civic space

 

  • Human rights at risk for ASEAN citizens

    By Ichal Supriadi (Asia Democracy Network) and Josef Benedict (CIVICUS)

    As the 10 heads of state from ASEAN gather for the group’s latest summit in Singapore this week to discuss security, trade, and tensions in the South China Sea, the state of human rights and democracy in the region will once again be sidelined. 

    Read on: The Jakarta Post 

     

     

  • Hungary: Orbán and Fidesz party election victory spells further concerns for civic freedoms 

    • ‘Biased and unbalanced news coverage’ during election favouring the ruling party
    • Civil society face orchestrated smear campaigns 
    • Government passes decree which bans independent journalists from accessing hospitals

    Global alliance CIVICUS and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe are concerned about civic freedoms in Hungary following Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party’s landslide victory in April’s parliamentary elections, which were declared free but not fair. 

    A new research brief provides a snapshot of the recent decline in civic freedoms under the Orbán government which has repeatedly targeted civil society, independent journalists and LGBTQI+ rights.

    The government has politically captured key media regulatory bodies resulting in diminishing space for independent media to operate, with the public media sector now a de facto mouthpiece of the government.  The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the elections were not fair as there was “biased and unbalanced news coverage” in favour of the ruling party.

    Threats to LGBTQI+ rights have continued unabated, with the government passing several laws that restrict and target these rights. Although the results of the government’s referendum on its ‘anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda’ law, which took place at the same time as the election, was declared invalid, 16 LGBTQI+ rights CSOs who campaigned against the referendum have been fined by the National Election Committee. 

    In the build up to the elections, Magyar Nemzet, a leading pro-government daily online site,  published secret recordings of interviews which were aimed at discrediting civil society and independent media and reshared by the Hungarian government. Similar methods were used to  smear civil society activists critical of the government during the previous general elections.  

    “During his victory speech, the Prime Minister took a moment to pinpoint his enemies which include civil society, bureaucrats in Brussels and the Ukrainian President. This is a clear signal that Orbán and his party will only continue to diminish civic freedoms. There is no doubt that attacks on civil society, independent journalism and LGBTQI+ rights will worsen in the coming years,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead, Europe, CIVICUS.

    The government has also continuously attempted to intimidate civil society. Although it repealed the Lex-NGO foreign funding law, which was found in violation of EU law, it introduced a new bureaucratic measure which requires the State Audit Office to report annually on the financial status of certain NGOs. 

    Surveillance of journalists is a tactic used by the government in an attempt to silence dissent, while denying independent media access to press conferences and information has become commonplace. The government recently went over a Supreme court ruling to pass a decree so that it can decide on press and media accreditation for journalists to access hospitals. It has repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict access to information on COVID-19 for independent media. 

    “A pluralistic media landscape and a healthy  civil society guarantee citizens' access to reliable information about public matters. The Orban government has been doing everything in its power to undermine or eliminate both. By dominating most of the media landscape and trying to silence independent voices, the governing Fidesz party hopes to cement its power for the coming decades to dismantle democracy and cover up widespread corruption,” said Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

    The European Commission has triggered its new rule of law conditionality mechanism which could see it cutting funds to Hungary. We call on the commission to act swiftly against Hungary through this mechanism. 

    “The European Union must stand up for the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and introduce strategies and legislation capable of reversing the democratic decline in Europe. It must design a well-thought-through European Media Freedom Act with strong guarantees and enforcement mechanisms, and a European civic space strategy capable of empowering democratic voices,” said Reich.

    Hungary is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings). Hungary is one of two countries in the European Union with an Obstructed rating, the other is Poland.


    More information

    Download the Hungary country research brief here


    Interviews

    CIVICUS:
    Civil Liberties Union for Europe :Orsolya Reich,  

     

     

  • Hungary: Orbán and Fidesz party election victory spells further concerns for civic freedoms 

    • ‘Biased and unbalanced news coverage’ during election favouring the ruling party
    • Civil society face orchestrated smear campaigns 
    • Government passes decree which bans independent journalists from accessing hospitals

    Global alliance CIVICUS and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe are concerned about civic freedoms in Hungary following Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party’s landslide victory in April’s parliamentary elections, which were declared free but not fair. 

    A new research brief provides a snapshot of the recent decline in civic freedoms under the Orbán government which has repeatedly targeted civil society, independent journalists and LGBTQI+ rights.

    The government has politically captured key media regulatory bodies resulting in diminishing space for independent media to operate, with the public media sector now a de facto mouthpiece of the government.  The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that the elections were not fair as there was “biased and unbalanced news coverage” in favour of the ruling party.

    Threats to LGBTQI+ rights have continued unabated, with the government passing several laws that restrict and target these rights. Although the results of the government’s referendum on its ‘anti-LGBTQI+ propaganda’ law, which took place at the same time as the election, was declared invalid, 16 LGBTQI+ rights CSOs who campaigned against the referendum have been fined by the National Election Committee. 

    In the build up to the elections, Magyar Nemzet, a leading pro-government daily online site,  published secret recordings of interviews which were aimed at discrediting civil society and independent media and reshared by the Hungarian government. Similar methods were used to  smear civil society activists critical of the government during the previous general elections.  

    “During his victory speech, the Prime Minister took a moment to pinpoint his enemies which include civil society, bureaucrats in Brussels and the Ukrainian President. This is a clear signal that Orbán and his party will only continue to diminish civic freedoms. There is no doubt that attacks on civil society, independent journalism and LGBTQI+ rights will worsen in the coming years,” said Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Lead, Europe, CIVICUS.

    The government has also continuously attempted to intimidate civil society. Although it repealed the Lex-NGO foreign funding law, which was found in violation of EU law, it introduced a new bureaucratic measure which requires the State Audit Office to report annually on the financial status of certain NGOs. 

    Surveillance of journalists is a tactic used by the government in an attempt to silence dissent, while denying independent media access to press conferences and information has become commonplace. The government recently went over a Supreme court ruling to pass a decree so that it can decide on press and media accreditation for journalists to access hospitals. It has repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to restrict access to information on COVID-19 for independent media. 

    “A pluralistic media landscape and a healthy  civil society guarantee citizens' access to reliable information about public matters. The Orban government has been doing everything in its power to undermine or eliminate both. By dominating most of the media landscape and trying to silence independent voices, the governing Fidesz party hopes to cement its power for the coming decades to dismantle democracy and cover up widespread corruption,” said Orsolya Reich, senior advocacy officer, Civil Liberties Union for Europe.

    The European Commission has triggered its new rule of law conditionality mechanism which could see it cutting funds to Hungary. We call on the commission to act swiftly against Hungary through this mechanism. 

    “The European Union must stand up for the rights and principles enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU and introduce strategies and legislation capable of reversing the democratic decline in Europe. It must design a well-thought-through European Media Freedom Act with strong guarantees and enforcement mechanisms, and a European civic space strategy capable of empowering democratic voices,” said Reich.

    Hungary is currently rated Obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There are a total of 43 countries in the world with this rating (see all). This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights (see full description of ratings). Hungary is one of two countries in the European Union with an Obstructed rating, the other is Poland.


    More information

    Download the Hungary country research brief here


    Interviews

    CIVICUS:
    Civil Liberties Union for Europe :Orsolya Reich,  

     

     

  • Importance of protest in a Trump United States

    By Elizabeth Stephens 

    In a speech shortly after the November election, President Barack Obama urged anti-Trump protesters not to be silent. Yet, the number and attendance of events meant to challenge the values embodied by a Trump presidency dwindled exponentially months after election night. Why is this?

