civic space

 

  • 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

     

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘People are tired of the long hegemony of political elites who are also economic elites’

    Gina RomeroCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).

    Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.

    How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?

    It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.

    The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.

    I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.

    A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.

    How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?

    Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.

    Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.

    Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.

    What was the campaign for the runoffs like?

    It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.

    Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.

    The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.

    Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.

    Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.

    Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.

    Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.

    For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.

    Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.

    What kind of voter backed the candidates?

    There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.

    The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.

    The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.

    What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?

    Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.

    There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.

    Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.

    Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.

    For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with RedLad through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@REDLADoficial on Twitter.

     

  • 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.

     

  • COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’

     Portuguese

    Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.

    CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.

    What made you become an environmental defender?

    I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.

    What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?

    We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.

    What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?

    In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.

    In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.

    I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.

    What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?

    We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.

    We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.

    Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.

    What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?

    The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.

    The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.

    Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

     

     

  • COVID-19 and freedom of expression: A global snapshot of restrictions

    New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor finds:

    • New censorship controls have been implemented during the pandemic
    • The pandemic has expanded the use of laws criminalising misinformation - new or amended measures in over 35 countries
    • Journalists detained in over 30 countries for their reporting on the pandemic

    Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During this period, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions to civic freedoms. The latest research brief focuses on the state of freedom of expression and violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.

    The research covers the period from January 2020 to February 2021 and highlights where governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to censor the media and silence dissent. In some countries, governments have passed laws and regulations which impose undue restrictions on press freedom and access to information.

    Censorship and the detention of journalists are some of the violations covered in the research brief. From Tanzania to Turkmenistan, governments have banned and blocked media for their COVID-19 related coverage. While in Chile and China, governments have put journalists in jail for their reporting on the pandemic.

    The research brief how of journalists, media workers and civil society organisations have been the target of government overreach and provides over 60 country case studies that illustrate three trends:

    • The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including the use of misinformation legislation
    • Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage
    • Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks and arrests

    READ ANALYSIS

     

  • 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.

     

  • CSW66: ‘Global-level policy-making is disconnected from women’s realities’

    CIVICUS speaks about women’s human rights and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Wanun Permpibul of Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) and Misun Woo of the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD).

    APWLD is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) committed to building feminist movements to advance women’s human rights and development justice in Asia and the Pacific as well as globally. CWT, a member organisation of APWLD, is a CSO that works with local communities and women to call for urgent climate action and climate justice.

    Thailand CSW66 interview

    What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in Thailand and the Asia Pacific region, and how does APWLD work to address them?

    Women in Thailand still do not have access to political spaces. Women work on farms and take care of their families, but when policies are made regarding farm work and domestic work they are not engaged in policy discussions, either in the planning process or the implementation stages.

    We tend to look at the symptoms of issues, in this case of the violations of women’s human rights, but we need to look at both the structural causes and the consequence of these violations and injustices. The exclusion of women in policy formulation and decision-making processes perpetuates gender injustices and rights violations. We need to shift power relations so that every person can exercise their inherent power with dignity. Most women do not have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and access political leadership because they are systematically undermined.

    APWLD’s work consists of identifying the systems of oppression – patriarchy, fundamentalisms, militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and fighting to dismantle them while finding alternative solutions to advance women’s human rights and development justice. Through our work we have been able to build capacity and solidarity among feminist movements.

    We focus on several thematic areas, including climate justice. Part of our work is about identifying and promoting the adoption of mitigation and adaptation strategies to advance women’s human rights as well as address the loss and damage and historical responsibilities. We see women experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately and they must be a source of solutions to help deal with the climate crisis. However, the reality is that they are not sufficiently engaged and the policies implemented in most instances do not cater to their needs and concerns.

    What issues have you tried to bring into the CSW agenda this year?

    This year’s focus for CSW’s 66th session (CSW66) was on the impact of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We have highlighted the ways women have been experiencing the impacts of climate change and the solutions they have devised. What we really wanted to see highlighted at CSW66 was the acknowledgment of the root causes and consequences of climate change on women and their effects leading to widening inequalities and increasing violations of women’s human rights.

