civic space restrictions

 

  • Alert: Is the Ugandan administration "doing an Ethiopia"? CIVICUS concerned as Uganda replicates Ethiopia's authoritarian approach in the run up to the elections

    Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.

    As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.

     

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

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

    Can you tell us about your background and work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Brasil: ‘Na esquerda, as estruturas tradicionais se enfraqueceram ao mesmo tempo que novas formas de organização locais e autônomas surgiram em todo o país’

    English

    Após os muitos protestos vistos no Brasil em 2017, CIVICUS fala com José Henrique Bortoluci, professor do Centro de Pesquisa e Documentação de História Contemporânea do Brasil (CPDOC) na Fundação Getúlio Vargas, em São Paulo, Brasil. José Henrique é PhD em Sociologia na Universidade de Michigan, nos Estados Unidos, e é especialista em movimentos sociais, estudos urbanos e teoria social, com foco no Brasil.

     

    1. 2017 foi um ano de grande mobilização no Brasil? Quais foram os principais grupos mobilizados e quais foram as principais causas para seu descontentamento?

    2017 foi um ano bastante contraditório e desigual em termos da atuação da sociedade civil no Brasil. De um lado, movimentos sociais não foram capazes de sustentar um movimento nacional de oposição ao governo de Michel Temer, por muitos considerado ilegítimo. O presidente continua governando, a despeito de ter assumido o poder a partir de um processo de impeachment altamente contestável (um golpe parlamentar, de acordo com parte da opinião pública) e de avançar reformas em quase tudo contrastantes com o programa de governo escolhido pelas urnas em 2014.

    Apesar disso, em 2017 continuou avançando um processo de dinamização da sociedade civil no Brasil, com o surgimento de movimentos sociais pela renovação da política, sobretudo entre parcelas mais jovens da população – que se sentem em geral bastante barrados do sistema político como ele se organiza hoje. Trata-se de uma dinâmica que começou a ficar mais clara e se aprofundou a partir dos grandes protestos de 2013 e se dinamizou com os movimentos de ocupação de escolas em 2015, com a mobilização contra a Copa do Mundo e as Olimpíadas, que se realizaram no Brasil em junho-julho de 2014 e agosto de 2016, respectivamente, com a atuação de movimentos de ativismo urbano e com o substancial crescimento em tamanho e importância do movimento feminista e LGBTI nos últimos três anos.

    Em suma, eu diria que o cenário é ao mesmo tempo de profunda politização entre vários setores da sociedade, mas de falta de articulação (seja por falta de força, seja por discordância política ou estratégica) entre esses movimentos em nível nacional.

    1. Como o governo reagiu aos protestos? Como a sociedade civil respondeu às restrições ao espaço de atuação cívica?

    O governo tem reagido de forma bastante violenta, nos casos em que houve enfrentamento com manifestantes (como na greve de abril de 2017), como é de costume no país, sobretudo desde 2013. O que muitos ativistas apontam é que as forças policiais, sobretudo nas cidades onde houve um grande número de movimentações de impacto nacional nos últimos anos (principalmente Rio de Janeiro e São Paulo) se tornaram mais “eficientes” desde 2013 – e também como “legado” da Copa do Mundo e das Olimpíadas – em dissuadir protestos e em usar força máxima em muitos casos, dificultando estrategicamente que grandes protestos se concretizem.

    Além disso, a outra forma de reação do governo tem sido, com frequência, desprezar deliberadamente a opinião pública, fechando-se ainda mais em suas alianças com o congresso e alguns setores da economia e da imprensa. Temer teve ao longo do 2017 a menor aprovação de qualquer presidente da história brasileira, e certamente uma das menores do mundo, o que não o impediu de manter-se, mesmo que sem legitimidade, no poder.

    Por seu lado, a sociedade civil ainda busca novas formas de atuação frente a esse cenário de fechamento dos canais institucionais. As novas redes sociais têm desempenhado um papel crucial para a disseminação de novas gramáticas políticas entre a população - tanto à esquerda como à direita, como atestam exemplarmente o movimento feminista e as redes de apoio a um candidato de extrema-direita como Jair Bolsonaro.

    Na esquerda, o enfraquecimento do Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), da Central Única dos Trabalhadores (CUT), a principal central sindical do país, do Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais sem Terra (MST) e da União Nacional dos Estudantes (UNE), que exerceram papel quase hegemônico nas últimas décadas, se deu em paralelo à emergência de novas formas de organização mais locais e autônomas em todo o país, como movimentos de bairro, coletivos de jovens de periferia e movimentos de estudantes não-alinhados a partidos políticos.

    1. Em abril de 2017, o Brasil teve uma das greves gerais mais massivas de sua história. O que levou a esse protesto? Por que ele teve uma dimensão tão massiva? E o que mudou como resultado?

    A grande greve de abril 2017, com uma quase paralisação geral de um dia, deveu-se à conjunção de dois fatores: a crise do governo Temer, com a divulgação de evidências de seu envolvimento – e do envolvimento de ministros e outros políticos muito próximos a ele – em escândalos de corrupção de grandes proporções, e às tentativas do governo em avançar duas reformas que impactarão profundamente os trabalhadores: a nova lei trabalhista (sancionada pelo presidente em julho) e a reforma da previdência (ainda em tramitação no Congresso). Outros movimentos sociais de oposição ao governo, assim como movimentos de esquerda (estudantes, feministas, LGBTI, ativismo urbano) se juntaram aos protestos. De qualquer forma, apesar de sua enorme importância, essa grande movimentação não ganhou momento ao longo do ano – ao menos não como um movimento nacional unificado antigoverno e antirreformas neoliberais.

    1. O que podemos esperar para 2018 com a aproximação das eleições e a liderança do ex-presidente Lula da Silva nas pesquisas?

    O cenário ainda é bastante aberto, e qualquer previsão é marcada por muita incerteza. A primeira questão importante é se Lula poderá concorrer às eleições de outubro – caso ele não seja condenado em segunda instância. Em julho de 2017, Lula foi condenado a quase 10 anos de prisão depois de ter sido declarado culpado por acusações de corrupção e lavagem de dinheiro, mas seu recurso ainda está pendente. Mesmo que seu recurso fosse resolvido contra ele, alguns juristas ainda defendem que ele poderia ser candidato, até que o Supremo Tribunal Federal, a suprema corte constitucional do país, confirmasse o julgamento.

    Outras iniciativas à esquerda ainda são bastante tímidas, como um início de movimentação em torno do nome de Guilherme Boulos (líder do mais significativo movimento de moradia do país, o MTST) e Ciro Gomes, um político com posições nacionalistas mas associado a práticas políticas bastante tradicionais.

    A mesma incerteza também marca a direita e o centro – é bastante provável que o governador de São Paulo, o pouco carismático Geraldo Alckmin, concorrerá, provavelmente com uma plataforma liberal na economia e conservadora em termos de costumes e segurança pública. Jair Bolsonaro deverá ser o primeiro candidato abertamente de extrema direita com alguma chance de ir ao segundo turno.

    De qualquer forma, a disputa tende a ser ferrenha e não há candidato com chances claras de vitória em primeiro turno. Além disso, a despeito do surgimento de novos movimentos que pregam uma renovação na política, a legislação eleitoral brasileira dificulta imensamente uma renovação no legislativo, um dos maiores responsáveis pela atual crise política e pelo avanço de uma agenda conservadora.

