civic space

 

  • PHILIPPINES: ‘We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in the Philippines with Marinel Ubaldo, a young climate activist, co-founder of the Youth Leaders for Environmental Action Federation and Advocacy Officer for Ecological Justice and Youth Engagement of Living Laudato Si’ Philippines (LLS).

    Founded by Catholic lay people, LLS began in 2018 as an interfaith movement calling on Filipino financial institutions to divest from coal-related operations and other environmentally harmful activities. It aims to empower people to adopt lifestyles and attitudes that match the urgent need to care for the planet. It promotes sustainable development and seeks to tackle the climate crisis through collective action.

    Marinel Ubaldo

    From your perspective, what was at stake in the 9 May presidential election?

    The 2022 election fell within the crucial window for climate justice. As stated in the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we need to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius or we will suffer terrible consequences, such as a rise in sea levels that will submerge much of the currently populated land, including the Philippines. Upcoming leaders will serve for the next six years –and possibly beyond. They have the immense responsibility of putting a climate change mitigation system in place for our country and urging more countries to do the same.

    As shown by Super Typhoon Rai that hit the Philippines in December 2021, climate change affects all of us. Whole communities lost their loved ones and their homes. Young people will reap the fruits, or pay the consequences, for whatever our incoming leaders do in response to this crisis. This is why climate anxiety is so prevalent among young people.

    How did young people mobilise around this election?

    Young people campaigned house to house. We also went to grassroots communities to educate voters on how to vote wisely. Alongside other organisations that form the Green Thumb Coalition, our organisation produced a Green Scorecard and we used our social media platforms to promote the ‘green’ candidate.

    One of the biggest youth initiatives around the elections was ‘LOVE, 52’, a campaign aimed at empowering young people and helping them engage with candidates and make their voices heard in demand of a green, just, and loveable future through better governance. We wanted to shift the focus from candidates’ personality and patronage politics to a debate on fundamental issues, and to help young people move traditional powerholders towards a people-centred style of policymaking.

    We called this initiative ‘LOVE, 52’ in reference to the fact that young people – people under 40 – comprise 52 per cent of the Philippines’ voting population. We sought to appeal to younger voters’ emotions, and our central theme was love because a frequent response to the question ‘why vote?’ is to protect what we love: our families, our country, and our environment. The main element of this campaign was a ‘love letter’ drafted by several youth organisations and addressed to the country. It contained young people’s calls to incoming leaders, including those of prioritising environmental and social issues, coming up with a coherent plan to address the climate crisis, and supporting a vibrant democracy that will enable climate and environmental justice. We gathered all the love letters people wrote, put them in one envelope, and delivered them physically to the presidential candidates’ headquarters.

    What are the implications of the election results for civil society and civic freedoms?

    The results of these elections will have a lot of implications for the Filipino people. They will have a direct impact on civil society and our freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly.

    The winning candidate, senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of a former dictator, has said that he will include his family in his administration. Just today, I saw the new president’s spokesperson on the news saying Marcos will make his own appointments, bringing in the people he trusts. I think he will really try to control the government with people who follow him unconditionally. He will put such people in all the positions available, so everyone will tell him what he wants to hear and no one will disagree with him. I think this is the scariest part of it all.

    I fear in a few months or years we will be living under a dictatorship. Marcos may even be able to stay in power for as long as he wants. After trying to reach power for so long, he has finally won, and he won’t let go of power easily.

    It’s very scary because the human rights violations that happened during his father’s dictatorship are not even settled yet. More human rights violations are likely to happen. It’s a fact that the Filipino people won’t be allowed to raise their voices; if they do so, they may risk being killed. This is what happened under martial law during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship.

    This will definitely affect civil society. It will be very difficult for humanitarian workers to respond to any crisis since Marcos will likely aspire to micro-manage everything. We fear the democracy those before us fought so hard for will be erased.

    Regarding the specifics of policymaking, we don’t really know what the plan is. Marcos campaigned on vague promises of national unity and implied that all problems would be solved if people unite behind his leadership. Needless to say, he never mentioned any policy to tackle climate change and the environmental crisis.

    Against all signals, I keep hoping the new administration will be receptive to people’s demands. I really hope our new president listens to the cries of the people. Our leaders must reach out to communities and listen to our issues. I doubt Bongbong Marcos is capable of doing that, but one can only hope.

    What support does Filipino civil society need from international civil society and the international community?

    We need to ensure the international community sends out a consistent message and stands by our side when oppression starts. We also need them to be ready to rescue Filipinos if their safety is at risk. We activists fear for our lives. We have doubts about how receptive and accepting the new administration will be toward civil society. 

    Today is a gloomy day in the Philippines. We did our best to campaign for truth, facts, and hope for the Philippines. Vice President Leni Robredo campaigned for public sector transparency and vowed to lead a government that cares for the people and bolsters the medical system. If she had won the elections, she would have been the third woman to lead the Philippines after Cory Aquino and Macapagal Arroyo.

    Leni’s loss is the loss of the Philippines, not just hers. There are still too many people in the Philippines who believe Marcos’s lies. I don’t blame the masses for believing his lies; they are victims of decades of disinformation. Our system sadly enables disinformation. This is something that needs to be urgently tackled, but the next administration will likely benefit from it so it will hardly do what’s needed.

    We now fear every day for our lives and for the future of our country.

    Civic space inthe Philippinesis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Living Laudato Si’ Philippines through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@LaudatoSiPH on Twitter and@laudatosiph on Instagram

     

  • PHILIPPINES: ‘We will make sure that human rights are on the electoral agenda’

    CIVICUS speaks about civil society responses to the growing restrictions on civic space in the Philippines with Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, Chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) and Executive Director of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (PhilRights).

    PhilRights is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works on human rights education, training, research and information, and that monitors and documents human rights violations. Established in 1991 by PAHRA, PhilRights serves as the alliance’s research and information centre. It played an important part in advocacy that led to the abolition of the death penalty in the Philippines in 2006 and continue to play a leading role in the submission of alternative reports on economic, social and cultural rights to United Nations human rights mechanisms. It has published several human rights training materials that are extensively used by CSOs and social movements.

    Nymia Pimentel Simbulan

    Photo Credit: Schwanke/Brot fuer die Welt

    What is the state of civic space in the Philippines, and what risks do civil society activists and organisations face?

    Civic space in the Philippines is currently restricted, particularly for human rights organisations and defenders. It has slowly become narrower over time, and it is increasingly challenging for human rights organisations and defenders to exercise rights such as those to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. 

    This has been going on for years. In 2018 the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a memorandum with new requirements CSOs must comply with. This made CSOs suspicious and apprehensive because they were being asked to provide the SEC with sensitive information like sources of funding, areas of operation and details of board members as a requirement in the renewal of their registration. The new regulations were used by the government to monitor their operations and activities, including for human rights CSOs.

    A big problem we have right now is ‘red tagging’: the practice of state agents labelling activists, human rights defenders and CSOs that are vocal and critical of government policies, programmes, pronouncements and actions as being linked to communist insurgent groups and accusing them of being destabilisers and enemies of the state. This is a common strategy used by the Philippine government through the security sector as a way of intimidating and silencing individuals, groups and members of the opposition who openly criticise the state. 

    The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has been notorious in red-tagging since the second quarter of 2021. This body was created following the passage of the 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, in the midst of the pandemic. Its mandate was to put an end to the local insurgency problem but in the implementation of its mandate it has targeted legitimate opposition, human rights defenders, media practitioners and progressive church leaders through red-tagging and vilification campaigns, the filing of trumped-up charges and dissemination of lies and fake news through the social media.

    Also rampant is harassment of human rights lawyers, defenders and media personalities who are vocally critical of the government and its policies. One case worth mentioning is that of Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American journalist who became known for exposing corruption and human rights violation through Rappler, a Manila-based digital media company for investigative journalism. She was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize but continued to be harassed and criminally charged on multiple fabricated accusations, including fraud, tax evasion and receiving money from the CIA.

    What was the process leading to the approval of the Human Rights Defenders Protection Act, and what role did civil society play in it?

    The Human Rights Defenders Protection Act was passed by the House of Representatives on 17 January 2022, but it is not yet law. For it to become law, the Senate must still pass a counterpart of the bill, which it has not yet done.

    Still, the passage of the bill by the House, without a single legislator voting against or abstaining, is quite unprecedented. This is a piece of legislation that human rights activists have long been advocating for.

    Civil society has lobbied for the passage of the bill into a law for years, not only under the current Congress but also under the previous one. Civil society representatives repeatedly met with the House’s human rights champions. Encouragingly, there are also human rights champions in the Senate who have consistently supported the civil society campaign for the passage of the bill.

    Much work remains to be done with human rights champions in the Senate. Given time constraints, I don’t know if the bill will be passed. If it is, civil society will use it in our human rights advocacy work. If it is not, unfortunately we will be back to square one in the next Congress.

    Do you think the human rights situation will feature in the campaign for the May presidential election?

    I think it will, because PAHRA has come up with a human rights electoral agenda that its member organisations have approved, so while we continue to do our human rights education work and launch campaigns, we will make sure that the human rights electoral agenda reaches communities and the general public.

    When connecting with political parties, we have noticed that they are open to the human rights agenda promoted by PAHRA, so we provide them with a copy so that they can bring up these issues in their campaigns.

    How does PhilRights support civil society organisations and activists in the Philippines?

    We conduct research on various human rights issues. For instance, in the past we did research on children’s involvement in armed conflict and the phenomenon of child soldiers. Right now, we are actively involved in monitoring and documenting human rights violations in the context of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. We have set up a very good documentation mechanism that we use when we go to communities, particularly urban poor communities. We conduct interviews and gather first-hand information from the families and relatives of the victims of extrajudicial killings connected to the ‘war on drugs’.

    With the data that we gather we produce reports, human rights briefs, infographics and posters that we disseminate locally and internationally among the human rights community, the public and international allies and networks.

    In addition, we do human rights education and training. We have produced training modules on human rights education and the rights-based approach to development, and we conduct human rights education in the same communities where we have documented human rights violations. 

    How can international civil society best support Filipino civil society’s human rights work?

