Against all odds: Civil society under fire
By Danny Sriskandarajah
Civil society is under fire—sometimes literally—in many countries and in all regions of the world. Governments are clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. This year’s Global Risks Report highlights the threat to civic space, noting “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”
Read more: BRINK
AGAINST DISINFORMATION: ‘Enabling each to tell their story offers an opportunity to share our truths’
CIVICUS speaks to Chris Worman, Vice President of Alliances and Program Development at TechSoup, a non-profit international network that provides technical support and technological tools to civil society organisations (CSOs). TechSoup facilitates civil society access to donated or discounted software, hardware and services; supplies CSOs with the information they need to make smart decisions about technology; connects like-minded people, online and in person; and works on the ground to create social good solutions.
What is TechSoup and what does it do?
TechSoup is a complicated beast. We are a network of civil society capacity-building organisations working together to help ensure civil society has the resources it needs. We are also a community builder and philanthropic infrastructure. Founded in 1987, TechSoup is primarily known for the first part, for helping CSOs get and use technology. To date, the TechSoup Global Network has helped more than 1.2 million organisations, primarily grassroots community-based organisations, access roughly US$12 billion in technology products and services and millions of hours of free training and support. We also sometimes build technology with civil society through the organisation’s apps division, Caravan Studios.
TechSoup then works through partnerships to help understand technology in context and community. This manifests differently depending on particular needs. The TransparenCEE programme brings together technologists and civil society to build tools and campaigns to encourage participatory democracy. A myriad of other projects through the TechSoup Network address everything from increasing internet access for rural farmers in Colombia’s demilitarised zone, to working on STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics) skills with teachers in rural Romania, to developing tools to support social services for Australia’s homeless people.
Finally, as philanthropic infrastructure, we provide a variety of tools and services, such as NGOsource, which leverages our network and community to help US foundations meet their regulatory requirements related to grantmaking across borders. Used by nearly 400 US foundations and common infrastructure for grantmaking abroad, in its first six years of operations NGOsource has helped lower the cost of international grantmaking by more than US$60 million and saved CSOs and funders more than 120 years of human labour by reducing duplicative due diligence processes.
What makes TechSoup necessary in the current tech environment?
We have been dwelling on two trends of the current – and coming – tech environment: contested digital space and the shift of technology to the cloud.
In terms of contested digital spaces – another way of saying ‘closing digital space’, manifesting as a combination of anti-civil society narratives, digital surveillance and policies that challenge rights online, or the lack of any relevant policy at all – TechSoup believes there is an urgent and critical need for CSOs to secure and build their digital reputations, and have the opportunity to join or lead digital campaigns that help build positive, pro-civil society narratives across digital media. The collective impact of individual CSOs that are more able to raise their voices online offers some hope of undermining anti-civil society narratives that would paint us all as foreign intermediaries intent on undermining culture and national identity instead of what we are – an important part of society, locally rooted and locally driven by community-based organisations intent on leaving the world better than they found it.
While increasing the capacity of individual organisations, we need to offer better tools to those who would join or lead digital campaigns. Our work with civil society to design and build the kinds of campaigns and tools they might hope to use to organise their communities from online to offline has shown that through such work, organisations that adopt digital tools for campaigning purposes become more savvy consumers of technology in general, and more committed stakeholders in and advocates for building and preserving rights online – a critical element in bringing in organisations that might not be policy-focused into the struggle for better digital policies.
Finally, these tools, campaigns, practices and communities need to be carefully considered and crafted to ensure safety. As a colleague from a context with closing space recently noted, with the internet came easy surveillance. This is an important point and dovetails into the other main shift we see, the shift to the cloud. All on-premise tools – think everything that isn’t Google Suite or Microsoft O365 –will go away in the coming years. This is both really good and really less good news. On the less good side, most CSOs are not ready to be fully in the cloud due to connectivity issues. Further, for many the cloud is not a safe place due to issues relatred to bad policies or no policies, such as who can access data in the cloud and on what terms.
On the good side, moving to the cloud can lower costs while opening opportunities for CSOs to link data for evidence, to drive advocacy and support new tools. One good example of this is a project conducted by our Irish partner, Enclude, who worked with Irish social service organisations to design a fit-for-purpose case management solution. The tool they built together met, for the first time, the needs of participating organisations, thus lowering their costs to provide services. Perhaps of equal or greater importance, it allowed organisations to pool data and use that data to learn from each other and build evidence for advocacy.
So, whether we like it or not, we are all going to the cloud. This offers opportunities but also necessitates increased capacity to represent and build our communities online, and work to ensure the cloud is a safe place for us all. TechSoup has been working to address these issues in a variety of ways and is in the middle of growing our programmes in these areas from pilot phases to our entire global community, effectively building the infrastructure upon which we can link the million-plus organisations we serve to partners who have technology or policy training capacities and interests and might want to engage the grassroots organisations we reach.
What are the barriers that CSOs experience to access existing technologies?
For more than 30 years, our mantra has been ‘democratising access to technology’. The main barriers to doing so seem related to CSOs choosing and being able to use the best tools for their work. TechSoup tries to lower that barrier in two main ways. First, by being a trusted source for curation and education, helping CSOs know what technologies are available and how to use them through online communities and courses. Though historically we have been quite focused on corporate technologies, this is fast expanding into ‘tech4good’ through projects like our Public Good App House, where CSOs can begin exploring tools that are specific to each Sustainable Development Goal and were built for CSOs and audited for security purposes by us.
Second, we lower access barriers by helping reduce the price point. Through our technology donation programme we are able to offer technologies at an extreme discount – what our French partner used to call ‘solidarity pricing’. The discount makes technology accessible at a price point most can afford – more than 80 per cent of the CSOs we have served have fewer than five staff – while generating revenues that help us provide free or steeply discounted training and support.
What does the data that you have collected through your work tell you about the ways CSOs use or don’t use technology?
The data tells us CSOs use technologies in about as many ways, and at about as many levels, as there are shapes and sizes in civil society. Some organisations are incredibly advanced and teach us new things they have learned or developed every day. Many could use some guidance and support on things that could improve their operational efficiencies so they can spend more time on their programmes. Most, let’s face it, don’t care about technology as long as it works. And that is fine!
The challenge, perhaps, is that very few organisations are fully aware of the ramifications of their technical choices. For instance: do you know where all your data is right now? Who has access to it? When did you last change your passwords? Few are also aware of how deeply we rely on technological infrastructure that is owned, operated and accessible by actors who may have interests contrary to our own. This lack of understanding, and the potentially negative ramifications of it, are exacerbated by the acceleration towards the cloud and increasing digitalisation of society. There are excellent thought leaders in this space – such as The Engine Room and the Stanford PACS (Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society) and its Digital Civil Society Lab – and I think we are beginning to understand and work on how we can partner, contextualise and bring civil society into critical discussions about digital access and rights – individually, collectively and in relation to digital policy.
We have to. Technology does not seem to be going away and as the world digitises, civil society needs to understand, craft and advocate for digital rights. Civil society is and always has been the champion of human rights. We must do so in the digital space. It will take all of us but it must be done.
What are the typical needs of advocacy CSOs that you seek to respond to?
We primarily help in choosing and using tools, but also we are increasingly providing training on digital storytelling, digital marketing and analytics to make sure stories are reaching their intended audiences, and training on how to work in an online environment cluttered with misinformation. These skills are certainly important for advocacy but are equally relevant for digital community-building and fundraising – both helpful in building a local base in the face of closing spaces.
Digital security is another big area for many. We provide some tools and guidance but those who are truly threatened need a much more personal level of support to map risks and develop plans than we can easily do en masse. We are working on more there but are always happy to recommend partners.
A third area is supporting base-building needs. We are piloting a variety of ways to connect advocacy organisations to the ‘rest’ of civil society – at least the million-plus CSOs in our community. Doing so, however, presents an interesting exercise in framing, communications and community building. Very few of the community we reach would consider themselves advocacy organisations. Fewer still sit around dwelling on rights-based frameworks. Regardless, they do their best to support, defend and enable their communities in their own ways. They can be reached and invited to engage in solidarity with those who are more particularly vocal about rights but it takes work to meet them where they are. We have seen some incredibly encouraging examples of broader bases of support and hosts of unlikely allies when advocacy organisations have the tools to appeal to the broader community, and look forward to more work in this area.
