NIGERIA: ‘People experience gross rights violations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of LGBTQI+ rights in Nigeria and the ongoing impacts of the British colonial legacy with Olaide Kayode Timileyin, executive director of Queercity Media and Productions.
Queercity Media is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes the rights of LGBTQI+ people in West Africa through advocacy and communications.
What is the current situation of LGBTQI+ people in Nigeria?
Nigerian LGBTQI+ people are marginalised. They experience gross violations of their rights because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, including extortion perpetrated by state actors such as the police and military as well as non-state forces such as local boys, landlords and bosses. Other violations include blackmail, mob attacks, assault and battery.
It is very traumatic to live in an environment that discriminates against you and puts your life in danger. Homophobia is a huge problem. It is disheartening to see cisgender heterosexual people threaten the lives of LGBTQI+ people.
Does Nigerian legislation discriminate against LGBTQI+ people?
Yes, Nigerian laws discriminate against LGBTQI+ people. Two major laws criminalise LGBTQI+ people: the Criminal Code Act and the 2013 Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. Under these laws LGBTQI+ people are not allowed to get married or carry out their advocacy activities. In addition, their way of life is not considered to be normal because it goes against social norms. As a result of these laws, members of our communities are arrested and their rights systematically violated by the police.
A few states, such as Lagos, also have local laws that criminalise LGBTQI+ people. In the past year Queercity Media has recorded two murders of LGBTQI+ people that were clearly linked to homophobia. In response to these we have held a nationwide digital campaign, with over a hundred people signing our petition on one of the cases.
It is very unfortunate that we have not seen any form of government response in these cases, or any other hate crime committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Instead, rights violations against the Nigerian LGBTQI+ community have only increased. For example, a recently proposed cross-dressers bill further targets and aids the targeting of queer people.
It is clearly necessary to work on the integration and reintegration of LGBTQI+ people as active members of Nigerian society. Criminalisation not only cripples the socio-economical capacity of this population but also disempowers LGBTQI+ people from active participation in nation-building.
What does Queercity Media do, and what kind of backlash have you faced?
We are a community-based media organisation whose four cardinal points are productions, events, campaigns and archiving. These represent our strategic departments, namely Queercity Productions, GLOW UP Pride, Queercity Campaigns and The Nigerian LGBT+ Museum of Arts.
As well as the rights violations that some of our staff, myself included, have experienced at the hands of the Nigerian police because of our work, the comments section of our Facebook page can sometimes be quite scary. This is one of our main ways of being in direct contact with everyday Nigerians, and it is mostly filled with negative comments or aggressive arguments among strangers.
Sometimes we learn from these reactions to better design our campaign language and approach. However, funding is a major problem for us and many LGBTQI+ organisations in West Africa, as no one seems to be interested in LGBTQI+ people, organisations or businesses, so we are often self-funded. Lack of access to proper funding also massively limits the reach we have compared to mainstream media organisations.
How can the international community support LGBTQI+ people fighting for their rights in Commonwealth countries?
Sadly, partnerships across Commonwealth countries on LGBTQI+ rights and movement-building is slow, and I do not know the reason for this. But I believe if we could find organisations doing the same work we are doing in other Commonwealth countries, it should be easy to create networks and partnerships to foster each organisation’s strategic goals in their home countries.
The international community and international civil society could help by recognising the socio-political nuances of working with local LGBTQI+ organisations and the need to be more flexible with their partnership and funding approach. That way, the advocacy work of organisations and activists living in contexts of restricted civic space will be enhanced and they will be able to better promote the rights of LGBTQI+ people.
Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with Queercity Media and Productions through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@PrideInLagos on Twitter.
NIGERIA: ‘The federal government and ASUU at some point made it feel like our education doesn’t matter’
CIVICUS speaks with Benedicta Chisom about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Benedicta is a student at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and a creative writer. Being directly affected by the ASUU strike, she has worked on social media to create awareness about it and its underlying issues.
How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?
The #EndASUUStrike started with students’ protests at the University of Benin and Ambrose Ali University, Ekpoma, and then snowballed into an online movement. Its message is simple: we want to go back to school.
Students just want to voice their grievances over the strike. Both the federal government and ASUU at some point made us feel like our education doesn’t matter. They keep going back and forth with the matter while our academic year is wasted. Every time teachers go on strike, we become passive spectators, just waiting on them to decide when to end it. We had to remind them that we matter too, and that it is our education and future that is at stake.
The protest was our way of demanding that the federal government and ASUU come to a final agreement so that teachers stop going on strike every single academic year. As a result of the strikes that have happened since 2020, we have lost more than 12 months of our academic career.
It would be a shame if the students that come after us continue to face the same challenges. Recurrent strikes need to end with us, this year. We want a five-year course to take five years of schooling, not more.
How has the government responded so far?
In February, President Mohammed Buhari mandated a trio composed of his chief of staff, the minister of education and the minister of labour and employment to address the disagreement with ASUU over the strike. The Minister of Labour met with the other unions – the National Association of Academic Technologists, the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions – which went on strike in support of ASUU. He assured the public that the government is tackling disputes in the educational sector holistically and acknowledged that some issues causing the crisis are economic, including funding for the revitalisation of universities and workers’ welfare.
But ASUU and the students are angry at the government’s undivided focus on the upcoming 2023 general election, as though students and their education did not matter. The union also condemned the rush to purchase the ruling All Progress Congress party’s presidential nomination forms by politicians even though money is one of the reasons for the strike. It accused the ministers of labour and education of insensitivity.
According to Independent Electoral Commission, more than half of registered voters, 51.1 per cent, are between the ages of 18 and 35. Many of them are students, and how will students believe in the government if their voices aren’t heard by the people they vote for? At some point we had hopes for change but now that the strike has been extended by 12 weeks, I can’t say much. But we are positive the mobilisation will drive home our grievances to some extent.
What do you think striking teachers should do?
For students, the strike is frustrating and disheartening. We are told to stay home without any idea of when we will return to school. I have spent a whole semester at home, and what was supposed to be a five-year course increased to six years. Our lives are put on hold; this affects not only our academic progression but also our life plans. Education workers should be more flexible with their demands and have more empathy towards students.
What should the government do?
There are many things the federal government can do to ensure that both the needs of students and education workers are met. The government must offer a good agreement to ASUU and begin to implement it immediately. It must also start paying unpaid allowances and salaries. This will give students back their right to education and stabilise the economy. The strike has done a lot of damage already.
One of the first things the government could do is adopt the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) as a preferred payment option instead of the system currently used. UTAS was created by Nigerian experts and must be run and maintained locally, so it will encourage local innovation and provide employment. It has passed the test and ASUU has agreed to improve it. It has become a bone of contention, so there is a big chance the strike will end once it is adopted.
Most significantly, the government must set out a strategy and timeline to come up with the billion-dollar funding required to revitalise universities. This will show ASUU and students that they are indeed working towards restoring public universities.
What kind of support do you need from the international community?
Social media has made the world a global village, so I am sure people in other parts of the world are aware of the protests and strikes in Nigeria. We need more voices to put pressure on our government to take immediate action. It would be of great help if students in other countries and Nigerians in the diaspora could help share the #EndASUUStrike hashtag, repost our posts and share our tweets to add momentum to the movement.
Civic space in Nigeria is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
NIGERIA: ‘The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists than with striking teachers’
CIVICUS speaks with Olorunfemi Adeyeye about the current student mobilisation that is calling on Nigeria’s government to respond to teachers’ demands and end the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU).
Olorunfemi is a student activist and member of the Fund Education Coalition, which works to raise awareness about the importance of Nigerian public universities and is currently supporting teachers by taking part in the #EndASUUStrike movement.
How did the #EndASUUStrike movement start, and what does it want to achieve?
The origins of the campaign are in the Fund Education Coalition movement, a coalition of Nigerian student groups advocating for education rights. #EndASUUStrike started when student organisations came together and called for students to be at the forefront of the struggle for their rights to quality public education. It uses the grievances of the ASUU strike to highlight what students need to have on their respective campuses.
The demands of the ASUU strike include several issues that concern Nigerian students directly. For instance, the union has raised the need to revitalise public universities. This is of great importance to students, who are the direct victims of underfunding. The campaign to properly fund education demands the revitalisation of laboratory equipment, which is in poor state, and fixes to the problems of overcrowded lecture halls and moribund campus health centres, among other key aspects. The union also frowns at the proliferation of universities and seeks an amendment to the 2004 National Universities Commission Act. The establishment of more universities, while existing ones are poorly funded, has become a constituency project for Nigerian rulers. Almost everyone in the ruling class wants to have one in their backyard. This is just unacceptable. We are fully in support of the strike, which also highlights issues surrounding the poor remuneration of lecturers.
What the Fund Education Coalition wants is for the Nigerian government to accede to workers’ demands in the educational sector. And not just to ASUU’s: the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the National Association of Academic Technologists are also on strike. With all education workers currently on strike, it was only rational for students to join them.
Have you established any connections with student movements facing similar challenges in other parts of the world?
Social media platforms have made it easy for us to share information about the #EndASUUStrike movement, reaching a vast audience across the world. Unfortunately, however, we have not yet had the chance to get in contact with any international student organisations facing similar issues.
As student activists, when things happen in other countries we lend voices to help each other – for instance, when the #FeesMustFall movement erupted in South Africa the Alliance of Nigerian Students against Neoliberal Attacks, an organisation I led in 2018, released a statement of support. We hope the same will also happen with the #EndASUUStrike. International solidarity among all the oppressed people in the world is key.