    Read on: Capitol Hill Times 

     

  • INDIA: ‘CSOs that dare speak truth to power are attacked with politically motivated charges’

    Mrinal Sharma

    CIVICUS speaks to human rights lawyer and researcher Mrinal Sharma about the state of civic freedoms in India. Mrinal works to help unlawfully detained human rights defenders, asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons in India. She worked as Policy Advisor with Amnesty International India until the Government of India forced the organisation to shut down in October 2020. Her work with Amnesty focused on people who are arbitrarily deprived of their nationality in Assam, the barriers against access to justice in Kashmir and the demonisation of minorities in India. Mrinal had previously worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Refugee Solidarity Network.

     

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

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

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

    How did you get involved in human rights work?

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

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

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

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

    Can you tell us about your experience in detention?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Where do you see positive change coming from in India?

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

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

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

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

    Civic space inIndia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 


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

    StandAsMyWitness released HRDs

     

     

  • India: Amnesty International Forced to Halt Work

    Government Increasingly Targeting Rights Groups

    Today, CIVICUS joined fourteen other human rights organizations in condemning the Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India and pledged to continue support for local human rights defenders and organizations against the recent crackdown.

    Amnesty International India announced that it is halting its work in the country after the Indian government froze its bank accounts in an act of reprisal for the organization’s human rights work. Fifteen international human rights organizations condemned the Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India and pledged to continue support for local human rights defenders and organizations against the recent crackdown.

    The Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India are part of increasingly repressive tactics to shut down critical voices and groups working to promote, protect, and uphold fundamental rights, said the Association for Progressive Communications, Global Indian Progressive Alliance, International Commission of Jurists, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Front Line Defenders, FORUM-ASIA, Foundation the London Story, Hindus for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, Minority Rights Group, Odhikar, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.

    The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government has accused Amnesty India of violating laws on foreign funding, a charge the group says is politically motivated and constitutes evidence “that the overbroad legal framework is maliciously activated when human rights defenders and groups challenge the government’s grave inactions and excesses.”

    The BJP government has increasingly cracked down on civil society, harassing and bringing politically motivated cases against human rights defenders, academics, student activists, journalists, and others critical of the government under sedition, terrorism, and other repressive laws.

    These actions increasingly mimic that of authoritarian regimes, which do not tolerate any criticism and shamelessly target those who dare to speak out. With growing criticism of the government’s discriminatory policies and attacks on the rule of law, the authorities seem more interested in shooting the messenger than addressing the grievances. Women’s rights activists and indigenous and minority human rights defenders have been especially vulnerable. The recent action against Amnesty India highlights the stepped-up pressure and violence felt by local defenders on the ground, regardless of their profile.

    The authorities have repeatedly used foreign funding regulations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law broadly condemned for violating international human rights law and standards, to target outspoken groups. United Nations experts on human rights defenders, on freedom of expression, and on freedom of association have urged the government to repeal the law, saying it is “being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.”

    Yet, the Indian parliament amended the FCRA this month, adding further onerous governmental oversight, additional regulations and certification processes, and operational requirements that would adversely affect civil society groups and effectively restrict access to foreign funding for small nongovernmental organizations.

    A robust, independent, and vocal civil society is indispensable in any democracy to ensure a check on government and to hold it accountable, pushing it to do better. Instead of treating human rights groups as its enemies, the government should work with them to protect the rights of all people and ensure accountability at all levels of government.


    Civic space in India is currently rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor

    New report: Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India


    For more information please contact:

    Head of Advocacy & Campaigns, David Kode

     

  • India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society 

    According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

    • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
    • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
    • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

    The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics, the global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today in a new report.

    More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

    Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

    The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

    The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

    “The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

    “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

    During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

    “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

    “As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

    In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

    • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
    • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
    • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

    More information

    The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


    Interviews

    To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 

     

  • INDONESIA: “Peaceful pro-independence activists may be labeled as terrorists”

    CIVICUS speaks to Samuel Awom, Coordinator of the human rights group KontraS Papua, which monitors human rights violations, advocates for victims and works for peace in Papua. KontraS Papua is based in Jayapura, Papua’s capital, and monitors human rights issues throughout the Papuan region.

    In Papua, located at the east end of the Indonesian archipelago, there have been gross human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary arrest of activists by the Indonesian security forces under the pretext of suppressing separatism. Although Indonesia President Joko Widodo continues to promise to address the grievances of the Papuan people, they face ongoing discrimination, exploitation, and repression.

    Sam Awome

    What is the human rights situation in Papua?

    As shown by the monitoring undertaken by KontraS Papua and other civil society groups, the military and police perpetrate serious human rights violations in the Papuan region. Abductions, killings and other violations of the rights of activists and other civilians by the security forces have taken place since 1963, when Indonesia took over Papua from the Netherlands. This situation has persisted until today. No legal processes have been undertaken to investigate and resolve these incidents. This is a very serious problem in Papua.

    Recent events include the displacement of thousands of people from the Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak areas, where there has been continued conflict between the military and pro-independence armed groups since December 2018.

    In 2019, the situation became extremely tense following incidents of racist speech against Papuan students by the authorities in Java island, which were challenged by mass protests and mobilisation across Papua. In response, there were mass arrests of protesters and activists, which in turn led to violent incidents, including riots and arson. Until today, the instigators and perpetrators of the violence remain unknown and there has been a failure to investigate this. No one has been brought to justice for the killing of students and young people at that time. Many Papuans are still traumatised by this.

    Following this, in December 2019 the armed conflict expanded in the Intan Jaya district, causing thousands of civilians to flee, and some were killed. 

    Most recently, on 25 April 2021, President Joko Widodo ordered the military commander and the chief of police to arrest all members of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN/OPM), an armed pro-independence group, after the head of the Regional State Intelligence Agency was shot dead. On 29 April, the Indonesian government officially categorised the TPN/OPM as a ‘terrorist' organisation. This was followed by the entry of large numbers of security forces into the Puncak district.

    What do you think will be the impact of the government labeling the TPN/OPM as a terrorist group? 

    This comes at a time when all the civil society organisations (CSOs) and peace networks are talking about reconciliation and peace. The end of conflict requires dialogue and negotiation between the central government and Papua. The labelling of the TPN/OPM armed group as terrorists is a regressive move by the Jokowi administration that will close the space for democracy and the protection of human rights.

    This has made the situation in Papua worse. We now see the deployment of thousands of troops to the region and public access to the internet being blocked. This will create a situation for increased human rights violations in Papua, as the anti-terrorism law will allow for arbitrary arrests and undermine the rule of law. The Anti-Terrorism Law grants police powers to hold suspects for up to 221 days without being brought to court – a blatant violation of the right of anyone arrested on a criminal charge to be brought promptly before a judge and be tried within a reasonable time or be released. The law also expands the use of military personnel in counterterrorism operations, which further increases the likelihood of the excessive use of force and other human rights violations.

    In my opinion, this decision was made because the Jokowi administration has been only listening to the view of top military officials and has failed to find a concrete solution to the Papua problem. Meanwhile, all the civil society groups and movements in Papua, as well as the regional parliaments in the provinces and the governor, are calling for dialogue.

