civic space

 

  • ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They want to stop us because we do make a difference’

    Giada NegriAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Europe with Giada Negri, research and advocacy officer at the European Civic Forum (ECF). The ECF is a network of civil society organisations working on citizenship education, human rights advocacy and the promotion of democracy.

     

    What kind of work does the European Civic Forum do?

    The European Civic Forum (ECF) is a European network that includes over a hundred civil society organisations (CSOs) from all across the European Union and the Balkans. It began in 2005 as an informal network and became official in 2007. This happened at a crucial moment because the Constitutional Treaty – the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe – had just been thrown out as a result of popular votes. It was time to discuss serious issues related to democracy, issues that were transversal to civil society across countries, and the ECF thought it could provide a space for these debates to take place.

    More recently we started working on civic space, as our members and partners began to notice an increased pressure on civil society. The tipping point was the approval of the Anti-Foreign NGO Law in Hungary in 2017. About one-and-a-half years ago the ECF created a platform for civic space, Civic Space Watch, to collect resources, analyses, updates and articles on the state of civic space and civic freedoms in Europe, and to fuel civil society reaction to restrictions. We want civil society to be able to request and receive solidarity across borders, so if there is an attack in one country there is a shared understanding of what is happening and a quick collective reaction against it.

    What would you say are the main current threats against civic space in Europe?

    To understand these threats we have to take step back and look at what CSOs and social movements have been doing over several years – denouncing a system that has proven socially, environmentally and politically unsustainable and filling in the gaps in many areas and in different ways, whether by providing services and proposing practical solutions or by keeping the powerful accountable and keeping on the agenda the values and principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Civic space, the space to call out the powerful and to express dissent, has been restricted in an attempt to maintain a system that is not working for all anymore. We see rising illiberalism and the tendency to securitise public discourse and public space at the same time as social policies shrink. The underlying factor is a neoliberal vision of the world that views society as just a collection of individuals put together, and that does not recognise the importance of the value of social justice and the responsibility of public policies to deliver for everybody and to include everybody in the discussion.

    The specific challenges that civil society face are very diverse and differ among countries, as do the main actors that are targeted. But we are seeing some trends emerge across the European continent, so it is important to put them on the European agenda and raise them with European Union (EU) institutions. While some instances of restriction in countries such as Hungary and Poland are being very well covered by the media, other countries are experiencing attacks that are not being sufficiently discussed, such as violent policing and censorship in France or Spain.

    In other countries challenges are more subtle and tend to be ignored. For instance, in February 2019 a German Court ruled that the German branch of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions and for Citizens’ Action (ATTAC) should have its public benefit status withdrawn due to its activities being ‘political’. This raises the worry that organisations promoting causes like tax justice might become afraid to speak up against the powerful and denounce policies that don’t work or that work to the benefit of few people because their financial capacity and therefore their continued existence could be at stake.

    Clearly civic space is not being restricted equally for everybody: specific groups are being targeted. Which groups are the most targeted in Europe?

    On the Civic Space Watch we see that those most affected by the introduction or tightening of civic space restrictions have been environmental organisations, groups providing solidarity to migrants and those fighting for inclusion, social sustainability, the rule of law and sexual and reproductive rights. All of these have found themselves at the centre of controversies because they point out systemic failures and injustices. Which issues are the more controversial, and therefore which groups find themselves under the most pressure, varies between countries. But whatever those issues are, the groups working on them and denouncing failures of the system are the most under pressure.

    Do all of these restrictions originate from the state, or are others imposing them as well?

    The state authorities and agencies, at all levels, are still the main actors responsible for civic space restrictions. But we are definitely seeing non-state actors threatening civic space as well. In several countries we have reported non-state groups, including private companies, taking action against the freedom of expression or the freedom of peaceful assembly. More research is needed about these because this is an emerging threat in many contexts – we have had cases reported in France, Portugal, the United Kingdom and so on. Additionally, we are also seeing anti-rights groups that are gaining confidence to act against the rights of certain people.

