GERMANY: ‘Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger’
CIVICUS speaks with Zoe Ruge of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Germany.
Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to urge governments to address the climate emergency, enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.
What forms of protest has Last Generation deployed in Germany?
Last Generation has come to dominate the climate movement in Germany, so its tactics have become the prevailing tactics. The most common form of climate protest in Germany is currently street blockades, and blockades of public infrastructure more generally, because they are efficient at creating a certain level of disruption. A small number of people protesting peacefully is all it takes to generate a wide public reach. Additionally, street blockades are a platform to have talks with politicians and citizens about the climate crisis, do media work and underline our demands.
Alongside disrupting everyday traffic, we draw attention to the major responsibility of the richest one- to-10 per cent of the population. To target them specifically, we block airports, spray-paint private jets, disrupt big events and bring protests into museums and other public spaces.
Our street blockades hurt society the least and put no one’s life in danger. We take adequate security measures, for instance to make sure no emergency vehicle gets stuck in traffic. In case of an emergency, we are ready to open the blockade and clear the street.
We know the kind of civil disobedience tactics we use face criticism, and we constantly reflect on our practices and take all feedback into consideration. We have aimed to choose a protest form that effectively rises awareness and is the least disruptive for people, and we think the street blockade is one such form. It may cause people to get to work half an hour late one day, but it provides a much-needed opportunity to stop people’s everyday routine and encourage them reflect on what we’re doing and where it’s leading us.
What have been your biggest achievements?
More people are realising the seriousness of the crisis we’re facing. Street blockades allow us to talk to people who would normally not get involved but are forced to listen and ask questions about our reasons to be there and our demands. Through disruption, we’ve been able to bring a lot of climate-related topics into public discourse, not only through media coverage but also thanks to local, face-to-face conversations. We are seeing rising awareness, which is necessary to deal with the consequences of the climate crisis.
In terms of policies, one of our demands during the first protest wave was a law similar to the one France has, to save food from going to waste in supermarkets. One third of all food is lost in the production chain, which equates to a lot of preventable CO2 emissions. Such a law is currently being discussed in several federal states.
In terms of public awareness, when street blockades began about a year ago they attracted 25 to 30 people, and now they bring thousands to the streets in Berlin. Churches are standing behind us and civil society groups are also voicing demands for climate action.
Overall, we are receiving increasing support from the whole society. We get invitations to discuss the climate crisis with politicians, artists, at schools and with other parts of civil society. In response to the criminalisation we are facing, which has included the freezing of some of our assets, we have also seen a rise in donations from the public.
What are your demands to the German government?
What Last Generation demands are pretty simple things that must be done to tackle the consequences of the climate crisis and prevent it escalating. We demand a speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour in Germany, which would bring a reduction of more than 6.7 million tons of CO2 emissions a year, and a permanent €9 (US$9.90) monthly ticket to make public transportation affordable. This was tested last year and was a huge success, as many people shifted from using cars to using public transport – but now it’s quite expensive again.
Our third demand is the establishment of a citizen assembly as a long-term mechanism for us to deal with the climate crisis as a society and end the use of fossil fuels in a socially just manner by 2030. Since our politicians are not even able or willing to implement a speed limit, we need citizens to be able to help tackle the climate crisis through more direct democratic tools.
As part of a global movement, Last Generation works in close cooperation with Debt For Climate, a grassroots global south-driven initiative connecting social justice and climate justice struggles with the aim of freeing impoverished countries from a debt burden that is often used as a tool for further natural resource extraction. We support their demand for financial support because they are the primary victims of climate change that they haven’t caused. German politicians tend to argue that the climate catastrophe isn’t happening in Germany, although it is indeed taking place, maybe to a lesser extent. But in other parts of the world people are already dying because of it while more developed countries continue benefiting from their resources.
How have German authorities reacted to your demands?
Reactions have varied at different government levels. We’ve had very productive talks with local politicians who have shown openness and understanding. But at the federal level we’ve faced a harsh and criminalising public discourse. Last Generation is being called a criminal group and increasingly treated as such.
We face accusations that we are hurting the cause of climate protection because our tactics are scaring people away. But it’s not true. The government is just trying to shift the focus from the substance of our demands to the form of our actions and avoiding our questions of why we still don’t have a speed limit and why we still don’t have proper affordable public transportation even though we have the resources for it.
The fact that our government isn’t willing to act as the climate emergency demands and is instead turning against us is the main challenge that we as climate activists currently face.
How is the government criminalising climate activism?
There are between 3,000 and 4,000 cases coming to court soon, mainly connected to street blockades. In Germany, this kind of spontaneous demonstration is protected by law, but once the police intervene and tell you to leave, it’s not so clear whether the assembly continues to be legally protected. There are also accusations of vandalism on the basis that people have damaged walls by spray-painting them.
A serious accusation being used against climate activists is that of being part of a criminal group. Based on section 129A of the German Criminal Code, when the police start an investigation on these grounds they can listen to your phone calls, read your messages and search your homes. This is weird because Last Generation is so transparent that anything the government would like to know about us – our structures, our funding, our planned protests – is publicly accessible. We have nothing to hide.
This June, some of us experienced searches of our homes, our website was taken down, our bank accounts were frozen and we had work materials confiscated. Activists are struggling because it’s scary to feel that the police could force their way in, search your entire home and take away whatever they want.
A friend of mine, Simon Lachner, was recently taken from his home to the police station and kept there for the entire day, just because he had publicly announced a protest scheduled for that afternoon. In Bavaria, people have been repeatedly taken into preventive custody for long periods of time to keep them from protesting. This form of preventing protests is becoming more common.
What kind of support are you receiving, and what further support would you need to continue your work?
The criminalisation of peaceful protests organised by people who aren’t trying to hurt anyone but who want to protect lives elicits instant solidarity. Thousands of people have joined Last Generation’s protest marches. Frozen funds have been almost fully replaced by donations pouring in. People contact us to ask how they can play their part in climate activism.
We’re also part of the A22 international network of climate movements that use civil disobedience tactics, and this also supports us, especially in the face of criminalisation. Other organisations from all around the world are reaching out to us and offering help such as legal support.
What we need is for everybody to consider their potential role in building a more resilient society. One of the most efficient ways to fulfil our collective responsibility is by exercising our right to protest within a democratic system.
Civic space in Germany is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
GLOBAL HEALTH: ‘On World AIDS Day we remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over’
CIVICUS speaks with Gastón Devisich, Head of Community Engagement of Fundación Huésped’s Research Department, about the role of civil society in the fight against HIV/AIDS, both at the community level and in global governance bodies.
Fundación Huésped is an Argentinian civil society organisation (CSO) that has been working since 1989 on public health, including on the right to health and disease control. It is a member of the regional platformCoalición Plus and, represented by Gastón, one of the two Latin American and Caribbean organisations that are part of the NGO Delegation to the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board.
What have been the results of the latest round of pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and what will be their implications?
The primary goal of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is to make catalytic investments and leverage innovations to drive faster progress in reducing new infections, address structural barriers to improving outcomes for these pandemics and build equity, sustainability and lasting impact. Its new strategy places people and communities front and centre in all its work, challenging power dynamics to ensure that affected communities have a voice in the fight and opportunities for a healthy future.
The Global Fund’s Seventh Replenishment has brought in a total of US$15.7 billion. It was the culmination of a successful campaign that began more than a year ago. It is a remarkable achievement, not only because several public and private donors increased their pledges, in many cases by more than 30 per cent, but also because a record number of implementing governments – at least 20 – have stepped up to become donors as well.
This support will be dedicated to saving 20 million lives, averting 450 million new infections and generating new hope for ending AIDS, TB and malaria. This investment will also strengthen health and community systems to increase resilience to future crises.
Given its central role in the fight against pandemics, the Global Fund also plans to continue contributing to the global pandemic preparedness agenda in coordination with the World Health Organization, the World Bank and other partners.
What role does civil society have in the governance of UNAIDS?
