‘Due to closed civic space, it is difficult to build the resilience of communities inside the country’
CIVICUS speaks with Helen Kidan, executive member of the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR), about 20 years of crackdown by the Eritrean government and continuing human rights violations.
Founded in 2003, EMDHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at raising awareness about the lack of civil and democratic freedoms and promoting the rule of law, human rights and democracy in Eritrea.
What human rights violations are committed by the Eritrean government?
Eritrea has one of the worst human rights records in Africa and is rated one the worst countries in the world for press freedoms:Reporters Without Borders’ 2022 index ranks it 179th out of 180 countries. There is no space for civil society, as there are no freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression.
Thereport of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, published in 2016, details a number of human rights violations by the regime, with crimes including genocide, sexual slavery, extrajudicial killing, forced disappearance, torture, forced labour and indefinite national service, which many have considered akin to slavery.
ANTI-RIGHTS GROUPS: ‘They want to stop us because we do make a difference’
As 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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
‘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’
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
#UDHR75: Global deterioration of civic space puts States' commitment to human rights in question
Statement at the 54th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
General Debate on the High Commissioner’s update
Delivered by Humberto Mendez Ramos
Thank you, Mr President,
On the occassion of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the High Commissioner has described civic space as the best indicator of a state’s commitment to upholding the aspirations of the Declaration. However, as documented by CIVICUS, rapid deterioration of civic space remains a global trend, putting into serious question many states’ commitment to human rights.
In Ecuador, we have documented attacks against journalists and political figures. We are also concerned about the continuing harassment, arbitrary detentions, public vilification, and unfair trials against human rights defenders. Especially in the context of the upcoming national elections, we underscore the need for effective mechanisms to protect freedom of expression and civil society from violence.
Ahead of Senegal’s presidential elections, set to take place in February 2024, civic space violations have soared. These include the use of excessive force, including lethal force, in the face of opposition protests, arbitrary arrests of journalists, the restriction of access to internet and social media, the suspension of media outlets and the dissolution of opposition party.
We are also concerned about developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in particular the Republika Srpska, where repression of civil society and freedom of expression are being sought through restrictive legislation, including on the supervision and control of civil society. We underscore the need to ensure an enabling environment for activists in law and in practice, including for LGBTQI+ advocates who have been subjected to increased hostility and harassment.
In the face of deteriorating situations for human rights and civic space, CIVICUS calls on this Council to act and address these situations objectively, impartially and without double standards.
We thank you.
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.
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.
Advocacy priorities at 47th Session of UN Human Rights Council
The 47th Session is set to run from 21 June to 15 July, and will cover a number of critical thematic and country issues. Like all Sessions held over the course of the pandemic, it will present challenges and opportunities for civil society engagement. CIVICUS encourages States to continue to raise the importance of civil society participation, which makes the Human Rights Council stronger, more informed and more effective.
Afghanistan : L'ONU et les États membres doivent prendre des mesures urgentes pour protéger la société civile
⚠️#Afghanistan : L'ONU & les États membres doivent prendre des mesures urgentes pour protéger la société civile dans le pays.— CIVICUS Français (@CIVICUSfrancais) August 20, 2021
Les #Talibans ont déjà commencé à effectuer des raids chez des militants.
Notre déclaration : https://t.co/lHXTmdL0DB pic.twitter.com/GpdnciwNEU
CIVICUS, l'alliance mondiale de la société civile, est profondément préoccupée par la sécurité des défenseurs des droits humains, des journalistes et du personnel des organisations de la société civile en Afghanistan, suite à l'effondrement du gouvernement du Président Ashraf Ghani et à la prise de pouvoir par les Talibans.
Comme l'ont demandé les experts de l'ONU, nous exhortons les États membres de l'ONU à prendre des mesures immédiates pour les protéger et à demander de toute urgence la tenue d'une session spéciale du Conseil des droits de l'homme sur l'Afghanistan, qui comprendra une discussion sur la mise en place rapide d'une mission d'enquête chargée d'évaluer la situation sur le terrain et de rendre compte.
