for a month, during which time its terms are supposed to be negotiated. The next session will take place in May, and it’s likely that there won’t be an agreement so the ruling coalition will accuse the opposition of obstruction and go on to push the bills forward. Even if there is an agreement between the coalition and the opposition, or part of it, about the details of the reform, it is not certain that the public will accept it.

If the bills pass, then there will be petitions against them and the High Court might deem them unconstitutional, which will farther intensify the controversy between the sides, and deepen the constitutional clash.

I don’t think protesters will give up. The worst worst-case scenario is that the ongoing constitutional clash will be accompanied by clashes on the streets. I don’t know what form they will take, whether it will be strikes, people refusing to join the army and the reserves, violent clashes on the street, or general chaos. The far right is more violent than its opponents, and we have already witnessed far-right violence in protests and attacks against Arabs on the streets. The ongoing clash could turn into a catastrophe, maybe also escalating to another major outbreak of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as we saw two years ago in May.

What forms of international support does Israeli civil society currently need?

International pressure seems to be one of the only things really influencing this government because Israel is dependent on international support, and financial support in particular. Since the government has a legislative majority, it can theoretically pass all these laws, and the only thing stopping it, or slowing it down at least, seems to be financial pressure within Israel – for example, some high-tech companies have already said that they will relocate or have started to open new companies in other countries – and outside financial or other international pressure.

Another worry is that although many people are on the streets now and protests seem to be very wide, they do not, and probably will not in the future, deal with the less mainstream issues, such as the rights of the Arab population in Israel and occupation issues. In fact, the Knesset has just passed an amendment to the Disengagement Law that would allow the reestablishment of former West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005. This was barely an issue in Israeli public debate. This is just one example. CSOs are currently, and will probably continue to be, the only ones dealing with these issues on the national level, and will also probably be attacked because of this.

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

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

UN PLASTICS TREATY: ‘Human health and the environment must come first’

VitoBuonsanteCIVICUS speaks about the progress being made towards a United Nations (UN) Treaty on Plastic Pollution with Vito Buonsante, an environmental health lawyer and technical and policy advisor at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).

IPEN is a global network of civil society organisations (CSOs) seeking to improve chemical policies and raise public awareness to ensure that hazardous substances are no longer produced, used or disposed of in ways that harm human health and the environment.

Most people don’t know there is a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution in development. When and how did the process start?

In March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, approved a broad mandate to start talks on an international treaty to address the growing threats from plastic pollution. The scope of the Plastics Treaty is meant to include all impacts from plastics throughout their lifecycle, including effects from the toxic chemicals in plastics on human health and the environment. It should help move the world towards a toxic-free future.

In IPEN’s analysis, based on UNEA’s mandate, the final agreement must address the health impacts of plastics and their chemicals in four ways. First, it must address the use, release of and harms from toxic chemicals from plastics in all of their lifecycle, from production to consumption and waste management. Second, as the mandate emphasises the importance of promoting sustainable design, the treaty must ensure that hazardous chemicals are eliminated from plastic production and plastics with hazardous chemicals are not recycled.

Third, the UNEA resolution noted the importance of preventing threats to human health and the environment from toxic plastics and calls for coordination with the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the 1998 Rotterdam Convention concerning the importation of hazardous chemicals, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, a global policy framework adopted in 2006. The treaty must therefore address the health and environmental impacts due to exposure to hazardous chemicals and toxic emissions throughout the plastics lifecycle.

Fourth, there’s the issue of microplastics, which the UNEA resolution recognises as included in plastic pollution. This means the treaty must also address the chemical health and environmental hazards from microplastics, including their potential to be vectors for chemical contamination.

What progress was made in the first session of negotiations?

The first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from 28 November to 2 December 2022.

In this first meeting states had the opportunity to express their intentions for the treaty that they envision. On one side, we have seen a large group of states, working under the umbrella of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, that have expressed their desire for a treaty that makes a difference in how plastics are made and tackles the root causes of plastic pollution. On the other side, there is a group of states fighting for a treaty that makes no difference to the status quo. Worryingly, these countries include Japan, Saudi Arabia and the USA, all of which want to see a treaty focused only on waste management rather than the entire lifecycle of plastics, and built on the basis of voluntarily agreed national commitments rather than binding obligations across the board.

The second session will take place in late May and early June in Paris, France. Negotiations should be completed by the end of 2024, and it should be possible to make the deadline. Global measures can be agreed. The science is very clear: it would be delusional to think that recycling the growing amounts of plastics that are being produced is the solution to the plastic pollution crisis, after 40 years of failing to recycle even a small amount of the plastic waste. It is too early to understand in which direction the talks will go, but it should be possible to agree on a number of global standards, even at the risk of some states not immediately ratifying the treaty.

What would an ambitious treaty look like?

The most important measure an effective treaty should include is the reduction of the total production of plastics. If production doesn’t slow down, over the next 20 years the amount of plastic will double and it will become truly impossible to control.

A second key measure concerns the design of plastics. Here there is a need to remove all toxic chemical additives, such as bisphenols, PFAS and flame retardants, and all toxic polymers such as PVC and polystyrene. These chemicals are known to cause adverse health impacts, disrupting hormonal functions, fertility and children’s brain functions, among others. Removing them from plastics will create safer material cycles. It is also very important to improve transparency about both plastics ingredients and the quantities and types of plastics produced. Without a clear picture of what is produced and where, it will be difficult to beat plastic pollution.

Ambition should also extend to implementation. There must be a commitment from developed countries to create a fund to implement the treaty. No matter how stringent the provisions of the treaty are, without considerable investment in implementation, impact will be limited. Commitments have recently been adopted for funds for climate and biodiversity, but there is not yet a fund established to tackle plastic pollution and other chemicals and waste-related actions.

What are environmental CSOs bringing to the negotiating table?

CSOs hold a wide range of expertise and experiences that are very valuable for treaty negotiators. IPEN, for instance, has advocated for the recognition of the impacts of the toxic chemicals in plastics for over two decades, clearly showing through many scientific reports and testing of plastics and plastic products how plastics products are exposing communities and vulnerable populations to toxic chemicals.

We are optimistic that the need to solve this planetary crisis will prevail. The international community has been failing on climate change and cannot fail on plastics as well. The Plastics Treaty could be a way to show that international cooperation is the best way to solve global problems and that human health and the environment can and must be put ahead of national interests and business interests.

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


GREECE: ‘The criminalisation of solidarity has had a chilling effect’

MelinaSpathariCIVICUS speaks with Melina Spathari, Director of Strategy and Programmes at HumanRights360 (HR360), about the prosecution of civil society activists working with migrants and refugees in Greece.

HR360 is a Greek human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to protect the rights of all people, empowering them to exercise their rights, with a focus on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, including migrants and refugees.

What is the current situation for civil society activists and organisations helping migrants in Greece?

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders stated following her official visit to Greece in June 2022, ‘defenders in the country working to ensure the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are currently under severe pressure… At the tip of the spear are prosecutions, where acts of solidarity are reinterpreted as criminal activity, specifically the crime of people smuggling… The negative impact of such cases is multiplied by smear campaigns perpetuating this false image of defenders’.

Since 2010, Greek ruling parties have demonised CSOs, criticising their use of public funding, to delegitimise their criticism of pushbacks of migrants and their condemnation of the conditions in reception and identification centres and refugee camps. In most cases, the allegations against CSOs later proved to be unfounded. This phenomenon is part of a worrying trend that negatively affects CSOs around the globe, which is why civil society has increasingly organised and developed strategies to resist and respond to the attacks they face from governments.

Why is the Greek government criminalising solidarity with migrants and refugees?

In the case of Greece, the speed and impetus of the ongoing crackdown has been fuelled by current trends in both international and domestic politics, involving hostile relations with Turkey and imminent elections in both countries. Deploying a witch-hunt against CSOs kills many birds with one stone: it helps the government gain votes from the far-right side of the political spectrum and helps it manage the damage caused to its reputation by wrong political decisions and neglectful practices. Last but not least, by vilifying CSOs that are active and vocal in the field of human rights, the authorities aspire to manipulate and silence civil society as a whole.

And to some extent, it has worked. Criminalisation has had a chilling effect. There have been some attempts among civil society to gather, discuss, assess the situation and work on a joint strategy, but these actions didn’t flourish. CSOs are now afraid to raise their voice, and we understand them: they have good reason to be intimidated. Still, some acts of solidarity have taken place, especially when those targeted were respected veteran human rights defenders.

Has HR360 been targeted?

In November 2022, the authorities stepped up an attack against our organisation: they demonised HR360 for receiving foreign funding aimed at regranting and disclosed the personal financial situation of HR360’s founders. The public prosecutor began a preliminary investigation, which hasn’t yet produced any outcomes. No information has been revealed, nor has any criminal process been ordered. HR360 finds itself in limbo, facing huge administrative and financial consequences and experiencing severe impacts on staff morale.

But HR360 is not the only victim of this vile smear campaign. In late 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office criminally charged Panagiotis Dimitras, director of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and Tommy Olsen, founder and director of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian CSO that monitors and shares data about the movement of people in the Aegean Sea, for ‘forming a criminal organisation with the purpose of receiving details of citizens of third countries, who attempt to enter Greece illegally, in order to facilitate their illegal entry and stay’. Following the same pattern applied to HR360, Dimitras has been accused of repeatedly conducting activities aimed at gaining illegal income.

What support does Greek civil society need to resist and continue doing its work?

Greek civil society needs more international support, which is currently quite limited and restricted to its advocacy work – that is, it can be used to help migrants and refugees, but not for CSOs and activists to protect themselves and therefore retain the capacity to continue doing their work.

Right now, what Greek activists and CSOs need the most is legal support, including funding to cover legal fees. And in terms of changing the situation in the long term, what’s also needed is a well-organised European awareness campaign highlighting both the vital work civil society is doing and the attacks the government is subjecting it to. This would be very helpful, since bad publicity at the European level is one of the things Greek authorities fear the most.

Civic space in Greece is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Its rating has recently been downgraded.

Get in touch with HR360 through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @rights360 and @Melina_Spathari on Twitter.

EL SALVADOR: ‘Rather than a real security policy, what the government has is an electoral strategy’

CesarArtigaCIVICUS speaks about the one-year state of emergency in El Salvador with César Artiga, founder and coordinator of the National Promoting Team of the Escazú Agreement and of the National Promoting Group for Resolution 2250 on the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda.

These citizen groups have supported processes of social awareness-raising, legal empowerment and political advocacy since 2017. They promote and defend human rights, peace building, justice and sustainability by working with groups and communities living in conditions of exclusion and vulnerability, particularly in relation to their environmental rights.

MOLDOVA: ‘There are attempts to replace the pro-European government with a pro-Kremlin puppet regime’

VictoriaNemerencoCIVICUS speaks about recent political changes in Moldova in the context of the global energy crisis with Victoria Nemerenco, coordinator of the Europeanization, Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE). Founded in 2015, IPRE is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit action centre for research and analysis. Its mission is to accelerate Moldova’s European integration by promoting systemic reforms, increasing participatory democracy and strengthening the role of citizens in decision-making processes at the national and local levels.

BELARUS: ‘There is a pro-democracy civil society that opposes the war and advocates for democratic reforms’

AnastasiyaVasilchukCIVICUS speaks with Anastasiya Vasilchuk of Viasna about the escalating repression and criminalisation of civil society in Belarus.

Founded in 1996, Viasna (‘Spring’ in Belarusian) is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) based in Minsk, the capital, with regional organisations in most Belarusian cities and around 200 members throughout the country. Its main goal is to promote respect for human rights and contribute to the development of civic society in Belarus.

What is the current situation of civil society activists and organisations in Belarus?

At the moment, the work of activists and CSOs in Belarus is practically paralysed. Those activists who remain in Belarus and try to remain active are at great risk. Volunteer activists who are not members of any CSO are being detained and charged administratively and even criminally for any form of activity, including sending parcels to political prisoners and organising solidarity meetings, and are tried under phony charges such as reposting ‘extremist materials’ found on their phones or ‘disobeying’ police officers.

Members of CSOs who have remained in Belarus are being persecuted on the basis of article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits activities on behalf of organisations that are unregistered or have been deprived of registration. Since 2021, about 1,180 CSOS have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation. All human rights organisations have already been deprived of registration, so it is impossible for them to work legally inside Belarus.

In order to keep functioning, most human rights CSOs, Viasna included, have been forced to leave Belarus and continue their work from abroad. Almost all meetings and legal consultations with people who have been subjected to repression are now taking place online. The regional branches of our organisation have also only been able to continue working from abroad, collecting information on repression in their regions through local volunteers who put themselves in harm’s way every day, as well as through open-source investigation techniques, which employees had to learn fast after being forcibly relocated.

Generally speaking, displacement has brought many challenges for civil society. We’ve had to search for extra funding, in light of the usually higher costs of living in host countries. We’ve had to rethink our work processes, which were previously based mainly on direct personal communication with victims of human rights violations, and shift them online. And we’ve had to focus on maintaining the visibility and significance of our activities in the eyes of victims of human rights violations in Belarus.

Despite the ongoing crackdown on dissent, Viasna and other human rights CSOs continue to document human rights violations, which are occurring on a huge scale and on a daily basis in Belarus, to make them visible and try to elicit a reaction from the international community.

How are Belarusian CSOs supporting activists under threat?

Viasna is working for persecuted activists to be recognised as political prisoners and providing further assistance to them, as well as to other victims of repression. We collect information about people detained for political motives all over the country, and alongside other CSOs that are part of our human rights coalition we highlight their cases as political prisoners and provide comprehensive support to them and their families, including providing free legal advice, sending them care packages and leading advocacy campaigns for their release. Right now, we are also looking for resources and opportunities to help political prisoners who are being released and are in need of material, psychological and medical support.

Other CSOs provide other forms of support to political prisoners and repressed activists, depending on their area of work. For example, women’s human rights organisations provide support to female political prisoners, while independent trade unions, which have also been forced to leave the country, provide assistance to their arrested colleagues. There are also specialised funds and initiatives that provide medical and psychological support to victims of repression.

What have been the impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine on Belarusian civil society?

In the present context we can identify several impacts. Immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, many Belarusian CSOs jointly condemned the Russian aggression and demonstrated their solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and some CSOs provided humanitarian assistance. The outbreak of war actualised the problem of Russian political influence in Belarus and highlighted the fact that Belarus is exposed to a potential military threat from Russia, which has become a key area of concern for some CSOs.

Particularly in the first months of the war, the attitude of some international actors towards Belarusian CSOs changed due to the pro-Russian position of the Belarusian illegitimate authorities, and the problem of the severe political repression ongoing in Belarus began to fade into the background. The ongoing war has meant that Belarusian CSOs have had to make additional efforts to make sure their voice is heard, reminding the outside world that there is more to Belarus than the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus also has a pro-democracy civil society that opposes the war and advocates for democratic reforms.

What further support does Belarusian civil society need from the international community?

Belarusian civil society, including Viasna, has continued to receive financial and informational support from international allies. However, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine some major donors, who had helped ensure stable long-term funding for civil society, reduced or completely stopped their assistance to Belarusian civil society. We are therefore in much need of long-term, stable financial assistance.

Regarding informational support, we are currently actively working to expand the network of international actors interested in the human rights situation in Belarus. Informational support is a key element for raising awareness of systemic human rights violations in Belarus.

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

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

GEORGIA: ‘Civil society must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts’

NinoUgrekhelidze GuramImnadzeCIVICUS speaks about Georgian civil society’s successful campaign against the draft Agents of Foreign Influence Law with Nino Ugrekhelidze, co-founder of the CEECCNA (Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central and North Asia) Collaborative Fund, and Guram Imnadze, Director of the Democracy and Justice Programme of the Social Justice Center.

Founded in 2022, the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a feminist fund that moves sustainable resources for social justice movements across the CEECCNA region.

The Social Justice Center is a progressive civil society organisation (CSO) working on human rights and social justice in Georgia. It seeks to identify the structural reasons for economic, social and political inequality, and share critical knowledge while contributing to change through democratic means.

What was the draft Foreign Agents Law that was proposed in Georgia?

On 20 February 2023, the ruling party presented a draft law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’. The initiative would affect any Georgian-language media and any CSO registered in Georgia that receive more than 20 per cent of their annual income from a ‘foreign power’, meaning a foundation or organisation registered outside Georgia. They would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’ and disclose foreign funding. If they failed to do          so, they would risk very high fines.

But the need for more transparency is an excuse, because there are already numerous laws regulating the financial transactions and transparency of legal entities, CSOs included, such as the Law on Grants and the Law on Budgeting and Accounting. There have not been cases of CSOs not complying with the existing legal requirements. In fact, most large CSOs also use their media platforms to provide annual financial reports and list their donors.

The draft law includes language that has negative connotations in Georgia due to our Soviet past. ‘Agent’ means ‘traitor’, especially if used together with the adjective ‘foreign’. It has the clear purpose of delegitimising independent CSOs and critical media by labelling us as enemies of the state, politically biased and aligned with the opposition.

The government is doing everything it can to delegitimise CSOs as local actors voicing real local needs. They don’t want the public to listen to us when we criticise the government and provide information that is true and in the interest of the country – they want them to believe that we are the ones lying to them.

This is part of a larger government stigmatising campaign against civil society and independent media, which gained momentum over the past few months.

Who would be most affected if this law was passed?

It is critical to highlight the role that CSOs have played in Georgia since we gained independence – civil society has played a key role in the democratic transition and in ensuring the provision of services the government could not provide, particularly to vulnerable groups. When the state could not fully perform its duties, it was civil society that stepped in and got the work done.

If the law was passed, people with HIV and disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, women, children and LGBTQI+ people would be among the first to be directly impacted. Programmes targeted at these groups have been created and operated by Georgian CSOs, because the government is either not interested and therefore does not prioritise this work or does not have the money for it.

Of course, as the government is not funding these programmes, Georgian CSOs operating them typically get their funding from outside the country. Domestically, there is very little interest in funding civil society; domestic funding is almost non-existent and CSOs are severely underfunded. Major civil society donors are various private and public foundations, and bilateral and multilateral institutions from the USA and the European Union, all of which maintain political neutrality. Many of them even fund the government agencies as well.

If the law were adopted, given the difficulties in fundraising domestically, CSOs would be exposed to financial starvation. Numerous CSOs would have to shut down. And this would be no accident: it is part of a very intentional attack on the financial resilience of CSOs.

How has civil society organised against the bill?

Over 380 CSOs signed a statement explaining their strong opposition to the bill. Civil society and independent media worked hard to reach people with compelling messages, avoiding NGO jargon and explaining in simple terms why this bill is against the interests of the country and against democracy – why, in fact, this bill is a Russian import, part of a trend that is quickly gaining ground across the region.

It took some effort to mobilise against the bill because civil society had been demonised for so long already, and many people did not want to support ‘foreign agents’. But our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again. This connected with a widespread sentiment of Georgian people.

This messaging dispelled the climate of resignation that things cannot change and helped mobilise people. On 7 March, parliament passed the draft law in the first reading, but just as the bill was being discussed, tens of thousands gathered outside parliament to protest in Tbilisi. There were protests day and night, for several days in a row. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Georgia’s modern history.

The protests were repressed by riot police using rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon. At least one person lost an eye because of police brutality. Over 150 people were detained for ‘disobedience’ but later released following further pressure from protesters.

As a result of the protests, the bill was recalled on 10 March. That day we realised that if we come together, things can change. There was a spirit of resistance, unity, dignity and solidarity in the protests. People who were not necessarily politicised became interested in politics. And it all started because civil society came together to stand up against a bill that posed an existential threat.

Protesters connected in a very well-articulated way the situation in Georgia with the plight of Ukraine, and understood this as a fight against Russian political interests trying to absorb us as a country. That’s why they also showed solidarity with Ukraine, singing their anthem and displaying pro-Ukraine messages.