To counter the government’s propaganda that ASUU is on strike because it feels it can gain some concessions due to the approaching elections, it should be noted that this isn’t a new problem. Interestingly, there are no new problems in Nigeria. Our issues date back a long way. Strikes similar to the current one have been happening since the 1980s and the issues they point to continue to affect generation after generation of Nigerians.
We are still dealing with the same issues, as the government systematically fails to fulfil its promises and implement the agreements reached with unions. Our issues are perennial and endemic, but even though they may be different from those faced by young people in other countries, we are still open to collaboration with as many organisations from around the world as possible.
How has the ASUU strike affected you?
As students it is very unfortunate that we must go through this again. It is an endless cycle of spending very little of your time in class and most of it on the streets fighting for your right to education.
When ASUU goes on strike, it not only affects academic activities, but also the economic and social life of everyone in the academic community. There are students who depend on universities being open because they sell academic textbooks, stationery or equipment to make a living. There are also people who run businesses within universities as a means of providing for their families. All these have been disrupted. The strike has affected everyone.
As student activists, some of our activities have been affected and we have not been organising as we normally would on campuses. We hope the federal government will agree to ASUU’s demands so things can go back to normal.
What do you think education workers should do?
First, I need to clarify that students have a good relationship with ASUU and the other educational workers’ unions. We are all partners in the education sector. As students, we have been able to present some of our ideas and thoughts to ASUU.
An issue we discussed recently was that they should come out with a clear message against the government’s propaganda. The government has tried to convince people that it cannot accede to ASUU’s demands because there is no money to fund education. This is misinformation and propaganda, so we have asked ASUU to counter it with their own narrative and make it public. Everyone should understand why ASUU is striking and support their struggle. This will not only benefit teachers, students and their families, but it will also help us save public universities and ensure they are well equipped for ordinary citizens to attend.
How has the government responded so far to both the ASUU strike and the #EndASUUStrike movement?
The federal government has not responded to ASUU’s and students’ demands. Faced with strikes by other unions, such as the Airline Operators of Nigeria, the government reacted fast to prevent the suspension of airline services. But ASUU has been on strike for almost three months and the government has not even called them to a meeting. This serves as an indication that education is not really a priority for them. The government is more willing to negotiate with terrorists and bandits than to sit down and negotiate with academic workers.
As a result, ASUU has decided to extend the strike by three more months, which means students will have spent close to six months without attending school.
We hope we can put more pressure on the government so it will react to what is happening. We want the government to agree to a meeting with ASUU representatives and commit, this time, to solving the issues brought up at the meetings.
What kinds of support do you need from the international community?
As someone who is at the frontline of the struggle to protect a public education, I would say that the international community should put pressure on the Nigerian government to prioritise education.
The government has been telling us it does not have money to fund education, but yet there is serious capital flight from Nigeria to other countries. The president has donated one million US dollars to Afghanistan and oil theft has grown. Who is stealing the oil? Not ordinary people. Who are contributing to oil theft, money laundering and massive capital flight, if not foreign nations? These monies are mostly not kept in our banks. We need our international allies to put pressure on the government to stop capital flight and instead invest in education.
International organisations should also help us put pressure on foreign governments, corporations and parastate actors to stop aiding and abetting the thievery in Nigeria. Nigeria has plenty of resources that should be put to the correct use, such as funding education.
In addition, we need the international community to help us push our narrative through social media so that more attention is paid to the situation Nigerian students are dealing with.
Nigeria: Proposed NGO bill will be a death knell for civil society
Abuja —A proposed bill currently before Nigeria’s lawmakers, which will give the government sweeping powers over non-governmental organisations (NGOs), threatens the existence of Nigerian civil society, if passed into law.
The Nigeria Network of NGOs (NNNGO) and global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, have warned that the bill is clearly intended as a means to undermine the work of NGOs, especially those working to hold the government accountable. The fact that the House of Representatives hastily announced a scheduled public hearing for 13 and 14 December 2017 in the capital, Abuja is indicative of the intention of the authorities to avoid broad participation of civil society organisations from the different parts of Nigeria and ram the bill through the Legislature. Most CSOs are based outside of Abuja, where the public hearing will be held, making it difficult for them to travel to the hearing at short notice.
The Bill for the Establishment of the NGO’s Regulatory Commission for the Supervision, Coordination and Monitoring of NGOs and Civil Society Organisations makes it compulsory for all NGOs operating in Nigeria to register with the government and requires them to include details such has location and duration of proposed activities as well as information on all sources of funding. In addition, the proposed legislation states that NGOs will be required to provide “additional information” as requested by the Board during registration but does not say what this “additional information” would be.
These requirements make the registration process cumbersome and may inhibit the timely registration of some NGOs, making them susceptible to penalties. In addition, making NGO registration compulsory goes against international standards for freedom of association as it prevents informal associations from existing and operating freely because of their lack of formal status.
Said Oyebisi Oluseyi, NNNGO Director: “Civil society organisations in Nigeria provide social services to communities, contribute towards development outcomes and work to ensure that the government adheres to its human rights obligation.” If passed into law, the proposed NGO law will severely restrict the environment in which civil society operates and reverse socio-economic and democratic gains made over the years.”
The Bill provides wide powers to a regulatory agency to refuse to issue a registration certificate if, for example, it deems activities of the NGO to be against national interest. The Agency also has the authority to suspend or cancel a certificate that has been issued. Such broad powers place NGOs — especially those critical of government actions and who speak out against corruption and human rights violations — at the mercy of the authorities who can deregister organisations as a punitive measure for holding the government to account.
The content of the Bill is symptomatic of a growing global trend we now experience among governments to thwart the work of civil society organisations by placing restrictions on them in law and practice and by using the term “foreign agents” to discredit their work.
In addition, the Bill requires that NGOs register every two years and that the names of NGOs that fail to do so are deleted from the national register, forcing such NGOs to cease all their activities. It states that the registration of an organisation will be renewed on condition that the organisation submits its tax clearance certificate and other relevant documentation required by the Board.
The Bill compels NGOs to submit projects to the relevant government Ministry for approval and then registered with the agency’s board before they are implemented. The Bill does not place a limit on the registration fees for NGOs but leaves it to the discretion of the Commission. Individuals who violate provisions of the Bill face up to 18 months in prison or a huge fine and those convicted of such violations are prohibited from holding office in an NGO for a period of ten years.
Said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead for CIVICUS: “If passed into law, this draconian bill will place civil society under the thumb of the government and practically take away the independence of NGOs. It might also set a negative precedent in the West African region, aggravating an already hostile environment for civil society.”
CIVICUS and NNNGO call on the Nigerian authorities to adhere to their constitutional and international obligations on freedom of association and expression and withdraw the Bill.
For more information contact:
Nigeria Network of NGOs
+234 906 948 5207
Lead: Campaigns and Advocacy
+27 11 833 5959
No response to crisis can be effective without the support of a strong, diverse & capable civil society
Statement at the 50th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Interactive Debate on High Commissioner's report on State response to pandemics
Delivered by Nicola Paccamiccio
Thank you, Mister President, and thank you High Commissioner for your report.
With the worst of the pandemic over, States and citizens look to the future while analysing the actions taken in the past. With a clearer view, we see that many States acted with a heavy hand that adversely restricted civic space in the name of national health. We see that many States chose to use the pandemic as a veil with which to cover many ongoing and some new restrictions on civil society. And, while supporting our societies in coping with the impact of prolonged lockdowns, many States ignored the needs of the sector by not including civil society in recovery plans and stimulus packages.
Conversely, we see that civil society was resilient in the face of crackdowns. Civil society continued to organise, mobilise and offer necessary services at a community level. We see that civil society played a crucial watchdog role and in many cases paid a heavy price.
As we look to the future, to prevent devastating health and economic effects of another pandemic, we see that no response is good enough without the support of a strong, diverse, and capable civil society. It is for this reason that civil society should be meaningfully included in all post pandemic processes, having been closest to the ground, including the pandemic treaty negotiations. States should increase their funding and access to resources for civil society and protect and promote the enabling environment for civil society. By doing so, States would be ultimately securing mechanisms, enablers and spaces that they themselves need to work with and for the societies they serve. When civil society is relevant and resilient, societies can count on the arenas for participation, confrontation and solidarity needed to face the post-pandemic challenges ahead of us.
We thank you.
NORTH KOREA: ‘It is time for the international community to adopt a ‘human rights up front’ approach’
CIVICUS speaksabout the activism of North Korean escapees with Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).Founded in 2001 and based in the USA, HRNK is a human rights organisationwith the principal objective of raising international awareness of North Korea's human rights situation.
Is it possible to carry out any form of activism in North Korea?
No form of activism is possible in North Korea. There is no civil society due to an overwhelming and unprecedented level of coercion, control, surveillance and punishment. The markets that emerged following the famine of the 1990s and the newly created domestic mobile phone network allow North Koreans to engage in limited forms of market activity, but even this is subject to state surveillance and control. Every North Korean, regardless of whether they are a member of the ruling party or a government official, belongs to a party-controlled organisation, such as the Youth League or the Women’s Union. Anecdotal information from sources inside the country suggests that there is sporadic opposition and resistance to state agents at the local level, but the regime has gone to extreme lengths to prevent the emergence of any organised opposition.
Have there been any recent changes in how the North Korean regime responds to dissent?
