Name: Mahienour El-Masry
CIVICUS was informed by a partner in Egypt that on December 27 2015, Mahienour El-Masry second demurrer was rejected by the court.
Reason Behind Bars:
On 21 September 2014, Mahienour El- Masry was provisionally released after the Al Mansheya Misdemeanor Appeals Court suspended her six months prison sentence following an appeal filed by her to the Court of Cassation. On 20 July 2014, the Sidi Gaber Appeal Misdemeanor Court in Alexandria had sentenced Mahienour to six months of prison and a fine of EGP 50,000 (approximately USD 7,200) under Law No 107: Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations. Mahienour was found guilty of “participating in an unauthorized protest” and “assaulting police officers”.
Mahienour’s sentencing is due to a peaceful demonstration she attended to on 2 December 2013 in front of the Alexandria Criminal Court during the fourth hearing of Khaled Saeed’s murder trial. On 6 June 2010 Khaled Saeed, the emblematic figure of the 25 January Revolution, was tortured to death by two police officers in Sidi Gaber. The police arrested Mahienour on 12 April 2014 while she was in a clothing store in Mohram Bey District in Alexandria. During her imprisonment, Mahienour was kept in the Damanhour Women prison.
Mahienour’s arrest is believed to be related to her legitimate human rights work of providing legal assistance to political prisoners and monitoring human rights violations in Egypt. A member of the Revolutionary Socialist movement and a human rights defender, Mahienour also worked extensively with women’s rights and youth organizations to document atrocities committed by security officers in Egypt. Mahienour was awarded the prestigious Ludovic Trarieux Human Rights Annual Prize in 2014, an award given to lawyers for their contributions to defending human rights.
Law No 107: Law on the Right to Public Meetings, Processions and Peaceful Demonstrations was adopted on 24 November 2013 and drew widespread criticism from UN experts and civil society organizations for being in breach of international standards. The law gives excessive powers to security forces to arbitrarily ban and disperse peaceful protests while imposing heavy penalties on demonstrators. Since its adoption, Law No 107 has been routinely used to clampdown on peaceful demonstrators and human rights defenders protesting the Egyptian government’s growing intolerance of dissent.
For more information:
Send a letter to the Public Prosecutor, and the Egyptian Embassy in your country For a list of Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad please click here
Solidarity with Mahienour el-Masry and jailed activists
Resist the Anti- Protest Laws in Egypt
Malawi makes good reforms on civic space but new NGO Policy sidelines human rights CSOs
CIVICUS interviews, the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitations’ Fletcher Simwaka about the state of civic space in Malawi and the new NGO policy.
1. What is the state of human rights in Malawi at the moment?
There is a great sense of ambivalence on the human rights situation in the country. In some instances, one notices commendable steps government is taking in facilitating citizens’ progressive enjoyment of the various civil and political rights in the country. Remarkably, for instance, the President Professor Peter Mutharika signed the long-awaited Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law. This is a milestone as the law will enable citizens to access key and vital information held by the government. The ATI is an effective tool to entrench a culture of transparency and openness in government operations. In addition to the ATI, a major improvement on civic space is that the government is now relaxing its former restrictive stance on freedom of assembly. Concerned citizens and human rights activists are now able to conduct peaceful protests government without any undue legal hindrances.
On the other hand, however, the government has demonstrated vestiges of intolerance towards key human rights and freedoms, especially against critical human rights defenders and civil society. The current administration is resorting to a divide-and-rule tactic so as to weaken and isolate civil society in the country. The government does so by appointing some of the vocal human rights defenders into government positions. Moreover, government has taken a leading role in influencing elections of civil society leaders in civil society networks and platforms by supporting their stooges. Most unfortunately, government is resorting to the selective application of justice aimed at shielding ruling party loyalists. Only cases involving government critics are dealt with expeditiously. Civil society in Malawi has also expressed concerns over the very restrictive provisions in the NGO Act which are largely reflected in the draft NGO Policy.
2. What are the main civil society concerns over the NGO Policy?
The most fundamental civil society concern over the NGO Policy is that the draft policy formulation did not undergo meaningful consultations with the wider civil society community. The policy formulators only embarked on selective consultations with pro-government CSOs. Secondly, the draft Policy is almost silent on governance and human rights CSOs in its definition of civil society. It assumes all CSOs are community charitable organisations which are simply there to complement the service delivery work of the government. This is a deliberate and dangerous omission as it might systematically emasculate the equally important role of governance and human rights CSOs and activists in the country.
The Policy provides the relevant development planning structures with increased and unwarranted powers to approve projects developed by NGOs. The policy notes that “a project shall not be implemented unless it is approved by these structures.” While it is important that projects planned by NGOs are in line with development objectives, such broad powers prescribed by the policy and given to the planning structures, will infringe on the independence and privacy of NGOs.
In addition, the draft policy doesn’t mention the protection of NGOs and human rights defenders. These is supposed to be reflected in any NGO policy as it is one of the crucial areas that shape their day to day work. In fact, the policy should have also acknowledged the relevant role of NGOs as a watchdog in the exercise of political and legal authority by those in public office. In view of the above, the policy priority areas need to be expanded.
While the policy notes that this is aimed at ensuring that NGO are transparent and accountable, it will increase the administrative burden on NGOs and allow for bureaucratic discretion to reject requests for renewal of the registration of NGOs and to target NGOs that question the government. For example, this was the case in 2014 when the NGO Board threatened to close NGOs that were not registered with the Board, despite the fact that the NGO Act (2000) does not provide the Board with powers to close on NGO.
Again, the question of mandatory registration of NGOs with the Council for Non-Governmental Organisations in Malawi (CONGOMA) and NGO board as indicated in the NGO Act of 2001 as a requirement to qualify or be recognised in the categorisation of the draft’s policy three categories of NGOs may be challenged at law considering the fact that it may be perceived as an infringement on freedom of association, and also considering that other NGOs register under Trustees Incorporation Act of 1966 and Companies Act.
3. Have there been any concerns over the years over the NGO Act?
CSOs in Malawi have always had misgivings concerning the NGO Act. Both in its originality and practice, the NGO Act is seen as tool to police and silence critical voices in civil society. For instance, section 23 of the NGO Act gives power to the NGO Board, the body appointed by the President, to deregister any NGO that does not operate within NGO guidelines. Some of the NGOs targeted for de-registration are those involved in and comment on political issues. Several voices within civil society have noted that this is aimed at targeting civil NGOs working on human rights and governance who are critical of the government. The provision has always been a source of the fractious relationship between civil society organisations focusing on human rights and the government.
4. How can international civil society support civil society in Malawi to improve civic space?
Support from international civil society is needed to build the capacity of local civil society to empower them to demand and promote and protect civic space in the country. There are also opportunities for international civil society groups to partner with local civil society to effect change.
5. What are three things that need to change to further improve the environment in which NGOs operate in Malawi?
i. The NGO Act needs to be reviewed and amended to reflect the spirit of constitutionalism.
ii. There is need for a robust, responsive and inclusive NGO Policy that will address the challenges faced by CSOs.
iii. Government must come up with a law that protects human rights defenders.
Civic space in Malawi is rated as Narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor
MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’
CIVICUS speaks with Michael Kaiyatsa, acting Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR),about the recent presidential election in Malawi, which were held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and led to a change of government. The CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and a political crisis, the presidential election was held in Malawi in June 2020. What was the role of civil society and the judiciary in ensuring that the election took place?
I think it is fair to say that judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held. The election that was held on 23 June 2020 was a rerun ordered by Malawi’s Constitutional Court, which ruled on 3 February 2020 to overturn the 21 May 2019 presidential election, citing massive irregularities.
In the May 2019 presidential contest, the incumbent, Peter Mutharika, was declared winner, in the first-past-the-post system, with 38.57 per cent of the vote. However, the opposition claimed the poll had been fraudulent. They cited, among other things, the alleged use of Tippex correction fluid to change vote tallies. Dr Lazarus Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party and Dr Saulos Chilima of the United Transformation Movement petitioned the Constitutional Court, seeking to overturn the presidential election results. The two cited widespread irregularities, including the use of Tippex and missing signatures on some result sheets.
The Constitutional Court’s historic ruling, later validated by the country’s Supreme Court, represents a noteworthy illustration of the independence of the judiciary in Malawi’s maturing democracy. However, key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led mass demonstrations. The protests were so sustained and vigorous that they could not be ignored by key democratic institutions like the judiciary. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition, an influential civil society grouping, courageously brought thousands of people to the streets on a regular basis to campaign against the botched outcome of the May 2019 election. This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing.
This is not to underrate the role played by the judiciary. The judges really stood up to defend democracy. Prior to the Constitutional Court ruling there had been several attempts to bribe the judges to ensure that the ruling went in former President Mutharika’s favour: one prominent banker was arrested in connection with the bribery case. There were also numerous threats to the independence of the judiciary prior to the rerun, including a government attempt to force out senior Supreme Court judges through early retirement just days before the rerun. The judges could have easily succumbed to such intimidation and ruled in favour of Mutharika, but they did not. Instead, they stood firm and delivered a radical judgement that has changed the way Malawi is governed.
Civil society successfully challenged a decision by the former government to impose a lockdown. Why did civil society object to it when other countries around the world were implementing similar measures?
Civil society wanted the lockdown to be put on hold until the government could come up with some way to protect the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Civil society groups were unhappy that the government did not outline a social safety net for vulnerable people during the lockdown, which prompted the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and other CSOs to seek a stop order from the court. It is a fact that many people in Malawi operate on a hand-to-mouth basis.
It is also important to note that the civil society challenge came after thousands of informal traders in the cities of Blantyre and Mzuzu and in districts like Thyolo had taken to the streets to protest against the lockdown with placards that read, ‘We’d rather die of corona than die of hunger’. Many of these vendors are daily wage earners and a lockdown could have badly affected them. There was also growing suspicion among civil society and the citizenry that the government was trying to use the lockdown to justify the cancellation or postponement of the elections.
How was the election turnout? Were there worries that Malawians would not come out to vote for fear of contagion?
There were worries that Malawians would not come out in their numbers to vote because of health concerns caused by the pandemic. It was feared, for example, that with the need for limited exposure to large groups and social distancing, citizens might be less likely to leave their homes to vote because of concerns for their own health and that of their family members. There was also a major risk that those deterred from voting would be disproportionately from older age groups or people with underlying health conditions. The legitimacy of the contest might therefore be undermined by unfair restrictions placed on certain segments of society and thus by their uneven participation.
These fears were partly realised. The voter turnout was lower than in the previous election. Of the 6,859,570 Malawians registered to vote in 2020, 64.8 per cent voted. This was down from May 2019, when 74.4 per cent of registered voters participated. But the low turnout could also be attributed to inadequate voter and civic education campaigns. Unlike in previous elections, most CSOs were unable to conduct civic and voter education due to resource challenges. The uncertainty of polling dates made it difficult for CSOs to mobilise resources. The previous Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) did not give people confidence that the elections would take place within the stipulated 150 days. The official date for the polls was fixed only around two weeks before the elections, so mobilising resources to conduct civic and voter education at such short notice was not easy.
However, it is also true that some Malawians may have avoided the polls because of the growing COVID-19 pandemic. By election day, there were 803 documented cases and 11 recorded COVID-19 deaths in Malawi so some people – possibly older people and those with pre-existing health conditions – may have stayed away.
What were the challenges of organising elections during a pandemic?
The experience in Malawi has shown that organising elections during a pandemic can be very challenging. The prevention measures outlined by the government do not allow gatherings of more than 100 people. However, most political parties ignored this restriction and held campaign meetings exceeding this number.
A key challenge faced by the MEC during this fresh election was the need to put the health and safety of voters first while ensuring the integrity of elections. The MEC usually has a voter education budget that is utilised ahead of each election. However, given that this fresh election was not budgeted for earlier, the MEC faced financial challenges, which deepened as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which required the procurement of personal protective equipment, adding further budgetary constraints.
The MEC also experienced significant challenges with the production and distribution of voting materials. Malawi imports many election materials from other countries. As Malawi was gearing up for the fresh election, many countries were on full or partial lockdown in the wake of the pandemic. This impacted on election preparations, as some suppliers found it difficult to transport goods internationally. Because of all this, there were significant delays in the printing of ballot papers, which was done in Dubai.
Another challenge was that political parties were not able to monitor the ballot printing process, as has always been the case, due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. A further important consequence of the pandemic was the absence of international election observers. With international travel restrictions imposed worldwide, the ability of international observers to observe the election was dramatically restricted. And as already mentioned, the pandemic affected voter turnout.
Now that the rerun election has led to the ousting of the incumbent and a new president, what does civil society expect from the new government?
Civil society has many expectations of the new government. One of the key expectations is that the new government will place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of its agenda and strengthen the fundamental freedoms of all Malawians in line with international human rights standards. It is also hoped that the government will move to protect the space for civil society. The fresh presidential election took place amidst concerted government attacks on civil society and the judiciary. It is our expectation that the new government will fulfil its election promise to protect civic space and allow CSOs to operate freely.