Les talibans ont un passé de violation des droits humains, de mesures de représailles coordonnées contre leurs détracteurs, et d'attaques contre les civils en toute impunité. Après la prise de contrôle de Kaboul, les défenseurs des droits humains ont signalé que des listes de noms de représentants de la société civile ont été révélées par les talibans et que des raids ont été menés à leur domicile. Les défenseurs des droits humains qui tentent de quitter le pays ont également été empêchés d'embarquer dans des avions, les missions étrangères ayant donné la priorité à l'évacuation de leurs propres ressortissants et de leur personnel. D'autres se sont cachés et craignent pour leur vie.
Le Haut-Commissaire aux droits de l'homme s'est également inquiété des premières informations indiquant que les talibans imposent de sévères restrictions aux droits humains dans les zones qu'ils contrôlent, en ciblant particulièrement les femmes.
« La crise qui se déroule en Afghanistan exige une réponse urgente et déterminée de la part des Nations unies et des États membres. Des mesures proactives doivent être prises pour assurer la sécurité et la protection des défenseurs des droits humains, en particulier des femmes. Nombre d'entre eux risquent d'être pris pour cible par les talibans en raison de leur travail, et des efforts doivent être déployés pour les évacuer et les réinstaller, eux et leurs familles », a déclaré Josef Benedict, chercheur en matière d'espace civique chez CIVICUS.
CIVICUS a recueilli des informations sur les attaques des talibans contre la société civile au cours des dernières années. Les défenseurs des droits humains, en particulier les femmes, ont été menacés dans l'exercice de leurs fonctions et certains ont été enlevés et tués. Nombre d'entre eux ont dû déménager pour des raisons de sécurité, alors même que les auteurs de ces actes n'ont pas été tenus pour responsables. Les récentes négociations de paix n'ont pas réussi à inclure de manière adéquate et efficace la société civile, en particulier les femmes défenseures des droits humains.
Selon les informations compilées par le Comité afghan des défenseurs des droits humains (AHRDC), 17 défenseurs des droits humains ont été tués entre septembre 2020 et mai 2021 seulement. Plus de 200 défenseurs des droits humains et représentants des médias ont déclaré avoir reçu de graves menaces. Compte tenu des conditions de conflit et de l'instabilité politique actuelles, ces menaces se sont amplifiées.
L'appel lancé par le secrétaire général des Nations unies, António Guterres, le 16 août, à la communauté internationale pour qu'elle parle d'une seule voix afin de faire respecter les droits humains en Afghanistan, est un pas dans la bonne direction.
« Le Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies doit saisir l'occasion qui se présente actuellement pour relancer rapidement les pourparlers de paix inter-afghans, qui sont dans l'impasse, et assurer une représentation effective de la société civile, en particulier des femmes. Il doit également appeler les talibans à respecter le droit international des droits de l'homme, à protéger les civils et à mettre fin aux opérations de représailles », a déclaré Josef Benedict.
Le CIVICUS Monitor,une plateforme en ligne qui suit les menaces pesant sur la société civile dans les pays du monde entier, qualifie l'espace civique - l'espace pour la société civile - en Afghanistan comme étant réprimé.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Open-source monitoring reveals both the clampdown on women’s rights and the impact on their lives’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan with Anouk Theunissen and Humaira Rahbin, researchers with Afghan Witness, and Meetra Qutb, Afghan Witness’s communications specialist.