    • O espaço cívico no Brasil é classificado como ‘obstruído’ noCIVICUS Monitor, indicando restrições graves nos direitos da sociedade civil.

    Entre em contato com Jose Henrique através de seus perfisFacebook ouAcademia, ou pelo email

     

  • Civic Space Restrictions in Africa

    By David Kode

    Across Africa, major advances in democracy have been affected by restrictions on civic space and on the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs), the media and individual activists. Civic space is the foundation for civil society to make its contribution to society, provoking discussion and debate, advocating for a more inclusive society, providing services, building community spirit and challenging those in authority on the decisions they make.

    Read on: African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) 

     

  • CIVICUS concerned as Uganda replicates Ethiopia's authoritarian approach in the run up to the elections

    Johannesburg. 12 May 2010. In the run up to the 2011 general elections, the legal and political environment for civil society in Uganda is rapidly deteriorating, and beginning to follow the trajectory of Ethiopia facing elections later this month.

     

     

    As the 23 May elections in Ethiopia near, the administration has virtually left no stone unturned to silence the local media and civil society groups. To curtail the ability of civil society to effectively monitor the present elections, the Ethiopian authorities have over the past two years introduced a raft of restrictive measures, many of which are being replicated by the Ugandan authorities.

     

  • CIVICUS condemns violence, encourages peaceful dialogue in Peru

    12 June 2009. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation condemns the violence stemming from protest in Peru and supports the resumption of peaceful dialogue and cooperation between the Government of Peru and the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Amazon (AIDESEP).

    According to reports, approximately 40 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when Peruvian police and military opened fire on unarmed protestors on 5 June 2009.

    The indigenous protesters oppose plans by the Peruvian government to further open parts of the Amazon region for development and the extraction of oil, minerals, timber, and other natural resources by multinational corporations. They maintain that multinational corporations are gaining access to ancestral territories without consultation from indigenous peoples. Protests have resulted in road blockades and the closure of areas in the Amazon region.

    Talks among indigenous communities represented by AIDESEP and the Peruvian government broke down on 5 June 2009. Following vows of insurgency by protesters, the Peruvian military joined state police in a campaign of forced removals. Although threats of insurgency have since been rescinded, armed intervention continues, and the 60 day state of emergency that has been in effect since 8 May 2009 remains.

    The implementation of newly promulgated laws passed last year give President Garcia new powers to implement free-trade agreements, which includes new trade pacts with the United States and Canada. Such pacts threaten the preservation of rural and native communities' autonomy and use of land as affirmed by Article 89 of the Constitution of the Republic of Peru. Moreover, the laws did not follow mandatory consultation with the affected communities under Article 6 of the ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal People in Independent Countries in breach of Peru's obligations under international law.

    Although, the Congress has indefinitely suspended two of the decrees in response to recommendations of the Special Commission of the Congress, Constitutional Commission of the Congress and the Office of the Ombudsman, it has not repealed them to eliminate a significant cause of the conflict.

    CIVICUS is deeply concerned over the escalation of violence and increased use of armed intervention by the Peruvian government and recommends that:

    (i) an independent commission of inquiry comprising international experts be set up to investigate the violence and the events preceding it; and

    (ii) an invitation be extended to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous People to carry out an investigation.

    CIVICUS supports the rights of all peoples of Peru to peacefully organise, protest and petition the government, and encourages resumption of peaceful talks and good-faith dialogue between the indigenous peoples of Peru and the government.

     

  • CIVICUS expresses concern over detention of Uzbekistan activist

     

    13 May 2009 – CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation has expressed concern over the detention of well-known civil society activists in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for commemorating the anniversary of the 2005 “Andijan Massacre”.

    Civil society activists Oleg Sarapulov and Tatyana Dolblatova from the Committee for the Freedom of the Prisoners of Conscience in Uzbekistan, and Elena Urlaeva, Salomatoy Boymatova, and Anatoly Volkov and Victoria Banjenova from the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan were detained for most of today at the Tashkent Police Department for peacefully paying tribute to the memory of those killed in Andijan on 12-13 May 2005.

    Further, Bahadir Namazov from the Committee for the Freedom of the Prisoners of Conscience in Uzbekistan remains under house arrest to prevent them from attending the peaceful memorial services at Tashkent’s Monument to Courage.

    “Commemorating the deaths of fellow citizens is not a crime. Their detention even further tarnishes Uzbekistan’s democratic credentials as a member of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE),” said Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS.

    According to reports, surveillance and pressure on independent human rights defenders began yesterday, on the 12th of May, and has continued throughout today. All the mentioned human rights activists were followed by several law enforcement agents.

    On 13 May 2005, gunmen attacked government buildings and broke into the Andijan city prison, taking hostages. In reaction, thousands of demonstrators later gathered, airing grievances about the government. While official estimates state that 173 people were killed, it was widely reported that over 500 lost their lives. Although, no official investigation has been made into these events, it is clear officers from the Ministry of the Interior and National Security Service used violent and disproportionate force against protesting citizens, resulting in these deaths. The government of Uzbekistan has not held any of the forces accountable for the violence.

    CIVICUS believes these civil society activists were arbitrary detained, in breach of national constitutional guarantees and Uzbekistan’s commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assuring the freedom to assemble peacefully.

     

  • CIVICUS urges the Nicaraguan Government to make Civil Society its partner in development

    27 January 2009. Johannesburg, South Africa


    A fact-finding cum solidarity mission to Nicaragua undertaken by CIVICUS with the support of its members, the Coordinadora Civil (CC) and the Red Nicaraguense por la Democracia y el Desarrollo Local (RNDDL), has found evidence of pressure being applied by the authorities on independent civil society groups. Nevertheless, talks with officials have been positive raising hopes for better government-civil society relations.

    The mandate of the mission included: (i) expressing solidarity with civil society groups in Nicaragua who have had to contend with decreasing space to carry out their legitimate activities through 2008-2009 and, (ii) persuading the authorities to protect civil and political freedoms in the country, particularly the right to express democratic dissent.

    The mission members met with a number of civil society groups, including members of the women's movement who have had to face restrictions in recent times as well as parliamentarians and government officials. The mission noted the positive strides made by the government in providing health care and education resulting in an increase in the overall literacy rate.

    The mission observed that although government-civil society relations at the municipal level were often quite good, there were some outstanding issues in need of redress at the national level. Notably, the mission welcomed the willingness of parliamentarians and government officials to consider the concerns communicated to them by national civil society groups.

    The following are the major areas of concern:
    (a) launch of motivated prosecutions against activists expressing dissent against official policies, (b) ostracising and blacklisting of certain civil society groups particularly those working on accountability matters, (c) marginalisation of independent civil society groups through the creation of government organised NGOs (GONGOs) supported by federal funds, (d) blocking of access to information by official bodies, (e) harassment of independent media groups particularly radio and television outlets critical of official actions and, (f) de facto implementation of the draft law on international cooperation that places restrictions on support to local civil society organisations from international groups.

    "Our talks with key officials have been open and positive," feels Anabel Cruz, chair of CIVICUS' board who headed the mission. "We call upon the Government of Nicaragua to consider civil society as partners in national development and hope that the concerns will be addressed."

