civil society

  • EGYPT: ‘Activists who work from abroad are being targeted through their families’


    CIVICUS speaksabout the ongoing repression of dissent in EgyptwithAhmed Attalla, Executive Director of the Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR).

    Founded in 2017 and registered in the Czech Republic, EFHR is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes human rights in Egypt, with a specific focus on criminal justice, through advocacy, research and legal support.

    What are the conditions for civil society in Egypt?

    Civic space in Egypt has remained highly restricted for the past decade, with the authorities consistently targeting civil society activists, journalists, political dissidents and human rights advocates.

    The 2019 NGO law restricts the rights of CSOs. It mandates their registration and enables the government and security forces to interfere in their operations and order the cessation of activities deemed sensitive by the government, such as monitoring human rights conditions and denouncing violations. Organisations registered under this law may also face funding restrictions.

    Some CSOs had to shut down because the authorities targeted them with counter-terrorist measures or prosecuted their directors in Case no. 173 of 2011, commonly known as the ‘Foreign Funding Case’. In some instances, the directors of these organisations were prohibited from leaving the country and their assets were frozen. Some courageous organisations have persisted in their work even in the face of attacks against their directors and staff.

    In September 2021, the government launched the National Human Rights Strategy, a propaganda tool aimed at concealing the human rights crisis ahead of hosting the COP27 climate summit in 2022. As part of this initiative, it took steps to release some political prisoners and engaged in a national dialogue that contained a broader spectrum of political actors, including civil society representatives.

    How has Egyptian civil society organised in the face of repression?

    Civil society has adapted to the ongoing repression in various ways. Many CSOs have decided to limit their public engagement and abstain from taking to the streets or limit their work to the provision of legal aid while refraining from undertaking research and international advocacy, especially with international human rights mechanisms. Other organisations have been forced to relocate their operations abroad to safeguard their staff and ensure the continuity and integrity of their work, which has had the opposite effect of facilitating their advocacy efforts with international mechanisms and among European Union (EU) member states.

    In response to the continuous pressure, many organisations have started collaborating more closely. In 2019, EFHR coauthored a joint report with eight other CSOs for the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and participated in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) session in which Egypt’s human rights record was examined. In 2023, we jointly submitted another report for Egypt’s UPR. We have also engaged in joint campaigns and participated in the formation of coalitions aimed at addressing specific challenges. Egyptian CSOs are increasingly recognising the importance of working together to amplify their impact and advocate for change.

    How does EFHR work in such a repressive context?

    When it was founded in 2017, EFHR was officially registered in the Czech Republic with affiliates in Egypt, where our team of researchers and lawyers provides crucial legal support by attending daily court hearings and working directly with victims of prosecution. We have successfully coordinated work between our overseas office and our colleagues based in Egypt. Our work focuses on issues that are ignored by the Egyptian authorities, including issues concerning criminal justice, detention conditions and gender-based violence.

    We take various security measures to protect the identities of our staff. For instance, our research publications don’t include author names or contact details, and we maintain the anonymity of our legal team. These precautions give us some space to work and leverage our findings and expertise with international mechanisms, by engaging with UN Special Rapporteurs and working groups and collaborating with EU diplomats.

    However, we have also faced some challenges. Three of our lawyers have been implicated in state security cases, facing accusations of affiliating with terrorist groups and potentially engaging in the use of force. We have managed to relocate other at-risk colleagues to ensure their safety. The same is happening to other Egyptian human rights organisations, whose members either managed to flee the country or were arrested and remained in prison for least two years.

    How do you support Egyptian activists under threat?

    We provide legal assistance to those who have been arrested or targeted by the authorities and take measures to ensure activists’ digital security and protect their anonymity, enabling them to continue their work. We collaborate with partners and foreign embassies to put pressure on the Egyptian government, but sometimes this doesn’t work.

    Within Egypt, there are a few tools available to protect our colleagues at risk. Even political parties cannot protect their members in Egypt, so they also face regular detentions. Parties often attempt to exert pressure on the authorities to release arrested politicians but after releasing them the government arrests other members of the same organisations.

    Are Egyptian activists safe in exile?

    Activists who work from abroad are being targeted through their families. For example, the Egyptian-American human rights advocate Mohamed Soltan, who filed a case against former prime minister Hazem el-Beblawi, saw his five family members harassed and arrested as a result of his activism. A German resident, Alaa Eladly, was arrested upon landing in Cairo just because his daughter, Egyptian activist Fagr Eladly, criticised President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi president over human rights abuses at a 2015 press conference between the president and then German chancellor Angela Merkel . The father of Belgium-based journalist and human rights advocate Ahmed Gamal Ziada has recently been detained and accused of misuse of communication, spreading false news and joining a banned group. This strategy aims to silence activists and impose an even higher personal cost for doing their work.

    What can the international community do to support Egyptian civil society?

    To gain a comprehensive understanding of the situation in Egypt it is important to listen to the perspectives of local human rights defenders. Our international allies and partners must exert pressure on the Egyptian government to open civic space, stop targeting journalists, civil society activists and political figures and filing trumped up charges against them, and release all political prisoners detained for defending the fundamental rights to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    EU member states must revise their terms of cooperation with Egypt to prioritise human rights. For instance, they should include human rights considerations as a conditionality for providing financial aid. It is imperative to strike a balance between the interests of governments and the demands of Egyptian civil society. It is also essential to sustain financial support for Egyptian CSOs, especially now that the economic crisis has also hit civil society.

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

    Get in touch with EFHR through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@egyptian_front onTwitter.

  • EGYPT: ‘The security-first approach is not working’

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme of reimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Khaled Mansour about the challenges Egyptian civil society has faced since the army took power in 2013. Khaled was a journalist and then a United Nations aid and peacekeeping official for 25 years before he ran the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a leading Egyptian human rights organisation. He is now an independent writer and analyst on human rights, humanitarian aid and development, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Arab Reform Initiative.

  • Egypt: CSOs urge German Ministers to raise human rights with President Al-Sisi ahead of COP27


    Civil society groups have written a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Baerbock and State Minister and Special Envoy Morgan urging them to press President al-Sisi to open civic space ahead of COP27

     Dear Foreign Affairs Minister Baerbock and State Minister and Special Envoy Morgan,

    Ahead of the 18-19 July 2022 Petersberg Climate Dialogue, which you will co-chair with Egyptian President Abdelfattah al-Sisi, we 21 national, regional and international civil society organisations are writing to urge you to press President al-Sisi, publicly and privately, to take prompt and effective measures to reopen civic space in Egypt ahead of the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh and release all the individuals arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. If taken, these important steps must not be reversed after the COP27, since they are necessary to guarantee the survival of independent civil society in Egypt and promote its resurgence.

    We stress our alarm at the Egyptian authorities’ unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of the press, freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, the severe constraints they have imposed on civil society, as well as their repression of peaceful political opposition and misuse of counterterrorism legislation to silence peaceful critics. Thousands continue to be arbitrarily detained in Egypt for peacefully practicing their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. This includes staff of Egyptian independent civil society organisations, human rights defenders and activists in the field of economic, social, and cultural rights, and minority rights, as well aslawyers, journalists, academics, women social media influencers and artists. We consider that immediately and unconditionally releasing them, according to Egypt’s obligations under international law, would signal that the Egyptian government is committed to ensuring that participants at COP27 may speak and assemble freely at the COP27 conference, without fear of reprisals.

    The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association’s 2021 report details the essential role played by civil society in addressing the climate crisis, and calls on States “to recognize publicly at the highest levels the work of civil society and the importance of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association as essential to the advancement of climate action and just transition”towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies. Indeed, for a productive COP27, the crucial roles of civil society as well as independent media are more necessary now than ever, as many states are failing to meet their climate pledges and others are unable to finance measures to make their development sustainable. The visibility and positive pressure created by civic mobilisation is needed if COP27 is to be a success. The rights to freedom of assembly, association, and expression at COP27 must be upheld for all, including Egyptian civil society activists and journalists who are currently facing harsh repression for exercising these human rights.

