civic space

 

  • UGANDA: ‘No candidate can possibly win the election without young people’s votes’

    CIVICUS speaks with Mohammed Ndifuna, Executive Director of Justice Access Point-Uganda (JAP). Established in 2018, JAP aims to kickstart, reignite and invigorate justice efforts in the context of Uganda’s stalled transitional justice process, its challenges implementing recommendations from its first and second United Nations Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Reviews and the backlash by African states against the International Criminal Court.

    Mohammed is an experienced and impassioned human rights defender and peacebuilder with over 15 years of activism in human rights and atrocity prevention at the grassroots, national and international levels. He was awarded the 2014 European Union Human Rights Award for Uganda, has served on the Steering Committee of The Coalition for the Criminal Court (2007-2018) and the Advisory Board of the Human Rights House Network in Oslo (2007-2012), and currently serves on the Management Committee of The Uganda National Committee of Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities.

     Mohammed Ndifuna

    What is the state of civic space in Uganda ahead of the much-anticipated 2021 elections?

    Civic space in Uganda may be characterised as harassed, stifled and starved. It would seem like civil society has been on a slippery slope of sorts, with things turning from bad to worse. For instance, civil society organisations (CSOs) have witnessed a wave of brazen attacks against their physical space in the form of office break-ins and broad-daylight workplace raids. In the meantime, there seems to be no let-up in the waves of attacks against CSOs, and especially against those involved in human rights and accountability advocacy. Over the past few years, an array of legislation and administrative measures has been unleashed against CSOs and others, including the Public Order Management Act (2012) and the NGO Act (2016).

    Ahead of the general and presidential elections, which will be held on 14 January 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs has ordered all CSOs to go through a mandatory validation and verification process before they are allowed to operate. Many CSOs have not been able to go through it: by 19 October 2020, only 2,257 CSOs had successfully completed the verification and validation exercise, including just a few that do mainstream advocacy work on governance.

    Ugandan CSOs are largely donor-dependent and had already been struggling with shrinking financial resources, severely affecting the scope of their work. This situation became compounded by the COVID-19 outbreak and the lockdown that was imposed in response, all of which impaired CSO efforts to mobilise resources. Therefore, these three forces – harassment, restrictions and limited access to funding – have combined to weaken CSOs, pushing most of them into self-preservation mode.

    The stakes for the 2021 elections seem to be higher than in previous years. What has changed?

    The situation started to change in July 2019, when Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name, Bobi Wine, announced his bid to run for president as the candidate of the opposition National Unity Platform. Bobi Wine is a singer and actor who is also an activist and a politician. As a leader of the People Power, Our Power movement, he was elected to parliament in 2017.

    Bobi’s appeal among young people is enormous, and let’s keep in mind that more than 75 per cent of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30. This makes young people a significant group to be wowed. No candidate can possibly win the Ugandan election without having the biggest chunk of young people’s votes. In the upcoming presidential race, it is Bobi Wine who appears most able to galvanise young people behind his candidature. Although not an experienced politician, Bobi is a charismatic firebrand who has been able to attract not just young people but also many politicians from traditional political parties into his mass movement.

    Bobi Wine, long known as the ‘Ghetto President’, has taken advantage of his appeal as a popular music star to belt out political songs to mobilise people, and his roots in the ghetto also guarantee him an appeal in urban areas. It is believed that he has motivated many young people to register to vote, so voter apathy among young people may turn out to be lower in comparison to past elections.

    Given the ongoing cut-throat fight for young people’s votes, it is no surprise that the security apparatus has been unleashed against young people in an apparent attempt to stem the pressure they are exerting. Political activists linked to People Power have been harassed and, in some instances, killed. People Power’s political leaders have been intermittently arrested and arraigned in courts or allegedly kidnapped and tortured in safe houses. In an apparent attempt to make in-roads into the ranks of urban young people, President Yoweri Museveni has appointed three senior presidential advisors from the ghetto. This raises the spectre of ghetto gangster groups and violence playing a role in the upcoming presidential elections.

    Restrictions on the freedom of expression and internet use have been reported in previous elections. Are we likely to see a similar trend now?

    We are already seeing it. Restrictions on the freedoms of expression and information are a valid concern not just because of hindsight, but also given recent developments. For instance, on 7 September 2020 the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) issued a public notice stating that anyone wishing to publish information online needs to apply for and obtain a licence from the UCC before 5 October 2020. This will mostly affect online users, such as bloggers, who are paid for published content. Obviously, this is meant to stifle young people’s political activities online. And it is also particularly concerning because, as public gatherings are restricted due to COVID-19 prevention measures, online media will be the only method of campaigning that is allowed ahead of the 2021 elections.

    There is also increasing electronic surveillance, and the possibility of a shutdown of social media platforms on the eve of the elections may not be too remote.

    How has the COVID-pandemic affected civil society and its ability to respond to civic space restrictions?

    The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response have exacerbated the already precarious state in which the CSOs find themselves. For instance, civil society capacity to organise public assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in support of fundamental rights and freedoms or to protest against their violation has been restricted by the manner in which COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) have been enforced. This has resulted in the commission of blatant violations and onslaughts against civic space. For instance, on 17 October 2020, the Uganda Police Force and the Local Defense Units jointly raided thanksgiving prayers being held in Mityana district and wantonly tear gassed the congregation, which included children, women, men, older people and religious leaders, for allegedly flouting COVID-19 SOPs.

    As the enforcement of COVID-19 SOPs gets intertwined with election pressure, it is feared that the clampdown on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association will be aggravated. Regrettably, CSOs already find themselves restricted.

    How can international civil society help Ugandan civil society?

    The situation in which Ugandan civil society finds itself is such that it requires the urgent support and response of the international community. There is a need to turn the eyes towards what is happening in Uganda and to speak up to amplify the voices of a local civil society that is increasingly being stifled. More specifically, Ugandan CSOs could be supported so they can better respond to blatant violations of freedoms, mitigate the risks that their work entails and enhance their resilience in the current context.

    Civic space inUganda is rated repressedby the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Justice Access Point through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@JusticessP on Twitter.

     

  • UGANDA: ‘Our government cares only about profit, not people’

    Nyombi MorrisCIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Nyombi Morris, founder of Earth Volunteers.

    Established in 2020, Earth Volunteers is a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people who are passionate about planting trees, protecting forests and standing up for climate justice. Earth Volunteers advocates for climate justice and promotes climate education in local schools.

    What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

    EACOP is a pipeline project that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, for export through the Tanga port on the Tanzanian coast. It will travel through hundreds of miles, flowing oil through sensitive environments, including the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda.

    The project is led by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and TotalEnergies, a French company, and funded by Standard Bank, among others. Ever since it kicked off in 2015, it has caused numerous activists to lose their lives and has put many natural resources on the verge of disappearing.

    Local communities are already being affected by the pipeline. While pipeline construction itself hasn’t yet started, a process has begun to acquire the land required for the pipeline and related facilities. Those who own land on the projected pipeline’s path or in its vicinity are already unhappy because of the mistreatment they are experiencing and the lack of transparency in the process. They say they were not consulted about the project before it was approved and they are now being pressured to sell off their farms, homes and land at cheap prices and forced to leave to make way for the pipeline.

    How is civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, mobilising against the pipeline project?

    I have not seen any established CSO come out to oppose or even challenge the pipeline project. It is only us, individual activists loosely connected through informal networks, who are trying to sensitise people and mobilise them against the danger of allowing money-makers to exploit our land to take away the oil and get rich off it. We can’t drink or eat oil, and this will only make us poorer and less healthy.

    As one of those activists, I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me.

    How has the government reacted so far?

    Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.

    Personally, I do not expect my government to listen to my concerns. The problem is, if they do not, this is a death sentence for many people in both Uganda and Tanzania. We already face the challenge of inflation and we may be heading towards famine and insecurity because people are being forced to sell off their properties in western Uganda and the capital, Kampala, is their next destination. This is one of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, with a population that has already hit four million.

    What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?

    We need three different support structures. Firstly, we need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.

    Secondly, we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.

    Finally, we need protection. I am constantly receiving threats, and since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.

    Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.

    Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Earth Volunteers through itswebsite or its Facebook andInstagram pages,and follow @earthvolunteers on Twitter.