In its 2019 election manifesto, the Malawi Congress Party, which leads the Tonse Alliance (‘Tonse’ meaning ‘all of us’), a grouping of nine political parties formed weeks before the fresh poll to unseat Mutharika, promised to support the operations of local and international human rights CSOs through a permissive and enabling policy and institutional and legislative framework and to facilitate the progressive development of a civil society that is fully capable of holding the government accountable and defending citizens’ rights. It is our hope that the new administration will walk the talk on this promise and withdraw the oppressive NGO Act (Amendment Bill) of 2018, which contains a number of provisions that could pose a threat to CSOs’ ability to operate. The proposed legislation would raise the penalty fee imposed on a CSO in breach of the law from the current US$70 to US$20,000. It would also impose a seven-year jail term on CSO leaders found in breach of the law. So, for example, if you delay submitting a report to the NGO Authority, you could be fined US$20,000 and the directors of the organisation could be sent to prison for seven years. This is a ridiculous provision. It is a provision that can only be found in authoritarian states. We also hope the new administration will scrap the new fee regime, which is repressive and quite high for CSOs, and revert to the old fees. The new fees that CSOs have to pay to the NGO Board were increased in January 2018 from US$70 to US$1,400.
What support will civil society in Malawi need from international civil society to help sustain Malawi’s democracy?
One thing that is urgent now that elections are out of the way is for civil society to sit down and develop an action plan and roadmap, which can include a robust mechanism to check on the government's actions. In this regard, CSOs need the support of international CSOs, particularly to develop their capacities to hold the new government to account on its commitments. CSOs also need financial support to reinforce their role in local governance and accountability. Financial sustainability is crucial for local CSOs if they are to become resilient, effective organisations. International CSOs and donors have a key role to play in helping local CSOs become more sustainable. Finally, CSOs need moral support from international CSOs to be more effective. During the campaign for electoral integrity, local CSOs received overwhelming support from international CSOs through media statements and letters to authorities. It is our hope that this support will continue as we embark on the arduous task of checking the new government’s actions, especially in addressing corruption and the longstanding culture of impunity for human rights violations.
Civic space in Malawi is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MALAWI: ‘The tactics used by the current administration are the same used by its predecessors’
CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Malawi with Michael Kaiyatsa, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR).
CHRR is civil society organisation (CSO) aimed at supporting and promoting democracy and human rights in Malawi. Its mission is to contribute towards the protection, promotion and consolidation of good governance by empowering rural and urban communities to exercise their rights. Founded in 1995 by former student exiles who returned home to the promise of a new democracy, it operates through two core programmes: Community Mobilisation and Empowerment and Human Rights Monitoring and Training.
How has the situation in Malawi evolved since the 2020 elections?
Malawi held a presidential election in June 2020 because the 2019 election was annulled on the basis that there were massive irregularities and the court ordered a rerun. The 2020 election was won by the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera.
During the campaign, Chakwera said that if elected, he would address some key issues, including corruption in the public sector. It was the perception of public opinion that corruption was on the rise and the previous administration had not done much to tackle the problem. Chakwera promised to introduce reforms to seal all loopholes allowing for corruption and to improve the judicial system so corruption cases would not be ignored.
However, once in power it didn’t look like these changes were effectively being implemented. As usual, the first year people gave the new administration some time. The president kept on making the same promises but made very little actual progress.
The second year continued in the same way and Malawians started to lose patience. People started to take their discontent out to the streets. The economic situation in Malawi also kept getting worse, with costs of living skyrocketing every day and a rise in unemployment. People looked back at campaign promises and compared them to their reality, and frustration arose.
I wouldn’t say all campaign commitments were just empty promises and lies, because there were issues the government attempted to address, but progress has been slow. For instance, they promised to increase funding for the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and ensure its independence. Funding for the ACB increased significantly, and a new law was eventually passed to amend the Corrupt Practices Act, removing the requirement of the ACB director to seek consent to prosecute corruption cases. They promised to set up special courts to prosecute corruption cases, and finally submitted a bill to amend the Court’s Act and make a provision for special courts.
But they also promised to work to recover stolen assets and are moving at an extremely slow pace in this regard. And they also said they would create a million jobs for young people, which has never happened.
What’s behind recent protests against the judiciary?
Last year we started seeing lots of protests against corruption and impunity. There have been numerous cases involving government officials – including from the current administration – that have not been prosecuted. Investigations take years, and those involving senior government officials take the longest and rarely end in conviction. Recent ACB reports show that only 30 per cent of such cases have been concluded, and most of these date back to 2015.
In sum, the wheels of justice are barely moving, and people have concluded that the government is pursuing selective justice. In a recent case, for instance, an 18-year-old man arrested for cannabis possession was prosecuted and given a sentence of eight years in prison, while people accused of serious crimes involving corruption are given three and four-year sentences, if anything at all. Ironically, before this case, a powerful business leader was accused of the same crime, marijuana possession, and was just asked to pay a fine. Such arbitrariness is pushing people to the streets.
While selective justice is nothing new, this time around people want to hold the government accountable for the promises made on the campaign trail. As a result, pressure is also coming from the opposition to hold the government to account. When the current ruling party was in the opposition, they were the ones raising these issues. Now people are realising it is not any different from its predecessors.
How have the authorities responded to the protests?
The government has often tried to stop protests with the use of excessive force. Just recently, over 80 activists were detained and arrested. They were charged with holding an illegal assembly, although the constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly. Hours before these demonstrations started, some Malawians claiming to be from the business community requested the court issue an injunction to stop them. The injunction was granted late in the afternoon, so people gathered the next morning without knowing about it, and the police came in and started firing teargas, beating up people and arresting everyone they could.
The tactics used by the current administration are the same ones used by its predecessors. The habit of getting last-minute injunctions isn’t new at all: this is what happened in July 2011, when the government got a last-minute injunction, people assembled without any knowledge of it and over 20 were killed by the police in the ensuing repression.
What shocks me the most is the court’s interpretation of the meaning of the right to the freedom of assembly. The Police Act is very clear about what needs to be done if people stage a protest. It all starts with a notification to the authorities, but this is usually interpreted as people needing to obtain permission from the police, which is against what the law actually says.
In the recent protest against the judiciary, we were told the demonstration would not proceed until the organisers provided a list with the protesters’ names, to be held liable if the demonstration resulted in damage to property. This is strange, as you cannot be sure who is going to attend a protest and how they will conduct themselves. It is not just the police but also the courts that are now asking for a registry of attendees, something that cannot be found anywhere in the law.
How could the international community support Malawian civil society?
Over the past two or three years, new civil society groups have emerged to defend human rights and economic justice, and are mobilising mostly through social media platforms and community radio, particularly in rural areas, issuing statements and calling people to the streets.
Malawian civil society needs international protection. We need to be able to express ourselves and feel safe while doing it, so we need our international partners to send a message to the president, reminding him of his commitments and his obligations under the constitution.
We continue to experience the same challenges as in the past, despite the administration being a beneficiary of civil society mobilisation. In 2019 and 2020, when organisations like ours were protesting against electoral irregularities, the current authorities were by our side and supported our protest for democracy. But they are now doing exactly what they criticised when they were in the opposition, including by passing laws that restrict civil society, such as the recent NGO Amendment Act.
Civil society also needs resources, including for legal representation. There are currently over 80 civil society activists under arrest, most of whom don’t have legal representation. As a result, they remain in custody awaiting trial. There’s no fair access to justice and they could be held indefinitely.
Civic space in Malawi is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CHRRMalawi on Twitter.
MALAYSIA: ‘Young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers
CIVICUS speaks with Tharma Pillai, co-founder and Advocacy Director of Undi18.
A youth civil society organisation (CSO) born out of the student movement, Undi18 successfully advocated for the amendment of article 119(1) of Malaysia’s Constitution to reduce the minimum voting age, allowing people over 18 to vote in the 19 November 2022 election.
How did Undi18 start and what was your objective?
In 2016, my co-founder and I were both studying in the USA and that year’s election inspired us. I came from a sciences and technology background, where most people don’t really care about these things. But seeing democracy in action and our US classmates engage with the electoral process made us reflect on our inability to vote in our home country, Malaysia. It was quite interesting that because they had the right to vote, they felt the responsibility of helping choose the best possible leader for their country.
We started thinking of ways to replicate these practices and bring this kind of energy into Malaysian university campuses. It was only natural for us to focus on the right to vote because voting age in Malaysia was 21, which meant that a high proportion of college students were ineligible to vote. This did not happen in the USA, where the minimum voting age is 18. By 2016, some of our US classmates were voting for the second time in their lives, while I had never yet had the chance. We thought that would have to change
When we did our research, we realised that our demand was not radical at all, and in fact it was long overdue. We were one of only eight countries in the entire world with a minimum voting age as high as 21. We launched Undi18 – which means ‘Vote18’ – as soon as we came back to Malaysia. Our single focus was on the amendment of article 119(1) of the Federal Constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18.
What tactics did you use to campaign for change?
To make sure we had a stronger voice, in the first year we ran a digital advocacy campaign, something unheard of in Malaysia, where most civil society work and campaigning take place very much on the ground. We came into existence as a hashtag movement in February 2017.
At the time we were not registered as a CSO. We didn’t have funding. Our team was very small. The campaign was our passion project. But due to effective digital mobilisation, it looked like we had so many supporters. That prompted the media to pick up on our story. We were always willing to work with people of all political leanings.
Many Malaysian CSOs tend to side squarely with the opposition because for a long time our country had one-party rule. We of course worked with the opposition, but we also engaged with other parties. That also made us open to engaging with whoever criticised our movement and addressing any grievances directly.
In addition to the digital campaign, we started off a petition and a memorandum to the prime minister. Unfortunately, we didn’t get too far with the government. We knocked on many doors and talked to many people, but the government viewed young people as inclined to vote for the opposition, so they disliked the idea of lowering the voting age for reasons of political calculation. But we gained traction with the opposition, which raised the issue in their manifesto. This gave us a lot of leverage when the opposition eventually came to power in 2018. They had promised to deliver change on this issue.
How did you engage with the parliamentary process?
As soon as the new government was inaugurated, we tried to convince them to introduce an amendment bill, but there were challenges. No constitutional amendment had ever been passed in Malaysia by a government without a parliamentary supermajority of two thirds, and this new government only had a simple majority. It took a year for the government to finally greenlight the
But not having a supermajority, the government needed to negotiate with the opposition. We did our best to engage with political parties across the spectrum, especially those in the opposition, to convince them that this was not a partisan initiative and all could benefit, them included. We pleaded with them to support the bill for the sake of young people, democracy and Malaysia’s future. Luckily, the then-Minister of Youth and Sports was a very strong ally of ours and helped us navigate these obstacles.
Thanks to these efforts, in July 2019 this became the first constitutional amendment in Malaysia’s history to pass with 100 per cent of the votes in the lower and upper houses of parliament.
Were there any implementation challenges?
There were postponements and delays. The agreement with the opposition was that the law would be implemented within two years. The two-year timeline was unusual, but necessary due to the technical difficulties entailed by the new automatic voter registration system.
Repeated promises were made that this would be done by July 2021.But another change of government slowed things down, as the new government thought young voters would vote against it. In March 2021, it announced implementation would be postponed until September 2022 at the earliest, but it didn’t provide a clear date.
We campaigned against this postponement and held protests across Malaysia, which grew to include larger issues fuelling public anger, including the economic situation, the shutdown of parliament and the poor management of the COVID-19 health crisis. We also sued the government. We filed a judicial review against the prime minister, the Election Commission and the government of Malaysia for postponing the implementation of the UNDI18 Bill beyond the due date. The High Court decided in our favour and ordered the federal government to implement the bill by 31 December 2021. Due to public pressure that was sustained thanks to the protests, the government decided against appealing the verdict and complied. As a result, the bill was finally implemented on 15 December 2021, and when the updated voter rolls were published one month later an additional 5.8 million voters had been included in the system and 18-year-olds could officially vote in the next election.
What were the main elements of the amendment?
The amendment had three components. First, it lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Second, it also lowered the minimum running age to 18, meaning you could become an elected member of parliament at that age. And third, it established automatic voter registration for anyone turning 18.
The 2022 elections were the first in which people between 18 and 21 cast their ballots. An additional 5.8 million new voters were added to the electoral roll issued in January 2022. Malaysia being a country of 33 million, this was quite a number.
In Malaysia, ‘young voters’ are defined as those between 18 to 40 years old. After the changes, they account for 51 per cent of the electoral roll, up from 40 per cent. This means young people could make change happen. Malaysian politics are dominated by old people. At one point we had the oldest prime minister in the world – a 93-year-old man. Now for the first time, young voters could be Malaysia’s kingmakers. This is why youth turnout is a key element to watch when analysing the results of this election.
Change started happening even before the polls opened. In the run-up to the election, many senior leaders were replaced with younger candidates in order to appeal to young voters. Overall, the number of young and new candidates increased. And all parties had more youth-centric manifestos, addressing some of the concerns expressed by young people, such as corruption, climate change, the state of the economy and healthcare.
What more needs to be done to make policymaking more inclusive of younger people?