The way young Georgians reacted gives us hope for the future. The way they came together, the way they protested, the messages they conveyed – it was so politically consistent and coherent. They protested, they resisted, and when the protest was over, they even cleaned the public space after themselves. They were truly amazing.

Would you say danger has passed?

Parliament is currently on its best behaviour because it had a moment of realisation that this might turn into a revolution. In pushing forward the bill, the government thought there was no limit to its power, but found such a limit in the protests. A sentiment started spreading among protesters that they could fire their representatives, send them home. But the government’s targeting of civil society is not over yet – it is only starting. Although the bill has been withdrawn, the prime minister has already said that they are going to continue pushing for it. He even doubled down as he mentioned that their step will be to tackle so-called ‘gay propaganda’, another Russian import that is part of the crackdown on progressive civil society.

The government continues its campaign against civil society. Even if the law does not pass, the official narrative keeps labelling civil society and independent media as ‘foreign agents’, and the consequences of this will continue to be felt for a long time. In Kutaisi, for instance, a social justice activist saw their home vandalised, and someone marked it with a sign alerting that ‘an agent lives here’. It is to be expected that anti-rights forces will use this language as a weapon against civil society activists.

And of course, the authorities continue to use other tools they have to obstruct civil society work. For instance, Georgia has a problematic administrative code that grants the police and the courts the right to use administrative sanctions such as fines and detentions without sufficient evidence and due process. Such measures are often used against civil society and human rights activists. Since 2016, administrative fines for most common administrative offences have quadrupled. This is a serious barrier for civil society work, as it is expensive for activists to pay the fines.

What kind of international support does Georgian civil society currently need?

Georgia is currently experiencing a rapidly shrinking civic space, and the government is sliding towards authoritarianism. International solidarity and conversations on the political situation in Georgia and the whole post-Soviet region are going to be critical.

In post-Soviet countries, the influence of Russian politics is very strong. There is an actual war going on in Ukraine, and what is happening in Georgia is in a way war by different means. These are two fronts of the same fight against Russian imperialism. Understanding this is essential.

Also, we need to talk more about where money comes from for anti-rights organisations. There are very clear mechanisms to track where money comes from when it comes to CSOs and independent media, but there are none to investigate where funding for anti-rights groups such as religious fundamentalist and far-right organisations comes from. One reason is that they often don’t register as CSOs – this means they wouldn’t even be under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Agents Law if it were passed. Lots of money for these organisations is coming from Russia without any conditionalities or reporting mechanisms in place.

This is a way bigger problem than Georgia having a Foreign Agents Law. We need to make the connection to what is happening elsewhere. In Ukraine and Moldova there were also attempts to adopt a similar law and people pushed back. The logic of this law is already working in Mongolia, and it is effectively in place in Belarus.

We need more complex conversations about what we are organising against, how this is impacting us, what tactics are being used and how human rights language and spaces are being co-opted. The obvious types of support needed are spaces for such conversations and funding, because ultimately, for us to resist, we need spaces to reflect, build strategies and develop our political imagination, and we need resources, given that we are already so underfunded across the region. We must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts. We haven’t seen the last of it.

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

Get in touch with the Social Justice Center through its website and Facebook page, and follow @SjcCenter and @niiugre on Twitter.

BAHRAIN: ‘The government uses public relations to mask human rights violations’

DreweryDykeCIVICUS speaks with Drewery Dyke of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) about closed civic and democratic space in Bahrain as the state prepares to host the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU Assembly takes place in the capital, Manama, from 11 to 15 March 2023.

Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, and also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.

We last spoke on the eve of the parliamentary election held in November 2022. How has civic space in Bahrain evolved since?

The government of Bahrain held the November 2022 parliamentary election under the same, highly restrictive, 2018 Political Rights Law used in the 2018 elections. It banned scores of people from being able to vote or stand for election on spurious grounds such as affiliation to a banned political party or having a criminal record.

Bahrain’s international partners, United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and civil society all decried the banning of political parties, as it flew in the face of international standards and simply deprived many people of having a voice. The court cases, too, dating from the 2011 unrest, were grossly unfair. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee denounced both the Political Isolation Law and the Law on Associations

And yet there seems to be a small opening for civil society and greater freedoms. The regional mood music appears to be changing, with the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates normalising relations with Qatar, and the Bahraini government having set out a 2022-2026 National Human Rights Plan.

Bahrain’s government appears to have signalled that it is minded to undertake some reform but civil society remains highly sceptical. Many of us are concerned that the government is once again using public relations initiatives to project an image of the country that masks longstanding, unresolved human rights violations for which there has been no accountability.

Is change possible? Yes, to some degree, it appears so. But civil society needs to remain vigilant and sceptical. Action will speak louder than words. An amendment of existing laws on political and civil society organisations is now a must.

How does Salam DHR manage to work in such a restrictive environment?

Current legislation makes it impossible for our organisation to register and openly carry out any research or advocacy in Bahrain. That has been the case since 2013. And yet at least one woman human rights defender who is linked to Salam DHR and other human rights CSOs has remained active inside Bahrain. She walks a tightrope on a daily basis, taking action to support individuals, notably prisoners of conscience. Lawyers, political and civil society activists and others from all walks of life continue to contact us but we cannot discuss their identities to protect their safety. It is a challenge.

In November 2022, however, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights obtained accreditation to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which means it can now formally participate in UN meetings and events. This important step could help prise open the space for civil society just that little bit more. We will see.

Why do you think the Bahraini government offered to host the IPU Assembly?

The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing. The IPU’s catchphrase on its website is ‘For democracy. For everyone’. The government seeks to own this message in a situation where democracy does not exist.

The theme of the 146th Assembly is ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.

Possibly to foster its mission, the IPU accepted the Bahraini government’s offer to hold its meeting in Manama. Is that problematic? In some ways, yes. But it is upon us to promote – peacefully – democratic change that advances adherence to international human rights standards. And parliamentarians from around the world attending the IPU Assembly could help chip away at deeply rooted discrimination and the fact that so many in civil society are deprived of having a voice or are afraid to use it.

Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly.

The IPU Assembly may be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns. Parliamentarians are a building block of a free civil society. We need them to step up during the Assembly to make that a reality in Bahrain.

How could this whitewashing attempt become an advocacy opportunity?

The IPU Assembly will be a pivotal opportunity for advocacy. Visiting parliamentarians must make it so. They must reject baseless hype and propaganda depicting Bahrain as a land of freedom and democracy.

In a recently published brief, Salam DHR is urging attending parliamentarians to join with other parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians has lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship. We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.

We urge visiting parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment, and to meet with human rights activists and others in civil society while in Bahrain.

How can the international community better support Bahraini civil society and activism for democracy?

Civil society in and engaged with Bahrain needs the international community to listen and speak with us, to hear our experiences and work with us. There is a narrative and experience that differs from the public relations whitewashing by the government.

We are saying that there are longstanding problems that need to be addressed, in terms of law, practice and accountability. But we are also saying that we believe that Bahrain’s international partners – from varying states, including European Union member states, the UK and USA, and the UN and its human rights bodies – and now parliamentarians can all work together, in unison, to erode the climate of repression that denies respect for human dignity, in order to empower Bahraini civil society and gradually build a more open and rights-respecting country.

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

Get in touch with Salam DHR through its website and follow @SALAM_DHR and @drewerydyke on Twitter.

UN TAX CONVENTION: ‘People power is the major weapon we bring to the fight against inequality’

JennyRicksCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s work to tackle inequality from the ground up and discusses the prospects of a United Nations (UN) tax convention with Jenny Ricks, Global Convenor of Fight Inequality Alliance.

Fight Inequality Alliance is a growing global coalition bringing together a wide range of social movements, grassroots and community-based organisations, civil society organisations, trade unions, artists and individual activists organising and mobilising from the ground up to find and push for solutions for the structural causes of inequality in order to rebalance power and wealth in our societies.

Is there a global consensus that inequality is wrong and needs to be addressed?

In recent years there has been quite a consensus that inequality has reached new extremes and is damaging for everybody in society as well as for the environment. We are at a time when it’s not just people on the frontlines who are most affected by inequality saying it’s wrong and grotesque and it needs to change, but even organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are saying it’s a problem. The Pope is saying it’s a problem. Governments have signed up to reducing inequality through one of the Sustainable Development Goals.

There is this broad consensus on the surface: it seems like everybody thinks concentration of power and wealth at the top of societies has gone too far and the gap is too extreme and affects people’s daily lives and livelihoods as a matter of life and death. And not only that: it also corrodes democracies. When oligarchs control the media, buy elections, crack down on human rights defenders and civic space and trash the environment, it affects everybody.

But underneath that superficial consensus, I think there’s still deep disagreement about what fighting inequality really means. We at the Fight Inequality Alliance are interested in dismantling the systems of oppression that drive inequality, including neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism and the legacy of colonialism. These are the deep structural roots of the inequalities that are the reason billions of people struggled to survive under a global pandemic while the richest people in the world continued to have a great time. So we have an agenda of transformation of the nature of our economies and our societies, and not just tinkering with the status quo, making minor tweaks to stop people rioting.

How can structural inequality be tackled?

When we started forming the Fight Inequality Alliance, we were clear that the problem was not a matter of lack of policy solutions. We know what the policy solutions are to fight inequality, such as the measures needed to tackle climate change, the redistributive tax policies needed or the policies required to ensure decent work.

The problem was that the overwhelming concentration of power and wealth at the top wasn’t matched by a countervailing force from below. The richest and most powerful are organised and well-funded. They are pursuing their interests and their greed aggressively and successfully. What we have is people power. But across civil society and beyond, groups were very fragmented, very siloed and focused on their individual agendas and absorbed by the issues their constituencies most need them to respond to. There was not enough connection across struggles.

0rganising around inequality is a good way for people to understand how their struggles are interconnected: underneath the day-to-day struggles there are common roots, and therefore there are also common solutions to be fought for. That’s where we saw our role lay, and also in shifting the narratives we have about inequality. We need to change what we envisage as being necessary and possible in our societies, and build power behind the alternative visions we are striving for. When we are limited by what popular narratives deem as natural or normal, such as the false idea that billionaires are hardworking geniuses so deserve unlimited wealth, it limits our energies and our organising capacities for structural change.

People at the grassroots know their problems and their solutions. Inequality isn’t an issue for economists and technocrats to solve: it is primarily a fight that needs to be fought by people. And the voices of people living at the sharp end of these inequalities needs to be heard. They are the real experts in this struggle. So people power is the biggest weapon that we bring to the fight. Governments and international institutions want to take these debates to the technical arenas of policy-making bodies and conference hall settings, wrapping them in technical language that intentionally makes them inaccessible to most people. Many issues that require structural changes, and certainly inequality, are seen as things to be measured, reported on and talked about in economic circles.

But inequality is a human tragedy, not a technical matter. It is about power. And solutions need to be owned by the people whose lives are most affected by it. We need to shift the balance of power, in our societies and in the global arena, not wrangle over the wording of a technical paper discussed behind closed doors, and that’s done by organising on a large scale. This people power is the major weapon we bring to the fight against inequality.

Why is taxation important in the struggle against inequality?

Fighting inequality requires us to redistribute power and wealth, and taxation is a major redistribution tool.

Over the last decade or two civil society has done a lot of work to try and challenge the fact that the richest people and the biggest corporations across the world are not paying their fair share of tax. The economic model is exploitative, unjust and unsustainable, based on resource extraction, primarily from the global south, abusive labour practices, underpaid workers and great environmental damage.

But everyone can relate to this issue nationally too – when it comes to national or local budgets, governments often increase indirect taxes such as value-added tax, which is the most regressive kind of tax because it applies to anything people buy, including essentials, instead of taxing rich people or multinationals more, and they have set up whole global industry and schemes to avoid and evade tax on a massive scale.

Redistribution is happening as we speak, but it is based on extracting from the poorest and distributing towards the wealthiest people in the world – billionaires, corporate shareholders and the like. That is what we are fighting to reverse, at a local level as well as globally.

How could a UN convention on taxation help?

The current level of wealth concentration is so grotesque that it requires solutions and action at all levels. We need to fight on the local front where people are struggling while we push for systemic change in places like the UN. The discussion of global tax rules feels quite distant from the day-to-day struggles that most people, within our alliance and beyond, are campaigning for. But decisions made about them have repercussions for those struggles.

Rules on taxation have so far been set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member states – a rich countries’ club. How can decisions over global taxation rules that affect everybody sit anywhere but the UN, which for all its faults and failings is the only multilateral body where every state has a seat at the table?

Even so, as we have seen with climate negotiations, there is a huge power struggle that needs to be fought at the UN. It will still be a titanic struggle to get the kind of global tax rules we want. But if global tax rules are made within the OECD, the majority of the world doesn’t even stand a chance. Asking rich countries to please behave better is not going to yield the kind of transformation we want.

So in November 2022 we saw a first positive step as the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for more inclusive and effective international tax cooperation and urging member states to kick off negotiations on a global tax treaty. The resolution echoed a call made by the Group of 77 (G77), the largest bloc of developing countries in the UN, as well as the Africa Group, and gave the UN a mandate to monitor, evaluate and determine global tax rules and support the establishment of a global tax body.

A global tax convention would put global south states on an equal footing with global north states, so the proposal faced pushback. Global power dynamics were clearly at play. This was to be expected: this is bound to be a long-term process, and an open-ended one. There is no guarantee it will result in the strong global framework that we need. But it’s still a fight worth fighting, and the UN is the right arena for it, simply because there’s no other space to have these negotiations. Where else could the G77 or the Africa Group renegotiate global tax rules?

How are you campaigning in the light of the resolution?

We are not directly campaigning for the UN Tax Convention as much as we are trying to bring people into this agenda in a different way. We’ve been campaigning a lot on taxing the rich and abolishing billionaires, which is a more appealing way to present the issue and mobilise people around it. We can’t imagine hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street for the UN Tax Convention at this point. So instead we’ve been organising around the need to tax the rich, domestically and globally, both individuals and corporations.

This call has a lot of popular resonance because people find it easier to link it to their primary struggles, for jobs, healthcare spending, better public services or basic income, or against austerity measures, regressive tax rises or subsidy cuts. It’s become part of the campaigns of a lot more movements across the world through our organising over the last few years. This has been the way into the tax agenda for a lot of grassroots movements in the global south. It has potential to bring people’s attention to the broader tax justice agenda. You can’t start by holding a community meeting about the UN Tax Convention. You need to start from the daily inequalities people are facing.

Get in touch with Fight Inequality Alliance through its website or Facebook page, and follow @jenny_ricks and @FightInequality on Twitter.

TURKEY: ‘It is just not possible to respond to such a large-scale disaster effectively without civil society’

Gözde Kazaz 1 1CIVICUS speaks with Gözde Kazaz, Communications Officer at Support to Life, about the way Turkish civil society has responded to the recent earthquakes and the support it needs to provide an effective emergency response.

Support to Life is an independent humanitarian civil society organisation (CSO) that helps disaster-affected communities meet their basic needs and advance their rights by providing emergency assistance, refugee support, child protection and capacity building. Founded in 2005, it adheres to the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence and accountability in delivering aid.

What damage have the recent earthquakes caused, and what has been the Turkish government’s response?

The recent earthquakes affected 11 Turkish cities encompassing nearly 15 million people. This means the disaster affected roughly one in five people in Turkey. As of today, causalities have surpassed 44,000.

In a disaster of such magnitude, public institutions had a problem in meeting needs and establishing coordination among the various state agencies involved. This was particularly the case in the first 72 hours, when search and rescue efforts are of the most vital importance. One of the reasons for this may be that infrastructure in the region was badly damaged and communication lines were cut off. The sites and staff of public institutions were themselves also affected.  We are currently seeing some improvements in coordination, but meeting the emerging needs in this vast disaster area is still very difficult. It is of great importance that the state, private sector and civil society work together on the basis of a healthy division of labour.

How has civil society responded?

Many CSOs that have useful expertise and work on disasters, Support to Life included, came together to form the Turkish Local NGO Humanitarian Forum (TIF) to coordinate delivery of aid and help meet the enormous needs we see in the field. Dividing responsibilities for various response areas according to each one’s expertise was an effective way to avoid duplication and deploy resources effectively.

In addition, another coalition, the Disaster Platform, is active in the response. It is just not possible to respond to such a large-scale disaster effectively without civil society, and particularly without grassroots organisations active at the local level.

Responding to disasters is one of the main things Support to Life does, so our emergency aid teams arrived in Hatay, one of the most affected provinces, right after the earthquakes hit on 6 February. We immediately deployed a humanitarian aid operation in the cities of Adana, Diyarbakır, Şanlıurfa, and particularly in Hatay. Soon after, we expanded towards Adıyaman and Kahramanmaraş.

We worked with partners to conduct needs assessments in affected areas, which we continue to carry out on an ongoing basis in order to monitor the response. Since the outset, the Greenpeace Mediterranean and Amnesty International call centre teams were particularly helpful in enabling the general due diligence and rapid needs assessment required in disaster-affected rural areas.

We have focused much of our efforts on WASH – water, sanitation and hygiene – by working to establish water and sanitation infrastructure in temporary shelters. We have also prioritised shelter, food security and the provision of mental health and psychosocial support.

What reception have you had from the government?

As a CSO working in the field, we have not encountered any government-imposed restriction. We have permission from the Ministry of Family and Social Services to deliver mental health and psychosocial support services in the disaster area. We provide WASH services in tent areas established and maintained by the Ministry of the Interior’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority. We participate in coordination meetings with local authorities. In other words, we have a collaborative relationship and we at least have not faced any obstacles when doing our work.

What role is international solidarity and support playing in responding to the emergency?

This disaster once again showed the importance of international solidarity and international support channelled through both government and civil society. Responding to a disaster of this magnitude is only possible if there is a great deal of international solidarity that translates into resources.

Ten days after the earthquake, the United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) launched a three-month flash appeal for US$1 billion for Turkey, aimed at supporting the government-led response and enabling humanitarian agencies to help more than five million people affected by the disaster. As of 27 February, barely seven per cent of the US$1 billion of the flash appeal, roughly US$73 million, has materialised.

TIF formed immediately after the UN appeal and has since played an important role in coordinating civil society humanitarian efforts and helping local CSOs access resources, including by engaging with the OCHA system. Support to Life regularly attends strategic meetings under the coordination of OCHA, representing TIF.

But three weeks on from the earthquake, serious humanitarian needs remain in the most severely affected areas, especially emergency shelter, WASH, food and non-food items such as plastic sheeting, cooking sets, blankets, jerry cans, sleeping mats and sanitary items. 

What further support do Turkish CSOs need to keep doing this work?

What Turkish CSOs working to respond to the disaster need right now is as much financial support as they can get.

Humanitarian CSOs working in the field, Support to Life included, have noted that this is not a one-off or short-term but a continuous, long-term situation. We need to think about recovery, which will require lots of resources. This means a lot more financial support will be needed.

As an independent humanitarian CSO, Support to Life carries out its operations with funding that comes mostly from international donors such as UN agencies including UNICEF – the UN Children’s Fund – and UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – and the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, the Danish Refugee Council, Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe – a German faith-based humanitarian assistance agency – Save The Children and Terre des Hommes, among others. We are working with our donors to revise our ongoing projects so that we can redirect resources towards disaster response.

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

Get in touch with Support to Life through its website, Instagram or Facebook page, and follow @Support2Life on Twitter.


MOZAMBIQUE: ‘The new NGO Law will be the death of the civic movement’



CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Mozambique with Paula Monjane, Executive Director of the Civil Society Learning and Capacity Building Centre (CESC).

CESC is a non-partisan, non-profit civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2009 with the mission of strengthening the capacity of citizens and communities to participate actively in socio-economic and political development processes, investing in knowledge sharing, learning tools, monitoring and advocacy for public policies that respond to people’s needs.

What are the current conditions for civil society in Mozambique?