You mentioned the fact that the online space is increasingly cluttered with misinformation. Why do you think misinformation is so easily propagated on social media, and what tools can civil society use to stop it?
A funder recently asked me: ‘won’t we soon have a tool that simply tells us what is fake news?’ Sure. But a lot of disinformation is either fun or empowering to those who propagate it, or both. Our job in civil society will be to help educate voters and policy-makers about why facts are important and disinformation is a threat. We could do that by spending all of our time trying to stop the spread of misinformation. Some people think that is the way to go and not they are not necessarily wrong. On the other hand, technology platforms across which misinformation is spread are much more able to do that than we are. They can incorporate tools that spot deep fakes, monitor stories that are going viral around key words and work with civil society to interpret and distinguish what is harmful and threatening and what is not. They already have human moderators doing much of that work around obvious issues, but they are not trained to know that, for instance, a certain cat meme or dumpling joke is actually a political smear. We know and need partnerships – some of which are emerging around elections in particular countries – to help platforms and civil society meet in the middle.
Another approach, and one that we work with through our programmes, is described earlier: helping CSOs have the tools to build their own narratives, better use analytical tools to understand when their narratives are working and whether they are reaching their intended audiences, and helping to form narrative communities. There are hundreds of trolls, thousands who spread their lies and millions who see it. There are millions of CSOs, hundreds of millions who follow or ‘hear’ them on social media. Enabling each to tell their story, and enabling the collective to coordinate in solidarity, offers an opportunity to flood the digital space with our truths. Once all are moving, we will have more messaging, more quickly, and tapped into more local realities than a handful of trolls could ever manage. If we incorporate analytical tools to understand what messages are working and coordinate around successful messaging across our communities, our collective weight will overwhelm opposition. Until the government shuts off the internet… worth trying until then!
We are building a repository of specific tools and successful campaigns, such as the one we have built at TransparenCEE, focused on digital campaigning. But there are a lot of great resources out there, produced by JustLabs, MobLab and others.
Can you tell us a success story from your recent work?
One of my favorite stories – one that opened my eyes – happened nearly 10 years ago when I was living in a small town in Romania. I had launched TechSoup Romania through a community foundation I had started a few years before. Some funders had supported us to run a convening of technologists and CSOs we were calling the ‘Local Philanthropy Workshop’, through which tech people and CSO people worked on digital storytelling, tools and projects.
On one of the first afternoons, the leader of a local environmental CSO and a tech guy were talking. The environmentalist was sharing that he wanted to make a map of illegal garbage dumps in the county. The technologist asked if he had them in a spreadsheet with geocoordinates. The environmentalist emailed him the list and three minutes later the technologist showed him a googlemap version of what he had been hoping for. The environmentalist walked it across the street to the newspaper and it ran on the front page the next day with an article about illegal dumping.
Three minutes of tech and advocacy campaign came true because the right skills came together at the right time. It is a simple story compared to some of the much larger and more complex ones that have come since, but perhaps more indicative of what success might look like for most of us. Big data and artificial intelligence, blockchain and machine learning, digital ID and quantum are all good and shiny and important for those who have the data, tools and resources to work with them. For most of us, I believe, simpler solutions supporting the resolution of local challenges – where communities and civil society come together – are perhaps more in reach and perhaps, in aggregate, more meaningful as we seek collectively to come to grips with the influence of technology on society, and learn how to navigate the good and the bad of it as the world digitises.
Alaa Abdel Fattah
Alaa Abdel Fattah
Name: Alaa Abdel Fattah
He was again sentenced to 5 years in prison by a Criminal Court in Cairo during a re-trail of the case on 23 February 2015 for participating in a protest and assaulting a policeman.
Reason Behind Bars:
On 11 June 2014 civil society activist and blogger, Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to 15 years in prison and handed a fine of EGP 100000 (approximately US $14000) for participating in a peaceful protest. Alaa was among a group of activists who protested against the use of military courts to try civilians. The protests took place on 26 November 2013 outside the Shuna-Council – Egypt’s Upper House of Parliament. He was charged with “demonstrating without prior notification,” “assaulting security forces,” “stealing a public radio,” and “interrupting the work of national institutions.” He was sentenced in absentia as he was denied access to the court when the sentencing was done.
On 28 November 2013, about 20 security agents physically assaulted Alaa and his wife Manal Bahey el Din who is a blogger and activist and confiscated computers and telephones at their home before he was arrested. He was detained for close to four months and later released on bail.
Alaa has been arrested and detained several times in the past for his activism and played an instrumental role in the protests during the Arab Spring that led to the down fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. He was detained in 2006 for a month and a half for his online activities and was summoned by the Egyptian authorities in October 2011 for taking part in a peaceful demonstration organised by Egypt’s Coptic Christians in October 2011. 27 protesters and a military officer were killed during the demonstrations.
On 5 January 2014, the North Giza Criminal Court sentenced Alaa to one year in prison on charges of arson, damage to property and danger to public safety. The charges were based on allegations that Alaa and another activist attacked the campaign headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq on 28 May 2012. The one year sentence was suspended for three years.
Alaa was given a summons for his arrest by the Office of the Public Protector and on 28 November he wrote to the Public Protector confirming that that he will respect the summons. He was however arrested on 28 November 2013, and held in pre-trial detention until he was provisionally released in March 2014 by the South Cairo Criminal Court on bail of EGP 10000 (approximately us $ 1400). He is a prisoner of conscience and is in jail on fictitious charges for his human rights campaigns.
On 18 August 2014, Alaa began a hunger strike following news that his father Ahmed Seif El-Islam, a prominent human rights lawyer, was taken into an extensive care unit after his open heart surgery. According to a statement released by Alaa’s family the hunger strike followed a “decisive moment” when Alaa decided he “will not cooperate with this absurd and unfair situation, even if it costs him his life." Alaa’s family and friends stated that they are holding the Egyptian government accountable for any deterioration in Alaa’s health, since it was the draconian Egyptian government that imprisoned him for the third time since 25 January 2014 based on trumped up charges.
For more information
Write immediately to the Egyptian authorities urging them to release Alaa Abdel Fattah and other activists arrested for exercising their rights of assembly and association.
Send Appeals to
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al Ittihadia, Cairo
Arab Republic of Egypt
Deputy Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for Human Rights
Mahy Hassan Abdel Latif
Multilateral Affairs and International Security Affairs
Corniche al-Nil, Cairo
Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: 00202 25749713
Write to the Egyptian diplomatic representation in your country. See a list of Egyptian diplomatic representation abroad here.
ALGERIA: ‘The authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of human rights and civic freedoms in Algeria with Rachid Aouine, Director for SHOAA for Human Rights.
SHOAA for Human Rights is an independent civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and protecting human rights in Algeria. Founded in 2020 and based in London, UK, it raises human rights awareness and monitors, documents and denounces abuses committed against citizens by those in power.
What is the current situation of human rights and civic space in Algeria?
As a result of the escalation of repressive practices by the Algerian authorities, human rights are in a critical state. Arbitrary arrests have increased, targeting journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political activists associated with political parties linked to the Hirak protest movement for their exercise of the rights to the freedoms of association, expression, belief and peaceful assembly. In recent months they have been criminalised in an unprecedented way.
The authorities are unjustly prosecuting people for their alleged association with the political opposition movements Rachad and the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie, which in May 2021 were designated as ‘terrorist organisations’ by the High Security Council. This is a consultative body chaired by the president. It has also blamed these organisations for the devastating forest fires that overtook north-eastern Algeria in August 2021 and the murder of activist and artist Djamel Bensmaïl while he was in police custody. It announced it would intensify efforts to arrest their members until their ‘total eradication’.
Since early 2021, prosecutions on bogus terrorism charges have proliferated alarmingly. For those convicted of these charges, the Penal Code dictates sentences ranging from one year in jail to lifelong imprisonment and the death penalty.
Of course, those arrested and prosecuted have seen their due process and fair trial guarantees systematically violated.
A new wave of arrests started in February 2022. Why are the authorities targeting human rights defenders in such large numbers?
The Algerian authorities are arresting human rights defenders to suffocate civil society. Human rights defenders are the only limit to their power, because they are the only ones defending and advocating for human rights in Algeria. Their elimination would effectively end the flow of information about the human rights violations they commit to the outside world.