Afghan Witness is a project run by the UK-based Centre for Information Resilience, aimed at independently collecting, verifying and preserving information on human rights in Afghanistan. It seeks to provide reliable data to international organisations, governments, the media and civil society and to create awareness about the realities of everyday life in Afghanistan. Its team includes people on the ground as well as international researchers, analysts, journalists and experts. Most of its team members’ identities are kept confidential for safety reasons.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban’
CIVICUS speaks with Horia Mosadiq, an Afghan women human rights defender (HRD) and founder of Safety and Risk Mitigation Organization (SRMO). SRMO aims to empower, support and protect Afghan civil society activists and organisations, including those working in remote and insecure areas, and to advocate for greater state protection and accountability for any abuses they suffer as result of their work.
Horia has extensive experience in assisting HRDs at risk and providing human rights and safety training. She previously worked as the Afghanistan researcher for Amnesty International.
Since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, Afghanistan has experienced a human rights and humanitarian crisis. Protests,especially by women, have been dispersed with excessive force, gunfire and beatings, leading to deaths and injuries of peaceful protesters. Journalists and HRDs have been threatened, intimidated and attacked and had their homes raided.
Why did you establish your organisation?
Along with two other dedicated activists, I established SRMO in 2013 with a mandate to protect HRDs and civil society in Afghanistan. We founded it because there was no mechanism inside the country to respond to growing threats against activists. I was an HRD at risk for many years and was totally reliant on international civil society organisations (CSOs) such as Freedom House, Front Line Defenders and Urgent Action Fund.
But we wanted to set up something led and run by Afghans, by people who understood the situation on the ground and could respond to the needs of Afghan HRDs who don’t speak English and don’t have access to international platforms and organisations. The whole idea behind SRMO is to reach out and protect grassroots activists, especially those in volatile areas and without international access or funding.
What does your research reveal about the current situation of Afghan HRDs?
We recently published a report that contains two distinct sections. The first covers the situation in 2021 until 15 August, a time when the previous government was in control and there was an elected president in charge. A clear law enforcement system, a judiciary and other accountability mechanisms were in place. They were not anywhere near perfect or even responsive, but at least they existed.
The second section covers the events following the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021. The whole security situation in the country changed significantly and the republic of Afghanistan was gone. The Taliban operate on the basis of Islamic ideology and renamed the country ‘Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan’. There is no law-and-order system anymore. The whole system is run by a group of mullahs with no clear accountability. Nobody knows which laws they are implementing. There is a lack of clarity and a definite legal gap. In many instances they refer to Sharia law, although we don’t have a codification of Sharia, so it is all open to interpretation. This is the situation on the ground today.
Following the Taliban takeover, attacks against HRDs have continued and nobody has been held accountable. Many HRDs have been killed, abducted, tortured and disappeared. Between January and March 2022 alone, SRMO documented 120 violations against activists, journalists and critics, including killings and kidnappings. Even medical doctors have been abducted by the Taliban.
Many CSOs have had to shut down and media workers and journalists have faced numerous restrictions. We documented the case of a TV journalist who interviewed a critic of the Taliban, and right afterward he and his crew were arrested and tortured, and were only released after signing statements pledging not to reveal their treatment to the international community. Many activists who protested had their passports and IDs taken away so they couldn’t leave the country and expose the truth. Activism is still happening, but civic space is increasingly shutting down.
Contrary to the general belief among the diplomatic community, the security situation has not improved under the Taliban. Although you may not hear about many bombings or active fighting in various parts of the country, the general security situation has deteriorated. Dozens of HRDs, journalists and others have been abducted, tortured, disappeared and detained unlawfully and without any explanation. The de facto authorities are part of an abusive system. The limited accountability mechanisms that existed under the previous regime are all gone. Now no one is accountable to anyone. Our fight for accountability has become a thousand times harder under the Taliban.
How have you conducted your work following the Taliban takeover?
Since August 2021, our focus shifted to reactive work to provide safety and protection to HRDs at risk and evacuate them from the country. The evacuations have since slowed down, but we also support the internal relocation of those at risk. We also provide humanitarian assistance to women HRDs, as many have lost their jobs and livelihoods. So as well as facing security threats, many have lost their means of surviving, paying for food and essentials required for their family. We have tried to support some minimal living costs where possible.