    A very critical point we wanted to see addressed was loss and damage associated with impacts of climate change and delays in mitigation efforts. It would have been good if CSW66 had supported a financial mechanism to address loss and damage due to the climate crisis as well as an accountability mechanism to hold accountable those responsible for causing the climate crisis, particularly large fossil fuel industries. We need to address the root causes of climate change for our societies to achieve sustainability.

    Another issue we wanted to highlight at CSW66 was the ongoing attacks against women human rights and environmental defenders in Asia and the Pacific in the context of the climate crisis. They are at the frontline of climate crisis, working day in and day out to raise awareness about and resist the catastrophic impacts of extractive industries and fossil fuel burning, and they must be protected.

    What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

    We had high expectations, even though so many restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic. We viewed CSW as a space or momentum to elaborate on the causes and the consequences of climate change, environmental degradation and disasters on women’s human rights. We expected it to meet the dual missions of advancing global commitments to address climate change and advancing women’s human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment.

    Unfortunately, CSW66 failed us on both counts. It did not look into the deeper causes of the climate crisis and the extent of its impacts on women’s human rights and gender equality. Mostly what it did was just add wording on climate change, environmental degradation and disasters at the end of the existing text of CSW66 conclusions. It failed to address the structural causes of the crisis, so the conclusions and recommendations are not designed to address and rectify those structural issues.

    We need to pay attention to, for instance, how CSW66 Agreed Conclusions effectively let governments off the hook from their human rights obligation to regulate the private sector. Instead, they seek to strengthen the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and just encourage them to conduct human rights and environmental due diligence, where appropriate.

    Another practical example is the net-zero goal included in the text. Most states are welcoming this goal that seeks to balance the amount of greenhouse gas produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere. In doing so, they are placing the responsibility of determining the future in the hands of those that are causing climate change.

    If CSW66 were serious about addressing climate impacts and really thought this is a climate emergency, it would not go for a net-zero goal, which is buying time for those exploiting fossil fuels and polluting the planet to continue their business as usual, and would instead focus on the just and equitable transition to decentralised and renewable energy systems.

    Did you have the opportunity to participate fully, or did you experience access issues?

    We made a political decision to attend CSW66 in person, even though we were concerned about COVID-19 restrictions and there were lots of uncertainties regarding CSO participation in CSW66. The decision came from the fact that we, women from the global south, have lost significant opportunities and access to influence multilateral processes during the COVID-19 crisis.

    Our experience is that CSW66 was not well organised, especially from the perspective of CSOs from the global south. It was all very uncertain and CSOs were not provided with enough information, while UN Women continuously advised us against traveling to New York. We were given access to the UN building only two or three days before CSW66 started. Only through an informal announcement we got to know that special event tickets would be distributed to two representatives per organisation with ECOSOC accreditation to access the conference room to observe. If the announcement had been made officially by the UN in time, it could have reached a larger audience of CSOs that had the right to be there.

    We were also disappointed to see that CSOs continued to be excluded from the negotiation room. Civil society in the global south faces many structural restrictions on participation, including time constraints and language barriers. We really wanted to see CSW66 facilitate women’s meaningful and democratic participation, particularly because this year saw the negotiation of a Methods of Work resolution. However, this was yet another failure. To us, it was a further indication of how disconnected from women’s realities global-level policy making is.

    If we compare CSW66 to other UN spaces, such as climate conferences, the lack of engagement between CSOs and national governments in CSW66 becomes readily apparent. It was challenging to have a dialogue with government representatives and negotiators because of the travel restrictions and the inability of some countries to participate in person.

    Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

    If we look at UN climate conferences, for instance, we will find that the proportion of women delegates is always low. Even though it has been increasing, it is still significantly small. We have seen attempts in successive climate conferences of the parties (COPs) to try and have a gender and climate focal point for every country, but the UN has not supported the initiative to introduce a protocol for national governments to implement it. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions reiterate the need to have a gender and climate focal point in national governments. Thailand still does not have one.

    Arrangements may be better for women in the global north, but from our global south perspective they are pretty bad. The CSW66 Agreed Conclusions note the importance of women’s and girls’ meaningful participation in decision making. However, the reality of women’s participation at CSW is far from encouraging.