I think Malaysia needs political rejuvenation, and that can be done through education. Our society gives too much power to older people, who of course don’t want to let go of it, whether it’s in government, civil society, politics, or business. To change things, you must train young leaders – but nobody is doing this kind of work. At Undi18 we are doing our best to fill that gap so that young people can take up the space, gain power and get ready to be the country’s next leaders.
We strongly believe that informed voters are integral to democratic success, so we have been working with the Ministries of Education and Higher Education to advance educational programmes to address this issue systemically. We want educational curricula to emphasise democracy so the democratisation process beginsin schools. Some topics such as constitutional rights, human rights and the functions of the parliament are already in the syllabus, but they’re not emphasised enough.
We also have our own programmes. We run outreach campaigns on social media platforms. We are quite active there as most of our target audience is there. We also run outreach programmes in schools and universities to educate students about their rights. And we have corporate, civil society, government and international partners to ensure we reach as many people as possible.
Civic space in Malaysia is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Malaysia: Positive step but further revisions needed of protest law
Pusat KOMAS and global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, welcome the Malaysian government’s efforts to make amendments to the Peaceful Assembly Act, which regulates public assemblies and protests. While some of the proposed changes to the law appear positive, our organisations are concerned that the legislation still falls short of international human rights law and standards, related to the right to peaceful assembly.
MALDIVES: ‘Calling this a free and fair election would be a betrayal to the people of Maldives’
CIVICUS speaks about the upcoming presidential election in Maldives with Shahindha Ismail, founder of theMaldivian Democracy Network (MDN).
The MDN, an independent civil society organisation (CSO) that since 2004 has worked to protect and promote human rights and the values and principles of democracy in Maldives, was arbitrarily deregistered by the government in 2019. Shahindha continues leading the organisation from exile in Germany and is currently completing a research project on violent extremism in Maldives, which she started as a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the USA’s National Endowment for Democracy.
How does the Maldives government relate with civil society?
The government is selective about the CSOs it engages with. More critical and vocal organisations receive no cooperation from the government. It has become commonplace over the past four-plus years to brush CSOs off and exclude us from government consultations as ‘unruly troublemakers’. The most worrying trend in this regard is the labelling, smearing and targeting of CSOs and individuals who criticise the government.
Additionally, one of the biggest obstacles the government has placed on civil society work is its systematic refusal to release public information, which violates the Right to Information (RTI) Law. The government ignores invitations from CSOs that conduct assessments of governance quality, depriving them of the opportunity to discuss their findings and recommendations with government officials. Public expressions of concern and requests regarding the malfunction of government systems generally go unheard and ignored.
Do you think the upcoming presidential election will be free and fair?
No, I think the election that will take place on 9 September has already lost any semblance of freedom or fairness. The government has unfairly, even unlawfully, monopolised all political spaces months ahead of the election. The government has sought to eliminate all viable opposition and has used judicial institutions to place one obstacle after another in the way of opposition parties, depriving them of precious time for campaigning. The Elections Commission (EC) in particular is seriously compromised, which affects the very principle of election freedom and fairness.
The latest news reports state that the incumbent, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, has declared at a campaign rally in Thaa Atoll that tensions will arise if Maldives has to go to a second round of voting during the presidential election. It is a direct threat to voters, even an incitement to violence. Every election Maldives has had since the 2008 Constitution introduced multi-party elections has had two rounds and we have never had a violent election.
In early August, the Supreme Court ruled that former president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayyoom, the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party of Maldives, was ineligible to run. His conviction for corruption and money laundering is still under appeal.
A few months ago, the EC delayed the registration of The Democrats, a new party formed by a splinter faction of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). This party had formed following allegations of election rigging during the party primaries, in which President Solih competed against former president and Parliamentary Speaker Mohamed Nasheed. Over 39,000 MDP members were then removed from the voter roll and did not get to participate in the primaries. The EC said it had checked The Democrats’ membership and application forms and found them to be in order but needed a further three to four months to verify them a second time. Only much later was the party officially registered.
Weeks after this manoeuvre, the EC suddenly cancelled the registration of the Maldives Reform Movement, the party led by former president Maumoon Abdul Gayyoom, claiming it was short of around nine members to be eligible to remain registered, which the party denies.
Additionally, the media is coopted by the government, so you rarely see objective or critical coverage of government actions. Media coverage often looks like government PR rather than news. Unsurprisingly, the disinformation that has plagued the campaign, often coming from the government, has only been legitimised and amplified by mainstream media. Civil society has had a very challenging time getting their voices heard.
And the Solih campaign is using blatant tactics to influence voters that involve consistently abusing state resources, as civil society has repeatedly denounced.
For instance, on 22 August, two weeks ahead of the vote, President Solih announced a 40 per cent pay rise for all government employees, even though the previous day the value of the Maldivian Rufiyaa had dropped again and the national external debt exceeds US$3.8 billion. Additionally, hundreds of government jobs and promotions were handed out at state-owned enterprises right before the MDP presidential primaries, and increases in financial benefits for health workers, teachers and retired people were announced just months ahead of the election.
Another example of an attempt to buy off voters was the announcement of land distribution to the residents of Greater Malé, the capital city’s metro area. A list of over 19,000 eligible applicants was published in June 2023 and a confirmation list has just been published in August. However, while the government has announced that dredging will begin soon, it is not at all clear how much of the promised land is in reality above water. Large-scale infrastructure development projects such as airports, housing programmes and bridges have also been irresponsibly announced or contracted out with no information about when they will be completed.
What’s at stake in the election?
Concerningly, this election may result in a turn towards religious fundamentalism and deepened authoritarianism. Right now, President Solih’s only coalition partners are the Adhaalath Party and the Maldives Development Alliance, both notorious for their support of religious extremists. Solih’s alliance with the religious conservative Adhaalath Party in the upcoming election is particularly concerning, because over the past couple of years Adhaalath has taken extreme stands on various issues, such as condemning yoga as ‘prohibited in Islam’ and calling on the government to arrest anyone who practises yoga, and making public calls on the government to hunt down and punish gay men.
At a recent rally, Adhaalath’s leader and current Home Minister, Imran Abdullah, announced that the party was ending its reformist stance and embracing the goal of establishing Islamic rule in Maldives. While Maldives has had a constitution based on the tenets of Islam and principles of Islamic Shariah for centuries, they are now going to try to enforce a Taliban-style rule veiled as Islamic Shariah. This is all the more worrying due to the fact that under Solih, the government has increasingly fallen under pressure from religious extremists, taking extremely undemocratic actions every time.
What should the international community do to support a free and fair election?
I think the international community needs to take civil society concerns seriously. As in previous years, election monitoring by civil society is underway. In addition to planned observation of the poll, CSOs have been monitoring the campaign by collecting information through RTI requests, mainly related to the ways abusive government spending is being used to influence the vote. Information is shared regularly, domestically as well as with the international community. The main local observer, Transparency Maldives, has repeatedly made statements regarding the government’s behaviour in relation to the election. These concerns are based on evidence; they are not hearsay or opinion.
I hope that election monitors and the international community listen to Maldivian civil society’s repeated warnings. Repeated corrupt behaviour and abuse of state resources to deliberately influence the election should not be ignored by international election monitors, especially when the highest measure of a democracy is the existence on free and fair elections.
Calling this a free and fair election will only legitimise the undue influence of the government on election processes and results. It would be a betrayal to the people of Maldives in every sense of the word. Maldives will not progress if its non-democracy is constantly labelled as a democracy.
What’s your hope for the future of Maldives?
My hope is to have a government that genuinely and actively promotes the fundamental values of democracy. One that will educate its people to respect human dignity and teach them to coexist peacefully. This, I believe, can only be done by including a rigorous national curriculum of civic education and providing avenues to learn, such as access to free libraries, educational centres and affordable higher education. Only then will our people be protected against the appeal of corrupt politicians.
Civic space inMaldivesis rated ‘obstructed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MALDIVES: ‘We have come a long way, but more needs to be done to further open up civic space’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of women’s rights in Maldives with Safaath Ahmed Zahir, founder and president of Women & Democracy (W&D).Founded in 2016, W&D is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes women’s economic and political participation and good democratic governance in the Maldives through research, advocacy and awareness-raising activities.What led you to become an activist and found a women’s rights CSO?Growing up in Maldives, a small island developing nation, the disparities between men and women became evident to me. I came from a majority-women family and witnessed the personal upheavals that my mother endured and how much my family battled for my education. Returning home after studying abroad was an eye-opener for me. In interviewing for a job, I experienced first-hand the deep-rooted patriarchal culture and the double standards women face on a daily basis. So I decided to put my education to good use: to push for women’s rights and empowerment in my country.
I first played a role in creating Women on Boards, a CSO promoting gender diversity in the workplace. This inspired me to try to contribute further to building the organisational infrastructure and community to support women’s economic and political participation in Maldives. The organisation I founded, W&D, is now one of the most prominent in Maldives, with over 300 members, 200 of them aged between 18 and 29.
What are the main women’s rights challenges in Maldives?
Maldives ranked 106 out of 144 nations in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report. Women are marginalised in the political sphere due to institutional barriers, discriminatory cultural practices and social norms. Despite being roughly half of the population, having a 98 per cent literacy rate and actively participating in political parties, in 2009 only 6.5 of members of parliament were women. The proportion fell to 5.9 per cent in 2013, and again to 4.6 per cent in 2019. Currently, only four out of 87 parliamentarians are women, and few women hold senior public sector roles.
With the passing of the Decentralisation Act, which allocates 33 per cent of local council seats to women, there has been some progress in local governance. The Maldives’ women development committees are an important platform for women to enter into politics and to participate in the decision-making process at local and national levels. But many barriers still limit their fulfilment of their mandate. They should be empowered to achieve true decentralisation.
Women continue to take on the burden of childcare and domestic chores, which makes it difficult for women to engage in economic activities on a par with men. Female labour force participation in Maldives is higher than in other South Asian countries, but women tend to be clustered in low-growth sectors and in lower-paying positions, and they earn less than men. While tourism is the lifeblood of our economy, women make up only seven per cent of the tourism labour force.
Women’s entrepreneurship is generally underdeveloped, and women’s economic contribution tends to be rendered invisible, particularly in major sectors such as tourism, fisheries, construction and wholesale and retail trading. Gendered economic inequalities were exacerbated under the pandemic, reversing what little progress had been made over previous years.
Gender-based violence also remains an entrenched problem. One in three women aged between 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives. There is a great need for more and better infrastructure to support survivors.
In sum, a clear female disadvantage persists. Regulatory institutions must be strengthened to solidify existing gender equality gains and mitigate gender inequalities.
How is civil society in general, and W&D in particular, working to address these challenges?
Women’s rights CSOs have been working to address these challenges for several years, through capacity development workshops, advocacy campaigns, movement-building and creating opportunities for women and girls.
Six years on from its founding, W&D has become a leading CSO working to protect the rights and improve the lives of women. We particularly advocate for women’s safety, economic and political leadership and for inclusive democratic governance.
Since 2018, we have conducted an annual capacity development programme to advance women’s leadership and political empowerment in partnership with the International Republican Institute. In three years, more than 680 women aspiring to public office and political leadership have taken part in our training activities. In the 2021 elections for local councils and women’s development committees, 83 women who successfully completed our training were elected.
During the pandemic, we launched a rapid response programme for vulnerable women and girls. In response to the dramatic increase in reports of domestic abuse, we established a domestic violence and mental wellness helpline to help women seek the assistance of the relevant authorities, undertake safety planning and connect them with wellbeing resources. We provided survivors with psychosocial counselling and referred the most urgent cases to emergency shelters or other safe spaces. With a grant from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) we were able to assist 130 women.
Also with QCT support, we worked to improve access to menstrual materials for vulnerable women and girls. Approximately 10,500 sanitary materials were distributed as part of our rapid response programme. We have just received additional support to continue our rapid response programme. We expect to assist at least 240 more women and girls within the next eight months.
Additionally, in partnership with the Commonwealth Foundation we have hosted multi-stakeholder discussions and consultations with vulnerable populations, relevant government bodies and CSOs to offer policy reforms to address the needs of the most vulnerable.
This year we implemented a project to help strengthen the capacity of CSOs and community-based organisations working towards women’s empowerment and social development in Maldives. We brought together more than 160 people from various organisations.
How has civil society in Maldives joined the recent global mobilisation wave against gender-based violence?
Over the past seven years there have been many street mobilisations, mainly condemning rape and demanding justice for sexual crimes against women and girls and children in Maldives. Protection gaps in rape laws and barriers to accessing justice have perpetuated the prevalence of sexual violence and the lack of justice for survivors. The dire state of women’s safety in Maldives was highlighted by the 2016 Demographic Health Survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, which showed that one in every four women in relationships had faced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. In recent years, the Maldivian community has become more outspoken on the issue, particularly amidst the #MeToo movement, where a lot of Maldivian women came forward with their experiences.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, there were multiple street mobilisations spurred by cases of sexual violence and injustice. In early 2020, following a case of sexual abuse of a two-year-old girl by her relatives, outraged citizens protested against rape and urged the government to protect children from predators. The authorities again came under criticism in mid-2020 after a foreign woman was sexually assaulted and the suspects were released from custody, with reports soon following that one of them was in a position of influence. People gathered outside parliament to protest against rape and impunity.
