KENYA: ‘People are discouraged from voting when they think that voices do not matter’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Kenya with Ken Ogembo, programme manager of Siasa Place.
Siasa Place is a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2015 with the aim of promoting youth participation in politics. It educates people about the importance of voting and how the government can be held accountable.
Did you observe an increase in civic space restrictions around the 9 August election?
We observed several civic space restrictions during the election. The media did not provide fair coverage to all candidates, and the most popular candidates had a clear advantage because everything they did was widely covered and they got a lot of propaganda. Media are powerful tools that can be used to influence the views of people and in this case were used to promote some parties and bring down others. Social media was also used to spread misinformation that influenced many people’s voting decisions.
Further, there was violence in some counties, which we believe was organised to spark fear. As a result, people no longer felt comfortable attending campaigns for some candidates because of fear they could be attacked.
There were also cases of candidates being attacked. Some female politicians were attacked and assaulted; unfortunately not much was done to protect them or follow up on their cases. William Ruto, announced as the winner of the election, was also attacked in Kisumu. His vehicles were destroyed but fortunately he was not hurt.
There was also a situation in Kakamega county between the two main coalitions, Kenya Kwanza and Azimio la Umoja: they were fighting over access to a stadium and a number of people got hurt in the process.
However, I do not believe violence was serious or widespread to the point that we could say it was what marked the electoral process.
Why was there such low voter turnout?
There are a number of factors that could have possibly contributed to it, but I think it is first and foremost about people being demotivated from voting because they do not see any change happening as a result of elections. Government corruption is pervasive no matter who is in the government, and economic performance is consistently poor. Public services are of very low quality: there are not enough healthcare facilities, doctors are often going on strike, markets are dirty. Youth unemployment continues to be very high, and most people don’t think this will change, so many do not see any reason for voting.
We also need to look at how candidates are nominated. Presidential candidate Raila Odinga’s party, Azimio la Umoja, did not conduct democratic internal processes in most of its strongholds and often nominated people who had long been in power and had performed dismally. People are discouraged from voting when they think their voices do not matter.
I would also say it is also ignorance that drives young people away from the polls. They should understand that regardless of whether they get out to vote, a government will get elected and will rule over them. The fact that they did not vote takes away their moral authority to question those in power. Of course they still have a constitutional right to do so, but their questioning will lack substance and they will not have any alternative to offer.
Through our engagement with young people, we have noticed they lack confidence in the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IBEC), the institution that manages elections, which many consider unable to deliver free and fair elections. They view it as pointless to go out and vote if the IBEC can’t ensure their votes will count.
This is probably a mistake, because there have been improvements in the electoral process, including by making it clear that the results received from voting stations are final. However, the IBEC still has a lot of work to do make people trust the electoral process.
Finally, I think the government played a huge role by not providing any civic education. It only started doing the basics when it was already too late, as most people who didn’t vote had already made up their minds not to. And when the government did, the content was not of the right kind, in the sense that would make people understand why voting is important and how to play their role as citizens.
Has civil society been able to play its role in the electoral process?
Civil society’s role has been somewhat restricted. Many CSOs would need more support and resources to play their full range of roles during elections. During this election we saw many CSOs unable to provide civic education programmes because of lack of funding and government support.
Our job as civil society is to advocate on people’s behalf, inform them about the process and raise awareness of their rights. But most of us were denied the right to do our work due to lack of resources. My organisation, Siasa Place, played a key role in the previous election because it received the required resources in time. But this year the support we needed came about two months before the elections, which is rather late for us to start doing our work at the community level. This affected our role, but we hope things will improve in the coming years. We need government and civil society to work together to inform people around elections so they know what they are doing.
There were also cases of CSOs being instrumentalised by political parties to influence voters. That defeats the whole purpose of having an active civil society. We urge the concerned CSOs to remember their original goals and mission and refocus on them. We should be the voice of marginalised people and communities, not of political parties. It is our duty to hold political parties accountable, not root for them at elections.
Given the very close result, do you think there could be a recount or even an election re-run?
If the defeated candidate can convince the court that there have been irregularities so gross that they have affected the outcome, then the court could nullify the results. But if votes are recounted and the result comes out the same, there won’t be a need for a rerun.
KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.
With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?
Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.
In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.
For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.
By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.
The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.
In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.
There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.
What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?
The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.
But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.
And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.
But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.
What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?
The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.
But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.
Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve.
As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.
The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.
What is the potential for electoral violence?
Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.
Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.
KENYA: ‘The government has put all the burden of addressing homophobia on civil society’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation ofLGBTQI+rights in Kenya and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Stephen Okwany, programme director of Talanta Africa.
Talanta Africa is a civil society organisation (CSO) that uses art to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people and advocates for an inclusive society in which LGBTQI+ and young people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Kenya?
The Kenyan LGBTQI+ community continues to celebrate amazing gains brought by progressive organising and its focus on opening conversations around queer lived realities, discussing bodily autonomy and deconstructing cis hate.
This has been met with mixed reactions from different quarters. Our gains have elicited organised opposition from anti-gender and anti-rights movements highly resourced by illiberal populists and very active in the religious, cultural and legal arenas. These movements perpetrate organised rights violations against LGBTQI+ people, including by promoting conversion therapy practices, profiling LGBTQI+ people and queer activists, deliberately denying access to basic human rights such as healthcare and education, perpetrating online attacks and outing queer people, and even through the murder of queer people, the most recent case being that of Sheila Lumumba, a 25-year-old non-binary lesbian who was attacked, sexually assaulted and killed in her home on 17 April.
How does legislation discriminate against Kenyan LGBTQI+ people?
The Kenyan government recognises the existence of queer people in the country. However, there are still regressive laws in place that threaten the existence of the queer movement, such as Sections 162-165 of the Penal Code, which discriminate against consensual same-sex relationships and criminalise those who live on the proceeds of sex work, limiting the independence of LGBTQI+ sex workers in Kenya.
Additionally, queer people and collectives face restrictions on their freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, as the government shies away from registering queer collectives and the police typically use excessive force to disrupt queer parades.
The government has not put in place mechanisms to address homophobia. The burden to do so has been left to civil society. Queer survivors of deliberate homophobic attacks have been denied justice by a judicial system built upon cis hate and in violation of the provisions to integrate LGBTQI+ community members as equal participants in the Kenyan development process. No progress can be achieved if a section of the population continues to be excluded on the basis of prejudiced perceptions.
How does your organisation work to counter those perceptions?
Talanta Africa is an artivist collective of queer human rights defenders. We put the power of strategic communications tools such as arts, culture, media and tech at the service of queer storytelling to promote a change in narratives and improve the civic space of LGBTQI+ people.
Our organisation is largely a strategic communications platform that convenes queer people who believe that silence is too high a price to pay in the face of injustice and inequality. We believe that conscious art and culture play a key role in shaping narratives and telling stories while also countering regressive narratives that advance cis hate.
Not surprisingly, our work has been met with extreme opposition and has been branded as a queer ‘recruitment’ process. This has resulted in attacks on our offices, the intimidation of our artivists, the profiling of our work and intentional exclusion from activist spaces and platforms.
How can Kenya and other Commonwealth countries work together to advance LGBTQI+ rights?
Commonwealth countries should establish multilateral instruments to affirm and advance the bodily autonomy of LGBTQI+ people. These could provide a platform for auditing legal instruments at a country level and assessing the development and implementation of new legal frameworks to replace regressive legal provisions.
International organisations have a mandate to raise human rights awareness, including of the human rights of LGBTQI+ people, and denounce human rights violations, including those faced by LGBTQI+ community. To do so, they must promote progressive queer narratives. They must be deliberate in resourcing queer-affirming spaces through the equal rights and equal opportunities framework.
KENYA: ‘We have concerns about state functions being used to dictate and define morality’
CIVICUS speaks about LGBTQI+ rights in Kenya and the criminalisation of activism with Ivy Werimba, Communications and Advocacy Officer at galck+.
galck+ is a national coalition of Kenyan LGBTQI+ organisations advocating for issues related to sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression and representing LGBTQI+ voices across the country.
How significant is the recent Supreme Court ruling in favour of allowing the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) to register? Has it brought any anti-rights backlash?
The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the lower court rulings was highly significant. This decision sets an important precedent for future cases involving discrimination against marginalised communities and underscores the importance of the judiciary in upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights. It was the first of its kind by the Supreme Court of Kenya. We applaud their decision to uphold the Constitution.
There has been a lot of backlash from various societal leaders and there is now a Family Protection Bill that’s been created and awaiting being gazetted. This bill, which closely resembles the anti-homosexuality bills of Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, has given fodder to the opposition, which is rallying support for it online and continuing to spread misinformation and disinformation by tying it to other issues that political leaders refuse to address, such as the poor economy, the rise in teenage pregnancies and alcohol abuse, election violence and election violations, widespread corruption and unrest in secondary schools.
The NGLHRC fought for 10 years to register because its name contained the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’. Has galck+ faced similar challenges?
No, our struggle has been different. As a coalition made up of 18 member organisations catering to people of diverse sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics, we changed our name in 2022. We are now galck+ and our name is no longer an abbreviation. galck+ reflects the growth and intersectionality we have witnessed in the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement, with inclusion and diversity at the heart of what we do. Our updated resolve is to create a space that doesn’t feel segmented since our fight for freedom and love is the same regardless of what makes us different from each other.
How do you manage to work in a context where being LGBTQI+ is illegal?
Our work in Kenya is not hindered by the illegality of being openly LGBTQI+. Although Kenya is a patriarchal, conservative and sexist state, the perception of a person’s gender or sexuality is what gets people in trouble. Through its existence and work, the LGBTQI+ community in Kenya continues to challenge conformity to societal norms that expect men to be courageous and women to be homemakers.
There have been significant milestones in establishing laws and policies that support gender equality and social inclusion. However, several factors – including limited resources, weak links among ministries and between the national and county levels, negative pervasive norms and attitudes about inclusion – hinder the effective implementation of laws and policies.
Despite all these tribulations, we use our work and our spaces to push back on these norms and celebrate the limited but important progress made on the rights of LGBTQI+ people in Kenya over the last 10 years. This has largely been obtained through victories in court, where Kenyan activists have challenged criminalising provisions and the treatment of LGBTQI+ people and organisations. This includes a case that established that the use of forced anal exams is illegal, a case that upheld the right of LGBTQI+ people to form and register organisations and a case that upheld the right to change gender on legal documents. The Family Protection Bill threatens to destroy all this progress and so our work continues to be a reminder that the freedoms we fight for are for all Kenyans, and not only for the LGBTQI+ community.