What has happened to the activists who were evacuated?
Those who were part of an organised effort undertaken by some countries and CSOs are being looked after while they resettle. But those who fled the country to Central Asia, Pakistan or Turkey experience an extremely bad situation as they run out of funds, their visas expire and there are no programmes for their resettlement. Many are pushed back by embassies or told they need to register with the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency and that it can take years before they are resettled.
Some with expired visas are even being deported back to Afghanistan. I just heard that Greece has deported 500 Afghans to Turkey, which sent them back to Afghanistan. In Central Asian countries people cannot get their expired visas renewed while in the country; they must leave to get a new one, which many HRDs are unable to do. This is making it difficult for them to survive. Many activists and journalists are facing ever-growing economic difficulties. They can’t pay for rent or food. Things are particularly difficult for those with small children. Many funders don’t provide resources for HRDs outside their country.
What can the international community do to support HRDs in Afghanistan?
I am disappointed with the international community. The way they have responded to the Ukraine crisis is very different from how they have responded to the situation in Afghanistan. They were open to receive millions of Ukrainian refugees, whose cases were processed within weeks. In contrast, only a few countries – including Canada, Germany and the USA – have been willing to issue visas to Afghans. This is not nearly enough, as thousands are currently stranded in neighbouring countries and in need of immediate help. If they can do it for Ukraine, why not for Afghanistan? Is it because of our skin colour or because they don’t view the Taliban as the enemy? There may be politics involved but I think there is also systematic racial discrimination.
More positively, the appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan is an excellent step. At the moment there is a vacuum of human rights monitoring mechanisms. CSOs can only do so much and having someone working with a UN mandate and the support of the international community is key. The international community should provide the UN Special Rapporteur all the necessary financial and diplomatic support and his recommendations must be taken seriously and implemented.
Our recent report includes a series of recommendations for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to ensure accountability for crimes committed against HRDs and to provide financial, diplomatic and political support to Afghan HRDs at risk, including by issuing humanitarian visas and funding resettlement programmes. The international community should use its leverage to pressure the Taliban to create a safer space for HRDs and journalists in Afghanistan. This issue is currently not being addressed adequately at the international and diplomatic level.
AFGHANISTAN: ‘The international response has been extremely weak and shameful’
CIVICUS speaks with activist Arzak Khan, about the situation in Afghanistan following the takeover by the Taliban. Arzak is a digital rights expert with extensive experience in the use of innovation to influence social change and he has been working to assist Afghan human rights defenders. While some activists, journalists and others who were at risk of reprisals from the Taliban because of their work were able to leave the country, many others have not been able to and have gone into hiding. There have been reports of activists facing systematic intimidation. Afghanistan is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civic freedoms
What is the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover?
On 15 August 2021, the Taliban entered the Afghan capital of Kabul, completing a rapid takeover with a speed that surprised many Afghans and the country’s neighbours. Following the fall of Kabul, the situation in the country has been uncertain. Prices for basic food items are increasing, people are becoming jobless, single mothers have been made redundant from jobs and a lot of uncertainty exists over girls’ education.
Already a number of cases of human rights violations have been reported, and brutal crackdowns on protests and the women’s movement are taking place. The excessive use of force and arbitrary arrests by Taliban security forces as they crack down on protests have been highlighted by both traditional and social media since the fall of Kabul. It is important to remember that when the Taliban last ruled in the 1990s, women had to cover themselves fully, from head to toe, and were not allowed to walk outside without being escorted by a male family member.
Afghan women have now realised that those dark days are not behind and are taking to the streets to advocate for women’s rights and demand equality, justice and democracy. The Taliban have fired teargas and used batons to break up their protests. Journalists who have covered protests have been jailed and tortured. Such actions highlight the rapidly deteriorating state of civic freedoms and the need to ensure that civic space is defended at all costs.