Following the exacerbating effects of the pandemic on violence and abuse against women and girls, protesters rallied again in 2021 The government has taken steps to address these problems. It ratified the First Amendment to the Sexual Offences Act to improve the definition of rape and strengthen investigations, including by removing burdensome evidence requirements. In 2021, it also criminalised marital rape, marking a significant milestone for the women’s rights movement. But there is still a lot of progress to be made in combating the violence and abuse faced by women and children.
How has the space for civil society action evolved over the past few years?
As a relatively new democracy, the Maldives has taken significant steps towards ensuring civic space freedoms, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Following the November 2018 elections, Maldives has experienced legislative reforms and a relative opening up of civic space. A commission was established to probe unresolved disappearances. Maldives drastically improved its position in the World Press Freedom Index, moving from 142 to 87 out of 180 countries. This was made possible by reforms such as the repeal of the 2016 defamation law.
While Maldives has come a long way since its first democratic election back in 2008, more needs to be done to further open up civic space. Over the years, human rights defenders have been targeted and subjected to verbal attacks, including hate speech and death threats, while women activists have faced online vilification and threats due to their work for women’s rights.
CSOs are also under pressure from extremists and hate groups, whose influence in limiting the social and cultural lives and roles of women has persisted. There have been instances of religious scholars advocating for girl child marriage and female genital mutilation, and attempts to suppress women advocates who speak out against these grave violations of women’s rights. Women human rights defenders are specifically targeted and face additional and gender-specific challenges, including threats of sexual violence and rape.
What kind of international support does the Maldives’ women’s rights movement need?
We need the continued support of international partners and collaborators to maintain and advance our work to empower women. As our movement is mainly composed of CSOs, we rely on the generosity of international organisations that identify with our mission to be able to continue to run the projects that are making a difference in Maldives.
We also need continued opportunities for dialogue and collaboration with the international community. The exchange of ideas and information among countries and cultures is inspiring and empowering for women and girls in Maldives, particularly in the areas of business and politics.
International support for Maldivian civic space also plays a significant role in furthering women’s empowerment. This is largely achieved by developing the skill sets of CSOs through workshops and programmes run by our international partners and collaborators.
Vocal support from the international community for the Maldives women’s rights movement is also crucial. While we have faced obstacles, CSOs in Maldives have persevered in promoting women’s rights and we will continue to do so alongside our international partners and supporters.
Civic space in Maldives is rated ‘obstructed’by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Mali: Reverse ban on organisations receiving funds from France
CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world is seriously concerned over a decision by the Mali government to ban organisations receiving funds from France. The ban is a total violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association; and has a chilling effect on civil society organisations in Mali.
On 21 November 2022, the government of Mali took a decision to ban all organisations receiving funds, material, or technical support from France. This ban mainly affects organisations and groups providing emergency food aid, medical services, water supply and agricultural, as well as those involved in human rights and governance. The government of Mali is obliged to protect and promote the rights of its citizens including creating an enabling environment for civil society organisations to operate. All undue acts of intimidation, harassment, and restrictions on the right to freedom of association should be lifted in line with Mali’s international human rights obligations to enable civil society organisations (CSOs) to exercise their respective mandates.
“The banning of these organisations is a new low for human rights in a country that has continuously failed to respect fundamental freedoms, including freedom of association. This is intended to restrict organisations committed to defending human rights and providing much needed livelihood. Malian authorities should immediately reverse this decision and allow organisations to continue their work uninterrupted,” said Paul Mulindwa, CIVICUS’ Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Mali has been contending with violence from extremists groups since 2012, but also a serious political and humanitarian crisis. About 1,260,528 people are displaced by the conflict. Since May 2021 and a second coup d'état that consolidated their grip, coup leaders in Mali have gradually turned away from France, whose last soldier left the country in August 2022 after nine years of engagement against the extremists alongside the Malian army. The human rights situation in Mali continues to deteriorate, with extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and other killings, injuries, and kidnappings taking place. Human rights groups have reported an increase in enforced disappearances, illegal arrests or detentions, including prolonged detentions and violations of due process guarantees, acts of torture or other inhuman treatment, as well as numerous cases of massive and forced displacement of civilians, death threats and acts of intimidation, looting and destruction of property.
The banning of organisation receiving funds from France came only days after the French government announced it was suspending aid to Mali. However, France still planned to provide humanitarian aid through NGOs. Since 2013, France had been providing a total of 100 million euros each year in assistance.
For more information, please contact:
Advocacy and Campaigns Lead – Sub-Saharan Africa
MALTA: ‘People should be able to access abortions locally without the risk of criminalisation or stigmatisation’
CIVICUS speaks about the struggle for abortion rights and the anti-rights backlash in Malta with Break the Taboo Malta.
Break the Taboo Malta is a storytelling platform that documents abortion experiences to highlight the lived reality and address abortion stigma in Malta.
MAURITIUS: ‘LGBTQI+ people no longer need to live with the constant fear of being criminalised’
CIVICUS speaks with Najeeb Ahmad Fokeerbux, founder of the Young Queer Alliance (YQA), about the recent ruling by the Mauritius Supreme Court that declared the criminalisation of same-sex relations unconstitutional.
The YQA is a non-governmental, youth-led and apolitical organisation registered in Mauritius that seeks to empower LGBTQI+ people and organisations, promote equality and lead change.
What is the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Mauritius?
The human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius have progressed for one and a half decades now. The issue of healthcare for LGBTQI+ people was raised in the National Assembly as early as 1995 with regard to HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment. Since then, we’ve seen strides with HIV interventions targeted at LGBTQI+ people with change accelerating since 2008. The Employment Rights Act was passed in 2008, and would later become the 2019 Workers’ Rights Act. The Equal Opportunities Act was promulgated in 2012 and the Civil Status Act was amended in 2021, allowing for the registration of sex at birth of intersex persons as ‘undetermined’.
Yet local organisations, including the YQA, have faced a deadlock in addressing some pressing needs and aspirations of LGBTQI+ people such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the recognition of trans people and marriage equality, and it didn’t seem that legislative change would occur anytime soon.
What was the process leading to the decriminalisation of same-sex relations?
Conversations around litigation to challenge section 250(1) of the 1838 Criminal Code, which criminalised homosexuality, started as early as 2014. Numerous community consultations were held, but no queer people were ready yet to take on the challenge. It was a David versus Goliath situation.
Since YQA was founded in 2014, advocacy efforts started making progress with policymakers. Conversations gained new momentum in 2018 with the queer community winning support from international allied organisations. India decriminalised homosexuality in 2018, and with around 65 per cent of Mauritians being of Indian descent, this had a lot of impact. There didn’t seem to be a reason for Mauritius not to follow suit.
In September 2019, with the support of two law firms based in Mauritius and France, three friends and fellow activists and I approached the Supreme Court to seek constitutional redress on the basis that section 250 (1) of the Criminal Code violated our fundamental rights and freedoms and was therefore unconstitutional. Two additional cases followed: one by renowned gay artist Henry Coombes and another one by a young queer activist, Ridwaan Ah-Seek.
But change wasn’t going to happen if we only sought it in court. We had to accompany the legal process with efforts to change the hearts and minds of people. In other words, we had to fight two battles – one in court and another in society – at the same time, while ensuring that plaintiffs remained safe and didn’t lose the courage to continue a legal battle that would take years.
The YQA mobilised the community and funding from donors for this strategic and planned effort. In addition to our lawyers, we got support from the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, the Equal Rights in Action Fund of the National Democratic Institute, the European Union delegation in Mauritius, Planet Romeo Foundation and The Other Foundation. They supported a range of projects to empower LGBTQI+ ambassadors, provide media training, engage with both the public and private sectors and undertake research. We submitted the results of a research project we conducted in 2021 to the courts as evidence.
The four plaintiffs – two Hindus, one Christian and one Muslim – brought to court our stories as queer people from all parts of Mauritian society. Three of us being public officers, we were able to show the challenges we faced due to this abhorrent law being on the books. We played our part and our skilled lawyers played theirs. One thing led to another, and four years later, on 4 October 2023, LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius no longer needed to live with the constant fear of being criminalised.
What made Mauritius not follow the regressive path taken insome other African countries?
The Supreme Court showed independence, impartiality and sensitivity to human rights. The principle of separation of powers was upheld. Mauritius is seen as a respected political and economic player in the region. We hope we will be an example for other Commonwealth and African Union member states to follow.
However, we recognise that unfortunately, many African countries are plagued by dangerous imported extremist doctrines that are erasing the core meaning of being African. The situation is worse than that when the colonial masters enslaved us, for it is our own kin, people with our same skin colour and the same African roots, who are dehumanising and un-Africanising us, while it is them who are bringing in an imported ideology – homophobia.
What’s next on the LGBTQI+ agenda in Mauritius?
Two issues that need to be tackled are the recognition of trans people and marriage equality. By preparing ourselves and providing there are adequate resources, the YQA will be able to help us overcome these two injustices.
This ruling paved the way for greater inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in Mauritius. But although same-sex private sexual relationships among consenting adults have been decriminalised, it remains crucial to educate queer people and people in general about the ruling and its implications for human freedom, equality, dignity and rights.
What international support do you receive, and what further support do you need?
The YQA works in networks with LGBTQI+ activists and organisations in the region and beyond. This is what makes our queer movement a global one. And it contributes to learning, sharing and lifting each other’s spirits.
Achieving the recognition of trans people and marriage equality will require institutional support, strengthened allyship, the participation of the private sector and sustained funding. At the same time, Mauritius is set on the path to becoming an upper-middle-income or high-income economy, making organisations such as the YQA ineligible for donor aid. Donors have to understand that the overall economic situation does not benefit LGBTQI+ people equally and should therefore continue providing targeted support, capacity development and funding to LGBTQI+-led organisations to continue our work.
Civic space in Mauritius is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MEXICO: ‘Alliances, public debate & diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights’
CIVICUS speaks with Verónica Esparza and Rebeca Lorea, respectively lawyer and researcher and Public Policy Advocacy Coordinator at Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida), about the significance of recent Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights, and sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico. GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been active for almost 30 years to ensure that women and others with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.
From left to right: Verónica Esparza & Rebeca Lorea
What is the situation of sexual and reproductive rights in Mexico?
Currently, women and other people with the capacity to bear children do not find optimal conditions in Mexico to decide about their reproductive life: there are a high number of pregnant girls and adolescents, affected by a serious context of sexual violence that the state continues to fail to remedy; obstacles to access services such as emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape; the criminalisation of women and other pregnant people who have abortions; daily obstetric violence during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum; and women who die in childbirth from preventable causes.
The structural failures of the health system are compounded by the fact that the majority of people in Mexico are employed in the informal sector, which limits their access to social security and therefore to benefits such as maternity leave and childcare. Women, who continue to play the biggest role in household and care work, bear the brunt of this lack of access to services, which particularly affects those who experience multiple discriminations, such as girls and adolescents, Indigenous women and people with disabilities.
What does GIRE understand reproductive justice to mean, and how do you work to advance it?
GIRE understands reproductive justice as the set of social, political and economic factors that give women and others who can get pregnant power and self-determination over their reproductive life. To achieve this, it is essential for the state to guarantee these people’s human rights, taking into account the discrimination and structural inequalities that affect their health, rights and control over their lives, and for it to generate optimal conditions for autonomous decision-making.
It is no longer sufficient to understand reproductive rights in terms of legally defined individual freedoms, while ignoring the barriers that limit the effective access of certain populations to these rights. Reproductive justice is a more inclusive analytical framework because it links reproductive rights to the social, political and economic inequalities that affect people’s ability to access reproductive health services and effectively exercise their reproductive rights.
GIRE has worked for almost 30 years to defend and promote reproductive justice in Mexico, making visible the normative and structural obstacles that women and others with the capacity to bear children face in fully exercising their human rights, and promoting change through a comprehensive strategy that includes legal support, communications, the demand for comprehensive reparation for violations of reproductive rights, including non-repetition guarantees at both the federal and local levels, and the collection of data to feed into our work.
Our priority issues are contraception, abortion, obstetric violence, maternal death, assisted reproduction and work-life balance. While we focus on sex and gender discrimination faced by women and girls in Mexico, our quest for reproductive justice recognises that these variables intersect with other forms of discrimination, such as class, age, disability and ethnicity. In addition, we recognise that the discrimination faced by women and others with reproductive capacity affects not only them, but also their communities, and particularly their families.
What is the significance of the two recent Supreme Court rulings on reproductive rights?
In the struggle for legal, safe and free abortion in Mexico, the National Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) has played a fundamental role. Since 2007 it has issued several rulings recognising access to abortion as a human rights matter.
