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
India: Civil society orgs call for the Council's attention on the deteriorating human rights situation
Statement at the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Delivered by Ahmed Adam
On behalf of Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation
We call for the attention of the Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in India.
Since 2014, India has witnessed a sharp rise of authoritarianism accompanied by systematic erosion of the rule of law and independent institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission, Elections Commission and the judiciary, that are mandated to safeguard human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Indian authorities have escalated crackdowns on and persecution of human rights defenders, journalists, and critics through restrictive laws and counter-terrorism legislation that do not comply with India’s international obligations. The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) continues to be applied as part of a broader systematic repression of civil society and opposition voices. It fails to comply with international standards and must be repealed or reviewed.
The government continues its assault on fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights to freedom of expression, media, peaceful assembly, association and movement, in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, and journalists Fahad Shah remain in detention under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and stifle independent reporting on the extent and gravity of human rights implications of its policies in Kashmir.
At the same time, majoritarian and ultranationalist narratives actively promoted or endorsed by public and religious officials as well as discriminatory legislation such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and policies, and police inaction, continue to fuel hatred, discrimination, and violence against minorities, especially Muslims.
We call on Indian authorities to end repression of civil society and media, end harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, journalists and critics, and release all those who are arbitrarily detained for their legitimate work including human rights defender Khurram Parvez and journalist Fahad Shah.
The Council must act urgently and appropriately to prevent further escalation of violence, discrimination, and hatred against minorities which, if left unchecked, could lead to gross and systematic violations.
Civic space in India is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor
India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society
According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.
India: Government must halt its harassment of human rights activist Harsh Mander
CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, condemns the recent raid carried out on facilities associated with human rights defender Harsh Mander who serves as Director of the Centre for Equity Studies and calls on the government of India to stop targeting and intimidating human rights defenders. The raid adds to the long list of restrictions imposed on human rights defenders in the country.
On 16 September 2021, the Enforcement Directorate under the Ministry of Finance of India conducted the raid on Harsh Mander’s residence, the Centre for Equity Studies’ office, and a children’s home run by the organisation under the pretext of investigating money laundering allegations against him. The raid happened several hours after Harsh Mander departed to Germany to attend a fellowship programme.
Harsh Mander is a prominent human rights defender and social activist who has been critical of the Narendra Modi government. He has raised concerns about how the government handled the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing attacks on press freedom, and the discriminatory citizenship law passed in 2019 which human rights groups have called ‘unconstitutional and divisive’.
Following the raid, more than 500 activists in India issued a joint statement in solidarity with Harsh Mander and condemned the intimidation tactics.
“The authorities must halt its harassment of human rights activist Harsh Mander. These actions conducted by the Enforcement Directorate is a clear tactic to intimidate and criminalise the defender. It also creates a chilling effect on government critics and is a strategy to force many to self-censorship.”, said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher for the Asia Pacific.
Similar raids were conducted by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in October 2020 on two children’s homes associated with him based on accusations of financial irregularities and illicit activities.
These raids highlight an ongoing pattern of baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges brought by the authorities against activists across India that has been documented by the CIVICUS Monitor. This includes the use of a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics. Some have been in pre-trial detention for years.
“It is appalling that activists in India are facing harassment just for speaking up for human rights. The government must drop all charges against them and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained. It must also take steps to ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals,” added Benedict.
Indian Government should withdraw criminal charges against NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’ and its representatives
26 June 2019,
Bangkok/Colombo/Dublin/Geneva/Johannesburg/London/New Delhi/New York/Paris
We, the undersigned, strongly condemn the filing of criminal charges against Indian NGO ‘Lawyers Collective’, its Senior Advocate Anand Grover, and other representatives. Criminal charges were filed by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on June 13, 2019, relying on an investigation report of January 2016 of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). The MHA report has been challenged by Lawyers Collective in January 2017 and the case is under consideration by the High Court of Bombay.
Lawyers Collective is a human rights organisation based in New Delhi with its registered office in Mumbai and was founded by noted Indian human rights defenders and lawyers Ms Indira Jaising and Mr Anand Grover. Ms Jaising and Mr Grover are senior advocates with an exceptional profile of public service, probity and personal and professional integrity as lawyers and as human rights defenders. Ms Jaising was an Additional Solicitor General of India between 2009 and 2014, and was also a member of the UN Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) between 2009 and 2012. Mr Grover held the mandate of UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health between 2008 and 2014. Ms Jaising and Mr Grover, through Lawyers Collective, have advocated for advancing the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of Indian society, thereby upholding constitutional values as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Lawyers Collective’s registration under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, 2010 (FCRA) was first suspended on May 31, 2016, and its bank accounts frozen. The FCRA license was not renewed on October 28, 2016, and was cancelled on November 27, 2016. Lawyers Collective petitioned the High Court of Bombay to challenge the FCRA cancellation and non-renewal in January 2017 and March 2017, respectively. In January 2017, its domestic accounts were unfrozen. Lawyers Collective’s challenge to the FCRA cancellation and non-renewal are currently pending before the High Court.
Filing of criminal charges while the matter is under consideration by the High Court is a blatant misuse of its agencies by the Indian Government to target critical human rights work undertaken by Lawyers Collective and its representatives, often involving sensitive cases against Indian ministers and senior officials of the ruling political party.
On May 15, 2019, the MHA wrote to CBI for ‘further investigation as per law’ into the matter relating to Lawyers Collective. On June 13, 2019, the CBI solely relying on the impugned MHA report registered a First Information Report under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) relating to charges of criminal conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, cheating, false statement made in declaration and various sections under the FCRA and Prevention of Corruption (PC) Act 1988. Given that there has been no change in circumstances since 2016 and also no material or evidential basis to support the provisions invoked under the IPC and PC Act, the filing of criminal charges is a blatant act of reprisal against Lawyers Collective and its representatives.
Such actions by the Indian Government are contrary to its pledge at the UN Human Rights Council and its obligations and commitments under several international human rights treaties and declarations. The FCRA has been time and again criticised by human rights defenders and NGOs within and outside India for its regressive and unfair interference in the functioning of organisations. Indian human rights defenders have condemned the use of FCRA and the accusations of “foreign funding” to quash dissent and smear individuals and groups.
In his analysis of the FCRA in 2016, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association Maina Kiai concluded that certain provisions of FCRA were not in conformity with international human rights law and noted that “access to resources, including foreign funding, is a fundamental part of the right to freedom of association under international law, standards, and principles, and more particularly part of forming an association”.In June 2016 Kiai joined the UN Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression and on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders calling on the Government of India to repeal the regressive FCRA, which was being used to “silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.,”
We strongly call upon the Indian Government to cease misusing the country’s laws, including the FCRA, against human rights defenders. In the specific case of Lawyers Collective, we urge the criminal charges be immediately withdrawn pending the decision of the High Court of Bombay. We appeal to the National Human Rights Commission of India to take cognizance of this matter and take immediate actions under the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 (PHRA) and to undertake a legal review of the FCRA under Section 12 (d) of the PHRA.
We further call upon the Indian Government to put an end to all acts of harassment, including at the judicial level, against Lawyers Collective and Mr Anand Grover, as well as against all human rights defenders in India and ensure that they are able to carry out their activities without hindrance.
Front Line Defenders
Human Rights Defenders Alert
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR)
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
INDONESIA: ‘The new Criminal Code spells danger for civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the new criminal code passed in Indonesia withFatia Maulidiyanti, Executive Coordinator of KontraS/The Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence.
KontraS is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1998 to investigate enforced disappearances, acts of violence and other human rights violations.
What are the main changes introduced in the new Criminal Code?
It is KontraS’s opinion that this Criminal Code Bill will have effects well beyond hampering people’s right to privacy. Many of its articles seek to legitimise the ongoing restrictions that are shrinking civic space, bringing back the spirit of the authoritarian Suharto era.
For example, articles 218 and 219 introduce the crimes of defamation and insult against the president and vice president. This will allow the criminalisation of government critics. Similarly, article 240 bans defaming and insulting the government, and article 351 makes it a crime to defame or insult any authorities or state institutions. These articles are meant to criminalise the publication of any kind of research, data or criticism of the government and the state institutions.
This amounts to the reintroduction of a once repealed lèse-majesté clause dating back to Dutch colonial times, which of course has long been repealed in the Netherlands. And it spells danger for civil society. It is worth noting that the policing and judicial systems in Indonesia are very problematic. Police standards are low and there is a lot of corruption. Arbitrary arrest and detention are commonly used, as are unfair trials. This already hinders the ability of civil society movements to exist and sustain their work.
There are also several problematic articles related to the need to request and obtain permits to conduct demonstrations, rallies and other public gatherings.
What are the forces behind the changes?
There have been too many obscure political bargains between the government and parliament to accommodate the interests of all political parties at the expense of civil rights and fundamental freedoms.
While there seems to have been a group of academics supporting the drafting process, there has been no consultation with or participation of civil society or business interests. At the centre of the new criminal code is an attempt to secure power, guarantee public order and gain control in preparation for the 2024 presidential election.
What do you make of the changes regarding ‘morality’ issues such as sex outside marriage?
Regression on morality issues may be counterproductive at a time when the government is trying to prevent mass protests against their policies, particularly in view of the upcoming election.
But the criminalisation of private relationships, acts and behaviours can also be seen as a bargaining chip as the current government is trying to bring Islamic fundamentalist groups into the fold. They are trying to ensure their loyalty by showing they are willing to safeguard conservative religious values. LGBTQI+ rights have been at the forefront of the battles waged by fundamentalist political and religious groups, so they have been the first to go.
How has civil society tried to stop these changes from happening?
We often discussed with our allies whether and how to provide inputs and recommendations to the Ministry of Law and Human Rights and to the House of Representatives during the process. We did have meetings and took part in various consultations, but as it turned out, these just went through the motions of public engagement, keeping the formalities but disabling any meaningful opportunity to influence the outcomes.
Numerous CSOs across Indonesia have been protesting about this since at least 2019. There was a big campaign, #ReformasiDikorupsi (‘corrupt reform’) followed by a series of demonstrations against the enactment of the criminal code. However, the government and parliament chose to continue ignoring our objections and instead accelerated the process.
What kind of support does Indonesian civil society need from the international community?
We need all sectors of the international community, including international CSOs, foreign governments and their diplomatic missions and United Nations bodies, to send a clear warning to the Indonesian government against continuing to shut down civic space.
We really hope the movement to warn the government of Indonesia comes not only from domestic civil society, but also from our international counterparts.
Investors should also use their leverage, as the government is trying to attract foreign investments while the human rights situation continues to deteriorate on the ground.
The Indonesian state should be held accountable and be persuaded to step back and change course.
Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
INDONESIA: ‘The Sexual Violence Bill is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children’
CIVICUS speaks with Nuril Qomariyah, coordinator of Perempuan Bergerak, about the Sexual Violence Bill recently passed in Indonesia and the key roles played by civil society.
Founded in 2016, Perempuan Bergerak is an Indonesian civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s rights in local communities, striving for the values of equality, justice and human rights, and providing support for both women and men to build more equal gender relationships.
What is the relevance of the newly passed Sexual Violence Bill?
The Sexual Violence Bill that Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed on 9 May 2022, formally known as RUU TPKS, seeks to protect victims of sexual violence crimes and help them with the recovery process.
The bill deals with nine types of criminal acts of sexual violence regulated in article 4, paragraph 1: non-physical sexual harassment, physical sexual harassment, forced contraception, forced sterilisation, forced marriage, sexual torture, sexual exploitation, sexual slavery and electronic-based sexual violence. Perpetrators proven guilty of these crimes will be subject to imprisonment.
It is interesting that the inclusion of electronic-based sexual violence received some criticism. In the early stages, when the bill was being drafted, it was not included. However, CSOs and activists advocated for its inclusion because sexual violence cases, especially among young children, are increasingly happening in or in connection with cyberspace.
How might the new law change things for the better?
The main outstanding thing about this bill is that it focuses on the victims and seeks to create an environment that will help them recover from acts of sexual violence. According to a study conducted by the Indonesia Judicial Research Society, the law should be appreciated because it clearly takes sides with sexual violence victims by mandating the establishment of mechanisms to support their recovery.
In its article 30, paragraph 1 the bill states that victims are entitled to services such as restitution and counselling. If the perpetrator is unable to pay restitution the state will compensate the victim in accordance with the court’s decision. Further, victims are recognised as having the right to receive the necessary treatment, the right to be protected and the right to recovery.
Community-based service providers such as the police are required to receive and follow up on reports of sexual violence and provide assistance to the victims. Under the new law they are no longer allowed to dismiss sexual violence cases, and instead must conduct the investigation needed to help the victims. The role of families, communities and central and local governments in preventing sexual violence is also emphasised. The new law seeks to make victims of sexual violence feel comfortable enough to report their perpetrators and open legal cases against them. We consider this bill fundamental in helping victims and survivors of sexual violence.
Do you see it as a civil society victory?
Indeed, we consider this a civil society victory because we have been involved in the whole process and have long advocated for the bill to be passed. CSOs working closely with victims and survivors of sexual violence understand how important this bill is, which is why we were at the forefront of the efforts that resulted in its approval.
It took us 10 years to get here. This is quite a long time. During the past decade, we have organised and made sure we built a unified front pushing for this law. Sexual violence is an offence that affects those who constitute the majority in our society; it is women and children who experience it the most. So getting this law passed is one step further in claiming the rights of women and children, including their right to live in a safe and secure environment.
The new law empowers victims because it provides tools to respond to cases of sexual violence. We are very happy to see this kind of progress. A victory like this provides confirmation of the great influence our work has on society.
What tactics did you use to encourage the passage of the new legislation?
Perempuan Bergerak is based in Malang, the second-largest city in the province of East Java. We provide safe spaces for people, and especially women, to get together, exchange with one another, learn and organise. We also provide space for men to learn about equality in human relations so they are able to see women as fully autonomous human beings, rather than weak creatures of lesser value who are under their dominion.
The Sexual Violence Bill is crucial for this work because it has the potential to provide the same kind of safe space, with legal guarantees, for women and children all over Indonesia. This is why we collaborated with various community groups in Malang, including students, academics and activists, to raise wide awareness about the importance of the bill. Perempuan Bergerak has a large virtual community on social media platforms, so we created content to promote the bill and shared it on these platforms. The young generation is very active on social media, so we channelled much of our activism there.
In addition to social media activism, we did a lot of work on the ground, including organising discussion forums, making as many appearances as we could on television and local radio stations, and demonstrating on the streets alongside other organisations and activists.
We are also part of Koalisi Masyarakat Sipil Anti Kekerasan Seksual (KOMPAKS), a coalition of Indonesian civil society groups fighting against sexual violence. As a coalition, we share the same vision and have worked together to push the government to pass this bill. We mobilised in unity throughout the whole process.
What challenges do you see moving forward, and how does civil society plan to address them?
The main challenge we anticipate is implementation. We know we will have to be very vigilant, monitor each implementation stage and make sure local governments respect the law. We have known this would be a challenge all along, so throughout our advocacy and campaigning in the process to get the bill passed we acted together as civil society to create awareness at the community level about the importance of this bill’s implementation. Now that our strategy to get the bill has worked, we will need to keep moving together to ensure a successful process of implementation. We believe that through collaboration with as many stakeholders as possible, including with the government, educational institutions and civil society, we can make the implementation stage progress smoothly.
Indonesia: Halt using the G20 Summit to harass and block civil society activities
CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, and the Fight Inequality Alliance are appalled by the decision of the Indonesian authorities to disband the activities of civil society groups and harass their organisers in Bali, Indonesia, ahead of the G20 Summit. We call on the government of Indonesia to halt such actions, investigate these human rights violations thoroughly and adhere to the human rights standards enshrined in international law and its own Constitution.
INNOVATION: ‘Conventional human rights structures and practices may no longer be optimal or sufficient’
CIVICUS speaks with Edwin Rekosh, co-founder and managing partner of Rights CoLab, about the effects on civil society of the emergence of digital infrastructures and the importance of innovation and digital rights. Rights CoLab is a multinational collaborative organisation that seeks to develop bold strategies to advance human rights across the fields of civil society, technology, business and finance.
What does Rights CoLab do?
Rights CoLab generates experimental and collaborative strategies to address current challenges to human rights from a systemic perspective. In particular, we investigate and facilitate new ways of organising civic engagement and leveraging markets to bring about transformational change.
We see opportunity to support civic engagement by building on trends outside the traditional philanthropic space. For example, we are interested in organisational models coming out of social enterprise, where there may be commercial revenue to sustain operations. We are also interested in the use of technology to reduce costs and achieve civil society goals without a formal organisational structure, through running a website or an app for instance. In addition, we are exploring generational change in the way younger people view their careers, with increasing numbers of young people seeking a work life that blends non-profit and for-profit career goals. We believe it’s imperative to develop more effective ways to collaborate, especially across borders, professional perspectives and fields of expertise.
Among the challenges we seek to address is a resurgence of authoritarianism and populist politics, which has reinforced an emphasis on national sovereignty and the demonisation of local civil society organisations (CSOs) as perceived agents of antagonistic foreign values and interests. We also seek to address shifting geopolitical realities that are undermining the human rights infrastructure built in the last half century as well as the long-term legacies of colonial power dynamics. And we aim to develop new approaches to reining in the negative human rights impact of increasing corporate power, particularly in ways that have been aggravated by the pandemic.
What was the inspiration behind the foundation of Rights CoLab?
The decision to establish Rights CoLab was premised on the understanding that the human rights field has reached a mature stage, filled with challenges that raise questions about structures and practices that have become conventional, but may no longer be optimal or sufficient.
I was a human rights lawyer who had transitioned from legal practice in a large law firm to working for a human rights organisation in Washington, DC. The experience I had managing a project in Romania in the early 1990s completely transformed how I viewed human rights and my role as an American lawyer. I started working hand in hand with locally based CSOs, playing a key role as a behind-the-scenes supporter and connector of civil society, linking CSOs to each other and to resources, and supporting the implementation of other solidarity-based strategies.
Soon after, I founded and then served as president of PILnet, a global network for public interest and private sector lawyers within the civil society space. Around the time I decided to leave that role, I was becoming focused on the closing space for civil society that I saw happening around me, particularly affecting work we were doing in Russia and China. I wound up reconnecting with Paul Rissman and Joanne Bauer, the two other co-founders of Rights CoLab, and we began comparing notes about our respective concerns and ideas about the future of human rights. The three of us set up Rights CoLab as a way to continue the conversation, looking at current challenges in human rights from three very different perspectives. We wanted to create a space where we could continue that dialogue and bring in others to foster experimentation with new approaches.
How much has the civil society arena changed in recent years due to the emergence of digital infrastructures?
It has changed dramatically. One key consequence of the emergent digital infrastructure is that the public sphere has expanded in myriad ways. The role of the media is less constrained by borders and there is much less intermediation through editorial control. That represents both opportunity and threat for human rights. Individuals and groups can influence public discourse with fewer barriers to entry, but on the other hand, the public sphere is no longer regulated by governments in predictable ways, which erodes traditional means of accountability and makes it difficult to ensure a fair playing field for the marketplace of ideas. Digital technology also allows for solidarity across borders in ways that are much less constrained by some of the practical limitations of the past. In short, although new threats to human rights stem from the emergence of digital infrastructures, digital tools also offer opportunity.
How crucial are digital rights and infrastructures to the work of civil society?
In a lot of ways, digital rights are secondary to the structures, practices and values of civil society. Civil society is inherently derived from respect for human dignity, the creative spirit of human endeavour and the politics of solidarity. The modes in which people organise with each other in order to engage with the world around them depends primarily on socially oriented values, skills and practices. Digital technology can only provide tools, which do not inherently possess any of those characteristics. In that sense, digital technology is neither necessary to civil society organising, nor is it sufficient. Nevertheless, digital technologies can enhance civil society organising, both by exploiting some of the new opportunities inherent in the emerging digital infrastructure as well as by assuring the digital rights we need in order to avoid negative human rights consequences from the emergent digital infrastructure.
We are making efforts to identify civil society approaches that can help address these issues. One example is Chequeado, an Argentine non-profit media outlet that is dedicated to verification of public discourse, countering disinformation and promoting access to information in Latin American societies. Chequeado, which exists as a tech platform and app, was able to adapt rapidly to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by developing a fact-checker dashboard to dispel misinformation on the origins, transmission and treatment of COVID-19 and combat misinformation that leads to ethnic discrimination and growing mistrust in science. Therefore, while understanding the potential uses of digital technology is essential, so is keeping the focus on elements that have little to do with technology per se, such as values, solidarity and principle-based norms and institutions.
How does Rights CoLab promote innovation in civil society?
We pursue civil society innovation in several dimensions: how civil society groups organise themselves, including their basic structures and revenue models; how they use technology; and changes needed by the international civil society ecosystem to mitigate the negative effects of counter-productive power dynamics that stem from colonialism.
For the first two dimensions, we have partnered with other resource hubs to co-create a geo-located map of case studies illustrating innovation in organisational forms and revenue models. We have developed a typology for this growing database of examples that emphasises alternatives to the traditional model for locally based civil society groups – in other words, alternatives to cross-border charitable funding. With our partners, we are also developing training methodologies and communication strategies that aim to facilitate further experimentation and wider adoption of alternative models for structuring and financing civil society activities.