The legal, political, institutional and practical conditions under which civil society operates in Mozambique have deteriorated over time. Over the past 10 to 15 years, despite having a constitution and laws that safeguard and recognise fundamental universal rights, we have witnessed increasing curtailment of freedoms of expression and information, press freedom and freedoms of assembly and public participation. This curtailment has been practised in violation of both the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique and the global and African human rights instruments Mozambique has signed. Currently, legislation is being proposed to silence dissenting voices and people fighting for better governance of public affairs and the protection of human rights.

Freedom of the press and expression has been marked by intimidation, kidnappings and disappearances of journalists, illegal detentions and physical violence, including killings perpetrated with impunity, mainly by police officers and other security forces. In 2021 alone, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) recorded 23 cases of violations.

In addition to these actions, there have been legislative onslaughts to limit press freedoms. In 2018, Decree 40/2018 introduced inexplicably high taxes for the licensing and registration of media companies and the accreditation of national and foreign press correspondents. In 2020 the decree was repealed due to pressure by MISA and the fact that the Constitutional Council declared it unconstitutional. But in December 2021, the government introduced a bill on media and broadcasting that would further restrict the exercise of press freedoms.

Attempts to deny permission for peaceful protests and control and suppress them have also increased. In 2022, several peaceful protests organised by feminist activists that had been notified to the relevant institutions were interfered with. In many cases activists were rounded up at police stations for no clear reason. People defending human rights have suffered reprisals, ranging from verbal and bodily threats to murder.

Elections, which have never been free or fair, have been the scene of systematic fraud, with violence committed before, during and after voting, and impunity for the state agents involved in it.

Spaces for people’s participation, which became popular in the 2000s, have been losing steam in the face of an increasingly closed political regime. People’s participation in state planning has become dependent on the will of the state official who oversees the area and the locality in question. In addition, we are witnessing a rise in controls imposed on CSOs that scrutinise the government in the areas of democracy, governance and human rights and threats they will be ‘blacklisted’.

Other restrictive measures have included changes introduced in the Criminal Code in 2014, defining defamation of senior state officials as a crime against state security and the approval of the 2022 Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Act, which overregulates CSOs.

Under the pretext of fighting terrorism, yet another proposal that restricts a fundamental right, that of freedom of association, was approved by the Council of Ministers in September 2022 and sent to the Assembly of the Republic, Mozambique’s parliament, for approval in October.

How will this new law affect CSOs in Mozambique?

The draft law establishes a legal regime for the creation, organisation and functioning of CSOs and contains several norms that violate freedom of association, despite this right being safeguarded by the constitution and international human rights treaties. It gives the government absolute and discretionary powers to ‘create’, control the functioning of, suspend and extinguish CSOs.

If the bill is approved, it will legitimise already existing practices restricting civic space, allowing the persecution of dissenting voices and organisations critical of the government, up to banning them from continuing to operate. It will be the death of the civic movement, as only organisations aligned to the ruling party will survive. Party leagues affiliated with opposition political parties and opposition political parties themselves may be at risk of extinction.

Among other things, if passed, the new law would require that statutory changes that involve changes in objectives, activities or even the name of a CSO be approved by the regulatory body, without imposing any deadline for it to issue a decision. It would impose a single template for the bylaws of all CSOs, including details on authorities, mandates, forms of operation, reporting and members’ rights, easily allowing for the criminalisation of their leaders. It would reverse the burden of proof: CSOs will have to prove they are fulfilling their objectives and functioning properly through an annual report submitted every first quarter, and will risk suspension or termination if they fail to submit two reports. This law is intrusive in an area regulated by private law as established by the constitution and also ignores the variety of associations that exist in Mozambique. In addition, it gives the government the authority to conduct monitoring visits, audit accounts, visit implementation sites, demand periodic reports and request additional documentation whenever it sees fit.

Under the guise of preventing money laundering and terrorism financing, the draft law treats CSOs as criminals from the get-go. It is also unclear how these excessive controls could actually result in greater success in the fight against terrorism financing.

Why is the Mozambican government regulating CSOs as part of the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing?

The argument that this law aims to combat money laundering does not hold up, first of all because another law was passed in July 2022, law 11/2022, which deals specifically with money laundering and terrorism financing. CSOs must comply with it and it contains a specific article dedicated to them.

Out of the 40 recommendations issued by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for states to adopt in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing, only one – recommendation 8 – pertains to CSOs, and focuses on the possible need to adapt the legal framework based on risk assessment, in order to identify the sub-sector at risk, understand possible risks and develop adequate measures for mitigation and supervision based on and proportional to risk.

Additionally, the FATF has attached an extensive interpretative note to recommendation 8 and has produced a report on best practices, which mentions the need to respect international human rights law, indicates that measures should not disrupt or discourage legitimate charitable activities and notes that actions taken against non-profit organisations suspected of engaging in terrorism financing should minimise the negative impact on the innocent and legitimate beneficiaries of their services.

In October 2022, Mozambique was put on the FATF grey list, but the only action it needed to take in relation to CSOs was to conduct a terrorism financing risk assessment in line with FATF standards and use this as the basis for developing a disclosure plan. These recommendations are also in line with the assessment conducted in 2021 by the East and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group, the FATF’s regional partner organisation for East and Southern Africa. But instead, the Mozambican government has presented parliament with a bill to restrict the work of CSOs. The question then is, what are its real intentions?

The Mozambican government is not alone in attempting to pass an anti-civic space law. Several African states are using FATF recommendations and international pressure as an excuse to legitimise breaches of international and regional human rights instruments and their constitutions, relying on the indifference and sometimes even the protection of some bodies that should be defending these rights.

Over the past two decades, in a context of democratic regression and a growing prevalence of authoritarian governments, the African continent has seen many laws and measures passed or proposed that restrict universal rights and civic space. According to Freedom House’s 2022 report, 24 African countries have attempted to pass anti-civil society measures and laws. Twelve have succeeded in passing them, six have failed or given up and six have initiatives pending, including Mozambique.

How is civil society responding?

Soon after the surprise approval of the draft NGO law, national, provincial and district CSOs came together in what is now a movement fighting for the right to freedom of association. Aware that this process is not merely technical, but mainly political, we embraced multiple tactics, from lobbying and advocacy with decision makers in government, parliament and national and international human rights institutions to campaigns to deepen people’s understanding of the implications of this law’s approval.

We also conducted several technical analyses and promoted national and international debates. After many efforts and difficulties, we were able to hold a two-day meeting with relevant parliamentary working committees in November 2022. This resulted in the important decision that there was need for a broad consultation with citizens and social organisations at the national level, as universal and fundamental rights are at stake. Consultations were held in all 10 provinces between 6 and 16 February 2023, organised by the Assembly of the Republic alongside the Movement of CSOs In Defence of the Right and Freedom of Association, and included the participation of over 600 CSOs that were unanimous in rejecting the draft law.

Despite these important steps, we remain concerned about the link made between the urgency to approve the law and Mozambique’s removal from the FATF grey list. This means that even if it does not correspond to what is required of Mozambique, parliament will approve the law as soon as it resumes work next March. Given the defects of the draft law, we think the time is too short for a proper revision that ensures it doesn’t violate the fundamental and universal right to freedom of association.

If it is passed, we will push for it to be declared unconstitutional. We also expect more visible action from international and regional bodies, including CSOs. Given the dimension of the problem, in Mozambique as in the continent, and because it falls under their mandates, we expect urgent condemnation from the African Union, through the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and from the United Nations, through the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.

On behalf of CSOs fighting for human rights and democracy, we hope that the solidarity already shown will continue and that we will join efforts to push back against anti-civic space initiatives such as this.

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

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

SRI LANKA: ‘Without international solidarity and support, our democratic hopes will soon be gone’

CIVICUS speaks about Sri Lanka’s protest movement and its repression with student activist Fathima Ashfa Razik. Fathima used to be a university student and a member of the University Students’ Federation of Sri Lanka. She has fled repression and is currently outside the country.


What triggered the mass protests that erupted in Sri Lanka in March 2022?

The protests were triggered by worsening economic conditions caused by negligence and improper management by the government and its leaders. In reaction to this, the university community acted together: students and lecturers from universities all over Sri Lanka organised to protest against the government.

All we wanted was to chase away the Rajapaksa family – then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his several family members who held ministerial positions in the government. They were engaged in looting the country and were becoming a ruling dynasty. We wanted to have them replaced with a new government that would rebuild the nation.

Our protest grabbed public attention and many people joined us in the streets while many others supported us financially. People came together across the religious and racial lines that divided them. This is what made our protest successful. It was recorded as the biggest mass protest in the history of Sri Lanka.

What did the protests accomplish?

Our protest movement started in March and we marched continuously until, one by one, officials from the Rajapaksa family started to resign from their posts. In July the president announced his resignation and absconded to the Maldives and then Singapore, fearing for his life as his personal villa had been seized by protesters in the heat of the action.

The day Gotabaya Rajapaksa left we all won as a nation. We were happy we were able to kick out the rulers that were ruining us.

After the president resigned, power fell in the hands of Ranil Wickremesinghe, which wasn’t what we expected. We wanted a new, younger government that better reflected the hopes of our generation, and instead we got an old politician who had been active in the government for several decades. Wickremesinghe had been reappointed as prime minister by President Rajapaksa in May 2022 and replaced him when he resigned in July.

How did the new government react towards the continuing protests?

At first, the Wickremesinghe government appeared to be aligned with our democratic aspirations, but it soon became clear that this was a facade. Instead of responding to the demands put forward by the protests by focusing on revitalising the economy and rebuilding our institutions, the new government soon started to repress and criminalise protesters.

Within a few weeks of the formation of the new government, President Wickremesinghe commanded the security forces to remove protesters from the area where we were protesting.

And it didn’t stop there: after we were forced back home, the situation only worsened. Many protesters were arrested under the Terrorism Prevention Act (TPA), including the head of our organisation, Wasantha Mudalige, and were subjected to brutal harassment. Many were tortured under detention, and their family members also suffered repercussions and harsh treatment.

Freedom of speech has been suppressed and the people of Sri Lanka have lost their right to live peacefully in their own country. And the underlying issues continue unabated: there has been no change and economic conditions continue to worsen by the day.

What is the current situation?

Repression has increased. Instead of doing their job properly and in accordance with the law, keeping order and protecting people, security forces have become a tool of repression at the service of corrupt politicians.

Law-abiding citizens are not protected by the law: the law is being used against us. This is clear in the way the TPA is being used against protesters and civil society activists.

The government is using this repressive law, and also acting against the law, to suppress the protest movement. Many students and other protesters have been arrested alongside Mudalige.

Due to his high public profile and the international spotlight shining on him, Mudalige is somewhat protected: it would be politically costly to kill him. But unknown protesters are at much higher risk: they can easily become prey to our power-hungry government. Several instances have been recorded recently of missing students and unidentified bodies found floating in water, some with signs of having been tortured. Many more have received death threats, and many have fled.

In the absence of international solidarity and support, there won’t be much of the protest movement left, and our democratic hopes will soon be gone.

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

BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS: ‘This treaty should not be negotiated behind closed doors’

IvetteGonzalezCIVICUS speaks about the process to develop an international treaty on business and human rights and the role of civil society with Ivette Gonzalez, Director of Strategic Liaison, Advocacy and Public Relations at Project on Organising, Development, Education and Research (PODER).

PODER is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Mexico, dedicated to promoting corporate transparency and accountability in Latin America from a human rights perspective, and to strengthening civil society affected by business practices to act as guarantors of long-term accountability.

Why is a treaty on business and human rights so important?

We live in a world virtually ruled by capital. Since this hegemonic capitalist and patriarchal economic model has taken hold, it has become clear that whoever has the capital calls the shots.

When companies directly influence the decisions of state powers, be it the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government, or others such as international organisations or banking institutions that should operate for the public benefit, and instead put them at the service of the private and exclusive benefit of a few people and prioritise the creation and accumulation of wealth over human rights, it results in a phenomenon we call ‘corporate capture’. Corporate capture is observed on all continents and results in the weakening of the state and its institutions. The strength of the state needs to be restored and the treaty on business and human rights could contribute to this.

A legally binding international instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises seeks to curb violations committed by companies of multiple human rights such as the rights to health, freedom, privacy and access to information and the impunity with which they operate, which allows them to destroy the environment, territories, families and entire communities.

All companies must operate with due diligence on human rights to identify, prevent, address and remedy abuses and violations, as a continuous cycle of management including project planning, investment, operations, mergers, value and supply chains, relationships with customers and suppliers, and any other activity that could cause negative impacts on rights and territories. The treaty serves as a means for states, as the primary duty bearers in charge of protecting human rights, to hold companies to their responsibilities and monitor compliance.

An international treaty would also be a unique development in that it would cover the extraterritorial activities of companies, such as the activities of companies that may be headquartered in a country in the global north but have operations in the global south. At the moment, in many instances and jurisdictions, companies are only self-regulating and are not accountable for their human rights abuses and violations, and the destruction they cause to life and the planet. Some states are making progress on regulations and policies, but there are still gaps at the international level. We want this treaty to address the huge gap in international law that allows corporate crimes to go unpunished.

What progress has been made in negotiating the treaty?

Interesting developments took place at the eighth session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Respect to Human Rights, held from 24 to 28 October 2022. While there is no strict timeline or deadline for producing the final version of the treaty, one of the experts convened by the Intergovernmental Working Group for the development of the instrument proposed 2025 for concluding the negotiations. This is the deadline that is expected to be met if states have the political will to build consensus. For the time being, some states that were reluctant to participate in the past are now showing a little more interest.

For now, the draft has 24 articles, the first 13 of which were discussed in the last session. Discussions included central issues such as the definition of victims’ rights and their protection and the definition of the purpose and scope of the treaty: whether it should include only transnational corporations or other companies as well. The state of Mexico, for example, argues that this instrument should cover all activities that have a transnational character. There have also been discussions on the prevention of damages and access to reparations, as well as about legal liability, the jurisdiction that will deal with complaints, statutes of limitation and international judicial cooperation, among other issues.

Some states have made contributions to improve the content under negotiation. In contrast, other states seek to minimise the scope of the treaty in certain regards, such as protections for Indigenous peoples and communities, environmental safeguards and women’s and children’s rights, among others.

Some states support the most recent proposals of the chair rapporteur, the Ecuadorian ambassador, but a large part of civil society considers that, for the most part, they detract from what was achieved during the seven years up to 2021, and weaken the treaty. They promote power asymmetry between northern and southern states, as well as between companies and rights-holding individuals and communities. The third revised draft is the one we recognise as legitimate and the basis on which we believe negotiations should continue.

How is civil society contributing to the treaty process?

Dozens of CSOs are pushing for an effective treaty, including PODER, along with the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), which brings together more than 280 CSOs, social movements and activists from 75 countries, and several other alliances, movements and coalitions such as the Treaty Alliance, Feminists for a Binding Treaty and the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity.

Of course there is diversity of opinion within civil society on a number of issues, but we all agree on the need to regulate business activity with a human rights perspective. We have identified the elements this treaty should contain and the conditions required for its implementation. And we are trying to inject urgency into the process, which is going too slowly, while human rights violations and attacks against human rights defenders do not stop, but instead increase every year.

Civil society has advocated with decision-makers to open up spaces for discussion with civil society. PODER, along with ESCR-Net, has in particular insisted on the constructive and proactive participation of states from the global south in the process, and specifically from Latin America. We also work to integrate a gender and intersectional perspective into both the process and the text. One example for this has been the proposal to use Mexico’s feminist foreign policy.

Civil society’s point of departure is the conviction that it is not possible to develop a legitimate treaty without placing the participation of rights holders – affected rural people and communities, Indigenous peoples, independent trade unions, LGBTQI+ people and people in vulnerable situations, among others – at the centre of the whole process.

What are the chances that the final version of the treaty will meet civil society’s expectations and fulfil its purpose?

We hope the treaty will contribute to ending corporate impunity and states will assume their obligation to protect human rights in the face of corporate activity. It will prevent abuses and violations, redress grievances and ensure these situations do not recur.

Although there are established processes for the development of international treaties, this is an unusual treaty and should be treated as such, and changes should be made to both process and content as necessary for it to be truly effective.

For it to fully meet the expectations of civil society would require a paradigm shift based on the principle that business has a social function and that its operations should not exceed certain limits for a dignified life and a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We know that our full aspirations will not materialise with a treaty, with National Action Plans and regulations and standards, even if they are properly implemented. But these are all important steps in trying to balance the scales by limiting the power that the global economic system has given to business corporations.

While the treaty is unlikely to meet all our expectations, CSOs that are demanding the highest standards for this treaty will continue to do so until the end. We will continue to bring proposals from experts and affected communities and groups fighting for justice and redress for the harms they experience first-hand, opening up spaces for their voices to be heard and remain at the heart of the negotiations at all times, and including human rights and environmental defenders in consultations on the text.

This treaty should not be negotiated behind closed doors or with the private sector alone, as this would allow for the repetition of the same cycle of opacity and privilege that has brought us this far, and would only contribute to maintaining an unsustainable status quo.

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

ZAMBIA: ‘The abolition of the death penalty is a victory for civil society calling for respect of the right to life’

MacdonaldChipenziCIVICUS speaks about Zambia’s recent abolition of the death penalty and the role played by civil society with Macdonald Chipenzi, outgoing Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative Zambia, a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes democracy and electoral integrity.

What led to the recent decision to abolish the death penalty in Zambia?

Though the issue of the death penalty has been controversial and divisive in Zambia for some years now, and some people wanted to keep it on the statute books, there were various reasons behind the government’s decision to abolish it.

First, since Zambia was declared a ‘Christian Nation’ in 1992, only one execution of a death warrant was done, in 1997 by then-president Fredrick Titus Jacob Chiluba. Since then, no president has been willing to sign a death warrant for any convict condemned to death. Another president, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, even vowed never to sign any such warrant because he did not want human blood on his hands. The abolition of the death penalty was necessary both for consistency with the declaration of Zambia as a ‘Christian Nation’ whose belief in the Bible is unequivocal and to keep up with regional and global trends.

Second, Zambia committed to abolishing the death penalty in the course of its successive Universal Periodic Review (UPR) examinations at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the latest of which took place in 2017. Several donor missions repeatedly reminded the state of Zambia that it must do away with death penalty and several meetings were attended in Geneva by successive Ministers of Justice on the same matter. Arguably, the desire for Zambia to have a tangible presentation on its commitments to the UNHRC to offer at the next UPR session, slated for later this year, explains the speed at which the abolition process has proceeded.

Third, there was consistent advocacy from a majority of civil society towards the abolition of the death penalty to comply with the principle of respect for the right to life enshrined in our constitution. The constitution has not been amended because this would require a referendum, but the elimination of the death penalty from the Penal Code means no court will be able to issue a death sentence and the highest sentence for those convicted of capital offices will be life imprisonment.

The development is therefore a victory for the CSOs that have been consistent in calling for the abolition of the death penalty and for respect of the right to life in Zambia. The death penalty was in contradiction to both the provision on the right to life in the constitution and the ethos of Zambia as a Christian Nation. However, there remains the gigantic job of removing the death penalty from the constitution – which is important to do, because if one day the country is led by a bloodthirsty leader they could still apply it if they find a constitutional provision allowing it.

How has civil society, and GEARS Initiative in particular, advocated for the abolition of the death penalty?

We found the basis to anchor our advocacy work for the abolition of the death penalty in the decades-long practice by Zambian presidents of refusing to sign death warrants against convicts sentenced to death. This made the death sentence clause of the constitution redundant and strengthened the position of human rights and pro-life CSOs.

Advocacy took the form of submissions to Constitutional Review Commissions and the African Union’s African Peer Review Mechanism as well as position papers presented at local and international meetings such as the UPR sessions where the Zambian government was present. CSOs also made presentations and submissions at international forums and had one-on-one meetings with foreign missions of countries that had abolished the death penalty and with those of states concerned with human rights, such as the European Union, the UK and the USA.