Under the pretext of COVID-19 prevention, the North Korean regime has intensified its crackdown on those attempting to smuggle in information from the outside world or attempting to access such information. In December 2020 the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s highest legislative body, passed the ‘Anti-Reactionary Ideology and Culture Law’. This law imposes severe criminal penalties on those who access or disseminate foreign content, including movies, dramas, music and books. The penalties are especially severe, up to a life sentence of hard labour, for those who smuggle in or disseminate South Korean media.
How do people manage to escape North Korea?
Leaving the country without official authorisation is regarded as treason in North Korea. To escape, North Koreans need the assistance of religious networks, international civil society organisations (CSOs) and brokers who operate in the China-North Korea border region. The author and journalist Melanie Kirkpatrick has called this escape route ‘Asia’s underground railroad’. In some cases, family members or relatives who have already escaped pay brokers to arrange the escape. The most common route is through China and Southeast Asia. Upon arrival in Thailand, the escapees either choose to go to South Korea or apply for asylum in other countries.
However, since Kim Jong-un came to power in late 2011, the North Korean regime has intensified border security. The Chinese government has also taken steps that make it more difficult for the escapees to move inside China. In addition, the Chinese government has a longstanding policy of forced returns, whereby it repatriates any North Korean refugees arrested in its territory. This violates China’s obligations as a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, since North Korean refugees face a credible fear of persecution upon return.
This, combined with the COVID-19 border lockdown, means the number of escapees reaching South Korea has plummeted. The highest annual recorded number of arrivals to South Korea was 2,914 in 2009, but this fell to only 67 in 2022. The easing of COVID-related measures is likely to result in a greater number of attempts to flee.
What kind of help do escapees receive?
Most escapees choose to go to South Korea, as they are granted citizenship upon arrival under South Korea’s constitution. The South Korean government provides various forms of economic, educational and job training assistance to North Korean refugees. International and local CSOs also help them adjust to life in South Korea.
The situation is still difficult for many escapees, given how different the two societies have become in over seven decades of division. According to the latest available data from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, a total of 34,000 escapees have resettled in South Korea to date. Refugees who choose to go to other countries, including the UK and the USA, primarily receive help from CSOs and other escapees who have already relocated there.
How do escapees work to document and denounce human rights violations in North Korea?
North Korean escapees play a critical role, given their first-hand experience of life under the regime. Many refugees, including those who are survivors of North Korea’s detention facilities, provide vital testimony to CSOs that seek to document and raise awareness of human rights violations in North Korea. Escapee testimony has also played a critical role in the work of the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, whose 2014 report concluded that the North Korean regime has committed crimes against humanity pursuant to policies determined at the highest levels of the state. Both the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea and the Seoul office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights continue to work closely with North Korean escapees.
Some refugees operate their own organisations. In addition to documenting and raising global awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea, they are often involved in sending outside information to North Korean people. Methods they use include radio broadcasts, leaflet balloons flown across the Korean demilitarised zone and rice and micro-SD cards in plastic bottles that are floated across the maritime border between the two Koreas. It is also common for individual escapees to send money to family members in North Korea with the help of brokers.
How does HRNK support escapees?
HRNK works closely with North Korean escapees to document and raise awareness of the human rights situation in North Korea. Given the lack of on-the-ground access inside North Korea, we employ a methodology that combines satellite imagery analysis, witness testimony and open-source investigation.
Testimonies are often given by escapees who have already resettled in South Korea, although HRNK has sometimes obtained information through refugees with contacts inside North Korea. HRNK has held consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council since April 2018 and reports to various UN bodies and hosts side events in Geneva and New York. We have facilitated the participation of North Korean escapees at these events to amplify their voices on the international stage.
What further international support do diaspora activists need?
North Korean activists need support from both private and public sources of funding. In general, North Korean human rights activists are overworked and underfunded. ‘Like-minded’ governments such as those of Japan, South Korea, the USA and others display interest in the issue but have often sidelined human rights concerns to focus solely on negotiating military, political and security matters. It is time for the international community to adopt a ‘human rights up front’ approach to North Korea, ensuring that human rights concerns are integrated into every aspect of its interactions with North Korea. Escapee activists will play a critical role in this effort.
Civic space in North Korea is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
NORTH KOREA: ‘Many women escape to experience the freedoms they are denied’
CIVICUS speaks with Kyeong Min Shin, researcher with Korea Future, about the situation in North Korea and the challenges faced by North Korean women in exile in South Korea.Korea Future is a civil society organisation that investigates human rights violations in North Korea and works with governments, national commissions, parliamentary bodies, civil society, diaspora groups and legal experts and organisations across the world to hold those most responsible accountable for their crimes.
What proportion of North Korean exiles are women, and what specific challenges do they face due to their gender?
Of the 33,834 North Koreans who have escaped the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), most of whom have found refuge in the Republic of Korea (South Korea), 72 per cent are women and girls, and around 60 per cent are women in their 20s and 30s.
South Korea is a liberal democracy. However, women continue to experience structural, direct and indirect discrimination across the political, economic and social spheres. For North Korean women exiled in South Korea, these challenges are magnified. Our research has found that 43 per cent of exiled North Korean women had experienced identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices, in addition to gender-based and indirect forms of discrimination. This has led to the social, economic and political marginalisation of exiled North Korean women in the diaspora and wider South Korean society.
What kind of conditions are these women escaping from, and how do they manage to escape?
In North Korea, the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea implements policies and oversees practices that are openly hostile to women. Legislation designed to protect women is inadequate and unenforced. Acts of sexual and gender-based violence are perpetrated against women of every class, age and status. The persistence of economic violence targeted at women forces many to adopt perilous activities, which in turn leads to further and more severe human rights violations, including human trafficking, forced marriage, forced abortions and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence.
While individual motives to escape North Korea differ, I would highlight two distinct patterns. First, many women have told me they escaped to experience the freedoms they were denied in North Korea, to reunite with family members in South Korea who had previously escaped their homeland, and to be able to earn a living and feed their families. Second, we found that many women are forced to enter China through economic necessity. There, many fall victim to human trafficking and are sold into either prostitution or forced marriages in rural areas. While escape is difficult owing to China’s policy of returning refugees, some are successful and travel through China and southeast Asia before finding sanctuary in South Korea.
How are they received in South Korea, and what challenges do they face?
Upon their entry into South Korea, North Korean exiles often receive South Korean citizenship and are not considered refugees. However, exiled North Koreans who have settled in South Korea face unique forms of identity-based discrimination, grounded in historical prejudices about North Korea as dangerous and communist and North Korean exiles as disloyal, idle, unthankful or ill-mannered. According to our survey, 43 per cent of respondents have experienced at least one form of identity-based discrimination since arriving in South Korea. Across the diaspora, 18 per cent of North Korean women and men experienced discrimination in South Korea in 2020.
North Korea maintains clandestine agents in many countries, including South Korea. If the presence of exiles in South Korea is established by these agents, remaining family members in North Korea can be subject to extortion and punishment under the principle of ‘guilt by association’. There have also been cases where exiles in South Korea have been coerced by North Korean state agents to return to North Korea, although this is less common.
How is your organisation working to respond?
Korea Future is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation investigating human rights violations in North Korea in support of justice and accountability. We were founded in London in 2017 and expanded from a long-running civil society and diaspora collective that had documented human rights violations and provided assistance to North Korean refugees who were exiled in Europe. Today, we are a diverse team of professionals with over 30 years of combined experience working on North Korea with offices in Seoul, London and The Hague.
We primarily undertake detailed in-person interviews with North Korean survivors, perpetrators and witnesses of human rights violations and advocate for justice and accountability. We also source internal documents and photographic and video evidence from inside North Korea as part of our ongoing investigations. More recently, we used digital modelling to recreate the internal architecture of a North Korean detention centre. This was the first time anyone had been able to see inside a North Korean penal facility.
Much of our information is stored in the North Korean Prison Database, a growing and comprehensive archive of international human rights law violations and atrocities that have transpired in the North Korean penal system. The database is freely available to legal practitioners, policymakers, researchers, civil society organisations, journalists and more.
We also engage in capacity strengthening of exiled North Korean women to increase their involvement in and leadership of human rights investigations, documentation and organisations. I recently completed a two-year project with exiled women, exploring how the human rights movement, particularly grant-makers, can deploy their resources to better support the active participation and leadership of exiled women and exiled women-led organisations.
How should the South Korean government engage with North Korea? And what should the international community do?
We encourage and support all states and the wider international community to work toward justice and accountability solutions for North Korea. It is well established that crimes against humanity are ongoing in North Korea, and this should inform how states approach the situation. Human rights cannot be divorced from other diplomatic initiatives or approaches to North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. The reality today is that there are no international mechanisms to investigate North Korea, nor are there any ongoing international or domestic court cases. It is too easy to assume that a problem like North Korea is too difficult to solve. A solution has to start somewhere, and failing a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court or the formation of an international tribunal, we encourage the examination of other approaches, such as investigation under the principle of universal jurisdiction and targeted human rights sanctions. While North Korea is probably the largest crime base in modern history, it should be seen as remarkable that it remains the least documented and understood as well.
Civic space in North Korea is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
NORTH KOREA: ‘Since Kim Jong-un came to power, the surveillance and security system has increased dramatically’
CIVICUS speaks about activism in the closed civic space of North Korea with Bada Nam, Secretary General of People for Successful Corean Reunification (PSCORE).
Founded in 2006 and based in South Korea, PSCORE is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) that works to improve human rights in North Korea, assist North Korean escapees settling in South Korea and address barriers to reunification of the two Koreas.