    International civil society can support Filipino civil society by disseminating information about what is happening in the country. This will also encourage collaboration because local CSOs are best placed to provide the information materials that international CSOs need.

    International CSOs can also help by organising webinars and inviting Filipino human rights defenders to share their narratives and experiences. We are very open and willing to collaborate with organisations such as CIVICUS and Amnesty International, among others. Institutions willing to support human rights defenders in the Philippines can also do so through funding or linking Filipino CSOs with potential funders.

    Civic space inthe Philippinesis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with PhilRights through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@PhilRights on Twitter. 

     

  • Philippines: Stop the Attacks against Human Rights Defenders and Protect Civic Space

     

    Joint Statement:
    We, the undersigned organisations, strongly denounce the recent death threats addressed to Karapatan Secretary General, Cristina Palabay in the Philippines. These threats and the wider attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and civil society representatives signify the further constricting of civic space and the silencing of dissent in the country. We collectively urge the Government of the Philippines to respond to the threats against human rights defenders by taking genuine and effective measures for their protection.

    On 22 April 2019, Palabay received threatening messages from someone using an unknown phone number saying that she and other human rights defenders will be killed this year. These threats highlight the risks faced by human rights defenders, which have significantly increased since President Duterte took office in June 2016. Duterte has consistently spoken out against human rights and human rights defenders. He has previously threatened to behead human rights advocates [1],  and blamed them for the increase in the number of drug users in the country [2].  While the Office of the President has been quick to assert that these statements were merely made in jest, such statements have translated into real-life repercussions for human rights defenders, who face violence and threats from both state and non-state actors. 

    In 2018, the Department of Justice filed a petition placing UN Special Rapporteur Vicki Tauli-Corpuz and other human rights defenders on a list of individuals who supposedly had terrorist connections. Being publicly accused of such connections greatly endangers their security [3].  A month later, Duterte told people to ‘kill those useless bishops’, [4]  referring, among others, to Bishop Pablo Salud, who is known for speaking out against the Government’s ‘war on drugs’. This too resulted in anonymous death threats. 

    On the same day that Palabay received the latest threats against her life, human rights worker Bernardino Patigas was killed [5].  Another human rights defender, Archad Ayao was killed just days later [6].  Of the human rights defenders cases monitored by FORUM-ASIA in Asia in 2017-2018, the biggest percentage of killings - 48 per cent totalling 29 cases – took place in the Philippines [7]. 

    Attacks and reprisals against human rights defenders continue as the Government wages a systematic campaign to attack the independence of democratic institutions and to constrict civic space in the country.  Individuals within the legislative and judiciary branches have faced reprisals for dissenting against Duterte’s policies, while journalists have been targeted for their critical reporting. This campaign has included efforts ranging from: a general failure to investigate attacks against human rights defenders; to the use of repressive laws to judicially harass critics; to outright violence.

    We condemn these attacks, and express deep concern for the government policies and practices that restrict and repress civil society and human rights defenders in the Philippines. We call on the Government of the Philippines to ensure thorough and impartial investigations of the attacks against human rights defenders, and to ensure a safe and enabling environment for them to conduct their work. We also urge the House of Representatives to enact and implement the Human Rights Defenders Protection Bill that will provide legal recognition to and safeguards for human rights defenders, in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders.

    We call on stakeholders in the international community to continue to closely monitor the situation in the Philippines, and to use their interactions with the Government, including in the area of trade and business, to emphasise the importance of reversing restrictive policies and building an enabling environment for the respect and protection of human rights. Specifically, we urge the UN Human Rights Council to advance accountability for human rights violations in the country by adopting a resolution establishing an independent international investigation into extrajudicial killings in the government's 'war on drugs', and to call for a halt to the  attacks on human rights defenders, independent media, and democratic institutions.

    Signed,
    Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
    Front Line Defenders
    FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
    International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders


    1 Duterte threatens to behead human rights advocates.
    https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/611343/duterte‐threatens‐to‐behead‐human‐rights‐ advocates/story/
    2 Duterte threats alarm rights groups https://www.rappler.com/nation/154110‐duterte‐threats‐alarm‐rights‐ groups
    3 Palace: ‘Terrorist’ tag on UN special rapporteur based on intel. https://globalnation.inquirer.net/164881/victoria‐ tauli‐corpus‐un‐special‐rapporteur‐terrorist‐cpp‐npa
    4 Philippines' Duterte: 'Kill those useless bishops' https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/philippines‐duterte‐ kill‐useless‐catholic‐bishops‐181205132220894.html
    5 Negros Occidental city councilor shot dead. https://www.rappler.com/nation/228768‐negros‐occidental‐city‐ councilor‐shot‐dead‐april‐22‐2019
    6 BARMM human rights worker shot dead in Cotabato City. https://www.rappler.com/nation/229468‐barmm‐ human‐rights‐worker‐archad‐ayao‐shot‐dead‐cotabato‐city‐may‐2019
    7 Since 2010, FORUM‐ASIA has been using an integrated database documenting system, to document violations and abuses against HRDs in Asia. The data can be accessed at https://asianhrds.forum‐asia.org/.

     

  • POLAND: ‘The crisis of democracy and human rights will deepen’

    CIVICUS speaks with Małgorzata Szuleka about Poland’s recent presidential elections, held under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling party’s use of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to mobilise its electorate. Małgorzata is a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland, one of the largest and oldest human rights organisations in Poland and the region. HFHR Poland represents victims of human rights abuses in court proceedings, conducts research and monitors human rights violations. Since 2015 it has actively monitored the increasing rule of law violations in Poland. It works with partners in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the European Union (EU) and the USA.

    Małgorzata Szuleka

    After rescheduling, the Polish elections were held in June and July 2020. What was civil society’s position on having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 and organising them posed a huge legal problem because there was no legal mechanism to postpone them. The only way to reschedule them was to announce a state of emergency, as provided for by the constitution. No elections may be organised during a state of emergency or within the next 90 days of it ending. From a constitutional perspective, an official declaration that the country was experiencing an epidemic would give the government the prerogative to introduce the state of emergency. This would automatically extend the term of office of the president until after regular elections could be scheduled, once the epidemic was over. However, the government did not follow this process. The elections were rescheduled and the run-off vote between the two leading candidates was held on 12 July 2020 on very dubious legal grounds. However, this wasn’t questioned by neither the government majority, nor the opposition.

    Civil society organisations (CSOs) first pushed the government to organise the elections in a proper way, urging it to announce a state of emergency. Once this didn’t happen, CSOs tried to raise the issue of international monitoring, mainly in terms of fairness and financing of the campaign. The problem was that the election was expected to be free but not fair. Public media was biased towards the candidate supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, President Andrzej Duda, and extremely critical and unprofessional towards any opposition candidate. Even though no state of emergency had been declared, many fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and access to information were limited. These were major concerns.

    There was also the problem of the Supreme Court confirming the validity of the elections. On 12 July, President Duda was re-elected for a second term by a tight margin. He received 51 per cent of the vote while the opposition Civic Coalition contender received 49 per cent. Turnout was barely above 68 per cent, and more than 5,800 complaints were submitted regarding irregularities in the process. The Supreme Court ruled that 92 of those complaints were justified but had not influenced the final result, so it declared the results valid. Sadly, this decision completely ignored the problem of the constitutional and legal grounds for organising the elections in the first place.

    Were measures adopted to protect people during the campaign and voting process? Did the pandemic have any impact on turnout?

    The organisation of the campaign involved sanitary measures regarding social distancing and mask use. But these provisions were not fully respected on both sides. For campaigning purposes, the government loosened some restrictions; for example, even though face mask use was mandatory, pictures were published of the prime minister not wearing one in public. Also of concern was the fact that many public authorities engaged in political campaigning alongside President Duda. Public institutions were instrumentalised by ruling politicians. The government security centre, responsible for coordination and information in case of natural calamities or danger, sent out mass text messages on election day. Every voter received a message that said that people over 60 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities could vote without waiting in line. This might have been used to mobilise the core electorate of the ruling party. This is just one example, but it could be an indication of the role played by official institutions to tilt the playing field in favour of the PiS party.

    Was media coverage during the election fair?

    Public media coverage was absolutely unfair. The rest of the coverage, mainly by private media, was relatively good; it definitely was not as bad as public media coverage, which was used for propaganda and enhanced President Duda’s campaign.

    One of elections complaints brought to the Supreme Court specifically referred to media coverage. It stated that public television supported the incumbent while systematically discrediting his rival, and that public institutions and officials repeatedly violated correct conduct by supporting only one of the candidates. But the problem with the entire institution of election complaints is that you need to prove not only that the alleged irregularity happened, but also that it had an impact on the election results. In presidential elections such as this one, this is very difficult to prove. Additionally, the electoral code doesn’t regulate the work of the media, so it’s hard to make the legal claim that the media should operate differently. And if you do, it is also difficult to prove that particular coverage of a particular candidate, or the lack of coverage, resulted in a particular election result. We can intuitively assume this, particularly in view of such tight results, but it is very difficult to create a solid legal case.

    What does President Duda’s re-election mean for democracy and human rights in Poland?

    It is a continuation of a very worrying trend. Out of all possible campaign issues, President Duda chose to focus on stoking homophobia. The campaign took place in a context of a years-long backsliding of the rule of law, in the middle of a crisis of relations between Poland and the EU, during a huge healthcare challenge and on the verge of an economic crisis that will affect everyone in Poland. But none of these issues were the focus of the political campaign and public discussion. President Duda mainly spoke about LGBTQI+ people posing a threat to our Christian traditional heritage, equating homosexuality with paedophilia. The issue was narrowed down to this divisive, outrageous and dehumanising narrative by the PiS party. It was a very pragmatic move from PiS spin doctors because it mobilised the very core of the electorate. All of a sudden LGBTQI+ groups and communities became the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in Poland. It is outrageous how much this issue was politicised and how it was used to dehumanise this minority group. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch.

