civic space

 

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

    Spanish 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Equatorial Guinea is rated closed by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    For more information, please contact

    Deborah Walter

    Communication Manager, CIVICUS

     

    Inés M. Pousadela

    Policy and Research Officer, CIVICUS

     

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    How has civil society responded to the changes?

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

    What are the major challenges that remain for civil society?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What role is hate speech playing in stoking ethnic conflict?

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

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

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

    How can further political reform be encouraged?

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

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

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

    What are the most urgent support needs of civil society?

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

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

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

     

     

  • ETHIOPIA: ‘The June 2021 election is between democratic life and death’

    CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.

     

  • Faces of Open Government - An interview with Danny Sriskandarajah

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

    Read on: Open Government Partnership

     

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

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

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

    Read on: Open Global Rights

     

  • From Venezuela to US: People power

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Goldman Sachs’ decision to bailout the Venezuelan government has, unsurprisingly, attracted widespread global condemnation. The transnational firm stands to make a potential windfall profit as Venezuelans continue to face empty shelves and government water cannons daily. Usually it is international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) not transnational companies, which occupy the dubious space of government bailouts.

    Read on: New Internationalist

     

  • G20: ‘Civil society is treated as a second-class partner; its recommendations often go unheard’

    CIVICUS speaks with María Emilia Berazategui, Transparency International’s Global Advocacy Coordinator, about the role of civil society in international and inter-governmental forums and the degree to which it can influence decision-making processes, and the successes achieved and challenges encountered in 2019 by the C20, the engagement group for civil society within the G20. Before joining Transparency International, María Emilia led the area of Political Institutions and Government at an Argentine civil society organisation, Poder Ciudadano. In 2018 she was appointed C20 Sherpa under the presidency of Argentina. In 2017 and 2019 she was a member of the C20 Steering Committee, and in 2018 and 2019 she was the co-Chair of the C20 Anti-Corruption Working Group.

    Emilia Berazategui 

    What is the C20, and why does it matter?

    The C20 (Civil-20) is one of the G20’s official engagement groups, and it the natural space for civil society organisations (CSOs) to advocate at the G20 level.

    There are two additional ways in which CSOs can participate in G20 processes: by attending the G20 Working Group meetings, as guests, to present thematic recommendations, and by being present at the G20 International Media Center when summits take place, which allows them to engage directly with the media covering the G20 summit and disseminate their messaging around key themes.

    The C20 is a global civil society space, without a permanent structure and with a presidency that rotates annually, in line with that of the G20, for CSOs from all over the world – from grassroots and local groups to large international CSOs – to influence the G20 collectively. According to the recently adopted C20 Principles, its aim is to ensure that world leaders listen not only to voices representing the government and business sectors, but also to the proposals and demands of civil society, and that they are guided by the core values of human rights, inclusion and sustainable development.

    Civil society engagement with the G20 matters because we are only 10 years away from the 2030 deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and the gap between the actions taken by governments and the measures that need to be taken to achieve them is immense. Most of the challenges we face – political polarisation and extremism, human rights abuses and civic space restrictions, extreme inequality, systemic corruption, gender disparities and gender-based violence, intersectional discrimination, the lack of decent employment, the health crisis and the negative impact of digitalisation and technology in our lives – not only remain unanswered but continue to deepen.

    Governments and multilateral institutions have a central role to play in finding shared solutions to common challenges. World leaders need to come together urgently to find those solutions, and despite all of its challenges, the G20 is one of the few spaces that provides them with the opportunity to do so.

    Sadly, in the last few years we have seen little evidence of any real progress from G20 leaders. Commitments are made in front of the world’s media but are quickly forgotten and rarely implemented once they return home. A recent report by Transparency International exposing issues of money laundering and anonymous company ownership found deeply troubling weaknesses in almost all G20 countries.

    What can civil society contribute?

    Civil society engagement with the G20 can help because civil society brings a set of unique skills to the table.

    First, in trying to make sure that policy outcomes serve the common good, we hold governments accountable. So when governments commit to something, we will hold them to their promises. Sometimes they resist, but other times we succeed in strengthening champions inside governments who really want to get things done.

    Second, we contribute our expertise. Civil society groups are not just watchdogs. We are innovators, technologists, researchers and policy experts who can help support policy implementation to achieve the best possible results. Civil society can also contribute to increased transparency and the credible evaluation of outcomes.

    Third, civil society functions as a bridge, helping translate technical jargon into language people actually use, explaining what change means and bringing citizens’ perspectives back to decision-makers. Governments should talk to civil society about their plans so we can provide feedback on how those plans will impact on people.

    Last but not least, civil society provides much-needed balance. One of the greatest weaknesses of the G20 is the lack of openness to having civil society represented at the same table where business interests sit. This raises the question of whether the G20 values the interests of corporations more than those of citizens. This certainly does nothing for trust, and it shows why people around the world believe that governments are too close to business or only act for the benefit of a few private interests.

    How much space do international forums such as the G20 offer for civil society to influence policy-making in reality?