     

  • Uganda: CIVICUS condemns another break-in at the office of HRAPF  

    Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns recent attacks on the premises of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) in Uganda which left security guards wounded and in need of urgent medical attention.  In the early hours of the morning of 9 February 2018, at least nine unidentified individuals broke into the offices of HRAPF and attacked two security guards with iron bars and batons.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘If we share information, leaders won’t be able to turn blind eye to human rights violations’

    Yaropolk BrynykhCIVICUS speaks with Yaropolk Brynykh of Truth Hounds about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Truth Hounds is a civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at fighting against the impunity of perpetrators of international crimes and grave human rights violations through investigation, documentation, monitoring, advocacy and problem-solving assistance for vulnerable groups. Jointly with Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, The Truth Hounds team has carried out over 50 fact-finding missions to document war crimes in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    I’m a board member of the Ukrainian human rights organisation Truth Hounds, which has focused on documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in war contexts since 2014. We wouldn’t be able to tackle this mission without a highly qualified team of human rights professionals with experience in conflict areas – not only in the east of Ukraine and occupied Crimea but also in neighbouring countries, including in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory disputed by Armenia and Azerbaijan. Having prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, we have developed thorough knowledge of international standards and best practices of evidence collection and systematisation of war crimes.

    Thus, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, I immediately joined a field team of investigators working day and night to document Russian war crimes in our country. Since then, our team members have collected evidence of indiscriminate shelling, targeted attacks against civilians, ecological crimes and other violations of customs of war. On the basis of that, our team has already prepared and published 13 reports revealing grave human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian military.

    Most of our current efforts in response to the Russian invasion focus on monitoring human rights violations and war crimes committed by the Russian army, international advocacy, support for professional groups and humanitarian and legal aid to people in need.

    Our team also supports the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office in chasing perpetrators of war crimes through documentation and monitoring of human rights violations. We also share reports and evidence as much as possible to provide international judicial bodies, including the ICC, with evidence that can one day be used to bring perpetrators to justice.

    In the context of the war, we also understand the importance of information, so our team works to produce accurate and reliable information as quickly as possible and shares it with international media groups. We believe that if we share information about Ukraine, global leaders won’t be able to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations that Russia is perpetrating here. Our nation needs support from the whole world; hence, our current mission is to deliver facts from the field to the international community.

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Ukrainian civil society is in the same boat as the whole nation, and as everyone else, we are trying to keep working despite the difficult circumstances. Some civil society representatives, including well-known human rights defenders, have joined the army to fight and protect the country. Others have had to leave Ukraine, but they are doing their best to operate in exile within their limited possibilities.

    While many CSOs moved to western Ukraine to try and resume their activities despite limited technical and financial opportunities, others decided to stay in the eastern and southern parts of the country, to cover humanitarian needs and help with the logistics of relocation of the civilian population. But their capacities are down to a minimum because they are not able to receive much support from international CSOs.

    Only a tiny segment of civil society took on board information about a possible Russian invasion and was prepared enough. They have managed to continue working for the past weeks. But even this small group cannot be as effective as it used to be because of the need to hide in shelters during chaotic air and rocket attacks.

    Overall, civil society is under tremendous mental pressure, which will have long-lasting effects. This will become yet another challenge for the country once the war is over. Civil society will suffer from post-traumatic syndrome.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Ukrainian civil society needs advocacy and communications support. Our partners must help us deliver our messages to our allies and governments worldwide. Needless to say, Ukraine cannot win this fight alone. But we share the same democratic values and we need your support.

    All of us in contemporary Ukrainian civil society grew up believing in democratic values and we heard time and again that these were the most important principles for the western world. Now we are fighting for these values, we ask the international community to amplify our voices. If it doesn’t, it will be clear that western countries choose their business interests over democratic values. We don’t want to be let down.

    Ukraine also needs the humanitarian assistance of international organisations. We understand how hard it is for organisations such as the World Health Organization and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to organise proper fieldwork. But there is one thing even harder: explaining to people from war-affected regions why these organisations disappear when they need them the most.

    Since 2014, when Russia occupied Crimea and invaded Ukraine for the first time this century, Ukrainians have seen thousands of international organisations’ representatives spending their time here, mostly in expensive hotels and restaurants. We were told that were here to try and save Ukrainian lives. But now that Ukrainian lives are in fact under immediate threat, international organisations are not here anymore. For us, they are now invisible and silent.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Truth Hounds through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities’

    Oleksandra MatviichukCIVICUS speaks with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the board of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about human rights violations in Ukraine amid the Russian invasion and civil society’s response.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    How has Ukrainian civil society organised in the wake of the Russian invasion?

    Ukrainian civil society came together and issued the Kyiv Declaration, an appeal made by 100 civil society leaders that includes six points: to establish safe zones that protect civilians from air and ground attacks; to provide immediate defensive military aid, including lethal and non-lethal weapons; to implement crippling economic and financial sanctions to undermine Russia’s war machine; to provide immediate aid to local humanitarian organisations; to freeze the assets and revoke the visas of Putin’s cronies; and to provide the technology and support required to record war crimes.

    There are a lot of CSOs in Ukraine, and therefore lots of initiatives happening. CCL has an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which we launched a while back, in 2013, to provide legal help to activists detained during the Revolution of Dignity. This initiative involves hundreds of volunteers and focuses on legal and logistics support, humanitarian assistance and the documentation of war crimes to help bring perpetrators to justice.

    We work alongside international organisations, foreign governments and the Ukrainian diaspora. We have a campaign dedicated to the establishment of humanitarian corridors and we work with partners in several countries to provide aid in occupied cities. Russians have deliberately isolated occupied cities, attacking people who try to evacuate and obstructing humanitarian assistance. We are working to help those people.

    We also engage with partner human rights organisations in European countries, such as France and Germany, so that they put pressure on their national governments. Some countries have continued doing business as usual with Russia, even though they have repudiated the war. We need their governments to make the kind of political decisions that will save Ukrainian lives.

    As well as producing information to disseminate abroad so that the world knows what is happening in Ukraine, we use Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread information among people within Ukraine. One of the ways Russian invaders try to isolate the local population is by cutting off communications. We work to bypass these obstacles and provide life-saving information regarding evacuation procedures, medical care and official decisions, among other things.

    We have all adapted our work to the needs of the moment. I for instance am a human rights lawyer, so my field is the law, but I have somewhat shifted my priorities. I do not have military experience or expertise, but I have had to learn a number of things to be able to help. My work now not only involves research on war crimes for the quest for international justice, but also advocating and finding ways to pressure for the war to be stopped. So while I still conduct work in the field of law and gather evidence for future use, I also do other things, such as connecting with international organisations to try to get them to maintain their presence in Ukraine.

    What are you asking the international community to do?

    We work to force the international community to act in ways that are consistent with their words. Western politicians have expressed their support for Ukraine and its people, but their actions say otherwise. They have established economic sanctions against Russia, but there are still too many loopholes. A clear example is that of the SWIFT network, which has banned only a few Russian banks. Sberbank, one of the biggest banks, has not been excluded. We want all Russian and Belarusian banks expelled from the system, which would hopefully obstruct funding for the war and put enough pressure so that they will push for stopping it. Another urgent measure would be to put an embargo on Russian oil and gas, which are enabling the Russian government to fund its invasion of Ukraine.

    We don’t want the international community to get comfortable with what is happening in Ukraine. They must stand in solidarity with us and help us fight this. Our number one priority is to be able to defend ourselves, but we are fighting not only for ourselves but also for the values of a free world. Russia started this war because it is afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of freedom. We hope our example will also impact on other post-soviet states and we will get to decide what our region will be like.

    We want the international community to provide tangible solutions. Now that the bulk of refugees have been got to safety, it is time to reach for a more ambitious goal. We need strategic measures that will stop war crimes and force the invasion itself to stop. In occupied territories, we have already seen people being beaten up, arrested and tortured. Detentions, kidnappings and torture are being used against the brave Ukrainians who go out with the Ukrainian flag and face Russian soldiers. It is only a matter of time before human rights defenders, journalists, religious leaders and civil society activists and organisations start to be deliberately targeted. We need to find ways to protect people. 

