• MYANMAR: ‘The government needs to open the doors’

    CIVICUS speaks with Nay Lin Tun, a doctor and civil society humanitarian worker in Myanmar, about conflict in Rakhine State, the difficulties faced by minorities in the region, and civil society’s work to provide help.

    nay lin tun

    Can you tell us about your background and the work you’re doing in Rakhine State?

    I’m a doctor working in public health, particularly focusing on primary healthcare, reproductive and women’s health, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I was part of a group who founded a civil society organisation, the Center for Social Integrity, which supports communities in conflict-affected areas, including Rakhine State. We’re trying to support people based on their needs, including their needs to food, shelter and livelihoods. Right now in Rakhine State we are providing basic humanitarian support, education, healthcare, livelihoods and water and sanitation services for people in the conflict areas. Because of my experience I focus on providing healthcare and humanitarian support.

    At the moment there is fighting in the north and east of Rakhine State between the Myanmar Army and the insurgent Arakan Army. According to the United Nations there are around 35,000 newly displaced people because of the fighting in 2019, living in camps in Rakhine State. We are supporting these communities and other conflict-affected communities in the area.

    What are some of the challenges minority groups face in Rakhine State?

    In my country there are 135 recognised ethnic groups. The majority ethnic group are the Bamar, who are the main group across most of Myanmar. At the other end of the spectrum are lots of small groups, often in the regions close to borders, who are becoming less and less recognised by the government. Different groups face different challenges. In Rakhine State there are religious, ethnic and social minorities, and they all face human rights challenges.

    The Rohingya community, who are Muslims, have been subjected to a lot of abuses. They are denied citizenship and treated as stateless persons. They are not recognised as an ethnic group by the 1982 Citizenship Law. They are called Bengalis by many in the dominant population groups, because they see them as belonging to Bangladesh. They have their movement restricted and struggle to access education and healthcare.

    Local hospitals are inadequate, so if there is a medical emergency people have to travel to a major city. Before 2017 they could go to the Bangladesh side of the border on a short-term pass and get hospital treatment, but now the border area is closed and they cannot do this. But because they don’t have citizenship and their movement is restricted, it is also hard to go to the big hospitals in Sitwe, the main city in Rakhine State. People can pay for this with their lives. If there is an emergency, the only way people can negotiate to get treatment is to pay a bribe. This happened to someone I was trying to treat for a tumour.

    In another case, a pregnant woman had severe labour pains in the middle of the night. They tried to take her to hospital, but there is a curfew, introduced in 2017 and in force ever since. No one can go out between 11pm and 5am. There are many police checkpoints in the area, and while other villages were okay, in this case they would not allow this pregnant woman to pass. She had to go home. By the time she could go to hospital the next day, the child was already dead. Luckily, the mother survived.

    Rohingya people are also denied education. The highest education most people can get is at high school. They cannot join a university as a full-time student. They can only do distance learning for a few subjects. They also struggle to find work. Most Rohingya people work in farming, fishing and cutting timber, but right now they are not allowed to fish or go into forests to chop wood. Most of the farming lands are occupied by the military. Most people are now involved in daily casual work. So everyday life is very challenging.

    The Rohingya are not the only minority in the region who face difficulties. Local ethnic groups such as the Chakma, Dynat and Mu, who live on the mountains, face challenges, even though their religion is Buddhist. Because they live in remote locations, they cannot access healthcare and education. They have no life opportunities.

    What was your experience of the violence that occurred in 2017?

    What I saw was people living in fear. I saw communities that were afraid of each other: Rohingya people and Rakhine people, the majority group within the state, were afraid of each other. I worked on medical clinics in northern Rakhine State and hired a taxi to transport medicines. My driver, who was from the Rakhine group, did not want to take me to the area. You had people unable to go to the other communities because they did not think they would come back.

    What role do you think hate speech and extremist views played in stoking conflict?

    Most of the hate speech and extremist protest and provocations came from extreme groups in the big cities, and was spread by social media, whereas in rural communities it was more that you had villages of different ethnic groups that were afraid of each other. There was a lot of misinformation spread through social media, and this was viral. No one could know what was true or not. Positive stories and true information were far less viral than hate speech and misinformation.

    In the major cities, hate speech and misinformation turned a social conflict into a religious conflict between Buddhism and Islam. Extremist Buddhist monks turned this into a bigger conflict. Extremist groups spread disinformation and encouraged extremism, with the unofficial support of the military and political parties, in their own interests. People played political games in the big cities, but they had no connection to the villages in the conflict area. Those people were the most affected and they were living in fear, and live in fear now. There is a big challenge in controlling hate speech and misinformation on social media.

    It is much harder for civil society voices promoting social cohesion and religious harmony to be heard compared to hate speech, but civil society is trying to do this. These are messages my organisation is trying to promote very strongly in the conflict areas. But there is a need for more impact, and more efforts, not just from civil society but from the government. There is a need for much more activity that strengthens communities.

    What support is needed, including from the international community, to improve the lives of minorities and people affected by conflict?

    There is a lot of willingness from the international community to support people in Rakhine State, and not only Rohingya people but also other minorities. But the most challenging thing at the moment is that national government and local authorities are limiting them from doing so, and have been doing since 2017. So there is a lack of ability to really go into the villages and directly help people.

    The international community needs to engage with the national government and local authorities so that they are willing to work with them and listen to the voices of local communities and support them in the areas affected by conflict. They need to build relationships with the government, and the government needs to work with the international community. The government needs to open the doors.

    It is all about access – access to healthcare, access to education, access to livelihoods. Right now access is blocked. Even access to the internet was blocked by the government, between June and September. People don’t have access to the means to share their voices. People are also scared of speaking out because of restrictive media laws. They fear they will get into trouble. This is why I try to share their stories. So, access is the big challenge. We need more access by the community for the community. This is why the government needs to open the doors for international and local civil society.

    Civic space in Myanmar is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch withCenter for Social Integrity through its website andFacebook pages, and on Twitter@cfor_integrity.


  • REFUGEE RIGHTS: ‘It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger’

    CIVICUS speaks to Evan Jones of theAsia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) about the challenges that refugees face in Asia and civil society’s work to help realise refugee rights.


    Evan Jones

    Can you tell us about your network and what it does?

    APRRN is a civil society network with around 400 members across Asia and the Pacific, stretching from Iran to South Korea and Taiwan and down to New Zealand. We’ve existed for 10 years and our main aim is to advance refugee rights in Asia and the Pacific. We push for legislative and policy change in the region to help refugees have sustainable lives and access to the same rights as everyone else. Our key purpose is advocacy, and underneath this there are three pillars of work: first, capacity strengthening for our members, through training and courses in areas such as refugee law, advocacy, working with the media and gender; second, information sharing across borders about best practices, contacts, resources, skills and communication ideas: if there’s a good development that’s happened in one country, we’ll try to connect civil society organisations (CSOs) in other countries to share lessons learned and possible ideas to adapt; and third, advocacy on the national, regional and international levels.

    In recent years we’ve been working on building refugee self-representation and putting refugee voices front and centre of everything we do. A refugee, someone with lived experience, is the chair of our entire network and the chairs or deputy chairs of many of our working groups are either still in refugee situations or have been earlier in their lives. Throughout our advocacy, we make sure that refugees are present in everything we do.

    What are the key current movements of people in the region, and what are the main reasons that drive people to become refugees?

    We have movements of refugees both from outside the region into the region, and also within the region. Specific refugee populations vary from country to country and also in size. In Malaysia, for example, there are about 180,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, a number of whom have arrived after the 2017 exodus. Others have been there for decades, eking out an existence, often on the fringes of society. In Thailand, there are a significant number of Pakistani refugees from religious minorities, along with groups of Hazaras from Afghanistan, Uighurs from China and Montagnards from Vietnam. In South Korea, there are refugees from Yemen. There are many populations in almost every country across the region.

    There are a number of reasons why people are forced to flee their homes, ending up as refugees in Asia. One is religious persecution. This has been clearly evident with the decades-long persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, alongside persecution of Christian minorities such as the Chin. The Ahmadi Christian minority of Pakistan are another example of a population that has been subject to ongoing religious persecution.

    Aside from refugees fleeing religious persecution, many individuals are also fleeing persecution due to their race, nationality, or membership of a particular social group. Because often ethnic minorities are targeted, we see a sizable amount of people fleeing countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. Other groups include those fleeing generalised violence and civil war, for example in Syria and Yemen, LGBTQI community members fleeing persecution on the basis of their sexual identity and individuals fleeing despotic regimes such as North Korea’s.

    Refugees often find themselves in Asia for a number of reasons. For some, capital cities like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were the only places they could afford to travel to at short notice and with relatively easy visa requirements. For example, in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, people from most countries can get a visa on arrival. Palestinians, Somalis and Yemenis can still get a visa on arrival in Malaysia, one of only a handful of countries around the world where they can do so. Many people came to these hubs thinking they would only be transit points, intending to claim asylum in Australia, Canada, or elsewhere, and then got stuck in these countries because they weren’t able to travel further.

    What are the key challenges refugees face?

    There are generally no local protections. There are usually no safeguards from detention, no capacity to work and no access to education and healthcare. Refugees struggle to attain almost all their human rights. This situation is common in most countries in both South and South East Asia.

    One of the biggest challenges, in Asia as well as globally, is the lack of durable solutions for refugees. Many have been and are expected to be here for years or even decades. With record numbers of refugees, no longer is it the norm nor can it be expected that refugees will be resettled in months or even years. Now, many have no real prospects of resettlement, with the number of resettlement spots globally having dropped so significantly. Under one per cent of all refugees in the world will ever get resettled, and the situation is even worse in Asia.

    Particularly in South East Asia, detention is a key concern and a continued focus of our advocacy. Instead of detention being used as an option of last resort it is quite often the norm. In Thailand for example, UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) cardholders are subject to arrest and detention if they are unable to produce a valid passport or visa. The detention centre is, in essence, a jail, where refugees are often held indefinitely until they either return home – which is not really a possibility – or get resettled, which is also unlikely for many people.

    Access to a legal right to stay is extremely difficult for people with a passport from refugee-producing countries. It’s hard to maintain or extend a visa in many countries around the region. If you’re from Afghanistan, Somalia, or Sudan, for example, often one of the restrictions to maintain a visa is that you’re expected to go home and then come back, which obviously isn’t an option for refugees. In some countries like India, we are seeing a worrying rise in racism and xenophobia, where refugees from some Muslim countries are being requested to ‘return immediately’ and told that they ‘are no longer welcome’.

    A further worrying trend that we are seeing is the use of extradition. States both within and outside the region are using extradition as a tool to have refugees forcibly return to countries from which they’ve fled. Sadly, we are quite often seeing states where refugees have sought protection going ahead with these extraditions. In essence, we see them buckling to the weight or political interests of neighbouring governments.

    One such example that made world headlines was the case of Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem is a Bahraini refugee who lives in Australia and was held in a Thai prison for three months, from November 2018 to February 2019, pending extradition back to Bahrain, after going to Thailand on his honeymoon. There was also the case of Sam Sokha, the Cambodian political activist, who was famous for throwing her shoe at a billboard of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, an act that was filmed and widely shared on the internet. She was arrested in Thailand in January 2018 and held in the immigration detention centre even though she had a UNHCR card recognising her as a refugee. The Thai government allowed an extradition request to be processed and sent her back to Cambodia, where she’s currently serving a prison sentence. Another case is Praphan Pipithnampron, an activist from Thailand who fled to Malaysia, claimed refugee status and was then extradited back to Thailand with the agreement of the Malaysian government. These examples show a clear and fundamental breach of the principles of refugee protection. Even with UNHCR status, the lack of legal protection leaves refugees in precarious situations across the region.

    Access to work is another major challenge. There are generally no special provisions for refugees to access work unless they happen to have come on a business visa with work rights and have maintained their visa. The lack of labour rights for refugees impacts on all other rights, including their ability to obtain food and shelter, access education and pay for healthcare. Interestingly, there have been a few small positive steps towards addressing this. A few years ago, the Malaysian government instigated a pilot project on work rights for Rohingya refugees, for a very limited number of 300 people. Whilst the initiative was a failure, the fact that the government even initiated such a program indicated a notable shift towards recognition of work rights. It shows that work rights are now on the agenda.

    Access to education differs country by country, but broadly speaking, it’s very problematic across the region. In Malaysia, there’s no capacity for refugees to access primary education. Malaysia has a reservation against the Convention on the Rights of the Child that means refugee children aren’t able to access state schooling. In Thailand, despite there being a progressive ‘education for all’ policy, practically it’s still quite difficult for refugee children to be able to attend school. This is because of the costs, the requirement to have basic Thai language skills and concerns about xenophobia and racism. Schools may not want to receive children who don’t have the relevant immigration papers or who look or sound too different.

    Across the region more broadly, there is also a hidden but major concern regarding a lack of access to tertiary education. From the perspective of states, and even many CSOs and service providers, tertiary education is seen as something that far surpasses basic needs. However, without this access, there remains a large refugee population who are simply left to linger in a state of under-productivity. They are not only unable to work, but they also cannot improve the skills and expertise that would help them grow personally and professionally if they were resettled or even decided to return home. This is starting to change just a little, and there are some positives here. For example, Japan has opened up 20 scholarship spaces for Syrian refugees, and some universities in Malaysia have also begun to offer dedicated spaces and scholarships.

    Healthcare is also problematic. Often refugees have to pay upfront for healthcare before they can be reimbursed by CSOs or the UNHCR. Refugees often fear that if they go to hospitals when they lack the correct documentation they may even be referred to immigration authorities.

    What are the challenges refugees face from anti-rights groups and majority populations?