In April 2018, the SCJN granted amparos – constitutional protection lawsuits – to two young female rape victims in cases that GIRE had brought forward. The two women had been denied abortions by public health services in Morelos and Oaxaca despite the fact that this is a right for victims of sexual violence. The Court stated that this denial constituted a violation of the women’s human rights and that health authorities are obliged to respond immediately and efficiently to these requests, so as not to allow the consequences of the rape to continue over time. This implies that health authorities cannot implement internal mechanisms or policies that hinder or delay the realisation of this right. With these rulings, the SCJN reaffirmed the legal obligation of health service providers to guarantee access to abortion in cases of rape.
On 15 May 2019, in another case promoted by GIRE, the SCJN granted an amparo to a woman who had been denied an abortion despite the fact that continuing her pregnancy could cause her serious health complications. With this ruling, the SCJN recognised that the right to health includes access to abortion and ruled on the particular reproductive health service needs of women, highlighting the serious consequences of denial of termination of pregnancy for health reasons.
On 7 July 2021, the First Chamber of the SCJN ruled on another case joined by GIRE, of a young woman with cerebral palsy and severe limitations on her ability to carry out tasks essential to daily life, which were aggravated by a precarious economic environment. As a result of a seizure, her family had taken her to a hospital in Chiapas, where they were informed that she was 23 weeks pregnant. The pregnancy had been the result of rape when she was 17 years old. A request was made to terminate the pregnancy, but the hospital director rejected the request on the grounds that the 90-day gestation deadline established by the state penal code had passed. The SCJN pointed out that this time limit ignored the nature of sexual aggression and its consequences on women’s health, and reflected a total disregard for the human dignity and autonomy of a woman whose pregnancy, far from the result of a free and consensual decision, was the result of an arbitrary and violent act.
Finally, in September 2021, the Plenary of the SCJN analysed two pieces of legislation that had a negative impact on the right to choose by women and others with the capacity to become pregnant. First, it analysed an action of unconstitutionality (148/2017) on the criminal legislation of the state of Coahuila, which the Attorney General’s Office had considered to be in violation of women’s human rights for classifying abortion as a crime.
In a landmark ruling, on 7 September the SCJN unanimously decided that the absolute criminalisation of abortion is unconstitutional; it became the first constitutional court in the region to issue such ruling. The SCJN pointed out that, although the product of pregnancy deserves protection that increases as the pregnancy progresses, this protection cannot disregard the rights of women and other pregnant persons to reproductive freedom, enshrined in article 4 of the Constitution. In other words, it ruled the absolute criminalisation of abortion to be unconstitutional.
This ruling had several implications. Firstly, the Congress of the state of Coahuila will have to reform its criminal legislation to decriminalise consensual abortion. Secondly, it establishes a precedent, meaning that the central arguments of the ruling must now be applied by all judges in Mexico, both federal and local. From now on, when deciding future cases, they will have to consider as unconstitutional the criminal laws of all the federal entities that criminalise abortion in an absolute manner. In addition, the congresses of the states where voluntary abortion is still restricted and punished now have a set of criteria endorsed by the SCJN to act to decriminalise it.
In the same week, the Court also analysed actions of unconstitutionality (106 and 107/2018) on the recognition of the ‘right to life from conception’ established in the Constitution of Sinaloa. These actions had been promoted by a legislative minority and the National Human Rights Commission. Unanimously, the SCJN considered that the states do not have the competence to define the origin of human life and the concepts of personhood and right-holding status, which is the exclusive domain of the National Constitution. Furthermore, it considered that personhood cannot be granted to an embryo or foetus and then be used as the basis for the adoption of measures restricting the reproductive autonomy of women and other pregnant persons; this is unconstitutional.
Based on precedents set by both the Supreme Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the SCJN established that the main efforts of the state to protect life in gestation as a constitutionally valuable good should be directed towards effectively protecting the rights of women and other pregnant persons, guaranteeing the rights of those continuing pregnancies they desire, providing the necessary conditions for dignified births, without obstetric violence, and eradicating the causes that provoke maternal deaths.
What are the prospects for achieving legal, safe and free abortion in all of Mexico in the near future?
In Mexico as in the region, there have been several successes over the past decade in the struggle for access to legal, safe and free abortion, although many barriers and challenges persist.
In our country strong stigma still prevails around abortion, based on the idea of motherhood as women’s inevitable fate. This idea continues to permeate all state institutions and laws, and forms the basis for not only the social but also the legal criminalisation of abortion, which particularly affects women and other pregnant persons living in situations of violence, economic marginalisation and lack of access to reproductive information. It also sends the strong message that the state plays a role in reproductive decisions that should belong to the private sphere.
In most of Mexico, as in Latin America, voluntary abortion is still considered a crime. For decades, feminist activists, collectives and organisations have pushed for the repeal of these laws, pointing out that consensual abortion is part of the reproductive life of women and others with the capacity to bear children, and that criminalisation does not inhibit its practice but rather means that in certain contexts it will be carried out in an unsafe manner.
From the 1970s onwards, Mexican feminists have raised the issue of access to abortion as a matter of social justice and public health and as a democratic aspiration. Despite the forcefulness of their arguments, it took 35 years to achieve – and only in Mexico City – the decriminalisation of abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. That victory was replicated more than a decade later in three states: Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Veracruz.
In the short term, achieving decriminalisation at the national level is complicated because each of the 32 federal entities has its own penal code, so it would still be necessary for each state to reform its penal and health legislation to stop considering abortion as a crime and then recognise it as a health service and provide public institutions with the human and financial resources to ensure access.
In practice, in recent years both the narrative and the reality of abortion in Mexico have changed due to the increasing prevalence of abortion pills. A few decades ago, clandestine abortion – that is, abortion performed outside the law – was considered to be synonymous with unsafe abortion, but this is no longer the case. Now there are safe abortion support networks, and in contexts of legal restriction, during the first weeks of pregnancy women and others with the capacity to gestate are able to have an abortion with pills at home, without the need to resort to a health institution.
The victory of the Argentinian women’s movement in December 2020 has shown that alliances, public debate and the diversification of voices are indispensable in the struggle to expand rights. The exponential increase in safe abortion initiatives is an expression of the achievements of the women’s movement’s struggle for human rights and reproductive justice. The Green Wave, the movement whose distinctive colour became synonymous with the struggle for abortion rights in Argentina, has spread in Mexico and although access to legal, safe and free abortion throughout the country is still a long way off, in recent years the issue has started to be discussed in various legislative bodies, even in states with highly restrictive legal frameworks.
What kind of additional support would Mexican civil society need from its peers in the region and globally to achieve its goals?
Social support for the causes we feminist human rights organisations defend is indispensable to obtain achievements such as the SCJN ruling of 7 September 2021. The dissemination of our work and the amplification of our voices is also extremely valuable. Local, national and regional networking to share experiences and good practices has also proven to be a tool from which we all benefit. Similarly, connections with other struggles through reflecting about their intersections can strengthen human rights movements.
MEXICO: ‘Human rights defenders constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk’
CIVICUS speaks with Antonio Lara Duque, a human rights lawyer with the Zeferino Ladrillero Human Rights Centre (CDHZL), about the situation of Indigenous rights defenders in Mexico, and specifically about the situation of Kenia Hernández, a criminalised and unjustly imprisoned woman Indigenous leader.
CDHZL is a civil society organisation in the state of Mexico that accompanies the struggles of Indigenous communities, native peoples and collectives who are seeking a dignified life by claiming and exercising their human rights.
Who is Kenia Hernández, and why is she detained?
Kenia is an Indigenous Amuzga young woman. She is 32 years old. She is the coordinator of the Zapata Vive Libertarian Collective, which promotes peaceful resistance against the neoliberal development model. She is a lawyer by training, a self-identified feminist and is dedicated to defending human rights, and specifically to defending people imprisoned for political reasons, looking for missing people with the goal of finding them alive and giving legal support to female victims of violence.
Kenia was arrested on 18 October 2020 under accusations of attacks on a public thoroughfare and robbery with violence. She was charged with serious crimes to ensure she could be kept in the most terrible maximum-security prison for women in all of Mexico.
On 15 March 2022 the trial court in Ecatepec, in the state of Mexico, will determine whether she is guilty or innocent in one of the five criminal cases against her. All these cases were fabricated with the sole purpose of isolating her and preventing her from continuing mobilising, as well as to send a signal of exemplary punishment to all those people she managed to bring together into a nationwide movement that questioned the private management of highways.
Is Kenia’s case part of a broader trend of criminalisation of Indigenous defenders in Mexico?
Indeed, Kenia’s case reveals that the Mexican state has a clear policy of a ‘pedagogy of punishment’, for two reasons.
First, it sends a signal to the people who protest, and particularly to those who protest against the privatisation of highways, that they should no longer resort to public demonstrations as a form of social mobilisation, because if they do, they will bring upon themselves an unjust and cruel imprisonment such as the one experienced by Kenia.
Second, Mexican state officials are trying to subdue and bend the will of Kenia, to punish her for protesting, but also to weaken her convictions, to subdue the energy and strength she puts into protest, to let her know who is in charge and who must obey. As she has not submitted to them, they continue to keep her in prison. They know that if she is released she will go back to her activism.
Both situations are seriously worrying, because they seek to reverse decades of social struggles and opening of democratic spaces.
What is civil society, and specifically CDHZL, doing to secure her release?
CDHZL is dedicated to disseminating, promoting and defending the human rights of peoples, organisations and human rights defenders. We defend the environment, land and territory, the human right to water and Indigenous culture. And we focus particularly on the protection of human rights defenders, since in Mexico these are people who constantly put their freedom and their lives at risk.
Part of our work consists in providing legal defence to human rights defenders who are unjustly criminalised and imprisoned for the peaceful defence of their rights. In its 10 years of existence, CDHZL has helped around 250 people regain their freedom.
We hope that soon Kenia will be another of them. Mexican civil society has given a lot of visibility to her case, putting her criminalisation on the public agenda and involving key people, in particular Mexican senators, to convince relevant decision-makers to stop criminalising Kenia. We have also tried to bring her case to the international arena, pointing out the punitive policy of the Mexican federal government.
Through its large team of lawyers, CDHZL has sustained a legal defence in the five legal processes against Kenia, with all that they entail: dozens of hearings, challenges and trials of guarantees, some of which we won. But clearly this is much more than a legal struggle, as high-ranking officials are determined to keep Kenia in prison at all costs.
Has there been any improvement in the situation of Indigenous defenders under the current leftist government?
We expected improvements in the situation of Indigenous peoples and human rights defenders and collective rights more generally, but unfortunately there continues to be a generalised disdain among the federal government, regardless of its leftist leanings.
The government has been unable or unwilling to tune in to the most heartfelt demands of Indigenous peoples. Aggressions against human rights defenders have continued, including disappearances, murders and imprisonments. When it comes to imprisonment, Kenia’s case is one of the most shocking examples of the misuse of the criminal justice system against a human rights defender under a government that claims to be the architect of a ‘fourth transformation’ – a process of profound change supposedly comparable to those of independence (1810-1821), reform (1858-1861) and revolution (1910-1917).
What kind of regional and international support does Mexican civil society need in its struggle for human rights and civic space?
Undoubtedly, international observation, very poorly accepted by the current government, would help recover democratic spaces for social protest and the free expression of ideas.
Appeals to the Mexican government can help sensitise the authorities to the importance of respecting human rights and those who defend them beyond political party affiliations.
International mediation and good offices will undoubtedly be a key tool to strengthen civil society in the defence of human rights, particularly in processes where the life and freedom of human rights defenders and Indigenous peoples’ rights are at stake.
Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
MEXICO: ‘Legal change on LGBTQI+ rights does not bring instant social change’
CIVICUS speaks with Erika Venadero about the recent extension of same-sex marriage rights to all of Mexico’s states and the ongoing campaign to realise LGBTQI+ rights in Mexico. Erika is a sexual diversity human rights activist in the state of Jalisco and a member of the National Network of Diverse Youth (RNJD), a coalition of LGBTQI+ youth rights groups from across Mexico.
What work does RNJD do?
RNJD is a space that was born out of the 2019 Consultative Youth Parliament, where a Youth Law was discussed.
As young people we had no legal recognition. We had never been considered as subjects of rights. The people in charge of making the laws and dictating the rules according to which we should lead our lives are adults, even quite old adults, and mostly men. Not surprisingly, they do not understand and prioritise our interests and needs, and instead legislate for adults, and especially for adult men. Hence the need to demand that we be recognised as young people and, above all, as diverse young people.
Only recently has our network become formalised as a civil association. We are only three years old. Nevertheless, we have engaged in the recent process to legalise same-sex marriage.
While most of us don’t wish to enter into a civil union, proving our relationship to a public official with signatures and other formalities, we know there are people who wish to have this experience, and exclusion from this right is accompanied by many other forms of exclusions Even if we don’t want this, or don’t want it at this point in our lives, we know that other LGBTQI+ people do, and that the denial of this right is part of what makes LGBTQI+ people second-class citizens.
What was the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage like, and what role did civil society play in it?
The struggle for the recognition of the symbolic union between two people who love each other – simply two people, as the current law puts it, without any gender markers – began many years ago, and progressed thanks to the work of individuals and groups who pushed to extend this right to all people.