    This decision now prevents CSOs from investigating when civilians are attacked in conflict areas because the military operations have brought along restrictions of movement.

    Why is the government carrying out this military operation, and what is its impact on civil society?

    The government's rationale for the operations is that it has accused the TPN/OPM of attacking civilians, including teachers, and burning schools and a plane. Further, the shooting of the head of the Papua Regional State Intelligence Agency in the Puncak district has worsened the situation. However, the shooting has yet to be fully investigated to determine what was behind the shooting, and the investigation needs to be undertaken by an independent team. There has been no further explanation about this so far.

    As a result of this shooting, the head of the Police Security Intelligence Agency, Commissioner General Paulus Waterpauw, stated that human rights activists and CSOs are undermining political stability and damaging democracy in Papua. This creates a risk for human rights defenders, and particularly for Papuan activists working on ending the conflict and who are involved in political discussions around independence, who will be categorised as allied with terrorists, stigmatised, and arbitrarily arrested.

    Why was Viktor Yeimo arrested and what are the charges against him?

    Viktor Yeimo, the international spokesperson for the West Papua National Committee and the Papuan People's Petition Against Special Autonomy, was detained by the authorities on 11 May on the grounds that he was behind the 2019 anti-racism protests. However, his interrogation by the police seems to be leaning towards linking him with the TPN/OPM armed group.

    He was arrested in Jayapura, taken to the Papua Police station, and then transferred to the Police Mobile Brigade headquarters in Abepura. He is being investigated for treason, incitement, and broadcasting false information as well as other charges. A coalition of lawyers is supporting him. Communication with his family has been denied and has been made difficult by the authorities.

    Several more activists of the Papuan student alliance movement were also detained in cities inside and outside Papua and have been questioned. The democratic space in Papua is being squeezed.

    This has been reinforced by an internet disruption that began about one month ago after the Papuan head of intelligence was shot. It has made it very difficult for us to communicate with contacts and activists throughout Papua. It has made it challenging to get updates on the situation in the field and to send material to places in Intan Jaya, Nduga, and Puncak Jaya.

    What do Papuan activists need from the international community and civil society?

    We need support from international CSOs working with local civil society to promote and develop the concept of peace and reconciliation. We also need support on how to open negotiations between the central government in Jakarta and Papua. Further, we need to open up the space for access to international CSOs, journalists, and humanitarian monitors in Papua, which is currently closed.

    International actors and governments must also monitor and speak up against the anti-terrorism policies of the Indonesian government that have the potential to increase human rights violations. Civilians in Papua are often viewed as supporting armed groups and this makes them vulnerable. Those who have been displaced because of the conflict must also be assisted by the international community.

    Our hope is that CSOs in Papua, Indonesia, and internationally can work together to protect human rights and seek solutions to severe violations in Papua. There is also a need for international solidarity to seek lasting peace to the conflict in Papua.

    Civic space inIndonesiais rated as ‘obstructedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KontraS through itswebsite and follow@KontraS on Twitter. 

     

  • Iran: free Baquer Namazi on second anniversary of his arbitrary detention

    Two years ago, this week, human rights champion Baquer Namazi was arbitrarily arrested and detained by the authorities as he arrived in Iran to visit his detained son. During his incarceration at the notorious Evian prison in Tehran, the 81-year-old Iranian-American’s health has deteriorated significantly in terrible conditions.

     

  • IRAQ: ‘We've submitted many bills, but parliament refuses to adopt a law against GBV’

    CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls with Alyaa Al Ansari, executive director of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation (BROB).

    Founded in Iraq’s southern Babylon province in 2005, BROB is a feminist civil society organisation (CSO) that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society. Since its foundation, BROB has extended its activities to eight provinces across Iraq. 

    Alyaa Al Ansari

    How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on women and girls in Iraq?

    The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.

    Additionally, many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.

    The situation was even worse for female healthcare professionals. Some of them made the tough decision to remain separate from their families for a prolonged period to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Further, the government did not issue any additional regulations on the working conditions of pregnant medical staff during the pandemic. They too were forced to continue working and risk their lives and those of their unborn children; several of them miscarried.

    Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof with their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.

    How has civil society, and BROB in particular, responded to the devastating impacts of the pandemic on women?

    During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. For instance, charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

    As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods. BROB’s phone number was posted across social media platforms, so women and families who needed urgent help were able to reach us.

    Fortunately, BROB staff were able to continue to work at full capacity during the pandemic. We had freedom of movement once the Iraqi authorities issued permits allowing us to circulate during curfew in the eight provinces where we work. They gave us permission because we were providing essential services to families under lockdown. For instance, our team was distributing food supplies twice a month. 

    We maintained our social and psychological support programme for women but we moved it fully online via mobile and communications apps such as WhatsApp. Remote work is one of the new tactics we adopted during the pandemic. Our staff was creative and developed several new tactics we had never thought of before the pandemic, which allowed us to meet the urgent needs of women and their families.

    Financially, BROB sustained its activities through donations from members as well as from the local community. Moreover, as public health institutions were struggling and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed, we crowdfunded and sought donations to acquire additional medical equipment for the public health sector. This was a successful campaign that could have the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship between civil society and government institutions in the public health sector.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Iraq and how is civil society working to make change happen?

    There are many relevant issues, but the one that if adequately tackled would make the most meaningful change in the lives of Iraqi women is that of gender-based violence (GBV). There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. CSOs have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence.

    Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.

    It is also key to change current laws that are unequal and unfair to provide women much-needed legal protection. Personal status laws in particular contain articles that discriminate against women in terms of the rights they recognise or don’t recognise, and the obligations and penalties they impose.

    At the very least, Iraq should have laws to guarantee equal access to education, healthcare and public services overall. Such laws will contribute to gender equality as they become an integral part of the Iraqi legislative system. A law criminalising incitement of violence against women in the media and by religious leaders is also very much needed.

    To make change happen, CSOs will continue raising awareness on gender equality, advocating with decision-makers, orchestrating public opinion campaigns, fighting legal battles and fostering leadership capabilities among women and girls. It is mostly up to us, because when it comes to official response, decision-makers do nothing besides issuing positive press releases to capitalise on CSO campaigns. 

    The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How did you organise around it?

    Most of our projects have always focused on breaking the bias to combat gender inequalities. Every year we plan events on IWD to shed light on an issue that is critical to local communities. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated disabled sportswomen in Babylon province and supported their training programmes.

    As usual, there are plenty of urgent issues this year, but we decided to focus on discrimination in the workplace, in both the private and the public sector. Women deserve safe and fair working conditions everywhere.

    Civic space in Iraq is rated ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation through its website orFacebook page. 

     

  • It is #TimesUp for sexual harassment, including within civil society

    This is a significant time to be calling for greater progress in the fight against gender inequality and sexual abuse.

     

  • It's time for G20 leaders to embrace civil society

    By Cathal Gilbert 

    There is a growing list of critical problems in the G20's inbox, namely a faltering global economy, terrorist threats in a majority of G20 member states, and a patched-up climate change agreement. Solving these problems will take more than 20 heads of state and their economic ministers. The role of the private sector is widely acknowledged, but the power of civil society is often dismissed. Addressing these expensive and expansive issues requires the will and contribution of the people.