    There were three pronounced examples over the past year of majority religious groups mobilising against minorities in the region. In South Korea in June 2018, 500 Yemenis arrived on Jeju Island. Almost immediately there was a huge outcry from the public, church groups – particularly conservative Christian groups – and the media. This fanned what was partly an anti-refugee sentiment but was more strongly an anti-Muslim sentiment that swept through the country and became conflated with refugee issues. It connected to the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric that was coming out of Europe, and showed how these two have become intertwined. Within weeks of the story hitting the headlines a petition with more than a million signatures was sent to the president’s office requesting that South Korea pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Thankfully the government didn’t go down this track but there have been high-level talks about how potentially South Korea could modify its domestic legislation for refugees and wind back some of its protection for refugees.

    In Sri Lanka, the 2019 Easter Bombings in Colombo gave rise to an immediate anti-Muslim public sentiment, which affected the refugee population in Sri Lanka, which is significantly an Afghan and Ahmadi Pakistani population. Several hundred fled from Colombo to the city of Negombo and went into hiding. Some stayed in a police station for several weeks of their own volition for protection and others were supported by CSOs. UNHCR was so concerned it sent additional staff to try to expedite cases and look at emergency resettlement out of Sri Lanka because of the fear of retribution and abuses against Muslim refugees.

    The third example was what we saw in Myanmar with the Rohingya. Anti-Muslim rhetoric and sentiment have permeated through Myanmar society. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and viewed as associated with terrorism. This resulted in what many are calling a genocide.

    Given these challenges, how is civil society in the region trying to respond, and what have the successes and challenges been?

    Negative stories dominate the discourse, and we try to counter this by placing refugees’ voices front and centre. This is something that is being supported quite strongly within the region, from Australia and New Zealand, but also now from within South East Asia. Civil society groups are realising that it is refugee voices that are the most impactful, and civil society is trying to amplify these voices to show the agency and contribution of refugees. In Malaysia, for example, there is now a completely self-organised group, the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, where Afghani, Eritrean, Rohingya, Somali and Sri Lankan refugees are all coming together by themselves, putting forward their messages. They are offering training and they have learning centres. This is a really positive development. CSOs are trying to facilitate and support these developments.

    There’s also awareness-raising with the public, and with local host communities, the media and government. The media are stakeholders with potential for huge good but also huge harm, depending on their messaging. Many CSOs are trying to engage better with the media, including through media training. Misinformation is a major issue in some countries, such as in Myanmar, where both before and after the upsurge in violence there was a lot of anti-Rohingya messaging. However, in other countries, such as Thailand, refugee stories are rarely covered by local media.

    Over the past few years, there has also been a definite shift towards building connections with parliamentarians across the region. There has been a lot of work in trying to find champions within governments and trying to get them to work for refugees within governments and across borders. One organisation we work with quite closely that has done excellent work on several issues, including refugees, is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Parliamentarians for Human Rights. They have a network of members of parliament in each country where they share information and strategies and use their status as elected officeholders to try to support rights.

    As well as positive shifts on labour rights and education in Malaysia, the government there is also looking at possible ratification of the Refugee Convention. Another positive move in Malaysia which shouldn’t be underestimated is that the government is speaking more openly about the issue, and in many cases speaking the right language. Five years ago you would not have seen the Malaysian government speaking out bilaterally or within ASEAN about the atrocities in Myanmar. Now the government is quite strong in calling attention to the situation in Myanmar and has also spoken out about other vulnerable populations, such as the Uighurs in China. They seem to be heading in the right direction.

    Another positive development has come in Thailand. Despite the fact that there is still immigration detention, in January 2019 the Thai government signed a memorandum of understanding to release mothers and children from the immigration detention centre to live in the community. This might seem a small win, but it was a practice that went on for so long. It was a change largely driven by civil society advocacy.

    Elsewhere there are regressions, as with the anti-refugee sentiment in South Korea. There are still a million-plus Rohingya sitting in camps in Bangladesh and there’s the growing prominence of the Uighur detention camps in China. There have been other headline stories this year, such as that of Rahaf Mohammed, a Saudi Arabian woman who was fleeing from Kuwait to Australia and was stuck in a hotel within Bangkok airport. So even when we see governments in the region appearing to move in the right direction, all of a sudden they do something that takes them back again, such as threatening to return refugees for the sake of maintaining diplomatic relations. But we can have some cautious optimism that things are progressing in the right direction.

    What more could be done to support refugees and the civil society that supports them in the region?

    While the Refugee Convention is still incredibly important, this is no longer the pinnacle and the sole focus of our advocacy. We have states that have signed it that completely ignore it. So now we’re looking for tangible legal and policy changes on the ground.

    International civil society can help by keeping things on the agenda. Asia as a region is quite often forgotten and underrepresented globally. The huge refugee movements and protracted situations in Asia are often completely overlooked. A million Afghanis have been in Iran for 40 years with several million more in Pakistan. There are 100,000 Myanmar refugees on the Thai border along with the million-plus Rohingyas in Bangladesh. Compare this to headlines about migration in Europe and the USA and you’ll soon realise that our perception of refugee crises is skewed. There are these massive populations that don’t make the same global media impact and don’t get the attention they deserve. Keeping things on the agenda is really important.

    Cohesive messaging and cohesive action are also important. We all need to be able to work together to share resources and best practices, understand what is happening in other regions and learn the lessons that can be applied. I think in civil society we tend to look at the same things again and again: we look at national governments, the United Nations, we talk to ourselves a lot, but I think there are under-utilised mechanisms, such as ASEAN, the European Parliament and the private sector. I think in sensitive situations, such as with the Uighurs, the European Parliament could be lobbied to put pressure on ASEAN, which could then put pressure on the government of China. We need to look outside the box at how we can utilise regional platforms and also have other countries exert their influence in the region.

    People such as Abdul Aziz Muhammat, who spent years in the Australian government’s detention centre in Papua New Guinea and campaigns for refugees’ rights, should inspire us, and he should be a person we all aspire to be. He’s had such a traumatic life and so many things have gone against him, but he remains so positive and so ardent about supporting other populations. He continues to speak up for those left behind after him. To see refugees who have gone through everything and still fight for other refugees is inspiring. It’s about finding ways to make refugee voices stronger.

    Get in touch with APRRN through theirwebsite andFacebook profile, and follow@APRRN_ on Twitter.


  • ‘Due to the communications blockade in Kashmir, news of protests went largely underreported’

    On 5 August 2019, the government of India revoked Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution, which guaranteed the autonomous status and rights of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The government also imposed a severe communications blockade that impacted on the daily lives of Kashmiri people, including by affecting access to medical care, basic necessities and emergency services. Hundreds of detentions of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been reported. CIVICUS speaks about this situation with Natasha Rather, Regional Campaign Officer for the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, linked to the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), an organisation that focuses on enforced disappearances in the region, monitors the human rights situation and documents abuses.

    Natasha Rather interview

    What was the situation of civic freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir prior to the revocation of its special status under Indian administration?

    During the first half of 2019, Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (JK) witnessed continued and increased violence and heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, following a militant attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy on the Jammu–Srinagar highway that resulted in the killing of 48 Indian soldiers in February 2019. Following this attack, Kashmiri people living in various cities and towns of India became targets of hate crimes. Thousands of Kashmiri students were forced to flee from their colleges and universities and return back to Kashmir. People living in JK feared the attack would have dreadful consequences – which turned out to be true.

    The frequency of cordon and search operations (CASOs) and crackdowns increased in the aftermath of the attack. CASOs are a form of harassment that breach people’s right to privacy. According to a report by the APDP and Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, at least 177 CASOs were conducted by the Indian armed forced in JK, which resulted in the killing of at least 118 militants and four civilians and the destruction of at least 20 civilian properties.
    In February 2019, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the Kashmir Chapter of Jamaat-i-Islami were banned and hundreds of their leaders and workers were arrested.
    Ahead of the elections to the Indian Parliament, held in JK in April and May 2019, 100 additional companies of soldiers were deployed in Kashmir and mass arrests of political and religious leaders were carried out. During polling days there were complete shutdowns, violence and killings.

    The use of administrative detention under the provisions of repressive Public Safety Act (PSA) led to many arrests and detentions. Between January and June this year, at least 25 people were booked under the PSA.

    Internet shutdowns have also been a common practice in JK. Internet services were curtailed 51 times in the first half of the year.

    How did people in Jammu and Kashmir respond to the revocation of the state’s special status?

    Before revocation was formally announced by the Indian government, many rumours made the rounds and people guessed that something sinister was underway. Official orders by the state administration added to the apprehension. People prepared themselves for a complete lockdown, drawing from their previous experience when the Indian government imposed curfews and shut down phones and the internet.
    When revocation of the special status was announced amidst a complete blockade of communication and full restrictions on movement, people were not greatly shocked. The autonomy guaranteed to JK under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution allowed the state a certain amount of autonomy – its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it had been greatly eroded before revocation of the special status, which downgraded JK from a state to a union territory, and there was nothing much left in it for the benefit of the people.

    There have been concerns attached to the revocation of Article 35a, which permits the local legislature in Indian-administered Kashmir to define who are permanent residents of the region. People have speculated that demographic changes might be underway, designed and strategised along the same lines as the occupation of Palestine, including the demographic changes introduced by Israel in Palestine. While there are fears of demographic changes, the majority’s response has been not to fight against revocation of the state’s special status, as this would have meant legitimising the occupation of the region. The larger struggle is for the right to self-determination.

    We have read reports of civic space restrictions, including a ban on meetings, restrictions on freedom of movement and arrests of leaders. Can you provide more information about this?

    The announcement of the revocation of JK’s special status was accompanied by widespread restrictions. There was an increased deployment of Indian armed forces at all roads and intersections across the valley, and the unyielding troops have strictly restricted the movement of people. For the first few weeks, people were not even able to reach hospitals and doctors. Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which bans public gatherings of more than four people, was imposed despite a curfew being in place since the night of 4-5 August. This prevented people from organising protest gatherings and meetings.

    According to a government report dated 6 September, more than 3,800 people had been detained since 5 August and only about 2,600 of them were subsequently released. Those detained include political leaders from both pro-India and pro-independence parties, civil society members, lawyers and protesters. Three former Chief Ministers of JK – Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti – have been detained since 5 August. On 16 September, Farooq Abdullah was detained under the PSA. Leaders and politicians like Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Omar Farooq, Farooq Abdullah, Taj Mohiuddin and M Y Tarigami have been under house arrest. Hotels and government guesthouses have been turned into detention centres. Many leaders and civil society members have been lodged in jails in India.
    There has been an extensive use of the PSA to detain people, especially young people. Many young people were detained without being formally charged and were released only after the signing of community bonds. Many young people and most political leaders continue to be detained.

    Have people protested? How have the security forces responded to protests?

    Despite the severe restrictions imposed on the movement and assembly of the people, there have been many protests across the valley of Kashmir, with people taking to the streets and shouting slogans demanding freedom from the Indian state. The Indian media has claimed that there were negligible protests against the abrogation of Article 370, making it seem like there is normality and acceptance of the Indian state’s decisions. Since the local media has not been able to report on these protests, stories from them have not come to the fore. There were many protests in Kashmir valley, but due to the communication blockade and restrictions on the movement of journalists and media, news of protests from other districts went largely underreported.

    Protesters have been met with excessive force by the Indian armed forces. For instance, on 9 August, several people were injured during protests in the Soura area of Srinagar. A doctor confirmed that at least 53 young people were treated for injuries at Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences in Soura. Reports also emerged that five people have been killed in separate incidents as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in the policing of protests since the start of the clampdown.

    How has the internet shutdown affected the work of activists and journalists?

    The communication clampdown has greatly affected the work of journalists and activists. Owing to the shutdown of internet services and curbs on the movement of journalists, it has been a huge challenge for journalists to collect and file stories. The administration set up a Media Facilitation Centre in Srinagar where journalists are allowed to access the internet and email their stories. No such facilities are available in other districts of Kashmir. Newspapers in Kashmir have been publishing with a reduced number of pages. Journalists have been forced to rely just on state-issued press briefs once or twice a week, without any means to verify the stories. There has been news of journalists facing reprisals for filing stories on Kashmir’s ongoing situation.

    Also, since 5 August, civil society in JK has been under threat and dealing with a very precarious situation, as many civil society members have been detained and jailed under the PSA. In this way the Indian state has put pressure on Kashmiri civil society to remain silent about the current situation, and therefore their space is completely choked. There is a lot of resistance and criticism of the communications clampdown that is preventing civil society from carrying out its work.

    In this context, the support required from the international community is that they should increase their understanding of the Kashmir conflict and talking about it so as to prevent this human rights crisis from worsening.

    Civic space in India is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow @natasha_rather on Twitter.


  • #UN75: ‘Governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    cristina palabay pictureCIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of theKarapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatanhas 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.

    What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.

    Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.

    The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.

    What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?

    Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.

    First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.

    Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.

    Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.

    All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.

    What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?

    We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.

    When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.

    When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.

    When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.

    When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.

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

    Get in touch with Karapatan through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@karapatan and@TinayPalabay on Twitter


  • Alert: Bangladesh’s restrictive NGO law undermines development efforts, should be reviewed

    Bangladesh’s new Foreign Donations law is in breach of international norms and agreements, says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.  CIVICUS remains deeply alarmed that the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act which was enacted last month will have serious negative consequences for Bangladeshi civil society and prevent them from undertaking their essential and legitimate work.

    “Worryingly, the law endows the government officials with broad powers to sanction civil society groups which are critical of the state or its policies and imposes arbitrary restrictions on access to vital funding to engage in sustainable development activities,” said Tor Hodenfield, Policy & Advocacy Officer from CIVICUS. “We urge the government to undertake a review of the law’s restrictive provisions in light of constitutional and international commitments and in the interests of the people of Bangladesh whom the country’s vibrant civil society serves.”

    Bangladesh is party to several international agreements, including the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation which obliges states to create an enabling environment for civil society organisations to maximise their contribution to development, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals framework which promises effective and meaningful civil society partnerships and protection of fundamental freedoms.

    Under the new law, foreign-funded NGOs which make ‘inimical’ and ‘derogatory’ remarks against the constitution and constitutional bodies, including the President, Prime Minister, Parliament, and the Supreme Court, can be subjected to criminal and administrative sanctions. Specifically, the law stipulates that the authorities may unilaterally deregister, withhold the registration or ban the activities of an NGO if it makes such comments. These provisions breach fundamental freedoms of expression and association and preclude civil society groups from publically scrutinising state policies and practices.

