civic space

 

  • CIVICUS urges Iran to stop persecuting human rights defenders and implement Universal Periodic Review recommendations

    Johannesburg. 22 June 2010. Earlier this month, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and a number of civil society groups censured Iran at the UN Human Rights Council for outright refusal to accept key recommendations made during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). 

    Iran rejected 45 of the 188 recommendations made to it by diplomatic delegations of different states and took back 20 recommendations to Tehran for further review. Notably, the rejected recommendations included "end to severe restrictions on the rights to free expression, association and assembly" (United States) and the "end to the detention and trials of writers solely for the practice of their right to freedom of expression" (Slovenia).

     

  • Civil Society “Contested and Under Pressure”, says new report

    Read this press release in Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish

    Civil society around the globe is “contested and under pressure” according to a 22-country research findings report released by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL). The report, Contested and Under Pressure: A Snapshot of the Enabling Environment of Civil Society in 22 Countries, brings together insights from Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA) conducted around the world between 2013 and 2016.

     

  • Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean under threat

    Restrictions on civic space rising despite prevalence of democracy

    Click hereto read a Spanish language version of this release

    Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean is coming under increasing pressure despite the prevalence of electoral democracy in the region, says a new reportreleased today by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.

    While the core civil society freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most countries, legal, administrative and de facto barriers to the exercise of these freedoms have risen throughout the continent. These restrictions are appearing after an upsurge of citizens’ protests over entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.

     

  • Civil society reports show evidence of shrinking civic space in Europe

    A survey of civil society organisations in Europe conducted  in early 2016  by Civil Society Europe and CIVICUS shows evidence of a shrinking civic space in Europe.

     

  • Civil society resourcing: “Revolutions do not occur because of good project proposals”

    By  Ine Van Severen

    It’s undeniable: the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and philanthropy is shrinking. According to new research by CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks trends in the conditions for civil society in countries around the world, 3.2 billion people live in countries where citizens’ freedoms of association, assembly or expression are restricted.

    Read on: Alliance Magazine 

     

  • Civil society tackling global challenges with ‘resolute resistance,’ says new report

    As 2017 gave way to 2018, many in civil society found renewed purpose in striving to make democracy real, and demanding human dignity and justice.

    Even as attacks on civil society have become more brazen, the story of the past year was one of resolute resistance against the rising tide of restrictions on fundamental freedoms and democratic values, according to CIVICUS’ 2018 State of Civil Society Report, released 6 March 2018. Sobering data from the CIVICUS Monitor reveals serious systemic problems with civic space in 109 out of 195 countries covered. However, there are also numerous examples of civil society successfully advocating for progressive new laws on women’s rights, access to information and protection of human rights defenders.

     

  • Closed and repressed: No space for democracy to take root in Eritrea

    CIVICUS interviews a human rights defender from Eritrea, who speaks about the nature of the government and its complete disregard for fundamental human rights. The human rights defender asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

    1. What is the overall state of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Eritrea?

    Unlike in the neighbouring countries, the regime in Eritrea is unique and arguably has no match in the world. It is the most repressive regime in the world, ruling the country with no Constitution and national assembly. There is no political pluralism and no elections have been organised since independence. The ruling party exists only in name with most of its leaders in the executive and legislative arms of government are either languishing in unknown detention centres or have abandoned the party. Since 1994 the party has never held any congress or elected new leadership. Hence power has been concentrated in the hands of a single man, President Issias Afwerki, who rules the country alone and as he wishes.

    The absolute power he enjoys combined with his sadistic, cruel and arrogant character has driven him to the extreme. His regime violates every aspect of human rights and inflicts unbearable suffering on the Eritrean people. The regime has no regard for human rights and international law. Almost the entire population of Eritrea has been subjected to indefinite national service, forced labour and slavery. Families have disintegrated and societies destroyed by migration as citizens seek to escape the repression. Those who escape the country are exposed to human trafficking, hostage taking for ransom, torture and other inhumane treatment.
    The regime has made Eritrea a closed and an isolated country with no independent and foreign media outlets; civil society activities are banned in Eritrea thus there are no local CSOs or international NGOs of any kind in the country. In addition, the report of the UN Commission of inquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea in June 2016 revealed that crimes against humanity have been committed in Eritrea by the Eritrean regime.

