BULGARIA: ‘Women’s rights organisations are working together towards the goal of a feminist Europe’

Iliana BalabanovaCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming International Women’s Day and Bulgarian civil society’s role in eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) with Iliana Balabanova, founder and president of the Bulgarian Platform of the European Women’s Lobby (BPEWL). 

BPEWL was founded in 2005 by a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) working for gender equality and social justice, and against violence towards women. Since its inception it has organised at the community level to raise gender issues and push them up the agenda, promoted petitions, organised workshops, implemented projects and collaborated with civil society in other European countries on joint advocacy initiatives against gender inequality.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated GBV in Bulgaria?

As reported by civil society, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a significant increase in violence against women and children. One of the main challenges in preventing violence has been the lack of a coordinating body bringing together both government and civil society. There is need for much better coordination among all institutions to review cases of violence and identify the best ways to deal with them.

According to the office of the World Health Organization in Bulgaria, at least seven women lost their lives at the hands of a partner or family member since pandemic-related confinement measures were put in place. The national helpline for children received 80 reports of a parent abusing another parent in March 2020 alone. This indicated that violence against women and children doubled compared to the months before the pandemic.

The pandemic impacted very negatively on the work of the centres that provide assistance to GBV victims. The impact was dramatic on victims of domestic violence and rape in need of emergency support. Assistance had to be provided exclusively through the phone, while phone calls for consultations increased by 30 per cent.

In addition, the interaction with public institutions – judicial, health and municipal bodies – was difficult. And the pandemic had a negative effect on the justice system, as it delayed court decisions. During lockdown periods, applications for protection orders in domestic violence cases were submitted by mail to the regional or district courts, and most other applications could not be sent due to the huge backlog.

What role has Bulgarian civil society historically played, and continues to play, to tackle GBV?

Bulgarian women’s organisations have worked against GBV and domestic violence for decades. At the very beginning, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we started to work on domestic violence by counselling victims and we opened the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in Bulgaria.

At that time there was no legislation to prevent domestic violence or protect victims, and Bulgarian women’s CSOs – joined later by other human rights CSOs – drafted the first such bill. The lobbying campaign and the advocacy work to get the bill passed lasted almost five years. 

Thanks to this work, in 2005 the Bulgarian parliament passed the Law for Protection against Domestic Violence, which defined domestic violence quite widely, encompassing all forms of violence – physical, sexual, psychological, emotional and economic – committed by family members or partners in a formal or de facto relationship or cohabitation. The process was hurried by the fact that Bulgaria had started harmonising its legislation with European Union (EU) regulations, and women’s CSOs took advantage of the momentum to exert pressure for a new legislative framework to protect women from domestic violence.

By then the Bulgarian women’s movement had gained enough experience, knowledge and expertise, and we started to work to change societal attitudes and create an understanding of domestic violence as an expression of unequal power relations at the personal, community and societal levels. We tried to shine a light on the link between social domination, economic control, power inequalities, stereotypes and GBV. The BPEWL and its member organisations have worked on disrupting the continuum of violence against women and girls ever since.

After 2011, one of our main goals was to get the Bulgarian state to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence – the Istanbul Convention. Unfortunately, mostly because of the rise of populist, nationalist and transphobic politics, Bulgaria rejected the Istanbul Convention. Moreover, in 2018 the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the concepts of gender and gender identity were irrelevant for the Bulgarian constitutional and legal system. They said they have no clear and precise legal content and would have dangerous legal consequences.

As a result of this decision, Bulgaria does not keep official statistics on domestic violence and other forms of GBV. The number of complaints registered by the police and cases submitted to the courts are not counted in publicly available statistics. Murder, the most serious form of intrusion against a person, is also not captured through a gender-specific lens – that is, as femicide. So it fell on civil society to do this work, and so far information on GBV has been gathered by CSOs and some social agencies.

According to this data, one in three women in Bulgaria are subjected to GBV and approximately one million women experience domestic violence. According to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, every two weeks a woman is killed in Bulgaria, a third of whom have been subjected to systematic violence by their murderer, and a tenth of whom have sought police protection against their murderer. Civil society reported that between 2014 and 2017, over 5,500 women sought protection from women’s CSOs providing victim services and over 700 women and their children were placed in crisis centres.

As I mentioned, during the pandemic domestic violence increased. Worryingly, however, the number and capacity of shelters remained very limited, and no progress was achieved in systematically collecting and analysing statistical data on GBV, including registering femicides. So women’s CSOs continue to lobby for the government to increase the number and capacity of state-funded crisis centres and other services, provide adequate support for CSOs offering shelter and care to victims, collect administrative data on all forms of GBV and ratify the Istanbul Convention.

How is the European Women’s Lobby (EWL) working at the regional level?

The EWL is the largest European women’s rights network, involving more than 2,000 organisations throughout Europe. It brings together the European women’s movement to influence the public and European institutions to support women’s human rights and gender equality. The Bulgarian Platform became a member of the EWL in 2005 and ever since we have worked together with member organisations at both national and EU levels. Our vision is that of a society in which women’s contributions are recognised, rewarded and celebrated, and in which all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice and freedom from violence and exploitation.

The EWL works towards the goal of a feminist Europe. In a policy brief published in April 2020, ‘Women Must Not Pay the Price for COVID-19!’, we called on governments to put gender equality at the heart of their response. We call for a universal social care system with infrastructure to provide social and quality care services that are accessible and affordable for all women and girls.

The 2022-2026 EWL strategy was developed during the pandemic, as all aspects of our work and our mission were being impacted on significantly. Over the course of this period, the EWL adapted to the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, sharpened its actions in a radically changed world and enabled online spaces for the women’s movement to come together, analyse and strategise about the significant and long-term impacts of this crisis, which will surely be shouldered disproportionately by women and girls.

What are your plans for International Women’s Day? 

This year’s International Women’s Day in Bulgaria will be focused on peace. We are working on providing support to women and girl refugees coming from conflict areas in Ukraine.

Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Bulgarian platform of the European Women’s Lobby through its website or its Facebook page.

MYANMAR: ‘If we fail to take appropriate action, the junta will commit more crimes’

KyawWinCIVICUS speaks with Kyaw Win, founder and Executive Director of the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN), about the situation in Myanmar one year after the coup. As the CIVICUS Monitor has documented, activists and journalists continue to be criminalised and killed. Political prisoners have been tortured and ill-treated and the junta continues to block aid and imposes restrictions on humanitarian workers. 

BHRN works for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Myanmar. It has played a crucial role advocating for human rights and religious freedom with the international community and earned a reputation for providing credible and reliable analysis. It recently published reports on crimes against humanity by the Myanmar military following the coup and on human rights violations and the situation in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. 

What led you to found BHRN?

I was born and brought up in a predominantly Muslim township in Yangon and lived there for 30 years. But in 2009 I had to leave the country and stayed at the Thailand-Myanmar border, temporarily leaving my family. Because I was not able to go back, I eventually moved to the UK and after one-and-a-half years I was reunited with my family.

In 2012, when violence against Muslims erupted in Myanmar, I felt I needed to take action and founded BHRN, which was registered in the UK in 2015. Despite progress in the transition to democracy, we decided to keep BHRN underground. This surprised many, but we felt the situation could reverse easily. Unfortunately, this came true with the February 2021 military coup.

BHRN tracks hate speech both online and offline. We believe hate speech is very dangerous and monitoring it helps us predict impending violence. As we are underground, we are able to collect data on the ground even if it’s very risky. We work in Myanmar and have staff there, including in Rakhine State, as well as in Bangladesh and Thailand. We see the need to expand because as a result of the coup there are restrictions on movement.

We have experts on various themes, including on freedom of religion and Rohingya issues, and we produce monthly reports. We also undertake international advocacy to share our research with decision-makers such as United Nations (UN) representatives, European Union officials and staff of the US State Department, as well as decision-makers in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

We also work with young people in Myanmar and build capacity around human rights, democracy and pluralism.

A year on from the coup, what is the situation for activists and civil society in Myanmar, and how are human rights groups outside the country responding?

The military has accused civil society activists of leading the resistance against the coup with backing and funding from the west. The military wants to destroy civil society, and many are being attacked and killed, so there is a lot of fear. Those in detention are in terrible conditions. Many have been tortured.

Other activists who became aware that the coup was imminent were able to flee the country or leave the cities. They now operate from the outside, in Thailand and at the Thailand-Myanmar border, supporting those still in the country.

We are calling for justice and the removal of the military from power. We have been calling for international sanctions since 2017, following the Rohingya genocide. However, at the time the international community was unwilling to take strong action, as they hoped that democratic reforms would be undertaken by the government of the National League for Democracy. There was only symbolic action but no targeting of the government at that time.

Following the coup, we made clear to the international community that if we fail to take appropriate action, the junta would be emboldened to commit more crimes. Now, finally, targeted economic sanctions have been imposed and some companies, such as Chevron and Total, have decided to leave Myanmar. Some argue that economic sanctions will push Myanmar closer to China, but those people forget that in 2007, following sanctions after the Saffron Revolution, there was an internal revolt that led to the transition to a civilian government. The junta can’t survive long-term economic sanctions. The people of Myanmar know they may suffer due to sanctions, but many have told me they welcome them as long as they hit the military.

We are also pushing for an arms embargo and to stop the sale of jet fuel to the junta, which they have used to bomb civilians. Another thing we request from the international community is humanitarian support.

We are concerned about the UN’s position, which appears to view the military as a stakeholder in a potential power-sharing agreement. The UN Special Envoy recently expressed this position and we were very disappointed.

We also have concerns with the shadow National Unity Government (NUG) formed in exile by those who had been democratically elected, because we have observed the exclusion of minorities. The NUG has no Muslim representation, so we don’t have a voice. This also affects the NUG’s credibility.

How do you assess the response to the military coup by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

In April 2021, a five-point consensus plan was agreed at an ASEAN summit. This included an immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar, constructive dialogue among all parties, the appointment of a special ASEAN envoy to facilitate dialogue, the provision of humanitarian assistance and a visit by the envoy to Myanmar.

However, ASEAN is not united on this. It includes three groupings that cannot agree on anything. For instance, Vietnam is close to Russia and would block any arms embargo. Thailand seems to support the military junta. Indonesia and Malaysia have taken a strong stand; we have engaged with them since day one and they have supported us. Singapore has also spoken up.

It doesn’t help that the permanent members of the UN Security Council are toying with ASEAN, using this regional body as their proxy. They have passed the buck to ASEAN to resolve an issue that they have failed to tackle.

We can’t expect more from ASEAN than it can deliver. We want the military to be removed from power and replaced with a civilian government, and this is something many ASEAN governments don’t understand. ASEAN’s five-point consensus plan has not been implemented. ASEAN has no weight on Myanmar unless China or the USA move. 

We seem to have excessive expectations placed on ASEAN, while in fact there is not much it can do. The rest of the international community should step up and do more.

What can international civil society do to support activists in Myanmar and hold the junta accountable?

In the past we only focused on human rights investigations, but now we are also doing humanitarian work. We are renting and setting up safe houses to hide people and helping them leave the country. Costs have greatly increased but funding has remained the same.

Those working in the country need the support of international civil society, and new ways to deliver support need to be devised because it has become dangerous to receive funds as the junta is monitoring bank accounts. There are also issues of accountability and transparency, as we cannot disclose the names of the people we are helping.

However, I believe if we overcome this challenge, Myanmar’s civil society will emerge very strong. But we need more understanding and engagement with us.

I believe nothing lasts forever and this too will pass. The junta will have to leave at some point. While the situation is quite bad, a good sign is that many military personnel have changed sides and now support the NUG. But we need to continue our struggle with a clear vision of the future that is centred on human rights and democracy. And we need support from the international community so those struggling on the ground will one day see their dreams come true.

Civic space in Myanmar is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with BHRN through its website and follow @kyawwin78 on Twitter. 

EL SALVADOR: ‘Patriarchal justice persecutes, tortures and abuses women’

SaraGarciaGrossCIVICUS speaks with Sara García Gross about the recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) against the Salvadoran state, and the struggle of Salvadoran women for the right to abortion.

Sara García Gross is advocacy coordinator of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador. Founded in 2009, the organisation promotes public awareness to change abortion laws, provides legal support to women who have been convicted or charged with abortion or related crimes and disseminates information on the importance of women receiving adequate sexual and reproductive healthcare to prevent them resorting to unsafe, life-threatening abortions.

What is El Salvador’s feminist movement demanding when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights?

As feminists we are fighting to change the law that criminalises abortion under all circumstances. In El Salvador women are unjustly persecuted. Women’s reproductive rights are violated, especially for younger women and those who live in poverty and in the country’s rural areas. In this sense, we in the feminist movement are fighting to change a restrictive, absolutist and absurd regulatory framework.

We are also fighting for women’s freedom. There are currently 12 women in prison serving sentences that are extremely unjust. Our fight is for women’s freedom and women’s lives. We want abortion to be legal in El Salvador. We fight for women to have the right to build our own lives. We denounce forced pregnancies; this is a form of torture. There are girls as young as 10 years old who face forced motherhood. There are young women who have not received any sexual education and do not have access to contraceptive methods. We are fighting for the right to comprehensive sex education.

We also fight for the recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people, because hate crimes are another cruel form of torture that the state imposes or condones.

What tactics does the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion use?

In our struggle for women’s freedom, we have pursued multiple strategies, starting with strategic litigation to obtain everything from commutations of sentences to sentence reviews. Our focus is on achieving freedom, putting into practice the feminist slogan ‘I believe you sister’. We fight for the recognition of the innocence of women facing unjust and absurd sentences.

But the legal route has not been our only key strategy; social mobilisation at national and regional levels has also played a major role. The feminist movement has organised and spoken out in relation to the cases of criminalised women. Sit-ins have been organised in front of embassies in El Salvador and other countries, letters have been sent to the courts and campaigns for reproductive justice have been carried out, including the ‘We are missing 17’ campaign.

Another very important strategy has involved the Inter-American human rights system. We brought the case of a woman known as Manuela to the IACtHR, which recently condemned the Salvadoran state for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Strategic litigation in the Inter-American system has allowed us to address the problems of persecution, torture and judicial and police abuse faced by women in El Salvador. Justice in El Salvador is patriarchal justice.

Another strategy has focused on collecting evidence. We have carried out an investigation called ‘From hospital to prison’, which allowed us to make this problem visible. Through a review and analysis of case files, sentences and investigations, we have been able to understand who anti-abortion legislation targets and who it persecutes: young and poor women living in rural areas. This constitutes intersectional discrimination.

The campaigns, dialogues and debates we promote in academia as well as grassroots communities have also been part of our strategy. Advocacy processes are key, so that when we are able to identify windows of opportunity in the Legislative Assembly or other state institutions, we can promote the submission of new initiatives.

In the past, several bills were submitted to reform article 133 of the Criminal Code to decriminalise abortion on four grounds. These bills were far from getting passed; in some cases they were quickly shelved and in others they languished for years in legislative committees. Women’s organisations were met with great hostility. However, our advocacy strategies allowed us to place the issue of abortion on the public agenda.

What does Salvadoran public opinion think about abortion and what work are you doing to present an alternative narrative to criminalisation?

Among public opinion, there is broad acceptance of abortion when it’s needed to save a pregnant woman’s life: more than half of the population has said so in various surveys.

We live in a conservative country, with some fundamentalist groups calling themselves ‘pro-life’. The reality is that they are in favour of clandestine abortion, criminalisation and women dying. These groups maintain a double standard that we, as organised feminist civil society, work to expose. While women living in poverty are criminalised, those with economic resources are able to travel and access safe abortions. This double standard is unacceptable.

For us, it is important to visualise other narratives and make women’s realities known. Reducing stigma requires showing, humanising and talking about life stories. These are women who had hopes and plans for their lives that state violence prevented them from realising.

Talking about the issue in different places, humanising this reality and questioning this system that imposes the mandate of motherhood – a gender stereotype – allows us to address the issue without stigma or prejudice and, above all, from a human rights perspective.

What are the implications of the IACtHR ruling in Manuela’s case?

This ruling came after years of work and struggle. We started working on the case in 2011, providing psychosocial, political and legal support to Manuela’s family.

Advocacy in the Inter-American system was key. The ruling in Manuela’s case is historic: the IACtHR has recognised that Manuela was innocent, that she really faced an obstetric emergency and that gender stereotypes, starting with the mandate of motherhood, permeated the entire process. The IACtHR has understood that the absolute ban on abortion results in criminalisation and obstacles to access to reproductive rights.

The judgment will have both national and regional effects. The main regional effect is the establishment of jurisprudence that obliges both El Salvador and the rest of the countries in the region to take a series of measures. First, to guarantee professional secrecy of health personnel so that no woman seeking reproductive health services is denounced for alleged abortion-related crimes. Second, to ensure that gender stereotypes are not applied in the judicial sphere, including those claiming that women must act according to a reproductive role and, therefore, with maternal instinct. Third, to implement adequate protocols to attend to obstetric emergencies with accessible and quality health services.

The Salvadoran state will have to carry out some additional actions in compliance with the IACtHR ruling. First, while it is in the process of regulating the obligation to maintain medical professional secrecy and the confidentiality of medical records, it must eliminate the practice of medical professionals denouncing women who seek reproductive health services. Second, it must provide full reparations to Manuela’s family. Third, it must make legislative and policy changes to ensure non-repetition, so that no one else goes through a similar experience, for instance by guaranteeing comprehensive care in cases of obstetric emergencies and adapting pre-trial detention so that it is only used in exceptional cases.

We continue to fight so that women are never again criminalised. There are still 12 women who remain in prison, but we believe that Manuela’s case shines a light on these injustices and gives us the strength to continue fighting. For us, Manuela means justice and hope.

What kind of support do abortion rights groups in El Salvador need from their peers around the world? 

We believe feminist solidarity is key. We want to make this issue visible in the region and the world. We want people to talk about what is happening here. We want people to talk about the consequences of the absolute prohibition of abortion. We want people to talk about how this punitive system does not solve anything.

It is not acceptable for the exercise of a reproductive right – a right to health – to be treated as a crime entailing prison sentences. We need to shine the spotlight on El Salvador and make the Salvadoran state feel it is being watched. Every chance we get, we must demand freedom for women, freedom for the 12 who are still in prison and reparations for all the women who have faced this kind of criminalisation. We must demand that abortion be legally recognised as a right.

Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @AbortoPORlaVIDA on Twitter. 

PHILIPPINES: ‘We will make sure that human rights are on the electoral agenda’

CIVICUS speaks about civil society responses to the growing restrictions on civic space in the Philippines with Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, Chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Executive Director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights).

PhilRights is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works on human rights education, training, research and information, and that monitors and documents human rights violations. Established in 1991 by PAHRA, PhilRights serves as the alliance’s research and information centre. It played an important part in advocacy that led to the abolition of the death penalty in the Philippines in 2006 and continue to play a leading role in the submission of alternative reports on economic, social and cultural rights to United Nations human rights mechanisms. It has published several human rights training materials that are extensively used by CSOs and social movements.

Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

Photo Credit: Schwanke/Brot fuer die Welt

What is the state of civic space in the Philippines, and what risks do civil society activists and organisations face?

Civic space in the Philippines is currently restricted, particularly for human rights organisations and defenders. It has slowly become narrower over time, and it is increasingly challenging for human rights organisations and defenders to exercise rights such as those to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. 

This has been going on for years. In 2018 the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a memorandum with new requirements CSOs must comply with. This made CSOs suspicious and apprehensive because they were being asked to provide the SEC with sensitive information like sources of funding, areas of operation and details of board members as a requirement in the renewal of their registration. The new regulations were used by the government to monitor their operations and activities, including for human rights CSOs.

A big problem we have right now is ‘red tagging’: the practice of state agents labelling activists, human rights defenders and CSOs that are vocal and critical of government policies, programmes, pronouncements and actions as being linked to communist insurgent groups and accusing them of being destabilisers and enemies of the state. This is a common strategy used by the Philippine government through the security sector as a way of intimidating and silencing individuals, groups and members of the opposition who openly criticise the state. 

The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has been notorious in red-tagging since the second quarter of 2021. This body was created following the passage of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, in the midst of the pandemic. Its mandate was to put an end to the local insurgency problem but in the implementation of its mandate it has targeted legitimate opposition, human rights defenders, media practitioners and progressive church leaders through red-tagging and vilification campaigns, the filing of trumped-up charges and dissemination of lies and fake news through the social media.

Also rampant is harassment of human rights lawyers, defenders and media personalities who are vocally critical of the government and its policies. One case worth mentioning is that of Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist who became known for exposing corruption and human rights violation through Rappler, a Manila-based digital media company for investigative journalism. She was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize but continued to be harassed and criminally charged on multiple fabricated accusations, including fraud, tax evasion and receiving money from the CIA.

What was the process leading to the approval of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, and what role did civil society play in it?

The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act was passed by the House of Representatives on 17 January 2022, but it is not yet law. For it to become law, the Senate must still pass a counterpart of the bill, which it has not yet done.

Still, the passage of the bill by the House, without a single legislator voting against or abstaining, is quite unprecedented. This is a piece of legislation that human rights activists have long been advocating for.

Civil society has lobbied for the passage of the bill into a law for years, not only under the current Congress but also under the previous one. Civil society representatives repeatedly met with the House’s human rights champions. Encouragingly, there are also human rights champions in the Senate who have consistently supported the civil society campaign for the passage of the bill.

Much work remains to be done with human rights champions in the Senate. Given time constraints, I don’t know if the bill will be passed. If it is, civil society will use it in our human rights advocacy work. If it is not, unfortunately we will be back to square one in the next Congress.

Do you think the human rights situation will feature in the campaign for the May presidential election?

I think it will, because PAHRA has come up with a human rights electoral agenda that its member organisations have approved, so while we continue to do our human rights education work and launch campaigns, we will make sure that the human rights electoral agenda reaches communities and the general public.

When connecting with political parties, we have noticed that they are open to the human rights agenda promoted by PAHRA, so we provide them with a copy so that they can bring up these issues in their campaigns.

How does PhilRights support civil society organisations and activists in the Philippines?

We conduct research on various human rights issues. For instance, in the past we did research on children’s involvement in armed conflict and the phenomenon of child soldiers. Right now, we are actively involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We have set up a very good documentation mechanism that we use when we go to communities, particularly urban poor communities. We conduct interviews and gather first-hand information from the families and relatives of the victims of extrajudicial killings connected to the ‘war on drugs’.

With the data that we gather we produce reports, human rights briefs, infographics and posters that we disseminate locally and internationally among the human rights community, the public and international allies and networks.

In addition, we do human rights education and training. We have produced training modules on human rights education and the rights-based approach to development, and we conduct human rights education in the same communities where we have documented human rights violations. 

How can international civil society best support Filipino civil society’s human rights work?

International civil society can support Filipino civil society by disseminating information about what is happening in the country. This will also encourage collaboration because local CSOs are best placed to provide the information materials that international CSOs need.

International CSOs can also help by organising webinars and inviting Filipino human rights defenders to share their narratives and experiences. We are very open and willing to collaborate with organisations such as CIVICUS and Amnesty International, among others. Institutions willing to support human rights defenders in the Philippines can also do so through funding or linking Filipino CSOs with potential funders.

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

UK: ‘For women to be respected, police reform is necessary but not sufficient’

CIVICUS speaks with Anna Birley, co-founder of Reclaim These Streets, policy lead at the Co-operative Party and councillor in the London borough of Lambeth. 

Reclaim These Streets was formed in March 2021 to speak up against street harassment of women and girls, educate boys and men to take responsibility for the problem of violence against women and girls, and challenge the misogyny embedded in the ways laws are written and enforced.

Anna Birley

What prompted you to organise and how did Reclaim These Streets get started?

I live in south London, close to the place where Sarah Everard was last seen before going missing on 3 March 2021. Over the following week, posters appeared on every bus stop, lamppost, tree – her face was everywhere. We were in lockdown, activities were very limited, so when you went for a lunchtime walk with the one friend you were allowed to meet under lockdown regulations, you would see her face everywhere.

My friends and I realised we all felt scared. New details about Sarah’s disappearance were coming out every day and we put ourselves in her shoes, tried to imagine where she could have been, what she could have done, what could have happened to her. In our lunchtime walks, we found ourselves trying to retrace her steps. As we spoke with other local women, we realised we were all thinking twice about everything we did, changing our lives simply because we didn’t feel safe in public spaces.

For a couple of days, the police were door-knocking all over the area, not just trying to get information about Sarah but also giving women advice to stay safe. They were not telling men not to be predators – they were telling women not to go out after dark, not go out alone, to take extra precautions. That’s when our worry and our fear turned into anger.

On 10 March I texted my friends – we needed to do something together in solidarity, but also in defiance. We wanted to challenge the idea that we had to lock ourselves down, impose curfews on ourselves because male violence made it unsafe for us to be out there, because if we didn’t take enough precautions, we – not our aggressors – would be the ones to blame.

I set up a Zoom call in which we organised a Facebook event and looked up the regulations on COVID-19 and assemblies. We initially wanted to do a walk along the route Sarah had taken, but you need to get permission to march, but not for a stationary protest. We didn’t have time to request a permit, and we also didn’t like the idea of having to ask for permission for us as women to express our anger together, so we went for the stationary vigil. We chose Clapham Common because it is a huge open space allowing for social distancing, and also because it was one of the last places where Sarah had been seen alive. We did it at sunset so women could take back the park after dark.

We let both the police and the council know – I and another organiser are local councillors – because we wanted the event to be safe. We wanted to be sure that it wouldn’t be hijacked by anti-vaxxers or counter protests, and that women would be able to feel safe walking back home after the vigil.

The name, Reclaim These Streets, echoed that of the Reclaim the Night movement, which formed in Leeds in the late 1970s when the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ was at large and the police told women the same things they were telling us now – to stay home for our own good and take extra precautions. We felt angry that we still had to fight the same battles over and over. Several decades had passed but the culture and the victim-blaming approach had not changed.

What obstacles did you face in organising and mobilising?

In March 2021, when we planned the vigil for Sarah, the UK was subjected to COVID-19-related public health regulations, and the police used these to try to prevent us mobilising. They said that we needed their permission, which wasn’t true. They threatened us, as organisers, with a £10,000 (approx. US$13,600) fine each, and with arrest under the Serious Crimes Act, on the basis that we would be inciting others to break the law. The Serious Crime Act is used against terrorists. Being charged under it would, among other things, prevent me holding public office again, effectively ending my career.

The police did nothing to facilitate our human right to protest. We tried to engage with them, because we wanted to know if they had intelligence that would help us keep women safe. We wanted to make sure that the policing would be sensitive to the need to build trust after a serving police officer was arrested for Sarah’s rape and murder, and to know that it would be proportional – for example, ensuring women wouldn’t be kettled or pushed into a close crowd when there were social distancing measures in place.

We started organising on a Wednesday, and by Thursday night, after receiving threatening emails and having a series of pointless meetings with police, we instructed lawyers and crowdfunded for a judicial review. The police insisted that there was a blanket ban on all gatherings; they couldn’t seem to differentiate between a birthday picnic and a protest. From what we could tell, they declared our vigil unlawful without conducting any risk assessment in which they considered our human rights under articles 10 and 11 of the UK’s Human Rights Act concerning freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

The judge agreed with us that a risk assessment be done and that it should take human rights into account, but the police said they had done it and the judge took them at face value. We met with police straight out of the judgment and proposed to do a staggered event over a longer period of time, and asked if we could make any changes to make the event more acceptable. But they wouldn’t budge, and while we were still at the meeting they issued a press release warning people it was unlawful to attend.

The vigil was supposed to be happening the next day, and nobody was able to confirm whether we would still be liable for a £10,000 fine if someone turned up even if we cancelled it. On top of this, at least 34 additional vigils had been organised all over the country. We felt responsible because we had told those wishing to replicate the event that the law allowed for ‘reasonable excuse’, and that this included our human right to protest. Now they could be subjected to significant fines and life-changing judicial processes for organising these events.

Despite the event being cancelled, women kept coming in throughout the day, bringing flowers, paying their respects. Even the Duchess of Cambridge came. Crowds grew in the evening, and right after sunset police moved in, pushing women together, manhandling some and pinning them to the ground.

We went back to court and now expect the judgment. We demanded to see the risk assessment that was supposedly conducted and insisted on the priority of human rights and the principle of proportionality. We hope our case sets a precedent and helps other people challenge arbitrary police decisions. For instance, there is a nurse in Manchester who was given a £10,000 fine for holding a solo protest – we hope this can help people like her too.

What do you think are the root causes of misogynistic policing?

Misogyny is not just a policing problem; it is a societal problem. Misogynists are the product of a society that sees women and girls as less. This manifests in countless structural inequalities: unequal pay, women doing more menial jobs, women being seen as home keepers and not being able to go back to the workplace, women being seen as objects and sexualised from a young age. 

The institutions that are doing better at shaking these views are those that are more diverse, transparent and accountable, that welcome whistleblowing and reward those who call out bad behaviour. But the police force is simply not set up that way. It is not diverse enough so it has a distinct white male culture and so it is perhaps less open to and tolerant of difference. It is the kind of profession in which comradeship is important for staying safe – but this can also result in police officers protecting each other at the expense of women, victims or the public. It can promote a defensive attitude and an unwillingness to confront problems.

Take the case of Dr Konstancja Duff, who was strip searched and humiliated in a police station in 2013 – this was basically state-sanctioned sexual assault. The officers involved were assessed by a tribunal of their peers that found them to have behaved in an exemplary manner; some were even promoted. Dr Duff didn’t give up despite being gaslit by the police for eight years: she went to court and was able to access the CCTV and demonstrate the appalling treatment she had experienced. That’s the only reason she got an apology or any recognition at all.

What changes are needed in police culture and policing practices?

Because it turned out that it was a police officer who was responsible for Sarah’s death, and because so many revelations of police misconduct and impunity followed, the police ended up occupying a more central place in our work than we had anticipated. But our focus is on women’s safety rather than on police reform. We know that for women to be respected and treated as equals, police reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. What we need is to change the culture that sends girls to take self-defence classes instead of teaching boys to respect women.

This partly requires changing the law, because it currently does not give enough importance to crimes that specifically affect women. For instance, if you drop litter or a cigarette butt, or you leave your car idling, you will be fined. But if you follow a girl in her school uniform walking home from school, pull your car up next to her, drive at the same speed as she’s walking and make sexually explicit comments at her, as long as you don’t solicit sex from her you are not breaking any laws – unless you idle your car for too long, that is. The law should take more seriously some supposedly ‘minor’ crimes, such as flashing, which is a predatory power move that can also be a stepping stone towards more serious behaviour.