    In addition, the law places unwarranted and targeted controls on NGOs which receive funding from foreign sources. Under the law, all foreign-funded NGOs must register with the NGO Affairs Bureau (a state institution seated within Prime Minister’s office), submit regular activity reports and secure the Bureau’s prior approval before initiating any project which will use foreign donations. The law further imposes arbitrary and onerous limitations on how NGOs can use their own resources. Without justification, the law precludes NGOs from spending more than 20% of their budget on administrative costs.

    We urge the Government of Bangladesh to initiate (i) a dialogue with Bangladeshi civil society who will be severely impacted by the law’s restrictive provisions, and (ii) undertake a review process of the law to evaluate its compatibility with Bangladesh’s constitutional and international commitments. 

    Bangladesh is listed as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor.



  • Asia home to largest number of indigenous peoples: Activists building a movement in face of attacks

    By Josef Benedict, Civic Space Research Officer

    The 9th of August, marks International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. The day is commemorated in recognition of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations in Geneva in 1982.

    Asia is home to the largest number of indigenous peoples with an estimated 260 million from the 370 million original inhabitants worldwide. Despite this significant number, equaling half of the combined population of Europe, Asian indigenous peoples face an array of challenges such as the denial of the right to self-determination, the loss of control over their land and natural resources, discrimination and marginalisation, forced assimilation and violent repression by state security forces. 

    While most of the countries in Asia had voted for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in September 2007, many refuse to respect and implement these rights. This has been made more difficult with the shrinking democratic space in many Asian countries and the rise of autocratic leaders. 

    In 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor continued to document human rights violations and state repression against indigenous peoples in the region. In the Philippines, there has been an increase of vilification against indigenous activists under the Duterte government. In March 2018, the Philippines labelled a number of local indigenous rights activists as “terrorists” for alleged links to the Communist Party. This included Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, a Filipino national. 


  • ASIA: ‘Durante la pandemia, el racismo hacia los pueblos Indígenas se ha intensificado’

    CIVICUS conversa con Gam Shimray, Secretario General del Pacto de Pueblos Indígenas de Asia (Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact, AIPP) sobre la situación de los grupos Indígenas en Asia durante la pandemia del COVID-19. AIPP es una federación regional de movimientos de pueblos Indígenas de Asia que trabaja para promover y defender los derechos humanos de los pueblos Indígenas, incluyendo derechos territoriales y culturales. Debido a su posición de subordinación y a su distancia respecto de la cultura y la política convencionales, lospueblos Indígenas padecen graves violaciones de derechos humanos, racismo sistémico, discriminación y exclusión. Como resultado de la constante negación de sus derechos a la tierra, el territorio y los recursos naturales, muchas comunidades Indígenas se cuentan entre los grupos más vulnerables y desfavorecidos.

     Gam Shimray

    ¿Qué nos puedes contar acerca del trabajo de AIPP?

    El trabajo de AIPP se guía por nuestra creencia en los derechos humanos universales y el derecho inherente a la autodeterminación de todos los pueblos, incluidos los pueblos Indígenas. Los derechos a la autodeterminación y el autogobierno son una necesidad social para lograr una continuidad de los procesos sociales el autodesarrollo Indígena.

    Mientras que nuestro trabajo de incidencia se centra principalmente en los niveles regional y global, a través de nuestros miembros y redes establecemos conexiones con procesos a nivel país. AIPP consolida una posición común de las organizaciones Indígenas para la incidencia global y regional. Para ello, nos enfocamos en el fortalecimiento de las capacidades de las comunidades, consolidando los movimientos Indígenas y programando una agenda común para campañas y actividades de incidencia colectivas a nivel nacional.

    AIPP también trabaja en la construcción de liderazgos y promueve un liderazgo distribuido a lo largo de Asia, incluyendo a mujeres, jóvenes y personas con discapacidades.

    ¿Cuál era la situación de los pueblos Indígenas en Asia antes de la pandemia del COVID-19?

    Antes de la pandemia causada por el COVID-19 la situación política en Asia se había ido deteriorando, particularmente en los últimos años. En muchos países asiáticos hemos experimentado ataques crecientes contra la sociedad civil y la restricción del espacio democrático necesario para el debate y la formación de la opinión pública. Algunos intelectuales atribuyeron esta tendencia a la existencia de liderazgos políticos cada vez más apartados de la democracia y los derechos humanos.

    Las transiciones de regímenes autoritarios hacia la democracia que algunos países han experimentado en las últimas décadas, como Filipinas en los años ‘80, Indonesia a finales de los ‘90 y Nepal a comienzos de los 2000, no han culminado. Otros países, como China, Laos y Vietnam, tienen sistemas de partido único de jure, mientras que Camboya tiene uno de facto. En Myanmar, los militares todavía controlan el gobierno, mientras que la tradición tailandesa de gran tolerancia todavía no ha producido un Estado democrático moderno y estable. A su vez, el ascenso del populismo constituye una seria amenaza para estas democracias. En India, la democracia más grande del mundo y probablemente una de las más fuertes en la región, bajo el gobierno populista del Primer Ministro Narendra Modi estamos viendo continuos ataques contra toda institución autónoma, desde la justicia hasta el banco central y la prensa independiente.

    El resultado es que, en los últimos años, la mayoría de los defensores de las personas defensoras de derechos humanos asesinadas han sido Indígenas. Ellas han perdido sus vidas defendiendo sus derechos, hogares, tierras, territorios y recursos.

    Estos problemas también evidencian la existencia de problemas subyacentes más profundos, referidos a la insuficiente capacidad política e institucional para abordar eficientemente los desafíos que presentan la democracia y los derechos humanos en los países asiáticos. Enfrentamos cuestiones morales y políticas que requieren una evaluación seria de la erosión de los estándares y prácticas de derechos humanos y el debilitamiento de la capacidad política e institucional para responder a los desafíos sociales y políticos del presente. La experiencia de sufrimiento de las personas más pobres durante la pandemia del COVID-19 es evidencia de ello.

    ¿Qué desafíos han enfrentado los grupos y activistas Indígenas durante la pandemia?

    Los problemas y desafíos varían según las diferentes situaciones de los países. Aún así, uno de los principales desafíos se relaciona con el hecho de que la mayoría de los gobiernos de Asia impusieron cuarentenas en sus países sin mucha preparación, lo cual desencadenó el caos. La situación fue abrumadora y no pudimos responder a las necesidades de activistas, comunidades y trabajadores migrantes.

    Las personas refugiadas, trabajadoras migrantes y apátridas fueron las que más sufrieron. Las que carecían de documentos identidad tuvieron problemas para demostrar su ciudadanía, lo cual debían hacer para recibir ayuda gubernamental. La mayoría de las personas migrantes y refugiadas carecen de la documentación necesaria y también abundan los errores de registro, y quienes no figuran en el registro nacional no pueden recibir un documento de identidad.

    Durante la pandemia, el racismo hacia los pueblos Indígenas se ha intensificado. Esta situación ha sido peor en India, donde gente del noreste del país fue expulsada de sus hoteles o de las casas que alquilaban, no podían comprar comida, ir a los mercados o usar transporte público. Hubo gente que les escupió y se les detenía sin ningún tipo de explicación. Muchas de estas personas, entre ellas mujeres, fueron golpeadas sin ninguna razón, por lo que mucha gente en ciudades de toda India vive en un estado de temor permanente.

    En algunos países, los gobiernos están aprovechando la situación actual como excusa para emprender campañas militares, acaparar tierras, autorizar grandes proyectos de infraestructura, denegar derechos y debilitar regulaciones y protecciones medioambientales. Muchos activistas y miembros de las comunidades en países como Bangladesh, India, Filipinas y Myanmar fueron asesinados o encarcelados a raíz de acusaciones inventadas. La policía y las fuerzas de seguridad también han impedido que los líderes de las comunidades realizaran tareas de emergencia y ayudaran a comunidades en emergencia alimentaria.

    Estos incidentes son graves y hay muy poco que podamos hacer al respecto, ya que la gente no puede salir a protestar o hacer campaña, y apenas pueden tener acceso a la justicia. En India están permitidas las peticiones electrónicas y los tribunales siguen atendiendo los temas más urgentes mediante videoconferencia, pero muchas comunidades no están familiarizadas con procesos tan complicados y tampoco tienen acceso adecuado a internet.

    ¿Como han respondido ante esta situación AIPP y otras organizaciones de derechos Indígenas?

    Lo primero que hicimos fue comunicarnos con nuestros miembros y redes para juntar información de las bases. También les respondimos a quienes se comunicaron con nosotros en busca de ayuda y apoyo. Nuestra primera acción fue proveer o movilizar asistencia, y en particular alimentos para las personas en situación crítica en diferentes áreas, por intermedio de nuestros miembros. Nuestra ayuda también se concentró en compartir información relativa a las comunidades Indígenas. Esto ha sido necesario porque los niveles de desinformación han sido abrumadores, y han desencadenado reacciones impulsadas por el pánico. Hemos compartido con las comunidades solicitudes y llamamientos solidarios para impulsar respuestas humanitarias y difundir buenas prácticas que las comunidades pueden implementar.

    La situación es complicada porque no se trata solamente de responder a la pandemia. Las comunidades indígenas padecen de muchos problemas subyacentes. Lo mínimo que podíamos hacer era dejar constancia de nuestra protesta y llevar a cabo campañas a través de medios digitales.

    La pandemia del COVID-19 ha desenmascarado muchos problemas y nos plantea nuevos desafíos. Por lo tanto, estamos evaluando y haciendo esfuerzos para dar pasos adicionales para afrontar el impacto de la pandemia en el largo plazo. Con respecto a esto, también hemos formado una alianza regional en respuesta al COVID-19, que se encuentra en proceso de expansión. Pronto tendremos listo nuestro informe preliminar de evaluación regional, que nos va a ayudar a planificar mejor. Ya sabemos que el fortalecimiento de las capacidades de las comunidades va a ser crucial en el proceso de adaptación a lo que se ha dado en llamar “la nueva normalidad”.

    ¿Qué otros apoyos necesitarían los grupos Indígenas en este momento?

    El apoyo que las comunidades Indígenas necesitan es enorme, porque los impactos se seguirán sintiendo en el largo plazo. Pero algunas de las necesidades principales son las siguientes.

    En primer lugar, necesitamos establecer grupos locales de respuesta rápida a la pandemia con fondos asignados y con un equipo de funcionarios designados para coordinar con autoridades provinciales o estaduales y organizaciones de la sociedad civil para monitorear la situación en las comunidades Indígenas y proveerles el apoyo que necesiten. El equipo de respuesta también debe coordinar con las autoridades correspondientes para atender las necesidades especiales de las mujeres, los niños, los adultos mayores y las personas con discapacidades en las comunidades Indígenas.

    En segundo lugar, necesitamos asegurar que las autoridades locales y provinciales reciban pautas e instrucciones apropiadas en relación con las medidas que deben tomarse para que los pueblos Indígenas puedan afrontar el COVID-19 y cumplir la cuarentena.

    El tercer lugar, es crucial crear conciencia y asegurar el acceso a los servicios de salud. Por eso es importante preparar materiales informativos en formatos amigables para las comunidades, que expliquen con claridad la naturaleza de la enfermedad, las medidas de cuarentena y contención y las pruebas virales, de modo de derribar los mitos acerca del virus. Se necesita coordinación entre los trabajadores del departamento de salud y los sanadores tradicionales para garantizar que los sistemas de conocimiento Indígenas estén integrados en los mecanismos de respuesta. Se deberían fomentar estrategias de cuarentena localizadas y separadas que promuevan un ambiente natural y de participación de la comunidad. También se pueden preparar centros de atención para casos de COVID-19 manejadas por sanadores y enfermeros de las comunidades.

    En áreas remotas se deberían desplegar unidades móviles de salud que incluyan a sanadores tradicionales y trabajadores de la salud. Se debería prestar particular atención a aquellas áreas donde hay más trabajadores migrantes que han retornado a sus hogares. También se debería facilitar el acceso al testeo y proveer instalaciones para que estas personas puedan hacer la cuarentena. También se debería proveer acceso a servicios de salud en caso de emergencia, incluido el transporte. El acceso al agua para limpiar y beber es otra necesidad crítica que se debería asegurar.

    Asegurar la seguridad alimentaria, el nivel de ingresos y el sustento económico también es crucial dados los niveles de desnutrición que existen en muchas regiones Indígenas. Por lo menos en los próximos seis meses va a ser sumamente necesario distribuir en forma gratuita raciones alimenticias para todas las personas, independientemente de si tienen cédula de identidad o son clasificadas como migrantes.

    Por último, es urgente fortalecer los medios de subsistencia basados en la producción forestal no maderable (PFNM) mediante la creación de mecanismos institucionales efectivos de recolección, almacenamiento, adquisición y venta. En Asia hay una alta dependencia de la PFNM. Se debería proveer apoyo financiero y logístico a las comunidades para que puedan generar una fuente de ingreso sustentable. Las comunidades que viven en áreas protegidas deben tener acceso a los bosques por motivos de subsistencia.

    ¿Que lecciones han aprendido sobre la situación de los pueblos Indígenas durante la pandemia?

    Durante la pandemia la situación ha sido abrumadora, y las medias impuestas por los gobiernos han desencadenado actos de violencia de la policía y las fuerzas de seguridad. Centenares de personas pobres han muerto de hambre, y las que se aventuraron a salir por efecto de la desesperación han sido atacadas brutalmente por la policía.

    El impacto potencial parecía bastante sombrío y si no hubiésemos puesto nuestra confianza en la gente y en las comunidades, nuestros esfuerzos no hubiesen sido muy exitosos. Los servicios de asistencia en emergencia debían ser eficientes y la clave de nuestro éxito en países como Malasia o Tailandia ha sido depositar nuestra confianza en el trabajo de los voluntarios de las comunidades. Todos los recursos que fue posible generar les fueron transferidos a ellos y ellos reportaron las acciones y actividades que llevaban a cabo por teléfono o por otros medios que tuvieran a disposición.