    Therefore, it is urgent that at and around the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, you urge the Egyptian authorities to take action now, before COP27:

    • To go beyond the conditional release of a limited number of persons from arbitrary detention, to effect a real policy change by immediately and unconditionally releasing all persons arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association. In line with the criteria outlined by local NGOs,the mechanism established to release prisoners should comply with four standards: fairness, transparency, inclusiveness, and promptness. Prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, on hunger strike for over 100 days and at risk of death, must be prioritized.
    • To ensure civic space is reopened, notably by setting out transparent and inclusive processes to provide civil society with meaningful opportunities to inform decision-making around climate and other vital areas of public policy.
    • To expedite the necessary changes in legislation and practice – including in the NGO law, the Counter-terrorism Law, the Cybercrime Law, the Protection of Public Facilities Law, the Assembly Law, and the Terrorist Entities Law – to guarantee and protect space for civil society, including independent human rights defenders, to speak, meet, and work without fear of intimidation, harassment, arbitrary arrest or detention, torture, enforced disappearance, or any other form of reprisal or retaliation; including lifting the existing travel bans and asset freezes imposed on activists and human rights defenders.
    • To end the harsh restrictions imposed by law and in practice on media and digital freedom, to cease blocking the websites of independent media outlets and civil society organizations and release all media workers who have been detained or jailed for carrying out their work.

    We understand that many African states support the selection of Egypt as host of COP27, on the assumption that Egypt could be a strong voice for the continent’s climate justice needs and demands, notably climate finance. Yet there are serious and unresolved concerns around the full and meaningful participation of activists, mainly from the global South, in terms of accessing visas to enter the country. If the Egyptian authorities do not change course, they risk jeopardizing COP27’s success, and there will be well-grounded concerns for the safety and security of civil society activists from African states, from Europe, and elsewhere, who may seek to participate in peaceful events in Sharm el-Sheikh.

    Minister Baerbock, your nomination eight months ago as federal Foreign Affairs Minister gave much new hope and expectation that you would be determined and able to set a clear foreign policy approach toward countries with abusive human rights records, and upholding your government commitments to human rights, the rule of law, justice, and accountability within a climate-friendly and feminist foreign policy. The federal coalition government agreement text also bolstered that hope. Today, we call on you both to bring these hopes to fruition and demonstrate your leadership for climate justice with Egypt, through an inclusive approach to environmental policy rooted in the principle that there can be no climate justice without respect for human rights.


    Amnesty International

    Association for the Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE)

    Associazione ricreativa culturale italiana (ARCI)

    Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

    Centre National de Coopération au Développement (CNCD-11.11.11)


    Civil Rights Defenders

    Committee for Justice (CFJ)

    Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

    Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)

    Egyptian Front for Human Rights (EFHR)

    Egyptian Human Rights Forum (EHRF)

    EgyptWide for Human Rights

    EuroMed Rights

    Freedom House

    Front Line Defenders

    Human Rights Watch

    HuMENA for Human Rights and Civic Engagement

    International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)

    Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

     Civic space in Egypt is rated as "Closed" by the CIVICUS Monitor

  • EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

    CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

    Eduardo Escobar

    Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

    We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

    Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

    After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

    Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

    The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

    Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

    President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

    The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

    Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

    How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

    Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

    To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

    When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

    We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

    President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

    If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

    Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

    What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

    The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

    Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

    What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

    It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

    We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

    Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through itsFacebook page and follow@CiudadanaAccio1 and@esec76 on Twitter. 

  • Emergencia global en el espacio cívico

    Según el Informe 2017 de la alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS, el mundo se enfrenta a una crisis democrática sin precedentes debido a las restricciones que están sufriendo las libertades de expresión, asociación y reunión pacífica, generando una situación de emergencia global.

    El Informe sobre el estado de la sociedad civil 2017 pone de relieve cómo cada vez es más peligroso desafiar al poder en todo el mundo, y el riesgo a sufrir represalias que ello conlleva. En diversos países, los líderes populistas y neofascistas de derechas han adquirido importancia alcanzando el apoyo necesario para impulsar sus ideas en el debate público e incluso, en algunos casos, ganando las elecciones. Su visión política y global se opone frontalmente a la sociedad civil que busca promover los derechos humanos, la cohesión social y el internacionalismo progresista.

    Los puntos clave del Informe incluyen:

    * El aumento del número de ataques a activistas y a organizaciones de la sociedad civil por parte del aparato represivo de Estados, fuerzas extremistas y corporaciones, sobre todo en el sector extractivo, (un fenómeno, este último, especialmente visible en América Latina);

    * Solo el 3% de la población mundial vive en países con un espacio cívico "abierto";

    * Más de la mitad de la población de las Américas vive en países con un espacio cívico obstruido (32%) o represivo (21%);

    * El profundo descontento de la ciudadanía frente al impacto de la globalización sobre sus vidas ha sido aprovechado por los populistas de derechas, tal como se observa en pronunciamientos populares tan diversos como el Brexit y el referendo sobre la paz en Colombia;

    * Más que ignorar ese descontento, la sociedad civil debe hacer frente al desafío de construir un movimiento alternativo de esperanza, sin miedo y respetuoso de los derechos humanos.

    El Informe indica que para los nuevos populistas de derechas, la esfera internacional supone una peligrosa fuente de valores progresistas que desafían sus estrechas nociones de soberanía. Las instituciones internacionales, así como los valores de derechos humanos que representan, los consideran intrusivos. El Acuerdo de París sobre el cambio climático, por ejemplo, ha sido definido como un elemento que limita el crecimiento económico y se encuentra en peligro por la actitud del actual gobierno de Estados Unidos. Los líderes de Israel, Filipinas y Estados Unidos también han atacado a la ONU. Los gobiernos de Burundi y Sudáfrica han amenazado este último año con retirarse de la Corte Penal Internacional. En ningún lugar es más evidente el fracaso del multilateralismo como en la crisis siria, que ha costado medio millón de vidas y ha desplazado a la mitad de la población del país, donde se está normalizando la impunidad frente a los crímenes de guerra.

    El secretario general de la ONU, Antonio Guterres, definió el desprecio actual por los derechos humanos, alimentado por el creciente populismo y extremismo, como una "enfermedad que se está propagando". En Filipinas más de 7000 personas han muerto como consecuencia de la violencia fomentada por el presidente Rodrigo Duterte. En Turquía, tras el intento de golpe de Estado, se han implantado restricciones a las libertades fundamentales y a la sociedad civil: unos 195 medios de comunicación han sido cerrados, 80 periodistas han sido encarcelados junto con miles de académicos y ciudadanos considerados disidentes.

    El informe desarrolla en profundidad algunos casos de América Latina, enfatizando tanto los desafíos que enfrenta la sociedad civil por efecto de las restricciones del espacio cívico como la creatividad de sus estrategias para enfrentarlos, así como sus redoblados esfuerzos de movilización a la hora de defender y promover derechos. Así, por ejemplo, el informe trata, entre otros puntos centrales para la región, los desafíos de la construcción de la paz en Colombia, la situación de impunidad por la violación de los derechos humanos en México, los aprendizajes y desafíos de las movilizaciones estudiantiles en Chile y por los derechos de las mujeres en Argentina, así como los factores subyacentes a la criminalización de la opinión y la violencia física ejercida con intensidad creciente contra activistas ambientalistas y defensores de los derechos de los pueblos indígenas y del derecho a la tierra en Honduras, Nicaragua y Brasil, entre otros países.

    Acerca del Informe sobre el estado de la sociedad civil 2017

    Cada año, el Informe sobre el estado de la sociedad civil de CIVICUS analiza los principales acontecimientos que afectan a la sociedad civil en todo el mundo. La primera parte de nuestro informe hace un resumen del año pasado, centrándose en los espacios para la sociedad civil y en el impacto del resurgimiento de las políticas populistas de derechas; el derecho a disentir; los movimientos de protesta, y las acciones que realiza la sociedad civil a nivel internacional. La segunda parte de nuestro Informe trata específicamente la relación entre sociedad civil y sector privado.

    Nuestro Informe es de la sociedad civil y está hecho por y para la sociedad civil. Se alimenta de una serie de entrevistas con personas involucradas en las principales historias del momento y de los resultados de nuestra encuesta anual a los miembros de las redes nacionales y regionales de la sociedad civil que integran nuestro Grupo de Afinidad de Asociaciones Nacionales (AGNA), así como de 27 artículos encargados a una serie de invitados especiales que tratan diferentes aspectos sobre el tema de la relación entre sociedad civil y sector privado. La mayoría de nuestros aportes proceden de la sociedad civil, aunque también recogemos las opiniones de personas que trabajan en el gobierno y en el sector privado.