Do prohibitions of ‘same-sex behaviour’ apply in practice?
Violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people in Kenya are a harsh reality. Despite claims that sexual orientation and gender identity are non-issues, LGBTQI+ people in Kenya experience stigma, discrimination, physical and verbal abuse, assault, harassment, eviction from their homes, loss of their jobs, suspension or expulsion from school and many other rights violations that significantly affect their wellbeing and quality of life.
The Penal Code’s sections 162(a), 162(c) and 165 criminalise sexual activities that are perceived to be against the ‘order of nature’. While these sections apply to all Kenyans, they are selectively used to criminalise same-sex relationships. The ambiguous language used in these sections also makes it difficult to define ‘gross indecency’ since it criminalises even innocent actions like hugging or holding hands between people of the same sex. These laws also affect the transgender and intersex communities. The misguided narrative that limits people’s understanding of the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity leads many Kenyans to assume that transgender and intersex people are homosexual or bisexual.
Although few people have been charged under these laws, they are often used to justify violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, creating a perception that they are criminals. This is a perception that subsets of the state and religious institutions advance to further perpetuate human rights violations and acts of violence.
In other words, there is a connection between legal prohibitions and violence against LGBTQI+ people, even if the laws are not consistently applied. This hostility is underpinned by discriminatory laws, including the law that criminalises same-sex activities and other laws used by the state to target LGBTQI+ people.
These laws also create a culture of fear and secrecy among LGBTQI+ people, making them vulnerable to harassment, assault and other forms of violence. In addition, the inconsistent application of these laws can lead to arbitrary arrests and prosecution, including under laws criminalising ‘loitering’, ‘solicitation’ and ‘impersonation’, to extort money or sex from LGBTQI+ people, or to deny services to LGBTQI+ survivors of violence.
How are LGBTQI+ organisations in Kenya working to change this?
LGBTQ+ organisations in Kenya are working to change discriminatory laws and social norms by engaging in various advocacy and awareness-raising campaigns, providing legal aid, sharing security directives with our constituents and offering healthcare services to the LGBTQI+ community. These organisations are also working to create safe spaces for LGBTQI+ people to express themselves, network and access information.
Some of the main issues on the LGBTQI+ agenda in Kenya include the repeal of discriminatory laws such as Penal Code sections 162(a), 162(c) and 165 and the promotion of laws and policies that are intersectional for LGBTQI+ people and organisations, including the Employment Act (2007), which recognises the rights of employees to basic conditions of employment, the Sexual Offences Act (2006), which outlaws all forms of sexual violence, and the National Gender and Equality Commission Act (2011), which spells out the National Gender Equality Commission’s function, which is to promote, monitor and facilitate gender equality and freedom from discrimination in the country’s laws at the national and county levels.
Other issues include ending violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, addressing the challenges faced by transgender people, and promoting education and awareness on issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community.
Do you see your struggle as part of a bigger regional or global struggle?
Yes, the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement is part of the regional and global struggle to achieve various goals ratified in regional and international agreements such as Resolution 275 of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights – on protecting people against violence and other human rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity – and reducing inequalities, as laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals.
The Kenyan government has adopted legal and policy frameworks aimed at promoting gender equality and reducing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Such initiatives include the Kenya Vision 2030, which highlights the government’s commitment to reducing income inequality through economic growth, job creation and social safety nets. In addition, Kenya has adopted several legal and policy frameworks aimed at promoting gender equality and reducing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
However, significant inequalities still exist, particularly in the wake of the pro-religious government that has been openly homophobic, inciting violence that threatens the lives of queer people. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the new government’s impact on LGBTQI+ organising and funding, with concerns about the evangelisation of the state and state functions being used to dictate and define morality.
Despite these challenges, the Kenyan LGBTQI+ movement remains resilient. We are mobilising together and collaborating with LGBTQI+ organisations in other countries in the region, including Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda, on issues such as the anti-homosexuality bills of Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, that are now spreading to Kenya, Malawi, Zambia and many other African countries, and exchanging best practices.
To continue doing this, we need various forms of support, including in raising awareness around the issues brought about by state and non-state-sponsored homophobia and flexible funding to respond to rising insecurity and mental health issues. We need our allies working on other thematic areas to highlight intersectionalities, showing how these regressive laws will affect sexual health and reproductive rights, children’s rights, the economy and more.
Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Kenya: Civil Society Condemns Attempted Raid and Deregistration of Human Rights Organisations
NAIROBI – Leading global and regional civil society groups have strongly condemned the targeting of two Kenyan national human rights organisations by the authorities.
The National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya (NCHRD-K), DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project), global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and Civil Rights Defenders condemn the de-registration of the NGOs and an attempted raid on the offices of one of them.
On 16 August, in the wake of general elections, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA), accompanied by Kenyan police officers, attempted to gain entry to the offices of the African Centre for Global Governance (AfriCOG) without notice and with a defective search warrant. The attempted raid came two days after AfriCOG, together with the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), was served with a notice of deregistration by the NGO Coordination Board.
The Board has accused the organisations of operating “illegal bank accounts”, employing expatriates without the necessary permits and tax evasion, among other offences. KHRC denies the allegations.
The attempted raid was eventually prevented by instructions from Acting Interior Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi, who called for the formulation of an inclusive and representative committee to work with the NGO Coordination Board to ascertain the compliance of the two organisations with NGO regulations. Secretary Mitiangi’s instructions suspended any actions against AfriCOG and KHRC for a period of 90 days to enable the committee carry out its functions.
The accusations in question had already been adjudicated before the high Court of Kenya in 2015 (KHRC vs. NGO Coordination Board 495 of 2015) when the KHRC was first deregistered by the Board. On April 2016, Justice Louise Onguto entered that the adverse actions taken to deregister KHRC and freeze its bank accounts is unconstitutional, null, and void.
Said Kamau Ngugi, Executive Director of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya: “The persistent harassment of civil society organisations at the hands of Fazul Mahamed, the Executive Director of the NGO Coordination Board, is unacceptable. CSOs should be able to take part in public affairs and hold government to account without fear of reprisal.”
Further, in a letter dated 15 August 2017, the NGO Coordination Board wrote to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations to order it to close down the operations of AfriCOG and arrest its members and directors for contravening section 22 (1) of the NGO Coordination Act, which requires any person operating an NGO to be registered under the same Act. It further called on the Central Bank to freeze the accounts of the organisation.
Civil society is free to select under which regime to register an association and AfriCOG is registered under the Companies Act as a company limited by guarantee. Therefore, the NGO Coordination Board has no mandate over the operations of the institution. Furthermore, such direction is in contravention of Article 47 of the Constitution of Kenya that provides for fair administrative action and contravenes the fundamental right to freedom of association protected by Article 36 of the Constitution of Kenya as well as under international treaties to which Kenya is a State Party.
The move against the two organisations comes a week after the 8 August national elections, which were contested by the opposition. Throughout the electoral process, KHRC and AfriCOG have been vocal in their demand for transparency and have acted as monitors of the elections. KHRC Executive Director George Kegoro told Capital FM news in an interview that moves to deregister his organisation aimed to prevent it from issuing a legal petition challenging the recent election results in the Supreme Court.
The undersigned organisations hereby call on the NGO Coordination Board to:
- Desist from harassing civil society organisations and immediately lift any restrictions on the activities of KHRC and AfriCOG until they are given the right to due process;
- Respect Article 47 of the Constitution of Kenya, which provides for the right to “administrative action that is expeditious, efficient, lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair.”
- Publicly acknowledge the important role played by civil society in promoting rule of law and accountability; and ensure an enabling environment in which human rights defenders and civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Civil Rights Defenders
DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya
For more information contact:
Executive Director, National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya
Telephone: +254 712 632 390
KOSOVO: ‘Civil society plays a crucial role in maintaining communication in difficult times’
CIVICUS speaks with Milica Andric Rakic, project manager at New Social Initiative (NSI), about intensifying inter-ethnic violence and deteriorating civic space in Kosovo.
NSI is a civil society organisation (CSO) that seeks to empower non-majority communities to participate in Kosovo’s social and institutional life and increase trust among communities by helping people to deal with past events and promoting the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia.
What’s the current human rights and security situation in Kosovo?
The situation in Kosovo is highly volatile. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but to this day Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state and continues to claim it as an autonomous province of Serbia. The longstanding impasse in negotiations is straining inter-ethnic relations within Kosovo, between Kosovar Serbian and Albanian communities. Unlike past tensions that eventually subsided, the security situation has steadily worsened over the past two years.
Human rights are generally upheld in Kosovo, although rather selectively. For example, successive governments have refused to implement constitutional court decisions regarding the ownership of an Orthodox monastery’s extensive land and the establishment of an association of Serbian-majority municipalities, two longstanding demands of the Kosovo Serb community. There have been break-ins at Orthodox churches and police arrests of Kosovar Serbs without a prosecutor’s order. While the overall human rights situation isn’t bad, there are specific areas where the government fails to respect the law and court orders.
What was the significance ofviolence in Banjska on 24 September?
The attack occurred in the context of increased tensions in north Kosovo, which included the resignations of thousands of Kosovar Serbs working in the public sector, including the mayors of four municipalities. On 24 September 2023, Serb militants carried out an attack against the Kosovo police in the village of Banjska, in north Kosovo.
North Kosovo’s population is 90 per cent Serbian but its police force is mainly Albanian, which leads to a level of mistrust and tensions that pose a threat of violence. Those involved in the attack had a secessionist political agenda. While secession isn’t an imminent threat, it’s definitely a motivating factor, and many on-the-ground processes have had a disintegrative effect.
What role is civil society playing in normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo?
It seems that civil society has been the only healthy player in Serbian-Albanian relations. It has played a crucial role in maintaining communication in difficult times. We’ve acted as mediators between the international community and Kosovar and Serbian governments, trying to understand the perspectives of all sides.
From 2011 to 2017, effective dialogue and integrative processes were underway, albeit with slow implementation and numerous challenges. The European Union (EU) played a special facilitating role in the negotiations, motivating both sides through the promise of potential EU membership.
But now the only trend we are witnessing is towards disintegration. The lack of proper dialogue over the past two years indicates a need for a political change on at least one side to move the process forward.
