civil society

 

  • Armenia: ‘For the quality of democracy to improve, judicial independence must be guaranteed and labour rights need further protection’

    Elections held in Armenia in 2017 resulted in the ruling party holding onto power, but were marred by allegations of fraud, including vote-buying and misuse of state resources.CIVICUS speaks to Artur Sakunts, chairman of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly - Vanadzor Office (HCA Vanadzor), a non-political, non-religious and not-for-profit civil society organisation that seeks to advance the values of human rights, democracy, tolerance and pluralism in Armenia. HCA Vanadzor works in the areas of research, dissemination, litigation, training, lobbying, campaigning and the promotion of public debate.

    1. How would you describe the current state of democracy and human rights in Armenia?

    Since 2013, human rights and democracy have considerably regressed in Armenia. The constitutional referendum, held in 2015, and elections to the National Assembly and Yerevan City Council in 2017 were marked by fraud and procedural violations. As a result of the constitutional referendum, Armenia changed from a semi-presidential to a parliamentary republic, and the changes began to be implemented during the 2017 elections. The new parliamentary system strengthened the dominant position of the Republican Party, which is the main party, and the power of its leader. A number of opposition figures have suffered and still suffer persecution. Any demonstration of civic activism has faced a harsh reaction and pressure by law enforcement agencies, and the space for civil society organisations (CSOs) and civil society initiatives has further shrunk. Additionally, the Four Day War with Azerbaijan in April 2016 led to a large loss of human lives and exposed the country's vulnerability to external threats. All these processes have occurred in an atmosphere of impunity. Meanwhile, the steps towards reform taken by the authorities have been reactive or aimed at solving problems by increasing the social burden on citizens rather than by making systemic changes.

    In December 2015, a new phase of negotiations was launched between Armenia and the European Union (EU). The Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement was initialled in March 2017 and eventually signed in November 2017. However, the unpredictable behaviour of the Armenian authorities creates uncertainty in terms of the expected developments in EU-Armenia relations, even after the agreement has been signed.

    2. Have recent changes in CSO regulations affected civil society’s ability to contribute to democratic governance?

    On 16 December 2016, after long-held discussions, the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was adopted, entitling CSOs to represent the public interest in court, albeit only in the field of environmental protection. It should be noted, however, that in its ruling of 7 September 2010, the Armenian Constitutional Court recognised the right of CSOs to represent the public interest in national courts without any limitation.

    Another risk associated with the Law on Non-Governmental Organisations was that it initially prescribed state supervision over the financial activity of all CSOs. However, as a result of public debate, this requirement was eventually prescribed only for state-funded CSOs.

    In short, contrary to expectations, the new regulations ended up being a positive development for civil society.

    3. What is the environment like for human rights defenders in Armenia?

    In early 2016 a well-known human rights defender, Karen Andreasyan, stepped down as Armenia’s Human Rights Ombudsman without providing any reasons. It should be noted that in the autumn of 2015, during the presentation of his annual report to the National Assembly, Andreasyan was strongly criticised and personally insulted by Republican Party deputies. His resignation exposed the vulnerability of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office. In December 2013 Andreasyan had published a well-substantiated report on the spread of corruption in courts and the lack of independence of judges, which was harshly criticised by the Prosecutor General's Office, the Republican faction of the National Assembly and several judges. None of the concerns raised by the report on the state of the judiciary have been considered or examined.

    Following the National Assembly’s appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman, the concentration of oversight and protection mechanisms over different fields of human rights, including children’s rights and the rights of persons with disabilities, has increasingly raised serious concerns. Along with such centralisation, space for other human rights institutions is becoming more limited and the variety of human rights protection mechanisms is being reduced. Given that since the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was introduced, all Ombudsmen have resigned before the end of their term under pressure from political and executive powers, the concentration of protection mechanisms in the hands of a single person makes the Human Rights Ombudsman and human rights protection mechanisms extremely vulnerable.

    In early July 2016, an armed opposition group known as Sasna Tsrer seized a police station and took hostages. As Sasna Tsrer members underwent trial, significant restrictions were imposed on various stakeholders engaged with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, and particularly on attorneys and on the public monitoring group on penitentiary institutions. Before Sasna Tsrer’s surrender, members of the Group of Public Observers Conducting Public Monitoring in Penitentiary Institutions and Bodies of the Ministry of Justice were illegally banned from meeting Zhirayr Sefilyan, a political prisoner detained at the Vardashen penitentiary institution. Later, members of the Group of Public Observers were also banned from meeting Sasna Tsrer members detained at the Nubarashen penitentiary institution, after information was aired that on 28 June 2017 Sasna Tsrer members had been subjected to violence at the General Jurisdiction Court of the Avan and Nor Nork administrative districts.

    It should be also noted that during the former Minister of Justice’s tenure, draft regulations were put forward suggesting that any new members of the Group of Public Observers would need to be confirmed by the Ministry of Justice, although the Group's Charter states that new members only need to be accepted by the Group itself. The draft regulation was rejected, but it was an attempt to restrict the activities and independence of the Group of Public Observers. The current Human Rights Ombudsman has not reacted in any way to this attempt, which is yet further evidence of the dangers of concentrating human rights defence mechanisms.

    Illegal attempts were made to search the defence attorneys of Sasna Tsrer members before they entered the courtroom. As the attorneys resisted those searches, the court adopted a tactic of imposing sanctions on the attorneys and replacing them with public defenders, which posed a risk of substantially reducing the protection of Sasna Tsrer members. The legal community also faces pressures through disciplinary proceedings initiated against lawyers on suspicious grounds. An added challenge is the behaviour of the Bar Association, which imposes its own disciplinary sanctions on individual attorneys. The Bar Association’s chairman has openly argued against laws preventing domestic violence and has repeatedly made homophobic statements.