Rather than addressing the problems that civil society denounces, the authorities are attacking those advocating for change, because they view change as a threat and a limitation to their power. To cover up the ongoing human rights violations, they are using systematic repression, specifically targeting human rights defenders and the exercise of the freedom of expression.
Three years after the Hirak protests, the authorities continue to restrict protests. What tactics of suppression do they use?
Indeed, three years after Hirak (which stands for ‘movement’ in Arabic) peacefully pushed for political change and forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, at least 300 activists, many of them associated with Hirak, are being held by the authorities.
Through presidential decrees, the Algerian authorities have recently enacted new legislation hostile to the freedoms of expression and assembly. In June 2021, the Penal Code was amended by presidential decree, leading to the expansion of an already too broad definition of terrorism. People are now being accused of crimes such as ‘offending public bodies’, ‘spreading false information’, ‘membership of a terrorist group’, ‘apology for terrorism’, and ‘conspiracy against state security’. A Facebook post may lead to charges such as ‘using information technologies to spread terrorist ideas’ and ‘disseminating information that could harm the national interest’. Even a simple remittance is listed as an act of treason.
All human rights defenders and advocates who fall under the thumb of these new laws, in particular articles 87 bis and 95 bis of the Penal Code, are automatically slapped with vague charges such as ´undermining national unity’ as well as bogus terrorism-related charges. Despite the presentation of evidence of their innocence by their defence, judicial authorities impose the verdicts sought by the authorities.
The authorities are also accusing pro-Hirak CSOs of allegedly holding activities contrary to the objectives listed in the Law on Associations and in their own by-laws. On this basis, some of them have been dissolved, including Rassemblement Action Jeunesse and the cultural association SOS Beb El Oued, whose president was sentenced to a year in prison for ‘undermining national unity and national interest’ in connection with the association’s activities.
Political activists and leaders of parties linked to Hirak are also punished for ‘crimes’ such as ‘calling for a gathering’, and parties are accused of not complying with the Law on Political Parties by organising ‘activities outside the objectives stipulated in its by-laws’. This happened, for example, after several activists gathered to discuss the establishment of a united front against repression.
What needs to change in Algeria?
Civil society must be preserved while there is still something left. Civil society plays a major role in any movement for change. When CSOs are absent or disabled, people are left without protection and guidance. This is especially true in efforts to avoid violence and prevent human rights violations; when a society is devoid of CSOs, people lack guidance in knowing what steps to take and human rights violations go unaccounted for. Civil society associations, centres and bodies are key for framing the protest movement – to provide it with structure, strategy and a goal.
If nothing is done about it, the authorities will continue repressing independent civil society and the human rights situation will worsen. If nothing is done, the goal of democracy and respect for human rights will float further and further away, until it’s completely out of reach.
How can international civil society support Algerian civil society in its struggle for human rights and democratic freedoms?
Algerian civil society cannot achieve its goals on its own; it needs cooperation and support from the international community. To address human rights violations and promote democratic freedoms in Algeria, domestic civil society must establish relationships of cooperation and work jointly with international organisations.
Algerian civil society can develop an effective strategy by opening international lines of communication and becoming a major source of information on the real conditions of human rights on the ground. On the basis of this information, international organisations can help activate international monitoring mechanisms and put pressure for change on Algerian authorities.
Amid COVID-19, what is the health of civic freedoms?
By Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS and Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Research Officer
More than half a year after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, governments are continuing to waste precious time and energy restricting human rights rather than focusing on fighting the virus. Civic freedoms, including the freedom to associate, express views and peacefully assemble, are under threat, with states using broad and restrictive legislation to snuff out dissent. But people are organising and mobilising to demand rights. In the face of restrictions, civil society continues to fight back, often taking to the streets to do so.
ANGOLA: ‘Chances for real democracy in Angola are quite low’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential and National Assembly election in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment. MBAKITA is a civil society organisation based in Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, it defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What was the political climate in the run-up to the recent election in Angola?
The political climate was veryunfavourable, not at all conducive to a free and fair election. Angola was alreadycharacterised by heavy restrictions on civic space, and this worsened in the run-up to the 24 August election.
Civic space has been long marked by persecution, intimidation, threats, arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment, slander, defamation, censorship, intolerance and ordered killings. Protests are often banned and frequently repressed, sometimes with lethal violence.
Restrictions tightened before the election and were maintained during the voting and in the aftermath, to prevent protests at suspected fraud. Rapid Intervention Police, State Secret Information Services, Public Order Police, Migration and Foreigners Services, Border Guard Police, Criminal Investigation Services and the Attorney General's Office were all deployed in the streets of Angola’s 18 provinces.
ANGOLA: ‘Much effort was put into excluding people from the electoral process’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent Angolan election and its aftermath with Catarina Antunes Gomes and Cesaltina Abreu from the Social Sciences and Humanities Laboratory of the Catholic University of Angola (LAB). LAB works closely with Civic Movement Mudei (‘I changed’ in Portuguese), a movement of multiple civil society organisations (CSOs) that advocate for democratic change in Angola. It campaigns for voting rights and fair conditions of electoral competition, including transparent funding, equitable media coverage and citizen monitoring of election processes.
What kinds of civic space restrictions did Angolan civil society encounter during the election?
Civil society has faced many constraints before, during and after the election. Prior to the election, there was a partial review of the constitution that was done without any consultation and did not follow the recommendations of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The organic law on general elections was also amended without the participation of civil society or the political opposition, and it resulted in reduced electoral transparency. Key stakeholders were denied a platform to be part of the process.
A few months before the election, the government also decided to change Angola’s political and administrative division, with potential impact on the drawing of electoral districts. Although it did not follow through with this reform, this caused great confusion and gave rise to suspicions about the intentions of the ruling party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the credibility of the election.
In 2021 President João Lourenço appointed Laurinda Cardoso, a member of the MPLA’s political bureau, as chief judge of the Constitutional Court. Civil society also raised concerns about the appointment and swearing in of Manuel Pereira da Silva as the new president of the National Electoral Commission. But our voices have been overlooked during the whole process.
The media situation has also been very precarious. Since the start of the electoral process, state intervention has increased, even in private media. Mudei monitored the media coverage of various parties and candidates from May until July and found that both public and private media had become instruments of propaganda, undermining the right to freedom of information and free choice.
On 6 July, just as the electoral campaign was about to begin, a new law was proposed to prohibit surveys and posts revealing voting choices. Instead of ensuring people were fully included in the electoral process, much effort was put into excluding them.
As a result, the level of transparency and fairness of the 24 August election has been dubious to say the least. It has been questioned by civil society through many public statements. The organisations we work with, Mudei and LAB, have produced a statementindicating they do not consider the elections to have been transparent, fair and free.
What do you think contributed to low voter turnout?
There were probably many reasons why fewer than half of registered voters went to the polls, but we believe major ones were disorganisation, fear and lack of trust.
The whole process was badly organised. In September 2021 there was an ‘unofficial electoral registration’ period, which is really a process of connecting databases to determine who is eligible to vote, but it was not made clear to people what this was about. Most people were confused about what the law said on residency and voting. The process was marked by lack of clarity and irregularities. Everything seemed too complicated so many lost interest. Many people were excluded as a result.
People were also afraid. The electoral campaign should be a time when candidates share their ideas with us, debate their parties’ proposals and tell us their thoughts about Angola’s future. But this was not what happened. The ruling party had a strong negative discourse, treating the other parties as enemies rather than adversaries. They didn’t present any ideas on how to make the country progress and what they published as their political programme was of very low quality.
Staying away from the polls can also be interpreted as a form of protest. We have done a lot of comparative electoral analysis and found that protest voting has increased in Angola through the years. This is the result of people’s complete lack of faith in political institutions, given their limited democratic character and lack of transparency. This year the protest vote rose even further.
How has the Angolan government reacted to civil society’s criticisms of electoral irregularities?
The government has responded with repression. There are two situations that we would like to share with CIVICUS and other international allies so they can help us by providing visibility, pressuring human rights international bodies and offering support in the form of capacity-building and funding for human rights activists and social movements in Angola.
The first situation concerns Pascoal Baptistiny, executive director of MBAKITA, a CSO that promotes the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities in the province of Cuando Cubango in southern Angola. Pascoal has expressed concerns about the election, including in an interview with CIVICUS last year. This made him a target. He was put under surveillance and has recently requested our help to evacuate his family to Luanda, Angola’s capital, because he has been threatened and is afraid for their safety.
