UGANDA: ‘Our government cares only about profit, not people’
CIVICUS speaks about the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and its potential impacts on the climate and on the health and livelihoods of local communities with Nyombi Morris, founder of Earth Volunteers.
Established in 2020, Earth Volunteers is a Ugandan civil society organisation (CSO) that brings together young people who are passionate about planting trees, protecting forests and standing up for climate justice. Earth Volunteers advocates for climate justice and promotes climate education in local schools.
What is EACOP, and what is wrong with it?
EACOP is a pipeline project that will transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, for export through the Tanga port on the Tanzanian coast. It will travel through hundreds of miles, flowing oil through sensitive environments, including the richly biodiverse Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda.
The project is led by China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and TotalEnergies, a French company, and funded by Standard Bank, among others. Ever since it kicked off in 2015, it has caused numerous activists to lose their lives and has put many natural resources on the verge of disappearing.
Local communities are already being affected by the pipeline. While pipeline construction itself hasn’t yet started, a process has begun to acquire the land required for the pipeline and related facilities. Those who own land on the projected pipeline’s path or in its vicinity are already unhappy because of the mistreatment they are experiencing and the lack of transparency in the process. They say they were not consulted about the project before it was approved and they are now being pressured to sell off their farms, homes and land at cheap prices and forced to leave to make way for the pipeline.
How is civil society in general, and your organisation in particular, mobilising against the pipeline project?
I have not seen any established CSO come out to oppose or even challenge the pipeline project. It is only us, individual activists loosely connected through informal networks, who are trying to sensitise people and mobilise them against the danger of allowing money-makers to exploit our land to take away the oil and get rich off it. We can’t drink or eat oil, and this will only make us poorer and less healthy.
As one of those activists, I have organised strikes to challenge the project, but since my last protest this March, I have received threats from unknown people who say they are police officers and tell me they are going to come and arrest me.
How has the government reacted so far?
Our government cares only about profit, not people. We have put pressure on them and urged them to be mindful about the approval they give to investors, as they only benefit the wealthy and do nothing to improve people’s lives. But the response we always get in return is threats.
Personally, I do not expect my government to listen to my concerns. The problem is, if they do not, this is a death sentence for many people in both Uganda and Tanzania. We already face the challenge of inflation and we may be heading towards famine and insecurity because people are being forced to sell off their properties in western Uganda and the capital, Kampala, is their next destination. This is one of the biggest and fastest-growing cities in Africa, with a population that has already hit four million.
What kind of support does the anti-pipeline movement need from international civil society and the wider international community?
We need three different support structures. Firstly, we need funds to continue door-to-door mobilisation. We need to speak up with a strong voice, so it is our role to wake up the public and get people to start demanding justice.
Secondly, we need the media to cover our movement and amplify our voice. We need the world to join us in challenging these perpetrators of environmental destruction. Except for Standard Bank, which is from South Africa, pipeline funders are from the global north, and we need people in their countries to know what is happening so they can join us in exposing these capitalist fundamentalists who only care about money – not about people, and not about nature.
Finally, we need protection. I am constantly receiving threats, and since last week I haven’t even been allowed to tweet for fear of my life and the lives of my family. We are in danger and nobody is helping us with security and support. I am hiding at my sisters’ place but very soon we are going to run out of resources such as food.
Every organisation I reach out to, they redirect me to CSOs that are not really independent but actually serve the government that is targeting me. I feel like there is no one I can trust in my country. This is terrible and traumatising, and many others are going through the same. We cannot imagine help coming from anywhere but international civil society.
UGANDA: ‘Shrinking civic space means affected communities are not able to make their voices count’
CIVICUS discusses the hopes and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Ireen Twongirwe, a climate activist and CEO of Women for Green Economy Movement Uganda (WoGEM).
WoGEM is a community-based civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to advocating for and promoting women’s and girls’ participation in a greener economy. It brings together vulnerable women and girls and equips them with knowledge and capacities to engage in the search for sustainable community livelihoods and climate change mitigation and resilience efforts.
UGANDA: ‘We’ll participate in COP28 to pressure world leaders to divert funding away from oil and gas’
CIVICUS speaks about recent developments involving the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project and civil society’s efforts to stop it with Zaki Mamdoo, Campaign Coordinator of Stop EACOP.
Established in 2020, Stop EACOP is a coalition of Ugandan environmental and climate justice organisations that oppose the pipeline project due to the significant threats it poses to protected ecosystems, water resources and community lands across Tanzania and Uganda.
What are your coalition’s aims?
Our aim is to halt the construction of EACOP to avert the catastrophic environmental and climate consequences associated with the pipeline and safeguard human rights and communal territories.
To achieve this, we employ a multifaceted strategy: heightening public awareness, exerting pressure on financial institutions and raising their reputational costs so they distance themselves from the project, mobilising impacted communities and rallying to force governments and oil corporations to suspend the project.
A cornerstone of our approach is engaging with young people. Our partner programmes in both Tanzania and Uganda are focused on youth. We proactively seek out young people in various initiatives, including security training sessions. Recently, we’ve identified student leaders from various universities who had organised to spread awareness about the project’s impacts among their peers. We are actively pursuing funding and other opportunities to bolster their efforts.
Internally, we give space to youth representatives to contribute their perspectives. We’re committed to amplifying young voices and offering avenues for their growth and development as activists. A reflection of this is that I am 26 years old and trusted with the leadership as campaign coordinator.
How has the situation evolved since welast spoke over a year ago?
There have been significant changes over the past year. Drilling has started in one of the most important biodiversity hotspots. One of the companies leading the project, French energy conglomerate Total Energies, has launched oil drilling in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, home to diverse animal and bird species, including elephants, giraffes and lions. Its ecological significance is heightened by the presence of the Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland System, essential for Lake Albert fisheries.
The pipeline threatens the park’s biodiversity and tourism appeal. It will also have economic impacts, as the park is a major contributor to Uganda’s economy, accounting for 59 per cent of exports and having generated over US$1 billion in revenue in 2022.
Negative consequences are already evident, with displaced elephants damaging crops and posing threats to human lives in nearby communities. Tragic incidents involving elephants have already occurred in Buliisa district, where the park is located.
This is clearly just another a case in which profit is prioritised over environmental and socioeconomic considerations.
Our demands, however, remain unaltered: we adamantly call for the project’s complete cancellation due to its intolerable environmental and human risks. And while governmental authorities have largely remained unresponsive, we’ve achieved progress with financial institutions. Remarkably, 27 banks have already denied funding for EACOP, and an additional 23 major insurers and reinsurers have declined to support the pipeline.
What restrictions do Stop EACOP activists face?
We operate in fairly restrictive environments in which the freedom to protest is often violated. Recently, for instance, four of our activists were forcibly arrested on charges of ‘inciting violence’, transported in police vehicles and kept in jail overnight for protesting against the pipeline in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.
The activists, three women and one man, were protesting peacefully, but their arrests were unnecessarily violent. It must be emphasised that only four protesters were involved, so the degree of force applied was clearly excessive, yet not entirely unexpected. Historically, Ugandan authorities have responded aggressively to any demonstrations perceived as anti-government, in line with a dictatorial regime indifferent to public sentiments or alternate viewpoints. This reaction is not unprecedented, although it’s intriguing that the government seems threatened by even small-scale protests like this four-person event.
But this won’t stop us: we will continue to demonstrate peacefully. Several of our members maintain a fund to secure bail or engage lawyers whenever activists are arrested. We arrange legal representation and explore the possibility of anticipatory bail when possible. However, given the sporadic nature of these protests, support is often provided post-arrest. We’ve also partnered with organisations that specialise in security training so that we can provide tools for advocates to voice their concerns without jeopardising their personal safety.
How do you connect with the global climate movement?
We connect with climate activists worldwide by sharing experiences and strategies and providing each other with support across borders. Global solidarity strengthens our efforts, so we appreciate any form of international backing for our cause.
What lies ahead remains uncertain, but as demonstrated in numerous instances globally, when we come together to back local communities as they advocate for their rights and a more promising tomorrow, there is a potential to counter even the largest of corporate giants effectively.
More than a million people have already raised their voices against EACOP. We believe that together we can stop it.
Are you planning to engage with the upcoming COP28 climate summit?
We’re deliberating on the optimal way to participate in COP28 to pressure world leaders to address the pipeline project directly and divert funding away from new oil and gas developments. I will be there to represent the campaign.
Despite controversies surrounding the summit’s leadership and lack of an enabling civic space in the host country, the United Arab Emirates, we are hopeful that substantive progress will be made. But we recognise that lasting change will require continued people-powered mobilisation. We’re committed to sustaining our fight for climate justice and environmental preservation in East Africa.
Civic space in Uganda is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Uganda: CIVICUS condemns another break-in at the office of HRAPF
Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns recent attacks on the premises of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum (HRAPF) in Uganda which left security guards wounded and in need of urgent medical attention. In the early hours of the morning of 9 February 2018, at least nine unidentified individuals broke into the offices of HRAPF and attacked two security guards with iron bars and batons.
UN CYBERCRIME TREATY: ‘Civil society is fact-checking the arguments made by states’
CIVICUS speaks with Ian Tennant about the importance of safeguarding human rights in the ongoing process to draft a United Nations (UN) Cybercrime Treaty.