    CIVICUS urges the Government of Nicaragua to protect and safeguard the space for civil society in accordance with international, regional and constitutional commitments. A comprehensive report on the mission is being prepared and will be released shortly.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) programme of CIVICUS tracks threats to civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world.

    For more information contact:
    Devendra Tak ( ), Communications Manager
    or Mandeep S.Tiwana ( ) and Adam Nord ( ) Civil Society Watch Programme, CIVICUS
    Ph +27- 11-8335959

    Click here for Spanish translation(requires pdf reader).

     

  • CIVICUS warns of grave dangers to civil society activists in Kenya

    Johannesburg. 18 May 2010. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation warns that the operating environment for civil society in Kenya remains fraught with danger. As the spotlight is focused on impunity in Kenya by the international community including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and special representatives of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), civil society activists are facing grave risks.

    Groups advocating for ending impunity for perpetrators of human rights violations and those that have documented the violations are particularly threatened. On 4 May 2010, a meeting organised by Bunge la Mwannanchi on the post election violence in Kenya was dispersed and four of its activists were detained and later released without charges. In April this year, Kenneth Kirimi, a member of the civil society group, Release Political Prisoners, was arbitrarily detained and severely tortured by security operatives requiring him to need medical treatment. He was questioned with regard to his work on collecting information about extra-judicial killings and sharing of information with the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston.

     

  • CLIMATE CHANGE: ‘There is no respect for the role of civil society’

    Portuguese

    Adriana RamosCIVICUS speaks with Adriana Ramos, advisor at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian civil society organisation that has worked since 1994 to propose solutions to social and environmental issues. ISA's main focus is the defence of social, collective and public goods and rights regarding the environment, cultural heritage, human rights and peoples’ rights. 

     

     

    Do you think there is an increasing restriction of civic space in Brazil following the election of President Jair Bolsonaro?

    Yes, we already have plenty of evidence that there is less scope for democratic action by civil society, at least in regard to the government. Various councils, committees and commissions that used to function as formal spaces for civil society participation in policy-making have been shut down. Regarding climate policy in particular, the National Commission for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (CONAREDD+), the Climate Fund’s Steering Committee and the Amazon Fund’s Steering Committee were affected, which used to be important forums for the implementation of national climate change policies.

    The government is also behaving antagonistically toward civil society. Its belligerent and aggressive tone hinders the possibility of dialogue. There is no respect for the role of civil society. All of this reflects on the performance of organisations working on the frontline. The suspension of the Amazon Fund, for instance, has precluded many planned projects and jeopardised ongoing ones.

    The government also attempted to eliminate the Ministry of Environment because they thought there was no need for environmental policy. As the proposal to eliminate it had a negative reaction among the public, the Ministry has remained in place, but it is now dedicated to dismantling existing environmental policies and legislation.

    When the Amazon fires came under the spotlight, the president of Brazil said that civil society organisations (CSOs) could be the ones responsible for deforestation. How have these statements affected the work of environmental organisations and defenders?

    Their first effect has been to drain all our energies by forcing us to focus on responding to such atrocious accusations. When the president makes such statements, the press is obliged to disseminate them, and we end up having to defend ourselves. We are put in a position where we need to respond to completely baseless statements made by the president. This is clearly a demobilisation strategy, as it paralyses our main activities and hinders the work of CSOs.

    In addition, there is little understanding of civil society in our country. As a result, such a statement sends a prejudiced message to the public and promotes misinformation and a misreading of the role of civil society. This is happening within the framework of a larger system that is actively promoting ‘fake news’. It ends up creating a cascade effect.

    Is there a link between this narrative and the threats facing environmental defenders, particularly those closest to the frontline of conflict?

    During his election campaign the president promised to “end all activism in Brazil.” We see the government acting consistently with this promise, promoting lawlessness and delegitimating the work of environmental defenders. This reflects directly in the increased lack of safety in the field and the sense of impunity that strengthens those who act illegally. Illegal activities are promoted in the Amazon region, such as illegal logging, illegal mining and land grabbing, all of which are sources of conflict. Those who have historically been the perpetrators of violence against indigenous peoples and environmental leaders come out stronger. In addition, the president’s authoritarian approach ends up mobilising public security forces. Public security forces, which should be working to defend vulnerable groups, are guided by a policy that criminalises and marginalises these groups. Thus, Brazil will probably continue to be listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders.

    How has civil society organised to respond in this context?

    We have sought to ensure the constitutional conditions for an active civil society, coordinating various efforts to guarantee the safety of defenders in the field and strengthen protection strategies for the social leaders who are in the most vulnerable positions. We need to innovate in our methods in order to be able to get through these times. It is an unfortunate situation, but I think Brazilian civil society is quite experienced in facing adverse situations and is trying to become stronger in this context.

    At the same time, I believe that checks and balances between the three powers of our government have never been as essential as they are today. If dialogue with the executive is unfeasible, then we must increase our work on the legislative and judicial fronts. Even with their institutional limitations, these end up being key spaces for intervention and contestation of the Brazilian government’s authoritarian actions. We still have a constitution in place. It is a robust constitution in terms of guarantees for individual rights and the freedom of association. On its basis, we carry on the battle.

    What kind of support do Brazilian environmental organisations and defenders need?

    We need more institutional support to ensure that organisations can develop their advocacy work as robustly as the context requires. We need protections that render them less vulnerable to any kind of persecution.

    But support is also needed to strengthen locally developed initiatives, by means of supporting local communities so they can generate income and manage their territories. It is no use fighting on the political front to prevent legislative changes if the living conditions of local communities deteriorate and they become increasingly vulnerable to the unsustainable proposals brought to them by the government. It is important to ensure that there are projects that generate income from sustainable forest use so that communities do not become vulnerable and prone to being used as pawns at the service of those who advocate for the opening of their territories for exploitation by third parties. If this happens, these territories will become unsustainable, and this is bad both for the communities and the environment. It is not only about supporting political resistance against the government’s discourse, but also about supporting best practices in autonomous environmental management by communities, so that communities are strengthened in the process, rather than becoming vulnerable to co-option.

    Is there a growing public movement for environmental causes in Brazil?

    I believe so. Every day more people are interested in mobilising and are reacting to what is happening. They begin to understand that this is a cross-cutting theme, as there is no economy or health without a healthy environment. Because of the current denial of environmental policy, the theme draws even more attention. Without a doubt, this can contribute to strengthening civil society and prompt more people to mobilise, participate and stay attuned to what is happening. That is the positive aspect of the current situation.

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

    Get in touch with Instituto Socioambiental through its website or its Facebook and Instagram profiles.

     

  • EGYPT: ‘There's been severe deterioration in the rule of law & respect for human rights’

    CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Egypt and their repression with a woman activist and protester who, for security reasons, asked to remain anonymous. The space for civil society in Egypt is severely restricted: laws limit legitimate civil society activities and detention and intimidation are routinely used to silence human rights defenders and journalists. The protests that took place in September 2019 resulted in mass arrests and the criminalisation of protesters.

    egypt protest 1024x683

    What were the main drivers of the September 2019 protests in Egypt?