    And the campaign was far from the end of it. President Duda is just a representative of the ruling PiS party, so he will say whatever he needs to keep them aligned. This is just a matter of calculation and internal power struggles. In June, the PiS party targeted LGBTQI+ people. In July, it targeted victims of domestic violence by starting discussion on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. In August, it proposed to register CSOs that are financed from abroad. Now I don’t know who is going to be their next enemy. It’s not only about being homophobic but rather about this governing majority always needing an enemy to confront or blame.

    We just entered a phase in which there will be no elections for the next three years so we can expect a huge consolidation of power and the government doing everything that it dreams of, such as creating pressure on CSOs, further polarising the media, targeting specific minority groups and escalating the conflict with the EU. We can expect all of this to happen over the next three years. The only thing that can stop them is pragmatic evaluation about whether this is needed at this time or whether there might be something more important to do. But I think the crisis of democracy and human rights in Poland will deepen.

    Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights-Poland through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@hfhrpl and@m_szuleka on Twitter.

     

  • Reclaiming civic space: global challenges, local responses

    By Danny Sriskandarajah and Mandeep Tiwana 

    From attacks on human rights defenders to limits on civil society’s work, we are facing an emergency on civic space. As evidence from the CIVICUS Monitor suggests, threats to civic freedoms are no longer just happening in fragile states and autocracies, but also in more mature democracies. While there has been growing attention on how to respond to this phenomenon, we believe there needs to be more attention on underlying drivers and on supporting local responses. Civic space can’t be “saved” from the outside.  

    Read on: Open Global Rights

     

  • Repression in Paradise: Assault on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives

    The Maldives, an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, was thrown into a political crisis on 1 February 2018 when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, leading to mass protests in the capital, Malé.In response, the President declared a state of emergency, provided the security forces with sweeping powers and suspended constitutional rights. He also removed and arrested two Supreme Court judges.

     

  • Repression in Paradise: Rule of Law and Fundamental Freedoms Under Attack in The Maldives, says new report

    Media Release

    The Government of the Indian Ocean island nation of The Maldives is undermining the rule of law and intensifying a brutal crackdown on its critics.

    That’s the finding of a new report released today by global civil society alliance CIVICUS and Voice of Women (VoW), in a deepening crisis that has drawn international condemnation.  

    The Republic of Maldives is a nation made up of 26 coral atolls and 1,192 individual islands.

    The report marks exactly three months since the country’s Supreme Court ordered the release of scores of arrested opposition politicians and activists. 

    The government of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom responded to the ruling by imposing a state of emergency and arresting two Supreme Court judges. 

    The report, entitled Repression in Paradise, highlights how the judiciary has been undermined through the judges’ arbitrary arrest, while scores of opposition politicians and activists face a variety of trumped up charges, ranging from bribery to terrorism. Local human rights groups have also documented the ill-treatment of these detainees in custody. 

    Over the last two months, the authorities have repressed all forms of dissent including violently breaking up peaceful demonstrations, arbitrarily arresting and detaining protesters, attacking journalists and threatening news organisations with closure.

    CIVICUS and VoW have condemned the acts of repression and called for an end to the crackdown and the immediate release of detainees.

    Said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Research Officer: “The Maldives authorities must drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against the two Supreme court judges and release them, as well as all those who have been arbitrarily detained under the state of emergency, solely for exercising their democratic, human rights.”

    “Steps must also be taken to ensure that the judiciary can operate in an independent and transparent manner without interference,” said Benedict.

    During this crackdown, police have used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, in some case indiscriminately, using pepper spray and tear gas. At least a dozen journalists have been injured while covering protests, with reporters being arrested and ill-treated. The police also used unnecessary force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, in some case indiscriminately using pepper spray and tear gas.

    Said Mohamed Visham, a journalist at Avas News: “It is appalling that journalists and demonstrators have suffered violence from the police, simply for exercising the fundamental right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”

    “The safety of journalists must be ensured at all times and authorities must launch prompt, impartial and independent investigations into all reports of unnecessary or excessive use of force by the police,” said Visham.

    Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Maldives have bravely spoken out against these restrictions. CSOs have documented human rights violations and sought to expose them nationally and internationally. However, many Maldivians are seriously concerned that repression will prevent elections, due to be held later this year, from being free, fair and inclusive.

    “The international community cannot stand idly by and watch this onslaught on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives. In the lead up to the elections, key countries and international allies must call on the government to halt their attacks on the opposition and civil society and ensure that all institutions in the Maldives respect the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” said Aazima Rasheed, President of the Voice of Women (VoW).

    The space for civil society in The Maldives is rated as obstructed by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civic space in every country. An obstructed rating indicates that power holders contest civic space, undermine CSOs and constrain the fundamental civil society rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    Note to Editors:
    Background on the crisis

    The Republic of Maldives, an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, was thrown into a political crisis on 1st February, 2018 when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, leading to mass protests in the capital, Male. In response, President Yameen declared a state of emergency on 5th February, which gave the security forces sweeping powers and suspended constitutional rights. 

    While the state of emergency was lifted on 22nd March 2018, arrests of government critics have persisted. Maldives is due to hold its presidential elections later in 2018.

    In February, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein condemned the declaration of the state of emergency and raised concerns that the resulting suspension of constitutional guarantees would lead to a greater number of violations of the rights of people in the Maldives.

    On 16th April 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee found that restrictions on former President Nasheed’s right to stand for office violated his rights to political participation under Article 25 of the ICCPR and called on Maldives to restore this right. The government however has rejected this call.

    CIVICUS
    CIVICUS is an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. In order to do so, we focus on protecting the rights of civil society, strengthening civil society good practices and increasing civil society’s influence.
    www.civicus.org 
    https://monitor.civicus.org/country/maldives/ 
    Twitter: @CIVICUSAlliance

    Voice of Women
    Voice of Women (VoW) is an non-governmental organisation officially registered in the Maldives since 2011. VoW focuses on empowering women; generating opportunities to effect change; promoting awareness on sustainable development, environment, and climate change; building respect for human rights and democracy in the Maldives; as well as documenting human rights violations, domestic violence, and sexual abuse in the Maldives.
    www.voiceofwomen.org 
    Twitter: @VofW

    For more information, or to arrange interviews, please contact:
    Josef Benedict
    josef.benedictATcivicus.org

    Grant Clark
    grant.clarkATcivicus.org
    +27 63 567 9719
     

     

  • Response to DFID Civil Society Partnership Review

    Many in civil society will mourn the loss of the PPA. DFID core funding helped build capable and confident organisations that were able to plan long-term and holistic interventions. Any new system will introduce new uncertainties and administrative burdens that will hamper the effectiveness of civil society.
     
    We do welcome DFID’s commitment to supporting a diverse range of civil society actors, especially smaller and Southern organisations, and to doing more to support civic space. The focus on feedback loops and new forms of accountability has the potential to yield some exciting and transformative change.

    - Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance

    For further information and to request interviews, please contact .

     

  • Restrictions on Civic Space: A Global Emergency

    The world is facing a democratic crisis through unprecedented restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly which constitute a global emergency says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS’ 2017 report.

    The 2017 State of Civil Society Report highlights that around the world it is becoming increasingly dangerous to challenge power, and to do so risks reprisals. In several countries, right-wing populist and neo-fascist leaders have gained prominence by winning elections or commanding enough support to push their ideas into the mainstream. Their politics and worldview are fundamentally opposed to civil society seeking to promote human rights, social cohesion and progressive internationalism.

    Key points from the report, include:

    • Increasing attacks on civil society activists and organisations from repressive state apparatuses, extremist forces and criminal elements linked to businesses;
    • Just 3% of the world’s population lives in countries with ‘open’ civic space;
    • Recent political shifts indicate genuine anger from citizens about the impact of globalisation on their lives that have been harnessed by right wing populists; and
    • The challenge for civil society is not to dismiss that anger and but to build an alternative movement of hope, not fear that is respectful of human rights.

    The report notes that to the new right-wing populists, the international sphere is a dangerous source of progressive values that challenges their narrow notions of sovereignty. International institutions and the human rights values they represent are deemed intrusive. The Paris Agreement on climate change, for example, has been painted as obstructive to economic growth and put at risk by the current attitude of the US government. The leaders of Israel, the Philippines and the US have attacked the UN.  The governments of Burundi and South Africa have in the last year threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court. Nowhere is the failure of multilateralism more apparent as in the Syrian crisis which has cost half a million lives and displaced half the country’s population, raising the spectre of impunity for war crimes being normalised.

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres characterized the current disregard for human rights, fuelled by rising populism and extremism, as a “disease that is spreading”. In the Philippines over 7000 people have been killed as a result of violence encouraged by President Rodrigo Duterte.  In Turkey, following an attempted coup, there are now sweeping restrictions on fundamental freedoms and civil society – some 195 media outlets have been shut down, 80 journalists have been imprisoned along with thousands of academics and others deemed as dissidents.

    CIVIC SPACE UNDER ATTACK

    A consistent pattern is emerging of attacks on civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists engaged in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. Restrictive measures range from detentions, arrests and extrajudicial killings of activists to disenabling legislation to squeeze the funding and the functioning of CSOs as being experienced in Egypt. In Ethiopia,  more than 600 people have died in violent suppression of protests against economic and political marginalisation. Ethiopia’s civic space is rated as closed by the  CIVICUS Monitor, a new online platform that tracks civic space in every country.

    Some states, including in parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe, are now introducing laws to make it harder to hold protests. An example is Poland’s anti-terrorism law, passed in June 2016. It gives the state enhanced powers to ban public assemblies, along with increased surveillance and internet control powers. In Venezuela, protests are being met with brute force by government forces.

    Another significant trend has emerged over the past year: freedom of expression is being applied selectively. Dissent that serves right-wing populist agendas is encouraged; that which does not is to be dismissed or repressed. Increasingly, dissent is seen as a political act rather than a normal part of a functioning democracy. Methods range from attacks on journalists and activists to the shutting down of entire Internet or mobile phone networks, as experienced in Cameroon’s Anglophone region in the first quarter of 2017. These restrictive measures often increase during politically sensitive times, such as elections. The CIVICUS Monitor records 101 attacks on journalists, between June 2016 and March 2017. In some countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, both extremist forces and an authoritarian state present a threat to freedom of expression.

    The report notes that the right to express democratic dissent needs to be asserted in many countries.