Ian isthe Chair of theAlliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, a broad network of civil society organisations (CSOs) advancing the crime prevention and criminal justice agenda through engagement with relevant UN programmes and processes. He’s the Head of the Vienna Multilateral Representation and Resilience Fund at theGlobal Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a global CSO headquartered in Geneva, focused on research, analysis and engagement on all forms of organised crime and illicit markets. Both organisations participate as observers in negotiations for the UN Cybercrime Treaty.
Why is there need for a UN treaty dealing with cybercrime?
There is no consensus on the need for a UN treaty dealing with cybercrime. The consensus-based bodies dealing with cybercrime at the UN, primarily the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ), could not agree on whether there was a need for the treaty since the issue was first raised officially at the UN Crime Congress in 2010, and in 2019 it was taken to a vote at the UN General Assembly. The resolution starting the process towards a treaty was passed with minority support, due to a high number of abstentions. Nevertheless, the process is now progressing and member states on all sides of the debate are participating.
The polarisation of positions on the need for the treaty has translated into a polarisation of views of how broad the treaty should be – with those countries that were in favour of the treaty calling for a broad range of cyber-enabled crimes to be included, and those that were against the treaty calling for a narrowly focussed treaty on cyber-dependent crimes.
What should be done to ensure the treaty isn’t used by repressive regimes to crack down on dissent?
Balancing effective measures against cybercrime and human rights guarantees is the fundamental issue that needs to be resolved by this treaty negotiation process, and at the moment it is unclear how this will be accomplished. The most effective way to ensure the treaty is not used to crack down on dissent and other legitimate activities is to ensure a treaty focused on a clear set of cyber-dependent crimes with adequate and clear human rights safeguards present throughout the treaty.
In the absence of a digital rights treaty, this treaty has to provide those guarantees and safeguards. If a broad cooperation regime without adequate safeguards is established, there is a real risk that the treaty could be used by some states as a tool of oppression and suppression of activism, journalism and other civil society activities that are vital in any effective crime response and prevention strategy.
How much space is there for civil society to contribute to the negotiations process?
The negotiations for the treaty have been opened for CSOs to contribute to the process through an approach that does not allow states to veto individual CSOs. There is space for CSOs to bring in their contributions under each agenda item, and through intersessional meetings where they can present and lead discussions with member states. This process is in some ways a model that other UN negotiations could follow as a best practice.
CSOs, as well as the private sector, are bringing vital perspectives to the table on the potential impacts of proposals made in the treaty negotiations, on practical issues, on data protection and on human rights. Fundamentally, CSOs are providing fact-checking and evidence to back up or challenge the arguments made by member states as proposals are made and potential compromises are discussed.
What progress has been made so far, and what have been the main obstacles in the negotiations?
On paper, the Ad Hoc Committee has only two meetings left until the treaty is supposed to be adopted – one meeting will take place in August and the other in early 2024. The Committee has already held five meetings, during which the full range of issues and draft provisions to be included in the treaty have been discussed. The next stage will be for a draft treaty to be produced by the Chair, and then for that draft to be debated and negotiated in the next two meetings.
The main obstacle has been the existence of quite fundamental differences in visions for the treaty – from a broad treaty allowing for criminalisation of and cooperation on a diverse range of offences to a narrow treaty focussed on cyber-dependent crimes. Those different objectives mean that the Committee has so far lacked a common vision, which is what negotiations need to discover in the coming months.
What are the chances that the final version of the treaty will meet international human rights standards while fulfilling its purpose?
It is up to the negotiators from all sides, and how far they are willing to move in order to achieve agreement, whether the treaty will have a meaningful impact on cybercrime while also staying true to international human rights standards and the general human rights ethos of the UN. This is the optimal outcome, but given the current political atmosphere and challenges, it will be hard to achieve.
There is a chance the treaty could be adopted without adequate safeguards, and that consequently only a small number of countries ratify it, thereby diminishing its usefulness, but also directing the rights risks to only those countries who sign up. There is also a chance the treaty could have very high human rights standards, but again not many countries ratify it – limiting its usefulness for cooperation but neutering its human rights risks.
UN CYBERCRIME TREATY: ‘This is not about protecting states but about protecting people’
CIVICUS speaks withStéphane Duguin aboutthe weaponisation of technology and progress being madetowards a United Nations (UN) Cybercrime Treaty.
Stéphaneis an expert onthe use of disruptive technologies such as cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and online terrorism and theChief Executive Officer of the CyberPeace Institute,a civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2019 to help humanitarian CSOs and vulnerable communitieslimit the harm of cyberattacks andpromote responsible behaviour in cyberspace. It conducts research and advocacy and provides legal and policy expertise in diplomatic negotiations, including theUN Ad Hoc Committee elaborating the Cybercrime Convention.
Why is there need for a new UN treaty dealing with cybercrime?
Several legal instruments dealing with cybercrime already exist, including the 2001 Council of Europe Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, the first international treaty aimed at addressing cybercrimes and harmonising legislations to enhance cooperation in the area of cybersecurity, ratified by 68 states around the world as of April 2023. This was followed by regional tools such as the 2014 African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, among others.
But the problem behind these instruments is that they aren’t enforced properly. The Budapest Convention has not even been ratified by most states, although it is open to all. And even when they’ve been signed and ratified, these instruments aren’t operationalised. This means that data is not accessible across borders, international cooperation is complicated to achieve and requests for extradition are not followed up on.
There is urgent need to reshape cross-border cooperation to prevent and counter crimes, especially from a practical point of view. States with more experience fighting cybercrimes could help less resourced ones by providing technical assistance and helping build capacity.
This is why the fact that the UN is currently negotiating a major global Cybercrime Convention is so important. In 2019, to coordinate the efforts of member states, CSOs, including CyberPeace Institute, academic institutions and other stakeholders, the UN General Assembly established the Ad Hoc Committee to elaborate a ‘Comprehensive International Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Criminal Purpose’ – a Cybercrime Convention in short. This will be the first international legally binding framework for cyberspace.
The aims of the new treaty are to reduce the likelihood of attacks, and when these happen, to limit the harm and ensure victims have access to justice and redress. This is not about protecting states but about protecting people.
What were the initial steps in negotiating the treaty?
The first step was to take stock of what already existed and, most importantly, what was missing in the existing instruments in order to understand what needed to be done. It was also important to measure the efficacy of existing tools and determine whether they weren’t working due to their design or because they weren’t being properly implemented. Measuring the human harm of cybercrime was also key to define a baseline for the problem we’re trying to address with the new treaty.
Another step, which interestingly has not been part of the discussion, would be an agreement among all state parties to stop engaging in cybercrimes themselves. It’s strange, to say the least, to be sitting at the table discussing definitions of cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent crimes with states that are conducting or facilitating cyberattacks. Spyware and targeted surveillance, for instance, are being mostly financed and deployed by states, which are also financing the private sector by buying these technologies with taxpayers’ money.
What are the main challenges?
The main challenge has been to define the scope of the new treaty, that is, the list of offences to be criminalised. Crimes committed with the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) generally belong to two distinct categories: cyber-dependent crimes and cyber-enabled crimes. States generally agree that the treaty should include cyber-dependent crimes: offences that can only be committed using computers and ICTs, such as illegally accessing computers, performing denial-of-service attacks and creating and spreading malware. If these crimes weren’t part of the treaty, there wouldn’t be a treaty to speak of.
The inclusion of cyber-enabled crimes, however, is more controversial. These are offences that are carried out online but could be committed without ICTs, such as banking fraud and data theft. There’s no internationally agreed definition of cyber-enabled crimes. Some states consider offences related to online content, such as disinformation, incitement to extremism and terrorism, as cyber-enabled crimes. These are speech-based offences, the criminalisation of which can lead to the criminalisation of online speech or expression, with negative impacts on human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Many states that are likely to be future signatories to the treaty use this kind of language to strike down dissent. However, there is general support for the inclusion of limited exceptions on cyber-enabled crimes, such as online child sexual exploitation and abuse, and computer-related fraud.
There is no way we can reach a wide definition of cyber-enabled crimes unless it’s accompanied with very strict human rights safeguards. In the absence of safeguards, the treaty should encompass a limited scope of crimes. But there’s no agreement on a definition of safeguards and how to put them in place, particularly when it comes to personal data protection.
For victims as well as perpetrators, there’s absolutely no difference between cyber-enabled and cyber-dependent crimes. If you are a victim, you are a victim of both. A lot of criminal groups – and state actors – are using the same tools, infrastructure and processes to perform both types of attacks.
Even though there’s a need to include more cyber-enabled crimes, the way it’s being done is wrong, as there are no safeguards or clear definitions. Most states that are pushing for this have abundantly demonstrated that they don’t respect or protect human rights, and some – including China, Egypt, India, Iran, Russia and Syria – have even proposed to delete all references to international human rights obligations.
Another challenge is the lack of agreement on how international cooperation mechanisms should follow up to guarantee the practical implementation of the treaty. The ways in which states are going to cooperate and the types of activities they will perform together to combat these crimes remain unclear.
To prevent misuse of the treaty by repressive regimes we should focus both on the scope of criminalisation and the conditions for international cooperation. For instance, provisions on extradition should include the principle of dual criminality, which means an act should not be extraditable unless it constitutes a crime in both the countries making and receiving the request. This is crucial to prevent its use by authoritarian states to persecute dissent and commit other human rights violations.