    Nuestro Informe también se basa en los datos sobre las condiciones de la sociedad civil proporcionados por el CIVICUS Monitor, nuestra nueva plataforma en línea que monitorea el espacio cívico en todos los países del mundo.

    También se basa en los hallazgos de las Evaluaciones Nacionales sobre el Ambiente Habilitante (ENAH), que es una herramienta de análisis promovida por la sociedad civil para evaluar el entorno legal, reglamentario y político de la sociedad civil.

    Para obtener más información o para solicitar una entrevista con el personal de CIVICUS y/o con sus colaboradores, comuníquese con Abajo encontrará los enlaces al informe.

  • ESTONIA: ‘Legal changes deepen the cultural shift favourable to LGBTQI+ rights’

    Kelly GrossthalCIVICUS speaks about civil society’s role in the recentlegalisation of same-sex marriage in Estonia with Kelly Grossthal, head of strategic litigation at the Estonian Human Rights Centre (EHRC).

    Established in 2009, the EHRC is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) working to create anopen society where human rights are guaranteed by the state, and where everyone knows that their rights, as well as the rights of others, deserve equal protection. 

    How significant is the recent legalisation of same-sex marriage?

    Marriage equality has always been the ultimate goal of LGBTQI+ and human rights advocates. The previous arrangement, that of civil unions, was only a temporary compromise. In 2014, the Estonian parliament passed the gender-neutral Registered Partnership Act, which came into force in 2016. Under this law, couples entering a partnership agreement are entitled to joint property rights, succession rights, shared financial obligations, access to each other’s private information and resolution of issues related to the end of life. However, due to the law’s lack of implementation provisions, many couples had to resort to the courts to be able to actually exercise these rights.

    In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of the lack of implementing provisions, the Registered Partnership Act was in force and was part of the Estonian legal order. It stated that failure to issue implementing provisions did not automatically render the legislation unconstitutional, as some argued. This highlights that even with the Registered Partnership Act in place, the struggle for marriage equality persisted.

    How did the EHRC advocate for legal change?

    Since its establishment in 2009, the EHRC has monitored legislation that impacts on LGBTQI+ people and put forward suggestions to improve it. Our main advocacy goal has always been legal equality. However, we have encountered numerous obstacles, primarily stemming from the political climate and societal attitudes. For many years LGBTQI+ rights lacked support from public opinion, and therefore it was not advantageous for politicians to actively champion the cause.

    We have conducted public campaigns advocating for LGBTQI+ rights as human rights, engaged in research, contributed to public discussions and pursued legal cases through our strategic litigation programme. Strategic litigation aims to have a societal impact through specific cases and narratives. When selecting cases related to the LGBTQI+ community, our primary criterion is their potential to maximise a positive outcome for LGBTQI+ people’s human rights.

    We handled several cases that have improved access to social benefits and adoption rights for LGBTQI+ people and filed petitions for constitutional review of regressive laws. For instance, in 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that a provision in the Aliens Act that prevented the granting of temporary residence permits to same-sex registered partners of Estonian citizens for leading a family life in Estonia was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

    Many of our advocacy efforts have been planned and executed in cooperation with the Estonian LGBT Association and the Equal Treatment Network, which unites 10 Estonian CSOs dedicated to protecting the equal rights of different target groups.

    How have public attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people evolved over time?

    Just a couple of years ago, the majority of Estonians opposed marriage equality. Resistance could have been influenced by personal values, religious beliefs, or a fear of change. Over the past few years, however, there has been intense societal debate over LGBTQI+ issues. Various video campaigns and petitions have been launched both in support of and against the Registered Partnership Act, marriage equality and LGBTQI+ rights more generally. Unfortunately, this has led to an increase in hate speech towards LGBTQI+ people, fuelled by conservative politicians. But it had the positive effect of making rainbow families more visible, as they shared their stories in response to anti-rights attacks.

    The ongoing debate and increased visibility have played a crucial role in driving cultural change and garnering support for LGBTQI+ rights. The adoption of the Registered Partnership Act and the legalisation of same-sex marriage were two big milestones. Legal changes seem to have further deepened the positive cultural shift.

    For over a decade the EHRC has commissioned public opinion surveys on LGBTQI+ issues from an independent research company, Turu-uuringute AS. According to the most recent one, conducted earlier this year, support for marriage equality has increased by six points in the past two years, with 53 per cent of Estonians currently in favour. Progress has been significant: a decade ago only 34 per cent were in favour and 60 per cent opposed it.

    Civil society has been instrumental in shifting public opinion about LGBTQI+ people, with numerous LGBTQI+ groups and networks organising events for both LGBTQI+ people and the public as a whole.

    The Estonian LGBT Association has been the main organiser of Baltic Pride, the most recent of which took place in the capital, Tallinn, in June, just before the parliamentary vote on marriage equality. It attracted over 7,000 participants from three Baltic states and there were no major incidents. It was a truly joyous march followed by an open-air concert with community artists and a picnic.

    Since 2017, Estonia has also hosted an LGBTQI+ film festival, Festheart, organised by a small CSO. Initially held in the town of Rakvere, by 2020 it had expanded to Tartu, Estonia’s second-largest city.

    Has the legalisation of same-sex marriage elicited any anti-rights backlash?

    As anticipated, there has been a conservative backlash in response to the new legislation. Two parties, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia and Isamaa (Fatherland), have been vocal opponents of LGBTQI+ rights in general and marriage equality in particular. Their leaders and prominent members have expressed great dissatisfaction with the new law, and some politicians have pledged to reverse it should conservative parties regain power.

    The anti-LGBTQI+ civil society movement in Estonia is closely linked to conservative parties. A few weeks before the final parliamentary vote, conservative CSOs and parties organised a demonstration in front of parliament. Surprisingly, it attracted only a few thousand protesters and was not as visible and large as some previous demonstrations. Nonetheless, protests of this nature will likely continue in some form, although their scale and impact are difficult to predict.

    Do you think progress in Estonia can pave the way for similar developments in other post-Communist countries?

    We certainly hope so! At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge that each country in our region is distinct, with its own language, culture and political landscape. In the case of Estonia, there’s currently a ruling coalition with all three members prioritising individual liberties, which has provided civil society with a historic opportunity to advance marriage equality. Hopefully, favourable conditions will also arise for our Baltic friends and beyond.

    Meanwhile, we are delighted to share our experiences, both failures and successes, with our regional allies. Although we are a traditional human rights advocacy organisation, we maintain strong connections with LGBTQI+ CSOs in Latvia and Lithuania. We have collaborated on several international projects related to combating hate speech, working with victims of hate crimes and promoting equal treatment.

    What forms of international support does Estonian civil society need to keep supporting LGBTQI+ people and advancing their rights? 

    International cooperation and support are incredibly important. Human rights work can be frustrating at times, and it is comforting to connect with others working in other countries and facing similar societal and personal struggles. While it may sound like a cliché, it is vital to establish connections, share experiences and learn from each other. This process is empowering and fosters development.

    It is crucial to recognise that marriage equality alone will not solve all the problems. Issues such as bullying of LGBTQI+ children, harassment of LGBTQI+ people, anti-LGBTQI+ hate speech, disinformation, intolerance and the denial of transgender rights continue to be pressing concerns. We have seen in other countries that progressive laws and legal precedents can be reversed. Therefore, it is essential for like-minded individuals and CSOs to cooperate across borders. Just as we are currently endeavouring to support the human rights of Hungarian LGBTQI+ people through various actions and means, we hope to receive support ourselves in times of urgent need.

    Civic space in Estonia is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Estonian Human Rights Centre through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

  • ETHIOPIA: ‘For civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning’

    In 2019, theNobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed Ali, “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.” CIVICUS speaks with Bilen Asrat, Executive Director of the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum (ECSF), about the prospects for democracy in Ethiopia. Established in 2013, the ECSF is a non-partisan, independent and inclusive civil society body comprising various civil society groups, networks and consortiums operating at the federal and regional levels, focusing on the common concerns and challenges faced by civil society in Ethiopia.

    bilen asrat


    What has been the progress towards democracy in Ethiopia in 2019? Has the space for civil society improved?