    Read on: Al Jazeera

     

  • ITALY: ‘The constitution now contemplates the interests of future generations’

    CIVICUS speaks with Edoardo Zanchini, National Vice President of Legambiente Onlus, about the recent legislative vote that introduced environmental protections in the Italian Constitution, and civil society’s role in making it happen.

    Established in 1980, Legambiente Onlus is an Italian civil society organisation (CSO) that works towards a clean and liveable environment by monitoring environmental issues, diagnosing problems and offering solutions, denouncing environmental crimes and seeking to hold those responsible to account, running sensitisation campaigns and educational projects, and advocating with policy makers.

    ZanchiniEdoardo

    What is the significance of the recent constitutional amendment that mandates the state to safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity?

    It’s very important because it elevates the protection of the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems to the constitutional level. Before this amendment, the Italian Constitution did not explicitly recognise environmental protection as a fundamental value. The new text of Article 9 establishes the principle of environmental protection ‘in the interest of future generations’, a reference to the concept of sustainable development, according to which natural resources cannot be exploited in an unlimited way – that is, without taking into account that they are finite and how this will affect those who will come after us.

    A change to Article 41 also establishes that economic initiatives cannot be carried out in a way that could create damage to health or the environment. Before, the only constitutionally recognised restrictions were those related to security, freedom and human dignity.

    Wording was also introduced regarding the ‘protection of animals’, and this was the only point around which there were strong disagreements: pressure from hunters’ associations was strong and led to a compromise.

    Do you view the amendments as a civil society victory?

    Yes, it was a victory for the CSOs that have long been committed to the defence of ecosystems, the landscape and biodiversity. These amendments would not have been introduced if it hadn’t been for the growing awareness of the importance of these values and the increasing interest in their defence. And that awareness is the result of sustained civil society work.

    It has been a long road to reach today’s great consensus on environmental issues. And consultations with environmental CSOs in the amendment process were a key factor in that they helped put pressure on political parties to make the right decision.

    The fact that nobody openly campaigned against the amendment proposal is very telling: it shows there is a broad consensus, stronger than any political divide, around values that are recognised as being in the general interest, even as part of the identity of local communities and Italy as a whole. Aside from the strong conflict around the protection of animals, it got to the point that those who have an interest in pollution continuing to be allowed or overlooked were very careful not to take part in any controversy.

    Do you see the constitutional change in Italy as part of a European trend?

    In recent years several European countries have amended their constitutions to explicitly include and strengthen environmental protection. In all countries there is a strong consensus around this perspective, with an increasing public demand for information on environmental issues and increasingly active citizens who take it upon themselves to get informed, visit protected areas and valuable landscapes, and organise to demand their preservation for future generations. Environmental associations from all over Europe have been working together for many years on issues such as natural resource protection, the push towards a circular economy and the battle against climate change. 

    We also frame our initiatives and campaigns in the context of our membership of regional and global networks such as the Climate Action Network, which includes over 1,500 CSOs in more than 130 countries in every global region, the European Environmental Bureau, which is the largest network of environmental CSOs in Europe, with over 170 members in more than 35 countries, and Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group.

    What needs to happen next, both in terms of implementation and further policy development?

    Now it will be necessary to update the regulatory framework to include protection measures that had so far not been considered. The new constitutional reference to environmental protection will also allow environmentalists to appeal against laws that are in contradiction with it. Of course, Italy will have to review all its regulations related to environmental impact assessments, which were established without taking into account the protection objectives that are now part of our constitution.

    Civic space in Italy is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Legambiente Onlus through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@Legambiente on Twitter. 

     

  • Joint letter to UN Member States: Ensure meaningful virtual participation in 2020 review of the SDGs

    Joint letter to United Nations Member States: Ensure meaningful civil society participation in the 2020 virtual High Level Political Forum

    Civil society participation in the United Nations cannot be lost as the world fights COVID-19. This July, 48 Member States are reviewing national progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.


    Dear Excellencies, 

    We, the undersigned 460 civil society organisations (CSOs) from 115 countries, write to seek your support in ensuring the effective participation of civil society during the upcoming UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF) scheduled for 7-16 July 2020. As the preeminent multistakeholder body responsible for the review and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), HLPF processes derive strength from the engagement of diverse actors including a broad range of civil society organisations (CSOs) working at various levels. As the HLPF transitions to virtual communication and convening for its July 2020 session due to the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that all relevant actors, including States and UN agencies, support and devise clear modalities to enable robust virtual civil society participation.

    In response to disruptions caused by COVID-19, a number of Inter-governmental bodies have taken concerted efforts to facilitate extensive virtual participation in official meetings. Inclusive virtual modalities are crucial to supporting international cooperation in the spirit of multilateralism. An enabling environment for all stakeholders to participate that takes into account digital divides is thus crucial. 

    In his “We are all in this Together” statement of 23 April 2020, UN Secretary General António Guterres underlined the importance of promoting and protecting civic space in response to COVID-19. With respect to the SDGs, Secretary General Guterres unequivocally stated that, “Looking ahead, we need to build back better.  The Sustainable Development Goals — which are underpinned by human rights — provide the framework for more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies”. Civil society is key to implementing the SDGs and we must take united action to ensure that the virtual HLPF reflects the broad spectrum of stakeholders who are committed to creating The World We Want. 

    To this end, we urge all states and UN agencies to support the following measures: 

    • Provide an opportunity for at least three Major Group and Other stakeholders to respond to each Voluntary National Review (VNR), one of which should be from civil society.
    • Representatives from national civil society groups voices should be prioritized for inclusion during the HLPF, with adequate representation from regional and international civil society organisations.
    • Written questions should also be presented and answered within a month of the HLPF for those who are unable to ask their question within the given time of the VNR session.
    • All civil society shadow VNR reports should be published on the UN’s official HLPF website. 
    • Ensure side events are inclusive of stakeholder participation, including a wide range of civil society led side online events to be shared in the official programme.
    • Identify more participatory approaches to engage with stakeholders on an ongoing basis, including best practice on use of online meeting technology to provide inputs, to ensure a more inclusive process before, during and after the main HLPF sessions

    We thank you in advance for your consideration.