    European society is becoming increasingly polarised around many issues, which is making it easier for these groups to gain a support that would previously have been thought impossible. They promote a view of rights that creates competition between vulnerable groups or is exclusive of some groups on grounds of identity, culture or sexual orientation. They have become really good at exploiting the fears and anxieties of their audiences, which in turn are the result of policies that have brought competition of all against all into our societies. They are being able to use human rights language and human rights tools, which is also new.

    In Romania, for instance, anti-rights groups gathered thousands of signatures to call a referendum to try to ban same-sex marriage. They used the tools of participatory democracy to try to change the Constitution, which did not specify the gender of the people in a marriage. Although a lot of resources were spent to promote it, this referendum failed. But in the process, anti-rights groups targeted LGBTQI people and activists and there was a rise in hate crime. In contexts like this, I fear for democracy. The fact that these groups are using democratic tools may be used as an excuse for governments to start withdrawing these democratic tools; however, I am convinced that less democracy can’t ever be the answer to these issues.

    Certain extremist groups – specifically neo-fascist ones – are using very confrontational tactics, such as physical attacks against the police, activists, vulnerable groups and CSOs. Thanks to their confrontational strategies they are gaining space in the media, which gives them an audience. European countries have legislation against these kinds of groups, but the authorities are failing to call them out, prosecute them and outlaw them, which confers some legitimacy on them. Around certain issues, such as migration, these groups are increasingly present in the public sphere. As governments also pick up the topic and treat migration as a problem in much the same way, they legitimise anti-migrant groups to the same extent that they criminalise the civil society groups that work to provide support to migrants.

    There is already a lot of knowledge about these extremist groups in individual countries, although less about conservative groups that are not necessarily extremist. But we need to learn more about how they are interconnected, because they clearly are. Connections happen at all levels, from top to bottom. At the highest political level, right-wing populist leaders restricting civic space and targeting marginalised groups are connecting, cooperating and learning from one another. In a highly symbolic gesture, in May 2019 Italy’s far-right Minister of Interior at the time, Matteo Salvini, met with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at Hungary’s southern border with Serbia, where fences had been built to stop the flow of migrants and asylum-seekers coming north through the Balkans. The measures that Salvini proposes are very similar to Orbán’s, and they wanted to show to the world a unified front against migration.

    Anti-rights groups are also connected at the grassroots level. A clear example of this was the World Congress of Families that gathered in March 2019 in Verona, Italy. It was a massive gathering of activists from around the world, united by their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their vocal hate for LGBTQI people. But in this case the opposition was also strong and brought activists from all across Europe.

    How is progressive civil society responding to anti-rights groups? And what else should it do to respond more effectively?

    Solidarity is key. Civil society mobilisation in support of threatened groups provides a lot of the psychological strength needed to keep going, and has also brought important, tangible successes. In May 2018 Ireland celebrated a historic referendum that legalised abortion, and civil society mobilised around the right of women to choose not only in Ireland itself but also in other countries, as a way of saying, ‘We stand with you in solidarity, we are united for the same cause, an attack against one of us is an attack against us all’. In Poland, when the government tried to push through even more restrictive legislation of abortion, even though the law that is in place is already among the strictest in the world, civil society repeatedly mobilised. Women protested massively in 2016, in 2017, and keep doing so, not only in Poland but everywhere in Europe. So far, they have been very successful in stopping restrictive legislation.

    I think all rights are connected – economic, political, social, cultural and environmental rights – so if one of them is taken away, the whole universality of rights shrinks as well. Civil society has learned that we must react not just when those rights that we fight for are being threatened, or when it is political or civil rights that are under pressure, but every time any right is under threat. And we should not only point out when democratic mechanisms don’t work; democracy should not merely function, but it should function for everyone, so we should keep pointing out when that is not happening.