Part of the work is about changing culture, which is very hard to do. We are doing some work in schools for boys and girls to have conversations about consent and respect, reach an understanding of what misogyny is and think about ways in which they can champion gender equality. We campaign for women’s safety, mostly on social media, on a regular basis, not just when the ‘perfect victim’ captures the headlines.

As part of that, we have reflected a lot about the fact that we mobilised about a white woman – because she has kidnapped and murdered in our neighbourhood, but still, we were not aware at the time of other women whose cases had been treated differently because they were Black. We made a conscious decision to use our platform and privilege to raise the voices of women who would otherwise not get the same support and attention from the media and public institutions.

What concerns do you have about the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill currently in the UK parliament?

Our experience is a cautionary tale about police powers. Police are being allowed to make judgement calls that they are ill-equipped to make. They shouldn’t be given as much power to interpret the law – it isn’t their role. They should have less power than they currently have, not more. 

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill goes in the wrong direction. It’s a draconian piece of legislation that will grant the police even more powers and will restrict the right to protest. It appears to be aimed at placating people who were annoyed at climate protests for slowing down traffic or at Black Lives Matter protesters for defacing statues. It prioritises the circulation of traffic and the integrity of statues over the human right to express dissent, which is very dangerous.

What’s your reaction to the resignation of Cressida Dick as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police?

Our first reaction was of surprise – I don’t think even the Home Secretary knew she was resigning. But we were pleased she stepped down, because she had failed to tackle the culture problem of the Metropolitan Police. At the end of the day, leaders need to be held accountable for the organisations they run, and the buck stops there. When you are unwilling to even admit there’s a problem, let alone put together a plan to fix it, you become part of the problem.

Of course, this is a problem for many police forces across the UK, and other police leaders should also reflect on whether they are part of the solution or part of the problem.

But Cressida’s resignation shouldn’t allow the rest of the police force off the hook. Fixing an institutional problem requires more than one person to leave. I hope her successor is not only a feminist but also someone who comes in ready to admit that there is a problem, is willing to ask for help and develops a robust approach to tackle the various forms of bullying and discrimination – misogyny and sexism, racism and homophobia – that are pervasive and create a nasty working environment that prevents others from calling it out.

We also hope that this will pave the way for the Angiolini Inquiry – a review into the investigation and prosecution of rape in London – to widen its scope and look into institutional misogyny instead of writing the problem off as a ‘bad apples’ issue. The inquiry needs to be made statutory too – so that it is led by a judge rather than a politically appointed chair, so that the police are required to comply and cannot close ranks, so that victims are at the heart of the inquiry and get legal support to contribute, and so that the recommendations have to be taken on board.

It's been almost a year since Sarah went missing, and at the time everyone – politicians, police, the media – said ‘never again’. It was supposed to be watershed moment. And then nothing. I can barely point to a single tangible improvement that has happened since. Safety hasn’t improved; nor has police culture. We are disappointed in the last 12 months, but we expect institutions to do better over the next 12 months.

Civic space in the UK is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Reclaim These Streets through its website and follow @ReclaimTS on Twitter. 

NICARAGUA: ‘María Esperanza’s case is part of a growing process of criminalisation of social protest’

CIVICUS speaks with Ana Lucía Álvarez, Nicaragua officer of the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras), about the case of María Esperanza Sánchez, unjustly imprisoned in Nicaragua since March 2020, and the ongoing campaign for her release.

IM-Defensoras is a network of activists and organisations from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua that seeks to provide a comprehensive, regional response to the increasing violence against women human rights defenders in Mesoamerica. Founded in 2010, it seeks to empower and connect women defenders involved in various organisations and social movements to strengthen networks of protection and solidarity among them and to increase the visibility, recognition and impact of their human rights work.

Ana Lucia AlvarezEntrevista

How long has María Esperanza been in prison, and why?

María Esperanza was captured on 26 January 2020. She is an activist who for a long time accompanied relatives of political prisoners. I believe she began her activism and her organisation after the citizens’ uprising of April 2018. She was already being persecuted, so she was staying in a safe house. The police illegally and arbitrarily raided the house, without a search warrant, and arrested her. She was accused of trafficking narcotics, psychotropics and other controlled substances to the detriment of public health. Her trial is being handled by lawyer Julio Montenegro, who specialises in cases of criminalisation of protest and judicial prosecution of activists and human rights defenders. 

Do you consider María Esperanza’s case to be part of a broader attack on civic space in Nicaragua?

There is definitely a growing process of criminalisation of social protest in Nicaragua. The first upsurge in criminalisation came after Operation Clean-up, which ended around August 2018. This was a pseudo-military operation carried out by police and para-police forces to dismantle any organisation of territorial protection that the population had built through barricades in neighbourhoods and roadblocks around the country.

Once Operation Clean-up was over, the criminalisation of those who had taken part in the civic struggle began. More than 800 people became political prisoners, before being released in 2019 by unilateral decision of the government through the Amnesty Law.

María Esperanza had already been persecuted, harassed, put under surveillance and threatened before she was imprisoned for her human rights work. Her arrest and trial, like those of so many others, were plagued by irregularities. Violations of due process are systematic. In Nicaragua, the justice system is totally co-opted. It has collapsed and is under the control of the presidential couple: President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo.

How has the situation of civil society changed since the 2018 wave of protests?

More than 350 people were killed in a span of six months during the 2018 protests. The symbolic and emotional weight of that death toll in a country that has experienced civil wars, dictatorships and armed uprisings has been tremendous. In Nicaragua there has never been accountability, there have always been policies of wiping the slate clean, which has deepened the wounds.

In addition to the suffering of the 350 dead, there were over 800 people imprisoned for political reasons, and while many have since been released from prison, we purposefully say that they have been released rather than that they are free, because after their release, political persecution has not ended for them. Systematic harassment by police and para-police forces continues, and it becomes an obstacle to the enjoyment of many rights, including the right to work.

For these people, the effects of the economic crisis that the country is currently experiencing are compounded by the difficulties brought about by political persecution. They often cannot leave their home because there is a patrol outside, or they go out and they are followed, and then those who follow them learn the names of their employers and start to harass them as well.

Persecution happens at the local, neighbourhood level. The ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, has established various structures that are used to maintain territorial control through surveillance and repression: Councils of Citizen Power, Family Cabinets and Sandinista Leadership Committees. If you are an opponent or a human rights defender, there will always be a neighbour of yours who is involved in one of these structures and informs the regime and the police of what you are doing, and then you start to be persecuted and harassed, and maybe at some point you get arbitrarily arrested.

Harassment and hypervigilance cause psychological damage not only to the persecuted individual but also to their family. This has had an impact on the increase in emigration, which is a dual phenomenon, caused by both political persecution and social need. Since 2018, 120,000 people have left Nicaragua, a huge number for a country of just six million.

The 2021 presidential election openly exposed the regime’s lack of legitimacy. On what basis does the government stand?

In the run-up to the 2021 election, persecution was only exacerbated. In order to carry out the electoral farce of November, the government imprisoned 10 presidential pre-candidates and many people with a key role in the electoral process and in the formation of alternatives. This sent a very clear message, as a result of which there is still a lot of self-censorship.

Daniel Ortega has continued to concentrate and consolidate his power. We are currently living under a regime that has become totalitarian, where all freedoms are totally restricted. This is the only way the government can sustain itself, because it has no legitimacy. That is why repression and social control continue to increase rather than decrease. In the absence of such levels of repression and social control, the very high level of popular rejection of the regime would make it impossible for it to maintain political control.

As a result, repression, territorial control, neighbourhood repression, the criminalisation of protest and social dissent, and the closing of spaces for the exercise of the freedom of expression and media freedoms can be expected to continue.

Now a combination of laws has been passed that includes a Cybercrime Law. And we have already seen the first political prisoner convicted under this law, which does nothing other than criminalise the freedom of opinion.

What the government is looking for with political prisoners is to use them as hostages. Among the people arrested recently are presidential candidates, businesspeople, bankers, lawyers, activists and human rights defenders. The government is trying to negotiate their release to gain legitimacy and international approval.

The truth is that the government has no international support. The only foreign leaders who attended the presidential inauguration were Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and outgoing Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández.

How can the international community support Nicaraguan civil society in its struggle for the recovery of democracy and human rights?

We need to amplify denunciations of violations and sharpen accountability mechanisms. Civil society in Nicaragua has made a tremendous effort not only to document human rights violations but also to identify their perpetrators. Given that the justice system in Nicaragua has collapsed, and that civil society is doing everything within its power, the onus is on the international community to push for accountability and punishment of those responsible.

Daniel Ortega’s regime is no longer a political project but an economic enterprise. Its control of the state allows Ortega to use corruption networks to his advantage. In the light of this, the international community should fine-tune its mechanisms, review economic sanctions and identify the companies that continue to do business, not always entirely legally, with the Ortega regime. Since many association agreements have democratic and anti-corruption clauses, they need to be made operational. Personal sanctions must also be imposed on the architects of corruption and repression.

What kind of pressure should be exerted to get María Esperanza Sanchez released?

María Esperanza was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Everything that has happened to her and to the rest of the political prisoners is completely arbitrary; that is precisely why we consider them to be political prisoners. What we demand is the unconditional and guaranteed release of them all.

What happens to them will depend to a large extent on the strength with which the opposition and the international community manage to exert pressure, and on the correlation of forces that is established between the Nicaraguan government and the human rights movement.

We must campaign and keep up the pressure. We must continue to put our finger on all the arbitrariness, illegalities and human rights violations. There are still people in Europe and other parts of the world who think Ortega is the idealistic revolutionary of the past, and not the despot he has become. The best way to expose dictators and human rights abusers is to keep communicating the truth on the basis of well-documented evidence.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
Get in touch with IM-Defensoras through its website or Facebook page, and follow @IM_Defensoras on Twitter.

CHILE: ‘There is social consensus that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable’

Marco BecerraCIVICUS speaks with Marco Becerra, director of ACCIONGAY, about the process leading to the recent passage of Chile’s Equal Marriage Law. ACCIONGAY is a civil society organisation founded in 1987 in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was then ignored or minimised as a problem that only affected ‘risk groups’. Over time it expanded its scope of action to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ people, based on the principle that all people have the right to self-determination in relation to their lives, bodies, health, relationships and sexuality.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of equal marriage in Chile, and what role did ACCIONGAY play in it?

It was a long process, lasting about 30 years. The movement for sexual and gender diversity in Chile began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This process had different stages. At first, work focused on the consolidation and visibility of the movement in a context of post-dictatorship political transition that was very unfavourable to the demands for equality of LGBTQI+ people. In the second stage, work focused on political advocacy to achieve effective commitment by political groups to tackle the challenges related to the inclusion of LGBTQI+ people.

By the late 1990s, some important changes began to take place, such as the repeal of a law that criminalised sexual relations between adult men. However, other demands – such as that for equal marriage – only came into the public conversation around 2005, when equal marriage was legalised in Spain. Around that time ACCIONGAY received a visit from Spanish activist Pedro Zerolo, who helped us understand the importance of broadening the debate on civil unions and the recognition of LGBTQI+ people’s rights.

In a broader sense, I would venture to say that demands for equality before the law were the result of a social and cultural change that Latin America had been experiencing for several years. The legalisation of equal marriage in Argentina and Uruguay, as well as its progress throughout Europe, prompted Chilean LGBTQI+ movements and sexual diversity organisations to mobilise around equality issues.

It is important to highlight the contributions of numerous organisations and activists who worked consistently over the years to build alliances with progressive political groups, which became committed to these struggles. The idea of civil unions became a reality during the first government of President Michelle Bachelet, in 2015, and later on, as favourable public opinion grew and the perception of these inequalities as an injustice increased, the demand for equal rights for same-sex families gained momentum.

The Equal Marriage Bill was sent to Congress by Bachelet’s second government in 2017 and finally passed in December 2021. It will come into force in March and will represent a very significant change for the lives of hundreds of families with same-sex parents who did not have any legal recognition and therefore experienced complete defencelessness before the state.

The keys to achieving this breakthrough were movement coordination, advocacy with political decision-makers and campaigning to raise awareness and sensitise public opinion.

How did this process interact with the 2019 wave of protests and the process to develop a new constitution that followed?

Chile is going through a complex, epoch-changing process that came about as a result of the 2019 social outburst. But the demands for equality and recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people largely predate this. This movement was already very strong before the social outburst, including a network of organisations that was very active and mobilised since the 1990s. However, the context of social mobilisation helped create an environment conducive to the consolidation of LGBTQI+ movement as a presence recognisable on the streets in citizen protests demanding more equality.

The profound social change that began to take place in Chile picked up on the historical struggles of LGBTQI+ organisations and movements that rose up in the context of the 2019 social outburst. To a large extent this was reflected in the number of LGBTQI+ people who recently got elected, especially for the Convention in charge of drafting the new constitution, as well as in the ministerial appointments of LGBTQI+ people made by the next president, Gabriel Boric.

Why did approval take so long, when polls showed very high levels of public support?

Although Chile has a very active civil society, its political system, even following recent changes, still includes extremely conservative enclaves. This was reflected in the difficulty that Congress had in moving this law forward, not least because there was no strong commitment from successive presidents. Nevertheless, Bachelet’s second government did act on the idea of legalising equal marriage. It was during her government that the Civil Union Law was passed and the Gender Identity Bill was sent to Congress, which was then passed during President Rafael Piñera’s term.

From the point of view of people’s perceptions, changes occurred because a social consensus was reached that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable. Support for equal marriage is striking: almost 70 per cent of Chileans agree, and a similar number support adoption by same-sex couples.

Campaigns for equal marriage were mainly developed by LGBTQI+ organisations with the support of other social movements, human rights organisations and feminists, to name a few. At the same time, alliances, solidarity and trust were built not only with other social organisations but also with progressive sectors within political parties. Support for the Equal Marriage Law was quite cross-cutting, including a segment of the liberal centre-right that contributed their votes to make it possible. Only ultra-conservative sectors excluded themselves.

Some leaders of Evangelical Pentecostal churches, which have achieved some social influence in Chile, mobilised against the Equal Marriage Law, but were defeated in the parliamentary debate. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, remained silent, probably because in recent years it has lost social and political relevance as a consequence of the scandals of paedophilia and sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy against children and adolescents.

What will be the immediate effects of the new law, and what remains to be done?

This law will have immediate consequences as it will guarantee the enjoyment of all rights and the positive effects of marriage regardless of people’s sex or sexual orientation. As the law includes issues of adoption and parentage, it will solve a number of problems experienced by families of same-sex partners with children. For instance, non-biological parents had no legal rights to the children they were raising as theirs; now they will get legal recognition.

Chile has experienced a series of legal advances: the Anti-Discrimination Law in 2012, the Civil Union Law in 2015, the Gender Identity Law in 2018 and the Equal Marriage Law starting in 2022. However, high levels of discrimination persist in work and education. Violence against LGBTQI+ communities is rampant.

From March onwards, we will face the enormous challenge of reviewing our work agenda, especially since after 11 March we will have a progressive government that has incorporated equality and recognition of LGBTQI+ communities in its policy programme. 

We are sure that this will be a very different government from its predecessors, and we are very hopeful that it will be possible to start closing the gap of real inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in all areas of social life, from public administration institutions to the educational sphere.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with ACCIONGAY through its website or Facebook page, and follow @acciongay on Twitter.

INDIA: ‘The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways’

Sudha BharadwajCIVICUS speaks Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer and long-time human rights defender working for the rights of workers and Indigenous peoples in India.

Sudha was arrested and detained in August 2018 under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and accused of having links with Maoist terrorist organisations. Alongside 15 other human rights defenders, she was further accused of conspiring to incite violence among the Dalit community. Despite proof that incriminating evidence against them was planted, concerns expressed by United Nations (UN) experts about the arbitrary charges and UN calls to release political prisoners from crowded jails during the pandemic, requests for Sudha’s release, including on health grounds, were repeatedly rejected. She was finally released on bail in December 2021 after three years in detention.

How did you get involved in human rights work?

For the last 35 years I have been working in Chhattisgarh, an area in eastern India that is very rich in mineral resources. I began around 1986 as a trade unionist and worked with a legendary union leader, Shankar Guha Niyog, who was organising iron ore miners. Conditions were appalling. Workers were not unionised, working hours were long, wages were very paltry and even the very basic labour laws of our country were not being applied.

I became a lawyer basically because my trade union needed one. I graduated in 2000, at the age of 40. I initially took up matters of our own union and later I shifted to work at the high court, where I realised contractual workers, farmers resisting land acquisition and Adivasi Indigenous groups resisting mining projects were forced to face very expensive corporate lawyers without any real legal assistance. They needed lawyers who understood them and who could devise legal strategies compatible with the tactics of their movements.

I started a group of lawyers to provide legal aid to unions, farmers’ and village organisations, Adivasi communities, and civil society organisations (CSOs). Around this time, I became involved in the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), one of the oldest human rights organisations in India. We dealt with various human rights issues, including attacks and harassment of minorities and the criminalisation of Dalits and Adivasis under false accusations of having links with armed Maoist groups, also called Naxals. We took up several cases in which security forces fired on villagers accused of being Naxalites. We were eventually able to prove that these were false accusations.

I dealt with cases against big corporations, so I made powerful enemies. By taking up cases of Adivasis I also annoyed the government. In 2018 I was teaching a course at the national lawyer’s university in Delhi and that’s when I was arrested.

Can you tell us about your experience in detention?

Because the case was in Pune, I was initially sent to the women’s wing of the Yervada central jail, which is a prison for convicts. I was taken there with another activist, Shoma Sen. As soon as we were brought there, we experienced attacks on our dignity. We were asked to strip and squat. We were isolated: kept in separate cells, unable to communicate with other prisoners, led out into a yard for only half an hour a day. We were under constant surveillance.

In the winter it was very cold. We spend most of the time reading, although we struggled to get books. Because the library was in the men’s side of the jail, only 25 books were brought at a time. We were allowed to keep only two or three with us in our cell. We also had issues with access to water and sometimes had to carry in buckets. Shoma struggled with severe arthritis. 

Later on, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over our case, so we were moved to Byculla jail in Mumbai. This jail was extremely overcrowded, and we lacked any privacy. We would sleep right next to one another on coffin-sized strips of the floor which were allotted to us by the kamwali (staff) in charge of the barracks. There were also limited bathrooms to share.

Social distancing was impossible, and during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, many detainees got infected and were stuffed in a quarantine barrack. I did not become seriously sick but both Shoma and I requested medical bail due to underlying conditions. This was systematically denied.

Due to the pandemic, we were totally cut off from the outside world and were not taken to the courts for about five or six months. Then PUCL and other groups requested the Bombay High Courts to authorise telephone calls and we were allowed to speak to our families for 10 minutes once a week. Our lawyers could talk to us by sending an email to the jail, and the jail would allow us to phone them back - for 10 minutes, twice a week. That’s how we were able to tell them about prison conditions. I also tried to help people around us who were old or sick to write petitions.

How did you feel when you were finally granted bail, and what’s next?

The bail order was issued on 1 December 2021. I felt extremely disappointed that other activists linked to the case were not released with me. My request for bail was accepted on technical grounds. I heard the NIA appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn my bail, but it was immediately dismissed.

On 8 December I was taken to the court, given cash bail, and asked to produce sureties. When I came back to the jail, many detainees celebrated for me and gave me their requests. I was released the next day.

The bail conditions have restricted me to Mumbai, which is not my city. Friends have been very helpful, but I don’t have a home or work here so I’m still trying to adjust to the situation. I would like to continue my practice on behalf of prisoners and trade unions. For now, I have to attend court hearings and check-in at the police station every two weeks.

How have the conditions for activism in India changed while you were in jail?

Even before I went to jail things were already challenging, but since I was released, I have seen increasing attacks against minorities, notably Muslims. There has been a rise in hate speech, which seems to be manufactured and copiously funded, especially on social media.

The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed in December 2019, is discriminatory against minorities. There was a strong movement against the CAA law, in many places led by Muslim women, but this was shut down due to the pandemic.

We are also seeing that many institutions that are supposed to be independent – such as the Election Commission and investigating agencies – are being manipulated by the government. There are even concerns about the independence of the National Human Rights Commission, which has failed to take a proactive role on many important issues. The undermining of these institutions will affect their roles in their future, even if the government changes.

The government is dealing with dissent in very concerning ways. One clear example is the increasing surveillance of journalists, activists, and advocates. A lot of us involved in the case had our phones infected by Pegasus spyware. We have approached the Supreme Court-appointed Technical Committee looking into the use of Pegasus against Indian citizens and it has decided to request our phones from the NIA and undertake an inquiry.

There are also concerns about the impacts of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) on civil society. If you advocate for workers, Indigenous peoples or poor communities, your work is considered a political activity and you are barred from doing it. Larger CSOs with FCRA registration should be able to support smaller CSOs on the ground, but the government is depriving them of the ability of distributing funds to local grassroots groups and reaching out to real beneficiaries.

Where do you see positive change coming from in India?

One beacon of hope is the farmers’ movement. The opposition was against the farm bills proposed by the government, but it was unable to stop them. It was farmers themselves who stopped them, by standing their ground for almost one year in the heat, cold and rain. Thousands of criminal cases were brought against farmers, and they were smeared as terrorists. But they managed to hold their ground, build unity and push back. The key lesson here is that people must get organised.

I think that if it hadn’t been for the pandemic, the anti-CAA law movement would have had similar results. Students are also an important force, but we are seeing them facing attacks to prevent them organising and speaking up. But they will find a way to continue their struggle.

At a time when many internal mechanisms are failing us, international scrutiny and pressure are also key to improving the situation. There are international standards India cannot ignore. But of late, the Indian government has taken a problematic attitude towards UN bodies, including UN missions to Kashmir, and has gone as far as preventing people from speaking at or participating in international conferences. When UN Special Rapporteurs have made comments on human rights in India, the response has been dismissive and disparaging.

The government often uses terrorism and national security as an excuse for all kinds of human rights abuses. It is important to put the spotlight on this and not let the government get away with it.

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

Sudha was one of our #StandAsMyWitness faces. The campaign advocates for the release of Human Rights Defenders behind bars. In 2021, we welcomed the news of the release of three Human Rights Defenders -including Sudha-, and we continue to use our voices to call for the release of all other detained activists. Head to the official campaign page to read more about the current faces featured and join us in standing as their witnesses!

StandAsMyWitness released HRDs


SERBIA: ‘We are not just fighting locally; we are sending a message to the world’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests against the exploration and licensing of lithium mining – for use in batteries, including electric vehicle batteries – in Serbia with Miroslav Mijatović, activist and president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Founded in 2014, PAKT is a civil society organisation (CSO) working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.

Miroslav Mijatovic

What is the ongoing civil society campaign against lithium mining in Serbia?

There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar river valley. The company in charge, Rio Tinto, certified the balance reserves of lithium and boron in late 2020, accounting for 158,647,256 tonnes – 1.7 per cent lithium and almost 14 per cent boron.

Initial investigations are also taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.

The Law on Mining and Geological Explorations (2011-2015) declared lithium and boron to be strategic minerals, and therefore in the public interest, allowing land expropriation to be carried out for those mining projects. As a result, people are afraid that the state will confiscate their property at a very low price.

Rio Tinto has spread the rumour that it pays a much better price and this has played very well on the field, but it is simply not true. The company has so far managed to buy about 150 of the 350 hectares required to obtain a building permit and approval for exploitation, but I think it won’t be able to get much more. Now everyone expects a move by the state. It is not easy for the government to move on with expropriations before an election, but after these take place in April, the situation will get worse.

For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. We have been told Jadar Valley is going to be experimental project, but we don’t want to be treated as lab rats. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.

Our efforts are currently focused on the multiple proven violations of Serbian legislation and regulations involved in the state’s dealings with Rio Tinto. As well as violations of national legislation, including of the Environmental Protection Law, the Law on Planning and Construction, the Law on Agricultural Land, the Forest Law and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, among several others, there have been repeated violations of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right of people to access timely and accurate environmental information held by the authorities.

All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.

What has PAKT done to try to stop the project?

We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We were aware of the fact that a petition does not have any legal power but seized the opportunity to create wider awareness of the issue.

We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.

We also cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we had collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.

However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew that we were no longer alone.

As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.

For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.

We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.

What did the campaign achieve?

The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.

In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.

Since the beginning of the protests, PAKT has emphasised that these were citizen protests that did not involve the political opposition. This civil revolt achieved something that the weak opposition never achieved under nine years of rule – first as prime minister and now as president – by Aleksandar Vučić: the protests attracted a part of his electorate and gave him a signal to give in.

It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. In our last meeting, we asked the prime minister if she had withdrawn the decree on the spatial plan because of growing awareness of the environmental danger, and she replied that she did not yet have all the information on lithium exploitation. It became clear to us that they are afraid of people taking massively to the streets in an election year.

This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make demonstrators protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.

How has Rio Tinto reacted?

We have not been in contact with Rio Tinto for over two years. We believe dialogue only benefits them because afterwards they claim they have engaged with civil society and have listened to our concerns. When we managed to convince other CSOs that this was the right approach, the company went on to found its own fake CSOs to go through the motions of civil society consultation.

So far, we haven’t received any threats from the company. Threats typically come from domestic extremists who mostly support the Vučić government. We are annoying for many right-wing movements and associations, so they threaten and attack us. While so far we haven’t received serious threats, we have noticed an increased interest of security agencies in our work. But as we have been dealing with corruption for more than 10 years, we are used to this.

What do you think will happen after the elections?

It seems that President Vučić has emerged quite strongly from the protests. He seems to have galvanised his electorate, because the public appears to have been sold on his concessions, and now they wonder, what more do environmentalists want?

In addition, some members of the opposition joined the protests in an attempt to score some political points, which only served to drive many people off the streets. As the opposition is divided, the majority will likely stick with Vučić for another term, and I am genuinely afraid that after the election we will see the real repressive face of this regime.

Our main goal will be to achieve the adoption of a law banning lithium and boron research, the only thing that could reduce tensions to some extent. We have submitted a bill to that effect and even proposed to set up a working group with experts from government and civil society. We urged for this to happen before the election campaign is underway, because we do not believe the government’s intentions are sincere. It is highly unlikely it will agree to pass this law by urgent procedure before the elections, so protests will likely continue.

What support could international civil society and the international community provide?

Any help and support from international civil society will be welcome, particularly in terms of amplifying and internationalising environmental issues. We are not just fighting here locally to protect our environment; we are sending a message to the world about the dangers of extracting lithium from solid sediments, which are simply not acceptable anywhere in the world. We all need to be vigilant.

As an organisation whose mission is to trace the flow of public resources and money, we have also made the connection between environmental and anti-corruption issues. This government is turning Serbia into a European landfill, and there are obvious reasons why it gives tacit approval for corporations to violate environmental standards to reduce production costs.

European Union (EU) companies and civil society should deal with this issue, because the situation in Serbia will eventually affect the business of EU companies and distort competition, ultimately affecting the quality of life in the EU.

Civic space in Serbia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with PAKT through its website or its Facebook page. 

PERU: ‘Environmental regulations were relaxed, when they should have been strengthened’

Juan Carlos SueiroCIVICUS discusses the recent oil spill off the coast of Lima, Peru, with Juan Carlos Sueiro, Director of Fisheries at Oceana, the world’s largest international organisation dedicated to protecting and restoring the world’s oceans. Founded in 2001, Oceana focuses its work on restoring fisheries, promoting clean energy and establishing protected marine areas.

Has anyone been held responsible for the oil spill off the coast of Lima?

The oil spill, caused by the Spanish oil company Repsol, happened on 15 January 2022. Due to its magnitude and visibility, it was the worst ecological disaster in Peru’s recent history. It occurred in an artisanal fishing zone, with protected areas and important seasonal economic activity. It is the largest spill we have ever had.

The spill happened because of the high tides caused by the eruption of the Tonga submarine volcano, which affected the process of unloading oil from a Repsol oil tanker to the La Pampilla refinery. The question is: how is it possible that the company only became aware of the magnitude of the spill the next day? The company’s negligence magnified the consequences of this spill.

Unfortunately, we have seen little progress in terms of Repsol taking responsibility for recovering the ecosystem. Even the exact volume of oil spilled is not known with any certainty. The company’s reaction was very slow, which is worrying because the first 24 hours following this kind of accident are key, as the oil film becomes very thin and expands a lot. It was only almost 20 days later that more sophisticated equipment was brought in to address the problem.

Overall there is not enough transparency. In this case, the contingency plan was not implemented. The activities currently underway are supposed to be the product of a plan, but neither the company’s commitments nor the contents of that plan have been made public. The area between Ancón and Chancay was heavily impacted on by the spill, and there is no bay there, only cliffs and water. It is visible how little has been done in the way of recovery.

There is also little transparency in the investigation. It is still not clear whether Repsol has handed over the equipment that was underwater in order to investigate and determine what happened on the day of the spill.

This lack of transparency is symptomatic of the way the Peruvian state operates. This is similar to what happened when the pandemic broke out and we ‘discovered’ that we had an absolutely precarious health system, which was clearly not up to the task. In this case, we have environmental structures, legislation and procedures on paper, but not in reality. The opacity of information is intended to hide this discrepancy.

For us it is very clear: Repsol must publicly assume clearly defined responsibilities.

What have been the environmental and economic impacts of the spill?

There has been great environmental damage. The area affected by the spill includes several protected natural areas: the Ancón Reserved Zone, the Guaneras Islands and the Punta Salinas Reserved Zone. The spill has impacted on marine fauna, affecting animals such as sea lions, otters, penguins and birds. Many have been stained with oil and their lives are at risk. Oceana is currently surveying this damage, as well as the additional damage caused by the company’s delayed reaction.

For communities in the area, the greatest concern is economic. These are mostly low-income people engaged in artisanal fishing. Beyond individual and immediate impacts – for example, for those who had invested in a seasonal business just before the spill – the consequences are collective and long-term. It is now impossible to fish in Ancón or Chancay, and it is difficult to know when it will be possible to do so, because oil has a much longer degradation time when it settles on the seabed. The fishermen and all the workers involved in processing and distribution logistics are also concerned about the variation in fish prices and the drop in demand.