What is civil society bringing to the negotiations?
The drafting of the treaty should be a collective effort aimed at preventing and decreasing the amount of cyberattacks. As independent bodies, CSOs are contributing to it by providing knowledge on the human rights impacts and potential threats and advocating for guarantees for fundamental rights.
For example, the CyberPeace Institute has been analysing disruptive cyberattacks against healthcare institutions amid COVID-19 for two years. We found at least 500 cyberattacks leading to the theft of data of more than 20 million patients. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The CyberPeace Institute also submits recommendations to the Committee based on a victim-centric approach, involving preventive measures, evidence-led accountability for perpetrators, access to justice and redress for victims and prevention of re-victimisation.
We also advocate for a human-rights-by-design approach, which would ensure full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms through robust protections and safeguards. The language of the Convention should refer to specific human rights frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is important that the fight against cybercrime should not pit national security against human rights.
This framing is especially significant because governments have long exploited anti-cybercrime measures to expand state control, broaden surveillance powers, restrict or criminalise freedoms of expression and assembly and target human rights defenders, journalists and political opposition in the name of national security or fighting terrorism.
In sum, the goal of civil society is to demonstrate the human impact of cybercrimes and make sure states take this into consideration when negotiating the framework and the regulations – which must be created to protect citizens. We bring in the voices of victims, the most vulnerable ones, whose daily cybersecurity is not properly protected by the current international framework. And, as far as the CyberPeace Institute is concerned, we advocate for the inclusion of a limited scope of cybercrimes with clear and narrow definitions to prevent the criminalisation of behaviours that constitute the exercise of fundamental freedoms and human rights.
At what point in the treaty process are we now?
A consolidated negotiating document was the basis for the second reading done in the fourth and fifth sessions held in January and April 2023. The next step is to release a zero draft in late June, which will be negotiated in the sixth session that will take place in New York between August and September 2023.
The process normally culminates with a consolidation by states, which is going to be difficult since there’s a lot of divergence and a tight deadline: the treaty should be taken to a vote at the 78th UN General Assembly session in September 2024.
There’s a bloc of states looking for a treaty with the widest possible scope, and another bloc leaning towards a convention with a very limited scope and strong safeguards. But even within this bloc there is still disagreement when it comes to data protection, the approach to security and the ethics of specific technologies such as artificial intelligence.
What are the chances that the final version of the treaty will meet international human rights standards while fulfilling its purpose?
Considering how the process has been going so far, I’m not very optimistic, especially on the issue of upholding human rights standards, because of the crucial lack of definition of human rights safeguards. We shouldn’t forget negotiations are happening in a context of tense geopolitical confrontation. The CyberPeace Institute has been tracing the attacks deployed since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. We’ve witnessed over 1,500 campaigns of attacks with close to 100 actors involved, many of them states, and impacts on more than 45 countries. This geopolitical reality further complicates the negotiations.
By looking at the text that’s on the table right now, it is falling short of its potential to improve the lives of victims in cyberspace. This is why the CyberPeace Institute remains committed to the drafting process – to inform and sensitise the discussions toward a more positive outcome.
UN PLASTICS TREATY: ‘Human health and the environment must come first’
CIVICUS speaks about the progress being made towards a United Nations (UN) Treaty on Plastic Pollution with Vito Buonsante, an environmental health lawyer and technical and policy advisor at the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).
IPEN is a global network of civil society organisations (CSOs) seeking to improve chemical policies and raise public awareness to ensure that hazardous substances are no longer produced, used or disposed of in ways that harm human health and the environment.
Most people don’t know there is a UN Treaty on Plastic Pollution in development. When and how did the process start?
In March 2022, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world's highest-level decision-making body on the environment, approved a broad mandate to start talks on an international treaty to address the growing threats from plastic pollution. The scope of the Plastics Treaty is meant to include all impacts from plastics throughout their lifecycle, including effects from the toxic chemicals in plastics on human health and the environment. It should help move the world towards a toxic-free future.
In IPEN’s analysis, based on UNEA’s mandate, the final agreement must address the health impacts of plastics and their chemicals in four ways. First, it must address the use, release of and harms from toxic chemicals from plastics in all of their lifecycle, from production to consumption and waste management. Second, as the mandate emphasises the importance of promoting sustainable design, the treaty must ensure that hazardous chemicals are eliminated from plastic production and plastics with hazardous chemicals are not recycled.
Third, the UNEA resolution noted the importance of preventing threats to human health and the environment from toxic plastics and calls for coordination with the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal, the 1998 Rotterdam Convention concerning the importation of hazardous chemicals, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, a global policy framework adopted in 2006. The treaty must therefore address the health and environmental impacts due to exposure to hazardous chemicals and toxic emissions throughout the plastics lifecycle.
Fourth, there’s the issue of microplastics, which the UNEA resolution recognises as included in plastic pollution. This means the treaty must also address the chemical health and environmental hazards from microplastics, including their potential to be vectors for chemical contamination.
What progress was made in the first session of negotiations?
The first session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, took place in Punta del Este, Uruguay, from 28 November to 2 December 2022.
In this first meeting states had the opportunity to express their intentions for the treaty that they envision. On one side, we have seen a large group of states, working under the umbrella of the High Ambition Coalition to end plastic pollution, that have expressed their desire for a treaty that makes a difference in how plastics are made and tackles the root causes of plastic pollution. On the other side, there is a group of states fighting for a treaty that makes no difference to the status quo. Worryingly, these countries include Japan, Saudi Arabia and the USA, all of which want to see a treaty focused only on waste management rather than the entire lifecycle of plastics, and built on the basis of voluntarily agreed national commitments rather than binding obligations across the board.
The second session will take place in late May and early June in Paris, France. Negotiations should be completed by the end of 2024, and it should be possible to make the deadline. Global measures can be agreed. The science is very clear: it would be delusional to think that recycling the growing amounts of plastics that are being produced is the solution to the plastic pollution crisis, after 40 years of failing to recycle even a small amount of the plastic waste. It is too early to understand in which direction the talks will go, but it should be possible to agree on a number of global standards, even at the risk of some states not immediately ratifying the treaty.
What would an ambitious treaty look like?
The most important measure an effective treaty should include is the reduction of the total production of plastics. If production doesn’t slow down, over the next 20 years the amount of plastic will double and it will become truly impossible to control.
A second key measure concerns the design of plastics. Here there is a need to remove all toxic chemical additives, such as bisphenols, PFAS and flame retardants, and all toxic polymers such as PVC and polystyrene. These chemicals are known to cause adverse health impacts, disrupting hormonal functions, fertility and children’s brain functions, among others. Removing them from plastics will create safer material cycles. It is also very important to improve transparency about both plastics ingredients and the quantities and types of plastics produced. Without a clear picture of what is produced and where, it will be difficult to beat plastic pollution.
Ambition should also extend to implementation. There must be a commitment from developed countries to create a fund to implement the treaty. No matter how stringent the provisions of the treaty are, without considerable investment in implementation, impact will be limited. Commitments have recently been adopted for funds for climate and biodiversity, but there is not yet a fund established to tackle plastic pollution and other chemicals and waste-related actions.
What are environmental CSOs bringing to the negotiating table?
CSOs hold a wide range of expertise and experiences that are very valuable for treaty negotiators. IPEN, for instance, has advocated for the recognition of the impacts of the toxic chemicals in plastics for over two decades, clearly showing through many scientific reports and testing of plastics and plastic products how plastics products are exposing communities and vulnerable populations to toxic chemicals.
We are optimistic that the need to solve this planetary crisis will prevail. The international community has been failing on climate change and cannot fail on plastics as well. The Plastics Treaty could be a way to show that international cooperation is the best way to solve global problems and that human health and the environment can and must be put ahead of national interests and business interests.
UN PLASTICS TREATY: ‘It is up to civil society to speak up for the public when their governments won’t’
CIVICUS speaks about the progress being made towards aUnited Nations (UN) Treaty on Plastic Pollution with Aidan Charron, End of Plastics and Canopy Project Coordinator with EARTHDAY.ORG.
Growing out of the first Earth Day in 1970, EARTHDAY.ORG is the world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement, working with more than 150,000 partners in over 192 countries to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.
UN RESOLUTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE: ‘The climate crisis is a human rights crisis’
CIVICUS speaks with Hailey Campbell about the recent United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)resolution on the environment, which enables the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on states’ obligations to address climate change.
Hailey is a climate activist and co-executive director of Care About Climate, ajustice-driven climate education and empowerment civil society organisation (CSO) and network of international young climate leaders seeking to share climate solutions on the international stage.
What was the origin of the initiative to take climate matters to the ICJ?
The historic initiative was first introduced in 2019 by the Pacific Students Fighting Climate Change (PISFCC), a youth-led organisation established by students from eight Pacific Island countries. The PISFCC started by persuading the Pacific Island Forum, the region’s main political and economic organisation, to bring the issue of climate change and human rights to the ICJ. CSOs from the Pacific supported this campaign and built the Alliance for a Climate Justice Advisory Opinion (ACJAO) to include other non-state actors. In 2021, the state of Vanuatu, a small island state that is highly susceptible to climate catastrophes, initiated negotiations and the drafting of the resolution, which was later supported by over 130 countries and over 220 CSOs, and eventually adopted by consensus by the UNGA on 29 March 2023.
Do you view this resolution as a civil society victory?