    It’s easier to say that UN Women or the CSW methods of work resolution encourage member states to include CSO representatives on their delegation. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific have seen a rise in autocratic and misogynistic leadership, and having CSO representatives on such government delegation is not something that will happen at all or in a meaningful way. It is not enough to hear the voices of women; women must be given actual power to make policy decisions grounded in women’s realities. This is the only way structural changes will happen.

    Civic space in Thailandis rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor
    Get in touch with APWLD through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@apwld on Twitter. Get in touch with Climate Watch Thailand through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ClimateWatchTH on Twitter. 

     

  • CSW66: ‘Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere’

    Zarin HainsworthCIVICUS speaks about women’s participation and the United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) with Zarin Hainsworth, director of the National Alliance of Women's Organisations (NAWO), a UK civil society network that works for women’s empowerment by advocating for women’s rights at the national and international levels.

    What do you see as the main women’s rights issues in the UK, and how does NAWO work to address them?

    In the UK there is a lack of an institutional mechanism for the advancement of women’s rights. The Women’s National Commission, which used to be an independent advisory body that represented women and made sure their views were heard by the UK government, was closed by the Conservative government in December 2010. 

    The Government Equalities Office (GEO), established in 2007, is identified by the government as the institutional mechanism although the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Committee continues to question this. The GEO is a department of government, with employees who are civil servants and all communications must abide by the usual government codes with all reports agreed by ministers. It cannot therefore claim to be independent. Some civil society members have complained that there is a lack of consultation with them and this affects how women are included in the policy-making process. Furthermore, GEO does not have remit in devolved nations, meaning it does not cover Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The CEDAW Committee has raised concerns about the UK not being compliant with the treaty, but the government responded that they are adequately provisioned by the GEO.

    The UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance has a good relationship with the GEO, especially in regard to CSW, which we believe to be an example of best practice. However, many would argue that in light of the recommendations of CEDAW and the definition within the Beijing Platform for Action, there is still need for an independent body representing the voice of women and girls to government. NAWO would suggest that it is well placed to be such an organisation. 

    Violence against women continues at pandemic levels in the UK as elsewhere in the world. Sexism is institutionalised in the police force, but this is still a postcode lottery – how women are treated depends largely on where they live. Rape is still underreported and too few cases get to trial, and adolescent girls are not taught about gender-based violence. NAWO is part of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, which seeks to create awareness of these issues and urge the government to address them. Recently a number of members of Parliament have raised awareness on this issue and the government is keen to state it is in the process of effecting positive change in this regard.

    We are aware that the UK has not ratified the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The government says that the new Domestic Violence Bill covers the same ground as the Istanbul Conversion, but civil society groups working on women’s rights and gender-based violence claim that the Bill does not robustly cover all the areas of the Istanbul Convention. NAWO is part of IC Change, a campaign pushing the UK government to ratify the Istanbul Convention; in the past, we also participated in advocacy work towards legislation to implement the Istanbul Convention across the UK.

    Regarding employment, occupational segregation continues to hinder women from progressing and becoming leaders in their workplaces. Despite efforts to increase the presence of girls in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), women still do not occupy equitable work positions because of pre-existing structures put in place to accommodate men rather than women.

    Finally, there is evidence that women’s voices are not heard in the health sector and that women are suffering the most when services and budgets are cut. Health education is biased towards the male experience and female indicators of stroke or heart attack are only slowly starting to be taught in medical school. Most drug trials are based on male responses.

    NAWO raises awareness of these issues through coalition-building and advocacy work. We also engage government stakeholders to ensure they are aware of these issues and put mechanisms in place to promote women’s equity and rights.

    To address these issues at CSW, NAWO has helped establish and worked within the UK Civil Society Women’s Alliance, seeking ways of working with the government to promote equality and ensure that women’s rights are advocated for at CSW. As an organisation, we have understood the need to develop a good relationship with the GEO and we are developing relationships across the government to advance our advocacy work.

    What issues did you try to bring to the CSW agenda this year?

    We are aware that CSOs are not adequately involved in the decision-making process, and we highlighted a need to involve grassroots organisations in policy formulation stages because they are the ones that truly know what people’s needs are. We wanted to bring to attention the fact that many CSOs are restricted by their national governments and cannot carry out their work effectively. Governments and international bodies must support CSOs and integrate them into policy-making processes.