    During 2019, there have been a lot of changes in the state of democracy and human rights, which has been reflected in a wider space for independent civil society and opposition political parties. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was appointed in April 2018 after his predecessor resigned as a result of anti-government protests. Although he was a member of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the party in power since 1991, Prime Minister Ahmed pledged to reform the authoritarian regime, and repressive terrorism and media laws were repealed. Imprisoned journalists were released and the environment for the media improved. The new government also released political prisoners and legalised opposition parties, some of which had been labelled terrorist organisations and banned. In July 2019, a well-known human rights lawyer was appointed as the head of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Once political change became apparent, a lot of politicians that had been living in exile came back to Ethiopia.

    The positive change that started in 2018 has continued. For Ethiopian civil society, 2019 has been a new beginning. In February 2019, the draconian 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation was amended. This law imposed a lot of restrictions on civil society, especially when working for human rights, democracy and good governance. The new law changed the classification of civil society organisations (CSOs) and only distinguishes between local and international CSOs. It lifted restrictions on funding for CSOs and allowed for the re-entry of international organisations into Ethiopia. The old law stated that organisations receiving more than 10 per cent of their funding from international donors were to be considered foreign international organisations, and could therefore not undertake any human rights-related work in the country.

    The scope of action for CSOs has now widened because unlike the old law, the new proclamation does not provide an exhaustive list of the permitted activities of CSOs, so it does not set a limit to the activities that civil society can engage in, except for those that are against criminal law. This is more consistent with the right to the freedom of association, which means that anyone can form an association to pursue any legitimate objectives, without restriction.

    Do limitations apply to CSOs promoting LGBTQI+ rights?

    The scope of legitimate civil society activities does not include the promotion of LGBTQI+ rights, because this is considered to be against ‘public morals’. Homosexuality is illegal in Ethiopia; it is a crime under the Criminal Code and it is punished with imprisonment. It is also not accepted by the majority of the population, so there is not much of a perspective that the law will change in that regard.

    In other words, restrictions do not apply anymore to CSO activities in the areas of human rights and democracy, but the establishment of CSOs to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people is still not allowed, because they would be promoting an activity that is considered a crime by our Criminal Code.

    Was civil society consulted in the process of developing a new law?

    Yes, we were consulted. Before the new law was passed, there were several consultations across Ethiopia’s nine regions, and over 1,000 CSOs were engaged in the process. In fact, the initial document for the draft law was produced by civil society itself. We submitted it to the former prime minister and various governmental offices, pointing out the challenges posed by the previous proclamation and recommending specific changes, and eventually it was our recommendations that were turned into law – including for instance the right to appeal against the decisions of the regulatory agency in front of a court of law.

    We only have one objection to the new proclamation: we think that the agency that has the mandate to regulate civil society should be accountable to the legislative body, and not to the executive. We expressed this during the consultations, and when the Office of the Attorney General finalised the draft and submitted it to the Council of Ministers, we raised our concerns to parliament. But the government didn’t accept our recommendation and decided to keep the regulatory agency under the executive branch.

    How did civil society receive the news that the Prime Minister had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

    I think the news was well received. Prime Minister Ahmed got many congratulatory messages from civil society and communities, as the peace processes started to have visible effects both in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. Ethiopian military forces stationed abroad were brought back to the country, laws started changing and hellish prisons where horrible human rights abuses took place were shut down.

    I think the Nobel Peace Prize is fulfilling two purposes. First, it is an acknowledgment of the Prime Minister’s contribution to ending the 20-year conflict between the two countries and an encouragement to continue along the peacebuilding path. 

    Second, the award is an expression of support for the Prime Minister’s project to build a democratic nation, opening up political competition, allowing for the growth of an opposition and a multiparty system, promoting an active civil society, and striving for greater equality. Prime Minister Ahmed has brought women on board: he appointed a cabinet that was 50 per cent female and for the first time a woman was appointed as president of the Supreme Federal Court.

    What do you think are the main challenges ahead?

    The main challenge is that communities have been unable to exercise their rights and their power for too long, and when all these spaces suddenly open up there is a danger that they will be put at the service of power struggles. Political competition in Ethiopia takes place mostly along ethnic lines, as political parties tend to represent specific ethnic groups, so groups are still competing with each other. Democratisation is moving forward in a context in which conflict persists. There are some states that are still under a state of emergency, experiencing internet blackouts and ethnic clashes. The social situation is also delicate because of the high unemployment and poor economic performance.

    What role can society play in overcoming those challenges?

    Civil society has a great role to play in bringing democracy to Ethiopia, especially in terms of building peace by establishing dialogue and reaching some form of consensus among religious leaders and local communities. If a certain degree of peace is not achieved internally, democratic elections become impossible. So the first task for civil society to undertake is internal peacebuilding.

    Most CSOs are developing these kinds of activities. They are starting to engage, but it’s taking time, because we are still in trauma due to our past experiences. Until very recently civil society was not allowed to work on peacebuilding or reconciliation, and it was a very dangerous thing to do. Over time, most of the experienced people with the right skills for the tasks ahead migrated to the private sector or left the country. This opening is a new phenomenon and to be up to the task we need to reassess the situation, revise our strategic plans, gain new skills and produce training materials.

    We are building up our own resilience while trying to engage in these very necessary activities. This is where our allies in international civil society could help us. Ethiopian civil society needs support for capacity building and training, developing advocacy tools and learning about best practices and replicable successful experiences. International organisations could also help us to bring different stakeholders to the discussion and reach a consensus about the democratisation process and the required human rights protections. National elections will be held in August 2020, so we only have a few months to work to ensure elections are a peaceful democratic process. 

    Would you say the upcoming election will be a key test for the democratisation process?

    Yes, because we have not yet had a free and competitive election. Prime Minister Ahmed was appointed by the parliamentary body that resulted from the 2015 election, which was tightly controlled by the ruling party and marred by coercion and intimidation.

    In August 2019, parliament – whose current members are all from the ruling coalition – passed a new election law, and opposition parties complained that some of the changes made things more difficult for them and threatened to boycott the election. So the process is by no means without obstacles, and it will be a test for all of us, including for civil society, which needs to work to keep the authorities accountable to the community and make sure that the democratisation process succeeds.

    But first and foremost, the election will be a test for the government and the ruling party to keep their promise that if they lose, they will relinquish power. Even before we get to that point, it is already testing their willingness to open up the media space and make sure that fair conditions for competition are met.

    Progress is being made in that regard. The Electoral Board now has a new structure and is chaired by a former opposition party leader, a woman, who had been imprisoned and exiled for her political ideology and came back after reforms were initiated.

    How hopeful you are about the future?

    I believe the best is yet to come. But as civil society, we have a lot of work to do to make it happen. We need to work hard to build a democratic, transparent and accountable system in Ethiopia. We need to keep watching and make sure the government remains committed to protecting democracy and human rights. We need to watch closely and make sure it includes women’s issues in their agendas. We expect these elections to be the most democratic and peaceful that we have ever had, with more female candidates than ever before, and we expect the losing and winning candidates to shake hands and accept the people’s will.

    I also think this change has happened because of the sacrifices many people have made. Many people have died for this to happen. Now it’s time to use only our hearts, not weapons, to achieve change. We will not be able to do all of this by ourselves, so we need solidarity and support from regional and international organisations. An authoritarian regime could be held together in isolation, but democracy will need a lot of help to grow and survive.

    Civic space in Ethiopia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations Forum through itswebsite andFacebook 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.

  • EUROPE: ‘The Energy Charter Treaty is having a chilling effect on climate legislation’

    Paul de ClerckCIVICUS speaks with Paul de Clerck,Economic Justice Coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, about the implications for climate action of the Energy Charter Treaty.

    Friends of the Earth International was founded in 1971 by four civil society organisations (CSOs) from France, Sweden, the UK and the USA to campaign together on key issues such as nuclear energy and whaling. Over time it grew to become a federation of 73 groups across the world. Its European arm, Friends of the Earth Europe, is the continent’s largest grassroots environmental network, bringing together more than 30 national CSOs with thousands of local groups. In coordinationwith other European CSOs, it currently advocates for European Union states to withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty, which is preventing them from adopting and implementing effective policies to address climate change.