Our effort to improve the international civil society ecosystem relies on a systems-change project that we have launched under the name RINGO (Reimagining the International NGO). A key focus of the RINGO project is the intermediation between the large international CSOs and more local civic spaces. The hypothesis is that international CSOs can be a barrier or an enabler to a stronger local civil society, and the way it’s organised now – with dominant roles concentrated in the global north and west – needs a rethink.
RINGO involves a Social Lab with 50 participants representing a wide range of sizes and types of CSOs, coming from a diversity of geographies. Over the course of a two-year process, the Social Lab will generate prototypes that can be tried out with the intention of radically transforming the sector and how we organise civil society at the global level. We hope to extract valuable lessons from the prototypes that can be replicated or reformulated and scaled. There are already many good practices, but there are also systemic dysfunctionalities that remain unaddressed. So we are looking for new, more transformational practices, processes and structures. While we don’t seek utopia, we do seek systemic change. Hence the inquiry process with the Social Lab is vital as we dig deep into the root issues that paralyse the system, moving beyond palliative, superficially appealing practices.
IRAN: ‘Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation’
CIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the currentwomen-led protests, the state of civil society and the prospects for change in Iran.
VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.
What is the situation of Iranian civil society today?
Civil society in Iran has become weaker over the past few years. Civic activism has grown but organised civil society has become weaker and has been marginalised. Following President Ebrahim Raisi’s ascent to power in 2021, civic space has shrunk dramatically. The establishment and operation of CSOs has been legally obstructed and any CSO not following the policies of Iranian authorities has been eliminated.
Following significantteachers’ protests in May 2022 there was a major crackdown against the Iranian Teachers’ Trade Association and many of its leaders and activists were arrested. This was just one example of many.
The ongoing crackdown follows a predictable sequence: first, the authorities exploit toxic narratives and disseminate false accusations to malign civil society and create internal conflict within civic movements. Then they repress the smaller remaining groups, arresting and detaining their leaders and activists.
The authorities have attacked all institutions and organisations that are the expression of social power, eliminating the possibility of further organising. To fill up the space, they set up fake CSOs organised and led by government officials, often affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. These are often local, community-oriented organisations that involve local communities by approaching the mosques and charities that support them.
What made the death of Mahsa Amini a turning point?
Mahsa Amini’s case was a spark in a flammable situation. She was a young member of an ethnic minority who was visiting Tehran, was violently arrested by the morality police and died under custody. All these elements together made her case relatable for many Iranians. She was only 22 years old, a woman, a member of an ethnic minority and a Sunni Muslim, which is a religious minority in Iran. Many Iranians identify with at least one and possibly many of these elements of Mahsa’s identity and resent the policies aimed at suppressing them. As a result, large groups that feel discriminated against and suppressed mobilised.
This happened in a context of high poverty and repression, with a government that acts with impunity because it knows it won’t be held accountable. For years, instead of trying to meet the needs of their citizens, the authorities have cracked down on all sorts of protests. With Raisi coming to power, any hope for change was gone.
In what ways have these protests been different from previous ones?
The current protests are very different from previous ones, including recent protests that took place in2017 and2019. First, protesters are mostly between 15 and 25 years old. This is possibly their first engagement in a civic movement. They have grown up in the digital world and are using in the real world what they learned playing video games – only that in the real world, there is no respawning! So many are getting killed.
Second, protesters are primarily women and students. And some of their acts of protest, such as female protesters burning headscarves and cutting their hair, are unprecedented. Their demands are also different from those of previous civic movements. Whereas in 2017 and 2019 demands were mostly economic, now they are cultural: their main demand is for freedom to lead a different lifestyle than the authorities allow them to have. The shout ‘Women, Life, Liberty’ has become a protest cry and a slogan of solidarity both inside Iran and internationally.
Third, support from Iranians in the diaspora and media coverage have both drastically increased. This time the events have received major media coverage since the outset, with the protests on front pages all over the world. For the first time, on 23 October, 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora gathered in Berlin to support protesters and demonstrate against the Iranian regime. This support is unprecedented.
Finally, public discourse about the protests has shifted. In the past, dominant discourse highlighted the non-violent character of the protests, but this time there have been calls for retaliation and to use violence to defend the protests. Violence is no longer taboo: some elites and influencers inside and outside Iran are advocating for it. This is extremely concerning, considering that it may legitimise violence by the Iranian authorities, which could resort to even more violence in response.
How has the government cracked down on the protests, and why have protests continued regardless?
The government has used multiple tactics. First, it deploys riot police and security forces that use violence to physically prevent and dissolve protests. As a result, over 7,000 protesters have been arrested, many have been beaten and over 200 have been killed. Second, it has restricted internet access for over four weeks now, limiting the free exchange of information while increasing the circulation of disinformation and official propaganda. Third, it has used the same narrative tactics it normally uses against civil society, linking the protests to foreign intelligence forces.
The government’s reaction has been as repressive as towards previous movements. However, these protesters are more resilient, so the crackdown has not been as effective as previous ones. Two sources of this resilience are decentralisation and spontaneity: protests are held locally rather than in a central place, and they are not centrally organised – they are organised by small groups and happen rather spontaneously during the day or night at random hours, with protesters quickly dispersing afterwards.
Additionally, the fact that there are so many children and young students among protesters has somewhat limited the violence. Many children and adolescents have been killed, but the death toll would likely have been much higher had they not been among protesters. And many of these young people are students, therefore part of the middle class – which means there is a cultural middle class that continues to support the protests.
What is the likelihood of these protests leading to change?
We can identify five possible scenarios – and only one of them leads to regime change.
In the first scenario, the crackdown succeeds and protests end. This would result in widespread hopelessness and disappointment.
In the second, the authorities make concessions and the mandatory hijab rules are repealed. This would lead to the recognition of some limited freedoms, but not to regime change.
In the third, neither the authorities nor the protesters prevail, leading to continuing violence and bloody conflict. Protesters go into an armed offensive and the situation escalates into a civil war-like situation.
In the fourth, military groups seize power and suppress both protesters and established authorities to pursue their own goals.
In the fifth scenario, mass mobilisation leads to regime change.
What happens will depend on the capacity of protesters – the resources they can gather, the groups they can bring together, the leadership they build and the collective narrative they produce out of compelling personal stories – and international influences and pressures.
In the current situation, scenarios one to three are the most likely. The movement has not entered a revolutionary stage. There are not massive gaps in the regime – neither in its repressive machinery nor in its will to crack down on protests. And the protests have not been massive nor widely representative of the make-up of society. We have not seen hundreds of thousands or even tens of thousands on the streets, and we have not seen protests by various ethnic or religious minorities, and by different social classes. Strikes are typically the heart of social movement action in Iran, and we have not yet seen strikes by major branches and sectors of the economy.
What can women’s rights supporters and democracy activists from around the world do to support civil society in Iran?
International civil society as a collective should be more vocal. We need a unified collective of civil society echoing the voices of Iranian activists and advocates for democracy and human rights in Iran. In addition, actions of solidarity are needed as well as networks to exchange knowledge, experience and skills so Iranian activists can learn from civic movements internationally and be more effective.
Regarding the immediate response, there are various needs, such as juvenile justice support, including legal support, wellbeing and mental health support, as well as training and awareness raising on civic activism in Iran.
The main goal should be to support Iranian protesters and activists so their voice is heard and the crackdown does not succeed, while supporting the victims of the crackdown. International pressure is instrumental, not only from governments but also from civil society as a change leader. A close connection between international civil society, Iranian activists in diaspora, Iranian civil society and the media is also essential.
Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.
IRAN: ‘Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women must face just to go about their daily lives’
CIVICUS speaks with Kylie Moore-Gilbert about thecurrent women-led protests in Iran, sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in the custody of the so-called ‘morality police’.
Kylie is a British-Australian women’s rights advocate and academic specialising in Islamic studies. She has extensively researched political issues in the Middle East, including the ‘Arab Spring’. In 2018 she was falsely charged with espionage and remained in prison in Iran for more than two years before being released in a prisoner exchange deal negotiated by the Australian government. She speaks about this experience in a recently published book,The Uncaged Sky: My 804 days in an Iranian prison.
What are the demands of the protesters currently mobilised in Iran?
In contrast to previous outbreaks of protest and civil unrest in Iran, from the very first day the current protesters adopted slogans calling for the fall of the Islamic Republic regime. Their slogans include ‘Death to Khamenei’, the Supreme Leader, ‘Down with the dictator’ and ‘No to the Islamic Republic’.
While the trigger for the unrest was the senseless death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the morality police, the issue of forced hijab and the harassment of women by regime officials due to their clothing and behaviour has become a symbol of the protesters’ desire to remove this regime altogether. Protesters are demanding freedom, equality between women and men and an end to the tyranny imposed on them by Iran’s regime of ageing clerics.
The protests are happening countrywide and have involved Persian and ethnic-minority communities, irrespective of language, religion or class. To further their demands, protesters are using overwhelmingly peaceful tactics, such as rallies and marches, organised hijab-burnings and hair-cuttings, and general strikes.
How have the authorities responded to the protests so far?
The protests have faced a rolling crackdown since their inception. Many protesters, including several young teenagers, have been shot dead in the streets by security forces. Thousands have been rounded up and arrested. Sharif University of Technology was besieged for several days, with its students rounded up, beaten and imprisoned.
The regime has cut off internet access to most of the country in a bid to contain protests. This is why it is so important for the international community to keep up the pressure on Iran and continue to shine a light on its human rights abuses. It must help prevent a massacre of innocent protesters and hold the regime to account for its crimes.
Has Amini’s case helped reveal underlying women’s rights issues?
Yes, most definitely. One reason why Amini’s arrest and murder touched such a nerve in Iran is that nearly all Iranian women, and many men too, have had similar encounters with the morality police at some point in their lives. What happened to Mahsa could have happened to any one of them.
Mahsa’s death highlights the struggle women in Iran must face just to go about their daily lives. Women are routinely harassed in public by regime officials and pro-regime sympathisers for ‘bad hijab’ and are even banned from singing and dancing, hugging or touching men who are not their relatives, among too many other things. Many Iranian women are tired of the constant policing of their appearance and behaviour. They want to be free to get on with their lives as they see fit.
What needs to change for women’s rights to gain recognition in Iran?
For women’s rights to be recognised, the regime would have to change. I do not believe the Iranian government is capable of reforming itself. Forced hijab and discriminatory laws against women are a core pillar of the regime’s ideology. If it granted women equal rights, it would cease to exist.
My hope is that the protests will make a difference well beyond women’s rights. As the protests are now entering their third week, my hope is that they will eventually lead to the downfall of the regime altogether. Iranians deserve a democratic government that respects gender equality and freedom of speech and is truly representative of the will of the people.