How is NSI working towards peacebuilding in Kosovo?
As an umbrella organisation, we engage Kosovars in inter-community dialogue through various projects. One initiative promotes reconciliation by creating connections and fostering cooperation among young Kosovar Serbs and Albanians. As there are limited organic opportunities for them to meet, the responsibility for creating personal inter-ethnic ties lies largely on the shoulders of local CSOs. If a Kosovar Serbian and an Albanian know each other, there’s an 80 per cent probability that they’ve met at a civil society activity.
Another programme focuses on multiculturalism and bilingualism. Albanian and Serbian are both official languages in Kosovo, and our goal is to increase social acceptance and promote the learning of both. For almost 40 years we haven’t been taught each other’s language in school, which has led to a significant linguistic gap. It should be noted that Albanian and Serbian are very different languages and can both be challenging to learn.
We have a transitional justice programme, where we collaborate with associations that represent various categories of war victims, including families of missing people and internally displaced people. This regional project involves Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. We support these associations to expand their work from truth-seeking to regional reconciliation, simultaneously enhancing their financial sustainability by securing funding for new projects. We have also participated and proposed policies in the Ministry of Justice’s working group to draft a national strategy for transitional justice.
Moreover, we’ve organised diverse artistic activities, including a joint photo exhibition, ‘All Our Tears’, in which photographers captured images of war victims in Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia. The exhibition was showcased in cities including Kosovo’s capital Prishtina, Serbia’s capital Belgrade and at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Additionally, we have supported regional theatre projects that raise transitional justice issues through performance.
What challenges do you face in doing your work, and what further support do you need?
There has been a significant narrowing of civic space in Kosovo, marked by delegitimising campaigns targeting CSOs, political opponents and critics of the government, mainly through online harassment. Our organisation, along with some staff, has faced such attacks.
Engaging with the government on policy matters has been challenging, as our recommendations regarding the Kosovar Serb community are often ignored or poorly implemented. It’s evident that the government’s outreach to the Kosovar Serb community is influenced more by international pressure than a genuine willingness to engage. The contacts we maintain with government representatives are often facilitated by outside parties, either from embassies or European think tanks that hold roundtable discussions where we can directly discuss issues of the local Serb community with the government.
Kosovar civil society has sufficient funding opportunities. What we really need is support to maintain our relevance, especially when governments attempt to exclude CSOs from political decision-making processes. Whenever there’s an attempt to narrow civic space, the international community should demonstrate that it’s willing to support local CSOs, signalling their importance and thereby putting pressure on the government to take them into consideration.
Civic space in Kosovo is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Kyrgyzstan: rights organisations raise alarm over rapid decline in civic freedoms to the UN Human Rights Committee
Oral statement by International Partnership for Human Rights, Legal Prosperity Foundation and CIVICUS
Delivered by Nicola Paccamiccio
Examination of Kyrgyzstan ICCPR Report under the Covenant
Dear Committee Members, colleagues, I’m speaking on behalf of CIVICUS, the Brussels-based International Partnership for Human Rights, and the Bishkek-based Legal Prosperity Foundation. I would like to draw your attention to a few key concerns documented in our joint written submission on Kyrgyzstan.
We are concerned that the Kyrgyzstani authorities have increasingly sought to suppress discussion on issues of public interest and stifle free speech, including by exploiting the fight against disinformation for this purpose.
A new law adopted last year grants the government discretionary powers to order the blocking of online resources found to have posted ‘’false’’ information, with some news sites already having been blocked. Law enforcement authorities have also summoned, warned and opened investigations against a growing number of social media users accused of posting ‘’false’’ information.
Moreover, we have witnessed increasing intimidation and harassment of journalists, bloggers, civil society activists and lawyers who have criticised the authorities and spoken out on corruption and other sensitive issues. They have, among others, been subjected to online trolling, surveillance, searches of their homes, detention, interrogation and criminal prosecution in apparent retaliation for exercising freedom of expression and other fundamental freedoms. In several cases, charges have been brought under broadly worded criminal code provisions which can be used to restrict legitimate expression, such as a provision that penalises ‘’incitement’’ to inter-ethnic and other discord without clearly defining this offense.
We are further concerned about the introduction of a new unjustified and discriminatory financial reporting scheme for NGOs, and the attempts of some decision-makers and their supports to reinitiate a repressive ‘’foreign agents’’ draft NGO law, which parliament previously rejected. Those advocating for tighter NGO control have used hostile language, for example accusing NGOs of threatening national security and so-called traditional values, thereby fuelling mistrust against them. There have also been several attacks on NGOs by unidentified perpetrators acting with impunity.
Finally, we are concerned about a series of court-sanctioned blanket bans on peaceful protests in the centre of the capital, Bishkek, which have been issued in violation of national and international standards. Most recently, assemblies have been banned outside the Russian embassy and in other central locations to prevent protests against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Police have also detained peaceful protesters based on these bans. You can find more information (including case examples) in our joint written submission.
Thank you for your attention.
Civic space in the Kyrgyzstan is rated as 'Repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor
Laos: After 10 years, civil society worldwide is still asking: “Where is Sombath?”
Ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned civil society organizations and individuals, renew calls on the Lao government to determine his fate and whereabouts and deliver justice, truth, and reparation to his family. We deplore the Lao authorities’ repeated failure to act on their human rights obligations to thoroughly investigate Sombath’s disappearance and provide adequate, effective, and prompt reparation for Sombath and his family over the past decade.
LEBANON: ‘Abuses against women are the direct product of the gender imbalances of a patriarchal society’
CIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Iraqi women and girls and civil society’s role in combatting gender inequalities in Lebanon with Ghida Anani, founder and director of ABAAD – Resource Centre for Gender Equality.
ABAAD is a women-led civil society organisation (CSO) that strives for gender equality as a key condition for sustainable social and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa. Its work is organised around three pillars: providing direct services, building capacity and developing resources, and advocating for policy reform.
How has COVID-19 impacted on women and girls in Lebanon?
Even before the pandemic, women and girls in Lebanon suffered from a vicious cycle of gender-based violence (GBV) and discrimination that deprived them of the opportunity to participate meaningfully in social, economic and political life.
Most of the abuses and discriminatory acts experienced by women and girls in Lebanon are the direct product of imbalances between women and men in the patriarchal Lebanese society, which are codified into law. Domestic violence is a longstanding problem due to deeply engrained gender social norms that permeate the entire societal system, policies and legislation. So far the government has failed to recognise and therefore address the problem and has not allocated dedicated resources to tackle GBV.
COVID-19 lockdowns and the ensuing economic downturn did nothing but exacerbate already existing GBV risks both at home and in public spaces. Self-isolation, misuse of power, heightened tensions, financial uncertainties and the disruption of life-saving services were key factors that worsened the situation.
During the pandemic, ABAAD noticed an increase in the severity of the violence women were subjected to at home. Some women reached out to tell us they were struggling with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. At least two women said they had received death threats from family members after showing flu-like symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection.
How has civil society in general, and ABAAD in particular, responded to this situation?
Since the initial stages of the outbreak, we put together a response to ensure the continuity of life-saving services. We prioritised the best interests of rights-holders by putting them at the centre of the response.
We had to suspend some in-person activities, such as outreach, community events and awareness and training sessions. But on the positive side, our focus on maintaining life-saving services helped us develop new internal case management guidelines for crisis counselling and emergency support services by phone, along with face-to-face services for high-risk cases.
We also provided community-based awareness sessions on COVID-19 and psychosocial support sessions via conference calls and WhatsApp groups. Our helpline continued to function 24/7, including for services provided by ABAAD’s Emergency Temporary Safe Shelters across the country and its Men Centre. Moreover, as the three safe shelters operated by ABAAD were at full capacity, we worked to create additional capacity by renting new spaces.
We led several campaigns, such as #LockdownNotLockup and #TheRealTest, to fight the stigma surrounding COVID-19, show solidarity with women and let them know that they were not alone. We also worked closely with relevant ministries, United Nations (UN) agencies and CSOs to advocate for enhanced-quality coordinated response at a national level. In partnership with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs, we recently launched a series of workshops about national mechanisms to report GBV and special units dedicated to supporting survivors.
On International Women’s Day, we held digital activism activities and sessions for women and girls through ABAAD’s Women and Girls Safe Spaces. There are 23 such centres across Lebanon, providing a safe, non-stigmatising environment for women and girl survivors of GBV and their children to receive comprehensive and holistic care services.
How is civil society working to bring women’s rights concerns into the policy agenda?
Civil society is working hard to bring gender equality to the top of the policy agenda. As Lebanon approaches its first parliamentary election following the popular uprising of late 2019, Lebanon’s Feminist Civil Society Platform, a group of 52 feminist CSOs and activists first convened by UN Women in the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, has launched a series of demands for candidates running for parliament to commit to achieving gender equality goals.
Our statement to future members of parliament details the laws that need to be reconsidered from a gendered perspective, including various laws to criminalise sexual violence in the Lebanese Penal Code. This is a demand that CSOs have long advocated for.
LEBANON: ‘Increased popular awareness is irreversible, it will remain despite any setbacks’
CIVICUS speaks with Ziad Abdel Samad, Executive Director of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND), and Zahra Bazzi, ANND ProgrammesManager, about the protests that began in Lebanon in October 2019, the changes achieved and the challenges encountered.ANND is a regional network that brings together nine national networks (encompassing 250 organisations) and 23 civil society organisations (CSOs) in 12 countries. It was established in 1997 and since 2000 has had its headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon. It promotes the role of civil society and the values of democracy, human rights and sustainable development in the region, and advocates for socio-economic reforms aimed at sustainable development and gender justice, with a rights-based approach.
What triggered the protests that began in October 2019?
The protests were motivated by the direct repercussions of the economic and monetary crisis on the Lebanese population, but had deep roots in a structurally flawed economic system and wicked political practices and corruption embraced by successive governments for decades. The few months before the eruption of the revolution saw a looming economic crisis with an increase in government debt and questionable monetary and financial engineering coupled with a decrease in GDP growth, as well as a rise in unemployment, reaching approximately 16 per cent among the general population, and more than 45 per cent among young people, along with growing poverty and increases in the prices of essential commodities. One week before the protests, direct signs of a financial crisis had started to show, including strikes at petrol stations and the inability of the government to access new credit to import wheat and other basic goods, in addition to the eruption of roughly 100 nationwide wildfires and forest fires that destroyed massive green areas and some houses.