We have run a calculation of the economic worth of coastal fisheries in these places to give us an idea of the economic loss. We also believe that there is an important impact on tourist activity: for the nine million inhabitants of the capital, Lima, and the three million living a little further north, these beaches are the closest place to spend the summer, and the spill has cut short the summer season, which runs from January to April. We have already warned the local municipalities that they must estimate the damage caused to tourism.

How has civil society responded?

We have all reacted with concern and a great interest in helping others. We have seen many volunteers helping to clean up the beaches, as well as experts and academics contributing within their areas of expertise.

However, volunteer work has limitations because in order to rescue marine wildlife from the damage caused by oil, certain procedures and products must be used to properly remove oil from an animal’s plumage or skin. Because of this, interest in helping usually does not translate into 100 per cent successful results.

Moreover, as this is the first time we have faced a disaster of this magnitude, Peru does not have all the expertise it needs. There is post-disaster expertise and experience elsewhere; it is necessary to bring it in. It would also be important to deepen the discussion about the energy mix we have and how to change it by turning towards the renewable resources that are available to us.

How can private companies be called to account and contribute to preventing future disasters?

Lack of accountability is a longstanding concern for the communities in these areas, and the fact that their demands have been systematically ignored is a symptom of Peru’s strong centralism. Artisanal fishermen in the north have been warning about this situation for several years and there has been no meaningful response. Oil extraction in Peru dates back to the 19th century; Peru had the first oilwell in South America. In the 1950s and 1960s, offshore platforms were installed, which are at the root of the spills and leaks that fishers complain about. There are also complaints about what happens in the transportation process, which has much greater implications.

This situation has encouraged civil society to prioritise the search for solutions. For almost a decade, environmental requirements have been reduced in Peru; it is necessary to walk back that path. Peru is engaged in fishing, mining and other activities for which regulations have been relaxed, when they should have been strengthened. The very low environmental capacity of the state and the poor response of companies to disasters clearly shows their inadequacy. Peru suffers from a major crisis of governance and respect for the rule of law. 

The possibility of another spill is always present. It is necessary to minimise the likelihood of it happening, and to ensure that when it does, it has the least possible impact in terms of magnitude, frequency and consequences. To do this we have to start by not losing sight of who is responsible for this disaster and the consequences of their irresponsible action.

Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Oceana through its website or its Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok accounts, and follow @Oceana_Peru and @SueiroJC on Twitter.

BOLIVIA: ‘To exercise our rights, Indigenous peoples don’t need anyone’s permission’

CIVICUS speaks about the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP).

CONTIOCAP was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.


What challenges do Bolivia’s Indigenous peoples face in their struggles for land rights?

The biggest challenge for Indigenous peoples is the Bolivian government itself, which has become the main agent and source of rights violations, as it does not guarantee compliance with the constitution or protect the rights of its citizens, and particularly those of Indigenous peoples. We are third-class human beings, without rights, and are sacrificed.

The organisations that used to represent us have been politically subjugated and turned into accomplices and operational arms of the violation of the rights of Indigenous and peasant peoples and nations. The state apparatus is imposing all forms of extractivism on our territories and protected areas: mining, agribusiness and hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation.

The right to free, prior and informed consultation is being manipulated and turned into a simple administrative process that consists in drawing up minutes and signing forms and allows the participation of groups close to the government, which the government identifies as valid interlocutors even though they are not the real people affected by the projects in question.

Another challenge we Indigenous peoples face is that of understanding that we have been mentally colonised with offers of great wealth that never materialise. We must understand that the wealth that is generated in our territories is taken by outsiders and their corrupt environments. Behind the facade of interculturalism, the government divides us in order to discipline us and put us at the service of its political interests.

Once we understand this, the main challenge will be to restore the unity of Indigenous peoples, recover our ancestral memory of freedom, undertake the required self-criticism and dedicate ourselves to planning and building the country we want, exercising the rights that are already recognised in the constitution.

The Bolivian constitution and international conventions and declarations so far represent progress on paper only. The way in which they are implemented by the Bolivian state turns them into abysmal setbacks, gaps, walls and barriers. Thirteen years after its promulgation on 7 February 2009, the Political Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia is still tucked away in a desk drawer. In the last decade and a half, a monocultural, centralist, authoritarian, patriarchal, elitist and classist state that imposes a radically extractivist and capitalist economic policy has become the most lethal weapon against economic, cultural, social and justice pluralism.

Violations of land rights include intimidation, harassment, discrediting, disqualification, criminalisation and legal procedures to silence land rights defenders. Such acts are carried out by oil and mining companies, the security forces, the judiciary – which is dominated by the government – and even by Indigenous organisations that support the government, which issue public resolutions to ignore us and restrict our right to defend our rights.

What are your mobilisation strategies?

Our strategy is to always maintain our integrity and dignity and to insist on exercising the rights protected by the Bolivian constitution and international conventions. To exercise our rights we don’t need anyone’s permission or approval, we just need to recognise ourselves as free and independent beings with full rights. This is what CONTIOCAP has been doing. If the government does not do its job, we must remind it that the state belongs to everyone and that we all have a moral obligation to question the bad practices of governments, to debate what kind of country we want and to seek ways for all of us to have the opportunity to grow as human beings.

Historically, we have resorted to long marches as an extreme form of mobilisation to draw attention and seek justice. First, we marched for a constitution that recognised our rights as Indigenous peoples. And for the past 13 years, we have marched to demand that those rights be realised in practice.

Our marches have been ignored, made invisible, isolated, harassed, and repressed. They have been accused of responding to opportunistic interests and discredited by powerful economic, political, and governmental forces.

The 37-day march initiated by the lowland brothers and sisters in September 2021 was no exception in this regard. After so much sacrifice, after abandoning their villages, their homes, their families, their animals, the response they got from the government was insulting. While they waited for a signal from the government, the government met not with them but with organisations subservient to its interests. It was a clear message that it is the government who decides whether we are first, second or third-class citizens.

What legislative changes do you demand?

Among the laws that go against Indigenous peoples is Law 535 on Mining and Metallurgy of 2014, which violates fundamental principles and guarantees of the rule of law. It grants privileges to mining operators that are placed above the principle of citizens’ equality. It grants them rights of access to water that supersede those of local communities. It violates fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples such as prior consultation, which is reduced to an administrative process with deadlines and procedures that undermine consultation as a right.

We also demand the repeal of Law 969 of 2017, which violates the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples of the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, of Supreme Decree 2298 of 2015, which violates our right to free, prior and informed consultation in the hydrocarbon sector, and of Supreme Decree 2366 of 2015, which allows oil exploration in protected areas.

There are many laws that we would like to see passed, but in the current context of total control of all powers by the government of the Movement for Socialism, it is dangerous to push a legislative agenda. In the best case scenario, the government could use it to whitewash its image, and in the worst case scenario, to promote its own interests. They would use us to validate norms that could even turn against us.

But we do demand legislation to guarantee the economic inclusion of productive community organisations and producer families, the approval of the Bill on the Restitution of Ancestral Territories, which was introduced in 2019, and the reform of article 10 of Law 073 on jurisdictional demarcation. We demand that priority be given to effective compliance with the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) and other international agreements, conventions, pacts and covenants.

Do you see your struggles as part of a broader regional movement?

The struggle to protect land and the environment is not the struggle of a single movement but a global struggle for the defence of life through the protection of our land. Nor is it the product of a sudden inspiration, but of an awareness of our right and the right of all forms of life to exist in this world. We seek respect as human beings who have taken care of the planet for all of us, even for those who are now destroying it.

In that sense, our struggles are the same as those of Indigenous peoples around the world. We are somehow connected and linked at regional and global levels, although over the past two years the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented us from having face-to-face exchanges, while virtual exchanges have been hindered by the limitations of access to communications in Indigenous territories. However, we are now resuming the exchange of experiences and coordination.

What support do groups defending land rights in Bolivia need from international civil society?

They can help us by making our struggles visible, making them known so we can connect with other struggles of Indigenous brothers and sisters around the world. We want them to know that we defend our territories in precarious conditions and with our own resources and sacrificing the economy of our families, even more so after the pandemic. And we do this not only for ourselves but for all beings that require oxygen and water to live. We need direct support with small funds for legal and other emergency actions.

We hope that they will help us unmask the double discourse of the Bolivian governments of the past 16 years, which in international spaces have presented themselves as saviours of Indigenous peoples and defenders of Mother Earth. This is far from the truth; these are just speeches that sound good from the outside and that international organisations like.

We must unmask the international propaganda about left-wing governments. For us Indigenous peoples, all the governments of Bolivia – whatever their political colour – have had the same plans against Indigenous peoples. They seek to relegate us, put us off, divide us and pit us against each other to perpetuate themselves in power.

Civic space in Bolivia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Contact CONTIOCAP through its Facebook page and follow @contiocap and @CuquiRuth on Twitter. 

KAZAKHSTAN: ‘No economic or social reform will bring real change unless there is also serious political reform’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Kazakhstan and the state’s repressive response with Yevgeniy Zhovtis, a prominent human rights lawyer and director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR).

Founded in 1993, KIBHR is a human rights civil society organisation aimed at promoting civil and political rights, democratic freedoms, the rule of law and the development of civil society through education, data collection, analysis and dissemination of information, and advocacy to harmonise domestic legislation with international standards. Yevgeniy is also a member of Panel of Experts on Freedom of Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute Council.

Yevgeniy Zhovtis

What caused the recent protests in Kazakhstan?

The demands expressed in the recent protests have deep roots in processes that go back to the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when former Soviet republics started to transition towards a capitalist system based on private property. The problem in Kazakhstan was that members of the nomenklatura, the ruling class in Soviet times, and especially those in positions of authority in state-owned companies, became the owners of a big portion of the economy. These elites then started to incorporate elements of authoritarian political control to match their economic power, and gained control of the political space, independent media and public life in general.

As a result, Kazakhstan turned into an authoritarian and oligarchic state, with much of the economy concentrated in the hands of a small group of people close to First President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his clan and his family, and ridden with social inequality.

Unsurprisingly, over the years dissatisfaction grew. People were unhappy about illegal practices that bypassed institutions, corruption, social injustice and inequality, among other things. A protest movement grew in 2011 but ended in massacre. Residents of Zhanaozen, a city in southwest Kazakhstan, went on a hunger strike and set up a protest camp in the city’s main square for months, demanding higher salaries and better working conditions. In December 2011, the police opened fire on them and, according to official data, killed 17 and injured more than a hundred people.

This became to some extent a moment of great symbolic power.

As protests erupted in 2022, what were their demands?

Ten years later, at the very start of 2022, the Ministry of the Economy freed the market for liquefied gas, which is the most important fuel for local cars. Prices went up by 100 per cent. 

But the trigger for the 2022 protests was strikingly similar to that of the 2011 protest. People were angry not only because of rising gas and oil prices, but also because of economic mismanagement and corruption. It started with several thousand protesters in Zhanaozen on 2 January and within two or three days it spread to more than 60 cities all around the country. When anger reached a tipping point, many thousands took to the streets.

Initially, protests in many places were driven by groups of political opposition, civic activists who were joined by workers and marginalised groups. It was not a situation in which the mass of the people mobilised against the government. Generally speaking, having lived under an authoritarian state for the past 17 years, people in Kazakhstan have no real political culture or a political voice. Public protests are illegal: people are not allowed to gather in central squares or in any place near a government building, so anyone who protests in the streets is committing an administrative offence.

But people don’t seem to be so afraid anymore. By mid-January 2022, the protests that started in the west had spread out to other regions, and masses of diverse people joined, including not only big crowds of young people but also criminals, militants close to local elites and even some Islamic radicals.

President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev tried to control the situation, replaced some security authorities and put himself at the head of the security council, replacing the First President, who was supposed to occupy this position for life. The government also shut down internet access for several days.

Most protests were spontaneous, and Kazakhstan is a very diverse country, so there was no consolidated leadership. People kept protesting and adding more social and economic demands, which in turn ended up giving way to political demands, including the resignation of the government and removal of the First President and his clan from all positions in politics and the economy. There are no real opposition political parties but those that are close to having that role called out their supporters to protest.

Protests were also mostly peaceful, but some aggressive young people, militant groups close to local elites and Islamic groups clashed with the police. They tried to seize government buildings and, in some cities, they ran out of control.

How did the government respond?

The government reacted with deadly violence, to the point that the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had to urge it to end the violence towards protesters.

As well as having control of the national security forces, President Tokayev resorted to Russian Security Forces as part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization forces. He brought in more than 2,000 Russian troops, joined by Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan units. These also had a political purpose: to show that Russian president Vladimir Putin had his back.

More than 220 people were killed and more than 10,000 were arrested during the protests. Between 8,000 and 9,000 of them were later released, but some continue in detention. Among them are some people who were violent and committed looting but many others who did not. For almost a week they didn’t have access to basic rights such as communicating with their families or a lawyer, and there have been many cases of torture and cruel treatment in detention. Only by 14 or 15 January, when they regained control, did the authorities start to provide information regarding places of detention and people detained. But judicial procedures continue and the outcome of the trials is uncertain.

Once President Tokayev regained control, Russian security forces left Kazakhstan. The president then moved to consolidate his power. On 11 January he addressed a statement to parliament in which he promised to introduce economic and social reforms aimed at bringing a measure of social justice, reducing inequalities, combatting corruption and improving the economy. He also promised that in September he will announce a set of political reforms. 

Did anything change as a result of the protests?

The number of people who took the streets was incredibly high, and that in and by itself was an important positive change. In the medium term we might see an impact in terms of economic and social changes. But we need institutional changes regarding the prison system and the security forces, the police and prosecutor’s office and judiciary. All these institutions must be radically reformed.

And Kazakhstan also needs political reform. I do not expect the government to hold democratic elections anytime soon, but I am concerned about the space for independent media and journalists, for the growth of a democratic opposition and for the development of civil society. At some point there will be a need for political pluralism, party competition and citizen participation.

I think these protests gave the government some food for thought. No economic or social reform will bring real change unless it there is also serious political reform. Otherwise, the story will repeat itself following the same pattern.

What can the international community do to improve civic space in Kazakhstan?

I participated in a meeting with the European Union External Action Service people and have close communications with western embassies regarding civic space and human rights issues. But unfortunately, Kazakhstan is not relevant in the international agenda, and the international community is currently absorbed with the pandemic. Additionally, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is also keeping the world busy. There are some foreign journalists who are being allowed to work in Kazakhstan who will hopefully publish their coverage in popular newspapers, but that’s about it.

At this point, the only way to help is to look at the situation as a systemic problem that has existed for many years, concerning the nature of the political regimes that have been established in the region, lacking in democratic freedoms. High-level advocacy is needed to slowly move the government towards an understanding of the need to open up the space for civic freedoms. Another, more immediate way to help is to work on a case-by-case basis on the situation of human rights activists, journalists and civil society staff who are being prosecuted. International assistance in investigations on human rights violations would also be very valuable.

Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KIBHR through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @bureau_kz on Twitter.

KENYA: ‘Holding police officers accountable for killings in a court of law will be the main deterrent’

JosephKariukiCIVICUS speaks about police brutality in Kenya with Joseph Kariuki, Communications and Media Lead of International Justice Mission and editor of the Missing Voices project. Missing Voices Kenya is an initiative of a group of civil society organisations (CSOs) aimed at filling the evidence gap regarding police brutality, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. It layers victims’ testimony with consolidated quantitative data and tracks processes to hold those responsible legally accountable.

What is Missing Voices Kenya trying to do?

Missing Voices was launched in August 2018, by a coalition of partners working on police reform. The main aim of the project was to produce a database of police killings and enforced disappearances in Kenya. This was critical since efforts by most CSOs to share their individual statistics proved untenable because of the different numbers each organisation had. This created confusion and gave the government a window to deny what seemed to be a systematic trend of extrajudicial killings.

Our production of verified data was in itself a big success, considering the efforts put into denying this reality. Missing Voices has so far released two annual reports, in 2019 and 2020, and has held campaigns both online and offline to advocate for the end of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in Kenya.

Our website is meant to showcase victims’ stories and provide a platform for their families to agitate for justice. Every confirmed story is published on our website, including the name and photograph of the victim, along with any information that can help resolve their murder or discover someone’s whereabouts in case they are missing and still alive. We have seen cases being reopened right after they were published on our platform.

In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic and the enforced curfew worsened human rights in Kenya?

The Missing Voices Kenya report ‘The Brutal Pandemic’ documented 157 cases of police killings and an additional 10 cases of enforced disappearances during 2020. Not all the cases were the result of COVID-19 containment measures, but some – around 23 – were the direct result of these.

The measures put in place increased the prevalence of police brutality, which has been a systemic issue in Kenya for years. Most families, especially those living in poor neighbourhoods, bore the brunt of the measures after police officers were given orders to use force if necessary to ensure the 7pm curfew was enforced. Most families were caught unawares after public transport vehicles were ordered to carry half their maximum load, which meant there was a shortage of transport to get back home before the curfew.

Why is police brutality targeted at young people in informal settlements, and what can be done about this?

The fact that young people in poor neighbourhoods are the primary targets of police brutality can at least partly be explained by the high crime rates in such areas and the police strategy of using force to fight crime. This has worsened by the trend of arbitrary arrests of young men leaving their workplaces for home late at night. In informal settlements there seems to be a permanent curfew in place, since well before the pandemic.

There are police squads that move around in unmarked cars arresting young men, many of whom have been killed. This has led to distrust between the public and the police. Lack of trust has hampered efforts to fight crime, because police depend heavily on the public for tips on criminal activity and perpetrators.

This bad blood can be prevented if police officers stop looking at young men as suspects of crime and start moving around in marked cars. Poverty is still the leading cause of conflict between police and the public, so the government should put in place measures to empower and improve the opportunities for young people. And above all, the main deterrent will be if police officers are held accountable for killings in a court of law.

What challenges has Missing Voices Kenya faced in ensuring accountability?

The biggest challenge has taken the form of threats to victims or their families, which has deterred many from following up on their cases in court. Cases of police killings take a long time to investigate and even longer to process through the judicial system, which often leads to discouragement and apathy in the community.

In response to this, in June 2021 the Missing Voices coalition ran a campaign on delayed justice, which highlighted cases that had taken a very long time to resolve but had eventually resulted in justice being served.

Have there been other citizen responses to police brutality?

A number of protests have been held against police brutality and we have also organised public dialogues in which we have shared the statistics we have collected and urged for an end to the violence. Our Brutal Pandemic report was handed to the Senate and another report was released in November 2021 making a number of recommendations. During the pandemic, our campaigns forced the government to condemn police brutality. It must be noted that before this the government had denied anything was wrong, so this kind of acknowledgment is a welcome first step.

How can international civil society best support Kenyan civil society efforts to bring an end to these human rights abuses?

More advocacy is needed for the government to accept that police brutality, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings are systemic issues that need addressing. There is a need to empower local justice centres and survivor groups so that people can count on safe spaces and are enabled to speak up more about these issues. And there is need for bigger capacity to take witnesses into the witness protection programme, without which we are unlikely to make much additional progress.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Missing Voices through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @MissingVoicesKE and @kariukimwangi on Twitter.

HAITI: ‘The international community has never addressed the root causes of the crisis’

NixonBoumbaCIVICUS speaks with Nixon Boumba, a human rights activist and member of Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Haiti Justice in Mining Collective), about the political situation in Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Formed in 2012, Haiti Justice in Mining Collective is a movement of Haitian civil society organisations, individuals and partners pushing for transparency and social and environmental justice in the face of growing international interest in Haiti’s mining sector. It educates affected communities on the consequences of mining in five areas: the environment, water, work, agriculture and land.

TUNISIA: ‘Civil society is not yet under direct threat, but we believe that our turn is coming’

Amine GhaliCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy in Tunisia following the president’s July 2021 power grab with Amine Ghali, director of Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center (KADEM). KADEM is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at promoting civil society’s contribution to democracy and transitional justice in Tunisia and the wider region, through awareness-raising, capacity-strengthening and documentation. 

RUSSIA: ‘We hope that social media companies will avoid becoming a censorship tool’

Denis ShedovCIVICUS speaks about increasing civic space restrictions in Russia with Denis Shedov, a lawyer and analyst at OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that recently experienced the blockage of its website by the Russian authorities. Denis’ work focuses on the violation of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression and other forms of politically motivated persecution in Russia. As well as researching these topics, as a lawyer he defends detained protesters, appeals against bans on peaceful assemblies and challenges unlawful police action in Russia, while also bringing these situations to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.

SAN MARINO: ‘There was an overwhelming demand for women to gain the right to choose’

CIVICUS speaks with Sara Casadei, vice-president of Noi Ci Siamo San Marino (‘We are here San Marino’), about the referendum on abortion rights held in San Marino on 26 September 2021. Noi Ci Siamo San Marino is a volunteer initiative aimed at informing, supporting and empowering young people through recreational and socio-cultural activities. It advocates for the rights of disadvantaged young people and has focused on bullying, cyberbullying and gender-based violence, as well as campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in San Marino.

Sara Casadei

What was the situation of women’s rights before abortion was legalised in San Marino?

Generally speaking, women in San Marino have always had the same rights as in Italy, except for the right to interrupt pregnancy. Before abortion was legalised by referendum in September 2021, San Marino was one of a few European countries where abortion was illegal. But women in San Marino enjoyed all other rights, including the right to vote and occupy decision-making spaces.

Before the referendum, abortion was a criminal offence punished with between three to six years in prison, regardless of the reasons leading to the abortion. Punishment applied to all people involved: the woman seeking an abortion and all those contributing, including doctors. That is why women would typically travel to Italy to have abortions, which is inconvenient and costly – and over the past few years, it also became more difficult as many Italian doctors are refusing to perform abortions.

Can you tell us about the process leading to the referendum vote?

The process started by the initiative of the Unione Donne Sammarinesi (Women’s Union of San Marino, UDS). The organisation had spent almost two decades advocating for the legalisation of abortion, but its proposals had been systematically vetoed by conservative governments, so they felt they had no other choice but to resort to this direct democracy mechanism and ask citizens directly whether they agreed with legalising abortion.

To trigger this mechanism, there was the need to gather the signatures of three per cent of registered voters. The UDS led the collection of signatures along with the RETE movement (Movimento Civico Rinnovamento – Equità – Transparenza – Ecosostenibilità), a political party formed by environmental, cultural and civic rights activist groups. The signature collection campaign was conducted in March 2021 and gathered a lot more support than required. Advancing this right was the people’s will, rather than just the UDS’s. It was an overwhelming demand for women to gain the right to choose.

Noi Ci Siamo San Marino supported the whole process, from the signature collection to the referendum campaign, in which we made several calls for our target audience – San Marino youth – to vote ‘yes’ for their own sake and that of future generations. We were up against the opposition of the Catholic Church and the ruling party, the Christian Democrats. The fact that 77 per cent of citizens, many of whom are Catholics and support the ruling party, voted ‘yes’, shows that people’s views have evolved faster than those of their political and religious representatives.

What’s next? Will recognition of this right be a gateway to the achievement of further rights?

The referendum requires action on the part of the government. On the basis of the referendum results, legislators must draft an abortion rights bill within six months. The referendum question referred to on-demand abortions until the 12th week of pregnancy and to later abortions in cases of foetal malformation or when the pregnant person’s health is at risk. But the final law does not necessarily have to stick to that.

I wouldn’t say that the legalisation of abortion will lead to other women’s rights. But we do expect the inception of related services, such as medical and psychological assistance both before and after pregnancy interruption, as well as sex education and teenage pregnancy prevention in schools.

Civic space in San Marino is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Noi ci siamo San Marino through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages.

CZECH REPUBLIC: ‘We believe that the new government will defend democratic principles’

CIVICUS speaks about the recent Czech elections with Marie Jahodová, Executive Director of Million Moments for Democracy, a civil society organisation working to support democracy in the Czech Republic and Europe by fostering civic participation, the accountability of elected representatives and democratic debate.

Marie Jahodova

What were the conditions for civil society and media freedoms in the run-up to the October 2021 election?

One of the key factors influencing media freedoms in the Czech Republic is the distortion of the media market and limited access to information. This is mainly caused by the fact that billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns 30 per cent of the private media market, according to calculations by the European Federation of Journalists.

The other defining factor is that public service media (TV, radio and press agency) are steered by media councils: the Czech Television Council, the Czech Radio Council and the Czech Press Agency Council. Council members are nominated and elected by simple majority by the Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Yet in the past four years the majority in the Chamber of Deputies was held by Andrej Babiš’ party ANO (‘Yes’), communists and the far-right Svoboda a přímá demokracie (Freedom and Direct Democracy) movement. Therefore, when voting for new councillors took place, non-democratic nominees were easily elected and the independence of the public service media was significantly harmed. For that reason, one of the most important tasks for the new democratic government will be to redesign media councils and reform related laws.

Conditions for civil society were also hardened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen engagement became more difficult, as people could not gather in larger groups and organising protests and mass demonstrations became impossible. For that reason, we at Million Moments switched towards online events and interactions as much as possible. For example, as strict pandemic-related restrictions were in place, we organised an online demonstration and happenings in public space that did not involve the presence of many people.

The crucial problem, both in the election campaign and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, has been disinformation. And our organisation has had to deal with disinformation quite often as well.

How has civil society organised against corruption, and what has been the official response?

As a part of civil society, we have organised a number of protests and happenings focusing mainly on our fundamental topics, such as conflict of interests of government officials, the need for an independent justice system and the importance of free and independent public media.

Additionally, we have held events commemorating victims of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic, including one in which we placed white crosses on Old Town Square. By doing so we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the pandemic was mismanaged by the then-government. In other words, the events we organised last year were not focused solely on political corruption, although this is still our long-term topic. 

Andrej Babiš never gave us any official answer. His inaction is consistent with the fact that dialogue between his government and civil society was always non-existent, and Babiš never supported it. Civil society was repeatedly underestimated and made fun of by both Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were called names such as ‘Prague Café fans’ and ‘uneducated kids only undermining the prime minister’s legitimate seizure of power’.

It is not surprising that Babiš did not like our critical voice pointing at his enormous conflicts of interest, corruption, intent to abuse the public service media and other abuses his government was responsible for. The only ‘answer’ ‘Babiš gave was the often-repeated claim that all of it was a hate campaign against him led by the media and the opposition.

What impact did the Pandora Papers have on the election?

The Pandora Papers named Babiš among those keeping assets and spending millions through shell companies in tax havens. Unfortunately, no sufficient data exist to measure the impact of this on the election results. Some people think that the revelation of the Pandora Papers was a decisive moment in the election campaign, yet no hard data proving it are available. As far as we can lean on known figures, the Pandora Papers had no impact on Babiš’ electorate, whose preferences stayed about the same as before the Pandora Papers affair.

On the other hand, these revelations might have influenced a number of non-voters. Many people who had not planned to vote in the election may have changed their mind after the Pandora Papers came out. This year’s participation rate was five percentage points higher than in the previous election, held in 2017. This increase, especially among young voters, was a very important factor playing in favour of democratic parties in the election. In terms of timing – they were published just a couple of days before the election – the Pandora Papers had the potential to influence the results.

What were the other key issues during the election?

The main topics in the election campaign were the COVID-19 pandemic and related precautions, state capture by Andrej Babiš, who was in power for eight years, and the ongoing decrease of trust in politics and politicians.

The main narrative used by members of the democratic coalition was that we needed change, that we had had enough of an oligarch as Prime Minister, and we wanted to see no more billions flowing illegally into politicians’ businesses.

On the other hand, Babiš’ party, ANO, used disinformation tactics to defame the Czech Pirate party, which had a very high preference in the pre-election polls in the spring of 2021. For that reason, ANO considered it the biggest competitor and used disinformation to slander it, which significantly harmed its electoral results.

What are civil society’s hopes for the new government?

We hope that the new government will defend democratic principles and lead a dialogue with civil society. Dialogue with civil society has in fact already begun, even in a public way. This is definitely a good sign for the future. After many years of rejection, not only our organisation but civil society in general really appreciates that the new Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, seems open to responding to questions and addressing the possible concerns of civil society.

We do realise though that the new government will not have an easy job, as it came to power at a challenging time. It will need to resolve a difficult economic situation – both the public debt and the national deficit are currently at the highest level in our history – and the pandemic crisis and all the problems linked to it.

What else needs to happen to strengthen democratic freedoms and root out corruption in the Czech Republic?

The new government must get rid of the people connected to Andrej Babiš’ company, Agrofert, who are currently employed in public administration. This is an important long-term task.

There are also other big challenges awaiting the new government, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office law reform, which could strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and the amendment of the law on conflicts of interest. It’s also necessary to replace some of the members of media councils who are still connected to non-democratic political parties that seek to undermine the credibility of public media. Politicians must also promise to fight disinformation effectively.

And let’s not forget the Capi Hnizdo affair – allegations of European Union subsidy fraud – in relation to which Babiš has been under prosecution for more than four years already. A resolution of this case should not be postponed again. The investigation needs to move forward and the court should deliver its verdict. Otherwise, it will be a very bad signal for Czech civil society, especially in view of the upcoming presidential campaign.

Civic space in the Czech Republic is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Million Moments for Democracy through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @milionchvilek and @m_jahodova on Twitter. 

SUDAN: ‘The government and the international community must engage more with civil society’

Abdel Rahman El MahdiCIVICUS speaks about the prospects for democracy and civilian rule in Sudan with Abdel-Rahman El Mahdi, founder and director of the Sudanese Development Initiative (SUDIA). SUDIA is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works toward stability, development and good governance in Sudan. With 25 years of experience in international development, Abdel-Rahman specialises in organisational management and programming, with a thematic expertise extending to peacebuilding and human security, and civic engagement and democratic transformation.


What was civil society’s reaction when Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok returned to power in November?

After being ousted by a coup in October 2021, Prime Minister Hamdok managed to return to power in November as a result of a deal he reached with the military, which was signed on 21 November 2021. Reactions to this varied, because Sudanese civil society is very diverse.

Since the December 2018 revolution, Sudanese civil society is in three distinct segments. The first contains what can be called revolutionary civil society movements and groups such as neighbourhood resistance committees, the Sudan Professional Association and other alliances and networks that sprang up during or in the aftermath of the revolution. Second, there is the segment that includes formal state-regulated CSOs, which are usually registered under various laws and have a licence to operate. Third, there are informal or traditional forms of civil society that existed from before independence, including the traditional or native administrative system and tribal leaders, and faith-based groups such as various Sufi groups.