The Joint United Nations (UN) Programme on HIV/AIDS, known as UNAIDS, was the first UN programme to have formal civil society representation on its governing body. The participation of CSOs on the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board is critical to the effective inclusion of community voices in this key global policy forum in the area of HIV/AIDS.
The NGO Delegation is composed of five CSOs, three from developing countries and two from developed countries or countries with economies in transition, plus five more acting as alternate members. Our purpose is to bring the perspectives and experience of people living with HIV/AIDS and those populations particularly affected by the pandemic, as well as civil society, to ensure that UNAIDS is guided by an equitable, rights-based, gender-sensitive approach to ensuring access to comprehensive HIV prevention, diagnosis, treatment, care and support for all people.
The existence of a community delegation within the highest governance body of a programme such as UNAIDS is critical to ensure the meaningful involvement of populations most affected by HIV at all levels of policy and programme development, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Strengthening meaningful community engagement fosters a relationship of greater trust and respect with those of us who are the direct beneficiaries of any programme or policy.
The involvement of all stakeholders, provided it is transparent and based on mutual understanding, can minimise misunderstandings and reduce the likelihood of unnecessary conflict or controversy. This helps improve our access to rights and the provision of quality services necessary to ensure it, as well as addressing power inequalities between decision-makers and the community to establish more equitable and horizontal relationships.
Why is it important to incorporate the voices of communities in decision-making spaces?
There is an urgent need to develop additional strategies to address the HIV epidemic. A wide range of factors create, intensify and perpetuate the impact of the virus and its underlying determinants may be rooted in the cultural, legal, institutional and economic fabric of society.
To achieve a comprehensive response to HIV, it is essential to recognise power imbalances and address them by developing practices that prevent their inadvertent replication or reinforcement throughout the implementation of programmes and policies.
Local organisations have unique expertise to contribute to the HIV response. We have critical knowledge and understanding of local cultures, perspectives and language, the local dynamics of the HIV epidemic, the concerns of the most vulnerable or marginalised populations and local priorities that other stakeholders may not necessarily have. The community can help ensure that the goals and procedures of HIV response are appropriate and acceptable for them, in order to avoid reinforcing existing inequalities.
What does Fundación Huésped’s work consist of, both at the national level and within this global space?
Our comprehensive approach includes the development of research, practical solutions and communication related to public health policies in Argentina and Latin America. We seek to develop scientific studies and preventive actions and advocate for rights to guarantee access to health and reduce the impact of diseases, with a focus on HIV/AIDS, viral hepatitis, vaccine-preventable diseases and other communicable diseases, as well as sexual and reproductive health.
As representatives of civil society in UNAIDS, we actively seek the views of our communities on key issues related to UNAIDS policies and programmes, and advocate with governments and cosponsoring organisations – 10 UN organisations that make up the UNAIDS Joint Programme – for significant improvements in the implementation and evaluation of HIV/AIDS policies and programmes.
What challenges do organisations working on HIV/AIDS face and what support do they need to continue doing their work?
The HIV agenda is still current, with new challenges and the persistence of stigma, discrimination and rights violations. Forty years after the first cases of HIV were reported in the world, and thanks to scientific advances, the implementation of policies, plans and programmes, civil society activism and human rights achievements, there are more and better strategies available to control the virus, which could end AIDS today. Yet this year there were 1.5 million new HIV cases and 680,000 new AIDS-related deaths worldwide – including 110,000 cases and 52,000 deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean.
World AIDS Day, 1 December, is our annual opportunity to remind people that the HIV pandemic is not over. Over the past 40 years science has generated much innovation, but these benefits do not reach all people equally. The best science in the world cannot compete with the debilitating effects of poor health systems. To end AIDS we need to correct the course of the HIV response, starting with ending inequities. A better response is needed today. We cannot afford to waste any more time.
Governments must do more to protect civil society
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GREECE: ‘The criminalisation of solidarity has had a chilling effect’
CIVICUS speaks with Melina Spathari, Director of Strategy and Programmes at HumanRights360 (HR360), about theprosecution of civil society activists working with migrants and refugees in Greece.
HR360 is a Greek human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks toprotect the rights of all people, empowering them to exercise their rights, with a focus on the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, including migrants and refugees.
What is the current situation for civil society activists and organisations helping migrants in Greece?
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights defenders stated following her official visit to Greece in June 2022, ‘defenders in the country working to ensure the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants are currently under severe pressure… At the tip of the spear are prosecutions, where acts of solidarity are reinterpreted as criminal activity, specifically the crime of people smuggling… The negative impact of such cases is multiplied by smear campaigns perpetuating this false image of defenders’.
Since 2010, Greek ruling parties have demonised CSOs, criticising their use of public funding, to delegitimise their criticism of pushbacks of migrants and their condemnation of the conditions in reception and identification centres and refugee camps. In most cases, the allegations against CSOs later proved to be unfounded. This phenomenon is part of a worrying trend that negatively affects CSOs around the globe, which is why civil society has increasingly organised and developed strategies to resist and respond to the attacks they face from governments.
Why is the Greek government criminalising solidarity with migrants and refugees?
In the case of Greece, the speed and impetus of the ongoing crackdown has been fuelled by current trends in both international and domestic politics, involving hostile relations with Turkey and imminent elections in both countries. Deploying a witch-hunt against CSOs kills many birds with one stone: it helps the government gain votes from the far-right side of the political spectrum and helps it manage the damage caused to its reputation by wrong political decisions and neglectful practices. Last but not least, by vilifying CSOs that are active and vocal in the field of human rights, the authorities aspire to manipulate and silence civil society as a whole.
And to some extent, it has worked. Criminalisation has had a chilling effect. There have been some attempts among civil society to gather, discuss, assess the situation and work on a joint strategy, but these actions didn’t flourish. CSOs are now afraid to raise their voice, and we understand them: they have good reason to be intimidated. Still, some acts of solidarity have taken place, especially when those targeted were respected veteran human rights defenders.
Has HR360 been targeted?
In November 2022, the authorities stepped up an attack against our organisation: they demonised HR360 for receiving foreign funding aimed at regranting and disclosed the personal financial situation of HR360’s founders. The public prosecutor began a preliminary investigation, which hasn’t yet produced any outcomes. No information has been revealed, nor has any criminal process been ordered. HR360 finds itself in limbo, facing huge administrative and financial consequences and experiencing severe impacts on staff morale.
But HR360 is not the only victim of this vile smear campaign. In late 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office criminally charged Panagiotis Dimitras, director of the Greek Helsinki Monitor, and Tommy Olsen, founder and director of Aegean Boat Report, a Norwegian CSO that monitors and shares data about the movement of people in the Aegean Sea, for ‘forming a criminal organisation with the purpose of receiving details of citizens of third countries, who attempt to enter Greece illegally, in order to facilitate their illegal entry and stay’. Following the same pattern applied to HR360, Dimitras has been accused of repeatedly conducting activities aimed at gaining illegal income.
What support does Greek civil society need to resist and continue doing its work?
Greek civil society needs more international support, which is currently quite limited and restricted to its advocacy work – that is, it can be used to help migrants and refugees, but not for CSOs and activists to protect themselves and therefore retain the capacity to continue doing their work.
Right now, what Greek activists and CSOs need the most is legal support, including funding to cover legal fees. And in terms of changing the situation in the long term, what’s also needed is a well-organised European awareness campaign highlighting both the vital work civil society is doing and the attacks the government is subjecting it to. This would be very helpful, since bad publicity at the European level is one of the things Greek authorities fear the most.
GREECE: ‘Together we can do more’
CIVICUS speaks about the state of civil society and civic space in Greece with Sotiris Petropoulos, director of Higher Incubator Giving Growth and Sustainability (HIGGS), an initiative that seeks to strengthen Greek civil society organisations (CSOs) through education and support programmes and activities. HIGGS’ purpose is to mobilise the ‘invisible’ forces of the CSO ecosystem, stimulating people and organisations to undertake new, innovative initiatives, and providing the right conditions for their incubation and acceleration.
What are the current conditions for civil society in Greece?