    What is your assessment of the international response to the Russian invasion so far?

    We feel and appreciate the huge wave of solidarity across the globe, but it is not enough to address our situation. What we need is a serious response to the Kyiv Declaration.

    Unfortunately, our advocacy asks have not been met. International organisations and our allies are focusing on providing humanitarian assistance to refugees outside Ukraine. This is very important because there are more than three million Ukrainian refugees now. But it is also the easiest thing to do in this horrible situation, when tens of millions remain in Ukraine, where war is still happening. The people who have stayed also need protection and humanitarian assistance, and they need it even more urgently.

    This is why we urged the establishment of a no-fly zone and the supply of long-range distance weapons, defence systems and fighter planes. We have been asking for weeks but have not received anything yet. What we got instead from the international community has been drones, that’s all. But drones will not protect civilians from Russian attacks.

    Our own allies sometimes offer us aid that is not useful. Instead of listening to our requests, people who have no idea what it is to be under this kind of attack insist on providing the help they think we need. For instance, I have received calls from international CSOs who wanted to send us vests and helmets, which hopefully would arrive in Kyiv within a few weeks. That sounded funny because right now we don’t know what will happen within the next few hours. I had to explain to them that if Russians came to occupy Kyiv and found us wearing their nice helmets, they would kill us all. Their helmets won’t protect us from the dangers we face.

    I think the architecture of the international governance system is not working properly because it has a fundamental design defect. Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The mandate for this body is to maintain international peace and security, but we have seen the total opposite of that take place in Ukraine. And there is also a lack of understanding of their responsibilities by those who are in positions where they could help. When the war started, international organisations evacuated their staff from Kyiv and other places under attack. International organisations are clearly not up to their historic responsibilities. 

    I remain in Kyiv and have spent yet another horrible night in which residential buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles. I really don’t understand what the international community is waiting for. We need their urgent help. The people who died last night in Kyiv couldn’t wait.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

  • UKRAINE: ‘The presence of international organisations is key to ensure safe humanitarian corridors’

    Sasha RomantsovaCIVICUS speaks with Sasha Romantsova, executive director of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), about Ukrainian civil society’s response to the Russian invasion.

    Established in 2007, CCL is a Ukrainian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights and democratic values in Ukraine and Europe.

    What are the main ways in which your organisation is responding to the Russian invasion?

    In the face of the unprecedented situation in Ukraine, on the first day of the Russian invasion CCL renewed its Euromaidan SOS initiative. This was launched in 2013 to provide legal help to activists detained during the peaceful protests held in the context of the Maidan Revolution, or Revolution of Dignity, which erupted in response to the then-president’s sudden decision not to sign a political and free trade agreement with the European Union.

    This initiative, which brings together hundreds of volunteers, is now working on various aspects of Russia’s human rights violations in Ukraine. More specifically, our volunteers are documenting war crimes and gathering information about prisoners and missing persons.

    Other volunteers help spread the word about what is going on in Ukraine through our social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter. They share useful information 24 hours a day. They publish content in various languages on YouTube. There is a whole group of volunteers who provide translations and specialists who tirelessly work on video editing.

    At the international level, we maintain communication channels through our diaspora, international human rights networks, partners and friends. We discuss with diplomats the urgent need for the protection of human rights in Ukraine. One significant issue we have discussed is the need for the presence of the missions of international organisations to ensure safe humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from war zones.

    Additionally, to respond to requests from people in need, we have created a special chatbot for the Telegram app.

    We are also constantly conducting advocacy actions and campaigns, such as #CloseTheSky, supporting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s international demand for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. We are now starting a new campaign regarding the need for safe humanitarian corridors – safe evacuation routes for those fleeing the war.

    Alongside us, many other human rights organisations are involved in various areas of documenting Russia’s war crimes. Additionally, there are numerous public initiatives on all fronts, among them efforts to provide humanitarian cargo and logistics, evacuate civilians and organise art events and media campaigns, including some aimed to a Russian audience. These are very important because otherwise the truth about what is happening in Ukraine would never get reach the Russian population. We maintain a database of initiatives across the country. 

    How is the conflict affecting Ukrainian civil society’s work?

    Most CSOs have been forced to suspend their activities on the ground, and some have had to leave Ukraine for the time being. Many CSO staff members and activists who have stayed have at the very least sent their families away. There are some cities – such as Kharkov in the northeast and Mariupol in the southeast – where it is impossible for any CSO to continue to work. In other cities, such as Berdyansk, Kherson and Melitopol, activists are being kidnapped for their work.

    CCL continues to operate from Ukraine and our team members have not left the country. We are truly blessed to have a group of fantastic people who have run the Euromaidan initiative since Russia started this war.

    What should the international community do to help?

    Our demands to global leaders are to close the skies over Ukraine, provide weapons for our effective protection and fully enforce all the sanctions imposed on Russia, including the disconnection of all Russian banks from the SWIFT network and the cessation of oil and gas purchases from Russia.

    Given that most international organisations, including the United Nations (UN), have evacuated their international staff from Ukraine due to serious threats to their lives, we urge them to send in international missions qualified to work in military conditions.

    These missions’ duty should be to monitor the actions of both parties. The UN should establish an international tribunal to establish the facts of the Russian Federation’s military aggression, while the International Criminal Court should consider and promptly rule on war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. The International Committee of the Red Cross should be in charge of organising the exchange and removal of the dead from both sides.

    We stress the urgent need for international presence and international monitoring of violations during the evacuation of the civilian population from destroyed cities, villages and settlements. We therefore urge international civil society to support the advancement of our demands to the governments of democratic countries and the leadership of international organisations.

    Civic space in Ukraine is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Center for Civil Liberties through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ccl_ua on Twitter.

     

  • UN Panel Discussion, Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

     

    Freedom of peaceful assembly and association and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

    When: 13:15-14:30, Wednesday 17 October 2018

    Where: UNHQ, Conference Room E, New York

    Co-sponsors: Civic Space Initiative, CESR, ISHR, Oxfam, Solidarity Center

    Keynote: Andrew Gilmour, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, delivering opening remarks
     
    Panellists:
    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
    Kate Donald, Director, Human Rights in Sustainable Development Program, Center for Economic and Social Rights
    Shayana Kadidal, Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights

    Moderator: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS

    Panellists will discuss the connections between sustainable development and the the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association drawing on examples from movements related to different aspects of sustainable development from the environment to worker’s rights. The discussion will take place on the occasion of UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule presenting his report (A/73/279) ‘The linkages between the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ to the UN General Assembly, on Tuesday 16 October.

    Please register here.

    *Non-UN pass holders must register by noon on Monday 15 October to attend this event*

    For more information please contact: Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS, 

    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule - @cvoule

    Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, a national from Togo, has been appointed as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in March 2018. Prior to his appointment, he led the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) work to support human rights defenders from States in transition and coordinated the organization’s work in Africa as the Advocacy Director.

    Andrew Gilmour - @gilmourUN

    Andrew Gilmour of the United Kingdom assumed his functions as Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on 1 October 2016, heading OHCHR’s Office in New York. In October 2016, Mr. Gilmour was designated by the Secretary-General as senior official to lead the efforts within the UN system to address intimidation and reprisals against those cooperating with the UN on human rights.

    Kate Donald - @Mskaydee

    Kate Donald joined Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) in 2014. She is currently the director of the Human Rights in Development program at the Center for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) and former Adviser to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

    Shayana Kadidal - @ShayanaKadidal

    Shayana Kadidal is Senior Managing Attorney of the Guantanamo litigation project at the Center for Constitutional Rights. He is counsel in Energy Transfer Equity, et al, v. Greenpeace, a lawsuit brought by the owners of the Dakota Access Pipeline against a number of environmental groups aiming to recast their support of grassroots activism against the pipeline's construction as criminal conspiracy and terrorism.

    Lyndal Rowlands - @lyndalrowlands

    Lyndal works in UN advocacy for CIVICUS the global alliance for citizen participation. She is an award-winning journalist and former UN correspondent and has written or conducted research for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Al Jazeera, the Diplomat, The Saturday Paper and IPS, where she was UN Bureau Chief.