    A MOVEMENT OF HOPE NOT FEAR

    But the democracy of the street is alive and well. Around the world, whenever new leaders have come to power on polarizing right-wing populist platforms they have been met with major demonstrations - none have been bigger than those that mobilised as Sister Marches in the USA and around the world, against the politics of President Donald Trump. In South Korea, protests were intrinsic to the campaign that forced former president Park Guen-hye from office on corruption charges. From Romania to Brazil and South Africa, protests have been a key method for citizens to express dissatisfaction with governance dysfunction and corruption.

    The report calls on civil society to make the case for a new, progressive internationalism that has human rights at its heart, challenges exclusion and injustice while supporting an active citizenry.

    Civil society must also mount a new challenge to current practices of economic globalisation which further privileges elites, and the failures of political systems to give ordinary citizens voice. The response needs to understand the anger that people feel about their lives and livelihoods while being careful not to appease racism, sexism and xenophobia.  A positive message of hope rather than fear is needed. This requires building broad-based alliances that connect classic CSOs with protest movements, journalists, trade unions, youth groups, social enterprises and artists.

    ENDS

    Notes to Editors

    The full State of Civil Society Report 2017 can be found here.

    About CIVICUS’ 2017 State of Civil Society Report

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

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

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

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

     

     

  • Rising Attacks on Environmental Defenders Threaten Human Rights Goals Globally

    By Inés Pousadela 

    “I have been told that my name is on a hit list…but I haven’t been killed yet.” These were the chilling words of Mzama Dlamini, a South African community activist, to a gathering of environmental defenders from all over the world. Many in the audience could personally relate.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier

     

  • RUSSIA: 'Any tactic that protesters use will likely be banned and declared a crime'

    Nelya RakhimovaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests and the growing restrictions on civic space in Russia with Nelya Rakhimova, coordinator of the Coalition for Sustainable Development of Russia (CSDR).

    CSDR is a coalition that advocates for and monitors the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Russia. Established in 2020, it includes Russian civil society organisations (CSOs), research institutions, experts and activists. CSDR participates in international and domestic processes, creates awareness of SDGs among the public and mobilises for action on SDGs.

    How big are the anti-war protests in Russia, and how has the government reacted to them?

    Anti-war protests are currently happening in major cities throughout Russia. Protesters are just demanding peace, but the government’s reaction has been repressive. Of course, bigger changes are needed, but for now the focus of protesters is on ending the war. They typically go out to the streets with placards that read ‘no to war’ and are immediately arrested. Almost all cities are flooded with police monitoring the situation. Innocent people have been tortured simply because they have voiced concerns regarding the ‘military operation’, as the government calls it. 

    Those out there protesting are ordinary citizens, activists and members of CSOs.Although there are no statistics showing the number of people participating in protests and their composition, it seems that many protesters are young people.

    This makes sense, because what makes it somewhat easier for young people to stand against the war and participate in protests is that most of them do not have family responsibilities and are therefore free to act independently. Other people may wish to participate in the protests but because they have families, they feel restricted.

    Various platforms have been used to instil fear. People risk not only being arrested but also losing their jobs. But of course the same could be said about students, as there are already cases of students being expelled from universities because of their participation in the protests. Pressure comes not only from the government but also from universities and employers. These issues have been abundantly covered in a comprehensive report recently published by the Russian independent human rights media project OVD-Info.

    Do you think repression is deterring people from protesting in larger numbers?

    Indeed, although there have been protests all over the place, the number of people protesting is not that big. Many people who are against the so-called ‘military operation’ are scared to take part in protests because they have seen how police treat protesters. In addition, many people choose not to protest because they believe it won’t make a difference.

    A look back at previous protests and in Russia and the government’s reaction to them makes it clear why many people are reluctant to participate in the anti-war movement. People are aware of the gruesome acts perpetrated in prisons and police stations. Civic freedoms are so restricted that people are not able to freely express themselves. Having your own views can get you into trouble. We have seen too many human rights violations over the past weeks and we are afraid the situation will only get worse due to the reduced international visibility of Russia’s internal situation.

    CSOs are already starting to feel the pressure, as most people prefer to disassociate themselves from them and they are also trying to protect people who associate with them. At the beginning people were signing petitions against the war but now CSOs are removing people’s names because they don’t want to put them in danger’s way.

    It is currently very difficult to leave Russia, so people are adopting safety measures to protect themselves while staying. But there are still brave people and organisations that are determined to keep advocating for peace and are not deterred by the ongoing human rights violations.

    What is CSDR and what does it do?

    CSDR is a civil society coalition working together so that the SDGs are achieved in Russia by 2030. We work with civil society experts on each SDG to push forward this agenda.

    The coalition was established in 2020 because at the time the government of Russia was delivering its report on SDG implementation, and we decided we needed to have an alternative report that included the perspective of civil society. We produced a shadow report that was supported by 160 CSOs and 200 individual activists. It was quite successful and was recognised by the German Organisation for International Cooperation and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

    We then continued to work on advocacy for SDG implementation. Last year we hosted a conference in Moscow to which we invited representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs and economic development and the special representative of the president on the SDGs. We tried to stay in touch to deliver our messages on SGD-related issues. We had plans to continue this work but right now we have no idea how we will be able to do so.

    What are the main challenges you currently face in your work?

    The most challenging thing about organising in Russia is that the law is constantly being changed and restrictions are increasingly being tightened. Right now for instance we are talking to our donors, who are mainly German foundations, because it is not even clear how we are going to be able to receive funds to produce our publications and convene events.

    Several new censorship laws have been put in place over the past couple of weeks, and most people have decided to comply with them. But it is not easy to organise in such an environment. Any tactic that protesters and independent CSOs use today will likely be banned by law over the following days and declared a crime.

    As a coalition we face a similar situation. We’ve tried to release a statement regarding the current events and have had to review it over and over due to the changing laws. We are being very careful with our wording and social media posts because we do not want to put our members in danger.

    Censorship has forced people to go back to traditional methods of expression, organising and protesting. Instead of using social media as a tool to mobilise, more people are now using printed material such as flyers and placards to voice their opinions. Those who continue to be active on social media often resort to the method of using a different name on each platform and deleting all conversations that could lead to them getting arrested. However, no method of mobilising makes people immune to arrest, as the growing numbers of people arrested attest to.

    How much change do you think could come out of the protests?

    I want to believe that the situation can and will change. And I think if there are massive protests the situation might really change. But it will take time for that to happen.

    Unfortunately, there are large numbers of people who continue to support the Russian government. This is the result of the intensive internal propaganda the government has disseminated for years. People have been brainwashed and are convinced that what Russia is doing is for the good of both Russia and Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to have massive protests.

    Russian society is deeply divided; families are split and even Ukrainian families in Russia are being torn apart. A part of the population understands what is currently happening, but many people don’t. And I don’t think this is something protests could change. Propaganda has deep roots in Russian society, and fear is doing the rest: among those who don’t believe the propaganda, many are too scared to voice their opinions.

    How can the international community best help Russian CSOs and activists?

    The international community can support Russian civil society by sharing accurate information about what is happening in the country. A majority of CSOs and activists from neighbouring countries as well as international CSOs are focused on trying to help Ukrainian people, both refugees and those left in Ukraine. This is completely understandable, but I think they shouldn’t forget the people in Russia who continue to advocate for peace and human rights. The least they can do is shine the spotlight on the situation in their national and international media outlets so people abroad are aware of what is going on and are able to offer their help.

    Additionally, they should put pressure on the Russian government through various international instruments, including the SDGs. Civil society from around the world could collectively release statements that highlight the situation and note the changes they would like to see. Maintaining solidarity in these times is also very important because it helps people working on the ground.

    Last but not least, CSOs and activists need financial assistance. Those wishing to help protesters by providing funding should get in touch with the organisations leading the anti-war movement and offer their help. And of course, if Russian activists decide to leave the country due to political pressure, they also need support from international colleagues, as no one should be left behind.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with CSDR through itswebsite. 

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘The shutdown of media sources threatens to create information vacuum for Russians’

    Natalia MalyshevaCIVICUS speaks about anti-war protests in Russia and the government’s violations of digital rights with Natalia Malysheva, co-founder and press secretary of Roskomsvoboda.

    Roskomsvoboda is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works to defend people’s digital rights. Established in 2012, it promotes the freedom of information and advocates against censorship. It is currently working to ensure people receive accurate information about the war and offering assistance to those who have been detained.

    How significant are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests are small. In the first days of the so-called ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, many people came out to take part in spontaneous rallies for peace in all major cities of Russia. Human rights CSOs have reported that more than 15,000 people have been detained so far for speaking out against the war. But now protests typically consist of small groups of people in multiple locations across the country.

    The new law that prohibits and criminalises the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military action and the expression of support for ‘anti-Russian sanctions’ has had a strong impact on how people organise, and on whether they go out to protest, because it has installed fear throughout society.

    People have been arrested merely for using the words ‘war’ and ‘peace’ in the context of protests, and even for using asterisks instead of letters on their signs – because the government knows that if you protest with a blank sign or a sign full of asterisks, what you are trying to say is ‘no to war’. People who advocate against the war on social media are also often at risk of being arrested.

    There are fewer and fewer people who are willing to take part in an uncoordinated rally and get arrested for several days, because most of them have families and jobs they wish to protect. Many people who fear for their lives are leaving the country for their safety. Others simply do not see any prospects in a continuing struggle. Moving forward, we shouldn’t expect mass protests to arise in Russia.

    Do you think protests can make any difference?

    Right now it is clear that the Russian government does not intend to have a dialogue with the part of society that does not support its so-called ‘military operation’ in Ukraine. This is unfortunately a relatively small segment of society and its demands are overlooked.

    Although people continue to go out to protests and some get arrested in the process, in my opinion this will not change the course of the events that are currently taking place. The authorities won’t listen to protesters. Protesting will perhaps start making more sense when – or if – most Russians begin to understand what is really happening.

    What is Roskomsvoboda focusing on?

    Roskomsvoboda is a CSO that supports open self-regulatory networks and the protection of digital rights of internet users. It seeks to counter online censorship and expand the opportunities brought by digital technologies.