    The G20 is often described as elitist, as a group of economic powerhouses – although not all the largest economies take part in it – trying to rewrite the rules of global economic governance, operating largely behind closed doors in an opaque way. It’s no wonder that many in civil society instinctively feel that we should oppose the G20 rather than engage with it.

    The G20 invites a variety of guests to take part in its meetings, including representatives from different regional groupings, guest states and international organisations. However, its record of speaking to citizen groups and civil society is mixed at best. Despite all that we have to offer, we do not sit at the same table; we are treated as second-class partners and our recommendations and ideas on important issues often go unheard.

    Experiences vary widely across the various working groups that comprise the G20. For instance, despite all the knowledge that civil society has on financial issues, the G20 International Financial Architecture Working Group has systematically closed its doors to civil society participation. On the other hand, we are lucky to have a standing item on the agenda of the Anti-Corruption Working Group, in which governments speak to business and civil society on the same footing. Still, while we appreciate this, we think that both this working group and the G20, in general, need to improve their engagement with civil society significantly.

    Despite all these limitations and challenges, during 2019, when the G20 presidency was in the hands of Japan, civil society managed to influence the G20 in some areas including the protection of whistleblowers, making infrastructure spending more transparent and on gender and corruption.

    In 2019, the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group adopted two important documents: the High-Level Principles for the Effective Protection of Whistleblowers, which was much in line with civil society’s recommendations and included an unprecedented recognition by the G20 of the gender-specific aspects of whistleblowing, and a Compendium of Good Practices for Promoting Integrity and Transparency in Infrastructure Development, also aligned with civil society recommendations.

    Through the Compendium, the G20 also recognised that transparency regarding who the ultimate owners of companies are is critical to the fight against corruption. In line with civil society suggestions, they recommended implementing company beneficial ownership registers to reduce the possibility of public funds being used to favour specific individuals or companies, and to identify conflicts of interest.

    Overall, what would you say were the main successes of civil society engagement with the G20 during 2019?

    In one word, the main success of civil society engagement during 2019 was its continuity. Civil society was able to maintain a similar degree of engagement with the G20 as it had in 2018, when Argentina chaired the G20. In 2018, and for a short period of time, civil society won access to some G20 Working Group meetings, although unfortunately, not to the working groups that are part of the so-called G20 Finance Track, and to the G20 Media Center. This allowed civil society to access, for the first time ever, some sessions that used to be held behind closed doors. In addition, we got G20 local representatives, including the G20 Sherpa, to attend the C20 in-person meetings.

    Civil society's 2018 call for G20 delegates to move from words to action passed from Argentina to Japan. This had an echo on social media, through the hashtag #G20takeaction. In order to continue strengthening civil society participation and ensure an increasing impact within the G20, in 2019 the C20 agreed a set of principles that enshrined transparency, collaboration, independence, internationalism, inclusiveness and respect for human rights and gender equality as central pillars of the engagement group’s practice. This was a very important milestone in the C20’s history.

    And what were the challenges and what needs to improve?

    Despite these successes, there is an urgent need for the G20 to change the way it engages with civil society. At the G20, governments discuss policies that have a huge impact on our lives. As civil society, we should be allowed to bring to the table the voices of citizens, real and diverse. These are the people who will be affected by the public policies promoted in this forum.

    The few times we have managed to gain access to G20 meetings, the experience has usually not been positive. We make great efforts to be there. After finding the resources and traveling many hours, we wait – sometimes for a very long time – outside the meeting room until they finally let us in. Once inside, we  share our ideas and recommendations as quickly as possible in order to ensure there is time for dialogue with the delegations, which itself is rarely an open and honest conversation. After a short while, we are diplomatically ushered out of the room so that, having ticked the civil society participation box, negotiations can continue.

    The G20 still has a long way to go to ensure effective civil society participation. G20 leaders need to stop thinking that inviting civil society representatives to a couple of meetings amounts to the fulfillment of their obligation to consult widely and open themselves to scrutiny. They need to acknowledge the unique skills that civil society brings to the table and move towards more meaningful and sustained engagement with civil society.

    They can do this in many ways. First, they can, and should, invite civil society as well as business representatives to additional sections of various Working Group meetings, to provide insights and guidance on a thematic basis, and not just during a single, short session dedicated to listening to all of our concerns. Additionally, they should share the agenda of those meetings with us. It may sound crazy, but more often than not we are invited and go to meetings without knowing what is being discussed, so we are not necessarily sending the most appropriate person or preparing the most relevant or detailed contribution.

    Second, the G20 delegates should consistently meet with domestic civil society throughout the year, both prior to and after G20 Working Group meetings. This already happens in some G20 countries but not all of them.

    Third, G20 representatives need to be more open and honest in their exchanges with civil society. When G20 delegates speak to civil society, mostly they only share limited information on what they are doing to address major global challenges, which sometimes simply amounts to propaganda. How about they asked us what we want to discuss and what information we’d like to receive? Or how about they provide honest and direct feedback on the proposals and recommendations we shared with them?