     

  • Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    The closing of civic space is not just about people’s right to organize or protest in individual countries. This year’s Gobal Risks Report, published last week by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual Davos meeting, looks in detail at the risks posed by threats to governments clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. The report points out that, “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • Upholding fundamental rights is crucial for global crisis response

    Joint Statement at the 44th Session of the UN Human Rights Council

    Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights


    Madame High Commissioner,

    Thank you for your timely report. This is a statement on behalf of the Civic Space Initiative, including CIVICUS, Article 19, ICNL, ECNL and the World Movement for Democracy.

    The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing challenges to civic freedoms.

    The CIVICUS Monitor shows that it has exacerbated the ongoing use of restrictive laws; restrictions on funding; reprisals, attacks and acts of intimidation; the ongoing violent repression of mass mobilisations for change; and the wilful exclusion of civil society from decision making processes. It has provided cover for executive overreach and spurred new growth in the use of surveillance technologies. According to ICNL-ECNL’s Civic Freedom Tracker, at least 145 countries have enacted 280 measures in response to COVID that further affect civic freedoms and human rights.

    But it has also revealed the centrality of civil society in crisis response: in providing critical information and services to communities, running feeding schemes and health screenings, providing aid and monitoring abuses.

    Civil society has again proved itself to be an integral stakeholder. And time of crisis is a time of opportunity. As has been so often said, this is the time to build back better.

    We have seen many examples of good practice to draw on. Several States are developing specialised online platforms for better consultation on emergency measures. Others are establishing oversight bodies inviting the public to share views on the measures governments have taken, or conducting surveys to gauge public response on government handling of the crisis.

    We call on all States, in their response to the crisis, to:

    1. Create avenues for inclusive participation and feedback and reach out to those most at risk and those most likely to be excluded.
    2. Ensure transparency and access to information to enable civil society to respond with the most accurate information available.
    3. Ensure that existing channels of civil society participation, at local, national and international levels are maintained – and possibly expanded – in the COVID-19 context.
    4. Undertake thorough human rights impact assessments to ensure that measures and actions in response to the crisis do not infringe human rights and fundamental freedoms.

    We have seen time and time again positive change emerge when people are able to organize, speak out and take action. A strong and vibrant civil society is a core pillar of a thriving democracy. We must not allow emergency responses to undermine democratic gains.

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’

    CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.

    Feliciano Reyna

    How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?

    A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.

    As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.

    An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.

    There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.

    The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.

    While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.

    What is the context in which civil society works?

    There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.

    Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.

    Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.

    But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.

    One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.

    As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.

    Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.

    How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?

    In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.

    The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.

    The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.

    The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.

    Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.

    Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.

    How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?

    A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.

    What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.

    The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.

    For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.

    The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.

    Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.

    The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.

    What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?

    What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.

    Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.

    The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.

    If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.

    Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AccionSolidaria and@fjreyna onTwitter.

     

     

  • VIETNAM: ‘Failure to address torture of political prisoners should trigger a review of trade deals’

    88ProjectCIVICUS speaks with Kaylee Uland and Jessica Nguyen, co-director and advocacy officer with The 88 Project, about the criminalisation and repression of human rights activism in Vietnam.

    The 88 Project is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for and shares the stories of Vietnamese political activists who are persecuted because of their peaceful activism for human rights.

    What does The 88 Project do?

    The 88 Project is a research and advocacy organisation that maintains the most comprehensive and up-to-date database on the situation of political prisoners and human rights activists in Vietnam. Our database informs media coverage and policy debates on Vietnam and is used by journalists, diplomats and policymakers. According to our database, as of 24 June 2022, there are at least 208 known political prisoners behind bars in Vietnam, the highest number of any country in Southeast Asia.

    What is the current situation of civic freedoms in Vietnam?

    The 88 Project has tracked very negative trends regarding the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on political dissent. These include an increase in arrests of those in formal and informal media professions over a period of four years from 2018 to 2021. The arrests of media workers as a percentage of total activist arrests went up from less than three per cent in 2018 to 18 per cent in 2020 and 34 per cent in 2021.

    The use of harsh sentences of at least five years in prison to stifle critical voices has also increased: while such sentences were 23 per cent of total sentences of activists in 2018, the rate rose rapidly to 44 per cent in 2019, 48 per cent in 2020 and 72 per cent in 2021.

    The practice of holding activists and political prisoners incommunicado for extended periods of time – of eight months or more – has become increasingly common: it was applied to 12 per cent of all activists arrested in 2018 and to 21 per cent in 2019, surging to 49 per cent in 2020, before slightly decreasing to 42 per cent in 2021.

    The crackdown on dissent has also expanded to include new issues and groups, as seen in the recent arrest and imprisonment of four CSO leaders working on climate change and environmental issues. They were charged with ‘tax evasion’, a tactic used by the government to silence critics who cannot be tried under the national security provisions of the criminal code. This sent tremors of fear through the environmental movement in Vietnam.

    Efforts to censor social media have intensified, as has compliance with government censorship requests by US-based tech companies. With a population of 98 million, Vietnam is one of Facebook’s top 10 markets by user numbers, with 60 to 70 million people on the platform. Facebook provides one of the few spaces where Vietnamese people can communicate relatively freely. This space is, however, rapidly closing as Facebook increasingly complies with censorship requests from the government and allows bad actors to exploit content moderation rules to have accounts locked and posts deleted. Exacerbating the situation, Vietnam is now planning to impose new rules that require social media firms to take down content it deems illegal within 24 hours.

    Further, the deliberately complex law regulating the ability of CSOs to receive and spend domestic or foreign funding gives the government control over organisations and individuals. CSOs find it hard to comply fully with these laws, which makes them vulnerable to government scrutiny. Punishment for tax violations may include heavy fines, closure and criminal charges that lead to the imprisonment of CSO managers.

    What is the situation of political prisoners?

    The authorities commonly use torture and other inhumane treatment against political prisoners, particularly those in pretrial detention. The most common perpetrators of these violations are public security officers at the provincial level, followed by those at the district and city levels, and then those at the national level. Occasionally, activists who are at risk but not imprisoned are assaulted or otherwise harassed by people suspected to have ties to the government, such as plainclothes police.

    The government insists that there is no incommunicado detention in Vietnam, while acknowledging that for national security cases, a ‘very special measure’ applies, under which detainees are not allowed to see their defence counsel until after the investigation has concluded. Activists are often subjected to unobservable interrogation and to conditions that begin to break down their emotional and physical health. Isolation also removes their plight from the public eye, as information about their condition is sporadic and incomplete at best. Thirty-five activists arrested in 2020 and 2021 were held in incommunicado pretrial detention for eight months or longer.

    Eight people who were arrested in 2020 have not yet been brought to trial. Journalist Le Anh Hung, arrested in July 2018, has not only not yet been brought to trial but has also been repeatedly transferred to mental health facilities for forced psychiatric treatment. 

    Political prisoners are often denied legal representation during the investigation period and at trial. The 88 Project has documented the cases of at least 14 political prisoners who were denied legal representation in 2020 and 2021. When political prisoners are denied legal representation, they are often less aware of their rights and lack a critical communication channel to their families and the outside world. Often, families do not know about trial dates well in advance; sometimes, they learn nothing until after activists have been sentenced. An emblematic case of denial of legal representation is that of two activists from the Hmong minority, Lau A Lenh and Sung A Sinh, who were charged with overthrowing the state and attempting to establish a separate state in north-western Vietnam and sentenced to life in prison.

    Prisoners are often denied medical treatment and family members are prevented from providing medication to them. Many with pre-existing conditions or those who experience health problems while imprisoned have claimed that inadequate medical treatment resulted in greater long-term health complications. Some, including Huynh Huu Dat, have died in prison due to lack of proper healthcare. 

    The government claims that prison conditions have improved, but political prisoners and their families continue to report unclean food, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation and lack of lighting. Virtually all prisoners suffer from harsh prison conditions, and they are often disciplined and retaliated against if they try to petition for improved prison conditions for themselves or others.

    Cutting prisoners off from family and support networks is yet another way to mistreat them without using force. The authorities often limit family visitation rights or detain political prisoners in places far from their homes, making it extremely difficult for families to visit. Under the pandemic, ‘COVID restrictions’ were also used as an excuse to deny family visits. The 88 Project identified at least 21 political prisoners subjected to this treatment in 2020 and 2021.