Following the late adoption of the 2019 budget in July, the negotiations over the 2020 budget were being finalised in October with a clear aim of increasing state revenue at any cost and reducing the enormous deficit of 11 per cent to escape the crisis. The cabinet meeting held on 17 October suggested a new set of austerity measures, including additional indirect taxation, without envisioning the anger of the Lebanese people and the massive protests that would spread through the country that same day.
Protesters have shared a clear vision with clear demands of the political and economic systems they want to achieve: the resignation of the government – which happened on 29 October 2019; the formation of a new government comprising people independent from the ruling parties – indeed a new government was formed on 22 January 2020, although it does it not conform to the key demands of the revolution; and the holding of democratic parliamentary elections based on a new democratic electoral law. In addition, there were demands to pass laws on the independence of the judiciary, take action to recover assets and other socio-economic demands.
How did the government react to the protests?
Since the first days of the uprisings, political parties and various elements of the regime felt threatened by the imminent change protesters were calling for, which would jeopardise the power they have held for decades. They reacted to this by using excessive force, teargas, rubber bullets, arbitrary detention and arrests, especially after December 2019.
Since the beginning of the protests, several human rights violations were committed against protesters. On 23 November, five young people – including two minors – were arrested and detained by the security forces for taking down a banner belonging to a political party. On the same day, supporters of the Amal and Hezbollah movements violently clashed with peaceful protesters in Beirut and other regions to denounce the closure of roads. Violence increased, a fact that was firmly condemned by United Nations’ experts and special rapporteurs, who called on the Lebanese government to respect the right to the freedom of expression and protect protesters.
The postponement of parliamentary consultations from 9 to 16 December, and then again to 19 December, was accompanied by increasing violence and clashes among protesters, supporters of political leaders and the security forces and army. The most violent clashes were recorded between 10 and 16 December: on 10 December, protesters toured in their cars outside the houses of the previous ministers of public works and transportation, denouncing the poor infrastructure that had caused enormous floods on main roads and highways, locking citizens for hours in their cars. Protesters were attacked ferociously by men in uniforms of the Internal Security Forces, but who were affiliated with some political parties. Cars were vandalised, and protesters and journalists were dragged out and beaten indiscriminately.
On the nights of 14 and 15 December, security forces clashed with supporters of political parties who provoked and attacked them in different ways. Security forces also arbitrarily attacked protesters gathered in Beirut, and fired teargas and rubber bullets at them, in retaliation against the acts of some. These two days of violence ended with the arrest of 23 people, some of whom showed signs of torture after their release. More than 76 protesters reported experiencing some form of attack, either by security officials or as a result of the rubber bullets fired against them. More severely, a few reported being dragged inside the parliament building and beaten by the security forces inside. A few reported the theft of money, legal documentation, or phones.
Violence continued until the night of 16 December, with supporters of political parties attacking the people gathered in squares in Beirut and in the south, and burning down tents and cars. This came in response to a video, probably intentionally spread on social media, of a young man from Tripoli cursing the Shia faith.
Clashes between protesters and security forces and riot police were especially intense during the attacks protesters made against banks, and during protests and attempts to remove the massive walls and blocks unlawfully put in front of parliament, and more recently in front of the Government Palace.
Following the arbitrary arrest of protesters, on 15 January 2020 hundreds gathered outside the detention facility to call for their release, and were subjected to excessive force by the riot police, including the indiscriminate firing of teargas. Journalists and TV reporters were directly attacked by riot police. Footage was leaked showing the security forces beating detainees while transporting them to a detention facility. Some released detainees shared stories of torture and abuse inside detention facilities.
Recent statistics released by the Lawyers’ Committee to Defend Protesters in Lebanon show that between 17 October 2019 and 31 January 2020, around 906 protesters were arrested and detained, including 49 minors and 17 women. Roughly 546 protesters were subjected to violence at the protests or in detention facilities.
When and how did the protests become a ‘revolution’?
The protests are widespread across the country. They are decentralised and remain non-sectarian. As Lebanese people overcame their religious and political divergences and joined forces in an attempt to achieve real change, they made the biggest post-war civil movement in Lebanon. This change had been long-awaited, particularly by civil society, which has tried to promote partnerships and engage in policy-making at various levels for years, despite the lack of serious and effective channels for doing so. Although the term ‘revolution’ has been contested by many, protesters and activists, among others, have insisted on calling the process a revolution, particularly after the increased violence and the death of two martyrs, Hussein Al-Attar and Alaa Abou Fakher.
Although key demands have not changed since the beginning of the protests, more demands were added as the process evolved, especially relating to the socio-economic and financial situation. More importantly, demands started off and remained socio-economic, but were always directly linked to political change.
What role have CSOs played during the process?
CSOs have played an important role in the revolution, which has benefited from their accumulated knowledge, communication skills and organisational capacities. Most of those organisations participated in the protests since day one, but their role went beyond protesting. CSOs are leading in coordinating the protests and organising daily discussions at various squares in Beirut and other regions. These meetings address politics, law, socio-economic policies and human rights. They address people’s concerns and ensure the availability of solutions and alternatives. Participation in discussions has steadily increased and has involved a variety of sectors of society, including young people, women, the private sector, academics, and students. However, protest camps have faced challenges following the destruction and burning of their tents in Beirut and across other areas.
It seems that women and young people are playing increasingly prominent roles in protest movements worldwide. Has this been the case in Lebanon?
While women in Lebanon have been at the forefront of every important political moment in our country, they have been particularly active during the revolution. Slogans and demands related to women’s rights have been very clear and evident, including the right to pass their citizenship to their families, a civil personal status law and protection from violence, Women have organised in groups, or participated individually, to form human shields at the forefront of protests to prevent violence, lead the marches and host discussions on women’s issues.
Feminist and women’s marches were held outside Beirut, in north and south Lebanon particularly. These were bold actions that were not very common prior to the revolution. Feminists were also able to engage critically with the slogans of the revolution and to place their discourse on the table. They were able to draw attention to many patriarchal connotations in slogans, even in the national anthem. In addition to being active alongside men, and sometimes alone, closing roads and occupying squares and public facilities, women cooked meals and offered them to protesters and sitters to support them, and initiated cleaning and recycling campaigns on a regular basis. More importantly, on many occasions, they formed a shield on the front rows between protesters and security forces to minimise the clashes.
The revolution also witnessed very active participation by young people and youth groups. These formed the backbone of the protests, as for years young people have been eager to take part in decision-making and political life. In Lebanon, people below the age of 21 are not eligible to vote in parliamentary and municipal elections, and yet they found a space in this revolution to participate and make their voices heard. As such, young voices and concerns were loud during the protests. Young people were particularly concerned with unemployment, immigration, and the brain drain and suggested bold demands, including calling for the downfall of the regime and all its political leaders without exception and the establishment of a secular system promoting social justice and gender equality.
The revolution has been an opportunity to revive the student movement in Lebanon. Despite all the efforts made prior to the revolution to form a nationwide student movement, in the absence of a national student union the student movement was fragmented and weak. However, after 17 October, student clubs in private universities such as the American University of Beirut, Notre-Dame University and Université Saint-Joseph participated heavily in the protests in and off-campus, forming marches from universities to the main protest squares, and even setting up their own tents in downtown Beirut. Other private universities such as the Lebanese American University and the Lebanese International University held protests on and around campus. The Lebanese University (LU), Lebanon’s national university, saw the biggest student protests. The LU Student Coalition was particularly active in the revolution, from setting up a tent for protesters in Riad Al-Solh square, in downtown Beirut, to hosting various discussions, joining efforts with other student clubs and leftist groups.
Younger school students also had a role in the revolution. Along with university student groups, they took a big part in civil disobedience actions and general strikes. Students closed their schools and universities and protested in front of the Ministry of Education and other public administration offices for many days. As 6 November marked Students’ Day, students all across Lebanon were revolting for a better future. A banner raised by one of the students says it all: “On this day I won’t be learning history, I will be writing it.”
What have protests achieved so far, and what remains to be done?
Within 100 days, the revolution has had an impact on the authorities and also at a popular level.
First, it overthrew the so-called presidential settlement – an agreement among regional and internal forces and other actors – that led Michel Aoun to become president and produced a parliament based on an unconstitutional electoral law. This led to the rise of a new political majority and the formation of a coalition government including seven major political parties. This came at a high price, including the conciliation of regional and local powers, frequent disruption of the work of parliament and government, and very intense pressures especially on the political and security levels.
Second, it overthrew the government, that is, the executive power. This was the settlement’s weakest component, as the prime minister was the weakest among power holders such as Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, and the Free Patriotic Movement.
Third, the revolution interrupted two parliamentary sessions and blocked the adoption of equivocal draft laws listed on the agenda. Mobilised citizens had never been able to cancel a parliamentary session before.
Fourth, it caused disruption within the ruling coalition and among the authorities, as seen in the resignation of the government and the confusion that prevailed in the process of forming a new government, especially when two candidates for the role of prime minister had to be let go for failing to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the revolution, along with other reasons. During this lengthy process, acute differences and contradictions were revealed between allied parties, despite the fact that they belonged to the same block.
Above all, the revolution has increased popular awareness, which has been reflected in thousands of initiatives and discussions. Decentralised protests have taken place across all cities and villages from the far south to the far north and east, and have included all social and age groups. This diverse and inclusive revolution has contributed to breaking the rigid sectarian and regional political discourse, disrupting traditional loyalties and breaking down barriers between social groups and regions. Some people think that this positive shift cannot be considered complete, but there is indeed a consensus that it is a very important and irreversible change, which will remain despite any setbacks. We must be confident that significant progress has been made regarding popular awareness and the ability of social movements to carry out direct political action in the streets.
The revolution has achieved certain gains during the first round and is preparing for the next round, in which new laws and policies need to be adopted as soon as possible to overcome the ongoing financial and economic crises and set a base for a new and fairer economic paradigm.
How connected is Lebanese civil society with its counterparts around the world, and what support does it need from international civil society in order to continue its struggle?
Lebanese civil society is very rich and diverse, and it is connected to its counterparts around the world through different channels. It is indeed very active on the advocacy front and takes part in numerous international advocacy platforms.