In terms of the size of their constituencies and their representation of the public, the biggest segment is that of informal and traditional forms of civil society, followed by revolutionary civil society movements and groups, with formal and state-regulated CSOs being the smallest. 

Each part of civil society has had a different reaction to the Hamdok’s agreement with the military. On one end of the spectrum, traditional or native administrative structures and tribal leaders welcomed the agreement and were even represented at the signing ceremony. At the other, revolutionary civil society movements and groups completely opposed the agreement, which they saw as treason to the values and aspirations of the revolution. As for the third group – that of formal and state-regulated CSOs – reactions were mixed, with a majority seeing the agreement as the most viable way forward and the best possible outcome given the situation.

Divisions and polarisation regarding the issue of military versus civilian rule and governance in the transition period are evident among both citizens and their representative institutions – including civil society and political parties – as well as among democracy movements in Sudan.

How significant is the recent resignation of Prime Minister Hamdok? Has anything changed as a result?

Prime Minister Hamdok’s resignation in early January 2022 is a significant development in the trajectory of Sudan’s transition. Hamdok was the only candidate viewed as acceptable by all the main parties that have shaped the transitional period over the past two years, namely the military, the Forces of Freedom and Change - a political coalition made up of civilian, political and armed groups and signatories to the constitutional declaration of 2019 -, revolutionary groups and the international community. His departure has only complicated the political crisis, because now agreement needs to be reached not just on how to proceed with the governance of the transitional period moving forward, but also on who will lead and represent the civilian element in future governance arrangements – and someone needs to be identified who might be acceptable to all parties involved.

Representatives of the international community, the European Union and the Troika (Norway, the UK and the USA) issued a statement on 4 January 2022 in which they warned against any unilateral move by the military to appoint a new prime minister and called for a Sudanese-led and all-inclusive process to address this and other transitional issues. Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to worsen, with protests in the capital, Khartoum, and in other cities continuing unabated.

How has civil society organised since the coup?

Organising and responses to the military takeover of 25 October differ from one kind of civil society group to the other. Revolutionary civil society movements and groups, along with some political parties, have been organising mass protests in Khartoum and other cities and states to express their rejection of the 21 November political agreement and call for a civilian leadership for the transitional period.

Beyond welcoming the agreement and military takeover, traditional native administrative structures and tribal leaders have thus far been absent from the scene, taking no visible actions or positions. Meanwhile, formal, state-regulated CSOs have been slow to mobilise a coordinated response but are gravitating towards facilitating dialogue between stakeholders and are beginning to take concrete actions towards that end.

What factors led to the coup and what needs to happen for Sudan to get on the path to democracy?

Several factors led to the coup and military takeover on 25 October 2021, but the most important in my opinion was the lack of a robust dispute resolution mechanism that should have been agreed to and put in place by the key parties leading the transitional period. Such a mechanism would have helped resolve differences among civilian elements and between the civilian and military elements of the transition.

The transitional constitutional decree was a rushed fix to a complex and rapidly deteriorating situation and has many shortcomings, such as vague language allowing for different interpretations. The political milestones and issues to be tackled during the transitional period – including elections, constitution-making processes and to a great extent security sector reform and transitional justice – can be extremely divisive and are likely to be sharply contested by the key parties leading the transition. 

To overcome these potentially divisive issues and improve the chances of a successful transition to a democratic, peaceful and just Sudan, it will require that such a dispute resolution mechanism is established in any future arrangement put in place to govern the remaining period of the transition.

What role are international institutions playing, and what should they be doing?

The role of international institutions, including the United Nations (UN) and African regional institutions, has been one of damage control rather than damage prevention. The United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) was deployed to Sudan in 2020 but throughout the months prior to the coup and the escalating tensions and differences between the parties leading the transitional period it remained totally absent. Its mediation role only materialised at a later stage, following the unfortunate events of 25 October and after the axe had already fallen, so to speak.

Regional institutions such as the African Union and the Arab League have played a marginal role, with the former only issuing statements threatening suspension of Sudan’s membership, and the latter sending a delegation to help with negotiations in the wake of the coup.

More recently, on 8 January 2022, UNITAMS issued a statement announcing it was ‘formally launching a UN-facilitated intra-Sudanese political process which is aimed at supporting Sudanese stakeholders in agreeing on a way out of the current political crisis and agree on a sustainable path forward towards democracy and peace’.

While this step by UNITAMS is to be applauded, it is important for UNITAMS as well as the international community supporting UNITAMS to consider carefully the details of the process. Rather than taking a head-on approach or focusing on a single objective of just simply resolving the current political crisis, the process should include embedded elements that ensure ownership and transparency and help build visions for common ground amongst the stakeholders involved, for the transitional period and beyond. 

The process should also ensure the elaboration of a dispute resolution mechanism for when differences arise. UNITAMS will have only one shot at this and if it fails, it will lose credibility and the continued presence of the mission in Sudan will come into question.

Moreover, beyond the immediate challenge of surpassing the immediate political crisis, the UN and other international institutions need to step up their act and stay one step ahead of the transition game in Sudan. Transitions in countries such as Sudan, which is emerging from conflict and years of authoritarian rule, require greater agility, heightened levels of coordination and collaboration and more strategic responses on the part of the UN system and international institutions more generally. To achieve this, they need the help of Sudanese civil society, so they will also need to adopt a more structured and strategic approach in engaging with them, instead of the current ad hoc and largely symbolic form of engagement.

What are the main challenges Sudanese civil society faces, and what support does civil society need?

Three of the top-most challenges facing Sudanese CSOs are, in order of priority, the restrictive and disabling environment in which they operate, their limited financial viability and access to funding, and their limited organisational capacity. These are interconnected and have a knock-on effect on each other. They have thus far prevented civil society from playing the promising role that is expected of it in the context of the transition. 

The 30-plus years of authoritarian rule in Sudan have had a devastating effect on the development of civil society and it will take years to reverse it. Both civil society and those investing in it need to factor this into their expectations and aspirations and adopt both short-term and long-term approaches to improving civil society’s contributions to the calls of the revolution: freedom, peace and justice. 

Once the current political crisis is overcome and the path to the democratic transition is resumed, there must be greater investment in and commitment to civil society on the part of both the government and the international community. Support will be needed for efforts to improve civic space and create a more enabling environment for civil society. Support should also be geared towards facilitating dialogue across the various groups that make up the non-political civic scape in Sudan and strengthening their ability to act and speak as one on critical national issues and future challenges.

Civic space in Sudan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with SUDIA through its website or its Facebook or LinkedIn pages, and follow @FollowSUDIA on Twitter. 

PARAGUAY: ‘As long as land remains in private hands, conflict will continue '

CIVICUS speaks with Alicia Amarilla, national coordinator of the Organisation of Peasant and Indigenous Women (CONAMURI) in Paraguay about conflicts over land rights between the state, the private sector and Indigenous communities. CONAMURI is a Paraguayan organisation of Indigenous and peasant women that has been working for 22 years to defend and promote their rights and seek solutions to situations of poverty, exclusion and discrimination based on ethnicity and gender.

PALESTINE: ‘The counter-terrorism law is used to restrict political work in Palestine & shrink civic space in Israel’

CIVICUS speaks with Einat Fogel-Levin, International Advocacy Coordinator for the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), about growing restrictions on Palestinian civil society. HRDF is an Israeli civil society organisation (CSO) working to protect Palestinian and Israeli human rights defenders (HRDs) by providing legal aid and defence to those facing various forms of legal persecution and fending off attacks on their bodies, persons and work.

Denmark: ‘There is a focus on protecting borders rather than people’s rights’

Charlotte SlenteCIVICUS speaks with Charlotte Slente, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), about recent immigration policy changes and the rights of refugees in Denmark. The DRC is an international humanitarian organisation that supports international refugees and internally displaced persons by providing protection and life-saving assistance. 

Why has the Danish government recently decided to revoke temporary residence permits of Syrian refugees, and what have been the consequences of this policy?

The 2015 introduction of a temporary subsidiary protection status with fewer rights – mainly granted to certain groups of Syrian refugees – is the reason behind the possibility to revoke asylum status for these Syrian nationals. This specific status comes with an amendment of the Danish Aliens Act in which the cessation clauses of the Refugee Convention no longer apply to beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, meaning that changes in the home country no longer need to be sustainable – and it is possible to revoke asylum status even if the situation in the home country remains serious, fragile and unpredictable.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) disagrees – along the lines of the recommendations from United Nations Refugee Agency – with the decision by the Danish authorities to deem the Damascus area or any area in Syria safe for refugees to be returned. The absence of fighting in some areas does not mean that people can safely return. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and severe human rights abuse of the civilian population.

We are also concerned because many of the Syrians who now have their residence permits revoked or have their application for asylum in Denmark rejected will not leave voluntarily due to the risks involved, and will consequently be placed in limbo at return centres. Given the lack of diplomatic relations between the Syrian and Danish authorities regarding forced returns, it is not possible for the Danish authorities actually to return Syrians. They can of course return once the conditions in Syria make it safe for them. But as long as the situation in Syria is not conducive for returns, we believe it is pointless to remove people from the life they have built in Denmark.

It is important to note that not all Syrian refugees in Denmark are affected by this policy. The Danish daily Jyllands-Posten of 21 November 2021 estimated that some 34,000 Syrians have received residency in Denmark since the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. Of those, 4,600 received ‘temporary protection status’ on the basis of section 7.3 of the Aliens Act. From this group, approximately 1,250 Syrian nationals are from the Damascus or Rif-Dimashq areas and hence in danger of having their residence permit revoked. 

So far around 850 have had their cases examined at the Immigration Service and some 280 have had their residency revoked. About half of the roughly 200 cases that have been considered by the Refugees Appeals have been confirmed and the other half have had their residency prolonged. So, approximately 100 Syrians have had their residency finally revoked and are supposed to go to the return centres.

We don’t know how many are actually at the centres as of now, but we believe it is only a handful. People are not detained at these centres. And as Denmark doesn’t maintain any cooperation with the Syrian authorities it cannot return these people by force as the situation is now.

How has this policy impacted on Syrian refugees living in Denmark?

The increased focus on temporariness over sustainable, long-term solutions for refugees has a negative impact on refugee protection and hinders good integration. We know from our work with refugees in Denmark that the temporariness and the fear of losing their stay in Denmark have affected many of them: not just Syrians who risk having their residency revoked, but also other groups of refugees who fear that their permits might suddenly be revoked too.

This is not a new phenomenon. Over the years, we’ve seen many political actions aimed at making it more difficult for refugees to get a foothold in Danish society.

Among them were the introduction of the so-called temporary protection status in 2015 and the changes in legislation made in 2019, which increasingly emphasised temporariness. This has had a concrete impact on the motivation for refugees to integrate into Danish society, as they are constantly being told that they should only expect to stay in Denmark temporarily. This is neither a dignified way to treat refugees who have fled conflict and human rights violations in their home countries, nor a very productive way of treating them, as it hampers integration efforts.

Additionally, these efforts have an impact on how other parts of society view refugees and integration. For example, the private sector is less likely to invest in and hire refugees, as they do not know if the resources put into these individuals will be lost if they lose their residency soon after employment.

However, most refugees end up staying in Denmark for many years and even for generations, because the circumstances in their home countries remain difficult and the reasons they fled, such as personal persecution, haven’t changed. That is why DRC calls for more long-term solutions for refugees in Denmark.

Over the past decades, Denmark’s position on immigration has shifted dramatically. Why has this happened?

Over the past years, Denmark has received international attention for introducing restrictive measures for refugees and asylum seekers. The current government seems to rely on the assumption that the asylum system is broken and that one way to ‘fix’ it is by preventing asylum seekers coming here.

However, the reality is one of lack of international solidarity in the global protection system, which means that the vast majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in global south countries. Countries local to conflict zones host 73 per cent of the world’s refugees. Overall, 86 per cent of all displaced people – internally displaced people and refugees combined – are hosted by low-income countries.

Still, Denmark and other European countries would like poorer countries to take an even greater responsibility. This can potentially have a negative impact on international cooperation on refugees. If a country such as Denmark fails to shoulder its share, there is a real risk that refugee-hosting states will follow suit, undermining the global protection of refugees with potentially devastating consequences.

One point worth noting is the discrepancy between what Denmark does internationally and domestically. Denmark has a very strong system of development assistance, one of the best in the world. It is rights-based, needs-based and holistic, with a significant emphasis on the role of civil society. Additionally, it is very positive that there is broad consensus across the political spectrum in Denmark that we should continue to be a strong donor, partner and contributor, and continue to provide support to marginalised people such as refugees and displaced persons in the regions of origin. This is something to be proud of.

However, while Denmark remains one of the world’s leading donors in the area of humanitarian and development assistance relative to the country’s size and economy, and a rather progressive voice when it comes to refugee rights in the regions of origin, domestically it appears to be moving in the opposite direction.

One concrete example of this concerns the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Along with other western countries, Denmark has been very keen on ensuring that the principles – more solidarity, more funding and more self-reliance – are being implemented in many host countries, while being criticised for trying to pay its way out of its own responsibility to live up to the same principles. So, three years after the international community agreed on the GCR, a lack of political will and leadership is challenging the achievement of more equitable and predictable responses to forced displacement.

Through the GCR the international community promised better responsibility sharing and durable solutions. Yet three years on, a few generous host countries continue to shoulder the greatest responsibility, while richer nations are providing neither protection for refugees nor sufficient economic support.

Do you think the attitude of the Danish government points to a broader European pattern?

We are seeing many European countries take steps away from ensuring protection and upholding the values that the European Union (EU) was built upon. It’s a race to the bottom when it comes to refugees’ rights across Europe. It seems what EU member states have primarily been able to agree upon is protecting borders rather protecting asylum seekers.

We have seen systematic pushbacks at the EU’s external borders over many years, combined with measures aimed at deterring arrivals of asylum seekers in the EU, including cooperation with non-EU countries that risks violating the principle of non-refoulement and does not uphold fundamental human rights and dignity.

EU member states have illegally prevented several thousand women, men and children from seeking protection at border crossings, for instance in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Hungary, Italy, North Macedonia and Serbia in 2021. This involved rights violations such as denial of access to asylum procedures, physical abuse and assault and theft at the hands of national border police and law enforcement officials. It’s a telling example of how the extreme is being normalised.

The current situation at the border with Belarus follows the same trend of focusing on protecting borders rather than people’s rights. DRC is very concerned about the current humanitarian situation at the EU’s external borders, where people are denied access to fundamental rights and protection. The situation is unacceptable, illegal and dangerous. Among the people who remain trapped in the border areas are vulnerable groups such as families with children, pregnant women and older people, many of whom have fled war and conflict in countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

While the situation calls for a calm and measured reaction, the EU and its member states at the external borders are responding with panicked proposals for emergency measures that curtail rights and safeguards of those seeking protection. Rather than limiting safeguards, the EU Commission should ensure that member states at its external borders treat people seeking protection with dignity, in accordance with international and European law. Disregard of international obligations by other states does not exempt EU member states from their responsibility. Describing a few thousand people as a threat to the EU and its 450 million inhabitants is unsettling and disproportionate. The situation must not set a precedent for managing future situations at the EU’s external borders.

Another example, where Denmark sadly is leading the way, is the ambition of outsourcing asylum processing to another country. The idea to externalise asylum and refugee protection is both irresponsible and lacking in solidarity. Similar models, such as the offshore approach implemented in Australia, have been characterised by detention, physical assault, slow asylum proceedings, lack of access to healthcare and lack of access to legal assistance, creating zones of exemption where right violations are likely to occur.

At the same time, Denmark is sending an extremely problematic signal to our neighbouring countries in the EU and not least to the – often poorer – countries in the world that take by far the greatest responsibility for the world’s refugees. The continued willingness of neighbouring countries in areas plagued by conflict to host millions of refugees is not something to take for granted. If a rich country such as Denmark is not willing to take responsibility, there is significant risk that countries hosting far larger number of refugees will also opt out and give up on global efforts to find joint and sustainable solutions.

What we can hope for, though, is that Denmark can inspire other countries to follow suit and live up to the UN recommendation of providing at least 0.7 per cent of gross national income to official development assistance – something that Denmark has done since 1978. And we hope that other countries will also follow the example of Denmark when it comes to providing long-term and predictable funding for development and humanitarian assistance, in order to ensure better, more holistic and more sustainable development and solutions across the globe.

How has civil society in Denmark responded, both to the immediate issue and to the evident wave of hostility towards migrants and refugees from politicians and the public?

First and foremost, we believe that it is important that refugees and exiles know there are people and organisations who are concerned about their situation, who sympathise with them and try to help them in the ways that are possible. DRC and others in civil society have been very vocal in the public debate, writing opinion pieces and letters to office holders, meeting with decision-makers, creating campaigns and organising demonstrations to protest against this development.

We believe that it means something to see people fighting for their rights and dignity. But more concrete day-to-day support is also of great importance. DRC has some 6,500 volunteers throughout Denmark. These are people who for instance help refugee children with their homework. They welcome refugee families into the local community and help people with job applications and reading and understanding official information. They invite them to dinner – and teach them the dos and don’ts of Danish society. They explain the Danish sense of humour. They speak Danish with them to help them develop language skills. They teach them how to ride a bike. They act as the extended family and network that many refugee families have had to leave behind or have scattered around the world.

This has immense importance for refugees. It’s our experience that a helping hand can mean the world. Both in a very real way, if volunteers or friendly neighbours help them get a job or stop by with some extra food, and in a broader sense, by showing that there are people who do sympathise, care about them and are willing to open their arms and help them get settled.

We have also observed that when the debate becomes more polarised and stricter policies are introduced, more people volunteer and show their support for refugees in other ways. As the number of asylum seekers soared back in 2015-2016, the number of people willing to give a helping hand and donate to our work also increased. This goes to show that there is sympathy among the Danish public, which the DRC believes is very important.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Danish Refugee Council through its website or its Facebook or Instagram pages, and follow @DRC_dk and @CharlotteSlente on Twitter.

HAITI: ‘There is opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people’

Ellie HappelCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Happel, professor of the Global Justice Clinic and Director of the Haiti Project at New York University School of Law. Ellie lived and worked in Haiti for several years, and her work continues to focus on solidarity with social movements in Haiti and racial and environmental justice.

What have been the key political developments since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021?

As an American, I want to begin by emphasising the role the US government has played in creating the present situation. The history of unproductive and oppressive foreign intervention is long.

To understand the context of the Moïse presidency, however, we have to at least go back to 2010. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the USA and other external actors called for elections. People did not have their voting cards; more than two million people had lost their homes. But elections went ahead. The US government intervened in the second round of Haiti’s presidential elections, calling for candidate and founder of the PHTK party, Michel Martelly, to be put into the second round. Martelly was subsequently elected.

During the Martelly presidency we saw a decline in political, economic and social conditions. Corruption was well documented and rampant. Martelly failed to hold elections and ended up ruling by decree. He hand-selected Moïse as his successor. The US government strongly supported both the Martelly and Moïse administrations despite the increasing violence, the destruction of Haitian government institutions, the corruption and the impunity that occurred under their rule.

Moïse’s death is not the biggest problem that Haiti faces. During his tenure, Moïse effectively destroyed Haitian institutions. Haitian people rose up against the PHTK regime in protest, and they were met with violence and repression. There is evidence of government implication in mass killings – massacres – of people in areas that were known to oppose PHTK.

Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, a prominent activist and a widely known journalist were murdered in Haiti. Diego Charles and Antoinette Duclair were calling for accountability. They were active in the movement to build a better Haiti. They were killed with impunity.

It is clear that the present crisis did not originate in Moïse’s assassination. It is the result of failed foreign policies and of the way the Haitian government repressed and halted opposition protests demanding accountability for corruption and violence, and demanding change.

What currently gives me hope is the work of the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which was created prior to Moïse’s assassination. The Commission is a broad group of political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) that came together to work collectively to rebuild the government. This presents an opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people.

What is your view on the postponement of elections and the constitutional referendum, and what are the prospects of democratic votes taking place?

In the current climate, elections are not the next step in addressing Haiti’s political crisis. Elections should not occur until the conditions for a fair, free and legitimate vote are met. The elections of the past 11 years demonstrate that they are not an automatic means of achieving representative democracy.

Today, there are many hurdles to holding elections. The first is one of governance: elections must be overseen by a governing body that has legitimacy, and that is respected by the Haitian people. It would be impossible for the de facto government to organise elections. The second is gang violence. It’s estimated that more than half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs.  When the provisional electoral council was preparing for elections a few months back, its staff could not access a number of voting centres due to gang control. Third, eligible Haitian voters should have voter ID cards.

The US government and others should affirm the right of the Haitian people to self-determination. The USA should neither insist on nor support elections without evidence of concrete measures to ensure that they are free, fair, inclusive and perceived as legitimate. Haitian CSOs and the Commission will indicate when the conditions exist for free, fair and legitimate elections.

Is there a migration crisis caused by the situation in Haiti? How can the challenges faced by Haitian migrants be addressed?

What we call the ‘migration crisis’ is a strong example of how US foreign policy and immigration policy towards Haiti have long been affected by anti-Black racism.

Many Haitians who left the country following the earthquake in 2010 first moved to South America. Many have subsequently left. The economies of Brazil and Chile worsened, and Haitian migrants encountered racism and a lack of economic opportunity. Families and individuals have travelled northward by foot, boat and bus towards the Mexico-USA border.

For many years now, the US government has not allowed Haitian migrants and other migrants to enter the USA. They are expelling people without an asylum interview – a ‘credible fear’ interview, which is required under international law – back to Haiti.

The US government must stop using Title 42, a public health provision, as a pretext to expel migrants. The US government should instead offer humanitarian assistance and support Haitian family reunification and relocation in the USA.

It is impossible to justify deportation to Haiti right now, for the same reasons that the US government has advised US citizens not to travel there. There are estimates of nearly 1,000 documented cases of kidnapping in 2021. Friends explain that anyone is at risk. Kidnappings are no longer targeted, but school kids and street merchants and pedestrians are being held hostage to demand money. The US government has not only declared Haiti unsafe for travel, but in May 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, allowing eligible Haitian nationals residing in the USA to apply to remain there because Haiti cannot safely repatriate its nationals.

The USA should halt deportations to Haiti. And the USA and other countries in the Americas must begin to recognise, address and repair the anti-Black discrimination that characterises their immigration policies.

What should the international community, and especially the USA, do to improve the situation?

First, the international community should take the lead of Haitian CSOs and engage in a serious and supportive way with the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. Daniel Foote, the US special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest eight weeks into the job; he said that his colleagues at the State Department were not interested in supporting Haitian-led solutions. The USA should play the role of encouraging consensus building and facilitating conversations to move things forward without interfering.

Second, all deportations to Haiti must stop. They are not only in violation of international law. They are also highly immoral and unjust.

Foreigners, myself included, are not best placed to prescribe solutions in Haiti: instead, we must support those created by Haitian people and Haitian organisations. It is time for the Haitian people to decide on the path forward, and we need to actively support, and follow.

Civic space in Haiti is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @elliehappel on Twitter.

VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’

CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.

Feliciano Reyna

How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?

A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.

As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.

An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.

There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.

The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.

While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.

What is the context in which civil society works?

There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.

Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.

Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.

But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.

One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.

As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.

Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.

How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?

In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.

The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.

The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.

The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.

Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.

Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.

How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?

A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.

What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.

The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.

For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.

The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.

Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.

The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.

What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?

What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.

Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.

The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.

If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.

Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @AccionSolidaria and @fjreyna on Twitter.


CHILE: ‘For the first time the extremes are inside the parliament and there are unacceptable undemocratic voices’

Alberto PrechtCIVICUS speaks with Alberto Precht, executive director of Chile Transparente, about Chile’s presidential elections and their persistent pattern of low electoral turnout. Founded 23 years ago, Chile Transparente is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes transparency in public and private institutions and the fight against corruption.

What have been the peculiarities of this electoral process?

There have been three recent votes in Chile: first, the national plebiscite held in October 2020, in which citizens were asked whether they wanted a new constitution and, if so, which body should be in charge of drafting it; then the elections of representatives to the constitutional convention in May 2021; and now, with the constitutional convention in place, the presidential elections, with the first round held on 21 November and the second round scheduled for 19 December.

These electoral processes have been quite peculiar because each of them has produced quite different results as measured on the left-right ideological axis. On the one hand, a progressive constitutional convention was elected, including a significant hardcore left-wing component. On the other, both in the primary elections and in the first round of the presidential election, a hardcore right-wing candidate, José Antonio Kast, won first place, followed by Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate running in coalition with the Communist Party.

The political environment is quite polarised, but what is most striking is that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Chileans do not show up to vote. This makes the election results very uncertain. Moreover, whoever wins will do so with 13 or 14 per cent of all eligible voters. It is not surprising that there are usually wide currents of anti-government opinion, since the government never represents a majority. 

Why do so few people vote?

It is paradoxical, because in the current context one would have expected a higher turnout. The 2021 election for the constitutional convention was the most important election since 1988, and turnout did not reach 50 per cent. The only vote that exceeded that threshold was the 2020 plebiscite, with a 51 per cent turnout, but that was different because it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. This low turnout was striking, because although no one expected a 80 or 90 per cent turnout, as was the case in the historic 1988 plebiscite that said ‘no’ to the Pinochet dictatorship, turnout was expected to be closer to 60 per cent.

It is very likely that we will see even lower participation in the second round, even though there are two very clear and distinct options, which would hopefully motivate more people to vote.

In Chile there is a structural problem of low participation. In part, this has to do with the fact that voting is voluntary, but it also has to do with the fact that the political offer is not very attractive. Although the offer has changed a lot and the latest reform in the system used to elect parliamentarians has allowed for greater pluralism, this has not been enough to motivate people to vote. The latest elections have been a rollercoaster and therefore very hard to analyse; the only certainty we have is that at least 50 per cent of Chileans do not feel represented in the electoral system.

How could people be motivated to vote?

Some legal reforms are already being introduced to that effect. The national plebiscite that will take place in 2022, where people will say whether they agree with the new constitution, is going to be a mandatory vote. Additionally, the vote is going to be organised in a georeferenced way, so that people will be able to vote at a polling place within walking distance of their residence.

This is not a minor detail: in Chile, voting places are not assigned according to place of residence, so people, especially low-income people, must take a lot of public transport to get to the polls. Even though it doesn’t cost them money, because it’s free, they have to invest the whole day in going to vote, which many can’t do. These changes will increase participation rates, but it will be very difficult for Chile to reach 80 per cent participation in the short term.

The big questions that no one has been able to answer are who the people who don’t vote are and what they think. Between the constituent convention elections and the presidential election there seems to have been a turnover of voters. Younger voters showed up to vote in the constitutional convention elections, while older voters tended to participate more in the presidential election.

What role does Chile Transparente play in the electoral process?

Chile Transparente has a system of complaints and protection for victims and witnesses of corruption that has been receiving complaints of misuse of electoral funds. Today we are stuck with a very important controversy involving the candidate who came third in the first round of the presidential elections, Franco Parisi. He is a neo-populist candidate whose campaign has been funded in quite opaque ways.

We also work to motivate participation and have participated in observations of local electoral processes that had to be repeated. We receive the support of the European Union for a programme called Transparent Convention, which publicises the functioning of the constitutional convention, highlighting certain issues that might seem relatively opaque and that need to be brought to the public’s attention.

We are one of the few organisations in the country that are active in transparency and anti-corruption issues and we play a very important role alongside investigative journalists.

How are these elections influenced by the protest movement?

The election for the constitutional convention fed off the strength of the 2019 protests; in fact, at one point in the Constitutional Convention came to reflect the people who were protesting. But by the time of the presidential elections, held one year later, only the hangover from the protests remained, and the results were rather a reflection of the people who had suffered the effects and were against the protests.

We need to understand that the mobilisation process has not been purely romantic, but has been accompanied by a lot of violence. Between the pandemic and the protest violence, there are people who have not been able to reopen their businesses, who cannot go to work in peace, who have lost everything. At the same time, we obviously have a debt in terms of human rights violations.

These tensions were expressed at the polls, and we will surely have a heart-stopping second round, in which the competitors are a candidate who represents a hardcore right wing, quite different from the traditional right that has governed in recent years, and a candidate who has formed a coalition with the Communist Party, until now marginal in a political game that has rather gravitated towards the political centre.

What has happened to the established Chilean party system?

There is undoubtedly a weariness with the democracy of the last 30 years, regardless of all the progress the country has made. There are large sectors that believe the centrist consensus that characterised the transition to a so-called ‘democracy of agreements’, consisting of doing what was considered to be within the realm of the possible, does not provide solutions. This has led not only to a social outburst, but also to a conservative reaction. It is a textbook situation: every revolution is followed by a counter-revolution.

On top of this there is a problem of migration management, which has caused a huge electoral shift throughout the country, especially in the north. Chile used to vote for the left and now it voted for two candidates – one from the extreme right and a populist candidate – who proposed harsher measures against migration, such as the construction of border ditches or mass expulsion: nothing could be further from a culture of human rights. 

At the same time, the left has lacked any self-criticism. It has not understood how important it is to respond to people’s concerns about insecurity and to attend to the victims of violence. When there is an outbreak of violence, violence victims will vote for those who offer them order. As is well known, in Chile there has long been a major conflict with the Indigenous Mapuche people. There is also conflict with non-Mapuche sectors, often linked to organised crime, who have taken violent action. In those areas, where one would expect a vote for the left, the complete opposite has happened. In certain localities where violence has become endemic, the conservative candidate has received up to 60 or 70 per cent of votes. 

What would be the implications for civil society depending on which candidate wins in the second round?

A part of the more traditional press seeks to give the impression that if Boric wins, it will be the advent of communism, while another part claims that if Kast wins, he will take us back to the times of Pinochet. However, thanks to social media and new technologies, alternative media outlets have flourished in recent years. There are more pluralistic television channels and channels with quite diverse editorial lines, which have more nuanced views.

I believe that both alternatives entail risks, because both candidates include within their coalitions people or parties that seek to limit the space for civil society, that adhere to a narrative that the press is financed by international powers, that Chile Transparente serves certain mega-powers, and promote conspiracy theories. Let’s remember that the Communist Party candidate who lost the primary elections against Boric proposed an intervention in the media. For his part, Kast has the support of hardcore Pinochetist elements.

However, in the second round, the two candidates have moved towards the centre to capture the votes they need to win. The groups that followed former President Michelle Bachelet, who initially opposed Boric, are now working with him. On the other side of the spectrum, in order to attract segments of the liberal right, Kast also has had to moderate his discourse.