    2. What is the state of the media?

    Between 1997 to 2001 private press in the form of print media operated in Eritrea but this was under a restrictive legal domestic framework. There were eight private newspapers until September 2001. In 2001 senior government officials known as “G-15” demanded democratic reforms and the enforcement of the 1997 ratified Constitution. In September 2001, the government clamped down on 11 members of the “G-15” accusing them of treason and said they were a threat to national security. The government proceeded to close private newspapers and imprisoned 18 journalists for providing platforms to the “G-15” to express their views. Since then both the political prisoners and journalists have been held incommunicado in secret prison facilities without charges. Many of the journalists and writers are believed to have died in detention. In effect, since September 2001 no private media has existed in Eritrea. Only state-owned and state-operated media exists in the country. These include TV, radio, and print outlets.
    Freedom of expression, exchange of information and communication in public places such as tea shops, buses, taxis, restaurants, bus terminals, offices, schools and colleges, public, social and religious events are closely monitored by spys working for the regime. Even people who are out of the country are afraid to express themselves publicly for fear of reprisals against their relatives at home in Eritrea. Journalists who work for public media outlets and manage escape still fear that their families back home will be targeted as the Eritrean government punishes family members because of association.

    3. How does the compulsory national military service exacerbate human rights violations in Eritrea?

    According to the National Service Proclamation of 1995, Eritreans are required to serve 18 months of national service which includes six months of military training and 12 months of service in the army and civil service. The proclamation notes that military service is compulsory for males and females who are between 18 to 40 years old. However, contrary to the national proclamation, in reality the national service is indefinite. Those who were recruited in the first round, for example in 1994 have not been released up to now. The whole productive section of the society has been locked up in the national service without any pay, proper feeding or clothing. Even children are recruited into national service. All students have to go to the military training camp of Sawa to do their final year of education in the secondary level and complete military training. Conditions there are very miserable. The national service recruits are treated worse than slaves. They are deprived of opportunities to start families and from undertaking economic activities. They are deprived of moving freely, expressing themselves and from practicing the religion of their choice. In addition, those who desert and evade national service are detained, tortured or fined. Also women are used as sex objects by the military officers and work as house maids or slaves to provide forced services to the officers.

    4. Tell us about the failure of the government to implement the 1997 Constitution

    The government does not have any desire to implement the 1997 Constitution. In May 1998, one year after the ratification of the Constitution, the Eritrean government ignited a border war with Ethiopia. It developed into a full-fledged conflict that came to end in 2000 after the loss of about 100 000 lives on both sides and huge damages to properties and a huge humanitarian crisis and displacement. The Algeris agreement ended the war and a border commission was formed to delineate and demarcate the border but the border has not yet been demarcated. A “no war and peace state” prevails now. Although there are no links between the border and the Constitution, the Eritrean government claims that it is not implementing the Constitution because the border has to be demarcated first.

    5. What are three things that need to change for democracy to take root in Eritrea?

    For democracy to take root in Eritrea: there needs to be

    • Change of the existing government;
    • Crimes committed so far have to be addressed and perpetrators brought to justice;
    • The international community needs to support Eritreans both in the diaspora and those in Eritrea in leading a transition to democratic rule.

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’

    CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.

    alexandra gonzalez zapata

    What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?

    Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.

    The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.

    What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.

    How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?

    From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.

    In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.

    What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?

    The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.

    On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.

    On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.

    So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.

    How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?

    On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.

    In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.

    Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.

    Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”

    During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.

    Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.

    The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.

    In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.

    Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.

    How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?

    In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.

    Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

    What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?

    First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.

    Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?

    I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.