What kinds of risks do civil society activists and organisations currently face?
In their first news conference after taking charge of Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban promised women’s rights, media freedom and amnesty for former government officials. However, there is a high degree of hostility towards activists and civil society organisations (CSOs), and Taliban security forces on the ground have often accused them of spying for foreign governments.
The more radical parts of the Taliban feel that because CSOs and activists cooperated with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets and should be punished for their role. CSO offices have been raided; all records, equipment and fixtures have been taken away. Many activists fear for their lives as the regime targets people from CSOs that have been vocal on important issues, such as women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights and human rights in general.
Due to increased threats against human rights defenders and activists, many have gone into hiding or are trying to flee the county. Even if the Taliban regime chooses not to target CSOs, activists and human rights defenders, it remains to be seen if they can provide a secure environment and prevent attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State-Khorasan – the local branch of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan – and other rogue elements.
Are journalists currently able to report on the situation on the ground?
To be honest, press freedom does not exist in Afghanistan any more. Absolute disregard for press and media freedoms is visible in the violent retaliation against journalists and media workers covering the recent protests. Images of the arrest and brutal flogging of two reporters who were detained while covering a women’s rights demonstration in Kabul is just once such incident that has been publicised globally. The senior Taliban leadership claims that journalists are not being attacked or tortured, but there’s a big difference between the Taliban on the media, who are more moderate and articulate, and the Taliban in the streets, who are uneducated, trigger happy and outright violent. Journalists and media outlets are unable to report the situation on the ground due to mounting pressure from local Taliban militias. Many journalists have been threatened with images of beheading to stop them reporting atrocities on ground.
How have you been supporting civil society and activists?
The stunningly swift collapse of the Afghan state created a situation of panic even for someone who has been closely monitoring the political developments in the country. Given the rapid response that was needed, I was able to quickly assess the situation on the ground and mobilise our partners to support Afghan activists, journalists and advocates for women’s rights to identify escape routes and lobby for securing visas, flights, or any kind of way out of Afghanistan to safe locations.
Everything had to be done swiftly as there was high risk that these individuals and their families might be targeted by the Taliban because of their affiliation with international organisations. Assistance for healthcare, including mental health support to overcome trauma and terror, especially for women and children, had to be arranged for people escaping the regime.
What do you think of the response by the international community so far?
Despite urgent warnings from activists and civil society groups about the risks that human rights defenders, activists, marginalised communities and women would face under the Taliban, the international response to support our work has been extremely weak and shameful. It seems that states that over the past two decades played a critical role that led to civil society gains are now ready to sacrifice the blood and sweat of the people who worked to bring change to Afghanistan.
On 7 October 2021, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to create a Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. The resolution fell short of civil society demands for the establishment of an international monitoring and accountability mechanism. It is crucial that UN member states support the adoption of a resolution to create an independent investigative mechanism on Afghanistan as a matter of priority, that they support civic space freedoms and ensure that CSOs and activists are allowed to operate without fear of torture or death, and that the Taliban regime is held accountable for its actions.
What else can international civil society and the international community do to support Afghan civil society?
Civic space has been under attack in the South Asia region, and in Afghanistan it has become violent. To counter this trend, transnational actors that support civil society need to respond in a multi-dimensional manner. Unfortunately, the international response since the fall of Kabul seems stuck: some useful efforts have been undertaken, but they appear too limited, loosely focused and reactive rather than strategic and long-term.
The international community and donor agencies should exert diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime so it commits to protecting civic space in line with international human rights norms. They should establish emergency funds for persecuted rights activists and organisations and offer operational support to CSOs. Funders should also continue to expand flexible funding strategies to overcome legal barriers and help CSOs operate in hostile environments, working with intermediaries that can reach a wider range of partners and reducing grantees’ administrative burdens.