    The environment has also been unfavourable for journalists, including legislative restrictions and physical attacks, particularly during protests, as well as legal actions meant to silence them.

    4. How have the authorities responded to peaceful protests over the years?

    President Serzh Sargsyan's second term in office, which began in 2013, has been marked by increasing civic activism, which has in turn been suppressed by the police and other state bodies. Citizens’ protests have mostly been related to various issues of public or social significance, particularly transportation and electricity price hikes, the introduction of a mandatory funded pension system, the dismantling and destruction of cultural monuments and environmental issues.

    On 2 December 2013, the day of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Armenia, a large number of citizens held protests in Yerevan, the capital, against Armenia joining the Eurasian Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union. The police dispersed the protests using violence and apprehended 110 peaceful protesters, who were kept in police stations for eight hours without access to legal assistance.

    The summer of 2015 was marked by the so-called ‘Electric Yerevan’ protests against the hike in electricity prices, which lasted almost two weeks. On 23 June 2015 at 5am, the police used water cannons to disperse a peaceful sit-in on Baghramyan Avenue. Using physical violence, the police apprehended around 240 protesters and attacked 21 journalists, damaging their equipment. Following the police violence, the number of sit-in participants dramatically rose, but at the end of June 2015 protesters split up as some of them obeyed police warnings and moved to Liberty Square. The number of sit-in participants on Baghramyan Avenue gradually decreased, and on 6 July 2015 the police eventually dispersed the demonstration. Criminal proceedings were initiated, against both protesters and police officers that used violence against them. Four police officers faced charges for using violence against journalists, but none has so far been held liable for the violence.

    In July 2016, following the Sasna Tsrer incident, a series of mass protests was held in Khorenatsi Street and Liberty Square in Yerevan, and the police again used violence against the demonstrators. Hundreds of people were illegally apprehended and the protests were brutally dispersed through excessive force. According to official data, between 17 July and 4 August 2016, 775 people were arrested. On 20 and 29 July 2016 police used unprecedented violence against protesters; as a result, several protesters and journalists received serious bodily injuries. For the first time in the entire history of the Republic of Armenia, protesters were violently taken to the Police Internal Troops barracks and illegally deprived of their freedom. Many people compared this with the situation in Chile in 1973 when dictator Augusto Pinochet kept people captive in a football stadium.

    As a rule, no police officer that uses violence against protesters or violates their rights in any way are held accountable, while protesters are liable for administrative and criminal offences. In this regard, it should be noted that in 2012 a Police Disciplinary Commission was created with a provision allowing for the inclusion of representatives from five CSOs. The Disciplinary Commission’s membership and procedures were decided by the government. However, through a decree issued on 31 March 2016, the government handed this power over to the Chief of Police. This change may lead to a conflict of interests and to a further reduction of the Commission’s independence.

    5. Have any civil society freedoms been restricted around the 2017 elections?

    The new draft Electoral Code resulting from the constitutional amendments first became available on 22 February 2016 on the official website of the Venice Commission (the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters), in English. Its Armenian version was posted on the Armenian government’s website no sooner than 3 March 2016.

    Unlike what had happened with the draft constitutional amendments and the initial draft of the Electoral Code, which had been prepared within a narrow pro-government circle, wider participation was ensured during the further amendment of the Electoral Code. At the suggestion of Levon Zurabyan, a deputy with an opposition party, the Armenian National Congress, negotiations on the draft Electoral Code started between the ruling party, the political opposition and civil society in a 4+4+4 format. As a result, the Electoral Code included a number of recommendations, mostly of an administrative nature, put forward by the opposition and civil society. However, the authorities made no concessions on issues of political significance or that would affect the distribution of power in the parliament to be formed. It should be noted that civil society members took part in the negotiations only at the initial stage and refused to sign the agreements that were eventually reached by the government and the opposition.

    The Electoral Code adopted in May 2016 imposed significant restrictions on observers and mass media representatives. In particular, the Code gave precinct electoral commissions the right to set a maximum number of observers and mass media representatives allowed at a polling station. The Code set a requirement for election observation organisations to have had a provision on human rights and democracy in their statutory goals for at least the past year and imposed an accreditation requirement for mass media, allowing for only a limited number of representatives. As a result, a media outlet may have a maximum of 50 representatives throughout the country. The new Electoral Code also stipulates that commission members may remove observers, mass media representatives and proxies from a polling station by a vote.

    It is noteworthy that the Electoral Code considers CSOs as the main entities engaged in civic oversight and particularly in electoral observation, but it gives them no right to appeal against the actions or inactions of electoral commissions, or election results, or to file any other complaints.

    The Code extended the voting population, as the right to vote was granted to persons who have committed crimes of minor and medium gravity and have served their sentences, and to persons doing military study abroad; however, the rest of the approximately 450,000 to 500,000 Armenian nationals living abroad were not granted the opportunity to vote.

    As a result of amendments passed a few months later, the Electoral Code also provided for the publication of signed voter lists, something that the opposition and civil society had been demanding for years. Citizens were given the right to file an application for voter impersonation cases, although the Armenian Criminal Code included an article on false statements regarding such applications. According to the Central Electoral Commission’s report, only one person filed an application on voter impersonation in the context of the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017. Among other reasons, this might have been due to the relevant article of the Criminal Code, though it is widely held that the number of cases of multiple voting or voter impersonation during the elections was not considerable, and the authorities mostly distorted the election through the abuse of administrative resources and vote-buying.