    However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@CSPP_ on Twitter.
    Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite andFacebook page, or

     

     

  • Comprehensive UN resolution needed to protect civic space

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

    Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights

    A group of governments (Ireland, Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone, Tunisia) and over 50 civil society organisations reaffirm the need for the Human Rights Council to adopt a comprehensive resolution that promotes and protect civic freedoms.


    Madame High Commissioner,

    This core group first took the initiative of a Council resolution on civil society space in 2013.

    We did so in light of what we saw as two equally true but very different realities:

    • first, the transformative role which civil society can and does play, alone or in partnership with other stakeholders; and
    • second, that civil society space is all too regularly, and unfortunately increasingly, restricted and threatened.

    In the intervening period, our commitment to this initiative has not diminished, in fact quite the opposite, we have established new frontiers.

    We remain deeply committed to highlighting at this Council, the critical importance of protecting and promoting a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

    In normal times, we would have presented a resolution to this Session of the HRC.

    But these are not normal times, so, for practical reasons, we have decided to raise these important issues by way of a Joint Statement.

    In this Joint Statement, we take the opportunity to draw attention to the concerns that persist for civil society including inter alia: diversity of participation; attacks, reprisals and acts of intimidation against civil society actors; shortcomings in access and accreditation processes; the use of legal and administrative measures to restrict civil society activity; and the particular challenges that have emerged in recent weeks and months by the almost wholesale move to online methods of communication and engagement.

    We also pay tribute to the significant steps forward that international organisations and States have taken to foster and encourage the meaningful participation of civil society, set out in the

    High Commissioner’s report presented at this Session. This report also noted that significant further steps are needed, such as: increasing support to and empowering civil society, including human rights defenders, in particular women’s rights and environmental defenders and journalists; and expanding the space in which civil society operates through better laws and policies and improved protection mechanisms.

    Realisation of these steps would bring to bear the immense benefits of this participative approach to policy formulation and implementation, as emphasised by the Secretary-General in his “Call to Action”.

    Madame High Commissioner,

    The people that States in this room represent are facing the challenge of a generation in dealing with COVID19 and its devastating impact, particularly in terms of the many, many lives lost, on every continent.

    In responding to, and rebuilding from this crisis, we must recognise, as articulated by the UN Secretary-General, and as emphasised by this Council in the recently adopted Presidential Statement on the human rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of human rights in shaping the response to the pandemic, both for the public health emergency, and the broader impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

    We welcome your statement, Madame High Commissioner, that civil society must be included in every stage of response to the COVID19 pandemic.

    We would encourage you therefore Madame High Commissioner, to ensure that the essential role of civil society, and States’ efforts to protect and promote civil society space, are reflected in the report that you will present to the 46th Session of the HRC, as mandated by the recent Presidential Statement.

    There will be many lessons to be learned from our experience of recent weeks and months if we are to build back better, by protecting fundamental freedoms in the face of crises and addressing structural inequalities.

    We stand ready to learn.

    And we undertake to bring to a future Session of this Council, a resolution that will build on a more comprehensive examination of the key challenges and opportunities that have emerged and will set out concrete steps for States to take to realise open civic space for the benefit of all.

     

  • CSOs express concern over judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party members

    We, the undersigned civil society groups, express serious concern regarding the recent and ongoing judicial harassment of former Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) elected officials and members through baseless arrests, summonses, and detentions across multiple provinces. We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to immediately cease the harassment of members of the political opposition and instead take concrete measures to restore civic space and enable all individuals to exercise their rights to free expression, association, assembly and political participation.

     

  • CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’

    CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.

    havana protest

    Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.

    The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?

    Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.

    In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.

    In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.

    Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.

    In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.

    How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?

    There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.

    The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.

    At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.

    At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.

    Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.

    Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.

    Why the change?

    The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.

    In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.

    How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?

    The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.

    From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.

    For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.

    However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.

    Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?

    The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.

    What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.

    The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos through its webpage and Facebook profile, or follow @conflictoscuba on Twitter.