    We have seen COVID-19 affect marginalised women and girls disproportionately, so this is an issue we emphasised at CSW this year. The pandemic revealed pre-existing gender gaps regardless of mechanisms put in place to promote women’s empowerment. Women from marginalised groups did not have access to proper healthcare and their employment chances have severely decreased. Pandemic recovery structures are not working for them because they are being put in place with little to no consultation with them.

    We also raised the concern of women’s access to decent work. There is a need to promote the participation of women in the labour force, but this should be done in an inclusive manner and with respect for human dignity. Many women still struggle with sexual harassment at work and there are not enough measures in place to counter this. Women have much lower prospects of advancing at work than their male colleagues. We hope CSW will see the need to help women in the workforce and find sustainable and realistic ways to protect them.

    As we have done every year since 2005, we enabled a youth delegation and we are keen to ensure the informed voice of young women is present at CSW.

    What were your expectations, and to what degree were they met?

    We wished to work and collaborate with other CSOs with the aim of bringing women’s issues to the forefront and promoting women’s empowerment. In our opinion, we were successful in that regard. We also wanted to reach out to UN member states, and to some extent we were successful in that regard as well.

    We hosted side events that offered young people a space to talk about the issues they experience and how they affect them. In these side events we were able to discuss how women experience climate change and their views and demands concerning gender equality, sustainable development and women’s empowerment.

    We participated virtually and faced some issues concerning broadband and connectivity issues. We believe there were challenges with the online platform and most CSOs had problems accessing it.

    Do you think that international bodies, and specifically the UN, adequately integrate women in their decision-making processes?

    We believe women are still not adequately integrated in decision-making processes both at the national and global levels. Many plans have been put in place to ensure women are in decision-making positions. These are always good in theory, but their implementation does not necessarily go accordingly. This could be due to lack of commitment and accountability from international bodies. Hopefully as time progresses, we will see real change. But for the time being we believe the UN system needs reforming.

    Civic space in the UKis rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with NAWO through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@NAWOorg on Twitter. 

     

  • CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

    CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

    How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

    The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

    For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

    As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

    The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

    In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

    To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

    Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

    If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

    How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

    The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

    But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

    The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

    In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

    Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

    I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

    What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

    One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

    Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

    The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

    This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

    But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

    Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

    An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

    Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

    What other problems do you see?

    Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

    But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

    In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

    To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Martamar77 on Twitter.

     

  • 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.

     

  • DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘The times ahead may bring positive change’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in the Dominican Republic, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hamilk Chahin, coordinator of the Citizen Manifesto for Electoral Transparency, and Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG. The Citizen Manifesto, a civil society-led multi-stakeholder initiative, was launched in December 2019 to monitor the 2020 municipal, legislative and presidential elections and foster the consolidation of democratic institutions. Alianza ONG is a network that encompasses 40 Dominican civil society organisations (CSOs). Founded in 1995, it is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through initiatives to strengthen civil society, intersectoral dialogue, training and dissemination of information, political advocacy and the promotion of solidarity and volunteering.

    Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral landscape was quite complex. What was the situation as of March 2020?

    DominicanRepublic FlagIn recent years, the ruling party, the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), accumulated a lot of power in all state institutions, affecting the quality of democracy. The PLD was re-elected for several terms and political elites settled into their positions and got used to exercising power for their own benefit and to the detriment of the interests of the community. Little by little and inadvertently, society also accepted this situation. In this sense, the exceptionally efficient handling of communication mechanisms by successive governments helped a lot. In addition to good international alliances and good luck in managing the economy, advertising and propaganda structures made the perpetuation of the government easy.

    Fortunately, in every society there is a seed that is practically impossible to uproot: that of civil society. At times it may lay dormant or in hibernation, but at some point something happens that causes it to get moving. In our case, it was the extreme confidence of our rulers in having their power assured, which led them to increasingly blatant practices, to the point that the citizenry, which for the most part had long tolerated them, at one point said ‘enough’ and went into a state of effervescence. The first important manifestation of this change was the Green March Movement, which began in January 2017.