    During the National Assembly elections of 2 April 2017 and the Yerevan City Council elections of 14 May 2017, widespread abuses were identified that took the form of fake observation. The Central Electoral Commission accredited around 28,000 observers from 49 organisations to observe the National Assembly elections. The overwhelming majority of those observers acted at polling stations mostly as proxies representing the interests of the Republican Party or the Tsarukyan Bloc, which came second in the election.

    6. What needs to change for the quality of democracy to improve in Armenia?

    First, more protection of labour rights is needed in both the government and business sectors, where rights are not protected. This was explicitly revealed during the recent elections. At the same time, the independence of the business sector and the protection of their rights from the ruling elites should be ensured as well.

    The second important issue is judicial independence from executive power. Control of the judiciary is the main tool that the government uses to reinforce impunity, and this is an obstacle for the effective protection of citizens and civil society groups.

    • Civic space in Armenia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, indicating the existence of significant restrictions on civil society rights.
    • Get in touch with HCA Vanadzor through their websiteor Facebookpage, or follow @HCAVanadzor on Twitter

     

  • As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow

    By David Kode

    Across the globe, from East Africa to eastern Europe, there is a trend of increasing attacks on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that support reforms governments are opposed to.

    Read on: Open Global Rights

     

     

  • Attacks On Citizen Rights In SA: Five Trends And Countrywide Threats

    By Kgalalelo Gaebee 

    From the large city centres to the rural townships, South Africans are witnessing a nationwide crackdown on their civic rights. Citizens’ ability to speak out, organise and take action on social issues in South Africa is becoming increasingly restricted. For those critical of business and government elites, there are much higher rates of harassment and detention by security forces. Social activist Kgalalelo Gaebee lists five threats to our basic freedoms that we should be concerned about.

    Read on:The Daily Vox

     

  • Austria’s civic space rating downgraded

    The downgrade is based on an assessment of conditions for the exercise of the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression on theCIVICUS Monitor.

    CIVICUS has today downgraded Austria’s civic space rating from open to narrowed. This decision was taken following a thorough assessment of conditions in the country for the free exercise of civic freedoms, as protected by international law. The downgrade follows nearly a year of rule by the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, during which the space for civil society has worsened. A narrowed rating indicates a situation in which the state mostly allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, however certain restrictions on these rights take place.

    “The Austrian government appears intent on turning its back on the values of the European Union, as it chooses division over dialogue and restrictions over rights,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “Austria’s failure to protect fundamental freedoms is borne out by verbal attacks and administrative encroachment on media freedoms, as well as restrictive measures such as an increase in the notice period required for protests from 24 to 48 hours.”

    Protests against the new government took place in January 2018, in the face of a heavy police presence, helicopters and water cannon. Since then, the new administration has steadfastly refused to engage in structured dialogue with civil society in a range of sectors. Instead, leaders have made a number of derogatory remarks about non-governmental organisations. This includes Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who accused international humanitarian NGO - Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) of cooperating with people smugglers. More recently, the environment minister introduced amendments which will significantly limit consultation with many NGOs working to protect the environment in Austria. Funding to NGOs in many sectors has also been drastically reduced.

    Freedom of expression has also come under attack this year, with government ministers denigrating journalists and the media. One minister even went so far as to expressly instruct officials not to brief certain media outlets which are critical of the government. Earlier in the year, media monitors in Austria reported a spate of attacks, including online hate speech, directed at independent media. Also in 2018, the CIVICUS Monitor reported worrying moves by Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to weaken Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF.

    Meanwhile, a law passed in 2017 by the former SPÖ-led government coalition is restricting the freedom of peaceful assembly, by increasing the notice period required for protests to 48 hours and designating certain “protection zones”, in which protests are prohibited. 

    “CIVICUS calls on the Austrian authorities to discard its policy of exclusion and denigration of civic activists,” said Gilbert. “We call on the government to instead begin a constructive dialogue with CSOs in all sectors, and to review laws and policies which are out of step with Austria’s commitments under international law and as a member of the European Union.” 

    These developments are supported in a damning new report published this month by the Chamber of Austrian Lawyers, which sets out a bleak perspective for the protection of fundamental freedoms in Austria in the coming years. 

    Austria is now rated narrowed on the CIVICUS Monitor. Visit Austria’s homepage for more information and check back regularly for the latest updates. Next week, on 27th November 2018, CIVICUS will release People Power Under Attack 2018 - a fresh global analysis on civic space. 

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

    Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS 

    cathal.gilbert[at]civicus.org or media[at]civicus.org

     

  • Big business and activists finally agree. On this one issue

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    With some of the world’s biggest economies now companies, not states, the benefits for civil society of working more closely with business are clear. Yet, perhaps less well understood, are the benefits for business of defending civic space – the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest governance failings and corruption. The good news is that in one area at least, businesses and civil society are increasingly seeing eye to eye.

    Read on:World Economic Forum

     

  • BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’

    CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of InternetBolivia.org, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.

     

  • BOLIVIA: Increasing reduction of spaces immune to state co-optation or repression

    CEDLA: Javier Gómez

    Bolivia was home to a series of protests in 2018. CIVICUS speaks about these to Javier Gómez Aguilar, Executive Director of the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Founded in 1985, CEDLA is a non-profit research centre dedicated to producing and disseminating critical knowledge about labour issues in order to influence public debate. CEDLA works directly with workers and their organisations, and with development institutions, financial counterparts, other social organisations and regional and international networks.

    How would you describe the environment for civil society in Bolivia over the past year?