For now, the future looks very uncertain. How the Taliban regime will react in the coming months is the million-dollar question. Between hope and hopelessness, I wish that peace can prevail, and that the international community does not turn its back on the people of Afghanistan, who have been victims of global powers’ regional dominance.
Civic space inAfghanistan is rated ‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Afghanistan: UN and Member States must take urgent steps to protect civil society
🇦🇫#Afghanistan: UN & Member States must take urgent steps to protect civil society in the country.— CIVICUS (@CIVICUSalliance) August 18, 2021
The #Taliban have already begun carrying out raids on the homes of activists. Our statement: https://t.co/dOfHDMeFra pic.twitter.com/sA3ss79FPc
CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance is deeply concerned about the safety of human rights defenders, journalists and staff of civil society organisations in Afghanistan following the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the takeover by the Taliban.
As called for by UN experts, we urge UN member states to take immediate steps to protect them as well as urgently call for a Special Session at the Human Rights Council on Afghanistan which will include a discussion on the speedy establishment of a fact-finding mission to be deployed to assess the situation on the ground and report back.
The Taliban have a track record of abusing human rights, coordinating reprisals against their critics and attacking civilians with impunity. Following the takeover of Kabul, human rights defenders have reported that lists of names of representatives of civil society have been revealed by the Taliban and raids have been carried out in their homes. Human rights defenders trying to leave the country have also been prevented from boarding planes as foreign missions have prioritised evacuating their own nationals and staff. Others have gone into hiding and fear for their lives.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights has also expressed concerns about early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions on human rights in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women.
“The crisis unfolding in Afghanistan requires an urgent and resolute response from the UN and member states. Proactive steps must be taken to ensure the security and protection of human rights defenders especially women. Many are at risk of being targeted by the Taliban because of their work and there must be efforts taken to evacuate and resettle them and their families,” said CIVICUS’s Civic Space Researcher, Josef Benedict.
CIVICUS has documented attacks on civil society by the Taliban in recent years. Human rights defenders particularly women have been facing threats for undertaking their work and some have been abducted and killed. Many have had to relocate due to safety concerns even as perpetrators have not been held accountable. Recent peace negotiations failed to adequately and effectively include civil society, especially women human rights defenders.
According to information compiled by the Afghan Human Rights Defenders’ Committee (AHRDC) 17 human rights defenders were killed between September 2020 and May 2021 alone. Over 200 human rights defenders and media representatives reported receiving serious threats. In light of the present conflict conditions and political instability, these threats have magnified.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ on 16 August urged the international community to speak in one voice to uphold human rights in Afghanistan is a step in the right direction.
“The UN Security Council must seize the current opportunity to quickly restart the stalled intra-Afghan peace talks and ensure effective representation of civil society especially women. It must also call on the Taliban to respect international human rights law, protect civilians, and end reprisal attacks”, said Josef Benedict.
The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, rates civic space – the space for civil society – in Afghanistan as Repressed.
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
ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.
SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.
What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?
As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.
The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.
Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.
Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.
A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?
The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.
Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.
Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?
Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.
Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.
All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.
The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.
Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.
What needs to change in Algeria?
Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.
If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.
How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?
Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.
Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.
Algeria: Global Campaign urges authorities to lift restrictions on civic space
CIVICUS joins 37 other organisations today in announcing a 10-day campaign against the increasing government repression of individuals and groups defending human rights in Algeria.
A year ago, Algerian authorities shut down the “Hirak” pro-democracy protests in most of the country. Since then, the number of unfounded terrorism prosecutions has soared, problematic amendments to the Penal Code were adopted, legal actions were initiated against civil society organisations and opposition political parties, and the crackdown on human rights defenders and the media has intensified, while authorities have continued to obstruct independent unions’ registration and activity.
#NotACrime is an online campaign aiming to draw attention to the ways in which Algerian authorities have increasingly attempted to stifle dissenting voices and independent civil society. Launched by 38 Algerian, regional and international organisations, the campaign will be conducted between 19-28 May on the organisations’ respective social media accounts.