    What is the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT)?

    The ECT is a trade agreement that was established in 1994, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. A large part of the 15 former Soviet countries had huge oil and gas reserves and western oil and gas companies wanted to ensure for themselves unrestricted access to invest in and extract those resources. So they agreed that the European Union (EU) and all its member states would grant these companies an investor-state dispute settlement system: a mechanism that allows companies to sue governments when they adopt new policies or laws that affect their financial interests. 

    For example, if a state introduces a new environmental or labour law that could jeopardise current or future profits, a company can file a lawsuit. This is especially relevant when it comes to oil and gas projects because oil-extraction facilities are usually operational for about 40 to 50 years, and the expected profit over such a long time can be enormous. 

    Such lawsuits are presented before investment tribunals, which are completely industry-biased as they don’t take human rights, labour rights, environmental rights or other public interest issues into consideration. As lawsuit processes are usually negotiated in secrecy, there is very little information available regarding the amounts of the settlements. 

    These lawsuits have become increasingly frequent in Europe as states have adopted climate transition policies. Companies are resorting to the ECT to claim massive compensation, ranging from hundreds of million to billions of euros. This mechanism not only forces governments to pay for compensation, but also stops them introducing new sustainable energy policies. That is what we call the ‘chilling effect’: governments anticipate they will be sued so they either weaken their legislative proposals, delay them or discard them altogether.

    The ECT is an old treaty that is out of line. Its main purpose is to protect fossil fuel companies, and it’s completely at odds with the Paris Agreement on climate change and the EU’s climate and sustainability agenda.

    Several EU states have recently announced they will withdraw. What happens after a state quits the ECT?

    France, Spain and the Netherlands have recently made such announcements, but the only state that has withdrawn so far has been Italy. Following the announcement, it takes one year for withdrawal to become effective. However, the treaty’s so-called ‘sunset clause’ states that if a country leaves the ECT, investors can continue to sue it for another 20 years. This gives an almost unlimited right to companies and investors and is one of the reasons why we are urging EU states to leave the treaty all together, in a coordinated way. If they did so, they could agree on passing EU-level legislation preventing further investor-state dispute settlement cases. About 90 per cent of current cases involve EU states, so they would gain much better protection this way.

    Over the past two and a half years the ECT has been renegotiated, and in June 2022 member states reached an agreement to reform it. But from the civil society perspective, this is not good enough. First, because it extends protection for fossil fuels for another 10 years. And second, because it would extend its reach to other energy sources such as hydrogen production from biomass with carbon capture and storage, which would result in increasing rather than decreasing risk.

    This is going to be decided within the next month, first by EU member states, and then by all ECT member states. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, wants EU states to remain parties to the ECT, and it is pushing for the EU as a whole to adopt the modernised agreement. Several states are in favour of adopting the reform as they assess this new treaty as a better protection than the old. Of course, these are states that have been less exposed to the legal risks posed by international investors. On the other hand, there are the states that have been sued, such as France, Italy, Poland and Spain. Earlier this year, Italy lost a case against an English oil company that cost it several hundreds of million euros. 

    Has the war in Ukraine and Europe’s current energy crisis affected the negotiation process?

    Even though Russia is not an ECT state party, there are possible implications to the fact that the EU has taken several measures to restrict the operations of Russian companies. These are partly based in other European countries, which means they could sue European states.

    There could also be other impacts. Most European countries are persistently trying to find new sources of gas and hydrogen and are looking at African markets. Several African countries such as Nigeria are in the process of becoming ECT members, and it is suddenly in the interest of European states to bring them on board. This is having an impact on the negotiation process, although I am not sure it is a decisive one.

    What should we expect to happen now?

    The European Council, which brings together the heads of the 27 EU member states, needs to decide whether the reform will be adopted. It was supposed to decide by 25 October, but because of all the withdrawal announcements it has been unable to do so. Now a decision is expected by mid-November. If the European Council approves the reform, then the European Commission and its members will go to the annual ECT meeting, which will be held in Mongolia on 27 November. That meeting is the second step to move forward on the reform’s approval. The third and final step will be a vote by the European Parliament.

    We are campaigning for the EU and its member states to reject the reform. If we lose, then we will shift our focus towards the European Parliament. For the past two years, its representatives have been completely left out of negotiations and several parliamentary blocs have been very critical about the treaty. So we are still hoping we will be able to stop the agreement in the European Parliament.

    Along with other European CSOs, we have been doing a lot of joint advocacy with European institutions and coordinating actions, messages and strategies across Europe. We must put pressure on governments. The next few weeks will probably be decisive.

    Get in touch with Friends of the Earth Europethrough itsFacebook page and follow@foeeurope on Twitter.

  • European Commission work programme 2023: The need to include the development of a European Civil Society Strategy

     CIVICUS joins call to the European Commission for the development of a European Civil Society Strategy

    Ms Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission

    cc: Ms Vera Jourova Vice-President of the European Commission

    Mr Didier Reynders Commissioner for Justice

    We, civil society organisations acting at local, national and European level, call on the European Commission to include in the work programme of 2023 a proposal for a European Civil Society Strategy1.

    Civil society organisations, such as citizens’ associations, NGOs and public benefits foundations, and human rights defenders are instrumental to make effective the values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union and the rights proclaimed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, on a daily basis, both at European and national level.

    Our action strives to leave no one behind and is crucial in the area of culture, social care, education, health, anti-corruption, environment, anti-discrimination and much more.

    We intervene as democratic antibodies when rights, democracy and the rule of law are under attack.

    Our role is key to build public spaces, upscale participatory democracy and channel citizens’ participation.

    Our rapid mobilisations and recommendations have been and are essential in the context of the multifaceted crises affecting our societies which each time exacerbate the many vulnerabilities people are confronted with, such as the financial crisis in the early 2010s, the COVID-19 pandemic, the humanitarian crisis following the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the environmental catastrophes resulting from the climate emergency.

    Unfortunately, evidence from the field2 shows growing obstacles and attacks affecting civil society’s ability to act in full capacities and independence, as research3 and the findings of the European Commission rule of law report4 confirm. As a result of these attacks, our collective European future is jeopardised. 

    The ongoing measures and actions taken at the European level in support of civic actors’ activities have mostly been limited in scope and impact. It is now urgent to provide an overarching solution to fill the gaps of existing policies and mainstream positive practices.

    The call for a civil society strategy has been a long-term demand of CSOs at European and national level5. This demand is now supported by a European Parliament resolution on the shrinking space for civil society in Europe (2021/2103(INI)) voted with a large majority on 8 March 2022, and recommendation 36.8 of final report of the Conference on the Future of Europe6

    We urge the European Commission to consider all this, and in consequence to give substance to the mandate of the Vice President of the European Commission for values and transparency and resources for carrying out a regular, open and transparent civil dialogue - along the provision of Article 11 of the Treaty - and safeguard civil society space by developing, in cooperation with CSOs and human rights defenders, a comprehensive European civil society strategy before the end of the current five-years term.

    We remain at your disposal to discuss the overall content of such a strategy, and the steps to be started immediately.

    For further communication, you can contact the initiators of the letter: Civil Society Europe (Carlotta Besozzi, ) and European Civic Forum (Alexandrina Najmowicz, ).

     1 European Civic Forum, TOWARDS VIBRANT EUROPEAN CIVIC AND DEMOCRATIC SPACE, The case for a European civil society strategy and preliminary reflections on the gaps, challenges and opportunities to be addressed (2022).

    2 European Civic Forum, Civic Space Watch report 2021 - ACTIVIZENSHIP #6(2022); Civil Liberties Union for Europe, Bringing human rights and Article 2 values to life: the roles, challenges and solutions for civil society(2022); Civil Society Europe, Contribution to 2022 Rule of Law Report(2022); CIVICUS, People Power under attack 2021(2022): European Youth Forum, Safeguarding civic space for young people in Europe(2022).

    3 European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Protecting civic space in the EU(2021); Civic space – experiences of organisations in 2019(2020); Civil society space: views of organisations(2018); Challenges facing civil society organisations working on human rights in the EU(2018).