In these critical times, the country is going through, civil society is avoiding seeking any support from foreign counterparts, in order to refute all conspiracy theories and accusations that politicians and their affiliates have made against protesters and the revolution. In order to lessen all the claims fabricated against our genuine and national revolution, Lebanese civil society is very reluctant to receive any support that could amount to or be interpreted as intervention by any foreign actor. However, it would welcome solidarity actions and statements, especially those that denounce human rights violations committed against protesters.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
LEBANON: ‘The main culprits of the current crisis are bank owners and their greed for profit’
CIVICUS speaks about Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis and the situation of depositors who are unable to access their savings with Alaa Khorchid, head of Depositors’ Outcry Association.
Depositors’ Outcry Association is a citizens’ group that formed in 2019 to support depositors’ attempts to withdraw their savings from Lebanese banks after their accounts were frozen in response to the financial crisis.
Who is to blame for the situation Lebanese depositors are currently in?
Lebanese depositors are desperate because their savings have been frozen, so they cannot withdraw them from banks. The way they are being mistreated is outrageous. If a depositor simply complains loudly, bank staff call the police on them. Even if they have a million dollars in the bank, depositors are unable to get medical treatment or pay for their kids’ university fees. Banks are only allowing them to withdraw US$140 a month, and are told if they have an issue with that limit, they can go ahead and file a lawsuit.
The main culprits of the current crisis are bank owners, whose greed for profit got us to this point. What they did was a scam. They sent representatives abroad to convince Lebanese expatriates and foreigners to invest their money in Lebanese banks even though they knew we were heading into a crisis, while they smuggled their own money to France, the USA or the Gulf countries, where their investments amount to billions.
Also responsible are state authorities, starting with Riad Salameh, governor of the Banque du Liban (BdL), Lebanon’s central bank. He should have regulated banks and held them accountable three years ago, but he didn’t.
The government is responsible for not applying the laws on banks owners. They should have forced them to return depositors’ money out of their own pockets, but instead allowed them to smuggle their money abroad.
The courts also have their share of responsibility, as they have thousands of cases pending, years after they’ve been filed. When cases filed by depositors in Lebanon reach a certain point they are shelved, while in France and the UK depositors managed to win their cases and get their money back.
How have people organised to get their money back?
People got together to fight collectively through organisations such asDepositors’ Outcry Association, which formed in 2019. Asan association, we have filed lawsuits against the BdL governor as well as the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) and one bank, the Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL), that smuggled US$1.2 billion out of the country. All these lawsuits have been pending for years because most of the judiciary has been bribed by the banks.
We also support depositors by mediating between them and the banks. For example, we have a list of cancer patients that we shared with the banks to try and convince them to release some of their funds to enable people to pay for treatment. Some banks, but not all, have responded positively.
Some depositors have gone the banks to get their money by whatever means. One of them was Sali Hafiz, whom we supported. Hafiz asked for our help; a lawyer and members of the association went inside the bank with her and over 100 members were outside the bank to cheer for her and ensure her safety. We also helped a retired serviceman in Chtoura retrieve some of his savings from the bank. The association’s lawyer follows up with depositors, and when a depositor enters a bank to try to get some of their money back, we spread the word among our supporters so people gather outside in support and make it harder for others to enter the bank or for security to kick them out.
It is worth noting that not all the organisations out there are supporting depositors. There are several organisations funded by ABL or SGBL, which obviously always side with the banks. The same applies to local media, which continues to accept money from the banks in the form of advertising. Depositors have had their accounts blocked for three years on the grounds that there is no money to give them back, but the banks still find money to pay for advertising.
What needs to change so the situation can be resolved?
We don’t have a functioning governance system. Banks have retained people’s savings for three years and the BdL has allowed this to continue, while the judiciary has protected the banks by withholding thousands of cases without reaching a conclusion. Many judges have a financial incentive to behave this way: they got bank loans worth millions of US dollars, which they are now repaying in Lebanese lira at a ridiculous exchange rate – they will end up paying 10 per cent of the original amount. This is a real scandal.
The first change needed is to replace the BdL governor. He is the one behind the financial policies issued in 2017 and 2018. He brought cash in from correspondent banks and loaned it to the state without any guarantees. He spent US$100 billion without ever being held accountable. He considers himself above the law: he faces multiple lawsuits but he simply refuses to show up in court.
What are the implications of the recently passed Banking Secrecy Law?
Parliament passed an amended Banking Secrecy Law that will lift secrecy on the bank accounts belonging to public officials and major bankers. We find the new law acceptable, although we hoped it would apply retroactively. As we told the head of the Parliament’s Finance and Budget Committee, we want to clarify what happened to the funds the political and financial elite transferred abroad after 17 October 2019, estimated at between US$13 and 15 billion. We want to understand who smuggled them and where to. But the new law won’t solve all the issues as there is no trust in the banking system.
Another bill, the Capital Control Law, is set to be discussed in parliament, but there is still no final draft to comment on. Unfortunately, it is a bit too late to discuss capital controls, once capital has been massively smuggled abroad. Capital controls should have come a week, even a month into the crisis, but not after three years. Banks have smuggled the funds of the elite abroad because there were no legal impediments. The latest update we heard regarding the capital control law is that there will be no separate capital control law and it will be part of a larger recovery roadmap consisting of many changes in addition to capital control. We consider the potential recovery roadmap as a death sentence to depositors.
What do you think about the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for approving a US$3 billion loan?
According to the government, one of the IMF’s main conditions is to write off US$70 billion of depositors’ funds. If that is what the IMF wants in exchange for giving the state a US$3 billion loan, then of course we are against it. The IMF can’t ask the state and BdL to write off as much funds to ensure they get repaid for their loan. Some members of parliament promised us they would refuse to pass any legislation to that effect.
But a reform requested by the IMF that is most important to us, and which ABL rejects, is the restructuring of banks. We hope that banks will be restructured and a timeline for repaying depositors will be released.
At the beginning of the crisis, BdL had US$34 billion. Today, it has US$8 billion. Those billions are gone due to governance failures. If the same policies remain in place, nothing will work, regardless of whether the IMF gives the state a loan of US$3 or 10 billion. The first step to get out of this crisis should be to guarantee deposits, because the crisis wasn’t the depositors’ fault.
In the past 15 years banks made over US$35 billion in profit, which was transferred abroad. We demand a forensic audit of each bank to find out which had profits, and how much. There are 40 banks in Lebanon. Why are they being treated as one? We should examine each separately.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Depositors’ Outcry Association through itsFacebook page.
LEBANON: ‘The political youth movement was a major pillar of the opposition to the ruling class’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent general election in Lebanon with Marwan Issa, research assistant with the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.
The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.
What was the political and economic context of Lebanon’s 15 May general election?
The election was held while Lebanon faced one of its worst economic crises in recent history. People were experiencing severe hardship due to lack of essential items, including medicines. On election day, the currency exchange rate skyrocketed, with the US dollar going from 1,515 to around 30,000 Lebanese pounds. Not surprisingly, the majority held deep-seated anger against traditional ruling parties. This led many voters, and especially those in the diaspora, to elect new independent opposition parties and candidates.
However, the intensity of the crisis also led many people to despair and crippled their desire or motivation for action. As a result, the revolutionary feelings stirred by the protests of 17 October 2019 largely died down, and many people felt their vote would not make any difference, which explains the low turnout.
But this did not mean that people were not searching for alternatives: in fact, a solution-focused, rational debate has also emerged that is clearly different from the tribal methods of traditional political parties, which instrumentalise sectarianism, clientelism and fearmongering. New opposition groups have developed that criticise the traditional division between those who blame all the country’s problems on the presence of Hezbollah as an armed militia, and those who believe the presence of resistance against a potential threat from Israel is necessary. Both are viewed as serving the interests of the current political elite.
In the face of this, the new opposition offers an alternative discourse focused on both sovereignty and economic justice. This debate about alternative economic and social solutions is very promising for the years ahead.
How did youth-led groups engage with the election process?
There are plenty of youth-led political groups in Lebanon, but the main one is Mada, the Network of Secular Clubs. The first secular clubs were formed in universities as an alternative to the domination of ruling class parties on campus and started to take part in university student council elections. Over the past few years, these secular clubs won more than two-thirds of the seats in student council elections, breaking the hegemony of traditional political parties. As a result, they have paved the way for a new type of discourse on and outside campuses. Now the Network has 21 clubs throughout the country – not just in universities but also in unions and regions – and continues to have a clear youth-led political discourse.
In preparation for the election, Mada engaged in negotiations with other groups to form coalitions. In Beirut, Mada members were active in the creation of Beirut Tuqawem (Beirut Resists), a grassroots participatory campaign that included individuals and groups from various progressive circles. Those volunteering in these campaigns were mostly university students working alongside other Mada members who were a bit older – but still young, around 25 on average.
Mada members were also active in launching campaigns in other parts of Lebanon, including al Janoub Youwajeh (The South Confronts), Jil al Teghyir (The Generation of Change), and the 17 October Coalition.
So-called apolitical young people – young people not active in any political group – also mostly leaned towards voting for new independent opposition groups. They also encouraged those around them to do the same, which boosted the opposition movement. Had the voting age been 18 instead of 21, we could confidently say that the elections would have brought many more new faces to parliament.
How free and fair was the election?
The electoral process was plagued with violations that made the competition unfair. For instance, although there are strict caps on campaign spending, ruling class candidates violated the law and poured millions of dollars into their campaigns. This huge financial advantage allowed them to reach vast audiences, while opposition campaigns had much more limited resources.
Bribery and clientelism were also rampant. In addition, smear campaigns and direct threats on opposition candidates were widely noticed. One of them, Ali Khalife, received direct threats following a smear campaign by pro-Hezbollah electronic armies. A few days before the election there were attacks by Tashnag party supporters on opposition groups in Metn and the beating of volunteers.
On election day many violations were recorded, but they were highly dependent on the context. In the southern region, for example, violations included brawls, fights, and politically affiliated electoral assistants going inside voting booths alongside voters. In areas controlled by armed or powerful parties, such as Hezbollah and the Amal movement in the south, many people did not dare turn up to vote.
How do you assess the election results?
All the above combined, plus the fact that the ruling class also very carefully crafted the electoral law to suit its sectarian and partisan quota system, made for a tilted playing field. Under the circumstances, the results were promising and can be built upon.