This resolution is a monumental victory! This victory is the beginning of a wave of change in how we all think about the climate crisis and a reminder that climate change doesn’t respect geopolitical boundaries. Environmental CSOs, young leaders, island nations leading the call for the resolution, and PISFCC are reminding the world that before being an advocate, a fossil fuel executive, or a politician, we are all people. As humans, we all share this beautiful planet and sharing it requires caring about each other. If some leaders fail to recognise this, they should be held accountable.
The resolution calling for an ICJ advisory opinion is also a celebration of island innovation and perseverance. Islanders have relied on traditional knowledge and collaborative leadership to adapt to environmental impacts for thousands of years. Taking the world’s greatest challenge to the highest court highlights their strength and experience. As a young person living on an island in the Pacific, I am grateful to the leadership of other young islanders and allies who are paving the way for future generations to have a sustainable future.
How could the ICJ help address climate change?
The ICJ is the world’s highest court, which sets precedents via advisory opinions and rules on how states should cooperate globally. As such, it plays a prominent role in keeping peace among our nations.
The ICJ advisory opinion embodies the reality that we can’t solve the climate crisis by continuing the very practices that brought us to it. The scope of the resolution moves beyond the Paris Agreement, referencing the importance of having a safe climate as a vital human right for well-being. Through outlining potential legal consequences for nations causing significant harm to vulnerable communities and future generations, it could finally ensure greater accountability for the climate crisis. If nations are held more accountable and pushed to act, the door is opened to ensure fossil fuel emissions are fully eliminated and capacity-building for adaptation needs are fulfilled.
How have you personally engaged in advocating for this resolution and broader climate action?
I first learned about the PISFCC’s campaign in 2019, when I got involved with the climate movement following the COP25 climate change summit. As a sustainability student dedicated to working in the climate field, I was inspired by how a small group of students across island boundaries was strongly calling for an ICJ advisory opinion. I started following their journey and supporting their calls to action in various ways, from reposting social media content to bringing up relevant arguments in my conversations with leaders at subsequent COPs.
Inspired by their island leadership, I accepted an internship with the Local 2030 Islands Network, the world’s first global, island-led peer-to-peer network devoted to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals. I learned more about island sustainability and the impacts of climate change from island leaders and was amazed by their examples of innovative solutions and optimist spirit. Empowered to use my education to support islanders in making their voices heard, I chose to focus my master’s degree on developing a workplan for how islanders can work together with their communities to develop, track and implement sustainable solutions for climate change.
This journey of student activism helped me become a cross-sector environmental leader, work on climate adaption on islands, and lean into coalitions, like Care About Climate, as vulnerable groups to stand up for our right to a climate safe future. In fact, their inspiration led to my empowerment to work with young people to ensure the first-ever inclusion of young people as stakeholders in a UN climate conference decision at COP27.
What can international allies do to support this struggle?
All international allies must continue fighting! This historic resolution is only the first step. Before the ICJ can issue its opinion, written and oral arguments from states and select international organisations, such as the United Nations Environment Program, will be requested. It is important for community members to continue contacting their national representatives and international organisations selected to submit testimonies and call for support of the opinion. In fact, the PISFCC have just launched an amazing handbook to support policymakers, youth, and environmental CSOs in understanding their role that I highly recommend checking out. My favourite example from the handbook is about the importance of sharing your personal testimony as to why you believe in the need for an ICJ’s advisory opinion on climate rights and what impact it could have on your future with your national representatives. I hope everyone feels empowered to join me in the Alliance to stay up to date on ways to make an impact.
UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Clément Voule meets with civil society to discuss threats to rights
More than 80 representatives of civil society organisations, community leaders and academics met in Johannesburg on 30-31 May and on 3 June with the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly, Clément Voule to discuss the impact of restrictions on freedom of assembly and association on sustainable development. Participants discussed the relationship between human rights and development and how governments perceived the two as separate from each other. Participants were of the view that the targeting of civil society organisations using a range of restrictions slows down the attainment of development outcomes. That there are existing tensions around the rise of authoritarian models and development and that over the last decade countries like China and Rwanda have experienced some levels of economic growth despite the fact that they are under authoritarian leaders. Other key insights from participants:
UN TAX CONVENTION: ‘People power is the major weapon we bring to the fight against inequality’
CIVICUS speaks about civil society’s work to tackle inequality from the ground up and discusses the prospects of a United Nations (UN) tax convention with Jenny Ricks, Global Convenor of Fight Inequality Alliance.
Fight Inequality Alliance is a growing global coalition bringing together a wide range of social movements, grassroots and community-based organisations, civil society organisations, trade unions, artists and individual activists organising and mobilising from the ground up to find and push for solutions for the structural causes of inequality in order to rebalance power and wealth in our societies.
Is there a global consensus that inequality is wrong and needs to be addressed?
In recent years there has been quite a consensus that inequality has reached new extremes and is damaging for everybody in society as well as for the environment. We are at a time when it’s not just people on the frontlines who are most affected by inequality saying it’s wrong and grotesque and it needs to change, but even organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are saying it’s a problem. The Pope is saying it’s a problem. Governments have signed up to reducing inequality through one of the Sustainable Development Goals.
There is this broad consensus on the surface: it seems like everybody thinks concentration of power and wealth at the top of societies has gone too far and the gap is too extreme and affects people’s daily lives and livelihoods as a matter of life and death. And not only that: it also corrodes democracies. When oligarchs control the media, buy elections, crack down on human rights defenders and civic space and trash the environment, it affects everybody.
But underneath that superficial consensus, I think there’s still deep disagreement about what fighting inequality really means. We at the Fight Inequality Alliance are interested in dismantling the systems of oppression that drive inequality, including neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism and the legacy of colonialism. These are the deep structural roots of the inequalities that are the reason billions of people struggled to survive under a global pandemic while the richest people in the world continued to have a great time. So we have an agenda of transformation of the nature of our economies and our societies, and not just tinkering with the status quo, making minor tweaks to stop people rioting.
How can structural inequality be tackled?
When we started forming the Fight Inequality Alliance, we were clear that the problem was not a matter of lack of policy solutions. We know what the policy solutions are to fight inequality, such as the measures needed to tackle climate change, the redistributive tax policies needed or the policies required to ensure decent work.
The problem was that the overwhelming concentration of power and wealth at the top wasn’t matched by a countervailing force from below. The richest and most powerful are organised and well-funded. They are pursuing their interests and their greed aggressively and successfully. What we have is people power. But across civil society and beyond, groups were very fragmented, very siloed and focused on their individual agendas and absorbed by the issues their constituencies most need them to respond to. There was not enough connection across struggles.
0rganising around inequality is a good way for people to understand how their struggles are interconnected: underneath the day-to-day struggles there are common roots, and therefore there are also common solutions to be fought for. That’s where we saw our role lay, and also in shifting the narratives we have about inequality. We need to change what we envisage as being necessary and possible in our societies, and build power behind the alternative visions we are striving for. When we are limited by what popular narratives deem as natural or normal, such as the false idea that billionaires are hardworking geniuses so deserve unlimited wealth, it limits our energies and our organising capacities for structural change.
People at the grassroots know their problems and their solutions. Inequality isn’t an issue for economists and technocrats to solve: it is primarily a fight that needs to be fought by people. And the voices of people living at the sharp end of these inequalities needs to be heard. They are the real experts in this struggle. So people power is the biggest weapon that we bring to the fight. Governments and international institutions want to take these debates to the technical arenas of policy-making bodies and conference hall settings, wrapping them in technical language that intentionally makes them inaccessible to most people. Many issues that require structural changes, and certainly inequality, are seen as things to be measured, reported on and talked about in economic circles.
But inequality is a human tragedy, not a technical matter. It is about power. And solutions need to be owned by the people whose lives are most affected by it. We need to shift the balance of power, in our societies and in the global arena, not wrangle over the wording of a technical paper discussed behind closed doors, and that’s done by organising on a large scale. This people power is the major weapon we bring to the fight against inequality.
Why is taxation important in the struggle against inequality?
Fighting inequality requires us to redistribute power and wealth, and taxation is a major redistribution tool.
Over the last decade or two civil society has done a lot of work to try and challenge the fact that the richest people and the biggest corporations across the world are not paying their fair share of tax. The economic model is exploitative, unjust and unsustainable, based on resource extraction, primarily from the global south, abusive labour practices, underpaid workers and great environmental damage.
But everyone can relate to this issue nationally too – when it comes to national or local budgets, governments often increase indirect taxes such as value-added tax, which is the most regressive kind of tax because it applies to anything people buy, including essentials, instead of taxing rich people or multinationals more, and they have set up whole global industry and schemes to avoid and evade tax on a massive scale.
Redistribution is happening as we speak, but it is based on extracting from the poorest and distributing towards the wealthiest people in the world – billionaires, corporate shareholders and the like. That is what we are fighting to reverse, at a local level as well as globally.
How could a UN convention on taxation help?
The current level of wealth concentration is so grotesque that it requires solutions and action at all levels. We need to fight on the local front where people are struggling while we push for systemic change in places like the UN. The discussion of global tax rules feels quite distant from the day-to-day struggles that most people, within our alliance and beyond, are campaigning for. But decisions made about them have repercussions for those struggles.