Greece is a democracy with a relatively open civic space. The 2010 socioeconomic crisis enhanced a trend towards increasingly active CSOs playing an important role in covering societal needs. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a regression in the freedoms enjoyed by organised civil society in the form of barriers, mostly of a legal nature, that make CSO work more difficult.
A first indication of this trend was seen when the government elected in July 2019 started gradually creating a more strict and formal oversight system of Greek CSOs, mainly through the introduction of new official registries under relevant ministries, such as a register of CSOs working with migrants and refugees, and so on.
Then in October 2021 draft legislation on CSOs proposed by the Ministry of Interior was put out for public consultation. The initiative was aimed at establishing a single registry of CSOs to replace the existing nine separate databases, so as to enhance transparency about their activities and fundraising activities.
At first, many CSOs welcomed this initiative as an opportunity to strengthen civil society, abolish complicated and bureaucratic procedures, unify all existing registries and ensure a safe and independent environment for CSOs to operate.
However, it soon became clear that the proposed legislation was aimed in a different direction: it would establish mechanisms to monitor rather than support CSOs, enhancing bureaucratic procedures, adding new limitations – such as a requirement for all CSO board members to have a clean criminal record – and increasing their overall operational costs. Moreover, it included some points that were quite problematic, especially for new or small organisations. For instance, to access the registry CSOs would need to have their accounts assessed by certified auditors, a rather costly service, especially for many small-to-medium CSOs with fluctuating budgets. But even those that could afford it probably wouldn’t prioritise this expense and would rather use the funds on their substantive work – say, for buying 1,000 meals to distribute among homeless people.
Another problematic point was the so-called ‘three-year limitation’, a provision that CSOs must have been legally established for at least three years to be eligible to enter the new registry, creating another barrier for some organisations. These points, among others, would widen the gap between big and small organisations and, overall, would create new obstacles for civil society work. In retrospect, the proposed legal framework mirrored the government’s view that only big organisations are and can be transparent and efficient, which in fact runs counter to existing evidence.
In addition, the government’s proposal seemed to be part of an overall ‘policing approach’ towards the segment of civil society it cannot understand or control – a continuation of a measure that had been introduced a year earlier, establishing an even more problematic registry exclusively for CSOs operating in the field of migration and refugees.
How did society respond to the proposed initiative?
The draft law was published in October 2021, just five weeks before the parliamentary vote on the proposal. The timeline for public consultation was short, but the civil society response was fast and massive.
Major CSO networks established a task force to coordinate a joint strategy to respond collectively with specific proposals to improve the draft law.
The first step was to inform all CSOs about the draft law. HIGGS sent emails, posted the proposal on social media and held online public events. In the meantime, we started to draft and share a joint public statement and called on all CSOs to support it by co-signing it and sharing it. This public statement collected 303 signatures, an impressive number by Greek standards. It was one of the biggest collective actions of Greek civil society ever recorded.
Taking advantage of this momentum, we made targeted calls for action to motivate all CSOs to work, both together and individually, to put pressure on members of parliament by calling them on the phone, sending them emails and sharing briefing papers with them.
During the public consultation process, HIGGS put together a policy proposal that contained improvements to the draft law, which was supported by over 45 organisations.
We encouraged all networks to be loud about the draft bill. We all communicated every single development through our media channels, published joint press releases and created social media campaigns.
What did the campaign achieve?
In response to all these actions, the Minister of Interior, Makis Voridis, invited some organisations to working meetings and eventually included some of our policy proposals in the final version of the law.
Law 4873/2021 was passed in December and introduced a new registration procedure for CSOs that seek to access government funding and receive various tax and economic privileges. The process is clear and has clear timeframe. In addition, in the area of volunteerism, specific provisions for emergency situations that were missing were added.
We value the sense of unity, solidarity and power of joint forces as the greatest legacy of this process. This approach is something that most CSOs agreed was missing in Greek civil society, and there is much space to work towards this direction in the future.
What about the restrictions targeting CSOs that work with migrants and refugees?
Over the past few years, several measures were implemented that were meant to discourage or restrict the work of CSOs working in the field of human rights and migration.
In September 2020, the government introduced a ministerial decision that established that Greek and foreign CSOs working in the field of migration, asylum, and social inclusion in Greece must fulfil an exhaustive list of formal and substantive requirements to register with the Ministry of Migration and Asylum. The required documentation targets both the organisation and its staff, members and volunteers, and non-registration would automatically lead to operations being ceased. Moreover, the Ministry of Migration and Asylum was granted complete discretion to accept or reject a CSO’s application.
Among a huge amount of bureaucratic documentation, these CSOs were required to submit audit reports for the previous two years, entailing costs that may be too much of a burden for small grassroots CSOs. For staff, members and volunteers, CSOs must provide criminal records and proof of permanent residence in Greece. If an individual does not meet the requirements, not just the individual concerned but also the CSO may be withdrawn from the registration process.
Concerns over the transparency of the registration process soon increased, as a former political group affiliated with the ruling party turned into a CSO working in the field of asylum: it was approved to receive over €5 million (approx. US$5.5 million) in funding within a week.
Another initiative – the Deportations and Returns Bill – that was submitted to parliament in August 2021 contained provisions to restrict the operation of CSOs through criminal and financial sanctions for individuals and institutions.
On top of the ongoing criminalisation of solidarity towards migrant and refugees, we observed the first effects of these laws and regulations, such as the rejection of Refugee Support Aegean’s application for registration with the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
What’s next for Greek civil society?
The task force of civil society networks that was formed in response to the draft bill on the CSO registry did not dissolve after the bill was passed. It remains active and continues monitoring the implementation of the new legislation, pushing for changes to those articles that are found to create obstacles to the exercise of the right to freedom to association, and keeping all CSOs informed of any new developments.
In HIGGS we believe in joint actions, teamwork, and cooperation within civil society. We encourage various forms of networking – one of our mottos is ‘together we can do more’. This is our philosophy and to live up to it. Our programmes offer a variety of perspectives and promote unity and solidarity within the diversity of Greek civil society. The ecosystem of Greek CSOs is gradually entering its mature age. We expect advocacy to become a more core activity of CSOs, and we are working on it.
We view our experience of collaboration in the face of potentially damaging legislation as the beginning of a new area for Greek civil society – one in which the culture of cooperation makes all of us stronger.
GREECE: ‘We need a change in narratives as well as in policies towards migration’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece and the role of civil society in policymaking with Lefteris Papagiannakis, Head of Advocacy, Policy and Research atSolidarity Now and former Vice Mayor on Migrant and Refugee Affairs for the Municipality of Athens. Solidarity Now is a civil society organisation (CSO) that works with vulnerable groups, with a focus on migrants and refugee communities in Greece in order to help them achieve dignity and a better future.
Groundbreaking tool tracking civic freedoms worldwide to launch 24.10.2016
The CIVICUS Monitor is a new global platform tracking violations of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in real-time.
Johannesburg, 18 October 2016 - In light of widespread global restrictions on civil society, CIVICUS is launching a new tool to measure the freedoms that people around the world have to protest, organise and speak out. The tool will go online at 00.01 Central Africa Time (CAT) on 24 October 2016 (UN World Development Information Day).
The CIVICUS Monitor will rate country respect for civic space in five broad categories from Closed to Open, based on how well they uphold the three fundamental rights that allow citizens to come together and demand change: freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression. In addition to the 104 country ratings available on launch day, the latest updates on civic space will be available for most countries in the world.
CIVICUS will also be releasing numbers on which types of violations were most common and the driving forces behind them, based on analysis of more than 200 national-level updates on civic freedoms gathered over the past four months (June – October 2016).
By signing up to the Sustainable Development Goals last year, world leaders agreed that people must be able to take part in making the decisions that affect their lives, and to ensure access to information (Goal 16). The CIVICUS Monitor will show how the key civic freedoms that should allow for this are coming under sustained assault.