    The trigger for the September 2019 protests came in the form of a series of viral videos shared by the Egyptian actor and construction contractor Mohamed Ali, in which he accused the authorities and the armed forces of corruption and the squandering of public funds. While President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi ultimately addressed the videos in some form, more videos by Ali and others  followed; a broader conversation on the role of the military in Egypt’s economy also ensued.

    On 20 September, and partly in response to Ali’s call for demonstrations against Sisi, hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Cairo, and Alexandria, Suez and other cities. As part of this wave of demonstrations, more protests took place on 20, 21 and 27 September. They occurred within a broader context in which many Egyptian citizens were also bearing the brunt of austerity measures and subsidy cuts and were increasingly affected by an escalating crackdown targeting independent, peaceful expression.

    What was the response of the government to the protests?

    Immediately following the protests and for days afterwards, the Egyptian authorities carried out a widespread arrest campaign that not only targeted people who were present at the demonstrations, but also lawyers, political activists and advocates more broadly. Local civil society organisations (CSOs) estimate that at least 3,763 people were arrested. Many of these people were ordered into pretrial detention in cases involving alleged charges of belonging to a terrorist organisation and spreading false news; a number of them remain in detention.

    In the wake of the protests, Netblocks reported restricted use around Facebook Messenger, BBC News and social media CDN (content delivery network) servers. In Cairo, the authorities blocked some roads and temporarily closed some metro stops, particularly those close to Tahrir Square.

    What has been the state of democracy and human rights in Egypt under the current regime?

    Increasingly since 2013, there has been a severe deterioration in the rule of law and respect for human rights in Egypt. Authorities are using the law to consolidate authoritarianism. This is reflected in new legislation that restricts rights and re-writes the relationship between civilians and the state; the prosecution of peaceful advocates using overly broad anti-terrorism legislation; and the introduction of amendments to the constitution allowing executive influence and interference in the functioning of what are meant to be independent state institutions, including the judiciary and the prosecution.

    The use of extended pretrial detention periods as a punitive measure, the sentencing of individuals in mass trials, and a spike in death penalty sentences continue to take place. Detention conditions remain poor; instances of torture and deaths in detention as a result of inadequate access to medical care abound.

    The situation of minorities leaves much to be desired. Though the authorities passed a Church Construction Law in 2016 and built the region’s largest church in the New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s Christian minority population continues to suffer from sectarianism, finds it difficult to access justice amid reconciliation sessions that favour the majority faith, and often faces obstacles in building and licensing churches in the areas in which they actually reside. While the state has made some initial attempt to compensate the ethnic Nubian minority, their constitutionally recognised right to return to their ancestral lands remains unfulfilled.

    Although Egypt is performing better on a number of economic indicators, austerity policies and subsidy cuts have impacted on the economic and social rights of particularly marginalised civilians, affecting key issues such as housing, education, health and work.

    How has the new NGO law impacted on the freedom of association?

    In August 2019, Egypt’s new NGO Law went into effect. However, its implementing regulations have not yet been issued, which is making it difficult to understand the degree to which the law is in force – and if it is not, which law and implementing regulations are – and to assess the implementation of the law and its impact on civil society. According to the law, implementing regulations were required to be issued within six months, but this deadline passed in February 2019. Media reports suggest however that the regulations are now expected to be issued in mid-March 2020.

    Egypt’s 2019 NGO Law does away with penalties involving jail time, as well as the National Agency to Regulate the Work of Foreign NGOs, a security and intelligence-heavy body created by the 2017 NGO Law to approve and monitor foreign funding. However, the law furthers significant restrictions on the activities of CSOs, places bureaucratic constraints on registration and creates expansive oversight and monitoring authority for government actors.

    While it may be early to report on the precise impact of the new law, there is no doubt that its passing has already contributed to some self-censorship, as CSOs have reported being uncertain regarding what legal schemes govern their work and have also raised concern about the law’s broad restrictions. The law was passed in an environment characterised by travel bans, asset freezes and the prosecution and arrest of members of civil society. These trends are only expected to continue. It is important to note that the NGO Law is not the only piece of legislation governing civil society: the media law, the cybercrime law, the counter-terrorism law and the Penal Code are all examples of laws that contain provisions potentially implicating associational activity as well.

    At this point, what can international civil society do to support civil society in Egypt?

    In some cases in the past, the Egyptian authorities have targeted CSOs engaging with international civil society and subjected them to various forms of reprisal. At other times, international connectivity, collaboration and work with networks has been a form of protection for Egyptian civil society. Accordingly, some organisations are able, willing, or well-positioned to engage with international civil society, while others may not be; this often ends up being a very contextualised and determined on a case-by-case basis.

    In cases in which international support can be of benefit to a particular Egyptian CSO, there are a number of clear needs: the creation of long-term and technical training opportunities and resources; systematic network building to expand access to decision-makers; and the provision of in-kind and financial support. Together, this programming has the potential to amplify the voices of, strengthen and provide protection for domestic CSOs that can often be under-resourced, cut off from the international community and subjected to government restriction.

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

     

  • Environmental Movement in Russia Once Again Under Attack

    19 April 2010, Johannesburg. CIVICUS has received information from local sources that the offices of Socio-Ecological Union (SEU) in Samara, Russia, have been raided by the police in connection with alleged criminal charges of extremism against Mr. Sergey Simak the Co-Chair of the Organization,.

    On the 13th of April, staff from the regional branches of the Department for Economic Crimes and the Center for the Combat of Extremism raided the SEU offices and seized Mr. Simak's computer and documents, which are alleged to have been used for criminal purposes.

    According to local reports, a source in the regional Police Department stated that the case was initiated on 12 April, the same day that activists from Samara, and 44 other cities in Russia, held protests over the felling of virgin Mediterranean pistachio-juniper forests, to make space for a health and sports complex. Furthermore, ecologists and activists from Samara have been actively involved in protesting the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill, which reopened with the support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and has grave ecological consequences for Lake Baikal and surrounding region.

    CIVICUS is deeply concerned that attacks on the environmental movement in Russia are becoming common and systematic. A member of SEU has expressed fears to CIVICUS that, as SEU is currently headquartered out of Samara, the whole organization may be jeopardized by this latest attack. CIVICUS urges President Medvedev to protect freedoms of association and expression in the country, and ensure that peaceful environmentalism is not regarded as extremism in Russia.

    Environmental groups in Russia are repeatedly stripped of their fundamental right to freedom of expression when the issues are political or economic in nature. In January 2010, police raided NGO Baikal Environmental Wave, a member of the SEU Network, and confiscated computers in response to the NGO's advocacy surrounding the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill. Further, in Turkmenistan, the authorities arrested Mr. Andrey Zatoka under trumped up charges, a renowned ecologist, activist and member of SEU.

    The Socio-Ecological Union remains to be the oldest, largest, and one of the most respected NGOs in the post-Soviet region. The compromise of the operations and existence of this organization would have grave consequences not only for the region's rich and diverse ecology, but also for the civil society in Eurasia as a whole.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society with members and partners in over a hundred countries. The Civil Society Watch (CSW) programme of CIVICUS tracks threats to civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly across the world. In 2009, CSW tracked threats in 75 countries across the globe.