    It is also really important that we start telling the stories of our victories, because we are really good at pointing out when there are problems and sometimes it’s just necessary to acknowledge to ourselves, ‘hey, we did that’. We need to celebrate our victories because they are victories for everybody, and also because it boosts our confidence and gives us the strength to keep fighting. That is why the campaign that we started in 2018 around the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that we are carrying out again this year and, we hope, in the years to come, takes the form of a celebration of all the work that civil society has done, trying to show the real, amazing impact of what we do, and the fact that everything would be quite different without us, because of all the human rights victories that would not have happened.

    I think I sometimes made that mistake when I started studying civic space and looking into civic space restrictions: when focusing so much on the restrictions, I lost sight of the fact that those restrictions were being introduced in reaction to our successes. We were being restrained precisely because we were winning, and someone resented it. They want to stop us because we do make a difference.

    Get in touch with the European Civic Forum through itswebsite andFacebook page, andfollow@ForCivicEU and@GiadaNegri on Twitter.

     

  • 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.

     

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

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

     

  • ‘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.

     

  • ‘El gobierno argentino envió un mensaje intimidatorio en relación con la participación de la sociedad civil; esta reducción del espacio cívico en las discusiones globales debe ser monitoreada’

    English

    CIVICUS conversa con Gastón Chillier, Director Ejecutivo del Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), una organización de derechos humanos de Argentina. El CELS fue fundado en 1979, durante la dictadura militar, para promover los derechos humanos, la justicia y la inclusión social. En sus primeros años, el CELS luchó por la verdad y la justicia ante los crímenes del terrorismo de estado. A fines de la década de 1980 amplió su agenda para incluir las violaciones de derechos humanos cometidas bajo la democracia, sus causas estructurales y su relación con la desigualdad social. CELS promueve su agenda a través de investigaciones, campañas, alianzas con otros actores de la sociedad civil, incidencia y políticas públicas y litigio estratégico en foros nacionales e internacionales.

    1. Cuéntenos acerca de la decisión del gobierno argentino de revocar la acreditación de varias organizaciones de la sociedad civil para la Conferencia Ministerial de la Organización Mundial de Comercio (OMC) en Buenos Aires.

    Sesenta y cinco personas de todo el mundo cuyas organizaciones habían sido acreditadas para participar en la Conferencia Ministerial de la OMC, que se celebró en Buenos Aires del 10 al 13 de diciembre de 2017, recibieron correos electrónicos de la OMC que indicaban que las autoridades de seguridad de Argentina, el país anfitrión, había rechazado sus acreditaciones “por razones sin especificar”. Algunas de estas personas decidieron de todos modos viajar a Argentina para participar en otras actividades. Muchas de ellas fueron retenidas durante horas en el Aeropuerto Internacional de Ezeiza antes de que se les permitiera ingresar al país. A dos personas - Petter Titland, un activista noruego de ATTAC (Asociación por la Tasación de las Transacciones Financieras y de Ayuda a los Ciudadanos), y la periodista británico-ecuatoriana Sally Burch, quien participaría en la Conferencia Ministerial en calidad de experta en regulación de internet – les fue denegado el ingreso y fueron posteriormente deportadas.

    El Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores inicialmente emitió un comunicado de prensa explicando que las acreditaciones habían sido rechazadas porque estas personas o sus organizaciones “habían hecho explícitos llamamientos a manifestaciones de violencia a través de las redes sociales, expresando su vocación de generar esquemas de intimidación y caos”. Resultó evidente que el gobierno había estado recopilando información de inteligencia, muy posiblemente sobre la base de la afiliación organizativa o la opinión política de las personas, lo cual está expresamente prohibido por la legislación argentina.