What kind of assistance does Iranian civil society need from the international community?
Iranian civil society desperately needs its voices to be amplified internationally and for attention to continue to be focused on what is happening inside Iran. The full glare of international media and foreign governments will act as something of a brake on the worst excesses of the regime’s crackdown.
The international community could also assist in trying to keep Iran’s internet functioning, so protesters can communicate with one another and get news, photos and videos out of Iran so the world knows what is happening there.
Foreign governments could also impose sanctions on Iranian officials responsible for the crackdown and other human rights abuses, and should cease all negotiations with Iran over sanctions relief and unfreezing Iranian assets abroad.
Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Follow @KMooreGilbert on Twitter.
IRAN: ‘The severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement’
CIVICUS speaks with Sohrab Razaghi, executive director of Volunteer Activists (VA), about the situation in Iran on the anniversary of the anti-regime protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of morality police.
VA is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in the Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peacebuilding and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007.
What is the situation in Iran one year on from the start of the protest wave?
The situation in Iran is complex. While last year’s massive protests made people hope for change, the crackdown on the protests caused hopelessness. The authorities were mostly able to suppress the protests and regain control of the streets, forcing people back into their homes.
Moreover, while the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protest movement had an appealing chant and vision, it lacked a long-term plan that could lead to change. Over the past year, it has been unable to translate its slogan into a political programme and was therefore unable to mobilise other social and political forces around its goals.
But despite the authorities’ success in regaining control, we have continued to see acts of civil disobedience across Iran. Activists, artists and academics express themselves through social media and make public displays of protest not wearing hijab. The fact that the voices of protesters have not been silenced sustains hope for change.
A concerning development, however, is the increasing gap between established civil society and the protest movement. CSOs were hesitant to participate in the protests when they began, and this gap has only increased since. There is even a lack of a common vocabulary in calling for mobilisation and articulating demands. Established CSOs disagree with what they view as radical moves by the protest movement, as they have a more conservative view of society and the future. A possible explanation for this divergence may be the generation gap, as the protest movement is formed by much younger activists.
To reassert control, the authorities have imposed stricter control over media, universities, unions and other associations. In essence, civic space has shrunk dramatically over the past year, with the authorities purging most sectors of everyone who disagrees with them.
Internationally there was a huge wave of support for the protest movement from governments, civil society and media, particularly early on. This was extremely helpful for echoing the voices of Iranian protesters and pressuring the authorities to meet their demands. But as the authorities regained control of the streets, we have seen a change in the approach of western governments. They are returning to diplomacy and negotiations with Iran, slowly normalising their relations. This has boosted the Iranian regime’s confidence, re-legitimising it and giving it space to spread its propaganda.
What tactics has the government used to limit further mobilisation?
The number one tactic of the regime to crack down on protests has been to arrest protesters. Over the past year, thousands have been arrested, including over 20,000 who were arrested during the protests. Some have been given long jail sentences.
The second tactic has been the prevention of organising and networking. Even small communities have been actively prevented from getting together. Online networking has been limited by censorship, filtering and hacking. Leaders and activists trying to establish any form of group are arrested and their work is disrupted. They threaten activists with jail and even death. They also target their personal life by demanding that they be fired or suspended from work or university. Many teachers and professors who supported the protest movement have been fired and students expelled.
To reach those who may not have joined the protest yet, the authorities spread propaganda, fake news and conspiracy theories that delegitimise the protest movement. Some communities fear the protest movement as a result.
To prevent the development of a political alternative to the regime, the authorities have targeted the opposition within and outside Iran. Their main aim seems to be to sow division among opposition groups and force them to deal with issues internal to the opposition movement instead of focusing on developing an alternative coalition. Iranian cyber forces have supported these efforts through hacking and social media manipulation.
What forms has resistance taken in response?
Iranian activists have pursued two strategies in response. First, the protest movement sought to widen its scope to increase its resilience. By mobilising excluded ethnic groups such as Baloch and Kurdish people, the protest movement expanded to more cities and communities, making the crackdown more difficult. Second, the protest movement tried to stay on the streets for as long as possible, hoping to create division among crackdown forces.
Internationally, the movement’s main strategy was to try to isolate the regime by forcing the severance of as many diplomatic connections as possible. For example, it successfully advocated for Iran to be removed from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and it also sought to force the closure of Iranian embassies in western states.
How have Iranian organisations from the diaspora or in exile supported the protest movement in Iran?
We have observed two phases in the involvement of the diaspora and exiled Iranian organisations in the protest movement. In the first phase, they organised large-scale solidarity mobilisations and projects in support of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests in Iran. Over 80,000 Iranians from the diaspora participated in the solidarity protest in Berlin in Germany, for example.
After this initial phase, however, each political group in exile tried to present itself as the leader of the protest movement. This broke the solidarity and unity of the movement. Instead of fighting against the regime, some diaspora groups mostly fought each other. Independent activists and organisations in the diaspora that didn’t want to be caught in this fight decreased their involvement. For the protest movement to succeed, opposition groups and political movements need to get better at resolving their conflicts, reaching compromises and building a unified anti-regime coalition.
Has the crackdown intensified as the first anniversary approaches?
Civil society activists have continued to be arrested and organisations put under pressure and shut down. But as the first anniversary approaches, we are seeing repression increase, particularly in universities and among journalists. Universities have recently fired more lecturers and professors and expelled more students who participated in last year’s protests. Student associations have been shut down long ago and any form of student organising is banned.
Journalists are also being heavily repressed. The authorities are disrupting reporting and coverage of protest actions and calls for protests around 16 September. They are threatening and arresting journalists, prosecuting them and handing them heavy sentences.
Independent lawyers, who have been instrumental in supporting arrested and imprisoned activists, are also being threatened. Lawyers have played key roles in defending activists in court and spreading information about their trials, informing the public on the authorities’ repression. As a result, they are being threatened with losing their licences or being arrested.
Is Iran closer to change now than a year ago?
I think we are multiple steps closer to change than before. Iranians are less scared of the consequences of their activism. They dare to take action against the regime. The voice of protest is louder and the severity of the crackdown only shows how scared the regime is of the protest movement. The regime understands it won’t be easy to shut down this protest movement, which threatens the legitimacy and therefore the existence of the regime.
We also see a major lifestyle change. People on the streets are now dressed differently and are less afraid of showing their lifestyle in public. Although political change is minimal, cultural change following last year’s protests is clearly visible. This change shouldn’t be underestimated.
What needs to happen for political change to take place?
Iranians need to realise the power of being together. Change comes from power, and power comes from organising and acting together. To bring about change, we need social power and to create social power, organising is essential. By forming associations, organisations and networks, Iranians can demand and achieve change.
For this to happen, three types of changes are required. First is a change in attitude. Iranian activists need to think positively and constructively instead of negatively and destructively. Second is a change in behaviour. We will only achieve democracy if we also act democratically and use democratic tools. This means avoiding any form of violence and understanding that democracy does not rise from bloodshed and fire. Third is a change in context. It is key to empower society to say no and resist the regime.
The international community could support change by helping to increase the resilience of the social movement and its activists, both online and offline. The pursuit of meaningful and sustainable change is a marathon and it’s instrumental to echo the voices of activists and provide sustainable support. A coalition of international civil society organisations could help by providing strategic support to Iranian activists.
Civic space in Iran is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Volunteer Activists through itswebsite.
IRAN: A new generation of civic-minded, courageous activists is rising
Following a year that was characterised by a continued crackdown on fundamental freedoms in Iran, CIVICUS speaks to Sohrab Razzaghi, Executive Director of the Volunteer Activists Institute (VA) a not-for-profit, non-partisan, independent civil society organisation (CSO) based in The Netherlands, whose primary aims are building capacity among activists and CSOs, facilitating information exchange among civil society activists, community peace-building and advocating for the expansion of democracy and human rights in Iran and more generally in the Middle East. VA is the successor of a pioneer Iranian CSO, the Iranian Civil Society, Training and Research Centre, founded in 2001 and based in Tehran until 2007. After fleeing Iran, Sohrab now lives in exile.
Volunteer Activists recently published a comprehensive new study on civil society in Iran. What were its main findings?
Our latest report, ‘Civil society in Iran and its future prospects’, which came out in September 2018, analyses the major developments that have taken place since the last previous comprehensive study of Iranian civil society was published in 2010.
Not only does civil society in Iran currently face problems and challenges different from those of the past, but a whole new generation of Iranian activists has also become engaged, and they have fundamental differences with previous generations. As a result of a lack of understanding of such new phenomena, experts, policy-makers, donors and other stakeholders have not been able to understand and assess the situation accurately. The Volunteers Activist Institute (VA) took it upon itself fill this gap by undertaking a study that seeks to describe and explain major trends, challenges, opportunities and prospects of Iranian civil society, including the current situation of Iranian CSOs, their position within Iranian society and the challenges and restrictions they face.
Among our main findings is the acknowledgment that Iranian civil society has various facets and faces, and is far from coherent and homogeneous. It comprises both traditionally structured and modern associations, including charities and CSOs focusing on health and hygiene. This branch of civil society has a long history and an extensive social base. CSOs working in these areas usually adapt to government policies and programmes. The government also favours them and encourages their expansion and development. In addition, the Iranian government uses some CSOs that focus on service delivery to advance its policies while it marginalises independent and advocacy CSOs.
A significant recent development in Iranian civil society has been the emergence of a new generation of civil society activists in fields such as women’s and young people’s rights, community solidarity and the environment. Although their numbers are not large, this new generation has taken upon itself to expand civil society and challenge government policies on the matters they care about. They have launched a number of creative civic initiatives, both online and offline, such as I am Lake Urmia, which mobilised huge efforts to raise awareness of environmental degradation and push for action to prevent northwest Iran’s Lake Urmia from completely drying out. Another initiative, Wall of Kindness, created wall spaces across neighbourhoods where citizens could hang unneeded clothes to be taken by those in need. The Campaign to Change the Masculine Face of Parliament called attention to the scarcity of women legislators and urged for more women to be elected to parliament.
And then there are the Girls of Enghelab Street, a series of more spontaneous women’s protests against the compulsory use of hijab. These protests were inspired by a woman who in late December 2017 stood on a box in Enghelab (‘revolution’) Street, tied her hijab to a stick and waved it at the crowd as a flag. She was arrested and remained in custody for about a month, but other women later re-enacted her gesture of defiance and started posting their photos on social media, so the protest movement grew from the ground up.
Civic courage and audacity are two significant characteristics of this new generation of activists who have successfully torn into the power myths of the past. Social protest, including union and labour rights protests, has steadily increased in recent years, and particularly since the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Their cumulative effect is changing the landscape of Iranian civil society.