    G20 leaders seem to be unaware that good communication and access to information are key. There is no permanent G20 website. Instead, every presidency establishes its own, which isn’t updated afterwards. The digital landscape is littered with redundant G20 websites. This makes documents hard to find for civil society, media and researchers seeking to inform themselves about G20 activities. In 2017, when Germany chaired the G20, the German government took an excellent initiative: it compiled all existing anti-corruption commitments in one location. This should be normal practice. For transparency and accountability, all G20 Working Groups should publish minutes and agendas of their meetings. And they should systematically consult with civil society so we provide an input into the draft documents they are planning to adopt and suggest key topics the G20 should focus on.

    What changed in terms of civil society engagement when the G20 presidency passed on to Saudi Arabia for 2020?

    Despite its limitations and weak engagement with civil society, the G20 has been a relevant space to bring our concerns directly to governments and advocate with them to tackle the most critical issues we face. Unfortunately, in 2020 the space for civil society engagement became significantly reduced when the presidency of the G20 and all its Engagement Groups, including the C20, passed to Saudi Arabia – a decision taken by G20 governments in 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

    Saudi Arabia is a state that provides virtually no space for civil society and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated. It systematically suppresses criticism from the media, regularly arrests and prosecutes human rights defenders, censors free speech, limits free movement and tortures and mistreats detained journalists and activists. This makes civil society participation ethically dubious.

    In addition, the C20 principles emphasise a series of elements that the Saudi presidency is unable to provide, such as inclusion of a variety of truly independent civil society actors, from local to global, the transparency of decision-making procedures and the guiding values of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment. By participating in the very limited space that the Saudi government would be able to provide, we would only help launder Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. The Saudi government has already recruited expensive Western public relations advisors and spent millions of dollars to polish its tarnished image.

    In response, an overwhelming number of CSOs from all over the world have joined their voices together and decided to boycott the C20 hosted by Saudi Arabia this year. At Transparency International we are looking forward to re-engaging fully with the C20 process next year, when the presidency will pass to Italy.

    Civic space in Saudi Arabia is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Transparency International through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@anticorruption and@meberazategui on Twitter.

     

     

  • Gambian civil society optimistic as new democratic era dawns

    The Gambia has recently gone through a major democratic transition. CIVICUS interviews Sohna Sallah, the Vice President of the Democratic Union of Gambian Activists about the major political change and implications for human rights in the Gambia.

     

  • Global assault on our basic freedoms signposts a dangerous return to the past

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Ask yourself these four questions. Can I criticise my head of state on Twitter? Can I join a human rights group to campaign for change? Can I take part in a peaceful protest outside government buildings? And can I do all of these things while knowing that my government will not just protect me but will actually enable my right to organise, speak out and take action on issues that matter to me?

    If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then congratulations. You are in the very lucky, and sadly very tiny, minority of people who live in the 26 countries which, today, have “open” civic space.

    Read on: Huffington Post

     

  • Global challenges, local responses

    By Danny Sriskandarajah and Mandeep Tiwana

    We are facing a global emergency of civic space. This is now a universal phenomenon, no longer restricted to autocracies and fragile democracies. While there is growing interest in the nature and impact of these restrictions, there is limited analysis of the deeper drivers of the phenomenon, and even less about how to support local responses.

    Read on: International Journal on Human Rights

     

  • Global Monitor Report: Twice as many people live in repressed countries compared to a year ago

    Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.

    The CIVICUS Monitor's latest global assesment,  People Power Under Attack 2019, finds that the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are backsliding across the world. In the space of a year, twice as many people are living in countries where these civic freedoms are being violated: 40% of the world’s population now live in repressed countries - last year it was 19%.

    The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that civil society is under attack in most countries. In practice, this means that just 3% of the world’s population are now living in countries where their fundamental rights are in general, protected and respected – last year it was 4%.

    2019 has been a historic year for protest movements. From the streets of Sudan to Hong Kong, people have poured onto the streets to make their voices heard. However, according to the 536 updates by the CIVICUS Monitor, the fundamental right to peaceful assembly is under attack across the world. In fact, within the last year the CIVICUS Monitor documented that 96 countries either detained protesters, disrupted marches or used excessive force to prevent people from fully exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

    “This data reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe. As millions of protesters spilled onto the streets, government response has been repression instead of dialogue,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “However, the fact that so many activists were brave enough to raise their voices, shows the resilience of civil society in the face of brutal repression.”


    Nine countries have changed their civic space rating: seven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating. Worrying signs for civic space are recorded in Asia-Pacific, where three countries dropped a rating: Australia, India and Brunei. There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Malta also being downgraded. Other countries on the slide include Nigeria, Comoros and Madagascar.

    People Power Under Attack 2019 also provides analysis on the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past year. Globally, censorship is the most common violation, occurring across 178 countries. From blocking websites and social media, to banning television programmes, governments across the world are going to great lengths to control public discourse and suppress free speech. The other top violations include:

    There are bright spots emerging, as both Moldova and the Dominican Republic improved their ratings this past year. The Dominican Republic moved from the obstructed to narrowed category after civil society managed to challenge and overturn restrictive laws; these laws related to defamation cases and constitutional amendments which would lengthen Presidential terms.

    Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    Regional summaries and press statements:


    For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

     

  • GREECE: ‘Together we can do more’

    CIVICUS speaks about the state of civil society and civic space in Greece with Sotiris Petropoulos, director of Higher Incubator Giving Growth and Sustainability (HIGGS), an initiative that seeks to strengthen Greek civil society organisations (CSOs) through education and support programmes and activities. HIGGS’ purpose is to mobilise the ‘invisible’ forces of the CSO ecosystem, stimulating people and organisations to undertake new, innovative initiatives, and providing the right conditions for their incubation and acceleration.

    Sotiris Petropoulos

    What are the current conditions for civil society in Greece?

    Greece is a democracy with a relatively open civic space. The 2010 socioeconomic crisis enhanced a trend towards increasingly active CSOs playing an important role in covering societal needs. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a regression in the freedoms enjoyed by organised civil society in the form of barriers, mostly of a legal nature, that make CSO work more difficult.

    A first indication of this trend was seen when the government elected in July 2019 started gradually creating a more strict and formal oversight system of Greek CSOs, mainly through the introduction of new official registries under relevant ministries, such as a register of CSOs working with migrants and refugees, and so on.

    Then in October 2021 draft legislation on CSOs proposed by the Ministry of Interior was put out for public consultation. The initiative was aimed at establishing a single registry of CSOs to replace the existing nine separate databases, so as to enhance transparency about their activities and fundraising activities.

    At first, many CSOs welcomed this initiative as an opportunity to strengthen civil society, abolish complicated and bureaucratic procedures, unify all existing registries and ensure a safe and independent environment for CSOs to operate.

    However, it soon became clear that the proposed legislation was aimed in a different direction: it would establish mechanisms to monitor rather than support CSOs, enhancing bureaucratic procedures, adding new limitations – such as a requirement for all CSO board members to have a clean criminal record – and increasing their overall operational costs. Moreover, it included some points that were quite problematic, especially for new or small organisations. For instance, to access the registry CSOs would need to have their accounts assessed by certified auditors, a rather costly service, especially for many small-to-medium CSOs with fluctuating budgets. But even those that could afford it probably wouldn’t prioritise this expense and would rather use the funds on their substantive work – say, for buying 1,000 meals to distribute among homeless people.

    Another problematic point was the so-called ‘three-year limitation’, a provision that CSOs must have been legally established for at least three years to be eligible to enter the new registry, creating another barrier for some organisations. These points, among others, would widen the gap between big and small organisations and, overall, would create new obstacles for civil society work. In retrospect, the proposed legal framework mirrored the government’s view that only big organisations are and can be transparent and efficient, which in fact runs counter to existing evidence.

    In addition, the government’s proposal seemed to be part of an overall ‘policing approach’ towards the segment of civil society it cannot understand or control – a continuation of a measure that had been introduced a year earlier, establishing an even more problematic registry exclusively for CSOs operating in the field of migration and refugees.

    How did society respond to the proposed initiative?

    The draft law was published in October 2021, just five weeks before the parliamentary vote on the proposal. The timeline for public consultation was short, but the civil society response was fast and massive.

    Major CSO networks established a task force to coordinate a joint strategy to respond collectively with specific proposals to improve the draft law.

    The first step was to inform all CSOs about the draft law. HIGGS sent emails, posted the proposal on social media and held online public events. In the meantime, we started to draft and share a joint public statement and called on all CSOs to support it by co-signing it and sharing it. This public statement collected 303 signatures, an impressive number by Greek standards. It was one of the biggest collective actions of Greek civil society ever recorded.

    Taking advantage of this momentum, we made targeted calls for action to motivate all CSOs to work, both together and individually, to put pressure on members of parliament by calling them on the phone, sending them emails and sharing briefing papers with them.

    During the public consultation process, HIGGS put together a policy proposal that contained improvements to the draft law, which was supported by over 45 organisations.

    We encouraged all networks to be loud about the draft bill. We all communicated every single development through our media channels, published joint press releases and created social media campaigns.

    What did the campaign achieve?

    In response to all these actions, the Minister of Interior, Makis Voridis, invited some organisations to working meetings and eventually included some of our policy proposals in the final version of the law.

    Law 4873/2021 was passed in December and introduced a new registration procedure for CSOs that seek to access government funding and receive various tax and economic privileges. The process is clear and has clear timeframe. In addition, in the area of volunteerism, specific provisions for emergency situations that were missing were added.

    We value the sense of unity, solidarity and power of joint forces as the greatest legacy of this process. This approach is something that most CSOs agreed was missing in Greek civil society, and there is much space to work towards this direction in the future.

    What about the restrictions targeting CSOs that work with migrants and refugees?

    Over the past few years, several measures were implemented that were meant to discourage or restrict the work of CSOs working in the field of human rights and migration.

    In September 2020, the government introduced a ministerial decision that established that Greek and foreign CSOs working in the field of migration, asylum, and social inclusion in Greece must fulfil an exhaustive list of formal and substantive requirements to register with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The required documentation targets both the organisation and its staff, members and volunteers, and non-registration would automatically lead to operations being ceased. Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum was granted complete discretion to accept or reject a CSO’s application.