    Our normative framework is that of a multiparty liberal democracy with periodic elections and separation of powers; however, there is an ongoing trend, which is apparent not only in Bolivia, towards a dominant party regime and the personal concentration of power. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by President Evo Morales, is deeply rooted in Bolivia’s popular sectors, and over the course of 12 years in power it has taken over civil society space. It has done so through very different mechanisms: by criminalising protest, persecuting opponents, dividing social organisations, putting pressure on civil society organisations (CSOs), harassing them by applying tax or labour standard compliance regulations, acquiring media outlets, denying official advertising to independent media and monitoring social networks.

    The use of these mechanisms has increased as the ruling party, despite remaining the biggest party, has lost support. As the government controls the four branches of government, it uses them to counter its progressive loss of legitimacy. Discontent has increased and so have protests, albeit not in the same proportion. The government continues controlling the streets and retains the capacity to mobilise its supporters, particularly public servants and sectors of the population who depend on funds transfers or state subsidies.

    If any CSO denounces violations of environmental rights or norms, the government responds very aggressively and denounces the spokesperson, accusing them of having links to unspeakable political interests, notably those of US imperialism. CEDLA recently published a report on the situation in state-owned companies, and the government aggressively attacked us. They did not discuss content. After all, we used information that was already public, and all we did was analyse it. Instead they just sought to discredit the source. They may try to link us to the radicalised left, while at the same time, as we receive European funding, accusing us of representing the right-wing ideology that has won power in Europe. They do whatever it takes to build a narrative in which we appear as actively conspiring against a progressive government.

    In addition, in November 2018 an audio clip was leaked in which the police commander informed the authorities about actions undertaken to “monitor” journalists and opponents on social media, and said something that was very revealing: that actions were being taken to both “inform and misinform.”

    As a result, many lean towards self-censorship or self-restraint, and the public agenda weakens as a consequence. In the face of persisting activism, the government resorts to stigmatisation, treating activists as liars and subjecting them to fiscal persecution and criminalisation, even including judicial persecution. This has happened to all the social movements that mobilised in recent years. The most extreme case, throughout 2018, has been that of the Yungas coca producers, whose demands to expand production have been systematically denied by the government. Instead the producers of Chapare, the other coca region, where President Morales comes from, were allowed to expand. The Yungas coca producers have mobilised for years, but it was in mid-2018 that the government began to denounce their alleged links to armed sectors, and in August 2018 a mobilisation ended with a strange episode that resulted in the death of a police officer, and the main leader of the movement was arrested.

    This situation invariably repeats itself with each sector that mobilises and in one way or another represents a threat to the government: their protests end with their leaders denounced for violence, prosecuted in the absence of due process guarantees and detained preventively for prolonged periods. It is quite common that, as protest leaders are let go with some form alternative measure, they choose to leave the country. Demobilisation ensues.

     

    What caused protests by students in 2018, and how did the government react to them?
    Student mobilisations were triggered by the limited budget allocation to El Alto Public University (UPEA), a new university that was born out of the popular struggles of 2000, which caters to a lot of students but is quite poor. UPEA mobilisations started in early 2018, and in March a student, Jonathan Quispe Vila, was killed in a protest. The government immediately claimed that the student had been killed as a result of the impact of a marble of the sort that students were throwing, although available home videos appear to show that he was hit by a police-issue bullet. In any case, there was no clear investigation of what happened, and although initially further demonstrations were held to protest against the death, the ultimate effect of repression was demobilisation due to fear of confrontation with the police.
    Another relevant mobilisation of 2018, which started in late 2017, was that of medical doctors. Health professionals held a long strike and staged numerous protests against a new article in the Criminal Code that introduced sanctions of between five and nine years in prison for medical negligence and malpractice, following what was barely more than an administrative process. Health workers mobilised over the end-of-year holidays of 2017 and up to 21 February 2018, the day when citizens mobilise to keep on the agenda the fact that in 2016 President Morales lost a referendum that should have denied him the prerogative of running for another term in office. In the process of the health workers’ protests, several instances of confrontation, violence and persecution took place. In January 2018, the police violently broke into the Convent of San Francisco in La Paz and arrested doctors and medical students who had found safe haven there following the repression they faced when trying to block the passage of the Dakar Rally, which was routed through Bolivia. This was extraordinary: historically, the church in Bolivia protected various protesters, including those involved in hunger strikes against the dictatorship, and up to now there had never been any such intervention. There are almost no spaces immune to state repression anymore. In the case of the doctors, mobilisation gave way when the Criminal Code was repealed.
    In the face of every mobilisation, the state apparatus behaves in the same way. Even when it faces sectoral demands that in themselves do not necessarily imply a political challenge, the government allows conflict to grow, feeds polarisation, waits for scuffles and confrontations with the police to arise and then accuses the leaders of mobilised groups of being behind the violence and has them arrested and prosecuted. Opposition members side with these movements, arguing that the government is not listening to them, and then conflicts that were initially sectoral or territorial end up being treated as destabilisation attempts orchestrated by the opposition.

     

    When and why did protests against presidential re-election reignite? Why was this issue not solved once and for all with the 2016 referendum?

    The February 2016 referendum was organised by the president himself, with the intention of getting a green light to change the Constitution - a Constitution that had been passed under his administration - in order to enable a further re-election. The referendum mechanism gives citizens the last word, so that the issue of re-election should have been resolved for good with the ‘no’ victory, and the president should not have been able to run again.

    The current Constitution allows for only one re-election, but President Morales is already in his third term; the first one was not taken into account because it took place under the previous Constitution. After 12 years in power, the dispute over re-election reflects the ruling party’s institutional fragility. A prohibition on re-election would not amount to a ban against the party: the MAS could present another candidate. But at this point there is no successor to Evo Morales because, instead of acknowledging at an earlier stage that there would be no re-election, and therefore focusing on producing an alternative leadership, the government devoted itself to finding alternative ways to overcome the re-election ban.