What major changes is civil society currently experiencing in Iran?
After President Rouhani’s inauguration, Iranian socio-political dynamics gradually started to change. Some marginalised social groups have experienced a limited and controlled comeback, and an atmosphere of societal hope started to take shape. Small openings have appeared through which a discourse on democracy, civil society and civic rights is beginning to make itself heard, although in areas that are deemed sensitive, such as women’s, labour and minority rights, the situation is still very tense and closed.
These very minor changes have nonetheless created an atmosphere of hope, and civil society is cautiously coming back onto the social stage. But as in the 1990s, the civil society development model is still top-down, as the driving forces behind civil society are governmental agencies that view civil society as a useful tool rather than a force for social change.
Independent civic action has increased around some issues, including the environment, youth issues and social inequalities. Organised civic action is also in the process of replacing the small, closed-group and underground activism of the period when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President from 2005 to 2013, and recent years have seen the rise of CSOs and networks throughout the country. Some associations and networks, notably environmental ones, that had been blocked during the previous period are now regenerating and regaining force. On the other hand, the social movements that were suppressed following the controversial 2009 election, including women’s rights, student and labour movements, are still being obstructed.
What is the current state of the freedom of expression?
While the Constitution of Iran recognises the freedom of speech, several laws list a number of restrictions. The most important laws restricting the freedom of speech are the Islamic Penal Code and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law. Articles 498, 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code, among others, subordinate the freedoms of speech and association to security considerations. Article 500 of the Penal Code considers any activity that is deemed detrimental to the Islamic Republic or benefits any other group or organisation as a national security offence. Articles 498 and 499 establish that any gathering of more than two people inside the country or overseas, under any name, with the aim of disrupting Iran’s national security, or attendance at such a gathering, constitute national security offences.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Press Law also introduces many restrictions on the freedom of speech. In order to be able to publish newspapers, magazines or any other publication in either print or digital form, individuals and organisations first need to acquire a licence, which is issued by a supervisory board led by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. According to Article 9 of the Press Law, anyone who wishes to apply for such a licence must pledge allegiance to the Constitution of Iran. Chapter 4, article 6 of the Press Law introduces restrictions on the freedom of speech in the press, specifying areas that are disruptive to the foundation of Islam as well as to general and private rights. According to this article, the press cannot spread news of depravity, corruption, or contents contrary to public virtues. The restrictions far exceed these, however, as they include insult and defamation, falsehoods and rumours. Nevertheless, the law does not define any of these categories. The most problematic category is that of rumours, which applies to any lead that journalists normally follow to get to the core of the truth. Article 6, paragraph 6 also bans the publication of news on confidential issues, which go well beyond military documents to include unlicensed coverage of closed-door sessions of parliament or the courts and judicial investigations. Paragraph 1 of this article also clearly states that the publication and dissemination of so-called pagan news 0 that is, news that goes against Islamic criteria - or news that harms the foundation of the Islamic Republic is not allowed.
All these bans restrict civil society activists in their quest for transparency and accountability in society and politics, because they are unable to voice the concerns of their stakeholders.
What is the relationship between Iranian and regional and international civil society and human rights actors?
Iranian activists and CSOs have been banned from joining regional and international civil society networks for decades, and therefore they have been unable to form strong coalitions and participate fully in exchanges of knowledge, experience and support. There are currently only 25 Iranian CSOs with consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and most of them are quasi-governmental entities pursuing government policies rather than advancing citizens’ concerns.
Legal restrictions and the dominant security environment prevent Iranian activists and CSOs from joining regional and international civil society networks. The Iranian government and its security apparatus are extremely sensitive towards any attempts by activists to connect with global networks and punish them with charges that go as far as espionage.
Frail regional and international connections have also resulted from, and in turn intensified, activists’ lack of familiarity with regional and international frameworks and limited language and networking skills.
As a result, representatives of independent civil society from inside Iran rarely attend regional and international conferences or voice civic opinions. The only CSOs that are allowed to attend gatherings such as the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the conferences of the International Labour Organization and the annual summit of the Commission on the Status of Women are quasi-governmental or government-sponsored non-governmental organisations (GONGOs) and those that are connected to the Iranian government’s security apparatus, which operate to promote government policies.
In contrast, civil society activists, including teachers and factory workers who have tried to connect with regional and international networks, have faced severe penalties for doing so, including long-term imprisonment. Over recent months, eight environmental activists have been arrested and charged with espionage and security offences.
It is worth noting that it is not just reaching out internationally that is penalised - the security apparatus also criminalises networking among Iranian CSOs inside the country and uses its power to either prohibit such networks from forming or weaken and neutralise existing ones.
What needs to change for civic space to improve in Iran, and what should global civil society do to help?
Global civil society should urge the government to establish a simple and transparent procedure for the establishment and operation of CSOs in Iran, and not to interfere in the lawful operation of CSOs.
We need to find ways to include and engage independent Iranian civil society, as opposed to quasi-governmental civil society, with existing global networks. The initiative on this should be taken by the international civil society community. Two very helpful measures in this regard would be the provision of updated information and knowledge to Iranian activists, and the design and implementation of capacity-building and accelerator projects addressing the specific needs and shortcomings of Iranian civil society.
Civic space in Iran is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor
IRAQ: ‘We've submitted many bills, but parliament refuses to adopt a law against GBV’
CIVICUS speaks about International Women’s Day and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls with Alyaa Al Ansari, executive director of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation (BROB).
Founded in Iraq’s southern Babylon province in 2005, BROB is a feminist civil society organisation (CSO) that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society. Since its foundation, BROB has extended its activities to eight provinces across Iraq.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on women and girls in Iraq?
The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.
Additionally, many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.
The situation was even worse for female healthcare professionals. Some of them made the tough decision to remain separate from their families for a prolonged period to avoid spreading the virus to their family members. Further, the government did not issue any additional regulations on the working conditions of pregnant medical staff during the pandemic. They too were forced to continue working and risk their lives and those of their unborn children; several of them miscarried.
Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof with their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.
How has civil society, and BROB in particular, responded to the devastating impacts of the pandemic on women?
During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. For instance, charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods. BROB’s phone number was posted across social media platforms, so women and families who needed urgent help were able to reach us.
Fortunately, BROB staff were able to continue to work at full capacity during the pandemic. We had freedom of movement once the Iraqi authorities issued permits allowing us to circulate during curfew in the eight provinces where we work. They gave us permission because we were providing essential services to families under lockdown. For instance, our team was distributing food supplies twice a month.
We maintained our social and psychological support programme for women but we moved it fully online via mobile and communications apps such as WhatsApp. Remote work is one of the new tactics we adopted during the pandemic. Our staff was creative and developed several new tactics we had never thought of before the pandemic, which allowed us to meet the urgent needs of women and their families.
Financially, BROB sustained its activities through donations from members as well as from the local community. Moreover, as public health institutions were struggling and the Ministry of Health was overwhelmed, we crowdfunded and sought donations to acquire additional medical equipment for the public health sector. This was a successful campaign that could have the positive side effect of strengthening the relationship between civil society and government institutions in the public health sector.
What are the main women’s rights issues in Iraq and how is civil society working to make change happen?
There are many relevant issues, but the one that if adequately tackled would make the most meaningful change in the lives of Iraqi women is that of gender-based violence (GBV). There is an urgent need for a law criminalising domestic violence in Iraq. CSOs have advocated for this for more than a decade. They have submitted several bills, but parliament has so far refused to discuss and adopt a law to protect women, girls and families from violence.
Given the importance of such legislation in promoting and protecting women’s rights at the national level, we will continue to put pressure on decision-makers through advocacy and campaigns combined with media support.
It is also key to change current laws that are unequal and unfair to provide women much-needed legal protection. Personal status laws in particular contain articles that discriminate against women in terms of the rights they recognise or don’t recognise, and the obligations and penalties they impose.
At the very least, Iraq should have laws to guarantee equal access to education, healthcare and public services overall. Such laws will contribute to gender equality as they become an integral part of the Iraqi legislative system. A law criminalising incitement of violence against women in the media and by religious leaders is also very much needed.
To make change happen, CSOs will continue raising awareness on gender equality, advocating with decision-makers, orchestrating public opinion campaigns, fighting legal battles and fostering leadership capabilities among women and girls. It is mostly up to us, because when it comes to official response, decision-makers do nothing besides issuing positive press releases to capitalise on CSO campaigns.
The International Women’s Day (IWD) theme for 2022 is #BreakTheBias. How did you organise around it?
Most of our projects have always focused on breaking the bias to combat gender inequalities. Every year we plan events on IWD to shed light on an issue that is critical to local communities. In 2019, for instance, we celebrated disabled sportswomen in Babylon province and supported their training programmes.
As usual, there are plenty of urgent issues this year, but we decided to focus on discrimination in the workplace, in both the private and the public sector. Women deserve safe and fair working conditions everywhere.
Name: Irom Sharmila
Reason Behind Bars:
Irom has been on a hunger strike since 2000 to highlight persistent human rights abuses committed by Indian security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958 (AFSPA). Under Section 4 (A) of the law, security forces involved in counter-insurgency operations in “disturbed areas” are given the authority to arrest, detain and even use lethal force against persons suspected of being a threat to “public order.” Of critical concern is section 6(A) of the law which prohibits courts from holding security officials accountable for their human rights abuses without prior government approval. The law is regularly invoked to forcefully suppress public demonstrations, particularly in insurgency affected areas, including the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur. Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, a committee founded in 2004 by the government of India to review AFSPA, recommended that the law should be amended as it institutionalizes abuse, repression and discrimination.
On 2 November 2000, members of the Assam Rifles, one of India’s oldest paramilitary forces, allegedly shot and killed 10 people at a bus stop in Imphal Valley, Manipur. However, despite accusations that the shooting constituted extrajudicial executions the Indian authorities refused to investigate the incident, concluding that it was within the mandate of AFSPA. In protest of the government’s failure to investigate the incident, Irom decided to indefinitely prolong her traditional Thursday fasts, which she has been carrying out since childhood, to demand the repeal of AFSPA.
On 5 November 2000, Irom was arrested by the Indian police under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalizes attempts to commit suicide. Section 309 prescribes 1 year in prison to “whoever attempts to commit suicide and does any act towards the commission of such offence”. Every year since 2000, Irom has been re- arrested and charged under the law and forced fed in detention.
On 20 August 2014, the District and Sessions Judge of Imphal East released Irom stating that refusing food and water doesn’t constitute attempted suicide. However, despite the court ruling, on 22 August 2014, Irom was forcefully re-arrested by the Superintendent of Police (SP) of Imphal East and taken to Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Medical Sciences (JNIMS) to be force fed through her nose. Directly preceding her arrest, Irom was staging a peaceful hunger strike a kilometre away from a government hospital where she has been imprisoned for the past year. The government’s relentless judicial persecution of Irom is based solely on her independent activism and represents a severe breach of her basic civil rights. Irom must be immediately and unconditionally released.