UPR sessions and pre-sessions and parallel events, including a recent one that GEARS Initiative was able to attend with support from CIVICUS, were used as a platform to advocate for the repeal of the death penalty. The creation of a critical mass of human rights CSOs synergised partnerships for joint and consistent advocacy activities that helped build momentum and compelled the government to act. It was also very crucial to build working synergies with local and international media to disseminate advocacy initiatives.

What are the next steps in your work?

There are a number of remaining repressive or archaic laws that should be repealed, reviewed or amended. These include the Public Order Act (1955), the NGO Act (2009), the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act (2021) and the Contempt of Court Law, which is part of the Penal Code, among others. Except for the latter, the rest are already under review, with draft bills ready to be presented before the National Assembly. The Public Order Act, for instance, is being replaced with a Public Gatherings Bill.

Our next steps are to continue advocating for a speedy legal review process of these repressive laws by undertaking public engagement and media activities, auditing obnoxious sections of these laws and submitting our reports to state authorities and other stakeholders, including the media, CSOs, donor communities and parliamentarians. This may entail hiring legal consultants to do desk reviews, identify the sections that need to be replaced and recommend alternatives that are justifiable from the perspective of a democratic society. This, will of course, require the investment of more technical and financial resources.

What kind of support do you need to continue doing this work?

Last year, GEARS Initiative received short-term financial and technical support from CIVICUS and two US-based organisations – the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and the National Democratic Institute – to conduct legal analyses of the NGO Act, the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act and the Public Order Act and report back on what and why they needed to be repealed or replaced. The negative impact of the continued existence of these laws was analysed and shared, not only with media and civil society, but also with citizens, including in local and rural communities.

But for 2023, GEARS Initiative has not yet secured any support for its advocacy work towards the repeal of repressive laws. All our projects had short-term funding that ended in 2022, and had visible positive impact: they kept the government on its toes and pushed it to close the year with draft bills that it promised to table before the National Assembly in its first session starting in February 2023. GEARS Initiative was included in the Technical Committee on repeal and replacement of the Public Order Act and was further requested to make submissions on the review of the NGO Act and the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act.

GEARS Initiative will need financial and technical support to be able to sustain the advocacy activities it embarked on in 2022. In collaboration with like-minded CSOs, GEARS Initiative wants to continue reviewing the various repressive laws that restrict civic and democratic space in Zambia, conducting community, stakeholders’, media and government engagement around the findings of those reviews, and advocating for the replacement of obsolete or repressive legislation.

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

Get in touch with GEARS Initiative through its Facebook page.

PHILIPPINES: ‘This victory belongs to everyone who supported and fought with us’

MariaSolTauleCIVICUS speaks about the recent acquittal of 10 human rights defenders in the Philippines with Maria Sol Taule, a human rights lawyer and member of the Karapatan Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights.

Founded in 1995, Karapatan is a national alliance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan has recently provided legal counsel to criminalised human rights defenders and campaigned for their acquittal, including through online campaigns such as #TogetherWeDefend and #DefendTheDefenders.

What were the accusations brought against the 10 human rights defenders who were recently acquitted?

The 10 human rights defenders were charged with perjury, but on 9 January 2023, after three years of court trial, the Quezon City Metropolitan Trial Court Branch 139 acquitted them on grounds that the prosecution had failed to prove that the officers of Gabriela, Karapatan and Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) – had ‘wilfully or deliberately asserted a falsehood’.

The origins of the case date back to May 2019, when Sr. Elenita Belardo, RGS of the RMP; Elisa Tita Lubi, Cristina Palabay, Roneo Clamor, Wilfredo Ruazol, Edita Birgos, Gabriela Krista Dalena and Jose Mari Callueng, all from Karapatan; and Joan May Salvador and Gertrudes Libang of Gabriela jointly filed a petition for Writ of Amparo and Habeas Data before the Supreme Court of the Philippines in response to relentless red-tagging – the labelling of activists, human rights defenders and CSOs critical of government policies and actions as linked to communist insurgent groups, leading to accusations of being destabilisers and enemies of the state – and other attacks against CSOs and their members.

The respondents in the petition included former President Rodrigo Duterte, other high-ranking officials from the police and military, including former National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., and officers of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, which dismissed it in June 2019. According to the Court of Appeals, the petition did not conform with the requirements of the rules on the Writs of Amparo and Habeas Data. The Court also said that the allegations in the petition and documents submitted did not fulfil the evidentiary standard to establish that the petitioners’ right to life, liberty, security and privacy were violated or threatened with violation by the respondents.

Shortly after the petition was dismissed, one of them, former National Security Adviser General Hermogenes Esperon Jr., filed a retaliatory suit of perjury against the petitioners. He filed it before the Quezon City Office of the City Prosecutor.

Esperon alleged that the original petition had indicated that the RMP was a corporation registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), when in fact its registration had been revoked. Esperon implicated Gabriela and Karapatan because the petition had been jointly filed by the three organisations.

In their defence, Gabriela and Karapatan said that they could only attest to facts and circumstances pertaining to themselves, as evidenced by the separate verifications attached to the petition, while RMP said that the mention of its status as being registered corporation had been made in good faith: RMP first heard that its registration had been revoked when Esperon filed the case, as it had not received any notification from the SEC and had consistently filed its annual reports with it.

The case was initially dismissed at the prosecution level, but Esperon filed a motion for reconsideration, which was granted. It was later filed in court and became a full-blown trial.

How did civil society advocate for the 10 human rights defenders’ acquittal?

From the time we received a subpoena informing us of the perjury charges against officers of the three organisations, we knew that this was a malicious and retaliatory suit resulting from our filing of a petition for Writ of Amparo and Habeas Data before the Supreme Court.

Human rights defenders were being attacked once again. So we knew that apart from a good legal defence, we needed to build a solid support coalition among civil society in the Philippines and abroad. We launched a campaign around the hashtags #TogetherWeDefend and #DefendTheDefenders and lobbied with our allies and networks in the Philippines. We also lobbied with the diplomatic community in the Philippines through trial observations and gathered the support and solidarity of international CSOs to back our call for their acquittal. So this victory belongs to everyone who supported and fought with us.

What is the context currently like for Filipino civil society?

The situation has steadily worsened following the results of the presidential election held in May 2022, which was won by an alliance of two authoritarian dynasties: the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos was elected president, and Sara Duterte, daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, was elected vice-president.

The 2020 Anti-Terrorism Law passed under Duterte is being intensely used against activists. Dozens of petitions were filed before the Supreme Court challenging the law’s constitutionality, but the Court ruled most of its provisions to be constitutional. Activists are illegally arrested, abducted, tortured and even killed, and nobody is prosecuted for these gruesome crimes. The NTF-ELCAC continues to vilify and red-tag human rights defenders. Many are also facing trumped-up criminal charges. More than 800 political prisoners are currently languishing in various jails in the Philippines.

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

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

WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Violence against women is a global crisis that needs urgent attention’

Lina AbiRafeh

CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the fight against gender-based violence with Lina AbiRafeh, a feminist activist, women’s rights expert and Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where she served as Executive Director for seven years.

How big a problem is violence against women (VAW) at the global level? 

VAW is a much bigger global problem than we tend to imagine: statistics show one in every three women and girls will experience violence in their lifetime. The fact so many women and girls are denied the right to live freely without facing restrictions and danger makes this a global crisis that needs urgent attention. I personally do not know a woman who has not been affected by some form of this insidious violence. Women have the right to feel free and safe in their own bodies, at home, in the streets and in any public spaces, but unfortunately that is not and has never been – their reality.

VAW is a human rights violation that is embedded in our culture and women are often silenced when they try to speak up. Women-led organisations and women’s rights groups and movements must be supported because they are the voice of these women and girls who are silenced. They are the voice of all women and girls.

Having worked to end VAW around the world for 25 years, I know this is a very hard problem to crack. VAW stems from a global context of gender inequality where women and girls are viewed as less than men, as second-class citizens. There is lack of awareness in our societies and lack of political will among our leaders. Existing laws don’t enable women to access justice, security, services, or support. Nothing works the way it should to put an end to this violence.

Women and girls remain unequal across every aspect of their lives – politics, economy, health, education and the law. Women and girls are the majority of the world’s poor. They are the majority of those who are illiterate. But they are a minority, an exception, and treated like an anomaly in every aspect of leadership and decision-making. Wage gaps are wide, and women are too often relegated to the informal sector. And they continue to bear the burden of unpaid care. In too many countries, women face discriminatory laws that refuse to recognise them as equals with men.

How much progress has been achieved so far?

Women and girls around the world still do not have the opportunity to participate fully in every aspect of social, economic and political life, despite their right to do so. We have made progress, but not enough.

Although advances have been made in trying to reduce VAW, cases continue, and are often perpetrated with impunity.

In many countries, women are being stripped of their sexual and reproductive rights, compromising their health and denying their right to decide about their own bodies and lives. In addition, the problem of girl-child marriage continues, and increased as a result of COVID-19, with 12 million girls under 18 being married off every year. For this and other forms of VAW, rhetoric doesn’t match reality. There is more talk than action.

Women-led organisations must be involved in policy decisions and be given full leadership. There is a lot of talk about localisation, but this seems to just be a buzzword as most women’s rights and feminist organisations are marginalised and underfunded. This only sets them up for failure because it limits the scope of their work, keeping the support they offer out of reach for the majority of women and girls. We need to fund these organisations fully, and not with the typical short-term quick-fix project funding but with long-term, unrestricted, open-ended funding that can allow them to function and flourish. Local groups should dictate the agenda, not the donors who are holding the strings.

What work do you do to contribute to positive change? 

I am committed to building a better world for women. I am a global women’s rights activist, author and speaker with decades of experience worldwide. 

I worked for over 20 years as a humanitarian aid worker in contexts such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti and Papua New Guinea. I now work independently, advising organisations and companies to enhance their engagement with women’s rights and gender equality. I also serve as the Senior Advisor for Global Women’s Rights at the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, where I was Executive Director until 2022. I am also the founder of Yalla, Feminists!, an online space and open platform dedicated to amplifying women’s voices worldwide.

I was honoured to be able to share my passion and experience in ending VAW on global stages including a TEDx talk, a Women Deliver PowerTalk and a keynote address for Swedish International Development Agency annual meeting, among others.

I’ve written two books: Gender and International Aid in Afghanistan and Freedom on the Frontlines. My next book outlines 50 years of Arab feminism and will be published in early 2023. I will keep using my voice in whatever ways I can to fight for women’s rights and remedy inequalities. That’s why I speak and publish everywhere I can and I serve on the board of numerous global women’s rights organisations.

What good practices should be implemented to prevent VAW?

We need to start believing survivors so that perpetrators can be brought to justice. When women see the law is on their side, more will be encouraged to speak up. We also need to make sure that survivors have access to the full range of services and support, and security systems handle their cases with care.

There is also a need to reform education so that more people are taught about VAW, consent, human rights and women’s rights – from a very young age. Education can bring us a step closer to defeating this scourge. We need men to step up to support women and speak up against perpetrators. And yes, we need data, but not at the expense of action. Anyway, data will always underestimate the reality. And what we know is that no country is immune. This affects women and girls everywhere, in every culture and context and community.

Get in touch with Lina AbiRafeh through her website or her Medium blog, and follow @LinaAbiRafeh on Twitter.

PERU: ‘Political and social instability has already cost dozens of lives’

NadiaRamosCIVICUS speaks about the political crisis in Peru with Nadia Ramos, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Centre of the Americas and official spokesperson for the Hemispheric Network Somos Lideresas, two organisations that promote women’s leadership and empowerment in Peru and Latin America.

GUATEMALA: ‘Criminal law is being used as a weapon of political persecution’

ClaudiaGonzalezCIVICUS discusses corruption in Guatemala and the criminalisation of anti-corruption activism with Claudia González, former member of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and Virginia Laparra’s defence attorney.

Virginia Laparra is a former prosecutor of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) who has recently been unjustly sentenced to four years in prison. The #LibertadParaVirginia (#FreedomForVirginia) campaign is mobilising in response.

TANZANIA: ‘The new administration is committed to ending discriminatory policies that undermine girls’ rights’

PrudenceMutisoCIVICUS speaks with Prudence Mutiso, Legal Adviser at the Center for Reproductive Rights-Africa about the Tanzanian government’s policy on pregnant and married girls in schools.

Founded in 1992, the Center for Reproductive Rights is a global human rights organisation of lawyers and advocates seeking to ensure the protection of reproductive rights as basic human rights fundamental to the dignity, equality, health and wellbeing of every person.

The Center works across five continents and has played a critical role in securing legal victories on reproductive rights issues, including access to life-saving obstetrics care, contraception, maternal health and safe abortion services, as well as the prevention of forced sterilisation and child marriage, in national courts, United Nations’ committees and regional human rights bodies.

AUSTRALIA: ‘Repressive laws have been introduced to limit people’s ability to protest against climate injustice’

NelliStevensonCIVICUS speaks about the challenges faced by climate activists in Australia with Nelli Stevenson, head of communications and investigations at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.

Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

MALTA: ‘People should be able to access abortions locally without the risk of criminalisation or stigmatisation’

Malta BreakTheTabooCIVICUS speaks about the struggle for abortion rights and the anti-rights backlash in Malta with Break the Taboo Malta.

Break the Taboo Malta is a storytelling platform that documents abortion experiences to highlight the lived reality and address abortion stigma in Malta.

AFGHANISTAN: ‘Open-source monitoring reveals both the clampdown on women’s rights and the impact on their lives’

AfghanistanWitness LogoCIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Anouk Theunissen and Humaira Rahbin, researchers with Afghan Witness, and Meetra Qutb, Afghan Witness’s communications specialist.

Afghan Witness is a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan. It seeks to provide reliable data to international organisations, governments, the media and civil society and to create awareness about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Its team includes people on the ground as well as international researchers, analysts, journalists and experts. Most of its team members’ identities are kept confidential for safety reasons.

INDONESIA: ‘The new Criminal Code spells danger for civil society’

FatiaMaulidiyantiCIVICUS speaks about the new criminal code passed in Indonesia with Fatia Maulidiyanti, Executive Coordinator of KontraS/The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence.

KontraS is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1998 to investigate enforced disappearances, acts of violence and other human rights violations.

What are the main changes introduced in the new Criminal Code?

It is KontraS’s opinion that this Criminal Code Bill will have effects well beyond hampering people’s right to privacy. Many of its articles seek to legitimise the ongoing restrictions that are shrinking civic space, bringing back the spirit of the authoritarian Suharto era.

For example, articles 218 and 219 introduce the crimes of defamation and insult against the president and vice president. This will allow the criminalisation of government critics. Similarly, article 240 bans defaming and insulting the government, and article 351 makes it a crime to defame or insult any authorities or state institutions. These articles are meant to criminalise the publication of any kind of research, data or criticism of the government and the state institutions.

This amounts to the reintroduction of a once repealed lèse-majesté clause dating back to Dutch colonial times, which of course has long been repealed in the Netherlands. And it spells danger for civil society. It is worth noting that the policing and judicial systems in Indonesia are very problematic. Police standards are low and there is a lot of corruption. Arbitrary arrest and detention are commonly used, as are unfair trials. This already hinders the ability of civil society movements to exist and sustain their work.

There are also several problematic articles related to the need to request and obtain permits to conduct demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings.

What are the forces behind the changes?

There have been too many obscure political bargains between the government and parliament to accommodate the interests of all political parties at the expense of civil rights and fundamental freedoms.

While there seems to have been a group of academics supporting the drafting process, there has been no consultation with or participation of civil society or business interests. At the centre of the new criminal code is an attempt to secure power, guarantee public order and gain control in preparation for the 2024 presidential election.

What do you make of the changes regarding ‘morality’ issues such as sex outside marriage?

Regression on morality issues may be counterproductive at a time when the government is trying to prevent mass protests against their policies, particularly in view of the upcoming election.

But the criminalisation of private relationships, acts and behaviours can also be seen as a bargaining chip as the current government is trying to bring Islamic fundamentalist groups into the fold. They are trying to ensure their loyalty by showing they are willing to safeguard conservative religious values. LGBTQI+ rights have been at the forefront of the battles waged by fundamentalist political and religious groups, so they have been the first to go.


How has civil society tried to stop these changes from happening?

We often discussed with our allies whether and how to provide inputs and recommendations to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights and to the House of Representatives during the process. We did have meetings and took part in various consultations, but as it turned out, these just went through the motions of public engagement, keeping the formalities but disabling any meaningful opportunity to influence the outcomes.

Numerous CSOs across Indonesia have been protesting about this since at least 2019. There was a big campaign, #ReformasiDikorupsi (‘corrupt reform’) followed by a series of demonstrations against the enactment of the criminal code. However, the government and parliament chose to continue ignoring our objections and instead accelerated the process.

What kind of support does Indonesian civil society need from the international community?

We need all sectors of the international community, including international CSOs, foreign governments and their diplomatic missions and United Nations bodies, to send a clear warning to the Indonesian government against continuing to shut down civic space.

We really hope the movement to warn the government of Indonesia comes not only from domestic civil society, but also from our international counterparts.

Investors should also use their leverage, as the government is trying to attract foreign investments while the human rights situation continues to deteriorate on the ground.

The Indonesian state should be held accountable and be persuaded to step back and change course.

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

Get in touch with KontraS through its website and follow @kontras_update on Instagram and @KontraS on Twitter.

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Outstanding issues on the binding treaty on business and human rights are mainly political’

Fernanda HopenhaymCIVICUS speaks with Fernanda Hopenhaym, chair of the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Business and Human Rights, about the process to develop a binding international treaty on business and human rights.

Why is a binding treaty on business and human rights so important?

The process to develop this treaty stems from the conviction that a legally binding instrument is needed to regulate the obligations of private companies and, above all, to facilitate access to justice for victims of their abuses. Its aim is to incorporate human rights protections in the context of business activity.

An international treaty would transcend the jurisdictional limitations of states. Transnational capital operates across borders. Huge numbers of companies in most sectors operate global supply chains. When abuses occur somewhere in these chains, it is very difficult for victims to access justice, as there are no justice mechanisms that transcend borders. Corporate operations are transnational but justice is not.

Of course, states must take measures at the domestic level, strengthen their regulations, improve their laws and develop public policy and action plans to ensure effective protection of human rights. And companies must also make commitments to improve their practices. The treaty under negotiation would be part of a package of measures that are complementary, not mutually exclusive.

The treaty process began in June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council established an open-ended intergovernmental working group mandated to negotiate and agree on an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises under international human rights law.

What role is the Working Group on Business and Human Rights playing?

The Working Group on Business and Human Rights is a UN special procedure, established by a 2011 resolution of the Human Rights Council, with a mandate to promote, disseminate and implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, exchange and promote good practices and lessons learned from the implementation of the Guiding Principles, and assess and make recommendations on these. Its mandate has been successively renewed in 2014, 2017 and 2020. It is composed of five independent experts, mostly academics, and has balanced geographical representation. I have been a member of the Working Group since 2021. The other four current members are from Australia, Nigeria, Poland and Thailand. Three of the five of us are women.

While it does not have any decision-making authority over the Treaty, the Working Group plays an important role. We participate in almost all negotiating sessions through roundtables and discussions and we provide technical opinions. We have commented on the draft articles and we encourage the proactive participation of states from different regions of the world.

One of the premises of the Guiding Principles is the development of measures that can be combined in order to address the problems that exist in relation to the protection of human rights in the context of business activity. A legally binding instrument is just one of those necessary measures.

The Working Group has been very clear in sending out a message favourable to the treaty negotiation process.

What progress has been made in negotiating the treaty?

In the previous interview we had in 2018, the process had been going on for four years. At that time the fourth session of negotiations, based on the ‘zero draft’, was about to start in Geneva. And I was not yet part of the Working Group. Four more years have passed, and at the eighth session held in October 2022, the third draft, which emerged in advance of the 2021 negotiations, was discussed.

The pandemic affected the negotiation processes, partly because face-to-face contact was not possible for a long time. Representatives and delegates in Geneva, for example, were unable to meet in person for more than a year, so the possibilities for exchanges were severely limited. In turn, the pandemic affected the participation of civil society and other stakeholders in the discussions. Processes slowed down and therefore were extended.