    For more information, please contact:

    Devendra Tak, Media and Communications Manager, CIVICUS
    or
    Sonia Zilberman, Civil Society Watch Programme, CIVICUS
    Tel: +27 -11- 8335959

     

  • European States and US must take measures to protect Egyptian human rights defenders, both home and abroad

    The undersigned civil society organisations express their outrage at the latest death threats targeting the Director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Bahey el-Din Hassan, as a result of his human rights work on Egypt in Europe and the US. On 21 March 2018, in reaction to a memo sent by seven Egyptian independent human rights groups, including CIHRS, to the UN Secretary-General regarding the presidential elections in Egypt, a TV show host called on the Egyptian authorities to “deal with him [Bahey el-Din Hassan] the same way the Russian spy was dealt with,”[1] in reference to the nerve agent attack on Serjei Skripal in the United Kingdom.

    Given the gravity of these threats against Bahey el-Din Hassan, the undersigned organisations call on the European States and the United States to:

    1. take all necessary measures to protect Egyptian human rights defenders (HRDs), both home and abroad, and

    2. to urge the Egyptian authorities to carry out immediate, thorough and impartial investigations on these threats. HRDs should be able to engage with regional and international human rights systems without fear for their lives. Support for HRDs is a stated priority of EU, Swiss, Norwegian and US foreign policies, and lies at the heart of the 1998 UN Declaration on HRDs.

    CIHRS is an indispensable and internationally recognised organisation, which has been a champion of human rights across the Middle East and North Africa for over 20 years.

    These events not only constitute the latest example of the harassment that Mr Hassan has faced in the last years, which forced him into exile in 2014 following the election of President el-Sisi, but also represent an extremely worrying pattern of reprisals against HRDs in Egypt and many other parts of the world.

    While pro-democracy activists in Egypt are being jailed for expressing their views on social media, these repeated and serious incitements on television calling to inflict physical harm against Bahey el-Din Hassan as well as other HRDs have not been adequately addressed by the Egyptian authorities. Amidst an unprecedented crackdown on human rights and civil society, together with a soon-to-be implemented draconian NGO law, the Egyptian authorities appear determined to silence HRDs by any means, including instructing security services and State-sponsored media to intimidate them in Egypt and abroad.

    Egyptian  NGOs already witnessed this kind of harassment during a human rights workshop in Rome in May 2017, when two persons pretending to be Egyptian journalists intimidated and took pictures of the Egyptian participants. Subsequently, a smear campaign was launched in Egypt where Moustafa Bakry, a political figure closely associated to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and a member of the pro-Sisi parliamentary bloc, stated on his TV show that the Egyptian security agencies should “kidnap” Egyptian human rights defenders, including Bahey el-Din Hassan, from Europe and bring them back to Egypt “in coffins”,[2] reminding them that this had been done in the past.

    AboutBahey el-Din Hassan

    Bahey el-Din Hassan is a journalist, he has published articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is a leading initiator of the human rights movement in Egypt and the Arab region, director and co-founder of CIHRS, and a member of the boards and advisory committees of several international human rights organisations, including the Euro Mediterranean Foundation of Support to Human Rights Defenders (EMHRF), Human Rights Watch (HRW) Middle East and North Africa Division, and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Hassan is also one of the founding members of EMHRF and EuroMed Rights.

    Signatories 

    1. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)
    2. Asian Forum For Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) 
    3. Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC)
    4. Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
    5. Caucasus Civil Initiatives Center (CCIC)
    6. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS) – Argentina
    7. CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    8. Conectas
    9. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    10. EuroMed Rights
    11. FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    12. Front Line Defenders
    13. Human Rights First
    14. Human Rights Watch
    15. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    16. JOINT Liga de ONGs em Mozambique
    17. Karapatan (Philippines)
    18. Odhikar (Bangladesh)
    19. Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)
    20. Reporters Without Borders
    21. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
    22. The Working Group on Egypt (USA)[3]
    23. World Organisation against Torture, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

    [1] Link to the video (in Arabic) https://youtu.be/gZE8zCePfqw

    [2] Link to the TV show (in Arabic) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eirJclgosPs (min 34)

    [3] Elliott Abrams, Michele Dunne, Jamie Fly, Reuel Gerecht, Amy Hawthorne, Neil Hicks, Robert Kagan, Tom Malinowski, Steve McInerney, Tamara Wittes

     

  • Gabon government goes after civil society and opposition members for failed military coup, raising concerns

    • Global rights groups concerned by Gabon government’s targeting of human rights defenders and opposition members for military coup attempt
    • Authorities shut down Internet and suspend broadcasting services following failed coup
    • Gabon under tense security in wake of coup attempt
    • The family of President Ali Bongo has held onto power in Gabon for over half a century

    Global civil society groups are concerned at indications by the government of Gabon that it intends to investigate local civil society organisations and members of the political opposition for their involvement in the recent military coup attempt.

    A small group of Gabon army soldiers seized control of the country’s national broadcasting station in the capital, Libreville, on January 7 and announced a political takeover and the setting up of a National Restoration Council to oust President Ali Bongo. The coup was thwarted after security forces stormed the building, killing two of the soldiers involved in the operation. Eight plotters have been arrested. A day after the failed coup, the government shut down the internet nationwide and suspended broadcasting services. 

    There are concerns that the Gabonese authorities might use the failed coup as a pretext to clampdown on fundamental rights to freedom of assembly, expression and association and tighten its grip on the media. 

    Amid heightened political tensions, global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, has expressed serious concern at comments by government spokesperson Guy-Bertrand Mapangou that certain opposition parties and civil society would be investigated for supporting the coup.

     “We urge Gabon not to target individual human rights defenders or civil society but to instead increase the space for fundamental rights to be enjoyed by all Gabonese,” said Teldah Mawarire of CIVICUS.

    “What Gabon needs is democratic reform and the respect of the rule of law – virtues which have been absent from the country for half a century,” Mawarire said.  

    The Internet shutdown has also sparked concern, as a violation of the freedom of citizens to express themselves freely and to impart and receive information without hinderance. CIVICUS has urged the Gabonese government to ensure that fundamental freedoms are respected, in the wake of the coup attempt.

    President of Gabon, Ali Bongo has been away receiving medical attention in Morocco since last October. He succeeded his father Omar Bongo in 2009 in a contested election in which the opposition alleged electoral fraud. The Bongo family has ruled Gabon for 51 years. There has been an increase in restrictions on fundamental freedoms since a contested 2016 elections characterized by a media blackout, the killing of protesters, widespread arrests and intimidation and harassment of journalists.

    Last November, the authorities suspended the newspaper L’Aube for three months for publishing an article about the president’s health. The publication’s editor was banned from practicing journalism for six months. The same month, in a move widely criticized by civil society as being unconstitutional, the Constitutional Court amended the constitution to accommodate the absence of President Ali Bongo. Gabonese Civil society groups argued that the mandate of the Constitutional Court was limited to interpreting the constitution and not to change it. 

    The CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in all countries, has rated civic space – the space for civil society – in Gabon as “Repressed”. This means that civil society organisations there operates under serious restrictions, which impede their ability to speak out on or protest any issue of concern to them.

    Following the attempted coup, the African Union (AU) commendably and swiftly condemned the action and urged a return to the rule of law. However, the AU has been encouraged to apply the same urgency to address the longstanding repression of fundamental rights by the Gabonese state.