     

  • Danny Sriskandarajah: Is it the beginning of the end for the charity sector?

    UK's largest network of civil society leaders, ACEVO, spoke to Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS, as part of its 30th birthday celebrations to get him to expand on his article for Civil Society Futures, where he asks if it is the beginning of the end for the charity sector. 

    Read on: 30thingstothinkabout.org

     

  • Democracy campaigner: governments are scared of the participation revolution

    Closing space for civil society is undermining the ability of citizens to organise and mobilise. In an interview with Guardian Global development professionals network, CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah, speaks about the restrictions to civic space around the world. 

    Read on:The Guardian 

     

  • DISINFORMATION: ‘The fact that profit drives content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy’

    CIVICUS speaks with Rory Daniels about the 2019 elections in the UK and the dangers that disinformation poses to democracy.Rory is a student, activist and writer intent on promoting the voices of those left behind by governments and globalisation. In the 2017 general election, he stood as a 19-year-old parliamentarycandidate for the Liberal Democrats in the constituency of Llanelli. Since September 2019, he has been a member of Amnesty International's firstGlobal Youth Task Force.

    rory daniels

    What role would you say disinformation has played in the recent elections in the UK?

    As a candidate myself during the 2017 UK general election, I saw first-hand the role disinformation played throughout the campaign. Prominent newspapers often printed misleading headlines, biased websites attacked real journalists uncovering the truth and advertisements created by political parties lacked sources for statistics, featured heavily edited video footage and virtually never presented balanced arguments.

    Then the 2019 general election saw all this take place again, plus more. There were doctored videos, highly misleading websites and even signs of foreign interference. A doctored video came from the Conservative Party, which later admitted to editing a clip of a speech given by Labour MP Sir Keir Starmer. The video they released made it look like he had struggled to answer a question about exiting the European Union, while in fact he had answered the question. The same party then changed the name of one of its Twitter accounts to ‘FactcheckUK’. Twitter responded by warning the Conservatives that this effectively constituted an act of deception, as the account was not impartial as users may have been led to believe. Clearly not satisfied with deceiving videos and social media accounts, the Conservatives then bought ads on Google that appeared as the top result for anybody seeking the Labour Party’s manifesto. These criticised the proposals in a heavily biased fashion.

    The Labour Party also succumbed to disinformation. For example, their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, cited documents suggesting that the Conservatives would sell off large parts of the National Health Service to the USA in a post-Brexit trade agreement. It later transpired, however, that these documents were linked to a Russian disinformation campaign.

    Which platforms do you think are the most vulnerable to disinformation?

    It’s hard to say which platforms are more vulnerable to disinformation than others. In November 2019, I attended the World Forum for Democracy at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. The whole event revolved around the question of whether democracy is ‘in danger’ in the information age. It didn’t take long for me to see that vulnerabilities exist on any platform that possesses many users and is constrained by little regulation.

    In addition, with disinformation it’s often more about the content than the platform. For example, I remember reading a recent analysis conducted by BuzzFeed which found that during the final months of the 2016 US election campaign, fabricated news stories reached a greater online audience than actual news stories.

    What are the impacts of disinformation on democratic freedoms?

    All democracies depend upon facts, truth and scrutiny. Voters need reliable information in order to vote rationally – that is, to have good reason to vote for a certain politician or policy instead of others – to challenge their own worldview or preconceptions, and ultimately to hold power to account.

    In an age of disinformation, facts become indistinguishable from fiction, truth becomes impossible to discern among all the lies and scrutiny gets entangled in ideological polarisation. Where once there was the traditional media to keep the populace informed, now there is the internet – an unregulated mess of opinions, corporations and agendas.

    On the internet, the business model is simple: more clicks equal more revenue. This means that often, websites will only seek facts and the truth if they bring greater profits. If not, they may decide to prey on fear, stereotypes, insecurity, hatred and division. Authors know that readers achieve greater levels of satisfaction when they read opinions that confirm their worldview, rather than challenge it. This leads to greater polarisation, as empirical evidence is disregarded in favour of the ‘facts’ that confirm readers’ previously held views.