    Born out of popular outrage over the Odebrecht scandal, which involved senior officials from three successive Dominican governments, the Green March Movement encompassed a broad spectrum of CSOs and focused on street mobilisation. It all started with a modest protest walk that we organised through a CSO called Foro Ciudadano (Citizen Forum), which kicked off a great mobilisation phenomenon whose main achievement was to end citizen indifference, to force the middle class out of its comfort zone, in which people expressed criticism without taking action. Opposition parties began to ride on these dynamics. Given that it thought it controlled all power resources, the government initially paid little attention. But the phenomenon far exceeded marching: signatures were collected, community meetings were held, various forms of mobilisation were promoted. It was a state of awakening driven by dignity. Citizens lost their fear of speaking up and this puzzled the government.

    How did the 2020 electoral process begin, and how did Citizen Manifesto form?

    The beginning of the electoral process was also the beginning of the end of the incumbent government. In October 2019, parties held their primary elections; they were the first primaries to be carried out under new electoral and political party legislation and were managed by the Central Electoral Board (JCE). While the PLD opted for open primaries, allowing the participation of all eligible voters, the main opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), held closed primaries, allowing the participation of its members only. The candidacy of Luis Abinader, who would eventually be elected president, emerged clearly from the PRM primaries. In comparison, as a result of the PLD primaries, Gonzalo Castillo became the official candidate only by a small difference over three-time president Leonel Fernández.

    The primary elections of the ruling party were much more than a candidate selection process: what was at stake in them was the power of the president, Danilo Medina. In office since 2012, Medina had been re-elected in 2016, and had made some unsuccessful attempts to reform the constitution to be re-elected again. Leonel Fernández, as party president, had opposed these manoeuvres, so Medina did not endorse him when he decided to run in the primaries. It became apparent that the government resorted to state resources to support Medina’s designated heir; as a result, the PLD underwent division and Fernández joined the opposition. The primaries were highly contested and there was a lot of manipulation. They left a bitter taste among the citizenry: faced with the possibility that fraud had been used to thwart a primary election, many wondered what would become of the national election.

    It was then that many CSOs began to think about what to do: we connected with each other and with political actors, we shared information and our assessments of the situation. We decided to express our concern and demand fixes from the institutions and entities responsible for organising the elections, starting with the JCE and also the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office, which are responsible for prosecuting crimes and irregularities. This is how the Citizen Manifesto initiative began to form. It included actors from the business, religious, labour, union and peasant sectors. We campaigned to draw the attention of society to the need to defend and monitor the process of democratic institutionalisation ahead of the elections. And above all, we advocated with political figures. We met with party representatives, and as a result the Citizen Manifesto had the support of all sectors. This turned us into direct interlocutors of the JCE.

    When were the elections originally scheduled?

    The electoral cycle included a series of elections: municipal elections, scheduled for February, and national elections, both presidential and legislative, initially scheduled for May. In the municipal elections, a new dual voting system was used for the first time, which consisted of a fully electronic voting system for urban areas with a higher population density and a manual system for rural areas. As a consequence of the Citizen Manifesto’s requests to bring some guarantees and certainty to the process, the electronic voting system also had a manual component in the stage at which the ballots were counted; we also successfully demanded that the vote counting process be recorded and a fingerprint and QR code capture system be introduced.

    Although security measures were strengthened, there were serious problems with the implementation of the new software. On 16 February, several hours after the vote had started, the JCE discovered that there was a problem with around 60 per cent of the electronic voting machines and decided to suspend the municipal election across the country.

    This caused a crisis of confidence, and thousands of people took to the streets in almost daily protests. On 17 February, a demonstration outside the JCE headquarters demanded the resignation of all JCE members. Discontent also affected the government, as many protesters believed that it had tried to take advantage of machines not working properly. On 27 February, Independence Day, a massive demonstration was held to demand the investigation of what happened and urge greater transparency in the electoral process. The Dominican diaspora in several countries around the world organised solidarity demonstrations in support of democracy in their country.

    Municipal elections were rescheduled and held on 16 March, and the electronic voting was not used. By then the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun but suspending the election a second time was not an option. That is why the Dominican Republic declared its state of emergency quite late: the government waited for the elections to take place and three days later it passed a state of emergency and introduced a curfew.