    Given that the ‘no’ option won by a very narrow margin, it has been said that the vote was ‘almost’ a draw, and therefore the result was not conclusive. In the judicial arena, two pro-government representatives filed a claim of unconstitutionality, invoking the Pact of San José de Costa Rica (the American Convention on Human Rights), which has a status higher than the Constitution. They say that because the Convention guarantees the full right of citizens to vote and be voted for, the prohibition on re-election would be a violation of the president’s political rights.

    In December 2017, just days before its term ended, the Constitutional Court accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and authorised Evo Morales to seek a further re-election. It should be emphasised that Constitutional Court judges are elected and serve five-year terms, and the judges who issued that ruling are all public officials now. In other words, the judiciary is not an independent power. We are currently awaiting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ pronouncement on the subject.

    The government retains about 30 per cent electoral support and mobilises a lot of people on the streets. So while fighting on the judicial front, it has also tried another way, through the approval of a new political parties bill that mandates that primary elections be held in January 2019. Right after the law was passed, the Electoral Tribunal enabled the president and vice-president to run in the primaries. Participation in these elections is mandatory for parties that want to present candidates in the general elections, but is voluntary for voters, and restricted to party members. Registries are in very bad shape: when the lists of registered voters were published, many of us found ourselves listed as members of parties that we had never been affiliated with. The opposition has insisted that this election is unnecessary, since all the parties - including the incumbent - have registered single candidates. However, the Electoral Tribunal ratified it for 27 January. Now that President Morales has been proclaimed as a candidate, it will be increasingly difficult to turn back, because this move changed the focus of the discussion: from discussing President Morales’ political rights and whether they would be violated by a re-election ban, we have moved onto a discussion of the right of MAS members and activists to vote for their favourite candidate.

     

    Is civil society divided over the re-election issue? Would you say that Bolivian citizens are polarised around the issue?

    There are demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, expressions in favour of and against the re-election. President Morales retains a very important level of support, particularly among public servants. There are organised sectors that receive abundant state resources and mobilise systematically against any anti-re-election protest. At the same time citizen platforms - groups of women, young people, students and sections of the middle class - have mobilised under the 'Bolivia said no' banner to demand respect for the results of the referendum. During one of the recent marches by university students the front of the Electoral Court building in Santa Cruz was set on fire. According to the students, the fire was caused by infiltrators who also caused much other damage. But the government immediately arrested the protest leaders, one of whom was indicted in a single day: he was given an abbreviated trial, pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended prison sentence - something quite extraordinary in the context a very slow judicial system, in which 80 per cent of prisoners have not been sentenced. The student was freed with alternative measures, but the objective of creating fear among mobilised sectors was achieved. It clearly showed that if you mobilise, you can end up in jail.

     

    What are the long-term changes that have been seen in Bolivia?

    No matter who wins the next election, scheduled for October 2019, the next government will be transitional in nature. The social transformations of the past 12 years have been profound and, I believe, irreversible. Inclusion may have been achieved through the market, but the policy changes have nonetheless been enormous, and they have taken place without any dramatic social conflict. We could have had a bloody revolution, but instead we had a very institutionalised process of social change. The fact that there are representatives, senators, mayors and governors of indigenous descent has become a natural occurrence. Out of the eight presidential candidates competing in the upcoming primaries, four are of indigenous descent - Aymara or Quechua - and each represents a different political and ideological strand, including one on the far right. Inclusion and the realisation of the rights of indigenous people was originally a leftist cause and was indeed pushed from the left, but nowadays being indigenous no longer equates with supporting alternative causes or political renewal. Being indigenous is compatible with a diversity of ideological options and no longer represents anything close to a position of moral superiority: it has become part of the mainstream, and therefore encompasses all the complexities and contradictions of society. That alone reveals how much this country has changed.

     

    Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with CEDLA through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@cedlabo on Twitter.

     

  • Burundi civil society sees the International Criminal Court as a last resort for justice

    Human rights defender Cyriaque Nibitegeka speaks to CIVICUS about Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the implications for human rights and victims of human rights abuses. Nibitegeka is one of the leaders of civil society in Burundi. He is also a lawyer and member of the Burundi Bar. He was a professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Burundi before being dismissed for his human rights activities.

     

  • Call for proposals: Application for partners for pilot national civil society assessment in El Salvador, Georgia and Indonesia.

    Español 

    BACKGROUND INFORMATION

    The Enabling Environment National Assessment (EENA), developed by CIVICUS and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), is a participatory, civil society-led and action-oriented research methodology.

     

  • Can Democracy Stand Up to the Cult of the Strongman Leader?

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Andrew Firmin

    Donald Trump’s presidency, recent protests in Russia and South Africa and the referendum to consolidate presidential power in Turkey have reignited debate about an emerging form of macho conservative politics called ‘Putinism’. This new form of politics is shaping contemporary notions of democracy while undermining the international rules-based system and harming civil society.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier

     

     

     

  • Can INGOs push back against closing civic space? Only if they change their approach.

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Civil society is facing a sustained, multi-faceted, global onslaught. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, fundamental civic freedoms are being severely restricted in an unprecedented number of countries. The operating environment for civil society organisations is becoming more hostile across the world and many of us in the organised bits of civil society – including in the biggest INGOs – are looking for ways to respond. But, those who want to ‘save’ civic space need to tread carefully.

    Read on: From Poverty to Power 

     

  • Catalonia: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’

    Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.