Is there anything resembling civil society in North Korea?
North Korea values organisational activities, requiring every citizen to participate simultaneously in several groups such as the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea, North Korea’s Socialist Women’s Union and the Socialist Patriotic Youth League. All of them are government-organised and exert control over people rather than encourage critical thinking. Mentioning civic organisations from the outside world is strictly forbidden.
Congregating and engaging in activism in any way critical to the regime is a serious criminal offence, with punishments that can extend to the death penalty. As a result, any such activity must be covert, and it’s difficult to obtain accurate information on the existence of an underground civil society.
North Korea is a surveillance state, where people are always cautious about what they say, even to close friends and family members. It’s impossible to gather colleagues and engage in civic activities because everyone is made to monitor each other and failure to report treasonous crimes to the authorities would also result in severe punishment. Public criticism sessions and public executions are also examples of how the regime strikes fear into the population.
People are deterred from opposing the government not only because of the extreme punishment they would face but also due to North Korea’s policy of guilt by association, which puts their close relatives at risk. The ‘Songbun’ class system classifies people according to their political loyalties, as ‘loyal’, ‘wavering’ or ‘hostile’, and family members may be demoted in this classification system, affecting their life opportunities, including career options and access to food rations. In serious cases, entire families may be sent to political camps and die from forced labour or starvation. Therefore, North Koreans don’t dare imagine opposing the government.
Have there been any recent changes in the ways the North Korean regime responds to dissent?
The North Korean government has always responded to dissent in an extreme manner. However, since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011, the surveillance and security system has increased dramatically, making it nearly impossible to escape from North Korea. Extra security measures are in place along the borders and a shoot-to-kill policy is enforced against those trying to escape. The situation was exacerbated further during the COVID-19 pandemic when the China-North Korea border was closed, both halting trade and also impeding the flow of defectors.
Information poses the greatest threat to the North Korean regime, especially due to the influence of the recent ‘Korean wave’ that has made South Korean popular culture increasingly prevalent. Most people in North Korea have been exposed to South Korean dramas and music, leading some to adopt South Korean manner of speech and fashion style. In response, the government has intensified monitoring, enacted strict laws and imposed severe punishments for consuming or distributing foreign media. The Pyongyang Cultural Language Protection Act, enacted in January 2023, explicitly prohibits the use of foreign languages and specifically bans South Korean terms such as ‘oppa’, which translates as ‘older brother’ and is used as a form of endearment for a boyfriend.
How do people manage to escape North Korea?
Most North Koreans escape across the border with China, often with the help of a broker. Brokers reach out to wealthy families in North Korea or help those who have escaped to China get to South Korea. Defectors in South Korea sometimes contact a broker to help other family members flee.
China has a policy of forced repatriation for North Korean refugees, and its advanced surveillance system makes it extremely difficult to travel in China undetected. If apprehended and returned to North Korea, defectors and their families face severe punishment.
Most North Korean refugees must travel through several countries before reaching safety. From China, they might flee to Mongolia and Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Many North Koreans end up seeking asylum in Thailand, where the government assists them and helps organise their journey to South Korea.
What help do escapees receive?
The assistance available to North Korean refugees depends on the laws and diplomatic relations of countries with North and South Korea. Civil society, including PSCORE, helps North Korean defectors settle in South Korea by teaching essential life skills. Thanks to our volunteer teachers, we focus on providing educational support, including English lessons and vocational workshops. In the past, we also assisted escapees in reaching South Korea but, unfortunately, this became impossible due to China’s growing securitisation and the impact of COVID-19.
Once in South Korea, North Koreans must undergo a 12-week training programme at the Hanawon rehabilitation centre, where they learn various skills to adapt to the South Korean lifestyle and have access to medical treatment and mental health services. While the South Korean government has implemented programmes to assist refugees, the process of fully integrating into South Korean society is still difficult for people who have previously lived under the totalitarian regime. Psychological trauma from refugees’ journey to freedom may have lasting effects on their lives.
How do escapees work to raise awareness and advocate for change in North Korea?
There are many CSOs, mainly based in South Korea, that support North Koreans inside the country and abroad. Some organisations send messages, information, K-dramas and K-pop to North Korea using USB sticks. South Korean news outlets, such as Daily NK and NK News, have sources in North Korea that provide insights into the current situation. PSCORE and other North Korean human rights groups conduct interviews with defectors and publish reports based on their testimonies.
Our primary activities involve organising public awareness campaigns through seminars and events. We also share short catchy videos on various North Korea-related topics via our social media channels. Our large international team of interns plays a crucial role in advocacy by translating our social media content into various languages. This makes our mission and content visible to the rest of the world.
PSCORE was granted special consultative status with the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2012, facilitating our engagement with the international community. We hold an annual side event at the UN Human Rights Council to share the latest information on North Korea’s human rights situation. We leverage international pressure to try to bring about change.
What further international support do diaspora activists need?
The topic of North Korean human rights is seen as a very political issue in South Korea. This means that CSOs are affected by each change of government, as policies toward North Korea shift with every administration. While PSCORE’s objective is centred on achieving peace and improving human rights in North Korea, we receive limited support compared to other CSOs due to the interpretation of our activities as politically charged, even though PSCORE is a non-partisan and non-religious CSO. Increased media exposure could help us secure more funding.
Insufficient funding is a common challenge for North Korean human rights organisations. It hinders the potential to raise awareness and support refugees in South Korea. North Korean activists need more platforms to amplify their voices and continue advocating for change. Still, we hope that more donations will come as the international community becomes more interested in the cause of human rights in North Korea.
Civic space in North Korea is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
NORTHERN CYPRUS: ‘Civil society is not involved in decision-making and is considered a nuisance’
CIVICUS speaks with DeryaBeyatlı, Director of the Human Rights Platform,about the space for civil society in Northern Cyprus and the prospects for reunification in the context of the 2023 Cyprus and Turkish presidential elections.
Established in 2021, theHuman Rights Platform isa Turkish-Cypriot civil society umbrella organisation bringing together seven human rights organisations guided by the vision of an egalitarian, democratic and inclusive society where human rights and fundamental freedoms are protected and accessible for everyone.
What do you make of the results of the Cyprus presidential election?
In the latest presidential election, held in February 2023, we saw a rise of nationalist and racist rhetoric. In response to losing ground, the left-wing Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) supported a candidate who was more nationalistic than the party itself, but was still defeated in the runoff by Nicos Christodoulides, who was backed by centrists and right-wing parties.
It is clear to me that over the past few years Cyprus has been affected by the same shift towards radical right-wing politics that we’ve seen elsewhere in Europe.
What does the Human Rights Platform work on?
One of the main objectives of the Human Rights Platform is to document human rights violations committed by the government of Northern Cyprus, which is largely controlled by the Turkish authorities. I have observed that both society and the local authorities are becoming more racist, largely in reaction to the inflow of Black students who are lured with the promise of a job in Europe and trafficked into the northern part of Cyprus. Only in 2020 was human trafficking recognised as a crime in Northern Cyprus, and yet more than two years later, there has been only one court verdict in a case involving this crime. The authorities are unwilling to deal with human trafficking crimes and other human rights violations and keep blaming the victims instead.
What is the current state of reunification talks?
Ever since 1974, Cyprus has been split along ethnic lines, with Greek and Turkish Cypriots living on either side of the Green Line, a buffer zone under United Nations (UN) control. Christodoulides assumed that reunification talks might resume due to Turkey’s rapprochement with the west in search of relief to address damage caused by recent earthquakes and right after being elected said that the reunification of Cyprus is his priority. However, I think neither him nor Ersin Tatar, the current president of Northern Cyprus, who has strongly advocated for a two-state solution for many years, nor the Turkish and Greek guarantors are actually interested in the reunification of Cyprus.
The two-state formula currently advocated by Tatar was put on the table back in 2002 by Rauf Denktash, the founding president of Northern Cyprus, and was widely rejected by UN member states, with the exception of Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has repeatedly expressed his support for the two-state solution, so I don´t think his re-election changes anything.
Reunification talks are currently on hold and I’m afraid we’re headed towards permanent division. Neither Turkey nor the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) are eager to give up the power they exercise and share it with Turkish Cypriots. We are in a sandwich position, where Turkey interferes with the local matters of Northern Cyprus and the RoC discriminates against Turkish-speaking citizens of the island.
One of the numerous human rights implications of the division of Cyprus is that there are around 30,000 children of mixed marriages who cannot get RoC citizenship and hence become European Union (EU) citizens. Despite Turkish language being an official language of the RoC, official documents and legislation are all in the Greek language, leaving Turkish Cypriots out. Turkish Cypriots cannot open a bank account or establish an association unless they live in government-controlled areas. And the list goes on.
What obstacles does civil society face in Northern Cyprus?
The division of the island creates challenging civic space conditions in Northern Cyprus, where the Human Rights Platform is registered. We face many obstacles due to the fact that we work in areas not under the effective control of the government of RoC. It’s very difficult to make our voices heard and get access to funding available to EU member states because we are not legally registered in a member state. Yet we cannot do so, since we do not reside in the government-controlled areas. Our only funding opportunity is the Financial Aid instrument of the European Commission (EC), which is highly competitive and offers limited funds to civil society.
The local authorities of Northern Cyprus prefer directing EU funds towards infrastructure and economic development, and regard supporting civil society as unnecessary and therefore a complete waste of funds. Turkish Cypriot civil society organisations (CSOs) aren’t involved in decision-making mechanisms and are considered a nuisance. Meanwhile, local public funds are only available to government-sponsored non-governmental organisations, also known as GONGOs, that are under the effective control of the Turkish Embassy and the Turkish Cypriot political leadership.