The election resulted in around 12 or 13 new opposition faces in parliament, plus a couple more who could be counted as part of the opposition but were in parliament already. The presence of 15 opposition, mostly new, legislators is great news. They have clear views regarding both the presence of an armed militia and the responsibility of banks and bank owners in the economic crisis. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Ibrahim Mneimneh, of Beirut Tuqawem, who got the most preferential votes among all new opposition candidates, has a progressive economic and social discourse and took a clear stand on issues related to security and arms.
In contrast, candidates traditionally linked with the Syrian regime lost their seats, including Assaad Herdan in the south, Weeam Wahhab and Talal Erslan in Mount Lebanon, and Elie Ferzli in Bekaa. This was a huge victory against people who were puppets in the hands of the Syrian regime during the period in which Syria maintained a military presence in Lebanon, between the 1990s and 2005.
Following the election, pro-change political forces must continue pushing for change in and outside parliament, supporting the newly elected members of parliament and holding them accountable for the implementation of their programme.
What kind of international support does Lebanese civil society need?
Youth-led groups have been at a significant financial disadvantage, and I believe they are the ones that need the most support. It only makes sense that the new generation be supported since waves of emigration keep rising as students and young people more generally lose hope in Lebanon. Financial support, however, should be conditional on the credibility of the opposition group receiving it; it must be directed towards groups with a proven commitment to democracy, social justice, and non-sectarian values.
International organisations, embassies, and other entities could also express their support by including the perspectives of opposition groups in designing policies and humanitarian aid mechanisms because Lebanon’s ruling class has proven highly skilled at transforming aid into clientelism and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty for political gain.
LEBANON: ‘The world seems to be starting to forget Syrian refugees’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon withSerene Dardari, Middle East Regional Communications Manager, and Mahmoud Abdullah, Lebanon Bekaa Area Manager of American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera).
Founded in 1968, Anera is a US-registered civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to helping refugees and others hurt by conflicts in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). Working with partners on the ground, it mobilises resources for immediate emergency relief and for sustainable, long-term health, education and economic development.
What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
The human rights situation of Syrian refugees is getting worse by the minute. Freedom to work is almost non-existent. Right from the start Syrians were officially not allowed to work in most sectors, so they typically rely on informal jobs in services, agriculture or construction, where they get no insurance or benefits and are exposed to all kinds of labour abuses.
While the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has always been difficult, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown hit them very hard economically. As well as affecting host communities, the pandemic impacted on Syrian refugees with extra severity. Because Lebanese labour laws relegate refugees to the informal economy, they are dependent on gig work and daily jobs, usually in the service sectors. So they were particularly affected by the shutdown of the entertainment and food industries.
Because of school closures due to COVID-19 as well as ongoing teachers’ strikes to demand unpaid salaries, Syrian refugees have no place to study. Their freedom of movement has also been affected: everywhere in Lebanon there are notices warning that Syrians are only allowed to move around at certain hours. It’s starting to feel like full-blown segregation.
It should be noted that Lebanon is already extremely segregated politically and religiously and has an extremely toxic and traumatic relationship with Syria. The presence of a large, mostly Sunni Muslim, Syrian community only adds to the political tension, to the point that violent clashes could erupt any time.
With Lebanon’s ongoingeconomic crisis, the situation is hard for everyone, both locals and refugees. But on top of struggling economically, refugees are also facing growing xenophobia. Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular. When the Lebanese currency and politics were more stable, someone on an average salary could feed a whole middle-class family, but now they can barely get some petrol for their car. The idea that Syrian refugees are taking everything from Lebanese people is widespread, and reactions are becoming increasingly hostile and violent. When people see international funding going towards Syrian refugees, they get enraged.
Many people think refugees are taking away potential aid that should go to Lebanese people. So on top of the livelihood challenges, refugees also face stigma, negativity and hostility, all of which affects their psyches. This isn’t happening just in Lebanon.Turkey is another example of this. The scenario is the same throughout the region: Syrian refugees are being blamed for everything.
International factors such as fluctuations of the US dollar, political turmoil everywhere and the war in Ukraine are also affecting funding for Syrian refugees. So when it is most needed, funding is going to decrease. We have recently received a message that part of the assistance for Syrian refugees will be cancelled.
Which are the most vulnerable groups of refugees, and why?
Syrian women are for sure the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees, for several reasons. Their access to sexual and reproductive health centres, and to education, is truly low. There’s a general lack of knowledge and awareness of these issues and early marriage is frequent. In refugee camps such as those in Bekaa, Syrian women and girls are often exposed to gender-based and sexual violence. Those living in tent settlements know their chances of reporting sexual harassment and being heard are very, very low. Being a Syrian female refugee in Lebanon means dealing with toxicity and violence at all levels.
Children and young people are next in terms of their vulnerability. We are talking about early marriage, child labour and no prospects of accessing education or future employment opportunities. They have no access to proper medical attention either. If they get into an accident, they will wait in line for hours to be seen by a doctor. The most dangerous thing, however, is their lack of prospects.
What is Lebanon’s status regarding international refugee law?
Lebanon hasn’t even signed the1951 Refugee Convention and is violating refugees’ rights by pushing them to ‘willingly’ go back to Syria. Lebanon should be bound by international law to protect these refugees, not to return them to unsafe territory.
Unlike Turkey, the tents and places where Syrian refugees mostly live in Lebanon are privately owned. These private owners are Lebanese people profiting from refugees, who they make pay rent. They must pay electricity to have one bulb they can switch on and off inside the tents. They must be the only refugees on the planet who have to pay rent for the space they occupy!
These rights violations are enabled by the fact that Lebanon has not signed the Refugee Convention. Syrian refugees are not officially considered refugees, which deprives them of their basic rights as refugees. This grey area is very dangerous.
Refugees themselves aren’t aware of the laws that could protect them. They come from a country where they were never encouraged to inform themselves about and claim their basic human rights – which was one of the reasons they left. Upon arrival in Lebanon, they aren’t informed about their basic rights, so they are mostly unaware of them. And even if they knew what their rights are under international law, they have no guarantee these rights are going to be protected in Lebanon because nothing binds the Lebanese state to that law.
How does Anera promote the human rights of refugees?
Anera is a humanitarian and development organisation. We are not a rights-based organisation, but we contribute to the protection of the basic human rights of refugees. Our role is to fill in the gaps left by the government to help refugees access education, work and healthcare, among other rights.
We work across several sectors, from livelihoods to food security. We try to create synergies between them to address several needs at once. We work with refugee families in both the north and south of Lebanon through agriculture support. We provide them with tools and technical education to grow and sell their produce. As for food security, we have programme in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Lebanon that provides hundreds of families with regular food parcels and cash assistance so they can purchase what they need.
One of our biggest programmes distributes free medicine. Each year we help mobilise medical supply shipments worth millions of dollars from international partners around the world and distribute them to refugee centres.
We work to prevent child marriage through a cash transfer programme, using cash assistance as an incentive for families to keep their girls in school. And throughout our operations, we make sure all our partners abide by all humanitarian guidelines and standards when it comes to child protection and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Towards that end, we offer training and constantly do monitoring work. While we don’t directly provide safe spaces for victims and survivors, we work closely with other CSOs and grassroots groups that do so.
It is worth mentioning that we always take the community aspect into consideration so as to balance things. For instance, our food programme also distributes food to the Lebanese population.
What challenges do you face?
Thepolitical situation in Lebanon is very challenging. The fact that the government often has a hostile attitude towards Syrian refugees and is trying to return them to unsafe territories is a big obstacle. Government corruption also has a negative impact on our work with refugee communities, as it affects us on an organisational and funding level.
We also face challenges coming from the refugee communities where we work. An example of conflict happened recently in the context of a project on child marriage that we implemented due to the increase in child marriages among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Because of the economic crisis, more families are encouraged to marry off their daughters at a younger age. Our project faced pushback by the refugees themselves. It seems that toxic coping mechanisms such as child marriage are easier for them in the short term.
What support do organisations working with Syrian refugees need from the international community?
Everyone in Lebanon is vulnerable right now: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people. The situation of Syrian refugees is stagnant right now, but everything else is worsening.
What’s needed is more advocacy and more funding for all communities to balance the help provided and avoid conflict. We need to calm things down and bring stability. We could also use some technical support at a government level when it comes to refugee management.
The narrative around Syrian refugees needs to change so they are not viewed as a burden but as human beings in need of help.
The question all Syrian refugees ask themselves is what’s next. If the situation in Syria doesn’t get better and Syrians are forced to leave Lebanon, they will try to get to Europe, or anywhere else offering some kind of opportunity. We need more global engagement to determine what will happen next. Collective work is vital.
The world seems to be starting to forget these refugees. The topic trended on social media for a while at the beginning but then attention was captured by floods in Nigeria, war in Ukraine andrepression in Iran. No one is talking about Syrian refugees anymore.
So much is going on in the planet. There are so many crises erupting all at once. But the fact that new crises are happening doesn’t mean the situation of Syrian refugees has improved and the issue disappeared.
The international community must remember Syrian refugees and the Syrian crisis. Human rights defenders must advocate for the rights of Syrian refugees – because if they don’t, who will?
Please help us change the narrative and remind people of Syrian refugees.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
LEBANON: ‘This election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent general elections in Lebanon with Lina Abou Habib, director of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut.
The Asfari Institute seeks to bridge academia and civil society activism. It does so through knowledge production, convenings and the creation of safe spaces for learning, dialogue and exchange. Located at the heart of the American University in Beirut, it functions as a regional hub for civil society working for diversity, inclusion, equality, accountability and sustainability.
What change resulted from the 15 May general election?
Despite taking place in an extremely complicated, uncertain and turbulent political and economic context, the process resulted in the election of many new independent candidates coming from civil society and calling for change. These new voices have political agendas that are very different from those of traditional ruling parties: they call for a new, more accountable governance system and for women’s rights, among other issues. These agendas include road maps for overcoming the ongoing deep economic crisis. And most importantly, they focus on how to stop the political race to the bottom that’s been happening in Lebanon.
Most of the independent candidates who were elected are linked to the 17 October protests, the uprisings that took place in 2019, when people clearly said that they had enough of the political elite that had become – and continues to be – outrageously corrupt. The 17 October Revolution was a unique moment because protesters had such diverse, inclusive and feminist voices – feminist demands became an integral part of the political demands of the revolution. For instance, sexual harassment became a political issue because the voices of the LGBTQI+ community and migrant women domestic workers were also represented. No demand was compromised or put aside.