    Además, por lo que pudimos ver, muchas comunidades respondieron muy bien a la situación iniciando cuarentenas en los pueblos, regulando las visitas, poniendo a los retornados en cuarentena o implementando medidas de distanciamiento social aun con poca información o sin los recursos apropiados. También hubo miedo, pero las comunidades lo fueron superando y fueron mejorando sus respuestas. Las comunidades no solo recibieron asistencia de nuestra parte o de otras fuentes: algunas de ellas también aportaron alimentos para otras comunidades más necesitadas. La mayoría de estas comunidades han trabajado con nosotros en el pasado y han podido gestionar exitosamente sus sistemas de producción alimentaria y sus recursos naturales. No estaban preocupadas por escasez de alimentos; por el contrario, sus líderes aprovecharon esta oportunidad para crear conciencia de la importancia de mejorar la producción local y el manejo sustentable de los recursos. Personalmente, esto ha sido inspirador.

    También nos hemos sentido inspirados por comunidades que se organizaron y usaron prácticas curativas y medicinas locales para mejorar la inmunidad y la resistencia a la enfermedad o establecieron sistemas de intercambio de alimentos con poca o casi nada de ayuda de parte del Estado, cuando los programas estatales no funcionaban o no llegaban a tiempo. Lo que es más importante, esto demostró que la devolución de atribuciones y el empoderamiento de las comunidades pueden ser más efectivos a la hora de afrontar una crisis si se entrega a las instituciones locales autónomas los recursos y el apoyo necesarios.

    Las respuestas espontáneas de las comunidades se fueron dando de forma casi natural porque se trata de comunidades que históricamente se han autogobernado. De aquí en adelante, si confía en la gente y empodera a las comunidades el Estado podrá lidiar de forma más eficiente con cualquier crisis de salud pública y con sus impactos en el largo plazo.

    Contáctese con el Pacto de Pueblos Indígenas de Asia a través de susitio web o de su perfil deFacebook, y siga a@aippneten Twitter.


  • ASIA: ‘Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified’

    CIVICUS speaks to Gam Shimray, Secretary General of the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), about the situation of Indigenous groups in Asia amid the COVID-19 pandemic. AIPP is a regional federation of Indigenous peoples’ movements in Asia that works to promote and defend Indigenous peoples’ human rights, including land rights and cultural rights. Because of their subordination and distinctiveness from mainstream culture and politics,Indigenous peoples are subjected to gross human rights violations, systematic racism, discrimination and dispossession. As a result of the denial of their rights to land, territory and resources, many Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups.

    Gam Shimray

    Can you tell us about the work of AIPP?

    The work of AIPP is guided by our belief in universal human rights and the inherent right to self-determination of all peoples, including Indigenous peoples. The rights to self-determination and self-government are a social necessity for the continuity of Indigenous social processes and self-development.

    While our advocacy work is primarily focused on the regional and global levels, linkages with country-level processes are built through our members and networks. AIPP consolidates a common position of Indigenous organisations for regional and global advocacy. For this, we focus on building capacity in communities, consolidating Indigenous movements and setting a common agenda for collective campaigning and advocacy at the country level.

    AIPP also focuses on building leadership and promoting distributive leadership across Asia, including among women, young people and persons with disabilities.

    What was the situation of Indigenous peoples in Asia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the political situation in Asia had been deteriorating, particularly in the past few years. We have seen an increasing clampdown on civil society and the restriction of democratic space for public debate and opinion formation in several Asian countries. Some public intellectuals attribute this trend to the retreat of political leadership from democracy and human rights.

    The transitions to democracy from authoritarian governments in recent decades, such as the Philippines in the 1980s, Indonesia in the late 1990s and Nepal in the 2000s, have remained incomplete. Other countries, such as China, Laos and Vietnam, have de jure one-party systems, and Cambodia has a de facto one. In Myanmar, the military still holds a grip on the government, while Thailand’s tradition of high tolerance is yet to produce a stable democratic modern state. Further, rising populism is posing a serious threat to democracies. In India, the world’s largest democracy and arguably one of Asia’s strongest, we are seeing a continuous assault on autonomous institutions, from the judiciary to the central bank and the free press, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s populist government.

    The result is that in the last few years, most of the human rights defenders killed have been Indigenous peoples. They lost their lives defending their rights, homes, lands, territories and resources.

    These problems are also evidence of deeper and underlying issues that relate to the inadequacy of political and institutional capacity to address effectively the challenges of democracy and human rights in Asian countries. We are faced with moral and political questions that call for serious examination of the erosion of human rights standards and practices and the weakening of political and institutional capacity to respond to present social and political issues. The suffering experienced by poor people during the COVID-19 pandemic is evidence of this.

    What challenges have Indigenous groups and activists faced under the pandemic?

    Issues and challenges vary across countries as the situation differs. One of the main challenges relates to the fact that most governments in Asia initiated countrywide lockdowns without much preparation, leading to chaos. The situation was simply overwhelming, and we could not respond to the needs of activists, communities, or migrant labourers.

    Migrant workers, refugees and stateless persons suffered the most, and those without ID cards struggled to prove their citizenship, which they needed to receive government aid. Most migrants and refugees lack proper documentation and errors in registration abound. Those left out from national registries are denied national ID cards.

    Under the pandemic, racism against Indigenous peoples has intensified. The situation has been worst in India, where people from the north-eastern part of the country have been thrown out of their hotels and rented houses. They have been denied the ability to buy food from grocery shops and board public transport. They have been spat on and taken into custody without an explanation. Many people, including women, have been beaten up for no reason, and many in cities across India are living in fear.

    In some countries, governments are using the situation as a cover for conducting military campaigns, grabbing land, granting permission for large-scale development projects, rolling back protective rights and weakening environmental laws and safeguards. Several activists and community members have been killed or jailed under trumped-up charges in countries such as Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and the Philippines. Community leaders have also been stopped by police and security forces from carrying out relief work and helping starving communities.

    These incidents are grave in nature and there is extraordinarily little that we can do about them, as people cannot go out and protest or campaign, and can hardly access the courts. In India, e-petitions are allowed, and urgent matters are still heard by courts through video conferencing, but most communities are not familiar with such complicated processes and many do not even have proper internet access.

    How have AIPP and other Indigenous rights organisations responded to the situation? 

    The first thing we did was reach out to our members and networks to gather information from the ground. We also responded to those reaching out to us for support. Our first action was to provide or mobilise relief, and particularly food for those in critical need, in different areas through our members and networks. Our outreach also focused on sharing information concerning Indigenous communities. This was necessary because misinformation has been overwhelming, leading to panic-driven reactions from communities. We shared appeals to communities calling for humane responses and disseminating good practices that communities could implement.

    The situation is complicated because it is not just about responding to the pandemic. Indigenous peoples face multiple underlying issues. The least we could do was register our protest and conduct our campaigns through digital channels.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded many hidden issues and poses new challenges. So we are assessing and making efforts to take the next steps to cope with the longer-term impact of the pandemic. In this regard, we have also formed a regional network for COVID-19 response, which is in the process of expansion. We will be coming up with a preliminary regional assessment report soon, which will help us plan better. We can already see that capacity building will be crucial as we adapt to what is called the ‘new normal’.

    What further support do Indigenous groups need at this time?

    The support that Indigenous communities need is enormous as the impact is going to be long term. But few things that must be stressed are the following.

    First, we need to set up COVID-19 response cells with designated funds at the local level, with a team of designated nodal officers to coordinate with state or provincial authorities and civil society organisations to monitor Indigenous issues and provide the necessary support. The response team should also coordinate with the appropriate authorities to cater to the special needs of women, children, older people and persons with disabilities in Indigenous areas.

    Second, we need to ensure that appropriate guidelines and instructions are issued to provincial and local authorities on measures to be taken for Indigenous peoples to deal with COVID-19 and lockdown, including on ensuring compliance.

    Third, it is critical to raise awareness and ensure access to healthcare. It is important to prepare community-friendly information materials that clearly explain the nature of the disease, quarantine and containment measures and testing, helping dispel myths. Coordination between health department workers and traditional healers is needed to ensure that Indigenous knowledge systems are part of these response mechanisms. Localised and separate quarantine strategies encouraging natural environment and community participation should be promoted. COVID-19 care centres can be set up at the community level, managed by community healers and nurses. 

    In remote areas, mobile health units should be deployed involving community healers and health workers. Special attention should be given to areas with migrant workers who have returned home. Testing and quarantine facilities should be immediately provided to them. Access to health services in case of emergencies, including transportation, should also be provided. Access to safe water for cleaning and drinking is another critical need that should be ensured. 

    Ensuring food security and incomes and protecting livelihoods is also crucial given the known evidence of undernourishment in many Indigenous areas. Over at least the next six months it will be necessary to distribute free rations of nutritional food to everybody, irrespective of people’s migratory status or whether they have an ID card. 

    Lastly, it is urgent to strengthen non-timber forest produce (NTFP)-based livelihoods by urgently devising effective institutional mechanisms for collection, storage, procurement and sale. Dependence on NTFP is high across Asia. Financial and logistical support should be provided directly to the communities to help generate sustainable livelihoods. Communities living in protected areas must be allowed to have access to forests for livelihood purposes. 

    What lessons you have learned so far about the situation of Indigenous people under the pandemic?

    Under the pandemic, the situation has been overwhelming, and the measures imposed by governments have led to acts of brutality from police and security forces. We saw hundreds of poor people die of starvation and those venturing out in desperation brutalised by the police.

    The potential impact was looking grim, and had we not put our trust in the people and the communities, the efforts we made would have been far less successful. Relief work had to be efficient and putting our trust in community volunteers to do the job was the key to success, for instance in Malaysia and Thailand. Whatever resources were generated were transferred to them and they reported back on the actions carried out through phone or other means available to them.

    Further, in our observation, several communities responded very well to the situation by initiating village lockdowns, regulating visits, quarantining returnees, or self-isolating themselves despite having little information or no appropriate resources and equipment. There were fears too but communities were quick in overcoming them and improved their responses. Communities have not just received relief from us or others, but some of them also contributed food for other communities in need. Most of those communities had worked with us and had successfully managed their food production systems and natural resources. They were not worried about food shortages; rather, their leaders used the opportunity to create awareness about the importance of improving local production and sustainable resource management. Personally, this has been inspiring.

    We have also been inspired by communities organising themselves and using local healing practices and medicine to improve immunity and resistance to the disease, or establishing food exchange systems with little or no help  from the state, at a time when state-run programmes were not functional or did not arrive in time. Most importantly, this showed that devolution and community empowerment can be more effective in dealing with the crisis if resources and support are provided to such self-governing local institutions. 

    Spontaneous community responses came almost naturally because these are historically self-governing communities. Looking forward, trusting people and empowering communities will enable the state to deal more efficiently with public health crises and their long-term impacts.

    Get in touch with the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@aippneton Twitter.


  • Attacks on women’s day march in Malaysia inconsistent with the government’s commitment to fundamental freedoms

    Amnesty International, Article 19 and CIVICUS strongly condemn the government backlash against the International Women’s Day march held in Malaysia on 9 March 2019. A few days after the event, the country’s Home Minister announced that police were investigating the organisers of the march for allegedly conducting an illegal assembly, while the Minister in charge of Religious Affairs criticized the march as “a misuse of democratic space.” On 14 March 2019, the organisers were also informed that they were being investigated under the Sedition Act. These actions undermine the rights to freedom of expression and assembly and are inconsistent with human rights commitments made by the Pakatan Harapan government in its election manifesto and at the UN Human Rights Council.


  • Azerbaijan: End attacks on peaceful protestors

    Johannesburg. 8 April 2011. The Government of Azerbaijan should immediately order its security forces to cease the use of violent force against peaceful protesters and free those arbitrarily detained without charge after mass arrests, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation said today.

    At least 200 people were arrested and dozens beaten on 2 April 2011 when security forces shut down a largely peaceful anti-government protest in the capital city of Baku. According to a statement released by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Internal Affairs on 4 April, 17 activists and organisers were arrested in the days leading up to the protest.

    CIVICUS partners in the country said leaders of opposition political parties, journalists and members of civil society organisations were among those detained. Currently authorities continue their crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan, promising to halt another planned protest slated for 16 April.


  • BANGLADESH: ‘Out of fear, people are being silent’

    CIVICUS speaks with Aklima Ferdows, who works with the Centre for Social Activism in Bangladesh, about civil society’s challenges and support needs in the face of a sustained government crackdown.

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

    I have a civil society background, working with civil society organisations (CSOs) for almost 10 years, mostly on advocacy and capacity development. I also have law background and voluntarily work with the Centre for Social Activism (CSA), whose work focuses mostly on the freedom of expression and protection of human rights defenders. CSA documents human rights violations and advocates for the rights of marginalised communities on the ground.

    What are the current challenges around the freedom of expression in Bangladesh?

    Bangladesh had a long struggle for freedom and finally got independence from Pakistan in 1971 after a nine-months’-long war. But unfortunately, although we achieved our independence, our freedom is not assured even after so many years of independence. For civil society workers, human rights defenders, journalists and citizens in general, there is an environment of fear and self-censorship in the country now. Out of fear, people are being silent or are speaking on relatively ‘softer issues’ such as the rights of poor people, women and children. Because of fear of reprisal, people are refraining from doing things they used to do or not protesting or speaking openly. People need to think several times before they speak and act.

    Social media and online content monitoring are becoming strict, and you can see the changes in social media use. People used to share various types of news, updates and their thoughts. Now they mostly use social media for sharing their personal stuff or family related activity. People also complain about their calls being recorded. There were efforts to make people register to use social media with their national identity document. Some websites and online portals have been banned, contents are blocked and there are occasional internet shutdowns and slowdowns, including during elections. We have had several killings of online activists in recent years. Other online activists have left the country or gone silent. People’s ability to express themselves freely and creatively is limited and people are more fearful about sharing their views with other people.