The second situation concerns several members of Mudei, including its coordinator, who has been threatened repeatedly. Another of our colleagues, who was an independent candidate, has been mentioned in aggressive articles and social media posts along with an official from the European Union delegation in Luanda. They are attacked as part of a supposed subversive conspiracy involving powerful international interests aiming at destabilising Angola.
The feeling of oppression has been increasing. The Angolan army has been put on high alert, allegedly to prevent attacks. But how would unarmed civilians be able to attack them? That is clearly an excuse; their presence is threatening and intimidating. We urge the international community to publicly denounce what our government is doing to people and act to protect civil society activists who continue to work regardless and face threats and violence as a result.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
ANGOLA: ‘The new NGO Law is just a way of legalising the government’s arrogance and excesses’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on the work of Angolan civil society with Godinho Cristóvão, a jurist, human rights defender and executive director of the association Movimento de Defensores de Direitos Humanos de Angola (Movement of Human Rights Defenders of Angola, KUTAKESA).
KUTAKESA is a civil society organisation (CSO) working for the rights and protection of human rights defenders (HRDs) in Angola, particularly those active in more vulnerable areas, working on more sensitive issues and from historically excluded groups.
What are the current conditions for civil society in Angola?
Angolan CSOs work in a climate of suspicion and uncertainty, despite the fact that the Constitution of the Republic of Angola enshrines a catalogue of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedoms and guarantees.
The Angolan authorities should have aligned themselves with the democratic rule of law and respected the work of CSOs and HRDs. Instead, there has been an increase in threats, harassment and illegal arrests of HRDs who denounce or hold peaceful demonstrations against acts of bad governance and violations of citizens’ rights and freedoms. There have been clear setbacks with regard to the guarantee of fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the constitution, as well as the rights set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and other human rights treaties Angola has ratified.
How is the government targeting civil society with restrictive legislation?
The attacks on civil society are totally uncalled for. On 25 May, the Angolan National Assembly passed a draft NGO Statute, despite severe criticism from CSOs, which have stated that it limits freedom of association and gives the state excessive powers to interfere with CSO activities.
The government targets civil society with legislation that is meant for terrorists and money launderers, though it has never been proven in any court that a CSO has committed an act of terrorism in Angola. On the contrary, the rationale of this legislation constitutes institutional terrorism, the target of which are CSOs.
In Angola we all know who the corrupt are, and which party feeds corruption and money laundering. And as far as we know, CSOs are not part of that group. Funders of Angolan CSOs are all clearly identified, and the transfer of funds goes through national banking institutions and a rigorous compliance process. It is also worth remembering that many CSO funders are the same ones that fund government projects.
How does the new restrictive law compare with the 2015 decree that was declared unconstitutional?
In general, the content and spirit of Presidential Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs are the same as those of the new NGO Statute Law. By way of example, the rights and duties chapter of the previous regulation, later declared unconstitutional, was retained with only minimal changes in wording that in no way alter its content and its controlling and repressive spirit.
Additionally, the decree that was found unconstitutional provided for an administrative body under the tutelage of the Angolan executive – called IMPROCAC – with the power to monitor and control CSO actions. The recently approved draft NGO Statute Law provides for a similar body with the same attributions as the old IMPROCAC.
In other words, this is a new attempt to impose similar restrictions, but it is more serious since its instrument is no longer a presidential decree but a law. This means that it is no longer only the executive that is attacking the principles of autonomy and freedom of association provided for in article 48 of the constitution, but Congress as well, in which the president’s party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), has a majority. It is worth remembering that it was the MPLA majority that approved the 2010 constitution which it is now violating by passing the NGO Statute Law.
How is civil society, including KUTAKESA, reacting to the proposed law?
CSOs, at least the most active ones, are not looking favourably on the approval of this law, given the threats it represents in terms of closing off civic space in Angola.
We are taking joint action to prevent the final approval of this law and its entry into force. From the point of view of legal certainty and security, the courts should be aligned with the principle of jurisprudential precedent. Since they submitted the presidential decree to a review of unconstitutionality and declared it unconstitutional, they should now follow suit, given that the new law contains the same irregularities.
All national organisations took a joint position to call on parliament to take off the agenda the law now approved. This was done through information exchange meetings with opposition parties represented in parliament. At the same time we made public statements alerting the public about the dangers for freedom of association if the law was approved, and we made urgent appeals to the special rapporteurs of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations (UN) who have a mandate on freedom of association and HRDs to alert the Angolan government about the consequences the law will have on respect for human rights.
On KUTAKESA’s part, urgent appeals were made to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in Africa, Remy Ngoy Lumbu, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor.
Do you see the new law as part of a wider trend to restrict civic space?
Yes of course, but it is also important to note that the repression of peaceful and legal demonstrations predates the approval of this law. Government mismanagement and endemic corruption have been some of the main causes of the deteriorating social, economic and family conditions for the majority of the population, leading to growing protests and mass demonstrations, which have often been repressed. The approval of this law is just another means of repression and of legalising the arrogance and excesses of the government and its agents, particularly the national police.
While the law is not necessarily intended as a response to the ongoing protests, given that the attempt to get it passed dates back to 2015, it is likely to be used as another tool to crack down on the protests.
Now, if the government has good sense and makes a strategic reading of the current political and social context of Angola, it could stop the process of approval of the law or, if it is too late for that, the president could refuse to promulgate it, taking the appeals of civil society into consideration. The law’s approval would certainly increase the number of protests and demonstrations.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with KUTAKESA through theirwebsite.
ANGOLA: ‘The untrue government narrative reveals an aversion to civil society denouncing malpractice’
CIVICUS discusses the state of civic space and the new restrictions being imposed on civil society in Angola with Emilio José Manuel, focal point for Angola of the Lusophone Platform for Human Rights and founding member of the Working Group for Human Rights Monitoring in Angola (GTMDH).
The GTMDH is a platform of civil society organisations (CSOs) that works to promote and defend human rights and strives for social justice within the framework of the Angolan constitution and other current laws, as well as international conventions and treaties.
What are the conditions for civil society in Angola?
Although there is currently no direct or indirect interference in the work of civil society in Angola, the authorities’ discourse is that, because they receive funding from international institutions, CSOs defend and represent foreign interests.
Meanwhile there are many joint actions between public institutions and CSOs. For example, once a year the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights organises a forum with CSOs where the GTMDH presents its public position on human rights and provides information on the granting of registration certificates, the legal documents that the Angolan state gives to each CSO attesting that it is legally registered and can operate in the country.
Why is the government targeting CSOs with legislation aimed at terrorists and money launderers?
According to the report supporting the draft law, the president considers that he has ‘encountered constraints and difficulties in ensuring compliance with international obligations assumed by the Angolan Government in the area of money laundering and the financing of terrorism’. Hence the need to control the sources and destination of CSO funds.
This narrative of the Angolan government is untrue and clearly demonstrates its aversion to the role of CSOs in monitoring and denouncing government malpractice. Financial support for the projects of CSOs and human rights defenders comes from well-identified organisations and goes through banking institutions with strict compliance rules – and some of these funders are the same ones that support government projects.
On 26 May, the draft NGO Statute Law was passed in general by the Angolan National Assembly, ignoring severe criticism from civil society, which has made clear that it limits the right of association and gives the executive excessive powers to interfere in CSO activities.
The situation is very alarming because the draft law imposes a 120-day period for existing CSOs to make their statutes conform with the law, otherwise they will be outlawed outright without a judicial decision. Article 2 of the draft law requires existing CSOs to conform with the new provisions, under penalty of having their statutes and registrations revoked. This is a violation of the principle of legality and access to justice guaranteed by the Angolan constitution. The principle of legality requires that the law should be clearly articulated and known in advance and should not be applied retroactively.
How has civil society reacted to the draft law?
Civil society analysed the draft law and reacted against it. In collaboration with the GTMDH coordinator, my role as legal officer was to prepare petitions, public position papers and communications with the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and to engage with regional and international partners to amplify the voices of Angolan civil society.
We requested a technical opinion from UN Special Rapporteur Clément Voule and drafted a public civil society position on the bill explaining why it violates freedoms of association, which we presented publicly at a press conference.