Currently, the third draft is still being discussed, and Ecuador, which chairs the Intergovernmental Working Group, has apparently said that it will not bring yet another new draft to the table, but that changes, modifications and additions will continue to be made to this third draft. Eventually, all these adjustments will lead to a final draft.

The current draft has come a long way on issues such as acknowledging vulnerable groups, women, children and Indigenous peoples. Its scope, which was a very tough issue to negotiate, has also been clarified. In general, civil society’s position is to prioritise transnational corporations, while the current draft proposes that all companies should be under the umbrella of the treaty. The current draft reflects the position shared by our Working Group. A number of issues have been untangled, although there are still many things to be resolved.

What are the unresolved issues?

There are many discussions that are more political than technical. Some states and the private sector have said that the text is too prescriptive and rigid. Civil society has expressed that it wants more clarification and specificity on some issues such as the definition of the courts where cases covered by the treaty would be adjudicated and the consideration of the victims’ perspective, as the burden of proof remains a contentious issue. On this point the Working Group has been very clear: states have an obligation to facilitate access to justice and to remove barriers and obstacles for victims to access justice.

While the European Union (EU) and the USA participate in this process, they lack conviction on the direction of the text. The EU is very active, but I see divergent positions among its member states. Many countries, such as France, support it, but the EU as a whole maintains reservations.

One of the great triumphs of the early process was that China did not block it, but rather abstained. The same was true of India. This was partly because the treaty was supposed to be about transnational corporations. China has not approved of the extension of the treaty’s scope to all companies and has lately taken a more negative position.

African states have participated very little in the last two rounds of negotiations. We believe that South Africa, which was co-leader with Ecuador when the resolution that initiated the process was negotiated, is also unhappy with the expanded focus beyond transnational corporations. Ecuador has recently called for the formation of a ‘friends of the Chair‘ group and Africa is the only region without participating members.

Latin America in comparison is participating quite proactively, although the region has experienced many political changes, including in Ecuador itself, which are likely to influence negotiating positions.

In sum, there are ongoing technical discussions on the draft articles, but most of the outstanding issues are mainly political discussions. For this reason, I think the process will take several more years.

Do you think that the final version of the treaty will meet civil society expectations?

My hope is that we will not be left with a treaty that sets out good intentions without establishing clear rules. As is the case in all negotiations of this nature, some of the issues civil society is calling for will probably be left pending. There is a lot to accommodate: the perspectives of states, the expectations of business and the private sector in general, and the demands of civil society and all rights holders.

I would expect a pretty good text, which in some ways reflects the character of the process, which has included a very strong civil society and social movements. From my perspective, the process has been sustained not only by the commitment of states to negotiate, but also by the impetus of civil society and dialogue among all involved.

My expectations are intermediate. With some caution as to the scope of the articles, I think the treaty will contain some elements that satisfy civil society, and particularly victims.

What work will need to be done once the treaty is adopted?

To begin with, I think there is a long way to go before this treaty is adopted. It may still take several more years. There is a long way to go in the negotiations and regarding the content of the text.

Once the treaty is adopted, ratification will have to be pushed through. Let us remember that international treaties only enter into force when a certain number of states ratify them, and only those states that ratify them are bound by them. This is where I see a huge challenge ahead. Hopefully, once we get to produce a good, comprehensive text, the process of ratification will not be so slow and cumbersome.

For this to happen, we will need a strong civil society to push states to ratify the treaty so it enters into force and becomes binding on the signatory parties. Again, I would expect this process to be long and arduous, as the issue of human rights protection in the context of business is a thorny one, given that there are many interests at stake. What lies ahead will be a big challenge for all involved.

 Follow @fernanda_ho and @WGBizHRs on Twitter.


LEBANON: ‘The world seems to be starting to forget Syrian refugees’

Serene Dardari resizedCIVICUS speaks about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon with Serene Dardari, Middle East Regional Communications Manager, and Mahmoud Abdullah, Lebanon Bekaa Area Manager of American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera).

Founded in 1968, Anera is a US-registered civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to helping refugees and others hurt by conflicts in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). Working with partners on the ground, it mobilises resources for immediate emergency relief and for sustainable, long-term health, education and economic development.

What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?

The human rights situation of Syrian refugees is getting worse by the minute. Freedom to work is almost non-existent. Right from the start Syrians were officially not allowed to work in most sectors, so they typically rely on informal jobs in services, agriculture or construction, where they get no insurance or benefits and are exposed to all kinds of labour abuses.

While the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has always been difficult, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown hit them very hard economically. As well as affecting host communities, the pandemic impacted on Syrian refugees with extra severity. Because Lebanese labour laws relegate refugees to the informal economy, they are dependent on gig work and daily jobs, usually in the service sectors. So they were particularly affected by the shutdown of the entertainment and food industries. 

Because of school closures due to COVID-19 as well as ongoing teachers’ strikes to demand unpaid salaries, Syrian refugees have no place to study. Their freedom of movement has also been affected: everywhere in Lebanon there are notices warning that Syrians are only allowed to move around at certain hours. It’s starting to feel like full-blown segregation.

It should be noted that Lebanon is already extremely segregated politically and religiously and has an extremely toxic and traumatic relationship with Syria. The presence of a large, mostly Sunni Muslim, Syrian community only adds to the political tension, to the point that violent clashes could erupt any time.

With Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, the situation is hard for everyone, both locals and refugees. But on top of struggling economically, refugees are also facing growing xenophobia. Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular. When the Lebanese currency and politics were more stable, someone on an average salary could feed a whole middle-class family, but now they can barely get some petrol for their car. The idea that Syrian refugees are taking everything from Lebanese people is widespread, and reactions are becoming increasingly hostile and violent. When people see international funding going towards Syrian refugees, they get enraged.

Many people think refugees are taking away potential aid that should go to Lebanese people. So on top of the livelihood challenges, refugees also face stigma, negativity and hostility, all of which affects their psyches. This isn’t happening just in Lebanon. Turkey is another example of this. The scenario is the same throughout the region: Syrian refugees are being blamed for everything.

International factors such as fluctuations of the US dollar, political turmoil everywhere and the war in Ukraine are also affecting funding for Syrian refugees. So when it is most needed, funding is going to decrease. We have recently received a message that part of the assistance for Syrian refugees will be cancelled.

Which are the most vulnerable groups of refugees, and why?

Syrian women are for sure the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees, for several reasons. Their access to sexual and reproductive health centres, and to education, is truly low. There’s a general lack of knowledge and awareness of these issues and early marriage is frequent. In refugee camps such as those in Bekaa, Syrian women and girls are often exposed to gender-based and sexual violence. Those living in tent settlements know their chances of reporting sexual harassment and being heard are very, very low. Being a Syrian female refugee in Lebanon means dealing with toxicity and violence at all levels. 

Children and young people are next in terms of their vulnerability. We are talking about early marriage, child labour and no prospects of accessing education or future employment opportunities. They have no access to proper medical attention either. If they get into an accident, they will wait in line for hours to be seen by a doctor. The most dangerous thing, however, is their lack of prospects. 

What is Lebanon’s status regarding international refugee law?

Lebanon hasn’t even signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and is violating refugees’ rights by pushing them to ‘willingly’ go back to Syria. Lebanon should be bound by international law to protect these refugees, not to return them to unsafe territory.

Unlike Turkey, the tents and places where Syrian refugees mostly live in Lebanon are privately owned. These private owners are Lebanese people profiting from refugees, who they make pay rent. They must pay electricity to have one bulb they can switch on and off inside the tents. They must be the only refugees on the planet who have to pay rent for the space they occupy!

These rights violations are enabled by the fact that Lebanon has not signed the Refugee Convention. Syrian refugees are not officially considered refugees, which deprives them of their basic rights as refugees. This grey area is very dangerous.

Refugees themselves aren’t aware of the laws that could protect them. They come from a country where they were never encouraged to inform themselves about and claim their basic human rights – which was one of the reasons they left. Upon arrival in Lebanon, they aren’t informed about their basic rights, so they are mostly unaware of them. And even if they knew what their rights are under international law, they have no guarantee these rights are going to be protected in Lebanon because nothing binds the Lebanese state to that law. 

How does Anera promote the human rights of refugees?

Anera is a humanitarian and development organisation. We are not a rights-based organisation, but we contribute to the protection of the basic human rights of refugees. Our role is to fill in the gaps left by the government to help refugees access education, work and healthcare, among other rights. 

We work across several sectors, from livelihoods to food security. We try to create synergies between them to address several needs at once. We work with refugee families in both the north and south of Lebanon through agriculture support. We provide them with tools and technical education to grow and sell their produce. As for food security, we have programme in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Lebanon that provides hundreds of families with regular food parcels and cash assistance so they can purchase what they need. 

One of our biggest programmes distributes free medicine. Each year we help mobilise medical supply shipments worth millions of dollars from international partners around the world and distribute them to refugee centres.

We work to prevent child marriage through a cash transfer programme, using cash assistance as an incentive for families to keep their girls in school. And throughout our operations, we make sure all our partners abide by all humanitarian guidelines and standards when it comes to child protection and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Towards that end, we offer training and constantly do monitoring work. While we don’t directly provide safe spaces for victims and survivors, we work closely with other CSOs and grassroots groups that do so.

It is worth mentioning that we always take the community aspect into consideration so as to balance things. For instance, our food programme also distributes food to the Lebanese population. 

What challenges do you face?

The political situation in Lebanon is very challenging. The fact that the government often has a hostile attitude towards Syrian refugees and is trying to return them to unsafe territories is a big obstacle. Government corruption also has a negative impact on our work with refugee communities, as it affects us on an organisational and funding level. 

We also face challenges coming from the refugee communities where we work. An example of conflict happened recently in the context of a project on child marriage that we implemented due to the increase in child marriages among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Because of the economic crisis, more families are encouraged to marry off their daughters at a younger age. Our project faced pushback by the refugees themselves. It seems that toxic coping mechanisms such as child marriage are easier for them in the short term.

What support do organisations working with Syrian refugees need from the international community?

Everyone in Lebanon is vulnerable right now: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people. The situation of Syrian refugees is stagnant right now, but everything else is worsening. 

What’s needed is more advocacy and more funding for all communities to balance the help provided and avoid conflict. We need to calm things down and bring stability. We could also use some technical support at a government level when it comes to refugee management.

The narrative around Syrian refugees needs to change so they are not viewed as a burden but as human beings in need of help.

The question all Syrian refugees ask themselves is what’s next. If the situation in Syria doesn’t get better and Syrians are forced to leave Lebanon, they will try to get to Europe, or anywhere else offering some kind of opportunity. We need more global engagement to determine what will happen next. Collective work is vital.

The world seems to be starting to forget these refugees. The topic trended on social media for a while at the beginning but then attention was captured by floods in Nigeria, war in Ukraine and repression in Iran. No one is talking about Syrian refugees anymore.

So much is going on in the planet. There are so many crises erupting all at once. But the fact that new crises are happening doesn’t mean the situation of Syrian refugees has improved and the issue disappeared.

The international community must remember Syrian refugees and the Syrian crisis. Human rights defenders must advocate for the rights of Syrian refugees – because if they don’t, who will?

Please help us change the narrative and remind people of Syrian refugees.

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

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

SOUTH AFRICA: ‘We want to live in an environment that respects women and recognises our human rights’


As part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks with Amanda Nomnqa about civil society efforts to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) in South Africa.

Amanda is the founder of SheIsBrave, a South African civil society organisation that provides mentorship and empowers young girls and women to gain independence and overcome GBV.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

How big a problem is GBV South Africa?

GBV is the worst pandemic South Africa continues to face. The country exhibits very high rates of GBV that affect not only women but also children and LGBTQI+ people. The social, political and economic situation so many of them live in exposes them to GBV. This violence has robbed many of their lives, freedom, dignity and more. It is a human rights violation that has a huge impact on the social and development progression of survivors.

The criminal justice system doesn’t support victims and survivors. The national police systematically fails to help them: it doesn’t channel enough resources to help victims, and the available resources are misused due to lack of expertise in using them. Analysing DNA takes them too long and many police officers don’t know how to use a rape kit properly. All this perpetuates GBV and makes the fight against it even more difficult. And there is no political will to implement measures and policies to tackle the problem.

What work does your organisation do?

SheIsBrave is an organisation led by womxn and young people founded and registered in 2018, seeking to empower girls and young women by providing formal and non-formal skills so they can successfully compete in the job market and become independent. Most GBV victims become hopeless and we want to make sure they still feel valuable, can acquire skills and can use them to improve their lives. We want them to have access to socio-economic opportunities so they can overcome situations of GBV and escape their damaging consequences.

We also support survivors by helping them get counselling. Getting professional help is very important for mental wellbeing so we want to provide that kind of help.

We also have programmes for young girls and children to teach them about GBV. We provide activities for them to work on their talents and allow them a space to express themselves. Our aim is to show them that certain situations are not normal and are wrong, and empower them so they are confident enough to speak up if they are facing such situations. We also try to equip them so they can carry on the same kind of advocacy work in the future.

We also mobilise in protest to make noise and draw attention to the scourge of GBV in our communities so that those in power finally do something about it.

What challenges do you face?

Our main challenge is the lack of financial and material resources to work with our target communities. Lack of funding has limited the scope of our work because we are forced to focus mostly on zero-budget activities. We depend on fundraising and sometimes have to contribute funds from our own pockets.

There aren’t enough funds in place to support civil society in South Africa, and most of what’s available doesn’t reach the organisations doing the work due to mismanagement and corruption. During the pandemic we saw a rise in GBV cases but the government failed to provide enough funding for shelters, medical help and legal aid to victims and survivors. Lack of government funding affected most organisations that provide support to victims. Unfortunately, this is what most organisations including ours are still going through. Organisational growth has really been limited as a result.

What will you be doing for the 16 Days of Activism campaign?

This year we will be working on the ground. We are hosting public meetings with activists working on the same issues as us. We want to bring awareness about GBV in general and femicide in particular. SheIsBrave is based in a community that considered one of the top three biggest hotspots for GBV in South Africa. So we are taking advantage of this opportunity to share information among community members on how people experiencing abuse can report cases, seek medical attention and access shelters.

We hope that as a result more people will know what to do if they need help. We want them to know that help is available and they should never shy away from reaching out.

We also hope our work will inspire other organisations working on these issues to reach out so we can collaborate in the future. If we speak in one voice, we will be more consistent and more powerful and we stand a better chance of making the government and other stakeholders see that they must urgently address the problem.

We are aware that on this date many other organisations are mobilising to push the government to enact better laws and implement better policies to address GBV and we hope this year our voices will be heard. We want to live in an environment that respects women and recognises our human rights. Our government should commit to helping us in our struggle.

Civic space in the South Africa is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor

Get in touch with SheIsBrave through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @sheisbrave_za on Twitter.

EUROPE: ‘Delays in dealing with gender-based violence cost women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives’

Eliana Jimeno and Charlotte CramerAs part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks about civil society efforts to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) with Eliana Jimeno and Charlotte Cramer of Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE).

Founded in 1994, WAVE is a network of organisations from across Europe working to prevent GBV and protect women and children from violence.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

What work does WAVE do?

WAVE is a network of 160 women’s rights civil society organisations (CSOs) working against GBV in European countries. Most of these organisations provide specialised services such as shelters, rape crisis centres and helplines. Some are umbrella organisations that include among their membership groups delivering specialist services to women, while others focus more specifically on research and data collection, and yet others focus on advocacy and campaigning for better legislation at the national level and at the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).

WAVE’s work focuses on three main areas: advocacy, capacity building and data collection. Regarding our advocacy work, we lobby and campaign for better legislation to help fight GBV against women. WAVE is pushing for women’s specialist services all over Europe to be better funded so more women have access to specialist support.

We also focus on capacity building. We provide training for our members so they are better equipped to support women and children exposed to violence. We do this through webinars, conferences and mutual learning exchanges.

We collect data on women’s specialist support services in the 46 countries we operate in and analyse it to identify gaps in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

What challenges have you faced?

We have faced several challenges. The main one has been dealing with the strong anti-gender movement pushing to block the accession of the EU to the Istanbul Convention. Because of the backlash, we have seen governments trying to get away with implementing it only partially, as in the case of Poland, or just completely walking out, as in the case of Turkey.

Anti-gender movements frame their narrative in ways that put feminist CSOs and institutions advancing women’s, children’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights under threat. At a country level, they argue that women’s rights organisations challenge the ‘traditional values’ of the family, for example by demanding access to accessible contraception, or claim they are exposing kids to ‘harmful’ information – a reference to comprehensive sexuality education – in schools. There are also security challenges. Many of our members work in hostile environments and some have been threatened for challenging governments and holding them accountable.

We also face issues regarding data collection and systematisation. Data is collected and codified in different ways in different EU countries, so it is very difficult to collect and compare information regarding women support services, access to sexual and reproductive rights or education. There is no standardised way of tracking GBV cases in Europe – particularly femicide, for which there is no common definition – so we are constantly trying to adapt to collect the data required to advance the rights of women, girls and LGBTQI+ people more effectively.

A positive challenge is weaving our network together. We represent 160 organisations in 46 European countries, some of which are themselves umbrella organisations, which means we are talking about some 1,600 organisations. There is a lot of diversity within our membership, and this creates complexities when it comes to balancing what brings us together as feminist CSOs and our different perspectives due to our different national contexts.

What have you planned for the 16 Days of Activism campaign?

We have released a statement on femicides, one of the main topics of the campaign. We are also emphasising the need to adopt a standardised definition of femicide throughout Europe to better monitor the evolution of the phenomenon and push for the design and implementation of better policies to tackle it. We want to push key stakeholders to act right now, as every delay costs women, children and LGBTQI+ people their lives.

On 8 March, International Women’s Day 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a directive to combat violence against women and domestic violence. The draft that was put forward, which resulted from consultations with selected CSOs, is rooted in a criminal law approach and fails to recognise GBV and domestic violence as human rights violations. It is also reactive, focusing on how states should act when violence has already happened rather than on preventing it happening in the first place. During the 16 days of Activism, we will campaign for a directive that enables victims of GBV and domestic violence to exercise their human rights. 

We also plan on having webinars and releasing podcasts to highlight the problem of GBV in Europe, the intersectional harm it causes and the need for better legislation and practices to fight it. Our expectation is that the podcast and webinars will help us reach a larger audience. We will also focus on how the media can tackle GBV through a more sensitive approach.

Additionally, WAVE has prepared a toolkit to make advocacy and campaigning more accessible to young people. The toolkit will serve as a resource to empower them and help them raise their own voices and run their own campaigns in a meaningful, sustainable and creative way.

What should international bodies, particularly the UN, do to contribute to eradicating GBV?

The UN has opened the space for specific conversations to take place on women’s rights, for example on the link between violence against women and child custody procedures. This has been really helpful because feminist CSOs all over the world run programmes and projects and provide specialist services for victims and survivors of violence with very limited resources. They seldom have the resources or logistics capacity to play such a global convening role. WAVE is one example of women’s grassroots organisations seeking to host conversations at a European level, but we are not a global network.

In contrast, the anti-gender movement has a lot of funding as well as a global footing. To be able to compete, we must work extra hard and are still at a disadvantage. So, by bringing in its resources for convening, supporting the work of feminist CSOs and data collection, the UN can to some extent help level the playing field.

In many countries the space for civil society is shrinking, and the UN can play a key role in creating the platforms where we, as feminist CSOs, can have these very important conversations, instead of just giving the space to national governments that are disseminating narratives not reflective of the experiences of survivors of GBV.

Further, we hope accountability will move at the centre of the UN’s work. The UN must hold perpetrators accountable to stop the culture of impunity, including UN staff, such as soldiers serving in UN peacekeeping operations. The UN must send a strong message that it does not tolerate GBV.

Finally, we hope that world leaders, governments, international institutions and CSOs will genuinely and meaningfully work together and take an intersectional approach to achieve the SDGs for world justice and leave no one behind.