Perhaps hope lies in parliament acting as a regulator of the two extremes. It is a diverse parliament where no party will have a majority, so whoever gets to govern will have to do so in negotiation with parliament. At the same time, the constituent process, which is still underway, can produce a constitution of unity that would set the conditions for the new president to govern.

The problem is that for the first time the extremes are inside parliament and there are some voices that are unacceptable from a democratic point of view. For example, two deputies elected by the extreme right recently mocked an elected candidate who is transgender. Some not very encouraging positions on human rights have also been expressed by the left. For example, the Chilean Communist Party has just recognised Daniel Ortega as the legitimate president of Nicaragua and continues to recognise Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Chile Transparente through its website or its Facebook and Instagram profiles, and follow @Ch_Transparente and @albertoprechtr on Twitter.


POLAND: ‘right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society’

Krzysztof SmiszekCIVICUS speaks with Krzysztof Śmiszek, a member of the Polish Parliament and chair of the Parliament’s Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, the first of its kind in Poland, about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights and activist responses to the anti-rights backlash.

Before entering politics in 2019, Krzysztof had been an activist for almost 20 years. He is also a member of Justice and Human Rights Committee, the European Union Committee and the Polish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Poland?

The situation for the LGBTQI+ community is really hard and complicated. In the last six years there wasn’t any progress at the legislative level so there are plenty of issues that remain unsolved, such as same-sex marriage, special legal procedures for the recognition of trans people’s identities and the prosecution of homophobic speech and hate crimes. 

In 2015 the reins of Poland were taken over by a right-wing government and, in my opinion, the government is now using racism, xenophobia and homophobia to divide society. Since 2015 we have witnessed a rise in homophobic and transphobic speech as well as intolerant actions aimed at the LGBTQI+ community. The current government is not going to pass any legislation to make the lives of LGBTQI+ people easier.

I believe that the LGBTQI+ community has become a scapegoat: it is them that the government blames for any problem. A few years ago, it was refugees who played this part, and now they are also being targeted once again. The government also used to blame women’s rights organisations for everything, and now the LGBTQI+ community is being accused of the worse. 

These are very hard times for the LGBTQI+ community in Poland, because whenever you tune in public TV, read the newspaper, or navigate government websites, you see it being used as a scapegoat. We are witnessing more and more hate crimes and incidents around Poland. Last year we had presidential election and the current president campaigned on an extremely ideological homophobic platform, and he won, which means that politicians and the government now believe that homophobic and transphobic discourse brings popularity. 

Are there any reasons for optimism in such a bleak context?

There surely are, because right-wing backlash is just one side of the coin, the other being the active mobilisation of rights-oriented civil society. After six years of witnessing hate speech, people who normally would not have been interested in LGBTQI+ issues have started to care. Civil society is much more progressive and open than the politicians in power. As an activist I see a huge energy that goes beyond the big cities in Poland: there are formal and informal initiatives springing up everywhere.

Although we are going through hard times, the strong civil society reaction against the government’s intolerance and homophobic discourse and agenda makes me feel optimistic. This year we had around 20 Pride events throughout the country. There is positive mobilisation within society, compared to the situation 20 years ago, when I first became an activist.

So the situation is more complex than you would think: while Poland does have its homophobic side, with organisations fuelled with a lot of money coming from the right wing, there is also a big movement supporting LGBTQI+ organisations and activists with money, time, energy and solidarity.

LGBTQI+ activism is using a wide range of tactics, from perfectly designed social media awareness campaigns including short movies about the normal lives of rainbow families to building connections with potential allies, even unlikely ones. A while ago an organisation working against homophobia allied with progressive Catholics, which was really smart because Poland is still regarded as a majority Catholic country. It was very wise to involve someone considered as ‘the enemy’ in the movement. There are also ongoing collaborations with politicians. 

All the while the government spreads hate, younger generations, people between 18 and 29 years old, are increasingly normalising LGBTQI+ rights and actively and fully supporting the LGBTQI+ agenda. Of course, this does not mean that all young people are gay-friendly: as everyone else, they are divided between openness to European values and the intolerance of the radical right wing.

What is the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights, what are its goals and priorities, and what work does it do?

The Intergroup on LGBTI Rights includes members of different parties represented in Parliament who meet and discuss about LGBTQI+ issues. When I organise the group meetings, I perceive the interest of civil society: they want to participate and have contact with politicians. As an activist and now a politician, I view this as the wisest way to ensure progress on our agenda because having activists put pressure on politicians is something that actually works.

One of our priorities is making Parliament a safe place for the LGBTQI+ community. We believe that Parliament belongs to voters, and as LGBTQI+ people are voters, they have the full right to be present in Parliament and have contact with politicians.

The main challenge the Intergroup faces is to listen to the worries of the LGBTQI+ community and translate them into legislative proposals. And whenever there is a practical problem with the administration or related to action by public authorities, we are informed by representatives of the LGBTQI+ community and try to shed light on the issue with the help of the media. Politicians and parliamentarians have the power to bring media attention to specific issues.

As for our tactics, we organise press conferences and invite government representatives, we collaborate with the European Union and the European Parliament, where there’s also an LGBTQI+ group, we keep in touch with international partners and we try to make international audiences aware of what is going on in Poland. For example, when facing proposals to declare ‘LGBT-free zones’ throughout Poland, we brought it to the attention of the European Council and showed it proof that the Polish authorities were discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. This is something that as politicians we are able to do.

Is that why you decided to enter politics? Having had experience as both an activist and a legislator, do you think you have been able to tackle the same problem from different angles?

As an activist I was the one knocking on politicians’ doors and it was their choice to be open to my arguments or not. After doing this for 20 years I thought ‘enough is enough’ and decided that I should now be the one opening doors for LGBTQI+ activists. That was my motivation to get into Parliament, along with the fact that I just did not agree with what was going on in Poland in terms of respect for fundamental human rights, under attack by right-wing politicians.

I belong to The Left, a centre-left political coalition that was founded to compete in the 2019 parliamentary election. Many of my friends who were also elected to Parliament are now recruiting people from civil society. As a result, now there are feminists who used to work at feminist civil society organisations, people who were involved in ecological movements and people like me, coming from the LGBTQI+ movement, who are playing a role in political institutions. All of us are tired of being just activists, and are now translating our experiences into the language of Parliament.

Civic space in Poland is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @K_Smiszek on Twitter. 

UNITED NATIONS: ‘Civil society has always been an integral part of the UN ecosystem’

CIVICUS speaks with Natalie Samarasinghe, Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK) about the UN Secretary-General’s recent ‘Our Common Agenda’ report and the need to include civil society voices in the UN.

A nationwide grassroots movement of over 20,000 people, UNA-UK is the UK’s leading source of independent information and analysis about the UN and is devoted to building support for the UN among policymakers, opinion-formers and the public.

Natalie Samarasinghe

What does ‘Our Common Agenda’ hope to achieve and what are its major recommendations?

Our Common Agenda’ is a report released by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in September 2021. While ‘UN releases report’ may not be the most earth-shattering headline, this one stands apart for two reasons.

First, the way it was put together. It was mandated by the General Assembly’s declaration to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, which tasked the Secretary-General with producing recommendations for responding to current and future challenges. The report draws from feedback received from 1.5 million people and 60,000 organisations who took part in the UN75 global conversation, as well as input generated through an innovative digital consultation that enabled stakeholders from various sectors to exchange ideas.

Second, its visionary tone. The report reads like the manifesto of a second-term Secretary-General. Having been dealt a challenging hand, from national parasites to a global virus, Guterres spent his first five years in post firefighting multiple crises and in sensible, if technocratic, reforms. He is newly reappointed to a second term, and this report signals that he now means business: he has big ideas and he wants to see them through. This further bolsters the case for Secretaries-General to serve a single, longer term of office.

Peppered with facts and figures, the report features a grim analysis of the state of the world — and an even grimmer prognosis — while also presenting a hopeful alternative scenario predicated on collective action, a bit like an existential version of a ‘choose your own ending’ book.

It sets out four big-picture shifts: a renewed social contract anchored in human rights; urgent action to protect global commons and deliver global public goods; greater solidarity with young people and future generations; and an upgraded UN that is more inclusive, networked and data-driven.

For each shift, there are a number of proposals. Some are concrete, such as a global COVID-19 vaccination plan and a biennial meeting of the G20 and international institutions. Others are more open – an emergency platform to respond to future shocks, for example, and plans to transform education. Some – such as that of repurposing the Trusteeship Council as a steward for future generations – are grounded in long-standing ideas. Others, such as a global digital compact, would take the UN into new territory. And some are intended to give effect to the proposed changes, notably a Summit of the Future to be held in 2023 and a World Social Summit to beheld in 2025.

What are the positives that the report identifies for civil society and people’s participation in the UN?

One of the most interesting aspects of the report is that it recalibrates the UN’s role on the world stage. Arguably, the biggest transformation to have taken place since the UN’s founding in 1945 is the explosion of actors at the local, national and international levels. It was refreshing to see Guterres combine ambition for the UN’s role with humility about what it can achieve, and set out clearly that success depends on action by, and partnerships with, other stakeholders, including civil society organisations (CSOs).

The report notes that CSOs have been an integral part of the UN ecosystem from the outset. It positions CSOs as a central part of a new social contract, linking them to building trust and cohesion, as well as delivery across a host of areas, from sustainable development to climate action, digital governance and strategic foresight. It also advocates for institutions, the UN included, to listen better to people, adopt participatory approaches and reduce complexity so that their processes and outcomes are better understood.

Guterres recommends that governments conduct consultations to give citizens a say in envisioning their countries’ future. He calls on states to consider suggestions for widening participation in all intergovernmental organs. In addition, he announces two changes within the UN Secretariat: a UN Youth Office and the establishment of dedicated civil society focal points in all UN entities, to create space for participation at the country and global levels and within UN processes.

What is missing or could be strengthened in the report?

The report is remarkably forthright in parts. In calling for a renewed social contract, for instance, Guterres weaves together a number of politically challenging issues, such as human rights, taxation and justice. He is right to position these issues as essentially national, but defining a way forward will be tricky: the emphasis on the UN’s role in ‘domestic’ issues will undoubtedly irk governments, while CSOs may fear it signals a retreat into norm-setting and technical assistance.

In other places, Guterres pulls his punches. This is perhaps wise in contested areas such as peace and security, where the report sets out modest proposals that are, for the most part, already underway. UNA-UK and partner CSOs would have liked more emphasis on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and on halting the development of lethal autonomous weapons.

On climate, Guterres’ signature issue, the report could have gone further to frame the ‘triple crisis’ of climate disruption, pollution and biodiversity loss as an interrelated emergency with human rights at its core. It could also have sensitised policymakers to a bolder set of measures. And after an excellent distillation of the challenges, those looking for new approaches on women’s empowerment and gender equality are also left wanting.

For many of us, though, the biggest disappointment was on civil society inclusion. Guterres’ language is positive but less emphatic than in his Call to Action on Human Rights and there are few specifics that move beyond warm words.

During the stakeholder consultations, CSOs from all regions called for a high-level UN civil society champion to help increase and diversify participation and advise on access – be it to UN headquarters or to climate COPs. This was the one concrete proposal that attracted widespread support and while the report commits to exploring it further, there is some bewilderment as to why Guterres did not move forward with an appointment that is in his gift.

Of course, it is important to have focal points across the system. Many UN entities already do. But we know from our experience with gender, human rights and so on that mainstreaming is not enough. That is surely part of the thinking behind the creation of a Youth Office. It should be applied to civil society too.

What should happen next to improve participation in the UN?

In the short term, the proposed roll-out of systemwide focal points should happen swiftly and in consultation with civil society. A timeline and process should be set for mapping and monitoring engagement, as envisaged by the report. A high-level champion would be a natural instigator for both, so hopefully this position will be established.

In the medium term, a number of other changes would be helpful, including a system-wide strategy on civic space inside and outside the UN; a simple online platform to support engagement, which could include a citizen petition mechanism; a voluntary fund to support participation, as well as tools such as social impact bonds to finance in-country CSO activity; and a new partnership framework to enhance partnership capacity – including in-country,  simplify engagement and improve vetting.

In the longer-term, the UN should move towards a partnership model, launching a global capacity-building drive to transfer a number of its functions to CSOs and others who are better able to deliver on the ground. This would enable the organisation to focus on the tasks it is uniquely well-placed to undertake. Indeed, the report already seems to move in this direction with its emphasis on the UN as a convenor and provider of accurate data, foresight and analysis.

What more can civil society do to push for change and how can the UN best support civil society?

The UN already depends on civil society across the spectrum of its work. We are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing the climate emergency. We provide essential assistance in humanitarian crises, sometimes as the only players with access to, and the trust of, marginalised communities. We stand up for those who are ignored and abused. We are essential partners for the UN while also serving as its conscience, urging it to be bold and ambitious, and to act without fear or favour. And we do all this in the face of increasing attacks.

As such, CSOs can push for making progress on ‘Our Common Agenda’, from advocacy with states to provide the Secretary-General with the mandate needed to forge ahead, to fleshing out the many proposals in the report and taking action in their communities, capitals and UN forums.

We can do this from the sidelines – we are well-practised in making our voices heard despite shrinking civic space. But we will be much more effective if we are given a formal role in dedicated processes such as preparations for the Summit of the Future and in the work of the UN more generally; and if we know we can count on the support of UN officials. Appointing a civil society champion would be a good start.

Get in touch with UNA-UK through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @UNAUK and @Natalie_UNnerd on Twitter.

COP26: ‘Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it’

The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) has just ended in Glasgow, UK, and CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts on the outcomes of the summit, its potential to solve the environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking to address them.

CIVICUS speaks with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). The organisation was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.


What environmental issues do you work on?

As a defender of Indigenous territories, Indigenous rights and the rights of nature, I work on three different levels. First, on a personal level, I work in my community of the Uchupiamona Indigenous People, the whole of which is within one of the most diverse protected areas in the world, the Madidi National Park.

In 2009 my people were on the verge of giving out a logging concession that would devastate 31,000 hectares of forest, in an area that is sensitive for water preservation and particularly rich in bird diversity. To stop that concession, I made an alternative proposal, focused on birdwatching tourism. Although currently, because of the pandemic, tourism has proven not to be the safest bet, the fact is that we still have the forests thanks to this activity – although they always remain under threat due to pressure from people in the community who need the money right away.

My community currently faces serious water supply issues, but we have organised with young women to restore our water sources by reforesting the area with native fruit plants and passing on knowledge about these fruit and medicinal plants from our elders to women and children.

Secondly, I am a member of the Commonwealth of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey rivers, a grassroots organisation of the Amazon region of Bolivia that since 2016 has led the defence of the territories of six Indigenous Nations – Ese Ejja, Leco, Moseten, Tacana, Tsiman and Uchupiamona – from the threat of the construction of two hydroelectric plants, Chepete and El Bala, that would flood our territories, displace more than five thousand Indigenous people, obstruct three rivers forever and devastate two protected areas, the Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. On 16 August 2021, Indigenous organisations supporting the government authorised the launch of these hydroelectric power projects.

The Tuichi River, which is within the Madidi protected area and is essential to the community ecotourism activity of my Uchupiamona People, has also been granted in its entirety to third parties outside the community for the development of alluvial gold mining. The Mining and Metallurgy Law discriminates against Indigenous peoples by allowing any external actor to acquire rights over our territories.

Finally, I am the general coordinator of CONTIOCAP, an organisation that has denounced the systematic violations of our rights in the Indigenous territories of the four macro regions of Bolivia: the Chaco, the valleys, the Altiplano and the Amazon. These violations come hand in hand with oil exploration and exploitation, the burning of forests and deforestation to free up land for agribusiness, the construction of roads and hydroelectric plants and the alluvial gold mining activity that is poisoning vulnerable populations.

Have you faced negative reactions to the work you do?

We have faced negative reactions, mainly from the state, through decentralised bodies such as the National Tax and Migration agencies. I recently discovered that my bank accounts have been ordered to be withheld by the two agencies.

During a march led by the Qhara Qhara Nation in 2019, I was constantly followed and physically harassed by two people, while I was in the city to submit our proposals alongside march leaders.

And recently, when Indigenous organisations sympathetic to the government gave authorisation to the hydroelectric plants, our denunciations were met with actions to disqualify and discredit us, something the Bolivian government has been doing for years. They say, for instance, that those of us who oppose the hydroelectric megaprojects are not legitimate representatives of Indigenous peoples but activists financed by international non-governmental organisations.

How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

Our actions converge with those of the global movement, because by defending our territories and protected areas we contribute not only to avoiding further deforestation and pollution of rivers and water sources, and to preserving soils to maintain our food sovereignty, but also to conserving ancestral knowledge that contributes to our resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

Indigenous peoples have proven to be the most efficient protectors of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as of resources fundamental for life such as water, rivers and territories, against the position of the state whose laws rather serve to violate our living spaces.

Have you made use of international organisations’ forums and spaces for participation?

Yes, we do it regularly, for example by requesting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow up on the criminalisation of and violence against defenders of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Bolivia and by participating in the collective production of a civil society shadow report for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bolivia, which we presented during the Council’s pre-sessions in October 2019.

Recently, in a hearing in the city of La Paz, we presented a report on violations of our rights to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.

What do you think of the spaces for civil society participation in the COPs, and how do you assess the results of the recently concluded COP26?

Once again, at COP26 states have exhibited their complete inefficiency in acting in compliance with their own decisions. I have stated on more than one occasion that 2030 was just around the corner and today we are only eight years away and we are still discussing what are the most efficient measures to achieve the goals set for that date.

Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it. This is the result of states’ actions and decisions in favour of a wild capitalism that is destroying the planet with its extractivism that is predatory of life.

Let’s see how much progress has been made since the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, companies have used the supposed concept of the ‘right to development’ to continue operating to the detriment of the planet and, above all, to the detriment of the most vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples. We are the ones who pay the costs, not the ones who cause the disasters.

The results of COP26 do not satisfy me because we want to see tangible actions. The Bolivian state has not even signed the declaration, even though it has used the space of COP26 to give a misleading speech that the capitalist model must be changed for one that is kinder to nature. But in Bolivia we have already deforested around 10 million hectares, in the most brutal way imaginable, through fires that for more than a decade and a half have been legalised by the government.

I think that as long as these forums do not discuss sanctions on states that do not comply with agreements, or that do not even sign declarations, there will be no concrete results.

Civic space in Bolivia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with CONTIOCAP through its Facebook page and follow @contiocap and @CuquiRuth on Twitter. 

NICARAGUA: ‘For the government, these fraudulent elections were a total failure’

CIVICUS discusses the recent elections in Nicaragua, characterised by the banning of candidates, fraud and repression, with a woman human rights defender from a national platform of Nicaraguan civil society, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

Nicaragua elections Nov 2021

What was the political context in which the 7 November presidential election took place?

The context began to take shape in 2006, with the pact between the leaders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Daniel Ortega, and the then-ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), led by former president Arnoldo Alemán. The aim of the so-called ‘Alemán-Ortega pact’ was to establish a two-party system dominated by both leaders, which did not work out for both: it resulted in a complete restructuring of the political system, including a reform of the constitution and the modification of election dates, which allowed the FSLN – which had failed to win the presidency on several occasions – to win the 2006 election with 38 per cent of the vote, never to leave power since.

Once in power, the FSLN carried out several constitutional and electoral law reforms ordered by Daniel Ortega, in collusion with legislative, judicial and electoral institutions, to impose a constitution tailored to its needs and to allow himself to be re-elected indefinitely.

Since the most recent package of electoral changes, carried out in May 2021, the electoral stage was already set so that the current government would win the election. The changes gave the FSLN control of the entire electoral structure, gave the police the power to authorise or ban opposition political rallies and took away funding for candidates.

Already in December 2020, the National Assembly had passed a law to neutralise opposition candidacies: under the pretext of rejecting foreign interference in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, it prohibited the candidacies of people who had participated in the 2018 protests, labelled by the government as an attempted coup d’état financed by foreign powers.

All these laws were applied by state institutions in a way that resulted in the banning of all democratic candidates who could in any way be viewed as positioned to defeat the FSLN candidate. The result was an election lacking all real competition.

Was there any attempt to postpone the election until the proper conditions were met?

First, in the context of the 2018 protests, which were heavily repressed and resulted in hundreds of deaths, several groups, including the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference, proposed holding an early election to resolve the crisis. Some also considered the possibility of forcing the resignation of the president due to his responsibility for the systematic human rights violations committed in the context of the 2018 protests.

But Ortega refused to call an early election, and instead challenged the alleged ‘coup perpetrators’ protesting against him to get the people’s vote in the 2021 election. In the meantime, instead of proceeding with the electoral reform that had been demanded for years, he set about preparing the ground so that no one could challenge him in the elections.

With the 2021 electoral process already underway, and in view of the fact that there would be no real competition, voices from civil society recommended suspending and rescheduling an election that would be clearly illegitimate and lacking in credibility, but this call was not echoed.

How do you assess the election results?

Clearly the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguan citizens viewed these elections as illegitimate, since only about 10 per cent of eligible voters turned out to vote. Some of those who did vote are government supporters, while others – such as members of the military and police and public servants – were compelled by fear and their work circumstances.

These claims are supported by polling data from various civil society groups inside and outside Nicaragua, such as Coordinadora Civil, Mujeres Organizadas and Urnas Abiertas. On election day, some of these organisations did a quick poll on the ground, twice – morning and afternoon – and documented. through photos, videos and testimonies by some election observers invited by the government, that the majority of the population did not turn out to vote.

From civil society’s perspective, these elections were a complete failure for the government, as they gave us all the elements to demonstrate at the international level that the president does not meet the minimum conditions of legitimacy to remain in office. It is not only Nicaraguans who do not recognise the results of these elections: more than 40 countries around the world have not recognised them either. The government conducted a fraudulent election to gain legitimacy, but it failed to do so because no one recognises it at the national or international level.

What is the outlook for Nicaraguan civil society following the election?

The panorama has not changed. What awaits us is more of the same: more repression, more persecution, more kidnappings, more political prisoners, more exiles. At the same time, this unresponsive and unaccountable government is completely incapable of solving any of Nicaragua’s problems, so poverty, unemployment and insecurity will also continue to deepen.

In response, we can do nothing but sustain resistance and try to break the chains of fear, because fear is what this illegitimate government rules through.

What kind of international support does Nicaraguan civil society need?

Nicaraguan civil society needs all kinds of support, from support for building and strengthening alliances to amplify our voices, so we can publicise the political situation in Nicaragua and demand action in international forums, to financial and in-kind support to equip us with the tools with which to do our work, sustain our organisations and provide protection for human rights defenders who are being persecuted and attacked.

Civic space in Nicaragua is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Nicaragua is currently on our Watch List, which includes cases in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place. 

SWITZERLAND: ‘It was about time for everybody to have the same rights, with no discrimination’

RetoWyssCIVICUS speaks with Reto Wyss, International Affairs Officer of Pink Cross, about the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Switzerland and the challenges ahead.

Pink Cross is Switzerland’s national umbrella organisation of gay and bisexual men, and for 28 years it has advocated for their rights in the country’s four language regions. It stands against discrimination, prejudice and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and HIV status, and strives for acceptance and equal rights for all queer people on both a national and international level. It conducts its work through an active media presence, advocacy, campaigning and efforts to strengthen the LGBTQI+ community.

What was the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Switzerland, and what roles did Pink Cross play?

The same-sex marriage bill was submitted to parliament in 2013 and it went back and forth several times between the two legislative chambers until it was finally passed in December 2020. Pink Cross did intensive and quite traditional advocacy, lobbying and public campaigning all along the process.

We talked a lot with politicians of the conservative-liberal Free Democratic Party of Switzerland as well as the Christian Democratic People’s Party of Switzerland. We ordered a legal opinion that clearly stated that, contrary to what opponents of the law said, there was no need to change the Swiss Constitution to open marriage to all people. If that had been the case, the legalisation of same-sex marriage would have required a positive popular vote in the majority of the Swiss cantons, which would have made things a lot more complicated.

To enshrine same-sex marriage, all that was needed was a law like the one parliament had passed, amending the Civil Code to extend marriage to all couples beyond those of a man and a woman.

No referendum was necessary: the one held on 26 September was an optional referendum launched by opponents of the law, who intended to show that parliament’s decision was not welcome by the Swiss people and overturn it. To have this referendum called, they campaigned actively to gather the 50,000 signatures required. LGBTQI+ organisations would have been largely pleased with letting the decision made by parliament stand, rather than asking everybody whether they agreed with granting us the same rights as everyone else.

The civil society campaign was officially launched on 27 June, with events in 23 towns and villages across Switzerland. Over the following 100 days, the queer community mobilised around the country with dozens of actions to demand the right to equality. The campaign was supported by several LGBTQI+ organisations, including Pink Cross, the Swiss Organisation of Lesbians-LOS, Network-Gay Leadership, WyberNet-Gay Professional Women, Rainbow Families and Fédération Romande des Associations LGBTIQ+.

We wanted to gain as much visibility as possible, so we campaigned with thousands of rainbow flags hanging out of balconies throughout the country and posted many great videos online. This was a very broad grassroots campaign with many activists taking part in it, both online and in person. Our main message was that the same rights must be recognised for everybody, with no discrimination, and that in Switzerland it was about time.

Who campaigned for and against same-sex marriage in the run-up to the vote? How did groups opposed to same-sex marriage mobilise?

Leftist and liberal parties and organisations campaigned in favour of the law, while the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party – although not all of its elected representatives – campaigned against it, along with a whole bunch of conservative and clerical organisations, including the rather small Evangelical People’s Party. The Catholic Church was against the law, although not all of its representatives or institutions had the same position. The Protestant Church backed the law, although not unanimously.

Mobilisation against the law took place mainly in the countryside and – obviously – online. Their arguments were mostly about the alleged well-being of children, and focused on the fact that the law allowed same-sex married couples access to adoption and conception through sperm donation.

What will be the immediate effects of the new law?

On 26 September, by 64 per cent of the vote, the Swiss people expressed their agreement with the law granting equal marriage for all. The law will come into force on 1 July 2022 and will have very important and immediate practical effects, because the legal status of marriage has several important differences from the registered partnership (RP) regime already available to same-sex couples.

The recognition of marriage to all couples will eliminate the inequalities in legal treatment that still exist regarding facilitated naturalisation, joint adoption, joint property, access to medically assisted reproduction and legal recognition of parent-child relationships in cases of medically assisted reproduction.

If they want to be recognised as legally married, same-sex couples currently in RPs will have to apply for the conversion of their RP into legal marriage at the registry office by means of a so-called ‘simplified declaration’, which won’t carry excessive costs, although the exact procedure is yet to be determined and may vary from one canton to the next.

Those who were married abroad but whose marriage was recognised in Switzerland as an RP will have their RP automatically and retroactively converted into marriage. 

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people in Switzerland face, and what else needs to change to advance LGBTQI+ rights?

A lot remains to be done in terms of preventing, registering and convicting hate crimes adequately. Pink Cross is currently advancing this issue in all cantons, because this is within their jurisdiction. Likewise, we are preparing a first ‘precedent’ to get a ruling on the ‘anti-LGBT agitation’ paragraph that was introduced into criminal law last year.

Finally, institutional anchorage of LGBTQI+ advocacy definitely still needs to be strengthened on a national level, specifically within the federal administration, either through a specific commission or by extending the mandate of the Federal Office for Gender Equality. So we are also working to move ahead on this.

Civic space in Switzerland is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Pink Cross through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @pinkcross_ch on Twitter. 

SWITZERLAND: ‘The victory of marriage equality will boost our efforts towards the next steps’

JessicaZuberCIVICUS speaks with Jessica Zuber, co-leader of Operation Libero’s marriage for all campaign, about the recent referendum on same-sex marriage in Switzerland. Operation Libero is a non-partisan civil society movement founded to campaign against populist initiatives. Its work focuses on preserving and developing liberal democracy, fostering strong relations between Switzerland and Europe, promoting a liberal citizenship law, supporting a democracy-strengthening digital transformation and encouraging more transparent, accountable and inclusive politics.

What role did Operation Libero play in the process leading to the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage?

Since its foundation, Operation Libero has fought for equal legal treatment. We accompanied the parliamentary process and lobbied so that the law was passed, which happened in December 2020, after almost seven years. A couple of days before the opponents of the law handed in their referendum request, we pushed our ongoing petition, which went viral and received over 60,000 online signatures within a single weekend. To us, that was a very strong signal on the state of public opinion.

We launched our campaign six weeks before the vote. It focused on the motto ‘same love, same rights’. Our campaign complemented that of the ‘official’ committee led by the LGBTQI+ community, showing real same-sex couples on their posters. To set ourselves apart and appeal to a more conservative target, we showed same-sex couples alongside heterosexual couples.

For the launch of our campaign, we staged a marriage and the pictures of this ceremony provided the visuals for media coverage during the campaign. Some of our main concepts were that fundamental rights must apply to all people, and that no one loses when love wins. It was a feel-good campaign, as we intentionally refrained from being too controversial – for instance, by highlighting that homophobia is still a phenomenon very present in Swiss society.

During the campaign, around 150,000 of our flyers were handed out, 13,000 coasters ordered and 10,000 stickers distributed. Our main financial income to pay for this was the sale of our special socks, of which we sold almost 10,000 pairs. We organised boot camps to prepare voters for debates and launched a poster campaign in train stations and public buses. The joint flyer distribution event with members of the right-wing populist party – who, against the official party line, supported marriage for all – attracted media attention and succeeded in showing how broad support for the law was.

Last but not least, a week before the vote we held an event where 400 people lined up on either side to applaud newlywed couples – same-sex and different-sex – as they ran through. This was a very inspiring event, the biggest of its kind in Switzerland.

We are very happy that we won the referendum with 64 per cent of voters supporting the law. September 26th marks a big step for Switzerland: after far too long a wait, access to marriage finally applies to all couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. This eliminates key legal inequalities for same-sex couples, for example in facilitated naturalisation, the receipt of widows’ pensions, adoption and reproductive medicine.

Why was a referendum called after parliament had already legalised same-sex marriage?

Opponents of the law launched the referendum to try to overturn it. Their arguments were centred on the traditional view of marriage as a ‘natural’ union between a man and a woman and its centrality in society. They said that ‘introducing universal marriage is a social and political rupture that nullifies the historic definition of marriage, understood as a lasting union between a man and a woman’. They were particularly upset by the fact that the law enables access to sperm donation for female couples, as they believe this forfeits the best interests of the child. They also feared that these changes would lead to the legalisation of surrogacy.