LGBTQI+ people are treated as second-class citizens simply because we do not comply with socially established norms that privilege heterosexual relationships. Laws are written and implemented, and all political and social spaces are created, occupied and run by heterosexual people. So this struggle began with a reflection about our lack of representation and visibility in various spaces: personal, political, social and work-related, among others. We have the right to live a full life, but the hegemonic practices that are imposed on us prevent us from living a free life due to the simple fact that we are who we are and love who we love.
The legalisation of equal marriage in Mexico has been a victory for civil society, and specifically for LGBTQI+ collectives and their allies working with LGBTQI+ people day in and day out. Through their daily work on the streets and in every space, they shifted opinions and reached agreements for the recognition of our rights to be taken forward to the political level of decision making.
That is why RNJD has been present throughout the process, from the early drafts of the law to parliamentary debates and votes. These are debates that can go on for a long time. As they deal with ‘sensitive’ issues, some political sectors will try to postpone votes indefinitely in the hope that the issue will fade into oblivion. That is why it was important for RNJD to stand firm to demand these bills be discussed and voted on. We will continue to stand firm for the laws to be implemented.
Have you faced anti-rights campaigns or any other form of backlash?
Every time LGBTQI+-related news comes out, the response is an avalanche of diversophobic comments. Our very nature makes some people uncomfortable. All our lives we have been forced to live under heterosexual norms, so we have faced anti-rights expressions for as long as we can remember.
During the recent process to change the law we have faced an intense anti-rights campaign. Not only do anti-rights groups insult and attack us, they also denounce our publications on social media and have sometimes managed to have them removed. We activists suffer constant personal attacks and our social media accounts are frequently blocked. In my case, for instance, an anti-rights group once attacked me so much and reported my profile so many times that Facebook took it down. It’s really hard to understand what it is that bothers them so much.
Lots of people express hatred towards us. Many keep close watch of everything we do and every single thing we upload, both on the RNJD page and on our personal accounts.
Clearly people already know who we are and what we do. The network is extremely active and visible in social, political and cultural spheres. We have had very tense internal discussions about the double-edge sword of visibility. Our work has made us visible to both those who hate us and those who are willing to get information, learn about our work, understand what we are about and eventually support us. I prefer to focus on those who come to us for information rather than those who throw their hatred at us.
To confront anti-rights movements and hate speech, our strategy is to generate alternative narratives. We even use humour to disarm their arguments. For instance, we suggest that they love the traditional heterosexual family so much that they feel like having two of those – a reference to infidelities and what is colloquially known in Mexico as the ‘big house’ and the ‘small house’. These response mechanisms have helped us provoke dialogue.
What are the next steps after the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Jalisco?
The idea that equal marriage is now legal in all Mexican states and LGBTQI+ people can marry just about everywhere is simply not true.
Although the bill has been voted into law in Jalisco, the civil registry manual continues to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. As long as local legislators do not change this, many civil registry officials will continue to resort to this text to deny LGBTQI+ people access to equal marriage.
In addition, several Mexican states have passed and implemented equal marriage laws years ago, despite which many obstacles still remain. Legal change does not bring instant social change. Hence the importance of continuing to focus on cultural change. Laws can change very quickly, and they do change overnight, but culture does not, and we must not forget that those who manage civil registries are people who have been socialised in a certain culture. Even if they are public servants and must apply the rules emanating from the state, they may also have particular religious or moral convictions. Changing these takes time. The process of cultural change is extremely slow, but we need it to happen to unlock all the locks.
What other challenges do LGBTQI+ people face in Mexico, and what else needs to change?
LGBTQI+ people in Mexico face many, many challenges, largely as a product of overlapping vulnerabilities and inequalities. For example, the same issues that affect women in general also affect LGBTQI+ women: the fact that we are lesbian, bisexual or transgender does not mean that we are not women and cannot become pregnant. But in most of Mexico it is still not legal to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy, despite what the Supreme Court has said about it.
Another huge problem in Mexico is that of enforced disappearances. Jalisco, my state, is one of the states with the highest numbers of disappeared people – and LGBTQI+ people are among the disappeared.
Another pending issue is the Care Act, currently blocked in Congress. LGBTQI+ people need safe spaces to inhabit, grow up and grow old. All our research, all our statistics indicate that LGBTQI+ people in Mexico are alone and largely unsupported.
A specific problem for LGBTQI+ people is so-called ‘conversion therapies’. These consist of inhumane and degrading acts aimed at suppressing diverse sexual orientation, that is, aimed at eliminating our true selves. I have personally experienced ‘corrective rape’. My aggressors, people who claimed to be followers of the word of God, told me that they were ‘making me a woman’.
Centres offering ‘conversion therapy’ operate throughout Mexico and do so legally. Legislation is currently being discussed at the national level to put an end to these therapies, but in the meantime these places continue to operate. In Jalisco, the centres that carry out these practices only need to register and pay a monthly fee. A simple formality and payment enables them to commit countless atrocities.
Another pending issue is that of the recognition of gender identity, especially regarding children. Several states have laws granting trans people legal recognition of their self-perceived identity, but many more have not yet started moving in that direction.
As much as we continue to fight and mobilise, we may not see all these changes materialise, in which case we will have done it for the generations coming after us. We are creating spaces for the future in the same way that others did for us since the 1980s. We will make sure that things keep moving forward.
Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MEXICO: ‘The problem of insecurity is paramount, but it cannot be solved with militarisation’
CIVICUS speaks about the militarisation of security in Mexico and its implications for civil society with Sofía de Robina, a lawyer with Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín pro Juárez-Centro Prodh.
Centro Prodh is a Mexican civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 1988 by the Society of Jesus with the aim of defending victims of serious human rights violations and promoting structural changes to allow all people in Mexico to enjoy and exercise the full range of their human rights equally. Its work focuses specifically on Indigenous peoples and groups, women, migrants and victims of repression.
What trends do you see in the militarisation of public security in Mexico?
At Centro Prodh we have seen that starting in 2006, with the deployment of the armed forces in the fight against drug trafficking, there has been an increased focus on the use of force by elements of the military sector instead of on strengthening the civilian police with a focus on prevention and prioritising access to justice and the fight against the corruption of authorities linked to organised crime. Consequently, rather than decreasing, violence increased, as did human rights violations.
The presence of the army and its responsibility for human rights violations dates a long way back – it was involved in the so-called ‘dirty war’ of the 1960s and 1970s. However, this trend deepened under the administration of President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party, continued under President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and further intensified under the current government of MORENA’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Over 80 per cent of the current members of the National Guard – created in 2019 through a constitutional reform and initially under the civilian command of the Ministry of Public Security – come from the military. According to the National Guard Law, the institution performs tasks of migration review and supervision, surveillance and investigation. This is extremely worrying as it is becoming a military body. Practically all of its commanders, both administrative and operational, come from the Ministry of National Defence (SEDENA), which means the National Guard is increasingly subordinate to the army.
Congress recently approved an executive initiative to reform the National Guard Law, transferring its operational and territorial command to SEDENA. This is contrary to the constitution, which establishes that public security should be the responsibility of civilian institutions, as ratified by the Supreme Court.
In addition, in 2020 it was established that the armed forces could continue to carry out tasks related to public security, without making clear how they would comply with the principles of exceptional, extraordinary, subsidiary, complementary and supervised intervention. Initially it was agreed that they would do so until 2024, but Congress has just approved a reform to extend the deadline until 2028, without providing any justification.
All these decisions are evidence of the government’s commitment to militarised security instead of strengthening civilian police forces and state and federal prosecutors’ offices, which we believe would be more appropriate if the objective is to investigate crimes and human rights violations.
Moreover, military presence has been strengthened not only in the area of public security, but also in other areas of public administration, such as customs and ports, as well as in the construction of public works. The armed forces have one of the largest budgets in the public administration and are not subject to adequate controls, even though they have historically been characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability.
The National Human Rights Commission has shown no signs of true autonomy when it comes to military oversight. This is evidenced by the small number of recommendations it has issued despite the abundance of complaints involving the National Guard, as well as its refusal to challenge the unconstitutional legal changes.
The attorney general’s office has also failed to carry out relevant investigations into the matter, perpetuating impunity. Oversight bodies are clearly not a sufficient counterweight to SEDENA’s growing power.
Why has this trend developed?
It is undeniable that the current context is one of unprecedented violence and that organised crime carries great weight in Mexico. It is responsible for many human rights violations, often in collusion or at least with the acquiescence of authorities at all levels. In some places, removing the armed forces overnight would not be the most appropriate measure to take.
It is understandable that both the government and society are concerned about security: it is one of the problems that most affects Mexicans. However, the government has opted for militarisation, indicating that there are no other options available. Meanwhile, it has not taken any steps to strengthen adequate investigations to dismantle corruption and organised crime networks.
The militarisation of security has not yielded good results. It has failed to reduce violence and has perpetuated human rights violations. For this reason, international organisations promote a ‘programmatic’ or gradual withdrawal of armed forces, while civilian forces and access to justice are strengthened. However, these recommendations are not being heeded and the role of the armed forces continues to be increased.
We can’t emphasise enough that action must be taken to tackle insecurity. But it is important to discuss what measures should be employed. We believe it should be done by strengthening the civilian police and improving access to justice, and not by means of militarisation.
How is Centro Prodh working on the impacts of militarisation?
Centro Prodh defends and supports people who have been victims of serious human rights violations, mostly enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. We work from a comprehensive defence perspective that includes legal defence, organisational and educational support for communities and organisations, international litigation, campaigns and public policy advocacy.
Militarisation is one of the main focuses of our work because it has a great impact on human rights, especially for people in vulnerable situations and historically excluded people who are at the centre of our attention: poor people, migrants, Indigenous people and women.
Although militarisation has deepened in recent years, Centro Prodh has long worked on cases of serious rights violations due to military involvement in public security. These types of abuses have always occurred, and we do not foresee them stopping any time soon.
It is common that, as in the Tlatlaya case – where it’s alleged senior army officers ordered soldiers to kill suspected members of criminal gangs and survivors were tortured, and which remains unpunished – the armed forces carry out detentions making a disproportionate use of force and resort to torture to fabricate evidence, without being held accountable for it.
We have worked on cases that have reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), such as the case of the Campesinos Ecologistas (‘environmental peasants’), two peasants who were defending their land and were arbitrarily detained and tortured by military forces. In 2010, the IACtHR ordered the Mexican state to redress the violations suffered by the two activists and implement structural changes to eradicate the causes of the abuses: to maintain an updated register of detainees with accessible information and control mechanisms, investigate allegations of torture and reform the Code of Military Justice to ensure that military jurisdiction does not apply to cases of human rights violations.
We have also worked domestically on case of torture committed the armed forces – and specifically by SEDENA and the navy – which have often included sexual violence against women, including cases brought by Claudia Medina and Korina Utrera, Denis Blanco and Charly Hernández.
In working with the families of the 43 students who were disappeared in Ayotzinapa in 2014, we have also observed the resistance of the armed forces to hand over information and be held accountable.
In short, our concern about the militarisation of public security stems from our work to document and support action on cases of serious human rights violations committed by the armed forces.
How is civil society responding to militarisation?
Civil society has mobilised against militarisation for many years, and not just under the current government. This has been a longstanding and ongoing concern.
Organisations working on the ground throughout Mexico have documented the impacts of militarisation. The Women’s Human Rights Centre in Chihuahua has done crucial work documenting violations, particularly disappearances perpetrated by the armed forces, and obtained a recent IACtHR ruling in the case of Alvarado v. Mexico, which established that ‘the intervention of the armed forces in public security activities must be based on criteria of strict proportionality, exceptionality and due diligence to safeguard the guarantees established in the Convention, because the fundamental role of the military forces cannot be conciliated with the essential functions of the civil authorities’.
Organisations such as Tlachinollan have highlighted the repercussions of the presence of the armed forces in Indigenous and poor territories. They have worked on cases such as that of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, two Indigenous women who survived sexual torture by the armed forces, which led to a ruling by the IACtHR.
Many local organisations, such as Fray Matías de Córdova Human Rights Centre in the south of Mexico and Casa del Migrante de Saltillo in the north, have expressed concern about the militarisation of the borders and the National Guard’s conduct in migration-related tasks .
International human rights organisations have expressed similar concerns. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been vocal on the issue since its first visit to Mexico in 1996. It has issued constant recommendations to successive governments ever since.
So have various United Nations’ (UN) human right experts, such as the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The Committee on Enforced Disappearances recently visited Mexico and referred to militarisation as one of the main reasons why we currently have more than 105,000 disappeared people.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also consistently and emphatically expressed its concern about the military presence and resulting human rights violations.
What alternatives is civil society proposing?
Civil society stands in line with the recommendations made by international organisations, which are very clear: a programmatic withdrawal of the armed forces should be undertaken and civilian institutions should be strengthened – by means of training, funding and a public security strategy that addresses the root causes of the problem – alongside investigative institutions to ensure access to justice.