We advocated with opposition parties represented in parliament and made contacts with the Angolan Bar Association to file, within the scope of our constitutional prerogatives, the appropriate action for an assessment of the unconstitutionality of the draft law. The day before the general approval of the draft law, we sent a public petition to the National Assembly demanding that it not approve it.
Our next action will be to send a letter to the presidents of some key countries about the closure of civic space in Angola and increasing controls over CSOs, including international CSOs.
Protests are also taking place against the proposed NGO Statute Law, which have converged with protests against measures that have increased fuel prices and a crackdown on street vendors.
Do you see this bill as part of a wider trend of restricting civic space?
The recent repression of demonstrations, arrests of activists and attacks on protesters, including women, is an indicator that civic space is being severely restricted. The use of force by the national police has resulted in deaths without any appropriate process to hold to account and punish police officers involved in cases of violence, torture and killings.
Our country depends on importing food staples and other goods from abroad. Right now the prices of food, other goods and services have increased. Street vendors are a group that some CSOs work with, particularly those dedicated to empowering women to establish small businesses. Some organisations provide micro credits to street vendors. Although the street vendors’ movement has a life of its own, it is CSOs and their lawyers who have provided them with free legal aid.
There is a current of national solidarity, taking into account that the law does not explicitly say it will regulate all initiatives by citizens who wish to create an association. My personal opinion is that everyone feels that control will go further. The draft NGO Statute Law lacks a clear definition of what a ‘non-governmental organisation’ is. It also includes vague provisions that need to be better fleshed out to enable the proper interpretation of the law. For example, it is difficult to understand the meaning and normative scope of article 19(1)(d), which imposes a ‘duty on NGOs to refrain from practices and actions that are subversive or liable to be confused with them’. The unanswered question here is how subversive actions are to be defined in the context of the law.
How does the new draft law compare with the 2015 decree that was deemed unconstitutional?
According to the analysis we’ve made, the arguments and contents are the same as in Decree 74/15 on the Regulation of NGOs. We have the new role of counselling judges in the Constitutional Court. The situation in the Supreme Court indicates that we have a crisis in the judiciary. So it is uncertain whether this time the judicial decision will be in favour of CSOs. The present draft law establishes rules to control, restrict, approve, authorise and suspend the activities of CSOs, including CSO extinction by an administrative entity to be determined by the president as holder of the executive power, which violates the principle of freedom of association as provided in article 48 of the constitution.
Do you view the draft NGO Statute Law as part of a regional or global trend?
After having participated in sessions of the NGO Forum and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, I noted a tendency to restrict civic space throughout Africa. As part of the civil society strategy, we held meetings with activists from Mozambique to share experiences and assemble regional, continental and international strategies. It is worth remembering that various activists, whether linked to CSOs or not, are directly involved in campaigns and waves of protest to try to ensure that the draft law is not given final approval by parliament and promulgated by the president.
Civic space in Angola is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Contact GTMDH through itswebsite.
ANGOLA: “The ruling party sees local elections as a threat”
View the original interview in Portuguese here
CIVICUS speaks about the situation in Angola with Pascoal Baptistiny, Executive Director of MBAKITA – Kubango Agricultural Benevolent Mission, Inclusion, Technologies and the Environment, a civil society organisation based in the Cuando Cubango province in southern Angola. Founded in 2002, MBAKITA defends the rights of Indigenous peoples and traditional communities, denounces the discrimination they suffer and the expropriation of their lands, and promotes a more just, democratic, participatory, tolerant, supportive, healthy and humane society.
What is the state of civic space in Angola, and what are the main constraints faced by Angolan activists?
The repression of civic space in Angola is one of the biggest challenges facing Angolan civil society today. Activists suffer arbitrary and illegal arrests, torture and ill-treatment, abductions, killings, harassment and disappearances by government forces, police and state intelligence services. This repression has made many Angolans careful about what they say in public. The few organisations that defend human rights in Angola often do so at great risk to the activists involved and their families.
Could you tell us about the restrictions you and your colleagues faced in 2020?
In 2020, my MBAKITA colleagues and I faced obstacles aimed at preventing, minimising, disrupting and reversing the impact of our organisation’s legitimate activities that focused on criticising, denouncing and opposing rights violations and ineffective government positions, policies and actions.
The various forms of restriction we experienced included arbitrary restrictions and the interruption of demonstrations and meetings; surveillance; threats, intimidation, reprisals and punishments; physical assaults; smear campaigns portraying MBAKITA members as ‘enemies of the state’ and mercenaries serving foreign interests; judicial harassment; exorbitant fines for the purchase of means of transport; burglary of our offices and theft of computer equipment; search and seizure of property; destruction of vehicles; the deprivation of employment and income; and travel bans.
In addition, 15 activists were arbitrarily detained and ill-treated during the COVID-19 prevention campaign. On 1 May my residence was invaded, and its guards were teargassed. On 16 November, two female activists were raped. Fatalities for the year included three of our activists and one protester.
What kind of work does MBAKITA do? Why do you think it has been targeted?
MBAKITA is an organisation that defends and promotes human rights. We work to promote, protect and disseminate universally recognised human rights and freedoms, and especially the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, the freedom of the press, the right to self-determination by Indigenous peoples, the rights to land, adequate food, clean water and the environment, and the fight against torture and ill-treatment.
We challenge violations of the civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights of Indigenous and migrant people, ethnic and linguistic minorities, LGBTQI+ people and people with disabilities.
My organisation uses peaceful and non-violent means in its activities. However, we have faced incalculable risks as a result of our human rights work in the southern provinces of Angola.
MBAKITA has been systematically attacked for several reasons. First, because in 2018 we denounced the death of four children during Operation Transparency, an action against diamond trafficking and undocumented migrants carried out by the Angolan police and armed forces in the municipality of Mavinga, in the Cuando Cubango province. Second, because in 2019 we denounced the diversion of funds intended to support drought victims in Angola’s southern provinces by provincial governments. Third, because in April 2019, two activists of the organisation denounced the illegal appropriation of land by political businesspeople – generals, legislators and governors – in territories belonging to the San and Kuepe Indigenous minorities and used for hunting, fishing and gathering wild fruits, which make up the diet of these groups. Fourth, because in February 2020 MBAKITA denounced the diversion of funds designated for the purchase of biosecurity products for the prevention of COVID-19 and the diversion of food destined for the Basic Food Basket Assistance Programme for Vulnerable Groups. Fifth, because we participated in and conducted an awareness-raising campaign on COVID-19, which included the distribution of biosecurity materials purchased with MISEREOR-Germany funds. And finally, because we participated in all demonstrations held by Angolan civil society, including the most recent one on 9 January 2021, focused on the fight against corruption and the demand for local elections, under the slogan ‘Local elections now, 45 years in power is too long!’ and for the fulfilment of various electoral promises, including those of 500,000 jobs, the reduction of the cost of living for families and the socio-economic inclusion of Indigenous minorities.
Why were the elections scheduled for 2020 cancelled?
For one thing, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But aside from this deadly pandemic, the government was never interested in holding local elections in 2020. The ruling party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sees local elections as a threat to central power and fears losing its grip on power. It fears introducing an element of voter control over local government, that is, citizen participation and control over the management of public funds. The government thinks that the people will wake up to the idea of the democratic state and the rule of law, and that many people will become aware of their rights and duties. This would run counter to the MPLA’s intention, which is to perpetuate itself in power.
The promise of local democracy in Angola has been a failure. Three years into his term in office, President João Lourenço has failed to deliver even 10 per cent of his electoral promises, leaving 90 per cent of Angolans in a state of total scepticism.
In Angola, the party that has been in power for more than 45 years does not tolerate free people. Today, human rights defenders lose their jobs, are unable to feed their children, lose their careers and even their lives if they dare to be free, to desire democracy and to exercise their freedom.
What are the prospects that the situation will change in the near future?
For the situation to change, civil society has a lot of work to do. The most important and urgent actions are acquiring training in individual, institutional and digital security, learning English, obtaining observer status with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, observing and participating in demonstrations and other public events, advocating and lobbying for the legalisation of human rights organisations, conducting prison visits, including interviews with prisoners and gathering evidence of torture, ill-treatment and imprisonment conditions, observing trials of activists in the lower courts, fundraising for the sustainability of human rights defenders’ activities, and monitoring the 2021 local elections and the 2022 general elections.