    We’ve already seen that if this occurs in a democracy, politics suffers. Voters develop apathy, because as they become overwhelmed by confusion and conflicting viewpoints, they switch off from political developments, while ‘establishment’ candidates lose out to populists who pedal quick solutions to complex problems. In short, rational, informed debate all but dies.

    What are the forces behind disinformation?

    Disinformation can be created by anybody at any time. State actors may intervene in foreign elections to tip the scales in their favour, while domestic activists may sow news stories that build support for far-right or populist actors. In other words, the ‘information war’ is fought from all sides.

    Since the creation of the internet, we’ve also seen what some people call the ‘democratisation of disinformation’ unfold. This means that anybody, whether in place A or with budget B, can create and share intentionally misleading content with ease. As a result, what only a few years ago was seen as a tool that was largely positive for democracy – the 2010 ‘Arab Spring’ came to be known as the ‘Facebook Revolution’ – is today perhaps its greatest threat.

    What is being done to combat disinformation, and what have the successes and challenges been so far?

    A few months ago, I spoke at UNESCO’s Media and Information Literacy (MIL) conference in Gothenburg, Sweden. I did so because I believe that education can play an enormous role in addressing disinformation, and I also wanted to share some lessons I had learned from my 2017 parliamentary campaign. The conference was no doubt held in Sweden due to the country’s incredible push for MIL education in recent years, and after meeting many Swedish activists throughout the week, I can only applaud the valuable work they are doing in the field.

    I’m also looking to address some of the negative consequences of disinformation. For example, as a member of the Global Shapers, an initiative of the World Economic Forum, I’m part of a team of young activists planning a ‘Unity Day’ celebration to take place in London on 19 May 2020. Crucially, in a time of increasing division and hatred, this will see politicians, thought-leaders, community organisations and others come together to champion values and ideas that unite us. I urge you to visit the Unity Day website if you’re interested in pledging to take an action, no matter how big or small, that celebrates unity and combats division.

    Of course, trying to inform the debate about disinformation has not been easy. Still today, MIL education is woefully underprovided, sensible media regulations are too often labelled as censorship or attacks on free speech and social media platforms continue to constitute dangerous echo chambers.

    What more is needed to combat disinformation?

    Many of the causes of disinformation are structural by nature, and therefore I believe that many solutions must be too. We must finally recognise that the profit incentive driving content creation on the internet is dangerous to democracy and ultimately unsustainable, while tabloids that spew out sensationalist clickbait should be heavily regulated and severely fined if caught breaking the rules.

    In addition, I’m of the opinion that media and information literacy is by far the most cost-effective and sustainable strategy to countering disinformation and restoring our trust in democracy. MIL education should be offered far beyond schools, also targeting older generations who are less likely to identify disinformation and more likely to share it in the first place. Ultimately, readers must know how to spot and avoid disinformation, or else all the regulations and structural changes in the world will not solve the problem at hand.

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

    Get in touch with Rory throughLinkedIn if you’re interested in the regulation of big tech companies, London Global Shapers’ Unity Day or his work more generally.

     

  • Don't lecture the Americans about our values. Demonstrate them.

    By Danny Sriskandarajah and Julia Sanchez 

    There has never been a better time for Canada to show progressive leadership globally in support of inclusive and open societies that respect human rights. As the government prepares a new budget and a new approach to international assistance, the stage is set for Canada to put its money where its mouth is and support its values, at home and abroad.

    Read on: iPolitics

     

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

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

    egypt protest 1024x683

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

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

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

    What was the response of the government to the protests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     

  • Equatorial Guinea: CIVICUS urges release of activists and respect for human rights

    Spanish 

    Update: Since the issuance of this release, as of 28 April Enrique Asumu has been released from jail. Alfredo Okenve is still in detention.

     Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, is deeply concerned about the arbitrary detention of civil society activists Enrique Asumu and Alfredo Okenve, and severe restrictions on civic space in Equatorial Guinea. Enrique Asumu and Alfredo Okenve are the President and Vice President of the civil society organisation, the Centre for Development Studies and Initiatives (CEID). 

    The two activists were arrested on 16 April in the capital Malabo following activities commemorating the twentieth anniversary of CEID.  They were interrogated by the Minister of Interior for several hours before being taken to a prison in Malabo where they are detained. 

    “The government of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in power for almost 40 years has created unacceptably stifling conditions for political and civil society participation, which are an anathema in this day and age,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS.

    Several members of CEID are also at risk of arrest following summons from the authorities to explain their participation at CEID’s 20th anniversary celebrations. CEID facilitates civic engagement on human rights, good governance, community and rural development. The organisation also raises awareness about the management and use of natural resources in Equatorial Guinea.

    The arbitrariness of the detention of Enrique Asumu and Alfredo Okenve is symptomatic of the political environment in Equatorial Guinea.  Earlier this year, in February 2017, CIVICUS spoke to Alfredo Okenve about the situation in the country revealing a sorry picture of public protests being violently repressed;   a majority of civil society organisations being heavily influenced by the state; close monitoring of independent civil society by the authorities; restriction of online freedoms through routine blocking of websites and social media; and the labelling of those expressing democratic dissent as ‘enemies of the state’.

    Last year, in March 2016, Equatorial Guinean authorities issued an order to suspend the activities of CEID indefinitely. They accused the organisation of violating the country’s public order law by disseminating messages aimed at inciting youth to violence and civil disobedience during its Youth Forum on tolerance and development on 29 January 2016.   In September 2016, CEID announced that it had resumed operations and has since then organised several events attended by public officials including the Prime Minister. 

    CIVICUS urges the release of the detained activists and respect for internationally guaranteed human rights standards by the government of Equatorial Guinea.

    Equatorial Guinea is rated closed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    For more information, please contact

    Deborah Walter

    Communication Manager, CIVICUS

     

    Inés M. Pousadela

    Policy and Research Officer, CIVICUS

     

  • ETHIOPIA: ‘Civil society can play a key role in overcoming divisions’

    Yared HailemariamCIVICUS speaks to Yared Hailemariam, Executive Director of theAssociation for Human Rights in Ethiopia, about recent political reforms in Ethiopia, the opening opportunities for civil society and the prospects for further change.

    Can you tell us about your background and how the political reforms introduced in Ethiopia since 2018 by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed have impacted on you?

    I used to work for the Ethiopian Human Rights Council (EHRCO), a civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1991 by people concerned about the human rights situation in Ethiopia at that time. This was just after the removal of the military junta and its replacement by the current ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPRDF). I joined EHRCO as an investigator in 1998, and then came the notorious 2005 elections, which the government rigged and which were followed by violence. There were mass killings in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June 2005, and then my colleagues and I were targeted by security forces and detained several times. One time we were detained for a couple of weeks. After we were released there were more clashes between government security forces and opposition members and supporters. Just before the second round of massacres in November 2005 I left the country to attend a conference in Uganda, and while I was there I found myself in the wanted list, so after that I was in exile.

    I returned home in January 2018 for the first time after 13 years in exile. Currently I’m leading the Europe-based Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia, which is an organisation that was working to fill the gap, because Ethiopian civil society was under threat and not able to do any advocacy activities outside the country. They were not able to conduct any research or reach the international community. So some of my colleagues who left the country and I established this association in 2013. We conducted undercover research in Ethiopia, but mostly we have focused on advocacy. I was working mostly at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and with European institutions. We were doing advocacy together with CIVICUS, the Committee to Protect Journalists, DefendDefenders, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch and other partner organisations. But now we are allowed to go back home.

    What are the main differences the political reforms have made for Ethiopian civil society?

    In the last 10 years, civic space in Ethiopia was in a very horrible condition but now, following these reforms, it’s seen a really huge change. Civic space has opened widely.