Perceived by local authorities as a threat, Turkish Cypriot civil society is silenced and sometimes attacked on mainstream media. Public TV, radio and news agencies are almost inaccessible for us. CSOs working to protect human rights and safeguard democracy in Northern Cyprus are systematically marginalised. Since we maintain relationships with the EC, EU member states and the USA, we are often regarded as ‘foreign agents’ and threatened and blackmailed, sometimes openly but mostly discreetly. A widely used tactic is the use of fake social media accounts promoting extremely nationalistic content and blaming Turkish Cypriot civil society activists for trading the country to the Greeks or to imperialistic powers.
What international support do Turkish Cypriot human rights CSOs need?
Most international intergovernmental organisations and their agencies prefer to ignore our presence. Since we are in a place the existence of which they don’t recognise, they refuse to even meet with us, let alone hear us out. We need both political and financial support in order to get stronger and become more effective in our struggle to uphold democracy and human rights in Northern Cyprus.
Civic space in Cyprus is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Nuestro patrimonio es una sociedad civil de éxito
Por William Gumede, presidente ejecutivo de la fundación Democracy Works
La publicación de este artículo ha sido promovida por CIVICUS como parte de las celebraciones de nuestro 25 aniversario.
Al celebrar nuestras diversas culturas durante el Mes del Patrimonio, vale la pena celebrar también una cultura de la sociedad civil que no sólo ha promovido la diversidad cultural, sino que también es diversa en sí misma, con un patrimonio ganado con mucho esfuerzo y que lucha incansablemente por los derechos de los pueblos de este país.
Encuentre el artículo en inglés en: Mail and Guardian
Nutrition is political and civil society needs to shape those politics
By Danny Sriskandarajah
The two major nutrition meetings - the Global Nutrition Summit in Milan and the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement global gathering in Abidjan – held this month were celebrations of the major progress made in this area in recent years, but also provided a glimpse of the challenges ahead, especially for civil society. Indeed, what is happening in nutrition seems like a microcosm of the broader sustainable development agenda.
Read on: HuffingtonPost
One Year after the Illegitimate Military Coup in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Joint LGBTIQ+ Civil Society Statement
We will never forget. It has been a year since the violent and illegitimate occupation of the democratically elected government by Myanmar's military junta on 1 February 2021. This was at a period when the people were at their most vulnerable, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It was and still is a grave and utter betrayal of the public will and trust and a sheer disregard of democratic institutions and values.
In the past 365 days, we have been witnessing accounts of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, criminalisation, arbitrary detentions, illegal arrests, torture, violent reprisals, and sexual and gender-based violence committed against pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders.
This junta has fueled a humanitarian crisis that continues to impose fear, escalating violence, and destroy innocent lives throughout the country. Bombings of villages identified as centres of the opposition had resulted in killings of civilians and humanitarian workers and triggered gross internal displacement of communities. The crisis continues to escalate and has spilt across its borders as thousands have fled and sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
We are appalled by the junta's disregard of socio-economic and health emergencies caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as curtailing supplies of oxygen and medicines, arresting doctors and medical personnel, and leaving thousands to die without medical help.
We will always remember. The sheer tenacity, bravery and courage of LGBTIQ+ persons who were and are at the frontlines fighting for democracy, dignity, and freedom will forever be commemorated and ingrained in our collective memory. Despite repressive conditions, our LGBTIQ+ siblings have tirelessly campaigned both online and offline in pursuit of reclaiming democracy and urging for a global action to condemn military-led atrocities. We are deeply moved by various forms of creative resistance such as flash mobs, the waving of rainbow flags, the march of drag artists that had become symbols of peoples' solidarity and strength.
This military junta and their supporters have blood on their hands. We deeply regret that many have been separated from their loved ones and have lost their lives amid the struggle. Data reported by Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG) in June 2021 revealed that at least 12 LGBTIQ+ people were shot to death, while hundreds more were detained, arrested, and severely tortured based on their SOGIESC. Many are currently in hiding to escape retaliation.
We stand firmly in solidarity.As long as Myanmar is unfree, democracy in Southeast Asia will never move forward. We commit our continuous support for efforts to reclaim and fortify human rights, freedoms, peace and democracy in Myanmar. Human rights and freedoms, particularly of LGBTIQ+ peoples, can flourish only if the people are recognised and respected as the rightful sovereign of the country. As such, we strongly deplore the military junta as an illegitimate force that is unworthy of any recognition.
We urge the UN to step up and impose necessary sanctions and actions against the junta. Min Aung Hlaing, the rest of the military leadership, their political allies, and their families should be made accountable for the atrocities they committed.
We urge all governments, the UN, and the entire international community to recognise Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG) immediately and assure urgent unified response to provide unified assistance for putting Myanmar back on the path to democracy, the restoration of fundamental freedoms such as on information and expression, and guarantee the prevalence of peace and prosperity. While Myanmar is in crisis, we urge the international community to open up its borders, facilitate safe passage, and create domestic conditions to guarantee safety and dignity for all Myanmar persons seeking refuge.
We urge ASEAN, especially the government of Cambodia in its capacity as the Chair of the regional bloc, to fully implement its Five-Point Consensus on Myanmar: an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue with all stakeholders especially marginalised and ethnic groups who are excluded from political processes, provision of humanitarian assistance, and the appointment and unhindered visits of an ASEAN Special Envoy to facilitate constructive dialogues with all stakeholders.
To our Myanmar LGBTIQ+ queerblings both in the country and abroad, you are not alone in this struggle. We are with you until and after democracy is fully regained in your beloved country.
In solidarity: List of Organizational Signatories
ASEAN SOGIE Caucus
Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact
Asia Pacific Transgender Network (APTN)
Equal Asia Foundation
Initiatives for International Dialogue
International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP)
Pan Africa ILGA
Youth Voices Count
CamASEAN Youth's Future (CamASEAN)
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
Komunitas Sehati Makassar
GAYa Nusantara Foundation
Justice for Sisters
People Like Us Support Ourselves (PLUsos)
People Like Us Hang Out! (PLUHO)
Blue Diamond Society
Filipino LGBT Europe
National Forum of Women With Disabilities (NFWWD)
Asexual Support Philippines
Care for Queers
Iloilo Pride Team
Kapederasyon LGBT Organization
LakanBini Advocates Pilipinas
LGBTQ Plus Partylist
LGBTS Christian Churches
Metro Manila Pride
MUJER-LGBT Organization, Inc.
Pioneer Filipino Transgender Men Movement (PFTM)
Side B Philippines
Society of Trans Women of the Philippines (STRAP)
Youth for Change
Youth for YOUth Organization
My Queer Story SG
Free Gender TH
Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project
School of Feminist, Thailand
Sexuality and Gender Acceptance (SAGA) Thailand
ARCOIRIS Timor Leste
This statement was also signed by 4 organisations from Myanmar who opted not to be identified due to security reasons.
50 Individual Activists from the following countries: Australia, Cambodia, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, Turkey, and United Kingdom.
Open Letter to President Aquino Concerning Civil Society in the Philippines
Click here to download
Open letter: Ensure continued monitoring of the human rights situation in Eritrea
To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations Human Rights Council
We, the undersigned human rights organizations, are writing to urge you to support the adoption of a resolution at the upcoming 41st session of the UN Human Rights Council (“Council”) to maintain a monitoring and reporting mandate on the human rights situation in Eritrea.
The human rights situation in Eritrea remains dire, notwithstanding recent developments, including the Eritrea-Ethiopia Summit, the reopening of the border between the two countries, and the signing of a tripartite agreement between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
A free and independent press continues to be absent from the country and 16 journalists remain in detention without trial, many since 2001. Eritrean authorities are yet to produce evidence that those arbitrarily jailed are alive. Throughout the country, authorities have restricted and suppressed civic space. At the Council’s 40th session in March 2019, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted impunity for past and ongoing human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detention, violations of the right to a fair trial, lack of information on the fate and whereabouts of disappeared persons, lack of access to justice, lack of enforcement of the 1997 Constitution, the imposition of severe restrictions to the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief, and the continued use of indefinite national service involving torture, sexual violence and forced labour. She stressed: “[A]s far as [the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, OHCHR] is aware, the actual human rights situation for the people of Eritrea has not improved in the past year.” Ongoing severe violations, including their gendered impact and generalised impunity, call for a high level of monitoring and public reporting.
This is the wrong time for the Council to relax scrutiny of the situation in Eritrea. In its resolution 38/15, adopted by consensus in July 2018, the Council invited the Special Rapporteur to “assess and report on the situation of human rights and the engagement and cooperation of the Government of Eritrea with the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, as well as with the Office of the High Commissioner, and, where feasible, to develop benchmarks for progress in improving the situation of human rights and a time-bound plan of action for their implementation.”
The Special Rapporteur will present her report on reform benchmarks at the upcoming Council session. These provisions, which offer a constructive way forward, outline an expectation of continued attention to, and engagement with, the country. The Council should now ensure adequate follow-up. Failure to do so would doubtless be interpreted by Eritrea as an endorsement of the status quo, further entrenching systemic rights violations. Discontinuation of the mandate should only occur when and if these benchmarks are met and there is demonstrable and concrete progress in the promotion, protection and realisation of human rights.