What kind of support do Angolan activists need from international civil society to be able to continue their work?
Needs are enormous and varied. Activists urgently need protection and security, including training in risk analysis, security planning and international and regional human rights protection mechanisms, as well as skills in investigating, litigating, documenting, petitioning and reporting human rights violations. Specifically, MBAKITA would like to receive technical assistance to assess what security arrangements could be put in place to increase the physical protection of the organisation’s office and my residence, as well as financial support for the purchase of such arrangements, such as a security system or a video surveillance camera.
Assaulted activists, and especially the 15 MBAKITA activists who have been direct victims of repression and torture at the hands of government forces, also need post-traumatic psychological assistance. Financial assistance would help us pay the fees of the lawyers who worked for the release of six activists who were imprisoned between August and November 2020. It would also help us replace stolen work equipment, without which our ability to work has been reduced, including two vehicles, computers, memory cards, a digital camera and a camcorder.
In the case of activists threatened with arbitrary detention, kidnapping or assassination, who have no choice but to leave the country or their region of origin quickly, we need support for transportation and provisional accommodation. Our activists would also benefit from exchanges of experience, knowledge and good practice, opportunities to strengthen their knowledge of digital security, training in journalistic and audio-visual techniques and the acquisition of English language skills.
Finally, the operation of organisations and their sustainability would be helped by obtaining support for the installation of internet services and the creation of secure websites, the acquisition of financial management software and resources to recruit permanent staff, so that staff members are able to support their families and fully dedicate themselves to the defence of human rights.
Angolan elections: Different name, same game for civil society?
By David Kode
Over the last 38 years, particularly since the end of the civil war in 2002, President Dos Santos has ruled Angola through securitisation of the society, repressing all dissent and restricting freedom of expression, association and assembly. Will space for civil participation open up after one of Africa’s longest serving rulers leaves power following elections this week?
Read on: Pambazuka
Are women the last line of defence against Brazil’s authoritarian shift?
By Ana Cernov, human rights activist and Inés Pousadela, Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS
In a matter of days, 2.5 million Brazilian women had gathered on Facebook to discuss how to best present their case against Bolsonaro and how to take their action offline and organise themselves locally.
Read on: Open Democracy
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.
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
ASEAN: ‘There is a lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis’
CIVICUS speaks with Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, a globally recognised human rights advocate and the new Executive Director of the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), on the state of civic space in the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the regional body’s response to the human rights situation in Myanmar.
In March 2023, Myanmar’s civic space was downgraded by theCIVICUS Monitor to the worst category, closed, in response to developments including the detention of thousands of activists and protesters, many of them convicted by secret military tribunals in unfair trials and given harsh sentences including thedeath penalty. Some have been tortured or killed. The ruling military junta has also systematically targeted journalists andforced civil society organisations (CSOs) to shut down and their leaders to go into hiding or flee the country. The junta has committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, including unlawful attacks, killing and injuring civilians through the use of extrajudicial executions, artillery shelling and banned landmines and cluster munitions.
What is the state of civic freedoms in ASEAN member states?
In recent years, there has been a discernible trend in ASEAN toward democratic regression and shrinking civic space.
In Cambodia, as an election draws near, there is an ongoing assault on civic space and an increasingly violent campaign of repression and harassment against union activists, environmental campaigners, opposition politicians and media workers.
In Myanmar, the path toward democracy, which began in 2011, was dismantled and civic space has closed. The junta’s nationwide crackdown has spread beyond cities into rural and ethnic minority areas, where resistance has grown. There is a climate of fear and insecurity, characterised by extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and other atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity. But ASEAN leaders have been unable to respond uniformly, and the Five-Point Consensus (5PC) they reached in April 2021 has miserably failed to address Myanmar’s crisis.
In Singapore, civil liberties are curbed through the prosecution of journalists, protesters and harassment of activists. Civil space has been further limited by repressive laws such as the 2019 Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act and the 2021 Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, which include vague provisions that allow for executive discretion in interpretation and implementation.
Overall, civic space in ASEAN countries has deteriorated. But in the midst of this darkness, the results of recent elections have cast a ray of hope that could have an impact at the regional level. Election results in Malaysia in November 2022 and Thailand in May 2023 have brought hope and a breath of fresh air after years of regression of fundamental freedoms. ASEAN’s youngest member state, Timor-Leste, is unique in that it has committed to consolidating democracy and held a free, fair and transparent election on 21 May 2023, allowing voters to cast their ballots peacefully, thus making their voices heard.
As the current ASEAN chair, has Indonesia made any efforts to engage with civil society and protect human rights?
Indonesia became ASEAN chair amid a lot of expectations regarding its potentials to address the Myanmar crisis, following the lack of progress under its two predecessors, Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia – and possibly on the assumption that no further progress will happen under its successor, Laos.
Led by Indonesia, ASEAN managed to adopt several Leaders’ Declarations related to human rights, including one on combating trafficking in persons caused by the abuse of technology and one on the protection of migrant workers and family members in crisis situations, adopted at the 42nd ASEAN Summit in May 2023. These represented a crucial step toward protecting rights. However, questions of implementation and domestication have long plagued the ASEAN region.
Progress made at the regional level is not necessarily reflected by domestic developments. For example, ahead of the 2023 ASEAN summit, held in Labuhan Bajo, the Indonesian police summoned two residents, Viktor Frumentius and Dominikus Safio, over a planned protest regarding compensation for houses and land clearing for a road project. The criminalisation attempt happened a few days after the police issued a warning letter for local people not to conduct actions that could ‘create incitement’ during the summit. This incident came on top of ongoing attacks on civil liberties in Indonesia.
Regarding engagement with civil society, unfortunately the Indonesian government failed to respond to civil society’s request to conduct an interface meeting during the summit. Taken together, this and the attempted criminalisation of protesters reveal the government’s exclusionary approach to critical voices.
Did the summit’s outcomes include any commitment on human rights?
The summit’s outcome document highlighted the commitment to strengthen efforts to combat human trafficking and protect migrant workers. Human trafficking is indeed a serious and systemic violation of human rights in Southeast Asia, with the pandemic exacerbating the already precarious situation of marginalised people who might end up in hands of human traffickers.
Regarding Myanmar, however, disappointment continues. On 11 May, despite expressing concerns over the continuing violence in Myanmar, specifically in light of the recent attack against a convoy carrying ASEAN diplomats in Myanmar on the eve of the summit, Indonesia released a statement that said that ‘the 5PC remains our main reference’. It basically ignored the calls from civil society groups and the wider international community to move beyond the 5PC.
Unfortunately the issue of shrinking civic space was not discussed at the summit, which reveals continued neglect by ASEAN member states and a lack of consensus about the importance of the fact that civic space is deteriorating across the region.
Has there been progress in strengthening the role of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR)?
Since its inception, the AICHR has been criticised as nothing more than a front for ASEAN member states to comply with their duty to put human rights on the regional agenda. It is not surprising that ASEAN finds it difficult to promote human rights at the regional level, given that its membership includes several authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies.
Civil society groups have done what we could to strengthen the AICHR, leading to incremental progress in its institutional strength and its relations with civil society. In 2019, FORUM-ASIA and its partners called for a review of the AICHR’s Terms of Reference to make it more independent and give it a protection mandate, among other things. ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to this, but the process hasn’t kicked off. Still, other positive changes happened, such as the inclusion of civil society in various AICHR activities and growing opportunities for the AICHR to meet with civil society in a variety of settings.
For example, recently and for the first time ever, FORUM-ASIA and other CSOs with AICHR consultative status were invited to meet with AICHR representatives at the 37th AICHR Meeting. The question remains whether this practice can be sustained and institutionalised. The AICHR has also recently demonstrated increased engagement with national human rights institutions, its natural national partners. This also needs to be maintained and strengthened.
Additionally, the current AICHR mechanism for handling human rights complaints needs to be assessed for it to become more transparent and responsive to rapidly deteriorating civic space conditions. But because the issue of shrinking civic space has not been met with consensus among AICHR member states, progress has been minimal. However, FORUM-ASIA keeps engaging with the AICHR in the knowledge that it will take years of effort to build a mechanism that lives up to our aspiration of holding states accountable for human rights violations. We are willing to engage in discussions with the AICHR about how to strengthen its complaint mechanism to contribute to enforcing states’ human rights obligations at the national level.