    In April, as the situation continued, the electoral body decided to postpone the national elections until 5 July, after consulting with political parties and civil society. There was not much margin for manoeuvre because sufficient time was needed for the eventuality of a run-off election, which would have needed to take place before 16 August, when the new government should be inaugurated. Of course, there was talk of the possibility of a constitutional amendment to postpone inauguration day, and civil society had to step in to deactivate these plans and help put together an electoral process that included all necessary sanitary measures. Fortunately, the media provided the space that CSOs needed for this; we had a good communications platform.

    As elections took place during the pandemic, what measures were taken to limit contagion risks?

    As civil society we tried to force the introduction of adequate sanitary measures. We urged the JCE to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States to convey the certainty that the necessary measures would be taken and the elections would take place. It was a titanic effort, because we have not yet had an effective prevention and rapid testing policy in the Dominican Republic; however, it turned out to be possible to impose sanitary protocols, including disinfection and sanitation, the distribution of protective materials and physical distancing measures.

    The truth is that the great outbreak of COVID-19 that we are experiencing today has not happened exclusively because of the elections; it seems to be above all the result of two-and-a-half months of disorganised and irresponsible campaigning carried out mainly by the incumbent party. The government tried to profit from the pandemic and the limitations imposed by the state of emergency. However, this may have played against it. The waste of resources in favour of the official candidate was such that people resented it. It was grotesque: for instance, just like in China, the measure of spraying streets with disinfectant was adopted, but while in China it was a robot or a vehicle that went out on the streets at night and passed through all the neighbourhoods, here we had an 8pm parade by a caravan of official vehicles, complete with sirens, flags, music – a whole campaign show. People resented it, because they saw it as wasting resources for propaganda purposes instead of using them to control the pandemic effectively.

    Was the opposition able to run a campaign in the context of the health emergency?

    The conditions for campaigning were very uneven, because public officials enjoyed a freedom of movement beyond the hours established by the curfew and opposition parties complained that the incumbent party could continue campaigning unrestricted while they were limited to permitted hours. Access to the media was also uneven: propaganda in favour of the official candidate was ubiquitous, because it was one and the same as government propaganda. In this context, a specific ad caused a lot of discomfort: it said something like ‘you stay home, and we will take care of social aids’, and included the images of the official candidates for president and vice-president.

    The pandemic was used politically in many ways. At one point the fear of contagion was used to promote abstention; a campaign was launched that included a drawing of a skull and said, ‘going out kills’. While we were campaigning under the messaging ‘protect yourself and get out to vote’, the government’s bet was to instil fear among the independent middle class, while planning to get their own people out to vote en masse. The negative reaction they provoked was so strong that they were forced take this ad down after a couple of days.

    Likewise, the state was absent from most policies implemented against the pandemic and left the provision of social aid and prevention in the hands of the ruling party candidate. Often it was not the government that carried out fumigations, but the candidate’s companies. It was jets from the candidate’s aviation company, not state or military planes, that brought back Dominican citizens who were stranded abroad. The first test kits were brought from China by the candidate, with of course large propaganda operations.

    With everything in its favour, how was it possible for the government to lose the elections?

    The PRM candidate, Luis Abinader, prevailed in the first round, with more than 52 per cent of the vote, while the official candidate came second with 37 per cent and former President Fernández reached only nine per cent. The division of the incumbent party as a result of the allegations of fraud in the primaries had an effect, because if the party had been united and not affected by this scandal, the results could have been different.

    Faced with the fact that a single party had ruled during 20 of the past 24 years, citizens showed fatigue and searched for alternatives. Citizens expressed themselves not only through mobilisation and protest, but also through a process of awareness raising that took several years. Very interesting expression platforms emerged, such as the digital medium Somos Pueblo (We are the People), whose YouTube broadcasts played a very important role. With the government campaigning on the streets and citizens isolated by the pandemic, creative strategies were also employed to overcome limitations and protest without the need to leave our homes, such as through cacerolazos (pot-banging actions).

    The interest in participating to bring about change was reflected in the election turnout, which exceeded 55 per cent. Although well below the 70 per cent average recorded in the elections held over the past decade, the figure was noteworthy in the context of the pandemic. Given the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, people have high hopes in the new government. If we can overcome this challenge, the times ahead may bring positive change in terms of strengthening institutions and deepening democracy.