Rules on taxation have so far been set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation with 38 member states – a rich countries’ club. How can decisions over global taxation rules that affect everybody sit anywhere but the UN, which for all its faults and failings is the only multilateral body where every state has a seat at the table?
Even so, as we have seen with climate negotiations, there is a huge power struggle that needs to be fought at the UN. It will still be a titanic struggle to get the kind of global tax rules we want. But if global tax rules are made within the OECD, the majority of the world doesn’t even stand a chance. Asking rich countries to please behave better is not going to yield the kind of transformation we want.
So in November 2022 we saw a first positive step as the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for more inclusive and effective international tax cooperation and urging member states to kick off negotiations on a global tax treaty. The resolution echoed a call made by the Group of 77 (G77), the largest bloc of developing countries in the UN, as well as the Africa Group, and gave the UN a mandate to monitor, evaluate and determine global tax rules and support the establishment of a global tax body.
A global tax convention would put global south states on an equal footing with global north states, so the proposal faced pushback. Global power dynamics were clearly at play. This was to be expected: this is bound to be a long-term process, and an open-ended one. There is no guarantee it will result in the strong global framework that we need. But it’s still a fight worth fighting, and the UN is the right arena for it, simply because there’s no other space to have these negotiations. Where else could the G77 or the Africa Group renegotiate global tax rules?
How are you campaigning in the light of the resolution?
We are not directly campaigning for the UN Tax Convention as much as we are trying to bring people into this agenda in a different way. We’ve been campaigning a lot on taxing the rich and abolishing billionaires, which is a more appealing way to present the issue and mobilise people around it. We can’t imagine hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street for the UN Tax Convention at this point. So instead we’ve been organising around the need to tax the rich, domestically and globally, both individuals and corporations.
This call has a lot of popular resonance because people find it easier to link it to their primary struggles, for jobs, healthcare spending, better public services or basic income, or against austerity measures, regressive tax rises or subsidy cuts. It’s become part of the campaigns of a lot more movements across the world through our organising over the last few years. This has been the way into the tax agenda for a lot of grassroots movements in the global south. It has potential to bring people’s attention to the broader tax justice agenda. You can’t start by holding a community meeting about the UN Tax Convention. You need to start from the daily inequalities people are facing.
Unanswered Questions: How Civil Society’s Contributions to Sustainable Development are Undermined at the HLPF
By Lyndal Rowlands, CIVICUS UN Advocacy Officer
As Colombia joined 45 other countries in New York last month to review progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda, four grassroots activists were killed as they fought for sustainable development in Colombian communities. A question posed by an Indigenous representative to the government about such killings – of which there were more than 100 last year – went unanswered, illustrating the many layers at which civil society is obstructed from meaningful participation in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from the local level to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).
Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing
By Danny Sriskandarajah
The closing of civic space is not just about people’s right to organize or protest in individual countries. This year’s Gobal Risks Report, published last week by the World Economic Forum ahead of its annual Davos meeting, looks in detail at the risks posed by threats to governments clamping down on fundamental civic freedoms. The report points out that, “a new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.”
Read on: Open Democracy
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Anti-rights groups come in under the pretence of speaking about human rights’
As part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and their allies about their experience of facing backlash by anti-rights groups. CIVICUS speaks to two United Nations (UN) officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the increasing space that is being taken up by anti-rights groups at the UN Human Rights Council, and the strategies that need to be developed to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Civil society has always been an integral part of the UN ecosystem’
CIVICUS speaks with Natalie Samarasinghe, Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK) about the UN Secretary-General’s recent ‘Our Common Agenda’ report and the need to include civil society voices in the UN.
A nationwide grassroots movement of over 20,000 people, UNA-UK is the UK’s leading source of independent information and analysis about the UN and is devoted to building support for the UN among policymakers, opinion-formers and the public.
What does ‘Our Common Agenda’ hope to achieve and what are its major recommendations?
‘Our Common Agenda’ is a report released by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in September 2021. While ‘UN releases report’ may not be the most earth-shattering headline, this one stands apart for two reasons.
First, the way it was put together. It was mandated by the General Assembly’s declaration to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, which tasked the Secretary-General with producing recommendations for responding to current and future challenges. The report draws from feedback received from 1.5 million people and 60,000 organisations who took part in the UN75 global conversation, as well as input generated through an innovative digital consultation that enabled stakeholders from various sectors to exchange ideas.
Second, its visionary tone. The report reads like the manifesto of a second-term Secretary-General. Having been dealt a challenging hand, from national parasites to a global virus, Guterres spent his first five years in post firefighting multiple crises and in sensible, if technocratic, reforms. He is newly reappointed to a second term, and this report signals that he now means business: he has big ideas and he wants to see them through. This further bolsters the case for Secretaries-General to serve a single, longer term of office.
Peppered with facts and figures, the report features a grim analysis of the state of the world — and an even grimmer prognosis — while also presenting a hopeful alternative scenario predicated on collective action, a bit like an existential version of a ‘choose your own ending’ book.
It sets out four big-picture shifts: a renewed social contract anchored in human rights; urgent action to protect global commons and deliver global public goods; greater solidarity with young people and future generations; and an upgraded UN that is more inclusive, networked and data-driven.
For each shift, there are a number of proposals. Some are concrete, such as a global COVID-19 vaccination plan and a biennial meeting of the G20 and international institutions. Others are more open – an emergency platform to respond to future shocks, for example, and plans to transform education. Some – such as that of repurposing the Trusteeship Council as a steward for future generations – are grounded in long-standing ideas. Others, such as a global digital compact, would take the UN into new territory. And some are intended to give effect to the proposed changes, notably a Summit of the Future to be held in 2023 and a World Social Summit to beheld in 2025.
What are the positives that the report identifies for civil society and people’s participation in the UN?
One of the most interesting aspects of the report is that it recalibrates the UN’s role on the world stage. Arguably, the biggest transformation to have taken place since the UN’s founding in 1945 is the explosion of actors at the local, national and international levels. It was refreshing to see Guterres combine ambition for the UN’s role with humility about what it can achieve, and set out clearly that success depends on action by, and partnerships with, other stakeholders, including civil society organisations (CSOs).
The report notes that CSOs have been an integral part of the UN ecosystem from the outset. It positions CSOs as a central part of a new social contract, linking them to building trust and cohesion, as well as delivery across a host of areas, from sustainable development to climate action, digital governance and strategic foresight. It also advocates for institutions, the UN included, to listen better to people, adopt participatory approaches and reduce complexity so that their processes and outcomes are better understood.
Guterres recommends that governments conduct consultations to give citizens a say in envisioning their countries’ future. He calls on states to consider suggestions for widening participation in all intergovernmental organs. In addition, he announces two changes within the UN Secretariat: a UN Youth Office and the establishment of dedicated civil society focal points in all UN entities, to create space for participation at the country and global levels and within UN processes.
What is missing or could be strengthened in the report?
The report is remarkably forthright in parts. In calling for a renewed social contract, for instance, Guterres weaves together a number of politically challenging issues, such as human rights, taxation and justice. He is right to position these issues as essentially national, but defining a way forward will be tricky: the emphasis on the UN’s role in ‘domestic’ issues will undoubtedly irk governments, while CSOs may fear it signals a retreat into norm-setting and technical assistance.
In other places, Guterres pulls his punches. This is perhaps wise in contested areas such as peace and security, where the report sets out modest proposals that are, for the most part, already underway. UNA-UK and partner CSOs would have liked more emphasis on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and on halting the development of lethal autonomous weapons.
On climate, Guterres’ signature issue, the report could have gone further to frame the ‘triple crisis’ of climate disruption, pollution and biodiversity loss as an interrelated emergency with human rights at its core. It could also have sensitised policymakers to a bolder set of measures. And after an excellent distillation of the challenges, those looking for new approaches on women’s empowerment and gender equality are also left wanting.
For many of us, though, the biggest disappointment was on civil society inclusion. Guterres’ language is positive but less emphatic than in his Call to Action on Human Rights and there are few specifics that move beyond warm words.
During the stakeholder consultations, CSOs from all regions called for a high-level UN civil society champion to help increase and diversify participation and advise on access – be it to UN headquarters or to climate COPs. This was the one concrete proposal that attracted widespread support and while the report commits to exploring it further, there is some bewilderment as to why Guterres did not move forward with an appointment that is in his gift.
Of course, it is important to have focal points across the system. Many UN entities already do. But we know from our experience with gender, human rights and so on that mainstreaming is not enough. That is surely part of the thinking behind the creation of a Youth Office. It should be applied to civil society too.
What should happen next to improve participation in the UN?
In the short term, the proposed roll-out of systemwide focal points should happen swiftly and in consultation with civil society. A timeline and process should be set for mapping and monitoring engagement, as envisaged by the report. A high-level champion would be a natural instigator for both, so hopefully this position will be established.
In the medium term, a number of other changes would be helpful, including a system-wide strategy on civic space inside and outside the UN; a simple online platform to support engagement, which could include a citizen petition mechanism; a voluntary fund to support participation, as well as tools such as social impact bonds to finance in-country CSO activity; and a new partnership framework to enhance partnership capacity – including in-country, simplify engagement and improve vetting.
In the longer-term, the UN should move towards a partnership model, launching a global capacity-building drive to transfer a number of its functions to CSOs and others who are better able to deliver on the ground. This would enable the organisation to focus on the tasks it is uniquely well-placed to undertake. Indeed, the report already seems to move in this direction with its emphasis on the UN as a convenor and provider of accurate data, foresight and analysis.