    For more information, please contact:

    Teldah Mawarire

    Grant Clark

    Click here for our Press Centre

    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CIVICUS/

    Twitter: @CIVICUSalliance

     

  • Harassment and persecution of the voices that denounce the repression in Nicaragua

    By Natalia Gomez Peña is Advocacy & Engagement Officer at CIVICUS

    On Wednesday, December 12, the National Assembly of Nicaragua voted to cancel the legal personality of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). After the announcement, Vilma Núñez, 80, the president of CENIDH and one of the most recognized human rights defenders in the region, said: "We have done our job with conviction and will continue to do so until Nicaragua is truly free."

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated during the pandemic’

    Adrian PereiCIVICUS speaks to Adrian Pereira, the Executive Director ofNorth South Initiative (NSI), about the situation of migrant workers in Malaysia amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    NSI helps build advocacy and leadership capacities among migrants, refugees and stateless persons, both documented and undocumented, so they can claim their rights. It also monitors labour and immigration-related abuses by authorities, employers and local workers and ensures that migrant organisations are connected to a strong solidarity network and are able to cooperate with other civil society organisations (CSOs) and trade unions.

    There are estimated to be somewhere between three and six millionmigrant workers in Malaysia. Migrant workers are set up for exploitation by a combination of unscrupulous recruitment agents and employers, harsh immigration policies, unmonitored supply chains and a lack of enforcement of labour protections. They are subjected to passport confiscation, low pay in violation of minimum wage laws, poor living conditions, punishment by fines, high recruitment fees and debts to recruitment agencies and employers, forced labour, human trafficking and salary deductions. Areport on the ability of migrants and refugees to access civic freedoms, produced by CIVICUS and Solidarity Center in collaboration with NSI, showed that the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression in Malaysia are severely restricted for these vulnerable minorities.

     

    What was the situation of migrant workers’ access to healthcare prior to the pandemic?

    Malaysia removed subsidies for migrant workers to access public healthcare in 2016. Given that migrants rely mostly on public medical services, this measure resulted in declining quality and access to healthcare by migrants, both documented and undocumented, as the high cost of private alternatives usually deters them from getting any healthcare. Despite migrants and their employers and agents paying billions of Malaysian Ringgit per year in levies, taxes and other payments, they are not getting their money’s worth in healthcare.

    Those who are undocumented are only able to access private healthcare, because if they try to access public healthcare, immigration authorities will be informed, and they will come to arrest them. Over the years, brutal enforcement by police, immigration and customs forces and the People’s Volunteer Corps towards undocumented migrants has made them even more fearful of seeking medical treatment.

    There are also cultural competency gaps between medical practitioners and migrants, which make it difficult for them to get proper healthcare. Domestic workers who don’t have days off and are locked indoors have an even more difficult time in accessing healthcare.

    One positive step in 2019 was the inclusion of documented migrants into the national social security system, ensuring much higher compensation and better healthcare in the event of work-related accidents and illnesses. But for non-work-related accidents and injuries, private insurance offers minimal coverage. 

    What additional challenges have migrant workers faced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic?

    Many migrant workers, and especially undocumented and informal ones, have lost their source of income. As a result, they can’t pay for food, rent and medicines, unless they have tested positive for COVID-19, in which case their quarantine and care is covered by the government. Only migrants who provide government-sanctioned ‘essential services’ are able to work. But their safety really depends on whether the companies permitted to operate comply with rules set by the government. The rules are meant to ensure workers are safe from the risk of COVID-19 infection and can continue to work. But there is almost no one to monitor this consistently.

    The government has announced an economic stimulus package that sadly has marginalised migrant workers. There is a worker’s salary subsidy to ensure companies don’t have to retrench workers, but this does not apply to migrant workers. Previously, migrant workers were also excluded from the Workers Insurance Scheme under the national social security body, which would ensure a safety net for workers who were retrenched. The Movement Control Orders (MCOs) imposed by the government to restrict travel that came into force on 18 March have made it difficult for migrants to travel to access basic services, food, banking and other essentials. In Enhanced MCO areas, service providers can’t even enter. Informal sectors are sacking and abandoning the migrants who worked for them, particularly undocumented migrants and refugees. 

    Employers are forcing migrant employees to resign or take unpaid leave. Employers are taking advantage of the MCOs to not pay their workers. NSI received reports of at least two cases of unpaid salaries way before the MCOs were imposed. One had been unpaid since December 2019 and another since February 2020.

    There is also fearmongering going on, with fake messages and misinformation online putting migrants at risk of backlash from Malaysians. The government pledged not to arrest and detain migrants who come forward for COVID-19 testing. But there is still a lot of fear among migrants and hence many are not coming forward. Some sectors that are very economically aggressive are forcing the government to allow them to reopen so workers can go back to work. We have seen this in the Sabah state palm oil sector.

    The European Union (EU) is also putting both migrant and Malaysian workers at risk of forced labour by asking Malaysian personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers to ensure production continues during the pandemic. The EU has offered tax incentives to Malaysian companies to supply PPE. Further, small and medium enterprises that have been hiring undocumented workers for many years have abandoned their workers, claiming they are short on cash. 

    How have you and other CSOs responded to the situation?

    We are coaching migrant leaders to ensure their communities have access to networks that provide services and can provide accurate information about needs to those who are providing services. Some public networks, such as the ‘Care Mongering Malaysia’ group, are proving a platform for Malaysians to reach out to help migrants and refugees in need. This is an online platform that links those who need help with those who can afford to provide the service. Also, Sikh temples are providing groceries and packed lunches. 

    Other CSOs working hard on the ground to provide groceries include BERSIH2.0, Beyond Borders, Dapur Jalanan, Engage, Geutanyoe Foundation, HOPE, Liga Rakyat Demokratik, Malaysian Trades Union Congress, Our Journey, The Patani, Refuge for the Refugees, Tenaganita and also migrant and refugee community organisations.  Migrant workers can call them when they need assistance with food.

    We are forming a network to ensure services can be delivered in the long term, as we foresee the problems continuing for many months to come. Many migrant workers will remain and will need aid, so we are developing a supply chain to support them.

    We are ensuring migrants receive accurate information from global bodies such as the International Organization for Migration, United Nations (UN) Development Programme and UN Refugee Agency and also from the various government agencies related to health, labour, security and welfare. This includes providing information via infographics on counselling services and on health issues in different languages. 

    We are also fighting misinformation related to migrant workers and refugees. There has been a lot of fearmongering blaming them for the spread of the virus.

    We are also encouraging migrants to seek medical treatment if they are sick and monitoring employers who are taking advantage of the current situation and committing labour offences, particularly as the MCOs have partly restricted lawyers from providing legal representation and legal aid.

    Other CSOs are providing counselling, delivering groceries, doing fundraising, monitoring human trafficking, providing gender-sensitive and maternity-related services and catering to women’s needs.

    What further support does Malaysian civil society need at this time?

    We need cash to support migrants’ needs, including to pay for groceries, bills, rentals and safe repatriation home after the MCOs. We are also seeking funding opportunities because as long as the MCOs apply, we are unable to conduct physical meetings, and most fundraising is based on this. We also need legal aid services for those who are being retrenched unfairly and detained unjustly.