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

    Get in touch with Manifiesto Ciudadano through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ManifiestoCiuRD on Twitter.

    Get in touch with Alianza ONG through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@AlianzaONG and@AddysThen on Twitter.

     

  • 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

     

  • EAST AFRICA: ‘The pipeline project would open up critical ecosystems to commercial oil exploitation’

    OmarElmawiCIVICUS 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 Omar Elmawi, coordinator of the Stop the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (#StopEACOP).

    #StopEACOP is a global online campaign that seeks to raise awareness of the effects of the project and calls for its cancellation.

    What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?

    EACOP is a project to extract and transport crude oil from Uganda to Tanzania, led by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and French energy conglomerate TotalEnergies alongside the Uganda National Oil Company and Tanzania Petroleum Development Cooperation.

    If it goes on, EACOP would have disastrous consequences for local communities, for wildlife and for the entire planet. In other words, it will affect humans, nature and climate. It threatens to displace thousands of families and farmers from their land. It poses significant risks to water resources and wetlands in both Uganda and Tanzania – including the Lake Victoria basin, which over 40 million people rely on for drinking water and food production.

    Additionally, EACOP would increase the severity of the global climate emergency by transporting oil that, when burned, will generate over 34 million tonnes of carbon emissions per year. The pipeline would also open up critical ecosystems in the landlocked regions of Central and Eastern Africa to commercial oil exploitation.

    It would also rip through numerous sensitive biodiversity hotspots and risk significantly degrading several nature reserves crucial to the preservation of threatened species, including elephants, lions and chimpanzees.

    How are you mobilising against EACOP?

    Civil society came together under a global campaign that we have called #StopEACOP, aimed at sharing news related to the pipeline project and distributing resources to help people organise and take action against it.

    #StopEACOP is led by an alliance of local groups and communities and African and global civil society organisations (CSOs). Over 260 CSOs have endorsed it and are working towards realising the campaign’s objectives through public mobilisation, legal action, research, shareholder activism and media advocacy.

    Since environmental licences have been awarded for the pipeline and associated oil fields in Kingfisher and Tilenga, several cases have been filed against the EACOP pipeline, including at the East African Court of Justice and in French courts against TotalEnergies, under the duty of vigilance law.

    We hope that our campaign will put enough pressure on the companies and governments involved so that they will put an end to the pipeline project and prioritise the wellbeing of people and the environment.

    How have the governments involved responded to the #StopEACOP campaign?

    The governments of both Tanzania and Uganda are committed to seeing this project through despite the fact that each will receive only 15 per cent of the proceeds from the crude oil going through the pipeline. TotalEnergies and CNOOC hold 70 per cent of the pipeline’s shares, so they will be the ones pocketing 70 per cent of the proceeds from crude oil.

    Additionally, TotalEnergies and CNOOC both get tax benefits, including a waiver on payment of corporate tax for 10 years once the pipeline becomes operational and on the value-added tax on imported products and materials needed for the pipeline. They are required to pay only five per cent in withholding tax instead of the required 15 per cent.

    We haven’t stopped trying to engage the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments, although some of our members, and especially community partners, have been arrested and detained, had their offices raided or been threatened with the deregistration of their organisations. The government has had a part to play in most if not all these challenges, but we have continued to engage and use all legal mechanisms and processes available to make sure our community partners are protected.

    What kind of support do you need from international civil society and the wider international community?

    Allied organisations, activists and regular people are welcome to visit our website and click on our action page, which suggests a variety of actions addressed at the companies involved and governments and their funders and insurers. Please take as many of the actions listed as you can, prioritising those targeting insurance companies and banks. This is key because the EACOP project will need multi-billion-dollar loans to proceed, as well as numerous insurance policies covering every component of the project.

    People can also donate to the cause. All the resources we receive are shared with our community partners and support any security and legal needs that may arise, including legal representation fees.

    You can follow us on our social media pages to get updates on the campaign and subscribe to receive email updates on the progress of the campaign and upcoming actions that you can endorse or take part in.

    Civic space in bothTanzania andUganda is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with #StopEACOP through itswebsite or its Facebook and Instagram pages,and follow @stopEACOP on Twitter. 

     

  • 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.

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    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.