    2. ¿Qué hizo la sociedad civil para que el gobierno de Argentina revocara su decisión?
    Las organizaciones de la sociedad civil (OSC) de Argentina, y el CELS en particular, trabajaron para defender el derecho de los activistas puestos en la lista negra a la participación y la libertad de circulación, de modo de garantizar su ingreso a Argentina. Recopilamos y compartimos información tanto a nivel local como con sus organizaciones en sus países de origen. También alertamos a los funcionarios de las embajadas y en la justicia cuando las personas estaban siendo retenidas en el aeropuerto. Por último, tomamos medidas legales y administrativas.
    Más específicamente, el CELS presentó peticiones de hábeas data, una solicitud de información pública y un habeas corpus colectivo, a la vez que se ocupó de los casos individuales de Titland y Burch, y brindó asesoramiento y apoyo a algunas de las otras personas directamente afectadas. Además, ayudamos a hacer correr la voz entre los periodistas, a través de las redes sociales y mediante entrevistas de prensa y comunicados en los medios.
    Mediante estas peticiones legales y administrativas, solicitamos que el gobierno especificara las restricciones de seguridad establecidas para participar en el evento de la OMC y explicara los vínculos existentes entre esa evaluación y la prohibición o restricción del ingreso de activistas individuales al país.
    En una audiencia judicial sobre el habeas corpus colectivo que presentamos en nombre de los activistas de la sociedad civil que habían sido retenidos al llegar al país, el gobierno presentó una lista con los nombres de las 65 personas cuyas acreditaciones habían sido rechazadas, pero insistió en que esto no les impedía la entrada en Argentina y que no tenía ninguna relación con las deportaciones de Titland y Burch. Reconocieron, sin embargo, que el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores había enviado esta lista a la Dirección Nacional de Migraciones, en calidad de “alerta”. Tanto Titland como Burch figuraban en esa lista.
    En respuesta a nuestras otras peticiones, el Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores afirmó que no podía proporcionar detalles sobre qué información se había recabado sobre esas 65 personas o cómo había sido obtenida, y remitió nuestras consultas al Ministerio de Seguridad y la Agencia Federal de Inteligencia. Todavía seguimos esperando sus respuestas.
    Gracias a la presión legal, diplomática y mediática de la sociedad civil, el gobierno argentino se vio obligado a retroceder en algunos casos. Después de que Titland y Burch fueron deportados, a nadie más se le prohibió ingresar al país. Además, el 10 de diciembre el gobierno argentino anunció que un puñado de personas que figuraban en la lista estaban siendo acreditadas nuevamente. Entre ellas se encontraba Titland, quien finalmente regresó a Argentina y participó en la conferencia.
    Sin embargo, muchas otras personas y OSC siguieron sin ser acreditadas, incluidas la organización chilena Derechos Digitales, la fundación argentina Grupo Efecto Positivo y la organización británica Global Justice Now. Algunos activistas cuyos nombres figuraban en la lista nos dijeron que se habían abstenido de viajar a la Argentina por miedo, y a otros les habían rechazado las solicitudes de visa. Algunos han manifestado temor de que estos rechazos y alertas queden registrados en su historial migratorio.

    3.¿Qué impacto tendrá la decisión del gobierno argentino sobre la legitimidad de las conversaciones de la OMC y, en términos más generales, sobre las perspectivas de participación de la sociedad civil en futuros debates globales?

    La decisión del gobierno argentino de rechazar la acreditación de activistas sobre la base de información de inteligencia que puede que haya sido recabada ilegalmente, retenerlos en el aeropuerto y, en los dos casos más notorios, deportarlos a terceros países, causó tensión con la propia OMC y con otros países, en particular Noruega. Daría la impresión de que el gobierno argentino intentó reducir la participación de la sociedad civil en esta conferencia ministerial. Independientemente de los resultados de la reunión, esto sin duda tendrá impacto sobre la legitimidad de las conversaciones.

    Esta fue la primera vez en que hubo un rechazo de activistas en semejante escala, y sienta un precedente muy negativo para la participación de la sociedad civil. Las acciones del gobierno argentino han enviado un mensaje intimidatorio que pone en cuestión el compromiso del país con la participación de la sociedad civil. Esta reducción del espacio cívico en las discusiones globales es una nueva dimensión que debe ser monitoreada. Y debería hacer sonar la alarma para que la sociedad civil global se asegure de que otros gobiernos no conviertan este precedente en una práctica de rutina.