As a newly-elected member of the Council, Eritrea has an obligation to “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and to “fully cooperate with the Council” (UN General Assembly resolution 60/251). Eritrea has not adhered to its membership obligations and has neither invited the Special Rapporteur nor accepted her request to visit the country. Eritrea is one of only 22 countries that have never received a country visit from any Special Procedure, despite requests from numerous mandate-holders.
Obstructionist behavior should not be rewarded. Eritrea’s membership in the Council should be fully leveraged for improvements in the country’s human rights situation and cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms. The Council should urge Eritrea to change course and engage with the UN human rights system.
At its 41st session, the Council should make clear that membership does not prevent, but rather triggers an enhanced responsibility to accept, scrutiny. It should adopt a resolution maintaining a Special Procedure mandate and a high level of monitoring and public reporting, to ensure that the grave and systemic human rights violations identified by OHCHR and the Council’s own mechanisms are addressed and accountability for these violations is achieved.
We thank you for your attention to these pressing issues and stand ready to provide your delegation with further information.
AfricanDefenders (the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
Association for Human Rights in Ethiopia (AHRE)
Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
Center for Reproductive Rights
Civil Rights Defenders
Committee to Protect Journalists
CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide)
DefendDefenders (the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
Eritrean Diaspora in East Africa (EDEA)
Eritrean Law Society (ELS)
Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR)
Front Line Defenders
Geneva for Human Rights / Genève pour les Droits de l’Homme
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Human Rights Concern - Eritrea (HRCE)
Human Rights Defenders Network - Sierra Leone
Human Rights Institute of South Africa (HURISA)
Human Rights Watch
International Commission of Jurists
Information Forum for Eritrea (IFE)
International Refugee Rights Initiative
International Service for Human Rights
Network of Eritrean Women (NEW)
One Day Seyoum
Reporters Without Borders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT)
Opinion: Government attacks on humanitarian organisations and human rights rising
By Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS.
There are now serious restrictions in civic space on every continent, but yet even as they grab more power, we find the world’s leaders are apparently incapable of responding to the great challenges of the day. They are failing to fight overwhelming inequality, remaining silent on the human rights abuses of states such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan, and letting down the people of Syria and the Rohingya people of Myanmar, among many others.
From Brazil to India, deeply divisive political agendas are seen to have gained national prominence by harnessing public anger toward fundamental economic and governance failures. The promise of anti-establishment change has helped authoritarian leaders win elections by joining groups of people together on the basis of what they oppose, but without tangible evidence of change that addresses the failures behind people’s anger.
Read on: Devex
Name: Osama Al-Najjar
Location: United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Reasons Behind Bars
Human rights defender and online activist Osama Al- Najjar, was arrested on 17 March 2014 in Abu Dhabi by state security forces. Preceding his arrest, Osama was returning from the Arazeen jail where his imprisoned father, Hossain Al-Najjar, is currently serving an eleven year prison sentence for being a member of UAE94, a group of 94 activists serving heavy prison sentences on highly questionable grounds for attempting to overthrow UAE’s authoritarian government.
Upon his arrest, Osama’s whereabouts were kept secret from his immediate family. He was kept in solitary confinement and tortured at a secret detention centre in Abu Dhabi for four days before he was transferred to the Alwathab jail in Abu Dhabi.
Osama remained in pre-trial detention for six months before his first court hearing on 23 September 2014 at the Federal Supreme Court in Abu Dhabi. He is charged with being a member of Al-Islah (Reform and Social Guidance Association), a group banned in UAE for its alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood, offending the State on Twitter, instigating hatred against the State via Twitter and spreading lies on Twitter about the torture of his father.
During his second hearing at the same court on 14 October 2014, Osama expressed that he was prevented from accessing his case file and was not allowed to contact his lawyer while in detention. The court postponed Osama’s case for a third time to 28 October 2014 to hear pleadings from both the defence and the prosecution. UAE authorities have not yet shared information on Osama’s final hearing, raising serious concerns that Osama’s access to justice will be delayed in reprisals for his legitimate human rights work.
Osama has been active on Twitter since 2012 and has used the platform to highlight fundamental human rights of political detainees and call for an end to their ill- treatment. Osama has also in the past commented on the unfair trial and imprisonment of the UAE94. On 16 March 2014, hours before his arrest, Osama replied to the ruler of Sharjah on Twitter and said “The people responsible for imprisoning and harassing my father for the past 20 months owe him.”
The arbitrary arrest of Osama Al-Najjar is another routine example that demonstrates UAE authorities’ growing intolerance of online and offline dissent. Since its second cycle review under the Universal Periodic Review in 2013, UAE has placed a number of worrying restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and has not yet ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
For more information:
Join Amnesty International's Urgent Action and write to the President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Minister of Interior demanding the immediate and unconditional release of Osama Al-Najjar
Our heritage is a successful civil society
By William Gumede, Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation
The publication of this piece was facilitated by CIVICUS as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations
As we celebrate our diverse cultures during Heritage Month, worth celebrating too is a civil society culture that has not only promoted cultural diversity but is also itself diverse, with a hard-won heritage of tirelessly fighting for the rights of the people in this country.
Read on: Mail and Guardian
Outcomes from the 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council: Progress & Shortcomings
Joint statement from the end of the United Nations' 51st Session of the UN Human Rights Council
12 organisations share reflections on the key outcomes of the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the missed opportunities to address key issues including human rights situations in Afghanistan, China, Philippines, and Yemen.
Thematic issues and resolutions
We welcome that for the first time, the Council heard from two representatives of directly impacted communities from the podium in the enhanced interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner and the International Independent Expert Mechanism to AdvanceRacial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement: Collette Flanagan of Mothers against Police Brutality (MAPB) whose son was killed by U.S. police in 2013; and Jurema Werneck, director of Amnesty International in Brazil. As highlighted in the HC’s report, States are continuing to deny the existence and impact of systemic racism, especially institutional racism. Our view is that States actively protect the interests of police institutions in order to maintain the status quo which is designed to oppress Africans and people of African descent. We call on States to fully implement the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action (DDPA), to fully cooperate with the International Independent Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in the context of Law Enforcement including accepting country visits, implement the recommendations from their report and the High Commissioner’s Agenda towards Transformative Change for Racial justice and Equality.
We welcome the ‘from rhetoric to reality: a global call for concrete action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ resolution. The resolution, interalia, strongly condemns the discriminatory treatment, unlawful deportations, excessive use of force and deaths of African migrants and migrants of African descent, including refugees and asylum-seekers, at the hands of law enforcement officials engaged in migration and border governance. It calls on States to ensure accountability and reparations for human rights violations at borders and to adopt a racial justice approach, including by adopting policies to address structural racism in the management of international migration. It reiterates that the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans and colonialism were grave violations of international law that require States to make reparations proportionate to the harms committed and to ensure that structures in the society that are perpetuating the injustices of the past are transformed, including law enforcement and administration of justice and to dispense reparatory justice to remedy historical racial injustices.
We welcome the HRC’s first discussion on the legacies of colonialism as a step towards challenging entrenched structures of racism and colonialism, including in its contemporary manifestations as exemplified by apartheid in the Palestinian context. Some of the most entrenched forms of systemic racism are the result of continuing legacies of slavery, the Transatlantic Trade in Enslaved Africans and colonialism. The DDPA recognizes that colonialism has led to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance and emphasises the structural forms of racism and racial discrimination that to this day require urgent attention, especially for Africans and people of African descent, Asians and people of Asian descent and Indigenous Peoples who were victims of colonialism and continue to be victims of its consequences. We concur with the Special Rapporteur on racism that “there can be no real way out of our most pressing global crises without meaningfully addressing the legacies of colonialism…[and] failure to address colonial legacies, especially by former and contemporary colonial powers is an important part of our global crises.” We call on the Council to keep colonialism on the agenda of the HRC until all of its manifestations are eradicated. A true decolonial approach must not only focus on the perceived “extreme” manifestations of racism and individual prejudice, but also on the systems of oppression that create an enabling environment for continued human rights violations.
We welcome the resolution on the “human rights implications of new and emerging technologies in the military domain”and its request for a study examining these implications. The adoption of the resolution adds to the growing attention that UN human rights mechanisms are paying to the negative human rights impacts of arms, including new technologies that can be weaponised. It is undoubtable that concerns relating to the military domain should not be seen as only relevant to disarmament fora. In response to comments from some States on whether international humanitarian law (IHL) falls within the remit of HRC, we recall that international human rights law and IHL are complementary and mutually reinforcing, as the HRC itself has reiterated on several occasions in past resolutions. We welcome the inclusion of paragraph on the responsibility to respect human rights of business enterprises, and in this regard, we recall the Information Note by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights on the Arms Industry (“Responsible business conduct in the arms sector: Ensuring business practice in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”) published in August 2022. While we welcome the reference in the resolution to the role of human rights defenders and civil society organisations in raising awareness about the human rights impacts of the use of new and emerging technologies in the military domain, we regret that it does not include a specific mention of the risks that the use of these technologies can pose for human rights defenders and civil society organisations.
We welcome the resolution on arbitrary detention and especially the inclusion of a new paragraph on the necessity to fully implement the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. The resolution recognises the role of HRDs, peaceful protesters, journalists and media workers in safeguarding the prohibition of arbitrary deprivation of liberty and calls upon States to make sure that they are not arbitrarily detained as a result of their activities. We further commend the main sponsor, France, for having rejected any language that could have weakened the resolution, especially on the right to legal assistance.