Unfortunately, instead of following these recommendations, the government has deepened militarisation not only de facto but also de jure, through the creation of a dense legal and institutional framework. This indicates that the trend will be difficult to reverse and will have long-term consequences. SEDENA has always resisted controls and will not voluntarily give back the power it has gained, and it will not be easy for future governments to take it away from it. The possible erosion of the military’s subordination to civilian power opens up a question mark over the future of democracy.
What kind of support could the international community provide?
It is very important for the international community to keep an eye on what is happening in Mexico, monitor the decisions being made, defend civil society in the face of a government that has repeatedly restricted its work and that of independent journalists, and offer support to victims. We need their help so that human rights are placed at the centre of our politicians’ decisions.
Our criticisms are not personal or partisan attacks. Over the years we have looked at the faces of people who have suffered the consequences of militarisation first-hand. The work we do is indispensable in any democracy.
Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MEXICO: ‘The Supreme Court’s ruling marks a before and after in the struggle for reproductive justice’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent Supreme Court ruling decriminalising abortion in Mexico with Brenda Rodriguez, communications coordinator of Information Group on Reproductive Choice (GIRE, Grupo de Información en Reproducción Elegida).
GIRE is a feminist and human rights organisation that has been working for almost 30 years so that women and other people with the capacity to bear children can exercise their reproductive rights.
What is the current state of abortion rights in Mexico?
In recent years, Mexico has made rapid progress in making abortion a guaranteed health service for all women and people with the capacity to bear children. Currently, 12 states have partly decriminalised voluntary abortion, but another 20 still consider it a crime.
Even in states where abortion has been decriminalised access to the procedure for all women and pregnant people is not guaranteed. Barriers to access are a constant.
So there is still a long way to go. Among the many pending issues is the need to stop considering abortion a crime and, instead, to include it in health and public policy regulations to ensure information is provided and guidelines are published guaranteeing comprehensive, safe and quality care.
Why is the recent Supreme Court ruling important?
The ruling issued by the Supreme Court on 6 September was a landmark achievement. This ruling decriminalised abortion at the federal level, forcing the Congress of the Union to repeal the articles of the Federal Penal Code that criminalise abortion. As a result, institutions that are part of the federal health system, such as the Mexican Institute of Social Security and the Institute of Security and Social Services for State Workers, will have to provide this service throughout Mexico to anyone requesting it.
This will have a major impact because these institutions serve the majority of the Mexican population, and a trend long observed by GIRE is that these institutions deny service under the argument that abortion is a crime under the Federal Criminal Code, the legislation that applies to the health personnel serving in them.
The Congress’s obligation to repeal the crime of abortion at the federal level will become effective once it receives formal notification from the Court, and must be implemented in the course of that same session.
Do you see this court ruling as a victory of the Mexican women’s movement?
The recent Court ruling marks a before and after in the struggle for reproductive justice, and it would not have been possible without the tireless commitment of feminist movements at local, national, regional and global levels, of which GIRE is a part.
The cultural change driven by the feminist movement throughout the Latin American region has been key to advances in pro-choice regulation and social decriminalisation and access to abortion as a health service.
GIRE has worked for the right to choose for over 30 years, during which time it has worked hand in hand with decision-makers, the media, public opinion and many organisations and collectives. The road travelled has resulted in a strong network on all fronts that has socially decriminalised abortion on the basis of the recognition of reproductive autonomy as a right.
Our work has been comprehensive. We have produced reports on the state of abortion rights in Mexico and made specific recommendations to ensure that access is guaranteed as a health service. We have carried out public policy advocacy and supported cases challenging human rights violations caused by the denial of the right to abortion. Our communications work has also been key, helping us place the issue of abortion on the public agenda, contributing to its social decriminalisation.
The strategy to repeal the crime of abortion at the federal level kicked off two years ago. In September 2021, in response to an action of unconstitutionality against the penal code of the state of Coahuila, the Federal Supreme Court unanimously declared that the absolute criminalisation of consensual abortion is unconstitutional. In September 2022, based on this precedent and as part of a legal strategy to eliminate the crime of self-procured and consensual abortion from all criminal codes, GIRE filed an appeal for legal protection against the Federal Congress and executive for having issued a regulation that criminalised consensual abortion.
It was in response to this amparo appeal – a writ for protection of rights – that the Court reiterated that the absolute criminalisation of abortion violates the human rights of women and pregnant people.
Have you experienced an anti-rights reaction?
There are conservative reactions and resistances all the time, but unlike what used to happen until a few years ago, these are no longer so up-front. The most important barrier we face today is the absence of service guarantees, as in some states where voluntary abortion has been partly decriminalised those who would have to provide it continue to put up obstacles. Conservative resistance is even more intense in the 20 state congresses that have yet not reformed their penal codes, but we are confident this will change.
Although there are never guarantees that backsliding won’t occur, we currently have the advantage of a very pro-choice public opinion.
What measures need to be taken to ensure effective access to abortion throughout Mexico?
From a human rights perspective, it is necessary to guarantee access to quality health services, including abortion procedures. For this to become a reality, abortion should no longer be included in criminal codes and should instead only be subject to health and public policy regulations that ensure that information is provided and guidelines published that ensure comprehensive, safe and quality care. GIRE will continue to work to ensure that the crime of abortion disappears from all of Mexico’s state penal codes and access to the service is guaranteed in practice for all people throughout Mexico.
Is the Mexican process part of a broader regional trend?
The green tide that rose in Argentina in 2018 permeated the entire region with a force never seen before. Latin American streets have been filled with green scarves – a symbol of autonomy and freedom – and pro-choice slogans. GIRE is a prominent member of this Latin American movement, establishing alliances, creating strategies and new narratives, and sharing knowledge with organisations working throughout the region to make abortion rights a reality.
This inspiration will continue to guide us. Our movement is unstoppable. In Mexico, the green tide and its libertarian impulse is materialising in the demand, put forward in coordination with other groups and movements, for reproductive rights to cease to be considered an issue that only concerns women and child-bearing people and to be incorporated into the political agenda as a key element of equality.
Civic space in Mexico is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
MIGRANTS’ RIGHTS: ‘Europe instrumentalises human suffering to deter migration’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of migrants and refugees in Greece with Maya Thomas-Davis, an Advocacy and Communications Officer at the Legal Centre Lesvos AMKE, a Greek civil society organisation that provides free legal information and assistance to migrants who arrive by sea to Lesvos, where the Centre is based. The Legal Centre also documents violations of migrants’ rights, advocates for safe and legal migration routes and engages in advocacy and strategic litigation to hold the Greek government, member states of the European Union (EU) and European institutions accountable for their treatment of migrants.
Photo: Legal Centre Lesvos @Instagram
What kind of work does the Legal Centre Lesvos do, and how have you managed under the pandemic?
The Legal Centre Lesvos (LCL) is a civil non-profit legal and political organisation based on principles of solidarity, not charity. Since August 2016, it has provided access to legal information, assistance and representation to migrants arriving by sea on the Greek island of Lesvos. LCL also works towards collective justice and structural change as part of movements resisting Europe’s border imperialism on many fronts, including through advocacy and strategic litigation. LCL was founded following the March 2016 EU-Turkey statement, an agreement of questionable legality through which the European Union turned people seeking freedom, safety and dignity into commodities and bargaining chips: agreeing to pay 6 billion euros to Erdogan’s authoritarian regime in exchange for Turkey acting as a border guard to fortress Europe. This ‘deal’ transformed the island of Lesvos into a site of indefinite imprisonment for migrants. LCL provides access to legal information and assistance in solidarity with migrants trapped here, without losing sight of the fact that migration to Europe is intimately connected with the continent’s imperialist past and present and the interests of global capitalism; that the brutal violations witnessed here are always political choices; and that the people most affected are the most important political actors in challenging and resisting this.
LCL has an open-door policy, meaning that nobody is turned away or refused legal information or assistance because their case is not ‘strong’ enough, or is unsuitable for strategic litigation. We maintain this position because we believe that, as a bare minimum, everyone has the right to understand the legal framework they are subject to, particularly in the context of asylum law, where consequences can be a matter of life or death.
To facilitate access to information, prior to the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions LCL had been running regular group information sessions about asylum procedures, in multiple languages. This is certainly one aspect of our work where the pandemic has created difficulties. In Lesvos lockdown measures have been in place since March 2020, varying in degrees of intensity. Group information sessions have been impossible due to limitations on office capacity mandated by restrictions. We have managed to keep the open-door policy in place with strict appointment schedules, with many of us working from home at least some of the time, and we are trying to continue to facilitate broader access to information through other means, such as through updates in multiple languages on our website and social media.
How did the situation of migrants and refugees evolve in 2020 as a result of the pandemic?
The Greek state’s unlawful suspension of the right to asylum on 1 March 2020 and its violent border fortification – with the EU praising Greece as Europe’s ‘shield’ and The European Border and Coast Guard Agency, also known as Frontex, providing increased material support – coincided with the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. Although the EU has been perpetrating violence against migrants at its borders for many years, including through pushbacks, it seems Greek and EU officials believed the pandemic would provide the perfect cover to escalate their attack on migrants in the Aegean, with complete impunity.
Since March 2020, the official number of arrivals by sea to Greece has drastically dropped by a reported 85 per cent as compared to 2019. In the same timeframe, numerous reports and investigations have revealed a systematic practice of collective expulsions on the part of Greek authorities, carried out through a consistent modus operandi, with Frontex’s documented complicity. In every account shared with LCL by pushback survivors, Greek authorities have summarily expelled migrants from Greek territory without registering arrival or facilitating access to asylum procedures. Whether in the middle of the sea or following a landing on an Aegean island, Greek authorities forcibly transfer migrants towards Turkish waters before abandoning them at sea on motorless, unseaworthy dinghies or life rafts, with absolute disregard for whether they live or die. Despite numerous reports, statements, investigations and denunciations of this ongoing attack against migrants, pushbacks at the Aegean Sea border continue with impunity, functioning as an unofficial implementation of the EU-Turkey deal’s objectives while the Turkish border remains officially closed.
Meanwhile in Lesvos, pandemic-related restrictions have only compounded the situation of police violence, discrimination and effective mass detention for migrants. COVID-19-related restrictions, including curfews and the requirement to carry a justification for movement, have been applied in an unjustifiably discriminatory manner. Recently, on 15 February 2021, for example, the curfew for the general population of Lesvos was lifted from 6pm to 9pm, yet for migrants living in the camp a separate regime of restrictions remains in place: people are subject to a more stringent curfew starting at 5pm and only one family member can leave the camp once a week except for medical or legal appointments. Even with written justification, permission to leave the camp is often arbitrarily denied. The police disproportionately target racialised people in checking documents and justifications for movement as well as in imposing fines.
Meanwhile changes in the operations of the Regional Asylum Office and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Lesvos, which had been conducting remote interviews with applicants for international protection, have led to further procedural violations. These include obstacles in access to legal aid at first instance and to file appeals within deadlines due to pandemic-related movement restrictions and restricted access to EASO offices; failure to ensure the requisite confidentiality of interviews due to remote interviews via telephone or video being held in inadequate facilities; and inability to comprehensively present grounds for applications due to practical and technical disruptions of asylum interviews.
As for the sanitary situation, the state has systematically failed to evacuate individuals at risk from overcrowded, unsanitary camps in Lesvos, where distancing measures are impossible. Like the previous Moria camp, which burned down in September 2020, the new reception and identification centre in Mavrovouni/Karatepe – widely known as ‘Moria 2.0’ – is not fit for human habitation. As if conditions of inadequate shelter, healthcare, privacy, food, electricity, running water, hot showers, toilets and other hygiene facilities were not bad enough, since 1926 and until its hasty transformation into a camp in September 2020, the site of Moria 2.0 had been a military firing range, and the Greek government has admitted that a high concentration of lead has been found in samples taken from the site. Lead poisoning causes organ damage, cancer and developmental harm in foetuses and children. There is no level of lead exposure known to be without harmful effects. In such conditions, the Greek state’s failure to transfer people who are disproportionately exposed to danger and death in the inhumane conditions of Moria 2.0 to appropriate living conditions amounts to an attack on migrants’ lives.
Which would you say are main rights violations that migrants and refugees face in Lesvos?
That hundreds of people have been, and continue to be, forcibly transferred then abandoned in the middle of the sea by Greek authorities without means to call for rescue, on unseaworthy, motorless dinghies and life rafts, constitutes a spectacular form of state violence against migrants. Beyond rights violations, LCL’s position is that the constituent elements of the consistent modus operandi of collective expulsions in the Aegean, along with the widespread and systematic nature of this attack, amount to crimes against humanity. The practice of systematic pushbacks with impunity reveals the extent to which fortress Europe treats migrants’ lives as disposable, in a manner that has historically accompanied the commission of atrocity crimes.
The same disregard for migrants’ lives is inherent in the conditions in camps and detention centres people are forced to endure in Lesvos, which are violations of the right to freedom from inhumane and degrading treatment and torture, the rights to liberty and security, to private and family life, to effective remedy, to freedom from discrimination and to life. It is inherent in people being forced to wait in limbo for years, cut off from family, friends, community and purpose, without being able to move forwards or backwards. It is inherent in the EU increasingly prioritising and funding mass effective detention of migrants, through ‘hotspot’ systems, accelerated border procedures, forcible deportations, border militarisation and border externalisation through deals of questionable legality with third countries and by making aid and other financial packages conditional on border fortification.