     

    4. ¿Cómo describiría el ambiente para la sociedad civil en Argentina? ¿Qué debería cambiar para que el espacio cívico mejore en el país?

    Aunque Argentina está lejos de presentar el peor escenario en la región, el ambiente para la sociedad civil se está deteriorando. El gobierno actual ordenó la represión de protestas sociales y promovió o toleró la criminalización de los manifestantes y de algunos prominentes líderes sociales. También ha mostrado desdén por la participación de la sociedad civil, por ejemplo al nombrar por decreto a jueces de la Corte Suprema -y por lo tanto pasar por alto todas las instancias de participación pública en el proceso- y llevar adelante un intento de designación relámpago de un candidato a ocupar la vacante Defensoría del Pueblo, ignorando nuevamente a la sociedad civil en el proceso. En ambos casos, los reclamos públicos forzaron al gobierno a retroceder.

    Además, el CELS y otras organizaciones de derechos humanos nacionales e internacionales que desempeñaron un rol en el caso de Santiago Maldonado, un joven que desapareció durante la represión ilegal de una protesta de una comunidad indígena y fue encontrado ahogado casi tres meses después, fueron demonizados por algunos funcionarios nacionales.

    Para que el espacio cívico en Argentina mejore, el gobierno debe proporcionar garantías para el ejercicio efectivo del derecho a la protesta, asegurando que las fuerzas de seguridad utilicen la fuerza responsablemente y dentro de la ley. También debe dar prioridad a los canales políticos para alcanzar soluciones concertadas a los conflictos y demandas sociales, y debe respetar y promover una variedad de mecanismos para la participación de la sociedad civil en procesos políticos clave.

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

     

     

     

  • "Born a refugee, I dream of a place called home"

    By Mohammed Eid

    This story was facilitated by CIVICUS. 

    I am a refugee, born to a refugee family. I was granted that status on the day I came into this world. I was not aware of what had happened before then. I did not fight any battle, I did not threaten anyone. I did not even choose my own race or ethnicity. I just came to this world to find myself a displaced person.

    Being a refugee means I am a stranger on every spot on this planet. Some see me as a burden on the people of the hosting country. I drink their water, I eat their food, and I breathe their air. Day after day, their resources are less and less because of me, the alien person who came from outside. Maybe that explains why I never had access to education or healthcare, and I will never have access to work in the future.

    Read on: Open Democracy

     

  • A new way of doing business

    In times of democratic crisis, the growing influence of business over commercial, political and social spheres can play a key role in safeguarding civic freedoms says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS’ 2017 report.

    The 2017 State of Civil Society Report highlights a global emergency on civic space as democracy is being undermined by right-wing populist and neo-fascist leaders even as the power of businesses continues to grow. Business, particularly transnational corporations, have a greater impact on all spheres of life than ever before – most of the world’s 100 biggest economic entities by revenue are companies, not governments.

    It is also a time when just 3% of the world’s population live in countries with “open” civic space, meaning that the exercise of their freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly is not being unduly restricted.

    The CIVICUS State of Civil Society 2017 report further notes:

    • There is a strong business case for protection of civic space, as social risk can add 10% on average to business operating costs, bribery which civil society helps prevent is estimated to account for around US$1 trillion a year
    • Ongoing concerns over harmful business practices resulting in attacks on rights defenders, land grabs, displacement and environmental harm; and
    • Acknowledgement of the role of businesses in Agenda 2030 should not be seen an avenue for profit making by a few transnational corporations but rather as an opportunity for businesses to contribute to the well-being of communities.

    The report also points out that forces of globalisation and neo-liberal economic orthodoxy are fuelling inequality, and sparking citizen anger. For civil society, it is a matter of urgency to pay attention to the private sector and find new ways of engaging with it.