    We have also documented many cases of physical and psychological pain, which often amount to torture as defined under international law, inflicted to coerce confessions, obtain information, or punish political dissidents for their opinions. A frequent form of psychological abuse consists in sending political prisoners to mental health institutions against their will, even if they have no history of mental illness. Examples of political prisoners subjected to forced mental health treatment include Le Anh Hung, Nguyen Thuy Hanh and Pham Chi Thanh. Another harsh aspect of prison treatment is the use of solitary confinement to isolate political prisoners and punish them for asserting their rights.

    Is there any accountability for cases of torture and ill-treatment?

    Unfortunately, there is very little accountability. Regarding COVID-19-related restrictions, the government argued that the right to health of the community took priority over prisoners’ right to see family members. The authorities also justify forced mental health treatment tactics on ‘humanitarian aid’ grounds. They say they are respecting and protecting political prisoners’ right to health by sending them to mental health institutions for medical treatment. However, to the best of our knowledge, most cases are of forced treatment, used to isolate political prisoners from their support networks and to discredit them.

    The Vietnamese government has been repeatedly warned about its failure to meet its international obligations against torture. The United Nations (UN) Committee Against Torture (CAT) has stressed the importance of proper criminalisation of torture, fundamental legal safeguards, direct applicability of the Convention against Torture by domestic courts and independent investigation concerning allegations of excessive use of force or deaths under custody.

    During Vietnam’s 2019 UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a number of states raised concerns about allegations of torture and the Vietnamese government voluntarily agreed to several important recommendations, such as making sure that evidence obtained through torture is inadmissible at trial and taking steps to prohibit harassment and torture during the investigation process and detention.

    Despite these international warnings, in its responses to CAT’s comments and recommendations from the 2018 Concluding Observations, issued in September 2020, Vietnam continued to maintain that ‘allegations of the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment, particular in police stations, and in certain places where persons are deprived of their liberty [...] are all unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims’. This contradicts the findings of our report.

    How have domestic and international CSOs raised these issues?

    Many international groups report on allegations of torture and inhumane treatment in Vietnam as part of their ongoing human rights research. However, torture is a difficult topic to research and report on, as information flowing out of Vietnamese prisons is minimal and often censored, and prisoners and family members may fear further retaliation for raising their concerns. Prisoners are often better able to report on prison conditions upon their release, as was recently the case of Tran Thi Thuy.

    Thuy was imprisoned for eight years and was denied communication with her family and adequate medical treatment despite having severe tumours. The authorities demanded a confession in exchange for treatment. Thuy was also forced to work under extreme labour conditions; by the end of her sentence, she could barely walk. The international community should question the treatment prisoners face, and whether it may be even worse than what is reported in the news that reach international outlets.

    Regardless of the obstacles they face, activists, their families and CSOs continue to raise the issue of ill-treatment of political prisoners via research and direct advocacy. For example, in April, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the International Federation on Human Rights jointly issued an urgent appeal for international intervention in the case of land rights activist Trinh Ba Phuong. Groups also petition the UN, and especially its Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to investigate cases where inhumane treatment is suspected. Further, abuse by Vietnam’s police force more broadly is well-documented.

    What can the international community do to address the issue of torture in Vietnam?

    Given the absolute nature of the right to freedom from torture, failure on the part of the Vietnamese government to address issues of torture and inhumane treatment of political prisoners should trigger a review of its trade deals and other relationships with international actors. We urge human rights advocates and representatives of the USA, the European Union, and others to demand that Vietnam implement the concrete actions that are clearly stated in CAT’s Concluding Observations in the Initial Report of Viet Nam of 208 and to follow up on the UPR recommendations that Vietnam accepted in 2019.

    We also urge the authorities to accept visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, as well as visits by states’ consular representatives to conduct investigations of prison conditions in multiple locations.

    Civic space in Vietnam is rated ‘closedby theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with The 88 Project through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@The88Project on Twitter.

     

  • VIETNAM: ‘The government is using non-state actors against minority religions’

    Thang NguyenCIVICUS speaks with Thang Nguyen of Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a civil society organisation based in the USA and Thailand, about the challenges for civil society and religious minorities in Vietnam, and about their work to enable civil society responses.

    Can you tell us about BPSOS and the work it does?

    I’m currently the CEO and President of BPSOS, having joined initially as a volunteer. BPSOS was founded in 1980. We have two major divisions. The first, our domestic programme, is about serving refugees and migrants in the USA, across six locations. Second, we have our international initiatives, run from our regional headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.

    In Bangkok, we provide a legal clinic to help refugees and asylum seekers with their asylum claims and with protection – not only those coming from Vietnam but also from other countries, including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We have a programme to help Vietnamese human rights defenders at risk, whether they be in prison or in hiding in Vietnam or seeking refuge in Thailand or elsewhere. A major component is to build capacity for civil society in Vietnam at the community level. Finally, we have a religious freedom project, working with local, regional and global partners, to build up a network for advocates for freedom of religion or belief in South East Asia. We hold an annual conference, the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference (SEAFORB).

    What are the key current challenges experienced by civil society in Vietnam?

    The regime is still very oppressive. The government has heavy-handed policies against people coming together to form their own associations, which make it hard for organised civil society to develop. The government is now somewhat more tolerant with individuals speaking out, or perhaps it is that the government struggles to control expression on social media to the same extent.

    Another challenge comes with the people themselves. Living in a closed society, they don’t have many opportunities to develop the necessary skills or experience to come together and form associations.

    Further, there’s very little commitment or investment from the international community to develop civil society in Vietnam, compared for example to Cambodia or Myanmar. There are very few organisations from outside Vietnam that work hand in hand with groups in Vietnam to help them develop capacity to implement programmes.

    Because of this, there are very few truly functional independent civil society organisations in Vietnam and the number of these has decreased over the last five years because they cannot sustain themselves in the face of interference from the government. There are only individual human rights defenders, some of them well-known, but not organised civil society.

    In contrast, there are tens of thousands of government-owned ‘non-governmental’ organisations (GONGOs) that are controlled by the Communist Party. They present themselves as the civil society of Vietnam.

    What are the challenges minority groups face in Vietnam, particularly religious minorities?

    Many of the minority groups are indigenous peoples, but the government of Vietnam does not recognise them as such; it only classes them as ethnic minorities. They therefore face a fight for the right to be recognised as indigenous people. They are often separated from their ancestral land.

    For many groups, a religion that is a minority belief in Vietnam is part of their social and cultural makeup. For example, the Cham are Muslim and the Khmer Krom are Theravada Buddhists, which is very different from the Mahayana Buddhism practised by the majority of Vietnamese Buddhists. Then there are the Hmong and the Montagnards: Christianity has spread among the Montagnards for decades, and the government wants to control and stop this. Since the early 1980s, Christianity also started to develop in the Northwest Region among the Hmong population. The government of Vietnam viewed this as an undesirable influence from the west, and therefore it has taken drastic messages to stop its further spreading in the Northwest and Central Highlands regions.

    Most of these groups of people are located remotely and so don’t have access to the internet, and don’t know how to attract resources, even from within Vietnam. Other people in Vietnam aren’t aware of the situation, let alone the international community. Little information is available about these groups.

    The government authorities are directly suppressing independent house churches. In the Central Highlands, thousands of house churches have been closed, set on fire and destroyed. In 2004 the government issued an ordinance on belief and religion, meaning that house churches have to be registered. There are credible reports that the government trained a lot of its own people to become pastors, and they have set up new churches allowed by the government. These are run and controlled by the government.

    A major challenge is the forced renunciation of faith. Christians have been ordered to leave their parish churches and told not to follow any religion, or to join a government-controlled church. People who have resisted joining government-controlled churches have been harassed, persecuted and tortured. Several deaths in police custody have been documented. There are quite a lot of religious prisoners of conscience, many of them Montagnard Christians.