     

  • CHINA: ‘Its international role both originates in and enables domestic political control’

    CIVICUS speaks about China’s growing international role withSharon Hom, Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), Adjunct Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law and Professor of Law Emerita at the City University of New York School of Law. Founded in 1989by overseas Chinese students and scientists, HRIC isa Chinese civil society group that promotes international human rights and advances the institutional protection of these rights in the People’s Republic of China. Through case and policy advocacy, media and press work, and capacity building, HRIC supports civil society as the driving force for sustainable change in China. HRIC has offices in New York and Hong Kong, and is active on local, regional, and global platforms.

    Have there been any recent changes in the ways China engages in the United Nations (UN) system?

    China has been increasingly active and sophisticated in its engagement with the UN human rights system. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council – where it formally replaced Taiwan, the Republic of China (ROC) in 1971 – China has invoked its ‘One China Policy’ to block the recognition and admission of the ROC by other international bodies. At the same time, the shift of key players within the UN human rights system, and particularly the withdrawal of the USA from the Human Rights Council (HRC), has weakened principled leadership by Western democratic governments. This is especially concerning in the face of China’s increasingly aggressive, multi-pronged and sophisticated challenges to international standards and norms. A key element of China’s strategy has been essentially to counteroffer a model of governance that it refers to as human rights, democracy and rule by law ‘with Chinese characteristics.’

    In addition to the HRC, China is active on human rights-related issues before various UN General Assembly committees, including the Third Committee, on social, humanitarian and cultural issues, and the Fifth Committee, on administrative and budgetary issues. Some key issues it engages in include counterterrorism, information security, treaty body strengthening processes and other human rights mechanisms and procedures, and civil society participation.

    China Interview SharonHom

    As part of the party-state’s overarching strategy to expand and strengthen China’s influence internationally, China has been promoting the appointment and influence of Chinese nationals to key UN bodies and UN specialised agencies. For example, Mr Zhao Houlin was the first Chinese national to serve as Secretary-General of the 150-year-old International Telecommunication Union (ITU), from 2014 to 2018 and 2019 to 2020. As a key agency for information and communications technologies promotion, collaboration and standardisation, the ITU was a leading UN agency involved in the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS). Endorsed by UN General Assembly Resolution 56/183 of 21 December 2001, the WSIS was convened in two phases. The first phase took place in Geneva from 10 to 12 December 2003 and the second in Tunis from 16 to 18 November 2005. China was active in pushing back against the inclusion of human rights-focused language in the outcome documents of phase one – the Geneva Declaration of Principles and Geneva Plan of Action – and opposed the accreditation of what it perceived to be hostile civil society groups, including HRIC.

    In addition, Mr Liu Zhenmin, appointed in 2017 as UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, advises the UN Secretary-General on social, economic and environmental issues and guides the UN secretariat’s support for follow-up processes under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Chinese nationals have also served on the International Court of Justice, including Ms Xue Hanqin, who has served as a jurist since 2010 and was named Vice President of the Court in 2018.

    The appointments of nationals of a UN member state to key positions in UN bodies and agencies is not, of course, inherently problematic. Issues from a human rights perspective only emerge when any member state challenges existing standards regarding the rule of law as ‘inappropriate’ or advances a model of development that rejects a rights-based framework, as China now does.

    What are the Government of China’s motivations in its international engagements? What agendas is it particularly pursuing?

    The Chinese party-state’s motivations in its international engagements are primarily aimed at advancing the ambitious vision of President XI Jinping to see China take a leading role on the global stage, as laid out in part in his vision for the realisation of a ‘China Dream.’ Internationally, the party-state wants to ensure the narrative of China is ‘properly’ told, without questioning of or pushback against some of the more problematic elements of its model of governance.

    Specific objectives include limiting civil society engagement with and input into UN human rights mechanisms to government-approved civil society groups; redefining the foundational principle of the UN human rights system from one of the universality of human rights to that of the ‘conditionality’ of human rights; and shifting human rights protection from state accountability to a cooperative enterprise among member states. If achieved, these objectives will undermine the integrity and efficacy of the existing human rights system and enable states to become the arbiters of what human rights to confer on their people, the ‘operators’ of their respective human rights systems, and the overseers of accountability.

    Is one of the benefits of China's increasing international role that there is less oversight of its domestic human rights record?

    The international role of the Chinese party-state both originates in and enables its agenda for domestic political control. China’s increasing efforts to undermine and redefine fundamental human rights and specific human rights mechanisms on the international stage limits the protections and redress available to Chinese people for violations of international rights guarantees. Its agenda for international influence also serves to legitimise as well as decrease scrutiny of its domestic policies and practices. In addition, the tendency for international actors to either appease or otherwise act in complicity with the Chinese state has also led to serious consequences both for Chinese people as well as others around the world.

    One of the most vivid examples of China’s attempts to redefine human rights accountability and the lack of pushback by governments is the passage of the China-led resolution A/HRC/37/L.36 in March 2016 at the HRC. The resolution, ‘Promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights’, which included language of the so-called ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, passed with 28 votes in favour and 17 abstentions; the only vote against came from the USA.

    What kind of alliances or partnerships is China making with other states to work internationally?

    One of China’s most ambitious and formidable global development strategies in recent years is the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, an international infrastructure and investment programme that has already involved almost 70 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe. Proposed by Xi Jinping in 2013, the Initiative is aimed at connecting major African and Eurasian nations through infrastructure development and investment, including a ‘digital silk road’ of Chinese-built fibre-optic networks. The Initiative has raised serious political and economic concerns among an increasing number of states, including Japan and the USA, about the Chinese political and strategic ambitions embedded in these economic partnerships. More recently, even some member states, the putative beneficiaries, are starting to push back against the ‘win-win’ arrangements that are now clearly ending up with them as client or debtor states.