    Sincerely,

    A Toda Voz AC 
    Aakash Welfare Society Hyderabad 
    Access Now 
    Acción Solidaria 
    ACCIONA Transformando Caminospara SER y HACER A.C.
    Accountability Lab
    Achtung labs private limited 
    ACT Alliance
    ActionAid Denmark
    ActionAid International
    Action for Sustainable Develpment
    ADAB (Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh)
    ADD International
    Adivasi Women's Network
    Adivasi-Koordination, Germany
    Advocacy, Research, Training and Services (ARTS) Foundation 
    Afghan NGOs Coordination Bureau (ANCB)
    Ageing Nepal
    Agenda Cero A.C. 
    Aid Organization
    AIDS-Fondet - The Danish AIDS 
    Foundation
    AidWatch Canada
    AIESEC MÉXICO A.C. 
    Al Dua welfare organization
    Al Falah Organization Islampur Swat
    Alberta Council for Global 
    Cooperation
    Alfalah Tanzeem Swat
    Alimentos de México a Compartir, A. C.
    Alkhidmat Foundation GB
    Allai Developement Organization
    American Civil Liberties Union 
    (ACLU)
    Amnesty International
    Amnistia Inernacional, Portugal
    Animis Philanthropic Ventures Inc.
    Arab Youth Platform for Sustainable Development - League of Arab States
    ARCADIA - Romanian Association for International Cooperation and 
    Development
    Argentine Network for International Cooperation - RACI
    ARTICLE 19
    Asia Dalit Rights Forum
    Asia Development Alliance
    Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center
    Asian Solidarity Economy Council (ASEC)
    Asociación de Organismos No Gubernamentales (ASONOG)
    Asociación Mexicana de Amigos Metabólicos, A.C. A.C.
    Asociación Nacional de Síndrome de Williams AC
    Association femmes leadership et développement durable 
    Association for Farmers Rights Defense, AFRD
    Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia
    Association For Promotion Sustainable Development
    Association Nationale des Partenaires Migrants
    Associations 21
    Augustinians International (Curia Generalizia Agostiniana)
    Avoid Accident
    Awaz Foundation Pakistan
    AwazCDS-Pakistan
    Azat Foundation
    Baghbaan 
    Bai Indigenous Womens Network in the Philippines
    Bangladesh Indigenous Women's Network
    Bangladesh Nari Progati Shangha (BNPS)
    Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio & Communication
    Biosauenergie
    Bond
    Born Free Foundation
    Bright Star Development Society Balochistan (BSDSB)
    British Columbia Council For International Cooperation
    Brooke
    Bulgarian Platform for International Development (BPID)
    Burundi Child Rights Coalition (BCRC)
    CAFSO-WRAG for Development
    Canadian Council for International Co-operation 
    Cancer Aid Society
    Caribbean Coalition for Development and the Reduction of Armed Violence (CDRAV)
    Caucus of Development NGO Networks (CODE-NGO) 
    Center for Civil Liberties
    Center for Environmental Concerns - Philippines
    Center for National and International Studies
    Centre for Environmental Justice
    Centre for Human Rights and Development 
    Centre for Research and Advocacy, Manipur
    Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion (CSEI)
    Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights
    Centro de Arte y Cultura Popular Tonalteca A.C.
    Centro de Justicia y Paz - Cepaz
    Centros de cuidado, Atencion y educación integral coralitos AC
    ChildHelp Sierra Leone
    Christian Blind Mission
    Church of Sweden
    Church Women United Washington DC Unit
    Civic Initiatives
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Civil Society Coalition on Sustainable Development
    Civil Society SDGs Campaign/GCAP Zambia
    CIVILIS Derechos Humanos
    COAST Trust
    Colectivo Ollin, Alternativas para la Comunicaciòn, la Sexualidad y el Desarrollo Comunitario AC
    Colectivo pro Inclusión e Igualdad Jalisco, A. C.
    Colores del Rincón A.C. - MY World México 
    Commons Cluster of the UN NGO Major Group
    Commons for EcoJustice
    Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    Commonwealth Medical Trust
    Community Advancement through Research & Development CARD 
    Community Initiatives for development in Pakistan
    Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias
    Concord Italia
    CONCORD Sweden
    Congrégation des soeurs de Notre Dame de Charité du Bon Pasteur
    Congregation of Notre Dame de Montreal
    Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd
    Congregation of the Mission
    Consorcio para el Diálogo Parlamentario y la Equidad Oaxaca A.C:
    Cooperation for Peace and Development (CPD)
    CoopeSoliDar R.L
    Coordinación de ONG y Cooperativas CONGCOOP
    Council for NGOs in Malawi - CONGOMA
    Council for Participatory Development
    Crispin Swedi Bilombele
    CRV & Co
    D.C. Unit Church Women United
    Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
    Dalit NGO Federation, Nepal
    Dalit Youth Alliance (DYA)
    DanChurchAid
    Danish United Nations Association
    Dawn Development Organization
    Debasis Chowdhury Rana
    DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    Dehi Ijtimai Tarqyati Social Workers Council (DITSWC)
    Dehi Taraqiati Tanzeem (DTT) BILLITANG KOHAT KPK
    Derecho, Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (DAR)
    Desértica, Soluciones Endovasculares A.C.
    Despertares Derechos Humanos
    Development Dynamics 
    DHEWA (development for health education work & awareness) Welfare Society Chakwal Bheen
    Dillu Prasad Ghimire
    District Development Association
    District Development Association Tharparkar (DDAT)
    Dóchas
    Dominican Leadership Conference
    Dosse SOSSOUGA
    Dr. Tristaca McCray
    DSW (Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung)
    DUF - The Danish Youth Council 
    Earth Community
    East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN)
    Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research
    Edmund Rice International
    EMPOWER INDIA
    Empresa marhnos®
    Environmental Partnership Council
    EOS - Association for Studies, Cooperation and Development
    Equality Bahamas
    Equality For All Development Organisation 
    Estonian Roundtable for Development Cooperation
    Ethiopian Human Rights Council 
    European Youth Forum
    Fagaras Research Institute
    Federation of Environmental and Ecological Diversity for Agricultural Revampment and Human Rights
    Feminist Dalit Organizations (FEDO)
    FIAN Sri Lanka
    Finnish Development NGOs Fingo
    Fixing The World
    FKM BKA YWU
    FOKUS - Forum for Women and Development
    Fondazione Proclade Internazionale - onlus
    Food Security Network-PRAN
    Foreign Spouses Support Group and Malaysian Campaign for Equal Citizenship
    Former Commissioner, National Human Rights Commission Nepal
    Forum for Women in Democracy
    Forum of women's NGOs of Kyrgyzstan
    Forum Syd
    Forus 
    Foundation for Older Persons' Development (FOPDEV)
    Foundation For Sustainable Development and Climate Action (FSDCA)
    Freshwater Action Network Mexico (FANMex)
    Friends of Angola
    FUNDACIÓN CONSTRUIR
    Fundación Dibujando un Mañana
    Fundación Heinrich Böll - Ciudad de México, México y el Caribe
    Fundación Mexicana de Medicina Paliativa y Alivio del Dolor en Cáncer A.C.
    Fundación Mexicana para la Planeación Familiar, A. C. MEXFAM
    FUNDACIÓN MÉXICO MOTIVACTE A.C
    Fundación MYWM- MY World México
    Fundación Sanders AC 
    FUNDACION SERENDIPIA A.C.
    Fundamedios
    Gals Forum International 
    Gatef orginzation
    Generacion2030
    GESIP Centro para la Gestión Integral y Participativa S.C.
    Gestión Estratégica para Resultados de Desarrollo S.C.
    Gestos (soropositividade, comunicação, gênero)
    Global Call to Action against Poverty
    Global Citizen
    Global Integrity
    Global NGO Executive Committee
    Global Shepherds 
    Globalt Fokus
    Good Shepherd International Foundation- Nepal 
    Good Shepherd Sisters
    Gopal Kiran Samaj Sevi Sanstha 
    Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative Zambia
    Gram Bharati Samiti (GBS)
    GREENfluidics 
    Groupe d'Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (G.A.P.P.-Afrique)
    Groupe d'Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (G.A.P.P.-BÉNIN)
    Groupe d'Action pour le Progrès et la Paix (G.A.P.P.-Mali)
    Grupo Holístico para el bienestar investigación y desarrollo social Integral, A.C 
    H. AYUNTAMIENTO DE TECAMACHALCO, PUEBLA MEX.
    HAKI Africa
    HelpAge Deutschland
    Hevas Innovación 
    Human Rights Focus Pakistan (HRFP)
    IMCS Pax Romana
    IMS (International Media Support)
    Incidencia y Gobernanza Ambiental AC
    INCIDIR, A. C.
    Institute for Socioeconomic Studies - INESC
    Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary -Loreto Generalate
    Instituto de Comunicación y Desarrollo (ICD)
    Instituto Potosino de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica, AC
    International Association for Religious Freedom Coordination Council for South Asia
    International Commission of Jurists
    International Federation of Business and Professional Women