    The repression of the Hmong is even more drastic. In many parts of Northwest Region, Hmong Christians who have refused to renounce their faith have been evicted from their villages by the local authorities. Their villages have been declared as Christian-free zones. Tens of thousands of Hmong have been affected, something that continues to this day. They became itinerant, and it has taken them many years to coalesce into new communities, usually in previously uninhabited areas unknown to local government. Many moved to the Central Highlands. They are completely undocumented and so have become functionally stateless. They live outside society. Married people are not issued with marriage certificates, babies do not get birth certificates, children can’t formally receive education – although some slip into school unofficially – and people can’t get legal employment, set up a business, or open a bank account. They are restricted in their travel: pastors can’t travel into these communities, while they cannot travel to worship elsewhere.

    In many provinces Catholics, even when they are part of the major ethnic groups, have been persecuted by the government. And then there is the Cao Dai religion, a minority religion with about five million reported followers, although the government only recognises around 1.2 million Cao Daiists. Its church structures were disbanded in 1978. In 1997 the government created a new Cao Dai sect, and then 10 years later turned this into a new religion with a similar name and transferred all the property of the Cao Dai religion to it. To the world the government presents this sect as the representative of the Cao Dai religion.

    The government is also using non-state actors against minority religions. In Nghe An Province, the authorities use organised mobs known as Red Flag Associations, which are supported and encouraged by local authorities to attack churches and beat up parishioners. We have had several reports of this.

    What steps are needed to help civil society respond to these rights violations?

    Because of the restriction of organised civil society there’s very little response to the suppression of religious minorities. This lack of organised civil society also makes it difficult to foster partnerships between civil society groups in Vietnam and international human rights organisations. In response, we are trying to build community capacity to develop organisations in Vietnam to protect rights.

    We train a lot of people in Vietnam to know how to report human rights violations. So far we’ve trained about a thousand local rapporteurs and they have generated about 200 different reports that have been submitted to various United Nations (UN) special procedures and UN bodies, and shared with other governments and international human rights organisations to raise awareness of the situation in Vietnam.

    We are helping to form community-based CSOs in each minority community. So far there are about 20 of these, and we aim to have 100 by the end of 2020. We have incubated a number of CSOs specialising in different aspects of human rights, based on the international commitments Vietnam has made as a result of signing various conventions. For example, we have supported the creation and development of Vietnamese Women for Human Rights, the Vietnam Coalition Against Torture and the Vietnam Freedom of Religion or Belief Roundtable. We have worked with Montagnard people to form a CSO specialising in Montagnard minorities. Now we are connecting these specialist CSOs with their peers outside Vietnam. For instance Vietnamese Women for Human Rights is now a member of FORUM-ASIA, a network of human rights organisations throughout Asia and the Pacific. We are cultivating these kinds of partnerships.

    What more support is needed?

    Once CSOs in Vietnam have developed some capacity, there is a need to connect them with civil society outside Vietnam. We are advocating for organisations to offer internship and fellowship schemes to enable staff to develop skills, experience, connections and exposure outside Vietnam.

    We hope to see more projects geared at further developing civil society in Vietnam, through training, coaching and technical assistance as well as advocacy. There has been an almost complete lack of this kind of investment from civil society worldwide. Organisations are issuing statements about Vietnam and that is appreciated, but this is the next step needed. Amnesty International now has a Vietnamese national working on Vietnam, who was with BPSOS before, so this is a positive step and a model to replicate.

    It would be much more effective if international human rights organisations working on Vietnam could coordinate among themselves, and with groups within Vietnam. For instance, a joint advocacy project on the functionally stateless Montagnard Christians, with pressure coming from multiple directions, would help.

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

    Get in touch with BSPOS through itswebsite orFacebook page and follow@BoatPeopleSOS on Twitter.

     

  • Why Trump, Brexit and populism could be an opportunity

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Many of the business and political leaders gathering in Davos this week will be focused on how to protect the global economic order - and their interests - after a year of major political and social upheavals. That is the last thing they should be doing. For me, the greatest lesson from 2016 is that we need to build new mechanisms for airing political grievances and addressing economic frustrations.

    Read on: Huffington Post

     

  • With mentoring and incentives, CSOs venture into raising key resources and support at home

    FRENCH

    By Yessenia Soto, Community Engagement Officer on Civil Society Resourcing, CIVICUS

    The Change the Game Academy provides classroom training on local fundraising to CSOs.

    It’s something that many in the development and civil society sector have been painfully aware of for several years now. But the reality is hitting home harder than ever.

    Official Development Assistance (ODA) – government aid designed primarily to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries – is steadily decreasing. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recently announced that ODA fell almost 3% from 2017, with even larger reductions for developing countries. As foreign aid has long been a significant source of funding for southern CSOs, this news reminds us that civil society can’t rely on it in the long term, so, those who haven’t started diversifying their resource base, should do it now.

    “There will be an end to foreign funding, at least as we now know it,” said Robert Wiggers, manager of programs and policy development at the Dutch Wilde Ganzen Foundation (WGF), during one of several panels about the financial sustainability of civil society held at the International Civil Society Week convened in Serbia from April 8-12. At ICSW, various organizations shared why and, most importantly, how CSOs can leverage more support, money and other resources in their own countries and communities to face financial pressures and gradually lessen dependence on ODA and other foreign aid.

    “This is more than a funding alternative, highlighted Wiggers. “CSOs that mobilise their own resources locally get closer to their communities and the people they serve, gain independence from donors, have more control of their own development and feel even more empowered to hold their governments accountable.”

    There is a wide consensus about the power of local resources to boost the financial sustainability, legitimacy, ownership and independence of CSOs. Even in a world with endless supplies of international assistance, weaning civil society off it should be the goal. But how can a small community organisation or one that has always relied on foreign aid start fundraising “at home” and on their own?

    Agencies, associations, and foundations like the WGF are providing special training, mentoring sessions, online learning platforms, campaigning support and even dedicated grants to prepare CSOs for this journey. And the results are encouraging.

    For example, the WGF partnered with the Smile Foundation from India, the Kenya Development Foundation and Brazil’s CESE, to create the Change the Game Academy, an innovative blended-learning program specially designed for civil society organisations that provides both online and classroom training on local fundraising, lobby and advocacy to hold governments and duty bearers accountable through civic participation.

    The classroom training is delivered in a total of six months by local certified trainers. It includes individual coaching sessions to implement a fundraising plan and uses materials adapted to country contexts. The online platform contains 11 interactive modules of e-learning available in four languages, plus 40 toolkits and 88 inspiring success stories, all freely accessible and free of charge.  

    More than 800 small NGOs and community based organisations have been trained through the Change the Game Academy in fourteen low- and middle-income countries. They intend to implement this initiative in four more countries this year.

    In the Balkans, there is a similar initiative called the Sustainability Academy, created by the SIGN Network, a group of indigenous grantmakers who support the sustainable development of local communities and civil society. This academy focuses mostly on CSOs at a grassroots level, which have an annual budget of less than 10,000 euros, on average.

    Their training program covers strategic planning, financial sustainability, networking, local fundraising techniques and campaign development, and is delivered in three modules over six months. At the end of the third module, the organisations receive small technical grants to implement their fundraising campaigns for four to six months. When the campaign is over and they meet their goal, the SIGN Network provides 100% matching grants.

    “We have had very successful examples where, through our training and accompaniment, small organisations managed to fundraise even half of their annual budget and developed relationships with many local donors,” said Biljana Dakic, director of the Trag Foundation, a SIGN network member. “And most of them consolidated their causes and work in their communities, which brings invaluable support.”

    Since 2014, the Sustainability Academy has supported over 100 CSOs in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro.

    CISU - Civil Society in Development, an association of Danish CSOs with members engaged in development work in Asia, Africa and Latin America, is also providing knowledge, training tools and assistance for local resource mobilisation in these regions. Additionally, they offer a co-funding modality through which the local CSOs can access 4-year grants if they leverage a small percentage of the total grant, explained Souad Bourrid, advisor at CISU.

    Together, these opportunities have been key to reducing the initial resistance and fear that keep some organisations from exploring and testing new resourcing avenues.

    “Many organisations still think that the only way to get funds is applying for donor grants. So, when we approach them about leveraging local support, they are skeptic and don’t believe is possible. But those who receive the training and try it, see how many more doors open to them and end up very thankful for the push,” emphasized Bourrid.