We welcome the adoption of the safety of journalistsresolution. It has now been a decade since the first resolution on this topic, and the HRC has since created an elaborate and robust set of international standards to protect journalists. This iteration of the resolution adds new strong commitments on multiple new and emerging issues affecting journalists, from strategic lawsuits against public participation to extraterritorial attacks. It also strengthens language on investigations into attacks against journalists, calling on authorities to exhaust lines of enquiry that determine whether such attacks are linked to their journalistic work. We now urge States to implement these commitments to their full extent.
We welcome the approval by consensus by the Council of the resolution on terrorism and human rights, that has been updated with important paragraphs related to the centrality of the rule of law and human rights to counter terrorism, international human rights obligations in transfers of terrorist suspects, profiling of individuals, detention, the right to a fair trial and other due process guarantees, the right to privacy and freedom of expression, and in relation to children rights and civil society. We regret that paragraphs stemming from security based concerns have increased even though they are unrelated to the competence of the Council to promote human rights.
Human rights situations on the Council’s agenda
We warmly welcome the adoption of the resolution on the human rights situation in the Russian Federation, mandating a Special Rapporteur on Russia for the first time. Over the last several years, and particularly since Russia's renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February, the Russian authorities have engaged in a systematic campaign of repression of human rights and restriction of civic space including by shutting down independent media, intimidating and harassing human rights defenders and activists, banning peaceful protest, and imposing impermissible restrictions on the operations of independent civil society organisations in the country, including those that seek justice and effective remedies for human rights violations. The Russian Federation’s growing repressive policies, combined with the country’s exclusion from the Council of Europe – victims of new human rights violations committed by the Russian Federation from 17 September lost protection under the European Convention on Human Rights– and its diplomatic isolation from those States which have been supportive of human rights and civil society in Russia, have made it increasingly difficult for Russian human rights defenders, activists, and civil society organisations to engage with the international community. Russian civil society had been vocal in calling for a Special Rapporteur's mandate, strongly believing it will help to create a bridge between the United Nations and Russian civil society and the wider general public in Russia at an acute moment of widespread domestic human rights violations, both ensuring their voice is heard at an international level, and that the United Nations can further develop its understanding and analysis of the deterioration in Russia's domestic human rights situation and the implications that has had - and continues to have - for Russia's foreign policy decisions.
We welcome the extension and strengthening of the OHCHR capacity to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve evidence and information and to develop strategies for future accountability, as well as to extend the mandate for enhanced monitoring and reporting by the OHCHR on Sri Lanka. Given the complete lack of any credible avenues for accountability at the national level, the OHCHR’s Sri Lanka Accountability Project remains the only hope of justice, more than thirteen years after the war, for thousands of victims of war time atrocities and their families.
We welcome the UN Secretary General’s reporton missing people in Syria; and urge States to support and implement the report’s findings, in line with resolution A/HRC/51/L.18 which underscored "the report’s finding that any measure towards addressing the continuing tragedy of missing persons in the Syrian Arab Republic requires a coherent and holistic approach going beyond current efforts, which must be inclusive and centered on victims". Addressing the issue of missing persons in Syria requires a "new international institution" mandated to clarify the fate and whereabouts of missing persons, to “work in cooperation and complementarity with existing mechanisms”, the body having “a structural element that ensures that victims, survivors and their families [...] may participate in a full and meaningful manner in its operationalization and work” as recommended in the study of the Secretary General.
The Council has taken a vitally important step in renewing the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuelaand of the reporting mandate of OHCHR for a further two years. In its most recent report, A/HRC/51/43, the Fact-Finding Mission deepened its investigation of alleged crimes against humanity, making clear that alleged perpetrators remain in power. The ongoing accountability drive through the work of the Mission allied with the work of OHCHR, is key to providing victims of violations with hope for justice. It is also key to the prevention of ongoing violations, particularly in the context of upcoming elections, and of encouraging political processes that respect human rights.
Human rights situations which should be on the Council’s agenda
We regret that the Council failed to respond adequately to several human rights situations including Afghanistan, China, Philippines, and Yemen.
We welcome the extension and strengthening of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan. However, this in no way makes up for the Council’s repeated failure to respond to the calls from Afghan human rights defenders, especially women human rights defenders, and civil society for an independent accountability mechanism with a mandate and resources to investigate the full scope of violations abuses that continue to be committed in Afghanistan by all parties and to preserve evidence of these violations for future accountability. It is particularly concerning that despite the overwhelming evidence of gross violations and abuses in Afghanistan that the Council failed to muster consensus on even the bare minimum.
We deplore that this Council was unable to endorse the proposal for a debate on Xinjiang, after the UN identified possible crimes against humanity committed by the Chinese government against Uyghurs and Turkic peoples. Dialogue is a pillar of multilateralism, and is fundamental, even on the hardest issues. Despite the leadership of the core group and all 18 States who voted in favour, this Council looked the other way. We strongly condemn the 19 countries who blocked this proposal, and regret all the abstentions that enabled it. We particularly regret that leading OIC States Indonesia and Qatar, as well as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, the UAE, Côte d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Sudan, Gabon, Cameroon and Eritrea, decided to abandon Uyghurs and Muslim minorities in China. We command Somalia for being the only Muslim Council member to stand up for Muslim minorities. Uyghur and international human rights groups won’t give up efforts to hold Chinaaccountable. We urgently call on current and future Council members to support efforts to prevent the continuation of atrocity crimes in Xinjiang, and uphold this Council’s credibility and moral authority.
We are deeply disappointed that despite the High Commissioner’s clear recommendation and demands by victims and their families as well as civil society from the Philippines, the Council has failed to put forward a resolution mandating the High Commissioner to continue monitoring and reporting on the situation, allowing the Philippines to use the rhetoric of cooperation and the UN Joint Programme for Human Rights to window-dress its appalling human rights record without any tangible progress or scrutiny.
We are dismayed by an Item 10 resolution that will not allow for reporting to the HRC on the human rights situation in Yemen. Despite a truce that now looks in danger of collapsing, the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Yemen has not ended. The lives and well-being of millions of Yemen citizens continue to be threatened from attacks against civilians, one of the world's largest humanitarian crisis and widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Yet many governments at this Council have chosen silence and appeasement of the warring parties over the protection of victims and upholding the rule of law. To abandon the people of Yemen out of political convenience not only betrays the fundamental purposes of this Council but also encourages parties to the conflict to continue to use violence and war crimes as a means of accomplishing their goals. Lasting peace in Yemen requires a sustained commitment by the international community to ensure accountability and redress for the millions of victims in Yemen. We call on UN member states to give meaning to the pledges they have made and begin to work toward the establishment of an international independent investigative mechanism on Yemen.
- Al-Haq, Law in the Service of Man
- American Civil Liberties Union
- ARTICLE 19
- Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
- Franciscans International
- International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network
- The Global Interfaith Network (GIN-SSOGIE)
Outcomes from the UN Human Rights Council's 48th session: Progress & Shortcomings
Joint statement from the end of the United Nations' 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council1
13 organisations share reflections on the key outcomes of the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the missed opportunities to address key issues and situations.
Thematic issues and resolutions
To commemorate theInternational Safe Abortion Day, 372 organisations demanded free, safe and accessible abortion for everyone.
We welcome the adoption of the resolution on the establishment of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change, who will focus on the interdependence between human rights, a healthy environment, and combating climate change and we welcome the Council’s historic recognition of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. These are vital steps towards addressing the climate crisis and achieving environmental justice.
Ensuring a safe and enabling environment for civil society participation at the national and international levels is essential.
We welcome the adoption by consensus of the resolution on cooperation with the UN in the field of human rights, in particular the invitation to the Secretary-General to submit his annual reprisals report to the General Assembly, which will ensure greater attention to the issue and contribute to a more coherent system-wide response across the UN.
We express concern over the reclassification of NGO written statements submitted to the 48th session of the HRC from Agenda Item 4 to Agenda Item 3 without informing or consulting with the submitting organizations, and without transparency for the reasons or scope of this reclassification.
We welcome that the resolution on equal participation in political and public affairs puts an important focus on the context of elections and on the impact of COVID-19, underscoring the importance of protecting civil society participation at every level as part of an effective response to the pandemic, in post-pandemic recovery and as a vital component of democratic electoral processes. We regret that, in this and other resolutions, there has been systematic pushbacks against the inclusion of references to children’s right to participate in public affairs, in particular girls, in contravention of international human rights standards.
We also welcome the resolution on privacy in the digital age. Among other issues, the resolution responds to recent Pegasus revelations and includes new commitments on the use of privately-developed surveillance tools against journalists and human rights defenders. It is now essential that the Council goes further and champions the call made by various UN human rights experts to implement a global moratorium on the sale, export, transfer, and use of private surveillance technology without proper human rights safeguards. We also welcome new language in the text on privacy violations and abuses arising from new and emerging technologies, including biometric identification and recognition technologies. In future iterations of the text, we encourage the core group to go further in calling for a ban on technologies that cannot be operated in compliance with international human rights obligations.
With the withdrawal of the resolution on the realisation of a ‘better life’, we are glad to see that the Council’s mandate and resources will not be diverted to efforts that would distract from its core work or dilute human rights standards.
We regret that it was not possible to schedule the briefing by the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) as per resolution 45/31 – and look forward to future opportunities for exchanges between the HRC and the PBC to learn from one another in efforts to address common contemporary challenges.