    Among a huge amount of bureaucratic documentation, these CSOs were required to submit audit reports for the previous two years, entailing costs that may be too much of a burden for small grassroots CSOs. For staff, members and volunteers, CSOs must provide criminal records and proof of permanent residence in Greece. If an individual does not meet the requirements, not just the individual concerned but also the CSO may be withdrawn from the registration process.

    Concerns over the transparency of the registration process soon increased, as a former political group affiliated with the ruling party turned into a CSO working in the field of asylum: it was approved to receive over €5 million (approx. US$5.5 million) in funding within a week.

    Another initiative – the Deportations and Returns Bill – that was submitted to parliament in August 2021 contained provisions to restrict the operation of CSOs through criminal and financial sanctions for individuals and institutions.

    On top of the ongoing criminalisation of solidarity towards migrant and refugees, we observed the first effects of these laws and regulations, such as the rejection of Refugee Support Aegean’s application for registration with the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.

    What’s next for Greek civil society?

    The task force of civil society networks that was formed in response to the draft bill on the CSO registry did not dissolve after the bill was passed. It remains active and continues monitoring the implementation of the new legislation, pushing for changes to those articles that are found to create obstacles to the exercise of the right to freedom to association, and keeping all CSOs informed of any new developments.

    In HIGGS we believe in joint actions, teamwork, and cooperation within civil society. We encourage various forms of networking – one of our mottos is ‘together we can do more’. This is our philosophy and to live up to it. Our programmes offer a variety of perspectives and promote unity and solidarity within the diversity of Greek civil society. The ecosystem of Greek CSOs is gradually entering its mature age. We expect advocacy to become a more core activity of CSOs, and we are working on it.

    We view our experience of collaboration in the face of potentially damaging legislation as the beginning of a new area for Greek civil society – one in which the culture of cooperation makes all of us stronger.

    Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with HIGGS through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@HIGGS3HIGGS on Twitter.

     

  • Guatemala: Las autoridades detienen a Jerson Antonio Morales al tiempo que continúan los ataques contra defensores de los derechos indígenas

    English

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS condenó el arresto y la detención ilegal del periodista y activista de los derechos indígenas Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales por parte de las autoridades guatemaltecas, el 11 de noviembre de 2017.

     

  • HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’

    Edy TaboraCIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.

    Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?

    The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.

    Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.

    After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.

    Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.

    On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.

    However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.

    In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.

    In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.

    Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.

    In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge. 

    Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.

    What did civil society do to secure their release?

    During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.

    Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.

    First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.

    Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.

    Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.

    This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.

    Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?

    There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.

    In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.

    However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.

    Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?

    We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.

    In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.

    Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.

    However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.

    Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?

    The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.

    Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.

    In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.

    Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.

    Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Learn more about the Guapinol case on itswebsite and follow@Edy_Tabora on Twitter.

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘The National Security Law infringes on freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship’

    CIVICUS speaks with Patrick Poon, an independent human rights researcher, on the human rights situation in Hong Kong after a new National Security Law (NSL) was passed in June 2020. Patrick is a PhD researcher at the University of Lyon, France, and has previously worked as a China Researcher at Amnesty International and in various positions at China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Independent Chinese PEN Center and China Labour Bulletin. 

    Civic space in Hong Kong is under renewed attack sincemass protests for democratic freedoms, sparked by a proposed Extradition Bill, began in June 2019. TheCIVICUS Monitor has documented excessive and lethal force by the security forces against protesters, arrests and the prosecution of pro-democracy activists as well as a crackdown on independent media.

       Patrick Poon

    Why has the NSL been imposed in Hong Kong and what have its impacts been so far?

    The NSL, imposed by the Chinese government on 20 June 2020, without any consultation or legislative oversight, empowers China to extend some of its most potent tools of social control from the mainland to Hong Kong. The law includes the creation of specialised secret security agencies, allows for the denial of the right to a fair trial, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media and weakens judicial oversight.

    The new law undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and the human rights guarantees enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. It contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in its Bill of Rights Ordinance.

    The Chinese government’s intention is to use the NSL to curb advocacy and support for independence as more people, especially young people, have increasingly embraced Hong Kong’s autonomy and their identity as Hongkongers. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines a high degree of autonomy, the Chinese government apparently regards calls for autonomy and self-governance as a ‘danger to national security’.

    The NSL has seriously infringed Hong Kong people’s freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship in the city. Under the NSL, people who advocate for independence, as well as politicians and prominent figures who support foreign governments’ sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are responsible for enacting the NSL, have been the target of the arbitrary arrests. The government is obviously attempting to scare off others not to follow these people’s calls. 

    Independent media have also been affected by the crackdown. The arrests of Jimmy Lai, media mogul and founder of popular local paper Apple Daily, and senior executives in his company, signify the government’s attempt to punish news media that are critical of it. Reports about criticism against the NSL and calls for sanctions by foreign government officials become the excuse for the crackdown on independent media. This will have long-term impact on Hong Kong media, even further intensifying self-censorship for some media outlets.

    How have civil society and the pro-democracy movement responded?

    Civil society has reacted strongly against the law because the process to enact it violated the principle of the rule of law and procedural justice in Hong Kong, and the vague and broad definitions of various provisions of the law exceed the normal understanding of law in the city. Pro-China politicians and government officials have been trying hard to justify the law, but their arguments are preposterous. 