    International IPMSDL
    International Movement for Advancement of Education Culture Social & Economic Development (IMAECSED)
    International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists
    International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development
    International Open Network
    International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
    International Planned Parenthood Federation 
    International Service for Human Rights 
    International Women's Development Agency (IWDA)
    International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs 
    INTRAC
    Jaag Welfare Movement
    Jairos Jiri Association
    Jandran Welfare Foundation
    Japan Civil Society Network on SDGs
    Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC)
    Jeunes Verts Togo
    Julián Carrillo My Words México Kids
    Juventud 2030 GTO. 
    K.U.L.U. - Women and Development (KULU)
    Kafka Welfare Organization
    Kamal Subedi
    Kanimi EcoTienda
    Karapatan Alliance Philippines 
    Kathak Academy 
    Khpal Kore Organization
    KINDERENERGY
    Kothowain (Vulnerable Peoples Development Organization)
    Kyawkrup Foundation
    La Transformación del Graffiti al Arte Pictorico, A. C.
    Lanakaná Princípios Sustentáveis 
    Lanka Fundamental Rights Organization
    Latvian Platform for Development Cooperation
    Lawyers' Rights Watch Canada
    Lepaje Environmental Organization
    Let There Be Light International
    LGBT+ Danmark
    Life Education and Development Support (LEADS)
    Light for the World
    LSO Sada-e-Thal Welfare Organization 
    Lutheran World Federation (LWF)
    Malaysian CSO SDG Alliance
    Maldives NGO Federation
    Maleya Foundation
    Maranatha Hope
    Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, Inc. 
    Más Coudadanía, AC
    Mechanism for Rational Change MERC 
    Medical Mission Sisters 
    Mihai and Maria Foundation
    Mitini Nepal
    MPact Global Action for Gay Men's Health & Rights
    Mujer Y Salud en Uruguay - MYSU
    MUSONET
    MY World Mexico
    Myanmar Youth Foundation for SDG
    Nagorik Uddyog 
    Natasha Dokovska
    National Advocacy for Rights of Innocent-NARI Foundation 
    National Campaign Against COVID-19
    National Campaign for Education Nepal
    National Campaign for Sustainable Development Nepal
    National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights
    National CSO Platform of Sri Lanka
    National Integrated Development Association (NIDA-Pakistan)
    National Organization for Sustainable Development (NOSD)
    National Trade Union Center (NTUC Phl)
    National Youth Council of Russia
    Neelab Children and Women Development council 
    Neighbourhood Community Network
    Nepal Development Initiative (NEDI)
    Nepal Climate Change Federation
    Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organization 
    Nepal SDGs Forum
    NGO EFA 
    NGO Federation of Nepal
    NGOCSW/NYC Women and Girls of African Descent Caucus N. America, Latin America and the Caribbean Descent N. America, 
    Nigeria Network of NGOs
    Noakhali Rural Development Organization 
    NOSOTROS POR LOS NIÑOS CON CÁNCER A.C.
    Observatory of Vulnerable peoples' Rights (OVPR)
    Okogun Odigie Safewomb International Foundation (OOSAIF)
    ONAAR Development Organization
    ONE (SINGAPORE)
    ONG PADJENA
    Open School of Sustainable Development (Openshkola)
    Organizacion Mexicana de Enfermedades Raras
    Organización por la Cooperación Ecológica A.C. 
    Organization for the Marginalized And Neglected Groups OMANG
    Our Fish, Denmark
    Outreach Social Care Project - OSCAR
    OutRight Action International
    Pakistan Development Alliance (GCAP-Pakistan) 
    Parliamentarians Commission for Human Rights 
    Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA)
    Participatory Research Action Network- PRAN
    Peace Infinity 
    Peace Justice Youth Organization
    PEREMPUAN AMAN
    Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement
    Plan International
    PlanBørnefonden
    Plataforma de ONG de Accion Social
    Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD (NGDO Portuguese Platform)
    Portuguese National Youth Council
    Portuguese Platform for Women's Rights
    POSCO Agenda 2030/GCAP Sénégal 
    Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy (PODA)
    Povod
    Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en DDHH (Provea)
    Projonma Academy
    Promotora Juvenil don Bosco AC
    Proyecto Cantera Juntos por México AC
    Purvanchal Rural Development and Training Institute
    Radanar Ayar Association
    Real Vision Development Organization
    Reality of Aid - Asia Pacific (RoA-AP)
    Red Agenda 2030 MX
    Red Ciudadana 2030 por el Desarrollo Sostenible
    Red de Educadores Ambientales de Chihuahua 
    Red Nicaraguense de Comercio Comunitario (RENICC)
    Regional Centre for International Development Cooperation (RCIDC)
    REPACT Africa
    Rescue Alternatives Liberia (RAL)
    Research Centre for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CHFED)
    Réseau Centrafricain au Leadership des Jeunes Femmes en Afrique Francophone 
    Réseau de Défenseurs des Droits Humains de l'Afrique Centrale (REDHAC)
    Roberto ravagnani
    Rozaria Memorial Trust
    Rural Area Development Programme (RADP)
    Rural community devlipment council Gwadar 
    Rutgers
    S.O.S. - Criança e Desenvolvimento Integrale de ANG
    SAHARA Voluntary Social Welfare Agency
    Sahara Welfare Foundation 
    Saif Khan
    Samarthyam
    Sami Foundation
    Saudi Green Building Forum
    Save the Children International
    School of International Futures
    SDG Action Alliance Bangladesh
    SDGs National Network Nepal
    SDSN Youth Mexico
    Semillas para la Democracia
    SEND-GHANA/Ghana CSOs Platform on the SDGs
    SERAC-Bangladesh 
    SERR Servicios Ecumenicos para Reconciliacion y Reconstruccion 
    SEVERE Joseph
    Sex & Samfund / The Danish Family Planning Association
    Shaur Taraqiyati Tanzeem
    Shirley Ann Sullivan Educational Foundation
    Shivi Development Society
    Sindh Desert Development Organization 
    Sindh Rural Development Organization
    Sistemico, Regeneración Socioambiental AC
    SLOGA Slovene NGO Platform for Development, Global Education and Humanitarian Aid
    Slum Child Empowerment and Development Initiative
    Smile Myanmar
    Social and Economic Develepment Associares (SEDA)
    Social Economic and Governance Promotion Centre
    Society for Access to Quality Education 
    Society for Education and Development
    Society for Indigenous Women's Progress
    Society for Sustainable Development 
    Society for the Empowerment of the People
    Soka Gakkai International
    Soñando y Construyendo por un México Mejor a.c
    Soroptimist International
    Spektro Asociación para el Desarrollo Social 
    Sri Lanka Nature Group
    Sudan SDGs Platform
    Sukaar Welfare Organization
    Sustainable Agriculture and Environment.
    Sustainable Development Organization (SDO)
    Taiwan AID
    Takhleeq Foundation 
    Taraqee Foundation
    Teerath Kumar
    Temple of Understanding
    Teresa Kotturan 
    The Inclusivity Project
    The National Civic Forum - Sudan
    The National Council of NGOs/Action on Sustainable Development Goals Kenya Coalition
    The Nationwide Movement Yuksalish
    The Norwegian Forum for Development and Environment
    Think Centre
    Tirtha Biswokarma 
    Toktli Educación Ambiental 
    Uganda National NGO Forum
    Uganda Network of Young People living with HIV/AIDS (UNYPA)
    UNA Sweden
    Unanima International
    UNANIMA International
    Union de l'Action Féministe
    Unión Nacional de Instituciones para el Trabajo de Acción Social - UNITAS
    Unitarian Universalist Association
    United Disabled Person of Kenya 
    United Global Organization of Development (UGOOD)
    United Nations Association of Fiji 
    Universidad Anáhuac Mayab
    Universidad Tecnológica de los Valles Centrales de Oaxaca
    Urgent Action Fund for Women's Human Rights
    Vaagdhara
    Vabieka Fest, Festival Internacional de Payasas.
    Validity Foundation - Mental Disability Advocacy Centre
    Varieties of Democracy Institute 
    VIER PFOTEN International
    Village Development Organization (VDO) 
    Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (DBA- Women First International Fund)
    Vision GRAM-International
    Voces de Cambio, Agenda para el Desarrollo
    Voices for Interactive Choice and Empowerment (VOICE)
    Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)
    Wada Na Todo Abhiyan
    Water, Environment & Sanitation Society (WESS)
    Women & Child Welfare Society
    Women Deliver
    Women's Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness 
    Women's Rights and Democracy Centre (WORD Centre)
    WomenShade Pak
    World Animal Net
    World Federalist Movement - Canada
    Youth Action Hub Guinea - CNUCED
    Youth For Environment Education And Development Foundation (YFEED Foundation)
    Youth Inter-Active 
    Yuma Inzolia
    YZ Proyectos de Desarrollo a.C. 
    Zakir Hossain 
    Zonta International