Ratings are based on a combination of inputs from local civil society advocates, regionally-based research partners and civil society experts, existing assessments, user-generated input and media-monitoring. Local views are prioritised and all users are invited to contribute information on the situation in their countries. The number of countries rated by the CIVICUS Monitor will increase over time and news updates will be added each weekday.
Launching online at https://monitor.civicus.org/
00.01 Central Africa Time (CAT), 24 October 2016
Notes to editors:
For advance access to the CIVICUS Monitor web platform under embargo or to set up an interview, please contact CIVICUS’ global press office on . Interviews can be arranged in advance with CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah and CIVICUS Monitor Researcher Cathal Gilbert, as well as regional researchers.
A one-minute video explainer on civic space and the CIVICUS Monitor is available here.
CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world.
GUATEMALA: ‘Anti-rights groups seek to maintain the privileges of some at the expense of the rights of others’
CIVICUS speaks with the team of Visibles about recent anti-rights developments in Guatemala.
Founded in 2017, Visibles is a Guatemalan organisation that works to achieve the full inclusion of diverse people and build a society where all people can exercise their rights and enjoy respect, freedom and wellbeing.
The draft Law for the Protection of Life and the Family had been shelved for several years. Why was it finally approved now?
Bill 5272, passed by the Guatemalan Congress as Decree 18-2022, increased penalties for abortion to a minimum of five years in prison and banned same-sex marriage and the teaching of sexual diversity in schools.
It had been submitted on 26 April 2017 by a representative of the conservative party Visión con Valores (‘Vision with Values’). After obtaining a favourable opinion from the Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs, the full Congress discussed and approved it on its first two readings in 2018.
But to pass a law in Guatemala, it is necessary to gather the support of a certain number of lawmakers before submitting it to a vote on the floor. This did not happen until 2022, when the ruling alliance and the political and economic groups that support them made it one of their priorities to promote this conservative agenda.
The current president of Congress, Shirley Rivera, came to this position after a very limited career, focused solely on proposing laws that stigmatise the transgender population and seek to grant greater freedoms to churches, particularly in the way they report on their finances.
In March, in a sort of counterbalance to the traditional celebration of International Women’s Day, a day of feminist mobilisation, Congress declared a National Day of Commemoration of Life and Family and approved this regressive initiative. From its various branches, the state promoted a number of communication actions and events involving national and international groups linked to the anti-gender movement, aimed at promoting the defence of life from the moment of conception and a traditional, narrow and exclusionary definition of the family – that is, a broad cause that seeks to restrict the autonomy and freedoms of women and LGBTQI+ people.
On the same date, Congress passed Decree 18-2022, and by an overwhelming majority: only eight out of 160 legislators voted against it, while 52 abstained.
Do you see this move as part of a broader regional anti-rights trend?
It definitely is. Anti-rights groups in Guatemala are part of a highly organised and well-funded transnational movement that aims to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people, as well as the broader participation of civil society in public debate and decision-making.
The passing of Decree 18-2022 was not a reaction against the very limited progress made in recent years in the recognition of sexual and gender diversity and women’s rights. It served to reinforce social hierarchies that benefit the powerful and maintain or even increase their power.
Women and LGBTQI+ people are easy targets. The attacks against us reflect a resistance to the social transformations we seek: to unleash the talents and potential of more than half the population.
The feminist, women’s, and diversity movements represent some of the obstacles facing this project of power and control, but they are not the only ones. Another obstacle arises from the fact that thanks to increased access to technology, social discontent has grown and voices have risen demanding accountability. There are growing demands for urgent action to transform the economy to ensure that it serves to create better opportunities for all individuals and families, as well as growing attention on issues such as climate change and the preservation of the environment and of the lives of those resisting transnational extractivism.
How did civil society organise in the face of this anti-rights attack?
In Guatemala, there are numerous organisations – women’s, Indigenous peoples’, youth, sexual and gender diversity, student and religious organisations – that have organised to resist the advances of this regressive agenda. After spaces for the fight against corruption shut down, following the dissolution of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in September 2019, one of the main developments that took place was the criminalisation of those who had promoted it, from human rights defenders to prosecutors and judges who had worked within state institutions.
This closure of spaces prompted the search for new ideas and routes to advance the construction of justice. Now, resistance to the entry into force of Decree 18-2022 has shown us the way.
The state of Guatemala has actively and systematically collaborated to create a narrative hostile to the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And it has done so in a very hypocritical way, as it has promoted public policies that invoke the protection of life and family while at the same time demonstrating a complete lack of commitment to improving the conditions in which Guatemalan individuals and families live. This incoherence becomes an insult when a law is passed that, by criminalising women and LGBTQI+ people, endangers more than half of the population.
On the same day that Decree 18-2022 was passed, protests began. Street pressure was novel and important: it showed that organisations can work in a coalition and that people are willing to join in and look out for the welfare of all.
Mobilisation raised the cost the government would pay if it validated the congressional decision. The administration led by President Alejandro Giammattei was already unpopular and facing a growing number of demands for accountability – from journalistic investigations revealing the misuse of power and allegations of corruption to international sanctions against key officials. In this context, President Giammattei threatened to veto the law on the grounds that it violated Guatemala’s constitution and international agreements Guatemala has made, and Congress reacted by reversing and shelving the law.
How is Visibles working to improve the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala?
Visibles works to change people’s ideas, attitudes and behaviours towards LGBTQI+ people and their rights through research, training, proactive communication, and advocacy efforts. We believe that our long-term vision – that of a society that is fully inclusive of diverse people, ensuring that we all enjoy respect, freedom, and wellbeing and can exercise all of our rights – is only achievable if we start by having one-to-one conversations with families, friends, and people within our spheres of action so that we can move together from a position of prejudice to one of acceptance.
The experience of collective resistance in the face of anti-rights advances united inspired and engaged us further. Resistance against a tangible policy that seeks control over our bodies and our lives as women and LGBTQI+ people challenged us much more directly than a distant and abstract notion of access to justice. Today we are driven by the collective construction of a gender justice project that enshrines the right of all people to live with dignity. We hope that these new practices and transformative goals will revitalise the human rights movement.
What international support does civil society defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala need?
The approval of – and subsequent U-turn over – Decree 18-2022 gave us a taste of the real power the state has over women and LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala. The risk does not disappear because the law has been shelved, but this may hopefully have the effect of sending a wake-up call to the international community.
It is important that they turn their attention, support and resources to Guatemala, whose anti-rights forces are part of a regional advance guard. We cannot lower our guard and allow anti-gender movements to advance their goal of sustaining and consolidating unjust structures of unequal power in which some maintain their privileges at the expense of the basic rights of others.
GUINEA: ‘The democratic future of the region is at stake in our country’
CIVICUS speaks about the lack of progress in the transition to democracy in Guinea since its 2021 military coup with Abdoulaye Oumou Sow, head of communications for the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC).
The FNDC is a coalition of Guinean civil society organisations and opposition parties founded in April 2019 to protest against former President Alpha Condé’s proposed constitutional change to seek a third term. The coalition continued to fight for a return to constitutional rule after the September 2021 military coup. On 8 August 2022, the transitional governmentdecreed its dissolution, accusing it of organising armed public demonstrations, using violence and inciting hatred.
Why is there a delay in calling elections to restore constitutional order?
The National Committee of Reconciliation and Development (CNRD), the junta in power since September 2021, is more interested in seizing power than organising elections. It is doing everything possible to restrict civic space and silence any dissenting voices that try to protest and remind them that the priority of a transition must be the return to constitutional order. It is imprisoning leaders and members of civil society and the political opposition for mobilising to demand elections, and has just ordered the dissolution of the FNDC under false accusations of organising armed demonstrations on the streets and acting as a combat group or private militia.
What are the conditions set by the military and how has the democratic opposition reacted?
In violation of Article 77 of the Transitional Charter, which provides for the duration of the transition to be determined by agreement between the CNRD and the country’s main social and political actors, the military junta has unilaterally set a duration of 36 months without listening to the opinion of social and political forces. The junta is currently set on not listening to anyone.