Why hasn’t there been any progress in implementing the 5PC to address the situation in Myanmar?
The 5PC has failed due to the fact that ASEAN has engaged with the military junta – the perpetrator of grave human rights violations with no commitment whatsoever to human rights – rather than with the legitimate representatives of Myanmar’s people, the civilian National Unity Government (NUG).
As of today, the junta has not only failed to implement any of the plan’s provisions but has also increased its brutality against the civilian population. The deadly airstrike conducted in April was a glaring manifestation of the junta’s refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue and cooperation.
Another issue is ASEAN members’ lack of a consistent approach and political will to address the Myanmar crisis. Only a few ASEAN countries openly condemned the junta’s human rights violations, while others, such as Cambodia, the ASEAN chair in 2022, even met with the junta chief and allowed the international community to interpret this approach to the crisis as recognition of the military regime.
Finally, ASEAN’s principle of non-interference has been a major obstacle to effectively addressing the Myanmar crisis. ASEAN has moved away from this principle by becoming more assertive in certain cases, such as on economic and humanitarian cooperation, but this has not been mainstreamed.
How has civil society responded to ASEAN’s failure to address the situation in Myanmar?
Despite numerous challenges, civil society has remained active. It is working to ensure that Myanmar does not fall off the radar or is forgotten as a result of conflicts and emergencies erupting in other parts of the world.
Along with reputable Myanmar CSOs and other regional and international organisations, FORUM-ASIA recently released a position paper calling for a review and reframing of the 5PC. This paper provides five counterpoints of action that ASEAN leaders must immediately take to prove the bloc’s commitment and capability to resolve the Myanmar crisis effectively.
The first point calls for the immediate adoption of an action plan for civilian protection and cessation of violence. The second emphasises the need to convene inclusive and meaningful consultations with legitimate Myanmar stakeholders, including the NUG, its advisory body the National Unity Consultative Council, the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw – a group of ousted parliamentarians – and ethnic resistance organisations. The third stresses the need to amend the mandate of the ASEAN Special Envoy’s term to three years with authority, independence and resources to take effective action. The fourth calls for the provision of direct support to frontline humanitarian responders in Myanmar and along ethnic borderlands, including Myanmar’s western borders. And the fifth point calls on the Special Envoy to immediately open formal communications and engage with civil society and other key stakeholders from Myanmar’s Spring Revolution.
What should the international community do to push ASEAN to protect human rights and address the situation in Myanmar?
International civil society and the international community must push ASEAN to immediately move away from the 5PC and embrace more robust and tangible actions to stop the military junta’s violence and atrocity crimes. They must refrain from legitimising the junta and must recognise the NUG as the democratically elected government and enter into dialogue with all relevant stakeholders, cut bilateral ties, including economic ties, and impose a full arms embargo on the Myanmar armed forces, and call for suspension of the export and transport of aviation fuel to Myanmar.
They should also work closely with the United Nations, particularly the Security Council and Secretary-General, to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. They should set up a clear mandate for the Special Envoy, grounded in human rights principles, justice and accountability. The role must be full-time, lasting more than a year, and the appointed Special Envoy must engage with all relevant stakeholders, not just the military junta.
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
AUSTRALIA: ‘Repressive laws have been introduced to limit people’s ability to protest against climate injustice’
CIVICUS speaks about the challenges faced by climate activists in Australia with Nelli Stevenson, head of communications and investigations at Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
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
BAHRAIN: ‘Had there been civic freedoms, the authorities would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of political prisoners on hunger strike in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).
Founded in 2012, Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) registered in France, Switzerland and the UK. It undertakes research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
Maryam al-Khawaja, daughter of imprisoned human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, intends to return to Bahrain imminently to ensure her father gets medical treatment and press for his immediate and unconditional release. Yet she, too, faces possible arrest. What’s your assessment of the situation?
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 62, a dual Danish-Bahraini citizen, is the co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and has a long history of activism. He was arrested by the government of Bahrain in 2004, 2007 and again amid mass unrest in April 2011. After this he faced a grossly unfair trial before a military court, including on charges of ‘seeking to overthrow the government’. He was tortured in pretrial custody and since his arbitrary imprisonment he has been repeatedly denied access to adequate healthcare.
On 9 August he joined some 800 other hunger strikers. They called for an end to lockdown policies that require them to spend up to 23 hours of the day in their cells, the suspension of solitary confinement, the opportunity for collective or congregational prayer in Jau Prison’s mosque, face-to-face meeting rights with family members without a glass screen and access to healthcare commensurate with that available to the public, among other improvements in prison conditions.
On 13 September the mass hunger strike ended with the authorities reportedly meeting many of these demands. This came as Bahrain’s Crown Prince visited Washington, DC, where he met with senior members of the Biden administration: the problem had to go away.
Maryam nevertheless intends to travel and she has our full support. We continue to call for Abdulhadi’s immediate and unconditional release. The Danish and European Union (EU) authorities must do more.
What is at the core of this problem is the absence of civic space in Bahrain. If there was space for independent civil society, then CSOs would have effectively alerted the authorities to prison conditions and they could have addressed the situation. An independent civic space makes it possible to find a balance in government conduct.
What does this mean for Maryam al-Khawaja and our courageous colleagues travelling with her? It means they should be allowed to enter Bahrain and make their demands. The government should engage with them in a spirit of transparency. The absolute worst that could happen is for dissent to be tolerated just a little bit more. While this seems unlikely to happen, it is what the government should do. We wish them all Godspeed.
How is it possible to conduct human rights activism in such a closed environment? How does Salam DHR do it?
Bahrain has closed civic space. Government officials decide which CSOs can be registered and who can stand for their boards. They prevent people from engaging in public life who have no criminal records or public complaints but rather perhaps a past association with a political movement or party that was unfairly banned years ago.
The Bahraini constitution provides for freedoms and safeguards similar to many other states, but the reality is that the government continues to carry out arbitrary arrests and stage unfair trials for acts that are not internationally recognised as crimes. The authorities torture detainees and use the death penalty, despite domestic opposition and international condemnation. They have stripped hundreds, including myself, of citizenship, depriving us of even the right to have rights in our homeland. They use the digital space to monitor and punish dissent and to foment religious and sectarian strife.
Activists linked with Salam DHR cannot, in effect, exercise their right to peaceful assembly, let alone openly campaign for freedoms of association and expression, the release of prisoners unfairly tried and imprisoned or a moratorium on the death penalty. They would risk arrest if they did that.
Yet engaging in civic activism is not totally impossible, only very challenging. Alongside CIVICUS and other partners, Salam DHR engages with allies and like-minded activists as well as the few CSOs that openly but cautiously raise human rights concerns so that the wider Bahraini society hears our message. We echo and amplify their appeals.
We are a catalyst: we help Bahraini activists access platforms to reach domestic and international audiences and provide training and development opportunities such as internships. Alone and in partnership with others, we research, document and publicise developments, grounding our message in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs.
How useful for advocacy purposes was theglobal event held by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023?
It was mixed: Danish parliamentarians and those from other countries addressed human rights issues and the absence of an independent civic space. The IPU’s human rights team raised concerns about freedom of expression and violations against Bahraini parliamentarians. But despite the IPU’s affiliated status with the United Nations (UN), the government still denied access to independent observers and human rights organisations, denying them either visas or access and turning at least one around at the airport. This was the authorities once again restricting civic space.
A few days before the IPU meeting officially began, Bahraini lawyer and activist Ebrahim Al-Mannai called for parliamentary reforms on social media. He and three others who shared his post were arrested for publishing material that could ‘disturb public order’.
At the event itself, the government appeared uninterested in seriously engaging with visiting parliamentarians on human rights issues, despite attempts from the Danish delegation and representatives from Finland, Iceland and Ireland. Our message is clear: open up civic space, free up CSOs and political parties and liberate discourse, otherwise the cycle of political unrest will continue.
Reports indicate that the mass hunger strike in Jau Prison has ended. What’s your assessment of this episode?
The painful August 2023 mass hunger strike was wholly avoidable. It happened mainly due to the government’s stubborn and short-sighted refusal to allow civic space to exist even to a minimum degree. Had there been freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly, they would have known of the deep suffering at Jau Prison. If you don’t let people say what they think, then public life can only lurch from crisis to crisis.