    How have the opposition and civil society reacted to the government’s decision to postpone the legislative election due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The 2020 Hong Kong Legislative Council election was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020, but in July the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, cited an upsurge in COVID-19 infections and used her emergency powers to postpone it for a whole year, so now it’s expected to take place on 5 September 2021. She denied that the change was due to any political speculation, but it was in fact a blow for pro-democracy activists, who were seeking a majority on the Legislative Council. 

    In the midst of massive protests, pro-democracy candidates had already won by a landslide in the 2019 District Council election. Along with the new NSL, the postponement of the election was viewed as part of the government’s strategy to neutralise the pro-democracy movement. Just prior to the announcement that the election was being postponed, 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running, and four young former members of a pro-independence student group were arrested under the NSL for their pro-independence posts on social media.

    The postponement of the election created some conflict among the pro-democracy camp, with some calling for keeping up the fight in the Legislative Council and others urging a boycott over the government’s decision to postpone the elections. From the government’s decision to disqualify some pro-democracy candidates for their political views, it is clear that the government doesn’t want to hear any opposition voices in the legislature.

    What can the international community and international civil society organisations do to support civil society in Hong Kong?

    Civil society in Hong Kong needs to work together to ensure that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government will not abuse the NSL to curb all dissenting views and closely monitor if the government abides by the principle of the rule of law and international human rights standards.

    The international community should continue speaking up against the Chinese and Hong Kong government’s crackdown on  civil society and keep raising concerns about the NSL, which is being forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in the name of national security, but in fact is no more than an attempt to silence dissenting views in the city. The international community should send a clear message that national security should not be used as an excuse to crack down on the freedom of expression.

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

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘This is a leader-full movement, ran by countless small networks of talented people’

    johnson yeungCIVICUS speaks about the protests that have rocked Hong Kong since June 2019 with Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, democracy movement organiser and chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub. The Hong Kong Civil Hub works to connect Hong Kong civil society with like-minded international stakeholders willing to help promote the rule of law, democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. 

    What triggered the mass protests that have taken place for several months?

    The protests had both short and long-term causes. When Hong Kong was decolonised in 1997, China signed an international treaty promising that people in Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy. In other words, Hong Kong would have its own government, legislation, courts and jurisdiction. But, long story short, China is not fulfilling that promise and Hong Kong is slowly becoming more like China due to Chinese intervention in our government and judiciary. Following the2014 Umbrella Movement, there have been increasing restrictions on the freedom of association, and for the first time in decades the government made use of colonial-era laws and outlawed organisations that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence. We expect restrictions on association, funding and exchanges with international organisations and civil society to increase over the next few years.

    Political participation has also been under attack. In 2017, for the first time since 1997, a few lawmakers were disqualified and expelled from the legislature. In the past three elections there have been disqualifications of candidates. This is becoming a major tactic used by China, based on claims that certain candidates are not respecting the law or they will not be loyal to Beijing. This explains why at some point people decided to take their grievances to the streets, given that most institutional channels for political demands are shut down.

    People took to the streets in 2014, under the Umbrella Movement. But protest is being severely punished. In April 2019, several pro-democracy leaders weresentenced to eight to 16 months in prison. Local leaders who advocate for political independence have also been punished with up to seven years of imprisonment.

    The current protests began in June 2019. On 9 June,more than a million people mobilised against the Extradition Bill, aimed at establishing a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to mainland China,  currently excluded in the existing law. Three days later, the legislature decided to continue the legislation process regardless of the opposition seen on the streets, so people besieged the parliamentary building, to which the Hong Kong police reacted with extreme brutality, firing teargas and rubber bullets, shooting into people’s heads and eyes.

    Amnesty International made a comprehensive report on the incidents of 12 June and concluded that the police had used excessive force, even though the protest had been authorised by the Hong Kong government.

    What changed after the repression of 12 June?

    There was a huge outcry because we had never experienced this kind of repression before, and two million people – almost one quarter of the population of Hong Kong – took part in the protests that took place four days after.

    From then on, protesters had a few additional demands on top of the initial demand that the extradition agreement be withdrawn, something that happened three months after the first protest. Protesters demanded the release of the arrested demonstrators and the withdrawal of the characterisation of the protests as riots, which is cause enough to hold someone and convict them: all it takes is for a defendant to have been present at the protest scene to face up to 10 years in prison for rioting. Protesters also demanded an independent inquiry into police activity. Over the past six months we’ve documented a lot of torture during detentions. Excessive force is used all the time against peaceful protests, so people really want the police to be held accountable. A recent survey showed that 80 per cent of the population support this demand. But the government is relying solely on the police to maintain order, so they cannot risk such investigation. Last but not least, there is the demand of universal suffrage and democratic rights, without which it is difficult to foresee anything else changing for real.

    What did not change was the government reaction and the police repression.Over the next few months, around 7,000 people were arrested – 40 per cent of them students, and 10 per cent minors – and around 120 people were charged. The fact that only 120 out of the 7,000 people arrested were charged shows that there have been lots of arbitrary arrests. The police would arrest people on grounds of illegal assembly. I was arrested in July when I was just standing in front of the corner line. I complied with police instructions, but I still got arrested.