 Get in touch with WAVE through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @WAVE_europe on Twitter.

GLOBAL HEALTH: ‘On World AIDS Day we remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over’

GastonDevisichCIVICUS speaks with Gastón Devisich, Head of Community Engagement of Fundación Huésped’s Research Department, about the role of civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS, both at the community level and in global governance bodies.

Fundación Huésped is an Argentinian civil society organisation (CSO) that has been working since 1989 on public health, including on the right to health and disease control. It is a member of the regional platform Coalición Plus and, represented by Gastón, one of the two Latin American and Caribbean organisations that are part of the NGO Delegation to the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board.

What have been the results of the latest round of pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and what will be their implications?

The primary goal of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is to make catalytic investments and leverage innovations to drive faster progress in reducing new infections, address structural barriers to improving outcomes for these pandemics and build equity, sustainability and lasting impact. Its new strategy places people and communities front and centre in all its work, challenging power dynamics to ensure that affected communities have a voice in the fight and opportunities for a healthy future.

The Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment has brought in a total of US$15.7 billion. It was the culmination of a successful campaign that began more than a year ago. It is a remarkable achievement, not only because several public and private donors increased their pledges, in many cases by more than 30 per cent, but also because a record number of implementing governments – at least 20 – have stepped up to become donors as well.

This support will be dedicated to saving 20 million lives, averting 450 million new infections and generating new hope for ending AIDS, TB and malaria. This investment will also strengthen health and community systems to increase resilience to future crises.

Given its central role in the fight against pandemics, the Global Fund also plans to continue contributing to the global pandemic preparedness agenda in coordination with the World Health Organization, the World Bank and other partners.

What role does civil society have in the governance of UNAIDS?

The Joint United Nations (UN) Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, was the first UN programme to have formal civil society representation on its governing body. The participation of CSOs on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board is critical to the effective inclusion of community voices in this key global policy forum in the area of HIV/AIDS.

The NGO Delegation is composed of five CSOs, three from developing countries and two from developed countries or countries with economies in transition, plus five more acting as alternate members. Our purpose is to bring the perspectives and experience of people living with HIV/AIDS and those populations particularly affected by the pandemic, as well as civil society, to ensure that UNAIDS is guided by an equitable, rights-based, gender-sensitive approach to ensuring access to comprehensive HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment, care and support for all people.

The existence of a community delegation within the highest governance body of a programme such as UNAIDS is critical to ensure the meaningful involvement of populations most affected by HIV at all levels of policy and programme development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Strengthening meaningful community engagement fosters a relationship of greater trust and respect with those of us who are the direct beneficiaries of any programme or policy.

The involvement of all stakeholders, provided it is transparent and based on mutual understanding, can minimise misunderstandings and reduce the likelihood of unnecessary conflict or controversy. This helps improve our access to rights and the provision of quality services necessary to ensure it, as well as addressing power inequalities between decision-makers and the community to establish more equitable and horizontal relationships.

Why is it important to incorporate the voices of communities in decision-making spaces?

There is an urgent need to develop additional strategies to address the HIV epidemic. A wide range of factors create, intensify and perpetuate the impact of the virus and its underlying determinants may be rooted in the cultural, legal, institutional and economic fabric of society.

To achieve a comprehensive response to HIV, it is essential to recognise power imbalances and address them by developing practices that prevent their inadvertent replication or reinforcement throughout the implementation of programmes and policies.

Local organisations have unique expertise to contribute to the HIV response. We have critical knowledge and understanding of local cultures, perspectives and language, the local dynamics of the HIV epidemic, the concerns of the most vulnerable or marginalised populations and local priorities that other stakeholders may not necessarily have. The community can help ensure that the goals and procedures of HIV response are appropriate and acceptable for them, in order to avoid reinforcing existing inequalities.

What does Fundación Huésped’s work consist of, both at the national level and within this global space?

Our comprehensive approach includes the development of research, practical solutions and communication related to public health policies in Argentina and Latin America. We seek to develop scientific studies and preventive actions and advocate for rights to guarantee access to health and reduce the impact of diseases, with a focus on HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, vaccine-preventable diseases and other communicable diseases, as well as sexual and reproductive health.

As representatives of civil society in UNAIDS, we actively seek the views of our communities on key issues related to UNAIDS policies and programmes, and advocate with governments and cosponsoring organisations – 10 UN organisations that make up the UNAIDS Joint Programme – for significant improvements in the implementation and evaluation of HIV/AIDS policies and programmes.

What challenges do organisations working on HIV/AIDS face and what support do they need to continue doing their work?

The HIV agenda is still current, with new challenges and the persistence of stigma, discrimination and rights violations. Forty years after the first cases of HIV were reported in the world, and thanks to scientific advances, the implementation of policies, plans and programmes, civil society activism and human rights achievements, there are more and better strategies available to control the virus, which could end AIDS today. Yet this year there were 1.5 million new HIV cases and 680,000 new AIDS-related deaths worldwide – including 110,000 cases and 52,000 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean.

World AIDS Day, 1 December, is our annual opportunity to remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over. Over the past 40 years science has generated much innovation, but these benefits do not reach all people equally. The best science in the world cannot compete with the debilitating effects of poor health systems. To end AIDS we need to correct the course of the HIV response, starting with ending inequities. A better response is needed today. We cannot afford to waste any more time.

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

COLOMBIA: ‘Civil society is an important pillar in work with the migrant population’

CarmenAidaFariaCIVICUS speaks with Carmen Aida Faria, director of Fundación Manitas Amarillas (Little Yellow Hands Foundation), about the difficulties faced by Venezuelan migrants in Colombia and the work being done by civil society to facilitate their access to rights.

Manitas Amarillas is a Colombian civil society organisation (CSO) formed in 2018, in the context of mass Venezuelan migration to Colombia, to provide humanitarian assistance, access to health services and counselling to migrants and refugees.

How has the situation of Venezuelan migrants in Colombia changed in recent years?

Migration flows into Colombia have changed over time. The 2015 wave of Venezuelan migration was very important, but the number of migrants increased over the following years, peaking in 2017. Compared to the previous wave, this one included a lot more people in vulnerable situation.

The new arrivals needed immediate healthcare and access to other fundamental rights that the system could not provide. Colombia did not have the infrastructure or the financial resources to respond, particularly in border areas, where local populations also experience deficits in access to education and healthcare, among other rights.

Migrants in vulnerable situations were also unable to receive monetary aid through the Colombian government’s social assistance programmes or enter the subsidised health system. To access social programmes, people must have a regular migration status.

In addition to a permanent migrant population, there is also the population in border areas that constantly crosses the border back and forth to access certain services. For instance, many children who live in Venezuela go to school in Colombia and are not included in school food programmes. There are organisations working specifically to ensure these children have access to food, as they arrive with significant nutritional problems.

These processes created a demand for the community, but above all for the Colombian state, to respond to. And the country began to operate under a logic of solidarity and gratitude: Colombians remember that in the past it was Venezuela that received Colombian migrants. Thus, the government began to grant special residence permits to regularise this population in some way. But the definite milestone was the Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPMV), approved in 2021 under an essentially humanitarian logic.

What did the implementation of this new policy entail?

The ETPMV implied temporary regularisation so that Venezuelans could benefit from the same rights and have the same duties as Colombian nationals. Upon receiving an identity document called a Temporary Protection Permit, migrants have the possibility of accessing the health system and the labour market, among other rights.

Theoretically, the mechanism is well thought out. However, putting it into practice has been hard. Many people have been left out: more than 2.4 million migrants have registered in the Single Registry for Venezuelan Migrants, but there are still more than a million who, having completed the full process, have not received their permit.

Some people applied for the permit in September 2021, more than a year ago, and have consulted Migración Colombia, the authority for migration control and monitoring, but still do not know what has happened to their application. Some have not received their permits due to logistical problems: this is a highly mobile population and when they change addresses it is often not possible to locate them to deliver the documentation.

But it is also the case that difficulties continue once the permit has been obtained. This is an indication of deeper problems. When Venezuelans go with their permit to open a bank account or register with the health system, they are often rejected. The Temporary Protection Permit is a new document and many institutions, both public and private, are not yet familiar with it. A lot of education is needed to make these rights effectively accessible.

The ETPMV was supposed to prioritise the most vulnerable population groups. The first to receive their permits were supposed to be people in need of immediate medical attention and children and adolescents who needed them to enter the education system due to lack of identity papers. This ultimately did not happen, to such an extent that legal appeals have had to be filed to ensure access to healthcare for people with chronic illnesses or other conditions in need of immediate attention.

How is Colombian civil society supporting Venezuelan migrants?

Since the last big wave of migration in 2017, many CSOs have emerged. It was the migrant community itself that first began to get together to help other migrants. We started giving food out on the street and providing humanitarian assistance to walkers, as we call the people moving on foot through Colombian territory, who did not have basic information or even warm enough clothing to withstand Colombia’s climate.

CSOs have become an important pillar in work with the migrant population, because we are on the ground and we know the problems migrants have.

Currently, many CSOs are working together in coordination with the Mayor’s Office of Bogotá and promoting several joint initiatives. We have launched public campaigns and signed a symbolic pact to promote integration, because Venezuelan migrants in Colombia continue to suffer from xenophobia and discrimination as a result of their poverty. We have asked the media to stop mentioning the nationality of crime perpetrators, because they only do so when the person involved is a foreigner, thus overstating the problem and contributing to discrimination against Venezuelans.

We are also participating, in collaboration with the Colombian government and international cooperation agencies, in the first ‘Entregatón’, a massive permit delivery operation aimed at distributing 40,000 permits in five days. Migración Colombia has sent messages via mobile phone to migrants whose documents are ready, notifying them of the date and place where they can pick them up.

But in addition to handing out the documents, as part of the operation, enrolment and biometric registration services are being provided for those who have not yet completed these stages of the process. People who have already received their permits are also offered vaccination services, access to healthcare providers, registration with the social assistance system, legal support and information on various other issues, from the transportation system to school access to programmes targeted at migrant women.

There is so much work and CSOs are contributing enormously. The government and international cooperation agencies should take us into account not only as sources of diagnoses of migration issues, but also as partners when it comes to jointly implementing public policies arising from those diagnoses.

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

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

COLOMBIA: ‘Lack of regular migration status imposes barriers to accessing rights’

Jessica Corredor Villamil and Lina ArroyaveCIVICUS speaks with Jessica Corredor Villamil and Lina Arroyave about the situation of Venezuelan migrants and refugees in Colombia. Jessica is the director of and Lina a researcher in Dejusticia’s international team.

Dejusticia is a centre for legal and social studies based in Bogotá, Colombia, dedicated to promoting human rights in Colombia and the global south. It promotes social change through action-research, developing public policy proposals, advocacy campaigns and strategic litigation.

How has Colombia changed its legal framework to accommodate Venezuelan migration?

There are currently three ways in which Venezuelan nationals can obtain the status that allows them to stay in Colombia for extended periods: visas, refugee status and the Temporary Protection Status for Venezuelan Migrants (ETPMV).

The ETPMV was established in 2021 to address the situation of mass migration from Venezuela. It has two main objectives: to identify the Venezuelan migrant population and regularise their migratory situation. To this end, two mechanisms are envisaged. The first is the Single Registry of Venezuelan Migrants, which collects personal and socio-economic data of those who register, administered by Migración Colombia, the authority in charge of migration control and surveillance. The second is the Temporary Protection Permit, which authorises its holders to stay in Colombia for 10 years and allows them to access the health, social security, education and financial systems, validate their diplomas, work and leave and re-enter the country.

Those in Colombia who have regular status, who have requested refuge but have not yet received a response, who entered the country irregularly before 31 January 2021, who have entered the country regularly after May 2021, or do so before late May 2023 are all eligible for temporary protected status. After that cut-off date, it will only be available to children and adolescents.

Even so, people are not guaranteed temporary protected status if they meet all the requirements, since it is granted at the discretion of Migración Colombia.

How has the ETPMV system worked during its first year?

The process has taken longer than expected, falling short of the goal set by the previous government of delivering 1.8 million identification documents by 2022.

According to data from Migración Colombia, as of November 2022 about 2.5 million people have entered their data in the Single Registry for Venezuelan Migrants and 1.6 million permits have been approved.

This gap is worrying because lack of regular migration status imposes barriers to accessing fundamental rights and hinders the socio-economic integration of migrants.

In addition, many people did not register because they were unable to regularise their migration status. The ETPMV was only available to those in an irregular situation who had entered Colombia before 31 January 2021. This time limitation ignores the fact that irregular migration continues, largely because of the impossibility of obtaining official documents in Venezuela. Irregular status is assumed to be the result of individual decisions, when it is usually results from the impossibility of complying with the requirements imposed.

What integration barriers do Venezuelan migrants face in Colombia?

In a recent report we identified multiple barriers to accessing and remaining in the formal labour market, as well as for setting up a business.

The main legal barrier is lack of regular migration status. The thousands of people who continue to enter Colombia through informal border crossings are denied access to temporary protected status. This has an impact on both formalising their employment and access to entrepreneurship support funds, particularly from the state, but also from the private sector. A majority of self-employed migrant workers work in the informal sector.

Widespread ignorance among employers of migration legislation imposes additional barriers. For instance, many are unaware that the validation of university degrees is only required for professions that involve high social risk, such as medicine, or that are regulated by the state, such as architecture or law, for which all applicants must follow a process to validate their diplomas and have professional cards issued. This procedure requires an official certificate that must be obtained in Venezuela, and those who are already in Colombia face immense difficulties in securing this.

There are also social and cultural factors that can affect the employment situation. Negative perceptions of the Venezuelan migrant population affect recruitment processes. Xenophobia and discrimination deepen in situations of insecurity, although there is no evidence of links between migration and increased crime.

Lack of social capital – such as well-placed contacts and job references – is also a problem for migrants.

Additional obstacles make it difficult for migrant workers to remain in the formal economy. For example, many banks refuse to open savings accounts for Venezuelan migrants. They not only require them to prove their regular migration status but also demand an up-to-date passport, which they usually don’t have. Similar challenges come with some health insurers, pension funds and occupational risk insurance companies.

As a result, to earn an income many migrants are forced into precarious jobs and exploitative working conditions, including extremely long working hours, sub-minimum wages, mistreatment and changes in agreed working conditions. In 2019, the average monthly income of a Venezuelan migrant was less than the legal minimum wage, and the wage gap compared to Colombian nationals was more than 30 percentage points.

What is Dejusticia doing to promote migrants’ rights?

As a civil society organisation, we carry out research on migrants’ access to rights that we use to influence decision-making processes on migration policy and formulate public policy recommendations. In the research process leading to our report on the labour inclusion of Venezuelan migrants, for example, we organised an event to which we invited various stakeholders, including government agencies, to work on recommendations. Also, when a new government took office in August 2022, we produced a series of recommendations, in partnership with other organisations.

We also develop strategic litigation and communications campaigns, and work with other organisations, both nationally, regionally and in other regions of the global south, to address the migration phenomenon from a broader perspective.

What support from the international community do organisations defending the rights of migrants in Colombia need?

It is important for the international community to shed visibility on and support the processes that are taking place in relation to the rights of Venezuelan migrants. But it is also very important that the support of the international community covers other migratory flows and takes into account the problems happening on the Colombia-Panama border, crossed by migrants of various nationalities trying to head towards the USA.

It is also important for the international community to remind the Colombian government of the commitments it has made by ratifying treaties and adopting international standards on migration and refugees.

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

Get in touch with Dejusticia through its website or Facebook page and follow @DeJusticia and @JessCorredorV on Twitter.

MEXICO: ‘Legal change on LGBTQI+ rights does not bring instant social change’

Erika VenaderoCIVICUS speaks with Erika Venadero about the recent extension of same-sex marriage rights to all of Mexico’s states and the ongoing campaign to realise LGBTQI+ rights in Mexico. Erika is a sexual diversity human rights activist in the state of Jalisco and a member of the National Network of Diverse Youth (RNJD), a coalition of LGBTQI+ youth rights groups from across Mexico.

What work does RNJD do?

RNJD is a space that was born out of the 2019 Consultative Youth Parliament, where a Youth Law was discussed.

As young people we had no legal recognition. We had never been considered as subjects of rights. The people in charge of making the laws and dictating the rules according to which we should lead our lives are adults, even quite old adults, and mostly men. Not surprisingly, they do not understand and prioritise our interests and needs, and instead legislate for adults, and especially for adult men. Hence the need to demand that we be recognised as young people and, above all, as diverse young people.

Only recently has our network become formalised as a civil association. We are only three years old. Nevertheless, we have engaged in the recent process to legalise same-sex marriage.

While most of us don’t wish to enter into a civil union, proving our relationship to a public official with signatures and other formalities, we know there are people who wish to have this experience, and exclusion from this right is accompanied by many other forms of exclusions Even if we don’t want this, or don’t want it at this point in our lives, we know that other LGBTQI+ people do, and that the denial of this right is part of what makes LGBTQI+ people second-class citizens.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage like, and what role did civil society play in it?

The struggle for the recognition of the symbolic union between two people who love each other – simply two people, as the current law puts it, without any gender markers – began many years ago, and progressed thanks to the work of individuals and groups who pushed to extend this right to all people.

LGBTQI+ people are treated as second-class citizens simply because we do not comply with socially established norms that privilege heterosexual relationships. Laws are written and implemented, and all political and social spaces are created, occupied and run by heterosexual people. So this struggle began with a reflection about our lack of representation and visibility in various spaces: personal, political, social and work-related, among others. We have the right to live a full life, but the hegemonic practices that are imposed on us prevent us from living a free life due to the simple fact that we are who we are and love who we love.

The legalisation of equal marriage in Mexico has been a victory for civil society, and specifically for LGBTQI+ collectives and their allies working with LGBTQI+ people day in and day out. Through their daily work on the streets and in every space, they shifted opinions and reached agreements for the recognition of our rights to be taken forward to the political level of decision making.

That is why RNJD has been present throughout the process, from the early drafts of the law to parliamentary debates and votes. These are debates that can go on for a long time. As they deal with ‘sensitive’ issues, some political sectors will try to postpone votes indefinitely in the hope that the issue will fade into oblivion. That is why it was important for RNJD to stand firm to demand these bills be discussed and voted on. We will continue to stand firm for the laws to be implemented.

Have you faced anti-rights campaigns or any other form of backlash?

Every time LGBTQI+-related news comes out, the response is an avalanche of diversophobic comments. Our very nature makes some people uncomfortable. All our lives we have been forced to live under heterosexual norms, so we have faced anti-rights expressions for as long as we can remember.

During the recent process to change the law we have faced an intense anti-rights campaign. Not only do anti-rights groups insult and attack us, they also denounce our publications on social media and have sometimes managed to have them removed. We activists suffer constant personal attacks and our social media accounts are frequently blocked. In my case, for instance, an anti-rights group once attacked me so much and reported my profile so many times that Facebook took it down. It’s really hard to understand what it is that bothers them so much.

Lots of people express hatred towards us. Many keep close watch of everything we do and every single thing we upload, both on the RNJD page and on our personal accounts.

Clearly people already know who we are and what we do. The network is extremely active and visible in social, political and cultural spheres. We have had very tense internal discussions about the double-edge sword of visibility. Our work has made us visible to both those who hate us and those who are willing to get information, learn about our work, understand what we are about and eventually support us. I prefer to focus on those who come to us for information rather than those who throw their hatred at us.

To confront anti-rights movements and hate speech, our strategy is to generate alternative narratives. We even use humour to disarm their arguments. For instance, we suggest that they love the traditional heterosexual family so much that they feel like having two of those – a reference to infidelities and what is colloquially known in Mexico as the ‘big house’ and the ‘small house’. These response mechanisms have helped us provoke dialogue.

What are the next steps after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Jalisco?

The idea that equal marriage is now legal in all Mexican states and LGBTQI+ people can marry just about everywhere is simply not true.