The hunger strike was the expression of the accumulation of a number of factors that have been present in Bahraini prisons for years and it was based on grievances that have been repeatedly expressed: prison conditions and ill treatment of prisoners amounting to torture. The abuses worsened and conditions deteriorated during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, medical neglect resulted in the deaths of two prisoners, Hussein Barakat and Abbas Mallalah.
We appeal once more to the authorities to allow for the opening of civic space and provide a social vent to end the cycle of human rights crises we face.
Is the international community doing all it can to support the struggle for democracy and human rights in Bahrain?
International human rights organisations, UN treaty bodies and Special Procedures and partner states, for instance in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review process of Bahrain, have all joined us in calling on the government of Bahrain to abide by its international human rights obligations, starting with the basic step of letting people have a voice in public life.
Today, 15 September, is International Day of Democracy, and we are joining the UN in calling on the government of Bahrain to empower the next generation by ensuring that their voices are included in the decisions that will have a profound impact on their world. In his address, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that ‘walls are closing in on civic spaces’. Those walls are also the walls of Jau Prison, where it took 800 detainees’ unjust suffering for the government to even take notice.
But the UN has also let neighbouring United Arab Emirates, which is as closed as Bahrain, host the forthcoming COP28 climate change summit. Lack of civic space means there can be no activism for climate justice in Bahrain – for instance, no public demands for accountability can be expressed over costly and environmentally damaging land reclamation in Bahrain’s northeast, which has already eroded the livelihood of fishing communities. We need to be able to address these challenges openly, with a rights-based approach, to avoid a future calamity.
And powerful states that could be putting some pressure for change are avoiding the issue. Right now, Bahrain’s Crown Prince is wrapping up meetings with senior Biden administration officials, none of whom appear to have raised civic space concerns or addressed the needless suffering of 800 Bahraini prisoners. The UK has removed Bahrain from its list of ‘countries of concern’ at the same time as it trumpeted a billion-dollar Bahraini investment in the UK. In October the EU will recommence its cycle of so-called human rights dialogues.
The international community’s inexplicable complacency over the festering human rights quagmire in Bahrain will further embolden the government in crushing civic space. Many leaders miss the point when it comes to Bahrain and its Gulf neighbours: they appear to accept the facade of what is presented as pragmatic autocracy and appear to accept regional rulers’ colonial-mindset contention that democracy will destabilise the region.
Democracies have in fact produced the most stable, enduring and dynamic systems in the world. Human rights and democracy are essential for Bahrain and its neighbours because their deficits continue to be the primary cause of resentment and unrest. A security-based approach does not remedy these problems. Bahrain’s history has shown these methods to be a failure, as it has endured continuous waves of mass unrest followed by violent crackdowns.
Authoritarianism and the forms of violence it fosters are the real destabilising forces, a cycle that can only be broken through the recognition and enactment of democratic rights. The first step towards this goal is simply letting civic space exist.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
BAHRAIN: ‘The government uses public relations to mask human rights violations’
CIVICUS speaks withDrewery Dyke of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR) about closed civic and democratic space in Bahrain as the state prepares to host the Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU Assembly takes place in the capital, Manama,from 11 to 15 March 2023.
Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, and also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.
We last spoke on the eve of the parliamentary election held in November 2022. How has civic space in Bahrain evolved since?
The government of Bahrain held the November 2022 parliamentary election under the same, highly restrictive, 2018 Political Rights Law used in the 2018 elections. It banned scores of people from being able to vote or stand for election on spurious grounds such as affiliation to a banned political party or having a criminal record.
Bahrain’s international partners, United Nations (UN) human rights bodies and civil society all decried the banning of political parties, as it flew in the face of international standards and simply deprived many people of having a voice. The court cases, too, dating from the 2011 unrest, were grossly unfair. In November 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee denounced both the Political Isolation Law and the Law on Associations
And yet there seems to be a small opening for civil society and greater freedoms. The regional mood music appears to be changing, with the governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates normalising relations with Qatar, and the Bahraini government having set out a 2022-2026 National Human Rights Plan.
Bahrain’s government appears to have signalled that it is minded to undertake some reform but civil society remains highly sceptical. Many of us are concerned that the government is once again using public relations initiatives to project an image of the country that masks longstanding, unresolved human rights violations for which there has been no accountability.
Is change possible? Yes, to some degree, it appears so. But civil society needs to remain vigilant and sceptical. Action will speak louder than words. An amendment of existing laws on political and civil society organisations is now a must.
How does Salam DHR manage to work in such a restrictive environment?
Current legislation makes it impossible for our organisation to register and openly carry out any research or advocacy in Bahrain. That has been the case since 2013. And yet at least one woman human rights defender who is linked to Salam DHR and other human rights CSOs has remained active inside Bahrain. She walks a tightrope on a daily basis, taking action to support individuals, notably prisoners of conscience. Lawyers, political and civil society activists and others from all walks of life continue to contact us but we cannot discuss their identities to protect their safety. It is a challenge.
In November 2022, however, the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights obtained accreditation to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which means it can now formally participate in UN meetings and events. This important step could help prise open the space for civil society just that little bit more. We will see.
Why do you think the Bahraini government offered to host the IPU Assembly?
The Bahraini government invited the IPU to hold its 146th Assembly in order to project an image of a democratic country and boost its international standing. The IPU’s catchphrase on its website is ‘For democracy. For everyone’. The government seeks to own this message in a situation where democracy does not exist.
The theme of the 146th Assembly is ‘Promoting peaceful coexistence and inclusive societies: Fighting intolerance’. Yet by limiting freedoms of association and assembly and the right to peaceful religious expression, Bahrain’s government promotes exclusion and intolerance.
Possibly to foster its mission, the IPU accepted the Bahraini government’s offer to hold its meeting in Manama. Is that problematic? In some ways, yes. But it is upon us to promote – peacefully – democratic change that advances adherence to international human rights standards. And parliamentarians from around the world attending the IPU Assembly could help chip away at deeply rooted discrimination and the fact that so many in civil society are deprived of having a voice or are afraid to use it.
Links between Bahraini parliamentarians and civil society are uneven. Some have few if any links while others have better connections and communication with their electorate, including civil society. Some seek to hold government action to account, albeit timidly.
The IPU Assembly may be an opportunity for Bahraini members of parliament to learn how their counterparts in other parts of the world engage with their electors and effectively represent their concerns. Parliamentarians are a building block of a free civil society. We need them to step up during the Assembly to make that a reality in Bahrain.
How could this whitewashing attempt become an advocacy opportunity?
The IPU Assembly will be a pivotal opportunity for advocacy. Visiting parliamentarians must make it so. They must reject baseless hype and propaganda depicting Bahrain as a land of freedom and democracy.
In a recently published brief, Salam DHR is urging attending parliamentarians to join with other parliamentarians from across the globe to call on the government of Bahrain to rescind all provisions that restrict parliamentary life and freedom of expression and association of Bahraini members of parliament. We want them to call for the government to resolve two outstanding cases the IPU’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarianshas lodged with the government of Bahrain, and examine the cases of 15 former parliamentarians targeted with arbitrary arrest and detention, unfair trial and imprisonment and arbitrary stripping of citizenship. We’re also asking parliamentarians to urge the government to implement all recommendations arising from human rights treaty obligations and as many as possible of those made by UN Special Procedures and arising from Bahrain’s 2022 UN Universal Periodic Review.
We urge visiting parliamentarians to inform themselves of other widely shared human rights concerns in relation to Bahrain, including the denial of political rights and women’s rights, the use of the death penalty and the tactic of revoking citizenship as punishment, and to meet with human rights activists and others in civil society while in Bahrain.
How can the international community better support Bahraini civil society and activism for democracy?
Civil society in and engaged with Bahrain needs the international community to listen and speak with us, to hear our experiences and work with us. There is a narrative and experience that differs from the public relations whitewashing by the government.
We are saying that there are longstanding problems that need to be addressed, in terms of law, practice and accountability. But we are also saying that we believe that Bahrain’s international partners – from varying states, including European Union member states, the UK and USA, and the UN and its human rights bodies – and now parliamentarians can all work together, in unison, to erode the climate of repression that denies respect for human dignity, in order to empower Bahraini civil society and gradually build a more open and rights-respecting country.
Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.