For more information:
Frontline Defenders: Human rights defender Ms Irom Chanu Sharmila re-arrested
Save Sharmila Solidarity Campaign
Three days after her release, anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila re-arrested from protest site
ISRAEL: ‘We dream of hundreds of thousands demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights’
CIVICUS speaks about currentprotests against judicial changes in Israel with Debbie Gild-Hayo, Director of Public Advocacy of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
Founded in 1972, ACRI is an oldest and largest human rights civil society organisation (CSO) in Israel. It advocates for the human rights and civil liberties of everyone living in Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
What are the judicial changes being proposed, and what is wrong with them?
The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is promoting several pieces of legislation concerning the judicial system. The one that has advanced most and is the most controversial at the moment concerns the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee. This committee chooses judges for the High Court, which also plays the role of a Constitutional Court, and also all other courts.
The government wants the ruling coalition to have a majority in the Judicial Selection Committee so it can control the appointment of judges. It currently has to make compromises and reach agreements between all members of the committee, political and professional, to nominate judges. If the change is adopted, the nomination process will be totally political and will prioritise judges’ allegiance to the government over their professionalism.
The reform would also diminish the authority of the High Court to conduct judicial review of Basic Laws – which have the status of a constitution in Israel – drafted by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. For example, the coalition wants to pass a new Basic Law that will release ultra-Orthodox people from obligatory military duty, making their religious studies equivalent to army service. The High Court has already stated that this kind of arrangement would violate the principle of equality. But if the reform passes, then these kinds of unconstitutional amendments to Basic Laws will be possible and the High Court will not be able to intervene.
Another bill concerns regular laws passed by the Knesset that contradict Basic Laws. The bill determines that in order to annul an unconstitutional statute the High Court will need 80 per cent of its members to agree, which is practically impossible to achieve. On top of that, the bill includes an override clause, which determines that even if the High Court recognises legislation as unconstitutional, the Knesset will have the power to override its decision with a simple majority of 61 of its 120 members.
It’s important in this context to remember that Israel has a 20 per cent Arab population, so even if a majority of 80 out of 120 Knesset votes were needed for the override clause, like some suggestions that are on the table and quite widely accepted, it would still keep Arabs completely out of the law-making process in the most harming and controversial moments. The government wants to be able to pass laws deemed unconstitutional with a simple majority of 61 members, which could potentially harm an enormous part of the population.
The government also seeks to change the status of legal advisors in ministries, turning them from independent advisors into politically nominated counsel whose rulings would have non-binding status.
All of these bills would harm the independence of the judicial system and its ability to defend human rights, and specifically the rights of minorities.
How would you describe the protests against the changes?
I would describe them as amazing. As a human rights organisation, it is our dream to have hundreds of thousands of people demonstrating for democracy, equality and human rights. We wouldn’t have thought it possible only a short while ago. People are now attending parliamentary discussions – which, believe me, is incredible. I have been doing this job for a long time, and I used to always be there alone or with a few colleagues at most.
I think many people felt threatened personally by the reform initiative. This is what usually brings people out to the street. A lot of people who have never been involved in politics before are now mobilising.
In the last few months, I have talked to members of the Knesset as well as to protesters and advocated for other issues besides the judicial changes that are also harming democracy and human rights in Israel to be included on the agenda. Everything that is related to the occupation is excluded from the mainstream agenda. There is a perception that those demonstrating with Palestinian flags harm the protest.
But a few things are slowly widening the protesters’ agenda. For instance, people have been speaking up against the creation of a militia of armed citizens to support the police. It is a good sign that criticism is starting to go beyond the judicial changes.
Protesters include people of all ages and various professional groups, including doctors, social workers and teachers, as well as youth and student groups. But it is undeniable that most are middle or upper-middle class. A deep split has existed in Israeli society for many years, but now it has come to its peak. On the one hand you have the more liberal population and on the other the right-wing nationalist segment, including five per cent of the population who are settlers and 10 per cent who are ultra-Orthodox believers.
How has the government reacted to the protests?
From my point of view, there hasn’t been much repression. There are frequent clashes between police and protesters and there have been cases of police brutality, but the level of violence has not been that high. I have seen the police in action in other places, such as East Jerusalem, and they are much more violent. In this case, they have given quite a lot of room to protesters.
The main thing the government has attempted to do is to delegitimise the protests, referring to protesters as ‘anarchists’, ‘leftists’, ‘a minority against the country’ and so forth, disregarding the fact that hundreds of thousands are protesting every week and many of the people opposing the reforms and deeming them non-democratic are public officials, including members of security forces, or have positions in the financial system. The government also claims protesters are violent, but I personally have never seen such non-violent protesters in my life. If you just look at the protests against the pensions system changes taking place in Paris right now, there is no comparison.
What role are CSOs playing?
CSOs have been fully involved in many ways. CSOs are doing advocacy and campaigns, explaining to the public what this judicial reform is about, talking to the press and writing reports. They are also going to the courts when any rights violation occurs, especially regarding freedoms of speech and assembly, and to the police to defend arrested people. And they also take part in the parliamentary legislation procedures, including by attending committee sessions.
Do you think the protests will force the government to backtrack?
Protests have put a lot of pressure on the government, influencing Israel’s financial situation and bringing international support, which is also threatening to the government. But we have not stopped the process, but rather slowed it down. The government started pushing all these bills at once and ended up at the end of the Knesset session with only one passed, which protects Netanyahu’s position by limiting the ways a sitting prime minister can be declared unfit for office.
The judicial reform has been put off for a month, during which time its terms are supposed to be negotiated. The next session will take place in May, and it’s likely that there won’t be an agreement so the ruling coalition will accuse the opposition of obstruction and go on to push the bills forward. Even if there is an agreement between the coalition and the opposition, or part of it, about the details of the reform, it is not certain that the public will accept it.
If the bills pass, then there will be petitions against them and the High Court might deem them unconstitutional, which will farther intensify the controversy between the sides, and deepen the constitutional clash.
I don’t think protesters will give up. The worst worst-case scenario is that the ongoing constitutional clash will be accompanied by clashes on the streets. I don’t know what form they will take, whether it will be strikes, people refusing to join the army and the reserves, violent clashes on the street, or general chaos. The far right is more violent than its opponents, and we have already witnessed far-right violence in protests and attacks against Arabs on the streets. The ongoing clash could turn into a catastrophe, maybe also escalating to another major outbreak of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as we saw two years ago in May.
What forms of international support does Israeli civil society currently need?
International pressure seems to be one of the only things really influencing this government because Israel is dependent on international support, and financial support in particular. Since the government has a legislative majority, it can theoretically pass all these laws, and the only thing stopping it, or slowing it down at least, seems to be financial pressure within Israel – for example, some high-tech companies have already said that they will relocate or have started to open new companies in other countries – and outside financial or other international pressure.
Another worry is that although many people are on the streets now and protests seem to be very wide, they do not, and probably will not in the future, deal with the less mainstream issues, such as the rights of the Arab population in Israel and occupation issues. In fact, the Knesset has just passed an amendment to the Disengagement Law that would allow the reestablishment of former West Bank settlements that were evacuated in 2005. This was barely an issue in Israeli public debate. This is just one example. CSOs are currently, and will probably continue to be, the only ones dealing with these issues on the national level, and will also probably be attacked because of this.
Civic space in Israel is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ISRAEL: There is a lack of political will to end the occupation
After a tough year for dissent in the occupied Palestinian territories, CIVICUS speaks to Amit Gilutz, spokesperson of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, B’Tselem (which means ‘in the image of’, pointing to the universal moral edict to respect and uphold the human rights of all people) strives to end Israel’s occupation, which it sees as the only way to achieve a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, who inhabit the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. It does so by documenting and publicising acts of injustice, violence and human rights violations in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip, and by challenging the legitimacy of the occupation regime both in Israel and internationally.
How would you describe the environment for civil society in Israel over the past year? Has it worsened or improved?
The recent Israeli governments - each more extremely right-wing than its predecessor - have for years engaged in a campaign aimed at silencing criticism of their policies in general and specifically stifling any debate about the occupation. Not only are human rights organisations such as B’Tselem targeted: anyone critical of the government, whether they be journalists, academics, or artists, easily becomes the target for incitement through smear campaigns and legislation designed to narrow the space available for political or even cultural action. At the same time the government is engaged in intensive international lobbying aimed at cutting funding for civil society organisations (CSOs). This process, widely referred to as ‘shrinking democratic space’, is the predictable consequence of the prolonged occupation itself, now in its 51st year. It is paralleled with another push to erase the occupation, namely the formal annexation of the territories, which the current government seems to be keener on than previous ones.
What effects have the turn towards right-wing populism abroad, and particularly in the USA, Israel’s most powerful ally, had in Israel?
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been joining forces with other reactionary and populist governments around the world, aiming to create new alliances that would diminish the ability of the international community to act effectively against the occupation. These alliances, together with the green light Israel sees coming from Washington, including through a series of unilateral measures the US administration has taken against Palestinians, has emboldened the pro-settlement camp in Israel, as well as the government to step up its efforts in the dynamic process of gradually taking over more and more Palestinian land and resources, while pushing Palestinians onto enclaves that are detached from one another and from resources needed for a sustainable future.
A case in point is the plan to forcibly remove the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar, which is a war crime under international law. For decades Israel has created a coercive environment for dozens of Palestinian communities in the West Bank, hoping they will give up and leave, as if by their own volition, while stopping short of directly loading them onto trucks and dumping them elsewhere. These are the kinds of images that would damage the PR efforts of a state that purports to be a democracy, while at the same time controlling millions of subjects with no political rights. In the current political climate, Israel seems to be nearing a point in which this consideration will no longer stop it, although the planned forcible transfer of Khan al-Ahmar’s residents is for now on hold, thanks to international pressure.
How significant was the Knesset’s decision to pass the contentious nation-state bill into law, declaring Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people”?
Although significant, none of the laws passed recently should be seen in isolation because it is their totality that matters. Their combined purpose is to mark any opposition to the occupation as illegitimate, as lying beyond the border of acceptable politics, and to further marginalise the Palestinian citizens of Israel. That said, the opposition to the nation-state bill has been quite exceptional, and one can only hope that this opposition can be sustained.
How do you work in the occupied territories, and what challenges do you face in doing so?