    “Too often business as usual can result in human rights abuses, leading to land grabs affecting indigenous people, the killing of human rights defenders, low wages and attacks on workers rights. Massive global tax avoidance continues to lead to cuts in public spending and is driving global inequality,” says CIVICUS Secretary General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. CIVICUS supports the move towards an international legally binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights in the report.

    The report also highlights that the private sector is playing a major role in delivering Agenda 2030, with businesses increasingly drawing development resources. Due to increased focus on public-private partnerships, civil society organisations (CSOs) are having to compete with profit focused private sector contractors to deliver public services in a development market structured more around questionable efficiency concerns than values. The risk is that sustainable development becomes less about realising rights than receiving corporate charity.

    BUSINESS CASE FOR CIVIC SPACE

    The report identifies several areas of partnership for positive social change between business and civil society. It highlights the need for business to adopt a ‘first do no harm’ approach and then go beyond that by demonstrating an active commitment to protecting civic freedoms.

    Nicolas Patrick of global law firm, DLA Piper which is part of a business network on human rights defenders insists that businesses can only succeed where there is strong rule of law. His company sees civil society as an indicator and facilitator of the rule of law. It supports civil society organisations by providing them with strategic advice in obtaining registration in high risk jurisdictions and support in instances of arbitrary detention.

    Bill Anderson of the Adidas Group points to his company’s long track record working with several civil society groups to guarantee worker’s rights and better occupational health and safety conditions as part of global supply chains. He believes that open and tolerant societies, where civil society thrives, are also pre-conditions for the long-term success of business.

    These initiatives show how, at its best, the private sector can help tackle the biggest issues we face from climate change to economic inequality, and the current crisis of democracy.

    UN Global Compact research suggests that poor governance and corruption – which an empowered civil society offers a bulwark against – add on average 10 per cent to the cost of conducting business. The difference between operating in a low corruption climate versus one with higher levels of corruption can be 20 percent of profit. Research puts the economic cost of internet shutdowns, as experienced in Anglophone region of Cameroon this year, at US$2.4billion. This puts a clear price on the failure to defend online civic space.

    ENDS

    Notes to Editors

    For the full State of Civil Society Report 2017 click here.

    About the State of Civil Society Report 2017

    Each year the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report examines the major events that involve and affect civil society around the world. Part one of our report reviews the past year, focusing on the space for civil society and the impact of a resurgence of right-wing populist politics; the right to express dissent; protest movements; and civil society’s international-level actions. Part two of our report has the special theme of civil society and the private sector.

    Our report is of, from and for civil society, drawing from a wide range of interviews with people close to the major stories of the day, a survey of members of our network of national and regional civil society coordination and membership bodies - the Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) - and 27 specially-commissioned guest articles on different aspects of the theme of civil society and the private sector. Most of our inputs come from civil society, but we also sought the views of people working in government and the private sector.

    Our report also draws from CIVICUS’ ongoing programme of research and analysis into the conditions for civil society. In particular, it presents findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, our new online platform that tracks the space for civil society - civic space - in every country, and the Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA), a civil society-led analysis of legal, regulatory and policy environments.

    For further information or to request interviews with CIVICUS staff and contributors please contact

     

     

  • Activism and the state: How African civil society responds to repression

    By David Kode and Mouna Ben Garga

    In most African countries, freedom of expression, assembly and association are stifled by state and non-state actors through the use of restrictive legislation, policies, and judicial persecution as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists. While these restrictions generally occur when civil society groups speak out in direct opposition to public policy, there is strong evidence that restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders. African citizens, activists and organisations are finding new and innovative ways to resist, organise and mobilise in the face of mounting restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

    Read on: Pambazuka 

     

  • Addressing Civic Space Restrictions in Uganda: What Role for the UPR?