    4 European Commission, 2020 Rule of law report - Communication and country chapters(2020); 2021 Rule of law report | European Commission(2021).

    5 Including though CSOs joint statement Civil Society on the Frontline - 5 points for EU action 2019-2024(2019), Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation, Recommendations for a Comprehensive European Policy and Strategy on Civil Society(2022), final output of the Civil society convention for the future of Europe(2022), Recharging Advocacy for Rights in Europe (RARE)’s Advocacy brief on an European strategy for civil society: recognition, inclusion, protection(2022), HRDN Submission to the European Commission in the framework of the 2nd Annual Rule of Law Review Cycle(2021).

    6 Conference on the Future of Europe, Report on the final outcome (2022), p.79.



  • Fiji’s role in leaving no-one behind in sustainable development

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    It is now confirmed that Fiji will be chairing the next United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP 23) in Bonn, Germany. This is welcome news as the islands of the Pacific arguably have the most to lose – and the most to gain – when it comes to sustainable development. As a region of the world that is home to some of our most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities, destined to suffer the worst effects of climate change, the Pacific perhaps best embodies the importance of ‘leaving no-one behind’.  

    Read on: Pacific Islands News Association


  • FINLAND: ‘We’ll have the most right-wing government since the 1930s’

    SillaRistimakiCIVICUS speaks about Finland’s new government with Silla Ristimäki, development policy specialist at Fingo.

    Founded in 2018, Fingo is an umbrella organisation comprising about 270 Finnish civil society organisations (CSOs). Fingo monitors and defends civic space in Finland and around the world with the aim of building a strong, diverse, open, active and free civil society with solid operating capacities.

    What was the relationship between government and civil society like under the government of former Prime Minister Sanna Marin?

    Sanna Marin’s government took measures to promote transparency and the rule of law and improve conditions for civil society. Under the previous government’s programme, Finland took an active role in promoting open government internationally. Several initiatives were undertaken to improve the participation of and dialogue with Finnish civil society to increase transparency, which was seen as an integral part of all national governance objectives. For example, a transparency register was developed in 2023 to keep track of lobbying with parliament.

    The previous government’s programme also aimed to harmonise procedures for tracking civil society funding while respecting CSOs’ autonomy and guaranteeing equal treatment of organisations. The objective was to reduce bureaucracy and increase the predictability of funding. Changes were made in accounting and fundraising regulations that particularly favoured small CSOs. Overall, official development assistance grew quite consistently. Fundamentally, the nature of relationships was about building a partnership between state and civil society to reduce inequality.

    What were the key issues that influenced the outcome of the 2023 parliamentary elections?

    Sanna Marin’s government was a coalition of left-wing parties that pushed, for example, for stricter climate policies and reduced inequalities, including gender-based one. During its term, the Finnish government’s debt grew significantly. At the same time, Russia’s attack on Ukraine resulted in an unprecedented change in Finnish popular opinion regarding NATO membership. So the elections were greatly influenced by two major issues: the severity of government debt and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

    The economic and security conditions increased the popularity of right-wing parties. The National Coalition Party that won the election has been the longest and loudest advocate of Finland’s NATO membership. It also pushed an agenda to urgently reduce Finnish public debt. The far-right Finns Party, which came second, ran an anti-immigration campaign and proposed balancing the budget by reducing climate measures and cutting development funding. On 18 June it was confirmed that Ville Tavio from the Finns Party will be the new minister for Trade and Development.

    The Social Democratic Party headed by Sanna Marin came third. This is politically noteworthy, since the ruling party generally tends to do much worse in parliamentary elections. There was a significant fall in support for The Greens and the Left Alliance, and some experts say that people voted strategically for the Social Democratic Party to try to prevent the emergence of a conservative right-wing government. However, the new government coalition formed with the Finns Party, Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the Christian Democrats will be the most right-wing government Finland has had since the 1930s. Their overall interpretation of the elections results is that Finland ‘needs a change in direction’, and that people particularly want new fiscal policies.

    How much public debate was there around Finland’s accession to NATO?

    There has never been a lot of public political debate over Finland’s accession to NATO. Politicians used to maintain a position that it was never the right time for it, and if Finland were to change its position of neutrality and consider accession to NATO, a referendum would be organised before a final decision was made.

    But the situation changed when Russia attacked Ukraine. Polls showed a significant increase in support for accession, rising to above 60 per cent. Almost no members of parliament publicly raised concerns or expressed an opinion against Finland’s accession. In the end, Finland applied for NATO membership without a referendum being held. It was considered that the polls were a strong enough indication of citizen support.

    What is the new government programme’s stance on civil society and human rights?

    All three parties that received the most votes in the election are largely committed to supporting civil society and recognise the value of safeguarding civic space. The new government’s programme, published on 16 June, confirms that a vibrant civil society is a prerequisite for social development and states that in all its activities Finland will promote the principles of democracy, civil society and the rule of law.

    However, it also states that Finland will reduce the number of refugees it welcomes, control immigration and limit the rights of migrants. It doesn’t mention the issues of loss and damage and climate finance. While it claims that Finland will stick to its national Climate Change Act, which commits it to become climate-neutral by 2035, it also states that this must not be done at the expense of increasing daily living costs or negatively impacting on the market competitiveness of Finnish industries.

    How is civil society working to safeguard human rights and democracy in Finland?

    Civil society works at the local and national levels to promote human rights and safeguard democracy in Finland.

    In regard to democracy, Finnish civil society has a role in providing training for democracy skills (such as decision-making in communities and communication skills); advocating towards policy-makers on a variety of societal issues; as well as working with decision-makers and officials for the implementation of democratic decisions. For example, with regards to social and health care services as well as development cooperation, this last role in implementation is quite crucial. Generally, the basis for the work of Finnish civil society is human rights: concretely this means for example working for the economic rights of vulnerable people in Finland or promoting the ‘leave no one behind’ -principle in development cooperation.

    Fingo has three main areas of work: advocacy, learning and communications. Advocacy is targeted towards political leaders. Fingo undertakes efforts to improve the operational environment and institutional support for CSOs and to protect civic space. The learning component is particularly targeted at building capacity among member CSOs, offering training on, for example, how to improve advocacy, communication and analytical skills and fundraising proposals, or how to mainstream gender. A significant portion of this component is to advance global citizenship education. Communications efforts are targeted at the broader public to uphold and generate further support for human rights and democracy through media engagement and campaigns.

    Following the publication of the new government’s programme, our next step is to re-evaluate the priorities of our advocacy efforts. For example, the new government has left reproductive rights out of development assistance priorities, so this may be an area that needs particular attention. All efforts to jointly protect civic space globally are valuable and support one another.

    Civic space in Finland is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Fingo through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@FingoFi onTwitter.

  • 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.


  • GABON: ‘Civic space and the conditions for the exercise of human rights were difficult under the former regime’

    GeorgesMpagaCIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Georges Mpaga, National Executive President of the Network of Free Civil Society Organisations of Gabon (ROLBG).

    Over the past decade, ROLBG has focused on enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture and arbitrary detention. It advocates to improve civic space in Gabon and Central Africa and campaigns on inhumane detention conditions.

    What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent elections and subsequent military coup?

    The 26 August elections were undoubtedly fraudulent, as were the previous ones. The regime led by predatory dictator Ali Bongo had banned international and domestic observer missions and international media. ROLBG was the only organisation that carried out citizen observation through the parallel vote tabulation system. Because of Bongo’s despotic will, the election was held under totally irregular conditions, in flagrant violation of international norms and standards. The vote count was held behind closed doors, in an opaque context that allowed for large-scale electoral fraud and falsified results.

    On 30 August 2023, the salutary intervention of the defence and security forces put an end to this aberration. For me, as someone from civil society, what has just happened in Gabon is by no means a military coup; it is quite simply a military intervention led by patriots within the army, under the leadership of General Brice Clotaire Oligui Nguema, that put an end to a 56-year imposture, a predatory system and an infernal cycle of rigged elections often punctuated by massive human rights violations. This is our reading of the situation, and it is the general opinion of the Gabonese people, who have just been freed from a criminal dictatorship and oligarchy.

    Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?

    The military intervention on 30 August was justified as a response to the desire shown by the Bongo clan and its Gabonese Democratic Party to remain in power by will or by force, through fraudulent elections and police repression orchestrated by the defence and security forces, which were instrumentalised and took orders from the former president.