On a more technical level, they argued that universal marriage could not be introduced through a simple legislative amendment, but required a change to the constitution.

Who were on the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ sides in the referendum?

After parliament passed the law, a cross-party committee – mainly comprising representatives of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and the Federal Democratic Union, an ultra-conservative Christian party – launched a petition for a referendum. They successfully gathered more than 50,000 signatures necessary to push their proposal through and get a national vote. The right to veto a parliamentary decision is part of the Swiss system of direct democracy.

During the campaign, these groups put out campaign posters and online ads and participated in public media discussions. Their main argument was that children’s well-being was in danger, so they put the focus of the public debate on adoption and reproductive rights.

Fortunately, civil marriage for same-sex couples enjoys widespread political support, as seen on 26 September. With the exception of the Swiss People’s Party, all the governing parties supported the bill, as did the Greens and Liberal Greens, who are not in the government.

There was even some openness from religious groups. In November 2019 the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches spoke out in favour of same-sex civil marriage; however, the Conference of Swiss Bishops and the Swiss Evangelical Network remain opposed to it.

The aggressiveness with which the law granting marriage for all was fought and the fact that about a third of voters rejected it, partly for homophobic reasons, shows that homophobia is still widespread and still far too widely accepted.

We also faced the challenge that as the polls projected a relatively clear victory from the outset, it made it harder for us to mobilise people. Our fear was that people might take victory for granted and not go out to vote. But we were able to reach people with the message that a victory by a wider margin was an even stronger sign for equality in Switzerland.

What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Switzerland, and what else needs to be changed to advance equal rights?

LGBTQI+ groups will continue to fight, notably against hate crimes. Marriage for all does not deliver absolute equality for female couples who receive a sperm donation from a friend or choose a sperm bank abroad, in which cases only the biological mother will be recognised. These debates will still occur, and the LGBTQI+ community will continue to fight for equality.

The clear ‘yes’ to marriage for all is a strong signal that the majority of our society is much more progressive and open towards diverse life choices than our legal system, strongly based on a conservative family model, might suggest. Indeed, marriage for all is just a small step towards adapting the political and legal conditions to the social realities we live in. The ‘yes’ to marriage equality will boost our efforts towards the next steps.

We demand that all consensual forms of relationships and family models – whether same-sex or opposite-sex, married or not – become equally recognised. Marriage, with its long history as a central instrument of patriarchal power, must no longer be considered the standard model. It must not be privileged, either legally or financially, over other forms of cohabitation. In the coming months and years, Operation Libero will campaign for individual taxation, regulated cohabitation, simplified parenthood and a modern sexual criminal law.

Civic space in Switzerland is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Operation Libero through its website or its FacebookTik Tok, and Instagram pages, and follow @operationlibero and @jessicazuber on Twitter.

CHILE: ‘Migration restrictions do not tackle the causes of migration’

Delio.CubidesCIVICUS speaks with Delio Cubides, migration legal advisor at the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute (INCAMI), about the situation of migrants in Chile, and the restrictive measures and mass expulsions that took place this year. Founded in 1955, INCAMI is a civil society organisation dedicated to supporting migrants in Chile, including through providing reception services, social assistance, advice on document regularisation, training and support in finding employment.

How did Chile get into its current situation of anti-migrant protests and mass expulsions?

To answer this question, we should place ourselves in the international context, to which Chile is no stranger. Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number of migrants from non-border countries, such as Venezuela and Haiti, which has surpassed the inflow from border countries.

To a certain extent, Chile has been viewed in the region as a country with security and institutional and economic stability, while since 2013 the political, social and economic situation in Venezuela has led to an exponential increase in the inflow of people from that country, with a peak in 2013 and another in 2018, despite the fact that, unlike Haitian migration, there is no family reunification visa for Venezuelans in Chile.

Faced with this increase in migration, the current administration of Sebastián Piñera began to adopt restrictive measures; 30 days after taking office in 2018, it enacted a policy aimed at limiting the entry of Haitians and Venezuelans. Haitian migration was heavily restricted by the implementation of a simple consular tourist visa for entry into Chile and, like other migrants, also by the elimination of the work contract visa.

Although we do not have exact figures, we know that the rejection rate for consular visas requested by Haitians has been high; testimonies from Haitian migrants that we deal with in our offices report numerous rejections for reasons beyond their control or due to requirements they are unable to comply with.

For example, in order to grant a permanent stay permit to migrants already present in Chile, the government requires a criminal record certificate that must be obtained from the consulate of the country of origin. In the case of countries such as Haiti, the high cost and lengthy processing time in the country of origin is compounded by the fact that, in the current political, social and health context, the certificate is almost impossible to obtain. As a result, many people are unable to submit it within the established deadlines. This requirement is currently limiting access by hundreds of people of Haitian origin to the so-called ‘extraordinary regularisation process’.

For migrants from Venezuela, a consular visa requirement known as a ‘democratic accountability visa’ was imposed in 2019. But the desperate situation in Venezuela continued to push people to migrate despite the obstacles, as migration restrictions do not address the causes of migration.

What these measures did not achieve, the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic did: in November 2020 the government suspended around 90,000 visa procedures for Venezuelan applicants, and many others who had already been granted their visas or had their final interview scheduled could not enter Chile because the suspension of international flights prevented them from doing so within the 90-day period established by law; therefore, their applications were administratively closed without any consideration for the pandemic situation.

Many people have filed amparo appeals – writs for protection of constitutional rights – and have managed to have their cases reopened, but Chile has clearly opted for a strategy of restriction. All these measures were taken to regulate and control a migratory flow that was growing, but many of us see it as a reflection of the lack of empathy for the humanitarian reality that these people are going through in their countries of origin. Many of them had requested protection or were in the process of reuniting with their families, and their projects were cut short either by the pandemic or by administrative restrictions.

Is Chilean society polarised around the issue of migration?

I don’t see such polarisation. The situation in the city of Iquique, where in September 2021 there was a march against the arrival of migrants, was an isolated event. It was also the result of the stress that can build up in a situation of coexistence in undignified conditions, a result of the lack of public policies capable of anticipating the drama of this humanitarian crisis.

On social media, opinions are polarised and people say many things, but these positions have not materialised in marches on the capital, Santiago de Chile, or in other cities. On the contrary, in Iquique we have seen migrants on the streets in extremely difficult conditions, and city residents welcoming and helping them to the best of their ability.

The situation in Iquique was also one of exclusion from the possibility of regularisation of people who entered through unauthorised passages, a direct result of Law No. 21.325 on Migration and Aliens passed in April this year. In the previous regularisation process in 2018, migrants who entered through unauthorised passages were allowed to register, although no work permits were granted. Migrants know this is the case, but they prefer this precarious situation to going hungry in their countries of origin.

In the context of the pandemic, because of health restrictions, many migrants were forced to stay in public places, unable to go anywhere else, undocumented and excluded from social benefits. This created difficulties for local residents, as well as for the migrants themselves who lacked state assistance.

It was only after some Venezuelan migrants died while crossing the border that the Chilean state began to provide assistance, on the understanding that they were in fact refugees or asylum seekers.

What should the state do in this situation?

The state has an obligation to provide a solution to this situation. An alternative could be for it to coordinate with the private sector, which is in need of workers, especially in construction, agriculture, services and in some professional categories. The situation of people fitting these profiles could be regularised through coordination with the private sector, providing them with training and job placement. This would provide a different perspective on migration and would help avoid situations of dependency and lack of autonomy.

It seems that restrictions are not the best solution. Restrictions do not stop migration, and instead deepen the violations of migrants’ rights, as they make them susceptible to the challenges of the labour market and the housing rental market and limit their access to basic rights such as health and education. They are also of no use to the authorities, who do not know where migrants are, who they are, how many they are or how they have arrived.

Over the entire recent period since Chile returned to democracy, none of a series of governments developed a real migration policy that reformed and updated existing regulations. The current government has been the only one to propose a change in the law on migration and in migration management, but, due to the context and the pressure of migratory flows, it has turned out to be a restrictive policy, or at least one that seeks to limit the flow. It is a policy that discourages people from entering the country, driving those in a regular situation to exhaustion due to eternal waits to obtain documents, lack of communication by migration authorities and bureaucratic centralisation in Santiago.

We are now in the middle of an election campaign, and in such times migration can be exploited to win votes. The government programmes of all the candidates have very limited information on this issue, but all who have spoken about it have done so in a restrictive tone. I think the problem lies there, more than in the fact that there is xenophobia within society. It seems that migrants only begin to be heard when they become an electoral force, which in Chile is just beginning to happen.

How adequate is the new law to achieving ‘safe, orderly and regular’ migration?

Law 21.325 reflects well the position of this administration on the issue of migration. It should be remembered that in December 2018 Chile refused to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, arguing that each country should retain its sovereignty to set its migration rules, even though Chile had been one of the countries that had led its drafting process.

The new law has some positive aspects and enshrines some rights, such as the rights to health, education, family reunification and work. It includes visas for minors and gives consideration to people with disabilities and women, giving them protection in certain specific cases such as pregnancy, smuggling and trafficking and gender-based violence. It decentralises the revalidation of diplomas and increases the administration’s presence in Chile’s regions. It also gives people with dependent visas autonomy to develop an economic activity.

Although these rights are not currently refused, they are not guaranteed by law either, but rather recognised administratively, which makes them somewhat fragile.

At the same time, the new law represents a shift in migration management. Until now, the law allowed for changes of status within the national territory, but the new law will not allow this: all visas must be obtained from consulates in the migrants’ countries of origin. This will give the administration the ultimate decision on how many migrants to allow in, which and under what conditions. This is perhaps the biggest change introduced by the new law. Only in some cases will certain people be allowed to change their migration status, but this will depend on the content of the regulatory degree that is issued to implement the new law.

What work is the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute doing in this context?

As it is beyond our reach to tackle the causes of migration, we defend the rights of migrants. Our objectives are to welcome, protect and integrate them. 

We advocate with the authorities, which sometimes comes at a cost. This is necessary work because although there are migrants’ organisations, they tend to be organised around one person, a leader, and are not highly institutionalised. There are organisations for Colombians, Ecuadorians, Haitians and Venezuelans, among others. There is also Chile’s National Immigrants’ Coordination, which brings together several organisations, has a presence in protests and social media, and includes several Haitian, Peruvian and Venezuelan collectives.

We also provide legal advice, which is what is most lacking in Chile, due to a lack of access to information, which is not promoted by the authorities who should be attending to migrants. We help with online forms and procedures and provide social assistance, particularly in the form of shelter, as there are no state-run shelters for migrants.

Everything that exists in Chile in the area of migrants’ reception and services is the result of civil society initiatives, largely by organisations, institutions and services of the Catholic Church. INCAMI is the Catholic Church’s main body on migration issues: through the work teams of the Pastoral of Human Mobility (PMH) in each of Chile’s regions, we coordinate the reception and care of migrants with other Church bodies. Our resources are limited, but during the pandemic we have opened churches to receive women and children and we have provided all the attention we could through social media.

We listen to what people need, something the authorities don’t do. With the help of some municipalities, we accompanied the return of thousands of people not only from neighbouring Bolivia, but also from Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Venezuela and other countries.

Our migration teams travel not only within the Metropolitan Region of Santiago but also to Chile’s regions, to visit the municipalities with the greatest presence of migrants and offer them the possibility of regularising their status, obtaining a visa, working under fair conditions, contributing to the social security system and accessing their fundamental rights. Sometimes we do this with the support of PMH teams in the regions, government authorities or the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

What support do organisations defending the rights of migrants in Chile need from the international community?

We face a regional challenge that requires a regional response. States should coordinate an international approach to migration, as is already being done by the Regional Inter-Agency Coordination Platform for Refugees and Migrants from Venezuela (R4V), led by the United Nations Refugee Agency and the IOM. Further progress is needed in this process, as the Venezuelan situation is far from over.

In order to assist migrants while doing very necessary advocacy work, we need resources: staple foods to assemble basic food baskets and economic resources to pay for accommodation, among other things. It is important to remember that migrants are not the problem, but rather the symptom of realities undergoing deeper transformation, and most of them require protection.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Chilean Catholic Migration Institute through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @INCAMIchile and @JosDelioCubides on Twitter. 

CAMBODIA: ‘This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state’

CIVICUS speaks with Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national and co-founder of Mother Nature Cambodia (MNC), a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates and campaigns locally and internationally for the preservation, promotion and protection of Cambodia’s natural environment. Due to their work, the authorities have systematically intimidated and criminalised MNC activists. Gonzalez-Davidson has been convicted in absentia for his activism and currently faces further charges.

Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson

What were the origins of MNC?

We founded MNC in 2013, and the most important factor leading to its founding was that the environment in Cambodia, and especially the forest, was being decimated so fast. Because I could speak Khmer, I was a translator and was reading about it in the news and eventually also seeing it happen.

This senseless destruction was being disguised as development, but in reality it was organised crime sponsored by the state, including the army, the police, politicians at all levels and local authorities. It was painful to see. Local Indigenous people were being cheated and this got me fired up.

I also came to the realisation that civil society, and especially international organisations that were allegedly protecting the environment, were not doing anything that was effective enough. Local groups were not able to do much, and some international groups were doing greenwashing: misleading the public with initiatives that were presented as environmentally friendly or sustainable, but were not addressing the real causes of the problems. 

A small group of friends and I started a campaign to stop a senseless hydroelectric dam project, which we knew was never about electricity but about exploiting natural resources and allowing logging and poaching. I was deported a year and a half after we started MNC. Over time, we have had to evolve to try and expose environmental crimes by the state on a large scale.

What have been the main activities and tactics of MNC?

They have changed over time. Back in 2013 to 2015, we could still do community empowerment and hold peaceful protests. We could bring people from cities to remote areas. In 2015, the harassing and jailing of activists started. We realised peaceful protests could not happen anymore because protesters would be criminalised. We continued to do community empowerment until 2017, but then had to stop that too.

One of our biggest tactics is going to a location, recording short videos and presenting them to the public so that Cambodians can understand, click, share and comment. We have received millions of views. We also did shows on Facebook live and lobbied opposition parties in parliament. From 2019 onwards, activists could no longer appear in the videos and we had to blur their faces and distort their voices. Now we can’t even do that because it is too risky.

What is the state of civic space in Cambodia?

The regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has destroyed democratic institutions, including active and independent civil society, independent media and opposition parties. It has dismantled all these as it realised people were ready and hungry for democracy.

There is a lot for the regime to lose if the status quo changes, mainly because of money. The regime is mostly organised crime. They don’t want pesky independent journalists, activists organising protests or CSOs doing community empowerment. They don’t want to lose power and be held accountable. This is why now there is very little space compared to five years ago, and the situation is still going downhill. 

Most civil society groups have retreated and are not pushing the boundaries. They are afraid of their organisation being shut down, funding being cut, or their activists and staff being thrown in jail. Indeed, working in Cambodia is difficult but it’s not acceptable to have a very small number of CSOs and activists speaking up.

What gives me hope is that conversations and engagement among citizens about democracy are still happening, and that repression cannot go on forever.

Why has MNC been criminalised, and what impact has this had and what is impact of the court cases?

Cambodia doesn’t really have any other group like us. We are a civil society group, but we are made up of activists rather than professional staff. Other activists used to do forest patrols in the Prey Lang forest, but the government forced them to stop. There are also Indigenous communities and environmental activists trying to do some work, but what happened to MNC is also a message to them.

In 2015, three MNC activists were charged and subsequently convicted for their activities in a direct-action campaign against companies mining sand in Koh Kong province. In September 2017, two MNC activists were arrested for filming vessels we suspected were illegally exporting dredged sand on behalf of a firm linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. In January 2018, the two activists were fined and sentenced to a year in jail.

In September 2020, three activists affiliated with MNC were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful protest as part of a campaign against the planned privatisation and reclamation of Boeung Tamok lake in the capital, Phnom Penh. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison for ‘incitement’.

Most recently, in June 2021, four environmental activists affiliated with MNC were charged for investigating river pollution in the Tonle Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘insulting the King’. There are currently six MNC activists in detention.

We have been charged with threatening to cause destruction, incitement, violating peoples’ privacy – just for filming at sea – and the latest additions to the list are ‘plotting’ to violently overthrow institutions – just for recording sewage going into the Mekong river – and insulting the King. The government is no longer even pretending that this is about law enforcement and is now just picking crimes to charge us with.

As we become more effective in what we do, the state’s rhetoric against us has become more aggressive. The authorities have vilified us, calling us traitors and terrorists. Repression starts from the very bottom, with the local police, the mayor, the military police and their civilian friends who are in the business of poaching, logging and so on. They follow you, threaten you and even try to bribe you. They also control the media narrative and have trolls on social media. Even if all you do is a media interview, they will threaten you online.

This has created a climate of fear among activists. As in any other dictatorship, Cambodia has always been ruled by fear. This percolates down to young people, who make up the vast majority of our activists. Their families and friends get really worried too. When people feel there is less of a risk in getting involved, the state hits activists and civil society again with more arbitrary and trumped-up charges, as a way to instil further fear in people’s minds.

The impact of the court cases against MNC has been strong. At first we were able to put up with them by diversifying our tactics and putting new strategies in place, but over the last two years and with six people in jail, it’s become more difficult. But this won’t stop our activism. It will not defeat us.

Have you faced threats from private companies?

The line between the private sector and the state is blurred in Cambodia, and in certain cases is just not even there. You don’t have a minister or the army saying, ‘this is my hydroelectric dam’ or ‘we are doing sand mining’, but everyone knows the links are there.

Those representing the state will provide the apparatus and resources to threaten activists and local communities, and businesspeople – who sometimes are their own family members – will give them a percentage of the earnings. For example, sand from mining exported to Singapore – a business worth a few hundred million dollars – was controlled by a few powerful families, including that of the leader of the dictatorship, Hun Sen. This is a textbook case of organised crime with links to the state. And when a journalist, civil society group or local community tries to expose them, they use the weapons of the state to silence, jail, or bribe them. 

Why did MNC decide to formally disband?

In 2015 the government passed a repressive NGO law with lots of traps that made it difficult for us to be in compliance. I was also no longer in the country, as I was not allowed to return even though I had been legally charged and convicted there. In 2013, when we registered, there were three of us, plus two nominal members who were Buddhist monks. The other two founders were taken to the Ministry of Interior and told to disband or otherwise go to jail, so they decided to disband.

We also thought it would be better not to be bound by the NGO law. Cambodian people have the right to protect their national resources. According to the Cambodian Constitution and international treaties the state has signed, we are not breaking the law. But we know this will not stop them from jailing us.

What can international community do to support MNC and civil society in Cambodia?

Some things are being done. Whenever there is an arbitrary arrest of activists, there are embassies in the capital, United Nations institutions and some Cambodian CSOs who speak up. 

That’s good, but sadly it’s not enough. If you are doing business with Cambodia, such as importing billions of dollars per year worth of garments, you have to do more than just issue statements. You should make a clear connection between the health of democracy in Cambodia and the health of your business relationships. For example, the UK is working on a trade deal with Cambodia, and it must attach to it conditions such as ensuring a free media and halting the arbitrary jailing of activists. 

The problem is that some diplomats don’t understand what is going on or don’t care about the human rights situation. Southeast Asian countries should also help each other and speak up on the situation in Cambodia. Not just civil society but members of parliament should call out, send letters to their ambassador and so forth.

Civic space in Cambodia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Mother Nature Cambodia through its website or its Facebook page, and follow @CambodiaMother on Twitter. 

COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’


Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.

CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.

What made you become an environmental defender?

I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.

What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?

We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.

What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?

In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.

In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.

I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.

What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?

We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.

We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.

Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.

What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?

The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.

The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.

Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade through its website or its Facebook page.


COP26: ‘The global north must remain accountable and committed to tackle climate change’

LorenaSosaAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Lorena Sosa, Operations Director at Zero Hour, a youth-led movement creating entry points, training and resources for new young activists and organisers. At Zero Hour, Lorena has supported the work of activists in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore, looking to create immediate action and bring attention to the impacts of climate change.


What’s the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?

Zero Hour is currently committed to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies in US policy and filling the gap in climate-organising resources. We have recently accomplished this by organising the virtual End Polluter Welfare Rally, featuring Senator Majority Lead Chuck Schumer and Congressman Ro Khanna, and the People Not Polluters Rally in New York City, and assisting with the organisation of the People vs Fossil Fuels mobilisation in Washington, DC. We are currently working on revising a series of training activities to help our chapters learn how to organise local campaigns unique to their communities.

A lot of our actions demonstrate our desire to connect and collaborate with others involved in the movement, to uplift one another’s actions because it is hard to get coverage and attention on the actions that we are all organising. It is a beautiful thing to witness when organisers support each other; love and support is really needed to improve the state of the movement and the progress of its demands.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Backlash to activist work certainly ranges on a case-by-case basis, especially for our international chapters, who face limits on protest and rallying because of government restrictions. Within the USA, the biggest backlash against the work we do is tied to the burnout of working and seeing no action from leaders who have the power to initiate action for our planet’s well-being. Burnout is really common in the youth climate space, especially because so many of us are trying to juggle between our academic, social and organising lives while trying to stay hopeful about the change that is possible.

In terms of staying well and safe from the impacts of burnout, I’ve learned that the best thing to do is engage with the climate community I’m in; I know I’m not alone in the concerns I have because my fellow friends and organisers and I constantly express our concerns to one another. There is no be-all and end-all remedy to burnout, but I’ve learned that taking time to care for myself and connect with my family and friends back home is incredibly helpful in staying grounded.

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

Our Global Outreach team and Operations team, which are led by Sohayla Eldeeb and myself, have worked together to shape communications with our international chapters in Jamaica, the Philippines and Singapore. We have held one-on-one office hours with our international chapters to help them work through any conflict in their campaign work and provide support in any way possible.

In terms of international campaigns, our Partnerships Deputy Director, Lana Weidgenant, is actively involved in international campaigns that bring attention to and foster education and action on food systems transformation to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and protect our environment. Lana served as the Youth Vice Chair of Shifting to Sustainable Consumption Patterns for the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021, is a youth leader of the international Act4Food Act4Change campaign that has gathered together the food systems pledges and priorities of over 100,000 young people and allies around the world, and is one of the two youth representatives for the COP26 agriculture negotiations this year.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress in tackling climate change?

I would want to see the global north remain accountable and committed to including US$100 billion for the global south to be able to implement their own climate adaptation and mitigation measures successfully.

So many of our perspectives at Zero Hour are centred around justice, rather than just equity, because we know that the USA is one of the largest contributors to this crisis. Leaders of the global north, especially stakeholders in the USA, need to end support of the fossil fuel industry and start committing to solutions that prioritise people and not polluters.

I would love to see all leaders attending COP26 take serious and impactful action to combat and eliminate the effects of climate change. Worsened weather patterns and rising sea levels have already proven that inaction is going to be detrimental to the well-being of our planet and all its inhabitants.

The recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has demonstrated sufficient evidence for our leaders to treat climate change as the emergency it is. I am hoping that all the global leaders speaking at the conference take the IPCC report’s statements into great consideration when drafting the conference’s outcomes.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Zero Hour through its website and follow @ThisIsZeroHour on Twitter.


COP26: ‘Decision-makers have national objectives whereas the issues at stake are transnational’

As the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) takes place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the summit.

ECUADOR: ‘Civil society must highlight the added value of its participation’

CIVICUS speaks with Estefanía Terán, advocacy director of Grupo FARO, about the role of organised civil society in Ecuador's presidential elections and the challenges civil society faces today. Grupo FARO is an independent research and action centre in Ecuador that produces evidence to influence public policy and promotes social transformation and innovation.

Estefanía Terán

What roles does Ecuadorian civil society play during electoral processes?

Political parties do not reach out much to civil society organisations (CSOs) to take on board their proposals. While some turn to CSOs for information, others hire private consultants. This happens because very few political organisations have within their structures a team or the necessary tools to develop quality government plans, with clear content, and which respond to the needs of the population or their voters, and are rooted in a diagnosis based on rigorous and objective technical research.

During elections, CSOs develop initiatives to promote informed voting. They build web platforms and other communication tools to give visibility from a citizen perspective, to the proposals of the various contenders. Through this work, in the latest elections, initiatives were organised according to ideological criteria and in terms of their response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, with the aim of highlighting the ‘how’ of the proposals, which in general only focus on the ‘what’, forums and debates are held among the candidates.

Grupo FARO is part of a group of CSOs that promotes informed voting; within this framework we developed the Ecuador Decide initiative. This initiative, which has been activated at elections since 2017 – which means it has been implemented on four occasions – aims to encourage voting based on the programmatic proposals of the different candidates and the political organisations that support them. To this end, it compiles, disseminates and analyses the contents of all their government plans.

In the 2021 elections, Grupo FARO analysed the government plans of all the presidential candidates. We found that, of the 1,500 proposals identified in 16 areas of national relevance, only 55.5 per cent contained information on how they would be implemented, and only 26.7 per cent made clear who their target audience was.

In addition, based on our experience organising debates among candidates during local elections, we assisted the National Electoral Council in regulating presidential debates, which became mandatory after the Democracy Code was reformed in February 2020.

What are the causes and consequences of the low quality of political plans?

The low quality of plans for government, which makes them inadequate instruments to inform the population about the positions of the various candidates and political organisations, is due to the lack of enforcement and regulation by the governing body, which does not require that these documents meet minimum standards and be comparable with each other. In fact, we have analysed some plans that were three pages long and others of more than a hundred pages. Moreover, in many cases they differ from the candidate’s discourse or include proposals outside the candidate’s field of competence.

It is not common for voters to access these documents to get informed, and therefore, they serve no other purpose than to fulfil a formal requirement to register a candidacy. This contradicts the fact that one of the grounds for requesting the revocation of the mandate of popularly elected authorities is their non-compliance with their plans.

The high degree of generality of the proposals contained in government plans means that the candidates’ campaign discourse is aimed at the median voter, and that strategically the candidates do not differentiate themselves. This fragments voter preferences, creating complications, as seen in the very narrow margin between the candidates placing second and third in the latest elections, Guillermo Lasso, of Movimiento Creando Oportunidades, and Yaku Pérez, of Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik. This meant that the winner in the second electoral round was someone who in the first round had not even reached 20 per cent of the total vote: he came to power as a result of a compulsory vote, with very low legitimacy, and a high risk of facing governance problems in the medium term.

What challenges does Ecuadorian civil society face under the new government?

Although no specific proposals were identified regarding the promotion of civil society participation, President Lasso has sought to send a friendly and collaborative message. However, due to its business background, the government tends to equate civil society with the private sector. This results in two challenges for civil society. The first is to differentiate itself from the private sector and the second is to work harmoniously with the private sector. To this end, it must promote an exercise of reflection on the current role of civil society and highlight the value that its involvement adds to public management. Furthermore, it must insist that this participation is not limited to a few organisations that are close to the government, but that it is open and inclusive, plural and diverse.

This implies, on the one hand, pushing forward a process of organisational strengthening of civil society for collaborative work among itself and with others. And, on the other hand, it implies initiating a process of learning and trust building with the private sector. There is a great opportunity for organised civil society to contribute so that companies’ support for social causes is done with transparency and public oversight and based on international principles for the effective functioning of public-private partnerships, guaranteeing quality projects and actions going beyond corporate profit.

The prelude to developing such alliances should be the passing of a minimum CSO law to give us legal security and protect us from the discretion of the incumbent government. At the moment we are regulated by an executive decree and under a logic of concession and control, rather than registration and co-responsibility. Ensuring the enactment of a law that contributes to building an enabling environment and promoting participation is therefore another challenge we face as a sector during this presidential term. In partnership with the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and other allied organisations, Grupo FARO is pushing a proposal for a minimum law, which in the previous National Assembly reached the stage of developing a report for second debate.


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

Contact Grupo Faro through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @grupofaro and @eteranv on Twitter.

GHANA: ‘The ‘anti-gay’ bill will have far-reaching consequences if we do not fight it now’

Rightify GhanaCIVICUS speaks with Danny Bediako, founder and executive director of Rightify Ghana, about the LGBTQI+ rights situation and the significance of Ghana’s ‘anti-gay’ bill. Rightify Ghana is a human rights organisation that advocates for community empowerment and human rights, and documents and reports human rights abuses in Ghana.

What are the aims of Rightify Ghana?

Rightify Ghana was formed because LGBTQI+ organisations were all based in the capital, Accra. Living in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region in Ghana, I felt that I had to do something, so I brought together some people I knew and urged them to reach out to others. We all came together and formed Rightify Ghana. 

We do advocacy work and report and document human rights violations. We contribute to capacity building through community empowerment activities, including human rights education and sensitisation on safety and security. While as an organisation we do not directly offer sexual health or HIV/AIDS-related services, we facilitate access to them for the people who reach out to us.

We have become a widely known organisation, with people reaching out for information and referrals to certain services. We also offer psychosocial support to people facing various forms of abuse and human rights violations. We undertake media monitoring to understand how the media reports on LGBTQI+ matters and identify rising challenges, and particularly security threats, to inform and educate the LGBTQI+ community.

What are the major challenges facing LGBTQI+ people in Ghana?

For several years the LGBTQI+ community has been targeted by homophobic people, both from state institutions and non-state groups and individuals. But there isn’t enough awareness on these issues, so we usually have to deal with them by ourselves. There are frequent reports of attacks against LGBTQI+ people, including outing them, blackmailing, kidnapping them for ransom and outright physical violence.

Ghana had previously sold itself globally as a progressive country, one that respects democratic principles and constitutional rule. But this year the rights violations that the LGBTQI+ community has experienced for years came to light. Attacks came in quick succession and caught us off guard.

We started 2021 with the closure of a community centre established by LGBT+ Rights Ghana. Then an alleged lesbian wedding, which attendees claim was a birthday party, was stormed and denounced by traditional rulers, police and media. Twenty-two people were arrested and later released.

In May came the case of the Ho 21, in which police and a team of reporters disrupted an event of human rights defenders who document and report violations against the LGBTQI+ community. Twenty-one of them were arrested, becoming victims of the crime they work to document. This nearly broke the whole movement down because other organisations closed their offices out of fear and activists went into hiding; there was too much uncertainty, and most people fell silent.

Most recently, the so-called Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghana Family Values Bill – the ‘anti-gay bill’ – was officially introduced to parliament and is now open to contributions from the public.