    For 10 years, Roskomsvoboda has constantly monitored the activities of government agencies. We publish a register of blocked sites and raise awareness of online abuse, leakages of personal data and the persecution of citizens for their social media statements. We conduct extensive public campaigns and events aimed at informing citizens about the violation of their digital rights, initiating public discussion and bringing people together so they can fight for their rights. Our lawyers defend those who are prosecuted for their online statements or activities, represent the interests of users and site owners in court and participate in the development of proposals for changing legislation.

    In the past few days, against the backdrop of an information war and a growing social crisis, we have focused more on helping people get reliable information about what is happening. We have published pieces about new laws that have been adopted to introduce censorship and analysed how they will affect people and their right to speak up. Our lawyers continue to provide targeted legal assistance to those who are being prosecuted for speaking out online, defending people in courts.

    The closure of some news outlets and social media platforms is affecting the kind of information people receive. State media outlets provide information that only reflects events from the government’s perspective and disseminate a lot of propaganda. The shutdown of leading media sources threatens to create an information vacuum for Russians, which won’t contribute to the goal of achieving peace.

    Restrictions on access to information and censorship have already significantly reduced people’s ability to protest. Even publishing an online call for a peace rally can result in criminal punishment.

    We recently issued a statement calling on the world’s leading internet and IT companies and initiatives not to indiscriminately impose mass sanctions and not to punish ordinary people in Russia, many of whom are already in a vulnerable position. We have translated our appeal into several languages and are asking everyone to help disseminate it.

    What are the dangers of disinformation in the context of the current crisis?

    The biggest risk of disinformation is that of disconnecting Russia from the global information space.

    Russian authorities have blocked the world’s largest media outlets and social media. Many western companies have stopped operating in Russia, making it even more closed for international viewers. This prevents people from getting the truth about what is happening; it also destroys the businesses and careers of many people who have worked in partnership with Western countries for many years.

    The current closure of businesses has left many people without vital resources. People are not only affected by oppression from the Russian government but must also deal with the potential loss of their jobs and sources of income. With such actions, western countries only risk Russia shutting down completely from the outside world, paving the way for the rise of a ‘sovereign internet’ – an internet thoroughly controlled by the government.

    How can the international community best support Russian civil society?

    The international community can help by bringing our message to the widest possible audience. On behalf of Russian internet users, Roskomsvoboda urges technology companies located in the jurisdictions of the USA, the European Union and other countries not to massively disable the accounts of Russian users. They should not restrict their access to information and means of communication.

    Digital discrimination based on nationality would reduce the ability of Russians to gain access to reliable information, as well as to conduct honest work, study and research activities. So we ask you to please distribute our statement far and wide.

    We also started a petition asking the world’s virtual private network (VPN) services to help ensure that Russian users have free access to their services during these difficult times. This is necessary to protect users’ basic rights to privacy, the secrecy of communication and their ability to receive and disseminate information freely. Access to information is a basic human right enshrined in various international agreements. In critical situations, it is more important than ever.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with Roskomsvoboda through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@RuBlackListNET on Twitter.

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘These protests are key to the preservation of Russian civil society’

    Maria KuznetsovaCIVICUS speaks about the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia and the repressive government response with OVD-Info’s spokesperson Maria Kuznetsova.

    OVD-Info is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that aims to promote and protect human rights – and specifically the freedom of peaceful assembly – in Russia. It monitors protests and their repression and assists detained protesters through legal aid, online consultations, and bringing them food and water while in detention.

    How big are the ongoing anti-war protests in Russia?

    The protests were massive in the first two weeks of the war – we recorded protest-related arrests in at least 159 cities. Of course, the biggest protests were those taking place in major developed cities, basically Moscow and St. Petersburg.

    People came out against the war for moral reasons, because they could not look at the horror of what was happening in Ukraine and not react: mass bombings, killings of civilians, violence.

    Protesters are mostly people under 40 years old – because they are the ones who, thanks to the internet, get an accurate picture of what is happening, in contrast to the narrative that is pushed by censored state TV. Their demands to end the war are simultaneously, of course, demands to overthrow Putin. Because one is impossible without the other.

    My opinion is that due to the deteriorating economic situation, another – quite different – wave of protests may be expected soon. This may start among the poorer sections of the population who have lost income and jobs, and among doctors and patients, who are already experiencing the consequences of shortages of life-saving medicines due to sanctions.

    Do you think repression has dissuaded people from protesting in bigger numbers?

    At the height of the protests, on 5 March, more than 5,500 people were detained in one day. Since the beginning of the war, nearly 15,000 people have been detained at anti-war protests. The police are very harshly suppressing the protests – for example, on Sunday 20 March in Moscow, virtually all protesters were detained, and many of them were arrested for five to 30 days.

    In addition, 39 criminal cases have already been opened due to statements and protests against the war; some of the defendants are already in jail. All of this scares away potential protesters. They understand that they can get a prison sentence even for participating in a peaceful rally, and it is obvious that fewer people are coming out now. However, protest continues under different forms: people sign open letters, write on social media, quit their jobs. We have even seen several high-profile dismissals of journalists and editors from federal media channels.

    Those who still venture out to protest are being assisted by several human rights organisations, including OVD-Info. We send our lawyers to police stations where protesters are held. When there are not enough lawyers or we do not have a lawyer in a given city, we provide online consultations. We accompany the defendants to court. In addition, there is an extensive network of volunteers who also come to police stations to bring detainees water and food so that they do not go hungry all night after they are detained.

    Do you think the protests will lead to meaningful change?

    I don’t think there is a chance that these protests will influence the politics of the current regime, and as a human rights project, rather than a political one, OVD-Info is not in a position to assess the prospects for regime change. What we know for sure is that the only possible path to peace in Europe is having a free Russia that protects human rights. We do not know when our country will turn that way.

    Still, these protests are key to the preservation and future development of Russian civil society. By taking part in them, those who oppose the war will gain invaluable self-organisation skills and acquire the moral right to play a prominent role when the time comes to build a new Russia.

    How have media restrictions imposed by the government affected the protests, and civil society work more generally?

    In my opinion, what we are witnessing in Russia is the establishment of military censorship. Even calling the events in Ukraine a war is prohibited – this is punishable by an administrative fine, and in case of repeated violations it becomes a criminal case, which can result in up to five years in prison. A new crime has been included in the Criminal Code: that of public disseminating knowingly false information about the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. You can get up to 15 years in prison if you’re accused of doing that.

    The websites of almost all independent organisations have been blocked in Russia since the beginning of the war. Due to anti-war remarks, its founders were forced to shut down Echo of Moscow, a radio station. The online media Znak.com also closed due to pressures. Independent TV channel Dozhd left Russia and temporarily interrupted its broadcasts, which were viewed by millions. Almost all independent media outlets were forced to leave Russia. In addition, the government blocked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, because they realised they were unable to effectively impose censorship on social media.

    At the moment, military censorship makes it tough to continue any anti-war and independent civilian activity, because any statement or protest can result in a prison term. But people continue to protest regardless, and many celebrities are speaking out publicly. We have seen employees of propaganda channels getting fired, which suggests that people are so enraged by what is happening that they are willing to fight back despite the risks.

    How have the sanctions affected your work?

    I don’t have a clear answer just yet. It seems to me that so far sanctions have not affected our work so much, but the situation can always quickly deteriorate. In fact, OVD-Info has closed down all Russian donations, while international donations continue to be safe. 

    For the time being, it is the shutdown of many social media platforms that has made our work much more complex: it is increasingly difficult for us to convey information to people, educate them on legal issues and provide them with legal assistance. It will be especially difficult for us if Telegram is blocked in Russia, because it is now our primary platform for communicating with detainees.

    How can the international community help independent CSOs and human rights activists in Russia?

    I think the international community should be more careful with sanctions, which should be targeted. I think that the idea of collective responsibility is wrong – in Russia, it is a concept reminiscent of Stalin’s mass deportations of whole peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, to pay for some individuals’ cooperation with the Third Reich.

    From a pragmatic rather than an ethical point of view, it must be noted that many sanctions that have been imposed are having negative side effects – they are harming the most progressive part of society that opposes the war, preventing it from receiving information and obstructing the work of the last independent media. For example, Mailchimp – a USA-based platform and email marketing service that is used to create and distribute email marketing campaigns – has blocked all its clients from Russia.

    It is also essential to understand that the Russians and Belarusians that are now leaving their countries and arriving in Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and other parts of Europe are mostly opposition activists and independent journalists who face jail time in their homeland. But because they are Russians and Belarusians, they are facing massive discrimination. However, these activists and journalists are not responsible for their government’s actions – they are in fact the only hope that their countries will change, so it is essential to help them instead of discriminating against them as if they were the aggressors’. It is necessary to understand that not all Russians and Belarusians support the war in Ukraine.

    Civic space in Russiais rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. Russia is currently on theCIVICUS Monitor Watch List, which identifies countries in which a severe and abrupt deterioration in the quality of civic space is taking place.
    Get in touch with OVD-Info through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@ovdinfo on Twitter.

     

     

  • RUSSIA: ‘We hope that social media companies will avoid becoming a censorship tool’

    Denis ShedovCIVICUS speaks about increasing civic space restrictions in Russia with Denis Shedov, a lawyer and analyst at OVD-Info, an independent human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that recently experienced the blockage of its website by the Russian authorities. Denis’ work focuses on the violation of the freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression and other forms of politically motivated persecution in Russia. As well as researching these topics, as a lawyer he defends detained protesters, appeals against bans on peaceful assemblies and challenges unlawful police action in Russia, while also bringing these situations to the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.

     

  • Russia’s presidential election: a decline in citizen rights

    By Natalia Taubina and Bobbie Jo Traut

    The re-election of Vladimir Putin has been preceded by a significant crackdown on freedom of assembly and rule of law. The CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks and rates civil society conditions across all UN member states in close to real-time, has found that civic space in Russia has closed dramatically as civil society groups have been publicly vilified and marginalised.