    The Gabonese armed forces intervened to avert a bloodbath and replace the Bongo regime: an unrelenting regime that was ruthless towards the Gabonese people, tainted by clientelist relationships, shady business deals, predatory corruption and widespread violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, all sanctioned by fraudulent elections.

    In this sense, the coup in Gabon is not part of a regional trend, but the result of a purely internal process resulting from 56 years of dictatorship and its corollary of human rights violations and the destruction of the country’s economic and social fabric. However, the events underway in Gabon obviously have repercussions in the Central African region, home to some of the worst of Africa’s dictatorships.

    What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?

    Civil society welcomed the military intervention because it sounded the death knell for more than half a century of deceit and predation at the top of the state. Without this intervention, we would have witnessed an unprecedented tragedy.

    The Gabonese army, under the leadership of the Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions (CTRI), the military junta in power, allowed the country to escape a tragedy with incalculable consequences. Seen in this light, the military should be celebrated as heroes. As soon as he took power, General Oligui set about uniting a country that had been deeply divided and traumatised by such a long time of calamitous management by the Bongo family and the mafia interests around them.

    The attitude of the international community is unacceptable to civil society, human rights defenders and the people of Gabon, who have long paid a heavy price. In 2016, when Bongo planned and carried out an electoral coup followed by atrocities against civilians who opposed the electoral masquerade, the international community remained silent, leaving Gabon’s civilians to face their executioner. In view of this, we categorically reject the declarations of the international community, in particular the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union, two institutions that have encouraged the manipulation of constitutions and presidencies for life in Central Africa.

    What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance that the situation will now improve?

    Civic space and the conditions for exercising democratic freedoms and human rights were difficult under the former regime. The rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression were flouted. Many civil society activists and human rights defenders, including myself, spent time in prison or were deprived of their fundamental rights.

    With the establishment of the transitional regime, we are now seeing fundamental change towards an approach that is generally favourable to civil society. The new authorities are working in concert with all the nation’s driving forces, including civil society, which was received on 1 September by General Oligui and his CTRI peers, and I was the facilitator of that meeting. The transitional president, who was sworn in on 4 September, took to work to restore state institutions, human rights and democratic freedoms, and to respect Gabon’s national and international commitments. A strong signal was given on 5 September, with the gradual release of prisoners of conscience, including the leader of Gabon’s largest civil service union confederation, Jean Remi Yama, after 18 months of arbitrary detention.

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

    Get in touch with Georgesthrough hisFacebook page and follow@gmpaga on Twitter.

    The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

  • GABON: ‘Under the old regime civil society was not taken into account’

    PepecyOgouliguendeCIVICUS discusses the military coup in Gabon with Pepecy Ogouliguende, expert in human rights, governance, gender and peace mediation and founder and president of Malachie.

    Malachie is a Gabonese civil society organisation that combats poverty and promotes sustainable development and gender equality. It is active in a areas that include biodiversity protection, aid in the event of natural disasters, medical support, particularly for people living with HIV/AIDS, and human rights education, especially for the most vulnerable groups in society.

    What’s your opinion on Gabon’s recent general election and subsequent military coup?

    At around 3am on 30 August 2023, the Gabonese Electoral Commission announced the results of the presidential election, with incumbent Ali Bongo as the winner. A few minutes later, the military announced they had seized power. It is important to stress that this was not a coup d’état, but a seizure of power by the military. This distinction is justified by the fact that it took place without bloodshed.

    The election was marred by irregularities and the announcement of the results would have led to protests, albeit legitimate, but which would have ended in violence. I would therefore like to salute the bravery of the defence and security forces.

    The military then dissolved all governing institutions and set up a Transition Committee for the Restoration of Institutions (CTRI).

    Was your organisation able to observe the election?

    No, my organisation was unable to observe the election for the simple reason that no international or national observers were admitted. The election was conducted in total secrecy. Like all Gabonese people, I saw that the announced results did not correspond with the results at the ballot box.

    The seizure of power by the defence and security forces in this particular context of public distrust of the authorities and deep suspicion of the election results is rather akin to a patriotic act.

    Why has military intervention taken place now, after so many years of Bongo family rule?

    Our defence and security forces, along with the public, have observed numerous irregularities and dysfunctions in the state apparatus in recent years. They therefore decided to put an end to this regime, which no longer corresponded to the aspirations of the Gabonese people.

    The military saw an opportunity in the 26 August election to end the current system by assuming their responsibilities to save the nation and the rule of law. The aim of this seizure of power is to ‘restore the dignity of the Gabonese people’. As the CTRI spokesperson put it, ‘we are finally on the road to happiness’.

    What’s your perspective on international criticism of the coup?

    The international community simply acted by the book without first analysing the context. Gabon’s is a very special case.

    Celebrations on the streets of Gabon’s main cities showed the extent to which the old regime was no longer wanted, just tolerated. These scenes of popular jubilation, which contrast with the international community’s condemnation, should be a wake-up call to the international community, inviting it to review its approach, which is more focused on safeguarding stability at all costs, often to the detriment of real social progress, development or economic growth – in short, at the expense of the wellbeing of the majority.

    All those in the international community who spoke up condemned the ‘coup d’état’ and assured us that they were following developments in Gabon with interest, while reiterating their attachment to respect for institutions. Reactions from international organisations were very strong: the United Nations condemned the coup and the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) suspended Gabon because they directly associated this ‘coup d’état’ with those that had previously taken place elsewhere in the region.

    The USA has distanced itself somewhat by stating that it will work with its partners and the people to support the democratic process underway. This is where we look to the rest of the international community to help us work towards building strong institutions.

    We salute those states that have clearly understood the need for this change. We condemn AU and ECCAS sanctions. The international community should support states in respecting their laws and constitutions and ensuring that democracy and human rights are respected.

    Do you think this coup is part of a regional trend?

    First and foremost, it should be reminded that in the case of Gabon, this was a military takeover and not a coup d’état in the strict sense of the term. It was in fact the result of bad governance and failure to take account of the needs of the population, particularly social needs, but also of the thirst for change. It can have regional impacts in the sense that most African populations are experiencing the same difficulties – youth unemployment, poverty, lack of access to healthcare – and aspire to major change. When people don’t feel taken into account by policymakers, they become frustrated.

    We don’t rule out the possibility that this will have an impact on our neighbours. It is not too late for the regimes in power in Central Africa to seize this opportunity to rethink the way they serve their people.

    What were conditions like for civil society under Bongo family rule? Do you think there is any chance the situation will now improve?

    In Gabon, the operation of organisations and associations is governed by law 35/62, which guarantees freedom of association. That said, under the old regime civil society was not taken into account. It was only partly involved in the management of public affairs.

    Some leaders, particularly trade union leaders, could be arrested or intimidated if the regime felt they were being overzealous. Several Gabonese civil society leaders denounced arbitrary arrests linked to their opinions and positions.

    Like the Gabonese people, civil society is delighted at the change. Civil society as a whole is committed to taking an active part in the actions and reforms carried out by the authorities during the transition, to promote respect for human rights, equity and social justice, the preservation of peace and good governance.

    The CTRI has just authorised the release of some of Gabon’s leading trade unionists and prisoners of conscience. In view of the first decisions taken by the CTRI, the best is yet to come. I can safely say that the Gabon of tomorrow will be better. Today there is a glimmer of hope.

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

    Get in touch with Malachie through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

    The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

  • 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.

  • GEORGIA: ‘Civil society must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts’

    NinoUgrekhelidze GuramImnadzeCIVICUS speaks about Georgian civil society’s successful campaign against the draft Agents of Foreign Influence Law with Nino Ugrekhelidze, co-founder of the CEECCNA (Central Eastern Europe, Caucasus, and Central and North Asia) Collaborative Fund, and Guram Imnadze, Director of the Democracy and Justice Programme of theSocial Justice Center.

    Founded in 2022, the CEECCNA Collaborative Fund is a feminist fund that moves sustainable resources for social justice movements across the CEECCNA region.

    The Social Justice Center is a progressive civil society organisation (CSO) working on human rights and social justice in Georgia. It seeks to identify the structural reasons for economic, social and political inequality, and share critical knowledge while contributing to change through democratic means.