While the violence of pushbacks in the Aegean is scandalous and should be treated as such, it is by no means an aberration from the logic of Europe’s border regime, which instrumentalises human suffering for the purpose of deterring migration, at any cost. Even if due process and reception standards mandated by the Common European Asylum System were complied with in Lesvos, many people would still be excluded, and the system would remain violent and fundamentally insufficient to secure the conditions of human flourishing that everyone deserves. For this reason, while the LCL will continue to document, denounce and seek redress for the systematic rights violations in Lesvos, we are conscious that we must simultaneously organise for systemic change: Europe’s human rights framework cannot fail people it was never designed to protect.
What is your position regarding refugee protests over living conditions in camps and blockages of asylum requests?
LCL has always acted and organised in solidarity with migrant-led resistance. Over the years this has taken many forms, including protests, hunger strikes, collective publications, assemblies and occupations. The state has responded with attempts to collectively punish organised resistance by migrants in Lesvos. A case in point is that of the Moria 35 a few years ago. But there are many more recent examples of this. Of course, such resistance can be understood as an exercise of human rights such as the rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, and as a legal organisation, this is always one way of viewing and supporting this kind of action. However, in Lesvos – where rights are systematically violated with complete impunity, where conditions of misery are deliberately imposed, where the situation always seems to get progressively worse just when it already seemed as bad as could be imagined – organised resistance is also in many ways often the only remaining option.
What kind of support would you need from international civil society to continue doing your work?
Over the past year, the Greek state brought in new legislation on the registration of civil society organisations, introducing onerous, complex registration and certification requirements that present unnecessary, disproportionate barriers for organisations working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. This will certainly make the work of LCL harder as, of course, it is designed to. The Expert Council on NGO Law of the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe has already expressed its concerns on these new requirements, and further challenges to these measures would be a welcome form of support from international civil society.
In general, international support and solidarity is needed in the struggle against the increasingly hostile environment for migrants and those working in solidarity with migrants in Greece. Far-right disinformation campaigns making allegations of criminality against migrants and migrant solidarity organisations are increasingly reflected in Greek state practice, such as in the Greek police’s identification of four human rights and migrant solidarity groups in an investigation that accuses them of espionage, forming and membership of a criminal organisation; the Greek state’s systematic prosecution of migrants for facilitation of illegal entry/exit; its perverse decision to prosecute the father of a six-year-old child who tragically drowned in a shipwreck near Samos in November 2020 for endangering his son’s life; and its decision to bring criminal charges against a woman who set herself on fire in desperation in Moria 2.0 in February 2021. Such measures to frame migrants and those who act in solidarity with them as criminals and threats to the nation is a deliberate and effective tactic to obscure the fact that it is states that possess the monopoly on violence and to distract from their systematic violations of migrants’ rights.
More broadly, it is clear from the legislative proposals contained in the ‘new’ EU migration and asylum pact that the EU will attempt to roll out the model that has been tested in the laboratory of Lesvos and the other Greek ‘hotspot’ islands, across Europe’s external borders – including detention on arrival; accelerated border procedures in detention based on nationality and asylum recognition rates; deportation sponsorship as a form of ‘solidarity’ between member states; and expanded use of migrants’ personal and biometric data. A new ‘controlled’ camp is set to be constructed in Lesvos this year, in a location that is a known forest fire danger zone and is intentionally remote. Internationalist solidarity will always be our best weapon to organise resistance from below to all these measures.
Civic space in Greece is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Legal Centre Lesvos through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@lesboslegal on Twitter and@legalcentrelesvos on Instagram.
MIGRATION: ‘The spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with more violence’
CIVICUS speaks with Maddalena Avon, project coordinator at the Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) about the situation of migrants and refugees in Europe under the pandemic and the ways in which civil society is responding to increasing border pushbacks from hostile European governments.
CPS is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes non-violence and social change through education, research, advocacy, campaigning and activism. Founded in 1996, it works in three areas: asylum, integration and human security; peace education and non-violence affirmation; and combating inequalities. CPS is an active member of the Border Violence Monitoring Network, an independent network of CSOs based mostly in the Balkans and Greece, monitoring human rights violations at the external borders of the European Union and advocating to stop the violence against people on the move.
What have been the key trends in migration in Europe, and specifically in the Balkans, under the pandemic?
The landscape of asylum access has changed drastically since pandemic restrictions came into force. The Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) had already reported on asylum as an eroded set of rights, but due process for international protection claims has been further challenged in recent months under the health emergency.
Firstly, persistent pushbacks from borders continue to deny people access to claim international protection, with states performing collective expulsion. Secondly, government decisions to pause or close asylum offices with no effective alternative or remedy have placed refugees and other migrants in an effective limbo and at risk of pushback. Accordingly, the development of COVID-19 measures has allowed countries such as Croatia, Greece and Hungary to further restrict internationally mandated access to protection.
In the midst of the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, the European Union (EU) launched its Joint Action Plan for Human Rights. However, the intention of this communication exhibits acute divergence from the reality on the ground. Most notably, violations of fundamental rights continue by EU member states and non-EU countries that have various EU agreements on migration, asylum and border security, alongside funded camp systems. Rather than assisting vulnerable communities in this precarious period, policy and guidance have allowed the strengthening of borders across a majority of member states to erode further the rights to asylum, due process and humane treatment.
According to a recent report by the BVMN, in March and April 2020 Slovenia saw a decrease in the number of irregular border crossings compared to the first two months of 2021 and the same period in 2019, and this was reflected in the much lower number of people detained at police stations due to irregular border crossings. The trend of collective expulsions to Croatia, however, remained consistently high. In early 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent restrictions, Slovenia continued to systematically deny asylum rights and used its readmission agreement with Croatia – which allows it to hand people over to the Croatian police if there is proof that they illegally crossed the border within the last 48 hours – to deport large numbers of people, although the readmission agreement does not apply if the person has asked for asylum or is a potential asylum seeker. It has continued to do so despite full knowledge of the high risk of torture and further illegal pushback to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In Croatia, as elsewhere, the pandemic has changed many things, but some aspects, such as its pushback regime, have unfortunately stayed the same. The only difference is that these violent collective expulsions now attract less attention, as all eyes are on the pandemic and human rights monitors have not been allowed in the field due to health restrictions. Pushbacks and violence at borders have persisted: in one case out of the hundreds documented by the BVMN, a group including a severely injured person and a minor was beaten with batons by Croatian officers, who also burnt their clothes, and the group was pushed back into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A relatively new development in pushback practices is the tagging of groups with orange spray paint, as reported by No Name Kitchen, a grassroots organisation and member of the BVMN that provides direct assistance to people on the move in border towns along the Balkan Route. Chain pushbacks from Slovenia via Croatia, with migrants being sent back the same way they came, have also continued.
Reports of increased brutality during pushbacks are worrying due to the increased autonomy that state authorities have gained under the pandemic. Pushbacks are illegal and the spread of COVID-19 is no excuse to confront vulnerable people with even more violence.
How are the CPS and the BVMN responding to these trends?
The value of the work done by the BVMN lies in the interconnection of a variety of methods: field work, including trustful contact with people in border areas, testimony collection and advocacy work with clear demands being presented to institutions to hold them accountable for certain actions. Legal work is also essential, when people who have survived human rights violations want to seek justice. Each of the BVMN’s partners has its own strength in one or more of these working methods, and our collective strength is to combine all of them with a comprehensive approach.
Within the network, CPS conducts research that feeds into our awareness-raising and advocacy efforts on access to the asylum system, protection of refugees’ human rights, illegal conduct of the police, the criminalisation of solidarity and integration, with a focus on employment and education.
On integration, two of our big successes has been the Danube Compass, a web tool including all information relevant to the integration of refugees and migrants into Croatian society, and our non-formal education programme for asylum seekers, Let’s Talk about Society, which introduces our new community members to Croatian society and institutions, informs them of their rights and encourages their active participation in society.
Within the network, CPS is a strong legal actor, as we have so far filed 12 criminal complaints against unknown perpetrators in police uniforms. Through strategic litigation, we prevented an extradition and succeeded in filing two lawsuits against the Republic of Croatia at the European Court of Human Rights. As a result of our advocacy, several EU and international institutions, including the United Nations Refugee Agency, started questioning and condemning the practices of the Croatian authorities.
As a consequence of our public exposure of illegal practices towards refugees, we experienced a lot of pressure, and were banned from entering and working in asylum centres. This made our work more difficult but has not compromised our autonomy.
Do you see any progress in holding Frontex, the European border agency, accountable for its failure to protect human rights?
Frontex has faced severe allegations of human rights violations coming from different actors and institutions, and civil society has come together around multiple campaigns and actions on the matter, including #DefundFrontex. Supported by 22 CSOs and networks, including the BVMN, this campaign calls for the agency to be defunded and its budget redirected towards building a government-led and funded European civil sea rescue programme.
The main challenge is that Frontex operates in a grey legal zone and is perceived to have no responsibility for its actions – responsibility always lies with the member state in which Frontex operates. The agency’s rules are made in a way that allows for it to be largely unaccountable. However, we are seeing small steps towards a change in that regard, for example with the active engagement of the European Ombudsman.
How can civil society put pressure on the EU so that its commitment to human rights extends to migrants and refugees, and how can it encourage member states to respect their rights?
One of the ways that BVMN members found to bring together multiple strengths and be louder on key demands is the building of transborder networks. We believe that the active involvement of civil society in each border area, country and village can make a real difference on the public’s influence. Being loud on the rights of refugees and migrants is extremely important. It’s also important to connect a variety of struggles that are highly interconnected and take place across borders, such as struggles on climate change and women’s rights.
Civic space in Croatia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with the Centre for Peace Studies through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CMSZagreb on Twitter.
Get in touch with the Border Violence Monitoring Network through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@Border_Violence on Twitter.
MOLDOVA: ‘There are attempts to replace the pro-European government with a pro-Kremlin puppet regime’
CIVICUS speaks about recent political changes in Moldova in the context of the global energy crisis withVictoria Nemerenco, coordinator of the Europeanization, Foreign and Security Policy Program at the Institute for European Policies and Reforms (IPRE). Founded in 2015, IPRE isan independent, non-partisan and non-profit action centre for research and analysis. Its mission is to accelerate Moldova’s European integration by promoting systemic reforms, increasing participatory democracy and strengthening the role of citizens in decision-making processes at the national and local levels.
MONGOLIA: ‘The government makes decisions without proper consultation’
CIVICUS speaks with two civil society activists, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, about restrictions experienced by civil society in Mongolia and proposed new laws affecting civil society.
Mongolian youth protest in Sukhbaatar Square (Photo Credit: Anand Tumurtogoo)
What’s the problem with the Associations and Foundations bills, currently under discussion in Mongolia?
The drafts of the bills on associations and foundations have been under discussion since 2019 and were submitted by the Ministry of Justice and Internal Affairs to parliament in November 2021. The bills are meant to govern the work of civil society organisations (CSOs), including the processes for registration and reporting and the types of activities allowed, among other issues.
If passed, these bills will impose undue burdens on CSOs, particularly regarding the ways they will have to report to meet government requirements. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of CSOs, three-quarters of which are non-membership CSOs, may have to stop operating because of failure to comply with various undue burdens. These include increased and burdensome reporting criteria that apply to all CSOs regardless of their size, capacities and activities as well as internal requirements related to management and organisational structures that are not suitable for many informal groups.
The provision establishing a Civil Society Development Support Council, an independent body to oversee CSOs, is also problematic because it comes with sweeping powers to dissolve organisations arbitrarily and allocate funding among CSOs, deciding which get government funding. This carries the potential of shrinking funding opportunities for many CSOs, particularly those working to further rights. The risk of arbitrary deregistration is also high, given the vast powers conferred on the Council and the broad and vague provisions on prohibited activities.
How has civil society reacted?
CSOs have tried to review and refine the bills several times to ensure they uphold fundamental civic freedoms, but to no avail. The attempt now is to block the laws.
In November 2021, Mongolian civil society, together with several international CSOs, launched a campaign calling for the bills to be scrapped immediately, given there had been no consultation with civil society and there was no time or space to do so. The campaign managed to halt the progress of the draft bills and parliament announced that further discussions would be held.
As of April 2022, it seemed likely the bills would be postponed and undergo further consultation. However, the speaker of parliament issued a decree to establish a working group to draft an alternative bill, the Professional Associations Bill.
This draft had also been circulated in 2019 and was deemed problematic because it would tarnish the independence of CSOs by requiring CSO workers to have professional licences. At the moment, the discussion of this bill is suspended.
What can the international community do to support Mongolian civil society?
Although parliament has said the bills are currently suspended, there is no guarantee they will be dropped. Past experience shows the government often makes decisions on policy matters without proper consultation. Therefore, continuous scrutiny, including at the regional and international levels, would be very helpful.
Access to resources and connection to international platforms such as the United Nations system would also be useful to help local civil society continue its struggle.
Civic space in Mongolia is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.