    As an example of how the freedom of expression is restricted, in August 2019 a local councillor filed a case in Khagrachari district of the Chittagong Hill Tracts area against one of the reporters of the Daily Star, a major daily newspaper, simply because the reporter had used the word ‘Indigenous’ in a report. The plaintiff alleged that the journalist had intentionally made a provocation to destroy peace in the hills in the report, titled, ‘Three Indigenous villages face land grabbing’. The police were ordered to investigate. Although the court dismissed the case, it showed how sensitive the authorities can be. The people living in the country's plains and hills have long been demanding constitutional recognition as Adibashi (‘Indigenous’ in English). The Press Information Department issued a release (reference no. 2,704) in March 2015 urging the media, experts, university teachers and civil society members to avoid that word in discussions and talk shows on the International Day of the World's Indigenous People. There is no legal barrier to using the word ‘Adibashi’ anywhere in the country, but it seems that we are trying to push a group of people in their own country into a status of denial.

    Eighty-three lawsuits were filed against the Daily Star’s editor, Mahfuz Anam, by plaintiffs across the country, in 56 districts, who were not personally aggrieved. The matter began on 3 February 2016 when the editor of a TV talk show made an introspective comment about a lapse in his editorial judgment in publishing reports, based on information given by the Taskforce Interrogation Cell during the rule of the 2007-2008 caretaker government, without being able to verify those independently. He was accused of defamation and sedition. The number of cases show how many people can be mobilised against one. Allegations and legal actions can be brought against anyone on the grounds that they are trying to instigate communal violence, hurt religious sentiment or cause law and order violations.

    What are the other key restrictions against civil society freedoms, and what are the impacts on civil society?

    People need to get permission from the local authorities to hold an assembly or gathering. This has become very strict now. In some cases, people don’t get permission and, in some instances, permission have been withdrawn at the last moment.

    Another source of fear is the disproportionate use of force by law enforcement agencies. It is being used against opposition parties and their related organisations, but also against civil society, garment workers, student groups and cultural activists. The police force is often aggressive and there is impunity. So, people are reluctant about organising collectively as they did before. There are clear, direct threats as well as intimidation and there are also smears. For example, anti-corruption campaigners have been accused of avoiding paying taxes. And then there are repressive laws, which affect the freedom of expression and other freedoms of the people.

    Cases are being brought to harass people under the Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018. The law brought in jail sentences to a maximum of three years or fines of 300,000 taka (approx. US$3,750), or both, for publishing or assisting in the publication of information that is offensive or is known to be false with the intention of tarnishing the image of the state, or spreading confusion, or sending or publishing information intended to annoy or humiliate someone. The punishments can be almost doubled for a second offence. Now anyone can claim that someone is spreading rumours or is humiliating someone else, even if they are just sharing news online without any intention of spreading confusion or humiliating someone.

    The law also brought in a sentence of seven years in jail for hurting religious sentiment and values, and there are sentences of up to 14 years in jail or 2,500,000 taka (approx. US$29,450) in fines, or both, for charges of computer spying or digital spying for collecting, preserving, or sending any secret documents through a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network, or any electronic form. Journalists fear that the provisions of this Act will work against conducting investigative journalistic work and compromise the quality and freedom of journalism in Bangladesh. Under an earlier law, the ICT Act of 2016, several cases were brought against activists, journalists and activists. Now the police don’t even need a warrant to take someone in for questioning; it can be done based on mere suspicion.

    Another key obstacle for civil society is the restriction of funding. This has been going on for some time. The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act controls foreign funding for CSOs. There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the passing of the NGO Law and development partners have shifted their priorities to other regions. One of the provisions of the NGO law allows the NGO Affairs Bureau to suspend the registration of a CSO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

    Any CSO or person receiving funding from a foreign entity must have permission. To get permission you need to give a copy of the proposal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, which sits in the prime minister’s office. Permission is sometimes withheld. Critics of civil society have occasionally raised concerns about some CSOs, alleging they could have links to terror financing, or that they are doing different work in the name of development. There is a fear that anything that doesn’t go well with the authorities could be blocked and the CSO denied funding.

    Then there is the new draft Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act of 2019. According to media reports, the draft says that all CSOs will have to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare, and any receiving foreign funding will also have to register with the NGO Affairs Bureau. CSOs cannot set up and operate unless they do so. Section 10 states that all CSOs will be able to work in only one district when they first register. After registration, CSOs can expand their scope of work, but only to five districts at a time. We have 64 districts, so this is the most restrictive.

    Section 14 requires CSOs to have an account with a state-owned bank and conduct all financial transactions via state-owned banks. It requires CSOs to submit their annual workplans, audit reports and activity reports. It also requires CSOS to submit tri-monthly bank statements to the local social welfare office and registration authorities. Section 11, in sub-sections 1 and 2, states that registrations must be renewed every five years, and failure to reregister or the refusal of registration will result in an organisation being dissolved.

    Incredibly, section 16 says that the government can expel the heads of CSOs and replace them with a government-appointed five-person committee and section 17 says that CSOs can be dissolved if they are believed to not be working in the best interests of the public or to have broken the law.

    According to the NGO Affairs Bureau, between March and June 2019, the government cancelled the registration of 197 CSOs.

    Civil society members are in a very tight situation now. They have become very cautious and are playing safe out of fear. If they don’t compromise, they might lose the funding they have and face threats. We are not seeing CSOs making many statements on human rights issues. Many CSOs are struggling for funding. There are some social movements starting up, working on issues such as the protection of natural resources and against gender-based violence, but they are being cautious about talking about gross human rights violations.

    What impacts did the December 2018 general election have on civil society?

    In advance, people felt a participatory election might not be held. I went out one day just to see how many posters in the vicinity were from the opposition. In my neighbourhood, I would say 99 per cent of the posters were of the ruling party candidate. Opposition party candidates and activists were not fully free to campaign, and the election was allegedly manipulated.

    Fears increased during the election, in which the ruling party won a landslide victory, because it confirmed the ruling party’s power. The ruling party has everything and after the election, we hardly hear the strong voice of opposition.

    What role is being played by student groups affiliated with ruling party?

    One of the main sources of attack are by the non-state actors linked to the ruling party, particularly its student and youth wing. Academic institutions such as universities are controlled by ruling party student activists. At protests, ruling party student groups work alongside law enforcement officers to attack people and harass them. This sometimes includes sexual harassment of women protesters.

    Given these challenges, what are the main support needs of Bangladeshi civil society?

    Bangladeshi civil society voices should be raised with unity and there is a need to raise concern about Bangladesh at the international level more and more. At the international level, the rights of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have received huge attention, which is necessary, but this should not be used to overshadow other human rights violations in the country.

    We also need security and protection initiatives for CSO members. Bangladeshi CSOs should be developing these but they do not have funding for this, and requests for security and protection in funding proposals do not get much attention. There is also a need to explore flexible funding for CSOs.

    There is a need for more solidarity actions with local civil society. Those few organisations that are still trying to defend human rights, and local and grassroots groups, urgently need solidarity.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.


  • BANGLADESH: ‘Protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations’

    Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Sharif Jamil, an environmental activist and the General Secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), a platform that organises civil society movements against environmental degradation. Since 2009 Sharif has been involved with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network aimed at ensuring every community’s right to clean water, and he is currently the Coordinator of Waterkeepers Bangladesh.

     sharif jamil


    What is the key environmental issue that you work on?

    The Waterkeeper Alliance is a global platform and network that now includes over 400 organisations in 40 countries across the globe. We protect the water bodies that we all need and use, but that cannot speak for themselves. We call for people to respect water bodies and defend their rights, so when a waterkeeper speaks it is as if a water body spoke.

    We focus on water, but we don’t work only on water, because if there is no rainforest there is no water, if there are no mountains there is no water: if you don’t preserve the environment and ecology as a whole, then the water is also in trouble. So our water protection movement is not limited to protecting water bodies. 

    We have launched a global campaign because water does not respect borders, so it needs to be protected globally. Climate change and global warming are threatening the entire planet, and we need the planet to come out of this crisis as a whole.

    While thinking globally, you are also acting locally. Can you tell us about the work you are doing in Bangladesh?

    I started my activism 20 years ago. BAPA was formed in 2000 at an international conference on the environment in Bangladesh. The conference was held to discuss what we could do for the environment from the civil society level. It was agreed that civil organisations were doing good work but a platform was still needed for all of them to act as a unified pressure group, to bring the conflict to the table and apply pressure to come up with a solution. When BAPA started, we prioritised the issues directly affecting the environment in Bangladesh, but as rivers do not follow political boundaries, we realised that protecting water amounts to protecting basic human rights in all nations. That is why I also got involved with human rights organisations and members of a human rights group based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and we are now tracking human rights violations related to ecological degradation.

    Specifically in Bangladesh, in recent times, we are focusing our work on the conflict between fossil fuels, the energy system and environmental degradation. In 2010 the government updated a power system master plan required for the country to grow economically. The government decided to focus on industrialisation, so it formed a special economy zone authority and declared more than 100 special economic zones across the country. These were meant to attract investment from foreign investors and to facilitate the establishment of multinational companies in the country. Industry requires energy, so to foster industrialisation the government came up with a plan to produce the power that it estimated would be required up to 2030. In order to meet the requirement, it decided to increase dramatically the share of energy produced from coal, from 2.5 per cent of total electricity to over 50 per cent. The government made this decision just as the world was shifting away from coal because of global warming.

    At this point there were civil society reactions, but initially we did not know enough. We lacked information, expertise and funding. But we worked hard to understand how much this master plan would impact on water and climate. With the collaboration of the Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2015 we organised an international conference in Dhaka, ‘Coal energy in Bangladesh: impact on water and climate’, and we came to understand that coal is more of a problem than a solution. The government’s plan identified three major hubs to establish coal-based power plants in the coastal region, and each of those hubs is threatening a unique ecological treasure.

    One of them is the Sundarbans, a mangrove area in the delta formed by the confluence of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers in the Bay of Bengal. The Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site, is the largest remaining mangrove forest in the world. It covers an area of about 10,000 square kilometres in both Bangladesh (60 per cent) and India (40 per cent) and it is the last habitat of the endangered Bengal tiger. The Sundarbans protects the entire nation from cyclone and storm surges because Bangladesh is a densely populated country and is highly vulnerable to global warming, climate change and extreme weather hitting the land from the Indian Ocean. Bangladesh is almost a flat country and is therefore affected by floods. The Sundarbans is a lot more than just a huge forest – it is also a barrier that protects all of our country’s land.

    So we started protesting against the Rampal and Orion coal power-plant projects, located only around four kilometres away from the Ecologically Critical Area of the Sundarbans. We first started protesting against the coal-based power developments that were closest to home and then found out that on the other side of the Sundarbans, there were also huge numbers of coal-based power production plants going on in and around Payra, which were also threatening the Sundarbans as well as one of the rarest sea beaches where you can see the sunrise and sunset. And more importantly, thinking about the food security of our nation, the pollution that it causes threatens our national fish, hilsa. This is a fish that migrates from sea to freshwater and from freshwater to sea. The region is one of the major landing stations for this migratory fish and would be entirely destroyed by the coal plants.

    What we are trying to do is to reach a balance and understand what we should do and how we can protect this environment while keeping development moving onwards, that is, how we can make development sustainable. But the most urgent thing to do is protecting our water and air from this kind of pollution. We have been organising people’s movements. We are trying to convince our government, doing research and presenting global data and studies to our policy-makers. We are also inviting global investors like China, Japan and the UK to review their strategies. Some of the biggest investors are phasing out coal in their own countries while funding its use in this poor, overpopulated nation. We want the global community to influence and engage global investors to keep development progressing while ensuring that it is done with renewable energy. The global community should understand that producing 5,000 megawatts in Australia is not the same as producing 5,000 megawatts in Bangladesh. We are an overpopulated deltaic country, with more than 1,084 people per square kilometre. 

    Have you participated in global climate mobilisations?

    I was the national coordinator of the climate march in Bangladesh in 2015, when the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 21) was held in Paris, France. We took people out on the street and had a very good turnout. We held a procession together with other civil society organisations in the capital, Dhaka, and more than 30,000 people participated in the march.

    More recently, in September 2019, we mobilised in the context of the global climate strike called by Greta Thunberg. Waterkeepers Bangladesh, Waterkeepers Nepal, the Nepal River Conservation Trust and BAPA jointly organised a series of events and activities in solidarity, including a mobilisation to protect the Himalayas by the banks of the Sunkoshi River in Nepal, near the source of the Brahmaputra and Ganges rivers, on 23 September, and another focused on protecting the Sundarbans, held at Katka Beach in the Bay of Bengal, near the source of the sea, on 29 September.

    I also took part in COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and joined the European Union’s 21st EU-NGO Human Rights Forum in Brussels, Belgium, both in December 2019. Discussions there revolved around building a fair environmental future.

    So yes, Bangladeshi people are the victims of climate change, which they face every day, but they are also protecting themselves with their own knowledge and capacity, and reaching out to the global community.

    A big problem is that many in the global community are ready to help people with adaptation, but no one is putting enough attention on mitigation. So we request help for Bangladesh not only regarding adaptation to climate change, but also for mitigation, to keep our forest, to protect the Sundarbans, to protect the water bodies. The truth is that if you don’t keep this place alive, the entire region will be in trouble.

    The situation is urgent because water is depleting and there are no shared protocols. So we have started efforts within civil society, with people-to-people communication. We are working on the five countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India and Nepal – to manage the entire Brahmaputra, Ganges and Meghna basins together on the basis of equity and trust. These countries should come up with a treaty or some form of consensus to deal with the problem of melting Himalayan glaciers. Bangladesh is a water-scarce country as we get only 20 per cent of total water over half of the year from upstream during the lean period. When a neighbouring country blocks all the water, water bodies die, agriculture collapses and the economy is destroyed.

    Do you think international climate forums provide a useful space for civil society?