B’Tselem field researchers are Palestinians who work in the communities in which they live, all across the Occupied Territories. The reality of the occupation is something that they experience on both the personal, as well as the professional, level. Take for example the B’Tselem field researchers based in blockaded Gaza: together with two million Palestinians they live under this reality. On a personal level, it’s part of their lives. On a professional level, the fact that they never get a permit from Israeli authorities to leave the Gaza Strip means that it’s almost impossible for them to meet with colleagues from the B’Tselem team. A permit to exit the strip would also mean some relief from the inhumane conditions that the blockade Israel imposes on Gaza has created. In the occupied West Bank, our field researchers and volunteers have been arrested, strip-searched and harassed, have had their equipment confiscated and otherwise prevented from doing their work.
On the other side, in Israel proper, life of course is much more ‘normal’ – as exposed as our team is to the ongoing hate speech and government incitement. Specifically, Hagai El-Ad, B’Tselem’s Executive Director, has once again recently been a target of incitement. In October 2018, when he appeared for the second time in front of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, Israel’s Envoy to the UN, Danny Dannon, boasted in English about Israeli democracy, while addressing Hagai in Hebrew and accusing him of being a traitor.
What extra help, including from international civil society, does progressive civil society in Israel need to help create a future in which Israelis and Palestinians can coexist and enjoy equal human rights?
We need civilians around the world to demand that their representatives do nothing short of decisive action in order to bring an end to the occupation. What we lack is not political solutions but political will, and meanwhile an unbearable toll is taken on Palestinians.
Civic space in Israel is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor
ITALY: ‘Accusing activists of vandalism is much easier than implementing renewable energy policies’
CIVICUS speaks with Gabriella Abbate of Last Generation about climate activism and its criminalisation in Italy, a country that has recently experienced both drought and devastating floods.
Last Generation is an international network of climate activists using civil disobedience to compel governments to address the climate emergency by enabling citizen participation and financially supporting the global south as a primary victim of climate change that it hasn’t caused.
Why are climate protests on the rise in Italy?
Italy is heavily affected by climate and ecological crises: it experienced 310 climate disasters in 2022 alone, one of the main reasons behind them being the use of fossil fuels. The Italian government’s funding of fossil fuels has been steadily increasing, reaching €2.8 billion (approx. US$3 billion) between 2019 and 2021 and comprising 90 per cent of Italy’s total investment in fossil energy. Italy is the world’s sixth largest fossil energy lender, ahead even of Russia and Saudi Arabia.
In reaction to these energy policies, transnational activist networks including Last Generation, Extinction Rebellion and Scientists Rebellion are organising climate protests throughout Italy. They all use nonviolent civil disobedience tactics such as roadblocks, soiling with washable and vegetable-based paint and gluing. Last Generation is currently protesting to demand that the Italian government immediately cease public funding for fossil fuels and respect the agreements made by European Union member states in the 2030 climate and energy framework to increase the share of renewable energies, improve energy efficiency and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
What challenges are climate protesters facing in Italy?
A major challenge has been the criticism of our ways of protesting and the way we have been portrayed by the media. I think it is much easier to present someone as a vandal than to try to understand the root causes of the anger driving their action. The media and the state strongly exploit people’s lack of awareness regarding the innocuous materials used in the actions, such as vegetable charcoal, which leads to plenty of misinformation. However, more and more people are still joining our movement, perhaps driven by personal fear of the climate catastrophe, but also due to the realisation that the label of ‘eco vandalism’ is only a facade to mask the problem and that the negative consequences of our actions are minor and superficial.
On the other hand, the consequences of our activism being portrayed as violent and as acts of vandalism have been profound. There are currently three Last Generation activists facing trial for spraying the Senate building in Rome. They’re accused of ‘criminal damage’ and risk up to three years in prison. Never mind that the paint they used in the protest was washable.
In April, the Italian government introduced a new law specifically to punish climate actions seen as damaging monuments or cultural sites with fines ranging from €20,000 to €40,000 (approx. US$21,500 to US$43,000) and possible imprisonment for those caught in the act. In this regard, it should be noted that an essential part of Last Generation’s activism is to draw attention to one’s responsibility for one’s choices, which ends up accentuating the consequences of the actions we take. We take responsibility by not running away after an action, and this puts us in an even riskier position. Another tool used by the Italian state is indictment for ‘criminal conspiracy’, a charge historically used against the mafia.
The Italian government criminalises climate activists because by doing so it can continue avoiding its responsibilities regarding the wellbeing of its citizens. Accusing activists of vandalism is much easier than implementing renewable energy policies.
How does Last Generation support activists so they can continue mobilising for climate action?
Last Generation supports prosecuted activists by using funds from donations to pay their legal fees and hire experts to help them navigate court proceedings. We also share information about their cases on social media to gather international solidarity and support.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
Last Generation is part of the A22 coalition, an international network of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigners, all of which demand their governments adopt measures to address ecoclimate collapse. The coalition was established in 2022 and it already includes at least 10 different campaigns advocating with governments in Europe, the Pacific and the USA.
Within the coalition we share not only strategies and best practices but also victories, such as that obtained in the Netherlands last month. In April, following months of continuous campaigning by our Dutch allies, Schiphol Airport decided to ban private jets and night flights from 2025. It is setting new rules that establish clear limits on noise and emissions and has dropped plans to build an additional runway.
This network is a great source of support. We help each other increase the visibility of our campaigns. It has certainly helped us attract more people to Non Paghiamo il Fossile (We Don’t Pay for Fossil) and other environmental campaigns in Italy and beyond.
Civic space in Italy is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ITALY: ‘The constitution now contemplates the interests of future generations’
CIVICUS speaks with Edoardo Zanchini, National Vice President of Legambiente Onlus, about the recent legislative vote that introduced environmental protections in the Italian Constitution, and civil society’s role in making it happen.
Established in 1980, Legambiente Onlus is an Italian civil society organisation (CSO) that works towards a clean and liveable environment by monitoring environmental issues, diagnosing problems and offering solutions, denouncing environmental crimes and seeking to hold those responsible to account, running sensitisation campaigns and educational projects, and advocating with policy makers.
What is the significance of the recent constitutional amendment that mandates the state to safeguard ecosystems and biodiversity?
It’s very important because it elevates the protection of the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems to the constitutional level. Before this amendment, the Italian Constitution did not explicitly recognise environmental protection as a fundamental value. The new text of Article 9 establishes the principle of environmental protection ‘in the interest of future generations’, a reference to the concept of sustainable development, according to which natural resources cannot be exploited in an unlimited way – that is, without taking into account that they are finite and how this will affect those who will come after us.
A change to Article 41 also establishes that economic initiatives cannot be carried out in a way that could create damage to health or the environment. Before, the only constitutionally recognised restrictions were those related to security, freedom and human dignity.
Wording was also introduced regarding the ‘protection of animals’, and this was the only point around which there were strong disagreements: pressure from hunters’ associations was strong and led to a compromise.
Do you view the amendments as a civil society victory?
Yes, it was a victory for the CSOs that have long been committed to the defence of ecosystems, the landscape and biodiversity. These amendments would not have been introduced if it hadn’t been for the growing awareness of the importance of these values and the increasing interest in their defence. And that awareness is the result of sustained civil society work.
It has been a long road to reach today’s great consensus on environmental issues. And consultations with environmental CSOs in the amendment process were a key factor in that they helped put pressure on political parties to make the right decision.
The fact that nobody openly campaigned against the amendment proposal is very telling: it shows there is a broad consensus, stronger than any political divide, around values that are recognised as being in the general interest, even as part of the identity of local communities and Italy as a whole. Aside from the strong conflict around the protection of animals, it got to the point that those who have an interest in pollution continuing to be allowed or overlooked were very careful not to take part in any controversy.
Do you see the constitutional change in Italy as part of a European trend?
In recent years several European countries have amended their constitutions to explicitly include and strengthen environmental protection. In all countries there is a strong consensus around this perspective, with an increasing public demand for information on environmental issues and increasingly active citizens who take it upon themselves to get informed, visit protected areas and valuable landscapes, and organise to demand their preservation for future generations. Environmental associations from all over Europe have been working together for many years on issues such as natural resource protection, the push towards a circular economy and the battle against climate change.
We also frame our initiatives and campaigns in the context of our membership of regional and global networks such as the Climate Action Network, which includes over 1,500 CSOs in more than 130 countries in every global region, the European Environmental Bureau, which is the largest network of environmental CSOs in Europe, with over 170 members in more than 35 countries, and Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group.
What needs to happen next, both in terms of implementation and further policy development?
Now it will be necessary to update the regulatory framework to include protection measures that had so far not been considered. The new constitutional reference to environmental protection will also allow environmentalists to appeal against laws that are in contradiction with it. Of course, Italy will have to review all its regulations related to environmental impact assessments, which were established without taking into account the protection objectives that are now part of our constitution.
ITALY: ‘The Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics’
CIVICUS speaks to Andrea Garreffa, one of the founders of the Sardines movement (Movimento delle Sardine), a grassroots political movement that began in November 2019 in Bologna, Italy, in protest against the hateful rhetoric of right-wing populist leader Matteo Salvini.
What inspired you to begin this movement?
Regional elections were scheduled for 26 January 2020 in Emilia-Romagna, our home region – and when I say our, I refer to me and the other co-founders of the movement, Mattia Santori, Roberto Morotti and Giulia Trappoloni. On that moment there was a big wave towards the far right, represented by the League party and its leader, Matteo Salvini. There were very scary signs about the general political situation in Italy, one of which was the lack of respect shown to Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz and was the only survivor in her family. From the 1990s she started to speak to the public about her experience and in 2018 she was named senator for life. Segre received so many insults and threats on social media that in November 2019 she was assigned police protection. The situation was very scary; I am not ashamed to admit that I would often cry when I read the newspaper reporting such episodes.
How was the first Sardines demonstration organised?
As the election approached, my friends and I started thinking of a way to speak up and warn the League that the game was not over yet. We wanted to make this extremely clear, both to the far-right parties and to all citizens looking for a stimulus to empowerment. The League party had just won in Umbria and was announcing itself as the winner in Emilia-Romagna as well; they counted on this victory to destabilise the coalition government and return to power. We wanted to do something to stop that narrative. We started to think about this on 6 or 7 November 2019, just a week before Matteo Salvini, along with Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate to lead the regional government, kicked off their campaign with a rally at Bologna’s sports arena. We had in mind that the last time Salvini had come to Bologna he said that Piazza Maggiore, the main town square, could host up to 100,000 people, in an attempt to claim that was the number of people who attended his rally – something that is physically impossible, as only up to 30,000 very tightly packed people could actually fit into the square. In a way, we also wanted to draw attention to the information on the news and make sure he wouldn’t be able to cheat.