The military are savagely repressing citizens who are mobilising for democracy and demanding the opening of a frank dialogue between the country’s social and political forces and the CNRD to agree on a reasonable timeframe for the return to constitutional order. Lacking the will to let go of power, the head of the junta is wallowing in arrogance and contempt. His attitude is reminiscent of the heyday of the dictatorship of the deposed regime of Alpha Condé.
What has been the public reaction?
Most socio-political forces currently feel excluded from the transition process and there have been demonstrations for the restoration of democracy.
But the junta runs the country like a military camp. Starting on 13 May 2002, a CNRD communiqué has banned all demonstrations on public spaces. This decision is contrary to Article 8 of the Transitional Charter, which protects fundamental freedoms. Human rights violations have subsequently multiplied. Civic space is completely under lock and key. Activists are persecuted, some have been arrested and others are living in hiding. Despite the many appeals of human rights organisations, the junta multiplies its abuses against pro-democracy citizens.
On 28 July 2022, at the call of the FNDC, pro-democracy citizens mobilised to protest against the junta’s seizure of power. But unfortunately, this mobilisation was prevented and repressed with bloody force. At least five people were shot dead, dozens were injured and hundreds were arrested. Others were deported to the Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp, where they have been tortured by the military.
Among those arrested and currently held in Conakry prison are the National Coordinator of the FNDC, Oumar Sylla Foniké Manguè, the FNDC’s head of operations, Ibrahima Diallo and the Secretary General of the Union of Republican Forces, Saikou Yaya Barry. They are accused of illegal assembly, destruction of public buildings and disturbances of public order.
How can the international community, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in particular, give the pro-democracy movement the support it needs?
Today it is more necessary than ever for the international community to accompany the people of Guinea who are under the thumb of a new military dictatorship.
The democratic future of the region is at stake in our country. If the international community, and ECOWAS in particular, remains silent, it will set a dangerous precedent for the region. Because of its management of the previous crisis generated by the third mandate of Alpha Condé, Guinean citizens do not have much faith in the sub-regional institution. From now on, the force of change must come from within, through the determination of the people of Guinea to take their destiny in hand.
HAITI: ‘Civil society must get involved because political actors cannot find a solution to our problems’
CIVICUS speaks about Haiti’s ongoing crisis and calls for foreign intervention with Monique Clesca, a journalist, democracy advocate and member of the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis (Commission pour la recherche d’une solution haitienne a la crise, CRSC). CRSC, also known as the Montana Group, is a group of civic, religious and political organisations and leaders that got together in early 2021. Following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, it promoted theMontana Accord, calling for a two-year provisional government to take over from acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry and hold elections as soon as possible, as well as a road map to reduce insecurity, tackle the humanitarian crisis and respond to social justice demands. The Monitoring Office of the Montana Accord continues to follow up on this roadmap.
What are the causes of Haiti’s current crisis?
People seem to associate the crisis with the assassination of President Moïse, but it started way before that, because there were various underlying issues. It is a political crisis but also a much deeper social crisis. The majority of people in Haiti have suffered the effect of profound inequalities for many decades. There are huge gaps in terms of health and education so there is a need for basic social justice. The problem goes far beyond the more visible political, constitutional and humanitarian issues.
Over the past decade, we have had governments that tried to undermine state institutions so that a corrupt system could prevail: there have not been transparent elections and no alternation of power, with three successive governments of the same political party. Former president Michel Martelly postponed the presidential elections twice. He ruled by decree for more than a year. In 2016, fraud allegations were made against Moïse, his successor. In his time in office, Moïse dissolved parliament and never organised elections. He fired several Supreme Court judges and politicised the police.
He also put forward a constitutional referendum, which has been repeatedly postponed, that is clearly unconstitutional. The 1987 Constitution defines how it should be amended, so by trying to rewrite it, Moïse went the unconstitutional way.
By the time Moïse was killed, Haiti was left with his legacy of weak institutions, massive corruption and the lack of elections and renewal of the political class. After Moïse’s assassination the situation worsened further, because now there was no president and no functioning judiciary and legislative body. We had, and continue to have, a full-blown constitutional crisis.
Ariel Henry, the current acting prime minister, clearly has no mandate. Moïse selected him as the next prime minister two days before he was killed and didn’t even leave a signed nomination letter.
What has the Montana Group proposed as a way out of this crisis?
The Montana Group formed in early 2021 out of the realisation that civil society must get involved because political actors could not find a solution to Haiti’s problems. A forum of civil society then put together a commission that worked for six months creating dialogue and trying to build consensus by speaking to all political actors, as well as to civil society organisations. As a result of all this input, we came up with a draft agreement that was finalised and signed by almost a thousand organisations and citizens: the Montana Accord.
We put together a two-part plan: a governance plan and a social justice and humanitarian roadmap, which was signed as part of the agreement. To get consensus with wider participation, we proposed the creation of a checks and balances body that would carry out the role of the legislative branch and also an interim judiciary during the transition. Once Haiti can have transparent elections, there would be a proper elected legislative body and the government could go through the constitutional process to name the high-level judiciary body, the Supreme Court. That is the governance that we’ve envisioned for the transition, one that is closer to the spirit of the Haitian Constitution.
Earlier this year, we met several times with Henry and tried to start negotiations with him and his allies. At one point, he told us he didn’t have the authority to negotiate. So he closed the door to negotiations.
What are the challenges to holding elections in the current context?
The main challenge is the massive insecurity. Gangs are terrorising the population. Kidnappings are rampant, people are being assassinated. People can’t go out of their homes: they can’t go to the bank, to the stores, to the hospital. Children can’t go to school: classes were supposed to start in September, then in October and now the government is silent on when they will start.
There is also the dire humanitarian situation, only made worse when gangs blocked the main oil terminal of Varreux in Port-au-Prince. This impacted on power supply and water distribution, and therefore on people’s access to basic goods and services. Amid a cholera outbreak, health facilities were forced to reduce their services or shut down.
And there is political polarisation and massive mistrust. People don’t only mistrust politicians; they also mistrust one another.
Because of the political pressure and gang activity, citizen mobilisations have been up and down, but since late August there have been massive demonstrations calling for Henry’s resignation. People have also marched against rising fuel prices, shortages and corruption. They have also clearly rejected any foreign military intervention.
What is your position regarding the prime minister’s call for foreign intervention?
Henry has no legitimacy to call for any military intervention. The international community can help, but it is not up to them to decide whether to intervene or not. We first need to have a two-year political transition with a credible government. We have ideas, but at this point, we need to see a transition.
Civic space in Haiti is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Harmonisation, Participation and Coherence are Key to Realising the 2030 Agenda
By Mandeep Tiwana and Tor Hodenfield
Two challenges – overlapping reporting requirements and less than universal compliance with human rights obligations – could be addressed by involving civil society more meaningfully in substantive processes. Furthermore, it is essential that positions on human rights matters that are taken at the UN Human Rights Council are followed up at the UN General Assembly and, most importantly, are implemented at the local level.
Honduras government must stop violent clampdown on peaceful protests
📢 Desde @CIVICUSespanol condenamos y exigimos el fin de la brutal represión ejercida contra las protestas pacíficas en #Honduras por parte de las fuerzas de seguridad de @JuanOrlandoH.— CIVICUS Español (@CIVICUSespanol) June 26, 2019
Por el momento, se cuentan 3⃣personas muertas y 2⃣0⃣heridas.
+ Info: https://t.co/hsnGKNcVlG pic.twitter.com/MVv70MOEGT
June 26, 2019
Government violently represses citizens protests in Honduras
- Three people killed and 20 wounded in brutal crackdown on protests in Honduras
- Global civil society alliance condemns the harsh repression of demonstrations in Honduras and the decision of the government to use of military forces to control protests
- Defenders in the country face an extremely risky environment experiencing violence and criminalization
HONDURAS: ‘The ruling of the Inter-American Court marks a before and after for LGBTQI+ people’
CIVICUS speaks with Indyra Mendoza, founder and general coordinator of Red Lésbica Cattrachas (Cattrachas Lesbian Network), a lesbian feminist organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras. In March 2021 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)made a ruling in the case of Vicky Hernández. Vicky, a trans woman, and human rights defender, was murdered between the night of 28 June and the early morning of 29 June 2009, in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, while a curfew was in force following a coup. Her killing came in a context of enormous discrimination and violence, including by the security forces, against LGBTQI+ people.