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

     

  • Scenario planning for agile strategic alignment

    By Tamryn Lee Fourie, Jerusha Govender and Khotso Tsotsotso

    For CIVICUS, and civil society as a whole, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically shifted the way we work, and the world we work in.  Keeping this in mind, moving towards the end of the Alliance’s current Strategic Plan 2017-2022, we asked ourselves – how can we stay strategically relevant, given the lack of clarity on what lies ahead, and realising the already stretched capacity of staff and membership?

    In these uncertain times, Foresight Approaches such as scenario planning, are one potential tool for strategy development, and is a key element of CIVICUS Alliance current strategic realignment process. 

    Across February and March 2021, we engaged Data Innovators to review existing foresight analysis and scenario planning documents from members and partners, interact with CIVICUS members, and produce future scenarios related to civic space and citizen action. We then sense-checked these scenarios with allies from other sectors to identify potential disruptors and strategic opportunities that we may have missed. 

    The Scenarios 

    Four scenarios emerged to guide CIVICUS leadership and support other CSOs in similar stages of reviewing strategy, documented from the perspective of ‘Olwethu’, a civic activist and our persona. The four scenarios are summarised below:

    scenario planning blog

    Read more about the scenarios here

    These scenarios are helping CIVICUS to unpack necessary amendments to our existing strategy, use the four potential futures to open discussion on where specific implementation focus is needed, and keep our constituents (i.e. “Olwethu”) at the centre. Similarly, other CSOs may also find these scenarios useful when considering strategic refinement.

    How you can use these scenarios to realign your own strategies:

    This exercise stress-tests current strategies for different contexts. It is good practice to identify "No brainers,” - strategies robust across the range of scenarios. However, scenarios may also be sufficiently diverse to require strategies unique to each context. 

    Recommended steps to test strategies against these scenarios:

    Step 1:Take one scenario at a time, for a moment, assume this scenario occurs. Discuss and explore different aspects, ensuring all participants understand the critical elements.

    Step 2:Once the scenario is understood, pose the following questions and document the responses:

    • Is your set of strategic objectives appropriate in the scenario?
    • What obvious gaps are there in the current strategy for the scenario?
    • What additional/alternative strategies should be developed to close the gaps?
    • Considering the gaps/alternatives, how should the Theory of Change (ToC) be adjusted?

    Step 3:Repeat steps one and two for each scenario until all scenarios are covered.

    If you have sufficient time, move on to step 4…

    Step 4:Stand back, look at the lists of strategic options for each scenario. Identify those that show up on all or most scenarios. These are the "no brainers," the strategic options that look good in all scenarios. Start working on a consolidated Theory of Change that draws on the common strategic options, with gaps covered/replaced by alternative strategies. Take steps to address potential bias by asking those outside your regular “circle” to review and validate your work.

    Step 5:Test the ToC for logic and refine it. And finally, update the current strategy.

    We hope you find these useful! Please let us know if you have any feedback on how you have used these scenarios in your strategy reviews. We would be most interested to hear your experiences and insights!

     

  • Seis de cada diez países reprimen duramente las libertades cívicas

    Estos resultados se basan en los datos publicados hoy por el Monitor CIVICUS, un proyecto global de investigación colaborativo cuyo objetivo es la evaluación y el seguimiento del respeto de las libertades fundamentales en 196 países.

    CIVICUS acaba de publicar hoy People Power Under Attack 2018, un nuevo informe que pone de manifiesto que casi seis de cada diez países están restringiendo gravemente las libertades fundamentales de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión de las personas. Esta proporción refleja la crisis continua a la que se enfrentan las organizaciones de la sociedad civil y los activistas de todo el mundo y, además, pone en relieve el hecho de que el espacio para el activismo cívico se ve con frecuencia socavado a través de la censura, los ataques contra periodistas y el acoso a defensores y defensoras de los derechos humanos.

    «Estos datos constituyen una señal de alerta. Dada la magnitud del problema, los líderes mundiales, incluido el G20 que se reúne esta semana, deben tomarse mucho más en serio la protección de las libertades cívicas», declaró Cathal Gilbert, director de investigación sobre el espacio cívico de CIVICUS. «En 2018 la sociedad civil fue testigo de la aplicación de varias innovaciones por parte de los Estados con el objetivo de erradicar y acallar las críticas de aquellos que se atreven a desafiar al poder».

    El informe se basa en datos del Monitor CIVICUS – un proyecto de investigación colaborativo – y muestra que la sociedad civil es objeto de graves ataques en 111 de los 196 países analizados, es decir, casi seis de cada diez países de todo el mundo. Esta cifra es superior a la de nuestra última actualización de marzo de 2018 en la cual se contabilizaban 109 países. En la práctica, esto significa que la represión del activismo cívico pacífico sigue teniendo nefastas consecuencias para la sociedad civil en todas partes del mundo, ya que sólo el 4 % de la población mundial vive en países donde los gobiernos respetan debidamente las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión.

    La clasificación del espacio cívico de nueve países ha empeorado en esta última actualización mientras que ha mejorado la de otros siete. La situación se ha degradado en Austria, Azerbaiyán, Gabón, Kuwait, Italia, Nauru, Papúa Nueva Guinea, Tanzania y Senegal, y ha mejorado en Canadá, Ecuador, Etiopía, Gambia, Liberia, Lituania y Somalia.

    El informe People Power Under Attack 2018 también ofrece un análisis sobre los tipos de violaciones más frecuentes registradas en el Monitor CIVICUS durante los últimos dos años. A nivel mundial, los ataques contra periodistas y la censura representan los dos tipos de violaciones más comunes, lo que indica que los que tienen el poder están haciendo todo lo posible por controlar el discurso colectivo y reprimir la libertad de expresión. El hostigamiento de activistas y el uso excesivo de la fuerza por parte de las fuerzas de seguridad durante las manifestaciones son el tercero y cuarto tipo de violación más común registrada en el Monitor CIVICUS desde octubre de 2016.

    «Aunque existe una gran preocupación por la proliferación de leyes restrictivas y no sin razón, nuestros datos muestran que no son más que la punta del iceberg. Las medidas extrajudiciales, como los ataques contra periodistas o manifestantes, son mucho más comunes», declaró Gilbert. «Estas tácticas han sido concebidas de forma cínica y pretenden crear un efecto disuasivo y evitar que los demás se expresen o se conviertan en ciudadanos activos».

    Los datos publicados hoy por CIVICUS también traen buenas noticias. Tanto en los siete países en los que mejoró la clasificación del espacio cívico como en otros lugares, vemos pruebas claras de que el activismo pacífico puede obligar a los gobiernos represivos a seguir un camino diferente. En Etiopía, por ejemplo, tras años de disturbios y una fuerte represión de todas las formas de disidencia, el 2018 supuso un giro notable. El nuevo primer ministro, Abiy Ahmed, ha liberado a presos políticos, ha suavizado las restricciones impuestas sobre las comunicaciones electrónicas y ha logrado importantes avances en la reforma de algunas de las leyes más represivas del país. Los cambios en el liderazgo político en Gambia y el Ecuador también han conducido a un mejor entorno para el ejercicio de las libertades fundamentales.

    «Las recientes mejoras en Etiopía muestran lo que se puede lograr cuando existe voluntad política y cuando los líderes toman decisiones valientes para responder a los llamamientos de la sociedad civil», afirmó Gilbert. «Este debería ser un ejemplo para los países represivos de todo el mundo. Al eliminar las restricciones y proteger el espacio cívico, los países pueden aprovechar el verdadero potencial de la sociedad civil y acelerar su progreso en una gran cantidad de frentes».

    Más de veinte organizaciones colaboran en el Monitor CIVICUS con el objetivo de proporcionar una base empírica para llevar a cabo acciones destinadas a mejorar el espacio cívico en todos los continentes. El Monitor ha publicado más de 1 400 actualizaciones sobre el espacio cívico en los últimos dos años y dichos datos son analizados en el informe People Power Under Attack 2018. El espacio cívico de 196 países queda clasificado en una de las cinco categorías disponibles – cerrado, reprimido, obstruido, estrecho o abierto – siguiendo una metodología que combina varias fuentes de datos sobre las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión.

     

  • Seis de cada diez países reprimen duramente las libertades cívicas

     

    Estos resultados se basan en los datos publicados hoy por el Monitor CIVICUS, un proyecto global de investigación colaborativo cuyo objetivo es la evaluación y el seguimiento del respeto de las libertades fundamentales en 196 países. 

    CIVICUS acaba de publicar hoy El Poder Ciudadano Bajo Ataque, un nuevo informe que pone de manifiesto que casi seis de cada diez países están restringiendo gravemente las libertades fundamentales de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión de las personas. Esta proporción refleja la crisis continua a la que se enfrentan las organizaciones de la sociedad civil y los activistas de todo el mundo y, además, pone en relieve el hecho de que el espacio para el activismo cívico se ve con frecuencia socavado a través de la censura, los ataques contra periodistas y el acoso a defensores y defensoras de los derechos humanos. 

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    Estos resultados se basan en los datos publicados hoy por el Monitor CIVICUS, un proyecto global de investigación colaborativo cuyo objetivo es la evaluación y el seguimiento del respeto de las libertades fundamentales en 196 países. 

    CIVICUS acaba de publicar hoy El Poder Ciudadano Bajo Ataque, un nuevo informe que pone de manifiesto que casi seis de cada diez países están restringiendo gravemente las libertades fundamentales de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión de las personas. Esta proporción refleja la crisis continua a la que se enfrentan las organizaciones de la sociedad civil y los activistas de todo el mundo y, además, pone en relieve el hecho de que el espacio para el activismo cívico se ve con frecuencia socavado a través de la censura, los ataques contra periodistas y el acoso a defensores y defensoras de los derechos humanos. 

    El informe se basa en datos del Monitor CIVICUS – un proyecto de investigación colaborativo – y muestra que la sociedad civil es objeto de graves ataques en 111 de los 196 países analizados, es decir, casi seis de cada diez países de todo el mundo. Esta cifra es superior a la de nuestra última actualización de marzo de 2018 en la cual se contabilizaban 109 países. En la práctica, esto significa que la represión del activismo cívico pacífico sigue teniendo nefastas consecuencias para la sociedad civil en todas partes del mundo, ya que sólo el 4 % de la población mundial vive en países donde los gobiernos respetan debidamente las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión.