    I have participated in many global talks; in September 2018 I was even invited as a speaker to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, USA. The problem with these forums is that sometimes good things are said, but actions do not match words. The government of California was one of the organisers of the summit in San Francisco, but California’s policies are all about protecting themselves while exporting fossil fuels to other countries. It’s irrational to think that you can save yourself alone. What you have to do to protect the planet from climate change is to keep fossil fuel underground. You cannot exploit mines in poor nations and then organise a nice summit to come up with recommendations to solve the problem you have created and that you do not have any intention to implement.

    Still, we are invited to these forums and we attend. The former BAPA general secretary was a member of the Bangladeshi government team for the climate negotiations at three successive sessions of the COP. We try to help our government in the negotiations, for instance by providing data and analysis. True, our government still needs to change its mindset and understand that economic growth needs to be sustainable. Our government needs to conduct itself diplomatically while being firm in searching for funding for sustainable development. 

    But we support our government in international negotiations because Bangladesh is a poor nation and there are many things that our government is not in a position to do or decide by itself; we depend on developed nations in many respects. We understand that responsibility falls on our government when it comes to changing its mindset and becoming more inclusive in its decision-making processes, but it is the responsibility of the global community to come up with a holistic approach to deal with a global problem.

    Civic space in Bangladesh is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Waterkeepers Bangladesh through itswebsite and itsFacebook page, or follow@WaterkeepersBD on Twitter.



  • Bangladesh: Stifling expression using Digital Security Act must not be the norm to address COVID-19 pandemic


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    A Joint Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission and CIVICUS

    The Bangladesh government has resorted once again to its notorious Digital Security Act-2018 to muzzle freedom of expression, arresting 11 individuals following criticism of the governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Four people have been detained since 5 May 2020 under the draconian digital law, including cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, IT specialist Md. Didarul Islam Bhuyan, and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaz Mannan Emon. A further seven people have been charged. 

    All four detainees were forcibly disappeared for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka on 5 May 2020. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police on 6 May at around 7:45 PM, and a case under the Digital Security Act was filed against them by Abu Bakar Siddique, the Deputy Assistant Director of RAB. They remain in detention.

    The seven other individuals accused in the same case are Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, which the government has blocked in Bangladesh since it was launched last year from Sweden; Saer Zulkarnain; Shahed Alam; Ashik Imran; Shapan Wahed; Philip Schuhmacher; and Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger of Bangladeshi origin living in Germany.

    All 11 have been charged under various provisions of the Digital Security Act including ‘propaganda or campaign against liberation war’ and ‘publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information’. Authorities have confirmed that the charges relate to allegedly ‘spreading rumours’ over the coronavirus pandemic on social media. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail. 

    The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, included harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. And, it has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Despite repeated calls to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s international commitments to protect freedom of expression, the government has refused to revise the law.

    In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on access to information both off and online. Silencing journalists and activists and blocking websites, is not an effective public health strategy. We urge the authorities to end its use of restrictive laws to silence critics and amid the pandemic ensure the right to seek, receive, and share information relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak.

    We further call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately release the detained critics and drop the charges brought against them and seven other individuals under repressive legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse to use state forces to stifle freedom of expression.



    The pandemic has exposed failings by the government in addressing a public health emergency. Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 were denied access to public and private hospitals and died without treatment. The country’s healthcare system failed to provide adequate protective equipment and necessary infrastructures in hospitals to treat the pandemic. Within weeks, hundreds of doctors and nurses were infected with COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association. 

    Persistent suppression of freedom of expression and censorship under the government of Sheikh Hasina has continued amid the pandemic. The authorities have blocked international news outlet Al-Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. A monitoring body established by the Ministry of Information to monitor if private television channels were “running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus outbreak” was scrapped after public outcry.

    Due to the muzzling of the press by the authorities, social media has become the preferred platform for those critical of the regime. In response, the police and the RAB have started picking up people for their Facebook posts. On 10th of April 2020, it was reported that at least 50 people were arrested in the country for allegedly spreading rumors. The government has also blocked dozens of websites and Facebook profiles as of late March after the government officially acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak. Healthcare workers, who spoke out about the problems they have been facing, have been barred from talking to media

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates the space for civil society in Bangladesh as repressed.



  • Belarusian authorities must end suppression of citizens, says CIVICUS

    Johannesburg. 19 May 2011. The recent detention of 14 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) activists in Minsk is just one more incident in an on-going crackdown on civil society in Belarus, said CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation today. The arrests came as local LGBT groups were gathering in Minsk to commemorate the International Day of Anti-Homophobia on 17 May.

    According to one organiser, Sergei Androsenko, head of the organisation Gay Belarus, the protestors were planning to gather peacefully with the goal of spreading tolerance and understanding, but were detained pre-emptively by police before they could assemble. The fourteen detainees, including Androsenko, were taken to a local police precinct, where they were finger-printed, harassed with slurs and had some of their personal effects confiscated, including a thousand flyers advertising the campaign to ‘legalise love’, before being released.


  • BRICS bloc’s lofty aims lack legitimacy without civil society

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Cathal Gilbert

    As Xiamen prepares to host 2017 summit, the group's vision of a "just, equitable and democratic multi-polar international order" is not served well by its member states' disregard for citizens' voices.

    Read on: Asia Times 



  • CHINA: ‘Its international role both originates in and enables domestic political control’

    CIVICUS speaks about China’s growing international role withSharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), Adjunct Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and Professor of Law Emerita at the City University of New York School of Law. Founded in 1989by overseas Chinese students and scientists, HRIC isa Chinese civil society group that promotes international human rights and advances the institutional protection of these rights in the People’s Republic of China. Through case and policy advocacy, media and press work, and capacity building, HRIC supports civil society as the driving force for sustainable change in China. HRIC has offices in New York and Hong Kong, and is active on local, regional, and global platforms.

    Have there been any recent changes in the ways China engages in the United Nations (UN) system?

    China has been increasingly active and sophisticated in its engagement with the UN human rights system. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council – where it formally replaced Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC) in 1971 – China has invoked its ‘One China Policy’ to block the recognition and admission of the ROC by other international bodies. At the same time, the shift of key players within the UN human rights system, and particularly the withdrawal of the USA from the Human Rights Council (HRC), has weakened principled leadership by Western democratic governments. This is especially concerning in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive, multi-pronged and sophisticated challenges to international standards and norms. A key element of China’s strategy has been essentially to counteroffer a model of governance that it refers to as human rights, democracy and rule by law ‘with Chinese characteristics.’

    In addition to the HRC, China is active on human rights-related issues before various UN General Assembly committees, including the Third Committee, on social, humanitarian and cultural issues, and the Fifth Committee, on administrative and budgetary issues. Some key issues it engages in include counterterrorism, information security, treaty body strengthening processes and other human rights mechanisms and procedures, and civil society participation.

    China Interview SharonHom

    As part of the party-state’s overarching strategy to expand and strengthen China’s influence internationally, China has been promoting the appointment and influence of Chinese nationals to key UN bodies and UN specialised agencies. For example, Mr Zhao Houlin was the first Chinese national to serve as Secretary-General of the 150-year-old International Telecommunication Union (ITU), from 2014 to 2018 and 2019 to 2020. As a key agency for information and communications technologies promotion, collaboration and standardisation, the ITU was a leading UN agency involved in the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). Endorsed by UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 of 21 December 2001, the WSIS was convened in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003 and the second in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005. China was active in pushing back against the inclusion of human rights-focused language in the outcome documents of phase one – the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Geneva Plan of Action – and opposed the accreditation of what it perceived to be hostile civil society groups, including HRIC.

    In addition, Mr Liu Zhenmin, appointed in 2017 as UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, advises the UN Secretary-General on social, economic and environmental issues and guides the UN secretariat’s support for follow-up processes under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Chinese nationals have also served on the International Court of Justice, including Ms Xue Hanqin, who has served as a jurist since 2010 and was named Vice President of the Court in 2018.

    The appointments of nationals of a UN member state to key positions in UN bodies and agencies is not, of course, inherently problematic. Issues from a human rights perspective only emerge when any member state challenges existing standards regarding the rule of law as ‘inappropriate’ or advances a model of development that rejects a rights-based framework, as China now does.

    What are the Government of China’s motivations in its international engagements? What agendas is it particularly pursuing?

    The Chinese party-state’s motivations in its international engagements are primarily aimed at advancing the ambitious vision of President XI Jinping to see China take a leading role on the global stage, as laid out in part in his vision for the realisation of a ‘China Dream.’ Internationally, the party-state wants to ensure the narrative of China is ‘properly’ told, without questioning of or pushback against some of the more problematic elements of its model of governance.

    Specific objectives include limiting civil society engagement with and input into UN human rights mechanisms to government-approved civil society groups; redefining the foundational principle of the UN human rights system from one of the universality of human rights to that of the ‘conditionality’ of human rights; and shifting human rights protection from state accountability to a cooperative enterprise among member states. If achieved, these objectives will undermine the integrity and efficacy of the existing human rights system and enable states to become the arbiters of what human rights to confer on their people, the ‘operators’ of their respective human rights systems, and the overseers of accountability.

    Is one of the benefits of China's increasing international role that there is less oversight of its domestic human rights record?

    The international role of the Chinese party-state both originates in and enables its agenda for domestic political control. China’s increasing efforts to undermine and redefine fundamental human rights and specific human rights mechanisms on the international stage limits the protections and redress available to Chinese people for violations of international rights guarantees. Its agenda for international influence also serves to legitimise as well as decrease scrutiny of its domestic policies and practices. In addition, the tendency for international actors to either appease or otherwise act in complicity with the Chinese state has also led to serious consequences both for Chinese people as well as others around the world.

    One of the most vivid examples of China’s attempts to redefine human rights accountability and the lack of pushback by governments is the passage of the China-led resolution A/HRC/37/L.36 in March 2016 at the HRC. The resolution, ‘Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights’, which included language of the so-called ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, passed with 28 votes in favour and 17 abstentions; the only vote against came from the USA.

    What kind of alliances or partnerships is China making with other states to work internationally?

    One of China’s most ambitious and formidable global development strategies in recent years is the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, an international infrastructure and investment programme that has already involved almost 70 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe. Proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013, the Initiative is aimed at connecting major African and Eurasian nations through infrastructure development and investment, including a ‘digital silk road’ of Chinese-built fibre-optic networks. The Initiative has raised serious political and economic concerns among an increasing number of states, including Japan and the USA, about the Chinese political and strategic ambitions embedded in these economic partnerships. More recently, even some member states, the putative beneficiaries, are starting to push back against the ‘win-win’ arrangements that are now clearly ending up with them as client or debtor states.

    In addition, as one of the leading states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a regional multilateral organisation with the primary goal of coordinating counterterrorism efforts and economic and military cooperation – China has been deployed in troubling joint military exercises, including simulated rescues of hostages being held by Muslim or Chechnian separatists. In accordance with SCO member and observer obligations, member states have returned Muslims to China to face uncertain fates, an action very much in conflict with the international non-refoulement obligations of all states. The SCO consists of eight member states and four observer states. However, though all the members of the multilateral regional organisation have incredibly troubling domestic human rights records, the SCO has been warmly welcomed by the UN as an observer at the UN General Assembly since 2005.

    What are the impacts of China’s involvement on international institutions and on the space for civil society in those institutions?

    China’s increasing involvement and influence in international institutions such as the UN poses a steep and growing challenge to the meaningful participation of civil society organisations (CSOs). As a member of the UN NGO Committee, China and ‘like-minded’ states act in concert to block UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) accreditation to CSOs they deem critical or disparaging of China. When CSOs legitimately seek to participate as part of partner or league organisations, China has sought to challenge their participation. For example, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) often participates as a member of the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation. However, China has attempted to block interventions by the WUC in the HRC sessions and even to ban them from the buildings and grounds. China once even branded the WUC President Mr Dolkun Isa as a terrorist in an effort to block his participation in side events at the HRC in Geneva, and at General Assembly side events in New York. Ironically, these unfounded smear efforts served only to increase interest in various events.

    How is civil society working on issues around China’s international-level engagement, and what support does civil society need to be able to work effectively on this issue?

    Despite the many and significant challenges inherent in this work, CSOs around the world are increasingly working together to address China’s efforts to distort and subvert human rights norms on the international stage, and to address serious rights abuses. This includes collaborations between local, regional and international civil society groups to issue joint letters, briefings and submissions for UN human rights mechanisms and procedures, interventions at HRC sessions and side events and other targeted activities.

    The key support that civil society needs, especially smaller CSOs, is two-pronged: financial support to continue to carry out their missions and conduct the necessary research and projects related to understanding and responding to China’s actions on the international stage; and for governments of other states to act more aggressively and effectively to counter China when it acts inappropriately, and in particular to ensure a safe and enabling environment for domestic CSOs.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Human Rights in China through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@hrichina on Twitter.


  • China: Open letter from global civil society calls for release of student activists and workers

    On 9 and 11 November, only days after China underwent a UN review on its human rights situation, Chinese authorities carried out a massive crackdown, forcibly disappearing student activists in five cities across the country. The missing activists are supporters of workers at Jasic Technologies, in Shenzhen, who have been fighting for their rights. This is the most severe case of repression against workers and students in China in recent years.


  • Civil Society Organisations condemn the continued investigation of ex-RFA journalists Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin

    Phnom Penh, 07 October 2019 -We, the undersigned civil society organisations strongly condemn the decision by the Municipal Court judge to continue the investigation into unsubstantiated espionage charges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin. The pair were arbitrarily arrested, detained and charged for the peaceful exercise of their freedom of expression and for their work as investigative journalists on issues of social justice. Yesterday’s hearing showed that there is a complete lack of evidence in support of these baseless charges exposing fair trial rights violations and highlighting the trial as a blatant affront to freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia. We urge the authorities to immediately drop all charges against the pair.

    exRFA journalists

    Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin, former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, were arrested on 14 November 2017 and detained in Prey Sar prison. They were provisionally charged four days later with ‘supplying a foreign state with information prejudicial to national defence’, under Article 445 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code. The pair – who worked for RFA’s, now closed, Cambodia bureau – were denied their first bail application on appeal before the Supreme Court on 16 March 2018 and soon afterwards were charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with the alleged production of pornography under Article 39 of the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. As a result of the accumulated charges, each face 16 years in prison. On 21 August 2018 they were both released from Prey Sar prison on bail, after more than nine months in pre-trial detention, however remain under judicial supervision.