What was the process that resulted in the IACtHR ruling? What was the role of Cattrachas?
Cattrachas Lesbian Network’s Violence Observatory recorded Vicky’s case and immediately identified it as a potential strategic litigation case, as it was one of the first murders of an LGBTQI+ person following the coup d’état.
Even before the coup, Cattrachas had identified a pattern of non-lethal violence against transgender women by police officers. And while we had already recorded 20 violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people between 1998 and 2008, the killings of transgender women increased after the 2009 coup. The Observatory recorded a total of 15 violent deaths of transgender women, most of which occurred during curfews or states of exception decreed illegally by the government, when state security forces were in absolute control of the streets.
In Vicky’s case, Cattrachas learned that no autopsy had been performed, so we contacted her family and found out that very few investigative steps had been taken. On 23 December 2012, Cattrachas filed the initial petition for Vicky’s murder with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a USA-based human rights organisation, later joined in. The Commission issued its merits report, which established that human rights violations had taken place, on 7 December 2018 and sent the case to the IACtHR on 30 April 2019. The public hearing was held on 11 and 12 November 2020.
Finally, on 26 March 2021, the IACtHR issued a ruling declaring the State of Honduras responsible for the violation of Vicky’s rights to life, personal integrity, equality and non-discrimination, recognition of legal personality, personal liberty, privacy, freedom of expression and name. It also ruled that the State of Honduras failed to comply with the obligation established in article 7.a of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, also known as the Convention of Belém Do Pará. Additionally, the IACtHR established that Vicky’s death was not investigated with due diligence, and therefore condemned Honduras for the violation of due process, judicial protection and the obligation established in article 7.b of the Convention. Finally, the Court declared that the right to personal integrity of Vicky’s relatives had also been violated. The ruling was notified on 28 June 2021, 12 years after the coup d’état and the transfemicide of Vicky Hernández.
The resolution of this case was exceptional. What was the reason for this exception?
Its resolution was exceptional because of the multiple intersectionalities of violence present in Vicky’s life. Vicky was a young Honduran transgender woman and human rights defender, a sex worker living with HIV, with limited economic resources, and at some point in her life, precarious employment had forced her to emigrate. Vicky’s is the first case of lethal violence against an LGBTQI+ person that occurred at the intersection of two relevant contexts: the 2009 coup d’état and the context of structural violence that LGBTQI+ people, and particularly transgender women, face in Honduras.
The case allowed the Court to reiterate standards on the right to gender identity, equality, and non-discrimination, and to insist that, in contexts of historical violence, subordination, and discrimination, in this case against transgender people, international commitments impose a reinforced responsibility on the state. Furthermore, through an evolutionary interpretation, the Court established that transgender women are women, and are therefore protected by the Convention of Belém Do Pará.
What is the significance of this ruling for LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?
The ruling in Vicky’s case marks a before and after, as it establishes guarantees of non-repetition that must be turned into public policy in favour of LGBTQI+ people.
The measures set by the ruling include the establishment of an educational scholarship for transgender persons, which will bear the name of Vicky Hernández, the implementation of education, awareness-raising and training plan for the Honduran security forces, the adoption of protocols for the diagnosis, data collection, monitoring and investigation of cases of violence against LGBTQI+ people, and the adoption of a procedure to recognise gender identity in identity papers and public records. This procedure should be guided by the standards of Advisory Opinion 24/17, which implies that it should not require any law, should be expeditious, should not require pathologising tests, should not require a historical record of changes, and should be, as far as possible, free of charge.
More than a decade after the murder of Vicky Hernández, what is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?
LGBTQI+ people in Honduras face constitutional and legal limitations based on sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity that prohibit us from accessing equal marriage as well as the recognition of marriage celebrated abroad, de facto union, adoption, intimate visits in prisons, change of name based on gender identity and blood donation. Specifically, in relation to changing names, the IACtHR ruling in Vicky’s case mandates the state to establish an adequate and effective procedure to recognise the identity of transgender people.
Honduras is the country with the highest rate of violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the transfemicide of Vicky, to date 388 LGBTQI+ people have been murdered in Honduras and one person is missing; 221 of those people are gay, 112 are transgender and 46 are lesbian. Only 83 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in 11 acquittals and 34 convictions, which reflects a 91 percent impunity rate.
In sum, LGBTQI+ people face not only major legal obstacles but also a very high level of lethal violence and lack of access to justice.
Civic space in Honduras is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
HONDURAS: ‘We must address the roots of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources’
CIVICUS speaks about the criminalisation of environmental, land and territorial defenders in Honduras with Edy Tábora, director of the law firm Justicia para los Pueblos (Justice for the Peoples) and coordinator of the group of defence lawyers of eight defenders of the Guapinol river who were recently released from detention.
Why were the Guapinol defenders criminalised?
The case of the eight Guapinol comrades deprived of their freedom is one of the most revealing expressions of the conflicts around mining and energy and the dispossession of land and natural resources in Honduras. Along with that of Berta Cáceres, the Guapinol case is one of the most significant ones.
Berta’s case, which culminated in her assassination, was the first in a new wave of criminalisation surrounding dispossession projects following the 2009 military coup. Her case displayed all the typical elements: stigmatisation, surveillance, rupture of the social fabric, criminalisation. The same pattern can be seen in many parts of Honduras.
After the coup, there was a privately conducted exploration of mineral deposits and businesspeople realised there was a lot of money to be made here. In the case of Guapinol, the process kicked off with the granting of an iron oxide mining concession – one of the largest in the country – to Los Pinares, a holding company registered in Panama, owned by an extremely wealthy Honduran family. Its mining business was developed jointly with the US company Nucor.
Nucor claims to have withdrawn from the project in late 2019 due to the conflict triggered by the criminalisation of the Guapinol defenders, but there is no evidence of this and we do not believe it to be true. Los Pinares is simply the mining arm of a company whose power comes from airport concessions at home and abroad. It is a company with high-level political connections, and with so much power that in 2013 it succeeded in getting the National Congress to change the delimitation of the core zone of a national park.
On 22 April 2013, the day before a new mining law came into force, applications were submitted for the two mining concessions related to the Guapinol case, both located in the core zone of the Montaña de Botaderos National Park. This had been declared a national park in 2012, as part of a ‘friendly settlement’ with the relatives of Carlos Escaleras, a social leader and environmental defender active in the 1980s and 1990s, who was assassinated for defending this mountain. The statute of the national park, which bears the name of Carlos Escaleras, prohibited the granting of mining concessions in its core zone and even its buffer zone.
However, in 2014, engineers began to arrive on the mountain to collect information and check how deep down metal was deposited. People noticed this, began to demand an explanation and organised in the Municipal Committee of Public and Common Goods of Tocoa.
In June 2016 they began to file complaints; some were filed by the Guapinol defenders who ended up in prison. They requested information from the institutions in charge of granting mining permits but only obtained some information in November 2019, after three years of back and forth. Tired of not getting answers, in June 2018 people started protesting at the Municipality of Tocoa Colón. It was then that systematic surveillance by the national police and Los Pinares security began.
In August 2018, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise held press conferences in which it complained to the government about an alleged loss of 20 billion dollars caused by ‘vandals’ protesting in various parts of Honduras.
Criminalisation was a nationwide strategy, but the criminalisation of the Guapinol comrades was the most serious case. On 8 September 2018, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the first accusation against 18 comrades for the crimes of usurpation, damage and usurpation of public space. Los Pinares appeared in the hearings as the accuser. Fourteen comrades were put on trial and all their cases were closed, but the fact that they were accused enabled the illegal eviction, in October 2018, of the Camp for Water and Life, one of many set up around Honduras. This was one of four charges brought by the Public Prosecutor’s Office as part of the strategy to criminalise resistance movements against mining and energy projects.