     

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

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

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

    Yevgeniy Zhovtis

    What caused the recent protests in Kazakhstan?

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

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

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

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

    As protests erupted in 2022, what were their demands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How did the government respond?

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

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

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

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

    Did anything change as a result of the protests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Civic space in Kazakhstan is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with KIBHR through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@bureau_kz on Twitter.

     

  • KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

    Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

    With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

    Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

    In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

    For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

    By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

    The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

    In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

    There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

    What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

    The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

    But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

    And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

    But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

    What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

    The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

    But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

    Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

    As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

    The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

    What is the potential for electoral violence?

    Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

    Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Africa Platform through itswebsite.

     

  • KYRGYZSTAN: ‘The citizens' choice in the referendum will be decisive for our future’

    Ulugbek AzimovCIVICUS and the International Partnership for Human Rights speak to Ulugbek Azimov, legal expert at the Legal Prosperity Foundation, about the protests that took place in Kyrgyzstan in October 2020 and subsequent political developments. The Legal Prosperity Foundation (previously the Youth Human Rights Group) is an independent civil society organisation that has worked to promote human rights and democratic principles in Kyrgyzstan since 1995. The organisation carries out educational programmes, conducts human rights monitoring, interacts with international human rights mechanisms and promotes respect for human rights in the context of legal reforms.

    Kyrgyzstan is often referred to as Central Asia’s only democracy. How close to truth is this depiction?

    It is true that in the early 1990s, that is, in the first years of independence, democracy sprouted and began developing in Kyrgyzstan. Compared to other countries in the region, Kyrgyzstan was characterised by a higher level of citizen participation, a more developed civil society and more favourable conditions for the functioning and participation of political parties in the political process. For this reason, Kyrgyzstan was called an ‘island of democracy’ in Central Asia.

    However, during the 30 years since independence, Kyrgyzstan has faced serious challenges. Attempts by former presidents to preserve and strengthen their hold on power by putting pressure on the opposition, persecuting independent media and journalists, restricting the freedom of expression, using public resources in their favour, bribing voters and falsifying the results of elections have resulted in major political upheavals on several occasions. In the past 15 years, the government has been overthrown three times during the so-called Tulip, April and October revolutions, in 2005, 2010 and 2020, respectively, with two former presidents being forced to flee the country, and the third forced to resign ahead of time.

    Each upheaval has, unfortunately, been followed by developments undermining previous democratic gains. It is therefore not surprising that Freedom House has consistently rated Kyrgyzstan as only ‘partially free’ in its annual Freedom in the World survey. Moreover, in the most recent survey published this year, Kyrgyzstan’s rating deteriorated to that of ‘not free’ because of the fall-out of the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which were marred by serious violations. Thus, Kyrgyzstan is now in the same category in which other Central Asian countries have been for many years. 

    Were pandemic-related restrictions imposed in the run-up to the 2020 elections?

    In response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in the spring of 2020, the Kyrgyzstani authorities adopted emergency measures and introduced a lockdown in the capital, Bishkek, and in several other regions of the country, which led to restrictions on the right to the freedom of movement and other, related rights. All public events, including rallies, were banned.

    Measures taken in the context of the pandemic also gave rise to concerns about restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information. The authorities seriously tightened the screws on critical voices in response to widespread criticism of those in power, including then-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, for their failure to fight the pandemic effectively. Law enforcement authorities tracked down inconvenient bloggers and social media commentators, visited them in their homes and held ‘prophylactic’ discussions with them. In some cases, social media users were detained for allegedly posting false information about the pandemic and forced to apologise publicly under threat of prosecution.

    The law on ‘manipulation of information’, which parliament passed in June 2020, is of particular concern. Although the initiators of the law claimed that it was solely intended to address the problem of fake online accounts, it was clear from the start that this was an attempt by the authorities to introduce internet censorship and close down objectionable sites on the eve of the elections. Following an avalanche of criticism from the media community and human rights defenders, then-President Jeenbekov declined to sign the law and returned it to parliament for revision in August 2020. Since then, the law has remained with parliament. 

    What triggered the post-election demonstrations in October 2020? Who protested, and why?

    The main reason for the October 2020 protests, which again led to a change in power, was people’s dissatisfaction with the official results of the parliamentary elections held on 4 October. 

    Out of the 16 parties running for seats in parliament, only five passed the seven per cent electoral threshold required to get into parliament. Although then-President Jeenbekov publicly stated that he did not support any party, the one that received most votes – Birimdik (Unity) – was associated with him since his brother and other people from the ruling elite were running on its ticket. The party that ended up second, Mekenim Kyrgyzstan (Motherland Kyrgyzstan), was also viewed as pro-government and was associated with the family of former high-ranking customs service official Raiymbek Matraimov, who was implicated in a high-profile media investigation into corruption published in November 2019. Jeenbekov’s government ignored the findings of this investigation and failed to initiate a criminal case against Matraimov, despite public calls to this end.

    It was predictable that Birimdik and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan would fare well in the elections given the use of public resources and reported vote-buying in favour of their candidates. These two parties, which took part in parliamentary elections for the first time, received almost half of the votes and therefore an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. The methods used by the two winning parties to secure control over parliament caused indignation among other political parties that participated in the elections, their voters and even apolitical people.

    The elections took place against the backdrop of growing discontent with the social and economic difficulties caused by the pandemic, as well as growing anti-government sentiments among the population.