    The original verdict hearing was scheduled for 30 August 2019 but on the morning of the hearing it was delayed due to an unannounced absence of the judge. It was subsequently scheduled for 03 October 2019, however the Phnom Penh Municipal Court again failed to deliver a verdict on the grounds that further investigation was required. The failure to reach a verdict is indicative of a lack of credible evidence against the pair and as such illustrates that there is insufficient evidence to hold them criminally liable as per the burden of proof standards enshrined in Article 38 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Constitution). Throughout the process of their arrest, detention, and ongoing trial, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin have been denied the rights to fair trial, liberty and security protected under domestic and international human rights law.

    Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), incorporated into domestic law by the Constitution, states that ‘no one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedures as are established by law.’ Article 14 thereafter preserves the rights to ‘be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law’ and to presumption of innocence. The charges levelled against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin are unsubstantiated and lack a clear legal basis. Instead, they have been employed as a means to punish the legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of expression and silence journalism critical of the government. The pair had previously reported on a wide range of human rights issues.

    In addition to baseless charges, the holding of these two men in pre-trial detention in deplorable conditions for more than nine months, and their continued placement under judicial supervision of already 12 months, violates their right to liberty and to a fair trial guaranteed under international law and the Constitution. International law stipulates that people charged with criminal offenses should not, as a general rule, be held in custody pending trial - a requirement not adhered to in Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin’s case.

    In May 2019, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on the case, finding that the Cambodian government had failed to (1) establish a legal basis for arrest and detention, and (2) provide proof that it had considered alternatives to pre-trial detention. Concluding that the pre-trial detention of the journalists resulted from their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of association and the freedom of expression, the Working Group found their deprivation of liberty to be arbitrary.

    The prosecution of Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin is but one piece of the broader legal assault on journalists, human rights defenders, members of the political opposition, union leaders, activists, civil society representatives and individuals expressing their views on matters of public interest, including expressions of critical dissent. While the situation of press freedom was already constricted prior to 2017, since then Cambodia has seen almost all of its independent and local media silenced. Critical Khmer-language media outlets have had their activities severely restricted, including via the closure of 32 radio stations relaying RFA, Voice of America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD). RFA closed its Cambodia bureau in September 2017, citing the repressive environment and ongoing harassment of their journalists. The change of ownership of the Phnom Penh Post in May 2018, Cambodia’s last remaining independent English-Khmer language daily, was widely regarded as the last blow to press freedom in Cambodia. The space for freedom of expression online is also severely curtailed, illustrated through the increase in harassment of individuals who merely peacefully dissent or express their opinions through shares, posts or likes on Facebook.

    The right to freedom of expression, protected by Article 19 of the ICCPR and Article 41 of the Constitution, is essential for the guarantee of the exercise of all human rights, including the rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of information, and the right to develop one’s personality and private life. As such, the importance of creating an enabling environment in which journalists are free to conduct their work – including by exposing corruption, expressing diverse viewpoints and shedding light on human rights violations – cannot be understated.

    The failure to vacate the charges against Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin strikes yet another blow against what little remains of freedom of expression and media freedom in Cambodia. This case sends a clear warning to individuals who dare to exercise their fundamental right to freedom of expression and fosters an environment of intimidation and censorship. The legitimate and invaluable work of these individuals should be recognized, in line with Cambodia’s human rights obligations, and they should be able to carry out their activities in the future without fear of reprisal, obstruction or threat of prosecution. We encourage the Royal Government of Cambodia to cease its intimidation and harassment of all individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression and to re-establish an enabling environment for a free and pluralistic media and a thriving civil society in line with its obligations under the Constitution and international human rights law.

    This joint statement is endorsed by:

    1. Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
    2. Amnesty International
    3. Article 19
    4. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR)
    5. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    6. Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
    7. CamAsean Youth’s Future (CamASEAN)
    8. Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)
    9. Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM)
    10. Cambodian Food And Service Workers Federation (CFSWF)
    11. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
    12. Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA)
    13. Cambodian Volunteers for Society (CVS)
    14. Cambodian Youth Network (CYN)
    15. Coalition for Integrity & Social Accountability (CISA)
    16. Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL)
    17. Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
    18. Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL)
    19. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    20. Human Rights Watch (HRW)
    21. Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)
    22. Independent Trade Union Federation (INTUFE)
    23. Indradevi Association (IDA)
    24. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ)
    25. International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX)
    26. Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association (KKKHRDA)
    27. Klahaan
    28. Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of Naga World (L.R.S.U)
    29. Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)
    30. People Center for Development and Peace (PDP-Center)
    31. Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
    32. Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
    33. Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT)
    34. Urban Poor Women Development (UPWD)
    35. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
    36. Youth Education for Development and Peace (YEDP)
    37. Youth Resource Development Program (YRDP)


  • COREA DEL SUR: “Los activistas y desertores norcoreanos enfrentan presiones cada vez mayores para silenciarlos”

    Ethan Hee Seok ShinCIVICUS conversa con Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, analista legal del Grupo de Trabajo de Justicia Transicional (TJWG), una organización de la sociedad civil (OSC) con sede en Seúl fundada por defensores de derechos humanos e investigadores de cinco países. Establecida en 2014, es la primera OSC con sede en Corea que centra su trabajo en los mecanismos de justicia transicional en los regímenes más represivos del mundo, entre ellos el de Corea del Norte. TJWG persigue el objetivo de desarrollar métodos prácticos para abordar las violaciones masivas de derechos humanos y promover la justicia para las víctimas antes y después de la transición. Ethan trabaja en el Proyecto Repositorio Central de TJWG, que utiliza una plataforma segura para documentar y publicitar casos de desapariciones forzadas en Corea del Norte. Utiliza acciones legislativas y legales para crear conciencia acerca de la situación de derechos humanos en Corea del Norte.

    ¿Podría contarnos acerca del trabajo que hacen los grupos de la sociedad civil de Corea del Sur en relación con los derechos humanos en Corea del Norte?

    Existe un abanico bastante amplio de OSC que trabajan en temas de derechos humanos en Corea del Norte. TJWG ha estado trabajando para preparar el terreno para la justicia transicional en Corea del Norte, en cumplimiento de su misión central, la documentación de derechos humanos.

    El proyecto insignia de TJWG ha resultado en la publicación de una serie de informes que mapean las ejecuciones públicas en Corea del Norte, basados en entrevistas con personas que se han escapado y que ahora viven en Corea del Sur. Registramos la información geoespacial de los sitios de matanza, los lugares de enterramiento y los lugares de almacenamiento de registros, tales como tribunales e instalaciones de los servicios de seguridad, solicitando a nuestros entrevistados que identifiquen las ubicaciones en Google Earth. La primera edición del informe se publicó en julio de 2017 y se basó en 375 entrevistas, y la segunda edición se lanzó en junio de 2019, tras la realización de 610 entrevistas.

    Actualmente también estamos en el proceso de armar una base de datos en línea, FOOTPRINTS, que registra los secuestros y desapariciones forzadas cometidas en y por Corea del Norte. La plataforma utiliza Uwazi, una tecnología gratuita y de código abierto que permite organizar, analizar y publicar documentos, desarrollada por la OSC HURIDOCS. Cuando se haga pública, FOOTPRINTS ofrecerá una plataforma de fácil acceso y búsqueda para rastrear a las personas capturadas y perdidas en Corea del Norte.

    Aparte del trabajo de documentación y presentación de informes, hemos participado activamente en iniciativas de incidencia nacional e internacional. Junto con otras OSC de derechos humanos, el TJWG redactó y presentó una carta abierta instando a la Unión Europea a fortalecer el lenguaje y las recomendaciones en las resoluciones anuales de derechos humanos adoptadas por la Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas (ONU) y el Consejo de Derechos Humanos de la ONU sobre Corea del Norte. También hemos presentado casos al Grupo de Trabajo de la ONU sobre Detenciones Arbitrarias, el Grupo de Trabajo de la ONU sobre Desapariciones Forzadas o Involuntarias y a otros expertos en derechos humanos de la ONU.

    En julio de 2020, el gobierno de Corea del Sur revocó el registro de dos OSC y emitió un aviso de revisión administrativa e inspección a grupos “dirigidos por desertores” enfocados en los derechos humanos en Corea del Norte. ¿Por qué está apuntando contra estos grupos?

    El catalizador directo fueron las provocaciones de Corea del Norte de junio de 2020. El 4 de junio, Kim Yo-Jong, hermana del líder supremo Kim Jong-Un y primera subdirectora de departamento del Comité Central del Partido de los Trabajadores de Corea, criticó los “folletos anti-RPDC” [República Popular Democrática de Corea] distribuidos en Corea del Norte por “fugitivos de Corea del Norte” y amenazó con el cese del turismo en el Monte Kumgang, la demolición completa de la región industrial de Kaesong, el cierre de la oficina de enlace intercoreana y la terminación del acuerdo militar de 2018 que creó zonas de amortiguamiento desmilitarizadas, a menos que las autoridades surcoreanas tomaran las “debidas medidas”.

    Apenas cuatro horas después del bombazo matutino de Kim Yo-Jong, el Ministerio de Unificación de Corea del Sur (MOU) anunció que prepararía un proyecto de ley para prohibir la distribución de folletos a Corea del Norte. Se trató de un cambio radical en la postura de larga data del gobierno, que constantemente había eludido esa legislación por temor a violar la libertad de expresión.

    El 10 de junio de 2020, el MOU anunció que presentaría acusaciones penales contra Park Sang-Hak y Park Jung-Oh, dos desertores de Corea del Norte, por violar el artículo 13 de la Ley de Intercambio y Cooperación Intercoreana, que requiere de aprobación previa para todo intercambio intercoreano de bienes, y que revocaría el reconocimiento legal de sus organizaciones, Luchadores por una Corea del Norte Libre (Fighters For Free North Korea, FFNK) y KuenSaem, por enviar folletos a Corea del Norte mediante el uso de globos aerostáticos y botellas de PET llenas de arroz arrojadas a las corrientes marinas, como ocurrió el 31 de mayo de 2020.

    Si bien el gobierno de Corea del Norte finalmente bajó el tono de su retórica, el gobierno de Corea del Sur comenzó a tomar medidas contra las organizaciones de derechos humanos y los grupos de desertores de Corea del Norte, vistos como un obstáculo para la paz intercoreana.

    El 29 de junio de 2020, el MOU celebró una audiencia y el 17 de julio se apoyó en el artículo 38 del Código Civil, una reliquia de la época autoritaria, para anunciar la revocación del reconocimiento legal de FFNK y KuenSaem por contravenir las condiciones de la obtención de la personería al obstaculizar gravemente la política de reunificación del gobierno, distribuyendo folletos y artículos a Corea del Norte más allá de los objetivos declarados en su estatuto y por fomentar la tensión en la península de Corea.

    El MOU también lanzó “inspecciones comerciales” de otros grupos norcoreanos de derechos humanos y de apoyo y relocalización de desertores, entre las más de 400 asociaciones reconocidas con autorización del MOU, posiblemente con miras a revocar su reconocimiento legal. El 15 de julio de 2020, la Asociación de Desertores de Corea del Norte recibió un aviso del MOU de que sería inspeccionada por primera vez desde su reconocimiento en 2010. Al día siguiente, las autoridades del MOU informaron a los periodistas que primero realizarían inspecciones comerciales de 25 grupos norcoreanos de derechos humanos y de apoyo y asentamiento de desertores, 13 de ellos encabezados por desertores norcoreanos, y que otros serían inspeccionados en el futuro. Si bien reconoció que el tema de los folletos fue lo que desencadenó las inspecciones, el MOU agregó que las inspecciones comerciales no se limitarían a las personas involucradas en la campaña de distribución de folletos.

    ¿Cuántos grupos fueron examinados o inspeccionados después de los anuncios?

    Debido al alboroto nacional e internacional suscitado por la naturaleza obviamente discriminatoria de las inspecciones de grupos de derechos humanos y personas escapadas de Corea del Norte, el MOU ha moderado un poco su enfoque y tardíamente ha comenzado a argumentar que está examinando a todas las OSC registradas bajo el MOU.

    El 6 de octubre de 2020, el MOU dijo a los periodistas que había decidido inspeccionar a 109 OSC, sobre un total de 433, por no haber presentado sus informes anuales o por haber presentado documentación incompleta. Según la información proporcionada, 13 de los 109 grupos a inspeccionar están encabezados por personas que huyeron de Corea del Norte; 22 (16 de los cuales trabajan sobre derechos humanos en Corea del Norte y relocalización de desertores, cinco que trabajan en el terreno social y cultural y uno que trabaja en el campo de la política de unificación) ya han sido inspeccionados y ninguno ha revelado motivos serios para que se le retire el reconocimiento; y el MOU tiene la intención de completar la inspección de las 87 OSC restantes para fines de 2020.

    En cualquier caso, el gobierno parece haber logrado ya su objetivo de enviar a Corea del Norte la clara señal de que está listo para dar cabida a sus demandas a cambio de vínculos más estrechos, incluso si eso implica sacrificar algunos principios fundamentales de la democracia liberal. El gobierno también ha enviado una clara señal a los grupos norcoreanos de derechos humanos y de desertores, y ha tenido el efecto paralizante que cabía esperar.

    ¿Cómo ha respondido la sociedad civil a estas iniciativas del gobierno?