    Thousands of people were injured during the protests. The official number is around 2,600 but this is a very conservative estimate because more than half of the injured people were not brought to public hospitals and did not seek medical assistance because they were afraid they would be arrested. Some doctors and nurses organised underground settlements to treat serious injuries like infections or rubber bullet injuries. But they had to remain anonymous and there simply were not enough of them and they didn’t have enough medical supply. There have been at least 12 suicides related to the protest movement. Lots of people have gone missing. Students and activists who are arrested are often deprived of their right to a lawyer and a phone call, and no one knows where they are detained. In many cases, it’s hard to verify whether people are in fact missing or have fled the country.

    Analysts have claimed that the strength of the current protests lies in their ‘leaderless’ character, something that prevents the government stopping the movement by jailing leaders. Do you agree with this characterisation?

    Many observers have seen the way we have used technology to coordinate the protests and they have concluded that our movement has no leaders. It is true that our movement is characterised by the decentralisation of communications and mobilisation. But this does not mean it is aleaderless movement. On the contrary, the Hong Kong protest movement is a leader-full movement: it is full of leaders and is run by countless small networks of talented people capable of organising and coordinating action on their own.

    While the demography of the protests is quite diverse in terms of age, background and social class, more than the 50 per cent of protesters are female, and the major force of the protests are people aged 20 to 49. There is also a strong presence of highly educated people: more than 85 per cent of protesters have tertiary education or above.

    But a notable characteristic of this disparate protest movement has been its unity, which may have resulted from the longstanding repression of civil society. When the leaders of the 2014 protests – most of them young students – were sentenced to prison, older people showed up at the protests because they felt that they had not been doing enough. People also united against police brutality, because there was no previous history of such a serious crackdown on protesters and people felt morally responsible to show up in support.

    Can you tell us more about how the protest movement has used technology for organising and coordinating action?

    During the first few months at least, people would rely on their cellphones and the Telegram app. People would have strategic discussions and channel these discussions into a Telegram channel. These are not the safest communication tools but they can hold more than 3,000 subscribers, which means that you can speak to 3,000 people at the same time, you can share action timetables, the site of protests or the location of the police with a huge number of people. We use a live map to inform protesters where the police are and where the protests are taking place, so they can avoid being arrested. Another app shows which businesses and stores are supportive of the movement. Pro-democracy businesses appear in yellow, while pro-government ones appear in blue.

    We also use Telegram bots for international advocacy. A group of people is dedicated to disseminating information on Twitter and Interact.

    We also use social media as a recruitment tool because after an action is held, people use social media to reflect about the strategies used and assess the outcomes. But after a few months, people started using online apps less and less. They would instead form their own groups and organise their own actions. There are frontier leaders, first leaders, people working on documentation, people who organise street protests – each is doing their own thing while at the same time warning others about clashes and organising timetables. This is how we use civic tech.

    How has the movement managed to grow and thrive in adverse conditions?

    Several elements explain why people keep showing up and why the movement is so resilient against government repression. First, people deploy their actions in their own neighbourhoods. We disperse action rather than concentrate it, because when we use concentration tactics, such as holding a protest in front of a government building, we become an easy target for the police. In the face of dispersed actions, the police would try to disperse protesters but would often end up attacking passers-by or people going about their business in their own neighbourhoods. For many people not involved directly in the protests, this was also a wake-up call and functioned as a recruitment mechanism: police brutality ceased to be a far-away problem; instead, it hit home and became personal, triggering a protective reaction.

    A tactic commonly used by protesters is the Lennon Wall, in which people post messages in public spaces, which creates a sense of community and helps organise public support. Lennon Walls appear in various places and people use them to send and receive information about the protests. People also put posters in bus stops so when people are waiting for the bus they can get information about the protests. People sing in protest in shopping malls. This way, people use their lunchtime to sing a song and protest while going about their business, and they reach people who don’t read the news and don’t pay much attention to politics. That is one of the key lessons here.

    Another key lesson concerns the importance of the unity between the moderate side and the radical front of the protests. Given that even authorised protests would be dispersed with teargas for no reason, some people began resorting to more militant actions to combat the police and protect their space. Some social movement analysts claim that radical incidents diminish popular support for the movement, but this does not seem to be happening in Hong Kong. In a recent survey, more than 60 per cent of respondents said they understood the use of violence by the people. I suppose that one reason why people do not reject militant actions is that they view the government and the police as responsible for most of the violence, and view violence by protesters as a fairly understandable response. Another reason is that radical protesters have been careful not to target ordinary people but only the police and pro-government businesses.

    What else have you learned in the process?

    A big lesson that we’ve learned concerns the effectiveness of creativity and humour to offset government repression. Protesters used laser tags to disable cameras used for the surveillance of protesters, so people started to get arrested for buying laser tags. After a student was arrested for possessing a laser tag, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a public space and used laser tags to point at a public building. Another example of an effective response took place in early October 2019. There is a law that states that people can be jailed for a year if they wear a mask or anything covering their faces, so people responded in defiance, forming a human chain in which everyone was wearing some kind of mask.