    The previous law was very restrictive. It targeted civil society working on rights-based issues, but now CSOs are encouraged. The Civil Society Proclamation, a very draconian piece of legislation, has been reformed, and the process was very open and civil society was respected in it. The new draft accommodated all our concerns. The previous law established an agency that monitored the activities of civil society that was very authoritarian and limited the work of civil society, but that institution has also been reformed. In the new agency there’s a presence of civil society and independent representatives, as well as people from the government. I visited the agency. They are very friendly, very open and work really closely with civil society.

    Just a year and a half ago, international human rights organisations were not able to organise any meeting or training activity, or even visit Ethiopia. I’ve now been able to conduct capacity development workshops in Addis Ababa. So, the impression I have is one of huge progress that is very satisfactory for local civil society.

    The opening of civic space in Ethiopia can be also a good example for other countries that had followed the bad practices of Ethiopia.

    How has civil society responded to the changes?

    There is now a lot of activity, including training and workshops, and it’s open to international human rights organisations. They are providing capacity development training and financial and technical support to local civil society, which is also receiving support from donors, embassies and the international community. These opportunities are new. Local civil society can now recover and rehabilitate from its past limitations, and reach the international community, because people can also now travel.

    What are the major challenges that remain for civil society?

    Because of the impact of the previous laws and because CSOs were labelled as enemies of the state they were restricted in their development, and now they have challenge of getting back to attracting skilled professionals. CSOs have opportunities but they don’t have the capacity to explore and exploit all the opportunities that come to their door. That’s the big challenge. I interviewed some CSOs that don’t know how to prepare a proposal to attract donors and don’t know how to do advocacy. I met some donors who told me that they want to provide support to local civil society but there is shortage of skilled people who can prepare proposals and report back to them at the level they require. Now an election is coming in 2020 and many CSOs want to engage with this process, but even prominent CSOs have told me that they don’t know how to approach donors and how to submit good proposals to get grants.

    So there is a huge gap now, and that’s the area where we are trying to support local CSOs to develop skills. There is a need for people from outside. What I’m saying to the international community is that it’s not enough to go there and do training; if they send one or two experts for some months these experts could help strengthen and offer support for some prominent CSOs.

    Given that the reforms are emanating from the prime minister, what are the risks that could hinder further reforms?

    There are potential dangers. Reform is still at the top level. The prime minister promised to reform the country through a democratic transition and to open up the political space. You can feel that there is a change in the country and there is some political willingness at the top level, but at the same time the regime has huge and very complex bureaucratic structures.

    Most government structures, offices and institutions are full of political appointees from parties in the ruling coalition. That makes it really difficult to reform organisations. Even when the central government in Addis Ababa says something or a new law or regulation is adopted, it may not go very deep. Reforms may not go deep through to the bottom of bureaucracy, to the structures. People are starting to complain in public media that the government is saying the right things, reforming the law, appointing new faces to high-ranking positions, but the suffering still continues at the lower level. So, that’s one challenge, and there is still no clear roadmap that shows how the central administration can improve this mess

    People who were appointed because of their political affiliation rather than their talents now feel under threat. They fear they may be moved or replaced. So in some regions we have seen that some movements are trying to shift the direction of reform. Some people linked to the old regime are still in control of their regions and are trying to instigate conflicts. They have money and weapons, so they can manipulate regions to instigate ethnic conflicts.

    The EPRDF is a coalition of four major parties that are now not united like they were before and are publicly disagreeing. There are tensions between the Amhara and Tigray regional governments, and recently a conflict erupted in the border area between the Amhara and Oromia regions. In the past, these groups acted together because they were fully dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the other parties were used as a tool. But now, each of the regional governments considers themselves as effectively a sovereign state so there is competition. Each regional state is recruiting and training militias, such that each region has thousands of fully armed forces.