In January 2019, in response to a complaint filed by Los Pinares, the Public Prosecutor’s Office filed another indictment against 32 people, including eight Guapinol comrades. The nature of the charges changed: it was no longer about usurpation of public space but about organised crime. Human rights defenders were now treated as taking part in organised crime, with charges including criminal association, theft, damage, unjust deprivation of liberty and aggravated arson. The case was assigned to the Specialised Court for Organised Crime, which meant it was transferred from local to national jurisdiction, in violation of the right to be tried by one’s natural judge.
Of the 32, a first group voluntarily submitted to trial in February 2019 and was kept in prison for only 10 days before the accusations against them were dismissed. The Guapinol eight, however, despite having voluntarily submitted to trial, were subjected to arbitrary detention from 26 August 2019 until 24 February 2022, when they finally regained their freedom.
What did civil society do to secure their release?
During the pandemic, Guapinol was one of the most high-profile cases globally. Not even the pandemic could stop our comrades’ defence. We quickly moved our activities online, and by late April 2020 we were already filing habeas corpus writs for our comrades’ right to health, alongside international organisations. Even under these conditions, we managed to set up discussions with important organisations, and three months after the pandemic began, we restarted our advocacy work, which meant that by the time the trial started, the case had become very well known around the world.
Initially the case was promoted by the Coalition Against Impunity, which brings together more than 50 Honduran civil society organisations (CSOs). Later, many CSOs joined a kind of international support group for the case.
First, we publicly denounced the violence and criminalisation against the Municipal Committee. Second, before our comrades were imprisoned, we documented the irregular granting of concessions for natural resources. Third, alongside several Honduran CSOs, we organised our comrades’ legal defence. A working group was then organised including national and international CSOs to support the defence. A lot of advocacy work was done, both nationally and internationally, to convince the public that this was a very important case and to counter the company’s account of the violence allegedly committed by our comrades.
Documentary and testimonial work was crucial to expose our comrades’ real activism. We had many meetings with international CSOs. Canadian, US and European organisations and academics reported on the concession and the legal process. International CSOs filed amicus curiae – friend of the court – briefs with Honduran courts. We participated in multiple forums with national and international organisations.
Many actions converged to create a powerful wave of demands for our comrades’ release. CIVICUS’s and Amnesty International’s campaigns, for example, allowed us to reach wider audiences. When the trial came, the case was widely known, and less than 24 hours after the end of the trial, in which our comrades were convicted with two thirds of the court’s votes, the Supreme Court of Justice annulled the whole process and ordered them to be released.
This was an unprecedented decision, surely motivated by the strength of the demand for their freedom and by the evidence presented, both in and out of court, which demonstrated that our comrades were innocent and that they fight for a just cause that is of great interest to humanity.
Are there other cases like the Guapinol case in Honduras?
There are many defenders criminalised for defending land, including some from the Garífuna people, a marginalised minority, but they are not in prison. Many comrades were also imprisoned for defending democracy in the aftermath of 2017’s electoral fraud: around 30 people were imprisoned in maximum security prisons, but they are currently free. Most pending cases are being closed as a result of an amnesty issued by the National Congress in February 2022.
In that sense, the Guapinol case was an exception, because this amnesty did not apply to them. What’s important about this case is that we managed to close the process by defending ourselves even with the highly questionable tools offered by the Honduran judicial system.
However, there were other cases at the same time as Guapinol, such as that of the Indigenous comrades of the Lenca people in the department of La Paz, who were accused of forced displacement. They were imprisoned for more than a year for a crime that is the craziest thing I have ever heard: they were accused of displacing landowners. The Public Prosecutor’s narrative uses the made-up concept of ‘reverse racism’, according to which Indigenous peoples can also commit discrimination against minorities within their communities – the minority in this case being the landowners.
Do you view Guapinol as part of a pattern of criminalisation against environmental defenders?
We have detected patterns of criminalisation by sector in the cases we have monitored. For example, between 2011 and 2016 one of the most criminalised sectors was the student movement mobilised in defence of public education. Some 350 students, mostly university students, were criminalised.
In the case of environmental defenders, we were able to document several patterns of criminalisation. Again and again, prosecutions were initiated only a few days after pronouncements by companies or employers’ organisations. The behaviour of the police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has also been similar in all cases, with an initial focus on eviction and accusations changing over time following the same pattern. The narrative peddled by companies is always the same as well, often because they share the same lawyers.
Criminalisation follows different patterns depending on the interests affected. The crimes people are accused of when challenging mining interests differ from those used to dispossess communities of land for the construction of tourism megaprojects or the plantation of African palm in the Atlantic zone, and from those used against peasants claiming access to land and crops.
However, all the groups criminalised over the past 15 years have something in common: their resistance to the project, promoted since the 2000s, of handing over natural resources to private companies. Land grabbing was politically supported the state following the coup: from that moment on, national regulations were made more flexible to facilitate dispossession and the national police and the security forces of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the judiciary were placed at the service of the private sector, which used them to criminalise land rights defenders.
Has there been any improvement in the situation of environmental defenders since the new government came to power in January 2022?
The new government brought several positive changes. First, while we had already achieved the closure of several emblematic cases, it decreed an amnesty that resulted in the closure of most legal proceedings against defenders, although there are still some cases pending.
Second, the new government has put an end to the state’s stigmatisation of land struggles, which used to make use of information obtained by state security forces. And third, for the time being the government has not tackled conflicts with violence. People who protest are not being repressed.
In recent years state violence was deployed to manage social protest, private violence was reflected in the assassination of defenders, and hybrid violence was seen in the area of surveillance. Over the four years of the current government we may no longer witness violent management of social protests, but there is a chance that state violence will be replaced by private corporate violence.
What are the challenges ahead?
The challenge right now is to address the causes of criminalisation. We have worked to defend and support our comrades criminalised by the state and private companies, but we have never been able to address what’s at the root of the conflict: the handing over of natural resources. Preventing the criminalisation of defenders is a big step, but we must address the issue of concessions, which in fact continue. Approved projects are waiting to be implemented. If we don’t seize the moment to address this problem, then when the government’s political colour changes, private companies will come back stronger and criminalisation will intensify.
Moreover, social movements are worn out after 12 years of resistance against the handing over of natural resources. There must be accountability, reparations for victims and guarantees of legal security for defenders to be able to do their work. The hostile legal framework for exercising rights and defending human rights that has been established in recent decades must be reversed.
HONG KONG: ‘Any activism that the government dislikes can be deemed a national security violation’
CIVICUS speaks about the persecution faced by Hong Kong activists in exile with Anouk Wear, research and policy adviser at Hong Kong Watch.
Founded in 2017, Hong Kong Watch is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in the UK thatproduces research and monitors threats to Hong Kong’s autonomy, basic freedoms and the rule of law. Itworks at the intersection between politics, academia and the media to help shape the international debate about Hong Kong.
What challenges do Hong Kong activists in exile face?
Hong Kong activists in exile face the challenge of continuing our activism without being in the place where we want and need to be to make a direct impact. We put continuous effort into community-building, preserving our culture and staying relevant to the people and situation in Hong Kong today.
When we do this, we face threats from the Chinese government that have drastically escalated since the National Security Law (NSL) was imposed in 2020.
This draconian law was enacted in response to the mass protests triggered by the proposed Extradition Bill between Hong Kong and mainland China in 2019.
The NSL broadly defines and criminalises secession, subversion, terrorist activities and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment. In 2022, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee concluded that the NSL is ‘vague and ambiguous’.
In practical terms, any activism the Hong Kong government dislikes, including meeting a foreign politician, organising an event and publishing an article, can be deemed a violation of the NSL, according to the government’s interpretation. This means we don’t know what is legal and what is not, and many people end up self-censoring to protect themselves.