    This policy action brief, prepared by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), examines a range of restrictions on civil society’s fundamental rights recently experienced in Uganda. In particular, these have included a series of break-ins on the premises of civil society organisations (CSOs), in which CSO information has been stolen; attacks on the media, which have included physical attacks on journalists and the closure of private radio stations; the introduction of restrictive legislation, including on CSO operations, the media and the freedom of assembly; and increased restriction of peaceful assemblies, including through the use of excessive force to break up protests.

     

  • Against all odds: Civil society under fire

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Civil society is under fire—sometimes literally—in many countries and in all regions of the world. Governments are clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. This year’s Global Risks Report highlights the threat to civic space, noting “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”

    Read more: BRINK

     

  • Angola: Restrictions on fundamental freedoms continue ahead of elections

    Portuguese 

    The arraignment of two journalists in Angola on spurious charges is the latest assault on fundamental freedoms as the government increases restrictions on civic space ahead of crucial elections scheduled for 23 August 2017.  Global civil society alliance CIVICUS urges the government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of journalists, and calls on international observers to ensure freedom of expression is respected in the run up to the elections.

    On 20 June 2017, journalists Rafael Marques de Morais and Mariano Bras Lourenço were indicted by the Office of the Attorney General and charged with “outrage to a body sovereignty” and “insult against public authority” under the Law on Crimes Against the State and Penal Code respectively.

    The charges stem from an article published by Rafael Marques on 26 October 2016 on his website Maka Angola, in which he exposed details of the dubious circumstances in which the Attorney General Joao Mana Moreira de Sousa purchased a piece of land in 2011. Mariano Bras Lourenço, Director of the O Crimenewspaper, was charged after he re-published Rafael’s article. Both journalists could face up to six years in jail.

    “The judicial persecution of journalists is one of several strategies used by the Angolan government to silence critical voices in the lead -up to elections next month,” says Ine Van Severen,

    Policy and Research Analyst at CIVICUS. “Angola is one of the most repressive states in the Southern Africa region as the government of President José Eduardo dos Santos has shown complete disregard towards human rights norms.”

    Marques has been a victim of judicial persecution in the past. In 2015, he was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence after he was found guilty of defamation for publishing a book titled Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, in 2011. In the book, he revealed details of hundreds of killings by security guards and soldiers and human rights violations in the diamond fields of the Lundas region. 

    The Angolan authorities continue to use violence to disperse peaceful protests.  On 24 June 2017, protests led by the Movimento do Protectorado Lunda Tchokwe (MPL-T) in the provinces of Moxico, Lunda Norte and Lunda Sul, were violently repressed by security forces.  One person died, at least 13 were wounded, and over 78 protesters were detained.   MPL-T has been demanding for autonomy for the Lundas region.  More protests are planned for 29 July 2017.

    In February 2017, security forces again used brute force to disperse peaceful protests in Luanda and Benguela. Demonstrators were calling for the resignation of the Minister for Territorial Administration because of a perceived conflict of interest in his position as a candidate for the ruling party in the August elections and his responsibilities to oversee the voter registration process.

    Even though President José Eduardo dos Santos has agreed to step down after 38 years in power, his government is doing everything possible to ensure that the ruling party, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), maintains its grip on power. 

    CIVICUS calls on the Government of Angola to stop the judicial persecution of media and respect the rights of all citizens to peacefully assemble. 

    Angola is rated as repressed on the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform tracking track civic rights violations around the world.

    ENDS

    For more information, please contact:

    Ine Van Severen

    Policy and Research Analyst

    CIVICUS

     

    Grant Clark

    Media Advisor

    CIVICUS

     

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

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

     

  • Are Rising Attacks On Human Rights Defenders The ‘New Normal’?

    By Mandeep Tiwana

    At CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance working to strengthen citizen participation, we receive bad news of attacks on compatriots every day. In the past few years, with nauseating regularity, we’ve heard from colleagues who’ve been arbitrarily imprisoned, had their organisations’ starved of resources or have had their life’s work to create just, inclusive and sustainable societies ridiculed by crafty politicians.