Human rights situations on the Council’s agenda
We deplore the abandonment of the Yemeni people by the HRC member States who did not support the renewal of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. This failure of the HRC gives the green light to all parties to the conflict to continue their campaign of death and destruction in Yemen. We demand an international criminal investigative mechanism. Anything less is unacceptable.
We regret that the HRC has not responded to the calls of civil society and the evidence of widespread violations in countries including China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia where the situations manifestly warrant the establishment of international investigation and accountability mechanisms.
The establishment of a Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan supported by additional and dedicated expertise in OHCHR should bring much needed scrutiny. While we are disappointed that the Council did not establish the full-fledged investigative and monitoring mechanism that the situation warrants, we hope this decision represents a first step towards a stronger response to ensure accountability for human rights violations and crimes under international law in Afghanistan.
While the extension of international scrutiny in Burundi, including through ongoing documentation of violations, is welcome, we regret the absence of a clear strategy post-Commission of Inquiry. As the Burundian government continues to reject cooperation with the Council and its mechanisms and to deny violations, and given that the newly-created Special Rapporteur will not have access to the country for the foreseeable future, it is vital for the Council to rely on benchmarks to design the next steps of its action on, and engagement with, Burundi. We thank the COI for its important work since 2016. It has set the bar high for investigative mechanisms.
We welcome the extension of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia with a mandate to provide an additional oral update to the Council. However, the resolution falls short of the minimum action required to credibly address the increasing regression in democratic space and civil and political rights and to put in place necessary measures to create an environment conducive for free, fair and inclusive elections in 2022 and 2023, including mandating enhanced monitoring and reporting by the High Commissioner.
More than four years after the beginning of the conflict in the North-West and South-West regions in Cameroon, we deeply regret States’ failure, once again, to collectively address the country’s human rights crisis. As other international and regional bodies remain silent, the Council has a responsibility to act, including through the creation of an investigative and accountability mechanism.
We welcome the renewal of the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Libya but regret that the mandate has only been extended for a 9-month period. The severity of ongoing and past violations and abuses in Libya, including war crimes, requires an FFM with a sustained and properly resourced mandate.
We welcome a second joint statement on Nicaragua, and urge concerned States to step up collective action in light of increasing repression ahead of the November 7 elections. Should the Government not revert course, it is fundamental that the Council takes stock and provides an adequate, strong response, including the establishment of an international mechanism at its 49th session.
We welcome the High Commissioner's oral updates on the Philippines. While the UN Joint Program on Human Rights (UNJP) might provide a framework for improvements, we remain concerned that the UN Joint Programme on Human Rights is instrumentalized by the Government only to please the international community. The national accountability mechanism fails to show meaningful progress. We continue to urge the Council to consider establishing a Commission of Inquiry on the Philippines, to eventually start the long-overdue independent and transparent investigation into the human rights violation in the country.
We welcome the robust resolution that extends the mandate of the Independent Expert on Somalia for a further year.
While human rights advancements since 2019 in Sudan should be recognized, Sudan still faces significant human rights challenges including threats of the militarization of the State which is also the most challenging peril for women’s rights and WHRDs in Sudan. The transition is not complete, and political uncertainty remains. Against this backdrop, the Council’s decision to discontinue its formal monitoring of and reporting on Sudan is premature as the military establishment continues to pose a threat to democracy and stability in Sudan. We urge the Sudanese authorities to fully cooperate with the UN human rights system to address ongoing violations including sexual and gender based violence and the legacy of 30 years of dictatorship, including impunity for crimes under international law.
1 Signatories :
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
- Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
- DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
- Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
- ARTICLE 19
- International Commission of Jurists
- FORUM ASIA
- International Bar Association
- Franciscans International
- CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
- Association of Progressive Communications - APC
- Child rights connect
PAKISTAN: ‘We appeal to the international community to share the responsibility of welcoming Afghan refugees’
CIVICUS speaks about the current move to expel undocumented migrants from Pakistan with Muhammad Mudassar, Chief Executive Officer of the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP-Pakistan).
Founded in 1999, SHARP is a human rights civil society organisationworking for the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable groups, including refugees and internally displaced persons, and working on issues related to trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, including through advocacy at national and international level, capacity development of stakeholders, community services and emergency response.
What’s the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan?
Pakistan has hosted one of the world’s largest refugee populations for nearly 44 years, as it started receiving Afghan refugees in the late 1970s. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, around 840,000 of them registered between 2017 and 2018, plus around 775,000 undocumented Afghan migrants. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, between 400,000 and 700,000 more have arrived in Pakistan to seek asylum and protection through embassies of countries such as Canada, Germany and the USA.
But the Pakistani government hasn’t announced any policy to provide legal protection to new arrivals. In January 2022, the government barred the issuing of UNHCR asylum certificates to newly arrived Afghans, leaving them in a legal limbo. Acting on behalf of the UNHCR, SHARP has been the frontline organisation offering reception facilities.
A few weeks ago, a refugee with three or four children ate a mouse poison pill while waiting for resettlement response. Fortunately, SHARP personnel were on site and she was promptly taken to the hospital and survived. This incident reflects the despair many Afghan refugees feel. They’ve spent all their savings coming to Pakistan and waiting while the cost of living only continues to increase. They often seek jobs but there is no legal provision for undocumented Afghans to work or do business. For that they have to use false Pakistani identities, and when they need to leave the country, they’re forced to sell all their assets for next to nothing. The absence of legal protections also leaves them vulnerable to forced labour, and young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Why has the Pakistani government ordered the expulsion of Afghan refugees?
The situation in Pakistan remained peaceful for many years, largely due to the cultural and religious similarities between Pakistani and Afghan people. However, in 2014, an attack on school in Peshawar resulted in the death of over 150 students and teachers. More terrorist attacks followed across Pakistan. In response, the government made a national action plan to counter such attacks and adopted a zero-tolerance border management policy. This is because terrorists were believed to be entering Pakistan across the border with Afghanistan.
Moreover, Pakistan is grappling with a difficult economic situation, including a fuel price hike and high unemployment, with political turmoil further complicating the situation.
Social media also played a role by spreading content linking Afghan refugees to terrorism, negatively affecting public attitudes towards them. Repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan reached its peak in 2015, and relationships between host and refugee communities have increasingly deteriorated, with incidents of hostility continuously increasing over the years. Tensions escalated during cricket matches, leading to fights among Pakistani and Afghan supporters.
In response, SHARP initiated community outreach sessions aimed at engaging young Afghans and Pakistanis to identify commonalities and prioritise them over differences to prevent further violence and create an environment of peaceful coexistence.
How else is SHARP working to help Afghan refugees?
We have partnered with the UNHCR for over 24 years and we operate in 14 offices with over 300 staff members in strategic locations. SHARP is the first contact point for anyone who enters Pakistan to seek asylum. Our role is to conduct a brief initial reception interview and collect documentation to put together the claims, which are reviewed and processed by the UNHCR for further interviews and the provision of protection documentation. We also provide free legal aid and assistance to refugees and migrants, psycho-social counselling and shelter services for the most vulnerable. We make referrals for medical services, emergency cash assistance and community-based protection services.
Working alongside the UNHCR, last year SHARP submitted recommendations to the government, wrote letters to the Minister of Interior and met with the National Commission on Human Rights. I visited parliament three times to advocate for a policy for incoming Afghan refugees and the enactment of a national refugee law. Our recommendations stress the importance of a dignified and respectful approach aligned with humanitarian principles and long-term planning. We’ve urged the Pakistani government to engage with the international community, including the European Union (EU), to address this crisis and ensure that Afghans return home only voluntarily and in a dignified manner.
It’s crucial to note that while Pakistan is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, for a long time it has welcomed refugees on humanitarian grounds, treating them as friends. It shouldn’t jeopardise years of efforts by expelling them as foes. The government should establish registration centres and give people several months to come forward and register their claims for protection. As it lacks the required technical capacity and resources, it should work closely with international and civil society partners.
Is Pakistan receiving the international supportit needs to tackle the situation?
The refugee crisis is a challenge for global south countries, which often lack robust legal protection and face economic difficulties. Lured by promises from third countries, asylum seekers often come to Pakistan and countries such as Bangladesh, Iran and Tajikistan and then await international assistance for resettlement. In Pakistan, hundreds approach our office daily asking for resettlement support, and we try to help, working alongside the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.
But the strain on Pakistani security, healthcare, education and other public services has become overwhelming. If the EU or an EU country urges us to host more Afghan refugees, they should first assess how many Afghan refugees they have welcomed in recent years and consider sharing the burden through resettlement programmes. The international burden-sharing mechanism isn’t working to provide breathing space for global south countries. There should be a flexible visa regime for Afghans who are stuck here in Pakistan and waiting to reunite with their families and friends in other countries.
The situation worsened with the Ukraine crisis, because international support shifted towards addressing those humanitarian needs and the Pakistani crisis stayed largely neglected. Additionally, last year’s flash floods displaced nearly 3.4 million Pakistanis, killed around a million animals and affected numerous refugee communities. Although both the international community and the Pakistani government focused on addressing the consequences of the flood, many internally displaced people have been unable to return to their homes and are still living in camps. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine may further divert international attention and resources away from Pakistan.
We have already been warned that there would be huge funding cut by approximately 60 per cent in 2024, posing a significant challenge in maintaining work for humanitarian organisations with extensive operations across Pakistan. The uncertainty of survival over the coming year is a pressing concern for us. We appeal to the international community to share the responsibility of welcoming Afghan refugees and support Pakistani humanitarian organisations and the government to help asylum seekers rebuild their lives.
Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.