    What was the draft Foreign Agents Law that was proposed in Georgia?

    On 20 February 2023, the ruling party presented a draft law on ‘Agents of Foreign Influence’. The initiative would affect any Georgian-language media and any CSO registered in Georgia that receive more than 20 per cent of their annual income from a ‘foreign power’, meaning a foundation or organisation registered outside Georgia. They would be forced to register on a ‘Foreign Influence Agents Registry’ and disclose foreign funding. If they failed to do          so, they would risk very high fines.

    But the need for more transparency is an excuse, because there are already numerous laws regulating the financial transactions and transparency of legal entities, CSOs included, such as the Law on Grants and the Law on Budgeting and Accounting. There have not been cases of CSOs not complying with the existing legal requirements. In fact, most large CSOs also use their media platforms to provide annual financial reports and list their donors.

    The draft law includes language that has negative connotations in Georgia due to our Soviet past. ‘Agent’ means ‘traitor’, especially if used together with the adjective ‘foreign’. It has the clear purpose of delegitimising independent CSOs and critical media by labelling us as enemies of the state, politically biased and aligned with the opposition.

    The government is doing everything it can to delegitimise CSOs as local actors voicing real local needs. They don’t want the public to listen to us when we criticise the government and provide information that is true and in the interest of the country – they want them to believe that we are the ones lying to them.

    This is part of a larger government stigmatising campaign against civil society and independent media, which gained momentum over the past few months.

    Who would be most affected if this law was passed?

    It is critical to highlight the role that CSOs have played in Georgia since we gained independence – civil society has played a key role in the democratic transition and in ensuring the provision of services the government could not provide, particularly to vulnerable groups. When the state could not fully perform its duties, it was civil society that stepped in and got the work done.

    If the law was passed, people with HIV and disabilities, survivors of domestic violence, women, children and LGBTQI+ people would be among the first to be directly impacted. Programmes targeted at these groups have been created and operated by Georgian CSOs, because the government is either not interested and therefore does not prioritise this work or does not have the money for it.

    Of course, as the government is not funding these programmes, Georgian CSOs operating them typically get their funding from outside the country. Domestically, there is very little interest in funding civil society; domestic funding is almost non-existent and CSOs are severely underfunded. Major civil society donors are various private and public foundations, and bilateral and multilateral institutions from the USA and the European Union, all of which maintain political neutrality. Many of them even fund the government agencies as well.

    If the law were adopted, given the difficulties in fundraising domestically, CSOs would be exposed to financial starvation. Numerous CSOs would have to shut down. And this would be no accident: it is part of a very intentional attack on the financial resilience of CSOs.

    How has civil society organised against the bill?

    Over 380 CSOs signed a statement explaining their strong opposition to the bill. Civil society and independent media worked hard to reach people with compelling messages, avoiding NGO jargon and explaining in simple terms why this bill is against the interests of the country and against democracy – why, in fact, this bill is a Russian import, part of a trend that is quickly gaining ground across the region.

    It took some effort to mobilise against the bill because civil society had been demonised for so long already, and many people did not want to support ‘foreign agents’. But our key message was that our government may have pro-Russian course, but our people do not, and we don’t intend to be part of the Russian Federation ever again. This connected with a widespread sentiment of Georgian people.

    This messaging dispelled the climate of resignation that things cannot change and helped mobilise people. On 7 March, parliament passed the draft law in the first reading, but just as the bill was being discussed, tens of thousands gathered outside parliament to protest in Tbilisi. There were protests day and night, for several days in a row. This was one of the largest demonstrations in Georgia’s modern history.

    The protests were repressed by riot police using rubber bullets, teargas and water cannon. At least one person lost an eye because of police brutality. Over 150 people were detained for ‘disobedience’ but later released following further pressure from protesters.

    As a result of the protests, the bill was recalled on 10 March. That day we realised that if we come together, things can change. There was a spirit of resistance, unity, dignity and solidarity in the protests. People who were not necessarily politicised became interested in politics. And it all started because civil society came together to stand up against a bill that posed an existential threat.

    Protesters connected in a very well-articulated way the situation in Georgia with the plight of Ukraine, and understood this as a fight against Russian political interests trying to absorb us as a country. That’s why they also showed solidarity with Ukraine, singing their anthem and displaying pro-Ukraine messages.

    The way young Georgians reacted gives us hope for the future. The way they came together, the way they protested, the messages they conveyed – it was so politically consistent and coherent. They protested, they resisted, and when the protest was over, they even cleaned the public space after themselves. They were truly amazing.

    Would you say danger has passed?

    Parliament is currently on its best behaviour because it had a moment of realisation that this might turn into a revolution. In pushing forward the bill, the government thought there was no limit to its power, but found such a limit in the protests. A sentiment started spreading among protesters that they could fire their representatives, send them home. But the government’s targeting of civil society is not over yet – it is only starting. Although the bill has been withdrawn, the prime minister has already said that they are going to continue pushing for it. He even doubled down as he mentioned that their step will be to tackle so-called ‘gay propaganda’, another Russian import that is part of the crackdown on progressive civil society.

    The government continues its campaign against civil society. Even if the law does not pass, the official narrative keeps labelling civil society and independent media as ‘foreign agents’, and the consequences of this will continue to be felt for a long time. In Kutaisi, for instance, a social justice activist saw their home vandalised, and someone marked it with a sign alerting that ‘an agent lives here’. It is to be expected that anti-rights forces will use this language as a weapon against civil society activists.

    And of course, the authorities continue to use other tools they have to obstruct civil society work. For instance, Georgia has a problematic administrative code that grants the police and the courts the right to use administrative sanctions such as fines and detentions without sufficient evidence and due process. Such measures are often used against civil society and human rights activists. Since 2016, administrative fines for most common administrative offences have quadrupled. This is a serious barrier for civil society work, as it is expensive for activists to pay the fines.

    What kind of international support does Georgian civil society currently need?

    Georgia is currently experiencing a rapidly shrinking civic space, and the government is sliding towards authoritarianism. International solidarity and conversations on the political situation in Georgia and the whole post-Soviet region are going to be critical.

    In post-Soviet countries, the influence of Russian politics is very strong. There is an actual war going on in Ukraine, and what is happening in Georgia is in a way war by different means. These are two fronts of the same fight against Russian imperialism. Understanding this is essential.

    Also, we need to talk more about where money comes from for anti-rights organisations. There are very clear mechanisms to track where money comes from when it comes to CSOs and independent media, but there are none to investigate where funding for anti-rights groups such as religious fundamentalist and far-right organisations comes from. One reason is that they often don’t register as CSOs – this means they wouldn’t even be under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Agents Law if it were passed. Lots of money for these organisations is coming from Russia without any conditionalities or reporting mechanisms in place.

    This is a way bigger problem than Georgia having a Foreign Agents Law. We need to make the connection to what is happening elsewhere. In Ukraine and Moldova there were also attempts to adopt a similar law and people pushed back. The logic of this law is already working in Mongolia, and it is effectively in place in Belarus.

    We need more complex conversations about what we are organising against, how this is impacting us, what tactics are being used and how human rights language and spaces are being co-opted. The obvious types of support needed are spaces for such conversations and funding, because ultimately, for us to resist, we need spaces to reflect, build strategies and develop our political imagination, and we need resources, given that we are already so underfunded across the region. We must be ready for any further regressive move the government attempts. We haven’t seen the last of it.

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

    Get in touch with the Social Justice Center through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@SjcCenter and@niiugre on Twitter.

  • Georgia: danger averted, for now

    By Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

    Georgian civil society can breathe a sigh of relief. A proposed repressive law that would have severely worsened the space for activism has been shelved – for now. But the need for vigilance remains.

    Russia-style law

    A proposed ‘foreign agents’ law would have required civil society organisations (CSOs) and media outlets in Georgia receiving over 20 per cent of funding from outside the country to register as a ‘foreign agent’. Non-compliance would have been punishable with fines and even jail sentences.

    The law’s proponents, including Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, claimed it was modelled on one passed in the USA in 1938. The US law was introduced to check the insidious spread of Nazi propaganda in the run-up to the Second World War, and wasn’t targeted at CSOs.

    Read on Inter Press Service



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