    La clasificación del espacio cívico de nueve países ha empeorado en esta última actualización mientras que ha mejorado la de otros siete. La situación se ha degradado en Austria, Azerbaiyán, Gabón, Kuwait, Italia, Nauru, Papúa Nueva Guinea, Tanzania y Senegal, y ha mejorado en Canadá, Ecuador, Etiopía, Gambia, Liberia, Lituania y Somalia. 

    El informe El Poder Ciudadano Bajo Ataque, también ofrece un análisis sobre los tipos de violaciones más frecuentes registradas en el Monitor CIVICUS durante los últimos dos años. A nivel mundial, los ataques contra periodistas y la censura representan los dos tipos de violaciones más comunes, lo que indica que los que tienen el poder están haciendo todo lo posible por controlar el discurso colectivo y reprimir la libertad de expresión. El hostigamiento de activistas y el uso excesivo de la fuerza por parte de las fuerzas de seguridad durante las manifestaciones son el tercero y cuarto tipo de violación más común registrada en el Monitor CIVICUS desde octubre de 2016.

    «Aunque existe una gran preocupación por la proliferación de leyes restrictivas y no sin razón, nuestros datos muestran que no son más que la punta del iceberg. Las medidas extrajudiciales, como los ataques contra periodistas o manifestantes, son mucho más comunes», declaró Belalba.. «Estas tácticas han sido concebidas de forma cínica y pretenden crear un efecto disuasivo y evitar que los demás se expresen o se conviertan en ciudadanos activos».

    Los datos publicados hoy por CIVICUS también traen buenas noticias. Tanto en los siete países en los que mejoró la clasificación del espacio cívico como en otros lugares, vemos pruebas claras de que el activismo pacífico puede obligar a los gobiernos represivos a seguir un camino diferente. En Etiopía, por ejemplo, tras años de disturbios y una fuerte represión de todas las formas de disidencia, el 2018 supuso un giro notable. El nuevo primer ministro, Abiy Ahmed, ha liberado a presos políticos, ha suavizado las restricciones impuestas sobre las comunicaciones electrónicas y ha logrado importantes avances en la reforma de algunas de las leyes más represivas del país. Los cambios en el liderazgo político en Gambia y el Ecuador también han conducido a un mejor entorno para el ejercicio de las libertades fundamentales. 

    «Las recientes mejoras en Etiopía muestran lo que se puede lograr cuando existe voluntad política y cuando los líderes toman decisiones valientes para responder a los llamamientos de la sociedad civil», afirmó Belalba. «Este debería ser un ejemplo para los países represivos de todo el mundo. Al eliminar las restricciones y proteger el espacio cívico, los países pueden aprovechar el verdadero potencial de la sociedad civil y acelerar su progreso en una gran cantidad de frentes».

    Más de veinte organizaciones colaboran en el Monitor CIVICUS con el objetivo de proporcionar una base empírica para llevar a cabo acciones destinadas a mejorar el espacio cívico en todos los continentes. El Monitor ha publicado más de 1,400 actualizaciones sobre el espacio cívico en los últimos dos años y dichos datos son analizados en el informe El Poder Ciudadano Bajo Ataque. El espacio cívico de 196 países queda clasificado en una de las cinco categorías disponibles – cerradoreprimido,obstruido ,estrecho orabierto – siguiendo una metodología que combina varias fuentes de datos sobre las libertades de asociación, reunión pacífica y expresión. 

     

  • SERBIA: ‘The political crisis will deepen as a large number of people lack representation’

    CIVICUS speaks with Ivana Teofilović about the causes of recent protests and the government’s reaction to them, as well as about the elections held in Serbia under the COVID-19 pandemic. Ivana is public policy programme coordinator at Civic Initiatives, a Serbian citizens’ association aimed at strengthening civil society through civic education, the promotion of democractic values and practices and the creation of opportunities for people’s participation.

    Ivana Teofilovic

    Why did protests erupt in Serbia during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did the government react?

    The immediate reason for the mass and spontaneous gathering of citizens in July 2020 was the announcement of the introduction of a new curfew, that is, another 72-hour ban on movement. After the president’s press conference ended, dissatisfied people began to gather in front of the National Assembly in the capital, Belgrade. Although the immediate reason was dissatisfaction with the management of the COVID-19 crisis, people also wanted to express their unhappiness about numerous other government measures and their impacts, and particularly with the conditions in which the recent parliamentary elections were held.

    In response, the security forces used unjustified force in dozens of cases and exceeded the powers entrusted to them by law. Their violent response to spontaneous peaceful assemblies was a gross violation of the right to the freedom of peaceful assembly and an unwarranted threat to the physical integrity of a large number of protesters. The protests were marked by the use of a huge amount of teargas, which was indiscriminately thrown into the masses of peaceful demonstrators. As a result, many protesters had health issues for days afterwards. Apart from the fact that unjustifiably large quantities of teargas were used, the public's attention was captured by the fact that the teargas fired was past its expiry date.

    The media and citizens also reported and documented many cases of police brutality, including that of three young men who were sitting quietly on a bench and were repeatedly beaten by a gendarmerie officer with a baton. In another incident, a young man was knocked to the ground and hit with batons by 19 officers, even though two members of the Ombudsman’s Office were on duty near the scene, precisely to control the conduct of the police. Additional disturbances and acts of violence were perpetrated by a large number of individuals in civilian clothes. At the time it could not be determined whether they were police in civilian clothes, or members of parapolice forces or criminal groups, but many clues point to them being members of hooligan groups connected with the authorities and working on their orders.

    Media representatives also played a very important role in the protests. In this context, many media workers behaved professionally and reported objectively on the protests, often becoming victims of police brutality or attacks by members of hooligan groups infiltrated among protesters to incite rioting. According to the Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS), as many as 28 journalists were attacked while covering protests, and 14 suffered bodily injuries, which in six cases required urgent medical attention. According to a statement issued by NUNS, the most seriously injured was Zikica Stevanovic, a reporter of the Beta news agency.

    However, media outlets that are close to the government either ignored or distorted the real picture of the protests by disseminating lies about who organised, funded and participated in them and by ignoring or denying cases of obvious police brutality. Journalists, analysts and civil society activists who publicly supported the protests and spoke critically about the government and the president were often the target of tabloid campaigns, and were smeared by the holders of high political office in an attempt to discredit their work.

    Bureaucratic measures were also used against them, for example through their inclusion on a list compiled by the Ministry of Finance’s Directorate for Prevention of Money Laundering, which required banks to look into all the financial transactions they made over the past year. The associations and individuals who were targeted published a joint statement with over 270 signatures to call on the authorities to urgently make public the reasons for any suspicion that these organisations and individuals were involved in money laundering or terrorist financing. They also made clear that these pressures would not deter them from fighting for a democratic and free Serbia.

    Violent police reaction, indiscriminate brutality, non-objective reporting and government retaliation further motivated people to protest. As a result, people took to the streets in even greater numbers in the following days. Protests also began to take place in several other Serbian cities besides Belgrade, including Kragujevac, Nis, Novi Sad and Smederevo.

    Has civil society experienced additional challenges to continue doing its work under the pandemic?

    Under the state of emergency imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also after the state of emergency was lifted, civil society organisations (CSOs) faced numerous difficulties that greatly hindered their work. During the first weeks of the state of emergency, some CSOs that provide services to vulnerable people were unable to perform their activities due to the ban on movement, a difficulty that was only gradually and partly overcome over time as special permits were issued to certain categories of people.

    Another challenge was posed by the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits, adopted in response to the economic impacts of the pandemic. This regulation did not extend exemption from value-added tax (VAT) to food, consumer goods and services donated to the non-profit and humanitarian sector to support socially vulnerable groups. For this reason, a group of CSOs sent the Ministry of Finance a proposal to extend the VAT exemption.

    The biggest challenge for CSOs was financial sustainability, which was especially endangered by the suspension of the competition for co-financing projects of public importance, both at the national and local levels. In addition, while the provisions of the Regulation on Fiscal Benefits and Direct Benefits were insufficiently clear when it came to CSOs, they unequivocally excluded informal citizens’ initiatives, and thus jeopardised their survival.

    In addition, the right to the freedom of expression was especially endangered during the pandemic. Challenges included restrictions faced by the press to attend and ask questions at Crisis Staff press conferences, the disregard of media representatives by officials in government bodies and institutions, and the persecution of media outlets that pointed to negative consequences during the pandemic. These restrictions opened up opportunities for the dissemination of unverified information. The lack of timely and factual information led to the further spread of panic and it became clear that in addition to the pandemic, Serbia also faced an ‘infodemic’.

    What are the views of civil society about the government response to the pandemic, including the conditions under whichthe recent elections were held?

    Despite the very unfavourable position they found themselves in, CSOs played a significant role during the COVID-19 crisis. CSOs had a significant role to play in correcting government failings, as they put forward numerous quality proposals for overcoming the crisis. In many situations it was CSOs, due to better training, that took over the roles of certain civil services. The general impression is that the state was not ready for the crisis, and therefore did not have enough capacity to provide a better response. 

    Due to its closed nature, the government used the need of urgency and efficiency as a pretext to bypass dialogue. In adopting some measures, there were frequent violations of laws and the constitution, and of people’s rights, particularly the right of journalists to do their work. Economic measures were not adopted in a timely and effective manner, which endangered many CSOs and their activists, ultimately having their greatest impact on people as users of CSO services.

    Regarding the parliamentary elections, which were held on 21 June after being postponed from their original date of 26 April, there is still an unanswered question regarding the government’s responsibility for conducting an election process under the pandemic. There is suspicion that the decision to hold the election was politically motivated and irresponsible. This was reinforced by the fact that in the weeks following the election, the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths drastically increased. It seems that the efforts made by some CSOs to create conditions for free and democratic elections have not yielded the desired results.

    What were the main issues that got in the way of a free and fair election?

    Beyond the pandemic, the major concern about the elections was that they were dominated by the ruling party, including through pressure on critical journalists and media outlets and control of mainstream media, which lack a diversity of opinions and balanced coverage and are used for campaign purposes.