Although the bill has been voted into law in Jalisco, the civil registry manual continues to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. As long as local legislators do not change this, many civil registry officials will continue to resort to this text to deny LGBTQI+ people access to equal marriage.

In addition, several Mexican states have passed and implemented equal marriage laws years ago, despite which many obstacles still remain. Legal change does not bring instant social change. Hence the importance of continuing to focus on cultural change. Laws can change very quickly, and they do change overnight, but culture does not, and we must not forget that those who manage civil registries are people who have been socialised in a certain culture. Even if they are public servants and must apply the rules emanating from the state, they may also have particular religious or moral convictions. Changing these takes time. The process of cultural change is extremely slow, but we need it to happen to unlock all the locks.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Mexico, and what else needs to change?

LGBTQI+ people in Mexico face many, many challenges, largely as a product of overlapping vulnerabilities and inequalities. For example, the same issues that affect women in general also affect LGBTQI+ women: the fact that we are lesbian, bisexual or transgender does not mean that we are not women and cannot become pregnant. But in most of Mexico it is still not legal to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, despite what the Supreme Court has said about it.

Another huge problem in Mexico is that of enforced disappearances. Jalisco, my state, is one of the states with the highest numbers of disappeared people – and LGBTQI+ people are among the disappeared.

Another pending issue is the Care Act, currently blocked in Congress. LGBTQI+ people need safe spaces to inhabit, grow up and grow old. All our research, all our statistics indicate that LGBTQI+ people in Mexico are alone and largely unsupported.

A specific problem for LGBTQI+ people is so-called ‘conversion therapies’. These consist of inhumane and degrading acts aimed at suppressing diverse sexual orientation, that is, aimed at eliminating our true selves. I have personally experienced ‘corrective rape’. My aggressors, people who claimed to be followers of the word of God, told me that they were ‘making me a woman’.

Centres offering ‘conversion therapy’ operate throughout Mexico and do so legally. Legislation is currently being discussed at the national level to put an end to these therapies, but in the meantime these places continue to operate. In Jalisco, the centres that carry out these practices only need to register and pay a monthly fee. A simple formality and payment enables them to commit countless atrocities.

Another pending issue is that of the recognition of gender identity, especially regarding children. Several states have laws granting trans people legal recognition of their self-perceived identity, but many more have not yet started moving in that direction.

As much as we continue to fight and mobilise, we may not see all these changes materialise, in which case we will have done it for the generations coming after us. We are creating spaces for the future in the same way that others did for us since the 1980s. We will make sure that things keep moving forward.

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

Get in touch with the National Network of Diverse Youth through its Facebook page and follow @RNJF20 and @kika_venadero on Twitter.

UK: ‘Women in ethnic minority communities are often treated like second-class citizens’

Halaleh TaheriAs part of the #16DaysOfActivism campaign, CIVICUS speaks about gender-based violence and civil society efforts to eradicate it with Halaleh Taheri, founder and Executive Director of the Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation (MEWSo).

Founded in 2010, MEWSo is a London-based civil society organisation (CSO) run by and for women from ethnic minority communities of mostly Middle Eastern, North African and Asian backgrounds.

The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day.

What work does MEWSo do?

MEWSo was founded with the aim of supporting women, especially those displaced from the Middle East, Asia and North Africa, in London. We help women who are vulnerable and have no access to resources that will help them. Our services include advice and support on issues of domestic abuse and violence. We offer women assistance to navigate court procedures and help them seek refuge. Over the past few years we have worked a lot with migrant women because their situation is very hard. When they are faced with domestic violence and want to leave their homes, we support them emotionally, with accommodation and with their status with Home Office.

We also offer free workshops to help improve women’s skills and empower them. We bring in specialists to give talks about mental and physical wellbeing so women can gain the confidence to leave the abusive spaces they find themselves in. Every year we tackle about 300 cases of domestic violence. We have five advisors working in different languages to accommodate those who struggle with English.

We have created three campaigns. One is Polygamy Matters, which we run jointly with Greenwich University. It is aimed at empowering women to be independent. Another one is End Virginity Myth. We first formed a coalition against virginity testing; now both virginity testing and hymenoplasty have been banned, but the reality is that communities still continue practising it, so the campaign continues.

A third campaign focused on the rights of LGBTQI+ people. LGBTQI+ issues are a big taboo in our communities and people suffer a lot of abuse from their families and community members. We have a range of projects to support them and ensure that they remain safe in their communities and live the life they deserve.

Finally, we are part of two coalitions, Solidarity Knows No Borders Network and Step Up Migrant Women, advocating for the rights of migrant women and providing protection to those in abusive situations.

What challenges have you faced in your work?

We have faced several challenges. One of them is that in our communities the government has for years left people in the hands of community leaders. These leaders do not have a proper connection with women and children because they are driven by patriarchal values. They tend to lead people based on the most oppressive traits of their culture and enforce religious practices that exclude women and children. Women are often treated like second-class citizens and find it difficult to exercise their freedom. We have seen women trying to get out of abusive marriages being denied their request by their communities’ leadership. Community leaders should not have that much power over people because they are misusing it.

Because of the nature of our work, community leaders have tried to make it difficult for us to reach certain vulnerable women and girls. They very rarely encounter someone who challenges them and if they see you as a threat, they immediately start making your work difficult. Nonetheless, we have been able to continue doing our work, finding ways to bring safety to women and children.

Another challenge is that some of the women we help end up going back to their abusive partners because they are under pressure or have been abandoned by family and community. Sometimes there is no support with accommodation available and they worry they may end up in the street. Despite all our efforts, loyalty to family and fear of punishment makes them want to stay in abusive relationships. When faced with these situations, we continue creating spaces so that women can gradually gain the confidence to be free.

Finally, we don’t have enough access to resources to help us carry out our work. Unfortunately, we can only offer limited support to women seeking safety.

What are you doing for the #16DaysOfActivism campaign?

This year, our efforts to raise awareness about women’s rights are focused on showing solidarity to the women’s liberation movement in Iran. Over the past two months Iranian women have spoken up and protested against the oppression they face, sacrificing their life for freedom. I am originally a Kurdish freedom fighter from the 1979 revolution in Iran. I have lived four decades in exile and rebuilt my life in different countries. I am passionate about and active in the women’s liberation movement, following all the news and analysis of the recent uprising in Iran. For this reason, we have organised an international event, Raise Your Voice International Women's Conference, that will be held on 28 November and will feature speakers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Palestine, where women face similar issues as a result of religious restrictions.

What should the international community do to contribute to eradicating gender-based violence?

Countless women around the world are being discriminated against socially, economically and politically. Cases of abuse and femicide are on the rise and there are few mechanisms in place to stop them. Unaddressed issues range from forced marriage and female genital mutilation to unemployment and lack of health and educational resources.

We cannot stand it anymore; we need governments and international bodies to take action. The United Nations has many member states who are mistreating their citizens. These states attend meetings and are given a global platform although they are doing a miserable job at home. They shouldn’t have such privileges when they are torturing and executing women.

The protests in Iran and the actions of resistance in Afghanistan and elsewhere are showing that people, and specifically women, are taking charge and fighting for their freedom. Women in many places are connected because they carry the same pain and so it is only natural for them to unite to fight against their common oppressor. Women’s liberation movements are making it globally known that freedom is women’s natural right and they are willing to claim it. They are fed up with the empty promises that governments and international bodies have repeatedly made to fight against gender-based violence. This year cannot be one of further promises – it has to be one of action.

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

Get in touch with MEWSo through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @MewsOrg on Twitter.

MALAYSIA: ‘Young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers

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CIVICUS speaks with Tharma Pillai, co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18.

A youth civil society organisation (CSO) born out of the student movement, Undi18 successfully advocated for the amendment of article 119(1) of Malaysia’s Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age, allowing people over 18 to vote in the 19 November 2022 election.

How did Undi18 start and what was your objective?

In 2016, my co-founder and I were both studying in the USA and that year’s election inspired us. I came from a sciences and technology background, where most people don’t really care about these things. But seeing democracy in action and our US classmates engage with the electoral process made us reflect on our inability to vote in our home country, Malaysia. It was quite interesting that because they had the right to vote, they felt the responsibility of helping choose the best possible leader for their country.

We started thinking of ways to replicate these practices and bring this kind of energy into Malaysian university campuses. It was only natural for us to focus on the right to vote because voting age in Malaysia was 21, which meant that a high proportion of college students were ineligible to vote. This did not happen in the USA, where the minimum voting age is 18. By 2016, some of our US classmates were voting for the second time in their lives, while I had never yet had the chance. We thought that would have to change 

When we did our research, we realised that our demand was not radical at all, and in fact it was long overdue. We were one of only eight countries in the entire world with a minimum voting age as high as 21. We launched Undi18 – which means ‘Vote18’ – as soon as we came back to Malaysia. Our single focus was on the amendment of article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.

What tactics did you use to campaign for change?

To make sure we had a stronger voice, in the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.

At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story. We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings.

Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.

In addition to the digital campaign, we started off a petition and a memorandum to the prime minister. Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation. But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.

How did you engage with the parliamentary process?

As soon as the new government was inaugurated, we tried to convince them to introduce an amendment bill, but there were challenges. No constitutional amendment had ever been passed in Malaysia by a government without a parliamentary supermajority of two thirds, and this new government only had a simple majority. It took a year for the government to finally greenlight the

But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.

Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.

Were there any implementation challenges?

There were postponements and delays. The agreement with the opposition was that the law would be implemented within two years. The two-year timeline was unusual, but necessary due to the technical difficulties entailed by the new automatic voter registration system.

Repeated promises were made that this would be done by July 2021.But another change of government slowed things down, as the new government thought young voters would vote against it. In March 2021, it announced implementation would be postponed until September 2022 at the earliest, but it didn’t provide a clear date.

We campaigned against this postponement and held protests across Malaysia, which grew to include larger issues fuelling public anger, including the economic situation, the shutdown of parliament and the poor management of the COVID-19 health crisis. We also sued the government. We filed a judicial review against the prime minister, the Election Commission and the government of Malaysia for postponing the implementation of the UNDI18 Bill beyond the due date. The High Court decided in our favour and ordered the federal government to implement the bill by 31 December 2021. Due to public pressure that was sustained thanks to the protests, the government decided against appealing the verdict and complied. As a result, the bill was finally implemented on 15 December 2021, and when the updated voter rolls were published one month later an additional 5.8 million voters had been included in the system and 18-year-olds could officially vote in the next election.

What were the main elements of the amendment?

The amendment had three components. First, it lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Second, it also lowered the minimum running age to 18, meaning you could become an elected member of parliament at that age. And third, it established automatic voter registration for anyone turning 18.

The 2022 elections were the first in which people between 18 and 21 cast their ballots. An additional 5.8 million new voters were added to the electoral roll issued in January 2022. Malaysia being a country of 33 million, this was quite a number.

In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world – a 93-year-old man. Now for the first time, young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers. This is why youth turnout is a key element to watch when analysing the results of this election.

Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.

What more needs to be done to make policymaking more inclusive of younger people?

I think Malaysia needs political rejuvenation, and that can be done through education. Our society gives too much power to older people, who of course don’t want to let go of it, whether it’s in government, civil society, politics, or business. To change things, you must train young leaders – but nobody is doing this kind of work. At Undi18 we are doing our best to fill that gap so that young people can take up the space, gain power and get ready to be the country’s next leaders.

We strongly believe that informed voters are integral to democratic success, so we have been working with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to advance educational programmes to address this issue systemically. We want educational curricula to emphasise democracy so the democratisation process beginsin schools. Some topics such as constitutional rights, human rights and the functions of the parliament are already in the syllabus, but they’re not emphasised enough.

We also have our own programmes. We run outreach campaigns on social media platforms. We are quite active there as most of our target audience is there. We also run outreach programmes in schools and universities to educate students about their rights. And we have corporate, civil society, government and international partners to ensure we reach as many people as possible.

Civic space in Malaysia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Undi18 through its website and follow @UNDI18MY and @TharmaPillai on Twitter.

NAMIBIA: ‘There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies’

Screenshot 20221125 152931CIVICUS speaks with Rinaani Musutua of the Economic and Social Justice Trust (ESJT) about thee resistance of communities in the Okavango River Basin in Southern Africa against oil and gas exploration by the Canadian company ReconAfrica.

Founded in 2012, ESJT is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes social and economicr ights in Namibia and has been part of the coalition mobilising against ReconAfrica’s extractivep roject.

What are your concerns regarding ReconAfrica’s operations in the Okavango River Basin?

The Okavango River Basin, known in Namibia as the Kavango, flows from Angola through northern Namibia and empties out into the Okavango Delta in northwest Botswana. We first heard that ReconAfrica, an oil and gas company headquartered in Canada, had a petroleum exploration licence there in 2020. We were never informed when it sought and obtained its exploration licence and environmental clearance certificate. We looked it up and found it strange that the company received its environmental clearance certificate on a public holiday in Namibia. This makes us wonder who authorised its operations.

Communities in the Kavango region have never been consulted by ReconAfrica. This is worrying because, according to the law, to get to their environmental and clearance certificate companies must first consult with the people who live in the places they wish to operate in. But locals were never informed about the pros and cons of the project and had no idea what the project was about. Only recently did ReconAfrica hold one meeting with community members, after we complained. But even after this meeting, community members were confused about the project because the information provided wasn’t detailed or clear enough.

ReconAfrica decided to apply for land rights after civil society activists and organisations started questioning its legitimacy to operate and occupy land in the region. Prior to this it claimed to have received permission from traditional chiefs, but when media and activists approached them, the chiefs denied it. As it stands, the company is illegally occupying communal land and should be charged for it, but the government doesn’t seem to care.

How will local communities be affected if the project goes ahead?

The Kavango region is home to many communities, including the Indigenous San, who make their living from farming and fishing, and many more that rely on the water that flows from the Okavango Delta. ReconAfrica’s activities threatens the habitat of several wildlife species and could potentially contaminate the water people and animals depend on.

ReconAfrica has been drilling very close to the Omatako River, which is ephemeral due to the low average annual rainfall. It looks like there is not activity, but scientists have confirmed there is activity underneath the river.

When the company was conducting its seismic surveys, many local communities complained that their homes and croplands were damaged due to negligence by drivers. When people complained, ReconAfrica used local people to manipulate community members into signing papers without explaining the content. It was later found that the signed papers gave the company the right to pass through their crops and because of this those affected haven’t been compensated for their loss.

Unfortunately, works continue because our government supports the company. There is only so much civil society can do when those in power support extractive companies at the expense of local communities. 

How is civil society mobilising against oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Kavango region?

As civil society we have held public meetings to inform people about the potential danger of this project. ESJT teamed up with other Namibian CSOs to petition the government to halt ReconAfrica’s activities immediately. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources Parliamentary Standing Committee on Natural Resources conducted an investigation but didn’t do such a good job because it failed to go to affected areas. Most of its meetings were held in town and people from the affected areas weren’t able to attend because they don’t have resources to travel to town.

We have also written a lot of newspaper articles highlighting the dangers of ReconAfrica’s activity.

Since we are not able hold public meetings all over Namibia, we are hopeful that these articles will reach people so they can stay informed.

Together with other local and international CSOs we have released a joint statement calling on the Namibian government to examine the oil and gas exploration activities taking place in the Kavango region. We have also complained about ReconAfrica to the Canadian authorities authorities, who started investigating the company. What was disappointing, however, is that it did not investigate ReconAfrica’s environmental and human rights violations in the Kavango region, but only its potentially fraudulent stock market business.

Unfortunately, it seems like our demands are falling on deaf ears. People have accused us of being against development. This makes it difficult for us to unite against ReconAfrica and the government, because they know we don’t have everyone’s full support.

What kind of support from international civil society and the wider international community would help the movement?

Fortunately, international organisations such as Re:wild have expressed support for our fight and brought awareness to what is going on in the Kavango region. Prince Harry Harry has also shown support for our fight against ReconAfrica and its activities.

But beyond international support, we still need people in the Kavango region to also stand up and speak against this project. Right now, most people organising the resistance are based in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. People in the Kavango region should mobilise so the government can see this is an urgent matter that affects them. We need resources to continue delivering workshops to inform people about the dangers of this project. Our work is limited because we aren’t adequately equipped.

Get in touch with Economic and Social Justice Trust through its website or its Facebook page,and follow @esjtnam on Twitter.

CIVIL SOCIETY: ‘Music can be an entry point because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you’

Darcy AtamanCIVICUS speaks with Darcy Ataman, founder and CEO of Make Music Matter, a civil society organisation based in Canada that uses the creative process as a therapeutic tool to help empower excluded groups and people.

Music isn’t necessarily the first thing people associate with civil society work. How do you use music as part of your work?

We use music for two main purposes. One is the healing of trauma, and particularly of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. The second is to create opportunities or vectors for advocacy. We do all this through our Healing in Harmony music therapy programme.

We work with groups, usually of 10 to 25 people. Working as a group brings safety, especially when you’re in the creative process of singing and writing. But we don’t work with groups so large that participation gets diluted and ceases to be effective.

We always recruit participants through local partnerships. All operational staff are local and Indigenous, wherever we work. And programmes are set up to fit into a larger care model. For example, our flagship site is at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Patients come to us from the hospital: women who come in for surgery get their physical healing and then get referred to us for mental, psychological and spiritual healing before going back to their villages.

In eastern DRC there are lots of survivors of sexual violence, due to way sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war there. But trauma can come in a multitude of ways and our results are always the same.

What we do is build little recording studios wherever we operate and insert our programme into a larger holistic care model. People come in twice a week. They work for about an hour with a local music producer in tandem with a local therapist.

It’s a four-month cycle: for the first three months they go through the creative process of writing and recording an album, just like any other artist. While that is happening, we interject cognitive behavioural therapy in a way that’s not particularly noticeable.

So people don’t come in thinking they are coming for a therapy appointment, which has a lot of stigma; they come in to do art in a fun setting.

That is why our attrition rates are almost nil. We’ve had at least 11,000 people go through the programme globally and you could count with one hand the amount of people who didn’t finish – and that was typically because they got a good economic opportunity.

We analyse the music that comes out of this process. A lot of experiences people have gone through are so overwhelming that talking about them directly would retraumatise and retrigger the brain. But through lyric writing and metaphor and music, it gets out of people’s heads in a way that doesn’t cause retraumatisation. And once it’s out of their head and articulated in one form or another, we can set a treatment pathway.

How did you get started?

Our origins were organic. While I have a psychology degree, professionally I started as a music producer. In 2009 I was in Rwanda for five weeks filming a documentary and recording an album. We had one day off and decided to give local kids a fun day of recording, so we took some equipment to this little school in a village three hours away in the hillsides. When we got there, we learned the entire village had been waiting for us for hours. The schoolroom was packed. There were kids literally crawling through the windows trying to get in. These were kids 12 to 15 or 16 years old, dressed in homemade hip-hop outfits. They knew the lyrics of all the latest rap songs, even though they didn’t have electricity at home.

They handed us the lyrics of the songs they had written for us to record, and it was all very heavy subject matter: about HIV/AIDS and what it does to communities, about they not wanting to sell their bodies to live another day, about their desire to go to school. There was not one frivolous song in there. We had given them no direction. We didn’t tell them what to write. This was simply what was on their minds, and we realised that for them music was an acceptable way to talk about taboo issues they couldn’t normally talk about.

I had the realisation that something special was happening and thought this was what I, as a professional producer, could do to help. And it was something that nobody else was doing.

How effective is the programme, and what do you think explains this?

We monitor and evaluate our programme very closely. We quantify everything. We analyse our impact on variables from school enrolment and permanence to adherence to drug recovery programmes. A year or two ago our first peer-reviewed study was published. It was terrifying, because we couldn’t ethically keep going if we found we were not achieving results. But the results showed that this was very much like a magic pill: it really worked better than anything else.

I think effectiveness lies in the programme’s insertion into a larger model. We want to be the last missing psychosocial piece. We don’t want to set people up for failure. For instance, we have another site in rural DRC that started in 2016 and even though we had the funding – we even constructed our own buildings for the studio – we paused and waited until our partners’ microfinancing programme was operational because we didn’t want to heal people psychologically, pump them up and then have them fail due to lack of opportunity to be financially independent. So we have these checklists we do before we start operating.