By that time, it became clear to us what system of governance we aspired to. It must be based on equality, inclusion, diversity and respect for human rights. The revolution also gained momentum because the same thing was happening in Chile and other countries where people were rising up. Hence, I do not exaggerate when I say that the feminist voices of the 17 October Revolution inspired political participation in the 2022 election.
It is important to note, however, that some independent members of the new parliament do not share the agenda of the 17 October Revolution and have quite regressive rhetoric. For instance, newly elected member of parliament Cynthia Zarazir called for the death of Syrian refugees on social media. Having people like her in parliament represents a new challenge. Aside from that, I would say that this election has brought to the forefront new voices speaking about rights and pointing the way forward out of the current crisis.
How did the feminist movement work collectively in preparation for the election?
There was rallying behind feminist candidates such as Zoya Jureidini Rouhana, who pushes for an compulsory egalitarian family law, a top priority for Lebanon’s feminist movement. Rouhana is the founder of KAFA (‘enough’) Violence and Exploitation, a feminist civil society organisation that was behind several legal reforms in Lebanon. Moreover, it champions political discourse on gender-based violence. Her electoral campaign was in line with that. It is a rare moment when you have a feminist candidate running on a feminist agenda in a general election – and this was partly possible thanks to the voices that became heard in October 2019. The political movement took shape and gained more feminist voices during those uprisings.
Feminists mobilising around the elections forced candidates to state their position on gender equality, including the rights of the queer community. In return, independent candidates who sided with gender equality were attacked by the regime and conservative forces. One way for government officials and supporters to disparage and attack somebody is to say they are going to endanger the family. This is very unfortunate, but at the same time, it is fantastic that this important conversation is taking place in the public sphere and these issues are being discussed as part of the overall social and political dialogue.
In sum, the inclusive and intersectional feminist movement of Lebanon has succeeded in elevating feminist discourse to the public and political arena. But there is still a long way to go: the new parliament includes only two additional female members compared to the previous one, as only eight women were elected, out of 115 candidates nominated by traditional parties, opposition groups, and civil society. These results are still lacking in terms of reaching a critical mass to exercise feminist influence in parliament.
What’s next for the civil society movement following the election?
The real battle is just about to begin. The election showed that change is possible, but it is still not enough. The next step for us is to figure out how we will hold independent members of parliament accountable. They must be accountable because they won as a result of our collective movement.
We will still be facing a corrupt and oppressive regime and serious issues such as illegal arms and a heavily militarised society, economic downfall, destroyed livelihoods, broken public institutions and irresponsible and unaccountable policymaking. As such, civil society in its diversity, and especially the intersectional feminist movement, should remain vigilant.
The conversation we started must continue, and we need our international allies to help keep it going, and certainly not be complicit with the regime. We have a collective responsibility to monitor human rights violations, talk to feminist activists and help amplify the voices of Lebanon’s intersectional young feminists.
LESOTHO: ‘We must work hand in hand to promote democracy and hold our leaders accountable’
CIVICUS speaks about the 7 October election in Lesotho with Libakiso Matlho, executive director of Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust-Lesotho (WLSA).
WLSA is a civil society organisation (CSO) based in Southern Africa and working to promote women’s leadership and eradicate gender-based violence. It contributed to the recent election process by providing voter education.
How would you assess the recent election in Lesotho in terms of its transparency and fairness?
Looking at the overall proceedings I would say they were transparent and fair. The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) did a good job. All candidates were given a platform to share their manifestos as well as their campaigning approaches at different levels, including through the media and public gatherings. Independent candidates did not face any threats. Nobody experienced any restrictions in terms of the exercise of their right to reach out to members of the community and potential voters. Voters were free to attend candidates’ forums and political party rallies.
There were two major challenges, however. One concerned voter civic education, which started a bit later than normal and therefore lasted only about three or four weeks, so it was not as broad as should have been.
The other challenge had to do with the dynamics of the campaign, which was affected by conflict among candidates during public forums. Some participants invited to take part in the discussions also caused chaos. This unfortunately led to a few discussions being cancelled before all the candidates could present their manifestos in some areas, especially those that were marked as hotspots.
Do you foresee any election-related conflict?
It is hard to predict, but this election seems to have been a bit different from others in the past, which makes me wonder.
Around 65 political parties and 2,560 candidates competed in the 7 October election. For a small country with a population of two million, that is a huge number of people. And many might find it difficult to accept the outcome if things do not happen according to their expectations.
The election itself was peaceful, but political tension mounted as votes were counted over the following days. The results were announced on 11 October: the opposition Revolution for Prosperity party came first but was short of a majority, with 56 of 120 seats, while the incumbent All Basotho Convention party (ABC) came second. It is not clear whether ABC will contest the results and its supporters will take to the streets in protest. If this happens, clashes with rival parties might occur and security force repression could follow.
I would not rule conflict out but rather consider it as likely to happen as not.
Do you think the failure to pass constitutional reforms had an impact on the election results?
I think the failure to pass the Omnibus Constitutional Bill, which had been years in the making, probably had a strong impact on the electoral process, and will definitely have an impact on what happens next.
The bill sought to amend key provisions regarding political parties, candidate selection, floor-crossing in parliament, the appointment of senior officials and the role of the prime minister, whose removal would require a two-thirds majority. In May, all major parties in parliament committed to pass the bill by the end of June, but disagreements held it up much longer.
One of the key issues of contention concerned the electoral law, which only allows party leaders to submit a proportional representation party list. With the current system, 80 members of parliament are elected in constituencies and 40 are elected through a proportional division of votes. Small parties are negatively affected because to get some proportional representation seats, they are forced to come together into a list with larger parties, and if they are unable to merge with other parties they are left out.
Another key issue wasthe politicisation of the security sector, which contributes to political instability. The reforms proposed a way to deal with this.
The reforms were eventually passed as parliament was reconvened for an urgent session but, following a series of legal challenges, the Constitutional Court declared them null and void at the last minute before the election.
The failure to pass the reforms will also contribute to continuing difficulties in maintaining coalition governments. Lesotho has had coalition governments since 2012 that have never served a full five-year term due to conflicts that led to their dissolution. In 2017 ABC formed a six-party coalition government, but because of internal conflict Prime Minister Tom Thabane was forced to resign in 2020 and was replaced by Moeketsi Majoro.
Coalitions have not made for stable and effective governments. The coalition-forming process also confuses voters because ideologies are not a big factor when putting them together. This makes voters a bit sceptical that their parties will remain faithful to their mandate.
These were some of the issues the reform was meant to address, but unfortunately they remain unaddressed to this day.
What did voters expect from the election?
One of the expectations voters place on political parties is that they will work on improving service delivery. This includes fixing infrastructure and providing access to water and electricity, among other things. Lesotho also has high rates of unemployment and widespread problems of gender-based violence and femicides, as well as high crime rates that people hope will be addressed by the new government.
Basotho people are not happy with the way the public sector has been managed over the years. Employment is mostly driven by nepotism and political affinities. People are uneasy because political parties on the campaign trail are quick to promise they will fix these things but once in power they fail to deliver.
We have also seen a lot of instability in a key industry, the textile industry, with COVID-19 only making things worse. People were already dealing with bad working conditions and when the pandemic hit many were fired unfairly. This led to worker strikes and has negatively affected foreign investment. Elected leaders need to find means of retaining foreign investment while ensuring good work conditions.
How can the international community support civil society’s work to strengthen democracy in Lesotho?
During the election, civil society faced the challenge that almost all funding for civic education came from the IEC, that is, from the government budget. This could potentially compromise civil society’s watchdog role. Additionally, these funds are never sufficient to allow civil society to conduct its work thoroughly.
The international community should support capacity building so that civil society can conduct robust advocacy during and after the election period. Collaboration between international and local CSOs is also important. For the recent election local CSOs took on voter education alone, without any involvement by international CSOs. We must work hand in hand to promote democracy in our countries and hold our leaders accountable.
Civic space in Lesotho is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
LIBERIA: ‘Anyone who committed crimes during the civil wars should be prosecuted, wherever they are’
CIVICUS speaks about the current war crime trial against former Liberian rebel commander Kunti Kamara with Adama Dempster, Secretary General of Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia.
Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia is a civil society network that brings together human rights civil society organisations (CSOs) across Liberia to advocate for human rights and bring justice and redress to the victims of human rights violations.
What is the significance of the ongoing trial of Kunti Kamara?
Kuinti Kamara’s trial is significant because it offers hope to the victims and survivors of Liberia’s civil wars, and especially to the direct victims of the atrocities he committed. It is also an indication that no one is above the law regardless of the position of power they occupy.
Kamara is the former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy. a rebel group active in the early 1990s. He stands accused of imposing a state of terror on the population of Lofa, a county in north-western Liberia, during the first civil war from 1989 to 1996, which left a quarter million people dead.
Widespread atrocities – unspeakable crimes – were committed in Liberia. Kamara is charged with crimes against humanity, torture and acts of barbarism. He appears to have been involved or complicit with the forced recruitment of child soldiers, gang rapes, sexual slavery, looting, extrajudicial executions and even cannibalism. Nobody who commits such crimes should be able to avoid judgment.
Kamara is among the second group of people to be prosecuted for their role in the civil wars. His trial has recently begun at a French Court of Appeals in Paris, where he is being prosecuted under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, according to which crimes against humanity know no borders.
This means that no matter where the perpetrators find themselves, whether in the country where they committed their crimes or anywhere else, they can still be held accountable, and justice can be served. CSOs on the ground have had the opportunity to speak in trials involving Liberians abroad and victims and survivors have had their say. The international community is helping us seek justice by bringing the accused to trial. That makes it unique and important to the quest for justice in Liberia.
How does civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, work for justice and accountability?
Since the civil wars ended in Liberia in 2003, civil society has played a leading role in seeking justice by investigating and documenting human rights abuses committed during the time of the conflict, advocating against the culture of impunity and helping victims, including by raising their voices.
To live in an environment that recognises human rights, we must first deal with unaddressed human rights violations that happened in the past. While we advocate for improving the current human rights situation, we also advocate for past human rights violations to be addressed so we can move forward.
Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia is a coalition of human rights CSOs. Along with the Global Justice Resource Project, a global digital platform that connects local CSOs seeking justice around the world, we document war-related atrocities committed in Liberia and work to make sure those responsible are prosecuted.
We understand that our society is still traumatised by the civil war, so we work to create awareness, educate and sensitise local communities on human rights issues. We train local human rights community-based CSOs across Liberia so they can also carry out advocacy work and help victims and survivors.