What more can civil society do to push for change and how can the UN best support civil society?
The UN already depends on civil society across the spectrum of its work. We are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing the climate emergency. We provide essential assistance in humanitarian crises, sometimes as the only players with access to, and the trust of, marginalised communities. We stand up for those who are ignored and abused. We are essential partners for the UN while also serving as its conscience, urging it to be bold and ambitious, and to act without fear or favour. And we do all this in the face of increasing attacks.
As such, CSOs can push for making progress on ‘Our Common Agenda’, from advocacy with states to provide the Secretary-General with the mandate needed to forge ahead, to fleshing out the many proposals in the report and taking action in their communities, capitals and UN forums.
We can do this from the sidelines – we are well-practised in making our voices heard despite shrinking civic space. But we will be much more effective if we are given a formal role in dedicated processes such as preparations for the Summit of the Future and in the work of the UN more generally; and if we know we can count on the support of UN officials. Appointing a civil society champion would be a good start.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘From now on, states should adopt a human rights approach to environmental regulation’
CIVICUS speaks with Victoria Lichet, executive director of the Global Pact Coalition, about the resolution recently passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognising the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right.The Global Pact Coalition brings together civil society organisations (CSOs), activists, artists, lawyers and scientists advocating for the adoption of the Global Pact for the Environment, a draft international treaty to enshrine a new generation of fundamental rights and duties related to the protection of the environment, and particularly the right to a healthy environment.
What are the relevance and implications of the recent UNGA resolution on the right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment?
The adoption of a resolutionon the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment by the UNGA, the legislative body of the UN, which includes all the UN member states, is a historic victory for environmental protection. The recognition of the right toa clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a universal human right makes environmental protection a core aspect of human rights protection. It is a major step towards a human rights-based approach in environmental litigation, as it integrates human rights norms into environmental matters.
In addition to recognising the right to a healthy environment as a right for all people, the resolution’s preamble clearly affirms the linkage between a healthy environment and human rights. The UNGA recognises that ‘environmental damage has negative implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of all human rights’.
While UNGA resolutions are not legally binding, this resolution is a strong political and symbolic message. It will play a role in shaping and strengthening new and stronger international environmental norms, laws, standards, and policies. As such, it will necessarily improve the overall effectiveness of environmental law and catalyse further environmental and climate action. This also proves that multilateralism still has a role to play in international environmental law.
What role did civil society play in the process leading to this resolution?
This resolution followed months of mobilisation by CSOs and Indigenous peoples’ organisations (IPOs), including the Global Pact Coalition. Under the inspiring leadership of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David R Boyd, and his predecessor, John Knox,the coalition of CSOs and IPOs was able to reach out to governmentsthrough emails and letters to better inform them about the importance of the right to a healthy environment. It also led social media campaigns to inform the public about the process.
The core group of countries that led this initiative, made up of Costa Rica, Maldives, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland, was really helpful and communicated important steps regarding the resolution. We are very grateful for their leadership.
Does the final text of the resolution fully reflect civil society contributions?
The final text of the resolution mostly reflects civil society expectations. Through negotiation, some states were able to remove a few paragraphs. For example, the first draft said that the right to a healthy environment was related to the right to life and the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. But the final draft also included additional paragraphs, for example to include ‘business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders’ in the call to adopt policies to enhance international cooperation to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment.
Overall, the main goal for civil society was to have the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment recognised as a human right for all, and this was obviously fully reflected in the final text. So it is in fact a historic victory for civil society.
What measures should states adopt to make the right recognised in the resolution effective?
Recognition should be combined with strong and ambitious national and regional public policies that implement mechanisms to strengthen environmental protections, the protection of people’s health and the enjoyment of their other human rights. From now on, states should adopt a human rights-based approach in environmental regulation as well as better renewable energy and circular economy policies.
As Special Rapporteur David Boyd said, the international recognition of the right to a healthy environment should encourage governments to review and strengthen their environmental laws and policies and enhance their implementation and enforcement.
What should civil society do next?
Civil society should now advocate for stronger and more ambitious instruments to protect the environment, our right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. Now that the right to a healthy environment has been recognised at the international level, we should introduce additional progressive rights and duties that will take us even further in environmental protection.
The UNGA resolution could be the foundation for a more comprehensive international instrument on the right to a healthy environment and other environmental rights. We already have ambitious models that could be used in these future negotiations, including the Global Pact for the Environment and the draft covenant of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest global environmental network.
The path from ‘soft law’ to ‘hard law’ – in this case, from the non-binding UNGA resolution to a convention on the right to a healthy environment – is a very common one in international law. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is one part of the UNGA resolution on the International Bill of Human Rights, and therefore not legally binding, resulted in two treaties adopted in 1966: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It took 18 years to incorporate the Declaration into two legally binding texts.
We hope it will not take 18 years to achieve a convention on environmental rights, because that would bring us to 2040. We do not have that kind of time. The time has come to adopt such a convention, a ‘third pact’ recognising a third generation of human rights. After civil and political rights, and economic and social rights, it is time to enshrine our environmental rights.
As we face a triple planetary crisis, a binding international environmental text is critically important because millions of people are already dying from toxic environments, particularly from air pollution.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Getting a strong Ocean Treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic’
CIVICUS speaks with Ellie Hooper of GreenpeaceAotearoa about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards the development of a United Nations Ocean Treaty. Greenpeace is a global environment campaigning network that comprises 26 independent national and regional organisations in over 55 countries across all continents as well as a co-ordinating body, Greenpeace International, based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It uses peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems and promote solutions that create a green and peaceful future.
What is the significance of the proposed Ocean Treaty?
A strong global treaty on the oceans could revolutionise the way oceans are managed, putting an end to fragmented governance that has failed to protect our blue planet the way we need to.
If done right, one of the key things the Ocean Treaty could deliver is the creation of fully protected marine areas on the high seas. These areas would be off limits to destructive human activities such as industrial fishing and mining. At the moment there is no legal mechanism to create fully protected areas outside of national jurisdictions, which has become a real problem. The ocean is under threat from all sides and to protect it we need to take a holistic view tackling multiple risk factors.
Getting a strong treaty across the line would be nothing short of historic. Scientists tell us that to avoid the worst of the climate and biodiversity crisis we must protect at least a third of the world’s oceans by 2030. A strong treaty would give us the mechanism to do this. The ocean is a huge carbon sink and has absorbed a great deal of global warming to this point. It’s also home to amazing biodiversity, produces the oxygen we breathe, stabilises the climate and is a food source for millions around the world.
In short, keeping the ocean healthy is vital to our survival and the entire functioning of our blue planet. But more and more research shows it is in decline. To turn this around we need to step up and protect it by reducing the multiple pressures on the system.
Science shows that fully protected marine areas are one of the best tools we’ve got to help the ocean recover and thrive. When these are put in place in the right areas – places known to be high in biodiversity, migratory pathways or unique ecosystems – ocean health improves and marine life flourishes. This has positive impacts across the board, from the number of creatures in the sea to how well the ocean can absorb carbon.
Why is the treaty process taking so long?
We’re talking about a hugely ambitious conservation effort. Getting a treaty across the line involves countries around the world agreeing to its terms, and that is not an easy feat.
While it’s disappointing that leaders failed to reach a conclusion on this at the latest round of negotiations held in August, this doesn’t mean an agreement isn’t going to happen. At the last meeting a great deal of progress was made, with countries showing more flexibility and a real sense of urgency. They ran out of time, but we are not giving up hope that this historic agreement is on the horizon. What needs to happen now is for countries to come together without delay and thrash out their remaining discrepancies.
How has civil society in general, and Greenpeace specifically, advocated for the treaty?
There’s been a great deal of civil society pressure for this treaty, with many organisations around the world pushing hard for its best version to materialise.
Greenpeace has been actively involved in the treaty process since the beginning. It sends a team to each round of negotiations and has run a global campaign to raise awareness of the threats facing the ocean and how a treaty could counter them. Our approach has been twofold: to build public momentum around the agreement while doing all the behind-the-scenes work, talking to ministers and other public officials in all the regions where we’re active.
As a consequence, millions of people around the world have joined the campaign for a strong treaty. They’ve done that in various ways, from signing petitions, sending letters and recording video messages to attending marches. Many people around the world are invested in this issue and their engagement has been critical to getting this far.
For us here at Greenpeace Aotearoa, it’s been inspiring to see the number of people willing to stand up for ocean protection, and we know that their voices have been heard. It’s fair to say that their repeated calls on New Zealand’s leaders to support a strong treaty has resulted in New Zealand supporting a far more progressive position at negotiations. That’s really people power in action. When we work together, we can make real change happen.
We’ve also met regularly with the New Zealand delegation to the treaty negotiations, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and we consistently communicate with them about what this treaty needs to look like in order to protect the ocean for the future.
What can environmental civil society organisations and activists do to ensure the treaty is adopted?
Treaty negotiations need to urgently resume. At the latest round, countries ran out of time to agree on all its terms, but they’re almost there. So it’s up to civil society activists and organisations to keep pushing world leaders to prioritise reconvening and getting this done. We don’t want it to fall to the bottom of the agenda – it’s simply too important.