Our outcome is the healing, and our output is the music. We lead with music: it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s our passion. But behind the scenes is a very serious therapeutic intervention. We use music almost as a trick that attracts people and retains them. And in the meantime, we do other things, so at the end of each four-month cycle there’s an album done by this group.

The music they help create with the local producer comes back to us for mixing and mastering. We have a team of about 100 engineers from all over the world who do this as volunteers. And the music gets sent back to the community and disseminated in whatever ways the local community consumes music, be it AM radio, MP3 players or CDs. We also release the music globally on digital platforms.

People own the rights to all their music so they can get royalties. And it helps in terms of advocacy because this is how they tell their stories directly to the world. This gives power back to people on the ground and also helps rebuild their sense of self-worth. The final piece of that four-month cycle is a community concert where they perform the songs they have written.

For participants, it is a sort of symbolic graduation, and it also brings communities back together. Survivors of sexual violence who’ve been stigmatised or kicked out of their homes or villages now go on stage in front of a lot of people – we easily get over 1,000 people per show. They sing a song they wrote about their story. Shame is gone, agency is back. Owning your story changes the way the community sees you. I’ve seen husbands who kicked their wives out ask them back and wives say no and laugh at them. I’ve seen mothers of children born of rape start to take care of them for their first time, breaking the cycle.

Do you work exclusively in places where there’s collective trauma from war? Is your focus on violence against women, or do you also work with other target groups?

Our data demonstrates that our results are equal across the board, no matter what culture or context or reasons for trauma. We have six sites in the DRC, but we also work in Guinea, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa, Turkey and Uganda, and we’re just starting to work in Canada.

The idea started in Rwanda, where we worked with the trauma caused by HIV/AIDS, orphaned children and obviously the genocide. Our work took off in the DRC, where participants were primarily survivors of sexual violence, but also with former child soldiers and former sex slaves. In Peru we work with Venezuelan refugees, mostly young kids. In Turkey we work with Syrian refugees who not only have mental trauma from the war but also have physical injuries and disabilities on top of the stigma of being refugees. And in Canada we will be working with Indigenous communities; this work involves a lot of generational trauma that gets passed down.

The most decisive criterion is whether the community wants us there. We do not parachute in or force ourselves in. We start with community sensitisation aimed at the community taking ownership. We wait for them to ask us to come in, otherwise it just doesn’t work. There needs to be community ownership, because if it is just about the funding or the opportunities you are bringing to an impoverished community, on the first bad day you are going to lose them.

One of our sites in rural DRC is literally triangulated by three rebel groups. Sadly, this village gets attacked regularly. But we’ve been there since 2016 and haven’t lost a single cable. No one has ever touched the studio. In fact, quite miraculously we haven’t lost anything from any of our sites. Community partnerships really work.

Do you have any advice to give to other civil society groups about the value of incorporating art into their work?

Music plays a bigger role than you can imagine, simply because it’s the last thing someone could take away from you. If you’re in an active conflict zone, or you live in extreme poverty, or your community has shunned you, or you are in the hospital after being raped, you may have nothing, but you still have your ability to express yourself through art and music. It doesn’t require any equipment and it doesn’t cost anything: you only need to write some lyrics and a melody in your head to express what you feel.

I’ve spent a lot of time in some awful places, and it may sound silly but it’s true: music is the last thing people hold on to get up in the morning. It’s the one thing people hold on to no matter what. That makes it an entry point to so much work that civil society can do.

When I first started with this idea, I was ignored, I was laughed at, I was told point-blank that this was never going to work. But third-party, peer-reviewed research has proved that this works for healing trauma. It works better than literally anything else on offer. It is always hard when you come up with an original idea, but you should persevere.

Get in touch with Make Music Matter through its website or Facebook page, and follow @mmm_org on Twitter.

CUBA: ‘The only options available are prison, exile, or submission’

Carolina Barrero

CIVICUS speaks with Cuban activist  Carolina Barrero, who has been in exile in Spain since February 2022, about the circumstances driving increasing numbers of Cubans out of the country.

Carolina is an art historian and a member of the 27N movement, formed out of the protests held on 27 November 2020 outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana to denounce lack of freedoms, the repression of dissent and harassment against the San Isidro Movement, a protest group started by artists. She was forced to leave Cuba in reprisal for her activism in support of relatives of political prisoners held since the protests of 11 July 2021, known as 11J.

Why did you leave Cuba?

My story as an activist forced into exile follows the pattern typically used by the state security apparatus to neutralise dissidents. I was told many times that I had to leave or else I would suffer legal consequences and eventually go to jail. I never gave in. I currently have four open cases, for instigation to commit a crime, conspiracy against state security, contempt and clandestine printing. Every single time I was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if I did not stop my activism. I was urged to ‘stay quiet’, a classic euphemism for subdued.

On 31 January 2022, I was arrested at a protest outside the 10 de Octubre Municipal Court in Havana. It was the first day of the trial of a group of 11J protesters. I was with other activists including Alexander Hall, Leonardo Romero Negrín, Daniela Rojo and Tata Poet, accompanying political prisoners’ mothers who were waiting to see their children from a distance when they were brought to court. When that happened, we all applauded and shouted ‘freedom’ and ‘they are heroes’. State security offices violently arrested us, beat us and put us in a cage truck to take us to different police stations.

As happened before, state security told me that I had 48 hours to leave Cuba. But this time I was told that if I didn’t, 12 mothers of political prisoners would be prosecuted for public disorder. At first I thought it was just an empty threat, but they told me, ‘for 20 years we have been doing this to the Ladies in White’, a group who have been mobilising for their detained relatives since 2003. In other words, they were prepared to go all the way.

The Cuban dictatorship knows very well how to put pressure on us using our families and our private lives, because they have us under surveillance and they know everything about us. For instance, they know if your mother has a heart condition so they pay her a visit to force you to stay quiet and not give her a heart attack. If you have committed an infidelity, they threaten to show photos to your partner. If you are at university, they threaten you with expulsion. If you live in rented housing, they pressure your landlords to throw you out. Their tactic is to detect your weakness and blackmail you into submission. At some point you get tired of this life and choose to self-censor.

These threats were not working with me, so they threatened me with infringing on the freedom of third parties. They knew of my close ties with the mothers of imprisoned protesters and particularly with Yudinela Castro and Bárbara Farrat. Most of these mothers live in very precarious situations and cannot denounce the arbitrariness they suffer. Many have more than one child in prison, sometimes also their husbands, so they are quite alone. When they threatened me with criminalising and imprisoning them, I decided this time I had to leave.

How different is the situation of political exiles from that of those emigrating for economic reasons?

In principle, there would seem to be a big difference between exile resulting from the use of systematic repression to punish or neutralise political dissent and emigration motivated by social and economic asphyxiation. However, this classification obscures the ultimate causes of the factors that lead people to leave Cuba.

Under a dictatorship such as Cuba’s, the root reasons why people leave the country are always political. All waves of exile from Cuba, from the 1960s to the present day, have had a political background: repression by the ruling regime. Not only are political freedoms missing, but all the freedoms necessary for people to be able to manage their own destiny. In Cuba people have no agency over any aspect of their public or private lives; all aspects of life are controlled by the Cuban state, which is not merely authoritarian, but totalitarian.

No one flees paradise. No one decides to leave their life, work, career and affections to pursue the ‘American dream’. Although in some cases the forced character of exile seems clearer than in others, at the end of the day every exile from Cuba is a forced exile. We flee to survive and to have the opportunity to just be.

Many Cubans risk their lives at sea or cross jungles with their babies to get to a place where they don’t know the language or the culture, just to be a little freer. In Cuba, if you don’t fit the mould set by the Communist Party, the only authorised party, in power since 1965, you are treated as a potential criminal. Everything is politically determined, from access to education and healthcare to the possibility of earning a living. Economic suffocation also has political causes. So it is misleading to distinguish sharply between political exile and economic migration.

Following the protests of 11 July 2021 and their repression, it became clearer than ever that the only three options available to Cubans are prison, exile, or submission.

Like other Cuban activists in exile, you have conducted international advocacy ever since you left Cuba. Do you think this could prompt the Cuban state to rethink its tactic of offering exit instead of prison?

At the moment, the Cuban state is more concerned about us being inside, lighting the fire of protest, than outside, denouncing repression in international forums. But I think the regime’s calculations are wrong, because those of us who have gone into exile have not forgotten Cuba and are not going to abandon the cause of democracy. And international advocacy plays an important role in our struggle.

This, which may seem innocuous to the regime, is a fundamental part of activism to end the dictatorship because it attacks one of the fundamental pillars that have sustained the regime: the effectiveness of international propaganda. The Cuban state has allocated enormous resources to diplomacy so that every embassy is a propaganda centre that promotes the narrative, the epic and the myth of the Cuban Revolution.

To counter the effect of propaganda on international opinion, now Cuba also has a growing army of ambassadors who have witnessed and been part of the latest cycle of protests and can speak in international forums of what is really happening in Cuba. I firmly believe that, to a large extent, the fall of the dictatorship depends on the fall of the myth. This is an important task for us in exile.

What are the chances of a political transition in Cuba?

I do not dare to make predictions on such a delicate issue, and one so longed for by Cubans for decades. But I am able to highlight one fact: the Cuban regime has never been as weak as it is now. After the mass protests, the regime can no longer hide the extent of the discontent, which it has historically blamed on a few opponents who, according to its narrative, are funded by ‘the empire’. Social discontent is now evident and massive, reaching all corners of the island and all social groups. The dictatorship no longer has the support of the poorest or of those it claims to defend, but only of the military and bureaucratic leadership.

It also has a serious succession problem. Since Miguel Díaz-Canel assumed power after being appointed by Raúl Castro, he has not made a single administrative decision that has earned him praise. Everything has been a disaster and he will be remembered as an incompetent dictator with very little charisma. I think the regime spends 24 hours a day thinking of how to fill this power vacuum, since Díaz-Canel has no credibility whatsoever, even among officials, and even demoralises the repressive apparatus. The problem is that they have no one to replace him with, nor do they know how. They could stage a vote, but the situation is so delicate that they know it could easily get out of hand. They could even stage a self-coup, but this is also a very delicate path that could end up being lethal.

At the current international juncture, Cuba’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes the Cuban dictatorship, the oldest in the western hemisphere, even more difficult to justify in the eyes of international opinion. Justifying Cuba has become a challenge even for those with a marked ideological bias. Added to these factors are the economic, social and humanitarian crises, all of which threaten the regime and its continuity. Faced with the energy crisis and shortages of basic goods, the Cuban foreign minister himself has requested support from the Biden administration, something totally unheard of. The irony is complete: in Cuba there are people in prison accused of ‘mercenaryism’ for having received US support, and now it turns out that the Cuban government itself has become a mercenary by its own definition.

What will happen or not, I dare not predict. I believe that the protests will not be silenced and our voices will continue to be heard. I only hope that the democratic transition will come about through a peaceful process rather than violence.

Beyond overthrowing the dictatorship, the goal – and the challenge – is to build a democracy. For this we will need the support of civil society organisations such as CIVICUS. After six decades of civic and political anaesthesia, in recent years Cuban civil society has awoken and showed that it has the capacity, the will and the determination to move towards democracy. We have an open window of opportunity and, as the Cuban writer José Lezama Lima would say, we have the power for change.

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

Contact Carolina Barrero through her Instagram page and follow @carolinabferrer on Twitter.

Photo credit: Fernando Fraguela


QATAR: ‘Labour reforms need to continue after the World Cup is over’

Vani SaraswathiCIVICUS speaks about the World Cup in Qatar with Vani Saraswathi, editor-at-large and director of projects at and the author of Stories of Origin: The Invisible Lives of Migrants in the Gulf. is a Gulf-based civil society organisation that works to advance the rights of migrant workers in Gulf countries. It documents migrant narratives and promotes local discussion and campaigns to bring changes in policies, practices and attitudes towards migrant workers.

What human rights violations have you documented in construction works for the 2022 Qatar World Cup?

The economy of Qatar is heavily dependent on migrant workers, who make up over 93 per cent of the labour market. The construction sector is even more heavily dependent on migrant labour, and due to the nature of the work exploitation and rights violations are much more visible than in other sectors. This also happens in the hospitality sector, domestic work and fishing and agriculture, but tends to be more hidden.

Since 2000, Qatars population has grown very fast, from 700,000 people in 1999 to 1.7 million in 2010 to close to three million now. The infrastructure and the services needed to host such a large population have not kept pace: people were being recruited quickly, but support systems were not built fast enough.

Rights violations have shifted over the years from poor accommodation to crowded accommodation to rampant wage theft. As the scale of construction operations grew, corporations resorted to subcontracting, with worker recruitment, safety and welfare left in the hands of subcontractors and no effective legal mechanism for oversight, which enabled corruption.

Unfortunately, the narrative on corruption around worker recruitment focuses on origin countries because for one of the richest countries in the world it is easier to blame poorer countries than take responsibility for the problem. The fact that many of the kickbacks are filling the pockets of procurement officers and businesspeople in destination countries is overlooked.

This is the environment in which abuse takes place. Workers are entering the country already in debt and often do not receive the salary they were promised.

Certain steps have been taken to fix this issue. The Qatar Visa Centre, for instance, takes care of the last mile of recruitment so workers sign their contract and undergo medical testing before they come. Fees are also being paid in Qatar. But the bulk of the exploitation happens on the job, when people are not paid what they were promised, or they are made to work overtime with no extra pay. This is not being properly addressed.

Migrant workersmain concern is to be able to send money home, and as long as they get their money they are often willing to tolerate many abuses: social isolation, cultural exclusion, terrible living conditions and lack of access to justice. These issues are ongoing.

On other issues, such as workplace safety and heat stress, Qatar has been working on upping standards. There is still a lot to be done, but in the context of the Gulf, summer midday work bans and heat stress regulations are a big step forward. But it is not sufficient.

A pending issue is health deterioration. Most construction workers are recruited when they are in their early 20s and usually undergo stringent medical tests to ensure they are in best health. But their health deteriorates quickly post-arrival. Due to the inhospitable and unhygienic living and working conditions, they often develop various comorbidities including high blood glucose levels and hypertension. There are also several cases of unexplained deaths of previously healthy, young men, but their deaths are attributed to natural causes or cardiac arrests, and Qatar has failed to investigate the real causes. In contrast to those who have accidents, whose injuries are assessed and who may get a disability allowance or insurance, those developing severe health conditions receive no compensation. Instead, they suffer the consequences when their productivity diminishes, and the burden is passed on to their families and origin countries.

Do you think recent labour reforms will have a positive effect?

One of the main reforms has been the removal of the requirement for foreign workers to apply for an exit permit to leave Qatar. The other Gulf countries, except for Saudi Arabia, had already done the same, allowing for some freedom of movement.

Another important change has been the removal of the requirement of a no objection certificate. This means that all workers, including domestic workers, are allowed to change jobs at any point in their labour contract. This measure triggered a lot of pushback.

A new online system was set up that allowed people to search and apply for jobs. It initially went well, but employers started pushing back when they saw the prospects of an exodus and feared losing control of their workers. The Shura Council, the legislative body, also weighed in, following which Qatar introduced a new requirement: to go through the online process to change jobs, workers must submit a resignation letter stamped by their employer. This became a de facto no objection certificate. There are strong power dynamics at play. For instance, there have been cases of workers getting approval to change jobs after not having been paid for months, changing jobs and then having their authorisation withdrawn and made to go back.

A non-discriminatory minimum wage has also been introduced. Although pretty low, it is still a minimum wage. The basic monthly salary amounts to approximately US$275, or around US$500 if the company does not provide accommodation and food. It is not much in a country with a per capita GDP of above US$60,000, and hence applies only to low-income migrants from Asia and Africa.

Additionally, across Gulf countries there is a system in place for all workers to be paid electronically. Its aimed at preventing non-payment but has repeatedly failed to do so. The system should spot non-payment cases early on, rectify them and hold the employer accountable, but it does not. Non-payment cases typically arise when workers who havent been paid for several months file a complaint. Setting aside the problem of domestic workers, a persistent problem of non-payment results from smaller companies at the bottom of the supply chain being unable to pay if they are not paid on time by their client.

The government of Qatar also set up a work insurance fund to protect workers when employers fail to pay them. When a workers complaint is resolved by either a court or the dispute settlements committee, a mechanism that handles workerscomplaints, the fund must pay. There are certain criteria to qualify and there is a cap on how much a worker can receive that is lower than what most of them are owed. It doesn’t match the scale of abuse that happens, but its still something.

Finally, management-worker joint committees have been allowed within companies. This was presented as either a step towards allowing unionisation, or a substitute for it. But the power dynamics are so skewed there is very little scope for collective bargaining, and they do not remotely resemble unions, even if the joint committees have elected representatives.

What role has civil society played in raising awareness of these and other rights violations?

A transnational advocacy network comprising mostly trade unions and international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch was activated following Qatars designation as host of the 2022 World Cup.

The World Cup was a good entry point as it forced Qatar to allow for investigations. The network obtained access and produced reports. A lot of international journalists came in. This is something we must recognise, because other countries that held big events, such as the Dubai Expo or the Formula One race in Bahrain, didn’t allow this kind of scrutiny.

But Qatar hasnt always managed the attention well and sometimes got too defensive or complained that its efforts to open up and allow criticism were underappreciated. But while the government engaged with foreign or international trade unions speaking on behalf of Asian and African workers, it never allowed criticism to be voiced internally and never allowed those workers to organise. The same goes for civil society.

At the local level there are charitable institutions but there is not a rights-oriented civil society. The closest there is to this are organisations such as, working regionally. To nurture civil society, space would need to exist to speak about womens rights, LGBTQI+ rights, citizenship rights and many other issues people are grappling with but cannot currently express. But the government knows this is a Pandoras box. The most it will do is selectively open up some space for issues that are less threatening, such as the situation of migrants, as long as local activism around it remains suppressed.

The situation is different from what happens in Bahrain and Kuwait, where despite harsh oppression, there are still independent voices rising and fighting back. People are being jailed or forced into exile but there is still a civil society vibrancy that doesn’t exist in the open in Qatar. It is probably present behind closed doors and in smaller spaces. People are talking about these issues, but they are not speaking aloud. Qatar, however, recently held its first elections for the Shura Council, so things may be about to change.

Has there been any accountability for violations of workersrights?

The problem in Qatar is that laws have been enforced and reforms have been implemented only in response to criticism. This time around, it was in response to the attention brought by international organisations under the spotlight of the World Cup. The problem with this kind of response is that it tends to stay on paper because it is not the result of dialogue with the key stakeholders, namely employers and workers, and an understanding of the system on the ground.

Enforcement is difficult because local employers are pushing back: they feel that workersrights come at a cost that is being paid from their pockets. The government has made no attempt to talk to stakeholders on the ground, and it wont be able to implement any reform without them. Qatar is a tiny country. Were talking about a handful of extremely powerful families who are in business, in the security apparatus, in the Shura Council, everywhere. Some of their companies have a proven record of poor practices, including using short-term visas and not giving end-of-service payments, and they continue to be awarded new contracts over and over. They are not held to account.

What needs to be done so the rights of migrant workers in Qatar are not forgotten when the World Cup ends?

The World Cup is just one event and a starting point for limitless business ambitions. If you look at industry reports, it is clear that large-scale infrastructure projects are going to continue. I only hope that those who shone the spotlight on Qatar didn’t do it because of the sport, but because they really care about migrant workers. Because if that is the case, they should continue promoting reforms and monitoring their effective implementation after the World Cup is over.

Qatar needs to ensure workers get their wages and fair compensation and that nobody leaves the country in distress. Otherwise rights violations will continue to happen, and its not right. I hope the government at least realises that even when the World Cup is over, it doesn’t need that kind of bad publicity.

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

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



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