    Besides strengthening skills, many civil society networks and coalitions (including CIVICUS) around the world are also advocating the need to create or improve other crucial conditions for facilitating the mobilisation of domestic resources for civil society, including legal frameworks and incentives for local philanthropy, establishing alliances with the public and private sector, and promoting policies to support the financial sustainability of CSOs.

     

  • Women’s bodies are the battleground for civil liberties

    By Teldah Mawarire and Sara Brandt

    Around the world, civic spaces are shrinking. In many countries, activists are under threat as governments increasingly use the law and violence as tools of oppression, according to a new report. For women human rights defenders, this means their bodies have become the battleground on which the fight for civil liberties is being waged.

    Read on:Mail and Guardian: Bhekisisa

     

     

  • Worldwide attack on rights: over three billion people living in countries where civic freedoms are violated

    French | Spanish

    • Global impact laid bare by the CIVICUS Monitor, a new online research tool that rates civic space around the world and documents violations of rights
    • Governments shutting down civic space and shutting up dissenting voices

    Johannesburg, 24 October 2016 –More than three billion people live in countries where the rights to protest, organize and speak out are currently being violated according to the CIVICUS Monitor, the first-ever online tool to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.

    The new tool, launched in beta today by the global civil society alliance CIVICUS, rates countries based on how well they uphold the three fundamental rights that enable people to act collectively and make change: freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

     

  • Worrying legislation to restrict Nigerian civil society sector underway

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and the Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) are deeply concerned about impending legislation to restrict freedom of association in Nigeria.

    Nigeria’s National Assembly is currently considering a bill to provide for “the establishment of the Non-Governmental Organisations Regulatory Commission for the Supervision, Coordination and Monitoring of Non-Governmental Organisations, Civil Society Organisations etc. in Nigeria and for related matters.” First introduced in July 2016, the bill has since passed through the second reading in the House of Representatives. The bill has now been referred to the Committee on CSOs and Development Partners for further legislative input.

    “The bill is in conflict with Nigeria’s Constitutional and international law obligations,” says Oyebisi Oluseyi, Executive Director of NNNGO. “We must instead strengthen civic space in Nigeria, as our sector’s role in finding solutions to the enormous challenges facing our nation cannot be overemphasized”.

     

  • ZAMBIA: ‘Electoral practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region’

    McDonald ChipenziCIVICUS speaks to McDonald Chipenzi, Executive Director of the Governance, Elections, Advocacy, Research Services (GEARS) Initiative and Chair of the NGO Council in Zambia, about the state of civic space ahead of the crucial general election being held on 12 August 2021.

    What is the state of civic space and media freedoms ahead of the elections?

    The civic and media space in Zambia remains fragile and has been shrinking due to legal restrictions. This has now been compounded by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and newly crafted rules and guidelines that have heightened restrictions on citizens’ freedom of movement and freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This has led to ineffective citizens’ participation in national affairs.

    COVID-19 rules and guidelines have compounded the already delicate and restricted state of the civic, media and political space in Zambia. These restrictions are the result of the selective application of archaic legislation such as the Public Order Act of 1955 and newly enacted laws such as the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act of 2021, which is aimed at intercepting, monitoring and interfering with citizens’ conversations, correspondence and communications, even without a court order or warrant. This new law, viewed as aimed at shrinking virtual civic space, has instilled fear in citizens, deterring them from effectively engaging online. As a result, many have opted to remain silent or opted out of online platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.

    The media space also remains intimidated, harassed and cowed as a result of restrictive laws and the actions of ruling elites. The closure of Prime TV, a private television station, in March 2021, sent a chilling wave through the media community. Most of them now fear hosting critical voices and opposition leaders. They fear losing government advertising and other business opportunities. Those associated with the powers that be also distance themselves from those media houses giving platforms to critical voices.

    What are the main concerns of civil society in the lead up to the elections?

    Civil society’s main concern is the security of all stakeholders, as the police are not committed to providing security to all. The police have been reluctant to deal with the violence perpetuated by ruling party elites and have even been instrumental in it. The fear is that on election day, when some parties feel that they are losing in some polling stations, they may engage in disruptive activities to push for a re-vote, which may give them advantages. Another concern is the possibility of a shutdown of internet, mobile services and social media, especially after the vote, to try to black out results.

    A third concern is the COVID-19 pandemic, which was seen to have the potential to be spread by political parties had they held rallies. According to the Ministry of Health and the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), rallies were seen as potential superspreading events for COVID-19, and therefore they recommended a ban. This mostly affected the opposition while ruling party officials were busy campaigning in the name of launching and inspecting developmental projects.

    Note that ECZ constituted a task force on COVID-19 to develop guidelines that was dominated by government institutions. Out of 14 institutions represented, nine were in government with only three spaces for the media, and two for civil society organisations in gender and water and sanitation. To prevent violence and keep violence under control if it happens, civil society is engaging with the police, encouraging them to be more professional and ethical, and with political parties to provide leadership to their cadres. 

    Regarding the possibility of a media and internet shutdown, civil society organisations have sent petitions to the President of the Republic to refrain from shutting down the internet or social media during and after the elections. For the purpose of this election, the GEARS Initiative developed what it termed as the “Ing’ombe Ilede strategy” to allow for the collection of election results in an event of an internet shutdown. A common place has been designated for constituency and provincial coordinators involved in the election to share their documents without needing to meet with each other. This strategy is borrowed from the old trade tactics at a place called Ing’ombe Ilede in the Gwembe Valley of Southern Province in Zambia. We feel this strategy will help navigate the possible internet shutdown, which the government has already signalled.

    How is polarisation increasing ahead of the election, and what are the election’s likely impacts on social and political division?

    The election has polarised the country as politicians from the ruling party are now using regionalism and tribalism to win votes from their perceived strongholds. The impact of this will be deep divisions after elections, especially if the ruling party now wins the elections as it will marginalise those they feel did not support them during the elections. Already, the groups or regions perceived as strongholds for the biggest opposition party have been marginalised and discriminated against in terms of development and economic opportunities, including political positions in government.

    Employment and trading opportunities are also a preserve of those perceived to support the ruling party. Markets and bus stations are all in hands of ruling party supporters and not the councils. This has shrunk the civic space for many citizens who survive through trading in markets and bus stations as it has led to them adopting what they have termed the ‘watermelon strategy’, symbolic of a watermelon fruit which is green on the outside (the colour of the ruling party) and red on the inside (the colour of the opposition) in order to survive at these markets, bus stops, stations and taxi ranks. This situation may be escalated should the ruling party retain power.

    What is the state of the economy and how will this influence the choices of voters?

    The state of the Zambian economy is not pleasing but biting to many ordinary people. The local currency, the kwacha, has continued to depreciate against major convertible currencies. The cost of living has quadrupled and the cost of essential commodities is skyrocketing. The poor are barely managing to live while the ruling political elites are sleeping on top of money due to excessive corruption and abuse of state resources in the absence of controls and accountability. The poor eat in order to live rather than live in order to eat. This will have effect in the peri-urban areas of major cities like Lusaka and the Copperbelt towns.

    The rural population, on the other hand, may not be as badly affected by the state of the economy as most of them had harvested good crops during the past rainy seasons and further benefited from a scheme involving social cash transfers targeted at older and vulnerable people, which has now been converted into a campaign tool. In addition, rural voters tend to be conservative and vote for the traditional political parties preferred by their forefathers.

    Zambia has been known as a bastion of democracy in the region. What impact will this election have on democracy both in Zambia and the region?

    This election is key to the unfolding of a unique trend in the region on how elections can and will be handled. If it is handled very poorly and it results in chaos, it has potential to influence the region in a negative way, as the leaders of most Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries tend to copy from each other. This being one of the few elections held in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic after Malawi’s landmark election, Zambia has an opportunity to show the region that it remains the bastion of democracy in SADC.

    However, the practices seen so far do not indicate good lessons for the region. For instance, the cancellation of rallies and other campaign activities, mainly targeted against the opposition while the ruling party and public officials continue to run their campaigns, is a very bad lesson for democracy, fair competition and credible elections. The selective application of the electoral code of conduct by the electoral manager is also a very bad example for the region. Therefore, the region will have to cherry-pick the good lessons from the bad ones. However, most electoral institutions and political leaders are more inclined to cherry-pick the bad lessons and leave the good ones aside, since bad electoral practices benefit incumbents.