    In addition, as one of the leading states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a regional multilateral organisation with the primary goal of coordinating counterterrorism efforts and economic and military cooperation – China has been deployed in troubling joint military exercises, including simulated rescues of hostages being held by Muslim or Chechnian separatists. In accordance with SCO member and observer obligations, member states have returned Muslims to China to face uncertain fates, an action very much in conflict with the international non-refoulement obligations of all states. The SCO consists of eight member states and four observer states. However, though all the members of the multilateral regional organisation have incredibly troubling domestic human rights records, the SCO has been warmly welcomed by the UN as an observer at the UN General Assembly since 2005.

    What are the impacts of China’s involvement on international institutions and on the space for civil society in those institutions?

    China’s increasing involvement and influence in international institutions such as the UN poses a steep and growing challenge to the meaningful participation of civil society organisations (CSOs). As a member of the UN NGO Committee, China and ‘like-minded’ states act in concert to block UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) accreditation to CSOs they deem critical or disparaging of China. When CSOs legitimately seek to participate as part of partner or league organisations, China has sought to challenge their participation. For example, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) often participates as a member of the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation. However, China has attempted to block interventions by the WUC in the HRC sessions and even to ban them from the buildings and grounds. China once even branded the WUC President Mr Dolkun Isa as a terrorist in an effort to block his participation in side events at the HRC in Geneva, and at General Assembly side events in New York. Ironically, these unfounded smear efforts served only to increase interest in various events.

    How is civil society working on issues around China’s international-level engagement, and what support does civil society need to be able to work effectively on this issue?

    Despite the many and significant challenges inherent in this work, CSOs around the world are increasingly working together to address China’s efforts to distort and subvert human rights norms on the international stage, and to address serious rights abuses. This includes collaborations between local, regional and international civil society groups to issue joint letters, briefings and submissions for UN human rights mechanisms and procedures, interventions at HRC sessions and side events and other targeted activities.

    The key support that civil society needs, especially smaller CSOs, is two-pronged: financial support to continue to carry out their missions and conduct the necessary research and projects related to understanding and responding to China’s actions on the international stage; and for governments of other states to act more aggressively and effectively to counter China when it acts inappropriately, and in particular to ensure a safe and enabling environment for domestic CSOs.

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

    Get in touch with the Human Rights in China through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@hrichina on Twitter.

     

  • China’s growing power is a new challenge for civil society

    By Andrew Firmin 

    In one of the world’s most powerful countries, merely wanting to speak your own language can be risky. After spending more than two years in detention, Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk was recently sentenced to five years in prison. His crime, in the eyes of China’s authorities: giving a video interview about the eradication of the Tibetan language in schools and public places.

    Read on: Asian Correspondent

     

  • Civic Space in Europe Survey

    Recent  years  have  witnessed  increased  challenges  to  the  core  democratic  values  upheld  in  many 
    parts  of  the  world,  protest  movements  have  gathered  in  many  countries  to  call  for  greater 
    accountability of governments. 


    At the same time a number of governments have appeared to regard civil society organisations and 
    active  citizens  as  unhelpful  and  have  at  times  suggested  that  the  basic  freedoms  of  association, 
    assembly and expression should be limited  in favour of vaguely defined ‘national interests’; in other 
    cases there have been direct calls for limits to the right to campaign, which would undermine the 
    basic freedoms that lie at the heart of democracy in Europe.


    So  we  set  out  to  understand  a  core  issue:   do  civil  society  organisations  feel  that  their  rights  are 
    being eroded? 


    This survey set out to draw out some initial perceptions of civil society leaders in Europe as part of a 
    wider global process to understand and analyse the changes that are taking place in many countries. 
    It is intended to highlight some key trends but does not aim to provide a fully comprehensive picture 
    of the situation in every country at this stage.

    DOWNLOAD REPORT

     

  • Civic space is shrinking, yet civil society is not the enemy

    By Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS.

    The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the UN member states in 2015, represent an ambitious, but achievable, agenda to make the world better. Importantly, they are a reminder that world leaders have agreed on common goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030. In a remarkable shift in international public policy, they have pledged to ‘leave no one behind’ in this effort, thereby committing themselves not just to work together, but also to work for the benefit of all people irrespective of who they are or where they come from.

    The values that underpin our ability to generate an internationally co-ordinated response to the sustainable development challenge are, however, increasingly being questioned, undermined and even overruled by leaders who promote narrow, self-serving interpretations of national interest. Report after report from civil society organisations across the globe highlight what we have called in our State of Civil Society report this year a trend towards “presidential sovereignty” that aims to undermine or override the mandate of constitutions, national rights preserving institutions and international agreements.

    Read on: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

     

  • Civic Space Restrictions in Africa

    By David Kode

    Across Africa, major advances in democracy have been affected by restrictions on civic space and on the activities of civil society organisations (CSOs), the media and individual activists. Civic space is the foundation for civil society to make its contribution to society, provoking discussion and debate, advocating for a more inclusive society, providing services, building community spirit and challenging those in authority on the decisions they make.

    Read on: African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) 

     

  • CIVICUS Calls For Calm and Respect of Voters’ Rights in Kenya Elections

    As Kenyans go to the polls tomorrow to vote in general elections, global civil society alliance, CIVICUS calls on the authorities, leaders of political parties and communities to adhere to democratic principles and respect the will of all Kenyans.

    Kenya has a history of violence during election seasons and fear of a recurrence has dominated the period of political campaigns. Kenyan authorities and leaders of political parties have a responsibility to ensure a peaceful and transparent election, which will enhance Kenya’s democratic credentials.