In short, our idea was to organise a flash mob-style demonstration on Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore, on the same day as Salvini’s rally, and we named it ‘6,000 sardines against Salvini’ because our aim was to gather around 6,000 people and our tactic was to show we were many – so we used the image of crowds of people squeezed together like sardines in a shoal. In the few days we had to organise it, we set the main narrative and prepared some templates that could be customised so each person was free to express themselves and be creative. Ours was a message that anybody could understand, and the actions required were something that anybody could do. We wanted to get rid of all the negative feelings linked to existing political parties, so the initiative was inclusive from the very beginning. It wasn’t linked to any party but rather open to anybody who shared its core values of anti-fascism and anti-racism.
We sent out an invitation, not just through Facebook, which of course we did, but more importantly, we went out to the streets to distribute flyers and talk to people, so people could understand that the event was real and it was actually going to happen. It was surprising that just two days after we had launched the Facebook campaign, we were handing out flyers and people would say that they already knew about the event. Word of mouth worked incredibly well; in my opinion, this reflected a very strong need among people to do something to ensure Matteo Salvini did not win in Bologna and in Emilia-Romagna. People understood and felt the importance of this election. During the summer Salvini had destabilised the national government by ‘showing off’ in Milano Marittima, claiming pieni poteri – ‘full powers’, an expression used by Mussolini back in the day. Citizens could not stand the risk of such a poor show taking place again and really felt the call to action when the far-right propaganda started spreading messages such as ‘Liberiamo l’Emilia-Romagna’ (Let’s free Emilia-Romagna), as if people had forgotten their history lessons: the region had no need to be freed because that had already happened, at the end of the Second World War. People felt disrespected in their intelligence, and we stood up to make that visible and tangible. People are less stupid than what people in power tend to think.
How did you know people would come?
We had no clue. On the night of 14 November we found ourselves surrounded by this incredible crowd – the media reported there were 15,000 people – and we couldn’t quite believe it.
We had expected a number of people to attend; we started to believe in the success of the initiative when we saw that from day one we were achieving every goal we set for ourselves. For example, we set up the Facebook page with the initial goal of reaching a thousand people, and the next day we were already more than three or four thousand. That was mostly for two reasons: firstly timing, as people were ready for an initiative like this, and secondly, the fact that we live in Bologna, so we know a lot of people and could easily spread the message.
But on 14 November nobody knew what was going to happen. We told people there would be a surprise and managed to keep it secret until everybody had gathered, and at 8:30 pm we played a song by Lucio Dalla, Com'è profondo il mare, which translates as ‘how deep is the sea’. In one part of the song, the lyrics say that we are many, and we all descend from fish, and you cannot stop fish because you cannot block the ocean, you cannot fence it. This built up a lot of emotion, and people even cried because it was very powerful and could not believe it was happening for real. Older people felt young again, living emotions they thought lost forever in the 1970s. Young kids had the opportunity to participate in a massive and joyful party, which made them question the fact that politics is all boring and unemotional. I think the whole wave that came afterwards was born that first night. It built up from that initial emotion. We were not 6,000 but many more, and we sent out the message that the game was far from over and Salvini could not yet claim victory. This was key: whatever sport you play, if you enter the field thinking you are going to lose, you’ll lose. This was the general mood among left-wing parties and progressive citizens. We did what we could to make ‘our team’ believe in itself and its chances of victory. We may say that the Sardines movement is all about building self-confidence in the progressive side of politics.
Who organised all the demonstrations that followed?
The emotion of the first demonstration spread thanks to an impressive picture taken from the municipality building, which shows a red minivan surrounded by thousands of people. The picture spread all over the internet and social media. It helped focus a lot of attention on the regional election. All the international media was there so we offered them the image and that was the start of everything. The picture reflected the fact that something big was going on, so when people from other cities and even from other countries started trying to contact us, we set up an email address so anybody could reach out to us.
We shared our experience and explained to anyone who contacted us how we set everything up in just six days: how we requested the permits for the gathering and for playing the music, how we took care of people, those things. We then organised all the information to share with whoever wanted to do something similar somewhere else. We also registered the name of the initiative, not because we wanted to own it, but to prevent its misuse and protect its underlying values. We spent hours and days on the phone with people from all around Emilia-Romagna, and then from other regions, until the movement was so big that we were able to announce a massive demonstration to be held in Rome in December.
For the Rome event we didn’t even have to do much, because there were people in Rome organising the demonstration by themselves, and we were invited to attend as guest speakers. That was actually a strength, because this wasn’t people from Bologna organising an event for Rome, but people from Rome organising themselves, mobilising their friends and neighbours and inviting people to join.
Right before the elections, on 19 January, we organised a big concert in Bologna, aimed at encouraging electoral participation. We didn’t want to pressure people to vote for this or that party, but rather encourage participation. Indifference had prevailed in the previous regional elections, and only 37 per cent of potential voters made use of their right. The higher turnout we achieved this time around, when 69 per cent of people voted, was by itself a victory of democracy.
You mentioned that the movement spread both nationally and internationally. Did it also establish connections with other justice movements around the world?
The movement reached an international scale in the very beginning, thanks to Italians living abroad who were reading the news, understood what was going on and got in touch with us. We reached out to people in dozens of major cities in countries around the world, including Australia, The Netherlands and the USA.
That was the first step towards reaching international scale, and also the reason why the four of us were then invited to participate in the Forum on European Culture, held in Amsterdam in September 2020. We attended the festival and had the opportunity to meet representatives from Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the French Yellow Vests, Million Moments for Democracy, a protest organisation in the Czech Republic, Hong Kong’s Demosisto and Black Queer & Trans Resistance, an LGBTQI+ organisation in The Netherlands. We connected with other realities and learned about other movements. We started talking and dreaming about an event to bring together a wide variety of protest movements in the coming months or years, after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. We are now open and curious to find out what others are doing, but we remain independent. We do our thing, they do their own, and we collaborate when we get the chance.
The 6000 Sardine Facebook page displays various expressions of solidarity with movements such as the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, #EndSARS in Nigeria and Black Lives Matter in the USA. Do you organise in solidarity with them?
What we have done is get in touch with those movements, if possible, and let them know that we are going to send out a communication of solidarity, but that’s about it. We are busy enough trying to set up an organisation of our own to invest energy in trying to follow and understand what others are doing to build their own.
We also have a common agreement that the movement is not the Facebook page, but a lot more. To us, Facebook is a communication channel and a useful way to spread messages, but it’s not the core of the movement. Sometimes it functions rather as a billboard where people share and exchange things, and not everything there is the result of a joint, organisation-level decision. To be honest, sometimes I open our Facebook page and I do not necessarily agree with everything that I see there. And this happens because of delegation of tasks and openness to participation.
What are the goals of the movement now, and how have they evolved?
We have given this a lot of thought because it all started as a spontaneous thing that was specifically related to the elections but then continued to grow. So we felt responsible for handling all this energy. We did our best to spread the right messages while not feeding illusion. We are still the same people we were last year, regardless of the experiences we went through, but we were not prepared for all of this. Day after day we learned how to deal with the attention, the media and everything that came with it. We focused on the need to set goals and a vision.
We were at it when then the COVID-19 pandemic struck. On one hand it was very negative for us, as we couldn’t keep mobilising, but on the other hand it turned out to be a strange kind of positive, because it forced us to slow down. We took advantage of the lockdown to do the only thing that we could do: sit down and think. We managed to put together our manifesto, which was the result of multiple debates within our inner circle.
The manifesto was a milestone, and our next steps were to try and make each of its articles visible and tangible in real life, which is what we are focusing on now. Following the metaphor of the sea, after the high tide came the low tide, which is more manageable, and we are trying to nurture the movement so it grows from the roots, more slowly but less chaotic and unstable. We try to be a point of reference to anyone who is looking for progressive ideas, without being a party but pointing out the direction.
I would like to stress the fact that we started this movement with the idea that we should not point fingers at politicians or parties but ask ourselves what we are doing to bring into the world the change that we want. This means we don’t exclude approaches focused on little things such as taking care of your own neighbourhood. We include this kind of approach as well as more ambitious ones such us setting up the direction for progressive left-wing parties. We consider both approaches to be valid.
We don’t exclude any discourse that converges with ours and upholds our core values. For instance, right now there is a lot of talk about how progressive the Pope is, so we are inviting people to talk about that, not because we are a religious movement but to spread the kind of positive messaging that is currently quite difficult to find in the political arena.
A few months ago, we organised our first School of Politics, Justice and Peace. We held it in a small town, Supino, because it better fitted the model of local self-organisation that we want to promote. We invited people who are involved in the political arena to interact with activists in their 20s. The idea was to merge those worlds to create the kind of communication that social media platforms lack. We want to create opportunities for progressive people to meet with others and talk, not necessarily to find the solution to a specific problem but to make sure that there is a connection between people with decision-making power and people who are interested in participating and changing things, but don’t really know how.
How did you keep the movement alive while in COVID-19 lockdown?
We invited people all over Italy to focus on the local level because it was the only thing they could do. And we set the example to be credible to others. Many people in Bologna put their energy at the service of others, for instance by going grocery shopping for those who couldn’t leave their homes and getting involved in countless local initiatives, movements and associations. We encouraged this, because it was never our goal to replace existing organisations, but rather to revitalise activism and involvement in public affairs.
But we did ask people to stay in touch, so we would have calls and organise specific events. For example, for 25 April, Liberation Day, we launched an initiative in which we shared clips from movies showing resistance to fascism and Nazism during the Second World War and invited people to project them out of their windows and onto neighbouring buildings, and film the event. We collected the recordings and put them together into a video that we disseminated on social media. Our core message was that we could all be present even if we could not physically get out.
In early May we also organised a symbolic flash mob in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore: instead of people we lined up around 6,000 plants, which we went on to sell online. Our volunteers delivered them by bike, and all the funds we collected went to the local municipality, which had committed to invest the full amount, matched one to one with their own funds, to support cultural events over the summer. Before delivering the plants, we staged an artistic performance on the square; then we moved the plants around to draw the shape of a bicycle on the floor. As a result of this initiative, we not only marked our presence in a public space but also channelled about €60,000 (approx. US$69,800) towards cultural events. Later on, people from all over Italy either replicated the initiative or told us they were interested in doing so; however, some couldn’t because it involved some complex logistics.
And then one day the municipality told us that they had some unused plots of land that could potentially be turned into garden blocks and offered them to us. We organised volunteers who wanted to work on them so now these have become garden blocks in which vegetables are grown. People who invest their time and effort to work in these gardens keep half the produce for themselves and give the other half to communal kitchens that help people who cannot afford to buy food.
Even under lockdown, we thought of Bologna as a lab where we could implement and test our ideas and encourage other people to do the same, by either replicating our initiatives or trying something different to see what happens. If you try things that are potentially replicable and easy for others to implement, and many people follow through, then you can achieve change on a considerable scale.