    Lamentablemente, la sociedad civil de Corea del Sur está tan polarizada como su política. Los progresistas actualmente en el gobierno ven a los conservadores como herederos ilegítimos de los colaboradores del régimen colonial japonés entre 1910 y 1945 y del régimen autoritario posterior a la independencia, vigente hasta 1987. El anterior presidente progresista, Roh Moo-Hyun, en el poder entre 2003 y 2008, se suicidó en 2009 durante una investigación de corrupción en su contra, que en general fue considerada políticamente motivada, emprendida por su sucesor conservador. El actual presidente, Moon Jae-In, fue elegido en 2017, en medio de una ola de indignación pública ante el juicio político de su predecesor de derecha por corrupción y abuso de poder.

    La mayoría de las OSC están dominadas por progresistas que están políticamente alineados con el actual gobierno de Moon. Los progresistas apoyan relativamente la agenda de derechos humanos, pero generalmente guardan silencio cuando se trata de los derechos humanos en Corea del Norte, dado su apego al acercamiento intercoreano. Las mismas personas que se expresan ruidosamente en relación con las “mujeres de solaz” japonesas, sometidas a la esclavitud sexual por el Japón imperial antes y durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, o acerca de los atropellos de la era autoritaria, pasan por alto las actuales atrocidades norcoreanas en nombre de la reconciliación nacional.

    La mayoría de los grupos norcoreanos de derechos humanos se estructuran en torno de desertores norcoreanos y de iglesias cristianas políticamente de derecha que caracterizan apasionadamente a los izquierdistas como títeres norcoreanos. Muchos también adoptan una postura hostil en relación con otros temas contemporáneos de derechos humanos, tales como los derechos de las personas LGBTQI+, lo cual es bastante irónico, ya que el juez australiano Michael Kirby, autor principal del informe de la ONU que en 2014 condenó con firmeza las graves violaciones de derechos humanos en Corea del Norte como crímenes de lesa humanidad, es gay.

    Las OSC establecidas, mayormente progresistas, no han sido objeto de persecución por parte del gobierno encabezado por el presidente Moon; por el contrario, figuras destacadas de la sociedad civil han sido nombradas o elegidas para ocupar varios cargos, o han recibido generosas subvenciones. Hay quienes expresan en privado su consternación y preocupación por las tendencias iliberales del gobierno, pero pocas personas están dispuestas a plantear públicamente el tema a causa de la profunda polarización política.


    ¿Se está volviendo más restrictivo el espacio para la sociedad civil - estructurado por las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión - bajo el actual gobierno surcoreano?

    El gobierno de Moon ha mostrado tendencias preocupantemente iliberales en relación con los grupos que considera que se interponen en su camino, tales como los grupos norcoreanos de derechos humanos y de desertores, que enfrentan presiones cada vez mayores para permanecer en silencio y cesar su labor de incidencia.

    El presidente Moon ha reabierto el diálogo con el gobierno de Corea del Norte para establecer relaciones pacíficas, neutralizar la amenaza nuclear del Norte y allanar el camino para la reunificación familiar, entre otros objetivos loables.

    Sin embargo, junto con el presidente de Estados Unidos, Donald Trump, el presidente Moon ha empleado una estrategia diplomática que minimiza la preocupación por los derechos humanos. En particular, ni la Declaración de Panmunjom de 2018 entre Corea del Norte y Corea del Sur ni la Declaración Conjunta emitida después de la cumbre Trump-Kim de 2018 en Singapur mencionan las violaciones atroces de derechos humanos cometidas por Corea del Norte.

    En las semanas previas a la reunión del presidente Moon con el líder norcoreano Kim en Panmunjom, se informó que se estaba impidiendo a los activistas desertores norcoreanos llevar a cabo su activismo. En octubre de 2018, Corea del Sur accedió a la demanda de Corea del Norte de excluir a un periodista desertor de la cobertura de una reunión en Corea del Norte. El 7 de julio de 2019 se hizo una entrega extraordinaria a Corea del Norte de dos desertores, dos pescadores presentados como asesinos fugitivos, cinco días después de su llegada y sin siquiera mantener las apariencias del debido proceso.

    El gobierno de Moon también ha recurrido a tácticas iliberales contra otros supuestos opositores. Un hombre que el 24 de noviembre de 2019 había colgado un cartel en el que se burlaba del presidente Moon como “perrito faldero de Xi Jinping” (en referencia al presidente chino) en el campus de la Universidad de Dankook, fue procesado y el 23 de junio de 2020 fue multado por el tribunal por “intrusión en un edificio”, de conformidad con el artículo 319 (1) del Código Penal, pese a que las autoridades universitarias habían dejado claro que no deseaban presentar cargos en su contra por este ejercicio de su libertad de expresión. Muchos criticaron el proceso penal y la condena como un retroceso a los viejos tiempos militares.

    El gobierno también ha tomado medidas para ejercer un control cada vez mayor sobre los fiscales. El ministro de Justicia, Choo Mi-ae, ha atacado a los fiscales que se atrevieron a investigar las acusaciones contra el gobierno por corrupción y abuso de poder, alegando la existencia de una conspiración para socavar al presidente Moon.

    Otra tendencia preocupante es la táctica populista de los políticos del partido gobernante, y en particular del legislador Lee Jae-jung, de utilizar internet para incitar a sus seguidores a participar de acciones de acoso cibernético contra periodistas.

    ¿Qué puede hacer la comunidad internacional para apoyar a los grupos atacados?

    En abril de 2020, el partido gobernante ganó las elecciones parlamentarias por abrumadora mayoría, obteniendo 180 de los 300 escaños, gracias a su relativo éxito en contener la pandemia de COVID-19. La oposición está desorganizada. En vez de llamarlo a la humildad, todo esto ha envalentonado al gobierno, de modo que es probable que sus tendencias iliberales continúen. Debido a la severa polarización política, es poco probable que los políticos del partido gobernante y sus partidarios presten mucha atención a las críticas internas.

    Es por eso que la voz de la comunidad internacional será fundamental. Para el gobierno es mucho más difícil ignorar las preocupaciones planteadas por las OSC internacionales en tanto que ataques motivados políticamente. Una declaración conjunta o una carta abierta encabezada por CIVICUS sería útil para transmitir con fuerza el mensaje de que los derechos humanos en Corea del Norte realmente preocupan a la comunidad internacional.

    Además, Corea del Sur pronto presentará su quinto informe periódico al Comité de Derechos Humanos de la ONU de acuerdo con la lista de cuestiones previa a la presentación de informes (LOIPR). Dado que las cuestiones y preocupaciones relativas a Corea del Norte no están incluidas en la LOIPR, sería de gran ayuda que las OSC internacionales unieran sus fuerzas para incluirlas en la discusión oral con los miembros del Comité de Derechos Humanos y en sus observaciones finales.

    A corto plazo, las visitas a Corea del Sur por parte de la Relatora Especial de la ONU sobre la promoción y protección del derecho a la libertad de opinión y de expresión, el Relator Especial sobre el derecho a la libertad de reunión pacífica y de asociación, y la Relatora Especial sobre la situación de los defensores de derechos humanos serían excelentes oportunidades para internacionalizar el tema y presionar a nuestro gobierno.

    Incluso los progresistas podrían apoyar una reforma de la ley obsoleta sobre el registro de OSC, por ejemplo, por interés propio, si es que no por principios, en caso de cambio de gobierno.

    El espacio cívico enCorea del Sur es calificado como “estrecho” por el CIVICUS Monitor.
    Contáctese con el Grupo de Trabajo de Justicia Transicional a través de susitio web o su página deFacebook, y siga a@TJWGSeoul en Twitter. 


  • HONG KONG: ‘La Ley de Seguridad Nacional viola la libertad de expresión y está intensificando la autocensura’

    CIVICUS conversa con Patrick Poon, investigador independiente en derechos humanos, sobre la situación de derechos humanos en Hong Kong tras la aprobación de una nueva Ley de Seguridad Nacional (LSN) en junio de 2020. Patrick es investigador de doctorado en la Universidad de Lyon, en Francia, y anteriormente trabajó como investigador sobre China en Amnistía Internacional y ocupó varias posiciones en el China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, el Independent Chinese PEN Center y el China Labor Bulletin.

    El espacio cívico en Hong Kong ha sufrido crecientes embates desde que en junio de 2019 comenzara una ola deprotestas masivas por las libertades democráticas, disparadas por la presentación de un proyecto de Ley de Extradición. ElCIVICUS Monitor ha documentado el uso de fuerza excesiva y letal contra manifestantes por parte de las fuerzas de seguridad y el arresto y el procesamiento de activistas prodemocracia, así como ataques contra los medios independientes.

    Patrick Poon

    ¿Por qué se impuso en Hong Kong la LSN y cuáles han sido sus impactos hasta ahora?

    La LSN, impuesta por el gobierno chino el 20 de junio de 2020, sin ninguna consulta o supervisión legislativa, faculta a China para extender del continente a Hong Kong algunas de sus herramientas más potentes de control social. La ley incluye la creación de agencias de seguridad secretas especializadas, permite denegar el derecho a un juicio justo, otorga amplios poderes a la policía, aumenta las restricciones sobre la sociedad civil y los medios de comunicación y debilita el control judicial.

    La nueva ley socava el estado de derecho y las garantías de derechos humanos consagradas en la constitución de facto de Hong Kong, la Ley Fundamental. Contraviene el Pacto Internacional de Derechos Civiles y Políticos, que forma parte del marco jurídico de Hong Kong a través de la Ley Fundamental y se traduce en la Ordenanza para la Declaración de Derechos Humanos.

    La intención del gobierno chino es utilizar la LSN para frenar el trabajo de incidencia y reducir el apoyo a la independencia porque más gente, y particularmente jóvenes, están apoyando la autonomía de Hong Kong y adoptando la identidad hongkonesa. Aunque la Ley Fundamental de Hong Kong consagra un alto grado de autonomía, el gobierno chino parece considerar los llamamientos a la autonomía y el autogobierno como un “peligro para la seguridad nacional”.

    La LSN ha violado gravemente la libertad de expresión del pueblo de Hong Kong y está intensificando la autocensura en la ciudad. Bajo la LSN, quienes abogan por la independencia, así como los políticos y otras figuras prominentes que apoyan las sanciones de gobiernos extranjeros contra Hong Kong y contra los funcionarios chinos responsables de la promulgación de la LSN, han sido blanco de detenciones arbitrarias. El gobierno obviamente está intentando disuadir a otros de seguir el ejemplo de estas personas.

    Los medios independientes también se han visto afectados por la represión. El arresto de Jimmy Lai, magnate de los medios de comunicación y fundador del popular periódico local Apple Daily, así como de otros altos ejecutivos de la empresa, representó un intento del gobierno de castigar a los medios de comunicación que lo critican. La publicación de notas que critican la LSN o reportan pedidos de sanciones presentados por funcionarios de gobiernos extranjeros se convierten en excusa para la represión de los medios independientes. Esto tendrá un impacto a largo plazo sobre los medios de Hong Kong, ya que intensificará aún más la autocensura de algunos medios.

    ¿Cuál ha sido la respuesta de la sociedad civil y el movimiento prodemocracia?

    La sociedad civil ha reaccionado enérgicamente contra la ley porque el proceso para promulgarla violó el principio del estado de derecho y la justicia procesal de Hong Kong, y las definiciones vagas y amplias de varias disposiciones de la ley exceden la comprensión normal del derecho en la ciudad. Los políticos y funcionarios gubernamentales pro-China se han esforzado por justificar la ley, pero sus argumentos son absurdos.

    ¿Cómo han reaccionado la oposición y la sociedad civil ante la decisión del gobierno de posponer las elecciones legislativas a causa de la pandemia de COVID-19?

    Las elecciones de 2020 para el Consejo Legislativo de Hong Kong originalmente estaban programadas para el 6 de septiembre, pero en julio la Jefa Ejecutiva de Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, con el argumento de que estaban aumentando las infecciones por COVID-19, usó sus poderes de emergencia para posponerlas por un año entero, de modo que ahora se supone que tendrán lugar el 5 de septiembre de 2021. Lam negó que el cambio se debiera a especulaciones políticas, pero lo cierto es que fue un golpe para los activistas prodemocracia, que aspiraban a obtener la mayoría en el Consejo Legislativo.

    En un contexto de protestas masivas, los candidatos prodemocracia ya se habían impuesto por abrumadora mayoría en las elecciones para el Consejo de Distrito de 2019. Junto con la recién aprobada LSN, el aplazamiento de las elecciones fue visto como parte de la estrategia del gobierno para neutralizar el movimiento por la democracia. Justo antes del anuncio de la postergación de las elecciones, 12 candidatos de la oposición habían sido descalificados para postularse y cuatro jóvenes ex miembros de un grupo de estudiantes independentistas fueron arrestados bajo la LSN por sus publicaciones en favor de la independencia en las redes sociales.

    El aplazamiento de la elección creó cierto conflicto dentro del campo prodemocrático, ya que hubo quienes se pronunciaron por mantener la lucha en el Consejo Legislativo mientras que otros reclamaron un boicot a la decisión del gobierno de posponer las elecciones. A partir de la decisión del gobierno de descalificar a algunos candidatos prodemocracia por sus opiniones políticas, queda claro que el gobierno no quiere escuchar voces disidentes en la legislatura.

    ¿Cómo podrían la comunidad internacional y las organizaciones internacionales de la sociedad civil apoyar a la sociedad civil de Hong Kong?

    La sociedad civil de Hong Kong debe trabajar en conjunto para garantizar que el gobierno chino y el gobierno de Hong Kong no abusen de la LSN para ahogar todas las opiniones disidentes y monitorear de cerca si el gobierno cumple con los principios del estado de derecho y las normas internacionales de derechos humanos.

    La comunidad internacional debe seguir expresándose en contra de la represión emprendida por los gobiernos de China y Hong Kong contra la sociedad civil y debe seguir planteando su preocupación por la LSN, que el gobierno chino está imponiendo por la fuerza en Hong Kong en nombre de la seguridad nacional, pero que en realidad no es más que un intento de silenciar las opiniones disidentes en la ciudad. La comunidad internacional debe enviar un mensaje claro de que la seguridad nacional no debe utilizarse como excusa para reprimir la libertad de expresión.

    El espacio cívico en China es calificado como “cerrado” por elCIVICUS Monitor.


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