    Human rights violations committed over the last few months have raised security concerns and increased calls for all involved in the vote to avoid a repeat of the violence that followed the 2007-2008 elections in which over 1,000 people were killed and more than 500,000 internally displaced.  

    Last week, Chris Msando, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s (IEBC) head of Information, Communication and Technology, was found dead after being missing for three days.  Msando had played a key role in the development of a new electronic ballot and voter registration system and complained of death threats shortly before he was killed. 

    Since Msando oversaw the new electronic system regarded as key to eliminating vote rigging and ensuring the credibility of the elections, his killing raises serious concerns over threats of violence related to electoral malpractices. Prior to the adoption of the new system, Kenya’s High Court nullified a contract awarded to Dubai-based Al-Ghurair Printing and Publishing, a company with alleged links to President Uhuru Kenyatta.  Following the court’s 9 July ruling, President Kenyatta and his Jubilee Coalition questioned the independence of the judiciary and accused it of supporting the political opposition.  

    The election campaign period has also been dominated by an exchange of accusations between President Uhuru Kenyatta and main opposition leader, Raila Odinga.  The President accused Odinga of trying to divide Kenya and provoke violence and Odinga, in turn, accused the President of planning to rig the vote. While the 2013 elections were largely peaceful, violence erupted following the 2007 elections after political figures encouraged supporters to protest election results.  

    “Kenya’s politics is largely based on ethnic affiliations and the views of political figures are taken seriously.  It will be very important for leaders to avoid using language that may incite the population and instigate violence during and after tomorrow’s elections.   Said David Kode, CIVICUS’ Head of Advocacy and Campaigns.

    There has been violence among rival parties’ supporters during the nominations of candidates for positions of president, legislators and local councillors.  Human rights defenders and journalists have also been attacked, intimidated and vilified as they sought to access voter registration stations and polling booths and report on political campaigns. On 18 June 2017, Walter Menya of the Nation newspaper was arrested and held at an undisclosed location for two days before being released without charge. Some communities have heightened tensions by accusing activists and journalists of anti-nationalist agendas for making representations at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 polls. 

    CIVICUS calls on the Kenyan authorities, politicians and leaders to act in a responsible manner and respect the will of the electorate during and after the elections. 

    Kenya’s civic space is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society across the globe. It is currently on the Monitor’s Watch List of countries where there are serious and ongoing threats to civic space.

    Watch our interview with activist and poet Sitawa Namwalie talking about about her hopes and fears for 2017 Kenyan Elections. 

    ENDS

    For more information, please contact:

    Grant Clark

    Senior Media Advisor

    CIVICUS

    Email:

    T: +27 63 567 9719

     

    David Kode

    Head of Advocacy and Campaigns

    CIVICUS

    Email:

     

  • CIVICUS Monitor Findings Report

    Data from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that 3.2 billion people live in countries where civic space (which is made up by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly) is repressed or closed.

                                               

    Of the 104 countries for which we have verified ratings, 16 countries are rated closed, 32 repressed, 21 obstructed, 26 narrowed and nine open. Of the closed countries, seven are in Africa, five in the Middle East, three in Asia and one in the Americas. Of the repressed countries, 14 are in Africa, seven in Asia, four each in Europe and the Americas and three in the Middle East.1 Of the obstructed countries, seven are in Asia, five in the Americas, four each in Africa and Europe and one in the Middle East. Of the narrowed countries, ten each are in Europe and the Americas, four in Africa and two in Asia. All nine of the open countries for which we have verified ratings are in Europe. 1 The list of countries included in each of these regional classifications 

    DOWNLOAD REPORT

     

     

  • CIVICUS Statement on the MDG Summit

     

    World Leaders must act decisively before it's too late
     

    Johannesburg. 23 September 2010. As the high level Summit on the Millennium Development Goals draws to a close, CIVICUS urges world leaders to act decisively on the recommendations presented to them.

    "The Summit has provided occasion to re-assess failed promises and take corrective action on the MDGs before it's too late," said CIVICUS Secretary General Ingrid Srinath. "Achieving the MDGs in the next five years requires world leaders to fulfil their existing commitments, become accountable to each other and their people, re-commit to human rights, and ensure civil society has the freedom to exist, express and engage."

    A number of concrete acceleration strategies to keep the MDGs on track to be achieved by 2015 were forwarded by civil society and official representatives. Recommendations during the three day Summit from 20-22 September include addressing the shortfall in development funding by taxing financial transactions; ensuring strict adherence by rich countries towards fulfilling their overseas development aid commitments and meeting a minimum target of 0.7% of their GNI; reforming and regulating financial structures to guard against economic meltdown and job losses; implementing fair trade policies to reduce wealth disparities between rich and poor countries; reducing dependence on fossil fuels through support for energy efficient and green technology; and focusing national development plans to prioritise women's empowerment, social security and equitable distribution of wealth. Notably, strong recommendations were made to ground MDG strategies in social justice and human rights concepts.

    As a follow-up to the MDG Summit, CIVICUS urges governments to unconditionally implement the solutions suggested by civil society experts, and ensure that the principles of accountability and participation are an integral part of MDG strategies over the next five years. In particular leaders should:

    • Review and align MDG strategies with the international human rights framework and set time bound targets to achieve goals;
    • Guarantee access to accurate and timely information on progress achieved with regard to MDG targets;
    • Strengthen accountability mechanisms at the national and international level to ensure compliance with MDG targets; and
    • Ensure public and civil society participation in all MDG related processes.

    CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global movement of civil society dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society across the world.



    For more information please contact CIVICUS:
    Mandeep Tiwana (

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    ), Policy Manager or
    Jessica Hume (

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    ), Communications Officer,
    Office Tel: +27 11 833 5959