    What lessons have you learned so far from the pandemic?

    We have seen that the government has barely consulted CSOs before implementing policies and this is not in line with good governance principles. Also, there is overkill in punishing those who violate MCOs, including people who are forced to breach the MCOs due to livelihood issues. Further, the over-securitisation of migration over the years has now caused a backlash against migrants, who have been neglected.

    Migrants are amongst the first to be victimised and discriminated against during the pandemic as they are neglected and don’t have strong safety nets. A capitalist system that operates on the basis of mega global supply chains and mega businesses does not have a proper risk-management plan that ensures accountability and transparency. Malaysia also has a problem with statistics, as it has been doctoring the numbers of those in poverty and has failed to address the problems resulting from the huge number of undocumented workers due to the meddling of the deep state.

    The civic rights of migrants have been suspended under the MCOs and Enhanced MCOs, and this in turn has weakened their bargaining power to gain their rights. There has also not been enough cooperation between migrants’ countries of origin and Malaysia to ensure the safe repatriation of those who want to return home, which poses a high risk of infection for everyone. We have received reports that under the MCOs, migrants are forced to use irregular passages to travel home. Embassies have turned to Malaysians for assistance for their citizens.

    CSOs are also not as united as I had assumed in building consensus in dealing with the problems, as they have struggled to cope with this. At the same time, some Malaysians who may have been biased against migrants have, in this time of need, showed compassion and responded in solidarity to migrants’ struggles. As has become clear, in the long term, the economic contributions of migrants ended up benefitting everyone except migrants themselves.

    Civic space inMalaysia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the North South Initiative through itswebsite and Facebook page, and follow@nsinitiative11 on Twitter.

     

  • MALAYSIA: ‘We need global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights’

    As part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Thilaga Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka about LGBTQI rights in Malaysia and the ways in which state and non-state forces are working together to deny rights.

    Can you tell us about your work and the status of LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    I work with Justice for Sisters and Seksualiti Merdeka. Justice for Sisters is a network that primarily works for the human rights of trans people in Malaysia, and we provide legal support, do human rights documentation, engage in national policy work and undertake advocacy with the United Nations (UN) to highlight human rights violations. At Seksualiti Merdeka, we recently launched a website, Queer Lapis. We do capacity strengthening and content production. The work we do is very much grounded in feminist, intersectional principles, and from a queer perspective.

    The human rights of LGBTQI people are definitely regressing in Malaysia. Malaysia historically inherited section 377 of the Penal Code, which criminalises ‘unnatural’ sexual acts, from British colonial rule. Section 377 has been amended several times, and the last amendment in 2017 resulted in the imposition of mandatory whipping as a punishment for consensual carnal intercourse deemed unnatural. The law is gender-neutral but it is used in political ways. As a result, people see it as a law that applies to gay people. We also have shariah laws in three states of Malaysia, introduced between 1995 and 2013, that penalise same-sex relations and posing as a woman or man. Unlike Section 377, these laws directly criminalise sexual and gender identity. The implementation of these laws varies according to state, but amongst them, the law against posing as a woman is most actively used.

    Has the situation for LGBTQI people changed in recent years?

    In recent years, arrests and raids made under these laws have decreased, because of a legal challenge that took place between 2010 and 2015. An appeal went through the different stages of courts. We got a negative decision in the High Court and then won in the Court of Appeal, which upheld that the law was unconstitutional, but then the decision was overturned by the Federal Court. But because of the activism around this case, the number of arrests significantly reduced.

    At the same time we saw a shift in tactics by the government’s Islamic Department, which has adopted a softer evangelical approach towards LGBTQI people. They saw that heavy prosecutions were giving the department a bad image, so there was a shift towards a softer approach, around promoting the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people. There is a narrative that LGBTQI people need help in returning to the ‘right path’.

    We saw an increase in state-funded ‘rehabilitation’ activities in this decade, at the same time that Seksualiti Merdeka, which used to organise festivals, was banned in 2011. The government decided it needed to increase its response to this growing LGBTQI movement. This gave rise to more groups that promote and provide ‘rehabilitation’ or ‘conversion therapy’. We have seen more anti-LGBTQI campaigns in universities and on social media. We have seen more concerted efforts overseen by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which sits under the Prime Minister’s office, and which launched a five-year action to plan to address the ‘social ills’ caused by LGBTQI behaviour. This brought together most ministries.

    As well as the use of various laws and increased state funding for anti-LGBTQI activities, we have seen a heavy-handed response to the freedoms of association and assembly of LGBTQI people. For example, when LGBTQI people have taken part in women’s marches, their organisations have been investigated.

    Did anything alter as a result of the May 2018 election, which saw the first change of government in Malaysia’s independent history?

    The 2018 election has historic in that it changed the administration, but the government has adopted and continued the same policies. Nothing has changed from the LGBTQI perspective. We still see the same amount of resources going into policies that treat LGBTQI people as a problem.

    There is also an ongoing struggle between the new government and the former ruling party that is now in opposition, and this is used to justify the lack of change for LGBTQI people. Right after the election a lesbian couple was arrested in the state of Terengganu, which is an opposition-controlled state. They were charged for sexual relations between women and caned openly in the public court. After this there were also two cases of caning of sex workers.

    So there is all this moral policing. Homophobia is real, but there is also a political tussle and mind games being played over who are the guardians of Islam and race. In this crossfire LGBTQI issues and people become politicised.

    Who are the main groups attacking LGBTQI rights in Malaysia?

    All the groups attacking LGBTQI rights use evangelical language, similar to the right wing in Europe or the USA. They reject the universality of human rights, are nationalistic, oppose pluralism and diversity in many ways, prioritise a particular race or religion and support ‘conversion therapy’. Some of the state-funded activities towards LGBTQI people are carried out by these groups.

    There are celebrity preachers who post social media videos encouraging people to troll LGBTQI people and those who post LGBTQI-related content. There are also individuals who make homophobic comments and conservative student groups who organise against LGBTQI people. But they are less physically aggressive than those in Europe and the USA. They are often careful not to insult LGBTQI people out of fear of giving Islam a bad name.

    There are also ethno-nationalist groups, with the purpose of protecting Muslims and ethnic Malays, that also engage in anti-LGBTQI activity. These don’t adopt an evangelical approach. They engage more in reporting LGBTQI people to the police, and sometimes physical intimidation and violence. At the last women’s march, we saw some of these groups physically intimidating participants. They also issue statements and have an active social media presence.

    Then there are groups that call themselves Islamic non-governmental organisations (NGOs), some of which come together under a coalition of Islamic NGOs that participate in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). These include groups that use more rights-oriented language, given that they engage in the UPR process, and particularly use the language of religious rights. They position what they call the ‘rehabilitation’ of LGBTQI people as consistent with these religious rights. They also cite examples such as the case of a bakery in the USA that was taken to court for refusing to provide a cake for a same-sex wedding to support their arguments for religious rights. Some of these are groups of doctors, lawyers and academics, and they make pseudo-scientific and legal arguments against LGBTQI rights. Some of these Islamic NGOs also provide services, and as such are involved in the government’s ‘rehabilitation’ programme.