In more practical terms, making noise about the need for this treaty is really important. That could look like sharing content online, signing petitions, or writing to your country’s minister of foreign affairs to show how important getting this treaty done is. None of us can survive without a healthy ocean, so we all need to up to protect it.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Ocean Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society’
CIVICUS speaks John Paul Jose about civil society’s role in the ongoing negotiations towards a United Nations (UN) High Seas Treaty. John is an environmental and climate activist from India who currently serves as one of the youth ambassadors of the High Seas Alliance (HSA) and a member of the Youth Policy Advisory Council of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance. The HSA is a partnership of more than 40 civil society organisations (CSOs) plus the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It aims to build a strong common voice and constituency for ocean conservation.
What is the significance of the proposed treaty?
Seventy-one per cent of the surface of the Earth is covered by ocean, 64 per cent of which are high seas. The ocean regulates the global climate and sustains life on the planet. It sequesters much of the historic and cumulative carbon emissions: phytoplankton, marine forests and whales, in particular, play a significant role in locking carbon in the ocean. However, the ocean has been systematically ignored in efforts to address the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity, which have focused almost exclusively on the land.
As the high seas are a global commons, it is largely governed by the International Maritime Organization, a UN agency responsible for regulating shipping that was established in 1948, and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and its autonomous intergovernmental body, the International Seabed Authority, established in 1994.
But high seas are experiencing unprecedented threats that were not foreseen when those agreements were reached, such as the accumulation of plastics, chemical and industrial waste, acidification, deep sea mining, bottom trawling and, last but not least, the overall impacts of climate change. Rising temperatures and the overexploitation of marine habitats and species increase the danger of ocean collapse.
This is why it is urgent to develop a global treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction – a High Seas Treaty. This would provide the legal basis for the conservation of marine ecosystems and the protection from extinction of countless species yet to be discovered. Only one per cent of the high seas are currently protected, and the treaty aims to make it 30 per cent by 2030.
This would be the equivalent of the Paris Agreement for the oceans. Through marine conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources, it will preserve the carbon cycle. By creating marine protected areas, it will contribute to the restoration of marine habitats and the replenishment of the marine resources on which many communities around the world rely for their livelihoods. It will further contribute to global climate resilience. Once it comes into effect, many practices harmful to the ocean will cease to exist within the protected areas.
Why is the treaty process taking so long?
It has been 15 years since the negotiations started, but cooperation has been lacking regarding many aspects of the treaty. Differences would need to be resolved in between sessions, and a treaty should be finalised to include all the aspects where agreements have been reached, leaving space for future amendments as differences over more contested elements are subsequently resolved. And intergovernmental conferences should definitely happen more often.
One element being discussed is the equitable distribution among states of marine genetic resources, which are essential in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, agricultural and other industries. The current overemphasis on benefit sharing is an illusion, as we don’t know enough about such benefits, since much of the ocean is still unexplored. But it is a fact that 10 countries account for 71 per cent of global fishing and 98 per cent of patents of genetic codes of marine life in the high seas. Those few countries’ greed and unwillingness to share benefits and marine technology and knowledge, and the obvious concerns this creates among less powerful countries, are one big reason for the deadlock.
There is also a stalemate on defining criteria for environmental impact assessments and the implementation of marine protected areas. What is at stake here are the interests of deep-sea mining industries and industrial fisheries.
However, the treaty process has seen a lot of success in convening discussions and negotiations. As of now, more than 100 states are highly committed to backing the treaty as it stands and some, such as Costa Rica, are leading by example by pushing forward regionally, opening up additional avenues for conservation.
The treaty is likely to be finalised at the next session, so further efforts should be put into funding delegations from global south countries so they can be a stronger voice and bring more balance into negotiations.
How has civil society in general, and the HSA in particular, advocated for the development and adoption of a treaty?
Since its inception, the HSA has advocated for protecting at least 50 per cent of the ocean, engaging decision-makers, experts and civil society. We are now focused on keeping up the momentum of the intergovernmental conferences, as this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a legally binding treaty to protect the planet by changing the way we govern the high seas. This process has created a lot of awareness about the importance of the high seas, so governments that used to be unfamiliar with them are now supporting a robust treaty.
That said, it should be noted that only states are considered as parties to the treaty, so non-state voices have no space in the negotiations. Treaty negotiations are largely a backroom discussion that excludes civil society and experts. Many of us cannot even witness live negotiations and documents are only made available once discussions have been closed.
There are also clear inequalities among participating states. Many states with limited resources bring very small delegations and lack the expertise to engage productively in the discussions. It would make a difference to all parties involved if civil society were able to bring its expertise into the process.
What can environmental CSOs and activists do to ensure the treaty’s adoption?
There are clear limits to what we can do to expedite the treaty’s adoption. We believe it is crucial to have a treaty as soon as possible, and it is better to have an incomplete one than to have none. So states should move forward on all the issues where agreements have been reached and design an amendment process to integrate further issues and stakeholders’ concerns in the future.
CSOs and activists can contribute to the process by bringing diverse perspectives to the table. As current negotiations are closed discussions among states in which civil society, scientists and the private sector don’t have a seat, we only can do so by advocating with receptive states that do have a seat at the table.
We can also campaign to bring bottom-up pressure into the process, by bringing the concerns the treaty tries to address into the discussion of the global climate movement and getting the wider public engaged. Resources such as the HSA’s Treaty Tracker provide access to useful information regarding the treaty and negotiations. This information should reach across the globe and empower people to demand that world leaders finalise the treaty, and to call on their own governments to hear them in environmental policy process.
A treaty would provide a legal basis for action, but even without one, states, communities and corporations can act to protect the high seas. Many countries already have marine protected areas within their national jurisdictions, and more can be established with public participation. Civil society should engage in these processes but should not be limited by national boundaries. It’s time for us to transcend borders and advocate for the global commons as well.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘Outstanding issues on the binding treaty on business and human rights are mainly political’
CIVICUS speaks with Fernanda Hopenhaym, chair of the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Business and Human Rights, about the process to develop a binding international treaty on business and human rights.
Why is a binding treaty on business and human rights so important?
The process to develop this treaty stems from the conviction that a legally binding instrument is needed to regulate the obligations of private companies and, above all, to facilitate access to justice for victims of their abuses. Its aim is to incorporate human rights protections in the context of business activity.
An international treaty would transcend the jurisdictional limitations of states. Transnational capital operates across borders. Huge numbers of companies in most sectors operate global supply chains. When abuses occur somewhere in these chains, it is very difficult for victims to access justice, as there are no justice mechanisms that transcend borders. Corporate operations are transnational but justice is not.
Of course, states must take measures at the domestic level, strengthen their regulations, improve their laws and develop public policy and action plans to ensure effective protection of human rights. And companies must also make commitments to improve their practices. The treaty under negotiation would be part of a package of measures that are complementary, not mutually exclusive.
The treaty process began in June 2014, when the UN Human Rights Council established an open-endedintergovernmental working group mandated to negotiate and agree on an international legally binding instrument to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises under international human rights law.
What role is the Working Group on Business and Human Rights playing?
TheWorking Group on Business and Human Rights is a UN special procedure, established by a 2011resolution of the Human Rights Council, with a mandate to promote, disseminate and implement theGuiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, exchange and promote good practices and lessons learned from the implementation of the Guiding Principles, and assess and make recommendations on these. Its mandate has been successively renewed in 2014, 2017 and 2020. It is composed of five independent experts, mostly academics, and has balanced geographical representation. I have been a member of the Working Group since 2021. The other four current members are from Australia, Nigeria, Poland and Thailand. Three of the five of us are women.
While it does not have any decision-making authority over the Treaty, the Working Group plays an important role. We participate in almost all negotiating sessions through roundtables and discussions and we provide technical opinions. We have commented on the draft articles and we encourage the proactive participation of states from different regions of the world.
One of the premises of the Guiding Principles is the development of measures that can be combined in order to address the problems that exist in relation to the protection of human rights in the context of business activity. A legally binding instrument is just one of those necessary measures.
The Working Group has been very clear in sending out a message favourable to the treaty negotiation process.
What progress has been made in negotiating the treaty?
In the previousinterview we had in 2018, the process had been going on for four years. At that time the fourth session of negotiations, based on the ‘zero draft’, was about to start in Geneva. And I was not yet part of the Working Group. Four more years have passed, and at the eighth session held in October 2022, the third draft, which emerged in advance of the 2021 negotiations, was discussed.
The pandemic affected the negotiation processes, partly because face-to-face contact was not possible for a long time. Representatives and delegates in Geneva, for example, were unable to meet in person for more than a year, so the possibilities for exchanges were severely limited. In turn, the pandemic affected the participation of civil society and other stakeholders in the discussions. Processes slowed down and therefore were extended.
Currently, the third draft is still being discussed, and Ecuador, which chairs the Intergovernmental Working Group, has apparently said that it will not bring yet another new draft to the table, but that changes, modifications and additions will continue to be made to this third draft. Eventually, all these adjustments will lead to a final draft.
The current draft has come a long way on issues such as acknowledging vulnerable groups, women, children and Indigenous peoples. Its scope, which was a very tough issue to negotiate, has also been clarified. In general, civil society’s position is to prioritise transnational corporations, while the current draft proposes that all companies should be under the umbrella of the treaty. The current draft reflects the position shared by our Working Group. A number of issues have been untangled, although there are still many things to be resolved.