    There is a fear that the administration in Addis Ababa has failed to control these dynamics of conflicts and tension within the ruling coalition that might affect the unity of the country. We don’t know in which direction it will lead us, but there are clear tensions. There is tension between the ruling party members and the different coalition parties, there is ethnic tension, and in each region there are extremist elements, groups that spread hate speech and advocate the removal of other targeted ethnic groups from their region. Ruling parties are also competing and fighting with the extremist groups in their regions. Because of this, the Addis Ababa administration is failing to reinforce the rule of law.

    In some regions, the instability is such that there are huge and serious debates about the dangers of holding the election. Some parties are requesting that the election be postponed for at least six months because of extreme elements, and the fear that people will be targeted and attacked and wouldn’t be moved from region to region to mobilise their supporters or open offices. Some parties are restricted from moving and are now only able to work in Addis Ababa, and maybe a few more cities where they are given full security. So, many parties have requested a delay. But on the other side, extreme and ethnic-based parties are requesting that the government conducts the election on its planned dates. They have already declared that if the election day changes, even by one day, they will call for a protest, and that might create more problems. So now the Addis Ababa administration faces a dilemma. If the election is conducted on its time, I’m sure that ethnic nationalist extremist parties that are instigating violence will win seats in parliament. These upcoming days, weeks and months will be a very difficult time for Ethiopia.

    What role is hate speech playing in stoking ethnic conflict?

    People are living together and still sharing values. In Addis Ababa you didn’t feel it. People are living their normal lives and going about business as usual. It is the elites and their activists who are using social media to spread hate speech instigating ethnic tension, violence and targeting of certain groups of people. They have followers, and when they call some kind of violent action you immediately see that there is a group on the ground that’s ready to act and attack people.

    In the last year and a half almost three million people were forced into internal displacement. Ethiopia is now in the 10 highest countries in the world for internal displacement. This has happened in the last year and a half because of ethnic conflicts. Hate speech is spreading easily and very quickly through phones and social media, especially Facebook. Some of the calls for ethnic conflicts are coming from outside Ethiopia, including Europe and the USA.

    Now the government is drafting a new law to regulate hate speech, but it’s really hard to tackle.

    How can further political reform be encouraged?

    We all, especially human rights activists and researchers, including from the international community, need to encourage this reform in many ways. We need to support the strengthening of national human rights institutions, including the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, and strengthen the capacity of local civil society.

    Civil society could play a key role in overcoming divisions, given that political parties and some media are ethnically based. Because civil society is neutral, the international community should focus on strengthening its capacity to play a key role in shaping the behaviour of new generations, who are vulnerable to being used by political elites. Civil society could give broad-based civic education to nurture good citizens who understand their responsibilities.

    In short, we need to focus on how to strengthen the capacity of civil society to support the positive achievements and political reforms going on in Ethiopia.

    What are the most urgent support needs of civil society?

    There are many ways to support local civil society, and not only by providing money. As I said earlier, there is now the possibility to receive funding, but people still need skills to apply for and use these grants. So, in addition to financial support, local civil society needs skill training in various aspects, including in advocacy, research methodologies, monitoring and documenting human rights, and they also need to network, and not only at the national level. They need support to connect themselves to the outside world, to the UN Human Rights Council and other international and regional mechanisms. Local civil society is not able to use these processes well, and some don’t know how to engage with these international mechanisms at all. So, they need the guidance and support of the international community.

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

    Get in touch with Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia through itswebsite orFacebook page.

     

     

  • Faces of Open Government - An interview with Danny Sriskandarajah

    In his interview with Open Government Partnership (OGP), CIVICUS Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah shares insights on broad trends affecting civil society globally and how CIVICUS is responding to these. He also highlights the importance of the “openness revolution" and why everyone, including new powerful players in the corporate world, should throw their weight behind it. 

    Read on: Open Government Partnership

     

  • Five key battles for re-imagining democracy in a radically changed world

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    The challenges facing civil society now aren’t about reviving our weakening democracies—they are about re-imagining democracy for a radically changed world.

    Read on: Open Global Rights