    What can regional and global civil society groups do to support Zambian civil society during this period of elections and after?

    Regional and global civil society have a larger role to play to ensure that peace prevails in Zambia and targeted intimidation and harassment of the civil society movement does not occur after elections. There is a need to keep a watchful eye over the post-election events, especially regarding manoeuvres to shrink civic space. With the election a few days away, on 9 August the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Amos Malupenga, issued a statement warning citizens that the government might shut down the internet ahead of the election, a direct threat to the enjoyment of citizens’ online freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression during and after the elections.

    The army and other defence forces besides the police have been deployed on the streets around the country on pretext of quelling any possible political and electoral violence, which can potentially be abused and undermine physical civic space. Therefore, physical and online civic and political space will constantly be under threat from the establishment during and after the elections, as it has been before.

    Civil society and critical media outlets are potential targets of post-election intimidation and harassment, hence the need for global and regional civil society to support civil society in Zambia with strategies to counter the reprisals that may be imposed on them by the state machinery after the elections. If the current government wins, its categorisation, marginalisation and discrimination of civil society organisations according to their real or perceived party affiliation will get worse after the elections.

    There will be need for solidarity strategies and legal funds to help those who may be incriminated and litigated against using archaic laws. There is need to continue challenging the existence of the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Law, the Public Order Act and the NGO Act. To this end, regional and global civil society needs to support, defend, promote and protect the civic and media space in Zambia before, during and after the elections.

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

    Get in touch with GEARS through its Facebook page and follow @GearsZambia on Twitter.

     

  • Zambia: State of Emergency signifies worrying signs for civic space

    The declaration of State of Public Threatened Emergency in Zambia is a glaring indication of plans by the government to increase restrictions on civic space in an effort to consolidate the regime of President Edgar C Lungu, global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Zambian Council for Social Development (ZCSD) noted today.

     

  • ZIMBABWE: ‘We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights’

    Ernest NyimaiCIVICUS speaks about a proposed NGO bill and the threat it represents for Zimbabwean civil society with Ernest Nyimai, the Acting Executive Director of Zimbabwe’s National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (NANGO).

    NANGO is the umbrella body of civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in Zimbabwe, mandated by its membership to coordinate CSO activities, represent the sector and strengthen its voice.

    How do you think the proposed NGO bill would affect civic space in Zimbabwe?

    In our view as the umbrella body of CSOs operating in Zimbabwe, the proposed Private Voluntary Organization (PVO) Amendment Bill presents the danger of further shrinking civic space should it sail through in its current form. The bill will put at further risk the fundamental freedoms that civil society is supposed to have to be able to do its work to improve people’s lives. This is due to quite significant proposed amendments that in our view are repressive. 

    Currently, more than 60 per cent of NANGO members are legally registered as trusts, and some are registered under Common Law Universitas. If this bill is passed as it is, they will be automatically deregistered and required to apply for re-registration under the new proposed PVO guidelines.

    The PVO Amendment Bill proposes to criminalise CSOs that support, oppose or finance a political party or candidate. The clause does not clearly specify what supporting or opposing a political party or candidates entails. If a CSO opposes a party’s policy or governance practice, does this amount to opposing a political party? If a CSO gives legal support in an election challenge, does this amount to supporting a political party or candidate? This provision can be abused, especially against CSOs that work on democracy, governance and human rights issues. This provision is contrary to the right to the freedom of association provided for in section 58 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The imposition of harsh penalties such as imprisonment for violation of this provision without any justification or regard to civil remedies or administrative fines is grossly arbitrary.

    Another reason the PVO bill can affect civic space is that it is phrased in a way that would make room for selective application during its administration. If an organisation is deemed to be operating outside its mandate, its board can be immediately suspended and an interim one can be appointed to act in its stead while a final decision is made. But procedures are not clear, so there is room for the responsible minister, the Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, to arbitrarily suspend an organisation’s board due to personal interests. This kind of interference in the operation of CSOs would limit their independence and autonomy. 

    The PVO bill was prompted as a way to ensure compliance with Recommendation 8 of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which requires governments to review the adequacy of laws and regulations that govern non-profit organisations so that these organisations cannot be abused for money laundering and financing of terrorism. But in my view, the government deployed an omnibus approach to pursue many other interests besides the fulfilment of FATF Recommendation 8 requirements.

    The bill in fact violates the FATF’s balanced approach, which stipulates the need to maintain an enabling operating environment to fulfil FATF requirements. The government has not concluded a risk assessment indicating which CSOs are at risk of being used for money laundering and financing terrorism. This is the ideal procedure as required by FATF to ensure the application of the risk-based approach to mitigating vulnerabilities to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

    How would the PVO Bill, if implemented, affect NANGO’s work?

    NANGO is registered under the existing PVO Act. But if the amendment bill goes into effect, many of our members will be automatically deregistered, which will have immediate repercussions on NANGO, whose greatest strength is precisely our membership. Besides, there are various clauses that impose sanctions and restrictions in terms of programming areas and NANGO is of no exception to this potential criminalisation of CSO work.

    The new legislation will also weaken our eligibility for funding due to increased government interference in the operations of CSOs. The donor agencies we work with require recipient organisations to be independent and autonomous for the purposes of grant compliance. But the implementation of the new proposed PVO Amendment bill will potentially affect our independence and limit our autonomy. Development partners and donors may decide to stop funding CSOs in Zimbabwe if they view it as becoming too risky.

    As CSOs we exist to protect the rights and dignity of people. If the new bill forces many CSOs to stop operating, the vulnerability of communities they serve and human rights abuses will likely increase. We need CSOs to continue working and defending people’s rights in an enabling operating environment. CSOs promote and protect human rights, but through the increased surveillance of CSO operations by security agencies, many activists, human rights defenders and civil society members will be abducted and tortured, and the security threat will increase.

    How is civil society responding to this threat?

    We have used a multifaceted approach, taking advantage of the various strengths we have as a large and diverse group of organisations. In the initial stages, we tried to push back against the PVO bill in many ways, including through litigation to expose the ways in which it would violate constitutional provisions. We also assessed the bill against the core humanitarian standards that we adhere to as CSOs.

    Unfortunately, the bill has nonetheless progressed, so we are currently conducting scenario planning in which the law might be passed. Most of our efforts are focused on engaging, having a dialogue and negotiating with government officials for revision of repressive clauses of the bill. The bill is currently being debated in parliament following its second reading, so we are also advocating with parliamentarians to get them to really understand how this bill is going to affect the work of CSOs and those they work with.

    We are also engaging with the body that administers the PVO Act, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, which played a key role in drafting the bill. We are trying to engage it in discussing the potential political, social and economic impacts of the bill. CSOs are a significant contributor of foreign currency in Zimbabwe: close to one billion dollars per year are coming in the form of official development assistance that is channelled towards various programmes implemented by CSOs. CSOs employ around 18,000 people. If they shut down or their activities are limited, barriers to overcoming unemployment will rise. Our desire and hope is to have an enabling instrument guaranteeing the space for civil society to continue its good work.

    How can the international community help Zimbabwean civil society?

    Zimbabwe is a member of various regional and continental organisations, which we have used to our advantage. We have engaged with regional and continental pressure groups, and especially the FATF, and they have shared their technical expertise on advocacy and lobbying, while also leveraging their convening power to help us engage with our government.

    The international community should continue to assist us as mediators, especially in light of the hostility and limited confidence and trust between civil society and the government. It is very important that they highlight how the bill will affect the general role of CSOs in Zimbabwe. There is also politicisation of CSO work due to misinterpretation of the general role of CSOs in the national development discourse. For example, civil society has the key responsibility of holding the government accountable and advocating for people’s rights, and this bill threatens our ability to fulfil it. We need regional, continental and global organisations to help us advocate with the Zimbabwean government to ensure an enabling operating environment for civil society in line with the ‘whole of society’ approach that the government subscribes to.

    Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with NANGO through itswebsite orFacebook page, or by emailing, and follow@ErnestNyimai and@nangozimbabwe on Twitter.