The campaign calls on Algerian authorities to end their repression of human rights, immediately and unconditionally release those detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights and allow everyone to freely enjoy their rights. Those suspected of responsibility for grave human rights violations should be brought to justice in fair trials, and the authorities should provide access to justice and effective remedies for victims. The campaign calls on all individuals, organisations and relevant parties to contribute in collectively demanding an end to the criminalisation of the exercise of fundamental freedoms in Algeria, using the #NotACrime hashtag.
At least 300 people have been arrested since the beginning of 2022 (as of 17 April) for exercising their right to free expression, peaceful assembly or association, according to Zaki Hannache, a human rights defender, though some have since been released. Arrests and sentencing of peaceful activists, independent trade unionists, journalists and human rights defenders have continued unabated, even after the protest movement was shut down. Algerians jailed for their speech have repeatedly carried out hunger strikes - El Hadi Lassouli since 3 May for instance - above all to protest their arbitrary imprisonment. According to the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH), these figures underrepresent the reality because many cases are not communicated due to fear of reprisal.
The death in detention of Hakim Debbazi on 24 April, after he was placed in pretrial detention on 22 February for social media postings, shows what is at stake when people are detained simply for exercising their human rights.
While international scrutiny has remained scarce, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in her update to the Human Rights Council on 8 March 2022 , expressed concern over "increasing restrictions on fundamental freedoms" in Algeria and called on the government "to change course." Ahead of the examination of Algeria’s human rights record in November by the UN Human Rights Council, within the Universal Periodic Review process, the undersigned organisations express serious concern and hold Algerian authorities responsible for the dangerous backsliding in Algeria, notably in the rights to express one’s opinion, assemble and associate peacefully, and share and access information.
The campaign will extend until the anniversary of the death of Kamel Eddine Fekhar, a human rights defender who died in detention on 28 May 2019 after a 50-day hunger strike to protest his imprisonment for expressing views critical of the government. He had been charged with undermining state security and inciting racial hatred. On 11 December 2016, a British-Algerian journalist, Mohamed Tamalt, also died in custody following a hunger strike during his imprisonment for Facebook posts deemed offensive by the authorities. Algerian authorities have failed to adequately investigate both of their deaths.
Exercising the fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression, and defending human rights is #NotACrime.
- Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-France)
- Action for Change and Democracy in Algeria (ACDA)
- AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
- Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH)
- Amnesty International
- ARTICLE 19
- Autonomous General Confederation of Workers in Algeria (CGATA, Algeria)
- Autonomous National Union of Electricity and Gas Workers (SNATEG, Algeria)
- Autonomous National Union of Public Administration Staff (SNAPAP, Algeria)
- Burkinabè Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CBDDH)
- Burundian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CBDDH)
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME)
- Civil Rights Defenders (Sweden)
- Collective Action-Detainees (Algeria)
- Collective of the Families of the Disappeared in Algeria (CFDA)
- Confederation of Trade Union Workers' Commissions (CCOO, Spain)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- DIGNITY - Danish Institute against Torture
- Euro-Mediterranean Federation against Enforced Disappearances (FEMED)
- Euromed Rights
- Free Algeria
- Front Line Defenders
- General Confederation of Labour (CGT, France)
- Human Rights League (LDH, France)
- Human Rights Watch
- International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
- International Labour Network of Solidarity and Struggles
- International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF)
- Ivorian Coalition of Human Rights Defenders (CIDDH)
- Justitia Center for Legal Protection of Human Rights in Algeria
- MENA Rights Group
- Public Services International (PSI)
- Riposte Internationale (Algeria)
- Shoaa for Human Rights (Algeria)
- Syndicate Union – Solidaires (France)
- Tharwa N’Fadhma N’Soumer (Algeria)
- Trade Union Confederation of Productive Forces (COSYFOP, Algeria)
Civic space in Algeria is rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor