civil society

  • BAHRAIN: ‘This election is make-believe: its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy’

    JawadFairoozCIVICUS speaks about the election being held today in Bahrain withJawad Fairooz, founder and director of Salam for Democracy and Human Rights (Salam DHR).

    Salam DHR is a human rights civil society organisation (CSO) founded in 2012 to undertake research and advocacy for the advancement of democracy and human rights, mainly in relation to Bahrain, but also in the wider Gulf and Middle East and North Africa regions.

    Jawad Fairooz is a former Bahraini parliamentarian. In the 2010 election his political group, al-Wefaq, won 18 out of 40 seats, becoming the largest group in the Council of Representatives. They all resigned in repudiation of the repression of protests in 2011, and Jawad and another parliamentarian were arrested, tortured and ill-treated in detention. In November 2012, while he was visiting the UK, the government withdrew his citizenship, making him stateless. He became a campaigner against statelessness and for the rights of the stateless and founded Salam DHR in 2013.

    What is the significance of today’s election?

    Elections matter, or at least they should. In Bahrain, elections for municipal councils and the 40-seat parliament, the Council of Representatives, are held every four years, with possible runoffs where no candidate obtains a majority.

    Between 2002 and 2010, these elections were carried out in a context where civil society had become relatively more vibrant. They continued – even if only just – to carry the promise that parliament would take an increasingly larger and more responsible role in deepening democracy and freedoms and ensuring the continuing existence of civil society.

    Far more than now, they showed elections are a pivotal moment for social and political renewal – for those who will shape society to engage with civil society and to accommodate differing social and political views. Elections can create a sense of shared ownership, and in a context of tolerance and acceptance they can foster a vibrant and responsible civil society. They can help build a culture of human rights.

    But that is not the case with today’s election.

    This one reflects an ever-shrinking civic space. Parliamentarians’ institutional power has weakened, as they too operate under limited civic space. The government is inclined to seek less qualified parliamentarians whose conduct it will be able to control. To further weaken and subordinate parliament to the government’s will, the King recently issued a decree giving more power to parliament’s chair, a government loyalist, to determine the body’s workings. This will further extend government writ and further chill civic space.

    This election, like those of 2014 and 2018, is controlled or stage managed in a way that makes it clear that its only role is to provide a veneer of democracy. It’s make-believe.

    But let’s be clear: it is also an opportunity for us to get back to work on our own renewal, to locate openings and fissures and pry them open, and to chip away at walls enclosing us, in Bahrain, in the Gulf and across the region. An opportunity to look forward.

    Flaws notwithstanding, we need to engage with the new parliamentarians. Will the government let them engage with independent civil society? It looks unlikely, but we will try, both through bilateral parliamentary visits and in the context of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s General Assembly, which will be held in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in March 2023. We need to start organising now so that global parliamentarians can help carry our voices and those of international civil society to the heart of Manama.

    We also need to plant the seeds for civil society activism around COP28, which will take place a year from now in neighbouring United Arab Emirates, where civic space is non-existent. We just can’t stop now, however bleak the situation of Bahrain or the Gulf may seem. This cycle of unfair elections is done, but our task to continue to look for avenues of engagement and activism continues apace. We are looking forward.

    Have further restrictions been imposed on civic space in the run-up to the election?

    Not really, as most of the damage was already done.

    In December 2014, the authorities imprisoned Ali Salman, the leader of al-Wefaq, the largest political association. He was arrested for protesting against the parliamentary elections, which al-Wefaq boycotted because promised reforms had not been implemented. In 2015 he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges such as inciting hatred, disturbing the peace and insulting public institutions, but he was acquitted of the most serious charge, of inciting political change, which could carry a life sentence.

    He appealed, but so did the prosecutor, who demanded a stricter sentence, and in 2016 his prison sentence was increased to nine years. Further charges were subsequently added and in 2017 he was accused and tried for the crime of ‘spying for Qatar’. For having tried to mediate in Bahrain’s conflict with Qatar, the authorities handed him a life sentence.

    In July 2016, a court in Bahrain dissolved and banned Al-Wefaq after accusing it of fostering violence and ‘terrorism’. In May 2017, the main non-sectarian political association, Wa’d, was shut down as well, also under accusations of advocating violence, supporting terrorism and inciting crimes.

    In advance of the 2018 parliamentary election, the government amended the NGO law, extending restrictions on who could establish or be on a CSO board, irrespective of the organisation’s nature – this applies even to organisations working on sports, working with the community or providing charitable services. It also forbade all those linked to banned political parties from engaging with CSOs.

    In addition, anyone sentenced to more than six months’ imprisonment, even if subsequently pardoned by the King, convicted in error or provided with a ‘no objection certificate’, is now deprived for life of voting rights and the right to stand for election. Likewise, all those who for whatever reason did not take part in the previous election have been banned from taking part in the next.

    Having crushed civic space for years, in the run-up to the 2022 election the authorities only needed to ensure that calm persisted. To that effect, in September the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs issued vaguely worded regulations that appeared to link electioneering and religion. Among other things, these regulations banned the holding of meetings in public religious centres and other public places such as educational facilities. They appeared aimed at the majority Shi’a community for whom such centres have often become the only places where they – we – are allowed to gather.

    What are the conditions for civil society like in Bahrain?

    In Bahrain, the very existence of a civil society – let alone an independent one – depends on the political will and whim of the government: the Ministry of Labour and Social Development controls the licensing of all CSOs.

    The newly amended NGO Law redefined who could establish and run a CSO and prohibited members of banned political bodies from setting up a CSO. These new rules were applied in January 2022 to forbid two peaceful women activists, Zainab al-Durazi and Safia al-Hasan, taking up the board positions to which they had been freely elected in a women-focused CSO. The two women had been linked to the banned group Wa’d.

    Do some of the activities of CSOs whose directors are demonstrably loyal to the state help and support society’s needs? Of course they do. We need them and we commend such organisations. But they are not independent.

    Those perceived as not personally loyal to the government and its leaders do not get licences to operate any CSO and are not allowed to be on supervisory boards, in any sector, in total contravention to international law and practice, and completely against the wishes of Bahraini people. A thorough vetting process ensures this remains the case.

    All CSOs must obtain permission to engage in any way with non-Bahraini bodies such as foreign or international human rights groups or to meet with foreign Bahrain-based diplomats. If they get permission and the meeting takes place, the government requires the participation of a Foreign Ministry representative and the preparation of notes for the meeting, subject to approval. If this is not done, the representative of the CSO risks criminal charges or the closure of the organisation.

    The absence of an independent civil society means that any consultation that does take place is performative – just for show. The authorities don’t typically take the limited civil society that is loyal to the government into account, so independent voices are simply not even in the picture.

    If the government only consults those of whom they approve, and even then, only barely, how will that shape government policy? How can it capture the concerns and wishes of the wider population? How is this sustainable? Well, it isn’t. It is unwise and risks creating conditions similar to those that resulted in a national crisis in 2011.

    What would it take to build democratic institutions in Bahrain?

    Recent history has shown that democratic institutions are difficult to build and easy to lose. In Bahrain and the Gulf, the human rights movement does not call for removal of X so that they be replaced by Y. Instead, we build case studies from each country to show the inequities of laws and practices, and we campaign on that. The reform of specific practices, in certain areas – the administration of justice, the freedom of assembly – is achievable if the authorities in Bahrain and across the Gulf actually engage with human rights groups and United Nations human rights bodies.

    We need the Bahraini authorities to provide some genuine representation of the people by the people. We are ready to have a real, genuine dialogue with the authorities, but there needs to be a level playing field. If, despite the restrictions placed on them, the parliamentarians elected in this election step up, then we will have a chance to make a difference going forward. But just as we dare to dream and act, they need to do so too.

    What kind of support does Bahraini civil society need from the international community?

    We need more engagement. We need states and friends in international civil society to step up and explain the character and vision of the democratic society that the majority of Bahrainis seek; to explain that it does not represent a threat but rather an unlocking of potential.

    We need international civil society counterparts to engage in international fora, not only to reflect and project our voice but also to emphasise the role and inherent legitimacy of Bahraini civil society to the Bahraini authorities.

    We need our international partners to put pressure on the government’s human rights oversight bodies – the Ombudsman’s office, the Special Investigative Unit and the National Institution for Human Rights – to provide real rather than cosmetic redress, accountability and reform. Some of these oversight bodies have helped migrant workers facing abuse, but even then, their scope has been limited as they have failed to address underlying unjust laws or practices.

    We need help and expertise to collate evidence to mount realistic claims for accountability in jurisdictions that have provisions for sanctioning, such as the Global Magnitsky Act that the US government uses to sanction foreign government officials deemed to be human rights offenders,

    We need international civil society to press the government of Bahrain to explain why it has failed to adhere to the international conventions to which it has acceded, or why it has not acceded to additional standards such as optional protocols, or been clearer about imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

    Civic space in Bahrain is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Salam for Democracy and Human Rights through their website and follow @SALAM_DHR and@JawadFairooz on Twitter.

  • BANGLADESH: ‘The legal vulnerability of LGBTQI+ people leads to harassment and discrimination’

    ShahanurIslamCIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.

    JMBD isa human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders,including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.

  • Big business and activists finally agree. On this one issue

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    With some of the world’s biggest economies now companies, not states, the benefits for civil society of working more closely with business are clear. Yet, perhaps less well understood, are the benefits for business of defending civic space – the freedom of citizens to organise, speak up and protest governance failings and corruption. The good news is that in one area at least, businesses and civil society are increasingly seeing eye to eye.

    Read on:World Economic Forum

  • BIODIVERSITY: ‘Governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure’

    Gadir LavadenzCIVICUS speaks with Gadir Lavadenz, global coordinator of the Convention on Biological Diversity Alliance (CBD Alliance), about the ongoing process to draft a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework with the full participation of affected communities and wider civil society.

    The CBD Alliance is a network of civil society organisations (CSOs) with a common interest in the Convention on Biological Diversity. It works to increase public understanding of relevant issues, enhance cooperation among organisations wishing to have a positive influence in the CBD and bridge the gap between those who participate in CBD sessions and those involved in biodiversity-related work on the ground, while respecting the independence and autonomy of Indigenous peoples, a key stakeholder.

    What is the CBD Alliance, what does it do and how did it develop?

    The origins of the CBD Alliance, about two decades ago, were organic – it came naturally as those participating in the CBD process saw the need to act together and amplify the voices of civil society in the negotiations. Since the beginning, the CBD Alliance’s role was not to speak on behalf of people, but rather to support all advocacy efforts being undertaken autonomously in the best way possible.

    Despite our limitations, it is very clear to us that the less privileged groups require specific support. Also, while our network is diverse, we respect the role and have fluent coordination with the other major groups involved in the process, particularly the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB), the Global Youth Biodiversity Network and the Women Caucus.

    The CBD Alliance is a broad community: in includes both Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) and CSOs that support them closely. We fully respect each of these groups’ governance structures and decision-making processes and decisions. We maintain fluent communications and coordination with the IIFB, which represents the biggest group of IPLCs engaged with the CBD. We support their statements during official meetings, we support the participation of IPLCs at international meetings whenever possible and we amplify all their publications and campaigns.

    Why is there a need for a new Global Biodiversity Framework? 

    Historically, the implementation of the CBD focused around its first objective, the conservation of biological diversity, and comparatively little attention was put on its second and third objectives, which are the sustainable use of the components of biological diversity, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the use of genetic resources. This is one of the reasons why the CBD has not been able to deliver the results required. The past decade saw lack of political will from parties to the CBD leading to failure in achieving the Aichi targets, and there is abundant literature demonstrating how the destruction of biodiversity continues rampant.

    A new framework should be a unique opportunity to correct past mistakes. The CBD covers a broad range of issues but has failed to address the root causes of biodiversity loss, and its hyper attention to targets such as the one on protected areas, focusing on quantity rather than quality, has hidden huge inconsistencies in our approach to biodiversity loss.

    For instance, the Forest Peoples Programme, a member of the CBD Alliance, reported that global funding of biodiversity has grown significantly over the past decade, and is now estimated at between US$78 billion and US$147 billion per year. However, it is greatly outweighed by public subsidies and broader financial flows that drive biodiversity loss, which are estimated at between US$500 billion and several trillion dollars per year.

    Furthermore, while the contributions of Indigenous peoples and local communities are widely recognised as critically important for protecting biodiversity, they are often negatively impacted on by biodiversity finance, and receive little direct support for their efforts.

    Another CBD Alliance member, the Third World Network, reported that in 2019, 50 of the world’s largest banks underwrote more than US$2.6 trillion in industries known to be the drivers of biodiversity loss. A recent study concluded that ‘the financial sector is bankrolling the mass extinction crisis, while undermining human rights and indigenous sovereignty’.

    According to the Global Forest Coalition, also a member of the CBD Alliance, climate finance and subsidised renewable energy generation are a form of direct subsidy that often harms forests while failing to reduce emissions. The most prominent example of this is the Drax power station in the UK, which receives UK£2 million (approx. US$2.8 million) per day to produce highly polluting electricity from wood clear-felled from highly biodiverse wetland forests in the south-eastern USA, among other places. Other examples include the Global Environment Facility’s subsidy to iron and steel companies to produce charcoal from eucalyptus plantations in Brazil, and numerous national and European Union-level subsidies available to the pulp and paper industry in Portugal.

    Recently, in an event organised by the CBD Secretariat, several so-called world leaders pledged great amounts of money for biodiversity. However, countries from the global north have failed to fulfil their international commitments in relation to new and additional funds. What they pledge for nature is mixed with all sorts of schemes that do not address the real causes of biodiversity loss. And the amounts pledged to protect biodiversity are clearly outweighed by all the money invested in destroying biodiversity.

    In addition to these troubling contradictions and inconsistencies, powerful groups and developed nations constantly try to avoid their responsibilities by all means. We see the push to incorporate terms such as nature-based solutions in the CBD simply as another trick from big polluters to offset their obligations and a new form of corporate land-grabbing and greenwashing.

    Why isn’t this all over the mainstream media? This is what happens when ‘big’ players focus all their attention on certain policies and activities, such as the increase in protected areas. Protected areas are not bad, but they are far from being a real solution to the much-needed change in our production and consumption patterns. The narrative around the CBD must shift towards the root causes of biodiversity loss, which are more structural and related to justice and equity. Just like climate change is no longer a purely environmental problem, we need to see the big picture of the destruction of biodiversity that relates to the rights of IPLCs, peasants, women, future generations and nature herself. We need to put an end to the commodification of nature, since nature does not belong to us, or to those few privileged among us. Nature does not need fancy schemes and lots of money to thrive, it needs us to stop destroying it. This narrative should make us all desire and truly work for profound individual and collective change.


    What change should the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework bring?

    The CBD is a legally binding agreement and, if fully implemented, has great potential. The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework should be the instrument to implement the legal obligations of the parties to the CBD through accountability mechanisms that sanction any lack of action. It is also an opportunity to adopt a rights-based approach that puts the rights of IPLCs, women and peasants, and the rights of nature, at the centre of the debate, connecting the CBD to the international human rights architecture. 

    Several reports have shown that violations of human rights have been committed for the sake of protected areas. While tackling the biodiversity and climate change crisis is both possible and unavoidable, various interests are pushing for this connection to be centred around ‘nature-based solutions’, a cover for schemes such as offsets, which do not benefit nature but the status quo and do not bring real solutions to our structural problems.

    Another great challenge is the fact that the implementation of environmental norms is usually in the hands of environmental ministries, which tend to be completely powerless in comparison to others that are the actual drivers of biodiversity loss. This needs to change in relation to the new Global Biodiversity Framework.


    The UN Biodiversity Conference has been twice postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges has this created?

    The first challenge we faced was that global north countries pushed strongly to continue with the negotiations through virtual means without any consideration of the variety of difficulties experienced not only by their counterparts in the global south but also by civil society. The CBD Alliance expressed concerns around the inequalities and inequities of virtual negotiations on several occasions and supported the proposal by global south parties to postpone the negotiations. It was only when African and some Latin American parties expressed deep concerns about this situation that rich nations backed down and online meetings were maintained so the conversations could continue, but it was established that decisions would only be adopted in face-to-face meetings.

    How can international civil society best support the work you are doing around the post-2000 Global Biodiversity Framework?

    Some of our goals are to ensure that the post-2020 Global Diversity Framework centres around a strong statement of principles, such as equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR); a mechanism for dealing with noncompliance, including penalties, which should be well embedded under the principle of CBDR; a target focused on human rights and environmental defenders and on women, as they are the ones who are defending biodiversity in the real world; and a target on outlawing major disturbances of nature.

    Once the Framework is approved, our mission will be to coordinate with regions, networks and organisations that have a direct connection with those working on the ground and on the frontlines. This coordination should include massive and intense dissemination of the Framework, but with a focus on how it can empower people in their resistance, struggles and projects.

    Even if faced with legally binding obligations, governments will not show political will unless people on the ground put enough pressure on them. Such pressure cannot happen without meaningful empowerment and information of the decisions adopted at the international level.

    Get in touch with CBD Alliance through itswebsite,Facebook page andTwitter account. 

  • BOLIVIA: ‘The pandemic became a justification for tightening information control’

    CIVICUS speaks about the Bolivian political landscape and upcoming elections in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic with Cristian León, programme director of Asuntos del Sur and coordinator of Public Innovation 360, a project focused on strengthening democracy at the subnational level which is currently being implemented in three Latin American countries. Asuntos del Sur is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Argentina that designs and implements political innovations to develop democracies that are inclusive, participatory and based on gender parity. Cristian León is also a founder and current collaborator of, which promotes digital rights in Bolivia.

  • BOLIVIA: ‘To exercise our rights, Indigenous peoples don’t need anyone’s permission’

    CIVICUS speaks about the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP).

    CONTIOCAP was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.


    What challenges do Bolivia’s Indigenous peoples face in their struggles for land rights?

    The biggest challenge for Indigenous peoples is the Bolivian government itself, which has become the main agent and source of rights violations, as it does not guarantee compliance with the constitution or protect the rights of its citizens, and particularly those of Indigenous peoples. We are third-class human beings, without rights, and are sacrificed.

    The organisations that used to represent us have been politically subjugated and turned into accomplices and operational arms of the violation of the rights of Indigenous and peasant peoples and nations. The state apparatus is imposing all forms of extractivism on our territories and protected areas: mining, agribusiness and hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation.

    The right to free, prior and informed consultation is being manipulated and turned into a simple administrative process that consists in drawing up minutes and signing forms and allows the participation of groups close to the government, which the government identifies as valid interlocutors even though they are not the real people affected by the projects in question.

    Another challenge we Indigenous peoples face is that of understanding that we have been mentally colonised with offers of great wealth that never materialise. We must understand that the wealth that is generated in our territories is taken by outsiders and their corrupt environments. Behind the facade of interculturalism, the government divides us in order to discipline us and put us at the service of its political interests.

    Once we understand this, the main challenge will be to restore the unity of Indigenous peoples, recover our ancestral memory of freedom, undertake the required self-criticism and dedicate ourselves to planning and building the country we want, exercising the rights that are already recognised in the constitution.

    The Bolivian constitution and international conventions and declarations so far represent progress on paper only. The way in which they are implemented by the Bolivian state turns them into abysmal setbacks, gaps, walls and barriers. Thirteen years after its promulgation on 7 February 2009, the Political Constitution of the Plurinational State of Bolivia is still tucked away in a desk drawer. In the last decade and a half, a monocultural, centralist, authoritarian, patriarchal, elitist and classist state that imposes a radically extractivist and capitalist economic policy has become the most lethal weapon against economic, cultural, social and justice pluralism.

    Violations of land rights include intimidation, harassment, discrediting, disqualification, criminalisation and legal procedures to silence land rights defenders. Such acts are carried out by oil and mining companies, the security forces, the judiciary – which is dominated by the government – and even by Indigenous organisations that support the government, which issue public resolutions to ignore us and restrict our right to defend our rights.

    What are your mobilisation strategies?

    Our strategy is to always maintain our integrity and dignity and to insist on exercising the rights protected by the Bolivian constitution and international conventions. To exercise our rights we don’t need anyone’s permission or approval, we just need to recognise ourselves as free and independent beings with full rights. This is what CONTIOCAP has been doing. If the government does not do its job, we must remind it that the state belongs to everyone and that we all have a moral obligation to question the bad practices of governments, to debate what kind of country we want and to seek ways for all of us to have the opportunity to grow as human beings.

    Historically, we have resorted to long marches as an extreme form of mobilisation to draw attention and seek justice. First, we marched for a constitution that recognised our rights as Indigenous peoples. And for the past 13 years, we have marched to demand that those rights be realised in practice.

    Our marches have been ignored, made invisible, isolated, harassed, and repressed. They have been accused of responding to opportunistic interests and discredited by powerful economic, political, and governmental forces.

    The 37-day march initiated by the lowland brothers and sisters in September 2021 was no exception in this regard. After so much sacrifice, after abandoning their villages, their homes, their families, their animals, the response they got from the government was insulting. While they waited for a signal from the government, the government met not with them but with organisations subservient to its interests. It was a clear message that it is the government who decides whether we are first, second or third-class citizens.

    What legislative changes do you demand?

    Among the laws that go against Indigenous peoples is Law 535 on Mining and Metallurgy of 2014, which violates fundamental principles and guarantees of the rule of law. It grants privileges to mining operators that are placed above the principle of citizens’ equality. It grants them rights of access to water that supersede those of local communities. It violates fundamental rights of Indigenous peoples such as prior consultation, which is reduced to an administrative process with deadlines and procedures that undermine consultation as a right.

    We also demand the repeal of Law 969 of 2017, which violates the right to self-determination of the Indigenous peoples of the Isiboro-Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park, of Supreme Decree 2298 of 2015, which violates our right to free, prior and informed consultation in the hydrocarbon sector, and of Supreme Decree 2366 of 2015, which allows oil exploration in protected areas.

    There are many laws that we would like to see passed, but in the current context of total control of all powers by the government of the Movement for Socialism, it is dangerous to push a legislative agenda. In the best case scenario, the government could use it to whitewash its image, and in the worst case scenario, to promote its own interests. They would use us to validate norms that could even turn against us.

    But we do demand legislation to guarantee the economic inclusion of productive community organisations and producer families, the approval of the Bill on the Restitution of Ancestral Territories, which was introduced in 2019, and the reform of article 10 of Law 073 on jurisdictional demarcation. We demand that priority be given to effective compliance with the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) and other international agreements, conventions, pacts and covenants.

    Do you see your struggles as part of a broader regional movement?

    The struggle to protect land and the environment is not the struggle of a single movement but a global struggle for the defence of life through the protection of our land. Nor is it the product of a sudden inspiration, but of an awareness of our right and the right of all forms of life to exist in this world. We seek respect as human beings who have taken care of the planet for all of us, even for those who are now destroying it.

    In that sense, our struggles are the same as those of Indigenous peoples around the world. We are somehow connected and linked at regional and global levels, although over the past two years the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented us from having face-to-face exchanges, while virtual exchanges have been hindered by the limitations of access to communications in Indigenous territories. However, we are now resuming the exchange of experiences and coordination.

    What support do groups defending land rights in Bolivia need from international civil society?

    They can help us by making our struggles visible, making them known so we can connect with other struggles of Indigenous brothers and sisters around the world. We want them to know that we defend our territories in precarious conditions and with our own resources and sacrificing the economy of our families, even more so after the pandemic. And we do this not only for ourselves but for all beings that require oxygen and water to live. We need direct support with small funds for legal and other emergency actions.

    We hope that they will help us unmask the double discourse of the Bolivian governments of the past 16 years, which in international spaces have presented themselves as saviours of Indigenous peoples and defenders of Mother Earth. This is far from the truth; these are just speeches that sound good from the outside and that international organisations like.

    We must unmask the international propaganda about left-wing governments. For us Indigenous peoples, all the governments of Bolivia – whatever their political colour – have had the same plans against Indigenous peoples. They seek to relegate us, put us off, divide us and pit us against each other to perpetuate themselves in power.

    Civic space in Bolivia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contact CONTIOCAP through itsFacebook page and follow@contiocap and@CuquiRuth on Twitter. 

  • BOLIVIA: Increasing reduction of spaces immune to state co-optation or repression

    CEDLA: Javier Gómez

    Bolivia was home to a series of protests in 2018. CIVICUS speaks about these to Javier Gómez Aguilar, Executive Director of the Centre of Studies for Labour and Agrarian Development (CEDLA). Founded in 1985, CEDLA is a non-profit research centre dedicated to producing and disseminating critical knowledge about labour issues in order to influence public debate. CEDLA works directly with workers and their organisations, and with development institutions, financial counterparts, other social organisations and regional and international networks.

    How would you describe the environment for civil society in Bolivia over the past year?

    Our normative framework is that of a multiparty liberal democracy with periodic elections and separation of powers; however, there is an ongoing trend, which is apparent not only in Bolivia, towards a dominant party regime and the personal concentration of power. The Movement towards Socialism (MAS), led by President Evo Morales, is deeply rooted in Bolivia’s popular sectors, and over the course of 12 years in power it has taken over civil society space. It has done so through very different mechanisms: by criminalising protest, persecuting opponents, dividing social organisations, putting pressure on civil society organisations (CSOs), harassing them by applying tax or labour standard compliance regulations, acquiring media outlets, denying official advertising to independent media and monitoring social networks.

    The use of these mechanisms has increased as the ruling party, despite remaining the biggest party, has lost support. As the government controls the four branches of government, it uses them to counter its progressive loss of legitimacy. Discontent has increased and so have protests, albeit not in the same proportion. The government continues controlling the streets and retains the capacity to mobilise its supporters, particularly public servants and sectors of the population who depend on funds transfers or state subsidies.

    If any CSO denounces violations of environmental rights or norms, the government responds very aggressively and denounces the spokesperson, accusing them of having links to unspeakable political interests, notably those of US imperialism. CEDLA recently published a report on the situation in state-owned companies, and the government aggressively attacked us. They did not discuss content. After all, we used information that was already public, and all we did was analyse it. Instead they just sought to discredit the source. They may try to link us to the radicalised left, while at the same time, as we receive European funding, accusing us of representing the right-wing ideology that has won power in Europe. They do whatever it takes to build a narrative in which we appear as actively conspiring against a progressive government.

    In addition, in November 2018 an audio clip was leaked in which the police commander informed the authorities about actions undertaken to “monitor” journalists and opponents on social media, and said something that was very revealing: that actions were being taken to both “inform and misinform.”

    As a result, many lean towards self-censorship or self-restraint, and the public agenda weakens as a consequence. In the face of persisting activism, the government resorts to stigmatisation, treating activists as liars and subjecting them to fiscal persecution and criminalisation, even including judicial persecution. This has happened to all the social movements that mobilised in recent years. The most extreme case, throughout 2018, has been that of the Yungas coca producers, whose demands to expand production have been systematically denied by the government. Instead the producers of Chapare, the other coca region, where President Morales comes from, were allowed to expand. The Yungas coca producers have mobilised for years, but it was in mid-2018 that the government began to denounce their alleged links to armed sectors, and in August 2018 a mobilisation ended with a strange episode that resulted in the death of a police officer, and the main leader of the movement was arrested.

    This situation invariably repeats itself with each sector that mobilises and in one way or another represents a threat to the government: their protests end with their leaders denounced for violence, prosecuted in the absence of due process guarantees and detained preventively for prolonged periods. It is quite common that, as protest leaders are let go with some form alternative measure, they choose to leave the country. Demobilisation ensues.


    What caused protests by students in 2018, and how did the government react to them?
    Student mobilisations were triggered by the limited budget allocation to El Alto Public University (UPEA), a new university that was born out of the popular struggles of 2000, which caters to a lot of students but is quite poor. UPEA mobilisations started in early 2018, and in March a student, Jonathan Quispe Vila, was killed in a protest. The government immediately claimed that the student had been killed as a result of the impact of a marble of the sort that students were throwing, although available home videos appear to show that he was hit by a police-issue bullet. In any case, there was no clear investigation of what happened, and although initially further demonstrations were held to protest against the death, the ultimate effect of repression was demobilisation due to fear of confrontation with the police.
    Another relevant mobilisation of 2018, which started in late 2017, was that of medical doctors. Health professionals held a long strike and staged numerous protests against a new article in the Criminal Code that introduced sanctions of between five and nine years in prison for medical negligence and malpractice, following what was barely more than an administrative process. Health workers mobilised over the end-of-year holidays of 2017 and up to 21 February 2018, the day when citizens mobilise to keep on the agenda the fact that in 2016 President Morales lost a referendum that should have denied him the prerogative of running for another term in office. In the process of the health workers’ protests, several instances of confrontation, violence and persecution took place. In January 2018, the police violently broke into the Convent of San Francisco in La Paz and arrested doctors and medical students who had found safe haven there following the repression they faced when trying to block the passage of the Dakar Rally, which was routed through Bolivia. This was extraordinary: historically, the church in Bolivia protected various protesters, including those involved in hunger strikes against the dictatorship, and up to now there had never been any such intervention. There are almost no spaces immune to state repression anymore. In the case of the doctors, mobilisation gave way when the Criminal Code was repealed.
    In the face of every mobilisation, the state apparatus behaves in the same way. Even when it faces sectoral demands that in themselves do not necessarily imply a political challenge, the government allows conflict to grow, feeds polarisation, waits for scuffles and confrontations with the police to arise and then accuses the leaders of mobilised groups of being behind the violence and has them arrested and prosecuted. Opposition members side with these movements, arguing that the government is not listening to them, and then conflicts that were initially sectoral or territorial end up being treated as destabilisation attempts orchestrated by the opposition.


    When and why did protests against presidential re-election reignite? Why was this issue not solved once and for all with the 2016 referendum?

    The February 2016 referendum was organised by the president himself, with the intention of getting a green light to change the Constitution - a Constitution that had been passed under his administration - in order to enable a further re-election. The referendum mechanism gives citizens the last word, so that the issue of re-election should have been resolved for good with the ‘no’ victory, and the president should not have been able to run again.

    The current Constitution allows for only one re-election, but President Morales is already in his third term; the first one was not taken into account because it took place under the previous Constitution. After 12 years in power, the dispute over re-election reflects the ruling party’s institutional fragility. A prohibition on re-election would not amount to a ban against the party: the MAS could present another candidate. But at this point there is no successor to Evo Morales because, instead of acknowledging at an earlier stage that there would be no re-election, and therefore focusing on producing an alternative leadership, the government devoted itself to finding alternative ways to overcome the re-election ban.

    Given that the ‘no’ option won by a very narrow margin, it has been said that the vote was ‘almost’ a draw, and therefore the result was not conclusive. In the judicial arena, two pro-government representatives filed a claim of unconstitutionality, invoking the Pact of San José de Costa Rica (the American Convention on Human Rights), which has a status higher than the Constitution. They say that because the Convention guarantees the full right of citizens to vote and be voted for, the prohibition on re-election would be a violation of the president’s political rights.

    In December 2017, just days before its term ended, the Constitutional Court accepted the plaintiffs’ claim and authorised Evo Morales to seek a further re-election. It should be emphasised that Constitutional Court judges are elected and serve five-year terms, and the judges who issued that ruling are all public officials now. In other words, the judiciary is not an independent power. We are currently awaiting the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ pronouncement on the subject.

    The government retains about 30 per cent electoral support and mobilises a lot of people on the streets. So while fighting on the judicial front, it has also tried another way, through the approval of a new political parties bill that mandates that primary elections be held in January 2019. Right after the law was passed, the Electoral Tribunal enabled the president and vice-president to run in the primaries. Participation in these elections is mandatory for parties that want to present candidates in the general elections, but is voluntary for voters, and restricted to party members. Registries are in very bad shape: when the lists of registered voters were published, many of us found ourselves listed as members of parties that we had never been affiliated with. The opposition has insisted that this election is unnecessary, since all the parties - including the incumbent - have registered single candidates. However, the Electoral Tribunal ratified it for 27 January. Now that President Morales has been proclaimed as a candidate, it will be increasingly difficult to turn back, because this move changed the focus of the discussion: from discussing President Morales’ political rights and whether they would be violated by a re-election ban, we have moved onto a discussion of the right of MAS members and activists to vote for their favourite candidate.


    Is civil society divided over the re-election issue? Would you say that Bolivian citizens are polarised around the issue?

    There are demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, expressions in favour of and against the re-election. President Morales retains a very important level of support, particularly among public servants. There are organised sectors that receive abundant state resources and mobilise systematically against any anti-re-election protest. At the same time citizen platforms - groups of women, young people, students and sections of the middle class - have mobilised under the 'Bolivia said no' banner to demand respect for the results of the referendum. During one of the recent marches by university students the front of the Electoral Court building in Santa Cruz was set on fire. According to the students, the fire was caused by infiltrators who also caused much other damage. But the government immediately arrested the protest leaders, one of whom was indicted in a single day: he was given an abbreviated trial, pleaded guilty and was given a three-year suspended prison sentence - something quite extraordinary in the context a very slow judicial system, in which 80 per cent of prisoners have not been sentenced. The student was freed with alternative measures, but the objective of creating fear among mobilised sectors was achieved. It clearly showed that if you mobilise, you can end up in jail.


    What are the long-term changes that have been seen in Bolivia?

    No matter who wins the next election, scheduled for October 2019, the next government will be transitional in nature. The social transformations of the past 12 years have been profound and, I believe, irreversible. Inclusion may have been achieved through the market, but the policy changes have nonetheless been enormous, and they have taken place without any dramatic social conflict. We could have had a bloody revolution, but instead we had a very institutionalised process of social change. The fact that there are representatives, senators, mayors and governors of indigenous descent has become a natural occurrence. Out of the eight presidential candidates competing in the upcoming primaries, four are of indigenous descent - Aymara or Quechua - and each represents a different political and ideological strand, including one on the far right. Inclusion and the realisation of the rights of indigenous people was originally a leftist cause and was indeed pushed from the left, but nowadays being indigenous no longer equates with supporting alternative causes or political renewal. Being indigenous is compatible with a diversity of ideological options and no longer represents anything close to a position of moral superiority: it has become part of the mainstream, and therefore encompasses all the complexities and contradictions of society. That alone reveals how much this country has changed.


    Civic space in Bolivia is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with CEDLA through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@cedlabo on Twitter.

  • BULGARIA: ‘Our society has finally become sensitised to domestic and gender-based violence’

    VictoriaPetrovaCIVICUS speaks with Victoria Petrova, Communications and Development Director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), about civil society’s struggles to end domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria.

    Established in 2004, the BFW is the only Bulgarian feminist civil society organisation (CSO) supporting organisations, collectives and activists that challenge the status quo and work towards systemic change for women, girls and all marginalised communities.

    What does BFW do?

    The BFW has played a pivotal role in advancing women’s rights across Bulgaria for two decades. Our focus has recently extended. As well as funding projects, in 2020 we started providing core funding to help organisations meet essential needs such as administrative costs, office space, equipment and staff salaries, which often remain uncovered by project funding.

    Core funding is of paramount importance to ensure the sustainability of CSOs. Financial stability empowers organisations to be strategic, proactive and resilient in the face of challenges. As of today, providing core funding objective has become our biggest focus.

    We also have other funding mechanisms such as project funding and the Open Opportunity programme, which provides rapid funding of up to 10,000 BGN (approx. US$5,500). This has proven invaluable in times of crisis or in the face of unforeseen challenges, such as last year’s attack on the Rainbow Hub, an LGBTQI+ space in the capital, Sofia. A far-right former presidential candidate attacked the hub during an event and injured a participant, an activist and Rainbow Hub team member. The premises were destroyed. Through the Open Opportunity programme BFW gave them a grant so they could get it fixed.

    Overall, BFW distributed a total of over US$700,000 in direct grants to CSOs in 2022 alone.

    We’ve also taken proactive steps to contribute to building capacity in the organisations we support, recognising the significance of robust women’s rights organisations in a context where great gender inequalities persist.

    It is estimated that one in three women, or approximately one million, suffer from domestic and gender-based violence in Bulgaria and at least 15 women have been killed by former or current intimate partners, husbands or other relatives since the beginning of 2023. Women do a disproportionate share of household chores and care work. There aren’t enough support services, such as public kindergartens. There is a significant pay gap and women are grossly underrepresented in politics – only about 25 per cent of members of parliament are women. Life is even harder in small towns, where gender stereotypes are much more deeply rooted.

    Have you faced backlash for the work you do?

    Women’s rights organisations as well as the entire civil society sector in Bulgaria have encountered significant challenges since 2018. These started alongside attacks on the Istanbul Convention – the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence.

    Attacks were sparked by a far-right party, VMRO, and also by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) after it shifted its stance in relation to the Convention. The party with the biggest parliamentary representation, GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria), sort of washed its hands at the time and left the matter with the Constitutional Court. And the Court ruled that ratifying the Istanbul Convention would be unconstitutional. This made Bulgaria one of the few European states that haven’t ratified the Convention.

    These days, attacks focus on the changes recently made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act. Regressive and pro-Russian groups such as Revival (Vazrazhdane) and BSP claim that this law seeks to impose the Istanbul Convention and implement what they call ‘gender ideology’. A few months ago, the BSP even started collecting signatures to enable a referendum against ‘gender ideology’. The party has recently announced it has collected the required number of signatures.

    What recent changes were made to the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act, and why?

    Changes to this law had been pursued for years but faced rejection by some political parties, including Revival, the BSP and some GERB members. They were finally introduced in July and they represented progress, even though they did not include the definition of ‘intimate relationship’ proposed by women’s advocates, as a result of which they did not extend protection to people who are in relationships but are unmarried and not in a domestic partnership.

    Regrettably, this omission meant that the shocking Stara Zagora case, in which an 18-year-old woman was beaten and disfigured by her boyfriend, did not fall within the law’s purview. This attack happened in late June but only became public in late July, as a result of the victim’s family’s engagement with the media out of frustration with the slow pace of the investigation.

    In response, around 10,000 people protested in Sofia and tens of thousands demonstrated in other regions, demanding justice for victims and action against domestic and gender-based violence. This groundswell of public engagement was unprecedented, shaking the normalised apathy or victim-blaming that had often been the response to similar cases in the past.

    This forced parliament to reconsider the bill, and on 7 August it reconvened to widen its scope to cover ‘intimate relationships’. This was a step in the right direction, although some concerning elements remain.

    First, criteria for people to be considered as intimate partners include having been in a relationship for at least 60 days, without any clarity as to what counts as the start of those 60 days and, more concerningly, what happens if violence occurs within the first 60 days. Second, at the last minute, members of parliament inserted the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in the definition, therefore limiting its scope to heterosexual couples. Same-sex couples were completely excluded from seeking protection under this law.

    Bulgarian politicians should do much better. During that same debate a GERB member of parliament, former Minister of Culture and former Chairman of the Parliament, Vezhdi Rashidov, made extremely offensive comments. It was during the break, when he thought his microphone was off and basically called raped women ‘whores’. Our organisation wrote an open letter asking for his resignation, and just a few days later he announced he was resigning.

    Unfortunately, his comments reflect widespread attitudes among many of our politicians towards women’s rights and domestic and gender-based violence. We are fed up with their sexist jokes, homophobic expressions, lack of understanding and deliberate disinformation regarding gender issues and women’s rights.

    What do you think made the Stara Zagora case so impactful?

    The impact of the Stara Zagora case can be attributed to several factors, primarily stemming from systemic failures that occurred across various institutional levels. The perpetrator’s swift release within 72 hours of the attack, despite being on probation for prior offences, set the tone for public outrage.

    Public indignation also resulted from the discrepancy between the severity of the attack, which involved the use of a knife and resulted in 400 stitches, a broken nose and a shaved head, and its categorisation as a mere ‘soft bodily injury’.

    There was a shift in public sentiment that revealed heightened awareness and empathy for victims. The usual response in these cases is often victim-blaming. This time, however, many more people sided with the victim. Although some anti-rights voices questioning the victim’s innocence emerged, particularly on social media, most public figures refrained from such insensitivity.

    As a result, over the past few weeks, we have started to see more and more domestic violence cases being reported on the media. So I’d say the Stara Zagora case sensitised society and accelerated change. I hope people will now be more willing to seek protection and justice, and institutions and the media will be more willing to empathise with the victims.

    What else should be done to combat gender-based violence more effectively?

    While there are organisations like BFW that have worked against gender-based violence for decades, it’s evident that a comprehensive national campaign led by the state is needed to catalyse broader change. Such a campaign should aim to reach people across all socio-economic strata, fostering a shared understanding of gender equality and the unacceptability of violence.

    Education and prevention are paramount, and they must begin at an early age. Teaching children about gender equality and the importance of rejecting violence from the outset can contribute to lasting change.

    The establishment of more crisis centres across the country to provide immediate support and safety for victims is also crucial. Only 15 out of 28 regional cities have crisis centres so far. Perhaps positive change will now take place as four ministries have got involved in solving the issue.

    Finally, ratification of the Istanbul Convention remains a pivotal goal. Its comprehensive framework can guide Bulgaria in its efforts to counter gender-based violence. We will continue advocating for these changes and support other organisations that work for women’s rights.

    How do you connect with the global women’s movement and what additional support do you need?

    We participate in networks like Prospera and On the Right Track. These connections expose us to diverse perspectives and experiences and enrich our understanding of the broader movement.

    Collaboration among organisations and international assistance are essential to counter anti-rights narratives, fend off far-right movements that are unfortunately increasingly organised and determined and promote positive change. When helping people and organisations, we sometimes tend to be reactive to attacks. We need to support each other to be more proactive.

    As I already mentioned, core funding is of huge importance to our grantees, but it is for us as well. I am happy to see that more of our donors started providing this type of long-term support, and I am hopeful that even more will recognise the need for it in the future.

    To end on a more positive note, I am thankful that Bulgarian society has finally become sensitised to the topic of domestic and gender-based violence. This isn’t a private issue but an issue that affects the whole of society. We are all responsible for educating ourselves on the topic, learning about its different forms, stepping up when we see something unacceptable and supporting people who are brave enough to report violence.

    We look forward to a collective push toward lasting change, supported by all of you.

    Civic space in Bulgaria is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the BFW through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@bgfundforwomen on Twitter.

    The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIVICUS.

  • BURKINA FASO: ‘For a major segment of civil society security is a more urgent concern than democracy’

    KopepDabugatCIVICUS speaks about therecent military coup in Burkina Faso with Kop'ep Dabugat, Network Coordinator of the West Africa Democracy Solidarity Network (WADEMOS).

    WADEMOS is a coalition of West African civil society organisations (CSOs) that mobilises civil society around the defence of democracy and the promotion of democratic norms in the region.

    What led to the recent coup in Burkina Faso, and what needs to be done for democracy to be restored?

    The current head of Burkina Faso’s ruling junta, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, cited persistent insecurity as a reason for the military takeover – as did his predecessor, Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Attacks by armed groups are said to have greatly increased in the months following the first coup led by Damiba, in January 2022. According to analysts, Burkina Faso is the new epicentre of conflict in the Sahel. Since 2015, jihadist violence by insurgents with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State has resulted in the death of thousands of people and displaced a further two million.

    The coup also revealed the presence of a schism in the Damiba-led junta. It was orchestrated by military officers who were part of the coup that installed Damiba as head of state, but who now claimed that Damiba did not focus on reorganising the army to better face security threats, as they had expected. Instead, he stuck with the military structure that led to the fall of the government under President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, and began to display political ambitions.

    The security question remains the first challenge that needs to be addressed to make Burkina Faso a democratic state. The foremost role of a state, and more so of a democratic one, is to guarantee the safety of its citizens. A united Burkina Faso army will be necessary to achieve this.

    The other thing that must be done is to see through the existing transition programme for the country to return to civilian rule by July 2024, to which the new junta has agreed.

    Beyond the transition, the need to build a strong state and political institutions cannot be overemphasised. The challenges of corruption and economic marginalisation should be tackled in earnest. The need for stronger institutions is not peculiar to Burkina Faso: it is familiar to all the region, and particularly to those countries that have recently come under military rule, notably Guinea and Mali.

    What was civil society’s reaction to the recent military coup?

    In line with the disunity that characterises civil society in Burkina Faso, the civil society response to the coup has been mixed. But a notable section of civil society seemed to welcome the most recent coup because they saw the Damiba-led junta not only as authoritarian but also as aligned with politicians from the regime of President Blaise Compaoré, in power from 1987 to 2014. They saw the real possibility that those politicians could regain power and shut all doors on victims of the Compaoré regime ever seeing justice.

    As a result, the view of the recent coup as a significant setback for the democratic transition agenda is not unanimously held among civil society. Additionally, for a major segment of civil society security appears to be a more urgent and priority concern than democracy, so the element that prevailed was the seeming incapacity of the Damiba-led junta to address the security situation.

    The effort of the traditional and religious groups that negotiated a seven-point agreement between the Damiba and Traoré factions of the military, ending violence and forestalling further bloodshed, however, deserves commendation. That effort seems to have established a baseline of engagement between the Traoré-led junta and civil society. Such constructive engagement with the new government seems to have continued, with the notable participation of civil society in the 14 October 2022 National Conference that approved a new Transitional Charter for Burkina Faso and officially appointed Traoré as transitional president.

    What is the situation of human right CSOs?

    Burkinabe CSOs in the human and civil rights space have grown increasingly concerned about the victimisation of politicians and members of the public perceived to be pro-France as well as by the marked upsurge of pro-Russian groups demanding that France and all its interests be kicked out of the country.

    On top of their concern about the raging jihadist insurgency, human and civil rights CSOs are also concerned about the stigmatisation and victimisation of citizens of Fulani ethnicity. This victimisation stems from the fact that many terrorist cells recruit Burkinabe people of Fulani extraction. There have been reports of arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings of Fulani people due to their alleged complicity in terrorist violence. Besides these two, no other notable cases of human rights abuses threatening civilians have been identified besides the ones already mentioned. Hence, even though it is still early in the Traoré-led government, it may be safe to rule out any consistent pattern of heightened human rights abuses under its watch.

    How has the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) responded to the military coup?

    In accordance with the letter of its 2001 Supplementary Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, the initial response of ECOWAS was to condemn the coup strongly and unequivocally, calling it an unfortunate and retrogressive development, especially in light of the progress made with the Damiba-led junta in preparing the ground for elections and democracy. ECOWAS also called for the junta to guarantee human rights and ensure stability.

    Despite the ongoing sanctions against the country, following his meeting with Traoré, Mahamadou Issoufou, the former president of Niger and mediator sent to Burkina Faso by ECOWAS, said he was satisfied and that ECOWAS would remain by the side of the people of Burkina Faso. In what is the ECOWAS way to respond to military governments, ECOWAS will work closely with the junta to restore democratic order. The timeline stands and the deadline remains July 2024.

    How have other international institutions reacted, and what should they do to support civil society in Burkina Faso?

    Other international institutions have reacted similarly to ECOWAS. The African Union condemned the coup and said it was unfortunate in light of the progress already made towards the restoration of democracy. The coup was similarly condemned by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

    If the international community wants to assist CSOs in Burkina Faso, what it first and foremost needs to do is support the junta’s efforts to stamp out the jihadist insurgency that continues to hold the country hostage. It should also assist the authorities in tackling not only the current refugee crisis but also the challenge of climate change, which is a contributing factor not just to the refugee crisis but also to the spread of terrorist violence.

    The international community must also continue to mount pressure on the junta to deliver on its promise to adhere to the agreements the former junta reached with ECOWAS, to put an end to the victimisation of people on account of their political affiliations and ethnicity, and to set free anyone who has been imprisoned for political reasons.

    Civic space inBurkina Faso is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch withWADEMOS through itswebsite or its Facebook page, and follow @WADEMOSnetwork on Twitter.

  • Burundi civil society sees the International Criminal Court as a last resort for justice

    Human rights defender Cyriaque Nibitegeka speaks to CIVICUS about Burundi’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court and the implications for human rights and victims of human rights abuses. Nibitegeka is one of the leaders of civil society in Burundi. He is also a lawyer and member of the Burundi Bar. He was a professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Burundi before being dismissed for his human rights activities.

  • BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS: ‘This treaty should not be negotiated behind closed doors’

    IvetteGonzalezCIVICUS speaks about the process to develop an international treaty on business and human rights and the role of civil society with Ivette Gonzalez, Director of Strategic Liaison, Advocacy and Public Relations at Project on Organising, Development, Education and Research (PODER).

    PODER is a regional civil society organisation (CSO) based in Mexico, dedicated to promoting corporate transparency and accountability in Latin America from a human rights perspective, and to strengthening civil society affected by business practices to act as guarantors of long-term accountability.

    Why is a treaty on business and human rights so important?

    We live in a world virtually ruled by capital. Since this hegemonic capitalist and patriarchal economic model has taken hold, it has become clear that whoever has the capital calls the shots.

    When companies directly influence the decisions of state powers, be it the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government, or others such as international organisations or banking institutions that should operate for the public benefit, and instead put them at the service of the private and exclusive benefit of a few people and prioritise the creation and accumulation of wealth over human rights, it results in a phenomenon we call ‘corporate capture’. Corporate capture is observed on all continents and results in the weakening of the state and its institutions. The strength of the state needs to be restored and the treaty on business and human rights could contribute to this.

    A legally binding international instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises seeks to curb violations committed by companies of multiple human rights such as the rights to health, freedom, privacy and access to information and the impunity with which they operate, which allows them to destroy the environment, territories, families and entire communities.

    All companies must operate with due diligence on human rights to identify, prevent, address and remedy abuses and violations, as a continuous cycle of management including project planning, investment, operations, mergers, value and supply chains, relationships with customers and suppliers, and any other activity that could cause negative impacts on rights and territories. The treaty serves as a means for states, as the primary duty bearers in charge of protecting human rights, to hold companies to their responsibilities and monitor compliance.

    An international treaty would also be a unique development in that it would cover the extraterritorial activities of companies, such as the activities of companies that may be headquartered in a country in the global north but have operations in the global south. At the moment, in many instances and jurisdictions, companies are only self-regulating and are not accountable for their human rights abuses and violations, and the destruction they cause to life and the planet. Some states are making progress on regulations and policies, but there are still gaps at the international level. We want this treaty to address the huge gap in international law that allows corporate crimes to go unpunished.

    What progress has been made in negotiating the treaty?

    Interesting developments took place at the eighth session of the Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Respect to Human Rights, held from 24 to 28 October 2022. While there is no strict timeline or deadline for producing the final version of the treaty, one of the experts convened by the Intergovernmental Working Group for the development of the instrument proposed 2025 for concluding the negotiations. This is the deadline that is expected to be met if states have the political will to build consensus. For the time being, some states that were reluctant to participate in the past are now showing a little more interest.

    For now, the draft has 24 articles, the first 13 of which were discussed in the last session. Discussions included central issues such as the definition of victims’ rights and their protection and the definition of the purpose and scope of the treaty: whether it should include only transnational corporations or other companies as well. The state of Mexico, for example, argues that this instrument should cover all activities that have a transnational character. There have also been discussions on the prevention of damages and access to reparations, as well as about legal liability, the jurisdiction that will deal with complaints, statutes of limitation and international judicial cooperation, among other issues.

    Some states have made contributions to improve the content under negotiation. In contrast, other states seek to minimise the scope of the treaty in certain regards, such as protections for Indigenous peoples and communities, environmental safeguards and women’s and children’s rights, among others.

    Some states support the most recent proposals of the chair rapporteur, the Ecuadorian ambassador, but a large part of civil society considers that, for the most part, they detract from what was achieved during the seven years up to 2021, and weaken the treaty. They promote power asymmetry between northern and southern states, as well as between companies and rights-holding individuals and communities. The third revised draft is the one we recognise as legitimate and the basis on which we believe negotiations should continue.

    How is civil society contributing to the treaty process?

    Dozens of CSOs are pushing for an effective treaty, including PODER, along with the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), which brings together more than 280 CSOs, social movements and activists from 75 countries, and several other alliances, movements and coalitions such as the Treaty Alliance, Feminists for a Binding Treaty and the Global Campaign to Reclaim Peoples Sovereignty, Dismantle Corporate Power and Stop Impunity.

    Of course there is diversity of opinion within civil society on a number of issues, but we all agree on the need to regulate business activity with a human rights perspective. We have identified the elements this treaty should contain and the conditions required for its implementation. And we are trying to inject urgency into the process, which is going too slowly, while human rights violations and attacks against human rights defenders do not stop, but instead increase every year.

    Civil society has advocated with decision-makers to open up spaces for discussion with civil society. PODER, along with ESCR-Net, has in particular insisted on the constructive and proactive participation of states from the global south in the process, and specifically from Latin America. We also work to integrate a gender and intersectional perspective into both the process and the text. One example for this has been the proposal to use Mexico’s feminist foreign policy.

    Civil society’s point of departure is the conviction that it is not possible to develop a legitimate treaty without placing the participation of rights holders – affected rural people and communities, Indigenous peoples, independent trade unions, LGBTQI+ people and people in vulnerable situations, among others – at the centre of the whole process.

    What are the chances that the final version of the treaty will meet civil society’s expectations and fulfil its purpose?

    We hope the treaty will contribute to ending corporate impunity and states will assume their obligation to protect human rights in the face of corporate activity. It will prevent abuses and violations, redress grievances and ensure these situations do not recur.

    Although there are established processes for the development of international treaties, this is an unusual treaty and should be treated as such, and changes should be made to both process and content as necessary for it to be truly effective.

    For it to fully meet the expectations of civil society would require a paradigm shift based on the principle that business has a social function and that its operations should not exceed certain limits for a dignified life and a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. We know that our full aspirations will not materialise with a treaty, with National Action Plans and regulations and standards, even if they are properly implemented. But these are all important steps in trying to balance the scales by limiting the power that the global economic system has given to business corporations.

    While the treaty is unlikely to meet all our expectations, CSOs that are demanding the highest standards for this treaty will continue to do so until the end. We will continue to bring proposals from experts and affected communities and groups fighting for justice and redress for the harms they experience first-hand, opening up spaces for their voices to be heard and remain at the heart of the negotiations at all times, and including human rights and environmental defenders in consultations on the text.

    This treaty should not be negotiated behind closed doors or with the private sector alone, as this would allow for the repetition of the same cycle of opacity and privilege that has brought us this far, and would only contribute to maintaining an unsustainable status quo.

    Get in touch with PODER through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@ProjectPODER on Twitter.

  • Call for proposals: Application for partners for pilot national civil society assessment in El Salvador, Georgia and Indonesia.



    The Enabling Environment National Assessment (EENA), developed by CIVICUS and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), is a participatory, civil society-led and action-oriented research methodology.

  • CAMEROON: ‘Communities must benefit from what comes from their land’

    EstelleEwouleLobeCIVICUS discusses the aspirations and roles of civil society at the forthcoming COP28 climate summit with Estelle Ewoule Lobé,co-founder of the Cameroonian civil society organisation (CSO) Action for the protection of environmental refugees and internally displaced people in Africa (APADIME).

    What environmental issues do you work on?

    Our organisation, APADIME, works on several interconnected human rights and environmental issues. We work on the protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities, with a particular focus on Indigenous women and environmentally displaced people. We contribute to the fight against transnational environmental crimes such as the illegal exploitation of forest resources and illegal trafficking of protected species. We work to strengthen the resilience of Indigenous peoples and local communities and to raise public awareness of the need to protect forests. Finally, we implement income-generating activities for Indigenous peoples and local communities.

    When we work on organised crime, we don’t leave out the defence of people’s fundamental rights. Our area of work is the Congo Basin, with a base in Cameroon. Central Africa is home to one of the world’s largest tropical rainforests. It contains enormous resources on which millions of people depend for their livelihoods, including Indigenous peoples and local communities. The forest also provides a habitat for countless animal species and is of crucial importance for the global climate.

    Despite all the legal measures in place to protect Cameroon’s forests, forest exploitation, often carried out in partnership with private companies, gives rise to numerous abuses, resulting in serious human rights violations fuelled by well-organised criminal networks, and generally leading to the dispossession of the lands of these peoples and communities. This is where our association comes in.

    First, our work has a research component that is focused on both the legal and institutional framework to support our advocacy work at the national and international levels, and on carrying out studies and publishing articles and books, the latest of which is In Search of a Status for the Environmentally Displaced.

    Second, there is a field component in which we meet communities and organise consultation events, focus groups, surveys and observations to gather data about the difficulties people face and the needs they have.

    The third strand of the association’s work is education, through which we build the resilience of Indigenous peoples and local communities and awareness about their intrinsic rights, procedural rights, sustainable land management, the preservation of protected species and current forestry legislation. We also organise awareness campaigns to help educate communities.

    The fourth component is access to rights. We help organise communities by setting up networks of institutional and local players to facilitate access for communities whose human and land rights are constantly violated.

    The last component concerns economic recovery through the implementation of income-generating activities, particularly through community fields.

    Have you experienced any restriction or reprisal because of your work?

    We are human rights defenders working in an environment that is not always receptive to the type of work we do. We are confronted with powerful interests such as those of forestry companies that often exploit forests abusively. Our presence often makes an impression and we are subject to threats that force us to limit our scope of action to prevent the situation from degenerating and becoming too risky.

    At an administrative level, the main obstacle is the lack of a positive response or collaboration from officials. Some refuse to take part in our projects, contenting themselves with one general discussion session with us. Others refuse to make their contact information public.

    How do you connect with the global climate movement?

    APADIME collaborates with several of the world’s leading international organisations, including the International Centre of Comparative Environmental Law, an international scientific CSO based in France, which works on environmental protection through the promotion of international legal instruments. We also work with the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (GI-TOC).

    With the support and guidance of GI-TOC, we are currently working with a network of stakeholders in the Republic of the Congo and Gabon to combat organised environmental crime in the Congo Basin and protect the rights of Indigenous peoples to achieve climate justice centred on human rights.

    We are involved with international players in developing the People’s Summit for social and environmental justice, against the commodification of life and nature, and in defence of the commons. Our association is also actively involved as a speaker and observer at major international meetings, the most recent of which was the 11th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC), held in Vienna, Austria in October 2022, which produced a call for action by civil society.

    What priority issues should be addressed at COP28?

    COP28’s priority issues are the same as those we have been defending for a long time: support for Indigenous peoples and local communities to ensure their rights are protected, in particular through the funding of conservation activities and income-generating activities to raise their standard of living, and the equitable sharing of the benefits of nature as defined by the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, which recognises that in addition to the urgent need to use nature sustainably, communities must benefit from what comes from their land.

    In particular, this involves examining how marginalised communities, including Indigenous peoples, can benefit from the often lucrative therapeutic and cosmetic products derived from the resources of their lands.

    Do you think that COP28 will provide sufficient space for civil society? What are your expectations regarding its outcomes?

    The participation of civil society in climate negotiations is extremely important because we are active stakeholders and, when we are able to influence the negotiations, we are a key factor in progress towards sustainable development. Our actions are complementary to political dialogue, which is why it is necessary, even compulsory, for us to take part in these negotiations.

    As usual, COP28 will officially be open to civil society as participants and observers, but the difficulties of access will lie in financing travel to and stay in the United Arab Emirates, where this global event will be held.

    But we hope that despite all these difficulties, progress will be made on the issues that are at the heart of our work, namely direct funding for communities to guarantee adaptation actions and strengthen their resilience.

    Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contact APADIME on itsFacebook page and follow@EwouleE on Twitter.

  • CAMEROON: ‘The Anglophone discontent must be addressed through meaningful discussion with all parties’

    DibussiTandeCIVICUS speaks with the Cameroonian writer and digital activist Dibussi Tande about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and educational grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.

    Dibussiis the author ofScribbles from the Den. Essays on Politics and Collective Memory in Cameroon. He also has a blog where he shares news and analyses of the situation in Cameroon.

    What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalating conflict in Cameroon?

    The main humanitarian issue is the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, by August 2021 there were 712,800 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Although some have since returned, there are still over half a million IDPs spread across Cameroon.

    The priority needs of IDPs and returnees today are housing and access to healthcare, food, water and education. However, help has not been readily available, which explains why this conflict has repeatedly been classified as one of the most neglected displacement crises since 2019.

    Let’s not forget that the UN Refugee Agency has an additional 82,000 Cameroonian refugees registered in Nigeria. Add the millions of people trapped in conflict zones and caught in the crossfire, and you have the recipe for a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions.

    What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

    It’s quite simple. First, the parties involved in the conflict must be willing to look beyond the military option, which so far has not resolved anything, and seek a peaceful resolution instead. There can be no real de-escalation until they give meaning to the now derided calls for an ‘all-inclusive dialogue’ that have become a platitude and an excuse for inaction. That said, I think the onus lies primarily with the government of Cameroon, which is the party with the resources to at least initiate real dialogue.

    Second, the international community needs to revise its approach to the conflict. All attempts thus far at international mediation – for example, the ‘Swiss Process’ in which the government of Switzerland convened talks – have either dragged on for years or simply failed. The international community must step up the pressure on all factions, including the threat of individual and collective sanctions for their continued obdurateness. Without this two-pronged approach, there will not be a de-escalation anytime soon.

    What kind of challenges does civil society face when advocating for peace?

    Civil society faces numerous challenges. For starters, civil society organisations (CSOs) have limited access to conflict zones. They must also walk a fine line between government and Ambazonian groups – those fighting for the independence of Ambazonia, a self-declared state in the Anglophone regions – who both routinely accuse them of supporting the other side. Even when civil society gains access to conflict zones, it operates with very limited financial and other resources.

    That said, the most serious challenge to their operations is government hostility. Local CSOs have routinely complained about intimidation and harassment by Cameroonian authorities as they try to work in conflict zones. In 2020, for example, the Minister of Territorial Administration accused local CSOs of colluding with international CSOs to fuel terrorism in Cameroon. He claimed that these ‘teleguided NGOs’ had received 5 billion CFA francs (approx. US$7.4 million) to whitewash the atrocities of separatist groups while publishing fake reports about alleged abuses by the Cameroonian military.

    International humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have also faced the wrath of the government. In 2020, Cameroon suspended MSF from carrying out activities in the Northwest region after accusing it of having close relations with separatists. And in March 2022, MSF suspended its activities in the Southwest region after four of its workers were arrested for allegedly collaborating with separatists. MSF complained that the government confused neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian aid with collusion with separatist forces.

    What were the expectations of English-speaking Cameroonians for 1 October, proclaimed as ‘Independence Day’ in the Anglophone regions?

    English-speaking Cameroonians come in different shades of political ideology, so they had different expectations. For independentists, the goal is simple: independence for the former British Trust Territory of Southern Cameroons. As far as they are concerned, any negotiation with the government must be about how to end the union and not about whether the union should continue.

    But other segments of the population still believe in a bilingual Cameroon republic, albeit under new political arrangements. Federalists believe that Anglophone expectations will be met if the country returns to the federal system that existed between 1961 and 1972. This system gave the former British Southern Cameroons constitutional protections within a federal republic, including the right to its own state government, an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a vibrant local government system and state control over the education system.

    The government of Cameroon has accommodated neither the radical demands of independentists nor the comparatively moderate demands of the federalists. Instead, it is forging ahead with a ‘decentralisation’ policy that gives nominal power to the regions but does not even begin to address the fundamentals of the so-called ‘Anglophone problem’.

    What should Cameroon’s government do to ensure the recognition of the rights of English-speaking Cameroonians?

    For starters, the government should abandon its stopgap and largely cosmetic approach to resolving the conflict, because it only adds to the existing resentment. This is the case, for example, with the much-maligned ‘special status’ accorded to the Northwest and Southwest regions, supposedly to recognise their ‘linguistic particularity and historic heritage’, but which does not give them the power to influence or determine policies in key areas such as education, justice and local government, where this ‘particularity’ needs the most protection.

    The historical and constitutional origins of the Anglophone discontent within the bilingual Cameroon republic are well documented. This discontent must be addressed with a holistic approach that includes meaningful discussions with all parties, from the federalists to the independentists. Dialogue is a journey, not a destination. And the time to start that journey is now, no matter how tortuous, frustrating and challenging, and despite the deep-seated distrust, resentment and animosity among the parties.

    How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society and help find a solution?

    Cameroonian civil society needs financial, material and other resources to adequately provide humanitarian and other assistance to displaced people and people living in conflict zones. This is where the international community comes in. However, international aid is a double-edged sword, given the Cameroon government’s suspicion and hostility towards local CSOs that have international partners, especially those that are critical of how the government has handled the conflict so far. Civil society also needs resources to accurately and adequately document what exactly is happening on the ground, including war crimes and violations of international human rights laws.

    To be able to play a pivotal role in the search for a solution to the conflict, CSOs will have to figure out a way to convince the government – and Ambazonian groups that are equally suspicious of their activities – that they are honest brokers rather than partisan actors or trojan horses working for one side or the other. This is a Herculean, if not virtually impossible, task at this juncture. So, for now, civil society will continue to walk a fine line between the government and the independentists, all the while promising more than it can deliver to the people affected by the conflict.

    As for international support to finding a solution, there has been a lot more international handwringing, from the African Union to the UN, than real action. The international community has so far adopted a largely reactive stance towards the conflict. It issues statements of distress after every atrocity, followed by hollow calls for inclusive dialogue. And then it goes silent until the next tragedy. Hence, the parties have little incentive for dialogue, especially when each believes, rightly or wrongly, that it is gaining the upper hand militarily.

    Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Dibussi Tande through hiswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@dibussi on Twitter.

  • CAMEROON: ‘The international community hasn’t helped address the root causes of the Anglophone conflict’

    MoniqueKwachouCIVICUS speaks with Cameroonian feminist researcher and writer Monique Kwachou about the ongoing crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. The conflict emerged in 2016 out of a series of legal and education grievances expressed by the country’s Anglophone population, which is a minority at the national level but a majority in the Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.

    Monique is the founder of Better Breed Cameroon, a civil society organisation (CSO) working on youth development and empowerment, and the national coordinator of the Cameroonian chapter of the Forum for African Women Educationalists.

    What have been the humanitarian consequences of the escalation of the conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions?

    The crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon has internally displaced close to 800,000 English-speaking people, according to monitoring by humanitarian organisations. Many people are also emigrating to other countries in search of safety. Unfortunately, civilians have been used as a weapon so the only way they are able to protect themselves is by fleeing to safer regions within the country or fleeing the country altogether.

    People are also becoming increasingly hopeless and are no longer investing in the Anglophone regions as they used to. As a clear indication of how unsafe it is right now in the Anglophone regions, before stepping out of my house I have to do a risk assessment and decide whether what I have to do is worth taking the risk.

    Unlawful killings and kidnappings are now rampant and somewhat normalised: they no longer shock us as they once did and there is a general trauma fatigue that breeds apathy, which is dangerous.

    As we speak, some are trying to get a hashtag trending for Catholic clergy and worshippers who were recently kidnapped in the Northwest region. The kidnappers are demanding a ransom of 30 million CFA francs (approx. US$45,000) but the church is hesitant to pay because they know if they do it once, more people will be kidnapped and they will have to continue paying. Yet most social media comments on the news encourage payment based on the idea that there is nothing else that can be done. Apathy is the result of having heard too many such stories.

    Given that the security forces have a reputation for violence and contributed to the development of the crisis with their burning down of whole villages earlier on, people don’t have faith in them either.

    As a teacher I think one of the saddest impacts of this crisis has been on education. I don’t think anyone is receiving quality education. Many people have migrated to other regions, particularly to Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, and Yaoundé, the capital. As a result, schools there have become overpopulated. The teacher-to-student ratio has gone up and the quality of education has dropped. In the crisis regions, the future of students is put on hold with each and every strike and lockdown and their psychological wellbeing could be affected.

    What will it take to de-escalate the situation?

    I think the government already knows what needs to be done for the situation to de-escalate. Edith Kahbang Walla, of the opposition Cameroon People’s Party, has outlined a step-by-step process of de-escalation and peaceful political transition. But the problem is that the ruling party does not want a transition. However, as it looks like their plan is to stay in power forever, it would be better for them if they made changes to benefit all regions of Cameroon.

    Extreme measures have been adopted to bring attention to the problems faced by English-speaking Cameroonians. The Anglophone regions continue to observe a ghost town ritual every Monday, taking the day off to protest against the authorities. On those days schools don’t operate and businesses remain closed. The original purpose was to show support for teachers and lawyers who were on strike but it is now having a negative impact on the lives of residents of the Anglophone regions.

    If the government could consider a better strategy to negotiate with secessionists, the situation could be dealt with effectively. Unfortunately, the government has made negotiation impossible since the crisis began, as it arrested those who took part in the protests. Who is the government going to have a dialogue with now? They claim they won’t negotiate with terrorists while forgetting that they created the monster. They should acknowledge the root causes of the problem or otherwise they won’t be able to fix it.

    What challenges does civil society face while advocating for peace?

    Civil society is a victim of both sides of the ongoing conflict. CSO activities geared towards development have been greatly affected by the crisis, as CSO work is now geared mostly toward humanitarian action.

    On one hand, the government is undermining Anglophone activism through arrests and restrictions on online and offline freedom of speech. Anyone who speaks up against the government and what the military are doing in the Anglophone regions may be in danger. For example, journalist Mimi Mefo was arrested for reporting on military activity and had to leave Cameroon because her life was threatened.

    On the other hand, peace activists advocating for children to go back to school are also being attacked by secessionist groups who think their activities are being instrumentalised by the government. Hospitals have been attacked by both the military and secessionist armed groups because they helped one or the other.

    Aside from the challenge of danger that CSO members face in the course of their work, there is also the challenge of articulating messages for peace and the resolution of the crisis without being branded as pro-government nor pro-secessionists, particularly as the media tries to paint the conflict as a simply black-or-white issue. This has not been an easy task. Limited resources also make it difficult to carry out peacebuilding work.

    How can the international community support Cameroonian civil society?

    Humanitarian organisations started becoming visible in the Anglophone regions during the crisis. They are giving humanitarian aid, but it is like a plaster on a still-festering wound, because it happens after the damage has been done: it is in no way addressing the crisis.

    I have not seen the international community help Cameroon address the root causes of the conflict. It could help, for instance, by tracing the sale of arms to both sides of the conflict. Our main international partners could also use their influence to pressure the government to move towards actual inclusive dialogue and ensure the adoption of effective solutions to the crisis.

    Civic space in Cameroon is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor

    Get in touch withMonique Kwachou through herwebsite and follow @montrelz on Twitter.

  • Cameroon: UN action is needed to address human rights crisis

    Joint letter

    To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (Geneva, Switzerland)

    Multilateral action is needed to address the human rights crisis in Cameroon


    We, the undersigned civil society organisations, are deeply concerned over ongoing grave human rights violations and abuses in Cameroon. Ahead of the Human Rights Council’s (“HRC” or “Council”) 47th session (21 June-15 July 2021), we urge your delegation to support multilateral action to address Cameroon’s human rights crisis in the form of a joint statement to the Council. This statement should include benchmarks for progress, which, if fulfilled, will constitute a path for Cameroon to improve its situation. If these benchmarks remain unfulfilled, then the joint statement will pave the way for more formal Council action, including, but not limited to, a resolution establishing an investigative and accountability mechanism.

    Over the last four years, civil society organisations have called on the Government of Cameroon, armed separatists, and other non-state actors to bring violations and abuses to an end. Given Cameroonian institutions’ failure to deliver justice and accountability, civil society has also called on African and international human rights bodies and mechanisms to investigate, monitor, and publicly report on Cameroon’s situation.

    Enhanced attention to Cameroon, on the one hand, and dialogue and cooperation, on the other, are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually reinforcing. They serve the same objective: helping the Cameroonian Government to bring violations to an end, ensure justice and accountability, and fulfil its human rights obligations. In this regard, the establishment of cooperation between the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Government of Cameroon, following High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s May 2019 visit to Yaoundé, and building on the capacity of the OHCHR Regional Office for Central Africa (CARO), is a step forward.

    However, since a group of 39 States delivered a joint oral statement to the HRC during its 40th session (March 2019), and despite the High Commissioner’s visit, the holding of a national dialogue, and OHCHR’s field presence, violations have continued unabated. Some of the violations and abuses committed by Government forces and non-state armed groups may amount to crimes under international law. Impunity remains the norm.

    In the English-speaking North-West and South-West regions, abuses by armed separatists and Government forces continue to claim lives and affect people’s safety, human rights, and livelihoods. The grievances that gave rise to the “Anglophone crisis” remain unaddressed. In the Far North, the armed group Boko Haram continues to commit abuses against the civilian population. Security forces have also committed serious human rights violations when responding to security threats. In the rest of the country, Cameroonian authorities have intensified their crackdown on political opposition members and supporters, demonstrators, media professionals, and independent civil society actors, including through harassment, threats, arbitrary arrests, and detentions.

    Cameroon is among the human rights crises the Human Rights Council has failed to adequately address. Given other bodies’ (including the African Union (AU) and the UN Security Council) inaction, it is all the more vital for the HRC to send a clear message by stepping up its scrutiny and engagement.

    We believe that further multilateral action is needed. At the Council’s 47th session, we urge Member and Observer States to, at a minimum, support a joint statement. This statement should make clear that should Cameroon fail to take concrete steps to investigate human rights violations and abuses, ensure accountability, and improve its human rights situation, more formal action will follow in the form of a resolution establishing an investigative and accountability mechanism.

    A joint statement should:

    • Address violations and abuses committed by Government forces and non-state armed groups in the North-West, South-West, Far North, and other regions of Cameroon, and urge all parties to immediately bring these violations and abuses to an end;
    • Remind the Cameroonian Government of its primary responsibility to protect its population from crimes and human rights violations;
    • Urge the Cameroonian Government, in cooperation with OHCHR and Cameroonian human rights groups, to design and implement a road map for human rights reforms and accountability with a view to preventing further human rights violations and abuses and ensuring accountability as part of a holistic effort to settle the crisis in the country, in particular in the North-West and South-West regions and the armed conflict in the Far North region;
    • In addition to designing and implementing a road map for reforms and accountability, outline concrete benchmarks to be fulfilled by the Government of Cameroon to ensure demonstrable progress on human rights, including by:
    • putting an immediate end to violations committed against members and supporters of the opposition, media professionals and outlets, demonstrators, and members of civil society, including lawyers, union leaders, teachers, and human rights defenders and organisations;
    • releasing prisoners of conscience;
    • fully respecting all Cameroonian citizens’ human rights, including their rights to freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and association, as well as the right to life, liberty and security of person;
    • fully cooperating with OHCHR, including granting it unhindered access to the North-West and South-West regions to conduct human rights investigations, monitoring, and reporting;
    • fully cooperating with the Council and its mechanisms, including granting access to special procedure mandate-holders, in line with Cameroon’s Council membership obligations;
    • granting unrestricted access to humanitarian aid and human rights organisations and workers, including restoring access for international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to report on the human rights situation in the country; and
    • engaging with regional bodies and mechanisms, including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR); 
    • Encourage the High Commissioner for Human Rights to make the findings of the OHCHR 2019 investigations in the Anglophone regions public, and to provide regular updates to the Council, including by holding inter-sessional briefings or informal conversations with Council Members and Observers. These updates should include information about her engagement with Cameroonian authorities, the situation in the country, and OHCHR’s work in the country;
    • Encourage states to enhance their voluntary contributions for OHCHR’s activities, including for the OHCHR Regional Office for Central Africa’s work in Cameroon and Central Africa; and
    • Make clear that should Cameroon fail to take concrete steps to improve its situation and ensure demonstrable progress on human rights by the Council’s 48th session (13 September-1 October 2021), more formal Council action will follow, under the appropriate agenda item.

    We thank you for your attention and stand ready to provide your delegation with further information as required.


    1. Africa Call – South Sudan
    2. AfricanDefenders (Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network)
    3. Amnesty International
    4. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
    5. CDDH – Benin
    6. Center for Human Rights Defenders Zimbabwe (CHRDZ)
    7. CIVICUS 8. Club Humanitaire sans Frontières (CHF)
    9. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI)
    10. Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO) – South Sudan
    11. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
    12. Defenders Coalition – Kenya
    13. Dialogue and Research Institute (DRI) – South Sudan
    14. Dignity Association – Sierra Leone
    15. Economic Justice Network Sierra Leone
    16. Franciscans International
    17. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
    18. HAKI Africa
    19. HRDSNET Uganda Ltd – Human Rights Defenders Solidarity Network
    20. Human Rights Defenders Network – Sierra Leone
    21. Human Rights Watch
    22. Initiative for Plataforma das Organizações Lusófonas dos Direitos Humanos (POLDH)
    23. International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
    24. International Refugee Rights Initiative
    25. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
    26. Kenya Human Rights Commission
    27. National Alliance of Women Lawyers (NAWL) – South Sudan
    28. Network of the Independent Commission for Human rights in North Africa
    29. Nouvelle Génération de la Cinématographie Guinéenne (NOGECIG)
    30. Oasis Network for Community Transformation
    31. Pan African Lawyers Union
    32. Partnership for Justice, Lagos – Nigeria
    33. Protection International – Kenya (PIK)
    34. Raise The Young Foundation
    35. REDRESS
    36. Réseau des Organisations de la Société Civile pour l’Observation et le Suivi des Élections en Guinée (ROSE)
    37. Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN)
    38. South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network (SSHRDN)
    39. Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition (THRDC)
    40. The Independent Medico-Legal Unit
    41. Togolese Human Rights Defenders Coalition / Coalition Togolaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CTDDH)
    42. Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC)
    43. West African Human Rights Defenders Network / Réseau Ouest Africain des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (ROADDH/WAHRDN)
    44. Watch Democracy Grow
    45. Women’s Centre for Guidance and Legal Awareness (WCGLA) – Egypt

    62. 17 additional organisations join this letter, which brings the total number of signatories to 62. In light of the security environment they face, their name is kept confidential.


    Civic space in Cameroon is rated as Repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.




  • Can Democracy Stand Up to the Cult of the Strongman Leader?

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Andrew Firmin

    Donald Trump’s presidency, recent protests in Russia and South Africa and the referendum to consolidate presidential power in Turkey have reignited debate about an emerging form of macho conservative politics called ‘Putinism’. This new form of politics is shaping contemporary notions of democracy while undermining the international rules-based system and harming civil society.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier



  • Can INGOs push back against closing civic space? Only if they change their approach.

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Civil society is facing a sustained, multi-faceted, global onslaught. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, fundamental civic freedoms are being severely restricted in an unprecedented number of countries. The operating environment for civil society organisations is becoming more hostile across the world and many of us in the organised bits of civil society – including in the biggest INGOs – are looking for ways to respond. But, those who want to ‘save’ civic space need to tread carefully.

    Read on: From Poverty to Power 

  • Catalonia: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’

    Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.

  • CHAD: ‘The government, local groups and society at large have all joined efforts to help refugees’

    MonimHaroonCIVICUS speaks with Monim Haroon, Emergency Communications Manager at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), about the situation of Sudanese migrants in Chad’s refugee camps and civil society’s work to support them.

    Formally established in 1902, HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee agency. Originally set up by Jewish people to assist fellow Jews, it has evolved into a global humanitarian and advocacy group that helps hundreds of thousands of forcibly displaced people in more than 20 countries around the world. Monim, himself a Darfur refugee, is currently deployed in Eastern Chad.



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