What does the bill say, and what motivates those behind it?

The first time I read the bill, I felt like I couldn’t breathe: my right to exist in this country would be taken away from me. The bill promotes ‘conversion therapy’, making it a state function to torture people who question their sexuality or identify as intersex or transgender. Conversion therapy is very dangerous: those who undergo it may experience depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. United Nations Special Rapporteurs have stated that conversion therapy is a form of torture.

Even though it is bipartisan, the bill is being pushed mostly by the opposition: seven out of eight members of parliament (MPs) supporting the bill are part of the opposition, including the speaker, who brought together the lawmakers and the homophobic group, the National Coalition for Proper Sexual Human Rights and Family Values. To promote the bill, they are using disinformation and lies, including incorrect HIV data stating that eight out of 10 HIV/AIDS cases are of LGBTQI+ people.

We asked the Ghana AIDS Commission to speak out and release a statement against misinformation stigmatising people living with HIV/AIDS, but they declined out of fear. We then asked an independent fact checker, Ghana Fact, which confirmed that the claims were false. It was in turn falsely accused of being funded by the LGBTQI+ community.

If you ask me where all this hate is coming from, I would say it has been imported. The religious texts that are being used to condemn sexual minorities and the current bill are backed by the US far-right movement, and particularly the World Congress of Families, which held a conference in Ghana in 2019. Leading up to the conference, they hosted several key personalities in Ghana, including a former president, the national chief imam and a former speaker of parliament, to ensure that they would encourage homophobia in the ‘background’.

We believe that the US far-right movement has lost its own fight against equality, diversity and progressive values in the global west, so they have turned to Africa, which they view as fertile ground for their agendas. As early as 2017, we started to notice individuals urging the government to do something against the LGBTQI+ community. They did not seem to have enough resources to succeed, but once they formed an alliance with the World Congress of Families and began receiving funding, resources and technical support, they have been able to propose the worst bill we have ever seen go into our parliament.

What are the bill’s implications for LGBTQI+ people in Ghana

The implications of the bill reach even beyond those who identify as part of the LGBTQI+ community and are already being felt, even before it has been passed. Blackmail has become a major issue faced by the LGBTQI+ community. We used to see two or three cases a week, but now we are getting about three per day. We are seeing homophobic people on dating sites and social media pose as gay to lure gay men into their homes, where they subject them to group violence. In one particular case, the victim was blackmailed and threatened with death. If the bill is passed, people like these will have free rein to harm others, because the law will condone their behaviour.

Ghanaians give much importance to the value of sympathy, but this bill is also going to criminalise the exercise of this value. If an LGBTQI+ person is subjected to violence in public, nobody will come to their rescue because you can be prosecuted for that. The implications are very serious in the area of public health. According to the bill, if you know or suspect that someone is an LGBTQI+ person, you must report them to the police. This applies to nurses and other health workers, which will lead to fewer people seeking health services.

HIV programmes targeting key populations are run by community-based organisations that are mostly peer-led, and if the bill bans them from operating and bans others from registering, people will not be able to access healthcare, which is a constitutional right, making it much harder to fight HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

While our constitution prohibits censorship, this bill will ban the publication of LGBTQI+ content, including reports of crimes against the LGBTQI+ community. This also applies to social media. It will take away our constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression, as well as our right to dignity and privacy. While the constitution speaks against discrimination of all forms, this bill is going to legalise discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.

It will also target those who are not queer, including people who use sex toys or cross-dress for comedy, and youth groups and students. Our cultural traditional norms of people of the same gender walking and holding hands and putting our arms across each other’s shoulders are at stake – we sometimes also sit on each other’s laps if there is no space! All these will be outlawed due to being seen as indecent exposure and public show of amorous relations.

What are the current priorities for Rightify Ghana and other LGBTQI+ organisations in Ghana?

Our biggest priority is safety. Even before it is passed, we have already started seeing parts of the bill being implemented. For instance, we have seen an increase in arrests of our community members. In one of these cases, the police arrested two people and urged them to give them the names and addresses of other queer people. They were picked up by the police not for committing any crime, but because someone told them that they were queer.

Each time we hear of people being arrested, activists rush to police stations to get them out. We are paying for our freedom. Although bail in Ghana is free, the police won’t let them go. Under Section 104 of the current Criminal Offences Act, they cannot arrest you just because someone told them you are gay, but they still do. They know they cannot prosecute you, but if you want to recover your freedom fast, they make you pay.

We are also worried that if the bill is passed, its effects may reach further, into the homes of Ghanaian people across the world. The typical Ghanaian diasporic family upholds in their home the same principles they would in Ghana, so queer Ghanaians in the diaspora may also become victims of parents who don’t want to come back with a lesbian or gay child, and may be excommunicated from the family due to homophobia. Even in the UK, Canada and other western countries, Ghanaian families still attend Ghanaian churches where homophobia is preached. If the bill is passed, this is the law that will rule within their homes, and not that of the countries they live in.

What are you doing to push back against the bill?

We are working to take up space, encourage dialogue and start conversations. People have been brainwashed by the homophobic disinformation and genuinely think that queer people are paedophiles and other terrible things. We correct these lies and try to find ways so that people start listening to us and understand that people do not ‘become’ gay due to media influence and they are not ‘recruited’ by some Western power to become gay.

Some people do not know or believe that the queer community faces human rights violations. When we show them the facts, tell them the names of those who have been beaten, evicted, lost their job, or been suspended from school and make them understand that this could be their family member, they might start listening and shift their stance, even if not to support us, at least to soften their position and listen.

We are strategising against the bill and building alliances with mainstream organisations that have access to the legislature and the executive. This is not something one organisation can fight. It is a collective struggle. We mapped the legislative arena to identify those MPs we could reach out to, speak with and share information with, because we needed to have progressive MPs debating on our behalf.

Awareness-raising and engagement are also taking place online. People have reached out to the LGBTQI+ community and offered donations, expertise and contacts so that we could reach out to key personalities who could help. Protests were also coordinated and held outside the country, for instance in Canada, the UK and the USA. Online organising allowed us to hold abroad the in-person protests that for security reasons we could not physically hold here.

How can international civil society best support the struggle for LGBTQI+ rights in Ghana?

When people ask us what they can do, we tell them to protest, to create awareness, to let people know what is happening in Ghana and urge their governments to do something about it. If they have worked in Ghana before and have contacts among powerful people in Ghana, they should use them. A consultant who has worked with a ministry can use their contacts there, and a civil society organisation that has worked here can use its networks to support local organisations. They should encourage their own governments to take up any opportunity to raise the human rights implications of the bill with the Ghanaian government. International civil society organisations and the global community should definitely put more pressure on the Ghanaian government. 

This is a crisis and local organisations and activists were not prepared, so we need a lot of support, particularly technical expertise in the legal arena. It is also key to have allies who can speak on our behalf, so that not all those speaking up against the bill are part of the LGBTQI+ community.

Another thing that the global community and international civil society can do is support us through funding. Rightify Ghana is currently self-financing its activities and cannot offer the level of support that people need. As soon as the bill was submitted to parliament, evictions of LGBTQI+ people increased alongside arrests, and we saw an increase in the number of people asking for help finding shelter, but unfortunately, our community doesn’t have safe houses.

People are being evicted not just by their landlords but also by their own families under suspicion of homosexuality, and they are not finding new places to live. We receive a lot of desperate messages from people who are temporarily staying with friends but urgently need a more stable arrangement. Some of these people are under very high risk.

In one such case, a woman who identifies as lesbian told us she considered leaving the country because a group of boys in her community threatened her with ‘corrective rape’. She lives with her family, and if she tells them about the threat, they will realise that she is a lesbian and will throw her out. Either way, she is in a very dangerous situation, and right now, there is not much that we can do to help her.

Civic space in Ghana is rated ‘narrowedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Rightify Ghana through its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @RightifyGhana on Twitter. 

BIODIVERSITY: ‘Governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure’

Gadir LavadenzCIVICUS speaks with Gadir Lavadenz, global coordinator of the Convention on Biological Diversity Alliance (CBD Alliance), about the ongoing process to draft a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework with the full participation of affected communities and wider civil society.

The CBD Alliance is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) with a common interest in the Convention on Biological Diversity. It works to increase public understanding of relevant issues, enhance cooperation among organisations wishing to have a positive influence in the CBD and bridge the gap between those who participate in CBD sessions and those involved in biodiversity-related work on the ground, while respecting the independence and autonomy of Indigenous peoples, a key stakeholder.

What is the CBD Alliance, what does it do and how did it develop?

The origins of the CBD Alliance, about two decades ago, were organic – it came naturally as those participating in the CBD process saw the need to act together and amplify the voices of civil society in the negotiations. Since the beginning, the CBD Alliance’s role was not to speak on behalf of people, but rather to support all advocacy efforts being undertaken autonomously in the best way possible.

Despite our limitations, it is very clear to us that the less privileged groups require specific support. Also, while our network is diverse, we respect the role and have fluent coordination with the other major groups involved in the process, particularly the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), the Global Youth Biodiversity Network and the Women Caucus.

The CBD Alliance is a broad community: in includes both Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and CSOs that support them closely. We fully respect each of these groups’ governance structures and decision-making processes and decisions. We maintain fluent communications and coordination with the IIFB, which represents the biggest group of IPLCs engaged with the CBD. We support their statements during official meetings, we support the participation of IPLCs at international meetings whenever possible and we amplify all their publications and campaigns.

Why is there a need for a new Global Biodiversity Framework? 

Historically, the implementation of the CBD focused around its first objective, the conservation of biological diversity, and comparatively little attention was put on its second and third objectives, which are the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. This is one of the reasons why the CBD has not been able to deliver the results required. The past decade saw lack of political will from parties to the CBD leading to failure in achieving the Aichi targets, and there is abundant literature demonstrating how the destruction of biodiversity continues rampant.

A new framework should be a unique opportunity to correct past mistakes. The CBD covers a broad range of issues but has failed to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, and its hyper attention to targets such as the one on protected areas, focusing on quantity rather than quality, has hidden huge inconsistencies in our approach to biodiversity loss.

For instance, the Forest Peoples Programme, a member of the CBD Alliance, reported that global funding of biodiversity has grown significantly over the past decade, and is now estimated at between US$78 billion and US$147 billion per year. However, it is greatly outweighed by public subsidies and broader financial flows that drive biodiversity loss, which are estimated at between US$500 billion and several trillion dollars per year.

Furthermore, while the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities are widely recognised as critically important for protecting biodiversity, they are often negatively impacted on by biodiversity finance, and receive little direct support for their efforts.

Another CBD Alliance member, the Third World Network, reported that in 2019, 50 of the world’s largest banks underwrote more than US$2.6 trillion in industries known to be the drivers of biodiversity loss. A recent study concluded that ‘the financial sector is bankrolling the mass extinction crisis, while undermining human rights and indigenous sovereignty’.

According to the Global Forest Coalition, also a member of the CBD Alliance, climate finance and subsidised renewable energy generation are a form of direct subsidy that often harms forests while failing to reduce emissions. The most prominent example of this is the Drax power station in the UK, which receives UK£2 million (approx. US$2.8 million) per day to produce highly polluting electricity from wood clear-felled from highly biodiverse wetland forests in the south-eastern USA, among other places. Other examples include the Global Environment Facility’s subsidy to iron and steel companies to produce charcoal from eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, and numerous national and European Union-level subsidies available to the pulp and paper industry in Portugal.

Recently, in an event organised by the CBD Secretariat, several so-called world leaders pledged great amounts of money for biodiversity. However, countries from the global north have failed to fulfil their international commitments in relation to new and additional funds. What they pledge for nature is mixed with all sorts of schemes that do not address the real causes of biodiversity loss. And the amounts pledged to protect biodiversity are clearly outweighed by all the money invested in destroying biodiversity.

In addition to these troubling contradictions and inconsistencies, powerful groups and developed nations constantly try to avoid their responsibilities by all means. We see the push to incorporate terms such as nature-based solutions in the CBD simply as another trick from big polluters to offset their obligations and a new form of corporate land-grabbing and greenwashing.

Why isn’t this all over the mainstream media? This is what happens when ‘big’ players focus all their attention on certain policies and activities, such as the increase in protected areas. Protected areas are not bad, but they are far from being a real solution to the much-needed change in our production and consumption patterns. The narrative around the CBD must shift towards the root causes of biodiversity loss, which are more structural and related to justice and equity. Just like climate change is no longer a purely environmental problem, we need to see the big picture of the destruction of biodiversity that relates to the rights of IPLCs, peasants, women, future generations and nature herself. We need to put an end to the commodification of nature, since nature does not belong to us, or to those few privileged among us. Nature does not need fancy schemes and lots of money to thrive, it needs us to stop destroying it. This narrative should make us all desire and truly work for profound individual and collective change.


What change should the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework bring?

The CBD is a legally binding agreement and, if fully implemented, has great potential. The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework should be the instrument to implement the legal obligations of the parties to the CBD through accountability mechanisms that sanction any lack of action. It is also an opportunity to adopt a rights-based approach that puts the rights of IPLCs, women and peasants, and the rights of nature, at the centre of the debate, connecting the CBD to the international human rights architecture. 

Several reports have shown that violations of human rights have been committed for the sake of protected areas. While tackling the biodiversity and climate change crisis is both possible and unavoidable, various interests are pushing for this connection to be centred around ‘nature-based solutions’, a cover for schemes such as offsets, which do not benefit nature but the status quo and do not bring real solutions to our structural problems.

Another great challenge is the fact that the implementation of environmental norms is usually in the hands of environmental ministries, which tend to be completely powerless in comparison to others that are the actual drivers of biodiversity loss. This needs to change in relation to the new Global Biodiversity Framework.


The UN Biodiversity Conference has been twice postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges has this created?

The first challenge we faced was that global north countries pushed strongly to continue with the negotiations through virtual means without any consideration of the variety of difficulties experienced not only by their counterparts in the global south but also by civil society. The CBD Alliance expressed concerns around the inequalities and inequities of virtual negotiations on several occasions and supported the proposal by global south parties to postpone the negotiations. It was only when African and some Latin American parties expressed deep concerns about this situation that rich nations backed down and online meetings were maintained so the conversations could continue, but it was established that decisions would only be adopted in face-to-face meetings.

How can international civil society best support the work you are doing around the post-2000 Global Biodiversity Framework?

Some of our goals are to ensure that the post-2020 Global Diversity Framework centres around a strong statement of principles, such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR); a mechanism for dealing with noncompliance, including penalties, which should be well embedded under the principle of CBDR; a target focused on human rights and environmental defenders and on women, as they are the ones who are defending biodiversity in the real world; and a target on outlawing major disturbances of nature.

Once the Framework is approved, our mission will be to coordinate with regions, networks and organisations that have a direct connection with those working on the ground and on the frontlines. This coordination should include massive and intense dissemination of the Framework, but with a focus on how it can empower people in their resistance, struggles and projects.

Even if faced with legally binding obligations, governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure on them. Such pressure cannot happen without meaningful empowerment and information of the decisions adopted at the international level.

Get in touch with CBD Alliance through its website, Facebook page and Twitter account. 

AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’

CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on the CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms

Arzak Khan

What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.

Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.

Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.

What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?

In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.

The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.

Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.

Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?

To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.

How have you been supporting civil society and activists?

The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.

Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.

What do you think of the response by the international community so far?

Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.

On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.

What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?

Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.

The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.

For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.

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

Get in touch with Arzak Khan through his blog or Facebook page, and follow @arzakkhan on Twitter.



COP26: ‘Awareness that we need to protect the climate to protect ourselves is still missing’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Sascha Müller-Kraenner, Executive Director of Environmental Action Germany (Deutsche Umwelthilfe), an organisation that supports sustainable ways of life and economic systems that respect ecological boundaries. It has advocated for the preservation of biological diversity and the protection of climate and natural assets for more than 40 years.

Sascha Muller Kraenner

Photo: Stefan Wieland

What’s the key climate issue in Germany that you’re working on?

Germany and Europe need to phase out fossil gas to have any hope of keeping global warming below 1.5°C. Politicians don’t accept this reality yet, and the public debate is muddied by the gas lobby pushing a misleading campaign to portray fossil gas as clean, cheap and climate friendly. But getting serious about climate protection means that the entire energy system needs to be transformed, and fossil gas has no place in this transformation. We need to stop subsidising it and building new infrastructure for it.

Renewables and energy efficiency need to be scaled up massively to reduce gas demand and provide clean power generation. In the heating sector, we need to ban the sale of new gas heaters and replace existing ones with sustainable technologies such as heat pumps rather than false solutions such as hydrogen.

The emergence of ‘green gases’ such as hydrogen presents a threat and an opportunity in this regard, and designing regulation that is fit for a climate-neutral future is a key challenge. As the supply of green hydrogen will be very limited, because it is very expensive to produce, we need to use it only for sectors that are hard to decarbonise, like high-temperature industrial processes, rather than heating or transport, where other options are available.

Did the devastating floods Germany experienced in July lead to any greater acknowledgement of the climate crisis and willingness to take action?

Acknowledgement, yes. The floods were widely, and correctly, attributed to climate change. However, the debate has not changed much after the immediate crisis was over. The government had to commit €30 billion (approx. US$35 billion) to fix flood-related damages and rebuild the affected regions. Yet, in the context of the federal election, climate policy was debated as a ‘cost’ that society has to pay for altruistic reasons.

Pitting climate policy against economic development is a false dichotomy. The truth is that we need to reduce emissions, even in areas where it is difficult, precisely to avoid massively costly events like floods and droughts becoming more and more frequent. This awareness that we need to protect the climate to protect ourselves is still missing.

To what extent did the climate crisis feature in the campaign for Germany’s October election, and how is the climate movement pressuring the likely new government that will result from the election to do more?

According to polls, climate change was the most important issue in the election. This was partly because of frustration with the outgoing ‘grand coalition’ government, which was complacent about the climate crisis, unable to achieve its own targets and unwilling to take far-reaching decisions in critical areas such as renewables, buildings, transport and agriculture.

The climate movement, particularly Fridays for Future, has become much stronger since the 2017 election. Young people are mobilised and they will keep up the pressure because they rightly fear for their future. The Green party will very likely form part of the new government after achieving its best election result ever. This bodes well for climate policy and also for the influence of the climate movement. The Green party has by far the most expertise and willingness to adopt ambitious climate policy, and it is also the most open to the concerns of the climate movement.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

Deutsche Umwelthilfe is connected with the climate movement in Europe through membership in umbrella associations like Climate Action Network-Europe and the European Environmental Bureau. We participate in regular exchanges and working groups with our European partners on a variety of issues, such as phasing out gas, regulating methane emissions, sustainable finance and sustainable heating.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

There is no doubt that international cooperation is crucial if we are to limit global heating effectively, and the Paris Agreement is testimony to that. Despite that, however, since the beginning of the series of Conference of the Parties meetings we have seen a continuous rise in emissions globally. Many also criticise these events on the basis that they are heavily sponsored by industry, and that their outcomes are therefore somewhat tilted towards the expectations of industry.

Thus, international processes are one the one hand crucial, but on the other hand, they are also an opportunity for the fossil fuel industry to gain or at least retain their reputation as part of the solution to the climate crisis, while they continue to block progress in a lot of cases.

We have to be careful then when considering the outcome that COP26 can realistically provide. I do hope that progress will be made towards emission reduction commitments to stay in reach of the Paris Agreement, but it will take civil society to demand and implement the necessary changes, regardless of the outcome of COP26. We are and will continue to be part of that change.

What one change would you like to see that would help address the climate crisis?

In recent years we have seen incredible efforts by the young generation to finally act on the promises made in the Paris Agreement. Yet decision-makers far too often disregard their knowledge and demands around the climate crisis and instead continue with business as usual. I think we would all benefit if young people were given greater influence in decision-making processes that have the potential to halt global heating.

Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Environmental Action Germany through its website or Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow @Umwelthilfe and @sascha_m_k on Twitter. 

COP26: ‘False solutions are brandished to divert our attention from those responsible’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Lia Mai Torres, Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) – Philippines, a civil society organisation (CSO) that helps Filipino communities address environmental challenges. Founded in 1989 through an initiative of organisations representing fisherfolk, farmers, Indigenous peoples, women, people living in urban poverty and professional sectors, CEC focuses on environmental research, education, advocacy and campaigning. It is also part of the secretariat of the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders (APNED), a coalition of organisations working in solidarity to protect the environment and its defenders.

Lia Mai Torres

What’s the key environmental issue in your country that you’re working on?

The main environmental issue that the Philippines is currently facing is the proliferation of environmentally destructive projects and programmes. This situation persisted or even worsened under the pandemic.

Just recently, the current administration lifted a moratorium on mining, based on claims that it will help the economy recover, after it was hard hit by the poor pandemic response. This will usher in around 100 mining agreements in different parts of the country. This was opposed by many communities due to the negative impacts of existing mining operations. An example is in the village of Didipio, Nueva Vizcaya, in the northern part of the Philippines, where a mining agreement with the Australian-Canadian company OceanaGold was renewed for another 25 years. The Bugkalot and Tuwali Indigenous communities are already suffering from a lack of water supply due to the mining operations and they fear that this will worsen with the continuing operations.

Infrastructure projects are also a priority of the government, which claims that they will also help the economy. However, there are projects that are foreign funded under onerous loans that will worsen the situation of residents. An example of this is the China-funded Kaliwa Dam in Rizal province, in the southern part of Luzon island. It will encroach on the Dumagat Indigenous people’s ancestral domain, including sacred sites, as well as a protected area.

Another example are the monocrop plantations that can be found mostly in the provinces of Mindanao. Ancestral domains of the Lumad Indigenous people have been converted into banana and pineapple plantations. Some residents report illnesses from the synthetic chemicals used in the plantations and many are being displaced from their farmlands.

These are a few examples of priority projects that are pushed by the government to bring so-called development. However, it is obvious that these do not genuinely improve the situation of local communities, most of which are already experiencing poverty. In addition, the natural resources of the country are mostly not exploited to the benefit of its citizens, since the products extracted are destined for export. Only very few local and international corporations benefit from them. Natural resources are used for profit and not for national development.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

CEC works with local communities, since we believe that environmental struggles cannot be won without the united efforts of the people who are experiencing environmental impact. The real power comes from the organisations on the ground. CSOs like ours and other sectors should support their efforts, connecting local struggles to build a strong environmental movement at the national and international levels.

Because of our support to local communities, we have faced reprisals. In 2007, Lafayette Mining Ltd, an Australian mining company, filed a libel case against CEC’s then-executive director for exposing the impacts of the company’s operations. In 2019 and 2021, our organisation was targeted through red-tagging, a practice by which the government declares individuals and organisations as terrorists or communists, in retaliation for our humanitarian missions following a typhoon and during the pandemic. 

We also received information of a threat of a police raid in our office for providing sanctuary to Lumad Indigenous children who were forced out of their communities due to militarisation, threats and harassment. Our peaceful protest actions are often violently dispersed by the police and private security forces, and a member of our staff was arrested in 2019.

Behind all these attacks are state security forces alongside the private security forces of corporations. The police and military have seemingly become part of the corporations’ security forces, using repressive measure to ensure that their operations run smoothly.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

As many countries, especially from the global south, are experiencing similar environmental problems, we recognise the need to connect with organisations in other countries. In 2015, CEC was among the conveners of the International People’s Conference on Mining, in which environmental defenders were able to learn from each other’s experiences and coordinate local campaigns.

CEC also helped establish APNED, a solidarity campaign network that provides mutual support to campaigns, raises issues at the international level, advocates for greater protection to defenders, conducts capacity-building activities and facilitates services. We believe that it is important to have solidarity among defenders to help strengthen local movements as well as the international struggle for our environmental rights.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

Even before the pandemic, there were concerns regarding the inclusion of frontline or grassroots environmental defenders in international processes such as the climate talks. Lack of inclusivity became more evident under the pandemic, as many CSOs have found it difficult to attend due to additional requirements and expenses. In addition, only accredited organisations can attend formal events, and these are only very few with accreditation. Further, governments’ reports are usually far from reality. The worsening climate crisis is proof that governments are not doing enough.

Despite this, we will still participate in the formal and side events of COP26, aiming to bring attention to how many developed countries and big corporations are worsening the climate crisis through resource grabbing and the exploitation of the natural resources of poor countries, exacerbating existing poverty, and how false solutions are brandished to divert our attention from their responsibility and lack of accountability. We also want to highlight the importance of environmental defenders in protecting our environment and upholding our environmental rights, and therefore the need to ensure that they do not suffer more politically motivated human rights violations that hinder them from doing their important work.

What one change would you like to see that would help address the climate crisis?

We hope that the profit-oriented capitalist framework will be changed in the Philippines. This would ensure resource conflicts will be addressed, environmental protection for ecological balance upheld, genuine climate adaptation programmes established and due attention given to vulnerable groups. This also includes holding countries and corporations that contribute to the climate crisis accountable and providing support for poor countries to adapt.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines through its website or Facebook page, and follow @CEC_Phils on Twitter. 

COP26: ‘Young people are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Antonella Regular and Joaquín Salinas, Communications Coordinator and Training Coordinator of Juventudes COP Chile (COP Chile Youth), an independent youth platform focused on climate action. The group seeks to create advocacy spaces for young people and be an intergenerational and intersectional space for mutual learning.

Antonella Regular y Joaquin Salinas

What are the key environmental problems you encounter in Chile?

One key problem is that of environmental sacrifice zones or areas with a high level of environmental impact, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries that have a direct impact on communities. Another problem is mining and the way in which extractive rights are positioned above the rights of communities and the environment, with operations such as the controversial Dominga project in the Coquimbo region on Chile’s north-central coast. And in the south, the issue of deforestation.

These environmental issues are our entry point into the communities: they allow us to know what their challenges and goals are so that we can exert influence and act, and not just make demands. Our platform seeks to create solutions to address the problems.

The fact that young people do not find spaces where they can be heard and actively participate in decision-making is also a problem. Chile is currently going through a constituent process: there is a very diverse and plural Constituent Assembly, which was directly elected by citizens, and which is drafting a new Constitution. For the first time there is the possibility that some historical demands that have been ignored for the longest time will be met. At this decisive moment it is important for young people to be included in decision-making and to be able to influence the design of progressive public policies.

How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

The Juventudes COP Chile platform tries to function as a bridge between civil society and international advocacy spaces such as climate conferences. Our goal is for civil society as a whole to be empowered with opinions and demands to exert influence within these spaces. We have opened spaces for participation and established alliances, and all the proposals that have emerged from these spaces will be delivered to COP26. 

Juventudes COP Chile promotes the participation of young people and encourages them to take an active position. We are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign.

What progress do you expect from COP26, and more generally, how useful do you find such international processes?

There are many issues left pending from COP25. For instance, there is a need to finalise the rulebook in relation to article 6 of the Paris Agreement, regarding carbon markets, for states and companies to trade greenhouse gas emissions units. We hope that at COP26, states will finally reach an agreement and there will be a breakthrough in this regard. They should also stop postponing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) until 2050. And NDCs should no longer be voluntary. The fact that they are almost feels like mockery given the state of the climate crisis.

Progress is urgently needed because we are seeing that climate change is real and it is happening. Some changes are already irreversible: we are experiencing them on a daily basis in our relationship with the environment and we may hardly be able merely to adopt adaptation rules anymore.

Parties at COP26 should realise this and put their own interests aside to think about the survival of the human species. They must listen to science and to young people. The participation of young people in these processes cannot be a mere protocol: it must be real, active and meaningful.

What changes would you like to see in the world or in your community that could help solve the climate crisis?

In our communities we hope for more participation and access to information. In Chile there is a great deal of centralisation: everything happens in the capital, Santiago de Chile, and that creates a deficit of citizen participation in decision-making and information delivery at the community level. We hope that progress will be made on issues of decentralisation and redistribution of effective decision-making power.

One of the principles upheld by Juventudes COP Chile is precisely that of decentralisation, and that is why we work with people from different parts of the country. We would like to see a much bigger adoption of some of the practices that we have adopted at Juventudes COP Chile, such as artivism, regenerative culture, horizontal relations and community work.

At the national level, we hope that politicians will start to take this problem seriously. They must work to reduce pollution and alleviate the climate crisis. They must start by recognising that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, drastically affecting the quality of life of the most vulnerable people and communities. It is important that there is a recognition that this is happening and that it is a serious problem.

An important step to start moving forward would be for Chile to finally sign the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement. This is the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world with specific provisions on human rights and environmental defenders. For years the state of Chile pushed forward the negotiations that resulted in this agreement, but then decided not to sign it. It should do so without delay.

Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Contact Juventudes COP Chile through their website or their Facebook or Instagram pages. 


USA: ‘We cannot trust that increased anti-Asian hate will disappear once the pandemic is over’

Marita EtcubaneCIVICUS speaks with Marita Etcubañez, senior director of strategic initiatives with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC (Advancing Justice | AAJC), about the recent wave of anti-Asian racism and violence in the USA, and mobilisations by Asian Americans in response. Advancing Justice | AAJC’S mission is to advance civil rights and other human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all communities.

In which ways does anti-Asian racism manifest in the USA? How is it similar or different from the discrimination experienced by other groups?

In many ways the racism and discrimination that are experienced by the Asian American community are similar to those experienced by other people of colour and immigrants generally. But there are two things that are different for Asian Americans. One is our image as perpetual foreigners: no matter how long we have been in the USA, even if we have been born here, Asian Americans are often perceived as foreigners, alien others, not fully American. If you pause to think, you immediately realise that is a stereotype, yet it continues to be hard to shake off. Obviously, there are many Asian Americans whose families have been in the country for generations, but at first glance people still don’t see us as Americans.

Another difference is the myth that we are a model minority, that is, the perception of Asian Americans as being universally well-educated and affluent. While on average the Asian American population is better educated and more affluent than the general population, those are just averages that don’t reflect the reality of the lives of countless Asian Americans. If you look at disaggregated data about our communities, you’ll see that some ethnic groups within the Asian American community are doing quite well, but others continue to struggle. It is incorrect to assume that everyone in our community is thriving. There are segments of the Asian American population that have lower education attainment and lower income and continue to live in poverty. It’s important not to focus exclusively on averages and to look at more detailed information about our community and continue to push for more disaggregated data to be available.