    Read on: Inter Press Service

     

  • As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow

    By David Kode

    Across the globe, from East Africa to eastern Europe, there is a trend of increasing attacks on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support reforms governments are opposed to.

    Read on: Open Global Rights

     

     

  • Attacks On Citizen Rights In SA: Five Trends And Countrywide Threats

    By Kgalalelo Gaebee 

    From the large city centres to the rural townships, South Africans are witnessing a nationwide crackdown on their civic rights. Citizens’ ability to speak out, organise and take action on social issues in South Africa is becoming increasingly restricted. For those critical of business and government elites, there are much higher rates of harassment and detention by security forces. Social activist Kgalalelo Gaebee lists five threats to our basic freedoms that we should be concerned about.

    Read on:The Daily Vox

     

  • Austria’s civic space rating downgraded

    The downgrade is based on an assessment of conditions for the exercise of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression on theCIVICUS Monitor.

    CIVICUS has today downgraded Austria’s civic space rating from open to narrowed. This decision was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law. The downgrade follows nearly a year of rule by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, during which the space for civil society has worsened. A narrowed rating indicates a situation in which the state mostly allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, however certain restrictions on these rights take place.

    “The Austrian government appears intent on turning its back on the values of the European Union, as it chooses division over dialogue and restrictions over rights,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Austria’s failure to protect fundamental freedoms is borne out by verbal attacks and administrative encroachment on media freedoms, as well as restrictive measures such as an increase in the notice period required for protests from 24 to 48 hours.”

    Protests against the new government took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon. Since then, the new administration has steadfastly refused to engage in structured dialogue with civil society in a range of sectors. Instead, leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. This includes Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who accused international humanitarian NGO - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of cooperating with people smugglers. More recently, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced.

    Freedom of expression has also come under attack this year, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. One minister even went so far as to expressly instruct officials not to brief certain media outlets which are critical of the government. Earlier in the year, media monitors in Austria reported a spate of attacks, including online hate speech, directed at independent media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF.

    Meanwhile, a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours and designating certain “protection zones”, in which protests are prohibited. 

    “CIVICUS calls on the Austrian authorities to discard its policy of exclusion and denigration of civic activists,” said Gilbert. “We call on the government to instead begin a constructive dialogue with CSOs in all sectors, and to review laws and policies which are out of step with Austria’s commitments under international law and as a member of the European Union.” 

    These developments are supported in a damning new report published this month by the Chamber of Austrian Lawyers, which sets out a bleak perspective for the protection of fundamental freedoms in Austria in the coming years. 

    Austria is now rated narrowed on the CIVICUS Monitor. Visit Austria’s homepage for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates. Next week, on 27th November 2018, CIVICUS will release People Power Under Attack 2018 - a fresh global analysis on civic space. 

    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

    Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS 

    cathal.gilbert[at]civicus.org or media[at]civicus.org

     

  • Backsliding on civic space in democracies

    By Mandeep Tiwana

    It’s no secret that democracy is facing a global stress test. Divisive politicians are creating a chasm between the majoritarian impulses of electoral democracy and the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy. The former emphasises a simplistic ‘winner takes all’ mentality to advance partisan political agendas while the latter accommodates dissent and minority voices through checks and balances. Notably, civil society activists and organisations speaking truth to power and seeking inclusion in decision making are facing severe hurdles as civic space appears to be backsliding in several democratic countries.

    Read on: Open Democracy

     

  • 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: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

    Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

    Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

    In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

    Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

    An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

    Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

    One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

    Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

    One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

    “The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

    “The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

    The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

    Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

    A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

    “The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

    The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

    “The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

    The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.


    Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

    South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.


    Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Big business and activists finally agree. On this one issue

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    With some of the world’s biggest economies now companies, not states, the benefits for civil society of working more closely with business are clear. Yet, perhaps less well understood, are the benefits for business of defending civic space – the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest governance failings and corruption. The good news is that in one area at least, businesses and civil society are increasingly seeing eye to eye.

    Read on:World Economic Forum

     

Página 1 de 7