    We’ve also come to understand the importance of global solidarity and leveraging geopolitics. The Hong Kong diaspora has organised a lot of lobbying and advocacy in various cities around the world. We have also lobbied foreign governments and supported the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill that was introduced in the US Congress following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, but that was only passed in November 2019. This law requires the US government to impose sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, and requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong's political status – namely its relationship with mainland China – justify changing the unique and favourable trade relations between the USA and Hong Kong. This is huge, and we are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Australia, Canada, Italy and New Zealand.

    We have also done advocacy at the United Nations (UN), where some resolutions about police brutality have been passed. But the UN is quite weak at the moment, and aside from the documentation of human rights violations there is not much they can do. Any resolution regarding the protests will be blocked by China at the UN Security Council. That said, a thorough UN investigation on police brutality would send a strong message anyway. We have been communicating with human rights civil society organisations to do more advocacy at the UN.

    We are also looking for alternative tactics such as working with unions in France, because water cannons are manufactured in France and we hope something can be done about it.

    What have the protests achieved so far?

    The democratic camp has made a lot of progress. In November 2019 we had elections for the District Council. True, the District Council doesn’t have any real political power because it carries out neighbourhood duties, like garbage collection and traffic management. Still, in the latest election 388 out of 452 seats went to the pro-democracy camps, whereas back in 2015 they were only 125 pro-democracy representatives, compared with 299 who were pro-Beijing.

    That said, I don’t think the pro-democracy movement should put too much of its energy into institutional politics because the District Council is not a place where the political crisis can be solved. However, the elections served as a solid foundation for organisers to organise people at the local level.

    According to the polls, almost 90 per cent of the people supported independent investigation of human rights violations, more than 70 per cent demanded the resignation of the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and 75 per cent supported universal suffrage. That kind of popular support has remained stable for several months, which is pretty amazing.

    What are the challenges ahead?

    While there is no sign of protests calming down, there is also no sign of the government making concessions anytime soon. Violence is escalating on both sides, and the protest movement might lose public support if some demonstrators decide to go underground. The Chinese government will not let itself be challenged by protesters, so it is infiltrating organisations and tightening the grip on civil society. Organised civil society is relatively weak, and Beijing can easily interfere with academic institutions, schools and the media by appointing more allies and dismissing those who are critical of the government. The next five years will likely be tough ones for civil society and democracy in Hong Kong, and we will have to work to strengthen civil society’s resilience.

    Another important issue is that a lot of young protesters are traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and experienced. We have support groups with social workers and psychologists, but they cannot provide support in their official capacity or they would find themselves under pressure by their employers who take money from the government. Social workers are also at risk and the police constantly harass them. To strengthen self-care and gain resilience for the battle ahead, we need to train more people and create support groups to help people cope, control their stress and share their stories.

    Another potential challenge is the limited sustainability of global solidarity. Right now Hong Kong is in the spotlight, but this will not last long. Our struggle is for the long haul, but the world will not be paying attention for much longer. So we will need to build more substantial and permanent alliances and partnerships with civil society groups around the world. We need to empower local groups and give people new skills regarding international law, advocacy and campaigning. The protest movement is not going anywhere. It’s going to be a long struggle so we will have to train more organisers. We will disseminate the knowledge gained by the protesters, so when they are sent to jail others will take over.

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

    Get in touch with the Hong Kong Civil Hub through itswebsite and follow@hkjohnsonyeung on Twitter.

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

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

     

  • Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

    New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

    The National SecurityLaw (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

    TheNSLestablishes new national security bodieswhich are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law.It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the InternationalCovenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

    "The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”,said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

    Morethan ahundred people have been arrested underthe National Security Law including pro-democracyactivists,formerlawmakers,lawyers,journalists and students.Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

    In January2021, 55 people,including pro-democracy activists,opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primaryelections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

    TheNSL has alsodramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carryout their work.Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

    The lawhas also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announcedthey had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role inthe publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

    The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

    Since 2019, theHong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximumfive-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

    Pro-democracyactivist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’slong-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

    In April 2021,the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggeredby the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities bannedthe annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 


    More information

    Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


    Interviews

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

     

     

  • Hope for citizen voice, despite ‘narrowed’ civic space

    By Ine van Severen and Corlett Letlojane

    President Jacob Zuma heads to China this week to meet with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China at the the 9th Brics Summit. As far as respect for civic space is concerned, South Africa outshines its counterparts in the Brics bloc, whose members together account for more than 40% of the world’s population. But President Zuma now heads to Xiamen with that record looking worse for wear, in the midst of increasing restrictions on South Africans’ basic rights to organise, speak out and take action.

    Read on:Mail and Guardian 

     

  • How to Undermine Democracy – Curtail Civil Society Rights

    By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera, and Marianna Belalba

    Recent elections and referendums in a growing number of countries from Turkey to the USA and beyond are producing leaders and policies, which directly threaten some of the core principles of democracy.  In an increasing number of established and fledgling democracies, we see ruling parties violating the fundamental freedoms to speak-out, rally behind a cause and get involved in a social movement.

    Read on:Inter Press Service