    Within civil society, there is a tension between groups that support the universality of human rights and those that oppose it. Between those that promote pluralism and liberalism and those that oppose these. Between those that support LGBTQI rights and those that talk in terms of ‘rehabilitating’ LGBTQI people.

    How do these tensions play out around civil society’s engagement at the international level?

    Some of those Islamic NGOs engage in policy spaces. If LGBTQI CSOs attend a government consultation on the UPR, they share the space with these.

    The UPR process – and UN processes more generally – offer a key site of contestation between these two camps. The second UPR cycle in 2013 was seen by critics as an attempt by civil society to push for the recognition of LGBTQI rights and destabilise the position of Islam in the Federal Constitution. There was a lot of pushback. And then in the third UPR cycle in 2018, these groups participated in the process and claimed space. Some of the recommendations of this group were included in the report compiled by the UNHRC.

    When the Government of Malaysia tried to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, there was a lot of pushback from these groups and attempts to mobilise Muslim people against ratification. The government pulled out of ratifying on the grounds that it would affect the position of Islam and could offer an entry point to the recognition of LGBTQI rights.

    How do different groups that oppose LGBTQI rights connect and receive support?

    After the corruption scandal that led to the ruling party losing the election, ethno-nationalist groups are no longer as closely linked to political parties as they used to be. I suspect now they are mostly self-funded. With Islamic NGOs, I suspect they receive some foreign funding. Some have a presence outside Malaysia as well. There is an umbrella group, ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), which apparently has an office in Germany.

    We also believe some groups receive state funding for their participation in the government’s anti-LGBTQI programme. When a colleague raised the issue of state-sponsored violence against LGBTQI people at a UPR meeting, this created a lot of protest from Islamic NGOs, including those linked with ISMA, who demanded an apology and retraction. The small organisations that are providing ‘rehabilitation’ services also mobilised in their support, making quite clear the connections between groups receiving state funding to provide services and Islamic NGOs advocating against LGBTQI rights.

    How is progressive, rights-oriented civil society trying to respond?

    In the last few years LGBTQI groups are also pushing back and being more organised. The coalition of human rights organisations that participated in the UPR process has also tried to engage with Islamic NGOs and tried to increase engagement by pro-human rights Islamic organisations. They had some success in the UPR process in getting some groups to recognise the discrimination LGBTQI people face. Now there are more civil society groups that are countering arguments against universal human rights online, and more actions to communicate human rights messages in popular ways and in different languages. LGBTQI groups are working on communication strategies. We need this because we face overwhelming misinformation about LGBTQI people.

    LGBTQI groups recognise that these issues aren’t restricted to Malaysia alone. We see a lot of tension at the UN level and realise these issues are ongoing, with states pushing the adoption of problematic language. For example at the Commission on the Status of Women in 2019, language about sexual orientation and gender identity was dropped because of pushback from conservatives. This is a global issue. Civil society everywhere is dealing with these challenges. So how can we come together and strategise around this? How can we do global activism better?

    We need to make sure there is diverse representation in these international forums. We need to have global solidarity to push back on attacks on rights.

    Because there’s a religious dimension to this, and because Islamophobia is on the rise, we need also to be careful when talking about these issues not to encourage more Islamophobia. We need to have more conversations about how we address intersectional forms of oppression and also give spaces for Islamic groups to participate in processes that help address Islamophobia. This is something that as civil society we need to be sensitive to.

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

    Get in touch with Justice for Sisters through itswebsite andFacebook page, orfollow@justice_sisters on Twitter.

     

  • Maldives: One year later, no justice for Yameen Rasheed

    On the anniversary of the killing of the popular Maldivian blogger and social media personality, Yameen Rasheed, Amnesty International and CIVICUS call on the Maldivian authorities to bring his killers to justice.

    In a shocking murder that marked a worrying attack on freedom of expression and sent a shiver of fear throughout Maldivian civil society, Yameen Rasheed, 29, was found stabbed to death on 23rd April 2017 outside his apartment building. He had received multiple death threats before his murder, which he had reported to the police.

    “One year later, we have seen no action from the Maldivian authorities. Not only did they fail to protect Yameen during his lifetime, they have also failed to effectively investigate his murder and hold his killers accountable. His loved ones and friends should not have to wait any longer for justice,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Deputy Director for South Asia at Amnesty International.

    The killing of blogger Yameen Rasheed took place against the backdrop of tightening restrictions on freedom of expression on the Indian Ocean island nation. The Maldivian authorities have been harassing journalists, activists and other peaceful human rights defenders – a trend that has intensified this year, ever since a state of emergency was imposed on 5 February 2018.

    “The Maldivian authorities have a duty to protect human rights defenders and create an enabling environment where their rights are guaranteed. Instead, we have seen an even further shrinking of civic space to the point where people are being punished for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful of assembly and association,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS.

    Background

    On 5 February 2018, the Maldives imposed a state of emergency for 45 days, arbitrarily detaining Supreme Court judges, members of the political opposition, outlawing peaceful protests, and imprisoning people solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. 

    While some protestors have since been released, many of those arrested during the state of emergency remain under detention.

     

  • New Law will cripple Ethiopian civil society

    28 January 2009- Despite severe criticism from donors, civil society and foreign governments, on 6 January 2009, the Ethiopian Parliament passed a controversial law restricting the activities and funding for civil society organisations (CSOs).

    "The Law will have a crippling effect on civil society inEthiopia. We are deeply disappointed that Parliament has passed this regressive law which undermines democratic values and the people ofEthiopia",said Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

    The law, "Proclamation for the Registration and Regulation of Charities and Societies", will prevent CSOs from taking part in democracy building initiatives and acting as a check and balance against human rights abuses. Key provisions of the law infringe upon freedom of association guarantees in the Constitution of Ethiopia, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights by:

     

    • Limiting CSOs that receive essential funds from abroad to a mere service delivery role through prohibitionsfrom working on key areas including advancement of human and democratic rights, gender equality, conflict resolution and accountability of law enforcement agencies;
    • Allowing wide executive discretion to refuse registration to CSOs and  curb their activities.
    • Clamping down on the independence of CSOs through provisions that permit institution of inquiries on unspecified grounds, allow removal of CSO officers and require advance notification of meetings;
    • Subjecting CSOs to strict official control through exhaustive reporting requirements, mandatory license renewals every three years and an arbitrary cap of 30% on administrative expenses; and
    • Discouraging CSO activities through harsh fines and strict punishments for administrative lapses.


    CIVICUS has closely followed and critiqued drafts of the law before its final passage in Parliament. Sadly, the concerns outlined by CIVICUS and other CSOs have been ignored by the Ethiopian government. CIVICUS submissions on successive drafts have emphasised that any regulatory mechanism for civil society must be underpinned by legislation that is equitable, just and fair. The current law substantially fails this test.

    Note to the Editor
    For more information, please contact Mandeep Tiwana, Civil Society Watch Officer at

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    or Julie Middleton, Civil Society Watch Acting Manager at

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    .

     

  • Report: The Fight Back Against Rising Repression in On

    By Andrew Firmin 

    In the face of rising restrictions and brazen attacks on fundamental freedoms, citizens across the globe are responding with resolute resistance, in creative, and powerful ways. This is the main takeaway of CIVICUS’ 2018 State of Civil Society Report. 

    Read on: Disrupt and Innovate 

     

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