    Media coverage during the election campaign was slightly more balanced than in previous elections, because the government wanted to prove that complaints from the public and the political opposition regarding poor election conditions and the captivity of the media were baseless. In principle, candidates were treated equally by public media, although public officials campaigning on a daily basis also received a lot of additional coverage. On top of this, members of the opposition who had decided to boycott the elections and therefore did not present candidates did not have room to present their arguments on national television.

    The unequal treatment of candidates was especially visible in national commercial television channels, which provided logistical support to the ruling party and its coalition partners. This problem was exacerbated by the passive stance adopted by the Electronic Media Regulatory Body (REM), which played an almost imperceptible role during the election campaign. In May 2020, REM changed its methodology of monitoring the media representation of political actors, counting every mention of a political option as proof of media representation. This led to the conclusion that the opposition Alliance for Serbia was the most represented party. But in reality, the Alliance for Serbia, which boycotted the elections, did not receive any media coverage on national television; rather it was the most frequent target of attacks by the ruling party and its allied media. In this area, another problem is the uneven normative framework: REM’s regulations relating to public media services are legally binding, but those relating to commercial broadcasters are drafted in the form of recommendations and have no binding effect, and there are no effective safeguards against violations.

    What are the implications of the election results for human rights and democracy in Serbia?

    The ruling Serbian Progressive Party, truly a right-wing party, won over 60 per cent of the vote, claiming approximately 190 seats in the 250-seat parliament. Their coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, came second with about 10 per cent of the vote, adding approximately 30 seats to the coalition. As a result, the National Assembly was left without opposition representatives, opening additional space for unlimited and legally unhindered exercise of power by the ruling party. The past four years are proof that the mere presence of the opposition in parliament is not a sufficient barrier to arbitrariness, as the government has perfected mechanisms to make parliamentary procedures meaningless and restrict the freedom of speech of opposition representatives. But some opposition legislators, through their initiatives, public appearances and proposals, managed to draw attention to numerous scandals and violations of the law by state officials.

    The protests that came after the elections seem to point towards further political polarisation and a deepening of the political crisis, as a large number of people lack representation and feel deprived of the right to elect their representatives without fear through free and democratic elections. The latest attempts to deal with civil society, journalists and prominent critical individuals by promoting investigations of money laundering or terrorist financing speak about deepening polarisation. The development of human rights requires coordination and cooperation of CSOs and state bodies as well as social consensus and political will, so this is certainly not contributing to an improvement of the human rights situation in Serbia. On the contrary, it is leading to an increasingly serious crisis, the aggravation of inequalities and injustices and more frequent protests.

    Civic space in Serbia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Civic Initiatives through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@gradjanske on Twitter.

     

  • SERBIA: ‘We are not just fighting locally; we are sending a message to the world’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests against the exploration and licensing of lithium mining – for use in batteries, including electric vehicle batteries – in Serbia with Miroslav Mijatović, activist and president of the Podrinje Anti-Corruption Team (PAKT). Founded in 2014, PAKT is a civil society organisation (CSO) working on anti-corruption and the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms.

    Miroslav Mijatovic

    What is the ongoing civil society campaign against lithium mining in Serbia?

    There are currently 172 mining exploration permits in Serbia, and lithium is being explored at 10 locations. The project that has progressed the most so far is the one in the Jadar river valley. The company in charge, Rio Tinto, certified the balance reserves of lithium and boron in late 2020, accounting for 158,647,256 tonnes – 1.7 per cent lithium and almost 14 per cent boron.

    Initial investigations are also taking place in other places across Serbia, so people all over have joined our fight in fear of what awaits them.

    The Law on Mining and Geological Explorations (2011-2015) declared lithium and boron to be strategic minerals, and therefore in the public interest, allowing land expropriation to be carried out for those mining projects. As a result, people are afraid that the state will confiscate their property at a very low price.

    Rio Tinto has spread the rumour that it pays a much better price and this has played very well on the field, but it is simply not true. The company has so far managed to buy about 150 of the 350 hectares required to obtain a building permit and approval for exploitation, but I think it won’t be able to get much more. Now everyone expects a move by the state. It is not easy for the government to move on with expropriations before an election, but after these take place in April, the situation will get worse.

    For now, the fight against Rio Tinto is taking place in the justice system. We have not yet entered the field of environmental protection because it is not yet clear which technological process will be used to separate lithium and boron. We have been told Jadar Valley is going to be experimental project, but we don’t want to be treated as lab rats. According to reputable experts and academics we have consulted with, it is almost impossible to extract lithium and boron without a severe environmental impact. Available data shows that over the estimated 60 years of the mine’s lifetime about 90 million tonnes of tailings – mining waste – will be deposited in the Jadar Valley.

    Our efforts are currently focused on the multiple proven violations of Serbian legislation and regulations involved in the state’s dealings with Rio Tinto. As well as violations of national legislation, including of the Environmental Protection Law, the Law on Planning and Construction, the Law on Agricultural Land, the Forest Law and the Law on Environmental Impact Assessment, among several others, there have been repeated violations of the Aarhus Convention, which guarantees the right of people to access timely and accurate environmental information held by the authorities.

    All Rio Tinto contracts are labelled as ‘trade secrets’. The local community knew almost nothing about the project until a special-purpose area spatial plan for Jadar came to light. There are no real controls on what the company is doing because, believe it or not, Serbia only has three mining inspectors.

    What has PAKT done to try to stop the project?

    We helped the local community register their association, ‘We won’t give up Jadar’, and soon decided to start an online petition. We were aware of the fact that a petition does not have any legal power but seized the opportunity to create wider awareness of the issue.

    We requested the help of experts and academics and activated as many public figures, including athletes and actors, as possible.

    We also cooperated with an opposition member of parliament who was able to secure a meeting with the prime minister. We showed her the 300,000 electronic signatures we had collected and explained to her why we were against the mine, but her response was that we were against progress and that was the end of the dialogue.

    However, the media began had started to pay attention, and when foreign television channels began to arrive in the Jadar Valley, we knew that we were no longer alone.

    As for legal action, there are already three complaints filed against the company. The main one is related to large-scale environmental pollution.

    For months we toured the Rio Tinto wells in the Jadar Valley and found out that nothing grew around them, not even weeds. Inspection bodies did not react to our evidence, and then someone approached us with a compensation agreement drawn on behalf of Rio Tinto, in which the company recognised pollution from exploratory wells and offered to pay damages to the plot’s owner. We investigated and found five more such contracts, all classified as secret. There may be many more, because there are over 580 exploration wells in the Jadar Valley.

    We filed a complaint against the company with the Prosecutor’s Office in Loznica, attached the contracts, and requested an independent expert investigation to find out how many wells are leaking and what kind of pollution they produce.

    What did the campaign achieve?

    The campaign connected with the public, and in the second week of protests against the scandalous Expropriation Bill, which the government tried to push through the National Assembly by urgent procedure, there were over 120,000 people on the streets.

    In the face of many displeased people mobilised in an election year, the government reacted. It first withdrew the Expropriation Bill. Then it revoked the decree greenlighting Rio Tinto’s project and backtracked on the spatial plan for the special-purpose area designed for the project’s implementation, which had been illegally introduced.

    Since the beginning of the protests, PAKT has emphasised that these were citizen protests that did not involve the political opposition. This civil revolt achieved something that the weak opposition never achieved under nine years of rule – first as prime minister and now as president – by Aleksandar Vučić: the protests attracted a part of his electorate and gave him a signal to give in.

    It really was the fact that people mobilised in an election year that did the trick. In our last meeting, we asked the prime minister if she had withdrawn the decree on the spatial plan because of growing awareness of the environmental danger, and she replied that she did not yet have all the information on lithium exploitation. It became clear to us that they are afraid of people taking massively to the streets in an election year.

    This raises concerns that the government made what they view as a small temporary compromise to make demonstrators protesters happy but everything will return to normal after the April election.

    How has Rio Tinto reacted?

    We have not been in contact with Rio Tinto for over two years. We believe dialogue only benefits them because afterwards they claim they have engaged with civil society and have listened to our concerns. When we managed to convince other CSOs that this was the right approach, the company went on to found its own fake CSOs to go through the motions of civil society consultation.

    So far, we haven’t received any threats from the company. Threats typically come from domestic extremists who mostly support the Vučić government. We are annoying for many right-wing movements and associations, so they threaten and attack us. While so far we haven’t received serious threats, we have noticed an increased interest of security agencies in our work. But as we have been dealing with corruption for more than 10 years, we are used to this.

    What do you think will happen after the elections?

    It seems that President Vučić has emerged quite strongly from the protests. He seems to have galvanised his electorate, because the public appears to have been sold on his concessions, and now they wonder, what more do environmentalists want?

    In addition, some members of the opposition joined the protests in an attempt to score some political points, which only served to drive many people off the streets. As the opposition is divided, the majority will likely stick with Vučić for another term, and I am genuinely afraid that after the election we will see the real repressive face of this regime.

    Our main goal will be to achieve the adoption of a law banning lithium and boron research, the only thing that could reduce tensions to some extent. We have submitted a bill to that effect and even proposed to set up a working group with experts from government and civil society. We urged for this to happen before the election campaign is underway, because we do not believe the government’s intentions are sincere. It is highly unlikely it will agree to pass this law by urgent procedure before the elections, so protests will likely continue.

    What support could international civil society and the international community provide?

    Any help and support from international civil society will be welcome, particularly in terms of amplifying and internationalising environmental issues. We are not just fighting here locally to protect our environment; we are sending a message to the world about the dangers of extracting lithium from solid sediments, which are simply not acceptable anywhere in the world. We all need to be vigilant.

    As an organisation whose mission is to trace the flow of public resources and money, we have also made the connection between environmental and anti-corruption issues. This government is turning Serbia into a European landfill, and there are obvious reasons why it gives tacit approval for corporations to violate environmental standards to reduce production costs.

    European Union (EU) companies and civil society should deal with this issue, because the situation in Serbia will eventually affect the business of EU companies and distort competition, ultimately affecting the quality of life in the EU.

    Civic space in Serbia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with PAKT through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.