    The ‘dirty’ elections, characterised by an unprecedented scale of violations, became a catalyst for subsequent events. Protests began immediately after the announcement of the preliminary results on the evening of election day, 4 October, and continued throughout the next day. Young people played a decisive role in them: most of those who took to the streets to protest and gathered in the central square of the capital were young people. Unfortunately, most of those who were injured, as well as the protester who died during the October events, were young people too.

    What was the government’s reaction to the protests?

    The authorities had the opportunity to take control of the situation and resolve it peacefully, but they did not take it. Only in the evening of 5 October did then-President Jeenbekov announce that he would meet with the leaders of the different parties that competed in the elections. He set up a meeting for the morning of 6 October, but this turned out to be too late, as in the night of 5 October the peaceful protests devolved into clashes between protesters and law enforcement officials in Bishkek, ending with the seizure of the White House (the seat of the president and parliament) and other public buildings by protesters. During the clashes, law enforcement authorities used rubber bullets, stun grenades and teargas against the protesters. As a result of the clashes, a 19-year-old young man was killed and more than 1,000 people needed medical attention, including protesters and law enforcement officials, with over 600 police officers injured. During the unrest, police cars, ambulances, surveillance cameras and other property were also damaged, to an estimated value of over 17 million Som (approx. US$200,000).

    Did the snap presidential elections held in January 2021 solve the problems raised by the protests?

    The main demand of the protesters was to cancel the results of the October 2020 parliamentary elections and hold new, fair elections. This demand was partly satisfied on 6 October 2020, when the Central Election Commission (CEC) declared the election results invalid. However, up to now, no date has been fixed for the new parliamentary elections. The CEC initially scheduled them for 20 December 2020 but parliament responded by promptly adopting a law that suspended the elections pending a revision of the constitution and extended the terms in office of the members of the outgoing parliament until 1 June 2021.

    In its assessment of this law, the Venice Commission – an advisory body of the Council of Europe, composed of independent constitutional law experts – concluded that during the current transitional period parliament should exercise limited functions and refrain from approving extraordinary measures, such as constitutional reforms. However, the outgoing parliament has continued its work as usual and approved the holding of a constitutional referendum in April 2021. Newly elected President Sadyr Japarov has suggested holding new parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2021, which would mean that members of the outgoing parliament would continue in their positions even after 1 June 2021.

    In accordance with other demands of the protesters, the country’s electoral legislation was amended in October 2020 to reduce the electoral threshold from seven to three percentage points for parties to gain representation in parliament and to reduce the electoral fee from 5 to 1 million Som (approx. US$12,000). These amendments were made to facilitate the participation of a larger number of parties, including newer ones, and to promote pluralism and competition.

    The protesters also expressed resentment about the inadequate measures taken to fight corruption. They demanded that the authorities bring to justice corrupt officials, particularly Matraimov, and return stolen property to the state. Speaking in front of the protesters before he became president, Japarov promised that Matraimov would be arrested and punished.

    To be fair, Japarov kept his word. After Japarov rose to power in October 2020, Matraimov was arrested in connection with an investigation into corruption schemes within the customs service, pleaded guilty and agreed to compensate the damage by paying back more than 2 billion Som (approx. US$24 million). A local court subsequently convicted him, but handed him a mitigated sentence in the form of a fine of 260,000 Som (approx. US$3,000) and lifted freezing orders on his property, since he had cooperated with the investigation. This extremely lenient sentence caused public outrage. On 18 February 2021, Matraimov was arrested again on new charges of money laundering, but after a few days he was transferred from the pre-trial detention facility where he was being held to a private clinic to undergo treatment for health problems. After that, many labelled the anti-corruption measures of the current authorities as ‘populist’.

    In January 2021 Kyrgyz citizens also voted in a constitutional referendum. What were its results, and what consequences will they have for the quality of democracy?

    According to the results of the referendum, which took place on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021, 84 per cent of voters supported a transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government.

    Based on comparative experience, many lawyers and civil society activists do not view this change as negative per se, provided that a well-functioning system of checks and balances is put in place. However, they are seriously concerned that the authorities are attempting to push through the transition at an unjustifiably quick pace using questionable approaches and methods that do not correspond to generally accepted principles and established legal rules and procedures.

    The first draft constitution providing for a presidential system of governance, put forward in November 2020, was dubbed a ‘khanstitution’ in reference to the historic autocratic rulers of Central Asia. Critics accused Japarov, who has advocated for this change since taking office in October 2020, of trying to usurp power.

    The draft constitution granted the president practically unlimited powers, while reducing the status and powers of parliament to a minimum, thereby jeopardising checks and balances and creating the risk of presidential abuse of power. It also provided for a complicated impeachment procedure that would be impossible to implement in practice. Moreover, while it did not mention the principle of the rule of law even once, the text repeatedly referred to moral values and principles. Many provisions of the current constitution that guarantee human rights and freedoms were excluded.

    Because of harsh criticism, the authorities were forced to abandon their initial plans to submit the draft constitution to referendum on the same day as the presidential election in January 2021 and agreed to organise a broader discussion. To this end, a so-called constitutional conference was convened and its members worked for two and a half months, in spite of facing accusations that their activities were illegitimate. At the beginning of February 2021, the constitutional conference submitted its suggestions to parliament.

    It should be acknowledged that as a result of the discussion and proposals submitted by the constitutional conference, parts of the draft constitution were improved. For example, the reference to the principle of the rule of law was restored, and significant amendments were made to the sections on human rights and freedoms, including with respect to protecting the freedom of expression, the role of independent media and the right to access information. But it remained practically unchanged with respect to the provisions that set out unlimited powers for the president.

    In March 2021, parliament adopted a law on holding a referendum on the revised draft constitution, setting the date for 11 April 2021. This sparked a new wave of indignation among politicians, lawyers and civil society activists, who pointed out that this was against the established procedure for constitutional change and warned again that the concentration of power in the hands of the president might result in authoritarian rule. Their concerns were echoed in a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, issued in March 2021 at the request of the Ombudsman of Kyrgyzstan.

    The draft constitution has two other problematic provisions. One allows for restrictions to be imposed on any events that contradict ‘moral and ethical values’ or ‘the public consciousness of the people of the Kyrgyz Republic’. These concepts are not defined or regulated, so they might be interpreted differently in different cases, creating the risk of overly broad and subjective interpretation and arbitrary application. This, in turn, might lead to excessive restrictions on human rights and freedoms, including the rights to the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.

    The other provision requires political parties, trade unions and other public associations to ensure the transparency of their financial and economic activities. Against the background of recent attempts to step up control over civil society organisations (CSOs), there are concerns that it might be used to put pressure on them. On the same day that parliament voted in favour of holding a referendum on the draft constitution, some legislators accused CSOs of allegedly undermining ‘traditional values’ and posing a threat to the state. 

    Civil society activists continue to call on the current parliament, which in their eyes has lost its legitimacy, to dissolve and on the president to call new elections promptly. Activists are holding an ongoing rally to this end and, if their demands are not met, they plan to turn to the courts on the grounds of the usurpation of power.

    The president, however, has rejected all concerns voiced about the constitutional reform. He has assured that Kyrgyzstan will remain a democratic country, that the freedom of expression and the personal safety of journalists will be respected, and that there will be no further political persecution. 

    The citizens of Kyrgyzstan must make their choice. The upcoming referendum on the current draft constitution may become another turning point in the history of Kyrgyzstan, and the choice made by citizens will be decisive for the future development towards stability and prosperity.

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