Advocacy is one of the strong elements of our work, which we use to shift the understanding of human rights issues at the national and regional levels so violations can be addressed. Our advocacy involves engaging with stakeholders from relevant institutions, the government and the international community. We specifically work with foreign governments so that any individual who committed crimes in Liberia during the civil wars can be prosecuted regardless of where they are in the world. Diaspora advocacy is also part of our work.
Over the years we have engaged in the follow up of the recommendations of the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), issued in 2009 and not yet implemented. We also conduct workshops with university students so they can learn about the importance of the TRC’s recommendations and measures the government should adopt to implement them.
We have had the opportunity to engage with the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review process by submitting a shadow report on the human rights situation in Liberia, and with the UN Human Rights Committee, where we participated in the review of the implementation of the TRC’s report.
Have you faced any challenges in the course of your work?
We have faced several challenges in doing our work. As human rights defenders we face continuous risk and are threatened by the very fact that we live among the people who committed the unspeakable crimes we work to bring justice over.
We have been placed under surveillance, followed and monitored by various groups that feel targeted by our work. People working on war crime cases have been threatened directly or indirectly through text messages and on social media. There is no law or policy to protect human rights defenders in Liberia. But because we want to see human rights recognised and respected, we continue to take the risk and carry on our work regardless of the threats.
Following up on the recommendations of the TRC report for more than a decade has also been challenging due to lack of political will and technical and funding support for advocacy around their implementation. Most organisations involved urgently need technical capacity to be able to continue their work.
What are the chances that Kamara’s trial will bring justice?
The Kamara trial has given Liberians hope that when crimes are committed, there is a possibility of justice being done. The fact that charges were brought and Kamara was put on trial made us believe justice will be served. It is also an opportunity for the accused to prove his innocence.
The trial also made us more hopeful that the Liberian government will realise it must urgently implement a mechanism capable of bringing justice in the country. We understand this might take time due to lack of resources and capacity, but a plan should be put in place towards that end. Kamara’s trial highlights the importance of establishing a mechanism in Liberia so that other people who stand accused can be brought to justice and victims and survivors can receive justice no matter the time or place.
The recent visit to Liberia by the US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack, was a strong signal of support for our efforts to bring accountability and has given us a sense of hope and of being on the right path to challenging the culture of impunity.
What kind of support does Liberian civil society need from the international community?
We need the international community to encourage our government to live up to its responsibility to bring accountability and justice to its citizens when their human rights are violated. Our government has not shown the required political will so far, but we believe pressure from the international community will make it see the urgent need to hold perpetrators of war crimes accountable. The government should request support from the international community, including technical and financial support to establish a court to that end.
Funding is also needed to set up programmes to support victims and survivors. Most people who were sexually exploited during the wars have not even had the opportunity to seek medical help. So we also need the international community to help us put together and fund programmes bringing trauma counselling for victims, survivors and their families.
Read more here.
Civic space in Liberiais rated‘obstructed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia through itsFacebook page.
Liberia: Time to Act is Now
"As we discuss, we should not forget that we still have two very important years left to consolidate the gains and accelerate our efforts to achieve the MDGs; in discussing about the future, we cannot forget that the time to act is now and that civil society has a critical role to play", Liberia's Gender and Development Minister has said.
Madam Julia Duncan Cassell told participants of the third High Level Penal (HLP) post 2015 Development agenda civil society preparatory meeting not to concentrate on the post 2015 development agenda, but should renew energy for greater action in the next two years of the climax of the MDGs.
According to her, the credibility of the post 2015 agenda depends largely on goals that are still achievable within the present MDGs.
Read more at allAfrica
LITHUANIA: ‘Civil society must humanise the public narrative around irregular migration’
CIVICUS speaks about a new law enabling pushbacks of asylum seekers at the Belarus-Lithuania border withMėta Adutavičiūtė, head of Advocacy at the Human Rights Monitoring Institute (HRMI).
Established in 2003, HRMI is a Lithuanian human rights civil society organisation (CSO) thatadvocates for national laws and policies consistent with the state’s international human rights obligations and works to ensure the effective enjoyment of human rights.
What are the main points of the new legislation allowing for the pushback of asylum seekers?
The amended Law on State Border and its Protection, passed in April 2023, recognises and enables the practice that began in August 2021 of discouraging people from attempting to cross the border at non-designated places and returning them to Belarus once they have crossed the border into Lithuanian territory.
The amended law provides legal ground for pushbacks without the need to declare a state of emergency. Now pushbacks can be carried out on the government’s decision any time it considers there is an extraordinary situation caused by a ‘mass influx of aliens’. A novelty introduced by the law are the civilian volunteer units to support border guards. Both are allowed, under certain circumstances, to use coercive measures. The State Border Guard Service has recently announced a call for this volunteer service.
What are the issues around pushbacks?
According to both Lithuanian and international refugee law, unlawful entry should not be penalised when a person is eligible to request asylum in a country. However, pushbacks are being carried out with regard to people who might have genuine grounds for asylum, such as those coming from Afghanistan and Syria.
Under the amended law, the State Border Guard Service should perform an individualised assessment to determine whether a person is fleeing persecution and is in fact a refugee as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, the procedure for such an assessment hasn’t yet been established, and there are good reasons to doubt that border guards can carry out an assessment properly. In our opinion, the decision on whether a person has grounds to request protection should be made by the migration department, while state border officers should only find out whether a person intends to seek asylum and register asylum applications.
Our preliminary assessment is that although the provisions of the law shouldn’t apply to people fleeing military aggression, armed conflict or persecution or trying to enter Lithuania for humanitarian reasons, people continue to be pushed back without an individualised assessment of their circumstances and without any human rights safeguards being applied.
How has HRMI advocated against the new law?
HRMI submitted comments to the draft law and alternative proposals, urging lawmakers to refrain from legalising pushback practices and instead ensure access to asylum procedures for all people irrespective of their means of entry.
We also continue advocating for the rights of migrants and asylum seekers by raising public awareness on the current disturbing situation.
Our next steps are to closely monitor the implementation of the new legislation and prepare a comprehensive report based on interviews with asylum seekers. Meanwhile, our colleagues and volunteers from Sienos Grupė provide humanitarian aid to migrants and asylum seekers stuck at the border.
Additionally, HRMI has a strategic litigation programme that includes 17 cases. The purpose of this programme is to seek justice for asylum applicants and call for judicial review of the most pressing legal issues in the Lithuanian migration and asylum system.
What obstacles does Lithuanian civil society working on migration face?
Even though there are no legal restrictions on the work of CSOs helping migrants and refugees, one of our largest challenges is that the public generally approves of restrictive government policies and practices and only a minority support a human rights-based approach in managing increased irregular migration. The government’s strategy of deterrence, constantly picturing migrants and asylum seekers as a threat, has largely influenced the public. Opinion polls conducted in 2021 indicated growing negative attitudes towards migrants and refugees. This is why civil society’s advocacy efforts must focus not only on laws and policies, but also on humanising the public narrative around irregular migration.
Moreover, lack of information makes it difficult for CSOs to assess the full implications of this law for asylum seekers. Official statistics only include the people who were pushed back on specific days, and there are no statistics available of people who were let in and provided with the opportunity to lodge asylum applications. We also don’t have access to demographic data such as countries of origin, gender, age and other individual characteristics that could allow us to identify the specific vulnerabilities of people who were pushed back.
How has the international community reacted to the new policy?
Many international organisations and media outlets immediately contacted us seeking information and requesting our assessment of the situation. A strong statement came from the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, who called on the Lithuanian parliament to reject the amendments and ensure that the legislative process is guided by human rights standards with a robust, human rights-compliant and protection-oriented legal framework. The law was also criticised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In contrast, the reaction from the European Union has been lacking.
Overall, however, we are grateful for the crucial international support we have received in our advocacy efforts, as well as for legal advice provided by our allies. It is very important they remain engaged and continue monitoring the developments on the border.
Civic space in Lithuania is rated ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Lu Maw Naing
Lu Maw Naing
Name: Lu Maw Naing
Reason Behind Bars:
On 25 January 2014, Burmese journalist Lu Maw Naing and several of his colleagues at Unity newspaper published the article, “A secret chemical weapons factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township”. The article exposed a clandestine chemical weapons facility in the Magwe Division and further revealed that former head of the ruling junta, Than Shwe, and current commander-in-chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Min Aung Hlaing, visited the facility with a number of Chinese technicians. These claims were substantiated by statements from local residents and factory workers.
On January 31st, Lau Maw Naing was arrested without a warrant in Pauk Township, Magway Division. On February 1st, Naing was transferred to the Special Branch Police in Pauk Township where he was held without bail on charges of exposing state secrets.
From 31 January – 1 February, three other Unity reporters, including Yarzar Oo, Sithu Soe, and Paing Thet Kyaw, and Unity’s CEO, Tint San, were arrested in connection with the article.
Days later, in an apparent attempt to intimidate members of Unity’s staff and suppress further reporting on the chemical weapons plant, security forces raided Unity’s offices and confiscated copies of the issue.
On March 17th, Lu Maw Naing and his colleagues were charged at Pakokku District Court with “disclosing State secrets, trespassing on the restricted area of the factory, taking photographs and the act of abetting”.
On July 10th, all five journalists were sentenced to 10 years in prison and hard labor for violating Article 3 of the 1923 Burma State Secrecy Act.
Lu Maw Naing is reportedly in ill-health and has been denied adequate medical treatment.
On 15 July 2013, on an official visit to the UK, Burmese President Thein Sein Committed to releasing all political prisoners by the end of 2013.
However, on a nationally broadcasted speech on 7 July 2014, Thein Sein defended the arrests, stating that, “If media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws.”
According to national watchdog group, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, at least 46 political prisoners, including peaceful protestors, journalists and civil society activists, remain in prison in Myanmar.
For More Information
Lysa John: “Attacks on civil society mask the failure of governments”
*Interview with CIVICUS SG, Lysa John.
Our ambition is not to stand up (only) for established organisations, "Lysa John emphasizes. “We stand up for everyone's right to speak out and be heard, and for the right to organise with others to stand up for your own ideas or interests.” Gie Goris spoke to Lysa John, secretary -general of CIVICUS, possibly the largest alliance of civil society organisations.
*Interview is in Dutch
Read more: MO* Magazine