What are the unresolved issues?
There are many discussions that are more political than technical. Some states and the private sector have said that the text is too prescriptive and rigid. Civil society has expressed that it wants more clarification and specificity on some issues such as the definition of the courts where cases covered by the treaty would be adjudicated and the consideration of the victims’ perspective, as the burden of proof remains a contentious issue. On this point the Working Group has been very clear: states have an obligation to facilitate access to justice and to remove barriers and obstacles for victims to access justice.
While the European Union (EU) and the USA participate in this process, they lack conviction on the direction of the text. The EU is very active, but I see divergent positions among its member states. Many countries, such as France, support it, but the EU as a whole maintains reservations.
One of the great triumphs of the early process was that China did not block it, but rather abstained. The same was true of India. This was partly because the treaty was supposed to be about transnational corporations. China has not approved of the extension of the treaty’s scope to all companies and has lately taken a more negative position.
African states have participated very little in the last two rounds of negotiations. We believe that South Africa, which was co-leader with Ecuador when the resolution that initiated the process was negotiated, is also unhappy with the expanded focus beyond transnational corporations. Ecuador has recently called for the formation of a ‘friends of theChair‘ group and Africa is the only region without participating members.
Latin America in comparison is participating quite proactively, although the region has experienced many political changes, including in Ecuador itself, which are likely to influence negotiating positions.
In sum, there are ongoing technical discussions on the draft articles, but most of the outstanding issues are mainly political discussions. For this reason, I think the process will take several more years.
Do you think that the final version of the treaty will meet civil society expectations?
My hope is that we will not be left with a treaty that sets out good intentions without establishing clear rules. As is the case in all negotiations of this nature, some of the issues civil society is calling for will probably be left pending. There is a lot to accommodate: the perspectives of states, the expectations of business and the private sector in general, and the demands of civil society and all rights holders.
I would expect a pretty good text, which in some ways reflects the character of the process, which has included a very strong civil society and social movements. From my perspective, the process has been sustained not only by the commitment of states to negotiate, but also by the impetus of civil society and dialogue among all involved.
My expectations are intermediate. With some caution as to the scope of the articles, I think the treaty will contain some elements that satisfy civil society, and particularly victims.
What work will need to be done once the treaty is adopted?
To begin with, I think there is a long way to go before this treaty is adopted. It may still take several more years. There is a long way to go in the negotiations and regarding the content of the text.
Once the treaty is adopted, ratification will have to be pushed through. Let us remember that international treaties only enter into force when a certain number of states ratify them, and only those states that ratify them are bound by them. This is where I see a huge challenge ahead. Hopefully, once we get to produce a good, comprehensive text, the process of ratification will not be so slow and cumbersome.
For this to happen, we will need a strong civil society to push states to ratify the treaty so it enters into force and becomes binding on the signatory parties. Again, I would expect this process to be long and arduous, as the issue of human rights protection in the context of business is a thorny one, given that there are many interests at stake. What lies ahead will be a big challenge for all involved.
UNITED NATIONS: ‘The power of anti-rights groups is growing; difficult times lie ahead’
CIVICUS speaks with Tamara Adrián, founder and director of DIVERLEX-Diversity and Equality Through Law, about the successful civil society campaign for the renewal of the mandate of the United Nations’ (UN) Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Tamara Adrián is a lawyer and university professor, and the first trans woman to be elected to a national parliament in Latin America.
DIVERLEX is a Venezuelan civil society organisation dedicated to research, training, advocacy and strategic litigation on issues of sexual diversity. Due to the complex humanitarian crisis affecting Venezuela, most of its leaders are currently based outside Venezuela, where they continue to work to improve the living conditions of LGBTQI+ people in exile.
Why is the mandate of the UN Independent Expert on sexual orientation and gender identity so important?
This is an extremely important figure. The weapon of choice of all bigots is to make certain groups and the violation of their rights invisible. This has been a constant in relation to women, Indigenous peoples, racial minorities and religious minorities. As long as the intolerant can say a problem does not exist, their power system remains active and nothing changes. In the universal human rights system, what bigots want to keep invisible is made visible through the work of independent experts and rapporteurs.
The first Independent Expert, Vitit Muntarbhorn, was in office for a couple of years and produced a report on violence based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which he shared with the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He kicked off the process of shedding light on the injustices, inequities and violence against LGBTQI+ people globally.
The three reports submitted by the current Independent Expert, Víctor Madrigal-Borloz, pointed at many countries that are failing in their duty to protect all their citizens. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that states have a positive obligation to ensure equal rights to all people.
We understand there is still a long way to go and that reports – those by the Independent Expert, the High Commissioner and regional bodies such as the Organization of American States – are important to this process.
So important are they that this work triggered strong backlash from fundamentalist groups that reorganised in the form of ‘non-governmental organisations’. These sought to obtain consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council in order to interfere in their processes.
How do these groups operate within the UN?
Anti-rights groups have been changing their strategy. Rather than identify as religious organisations, they have sought to present themselves as defenders of religious freedom and, above all, of the freedom of expression. They have promoted strategies of religious unity, bringing together Catholic fundamentalists and representatives of the Holy See with neo-evangelical fundamentalists and the most regressive Muslim groups.
They have also refined their arguments. First, they argue that the concept of sexual orientation and gender identity is a western concept and not a universal one, and therefore should not be protected by the UN. Second, they claim that no existing treaty or international instrument provides protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Third, they say that countries with traditional values should be able to maintain discriminatory laws or criminalise same-sex relationships or diverse gender identities.
These three claims were implicit in the arguments of the countries that opposed the renewal of the Independent Expert's mandate and proposed amendments, alongside a fourth: that no country should protect criminals, and the determination of what is a criminal act is subject to the criminal law of each country and is not subject to verification before the international human rights system.
Historically, this issue has been resolved on the basis of the recognition that everyone has a right to their own beliefs, but no one can impose their beliefs or deny others their rights on the basis of their faith. Fundamentalists want this situation reversed so that believers can discriminate against and deny rights to other people
Have anti-rights groups grown in power in recent years?
The power of anti-rights groups is growing, which is possibly linked to the regression that is taking place in the USA. Indeed, in the vote to renew the mandate we saw two groups of states putting up resistance: countries that have never made progress in recognising rights and where there is a lot of resistance to change, and countries that are moving backwards, such as the USA.
In the USA, links connecting white supremacism, neo-Pentecostal groups and the more radical segments of the Republican Party have been growing closer for at least a decade. Anti-rights groups have been taking up space in the courts, from the lowest levels to the Supreme Court, as well as in governorships and state legislatures, resulting in more and more anti-trans, anti-sex education and pro-religious freedom rulings, laws and policies. They have been outspoken in their plans to reverse abortion rights, reject the concept of gender and repeal sexual and reproductive education and contraceptive rights, and even women’s rights, equal marriage and protections against racial discrimination.
The USA has also played a key role in the international funding of the anti-rights movement and the development of neo-Pentecostal churches around the world, particularly in Africa and Latin America. It has also influenced the establishment of a phenomenon that has not been given enough attention: the movement of biology-fixated feminists, who deny the concept of gender with the same arguments used by the most conservative churches.
This unity of argumentation is highly suspicious, and all the more so when one looks at the funding streams coming from the USA feeding biology-focused feminist groups in places including Brazil, Central America, the Dominican Republic, Spain and the UK. The target of these groups is not LGBTQI+ people generally, but trans people specifically. By upholding the biological and natural character of differences they seek to destroy the whole structure of gender-based protections.
I honestly think this is a very well-thought-out plan. I understand that they have mimicked the strategy we initially adopted to give visibility to our struggles. However, they have the advantage of being in power. The number of states that have signed a ‘pro-life’ resolution at the UN and declared themselves ‘pro-life’ states shows that their aim is not just to oppose just LGBTQI+ rights but all rights based on the concept of gender.
How was the campaign for the renewal of the Independent Expert’s mandate organised?
The organisations that lobbied for the renewal of the mandate have worked together ever since the campaign for the appointment of the first Independent Expert. Every time, the process starts long before the appointment. In this case, we started working about three years ago: practically the year after the mandate was renewed we were already working to create the core group to work for a new renewal.
With Latin American organisations, a recurrent limitation is lack of knowledge of the English language, which restricts the ability of activists to internationalise their struggles. To overcome this problem, our core group is made up of both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking activists. This was very important because the coalition was mainly made up of Latin American groups.
It was a very difficult process, and while the vote eventually turned out to be favourable, over several months the outcomes of the sessions did not make us feel confident. We saw growing resistance from countries with fundamentalist positions that were increasingly embracing the idea of rolling back rights.
What are the next steps following the mandate’s renewal?
I believe we should not relax. Difficult times lie ahead. Many rights we thought had already been secured are likely to be reversed in the USA, including those linked to racial equality. It is no longer even a question of returning to a 20th century vision, but to a 16th or 17th century one.
This will have a strong impact at the global level, especially in countries with less developed institutions. Countries with stronger institutions will probably be better able to resist the onslaught to roll back sexual and reproductive rights.
As next steps, I would emphasise organising. In many places people tell me, ‘don’t worry, that would never happen here’, but I insist we cannot relax. We must focus on forming coalitions and organising stronger alliances to stop advances by neoconservative groups and challenge them to gain back the spaces of power they have occupied.