On 3 July 2023, the government issued new arrest warrants for eight activists in exile, including three in the UK – Nathan Law, Finn Lau and Mung Siu-tat – and offered bounties of around £100,000 (approx. US$130,000) each for anyone providing information leading to their arrest. All of them are accused of breaching the NSL. Despite having no legal basis for applying the NSL in the UK, the Hong Kong government continues to threaten and intimidate activists abroad.
To what extent are civil society and independent media in exile able to continue doing their work?
Since the imposition of the NSL, over 60 CSOs, including political parties, trade unions and media groups, have disbanded. Many have relocated abroad, including over 50 CSOs that signed a joint statement urging government action following the Hong Kong National Security arrest warrants and bounties this month.
There is a strong network of Hong Kong activists in exile, and activists in exile are still able to do their work. However, we have great difficulty collaborating with activists still in Hong Kong because of the risks they face. For example, last week, five people in Hong Kong were arrested for alleged links to activists in exile who are on the wanted list. Collaborations must now be even more careful and discreet than they already were.
What kind of support do Hong Kong activists and journalists in exile receive, and what further international support do you need?
In November 2022, Hong Kong journalists who relocated to the UK collaborated with the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Ireland to launch the Association of Overseas Hong Kong Media Professionals. They pledged to focus on freedom of the press in Hong Kong and provide mutual assistance for professionals who have relocated overseas.
There is also extensive support among Hong Kong activists and CSOs in exile, from civil society of host countries and from the international community, as can be seen in the joint response to the arrest warrants and bounties issued on 3 July.
However, more coordinated action is needed to respond to Beijing’s threats, particularly from the governments of host countries. There needs to be more assurance and action to reiterate that Beijing and Hong Kong do not have jurisdiction abroad and there will be serious consequences to their threats.
Hong Kong activists in exile are now making submissions to the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process, which will review China’s human rights record since 2018.
We urge UN member states, CSOs and journalists to use this opportunity to highlight the drastic changes that have taken place in Hong Kong and to continue supporting our fight for democracy, rights and freedom.
Civic space in Hong Kong is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
How NGOs and social movements can learn to work together better
By Danny Sriskandarajah
There are no shortages of challenges facing civil society, but one that we don’t talk enough about is the relationship between the formal and informal parts of civil society. If civil society is to have to have any chance of tackling the biggest challenges facing the world, we have to work out to how to work together more effectively.
Read on: Open Democracy
HRC50: resolution on freedom of peaceful assembly & association renews the crucial Special Rapporteur mandate & addresses key issues
Resolution on on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association adopted at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
CIVICUS welcomes this new resolution on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, which addresses substantive concerns facing civil society today.
HUNGARY: ‘The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of children protection’
CIVICUS speaks about the Hungarian government’santi-LGBTQI+ campaign with Imre Zsoldos of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance.
Founded in 2009, theHungarian LGBT Alliance is an umbrella civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together seven LGBTQI+ groups with the aim of promoting communication, cooperation and joint action to confront social rejection, prejudice and discrimination against sexual minorities in Hungary.
What are the latest developments in the government-led anti-LGBTQI+ campaign?
To begin with, Hungarian legislation explicitly forbids same-sex registered partners from adopting children. There is another law prohibiting unmarried single people from adopting children unless they have a special permit issued by the Minister for Families, which has been made almost impossible to get to prevent same-sex parents adopting separately.
On top of this, in April 2023 the Hungarian parliament passed a bill enabling people to anonymously report on same-sex couples raising children, or those who contest the ‘constitutionally recognised role of marriage and the family’ or children’s rights ‘to an identity appropriate to their sex at birth’. This law specifically targeted rainbow families and transgender young people. No specific evidence or details would be needed to report same-sex families and other ‘offenders’ to the authorities. The law also mandated the establishment of a reporting platform.
President Katalin Novak did not sign the bill into law, arguing it weakened the protection of fundamental values, and sent it back to parliament for reconsideration. My assumption is that parliament will pass it again with some changes.
Previously in March, the government filed a counter claim to the Court of Justice of the European Union (EU) to defend an education law passed in 2021, which was in fact just another anti-‘gay propaganda’ law. Initially, the law was meant to impose harsher punishment for sexual offences against minors, but legislators from the ruling Fidesz party introduced several changes so that the law ended up criminalising the portrayal or ‘promotion’ of homosexuality or sex reassignment to minors and restricting sexual education in schools. It was condemned by 17 EU member states.
The 2021 Child Protection Act enshrines children’s right to ‘education in accordance with the values based on Hungary's constitutional identity and Christian culture’. The government is masking anti-LGBTQI+ legislation under the narrative of child protection, portraying LGBTQI+ people as paedophiles and claiming it is trying to ‘save the children’ from us.
The same narrative is also used to criticise the EU: the government claims the EU suspended over €6 billion (approx. US$6.5 billion) in funds for 2021-2027 because it promotes paedophilia, while in fact the funds were cut off due to a decline in the rule of law and judicial independence and concerns about corruption.
How is the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign affecting people?
This hostile rhetoric resembles the way Jewish people and other minorities were targeted in the run-up to the Second World War. We are losing the feeling of security in our own society. We feel outlawed and can’t understand how this can be happening in Europe nowadays. Many LGBTQI+ people are starting to think about whether we should leave the country before it’s too late.
Public attitudes to the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign are shifting both ways, since everyone is reacting to the portrayal of LGBTQI+ people as a public enemy. On one side of the divide, people are getting outraged by the government’s propaganda and hence showing more support and understanding. On the other side, people are beginning to feel emboldened and legitimised to express discriminatory thoughts and act in discriminatory ways.
What are the conditions for LGBTQI+ organisations in Hungary?
The majority of Hungarian LGBTQI+ organisations are run by volunteers because they very rarely have resources to pay employees, especially in fixed positions. Our funding is strictly tied to projects to be implemented.
As all the major media platforms are in the hands of the government, our opportunities to shift public opinion are really limited. We can only use CSOs’ social media and websites for advocacy. For example, one of the members of the Hungarian LGBT Alliance is the Rainbow Families Foundation. It ran a large campaign, ‘Family is Family’, that reached an extensive audience thanks to a TV station broadcasting the campaign in prime time. But then the media authority fined the TV station, saying it’s only allowed to broadcast this kind of advertisement at night because its depiction of homosexuality sensitively affects children under 16, causing misunderstanding, tension and uncertainty among them. A court eventually nullified the media authority’s decision, but this kind of decision is why there is almost no newspaper or TV station where we could have the space to effectively resist the government’s anti-LGBTQI+ campaign.
Activists are targeted by the authorities in diverse ways, such as smear campaigns fuelled by the dissemination of fake information about them, as well as audits and controls on their private or family businesses or pressure in their workplaces or on family members who hold any state position. This creates a constant stress situation, since we never know when, where or how we will be targeted.
But despite the hardship, we are doing our best to create safe places, build a community and provide legal and other forms of help to LGBTQI+ people.
What further support does Hungarian civil society need?
Alongside financial support, it would be extremely helpful – not only for LGBTQI+ people but also for other minorities, the political opposition and civil society as a whole – to have a widely accessible communication platform to reach older people beyond the capital, Budapest. While we can easily reach out to young people through social media, we are unable to reach those who get their information from television, newspapers and their churches, all of which are predominantly controlled by the government.
Civic space in Hungary is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
In a time of exclusion, making space for Faith Based Organizations
By Amjad Mohamed Saleem
For many people around the world, faith is embedded in cultures, practices and communities. Earlier this month, World Interfaith Harmony week taught us that religious practices and perspectives continue to be sources of values that nourish an ethics of multicultural citizenship commanding both solidarity and equal respect. Historically, spiritual heritage has often provided humanity the capacity for personal and social transformation.
Incertidumbre en Colombia: La paz en tiempos de elecciones
Por Inés Pousadela
Lo que en cualquier democracia “normal” sería considerado un dato rutinario devino recientemente en Colombia un hecho de significación histórica: las elecciones legislativas de marzo de este año, en las cuales las ex guerrillas FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) debutaron como partido político, se desarrollaron sin incidentes graves.
Leer en: Open Democracy