Not only is the model minority myth not accurate; it is also hurtful. In many ways, these ideas have been brought forward and continue to persist in connection with white supremacy, because holding up Asian Americans as a model minority, a ‘good’ minority, is often held against other communities of colour. By claiming that Asian American minorities are doing so well, they imply that other communities of colour must not be ‘as good’. This stereotype seeks to divide communities of colour, pitting us against each other, so we must resist it.

Whenever we refer to the concept of the ‘model minority’, we are careful to clarify that it is a myth and not an idea we should embrace and take pride in. It’s something we must push back against because it’s harmful to all communities.

Have discrimination and hate expressions intensified under the pandemic?

There’s been an increase in hate and harassment to the Asian American community during the COVID-19 pandemic, out of misplaced blame for the spread of the virus. Because the virus is thought to have originated in China, many people were quick to point the finger and blame Chinese people. And because many people don’t understand the diversity of the Asian American community, that blame quickly extended to Chinese Americans, other Asian Americans and other people who were perceived as Asian. Logically, it doesn’t make sense.

This has been in addition to the standard ways in which our people were already experiencing harassment and discrimination. Racism and xenophobia are not new to us: our community has always had to deal with them. But racial slurs, verbal abuse, bullying and even physical attacks increased during the pandemic.

Did anything change as restrictions were lifted and the country reopened?

I would say that what has changed is that at the beginning of the pandemic I’m not sure that everyone took us as seriously as they should have when we raised concerns about increased hate and harassment towards Asian Americans. As the pandemic continued, more and more people have reported hate incidents and crimes that they have experienced. We need to create greater awareness around the issue so more people understand what is happening, so we will continue to work to address it.

The way a lot of people talked about COVID-19, following in the footsteps of some elected leaders, contributed to an overall environment that was hostile to Asian Americans and to heightening the racism that people already experienced. Some people thought it was okay to act on their instincts because they were following the actions of President Trump and his administration.

Social media also worked as an echo chamber to a lot of people who surrounded themselves only with the information, ideas, and news coverage consistent with their beliefs. A lot of people use social media platforms in their native languages, so a lot of the same information gets circulated and it’s very hard to address misinformation and disinformation.

I would love to say that hopefully hate and harassment will go away as the pandemic recedes, but unfortunately, the experiences of Middle Eastern and South Asian communities who have experienced heightened and persistent hate following 9/11 alert us to the fact that this may not be the case. Twenty years after 9/11, we are still dealing with anti-Muslim hate and discrimination. I don’t think we can trust that increased anti-Asian hate will disappear once the pandemic is over.

How is your organisation working to address this problem?

We strive for recognition and equity for Asian American communities while taking care to demonstrate solidarity with ally communities, including other communities of color, by supporting and hopefully not undermining their demands. With respect to anti-Asian hate, we focus on education by building awareness and understanding of the harassment that our communities have always faced but that has heightened under the pandemic and encouraging people to talk about these issues and to report hate crimes and hate incidents. But I recognise that this is going to be an uphill battle because people will continue to be reluctant to report when they are targeted; not just because of stigma, but also because our systems aren’t yet properly set up to give people the assistance and the support they need to do so.

We are also involved in bystander intervention training. We have partnered with an organisation called Hollaback!, which works to end all forms of harassment, to create a training series to give people practical and actionable strategies that they can use to intervene if they witness harassment or experience it themselves. We started this training in early 2020 and the demand for the training really intensified this year on account of the recent increase in harassment and physical assaults against Asian Americans. Later this year we will have reached over 120,000 people with our training activities and we continue to hold them to reach even wider audiences.

Our main focus is on advocacy and policymaking because we strive for policy change, particularly at the federal level. In May 2021 we saw some progress with the passage of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which places specific emphasis on the increase in violence against Asian Americans and seeks to facilitate the reporting of hate at the local and state levels. This is progress, but we recognise that a single bill is not going to fix everything. There is more work that we must do, so we will continue to advocate for the things we feel our community needs to feel safe so we create the conditions under which we are able to thrive.

How do you connect with the wider movement for racial equality?

We demonstrate solidarity and work hand in hand with other communities, and we do our best to avoid taking any position that would harm other communities. We work closely with other U.S. civil society organisations to make sure that we are supporting one another and advocate for solutions that will lift all our communities, and not one at the expense of another.

Many of us took inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and we have since seen more and more people engaging in conversation about anti-racism and the need to be actively anti-racist, and engaging in struggles for broader social justice. We have seen so many people pouring into the streets and taking action to become actively anti-racist in their own lives. 

We have all been speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter and part of that includes speaking out against violence. One message that we have been pushing out that we hope will resonate with Asian American communities and beyond is this idea that we want all of our communities to feel safe and protected.

Civic space in the USA is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC through its website or Facebook page, and follow @AAAJ_AAJC and @maritaetc on Twitter.

PERU: ‘It is necessary to restore trust in elections’

CIVICUS speaks with Iván Lanegra, secretary general of Transparency Civil Association (Asociación Civil Transparencia), about Peru’s recent presidential elections and the state of its democracy. Transparency is an independent civil society organisation that works to improve the quality of democracy and political representation by facilitating dialogue between political, governmental and civil society actors, implementing education and capacity-building programmes for citizen and political leadership, developing public policy proposals and observing electoral processes.

Ivan Lanegra

What was different and what was at stake in this election?

The recent general election was embedded in several political and social processes. First, it took place at the end of a very politically unstable five-year period, in which we had four presidents – Pedro Kuczynski, Martín Vizcarra, Manuel Merino and Francisco Sagasti – and Congress was constitutionally dissolved. At the same time, the economy was no longer growing as much, and social discontent began to increase. In this context, corruption scandals undermined the credibility of political parties. This was compounded by the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, which fuelled greater demands for redistribution.

As a result of all these processes, there was an atomisation of citizens’ preferences. The effects of this situation translated into high fragmentation of the vote in the parliamentary elections of January 2020 and, again, in the first round of the presidential election, held in April 2021, in which the two candidates who came out on top, and therefore went on to the second round, jointly received barely 33 per cent of the vote. There are 10 different political parties represented in our 130-seat Congress.

In the second electoral round, the victory of Pedro Castillo, of the left-wing Perú Libre (Free Peru) party over Keiko Fujimori, of the right-wing Fuerza Popular (Popular Force), showed the importance of the demands for change and rejection of conventional politics that grew in recent years.

However, the announcement of the official results was severely delayed, which created a climate of great uncertainty. In a context of high polarisation, there was an exponential increase in the number of appeals against the election results: normally, fewer than a dozen are filed, but on this occasion there were more than a thousand, none of which were considered well-founded. These appeals were used instrumentally: unfounded allegations of fraud were used to prolong the process as much as possible and to try to prevent the announcement of the results. While this attempt was unsuccessful, it delayed the transfer of power and increased distrust of politics and electoral institutions.

Why did many people not vote?

The rate of absenteeism in the first electoral round was almost 30 per cent, somewhat higher than in the 2020 legislative elections, when it reached 26 per cent; however, it dropped to less than 24 per cent in the runoff election. It is important to bear in mind that the first round of election took place when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its highest point in Peru. In other countries, such as Chile, it was not even possible to hold a vote due to the health emergency, but the elections took place normally in Peru. In fact, what is remarkable is that absenteeism wasn’t any higher.

What role did Transparency play in relation to the electoral process?

In the run-up to the election, as part of the #DecideBien (#ChooseWell) campaign, Transparency disseminated systematic information about the parties, their candidates and their proposals, so that citizens could assess their options. We broke down the parties’ policy programmes so that each person could learn about and compare the proposals of each candidate on the issues that interested them, and vote on the basis on that knowledge.

In addition, we invited citizens to register with the National Transparency Volunteer Network to become election observers. From our perspective, election observation consists of monitoring, providing guidance and bearing witness to the events that take place during election day, as well as educating citizens about electoral conduct and rules.

With this network of volunteers, Transparency observed the election process and from the outset we noted that the electoral process had been conducted normally, with only the kind of minor incidents that tend to occur in all elections, but which do not affect the results.

In view of the unfounded allegations that were made in an attempt to discredit the process, we also worked to counter electoral disinformation. The phenomenon of disinformation on social media, particularly after the runoff election, was much stronger than in previous elections, and the electoral authorities themselves had to set up teams dedicated almost exclusively to debunking ‘fake news’. The climate of polarisation surely contributed to increasing the impact of disinformation.

What political challenges lie ahead in the aftermath of the election?

The main challenges are how to reduce distrust in the state, how to address dissatisfaction with democracy and how to improve political representation. Although compared to these challenges, political polarisation, which was exacerbated in the electoral context, is less of a concern, it must also be considered. While the most radicalised sectors continue to fuel polarisation, they are in the minority. They managed to polarise the election because they were able to get through to the second round despite having received a low percentage of the vote, but after the election, the majority of citizens are far from the extremes. However, it is important to bear in mind that distrust, dissatisfaction and the feeling of lack of representation are elements that those who seek to exploit polarisation can use to their advantage.

It is necessary to restore trust in elections. To this end, we must continue to educate and inform citizens about the rules of elections, politics and democracy. We must also improve the mechanisms available to us for combatting disinformation. It is also necessary to move electoral reforms forward, in order to create incentives for the strengthening of political parties, as well as to improve the quality of political representation.

Civic space in Peru is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Transparency Civil Association through its website or its Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok pages, and follow @actransparencia and @ilanegra on Twitter.


DISINFORMATION: ‘A moral case based on rigorous technical research can bring about change’

CIVICUS speaks with Imran Ahmed, founding Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), about the rise of disinformation and hate speech in the context of the pandemic, and the roles civil society can play in countering them. CCDH is an international civil society organisation that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation. Founded in 2018, it develops strategies and runs campaigns to strengthen tolerance and democracy, as well as counterstrategies to resist new forms of hate and disinformation.


How did the Centre for Countering Digital Hate get started and what it is trying to achieve?

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate seeks to disrupt the production and distribution of content of hate and misinformation in digital spaces. It exists because digital channels have become one of the primary means through which we transmit information, establish social mores and behavioural or attitudinal norms, and create value as a society.

As it happens, those spaces have been colonised by malignant actors who have undermined some of the basic precepts of our democracy. They use trolling to undermine tolerance and the liberal values that give everyone an equal voice in those spaces and use misinformation not only to destabilise the fundamental tenets of the scientific method but also to spread hate.

We try to counter this by making malignant activity more costly. We use exposure and inoculation to make it more difficult and create costs, whether political, economic, or social, for those undertaking malignant activity.

How did your work change under the COVID-19 pandemic?

As early as February 2020, we pivoted the entire organisation towards fighting COVID-19 misinformation. We saw that extremist groups that were already on our radar were having discussions about COVID-19 as an opportunity, and any opportunity for a neo-Nazi is a threat to a civilised democratic society.

We always try to put our efforts where there is most need. A few months back, in December 2019, we had done a study on vaccines and disinformation for the UK parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vaccinations for All, so we were already aware that anti-vaxxers were a sophisticated group of misinformation actors. In a paper that we put together for the UK and US governments in April 2020, we expressed concern about a surge in xenophobia driven by the pandemic and deriving from psychological, sociopsychological and neurological factors. There is a correlation between disgust sensitivity – which is high in a pandemic – and xenophobia. We also realised that anti-vaxxers were a very sophisticated group of propagandists, and if they were able to professionalise the production of COVID-19 misinformation, they would cause a lot of trouble.

How does COVID-19 disinformation connect with identity-based hate?

At a very simple level, because of the correlation between disgust sensitivity and xenophobia, we can look at the research in social psychology by Michael Bang Petersen and at explanations by neuro-endocrinologists such as Robert Sapolsky, which tell us that disgust sensitivity and group thinking are co-located in the insular cortex of the brain. For a year and a half we have warned that there is a problem, as people have been primed at a really basic level, in the sense that if you view anyone who is different from you and outside of your group as a potential threat, it triggers the frantic inner group thinking in your brain.

We know this is going to be an ongoing problem, but we do not know its long-term ramifications. This could potentially set back some of the work we’ve done, for example on migrants’ rights or climate change and taking responsibility for what happens to the world and not just yourself. There is a lazy assumption that we are going to ‘build back better’ because people are feeling positive about things once they feel we are coming out of the pandemic, yet for the past year and a half we have been neurologically and psychologically primed to be very insular.

What programmes and campaigns have you developed to reduce disinformation and hate?

One of the things we do well is produce actionable intelligence. I think what is key about our model is that we do not produce raw data, or research, or even insight, which is the analysis of data in context. We produce actionable intelligence, which is insight plus an understanding of what it is that you can do to change things.

Part of the problem with digital misinformation and hate is that people do not know what they can do about it because the platforms are resistant to doing anything and absolve themselves of the problem. We challenged this understanding through our work on anti-vaxxers.

First, in late 2020 Facebook stated that anti-vax misinformation wasn’t banned on their platform, and then they changed that as a result of our research showing that misinformation causes harm. It may sound trite to say misinformation causes harm in a pandemic, but it does – on a scale that is both massive and grave –, and we had to go out and prove it. Second, their platforms were uniquely being used by these bad actors to organise, and we had to prove that as well. Third, we produced the ‘Disinformation Dozen’, an analysis that showed that 12 anti-vaxxers were responsible for almost two-thirds of anti-vaccine misinformation circulating on social media platforms.

When we put out this research, everyone from President Biden to physicians begged social media platforms to change their behaviour and take responsibility as publishers. They have the biggest audience of any publishing company in the world, 4.5 billion users, and they must take that responsibility seriously. Recently Google announced that they are going to take action against the Disinformation Dozen. This took CCDH 18 months of campaigning. We were told it was a freedom of speech issue and that it would lead nowhere, but we have shown that if you present a moral case based on rigorous technical research, you can shift views and force people to confront the ramifications of the technology they have created. I think we have shown that change is possible, and I am very proud of that.

There are many areas affected by misinformation, from public health and migrants’ rights to sexual health and reproductive rights. In the last few months, for instance, we have taken on anti-abortion, violent extremist neo-Nazis in the Ukraine, using the same model of rigorous research and strong campaigning. We put out a report showing that Google and Facebook were taking money from anti-abortion campaigners by putting up ads. This means that they were enabling terrible organisations to spread misinformation that undermines women’s reproductive rights. In response to our report, they removed those ads the next day. More so, due to our campaign in the last few weeks, Heartbeat International and Live Action were banned from advertising on Google. 

How can civil society come together to put more pressure on governments and big tech companies to hold them accountable?

We need more people who not only have good technical skills but also understand persuasion, campaigning and activism, and who believe and bolster the moral argument to understanding the technology. In a risk society, where human-made risk and scientifically-generated negative externalities increasingly comprise what we campaign on, whether big tech undermining democracy and public health or climate change and the energy mix, these are areas where it is more important than ever that we understand that technical problems require moral argumentations. You need to make the moral argument and have the courage to make it, while also having a strong technical understanding of what is really going on.

For example, if you want to make the case, as President Biden did, that Facebook are killing people, you have to nail down exactly how their technology functions and be absolutely certain before you state it. That is what we do on the basis of our research. It is important to start reaching out beyond our usual allies and build alliances across science, technology and campaigning.

Get in touch with the Centre for Countering Digital Hate through its website or Facebook page, and follow counterhate on Instagram and @CCDHate on Twitter. 

COP26: ‘We hope for stricter obligations under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility’

Charles WanguhuIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Charles Wanguhu, a social activist and coordinator of the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas, a forum in which participating civil society organisations (CSOs) share information, plan and strategise together to conduct joint advocacy, engage with government agencies, companies and the media, and inform and sensitise the public.

What's the key environmental issue in your country that you're working on?

The Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas is a not-for-profit members’ organisation working towards a sustainable oil and gas sector in Kenya and just energy transitions. With the discovery of oil in Kenya’s Turkana County, our work includes advocating for policy and legal frameworks that ensure environmental justice and climate considerations in developing Kenya’s oil. We do this through policy and regulation reviews and by building the capacity of local communities to participate effectively in environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) processes to ensure that their environment is safeguarded. 

We also directly participate in the review of ESIAs, in which we agitate for climate change considerations and environmental protection at the project level. For instance, as Kenya’s Turkana Oil Project is expected to proceed to the production phase, we have participated in the project’s stakeholder consultation forums, where we have raised the need for the project’s ESIA to incorporate climate change impact assessments. We have also been advocating for transparency in the sector through disclosure of petroleum agreements and licences to enable the public to understand the environmental and climate change obligations of oil companies, allowing for increased accountability by the state and these companies.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Shrinking civic space remains a challenge in our operating environment. Civil society groups face backlash from government when they speak out about topical issues. These restrictions mostly take the form of refusal of permits for protests or for holding meetings related to projects of concern. In some instances, government agencies such as the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordination Board and Kenya’s revenue authority have been used to target CSOs.

We also face restrictions from corporate entities, including the deliberate exclusion of CSOs from public participation events. Our members who have expressed concerns or are seen to be vocal about issues related to the extraction of oil and gas resources have found themselves not invited to participate or not allowed to give comments at public hearings.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We are developing a pan-African just transition programme that will involve working with other regional and international groups to ensure that the global energy transition is just for Africa and is reflective of the impacts of the climate crisis on Africa.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

Inclusion of climate change considerations at the project level already has a legal hook in Kenya through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement and Kenya’s Climate Change Act of 2016. The delayed implementation of the Act has been a challenge, but we are aware of various draft regulations on climate change that are currently under review for eventual enactment.

Regarding just energy transition, we are hoping for stricter obligations complying with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which acknowledges that diverse countries have different responsibilities and capacities to address cross-border issues such as climate change. This would ensure that Africa is not left behind in the transition, or even worse, that the transition does not happen at Africa’s expense.

International processes have been useful to the extent that they have partly facilitated the domestication of climate change legal and policy frameworks, but we certainly hope for an increased commitment by states.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis?

We would like to see an increase in the speed of the implementation of climate change legal frameworks and obligations both locally and internationally. Further, we would like to see the developed countries of the global north commit to and meet their pledges on climate finance made under the Paris Agreement. This will come in handy to finance just energy transitions in Africa.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Kenya Civil Society Platform on Oil and Gas through its website, and follow @KCSPOG and @CharlesWanguhu on Twitter.

COP26: ‘We need a power shift to communities, especially to women, in managing climate resources’

Nyangori OhenjoIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Nyang'ori Ohenjo, Chief Executive Officer at Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE), a Kenyan civil society organisation that advocates for the recognition of minorities and Indigenous peoples in political, legal and social processes and works to empower communities to obtain sustainable livelihoods.

What's the key climate issue in your country that you’re working on?

We focus on the worsening effects of climate change, especially on the most vulnerable, such as Indigenous peoples. Despite a myriad of climate programmes, Kenya is not achieving the desired goals. For instance, increased droughts are currently being experienced in the north of the country, with the usual dire consequences, and the president has already declared this year’s drought a national disaster.

The overarching challenge is that policy frameworks do not connect with the agenda of Indigenous communities, including pastoralists, forest dwellers and fisher communities, which leaves them and their mainstay economic systems vulnerable and does not bring solutions that enhance their resilience. Programmes and policies often ignore cultural elements.

Pastoralists, for instance, diversify herds in sex, age and species to spread risks and maximise available pastures. Herd size is balanced against family size, and herd composition is aimed at responding to family needs. Herds are sometimes split as a coping strategy, particularly in times of drought, and to allow an innovative use of available resources. Through mutual support systems, pastoralists take care of each other so they can recover quickly from disaster. Each pastoralist group has a different way of supporting its members, including by finding various ways of earning cash and diversifying livelihoods. However, food aid and handouts have become the policy norm in times of crisis such as the current drought, which makes no economic sense for anyone, least of all the pastoralists.

Fifty years of a food aid-approach has not provided a sustainable solution, hence the need for a serious policy shift from disaster response, which is reactive, to preparedness, which is proactive. This means putting basic resources in place before crisis hits, including cash if necessary, to get communities through tough times while focusing on long-term investment and development to build communities’ resilience to absorb future shocks.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We engage through various partnerships with numerous global civil society networks, notably CIVICUS, and Kenyan development organisations, grassroots organisations and groups demanding climate action, as well as with academic institutions, United Nations’ agencies and regional and international human rights institutions. The main objective of these engagements is to ensure that the voices of the Indigenous communities of Kenya are heard within the climate change movement and able to influence the international conversations.

The participation of Indigenous peoples in the international climate movement, and Indigenous peoples being part of a conversation that, in a gender-responsive manner, recognises their rights and values their traditional knowledge as well as their innovative practices for climate resilience, are critical in designing and implementing responsive climate policy and action.

At the national level, through the Climate Change Directorate, a department of the Kenyan Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and the Climate Smart Agriculture Multistakeholder Platform, CEMIRIDE has taken part in the process of shaping the Kenyan government’s position towards COP26 and within the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP).

How are Indigenous communities engaging with the Kenyan government?

The Ending Drought Emergencies initiative, which ends in 2022, showed success in climate policy development but made little progress in addressing the problem of drought. There is also the National Climate Change Action Plan (2018-2022), which provides for effective engagement and inclusion of marginalised Indigenous communities, but again, has resulted in very little progress in actually ensuring the structured engagement and involvement of these communities in the implementation and monitoring of the National Action Plan.

The government is also implementing the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture Project, of which climate mitigation is a key component. Its implementation, however, also lacks structured engagement with Indigenous communities, who therefore have very minimal presence and input into its design and rollout.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on these issues, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

International processes like COP26 are important for creating visibility for Indigenous peoples in climate change conversations. While it took a long time for governments, especially in Africa, to recognise the role and need for the voice of Indigenous peoples at the international climate change decision-making table, it is now appreciated that Indigenous peoples can actually influence the direction of these processes. Specifically, the LCIPP was established to promote the exchange of experiences and best practices, build capacity for stakeholder engagement in all process related to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and harness the power of diverse knowledge systems and innovations in designing and implementing climate policy and action.

CEMIRIDE hopes that the voices of Indigenous peoples will take centre stage and that governments will commit to local solutions that they can be held accountable for rather than make broad global promises that are never fulfilled and they can never be held accountable for. We especially hope that governments will commit to supporting and facilitating the operationalisation of an Indigenous communities’ national engagement framework on climate change actions.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

We wish to see a real power shift to communities, and especially to women, in managing climate resources. Indigenous peoples are a unique constituency not only because of the impacts that climate change is having on them but also because of the role they play in ensuring the success of intervention measures and because of the perspectives and experiences they bring on board through their Indigenous and local knowledge. No one knows their community better than the people who live in it and depend on its resources.

Marginalised Indigenous communities have long developed distinct knowledge and expertise to preserve and conserve the natural environments from which they obtain their livelihoods, and around which have developed their social, cultural, and religious systems and structures. Their direct management of climate resources, therefore, will enable them to positively influence the development, revision, adoption, and implementation of policy and regulations addressing climate change, with a specific emphasis on improving their resilience to climate change impacts.

Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Minority Rights Development through its website, and follow @CEMIRIDE_KE on Twitter. 

COP26: ‘My hope lies in the people coming together to demand justice’

Mitzi Jonelle TanIn the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a young climate justice activist based in Metro Manila, Philippines, who organises with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines and is active in Fridays for Future International.

What’s the key climate issue in your community?

The Philippines is plagued by several impacts from climate change, from droughts that are getting longer and warmer to typhoons that are getting more frequent and more intense. Aside from these climate impacts – that we have not been able to adapt to and leave us with no support when it comes to dealing with the loss and damages – we also face numerous environmentally destructive projects, often undertaken by foreign multinational companies, that our government is allowing and even encouraging.

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for Future of the Philippines, advocates for climate justice and to make sure that voices of people from the most affected communities are heard, amplified and given space. I first became an activist in 2017 after working with Indigenous leaders of the Philippines, which made me understand that they only way to achieve a more just and greener society is through collective action leading to system change.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

Yes, just like anyone who speaks up against injustice and inaction, our government through its paid trolls red-tags and terror-tags activists – it basically calls us terrorists for demanding accountability and pushing for change. There is a fear that comes along with being a climate activist in the Philippines, which has been characterised as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmental defenders and activists for eight years in a row. It’s not just the fear of the climate impacts, it’s also the fear of police and state forces coming to get us and making us disappear. 

How do you engage with the broader international climate movement?

I organise a lot with the international community, especially through Fridays for Future – MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), one of the global south groups of Fridays for Future. We do it by having conversations, learning from each other and creating strategies together, all while having fun. It’s important for the global youth movement to connect with one another, unite and show solidarity in order to truly address the global issue of the climate crisis.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on your issue, and how useful generally do you find such international processes?

My hope doesn’t lie with the so-called leaders and politicians who have continued business as usual for decades for the profit of the few, usually for the global north. My hope lies in the people: activists and civil society coming together to demand justice and to really expose how this profit-oriented system that brought us to this crisis is not the one that we need to bring us out of it. I think COP26 is a crucial moment and this international process has to be useful because we’ve already had 24 too many. These problems should have been solved at the very first COP, and one way or another we have to make sure that this COP is useful and brings meaningful change, not just more empty promises.

What one change would you like to see – in the world or in your community – to help address the climate crisis?

The one change I ask for is a big one: system change. We need to change our system from one that prioritises the overexploitation of the global south and marginalised peoples for the profit of the global north and the privileged few. The way we view development, it shouldn’t be based on GDP and everlasting growth, but rather on the quality of people’s lives. This is doable – but only if we address the climate crisis and all the other socio-economic injustices at its roots.

Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines through its website or  Facebook page, and follow @mitzijonelle on Twitter and Instagram. 

COP26: ‘Marginalised communities should be at the centre of climate action’

In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

CIVICUS speaks with Jessica Dercontée, co-organiser of the Collective Against Environmental Racism (CAER), a civil society group in Denmark that works to bring racial discrimination and injustice into the Danish climate conversation, calling public attention to environmental racism.

Jessica’s activism and academic engagement focus on climate governance and explore the embedded social and climate injustices pertaining to class, gender, race and politics. She is a project coordinator working in international development projects in the Danish Student Union and the Danish Refugee Council Youth and is currently a research assistant at the consultancy firm In Futurum.

Jessica Dercontee

What are the aims of CAER? 

We are a collective consisting of women and non-binary people of colour who work within the intersection of environmentalism, anti-racism and climate justice. CAER seeks to mobilise and amplify the voices of those who are most affected by environmental racism, including Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in the global south as well as in the global north. Our collective was formed to shed light on and critique the current discussions, representations and differentiating effects of the climate and environmental crisis.

What’s the key climate or environmental issue that you’re working on? 

CAER focuses on the political ecology and neo-colonialism of the mainstream Danish environmental and climate debates. The mainstream Danish public debates on the climate crisis focus on the detrimental impacts that our consumer culture and lifestyles have on the planet’s biosystems, with less attention on the people this affects and the unending desire of big corporations for profit and utility maximisation. While we agree on the urgency of these issues, our collective believes that the debate in Denmark should move beyond the need of governments and various other stakeholders to find big technological solutions to mitigate the climate crisis. The current public debate is too simplistic, apolitical and technical, focused on the search for green solutions. 

CAER highlights the different power dynamics that exist within our current systems, as well as how the present-day practices and ways of thinking perpetuate systems of colonialism and global oppression while being heavily entrenched in capitalism. We do this through workshops, articles, awareness-raising on social media and collaborations with marginalised individuals or groups from the global south. 

An example of how we provide a different perspective on the green transition is through the scrutiny of the way big corporations in Denmark cause environmental degradation and land grabbing in the global south. The Danish wind energy company Vestas has an ongoing case against Indigenous peoples in Mexico, who have accused the corporation of causing negative impacts on Indigenous livelihoods, while also linking it to significant human rights violations towards local protesters and civil society activists who have been subjected to intimidation and death threats for calling out abuses. The governments of both countries have reached agreements that they claimed were mutually beneficial, as they were expected to bring economic growth and development to Mexico as well as helping Denmark green its economy. However, the ensuing land grabbing has further disenfranchised communities in the global south, continuing the cycle of dependence on aid and regurgitating neo-colonial forms of control and exploitation of Indigenous land and peoples.

Another example that is much closer to Denmark is the environmental racism that permeates Denmark’s relations with its former colony and presently Danish Commonwealth nation, Greenland. Due to Denmark’s control over Greenland’s natural resources, people in Greenland are excluded from important decisions on the future of the Arctic, which can be viewed as having large racialised impacts on conservation, environmental politics and consumerism.

CAER’s main aim has been to provide a safe space for BIPOC, including queer and trans BIPOC, who want to mobilise within environmentalism and anti-racism spaces in Denmark. It is often felt that the Danish climate movement has been exclusionary and discriminatory towards BIPOC. We hope to push Danish public discourse beyond using and presenting marginalised communities as case studies, and towards bringing them to the centre of climate action as the legitimate solution providers and active decision-makers.

Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

We have been met with genuine excitement from other organisations and actors who are willing to change their organisational structures and make them more inclusive and capable of finding solutions to the crisis we are in. While we have not experienced any direct backlash as a result of our work or its focus on race and discriminatory environmental policy, we find that society is not equipped to handle the various lived realities of people on the ground, which are different from the very homogenised narrative of the Danish experience. In Denmark laws and policies have been viewed as inclusive, building on the image of our model as progressive, a welfare state that protects all. Thus, it makes it harder for institutions and individuals to understand that their own position of privilege is dependent on the exploitation and oppression of other social groups, throughout history and in the present day.

How do you connect with the broader international climate movement?

We connect with the international climate movement in our aim to decolonise climate activism structures. More so, we actively seek collaborations, and this is reflected in the examples we choose to showcase in our projects and the voices that we amplify. We try to give power and create spaces where marginalised people can tell their own stories and bring forward their knowledge and solutions to the climate crisis. Further, by building and sharing knowledge from as many perspectives and as many global south scholars as possible, we seek to balance the ethnocentric knowledge exchange that pervades climate governance, climate action and environmentalism.

What hopes, if any, do you have for COP26 to make progress on climate issues?

We in CAER hope that although the current setting of COP26 has the major limitation of lacking diverse representation, there will still be room for the vital knowledge of the global south and a diverse set of voices involved in policymaking to make the next round of goals as nuanced and intersectional as possible.

What one change would you like to see to help address the climate crisis? 

We hope that in the close future our movement against environmental racism will grow, and that this development will bridge the gap between the mainstream Danish climate movement and the anti-racist movement so as to mitigate the climate crisis in a manner that is much more inclusive and open towards diversity, and a plurality of knowledge, and across different sectors and institutions in Denmark, as well as the rest of world.

Civic space in Denmark is rated ‘open’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Collective Against Environmental Racism through its Instagram account or by email to .



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